Actions

Work Header

Of Lies and Fantasies

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Prologue: What Happens When You Complain About The Rain

You guys know how most people spend their summer vacations, right? Most people chill at home, lounge right in front of the TV and indulge themselves in all sorts of junk food. Sometimes, they would go to the mall, or other places located publicly, and hang out with their friends. Mine is somewhat different. If I could I'd write a book on how to correctly spend your summer vacation, but seeing that I lack the professional skills for such a thing I'd rather keep it to myself.

Let me tell you about myself before this story goes on. My name is Blake Skylark, I am the youngest of my family and I still go to school as a 7th grader with no goals extending to the far future. My most telling characteristic is that I have the rottenest of lucks in human history. I even have a broken right hand to prove it. My luck is worse than that woman who was the first to be hit by a meteorite, even worse than the guy who got struck by lightning seven times, and EVEN worse than the guy who happened to be in the same place when the atomic bomb was dropped.

TWICE.

Anyway, back to the story. Summer vacation just began a few weeks ago and I spent it the way any normal teenager would: sleeping. I was catching up on my sleep, something I needed after the very stressful year I just had. Said stress was attributed to my downfallen luck, as always.

I was awakened by a knock on my door. It happened when the afternoon sky started to seep into the horizon, meaning I was asleep for most of the day.

"What?" I groaned through my pillow.

"Are you ready?" The voice that spoke through the door sounded somewhat annoyed.

"Ready for what?"

"For the surprise trip." What surprise trip?

I only rolled in bed, putting my back towards the door. My silence somewhat hinted what the voice's suspicions were, so only a confirmation would suffice. The next thing I know, the door to my room opened and a slim figure walked in with her hands at her hips:

My older sister, Nina.

"I could see that you're beyond ready." She sighed as she shook her head at me. I tried to pull my bed's covers up to my head and continue sleeping, but my sister was determined to pull me out of bed even if it meant physically touching me.

"Leave me alone." I said upon my bedsheets being pulled away from me by my sister.

"You have to get ready now or you're going to be running around the house tomorrow, scrambling to get everything done." My big sister warned.

"Then I'll scramble tomorrow." I replied after I put myself underneath the protective covering of my bedsheets once again.

She could only sigh once again before exiting my room, only to come back in with a bag on wheels and placed it right beside my bed before leaving again. Once I was sure that she wasn't coming back in again, I pushed the covers away and sat up. I was now fully awake since I was disturbed from my slumber. Plus, the itch underneath my right hand's cast was starting to annoy me.

The trip she mentioned had been offhandedly spoken about here and there in the span of a week. Nothing had been revealed about it aside from it being a surprise and that it included friends. I was invited to it, unfortunately for me. Sometimes, Nina would talk about it on the phone with her friends, often excitedly from how it sounds. Guess they were looking forward to it.

I decided to humor my sister by pulling some clothes out of my closet to put in my bag. These included some shirts, pants, shorts, underwear, socks; the basic clothing needs of someone engaging in an event that needed them to be outdoors.

With no helpful knowledge about this trip, I went around my room and gathered my needed belongings that helps avoid boredom: PSP, MP3, and cell phone. While I did this, I noticed the mess that could be identified as my room.

Clothes sprawled on the floor, wires of phone and MP3 chargers tangled up all around my computer desk, PS1 and PS2 controller wires caught up with my Xbox 360 headset that made a bigger mess. Of course, my bed, which was occupied by me just a few seconds ago, looked like a tornado barreled over it. My room looked like a disaster area, one that hasn't been quarantined yet.

"I'll clean that up later." And by later I mean after I get home from the trip. I plugged in my three electronic devices, which took a while to do because they were all knotted up in a big ball of wires, and spent the rest of day trying to figure out what to do.

Going out of the house was out of the question. I was beyond ready. I just got out of bed and the day was already in the afternoon. It would be dark by the time I get to someplace interesting. Staying indoors would be the most ideal idea I could come up with. But that still left me with nothing to do.

Playing videogames would probably suffice. Xbox 360? My friends would probably be online at this time, but I really don't want to bombard my ears with explosions and mindless chatter from underdeveloped beings called pre-pubescent children. PS2? The only games I play there are Kingdom Hearts and Persona 4. Dungeon crawling and level grinding is not the most ideal way to start your day. PS1? Hmm… Maybe we can do something with that.

Opening the lid of the console, I was greeted by a game that I haven't seen in a while: Final Fantasy IX, disc 2 to be exact. Huh. When was the last time I played this? Probably sometime in the previous week. I know I've played this to death long ago, but I don't feel like playing this today. Well, good-bye FFIX, hello Tetris Plus. I chucked the disc over my shoulder and popped in my chosen game, then played it.

Over the course of the next 12 hours, I played various games, changed consoles, went up in the internet and downloaded some videos, ate, noisily tapped the keys on our family piano – to my sister's annoyance— and wandered around the dark hallways of my house. Overall, I stayed up all night after a lengthy sleep. Take a guess what happened next.

I was yawning, eyes ready to drop, the feeling of exhaustion trying to overwhelm me and I was being forced to wait outside of my house. Dressed in a white collared long sleeved shirt, black vest, red tie, dark brown jacket and blue jeans; I looked like a door-to-door salesman who was just notified that he got the boot.

"If you sleep right now it'll be impossible for me to wake you up." Nina said as she locked the door behind her, her bag packed with her necessities standing right beside her. I was leaning on mine, struggling to stay awake. "At least you packed."

"Ain't that a great accomplishment." I yawned. Sitting on the welcome doormat was the closest thing I could get as a bed with my tall rolling bag as my pillow. I tried napping there with the cold winds of dawn blowing over me. At least my jacket helped warm me up.

I could hear Nina's heels pace in front of me, her fingers constantly connecting with the dial pad on that old phone of hers, her words variably consisting of "Where are they?" and "What's taking them so long?" I was too busy staying awake to mind her.

While she was still busy checking her phone, I heard a very distant screeching of wheels as I tried nodding off. Was this our ride? Turns out it was. Nina was somewhat excited to see a seemingly familiar vehicle turn to our street. It was a big, white SUV, and weirdly enough, it was flashing its headlights as if sending a signal. It could probably fit eight people in. The car stopped in front of our house and some of its occupants exited to greet us.

"Sorry for the wait." The girl that exited the passenger's side said. I've seen her before. She's one of Nina's closest friends. "Someone didn't remember to wake up early."

She was referring to the guy who came out of the driver's seat. He was taller than your average person and looked like could swat a flying basketball out of the air. "Maybe next time you drive."

The two girls then chatted, possibly regarding the trip we were going to and what route to take. I just muted their voices out as they talked since the last thing I wanted to do was listen in on whatever they are talking about. God knows that every conversation girls have has something to do about accessories, hot fashion trends and the latest hunk of the day.

Anyways, all I wanted was to fall asleep somewhere soft and cozy and drown out the girl talk with an orchestra. I dragged my bag towards the car, making the large man look at me. "Hey. You Nina's brother?"

"Yes." I didn't know the guy, but if he wants to make small talk then I'll indulge in a bit of small talk. "Blake Skylark."

"Lionel Stanton." We shook hands. Actually calling his hands 'hands' would not justify the size of those things. "Have I seen you before?" I could only shrug my shoulders. A lot of people see other people, even if they are not paying attention. "Anyway, nice to meet you."

Lionel was, like me, not looking forward to this trip. His girlfriend, who I assume was the girl talking with Nina, notified him of his role in this trip as the designated driver just a few days ago. This only happened because he had a big car. And he tells me that he had planned to surprise his parents with a visit that would take him a day's drive. Poor guy. At least his parents were always home.

As we conversed, the door of the other passengers opened and out came three more people. One was a kid with a PSP in his hands, the other was a brown-haired girl I didn't know, and the last one was someone I actually knew. "Dude!"

That was a friendly signal. I popped my head around the car and saw him. Andrew King, my best friend. "Over here." I raised my hand as I walked up to him with my bag rolling behind me. "Don't be so loud or you'll wake up the neighbors."

"Well, you can't start your day without WAKING UP!" If you needed more indication, he yelled out those last two words, making the others on our yard look at him. I palmed my face in embarrassment. "So, how's it been dude? Haven't seen you in days."

"Isn't that the purpose of summer vacation? You don't get to see your friends." I deadpanned.

"Aw, c'mon." He then wrapped one arm around my shoulders forcefully, almost sending me toppling down to the grass, but good thing he had a grip on my shoulders. "Without me, you won't last a day."

"And what do you call what I've been doing for the past few weeks?" Andrew only chuckled at my question. He was always like that, being the guy who enjoys spending his time with friends, maybe a bit too much.

During the times this trip was mentioned to me, I was told to invite some friends that could come along. Only one was available. The others had other pressing issues to deal with, which were none of my business. Andrew agreed to come along. He was always available.

"Quite a car, eh?" Andrew was always interested in cars. He liked that British show Top Gear and that sparked his interest. Me? Not a big fan. I could only shrug in indifference.

"Speaking of car, what do you think of the people you rode with?" We both didn't know who these people were, so any information I could get from my friend, who at least spent some time with them during their drive here, would do me a big help. How? Well, for starters I don't want to get on their bad sides.

Andrew leaned towards me, trying to act secretively as if he's telling me something he didn't want the others to hear. "First off, the driver." Lionel. "He's pretty calm. Mellow dude, even when he was getting grilled by that redhead over there." He must be talking about the first girl. Note to self: Stay away from her.

"Go on."

"The kid's quiet. He thoroughly enjoys his games. Not a very chatty kid." I could tell. He's very much immersed in his PSP. "She's very friendly." Andrew pointed to the other girl. "We talked for quite a while. I'm sure I could get a date if I tried."

"Anything else?"

"One more thing. There was a guy snoozing on the back. Loudly, I might add." And with that, the briefing was finished. There was only one person, two if I count the sleeping guy, which I need to look out for or possibly stay away from. You don't know if or when they'll—

"HEY! ARE WE LEAVING OR WHAT!?"

…explode.

That was from the last person to come out of the car. He had bed hair, despite sleeping in the car, and looked horrible. Someone really needs to hose him down. I could tell that his behavior isn't getting any rave reviews from the others; even the kid looked up from his game, rolled his eyes, shook his head in disgust and went back to playing. I am going on a limb here and guess that they are related.

"Don't worry about him." The friendly girl Andrew was talking about must've seen my terrified-for-a-moment expression when Mr. Personality here popped out, so she came up to us and offered us some reassuring words. "He's harmless."

"If you say so." I'll call her out on it immediately if it turns out she's wrong.

Soon enough, Nina announced that it was time to leave. Lionel helped us load the bags into the car and we were placed into our seats. The car was able to fit eight people, two in the front and six at the back. That was unless the passengers were uber-thin, then we could fit eight in the back.

Lionel stayed up in front with the newly awakened passenger named Ramon. Nina, Lionel's girlfriend Miranda, and the kid named Zack sat in the middle. Andrew, the friendly girl named Alyssa and I were placed at the back. It was a good thing I was sitting near a window. The bad news was I had this totally unknown girl next to me. Well at least I had some sort of entertainment on me with my mp3 and PSP.

That was my plan until she started talking to me.

"What happened to your hand?"

Oh that. She pointed to my cast-wrapped right hand. My drowsiness must have made me forget about it. "It's broken."

"I could see that."

"I didn't mean to insult your skills of observation. And it's actually the wrist that's broken."

"How did it happen?"

It was one of those days. I removed my earphones and began telling her the story. "I was the water boy at a basketball game just a month ago—"

"He just signed up on that day." Andrew interrupted.

"Thanks for the input, Andrew," I looked over to him and see him smiling. "Anyway—"

"It was my idea."

"Thank you, Andrew." There was more force in my voice as I gave him a look. "So, the game was at the school of the other team. Our team was struggling to get the lead in the third quarter because of one of the other team's key players, a very big guy, good defender and quick for his size. They can't get through him and they were getting desperate. During one of the plays, one of the guys plows through one of the other team's and a foul wasn't called. This sparked a fight between the two and the rest of both teams had to separate them."

"Wow." Alyssa was obviously getting hooked into the story.

"If that wasn't enough, the crowd got riled up and went crazy. They basically rioted. I got caught up in the chaos that I didn't notice the hulking center of the home team lift me up and threw me. I landed badly, heard the crack, and wailed like a child."

"So that's where I recognized you!" I hear Lionel say from the front of the vehicle. "I play for the team, man. You were the wailing waterboy with the messed up wrist that had to be helped out." Great, I've been recognized. You know you don't have it made when you're recognized as 'the wailing waterboy'.

I heard Andrew chuckling on his side of the car. When asked what was funny, he said, "It kinda sounds like a joke, until you see the cast."

"Why would someone just throw another person?" The girl asked.

"I dunno. Must be the steroids they were feeding him affecting his brain functions." Now that was an appropriate time to chuckle, or even laugh, which Alyssa did.

"I think I've heard of that thing before. Probably from the school newspaper."

"Hmm. Probably…" And that was where the drowsiness hit. I excused myself from the conversation, put my earphones on and slept with a soft lullaby playing on repeat.

Over the course of a few hours, the car maintained a fast pace in the highway we were traveling on. I would wake up a few times, seeing the terrain change from about 8 lanes of asphalt to four with a number of farms in the background to a bushy forest-esque place. We stopped once at a rest stop due to the insistent requests of Ramon, who failed to empty his bladder before the start of this trip. There we stocked up on food and gas and continued down the road.

The others were quite chatty and loud as the trip went on. I could hear laughing, stories being shared and various conversation topics discussed between them as I continuously drifted between consciousness and dreamland. Andrew could be heard telling jokes amongst the people we barely knew, Miranda dishing some dirt on her professors, Lionel sharing some of his personal experience in basketball and Ramon recalling one of his pranks. So he's a prankster, eh?

Flat asphalt was replaced with bumpy roads that probably have not been repaired for years. A bump in the road sent me flying making my head hit the roof. It was funny for a moment, until it happened to Ramon, who told everyone else put to on their seatbelts. Soon enough, we got out of Bumpy City and into a much better road.

Time passed while I enjoyed what sleep I could get. Maybe it was a good decision for me to stay up all night. I know I don't enjoy long drives in a car filled with people, especially if I knew more about them than my sister, which amounts to the equal space in a brochure. Andrew enjoys a situation like this, not me. I often wonder why he still hangs around me.

But despite all of that, I have this little bit of hope in me that I would enjoy this place we were going; A small part of me wants this thing to be something I'll like.

Nobody has said a word about it while I was awake. Perhaps only a few people here know about it. If it's a surprise to all of us, then I hope it'll be a good one.

"Whoa!"

The word echoed as the car suddenly went from a leisurely drive a la Jeremy Clarkson to James May levels of slowness. I jolted awake as the driver apologized for almost giving everyone whiplash.

"We're almost there. Just a few more minutes." That was Ramon sounding excited. Some of the passengers also shared his sentiments. Zack even took a glance of the road ahead of us.

"Hey," Andrew looked like he heard someone kick a puppy. "Whatever you do, keep calm."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Trust me. Just enjoy today like it was the first time you started living. Calm and easy..."

As Andrew rambled on, I looked over to Alyssa and see her shaking her head looking somewhat uncomfortable. What is happening? I look over to the middle, where I had a clear view of where we were going. As soon as my eyes managed to send the visual signal to my brain, they widened in both surprise and anger.

And with that, the little hope of me enjoying this trip died.

It was a beach. The sun, some sand and salty ocean water; filled with people playing around in the skimpiest of attires just to show off their attractive assets or to cool off in the sea in a warm day like this because they can't afford a swimming pool. I just realized it at that moment that that was the destination. It was the last place I wanted to be in.

"Alright! Time to get wet!" Funny, I can't do that. I was morally obligated to avoid such a scenario because of the contract I signed with my broken right wrist.

The car was then parked and everyone got off in a can't-wait-to-make-sand-angels manner that they almost tripped over each other. I was the only one who didn't want to get out of the car.

"Hey," I looked to the door and saw Alyssa of all people trying to get me out of this car. "You alright?"

"Does it look like I'm alright? Right now, I'm as offended as Napoleon being called short."

"He IS short."

"Shorter than the guys he was painted with!" My voice rose over such a trivial thing. "I'm gonna call for a cab, give the driver a hundred bucks and tell him to get me away from here."

Alyssa climbed into the car after I said that. Andrew was right behind her, but he didn't get in. "C'mon, you don't have to mope in here just because you can't swim."

"Yeah." Andrew said from outside. "You can do it in your room in there." He pointed to the small structure everyone else was going to.

"I'm so glad you're helping." I said sarcastically. "You know, they could have told me that we were going to a beach before we left. I could have stayed at home instead."

"But you wouldn't be having fun if you stayed behind." Alyssa tried to put this whole thing in a positive light, but staying home had a lot of positive possibilities too.

"I'd have TONS of fun. Videogames, internet, cable, house parties, and that's just counting off from one hand." Because I can't count with the other one.

She put her hands on my cast, looked at me with convincing determination and said, "I once met a guy in one of my karate classes. He had a younger brother who was crippled because of a robbery-gone-wrong."

"And he took up defense classes so it never happens to him." I interrupted her, hoping that the clichéd story ends there.

"No, that's not the point. The point is, the younger brother moved on in regards to his injury. He didn't let it hinder him from doing anything like participating in special marathons, sky diving, and going to the beach." I'm pretty sure she just put that last one to encourage me. And it was working.

"Is there a slight chance that this 'younger brother' had a broken hand?"

"He's paralyzed from the waist down." Well that was depressing to hear.

All of us were silent for a moment, contemplating about this younger brother and his horrible condition and how I didn't need to know about it. "And what do you get out of this?" I broke the silence with a question.

"It kinda makes me happy to help people out." She smiled. "Now come on. Do you still want to call that cab?"

"No." I scoffed. "I'm not gonna let a kid in a wheelchair show me up." With that, the two of us got out of the SUV and on to the sand. Just the feeling of sand underneath my shoes made me feel uneasy, with the ocean as a backdrop was not making it better. The cheerfulness of the others was not making it better.

Even as I walk on this grainy surface, I feel that nothing could insult me more than an invitation to swim. Unless they were blind or stupid, they should avoid saying that to someone with a cast. Hell, any person in a cast should never be near any body of water ever. My blood is still boiling that I could tell.

"Is he alright?" I heard a soft voice speak beside us. It was Zack, the PSP playing kid. What does he mean by that? I don't have anything against water; I just don't want it on me.

"Nothing short of traumatized." Alyssa jokingly responded.

Zack pressed most of his hand on his face upon hearing this and sighed. "My brother thought this would be funny." Who? "My brother, Ramon." He pointed to the teenager cracking jokes with Nina and Lionel, who weren't sharing his sense of humor.

"Your brother is an ass." Well said, Alyssa. Even Zack agrees.

Well, at least I know now who did it. I couldn't do anything to him now, but let's just save that in the 'grudge corner' and schedule my revenge soon. Before I could start on that, Nina and Lionel began telling us that they divided the group into two because there were two rooms available for us. Lionel, Miranda, Ramon and Nina were going stay in one room while the rest, meaning me, Alyssa, Andrew and Zack, were occupying the other.

"And get comfy. We'll be here for three days, so you guys better find your sleeping space." Three days? This is worse. "Our other friends will be arriving soon and we'll fit some of them in if there's space." Someone just push me into the sea and let me drown. I just want to be out of here.

Settling down on the white-sheet covered bed in the room I was assigned, I found it hard not to think about the ocean when it's just half a mile away outside. Andrew, Zack and Alyssa dropped their bags right beside the bed and took a look around of the room. It wasn't bad looking. Decorated with sea shells and painted with an underwater theme, the room was hospitable and spacious. There was a bed opposite to the front door and porch and a TV set the size of an average computer monitor. The bathroom connected our room with the other room, which was a good idea to put one big set of people under one roof in two rooms. It's only bad news when one of each other's groups had to use the bathroom. Something that came as a surprise to me was that we had an air-conditioned room.

It seems like I'm drowning already.

Andrew commented about the room's interior design, which made me want to sock him with my casted right hand. At least the bed didn't have water in it; the only saving grace of this below-average room.

"Dibs on the bed!" Zack and Andrew almost declared simultaneously. They both barely missed me as they dived onto the bed and sighed relaxingly with their faces snuggling with the pillows. Hearing such jolliness right now was grating.

"You can fit three people here, you know." Andrew informed me.

"If you don't mind the sausage-fest, then I'll be the third." I said while I stood near the foot of the bed.

"Sausage-fest?" Bless your innocent mind, Zack. Good thing your brother has not yet corrupted your soul.

"Where am I going to sleep? On the floor?" Alyssa reacted negatively to our agreement.

"Yes." The three of us said; mine sounding monotone compared to the two's response. Obviously, she disagreed, and she made it evident by mumbling something about children.

The first hour of our first day there consisted of us lounging around and resting, the latter we deserved more after being on the road for hours. Everyone in the room I was in was busy rearranging the insides of their bags, checking if they did bring what they needed. You know things like sunscreen, goggles, the upper half of their bikini. I know there was one thing I didn't bring with me: my swimming shorts.

Yes, I'm still butt hurt about being in a beach. I know I sound like a dope complaining about something he didn't order for. If I was of age, I'd drink my sorrows away like any other average human being with a problem. Actually, I am, but that's not the point.

As time passed, I noticed that the sky was getting darker. Strange, because last night the weather man said that it would be sunny all day today. There weren't much clouds forming earlier too. Some of the people hanging around the beach noticed it too and decided to call it a day. Ramon noticed it too, pointing it out that they should go swimming while few of the visitors were leaving. There were about to agree, until the Chinese food arrived.

"Sweet!" I heard Lionel's voice from the other room declare. Without missing a beat, Andrew and his always empty stomach rushed out of the door to greet the delivery guy and help lighten his load. Everyone was eating their respective box of Chinese food out on the porch, which I was inclined to join because I don't want the room smelling like noodles and chicken dumplings. We took our time with our food with the sole exception of Ramon, who didn't care for basic swimming logic as he raced to the ocean with his small box in hand, ready to swim in his shorts. I heard Miranda call him an idiot under her breath. I once again agree.

I stared into the small container in my hands after I was done. It barely had anything in it, just some tiny bits of meat and the often missed noodle in the corner. I had nothing to do but mope around the porch and in my assigned room. That was the plan I had thought of as I disposed of the box, yet that changed when Zack approached me with a big black bag.

"Can you help me with this?" Help with what? "My PS1." Apparently, a small bird told him that I had a PS1 and that certain bird must have suggested that I can help putting it in working order. I only agreed to help him out because, 1) He has a lousy brother, and 2) I had nothing to do.

It took me about 5 minutes to connect the right wires to the TV from the console and insert the controllers on their respective ports. With one press of a button, the Sony Computer Entertainment logo appeared on the screen.

"Thanks." You should be thanking me for not being like your dick of a brother. "Do you want to play?"

"No thanks. I'll just wallow in self-pity over there." I said pointing to the bed. Getting on it and crawling over a magazine reading Andrew, I plopped down on a pillow with a sigh. Also, I kicked Andrew hard enough to send him over the floor. I saw that grin he had on his face and I knew that he was the one who opened his mouth about my owning of a PS1. This sent him into a laughing fit.

"No rough housing, children." Alyssa warned us with a wag of her finger. She was answered by a chorus of 'Yes, Mom'. Alyssa knelt down in front of her bag and grabbed something before excusing herself from the room once again and entered the bathroom.

I was too occupied in my own troubles to comment about this, or too busy suffocating Andrew's laughter with a pillow to even care. Zack didn't notice what was happening behind him as he launched a missile towards Tiny in a game of Crash Team Racing.

"You having fun?" I sarcastically asked Andrew as I forced the pillow on his face.

"More fun than you'll ever have!" That just makes me want to choke you more. "At least I'll be able to enjoy this place even more than you."

"Don't you dare rub it in," I told him, pulling the pillow away from his face, letting him breathe in the sea salt in the air.

"At least you get to spend most of your time in an air conditioned room with a Playstation hooked up to the TV."

"What's 10 feet of space ever good for? Plus, I doubt Zack has any good games."

As if on cue, Zack pushed the bag his PS1 was in earlier towards us and looked over his shoulder. "Here's my games." He nodded, as if answering me unconsciously if I could see what his games were. I opened the bag and found various CD cases with the cover pictures of various games. Zack only brought a few with him, but he sure brought games that would probably last until we leave.

The bad side of this: you could only count the games he brought with one hand. Let's name them, shall we. Crash Team Racing, Spyro: Ripto's Rage, a Tomb Raider game, Final Fantasy IX and Tetris. Okay, you can count the discs with both hands, but the number of games still uses one hand only.

Andrew saw the Final Fantasy IX case and immediately picking it up. "Don't you have a copy of this back home?" I nodded as I looked at the Tomb raider game with interest. "Didn't you play the hell out of that game too?" Another nod from me.

"Really now?" We both turned our heads to the bathroom door and saw Alyssa, who changed into a bikini top and shorts combo. "I used to play Final Fantasy IX too." She rubbed the back of her head, probably thinking why she's the only one who wanted to go for a swim. One moment later, she asks. Her two able-bodied roommates just shrugged while I raised my casted right hand. "Sorry about that."

Sometimes, people are so insensitive to others that they don't know they actually were until you point it out.

"Somehow I find that surprising." I said.

"About what?" Regarding you playing Final Fantasy IX. "Oh that. I used to play it all the time. Finished it about three times; the third being a 100% run."

Who was she trying to impress by saying that? That could only mean you have a lot more free time than most people. If you wanted to impress, then you should have said you did it on Mt. Everest.

"No need to be such a jerk about it." Andrew whispered to me. I think I might have mumbled some of that out loud, but it seems Alyssa didn't hear it as she went for her bag again. "Anyway, I'm gonna get changed too." Now my best friend was leaving me for the ocean. Thanks for being there when I needed you, pal.

With Andrew gone, I tried to entertain myself with some paper I found in a drawer while listening to my mp3. I tried making a crane origami, but my memory failed me and it looked like anything but a crane. Giving up with the origami, my attention now went to my PSP. Hoping that it would at least help me through about two hours, I flicked the switch on and waited for the screen to activate. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The PSP had been on sleep this entire time on one of the menus in Persona 3 Portable and the battery was dangerously low. Someone had touched my beloved PSP. There was only one culprit.

"ANDREW!" I marched right in front of the bathroom door and proceeded to pound on it. All I heard from the other side were giggles and him trying to calm me down, albeit sounding like he was enjoying what I was doing to the door. Then I heard the door open and some footsteps quickly dashing away. He used the door in the other room and ran out.

"Be careful with that." That was Alyssa. "If you break anything you'll have to pay for it."

I wanted to say that I have enough money to pay for the broken door and buy them a better one, but I didn't feel like answering. Instead, I just plopped back down on the bed and grumbled some very adult words to myself.

"Is he done?" Zack asked me, referring to Andrew's usage of the bathroom. I nodded. He then turned off his game, put the controller down, and took some clothes out of his own bag. Not you too, Zack.

"I'm going to go swimming!" He gleefully declared as he charged into the bathroom. Great. My PSP is nearly dead, my best friend is out somewhere I can't be, and I'm all alone with nothing to entertain me with. I guess I could lull myself to sleep with my mp3, but I've been asleep for most of the trip and I don't even know how long that lasted.

Then an idea popped into my head as I turned my sights to a CD case in one of Zack's bags.

Final Fantasy IX. Maybe I can play it and see where I'll want to go kill myself out of boredom. "Hey Zack!" I made my voice loud enough so Zack can hear me through the door. "Is it okay if I used your Playstation?"

He popped his head out of the bathroom for a moment. With one look towards me he must have seen Final Fantasy IX in my hands and then nodded. "Sure." One second later, he was back in the bathroom.

"Sweetness." I popped in one of the discs, not caring which one it was because I'll be exchanging it for another when I load a save file, and started playing. The solemn title theme greeted me with the company logo before I got to the actual title screen. That song always warms my heart.

When I picked the most recent save file Zack made, he had already managed to clear disc 1 and was starting off in disc 2. Sweet! My favorite part of the game. So after changing discs again, I started off with Steiner in control. I was so busy with the game that I failed to notice Zack exit the bathroom and head off into the beach. Have fun while I'm having fun here.

A half hour, a boss fight and some adventuring in Treno passed and I was still absorbed in the game. Though, I did notice the sky getting darker than before. I'm pretty sure a tiny bit of rain isn't gonna stop any of these beach heads. They'll LOVE it. At least I have a roof over my head.

Then, as I was guiding my characters through Gargan Roo, operating the necessary switches and levers so the Gargant's presence could be summoned, something weird started happening. The TV started emitting this static noise as the visuals started flipping out. The Playstation suddenly shorted out and gave off an electric an electric current that traveled to the controller in my hand.

"Shit! Fuck! Crap!" I cursed a few more times as I began shaking my hands in pain. The hairs on my arms were standing up like crazy. How the hell is that possible!? Are Playstations capable of short circuiting themselves to a point where they shock the player's controller and hands? God, that stings.

I have to let Zack know. It's going to be inevitable for him to know that his Playstation just broke. Better tell him now than later.

"Zack!" I shouted after exiting the cabin room I was in. I spotted the kid on the beach playing with the sand along with his brother. He was trying to build something in the sand, but his jerk of a brother kept kicking at his work while laughing and thinking that he's a comical genius.

The wind outside was blowing a chilly breeze, making me pull my jacket closer to myself. The sky seemed to get darker and darker as time passed. If my prediction that rain is going to fall soon is going to happen, I'd maybe want an umbrella in my hands before I go and tell Zack. Good thing there was one conveniently abandoned on our porch. As soon as I grab it and head towards the beach, a girl— probably Miranda—started shouting about bringing it back after I was done.

"Hey, where are you going?" I passed Alyssa as I made my way towards Zack.

"ItshockedmeandIthinkit'sirreparable." My words came out so fast that Alyssa wasn't able to understand what I was trying to say, but I didn't have time for jibber-jabber. I have to tell Zack before anything else happens.

And then thunder boomed across the sky. I wasn't taking any more chances. I opened the umbrella and made a beeline for the actual owner of the Playstation. Alyssa, concerned or just confused, followed.

"Zack! Your Playstation broke!" I shouted at his direction, hoping that he would hear. What it did do is grab the kid's attention. I could hear him saying 'What?'I wanted to repeat what I just said, but being this close to the ocean was making me uncomfortable. "YOUR PLAYSTATION BROKE!" I pointed to the cabin.

That made Zack abandon what he was doing with his brother and run towards the cabin. Mission accomplished. Now all I need to do is get back indoors before it's too late.

"Hey look, it's raining!" Fuck.

"Mind if I squeeze in here with you? I just dried myself." Alyssa asked as she stepped under the umbrella with me, partially holding onto the umbrella handle and my casted arm. Whatever, as long as I'm dry.

Thunder once again boomed up in the heavens and the rain started intensifying, making me hurry a bit faster, almost leaving Alyssa in the mercy of the raindrops. "Hey wait up."

"I can't wait up. The rain is coming down really hard right now and I DO NOT WANT to be under it." I told her as she caught up. This was not really the place for me. Look at the beach, people dancing under the rain, swimming in the ocean, beach volleyball, and other fun activities. Everyone out here is having a blast and I'm the only one with an umbrella.

"You really don't need to hurry," said the girl trying to squeeze into the space underneath the umbrella. "It's not like you're going to get struck by lightning." The sky above us cracked with thunder just as the wind stared to blow against us. Good thing I managed to hold on to the umbrella so it didn't fly away.

I shook my head at her. She thinks that lightning is the thing I'm worried about. Lightning is the last thing I'm worried about. What I'm worried about is getting wet. I told her this in a mocking tone just to emphasize my point. "Besides, lightning doesn't strike a person in a place like this. People near anything large and metallic or in an open field have more of a chance of getting hit."

Unfortunately, fate seemed to like torturing me because the moment I hear another instant of thunder booming above us, a flash from out of nowhere almost blinds me and I feel this intense sensation on my arm before it instantly coursed through my body like a current powering an electrical device.

Before I even knew it, I was on the ground, blacked out.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 1: The Vast Streets of Alexandria

"Oh my gosh, is he okay?"

"Should we call for help?"

"If he's dead, I get his wallet."

What the…? What is with the noise?

"He's moving."

"Thank goodness he's okay."

"Curses."

Everyone shut up. I can't think.

"Maybe he's just asleep."

"Like dreaming?"

"If he doesn't wake up in the next five seconds, I'll grab any money on him."

My eyes had a hard time flickering open to the sound of young voices contemplating to either call for help or rob me. I groaned as my vision, still disoriented and blurry, did not do anything to help me identify who were talking. They weren't familiar or anything close to sounding like my sister's companions.

When my eyes did manage to filter out blurriness, I was right in thinking that these people around me were not the ones I knew. They were different. In fact, they were children; Small, bubbly, albeit a little bratty for the last one, little children. Andrew wasn't around, Nina was nowhere in sight and Alyssa cannot be found. Anyone remotely familiar weren't here, even when they saw me get struck by lightning. BY LIGHTNING. Everyone should be concerned when someone gets struck by lightning.

But back to the matter at hand. Where was my best friend? Where was this girl who claimed to finish Final Fantasy IX three times? Where was the only connection I had to a family tree?

More importantly, where was I? This didn't look like the beach, even though I'm kind of thankful to be away from a body of water. This place looked like an ongoing festival of sorts.

"What's going on here?" An aged voice asked behind the group of troublemakers. I was about to ask the same—

Holy shit! He's a fucking hippo!

My surprise came pretty evident to them when I screamed and tried to back away, only to hit a wall of wood. In my panic, I toppled over a wooden stand to my right, making the contents placed on top of it bounce off the ground. Some of them unfortunately broke, though that is not my concern at the moment.

The ground. It wasn't sand shifting underneath my shoes, just hard cobblestone terrain. What is this? What happened? I looked around and saw a lot more of people— not people, but…humanoid animals like the one I first saw. Hippos and elephants and ducks and a bunch more that I cannot identify right now, and they were all walking around with the normal looking people like they actually belong in society.

What kind of backwards reality am I in? Dreamland?

I got up and took a better look. No doubt this wasn't the beach, but where was I? Why were the people like this? Am I in an animal cosplay convention? A stand on my far left had a collection of mirrors, a man right beside it trying to bargain with the passersby loud enough for me to hear. I quickly went towards the guy's stand and looked for a full body mirror, thinking that somebody may have done to me physically.

"Ah, a customer!" The man said with a huge grin on his face. "Might I interest you in some of my mirrors?" I was busy looking at my panicked reflection to care about what he was saying.

Nothing seemed weird with me; Long black hair, that business intern-look-a-like outfit along with the jacket still on me, my right hand cast, my normal looks were all the same. Good. I thought someone may have kidnapped me and left me here with a weird outfit and some markings on my face. You just don't know, man. It may happen to you.

Even with the little feeling of relief, there was still that one lingering question: where was I?

"Where you are right now is the great country of Alexandria," The man selling the mirrors replied.

What?

"Alexandria, alongside her neighboring kingdom of Lindblum, is one of the biggest kingdoms that inhabit the Mist Continent."

… Unbelievable.

"We are currently in the midst of celebrating the 16th birthday of Her Highness, Princess Garnet. Quite an event it will be."

Inconceivable.

"Oh, conceivable it is. The kingdom will no doubt have a grand time alongside Her Highness in her celebration. Now how about I interest you in some of my best mirrors."

What is happening? If that guy is to be believed, this looked like what he described. This is the kingdom of Alexandria, a place that only exists in a virtual world that runs in a video game console with discs. And this guy is telling me that I am in that world, which is not supposed to exist. This isn't real. This isn't supposed to be happening. I think the laws of reality don't apply here anymore.

I must be dreaming, that's the only logical explanation to this. Overexposure to sand and saltwater in a rain storm does that kind of stuff to people. This isn't real. I'm just dreaming. I can still wake up.

"Can you pinch me right on the cheek?" I asked, getting an incredulous look from him as I pointed to my face. This is just a dream. "I really want to wake up now."

"Are you serious, young man?"

"Seriously!"

"People these days," sighed the merchant with a shrug. Without even looking at me, he put out his left hand, used his thumb and index finger to grab a bit of my cheek and pulled harshly.

"OW!" My eyes were starting to fill up with water from the pain, which I tried to blink away furiously. When I managed to get my eyesight to clear, nothing changed. I was still in Alexandria. This is not a dream.

I think I'm going crazy. Oh God, I think I AM crazy.

My knees buckled in shock, my body collapsed until I landed on my bottom on the cobblestone ground. I put a hand, my only capable hand, on my face as tons of passers-by just walked past the teenager having a complete crisis. Yeah, just walk by. Don't worry about the kid that is this close to having an anxiety attack. My face felt like my blood stopped flowing to that particular part of my body. My mind is in a total blank.

"A-are you o-okay?" A stuttering voice asked behind me. It was a kid in clothes almost too big for him with a pointy, yet silly looking, hat.

"I'm fine." I replied, shaking my head. "Having the time of my life." Of course, my current tone and demeanor didn't exactly share my words' meaning.

"Perhaps a seat in the play would lift your spirits." The merchant suggested to me, but I wasn't paying attention. "I Want To Be Your Canary, I have seen it multiple times and each time is an experience I cannot forget."

"I'm going to see the play today." The kid said with a rising excitement in his voice.

"Then you should move along. The Ticketmaster should be up in the square." He pointed straight ahead to where most of the people, or humanoid animals, were heading. I could hear the kid walking away to his next destination when his little conversation with the merchant ended. At least that kid was cultured, that young going to a play all by his lonesome…

Wait… Lonesome? Play? Kid? Pointy hat?

That was VIVI! Vivi the freaking black mage.

My head quickly turned to the direction of the black mage so fast I almost got whiplash. Only the tip of his hat could be seen over the crowd that was slowly swallowing him up. I followed him the best that I can in that crowd, which I saw was being led by a horn-carrying duck person. Why was I following him? I don't even know. My mind still cannot comprehend what was happening to me. Maybe my sanity wanted to keep track of something or someone familiar to me even though they are fictional. At least I'm doing something.

I tailed the little black mage as he wade into the crowd of nobles, I managed to get past the crowd with less finesse and a lot of getting hit on the head for being reckless around such a high class community. While I still have him in my sights, my mind suddenly came up with a question: What do I plan to get out of this whole ordeal?

For some reason, I didn't have an answer to that. Sure I get to see the game's events unravel right before my eyes in real time, which is a pretty good thing to happen to me since I'm a big fan of the game, but what do I get out of it?

Before I could think of an answer to this troubling question, I hear some shouting behind me and I managed to lose sight of Vivi. The shouting started to escalate. Some of the people were parting like the red sea as this guy got nearer. Well, whatever. I'm pretty sure some guy here pissed off this guy for no apparent reason and he's looking for some –

"Hey, you! I'm talking to you, you brown rags wearing kid!" Then from out of nowhere, I got grabbed from behind, turned around and lifted up into the air by two huge hands holding onto my collar. "You destroyed my stand, you little shit!"

This guy was a towering figure of humanity. He looks like someone who eats bricks for breakfast and bench presses a minivan just for fun. Seriously, he was five times my size that I cannot even believe to be possible.

"Wha-wha-what?" I managed to stammer out in fear.

"Three kids saw you destroy my stand while I was getting some change. Think I'm just gonna let you waltz around town on two good legs after doing that, huh?" My legs!? Not my legs! I already have a broken hand!

"I didn't do it on purpose, I swear!"

"Begging won't help you, kid." A terrible grin crept on his face as the bystanders only looked on at what would look like a curb-stomp battle between a cripple and Godzilla. Right behind him, I could see the a few female Alexandrian soldiers marching to our general direction, yelling 'Stop what you are doing right now or we will place you under arrest'. Like that was going to stop this guy. "Any last words?"

I actually didn't have one. My mind was too busy looking for a way out. As he was ready to destroy me, pulling back one of his hands and formed a fist, I closed my eyes and did the only thing a desperate man would do: kick someone in the crotch.

One swift kick was all it took as the terrorizing muscleman dropped me and had a twisted look of pain on his face. Without hesitation, I scrambled up to my feet and fled the scene.

"You're not going anywhere!" The man shouted as he got back up, though he was rearranging his set, if you catch my drift, then started running after me.

'Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…' That was everything coming through my brain right now. A man with rippling muscles had set his sights on me for unintentionally toppling his stand and I do not know how I'm going to get rid of him. If he gets his clutches on me again, I'm a dead man, and I vehemently do not want to be a dead man.

The streets of the kingdom of Alexandria were much bigger than I have ever imagined. Well, that's what happens when a game only restricts you to only going to places the programmers and developers have put in. I mean, I could see alleyways with dead ends and access to other streets aside from this main street I was running in, intersections and various landmarks that I have never seen before aside from the statue near the gate leading outside the kingdom.

Turning every other street was starting to get to me as my legs were starting to get tired. Not only is that guy still chasing me, but a bunch of Alexandrian soldiers were dispatched, apparently they heard that there was a scuffle between two rowdy individuals happening on the day of Princess Garnet's birthday and they wanted to arrest them for their troubling behavior. Great, just great. I just need to lose 'Hulk' somewhere and the soldiers might be content with just one criminal to arrest, but how?

"Get back here you rag-wearing troublemaker!" He yelled as he pushed people out of his way. That's it! He only identifies me with my jacket. But this jacket is expensive and losing it would just make me feel like I threw away five-hundred bucks. It's either my well-being or my wallet. Crap. Why does this have to be hard? "I AM GOING TO BREAK YOU IN HALF!" That's it, my well-being first.

After turning into a much busier street filled with hoodlums and poor-looking civilians, I just looked for someone who could look like me with my back turned. When I did find someone who kinda had my hair, I quickly took my jacket off and put it on my unwitting body double.

"Hey!" The man shouted after receiving my 'gift'.

"You'll thank me later!" I said before turning into another intersection. God, this place is big. He was probably wondering where this guy came from, but his thoughts changed directions when he was picked off the ground by my previous pursuer.

When I was done putting a few more miles between me and the new crime scene I've properly evaded, I sat down on the corner and gave out a big breath and took in bigger one, but I still wasn't relieved. Sure, I was out of danger for now, yet I was still in a fictional world and was practically lost. Vivi should be at the Ticketmaster by now, but I doubt that he'd still be there if I ever manage to get there. Even if I do accomplish that, then there would be another thing on my mind: How did I get here?

"Psst!" Someone kept making noises directed at me while I was stuck in my own mind. It was an old woman trying to get my attention. From what I could tell, she must have been either poor or a hardened traveler by choice of clothing, which was a long ripped brown coat that hooded her face, a very old looking and aged dress with a white tattered shirt underneath and what appear to be tights for her legs. "Young man, I believe I have something that may interest you."

"Unless it's a time machine, then no you don't have my attention." I grumbled to myself as she approached.

"Oh really now?" She then started digging inside one of her pockets, humming a tune that sounded cheerful and upbeat but aged. Who was this woman? I'm pretty sure that even fictional characters have the common sense to not talk to strangers. After a while, she seemed to have found what she was looking for, which was a folded old-looking piece of paper. "Here you go."

Now tell me, what would I get out of this whole situation? I was thinking 'nothing' because this may just be a con that people pull on other people who are new to the kingdom. But I'm not new to the kingdom. I'm a real person having a slight delusion after being struck by lightning. That's what happens when you get struck by lightning. But something was telling me to humor this old woman, so I took the paper and unfolded it. What it was came as a shock to me.

"A ticket to 'I Want to be Your Canary'?" My voice sounded like I should be offended, but happy. Then, I thought what if this was a con. "What's the catch?"

"Answer me this the next time we meet," The old woman got up close to my face, making me see the tied bun if white hair underneath the hood and the gray eyes that were now staring into the very essence of my soul. "What are you looking for?" She stayed like that for a few seconds before turning and walking away.

What the hell was that? She just hands me a ticket to the play, tells me a riddle and simply runs off. I mean, what is up with that? I think it's not only me who is crazy today. But, with this wonderful ticket I now have a way into the play and catch up to the black mage. I guess that's what I should do next. Next stop, the Ticketmaster.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 2: A Front Row Seat…

Right after the peculiar events I have experienced in the past thirty minutes, I proceeded to the town square where the Ticket Master was located. That was a prerequisite for people who wanted to see the play, right? Of course, my next act was to ask for directions seeing that I was lost in a town, or kingdom, I did not know like the back of my hand unlike certain individuals who lived here.

Asking someone with authority in these streets would be ideal, right? No! After what happened with me and a certain bulking behemoth that resulted in a chase around town, I preferred to avoid any helmeted soldiers unless it was necessary. I needed to hurry for I was losing daylight. So like any desperate man looking for help, I begged anyone who passed me by for directions. Someone is bound to tell me something.

Someone did. It took a pretty long time too. Often during this little scenario, I was mistaken for something else that I didn't mean to be interpreted out of it. I was perceived as a beggar who has gone delirious multiple times, someone who just got fired and started drinking early in the morning a few times, and once as someone trying to come on to them. This woman, an actual female human for a change, had the nerve to slap me hard enough to spin me around and hit my face on a pole being dangerously carried by a rushing mechanic. Damn near broke my nose. Though, he did tell people to be careful numerous times.

When I did find someone who didn't interpret my approach as one of the above, a man who was part rhino kindly pointed me to the right direction, or directions seeing that what he told me were a literal description of directions from a treasure map. I thanked him and went on my way.

"Town Square should be right around…here!" I said as I rounded the corner. And there it was, an archway of two towering clocks was welcoming me to the center of the kingdom. A large tent stood at the center of it with the word 'TICKET' presented on top of it, indicating the Ticket Master's location. The surrounding buildings were as what you would expect in a place set in a European medieval fantasy. An inn was located to the left of the tent, a flower shop right next to the archway and the item and weapon shop conveniently seen next to it were the ones I immediately recognized. Before I could gander more at the scenery, a duo of Alexandrian soldiers prompted me to hurry to the Ticket Master.

"Can I help you, son?" Those were the exact words he said to Vivi in the game, if I remember correctly. The Ticket Master was another humanoid person, this time being a part-wolf with a chubby and cheery disposition. "Is there something the matter?" He caught me staring at him blankly. His question, along with the tapping of the glass, snapped me from my stares.

"I'm sorry." I embarrassingly apologized. "A lot of things just happened to me today."

"No worries then. Today will be a pretty hectic day from what I've observed." The Ticket Master said. "A lot of people came from around the continent to wish our Princess a happy sixteenth birthday."

"Yeah, sure is."

"Speaking of people around the continent, you look like you're not from here." He leaned on the small counter underneath the glass that was dividing him and me. "Tell me, son. Where do you hail from?"

Well, it is obvious that I don't look like I was from here, but what do I say? 'I'm from the real world called Earth' would earn me a one way ticket to a loony bin. I may need to choose my words carefully here. "Well, yes actually. I am not from here because…I'm from somewhere else!" Alright, good, good.

"From where exactly?" He rephrased his question. I avoided opening my mouth for a while as I dug into my pockets for my ticket. Maybe I can buy myself some time with it.

"Oh I forgot. Here's my ticket." I put my ticket on the counter, hoping that it would take his mind off of his current question.

"Ah, yes." He examined the ticket first by putting it against a light. Even here they are not big fans of counterfeit materials.

While he was doing that, I was racking my brain on making some elaborate story this old coot would believe. Unfortunately, my brain was having some issues with quick thinking. Without giving myself away, I looked left and right for anything that would help me here. Then I saw something behind the Ticket Master: a written list of other plays that have been presented in Alexandria. It seemed that they were only recently shown here. I read the titles with haste as the Ticket Master was just recording my ticket in and punching it. When he was done, I was smiling to avoid suspicion and took back my ticket.

"Thank you." I said. Maybe if I turned around and walked away, then maybe I can get away without answering. I don't care if that's not being polite or whatever.

"You were going to say something." The Ticket Master said. Curses.

"Oh, that." Alright, here goes. It better be convincing. "My family comes from another continent, somewhere far from here." I began. But that opening premise seemed to surprise the old man.

"From another continent, you say? I thought only a few people lived outside the Mist Continent." The Ticket Master wondered with awe.

"That's what I heard. There are, indeed, a few human people, but there are a lot of mixed breeds." I said. "Where was I? Oh yeah. My parents and sailing. They loved sailing, especially my parents. They even say that they were 'born of the sea'. Crazy, huh?"

"Not as crazy as a lot of things that has happened here, young man."

"Right. Anyway, one day when my father decided to take us all on a big sailing trip. At first, I felt elated that we were going somewhere we have never gone to, but felt a bit of dread when I stepped on the deck. When that first tiny wave rolled under us, I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. Of course, my parents thought I was just nervous and continued on. Halfway across the ocean, we got into a horrible storm. We barely survived. We managed to sail to Lindblum, but with barely anything on our backs and pockets. My family managed to come back from that horrible depression as traveling sales— er, merchants, yes, and engineers after a few years. Now I'm a traveling merchant so I can make my father and mother proud."

After that long, winded, deceptive speech, I felt proud of being able to connect a story like that out of titles I barely knew of, and almost out of breath for talking in such a short time. The Ticket Master could only nod with his arms crossed. "That is quite a story, lad. I hope you and your family gets back home."

"I sure hope so too." And with that, I said goodbye and walked away.

"Huh. Some of that sounded familiar." I heard the Ticket Master say to himself while scratching the top of his head. It should be familiar, you old coot. You're standing in front of it. "What was that?"

"What?" I stopped in my tracks, thinking that the Ticket Master was talking to me. When I turned around, he was talking with a couple who were showing their respective tickets. Whatever. I just continued on my way.

Now here's my problem. That one earlier with the story regarding when I was asked by the Ticket Master is not true. It just came up and it had to be dealt with. My real problem now is getting to that play without raising a commotion. I've been pretty unsuccessful doing just that recently and my luck isn't going to change on a single whim.

Those two patrolling Alexandrian soldiers are going to be a problem. Maybe there's something I can use to sneak past them.

"My dear nobles of Treno! Walk this way and we shall get you to your seats!" One of the heralds for the nobles shouted over the group following him. Yes! I can use that group of nobles to get in undetected. Brilliant idea!

As they walked towards the gate, I blended in from the back, entering the group slowly until I was secured in the middle where neither knight nor soldier would notice me. I ignored the mumbling and hushed rich talk when I walked in, some of them insulting my choice of clothing and my overall look. Hey, some people from where I come from consider this a very fashionable look. Anyway, as the group of nobles was entering the gate, someone didn't like my presence in the group and decided to remedy it by tripping and pushing me out. I landed perfectly on my butt and in front of the two guards just as they were about to close the gate.

"Hey!" One of them shouted. Dammit.

"I have a ticket!" I said, putting up my hands in surrender like a common criminal begging for the cops to not shoot him. "Don't execute me! I swear it was an accident! He started it!"

The two soldiers looked at me, bewildered at my dubious confession. The other approached me, surprisingly without her sword drawn, and helped me up. "I'm sorry. My comrade here is a little tightly wound up lately."

"I have a right to be." The one who shouted replied. "Some guy led almost a quarter of the kingdom's soldiers in a wild goose chase." Oh crap. "Sure we got one guy, but he said that he was going after someone else, the actual guy who started it." She then got so close to me that she was invading my personal space. "Have you seen him?"

"Now, now, let's not scare the civilians." The other soldier pulled her comrade away from me before I could start begging for a lighter sentence other than execution. "It's been a hectic day and I just want it to be over."

"Yeah, me too." I said nervously. We stood there silent for a moment, me mostly being because that other soldier could probably arrest me then and there for remembering me. Fortunately, she just keeps looking back at me with a glare aimed towards me with each time getting deadlier and deadlier. The other one was preoccupied by something else going on in her head. I would have been glad to just stand there all day doing nothing, aside from pacing back and forth like a common minion, but I don't have the time in the world to be doing that. So I tapped the nicer soldier on the shoulder, breaking her away from her own thoughts. "Can I go in? I have a ticket."

I showed her my ticket, which she looked at closely, and nodding. "Oh, I'm sorry about that. I'll let you in now." She opened the gate, which I failed to observe had closed during our little 'conversation'. Before I could get in, the other soldier grabbed me by the injured arm, making me wince a bit.

"If you see that guy in there, rush back here and tell me." Her eyes gleamed with a passion with intentions I don't want to ever visualize.

"Don't worry. You'll be the first one to hear about it." With that, I got past the gate and into an audience filled with nobles. Okay, where are the ordinary people sitting at? The harder I looked for it, the more I realized that there wasn't one. Everyone here was either nobles or someone with fancy looking clothes and I had to deal with it. I was pretty sure that there was one noble here who wasn't glad to see and I bet he/she tripped me.

Whatever. I spotted an empty seat near the aisle and it had a wonderful view of the airship's front, which would soon become the stage for I Want to be Your Canary and after that the beginning for a chaotic night. There was a small pamphlet on the chair with the name "Meguro" on it. Odd name, but I assume that it belongs to the woman who handed me her ticket.

From where I was seated, a 270 degree turn of the head to the left and a bit more upwards could let you see where Queen Brahne and Princess Garnet were seated. Her long, depressed face was identifiable even at that distance, and so is the hideousness of the queen. Just looking at her makes me shudder. Right beside me was a lady around my age, beaming with excitement evidently shown by a smile. It was annoying seeing someone like that. I mean, nobody could that be really happy even if you were living in a virtual world without you knowing. Such positivity at that proximity was draining my strength.

With a growl, I turned away from the girl and paid attention to my front. The lights started to dim and everyone around was starting to quiet down. A few moments passed in silence, a cough here and a sneeze there didn't affect the atmosphere. Then, if I remember correctly, the Captain of the Pluto Knights raised his sword to the heavens and signaled for the opening.

The stage brightened with fireworks that shot up into the sky with a straight gold light while the same colored pyrotechnics rained down on the stage while the ship's little orchestra played a bit of fanfare to accompany the display. The nobles in my area, alongside with the other viewers sitting at their roofs and other places, were applauding the wonderful gesture made for the princess's celebration. All that was missing now was someone to start up The Wave.

I've seen this part of the game numerous times whenever I start a new game and seeing it live in person makes all those other times seem like irrelevant, almost like you attend a concert and hear the most replayed song in your music player being played. This made me genuinely smile and I don't smile easily because I'm always irritated.

As Baku, the leader of Tantalus dressed for the role of King Leo, began opening the play with an introduction to the play, a thought came across my mind: what do I do next? I've stumbled into this seat because of a woman who was feeling generous and I still have no idea what her riddle was all about. Even I'm unsure what my goal is. Everything that has happened to me from waking up in Alexandria to watching my first play with a crowd of rich people felt very odd, so odd that other people would be even glad to be here. But me, I'm not feeling it. Something here isn't right.

-FF FF FF-

I tried to forget that odd feeling I got as the play progressed. Eventually, I did and it helped shift the focus back to the play that was supposed to be entertaining me until everything starts to go crazy.

For what it was worth, I was enjoying the show. The battle of Marcus' crew with King Leo and his two gas-masked henchmen were exciting to watch for a play's standard. I don't know what that standard is since this is my first time in a play, but as I'm sure it could be worse. Pyrotechnics and special effects were used effectively during some parts, especially the fight scene, which made those parts flashier.

The duel between Zidane and Blank afterwards was much more entertaining than its command-based predecessor in the game. Seeing it done almost spontaneously and well-timed made me want to throw money at them after they were done, only to be reminded that I didn't have anything on my person aside from my cast and my clothes.

Everything is fine as the play went on. I think I got TOO into it in one scene when I shouted in favor of Marcus while King Leo was doing his monologue, which caused great amounts of embarrassing shushed comments from the other viewers. An Alexandrian soldier, the nicer one from the gate, warned me to never do it again or she'll throw me out. I'm pretty sure I'm not the first one to do such a thing, but maybe it is because today is the celebration for Princess Garnet. Everyone must have been way too high strung today just to impress her.

Plus that beard Baku has on along with that outfit makes me think of him as an ancestor of the Burger King. It made me want to laugh when I realized it, but stifled it because I don't want to be dragged out of the play.

Anyway, the play was nearing the point of Marcus being caught by King Leo and the whole play would degrade from there. I was too busy watching the skies for any flying or rope-swinging important protagonists to notice that the lady beside me has been looking at me quite oddly.

"Is something the matter?" She asked, her voice thick with an accent that my brain would register as generally British.

"Nothing. Just watch your play. I'm not distracting you, am I?"

"Your actions are quite disturbing actually." I turned to her, irritated that she said what I just heard.

"So looking at the stars is the current standard for disturbing?" I asked rhetorically before continuing looking up. Then I saw some movement up on one of the towers of the castle; a white hooded figure standing on the edge before slipping away by falling down with her back to the ground. Of course, she hung onto a wire and was now swinging towards the stage roof. She was followed by a certain yellow-tailed person, who managed to land safely at the same spot, and an armor-clad gentleman, who smashed against one of the tall structures of the airship.

That was definitely Princess Garnet, Zidane and Steiner respectively. You could hear the orchestra get a little off the rails for a moment before getting back in the groove all because of the princess. Everything has been going as the game's actual events happened. Hopefully nothing throws everything off the rails like earlier. As for any plan that I could possibly have, I'll just play along and go with the main party until I wake up. This is just a dream after all.

"Did you know that would happen?" To my surprise, the lady beside me had caught a glimpse of the three flying individuals just as I did. Heh. Maybe I should mess with her a bit.

"Yes. Yes I did." I said with a grin. "I can foretell the future." I waved my hands theatrically, despite not having any previous acting lessons, to emphasize my 'abilities'.

"Really?" Her eyes went wide like cookies. "What do you see in the future?" I could see that her interest was now invested in me.

"Let me see." I closed my eyes momentarily before opening them and looking deep into the woman's eyes. "There will be chaos soon. The Princess will be kidnapped. Madness will befall the queen." I whispered to her since I only wanted to mess with her not the entire population. She gasped, really showing that she believes what I just said. "But I suggest you do not reveal this information to anyone else. You don't want to be called crazy."

"Yes. Definitely." She sounded almost shaken by the revelation of the future. True, I didn't lie, but the truth has a lot of varying effects on people. With that she turned back to the play and did not bother me anymore. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get a girl to ignore you. Thank you for the applause.

Soon, the main protagonists of the game will pop up into the stage after fighting Steiner below the deck and distracting him with oglops. That is the main attraction, the main event that I'm looking for. I looked behind me over the rows of nobles deeply paying attention to the play, searching for two out-of-place individuals in the crowd, not that I'm not out of place. Right behind the farthest row stood two little boys who snuck in through the castle walls: A little brown rat with an orange helmet-like thing on his head and a little child with a distinctive pointy hat, Puck and Vivi respectively.

Good. They are in position. Now I have to just wait for the nearing finale of the play, then I'd run up to the stage and join them before it flies off to the horizon.

There's only one problem with that: I don't have a clear reason for getting on the airship. Sure, Vivi didn't plan on getting on but he only got there because he was being chased by Pluto Knights. What do I have? A cover story put together using various play titles. Really, no actual reason. 'Hey I'm a traveling merchant and I just wanted to catch a ride! I hope you don't mind.' That is not going to go well. It is too farfetched for any person to believe. Anyone willing to suspend their disbelief would punch me in the face upon hearing such a pathetic excuse. This is bad. I'm having a crisis. Having an excuse to get on is critical because I'm bound to be asked why.

No, let's not panic. I have time. I'll just think of one before anything else happens. No trouble, right?

Just clear my mind. Something is bound to come up in my head and I'll just expand on that idea when it comes. Right now, let's just chill out, watch the play and try not to freak out anymore nobles with our knowledge of future events.

The play was at its fifth scene where Marcus is standing alone at dawn, waiting for his beloved to arrive so they may escape King Leo and love each other forever somewhere else. As he waits, Cinna's character, which I am not sure whether it is actually named Cinna or unknown, tries to convince him to leave for their ship is about to set sail. Their use of long words and Shakespearean-time vocabulary just got grating. The only thing they need now is to rhyme and/or speak in a set amount of syllables.

Anyway, Cinna exits the stage after informing him that their ship has sailed away, their only way of escape now gone Marcus stand there contemplating whether Princess Cornelia had lied. He peps himself up with long words towards the twin moons and prepares to infiltrate King Leo's castle.

And of course, he was caught.

The captured Marcus was dragged in front of the tyrannical king, who just finished proudly gloating to himself that the ownership of Prince Schneider's kingdom would be his once his daughter is forcefully wed to the prince even before it has happened. It must be pretty enjoyable to be so smug and hungry for power. I'd like to try that once before I pass away.

And side note, he just rhymed three consecutive times and two of those shared the number of syllables. That just completed my Shakespearean checklist.

"Furthermore!" King Leo tried to continue his gloating after telling Marcus that he would die by losing his neck to an axe, only to be interrupted by a pair of run-ins thanks to Zidane, Garnet dressed in a white hood, and Steiner. Zidane didn't seem fazed by this as he already had a plan in mind. Garnet was surprised to be even on stage, but not as much as Steiner, who looked lost and confused by the result of this chase.

I could hear the crowd of nobles around me whispering a bit about this. Some of them pointed out that actress of Princess Cornelia were different than earlier. At least they had the attention span for that. I could see the two trespassing characters moving from their previous spot to somewhere closer. Just a little bit more before I have to jump in there and I still have no excuse. No matter! I shall overcome this.

The characters on stage resumed the play with some impromptu changes, Marcus and Cornelia now reunited while King Leo insisted that he will never give them his blessing to wed. Steiner, the impromptu actor of Schneider, could only look around like a lost child, and responded with astonishment when talked to.

A small fight scene commences between Zidane and Marcus going against Zenero and Benero, who were defeated easily and retreated, leaving their king all alone.

"Pray sweet daughter, come home to the castle with me." King Leo begged his daughter.

"Nay Father! I shan't return," came was Garnet/Cornelia's reply.

"Cornelia…Trouble me no more. This wedding is for thine own welfare. Be mindful of that." King Leo desperately wanted to have his daughter at his side, but his attempts were stopped by Marcus.

"Not if I can help it! Now is my moment of vengeance! For my parents, and for my love, Cornelia…" He drew his sword and pointed it to the antagonist in front of him. "I shall cut thee down!"

With weapon in hand, he charged at the villainous king and was about to end his life then and there with one heroic stab, but irony walked into his sword's direction in the form of Princess Cornelia. She took the hit for her father, even though he was a tyrant he was still the father who loved her and she didn't want him to die. She lay in Marcus's arms as she draws her last breath the same way Jesus died in His mother's arms. There were cries of anguish between the characters, especially Cornelia's beloved. With the blood of Cornelia on his hands and the thought of never hearing or feeling Cornelia ever again, he directed his own sword towards him and ended his life with one thrust. Steiner's enforced method acting made the scene more emotional.

From what I could tell, Puck and Vivi were moved by the performance of the theatre group, and so was Queen Brahne. She was crying so hard that I thought waterfalls were going to start flowing through her eyes. From the far left were two Pluto Knights who looked like they accidentally saw the recent turn of events and saw two young perpetrators. Maybe Vivi should left with his phony ticket instead of trespassing.

That was when it all began.

What happened next was Vivi, abandoned by Puck, got forced to jump onstage and told the knights to back off with his fire magic, accidentally burning Princess Garnet's white hood, which caused her to shed it after jumping up and dancing because of the heat. Then I began to notice that the third hatch from below the stage opened. This happened while The Captain, who just recently broke out of his distracted trance by the recent turn of events, demand that the 'kidnappers' hand over the princess with the help of the two newly arrived Pluto Knights.

They were about to throw down when it happened, the final hatch came up showing a girl with brown hair around the age range of a developed teenager dressed in a white shirt and blue overalls. She looked wide-eyed in surprise as the two forces stopped charging when she came up.

I could see her mouth move from where I was. "Uh…oh."

This is where everything goes crazy.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 3: …For the Ensuing Carnage

"Aha! Another criminal in cahoots with this act! I shall see to it that all of you are arrested." Steiner shouted.

If everyone forgot what had just happened, let me remind you. Everything had been going as planned by canon. From the three protagonists swinging to the airship from above to the point where they interrupt the play by abruptly appearing via a platform from below the Prima Vista that could be accessed only from the engine room. Then that was when everything got off the rails.

That girl that just appeared just now… This wasn't supposed to happen. She wasn't supposed to be there! That girl is not supposed to be there!

And something about her seems familiar.

"Help!" The girl cried. She sounded familiar too.

Then it hit me. It was the girl I was last with before the lightning struck me: Alyssa…uh…whatshername. What the hell was she doing there?

Hold the phone! This is my chance! This is the excuse I have been looking for! And to think nobody out here was looking out for me. Oh sweet merciful heaven now I can go on.

Before Steiner or his knights could do anything, Zidane, like the hero he is, stood between the knights and Alyssa. Princess Garnet helped up Alyssa while Steiner demanded that they surrender. Of course, they responded as you'd think. Zidane and Marcus pulled out their weapons, Garnet simply stating that he is too stubborn to understand, and Vivi, not knowing what is happening, hesitantly standing at the sidelines of the ensuing fight.

"Oh no. This is it." The lady to my left said, abruptly standing and pointing to the airship. "Our safety is in danger! Everyone flee! Flee!" I guess I kind of overdid it. She ran past me, up the aisle and out of the gate even before the guards could figure out what she was babbling about.

Before I could act, I could feel a hand gripping my shoulder like a vise. This made me grab the hand and attempt to squirm my way out. I managed to get out of my seat in the ensuing struggle, but came face to face with the pointed edge of a sword.

Its wielder was one of the female Alexandrian soldiers from the gate. The other nicer one stood behind her, her hand near the hilt of her own sword, ready to react if the situation changes. The two were armed and I am not, so I had to put up my hands in surrender, trying to convey the message that I do not have anything on me.

"You know there was one thing the other guy we arrested blabbered about while we dragged him away," She said as she adjusted her sword so it was centimeters away from my nose. She looked down, her sword flowing suit before stopping at my chest. "He mentioned that the other perpetrator was wearing something hanging from his neck that was of the color red." She fortunately put her sword away, but grabbed my red tie and pulled harshly.

"Please, I didn't mean to start it." I gasped as she pulled again. "It was an…ack…an accident."

"Spare me your lies. You lied to our faces a few hours ago and now you're still lying." She grinned when she brought my face close enough to her eyes under her helmet. A pair of icy cold blue eyes looked back at me accompanied by a contemptuous grin. "I'm going to enjoy whipping you upside down in the castle dungeons."

"Whipping!?" I yelped when she pulled on my tie again.

"Isn't that going a bit too far?" Her compatriot asked, trying to pull her away, only to be shrugged back.

"Citizens should learn how to respect authority. If they don't, then everything established by the people in power will collapse."

"Look, before you go raving about power and order and how justice should be maintained, maybe you can – ACK!" The soldier interrupted me once again by pulling my tie.

"SILENCE!" She now decided to embody police brutality by smacking me on the back of my head. There were some gasps from the crowd of Treno nobles when they saw this and they got a cold glare from the soldier in return. Does she know that what she's doing is illegal in some countries? "I know. And no one saw a damn thing."

"What in the hell are you –"

"No one saw anything. NOT. A DAMN. THING." She emphasized each final word with punctuation and a push. She looked around at the nobles around her, glowering at them briefly just to make sure they got the message. "Now walk!"

As I walked under the might of this oppressive soldier, I could see some looks of disappointment and outrage aimed towards her, one of those belonging from her fellow soldier. I looked over my shoulder to see what was happening now on stage. The airship was still there, the Pluto Knights and the Tantalus kidnappers plus their "hostage", Vivi and Alyssa were fighting it out, well except for Alyssa because she was unarmed. Though, I did see her constantly dodge under one of the knights' attacks until to the point that she slapped one of them. I guess that didn't help. I need to get away from this crazy chick here and onto that airship.

I got it! "Hey look! Someone is being mugged!"

"Where!? I'll make sure they'll hang!" This woman's pursuit of justice is a little skewed, but it's something I could take advantage of. With her quickly looking around for this 'perpetrator' I managed to slink away from her by kicking her in the shin and run towards the airship.

"Halt!" She yelled at the top of her lungs. I jumped the velvet rope dividing the nobles from the pathway where Zidane and Blank dueled and kept running. I looked behind me and saw that the girl who intended to arrest and whip me upside-down was rushing down to where I was. Crap.

I quickly got up the ramp as I noticed that the airship was starting to move away. With the soldier easily closing the gap between us, an idea struck me and it came to physical form by me kicking the ramp off the edge, cutting loose any route she had onto the bridge as the airship started to depart.

"Sorry, girls!" I grinned with a sarcastic salute. "I have a flight to—" Just when I thought that my luck was beginning to change, the female soldier just jumped over the gap and managed to clear it, but just barely by grabbing onto the ledge. "—catch?"

Just when I was backing up, I tripped over a stage prop that has fallen off during the airship's ascension and hit my back on something metal. The problem was that this metal thing was being worn on someone else's torso and it felt the impact. "What the—? Another one?" The Pluto Knight, I think it was Weimar, turned around and pointed his sword at me.

"Okay. I think we've gotten on the wrong foot here. I am not with them." I explained to the good Pluto Knight. "I just saw—"

"LIES!" I heard someone exclaim behind me. It was that soldier again. Damn it, why can't she get the hint? She climbed up on the stage, breathing hard at her efforts. "You will not escape, not without punishment."

"I don't need punishment. You do, you crazy bitch!" That only resulted in the two of them pointing their swords at me.

"You do not talk to a lady like that." Weimar said, looking over to the other soldier. His words seemed lost on the girl. All she wanted for today was catch the guy who made a ruckus on the Princess's birthday and that was what she was going to get.

I raised my hands defensively while taking a few steps back. "Okay, I think I worded that out incorrectly. What I meant to say was we don't have to fight." I looked at the two, hoping that they would reconsider this whole situation, but they just looked at each other and back at me, now more alert. The two had me cornered as I had no more space to back up into. These two were going to serve my head to the queen on a platter, though I doubt she'd care with all the hostile takeovers she'll be planning to do occupying her time. I guess I have no choice other than using my last resort.

"I really don't want to do this, but here goes." At a drop of a hat, I got down on my knees, put my hands together and shook them continuously. "Don't arrest me! I'm just a traveling merchant! I don't have any money! Arrest them! I'm not with them!"

"What the—?" Weimar didn't know how to react. I bet nobody has begged as desperately as me in his time as a Pluto Knight. Even the soldier girl was rather surprised as a result of my actions. I could feel that the edges of their swords lowered from my face as they contemplated what to do next.

While they stood there gathering their thoughts, I looked over to the main fight at the center of the stage. It actually became a duel between two people: the Pluto Knights and the Tantalus thieves. Garnet and Vivi were standing near the small constructed castle, holding on hard while the ship ascended into the air. Wait. Where's Alyssa?

"Begging won't stop justice from –…" Before she could even finish that statement, a piece of wood pulled from the stage floor knocked against her head with a mighty swing. Weimar jumped upon hearing the impact and seeing a girl wielding the improvised 2x4 over his unconscious compatriot.

It was Alyssa. "I suggest you put your sword down," said my savior.

"Let me help you with that." I said as I swiftly rearranged his jewels with a left-handed punch. I swear my wrist felt loose after connecting with that. That loosened his grip on his weapon and made him kneel in pain. "I'll be taking that, thank you very much." I took his sword by the hilt and tried lifting it up, only to be overwhelmed by its weight. "What the hell? Is this a sword or a two-hundred pound wrestler?" It must be because I'm just using one hand, but dear GOD it was still difficult to lift up.

"Blake!" I was so distracted by my attempt of lifting a simple sword that I temporarily forgot about the girl who saved me and the excuse I only had to get on this airship. Weimar silently left the scene, jumping off the stage to a nearest roof and thankfully making it. It would be horrible if he were to die in an accident when he is not supposed to die. Anyway, Alyssa put her arms around me as tight as an anaconda would to its victim before devouring it. "Blake! Thank goodness I finally found someone I recognize!"

"Yeah, thank goodness for me." I said. I wasn't able to continue those words for what was going to happen next. "Why are you wearing overalls?"

She could only chuckle embarrassingly. "…Long story."

Looking around as I pushed her away from me, Steiner and Hagen were wavering, Garnet had just stepped up by healing the two with a Cure spell while Vivi was still considering on entering the fray, and the other young knight had just been struck down by Marcus. He stood over the downed knight, who then decided that discretion is the better part of valor and made a poor excuse about a date before scrambling away forgetting his own weapon.

Steiner looked on in shock as now he had been betrayed by two of his own knights. It was now three on one, two clever thieves and a princess going against a trained knight in the arts of swordsmanship. On paper, Steiner would beat them flat, but he was on their turf, one that was trying to escape.

Speaking of escaping…

We have temporarily forgotten about the queen down below and her rallying forces. She had assembled her army's cannons at the side of the castle and commanded to fire. Queen Brahne didn't care about the only two people that are important to her kingdom being on the retreating airship, only the one piece of accessory her daughter had on her. She doesn't care whether she had to get Garnet back alive or get it off her corpse, just getting it mattered.

The cannons fired and shot out harpoons towards the airship that were supposed to pull them back in. The harpoons landed at various locations on the airship like the stage, the hull of the ship, the sides and I think one got stuck on the back. It was partially working with the only problem being that it was a lot more powerful because it had an engine and was probably around half the size of Alexandria's castle.

One of the harpoons fired upon us came close to impaling Alyssa and I if it wasn't for her reflexes. She took me by the collar and pulled me away from the very spot the harpoon would land on, causing me to fall on my butt. I just sat there amazed that I was still alive.

You know what I wasn't amazed to see: The soldier trying to arrest me still trying to arrest me.

"Alright! That is enough! I don't care if I have to drag you out of the wreck this airship will become or not, I AM PUTTING YOU UNDER ARREST!" She stomped her foot and drew her sword once again. Can someone just push her overboard? I'm getting tired of this.

The harpoon cannons then decided to yank of its prey some more, making the airship suddenly shift, causing everyone on it to stumble and fall. That went the same for me and Alyssa, especially Alyssa because she stumbled to the far side of the stage towards the soldier, accidentally knocking her aside and almost caused her to go over. She struggled with her balance for a bit, teetering back and forth continuously, her sword already thrown overboard as she tried to maintain stable footing.

Of course, as irritating this was to me, this girl had to be gone now. I had to get rid of her. So I quickly got up to my feet and pushed her off the stage and the airship effectively. I laughed as I looked down and saw her body plummet down to the body of water separating the castle and the town below. "Who's going to arrest me now? Nobody!" I continued to laugh, glad that the woman cannot bother me anymore. She has been on my case since I got into the play and now it was just satisfying to see her drop away like a rock.

I turned around and fully realized that the fight had paused because of the queen's efforts to stop the kidnappers from escaping. Unfortunately, the only guy providing opposition for the protagonists saw me push the soldier overboard. That meant he saw me laughing at the girl who could have been presumed dead. That meant I just did something VERY wrong.

Crap.

"You! Surrender at once, you murderous coward!" Steiner yelled from the far side of the stage. And here I was hoping that I wouldn't gain more negative publicity than I already have.

"I'm not a coward! She was harassing me!" I yelled back.

"Nevertheless," The Captain straightened his stance just as everyone was recovering. "I will bring back the princess and every single person associated with this crime will be imprisoned."

Alyssa stood right beside me, defiant of Steiner's promise. Zidane, Marcus, Garnet and Vivi stood against the knight, prompting Alyssa to join their ranks, effectively dragging me alongside her much to my enjoyment. I use that term very loosely.

"Who are you guys?" Zidane promptly asked the two of us.

"Blake R. Skylark." I replied. "She's Alyssa…er….something. I don't know her last name."

"Forsyth," Alyssa properly added. "Alyssa Forsyth."

"Forsyth? Really?" I turned to her with just a bit of annoyance written on my face. "Your parents really hated vowels, huh?"

"Look out!" Marcus said, kicking me back to the scenario. I saw Steiner rushing towards me, someone he thinks is more dangerous than two kidnappers because I just accidentally pushed a girl off 20 feet to her (probable) death. I ducked, scrambling away from the captain as fast as I can, as the others jumped back. He stalked me with that giant sword of his as if I was wounded bird. His sword probably seems big because I'm looking at it at an angle.

"Maybe we can talk this out," I tried the easy way, only to have it thrown back to my face when Steiner brought down his sword right where I was a millisecond ago. "Okay, maybe not talk. I know who their boss is. You can arrest THEM, but I get a bit of credit. Deal?"

"Blake!" I heard Alyssa shout, alarmed that I was ready to sell out the group the main protagonist belonged to even before the game's ten minute mark.

"I will never deal with criminals." He stated as he brought down his sword with a downward arc. How is he going to arrest anyone when he is absolutely doing his best to kill his suspects!? Seriously, does anyone here even have rights?

Zidane came swooping down from the top of the fake castle in the backdrop, kicking Steiner in the chest and effectively putting him off my tail momentarily and onto his. Get it? He has a tail and now he's being targeted –Ah screw it.

I ran towards the sword left by Weimar, who has already fled probably to nurse his injured crotch. I tried once again to lift the sword and was once again met with the difficulty of its weight.

"Goddamn this is freaking heavy," I mumbled to myself as I tried numerous ways to get the sword above waist level. Now I'm really regretting even coming onboard when I can't even get a something as simple as a sword up. Why does that sound somewhat sexually perverse and wrong at the same time? Whatever. I didn't care about the chaos happening around me as the Captain of the Pluto Knights dealt with everyone else while the other protagonists, plus Alyssa, were trying their darnest to play defensive.

Then Queen Brahne unleashed the freaking Bomb.

"You have got to be kidding me…." I muttered as I saw the red ball of fire head straight for us. Steiner's back was turned towards the castle when the Bomb made its merry way towards the stage. Zidane and the others noticed the newest developing problem immediately. Then I got the sword to stay steady in my hands. "Yes! Finally!" Everyone in the vicinity thankfully ignored my celebration.

"H-Hey! Look out! There's a bomb behind you!" Marcus warned the knight. He frowned at what he interpreted as a ludicrous statement and did the opposite.

"I will not fall for such an old trick!" He said as he tried to strike down the bandana sporting thief, who only blocked his attempt. The two traded slashes and blocks with each other with the knight gaining the upper hand when the growing sight of the bomb distracted Marcus. Steiner jumped towards Marcus with the hope of either knocking him unconscious or knocking his sword away, but Zidane interfered by pulling his buddy out of harm's way.

"Listen, there's a Bomb right behind you!" Zidane tried pointing to where the Bomb was floating.

"Please Steiner, behind you!" Garnet urged the knight. Of course, Steiner's loyalty was bound only to Alexandria and the royal family so he had nothing to lose when he took the princess's word and turned. But when he took a look behind him, the Bomb floated away from Steiner's line of sight by circling above him. What the—!? That is not supposed to happen. This trickery made the captain furious.

"Agh! You will pay for your treachery!" He pointed his sword to the blond thief to his right. He's the stupid one who fell for it and he had the gall to blame it on someone else. What an idiot. "What did you say!?" He was now looking at me. Crap. Did he just hear that?

"He did." Alyssa answered for me. "Think fast!" I turned to the source of the rushing grunts of Steiner and tried to block his attack with the sword in my hand being supported by my casted hand, but he effortlessly made it fly into the air with one swipe.

"Best two out of three?" I suggested, holding my hands up in surrender, but to no avail. Alyssa then came to my rescue by standing between him and me. "Or fight a girl. As long as it's not me."

"Move aside young lady or I will be forced to take you in along with these criminals." Steiner said lowering his sword for a moment, but went put it back up when he saw that she was armed. "Drop your weapon or I will be forced to take action."

Alyssa did not falter when the threat was issued. "You either turn around or you go through me." Wow. And here I thought she was just going to be useless. "B-Blake! I'm helping you and right now I don't need you thinking I'm useless."

"Very well, miss. Prepare to —" Steiner wasn't able to finish that last sentence when Alyssa lunged at him quickly making him parry the her incoming thrusts. What is happening here? Where the hell did she learn how to fight? Even Zidane and Garnet were taken by surprise by this. Vivi looked on in amazement while Marcus was busy eyeing the Bomb floating above. Steiner was obviously not prepared on handling a teenager who could handle herself in sword fighting. Alyssa gripped the sword with both hands and followed each slash with another, her stance constantly moving in to close the distance between her and the captain.

"Please stop!" Alyssa pleaded to the Captain. "I don't want to hurt you."

"Stop resisting!" That was Steiner's answer. Alyssa didn't look like she was surrendering anytime soon.

Her sword was being operated by such grace with two hands that by itself was impressive to the point of showing off. That's just from my point of view. She's not exactly showing off. You get my point.

It would only take a slight mistake for Steiner to regain control of the fight. Alyssa went for a lunge directed to Steiner's left shoulder. He swerved to the right and struck her sword from below with an upward attack that almost made her lose her footing. She recovered, but Steiner had capitalized and taken the upper hand.

Zidane slipped in-between the two, giving Alyssa a break. Steiner was having a harder time of connecting with his strikes on the blond-haired monkey boy with his agility. I could see a mischievous smile forming on the face of Zidane as well as his lips move to form a taunting statement that made Steiner angrier.

"Hey Vi –" Wait. Hold your tongue. I'm not supposed to know Vivi's name. He hasn't introduced himself to me yet. That includes everyone. Almost screwed up there. "You!" I tried getting the black mage's attention with my shouts and eventually did. He turned his head and tilted his head as if confused that I was talking to him. "Can you help them? They look like they're in trouble."

"Um… I'll try." Vivi squeaked out.

Asking for help from one of the most powerful characters in the game might have been my smartest decision so far, but that only led to my dumbest decision: trying to get across the battle ensuing in the middle. Unfortunately, that help would not be needed after all. Zidane and Steiner were beginning to tire each other out, Alyssa was still trying to catch her breath and Marcus kept shouting at the Bomb for no apparent reason. Maybe he was trying to attract its attention, I don't know. It did grow in two sizes bigger. Anyway, I tried approaching the area Vivi was standing at which happened to be near where Garnet was. That sight of me walking up to the princess incensed the captain of the Pluto Knights, making him change targets.

I only see him approach from the corner of my eye, but it was too late by that point. Steiner had his sword up and was one stroke away from bringing it down on me. What saved me was the Vivi's black magic. In a state of panic, he casted Fire on the knight's armor that made him stop his attack and attempt to put himself out.

Fortunately, Marcus succeeded in attracting the Bomb's interest. As I was tackled by the knight in allegedly rusty armor, he looked up and saw the Bomb looking at him with a great smirk. "No, stay away!" He was swinging his sword at it, trying to swat it or make it go away. No matter how hard he swung, he didn't connect with any of it.

I was dragged away from it by Alyssa, who pulled me up on my feet and proceeded to push me into a corner covered by the fake castle. "Get ready. It's going to blow up," she told me in an unsteady breath.

I was going to say something in the lines of pointing out the obviousness of our current situation, but an explosion cut me off before I could form the words. The sudden fiery hot wave blew me and Alyssa into the wall I could feel that left me breathless upon impact. My back hurt in a lot of places and I feel like I walked in a desert for forty days and nights.

With the Bomb detonating, that meant that the chains attached to the implant harpoons were mostly decimated by the blast which gave the airship a means of escape.

I pulled my head up once we cleared the city gates. I saw everyone who was caught in the blast to be either unconscious or coughing out smoke. Zidane was struggling at getting up, Garnet held onto one of the harpoons as she saw her kingdom slowly fade into the horizon; Marcus, Steiner and Vivi looked like they were out of it. I guess they were in the closest proximity of the explosion and suffered the most damage. At least Garnet thought of giving the three a Cure, which made them stir. Alyssa was also knocked out right behind me. I was going to ask Garnet for some help, but instead I opted to let her rest. She's gonna need it.

From what I know is going to happen next, we all need the rest.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 4: Green as Hell

I knew that this airship won't hold for much longer. Soon, it'll plunge down due to some mechanical issues or engine trouble or damage inflicted by the harpoons and the Bomb and crash. We did see part of the ship collapse and blow up as it went down. In a few minutes, we'll be like that part of the ship. Zidane, like the leader that he is, checked if anyone suffered any serious injury from the explosion. I decided to be silent whilst I tried to understand what was happening to me.

Hours earlier, Alyssa and I were struck by lightning while I was at the beach. Then I woke up in the bright streets of Alexandria. After evading the soldiers in a silly chase around town, a mysterious woman hands her ticket to me, which to leads to what happened a few minutes earlier. Where did Alyssa pop up? Why is she wearing a hideously dirty pair of overalls? Not that I'm looking any better. My clothes had various slash marks from my close calls and my tie was still the same. At least I didn't manage to burn part of my head or else I would be screwed.

But back to my inquiries…

Why am I here? How is this even remotely possible? Even if I am supposed to be dreaming, shouldn't have woken up hours ago? If this was a lucid dream brought upon by the trauma of getting struck by lightning then that would be a fantastic excuse, but I don't feel like this is a dream. It's just too real. Am I even alive outside this dream? God, I keep insisting this is a dream but I don't even believe it. I should find another reasonable explanation for this…

"Hey, are you okay?"

"Huh?" I looked up and saw Zidane waving his hand in front of my face.

"I said, are you okay?" He asked again this time I had my full attention at him.

"Yeah, I think so." The blond haired thief extended a hand. I insisted that I just sit down due to being exhausted. Zidane looked past me and saw the knocked out Alyssa.

"She doesn't look so good." He then dug into one of his pockets and brought out a small vial with a glowing teal colored substance inside. I'm guessing it was a potion. "Give this to her. She'll be alright."

"Thanks," I said before he left to attend to the others. I look over to the girl in question again.

I'm just letting her rest for a moment before hell breaks loose once again. When I was sure that he wasn't looking I pocketed the potion for safe keeping. I don't have any items on me and having one potion on me right now would be very helpful in case I end up alone. Alyssa doesn't need this right now.

Then the ship dropped for a second before managing to slow down their descent and back into a steady float.

Screw this, I'm going to find something to hang on to. Good thing there was one of the harpoons still impaled near the side of the stage. It looked like it was still secure. I'll just grab onto it and I won't fly off when this thing crash lands. Now, which side do I hang on to?

Wait. Should I wake up Alyssa?

Nah, she's fine. If she can handle a sword fight with a skilled swordsman then she can survive a thirty foot plunge down to the ground. It's not like she doesn't have the airship to cushion her fall or anything.

Then the ship dropped again and this time it was not staying up. It happened while I was approaching the harpoon and it was so sudden that I was not able to prepare for it. This propelled me into the harpoon face first as the others screamed in panic. The airship descended faster than I had expected, dividing the clouds as it dove down. I could see an area with a thick layer of green down below almost grayed out by the darkness. That was where Baku, the leader of Tantalus, was aiming for a sudden crash landing as per the storyline. I hope we can get through this part without losing anything serious.

I adjusted myself against the harpoon, holding onto the side as if my life depended on it. Right in the corner of my eye was Alyssa stirring from unconsciousness. She was disoriented, shaking off cobwebs while most of us were busy minding the increase of acceleration of the ship's descent and the closing gap between us and the ground. I was going to tell her to hold on, only for the airship to collide with the ground. After that everything went black.

-FF FF FF-

So this must be how it feels to be thrown off an airship. Because everything hurt so much! My back, my arms, my head, everything hurt... Excruciating pain... God someone call an ambulance…

I opened my eyes with a groan to see tall trees overshadowed by the darkness. I could barely see a thing in here. I craned my neck slowly to the left and to the right and only saw trees and bushes, a pair of never ending paths of trees and bushes. The combination of soil and rocks against my back weren't that all comforting either. I couldn't hear anything in particular except for the occasional cricket, so it was eerily silent.

The Evil Forest, a hellish hunting ground of plants and various beasts. I know there are other places that could be described as that, but there was no place for me that had a thirty foot mother plant that is the root of all evil in this place.

Heh, root of all evil. How long did it take you to figure out that I'll make a plant pun?

This is no time to be making jokes. I should get moving, though that is easier said than done. Right now I feel like I'm in the same position as I was when I broke my arm, except for the wailing and the surrounding riot around me when it actually happened. Shaking away that past painful memory, I crawled up on all fours and tried to stand. Thankfully nothing else was broken, just the feeling of everything being sore.

Guess I wasn't able to hang onto that harpoon as well as I could, and thanks to that I was propelled off the ship somewhere into this forest. In hindsight, it was a pretty bad idea. I mean, who would even think that a harpoon stabbed into a flying airship's makeshift stage would hold and help you not get thrown off a crash landing ship. I did and it did not end well. Now I'm in the middle of a forest that is filled with monsters that could very well be hiding behind every bush in the vicinity.

I should get going. I could see a very dim light towards the west. Maybe that is where the ship landed. "Better get started then." I said to myself as I began limping towards the light.

The sounds of dirt, rocks and the occasional twig crunching underneath my feet followed me as I walked the dark path I found myself on. At least that added to the variety of what I am currently hearing. Aside from those things, it's pretty silent. The knowledge that everyone else was somewhere in this horrid place was not really comforting. You know what else wasn't comforting? Walking around unarmed and practically one-handed. Living in this world and surviving are two different things and I like to survive because that means I get to live, and when I get to live, I'm happy.

Speaking of surviving, when did Alyssa learn how to fight like that? It looked like she handled that sword pretty well. No, not pretty well. Beyond well actually, like she was showing off even if that wasn't the case. From how she fought off Steiner, I would guess she either knows fencing or some kind of Asian fighting style. Who knows? I sure don't. I'll have to demand an answer when I find her.

*CRUNCH*

"Who's there!?" I shout, turning to where the noise came from. Maybe it wasn't wise to shout in the middle of a place called Evil Forest, but that slipped my mind momentarily. Nothing responded. I just stood there staring at the spot where the sound came from for a minute thinking that maybe something would come out if I didn't move. Well, that was a minute well spent. I must be hearing things; one of the effects of probably having a concussion received from being thrown off a flying airship.

I continued trekking down that path towards the dim light. You know, I think the more that I insist on going to this light, the more that it feels like I'll never reach it. I mean it doesn't look like fire and I'm pretty sure that Tantalus has already put out the remaining fires in the airship. Zidane is probably out here looking for any other survivors. I should just wait here until I see the blonde thief with a similarly colored tail walk by and ask for directions. That's a smart choice.

A smart choice until I heard the low growl behind one of the trees.

Crap, crap, crap, crap. I don't have anything on me to help defend myself. Not that anything would help. Did you see how I dealt with a fight twenty minutes ago? I can't talk a Fang out of eating my organs because of a huge language barrier and I can't fight even if my cast was made of metal. There was only one choice left for me…and this time it wasn't kicking it in the groin.

"GET AWAY FROM ME!" I bolted toward the east, not caring if I was going away from my assumed destination as long as I don't get eaten. I turned my head to take a look behind me and saw the predator taking chase. It was not just one Fang covered with musty dark brown fur that has large fangs waiting to tear me apart, but three Fangs of the same description. "FUCK! STAY BACK!"

I am in so much deep shit right now.

I should have known shouting was a terrible idea. But what did I do? I shouted and now here I am fleeing from a pack of Fangs all because they heard me shout. Curse you beasts and your improved sense of hearing. It's unfair that humans have regular senses when things that operate on instinct alone have better ones. At least we have brains, right? WRONG! Logic and intelligence may have gotten us far in the world, but that doesn't mean we weren't full of idiotic mistakes. I bet if we operated on instinct alone, we wouldn't have had World Wars.

Wait. Why am I ranting when I should be focusing on running?

I took a sharp right behind one of the trees I was approaching and ran for a few more meters before turning left. The Fangs quickly reacted to my turn and soon followed my way. Even if I turned left and right, the Fangs would always manage to catch up. The more I tried, the more the Fangs just want to rip my head off. I really need to lose them if I want to stay alive.

Then I got an idea. I took a left and headed straight for a thorny looking bush with Fangs trailing close by. I wanted them to get close enough to think they're gonna get me. With that bush getting closer and closer, I waited until one of the Fangs thought that it could nibble on my pants. Then I jumped over the bush. They didn't expect that so they got caught up in the bush, all three of them tangled up with each other and desperately trying to get out.

But even when I got away from those beasts I wasn't safe just yet. To further demonstrate that fact, I got whacked in the face by a low tree branch.

"SON OF A BITCH THAT HURT!" Just so you know it connected with my mouth. I covered my mouth as hard as I could as I shouted obscenities and stomped on the ground, muffling them to the best of my efforts so I don't attract any more attention.

"Nice jump." I heard someone say. I hastily turned to where the voice came from with the intent of running coming into mind. It was Zidane.

"Thank goodness you're not another Fang." I gave a sigh of relief. I was trying to breathe in air due to all the running and panicking I was doing. Then I realized what he just said. "You saw that?"

"Every bit." He nodded.

"Then why the hell did you not help?"

"I thought you were doing fine. But next time, maybe fighting them would be a better idea," suggested the thief.

"Thanks. I'll take that into consideration next time when I have a weapon." While I was busy snarking with Zidane, I noticed some movement from the corner of my eye. Unfortunately, it was from the same three Fangs I thought would stay entangled in that bush. Sure they looked scratched up and bleeding, but that didn't mean that they didn't want to eat me more. Another consolation for those scratches for them is that someone ordered another main course to go with their current order.

Zidane stepped forward and pulled out both of his daggers. He twirled them around before assuming a battle stance. "Get behind me."

"No need to tell me twice," I replied. I put as much distance between me and Zidane before the fight started.

One of the Fangs tried testing out the waters by slowly walking to the side with its eyes narrowed at its target. Zidane stood still but remained attentive to his surroundings. Then one of the other Fangs lunged straight at him. Zidane reacted as much like he expected it to happen as he ducked it. The first Fang that moved and the last one tried following up on its brethren's tactic by circling the thief, making him the center of a beast sandwich. They simultaneously charged their target and jumped hoping that they could get their claws on him, but he just rolled away from them. That was when Zidane took charge.

He hopped over the second Fang he dodged, took a slice on it from midair and stabbed it on his way down. It gave out a low growl before collapsing to the ground. Great, that's one down. The first Fang tried to avenge its fallen brethren by lunging at the blond thief. He managed to stop it from chewing any part of his body by using his daggers and pushed it away and caused it to land on its back. With the Fang trying to get back to a vertical base, Zidane merely jumped towards it and cut it on its side. It fell on its uncut side, making Zidane chuckle.

‘No need to be smug about killing a werewolf-esque creature.’ I thought to myself, unimpressed.

The last Fang and Zidane circled each other as if waiting for the other to make a move. "Oh for the love of god, just kill it already!" I shouted. My voice was the perfect distraction for the Fang as it turned its attention to me. That was not my intention. Though Zidane picked up on this quickly by implanting both of his daggers on its side all the while the Fang gave him a ride.

"Geez, why can't he just stab it in the face and get it over with?" I wondered to myself as I rolled my eyes at Zidane playing horsey with the Fangs.

Of course, I should have paid attention a lot more because I saw the other Fang slowly rising from where it was slumped. Its large cut on the side was oozing blood, but not oozing fast enough. As it balanced itself on its four feet, it focused its dark eyes at me with ferocity that it began to bark. It jumped at me suddenly like it hadn't even got cut up, managing to catch me under its grasp, trapping me underneath it.

"Gah! The hell…?!" I gasped as it growled at me. It was foaming at the mouth, perhaps from the thought that it managed to have a meal before it dies. Gross…Ah, it's salivating on my cheek. Just fantastic...

Before it could get a decent bite out of my lovely face, I raised both of my knees with enough force to spill some more of its blood from the cut, stunning it momentarily so I could kick it away from me. "Alright, screw you!" I pointed to the injured Fang as I shouted. I then turned my heel and started to run.

"Where are you going!?" Zidane inquired as he finally got tired of the ride he was getting from the Fang.

"What does it look like? I'm running!" I'm pretty sure that he could not make anything out of that statement because I was already far away as my legs would carry me. The Fang tried to eat me unsuccessfully tried its best to give chase, but it collapsed due to blood loss. Well that was what I was assuming anyway. That still does not stop me from just getting away from that area.

I spent the next whole minute covering as much ground as I could while jumping over bushes and continuously getting hit in the face by branches. It seems like nothing is trying to pursue me anymore. That's a relief. But I still haven't found the airship. I swear it could have been because this was the direction Zidane came from. Maybe he took a turn somewhere and I probably missed that turn or maybe I've been running around in circles. This is what you get for running.

"WHOA!" I was too busy checking if anything was chasing me that I didn't see that I collided with something rather solid and soft. Wait. Flans don't appear in this part of the world and I'm pretty sure that this is not a tree.

"What the…?" I shook my head and tried to focus.

"…Sounds…familiar." It spoke. Oh god, it can talk. Wait. "…who..?"

"Alyssa?" With the dim lighting in this whole forest, except for a part of this poor forest where the path to the boss is slightly illuminated by the moon, I could barely visualize the girl I was laying on top of. And as soon as I realized the full meaning of that train of thought, I jumped up to my feet and proceeded to shake the feeling of dirtiness off of me.

"Blake, thank goodness you're alive." Alyssa sighed as she stood and tried to put me in an embrace, only to be sidestepped.

"Don't do that. I'm already dirty, as we speak."

"Where are we?" She asked while looking around.

"In a forest. I hope your skills of observation weren't damaged along with your brain when you flew off the ship." I gestured to the entire area. "Haven't you figured it out yet? We're in Final Fantasy IX and right now we're in the Evil Forest."

"I'm a little bit shaken." I could tell. I noticed that she was carrying a sword in one of her hands. Thankfully that didn't stab me we when collided. "But how is that possible? We got struck by lightning and now we're in a game. How does that happen?"

"Do I look like I know the answer? For all I know, I'm just dreaming."

"YOU'RE dreaming?" Her emphasis on me sounded like she was challenging the fact that I just said.

"Of course," The story is indeed in my perspective. "You know, like Inception. All I need is something to wake me up."

"That fall from the sky not enough for you?" I heard her say, but I ignored it.

"I'm sure that I'll just wake up in the van when this is all done or if something does that. We'll still be on our way to the beach, hopefully not, and I would still be sleep depraved."

"I think you're not dreaming. Neither of us is dreaming." Alyssa concluded. "This feels as real as it could get."

I snorted and rolled my eyes. "Keep dreaming. I'm sticking to what I just said."

We weren't so much in agreement, but we both felt eerily uncomfortable standing in the middle of this forest. "We should move."

"Smartest thing you've said all day" I said. "I'll lead. You watch our backs." She raised an eyebrow at my orders like she didn't trust my logic. "You're armed, I'm not. We could get attacked from behind by Fangs or Goblins. If they attack us from the front, I'll just simply turn you around so you can fight them." She had the weirdest look of puzzlement I have ever seen on anyone. Maybe I should have worded that a little bit better. "Just follow my lead."

I stomped on ahead with no clue of what direction to go. Alyssa was only a few steps behind me as she looked around cautiously for any signs of movement from anything hostile. There hadn't been anything that came to attack us just yet, and thankfully the only things we could hear were our footsteps and the occasional owl and cricket.

It had been quite a few minutes since I saw Zidane and right now I bet he had already found Steiner, Vivi and Princess Garnet as they are confronting the Prison Cage now. I'm hoping that they do because I am not really going to be helpful in a fight. Alyssa can go help if she wants, but me, I can't. What do you expect me to do, throw my shoes at it until it surrenders? Even if I did throw my shoes at it I would not be able to do it properly because my throwing hand is wrapped in a cast and it would leave me without any footwear. That means that any useful skill I could do in a battlefield is severely handicapped.

Thankfully the path we were walking on got slightly brighter. Maybe we were on the right track anyway. Then I felt Alyssa grab on my shoulder. "Wait. There's something here."

A rustling of leaves could be heard around us. We were standing back to back, looking left and right for any kind of movement around us, but nothing was there. I then became aware that we should not be looking around us, but above us.

"Watch out!" Alyssa came to the same conclusion as me almost at the same time as she pushed me away and she jumped away from the spot we were standing on. The thing occupying it now is a lone Goblin, armed with only a knife that was as long as it's arm that curves inward at the top. With its big pointy ears, scrawny figure, filthy pink cap, tattered vest and makeshift white kilt, it looked at the both of us as if trying to decide which to go for first.

"All yours," I said to Alyssa as I ducked out of the fight and opted to just stand on the sidelines.

Alyssa readied herself and raised her sword just above her waist while the Goblin did not hesitate on going for the kill early on. She parried the Goblin's attempt by setting her sword horizontally with both hands, pushed it away and started thrusting her sword at it.

She did not focus on just one point of the Goblin's body as she kept going, often switching from swinging at its feet and going for the arms, but it could only barely defend itself from the onslaught. When the Goblin saw an opening, he took a wild swing at the apparently experienced swordswoman, only to be blocked. Alyssa then sent the Goblin's sword flying into a tree trunk with a twirl of her weapon.

"Great, now finish it off." I told her as I went for the Goblin's sword. Now I'll be able to defend myself if I need to. Though now I have a new problem. Will I be able to pull this thing out?

"Wh-what?" I heard her voice shake.

"Finish it off. You know, stab it, kill it, slash its throat, decapitate, murder, knock it out permanently, or send it to hell! Whichever you prefer!" I answered without even looking as I tried to get a firm grip on the hilt on the sword before trying to pull.

"…I can't."

"What?" There was a bit of exasperation in my voice when I automatically turned to her and answered. "You have to kill it. If your roles were reversed, it would not even stop to think of NOT killing you. I mean, look at it." I pointed to the defenseless enemy in front of her. It was holding its hands up in surrender just because it didn't have a weapon anymore. "It will attack again. Now hurry up before it makes up it starts to think that you're not going to kill it."

"…B-but…I can't just…take a life." Why is she suddenly contemplating that all life is important? She was fine fighting it, but she can't end the fight because of a little blood? Come on.

This is easy to me to say since I'm not the one fighting, but you should know that if you're stuck in a fantasy world, may it be a dream or not, you'll have to fight. That is why I have kept dodging every opportunity to fight since I got here.

"Just kill it before it attacks –" I was interrupted mid-sentence as the Goblin finally used our argument as an opportunity to strike with a Goblin Punch. It knocked Alyssa against one of the trees standing behind her.

"Crap." I muttered as the Goblin approached Alyssa whilst I pulled on the stuck knife. She hit her head pretty hard with that cheap shot and is currently unable to defend herself. The Goblin picked up Alyssa's sword and examined it, trying to see if it was fit to replace his old sword. It was just an ordinary sword used by a Knight of Pluto, so it is nothing special. Alyssa had recovered from the shot, but sat there with her eyes wide as the Goblin prepared to cut her open, now defenseless.

I had to provide a distraction, but what?

I threw a pebble at the Goblin's head, much to my surprise. "HEY!" My mouth just opened on its own and shouted at the Goblin. It turned around slowly at me and stared at me with a menacing look on its face.

"Yeah, you! Are you just going to hit a girl? How pathetic!" I continued picking pebbles off the ground and throwing at it. I don't even know if it can understand what I was saying, but what I do know is that I had its attention. I could feel my knees shake slightly as I took a step back while taunting the beast..

The Goblin didn't take lightly to my rocky barrage. He finally turned all of his attention to me, glaring at me wordlessly. "What are you going to do, kill me? Please, I'd rather be tortured." The front of confidence I was trying to desperately display right now is slowly collapsing with each step the Goblin took. I mean, who would even try to taunt an approaching enemy when you're unarmed and outclassed – yes I have been outclassed by a wild Goblin. Only an idiot would do that and I am not, by any means, an idiot.

Come on Alyssa, save the day. Here's your chance.

"You know what," I said to the Goblin, who did not care anymore as he readied the sword for a single attack. "I'm going to turn around. Wake me up when you've killed me." And I turned around, my back now facing the armed Goblin just a few seconds away from it stabbing me. I was sweating so much that I thought I was going to die of dehydration. Maybe I didn't think this through. The only thing I could do now is shut my eyes and count the seconds away before I'm dead.

5…

4…

3….Here it comes.

2…

1…

….

Odd, nothing's happened yet.

I opened my eyes and looked down. All I could see is the dirt on my white shirt, along with the black vest still buttoned on top of it, and my charred tie. No sword impaling me through the chest. I turned around and saw a fallen Goblin on the ground and Alyssa holding onto the knife that was supposed to be embedded into a tree trunk. Almost half of the blade had a liquid dripping down to the sharp edge pointing downwards.

So she did it. She killed the Goblin.

"Finally," I sighed, relieved. "I thought you were just going to let me die."

"I…killed it." That was the only thing she managed to say as she looked down on the Goblin. She looked pale as a sheet.

"Yes, you did. Bravo." I clapped a few times to further emphasize my point. I was proud of her, in a way, which she managed to do it and get me out of the situation I dug myself out of. At least that just adds to her experience. Thought that doesn't look like it because she looked sick. "Come on, you'll be alright. Suck it up. It's nothing to cry about."

"…Easy for you to say," She was still looking down on the ground with her voice as low as possible. Only the silence of the forest allowed me to hear it.

"It was either me or it and you picked me. You wouldn't be alive if I didn't distract it." True, but she would have not done that if I just killed it instead. Too bad I didn't like dirtying my hands.

Alyssa could only look away, appearing almost pitiful. Then she ran to the side and knelt beside and tree and started wrenching. Fantastic, just fantastic. "You alright?"

She stayed like that for a few more moments after she stopped throwing up. "Fine."

"Great." I picked up the sword the Goblin took from Alyssa and approached the sick looking girl. "Give me the knife." We exchanged weapons after she stood up and wiped her mouth with her overalls. Well, at least I'm armed now.

I decided to loot the dead Goblin for its items thinking that it would be useful. I only got two vials of potion from my search, and as consolation, the sheath I removed from its belt to which I attached to mine. Pleasure doing business with you, sir Goblin.

"Don't you have any respect for the dead?" Alyssa came up and asked me with a frown.

"Believe me, this is as much respect I am willing to give to them ever." I replied upon standing. I handed her one of the vials and pocketed the other for safe keeping. "If anyone kills me, I will be okay with it if they loot my corpse because I know I don't have anything important on me."

Then a bright pinkish light shone in the far north, as if the gods had had enough of their fun and wanted us to finally get a move on, a signal of hope for the two of us to follow. "That's Zidane going Trance!" Alyssa stated in surprise. "That's where everyone is." We looked at each other and nodded. That is where we needed to go.

"Alright, let's go." Both of us broke into a full on sprint towards the location of Zidane's pink Trance-formation, glad that we now know where we are going.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 5: Can't Get Any Greener than This

Alyssa and I ran straight into the area Zidane went into Trance and we felt that we were getting close with each step we took. Then we started hearing shouting, grunting and weapons smashing against what I think is thick skin. Steiner's voice was the loudest of them all with him screaming "PRINCESS!" or "HOLD ON, YOUR HIGHNESS!" I'm surprised that he hasn't attracted an entire pack of Fangs.

The girl running behind me had now looked less likely to throw up again since taking down her first monster, or as I'd rather prefer as her first murder. Well, she treated it like it was her first murder as if she killed a human being despite the fact that what she killed looked like a pseudo-elf or something, but that's not the point. Now she looks ready to fight again, and hopefully would be willing to land the killing blow.

We arrived just outside the area of the fight. I looked over to Alyssa for a moment as I pulled the knife out of my newly acquired sheath. "Ready?" I asked in a hushed voice. She simply twirled her sword and nodded.

"Ha-zah!" I declared while pointing my new knife to my front when I broke through some of the branches and into the ongoing battle. I looked to my left and right and saw Zidane and Steiner now looking over to us. "Oh, it's just you guys." I faked my disappointment and dropped my weapon to my side.

"What's that!?" Alyssa pointed to the thing standing right in front of us. I guess she figured out what I was doing, and she sounded naturally surprised at that.

What stood in front of us was the Prison Cage. Dark brown scales as its skin, a pair of tentacles with small spikes at the end, ready to slap you around or maim you or probably both, a big, spherical center with a mouth puckered up at the front, two spike-laden things that could be barely called as feet and its main attraction, the cage on top of its head convulsed like a beating heart that is composed of hard leaves and resembled an onion. Inside its cage was Princess Garnet, who sat there helplessly like any damsel in distress.

"It is holding the princess captive!" Steiner stated as he pointed at the monster with his sword.

"Yes, we can see that." I remarked with a mocking tone. The Captain was obviously glaring at me for such a statement.

"Why are you shining?" Alyssa referred this statement to Trance-ified Zidane, shining brightly in a pink light.

"He just explained what this is. He called it Trance." Zidane answered and pointed to Steiner with his thumb.

"I think I read about Trance somewhere, but I don't seem to remember when." Alyssa said, making the need of an explanation entirely moot. If you did not know what Trance is, it is a state where the user is overcome by a surge of emotion, therefore increasing the person's power and giving them special abilities and such. So I guess Zidane now knows what it actually is.

"Well, now we'll see what I can do with this," chuckled the thief before he charged at Prison Cage and was followed by Steiner. Alyssa intended to join in, but I held my good arm out to stop her. I gave her a look that said 'we are not needed yet' to which she understood.

The monster took a swipe at Zidane with one of its tentacles and missed as he swerved to the side easily with his newfound power and agility. Steiner had to block the incoming stem with his sword before attempting to slice it. Zidane slashed Prison Cage twice on its center before jumping back as it retaliated with its other stem. It didn't hit its intended target, but it did catch Steiner as Zidane jumped over it. He just continuously hit and dodged for a solid half-minute before Prison Cage grabbed him by the arm and tossed him in the general direction of Steiner, knocking both men down right in front of us.

Zidane's Trance form looked very, very odd up close and in person. I know that during the transformation his clothes turned into pink fur for some weird reason. It would have been better if he kept his clothes, but if that's how he wants it then go ahead and transform like you've been just birthed in this world. Still it was peculiar to see something in person. Thankfully, it covered the parts that would be unpleasant to see in public. I believe Alyssa has the same sentiments when it comes to this, though that wasn't evident when I looked over to her when I could see her blushing a bit. I gave her an incredulous look and rolled my eyes.

Prison Cage took enough damage to necessitate the usage of its primary skill. It brought its stems up to the level of its cage and touched it. The tips of the stem began to glow and a purple light enveloped Garnet. It was absorbing her energy and there was nothing we could do.

"I heard Trance gives people special skills." I said with a passing glance at the thief. "Maybe you should try that before it kills the princess."

"Alright," he nodded. "Give me some cover." I gave Alyssa the 'go' look and she took off towards the monster alongside Steiner. Zidane stood by with his arms drawn out to his side as he began to concentrate his energy into an attack.

Something's missing here. I looked around and saw a cowering black mage right by a small stream. A small stream… I should have remembered that a small stream leads to this place and eventually to the boss. Curse me and my momentary memory lapse. I am mentally kicking myself right now as I speak.

"What are you doing? You're not going to help them?" Zidane glanced at me as he focused.

"Just waiting for an opportune time to strike," I told him while I sheathed my knife and continued observing. Vivi was still down by the stream, perhaps trying to build up the courage to walk on over or participate in the fight. Either way it was still going to take him a long time.

The two swords…er…people – is there another collective for people who know how to handle swords that starts with 'sword'? – ran at the plant with their swords grasped tightly by both hands as they blocked a stem at the same time and stabbed it on two different spots. Alyssa's sword went into the top of the monster's lip and was withdrawn a second later while Steiner inflicted a wound somewhere on the side. I could picture Alyssa looking horrified at what she did before she was hit by Prison Cage's tentacle-looking limb as Steiner defended against a one-stem onslaught. He got hit a few times, but he's determined to rescue Garnet and he'll do that because he can.

Zidane moved from his position, jumped up and pointed his fist at Prison Cage. "Get out of the way!" He shouts at the knight. When he turned around, his eyes widened as he saw Zidane about to unleash his attack and immediately dived to the side.

"Free Energy!" The thief called out his attack and around five pulses of energy collided with the Prison Cage. The power of the attack and the resulting impact was so hard that it fell on its back.

That's the opportunity I was waiting for.

"Great! Hit it again!" I took out my knife with my left hand and jumped into the fight. Alyssa was a little disoriented, but was still fine and Steiner looked a bit surprised at the attack from Zidane. I jumped on Prison Cage and went to town on it, stabbing it continuously on its supposed face, grunting hard with each action. Knife-play may not be my area of expertise, so I just do what any man in a fighting situation armed with a knife would do. I swear this is the most action my left arm has ever experienced in its entire existence. What I was doing was a bit vicious, yet it's the only thing I could do.

Tired of being on the receiving end of this barrage of attacks, it swiped me off of its face and got back up. It was raising its stems up to the cage once again to absorb some energy from the princess, but Zidane denied it of that. He once again unleashed his Free Energy skill much quicker than the last time and it took the monster by surprise that it didn't even get a chance to get a drop of energy from Garnet.

That was when Zidane dropped to one knee when he felt the power of Trance vanish from him with another flash of pink light as the fatigue just stacked came crashing down on him. Okay, he has his clothes back on. It looked like the Prison Cage was about to plop down to the ground, only to take us off-guard with a single swipe of its stem. It reached upwards to the tree branches and pulled itself out of the area with its prisoner still captive.

"Princess!? PRINCESS!" Shouted the Captain of the Pluto Knights. It only echoed throughout the forest plainly and did not get a response.

"What the heck? Where did it go?" Zidane loudly wondered as he looked upwards.

"Maybe it got scared and ran away." Alyssa absently replied.

"Well, we were beating it pretty bad." I added.

"She's gone…" Vivi muttered loud enough for us to hear. We all turned to him and saw the sadness underneath the shadow made by his hat. Wait. How does that work? As I pondered on that thought, he walked past us and checked the path. "I was too scared to cast any spells… That monster's probably going to eat her."

"Or suck the nutrients out of her." I commented, eliciting a punch to the arm by Alyssa for making such a ridiculous statement. I could feel Steiner's gaze intensify at my direction already.

"How could I let this happen!?" The knight was shaking his fists as he spoke, taking the loss very hard.

"We did our best, sir." Alyssa tried to comfort him. Emphasis on 'tried'.

"Don't worry. She's not dead yet." Zidane confidently said to all of us, especially Steiner. "That monster was only a minion. He's probably gonna take her to his master."

"That means the princess might still be – Come!" With Steiner's hope revitalized, he started going down the path toward the boss. "We must go find her at once!" Alyssa and I shared a look; hers was worry while mine was a raised eyebrow. I was counting the seconds away before the next story event happened.

As if on cue, Prison Cage came back from the trees above and imprisoned Vivi this time. "WHOA!" That was all he could manage as the plant mutant set itself down on the ground. Everyone else withdrew their weapon and was immediately in their respective battle stance, except for me since I stepped back and tried to circle around it.

This Prison Cage was obviously not the same one we encountered thirty seconds ago. There were no stab or cut marks on it, especially the one stab Alyssa got on its lip. This one is brand new, fully rested and just raring to go. And here I was thinking all those times I played this game that the first one and the second one is the same thing, only to be proved wrong here.

"Help!" Vivi called out from the cage. In a state of panic, he accidentally used a fire spell on the monster. We heard it screech somewhat painfully as it moved out of its spot and tried putting out the fire on its body with its stems. "Fire seems effective," stated the black mage.

"Keep doing it, Vivi!" Zidane said. I saw Vivi nod as the other ready themselves in a formation. I've already managed to get behind Prison Cage while Zidane probably caught on to what I was doing as he told Steiner and Alyssa to go left and right respectively. All of us surrounded it in four directions as Vivi stayed focus on the task at hand. We all looked at each other quickly as the Prison Cage stayed in place for a moment, until we all charged at it.

We did not expect it be ready for such a tactic for it took hold of a tree branch from above and pulled itself above, dodging our collective attack and making all of us collide at the middle. It dropped back down due to a fire spell from Vivi. It rolled on the ground in pain in order to put out the flames on its body, equally rattling its prisoner with his moves. I thought that this would be easy with an assist from Vivi, even if you could categorize my attack as kicking the thing while its down, as I ran up to it and try my earlier manic stabbing technique, only to be smacked away as it flailed around.

You know what would have been useful here? Steiner's Sword Art abilities would count as one. Too bad he does not have a skill attributed to that category of attacks at this time. He does not let that bother him as he cut at Prison Cage's rough skin with his sword. Alyssa followed his example by ducking under its incoming stem and took a slice on his back. Zidane jumped over his armored pseudo-companion and stabbed it right near the top of its center. At that brief moment, he gives Vivi a comforting look that lets the young spell caster at ease.

Prison Cage lets out a screech that disorients everyone close to it and it uses that time to take everyone off of him for a moment. It put its stems up and drains Vivi of his energy as quick as everyone took to get to their feet. Wow, that was fast. This one knows how to handle numbers and knows that haste does not make waste. I think this one is much smarter than the last one.

How long has it been since this fight started? "I would guess 15 minutes." Alyssa answered for me. Really? It felt like it has been going on for about an hour. How tough can a plant monster be? I mean, this would have been over before this paragraph even started if we were fighting the same one. That earlier one would have been softened up by Zidane's attacks and Vivi would have been set free ages ago.

"This isn't working," Zidane said to us after being thrown towards our direction. He, Alyssa and I were huddled together discussing this thing while Steiner was busy freeing Vivi by himself. I believe he has not yet noticed what we were doing.

"You know what we need, a plan." I suggested. Then I looked up to the girl beside me and said the following. "Okay, I have an idea. The next time it tries to absorb energy, someone jump on it and try to cut open the cage."

"Isn't that a little risky?" I narrowed my eyes at the thief for his little disagreement.

"You know what's risky? Throwing shoes at it and hoping that would do the trick. That's risky." I took a breath and calmed myself down before continuing. "The only problem is picking who would be crazy enough to do it."

"Why not you?" Alyssa suggested.

"What? No." I snorted dismissively. "I'm a thinker, not a fighter."

"Then what do you call what you did earlier?"

"I saw an opportunity and took it." I said without missing a beat. Then I looked over to Zidane. "Think you have what it takes to do it?"

He thought about it for a moment and looked at the ensuing battle behind us as he did. Steiner did well despite being alone in the battlefield, inflicting some cuts on the monster while he was alone. Maybe with us not being distractions he is able to fully concentrate on the task at hand. Well, that was before Prison Cage took his sword away, pulled himself up a tree and used it to support itself as it slammed itself on the knight with all its weight.

"I'll take a shot at it." Zidane finally decided.

"Great. Alyssa, you be the distraction." I told the girl. "Go help that knight. I'll stay over here and just watch." Zidane had already scurried off behind a few trees while Alyssa walked to the battlefield grumbling something under her breath.

Prison Cage jumped off the knight when it saw Alyssa approach with her sword in her hands. It did not hesitate attacking with its stems, both she ducked under by rolling towards Steiner's sword. She tossed it to the downed knight as she continued to avoid the plant monster's attacks. With its back turned to him, Steiner took his sword back, got up and stabbed it. He pulled his sword out before he got caught by Vivi's fire magic.

It dodged Alyssa and Steiner's combined attack by going up high on the trees once again and dropped down with a spinning attack that hit both its targets. Now that's a first. It took that opportunity to drain the black mage of his energy, but before it could get started on it Zidane came from out of nowhere and jumped on its cage like an octopus to an unsuspecting human. That wasn't the end of that surprise as I found another opportunity and came in with my knife, stabbing it a few times as it tried to pry Zidane off of it. I retreated back before it could get its slimy stems on me.

Seeing that Vivi had so much energy drained from him, Zidane handed him a vial of potion before moving on to the cage. Alyssa was busy distracting it by feinting attacks and practicing other evasive maneuvers alongside Steiner. I thought it was going to be easy for Zidane to cut open a cage composed of rotten leaves, but apparently it was made of rock hard rotten leaves. The look on his face as he did this was astonishment and frustration. Of course, he wasn't able to finish at least one when Prison Cage grabbed him by the leg and used him as a stick to defend itself against Alyssa and Steiner. Vivi saved his hide when he casted another fire spell on it.

Then I had an idea. "Cut the stems off!" I shouted, pointing to the tentacle-esque limbs. They all looked at me as if trying to tell me to elaborate. Why did I not think of this sooner? "If you cut those off, then it won't be able to absorb energy anymore."

Everyone must have understood what I had just said because they went and ran with an impromptu plan in mind. It must have been because they saw Prison Cage trying to absorb energy again, but were stopped by Zidane and Steiner who pulled on the stems as hard as they could so it would not touch with the cage. Alyssa went for the stem being pulled by Steiner connected with three chops. It made its mark right near the center with a large cut.

Zidane lost control on his stem and avoided disaster by diving to the side. Alyssa jumped over the stem and finished off the other one with one mighty downward cut. Although it was cut, that did not mean it was not going to slap you silly, which Alyssa found out when the stump just hit her on the face. Vivi's fire spell once again drew attention away from the rescuers while Steiner cut the other stem clean off with one mighty slash.

Great! Now with that done, Prison Cage is now incapable of absorbing energy. It stood pitifully in the middle of the three, now defenseless with the only feature he has is the cage, which is still useless if it can't escape. Maybe it could run. I wouldn't find out as it was on the receiving end of a slash-filled throwdown as it got stabbed, slashed, scratched, and sliced by the ends of Alyssa, Steiner and Zidane's weapons. Zidane got the last hit as he pushed both daggers in it and made sure it didn't move anymore with a kick.

As it stood there, unmoving and pretty much dead, the cage on top of its head opened and finally released Vivi. He climbed off the thing and took a few steps away before adjusting his hat.

"Phew…Th-Thanks…" Vivi managed to say after that kind of experience. The main characters were gathering right in the vicinity of the dead Prison Cage and I knew what was going to happen next. I took Alyssa by the arm and pulled her away from the apparent range of the gas that will spew out of the dead plant. She looked like she knew it too if her apparent three playthroughs of this game made it more obvious.

"Are you alright?" Zidane asked the probably traumatized black mage.

"Yeah, I think so." He replied as he checked for any physical injuries.

…And plant poison spewage!

Huh!? It did not happen. What the hell!? It was supposed to be that Prison Cage lets out plant viruses for the party to catch, except for Zidane. Vivi and Steiner should be unconscious right now! This is not how it should be.

I could feel Alyssa worriedly looking at me, but before she could say anything a group of Fangs and Goblins jumped out from behind, taking me and Alyssa by surprise. She turned on her heel suddenly, accidentally elbowing me to the side and knocked me off-balance. Because of this, I bumped into Steiner hard enough to knock the guy into the ground.

Then, as if the universe wanted to remind me of my horrible luck, Prison Cage released its plant virus with me and Vivi directly in front of it. I did not have time to register that sequence of events in my head before I suddenly felt myself resting on the ground.

"Hey!" It was Zidane's voice. "This is no….time….to…sleep." His warped words were the last thing I heard before I blacked out.

-FF FF FF-

Feeling drowsy….nauseated… Everything looked like I was looking at a kaleidoscope version of the world. Up was down, left was right, faces looked like blurred images, messed up visuals like the original personal computer. I can't even remember what its name was. I was trying my best not to throw up, trying hard not to hurl out my guts. That's very difficult to do when you feel like you were being hoisted up and down repeatedly.

I keep looking around as the world shook around me; I keep seeing the weirdest things. Trees having faces, the ground suddenly sprouting up gravestones, data streams of green '01010101's flying by, a striped cat grinning at me on a branch and floating faces observing from afar. I think I saw a guy in a suit standing beside a tree, but he was not normal since he did not have a face.

"Pretty images…" My mouth slurred in an incredibly drunk accent. I don't know who I was talking with, or who was listening, but whoever it was better not remind me of it. I was sure that there was something metallic near my face, not so sure with the blurry mode being turned on. Every time I tried to look around it would be difficult. Blinking my eyes furiously, the scene changes from a dark natural area to a place smelling of burnt wood.

The movement stopped, unknown voices began talking with each other very incoherently, and someone set me down. "Are they…okay?" I looked up and saw a blonde character speaking with someone else. On the other side is a metal man carrying what looks like a big bundle of clothes and a straw hat. What was he going to make, a scarecrow? There was a girl beside him, looking down on me with an expression I can't interpret. A guy walked up to me, looked at my face carefully and checked my temperature and said, "Get them inside."

The scene quickly changed again as I blinked and I was in small room. I felt that I was under a few layers of bed coverings with someone trying to move my head. Then there was gentle voice trying to talk to me. "Shh…Don't fight. It's alright." It was the girl. I can't see her face; even her voice is unrecognizable due to something else interfering with my auditory abilities. Even though that is happening, I could still tell that she means no harm, so I just relax.

I could feel her trying to gently push the drinking end of a bottle to my mouth that contained a weird looking liquid in it. Not much thought was put in that scene as it changed quickly to a white room; away from that sorry dingy they call a bedroom. The color of the room was so bright it almost blinded me for a sec that I had to cover my eyes with my casted hand. On the far side of the room, I could see four figures conversing, well, only two of them did the talking. Those ones were a guy in a doctor's outfit, looking rather serious, while the other was a girl, who was shorter than the doctor. One of the figures looked towards me and approached. I had this feeling that he should be smiling, but he was not. Before I could say anything, the scenery changed back to the dark room I was in before. I tried reaching out to the white room as it fades away right before my eyes.

"Blake? Blake…" Someone to my right suddenly moved, almost making me jump out of the bed. "Blake, it's okay. I'm here."

Oh, it's Alyssa. I breathe out with relief and relax back down to the covers as she takes her seat right beside the bed. Wait, I'm on a bed. When did I get on a bed?

"You were poisoned by the Prison Cage with its virus." Alyssa said in a regretful tone. I remembered that we defeated the mutated plant and then a mob of monsters came out of nowhere which led to me being poisoned alongside Vivi. Wait, Steiner was supposed to be the other one poisoned not me. "You knocked him far enough so he was out of range. Thank heavens for that. We wouldn't have been able to carry three unconscious people."

I put my hands to my face as I heard this. I cannot believe that I changed something from the course of the story's plot. Because of that accident, Steiner is not infected with a plant virus and I took his place instead. I knew I should have been more careful than that. Now I am wondering what else could that have affected in the game's canon.

"Where's Steiner?" I asked upon sitting up.

"In the instrument room," I believe that is the same room he gets pushed in because of his attitude and infection in the game. Alright, at least they managed to get him to behave. "You shouldn't exert yourself after what's happened."

Like I have the time to listen to your suggestions right now. "Anything else happen aside from that?"

"Well, not much." Alyssa thought of other things that may have happened, recalling the events after we killed Prison Cage. She, Steiner and Zidane drove the other monsters away, giving them ample time to carry me and Vivi back to the airship. Vivi and I were placed in different bedrooms for us to rest after they forced some plant antidote down our throats, which I am thankful for. Lord knows what that plant virus would actually do if they fully develop. I might know, but it is not important right now.

"God, we messed up." I groaned as I lied back down. Then I had a thought-provoking revelation. "Wait. I didn't mess up. You did!"

"What?" Alyssa obviously did not see where this was going.

"You heard me. I would have not been poisoned if you did not knock me over. I would not be in this bed if it wasn't for you!"

"What!?" She stood up, outraged of the accusation I was flinging towards her. "I can't believe you're blaming me for this."

"You should believe it. I'm blaming you."

Alyssa had this look of aggravation imprinted on her face as she folded her arms on her chest. "That was an accident! I didn't mean to do it. And besides, if you weren't standing so close to me you wouldn't have gotten hit by my elbow, sending you flying towards the poison."

"Don't even try to shift the blame on me." I wagged my finger to her. "You already said it. 'Your elbow' hit me, therefore you yourself did it."

"You're making my statement sound like a confession!" Her voice was starting penetrate the walls of the Prima Vista, or what remained of it.

"Because it is one."

"It's not! It's your fault you got yourself poisoned, not me, not anyone else, just you." She summarized her accusation and turned her back to me, thinking that she had the final word.

I just chuckled at her actions. "Say it whatever you want. I'm not the one who tried ending this conversation. That means you are guilty." The brunette swiftly turned to face me and launch another objection, but I raised my hand to stop her from speaking. "But you know what," I paused as I looked at her seriously. "I forgive you." She looked at me with a flash of bewilderment. Now she believes that I just went and did a 180. "I accept your apology."

"What apology? I didn't even say anything apologetic."

"You will," I felt a grin form on my face. "But that is not important right now. What's important is our next move." I was going to try to remove these stupid blankets draped over me since it was so hot right now and just jump off this bed, only to be shoved back in by Alyssa.

"You are not moving from this bed until you feel better." Her voice still sounded a bit mad towards me. What did I do to make her mad? Whatever.

"Fine. I actually feel sick right now," All because I'm looking at your face.

"What was that?" Her voice almost rose to a shout.

"Nothing," She narrowed her eyes at me after I replied. She eventually calmed down, which allowed me to continue what I was saying. "We have to plan our next move very carefully. Question, is everyone important in this ship?"

"You mean the main characters?" I nodded to her question. "Let's see. I already told you where Steiner is, Vivi is in the other room right near the staircase, Garnet is still at the boss and I think Zidane is helping Cinna sort out the stuff they managed to save from the fire."

Excellent, though I was surprised that she used the term 'boss' to refer to the thing controlling the forest. "How about Blank? I only ask because he might be snooping around trying to listen in on our conversation."

"Oh, he went in here to give me the antidote thirty minutes ago. He told me to keep an eye on you while he was keeping an eye on Vivi."

I raised an eyebrow at this. "And how does that confirm that we are alone?"

"I looked outside five minutes before you started accusing me that your condition was my fault."

"Great." I ignored that last part. She's still holding onto that even when I let it pass already, what a vengeful girl. At least everyone on this ship is busy with something else and we're free to think of our next move. But first, "Another question, how did you get here?"

Alyssa was silent for a second, probably trying to find the right order of words to answer my question. She looked back at me and shook her head. "I don't know. All I remember is that we were struck by lightning back at the beach. Then I woke up."

"Where?" She looked at me, frowning at a thought that must have just come into mind. "If you're wondering, I woke up in the streets of Alexandria with children threatening to steal my wallet." Speaking of which, this is the only time I remembered that I have something on my person except for a tie and a cast. I patted my pant pockets and it confirmed that I still had it on me. "So, where did you wake up in?"

Alyssa looked at her clothes for a moment, contemplating perhaps on her odd choice of wardrobe, and then went back to me. "I woke up here, on the Prima Vista…"

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 6: In Another Place, At The Same Time

-Alyssa-

So a few hours ago…

At first I didn't know what was going on. All I was hearing was creaky floorboards echoing throughout the place, the sound of wind going past and a faint grinding of gears and other machinery. I didn't even know that I was on an airship on its way to its destination. Being on an airship was the last thing on my mind.

I woke up disoriented and almost nauseated. The room I was in was small and dark with the only source of light coming from the cracks and small openings from the door right in front of me. Dangling in front of me were musty old smelling clothes and right where my head was leaning onto the handle of a mop. I remember scrambling away from it because it looked so gross and the smell didn't help it either.

I stood up and tried to remember where I was. All I remember was that lightning strike and then being out. It was plainly obvious to me that I wasn't in a beach surrounded by sand and people anymore. The room I was in was an old closet, probably long forgotten by the owner of the place. Well, that was what I was thinking.

Then I realized that I wasn't wearing anything aside from my swimwear. Confusion turned to panic after I realized that I was somewhere else with barely anything covering me. God, I felt so embarrassed at the thought of the door opening to reveal a crowd of people who are probably not expecting someone like me with barely any clothes to pop out. At least the room I was in had some clothes I could borrow for a while. Most of them looked a bit too big for me and the only one I found that was appropriate for my size was this white shirt and overalls, though the overalls were a bit loose. Thankfully, there was a spare pair of pants right beside it.

Really, you didn't find anything for a girl? Maybe you didn't look hard enough.

I looked hard enough, Blake, thank you very much. Some of the clothes I saw were a black robe with a feathered collar, a black corset with thin violet stripes, a simple apron and a ceremonial robe.

Wait… So you think a corset is not for girls?

What was I going to wear it with, these pants? At least the overalls are kinda okay to look at, plus I believe I made the right choice when I stepped out of the room. I found myself in a narrow hallway with both ends leading to a staircase, one going up and the other going down. By my side was a small circular window that revealed to me, at the moment, that I wasn't anywhere near a beach.

The building I was in was flying, flying so high in the sky that it looked like we were riding the clouds like waves. I was amazed at first by the sight right before me and then puzzled as to how I got here. As I pondered on this, someone was walking towards me from upstairs. I panicked at first, thinking that it was the one who kidnapped and brought me here…

You thought you were kidnapped?

That was the first thought that popped into my head. Wouldn't you think you were kidnapped if you wake up in a place you didn't know?

A good argument to that is: Why would anyone want to kidnap me? It's not like I have anything valuable on me. My family is not that wealthy.

Anyway, moving on. I froze when someone arrived on the floor I was in. It was a guy also dressed in overalls – his was an orange color not like the blue one on me – with a similarly colored hat on his head. He had a thick head of light brown hair that covered his eyes from where I was standing and looked somewhat worried. When he saw me that look suddenly vanished and turned into delight.

"Hey, I finally found you." He said as he approached me. His voice sounded laid back and cool, so I thought he was rather harmless.

"F-Found me?" I stuttered, not knowing why. Must be because I still suspect someone took me here and I don't know whether this guy is innocent of co-plotting it or not. He may look harmless, but something tells me I should keep my guard up just in case.

"I was looking all over for you since the Prima Vista got into the air. You ran out like you were going to throw up or something, new girl." He rubbed the back of his head as he talked. "The other engineers and mechanics were worried that they were going to work with another airsick newbie. I hope you're alright."

I wasn't able to respond immediately when his words reach my ears. "Prima Vista?"

"Yeah, the Prima Vista. Don't tell me you already forgot the name of the airship we're on. I didn't think Tantalus would consider hiring someone who doesn't know the name of their airship."

That was it. Those three words: Prima Vista, airship and Tantalus. Nobody in their right mind would say those very words in three consecutive sentences unless they were discussing a videogame, Final Fantasy IX to be exact. This guy sounded so serious that he can't be talking about a videogame, unless if he's doing it intentionally. If not, then that only meant one thing, and I wanted to be sure before I head to such conclusions.

"Can you remind me again where we're headed?" I asked, trying my hardest to sound normal despite my anxious thoughts.

The guy in front of me put a finger to his forehead as he stepped towards another circular window. "Oh! We're going to Alexandria. The princess of the kingdom is having this HUGE birthday party and…"

And there you have it, the confirmation I was waiting for. He continued rattling off about the princess's birthday celebration and how it would be 'supremely awesome', but my mind was elsewhere. With that confirmation, I finally realized that I was inside the game of Final Fantasy IX.

Then I felt fear hit me.

"Hey, you look a bit pale there." I felt a hand land on my shoulder that made me jump. The guy was looking at my face as if the answer would appear on my face. I shouldn't say anything, but that would only make things a bit complicated. He won't leave me alone unless I provide an answer. An honest answer won't help me here.

"I'm fine." I turned away from him and tried to think of something else to say.

The orange overall wearing guy then exploded patted me on the back. "Well if that's what you say. C'mon, let's get you down to the engine room before you throw up." With that, he started guiding me downstairs to the engine room.

So that explains how I got this thing on right now. It isn't the best choices I've ever picked in my entire life, but it did distract him from the fact that I'm not supposed to be on this thing and it did provide a good disguise. Now that is a plus.

The only thing bothering me at that point was how I managed to arrive at this world. I mean, I'm not rocket scientist or something, but I'm pretty sure that creating a machine or device or gadget that can send its user or someone in particular to another dimension doesn't exist. Plus, it would take a lot of theoretical nonsense and actual research data to even have a grip on this particular subject matter. Inter-dimensional travel is not as simple as turning on a car and hope that nobody planted a bomb in it.

Please don't get theoretical…

So that brings me back to the lightning strike back at the beach. This sounds kinda crazy, but there is a chance that the lightning fried our brains and now we're in some coma buried deep in a shared lucid dream, just as your theory suggests, Blake. Well, except for the 'shared' part since you like to insist that you're the one dreaming this up.

That does sound crazy.

But there is also a chance that the lightning strike killed us and that we're on a purgatorial plane of existence, one that allowed us to dream up the world of Final Fantasy IX in such great detail that we think that we're in an alternate dimension.

Can we also avoid any philosophical rambling here? I do not have the patience for existentialism right now.

Fine. When the guy escorted me to where everything mechanical was placed, he introduced me to some of his friends and co-workers and told them to go easy on me since I was a bit airsick. From there, he showed me where my station was and told me what I was supposed to do. I was assigned to this large valve that apparently is a very important part of the engine and should be regulated and observed at all times. Right beside the valve was a thermometer-ish like meter that he told me to keep an eye on. If it gets too high, I should turn the valve counter-clockwise to release some pressure and if it goes to low I should add some by turning it clockwise. It was pretty simple stuff really.

He told me that I got off pretty lucky since it was just my first time operating such machinery and that I got a pretty simple job. He, on the other hand, was well across the room with a handful to worry about. Soon he left for his station and left my devices. And to think, I didn't catch the guy's name.

His name wasn't the most important thing in my thoughts right then. I was deep in thought about all of this. What were the odds of me being dead or still alive? I'm no mathematical genius, but that didn't mean I can't go up to someone and ask, right? I looked around that entire room with the intent of asking a 'hypothetical question' regarding my situation, only to see everyone busy at their own individual stations. Mechanics are geniuses with their hands and I doubt they would want someone distracting them with a curious inquiry regarding odds.

Someone soon entered the room carrying what looks like a sledgehammer carried around like a WW2 rifle on his shoulder, walking around with a big gut and an odd looking face on display. I recognized the guy as Cinna, one of the members of Tantalus and the often teased about his looks. That definitely confirmed that I was really in Final Fantasy IX. He told us that we were landing at Alexandria shortly, which got a lot of excited cheers from the workers. They were probably excited by the idea of waking around Alexandria with it being such a grand city and all. Besides, it was Princess Garnet's birthday if memory serves me right, everyone is bound to have a good time today.

Except for the Queen if the day's later events would follow canon.

The ship did land an hour later after the announcement. The head engineer proceeded to turn off the main engine and led the way to the outside with his co-workers. I joined a group that wanted to take a look at the great kingdom of Alexandria from a view. When we got to the top of the ship, we stood right where the group would place the stage. It's a great choice because I stood where it is and saw such a beautiful side of the castle with the cascading river below us occupied by three patrol boats, the small buildings of houses and various businesses surrounding the airship and the people walking on that side of the river.

I stayed on the Prima Vista all throughout the day, thinking about things alone. I even stayed inside that broom closet I woke up in so nobody could find me. There was a lot of thinking involved, like any other possible logical explanation on why I was here, some methods of escaping back to the real world and if there was anyone I know in here with me. I tried thinking of a possible excuse I could use to cover up my identity, because everyone knows that if they claim to be from another dimension or that the current dimension they are is a game would likely get a one-way ticket to an asylum. But then, there was a lingering thought in the back of my head that kept telling me that I wasn't very good at lying or any form of deception.

Now you need my help for something so trivial? Come on, Alyssa. I already have a cover story made up just from looking at fictional titles of plays and that didn't even take a lot of effort. Even a child could blatantly lie in front of a parent.

Lying is not something I can be proud of, Blake. I'm a good person and I don't deceive people.

Yeah, and you murdered a Goblin right in front of me. You know what those Goblins look like? Elves. You know what elves remind me of? Human beings. In a way, you murdered a human being, so don't play that 'pure-hearted girl' card.

It was self-defense! I felt horrible about it and... You know what, why am I arguing with you right now? I'm telling a story here and you should be listening, not exhausting yourself with details. Lie down and chill out. Now where was I?

Oh right! As I was thinking in that broom closet, I heard footsteps approaching the room outside. It came from a floor below and it was moving its way towards my direction. The footsteps sounded a bit heavy and made the creak with every step. They sounded like they were being made by a pair of big shoes or something, so I decided to check it out when it passed. I cracked open the door slowly after it was a few feet away from me and saw who it was. It was Baku, the leader of Tantalus and in charge of this whole charade of an acting troupe. And he was wearing the blue dragon headpiece. He even roared at one point as he made his way up the stairs.

That meant one thing: the meeting with the core members of Tantalus was about to begin and their kidnapping operation would soon follow. At that point, I decided to join them in their upcoming adventure.

I went back down to the engine room since I had nothing else to do but wait for everything to start happening. There was no use just hiding in a broom closet and doing nothing at the same time since that would just be a waste. I tried acting normally around the engine room for a while as some of the mechanics came back and my act went quite smoothly. That guy who found me struck a conversation with me and helped me pass the time.

He went on about how excited he was to see the play and how great it was to be a part of the celebration for Princess Garnet, honored that he's in the ship where the play will be held. Throughout his conversation with me, I could tell that he didn't know of Tantalus' ulterior motives. He and the other guys and girls were innocent bystanders in this kidnapping operation, making me feel sad for them.

At least you didn't know the guy's name. That would make things a lot more depressing. So, how did you get onto the stage when everyone was about to fight?

I was just getting to that. I was in the engine room, helping the other engineers as much as I can with their own things when suddenly a hatched opened on the roof. I didn't know what time it was back then, so seeing three people jump down from the ceiling temporarily surprised me. The play and the audience reactions can't be heard from where we were since the various engine noises, hissing valves and groaning gears dominated the room. The three people, being led by Cinna, ran past the engineers and mechanics in their way and slipped into a hallway in the far side. Soon, they were followed by a man in armor.

That made some of the workers curious and wanted to know why Tantalus was running around with a girl in tow around the Prima Vista. I volunteered to find out. They all looked at each other for a while perhaps considering that they should just get back to work, but their curiosity got the better of them agreed and let me go find out. Obviously, I already knew what was going to happen.

I walked into that hallway slowly, trying not to get the attention of the three protagonists who just came by with the addition of the fourth armored character as I saw them being confronted by another man in armor, Captain of the Pluto Knights, Adelbert Steiner.

Watching them fight in person was unbelievable. Compared to how this is shown in the game with the chivalry of turn-based combat, real life combat was just so hectic and active. All three members of Tantalus went at Steiner at the same time when they started fighting, all the while Garnet stayed in one corner to avoid being pulled into the fight.

I wondered how I'll manage in a fight as I watched the four clashed. The other workers at the other end of the hall called my attention and wanted a report on how everything was. I told them that they were fighting with actual swords. When they asked why, I told them I heard the knight say something about the princess, but I didn't want to cause a panic with them so I cut out the part about Tantalus having the princess in their custody.

Aha! I knew you were lying! You ARE capable of deception!

No I'm not! I didn't lie to them. Do you know how bad it would be if the workers suddenly realize they were working for a bunch of criminals?

What makes you think they did not know that? Maybe they were in on it the whole time. Perhaps they did not care as long as they got paid. Besides—

Please stop interrupting! I'm about to get to the point!

So, I head back down the hallway and see that Steiner was about to use one of his 'Sword Arts' where he tears Blank's armor apart, causing the oglops to scatter throughout the room. Amidst the oglop-induced chaos, Zidane and Garnet escape, right? Cinna reflexively screamed "THERE'S AN OGLOP IN MY PANTS!" when it happened, making some of the workers run in to see the sight.

They stood there laughing and pointing at the expense of the dancing Tantalus members plus Steiner. Cinna took out said oglop in his pants before continuing on to the next room before the captain managed to escape the plight of the wonderfully small creatures. The workers then helped Blank with the oglop problem while I snuck past them and followed the others.

When I got into the next room, one of the platforms that carried Zidane and Garnet had already risen while the other with Steiner is currently rising. Cinna was knocked unconscious by the side as I approached the control panel for the platforms. This was the only part I didn't think thoroughly. How was I going to introduce myself to the plot? How much information about myself was I willing to tell? Should I even tell them where I was from? And I know it's easy for you to answer these questions, Blake, because I can tell you already did.

Well, what happened next wasn't part of any plan I've managed to conjure up. I felt a sudden tingly sensation on my shoulder. I looked over and saw an oglop resting there, which I instinctively tried to remove, but moved from my shoulder to inside my shirt. Apparently, oglops like slipping into people's clothes because two more joined the mix, one in my overalls and the other jumped inside my pants from one of the pant legs. That resulted in panicked movement and a desperate attempt to remove the little creatures.

Due to this, I then found myself shuffling around as I tried grabbing first the one inside my shirt. The little thing kept wiggling and tickling me to no end until I caught it when it went to my chest. The next one that followed it was the one going around in my pants, which made me trip and fall on my butt. It was a good thing it didn't go anywhere near…well…you know. The last one was easy to capture since the overalls was a bit loose, so I just pulled and grabbed it as it rolled on my belly. I disposed all three by tossing them somewhere after glaring at each of them.

Unfortunately, that was where I should have been more cautious. I didn't notice that I was sitting on the last platform until it was too late. One of the oglops landed on the control panel and must've pressed something that made the mechanism of the platform, making it ascend as the hatch above me opened and introduced me to the cast of characters that were about to throw down in front of me.

"Uh oh…" I muttered.

-Blake-

"Then I notice you running towards the ship being chased by a soldier waving her sword like a maniac." Alyssa added once her story was over. "Seeing you there was the biggest moment of relief I got from that whole thing."

"Well, now I know how you got here." I let a yawn escape my lips. "We still have to make a cover story for you since you can't make one on your own. Well, I have to."

Alyssa gave me a look when she turned towards me. "You don't have to be so rude about it."

"Fine, but let me just say," I propped myself up on my right elbow as I faced the brown-haired teenager. "We're in a dangerous world right now and we know what's going to happen to it. We will be in serious danger if they find out about it."

"They?"

"Everyone in this planet. Zidane, Garnet, Steiner, Baku, Freya, Regent Cid, Queen Brahne, Kuja, Garland, anyone irrelevant and everyone we do or don't know." I said to her. "It's important that only the two of us know about this. No one else. Not even if we're desperate. Who knows what will occur if someone finds out. We'll be used to their advantage, like cheat books in an exam or, more appropriately, like Back to the Future 2. Do you want that?"

The girl beside me shifted in her seat. Maybe the thought of revealing the future has not gotten to her yet, but maybe now she knows that it will be dangerous doing so. Knowing the future is always a bad, whether it may be fictional or not. People tend to handle such revelations horribly, and I am sure that the same will happen to these people.

"No. We don't want that."

"Right. Now then," I went back to a relaxing position, my eyes looking at the dreary ceiling above me. "Your cover story, how to go about that? Hmm…" The information she has given to me are scarce. She 'worked' as a mechanic around the Prima Vista, but there's a slight problem with that. "Do you have any experience with mechanical stuff?"

She shook her head quickly. "No. I barely survived working in the engine room of this airship." So it's a no-go on that part. I'll have to go about this just like how I did mine.

"Okay, I think I have an idea. Would you object to a 'dead family' background?" She flinched at the mere suggestion I just gave. "What? Bad idea?"

Alyssa just shook her head quickly. She was looking away when she stopped. "No. It's nothing."

"Just listen to my idea, alright?" I told her, ignoring her earlier reaction. "If you have dead family, then nobody would be able to verify your background. Everyone would just take your word whether they like it or not." I let it sink in for a while before I continue speaking. "It's for the best."

"How about yours? Does your cover involve dead people?" She inquired, her eyebrows raised.

"What? No. I have a much cleverer cover. There's an earlier version of my cover story that I hatched up, but I improved it just as you were telling your story." Her head shook disapprovingly. Well, she was going on and on about irrelevant details and the idea just popped into my head, so I took the opportunity to revise my cover.

"Alright, here is mine," I began. "I come from a family of successful merchants and information brokers from a far continent." I gestured wide, as if I was drawing up a wonderful image of some faraway land. "We did decently when it comes to financial matters and we never suffered big losses. My parents thought it would be good for us to see other places aside from other towns near our home, so we took the family boat, a big one at that, and sailed towards another continent."

"That sounds believable." Alyssa commented in her seat.

"Here comes the great part. A day or so later, we were caught in a violent storm. It sent us on a wild ride of terrible waves and unbearable winds that broke our ship. Thankfully, we were soon picked up by a patrolling ship on its way to Lindblum in the Mist Continent. With only the clothes on our backs and the few resources we had on us, we stayed in Lindblum, where we would rebuild and replicate our success."

"Wow, that's kinda inspiring."

"I know. Anyway, when we were able to secure ourselves financially, my parents, now homesick for our homeland, decided that they were going back. Since I'm a lot older than the time we arrived here and capable of my own choices, I decided that I would stay in the Mist Continent with my sister and continue the family tradition of selling of commodities and brokering information. The end." I sat up and took a miniature bow to a nonexistent audience as Alyssa looked thoughtful with one finger resting on her lips.

"How about your 'sister'?" She asked, referring to the fictional sibling I mentioned. "How are you going to explain her?"

"Oh that's easy. I'll just say that we haven't seen each other for a long time and have yet to see each other in person since we took different roads in life, you know all that stuff."

We were silent for a bit after that. I was mostly silent because of my throat suddenly feeling a bit dry, but I didn't speak of it to her. She looks like she has other things to worry about.

"So, how about mine? Do you have an idea on mine?"

"A bit. But I want you to make it." I said to her with a turn of my head. "You at least need to know how to make up a story on your own. Just use the 'dead family' idea I suggested. If you can't, then I'll tell you what I have in mind."

The girl thought silently in her chair for a few minutes while I adjusted the pillow behind my head. Who would think that a beaten up bed like this would be so darn comfortable? I know I wouldn't have. Looking back at the girl beside me, I could see her mumbling some words to herself, especially the phrase 'dead family'. I guess none of her friends are negative influences on her.

She looked up and finally spoke. "I got it."

"Well, share it then."

"It's kinda…"

"Just say it. I'll help you revise it if it needs one."

"Okay," She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and then started laying it to me. "I've lived in Treno all my life." Oh, interesting choice there. "I had a happy life there. My family wasn't rich or poor, but just alright. We were happy then. But that all changed in one night when a group of robbers snuck into our house. My dad tried to fight and delay them until the police arrived while my mom hid me in the basement. They were killed that night, victims of greed and desperation."

Whoa, that is dark. I didn't know that she'd play the 'victim' card. She's telling me this as if it really happened to her. There were even some tears forming on the edges of her eyes.

"My grandparents took me in after that happened. It took a while to recover from something so traumatic. My grandparents were so supportive and encouraging that since then I told myself I would never be a victim ever again. I took up defense classes and fencing in case I need it. And that's true, by the way. So anyway, I've learned to look on the bright side of life, not on revenge for my family. I've been living a normal life ever since."

"And how would you explain being on the Prima Vista?"

Alyssa leaned towards the bed with her chin on her hands. "I'll say that I moved out of my grandparents' house and looked for work. I thought maybe I'll live in Alexandria for a nice change of scenery, plus I always wanted to go to Alexandria." She straightened back on her chair and looked thoughtful once again. "I think that's it. How was it?"

I was quiet for a few seconds, feeling a bit dismayed at her story. It was a good story even with her telling it to me sounded so credible that I would believe her if I didn't know her. But there was one thing she forgot. "How about the grandparents?"

She froze for a moment, and then I sat up and continued to speak. "How are you going to have an unverifiable story if you have grandparents?"

"You're right. How could I have missed that?"

"You weren't paying attention, haven't you?" I just shrugged and shook my head. "Don't worry. We'll handle it when we get there. I have an idea on how to remedy that problem. Right now, don't stress about it. Just remember your story's details."

The girl beside me nodded solemnly as I went back and lied down with a long yawn leaving my lips once again. "You tired?"

"Yeah. Must be the plant antidote." I replied sleepily.

She patted my arm as she stood up. "Go ahead and rest. We'll be here until Vivi is okay. Zidane's not going anywhere without his help."

"I know." I turned my back to her, shifting comfortably with my cast brushing against my forehead as I decided to let my eyes drop slowly into unconsciousness. Somewhere in between blinks, I heard Alyssa stand, mumble about talking to Blank and the door opening and closing shut. Before I could wonder about this, I fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 7: What Do You Mean By Accessory?

-Blake-

I slowly awoke to the sound of crickets chirping and owls howling outside the Prima Vista. There were other noises aside from those two neutral creatures, such as growling from Fangs and feet walking around the remains of the ship. The monsters must be getting antsy with all the fresh meat they can smell coming from the area.

My eyes wandered throughout the room. Nothing had changed since I was last conscious. The ceiling still looked messed up and the walls were about to give out. The only things in here were shattered pieces of a mirror, a wooden dresser barely standing on its remaining two feet, a sheathed knife resting on said dresser, a bed that I was using and a mess of blankets on my side. I must have gotten uncomfortable with those on me while I was asleep.

Now I feel much better, energized and stabilized. "Ahh…" Wait. Hold that thought… "AH-CHOO!" I sneezed hard, whipping my head to the front… I swear my brain almost went out through one of my nasal cavities, though thank God it didn't really happen. It must've been a reactionary effect of being infected with a plant virus. Anyway…

Now I feel better. I swung my feet to the side of the bed, got up and tried to take my first step since I was poisoned. Stabilized should be changed to something else since I felt that my legs are somewhat numb. Plus, I am still a bit dizzy. I should take baby steps.

I tried my best to maintain my balance as I went towards the door as the feeling began coming back to my limbs. That plant virus must be capable of a lot of things if it was to fully develop in a person's body. I believe there was one description of that, but I don't remember right now what it was. I think it affects the nervous system followed by the brain, and then uses the body as a pseudo-nest to grow plant creatures. Sounds like a sci-fi movie.

With that thought out of the way, I went for the doorknob slowly nearing my grasp, or so I thought as it suddenly it distanced itself from the door and the wall it was relatively attached to, almost causing me to fall flat on my face when someone managed to catch me.

"Whoa!" The person called, surprised to even find someone like me in their arms. "You should be lying down, not walking around." I looked at the person and saw Blank and his bandana-covered eyes looking at me as he helped me stand up.

"I felt like walking," I replied not realizing that my voice sounded somewhat slurred.

"Well, you shouldn't be. It's hard recovering from a plant virus if you don't take care of yourself." Blank told me while he put my arm on his shoulders, escorting me back to the bed.

"I've been sleeping for god knows how long. Everyone in this ship has more problems than just exhaustion." And a plant virus that could mutate your entire system and turn it into a monster generator, but he didn't need to know that. "We're surrounded by monsters…"

Blank plainly let my words pass him by when he set me down on the bed. Fighting him off was out of the question since I was in this condition. I decided to just drop what I was saying and just follow what he wants. "Did you drink the antidote?"

"Of course I did. I wouldn't be alive if I didn't." I answered rather quickly. I was lying back down on battered pillow and looking up at that ceiling again. I think I need a change of scenery.

"Watch the attitude," He looked at me through that bandana like I keep my 'attitude' down. My attitude is down. If it wasn't, then you'd be hearing a string of insults right now, and right now thinking of one is quite exhausting. "You wouldn't be alive if it weren't for MY antidote."

I tried acting surprised. "You made it? Wow. Has anyone ever told you that you don't look like the medical type?"

Blank shook his head at my question. "No. I just happen to know how the cure is made. This isn't exactly my first time here."

Oh, really? That's interesting. This is the first time I have heard of this. Maybe it has been mentioned in the game, and if it did then I wasn't paying a lot of attention to it. "Not your first time?"

"This is actually my second." The bandana wearing thief said. "It's quite a long story. It forced me and my crew to walk through the forest and past the South Gate as a way back to Lindblum."

I'm guessing that when he said 'my crew' he meant Tantalus and that also involved some sort of heist or one of their thieving operations. Their operation probably got out of hand or they got caught and that made them escape into the Evil Forest.

"Interesting," I say to him. "I hope I'm not wasting your time, but I'm looking for someone here." Blank tilts his head as he hears this. "Have you seen a girl walking around? Brown hair, around my age, wears a stupid looking pair of overalls?"

He immediately points his thumb over his shoulder and replies, "Yeah. She's near the stairs." Then he crossed his arms and looked like he was thinking something over. "She asked me a question and felt really bad when I answered her, almost like she's about to cry."

"What did you say to get such a reaction?"

"Well, it was regarding the crew of the ship." Oh, that is just great. I don't need her getting more emotional than she already is now. Killing her first monster was bad enough, but this is just getting more pathetic.

"I think I need to see her." I sighed. "Can you help me to the door? I'll take over from there."

Blank shrugged and extended his hand. "Alright. Just so you know I only answered her question. I didn't mean to say anything hurtful."

"Don't worry, that's not why she's crying." I reassured him as I took his hand. He helped me stumble over to the door and thankfully this time I didn't fall in a certain way. "Right, I'll be going now." I turned down the hall with my hands on the walls, the strength slowly coming back to my legs. At least I could walk now and that means I can go around the Prima Vista and take a look around.

"You're welcome!" I heard Blank shout as I turn down the hallway and see the downward circular staircase that leads up to the captain's room. To the right is the room where Vivi should be sleeping and to the left leads instrument room and to the where Alyssa was said to be. Zidane is still nowhere to be found and Steiner is still busy getting locked up because of his worrying.

Ah, there she is sitting on the steps of the stairs with her face on her hands. I could barely hear her mumbling something as I approach her. "Are you crying?" I crossed my arms as I asked this.

She shook her head violently then looked up to me. Even if she denied it, I could still tell that she was crying with the little streams of tears going down her cheeks and that her eyes were a bit red. "Correction, you WERE crying." I said.

"Fine, I was crying," admitted the overalls sporting teenager. "It's…because of…the crew."

"What? Is it because a lot of them died in the crash?" I tried joking about it, but she turned to face me with a glare.

"Not just a lot. ALL of them." Damn, that is quite a fatality count. "Not even….one of them survived. Blank told me that most of the crew died on impact….when we were crash landing. The others were burned to death or…choked on the fumes."

I was silent for a while. Alyssa made these little sob noises a few times right before she took in a big breath and calmed herself down. How am I supposed to feel about this? A lot of people die every day with varying causes and this is just one of them, an occupational hazard when you work for a thieving group. I could say that to Alyssa, but she does not need any more reason to grieve people she barely knew. A reality check is the last thing she needs.

But being told that a number of her co-workers died, even though she did not know much about any of them, is an image Alyssa did not need. Also the fact that they could still be standing on their graves, although if they were dug into the earth by the crash or still strewn around the site, didn't help either.

I noticed Blank walk by our silent conversation. He gave Alyssa a solemn look while he gave me a brief nod of acknowledgement as he passed me. Blank was probably going to check up on Vivi's condition. So, we're nearing that time.

"You can let it all out later." I tell the girl. She gives me a disapproving glance as I continued to speak. "You need to concentrate on the task at hand. We need to stay alive for this thing to continue."

She nodded as she dried her eyes. "You too. Fighting monsters is harder than it looks."

I scoffed at her statement. "Don't you listen? I do not fight. I take opportunities."

There were another set of footsteps coming towards us, this time coming from the lower floor. I turned my head to see the blond thief finally appear right in front of us. Zidane looked at us with a brief pause, especially at me. He had a raised eyebrow pointed towards me before he spoke to us.

"Are you supposed to be up?" He asks.

"Apparently not. This is the second time I was told to not be up and about," I replied.

"You should listen then. Plant viruses are the last thing you want to get here," He chuckled with a wag of his tail.

"True," Alyssa agreed to his sentiment. If I was supposed to be resting you wouldn't be feeling any better. "He was just telling me that he was trying to find the guy who carried him through the woods while he was unconscious. Guess he found him."

"Oh, don't mention it." The thief said. "We don't want anyone else dying out there."

"I didn't catch you name," I put myself between the two. He hasn't mentioned his name to us yet, so it's just logical to ask before we accidentally blurt it out. You know, just in case.

"The name's Zidane," He thumped his chest as he said his name.

"Blake R. Skylark." I introduced myself with an extension of my hand. Zidane took it and shook it as I continued. "And she's Eliza Thornberry."

"Alyssa Forsyth," She corrected me after elbowing me on the side. She should just have her name changed because it sounds so ridiculous. I wonder how many times she's mistakenly added vowels to her name.

"You guys already told me your names earlier," Oh, I must've forgotten. Well, it doesn't hurt introducing yourself again just in case. "But it's nice to meet you both. That was quite the showing you did out there with the plant monster." Zidane regarded Alyssa's fighting skills with a grin. "How does a girl like you know how to fight like that?"

"I took classes." She smiled as she answered.

"Really? Because from the look of things you could have fooled me. Your skills were so natural." Zidane complimented her. I swear there was a rising color of red on her cheeks when she heard this.

"Careful, we don't want her ego to go flying about." I remarked making me and Zidane share a small chuckle at Alyssa's expense.

"Well, Alyssa, Blake," He looked at both us respectively when he said our names. "Nice meeting you guys. I have to go check up on someone. If you'll excuse me." He then passed us as he ascended the stairs towards his destination.

Both Alyssa and I knew what he was going to do. He was going to check up on Vivi and wonder if he should go on and rescue the princess from her current dilemma. I was not up to any more talking and decided that I needed some fresh air. Alyssa followed me outside, her reasoning being that I might need help if some monster decides to attack me.

It's not that I can't defend myself, woman. I just don't want to fight because it's unnecessary when you have other options. Like running, for example, or shooting people in the leg and then running.

By that time, we could have sworn that Steiner had started yelling 'FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!' in desperation.

The skies outside still look a desolate gray even after what seemed like hours of sleep that I went through. Cinna could be seen lying on his back, snoring near the pile of rescued rations and relatively important items. I asked Alyssa about this and she corrected me that I was unconscious for only an hour. And how was that supposed to help?

We stood there under the blanket of Mist hovering just a few meters above the trees, covering the stars from our perspectives. It's not a total disappointment. The Mist didn't actually have an effect on air itself, just that it spawns evil monsters because it can. You know, that bothers me. If someone puts enough logic on how monsters spawn just because of the presence of Mist, one could assume that they either appear from out of nowhere from a portal or the Mist spins around in a small form until it creates a solid figure with its own nervous system and minimal cognitive functions along with instinct.

And as I was pondering on this, Alyssa sneezed. "Bless you." I said. And then she did another. "Bless you." I repeated. I'd offer a handkerchief, but I don't have one at the moment.

Anyways, maybe I'm thinking about this too much. It helps pass the time. Passing the time is just the only thing we can do right now. I'm sure that Zidane is done contemplating his next move and the only thing stopping him from moving is the leader of Tantalus himself, Baku. The big, clumsy but headstrong leader that trips in the middle of a battle, but capable of bringing the pain when he can. Zidane has to choose between the group that helped him throughout his whole life or play hero by going out into the Evil Forest and rescue the princess like a fairytale knight in shining armor, and he already knows the answer to that.

I turned to Alyssa and see that there was a spark in her eyes. What that spark entails, I will never know. She won't tell me, that I pretty much know. But being pulled into a videogame with another person and having that same person be the only one who can understand what she was going through has its own advantages. I am the only person she can confide in.

What I'm guessing about that spark is the happiness she's feeling right now because she's living out an adventure that is supposed to be confined in a pack of CDs to be played by a videogame console made by a Japanese company. It's not every day someone gets a chance like that. If I had a choice, I'd rather be in Persona 4, but a person can only dream, right?

"Hey Blake," Alyssa's voice breaks me out of my thoughts. "Do you wanna see how Zidane's gonna fight Baku?"

Well, there was nothing interesting happening around here, unless a random Fang jumps out from a bush and decides to murder Cinna. Fortunately for him, nothing was going to happen to him. One of the gas masked brothers was around, so that means he is safe from any danger.

I shrug my shoulders and sigh. "Fine. It's not like I have anything else to do." Alyssa leads the way back inside as I run my capable hand up and down my right arm's cast. She's going on about how the fight is going to work in a small room with actual weapons with people watching. I was not as absorbed as her as we walk to it. My mind is too busy trying to remember everything important that is bound to happen to us.

-FF FF FF-

Okay, the fight did not go the way Alyssa thought it would. It actually was not as violent as we both imagined. Baku and Zidane decided that they were going to settle this like men, and that meant that both were going to fight with their bare hands. Well, if this was indeed the real world, a fight between two friends, much less than two people who have such a close bond like Baku and Zidane, would not involve deadly weapons. That is if they want to off each other in the most horrible way.

You know, I could understand why Baku does not want Zidane to just up and leave the group here. He is worried about the lives of the injured and currently conscious while Zidane is just trying to go and play hero at the worst possible time. Baku thinks that he's wasting his time by rescuing one person. Perhaps it would be more effective if more people were taken by Prison Cage instead of just one, but that is just a hypothetical situation. But the story won't progress if Zidane doesn't come charging in, right?

Even with that little change proceeding regarding the weapons, Alyssa still cheered like a cheerleader on game night. It was obvious to us as to who was going to win this fight. As she shouted Zidane's name in hope of encouraging him, I stood there beside her with my arms crossed and my thoughts somewhere else. I am sure Alyssa had thought of our next moves before acting like a college fanservice model.

The two Tantalus members were done brawling at the span of 10 minutes. Longest ten minutes of my life. The two traded punches and sold punches like John Cena and Hulk Hogan; they did not sell the punches, they only sold t-shirts and headbands.

They ended up sprawled on the floor in the middle of the room as the cheers from other spectators died down and the impromptu music from the orchestral band slowly came to a halt. Both men took in breaths, but were too determined to stand at their own will. Baku and Zidane eyed each other carefully even if both of them knew the fight was over.

"I'll be damned…" Baku chuckled as he stood. It's not surprising that he's taking this far too well when you see him throughout the fight taunt his little subordinate, telling him that his attack tickles and all that. Plus, I'm not surprised since I had seen this fight a lot of times.

The leader of Tantalus staggered towards Zidane, who was bruised and exhausted and bent over with his hands on his knees. "Bravo!" He surprised the blond with a punch to the gut that brought the smaller thief to his knees. "Go find your princess!" Baku turned on his heel and laughed on his way out of the room. Alyssa and I could hear him coughing loudly a few seconds later.

"Damn, that hurt!" Zidane exclaimed. "He pulled his punches 'til that last one."

"Does that mean Baku let him win the fight?" Alyssa whispered the question to me. She did not notice that? And to think she hundred-percented the game.

"Do you want me to pull out an idiom dictionary and tell you what he meant or do you want to think that over by yourself?" I tell her with a shake of my head.

The two of us overhear Blank and Zidane talk about something. We both know what it is already, but if I have to tell, then Blank is telling Zidane that he's unlocked the door to the instrument storage room so Zidane can talk to Steiner. So yeah, that's lovely.

Then he comes walking towards us. Alyssa started applauding as the thief stopped in front of us and bowed to Alyssa's delight. "Thanks for the applause." I glanced at Alyssa slightly, giving her a look saying 'don't encourage him'.

"You know, you should get some ice on that." I point to a part of his face that made contact with Baku's knuckles. "That is going to bruise."

"I'll be fine," says the thief. "Bruises are the last thing I'll have to worry about. Plus, battle scars impress the girls." He said with a grin, but dropped it fast when it hurt.

"I could tell." I remarked. "So anyway, I couldn't resist hearing that you were going to take the knight and the black mage somewhere. Where might that be?"

Zidane put one of his hands on his belt and grinned. "I'm enlisting their help to rescue Princess Garnet."

"That was the princess?" Alyssa spoke up in fake, yet believable, surprise. Zidane only nodded in confirmation as a response. "I thought that was one of your crew members. Looking back on it now, she did look mighty weird with that outfit on." Yeah right, you're one to talk.

She elbows me on the side very discretely, making me chuckle. "And to think, today's her birthday. Or was." Alyssa elbows me a bit more, this time less discrete that it gets Zidane's attention. "I only say that because it might be morning at this time. You could never tell with how thick the Mist here is." Or she could be dead, but the story won't allow that.

"Oh, sorry for bothering you. You must be busy with preparations for the rescue. We'll be going now." Alyssa proceeded to push me towards the way out of the Prima Vista. I was going to interject that we should suggest helping in rescuing the princess, since that would include us in the main party, but she winked at me as if hinting that she has it all figured out.

"Wait!" Zidane walked up to us as Alyssa stopped pushing and turned towards his voice. "I was thinking that having more people would be great."

"Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?" I ask him.

"Well, four heads are better than three." He replies with a shrug. So Alyssa did know what she was doing.

"That's true. Four heads are – Wait what? What do you mean four?" I squinted at him as he was rubbing the back of his head. There is no need to act so coy about this, Zidane. I know where this is going and I don't like it.

"Taking on the thing in charge of this place is going to take a bit of skill and it's gonna be hard. Rusty's really great with a sword and Vivi's magic is gonna be a huge help. And with Alyssa's help, we might be able to get to the princess faster." Zidane explained, but to me, that was far from an actual explanation.

"What? Are you serious? I know how to fight." I claimed, and it was not a total lie. I do know how to properly swing my arms around in desperation and kick someone in their most private area, but that doesn't mean I have to use proper fighting etiquette while doing it. Sure, it may look the least experienced fighting style, yet it works. "Did you even see me dig into that thing earlier? I am fully capable of hitting stuff, if that's why you're so concerned."

"I'm not concerned about that. What I'm concerned with is that you stood by and watched most of the fight." He countered.

"It's called common sense. You just don't go rushing an enemy with your swords, daggers, hammers, or whatever you may have and think that you'll win. I have a broken arm to prove that."

"Then we're going to have you stay cause of your broken arm. We can't risk anyone else getting seriously injured."

"Okay, I think we're going to end the argument here." Alyssa stepped in between the two of us with her hands on her hips. She was mostly facing Zidane, and by that I already knew what she was going to say. "I'm sorry Zidane, but if you're going to take me with you, then you have to take Blake along." She looked over her shoulder as she said the following. "Think of him as an accessory."

What!? An accessory!? How dare she even say that in front of me?

Even as I launch myself in a mental state of ranting, I could see Zidane sigh and surrender. "Fine then. So, that's five people. Alright then, let's go get Rusty out of the instrument storage room and hope he doesn't cause our ears to drop off." And with that, he led the way up the stairs and in front of the first room we encounter.

I was still seething at what Alyssa had dared suggest. Now I'm just conflicted whether to shove her down the stairs or trip her when we start running away from the plant minions later. You know, pick which one hurts more. She'll probably suffer an injury to the former, while she could possible get killed and petrified in the latter situation. But why should I care, I'm just an accessory. We'll come to that when we do, but right now subtlety is what I need right now.

The three of us entered through the door and was greeted with a mess no magical maid could ever clean. Crates and empty cases for instruments were strewed all over the room due to the crash. Drums were turned over, violins were crushed and some brass instruments could be seen hanging off the walls whether it may be due to an accident or deliberate. We had to watch our steps and be cautious of the towering piles of stored materials to prevent a massive landslide of various musical instruments as we made our way to the center of it all.

The armored knight was sitting on a small stool near the end of the room with a small doll resting in his hands. Zidane caught sight of it, making him chuckle. It was loud enough to cause Steiner into a teetering fit, causing him to wake up and stare at the new figures standing in front of him.

"Come on. You're too old to be playing with a doll." Zidane remarked, pointing to the girly toy in Steiner's hand. And like Cinna isn't? You don't know your teammates at all, Zidane. Steiner looked at the thing in his hand and realized that he was holding onto it while he slept. He unceremoniously tossed it over his shoulder before speaking up with his raised voice.

"Silence!" He demanded. "A scoundrel like you could never understand!"

"Don't worry, sir. I understand." Alyssa said as she stood beside Zidane. "I used to play with dolls back when I was younger." Like not a lot of girls didn't do that, Alyssa. The situation is different.

"I don't think that was what he meant." Zidane mumbled to her silently.

"I'm just overwhelmed with concern for the princess!" Steiner continued making excuses. It was obvious he was caught red-handed and that he was embarrassed by it. He took to using manly bravado as a self-defense mechanism.

"Oh, come on. I'm overwhelmed with concern for myself and you don't see me clutching a doll at night." I commented with a satisfied grin on my face. Was it night or morning? I might have to ask for clarification later.

"You may have saved me from the plight of that venomous poison, but that does not give you the right to mock me." He pointed a finger at me, directing the statement towards my direction. Then he turned back to Zidane. "And you, if only you rogues hadn't kidnapped her… This is all your fault. If anything should happen to the princess, I will have your head!"

Zidane raised both of his hands in defense. "Take it easy. Geez… I'm gonna look for her now. I'll let you come with me if you promise to be good. What do you say, Rusty?"

The Captain of the Pluto Knights went and changed into three emotions in the span of five seconds. First was joy as Zidane said that he was going to the princess's rescue, then surprise when he had to promise to behave, and lastly anger when he was called 'Rusty'. The last one immediately boiled his blood and went on a tirade directed at the thief.

"R-R…RUSTY!?" His voice was so loud it made the piles behind us moved a bit. "I am Adelbert Steiner, Captain of the Knights of Pluto and I will never work with you conniving thieves!"

"If it makes you feel better, I'm not a thief." Alyssa said.

"And yet you side with one. That is not going to go well with your resume." I told her.

"Captain?" Zidane repeated the rank mentioned. "I figured you were a private, what with that cheap, rusty armor…" Looking at it now, it did look rusty and a bit cheap. It must have been his interaction with the elements since this is a natural forest after all.

This observation just made Steiner shake his fists a lot more, perhaps wanting to tie up the thief and drag him back to his homeland of Alexandria despite the situation they were in. Before Steiner could refute the state of his armor, Zidane held up a hand to silence him. "Look, this has nothing to do with Tantalus. It's something I decided to do on my own. I just wanna save Garnet."

Steiner crossed his arms and eyed the thief carefully. He had a right to, since most thieves aren't the most trustworthy bunch in history. "You had better not be lying! Because if you are, I won't hesitate to kill you."

"Isn't that a bit too harsh?" Alyssa questioned the captain's moral understanding due to his over-protectiveness.

"That does not matter. He will be executed if he is lying and that is that!" Well that takes care of that.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm counting on you, Rusty." Zidane said this, dismissing the death threat given to him.

Steiner walked towards the smaller man until they were face to face. "Make no mistake. I'm only going with you to rescue the princess! I will deal with you personally when this is over!"

"…Whatever." Again, Zidane dismissed the threat as if it was a harmless bug. This is either a blatant display of courage or willing ignorance to danger. Steiner looked at the three of us and nodded after managing to calm down.

"It seems that we have the numbers on our side." He stated as he continued analyzing the two other people standing beside Zidane, which would be me and Alyssa. "Your names?"

"Blake R. Skylark," I say, and then I pointed to the girl beside Zidane. "That's Alicia Keyes."

"Alyssa Forsyth." She corrected me sharply.

Steiner seemed to remember something when he looked at Alyssa. "You were the girl I fought against on the airship." He looked at Alyssa now. "You have quite remarkable reflexes and talent with a sword. Where did you learn to fight like that?" Oh yeah, I was meaning to ask what style she was using. Maybe later.

"Oh, I took classes when I lived in Treno." The brunette replied. You know, someday someone is going to want you to expound on that answer like 'when did you start' or 'who was your trainer' or 'where exactly in Treno', that sort of question.

Then he turned to me. I could see his eyebrows furrow when his line of sight came towards me. "And you. You're that coward who keeps trying to talk his way out of a fight."

What's that supposed to mean!? "It's called common sense." I repeated my statement from earlier, though that doesn't explain the cowardice. The knight just shrugged and sat back down on his stool.

"Nonetheless, we should seek Master Vivi's help as well," Insisted the knight.

"Master?" Alyssa tilted her head quizzically.

"Why do you call him 'Master'?" Zidane asked.

"You fools. That black mage has unimaginable powers…" Well, I can imagine what spells he can use, so it his powers are not unimaginable. "I don't want to get him involved, but alas, it can't be helped. We need Master Vivi's powers to rescue the princess."

"You know what's a smart way to rescue the princess?" I crossed one of my arms and tapped a finger to my head's side. "Burn the whole forest down." I nonchalantly suggested. The other three people in the room looked at me as if I was crazy, especially Steiner.

"That's madness!" Steiner exclaimed.

"Do you actually want to save her or kill her?" Alyssa said, still surprised that I could suggest such a thing.

"Think about it." I continued to explain with the straightest and most serious face anyone could possibly execute. "If the forest is burning down, the plant monsters would be so busy trying to avoid the fire or saving it that we could sneak up on the boss, cut the princess loose from its grasp and escape."

"And how about the injured here in the Prima Vista? How about the rest of Tantalus?" Zidane asked.

"Their loss," I shrugged. "They didn't want to come along, they burn with the forest." Now Zidane was giving me a look of disbelief. And yes, I am definitely serious.

They all stared at me as I counter-stared at them blankly. "I think it is a good idea to bring him along." Zidane whispered to Alyssa. "Not for the right reasons, though."

"Hey! I heard that!"

"Now that we have that out of the way, let's go and talk to Vivi." Zidane walked past me, completely shutting down my brilliant idea as he makes his way out of the instrument storage room with Steiner trailing behind him. Alyssa looked at me, still shocked at the audacity that was my idea, threw up her hands into the air and exited.

"What? It's a smart plan. Think about it!"

-FF FF FF-

The four of us entered the room where Vivi was resting, the little boy's head turning to our direction when he heard the door open. His room was very much in the same condition as mine was, except for the other bunk beds in the corner of the room and the shattered pieces of a mirror hung above the dresser. That was exclusive to this room only. Vivi's staff leaned on the wall right beside the bed of the resting black mage, an item used to focus enough power to burn, paralyze with lightning or freeze their target. It temporarily caught my attention before Zidane spoke.

"Well Vivi, we're ready to go look for the princess." ZIdane said. Vivi sat up on the bed and faced the four of us.

"Really!? That's great!" Vivi's voice sounded so happy despite just suffering from a plant virus earlier and the fact that he's in a place called Evil Forest. "Be careful, okay?"

"Actually, we want you to come with us, too." Zidane added. The black mage was taken aback by the thief's idea.

"B-But, I can't do anything." Vivi muttered as he looked down to the floor.

"Hardly, Master Vivi." Steiner objects, showing his respect to the young child's power. "Your magic was highly effective against that monster."

"You did more damage to the monster than any of us could." Alyssa added. I decided to stay silent, despite that my ideas and plans helped to a certain degree, and when I say a certain degree I mean a lot.

The captain continued encouraging Vivi. "In all honesty, I hold your power in greater esteem than I do this scoundrel's." He pointed to the thief standing beside him. Zidane didn't react to his words, though.

"B…But…I'm scared. I couldn't even move last time." Confessed the black mage.

"It's okay." Alyssa knelt beside the bed and looked up to Vivi. "It's natural to be scared. All of us were scared at one point today. Zidane was scared for his friends' condition, Steiner was scared for the princess, and I was scared because I thought I lost my friend." She glanced at me with a smile, making me knit my eyebrows together. That was quite the speech, but did she really have to go and resort to such a thing? It was unnecessary yet encouraging at the same time.

"Please, Master Vivi." Steiner began once again as Alyssa stood. "For the sake of Princess Garnet and all of Alexandria, I humbly request your assistance!" Surprisingly, his voice didn't bring the walls down.

"Come on! You're a black mage, for crying out loud! Show us what you've got!" Zidane said, trying to cheer up the mage.

Vivi thought about what they have all said for a minute and then he looked back at us and nodded. "…Okay. I'll try my best."

"Thank you, Master Vivi." Steiner bowed.

"Alright! Let's get going then." Zidane, now the impromptu leader of this collection of people with the sole objective of theirs is saving the princess before she is turned in a plant host, said as he turned back to the door. Alyssa and I followed him out, but Steiner held Vivi back for a moment to discuss something. He was going to propose this idea for an attack that would need Vivi's assistance. I already know that.

Both of us went back to the room I used earlier to retrieve our stuff that has been left there. My knife was still sheathed and lying on the dresser while Alyssa's sword, the same one she swiped from one of the Pluto Knights during the Prima Vista's escape, leaned right next to the drawer while inside its own sheath. We picked up our respective weapon, attached the sheath to my belt – which Alyssa can't do because she has no belt – and exited the room that we will last see, unless something happens and forces us to come back to this horrible place.

We met with everyone else outside the Prima Vista. Zidane was talking to Cinna for the last time until they meet again, which will be a very long time. Steiner was discussing with Vivi, perhaps it was about the magic sword ability they talked about earlier. When they heard us coming, they stopped what they were doing and got together.

"Okay, before we move, take this." Zidane gave each of us a few vials of potion to keep on our person in case we needed a healing. We did not have a white mage on our party currently, so a potion is the next best thing to have. Cinna handed Zidane a pack that had only one strap. It looked similar to a messenger back but a bit wider. Anyway, Cinna gave this to Zidane and nodded before going to the pile of materials near the trees. He's probably still looking for the Garnet doll.

Zidane walked up to me and handed me the pack. "What's this?"

"In case we need to make camp, the tent's inside the bag." Zidane said, pointing to the bag in my hands. It didn't take long before I realized what he just said.

"Oh, so now I'm a pack mule?" I made it clear that this was insulting me in some way or another.

"You make it sound like it's a crime." Zidane replied. I make it sound like it's a crime because I don't like it. "We'll exchange tent-carrying duties as we go on." He put the strap on me and let it hang to my side. Satisfied that I didn't struggle with bag duty, he went back to the front of the group and led us to the tree trunk.

"This is like making fun of a cripple." I mumbled under my breath as I climbed into the tree trunk after everyone else.

When I reached the end of the trunk, I jumped down and heard a thick splash followed by a cold stream surround my feet up to my shins. Crap, I forgot about this. There goes two hundred bucks swimming down the drain. My shoes ruined for a princess.

Alyssa called my attention when she saw me worrying about my shoes. She doesn't need to worry about her shoes because the ones she's wearing came from an old broom closet along with her current outfit, so don't tell me to not worry about expensive belongings that you currently don't have. My parents bought me these.

Anyway, we trekked down the path where the Prison Cage fight went and down deeper into the forest. The area where we fought the monster smelled of decomposition, a fact supported by the rotting corpse of what infected me and Vivi. I instinctively covered my nose in case there was some of that chemical it spewed.

The deeper we went into the forest, the darker it got. We only saw where we were going because of the moon's light shining down from the sky. So, it was still night time. That answers my previous mental question. Not that it helps the situation we were in right now.

All of us were quiet, hands near our respective weapons in case one of the common monsters jump out at us or another Prison Cage attempts to imprison one of us again. Our previous encounter with it proved that there might be another one prowling the forest for another prisoner. Steiner is particularly cautious about that as he constantly looks up to the trees in case another one planned to strike from above.

Vivi walked between the knight and Alyssa with Zidane leading the pack and me bringing in the rear. Our formation proved that we were trying to play it safe even if nothing has attacked us yet. As we neared the upcoming fight and rescue, the more it was necessary to keep the formation to avoid any surprise attacks. Only the humming of crickets joined us in our quest through the forest.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 8: The Grass is Much Greener on The Other Side

-Blake-

It had been quite a while since we passed the Prison Cage area and recently we were attacked by a few Fangs. Only two of them sprang up from behind of the bushes, which I now conclude is where they lay their nests and use for cover for surprise attacks. Steiner and Alyssa eagerly took care of the two beasts while Zidane, Vivi and I stood back. I told them that we should just let a pair of us alternate between taking care of any attacking beasts in our way, to which they agreed.

And to think they were going to leave me behind that ruined airship.

"Don't pat yourself on the back yet, Blake." Alyssa commented, probably seeing the smirk I had on my face. Whatever. I could also see a grin on your face, Alyssa, while you were fighting so don't be a hypocrite.

We moved through the path in the forest briskly, encountering a few monsters here and there that was no problem to us, well them since it still wasn't my turn, and basically trying to stay alive. So far, nobody has received any major injury in the fights. That's good. Plus, all we've been encountering were Goblins and Fangs, easy kills for the others.

As we moved through the forest, I noticed that it got quieter and quieter. Perhaps anything that made nuance noise wanted to be far away from the Plant Brain as much as possible. It's very hard to be near something so big without thinking that you'll probably get killed.

And speaking of things that want to get killed, a duo combination of a Fang and a Goblin stopped in front of us, snarling and drawing its weapon at us respectively.

"Okay, Blake and Steiner, you're up." Zidane called to us. Steiner nodded and brandished his sword at the two.

"Do I really have to?" I asked Alyssa in a low voice. She looked at me reassuringly.

"They're easy. Don't worry about it." I roll my eyes and decided that if I'm forced to fight I have to think it through before rushing in like some people in this party. I sighed and pulled out my weapon and stood beside the knight after I handed Zidane the bag I was carrying.

With Steiner charging towards the Fang, I was left to my own devices against the Goblin. "Have at thee!" I confidently called out to the beast, even though my experience in fighting was squat. It was the first to move, trying to stab me directly. I jumped to the side clumsily and made it miss.

"Is that the best you got?" I taunted it. The Goblin didn't hesitate on trying to close the distance that I was making between us upon hearing what I had said. Okay, for someone who doesn't want to fight, I sure as heck want to start one.

It lunged at me with its large knife as it constantly attempted to cut me. There were a lot of close calls as I ducked and dived away from each attack, but it managed to nick me right in the shoulder. I was so busy paying attention to where its knife was going that I failed to notice its other hand come up and clock me on the side of the face with a Goblin Punch. It sent me a few yards back until I collided with something metal.

The captain was actually busy fending off the Fang, going on the offensive and never letting it have an opportunity to attack until I ended up hitting him. The force of impact sent him stumbling a few steps, making him vulnerable to the Fang. It jumped on him and tried to bite a piece of his neck off. I saw this happen while I was down and since I was near him I decided to help by stabbing the Fang in its side. He can thank me later. I looked behind me and saw the approaching Goblin with its knife raised to strike me down. I put my own knife up to parry the blow.

It was pushing against my knife with strength I didn't even know it had in those twig-like arms that I was barely managing even with two hands supporting it. "How strong is this thing!?" I wondered out loud.

I moved both of my legs underneath its gut and kicked as hard as I can, enabling an escape to the struggle. I scrambled to my feet towards a tree as the Goblin followed. With a yell, it lunged with both hands on the knife with me in its sights. At the last second, I side stepped the attack much to its surprise and instead stabbing the tree behind me. While it was occupied, I looked over to the knight and saw that he had just dispatched the Fang with relative ease.

"Some assistance would be nice." I say over to him, gesturing to the stuck Goblin. Steiner frowned at me and pointed at my knife before shouting.

"You have a weapon! Use it!" Well, that was helpful.

I turn back to the Goblin, and with a sigh, ran up behind it and stabbed it as hard as I could in the back. It cried out instinctively, and with the sudden jolt of pain was able to pull out his weapon from the trunk of the tree. It easily shook me off, leaving me without a weapon as it was still impaled on its back. Fantastic…

"Okay, I believe we started out on the wrong foot." I said, backing up as it advanced. "How about we start over? Hi, I'm Blake R. Skylark. What's your name?" The Goblin didn't answer my question as it swung its knife at me. I ducked and jumped to the side to dodge him, not wanting it to get even close to me this time.

This whole dodging thing was tiring me out. I could feel my lungs ready to collapse. As I backed up, it was readying a lunge with its knife leading, aimed at my chest. Weaponless and fatigued, I was unable to jump out of the way and could only raise my arms up to defend.

But the hit didn't land after a few seconds of anticipation. I lowered my arms and saw the Goblin frozen in its tracks with half of a broadsword sticking out of its chest and its owner standing behind it. A second later, Steiner pulled out the sword, making the dead Goblin fall face first on the ground. Out of instinct, I kicked the late Goblin's head twice before taking my knife from its back.

"Thanks…Steiner." I breathed heavily. I'm not in the best shape of my life to be even fighting.

The captain only looked over his shoulder and I saw him looking a bit contemptuous. "You are beginning to show how useless you are in this rescue. If it weren't for my intentions of sending the lot of you in prison, I would have not helped you."

Useless? He just called me useless! I am not useless! If it weren't for me you would have gotten infected with that plant virus! The nerve of the guy. How ungrateful! Is that how they teach respect in Alexandria!?

I wasn't able to voice out those thoughts as he just went on ahead. Zidane patted me in the back and handed me the bag. "Don't let him get to you. He's just worried about the princess." Worried my ass! He's being a giant rusty douche! Alyssa came up to me with a look of concern.

"Did you just double-tap that Goblin?" The girl asked. I merely nodded, making her say something else. "That's a bit unnecessary."

"It could have…gotten up." I tried to say in between gasps of air. I was bent on my knees, a bit tired and slightly wounded from the fight. "I just…made sure it wasn't…getting up." That may have been a quick fight, but I was still spent as if I ran a marathon. Fighting is not really my style, but if I want to stay with the others I might as well get used to it.

"Ah…are you…" Vivi looked at me with those yellow eyes of his and was trying to say something. He pointed to my shoulder, where I could see a streak of red forming.

"Don't worry." I straightened up and sheathed my knife. "It's just a flesh wound. I'll get better."

Alyssa chuckled as she patted me on the other shoulder. "Come on, let's get going."

We continued down the path Zidane was leading us through when we were done chit-chatting. Thankfully my turn in fighting was over. There was still a bit to cover before we get to the boss and I am hoping that I don't get another turn. We maintained formation once again as we progressed. I looked around and noticed that we were nearing what looks like a river with a fallen tree over it, conveniently acting as a bridge.

Alyssa suggested to Zidane that we follow the river as it goes into the forest. Her explanation for this was that since a forest with deadly plants roaming around harming other creatures is possible to have a bigger plant acting as its center. A big plant would need nutrients, and a big plant can get a lot of nutrients from a running river. Due to this, Zidane changed directions and followed the river closely.

I would congratulate her for at least pointing our leader to the right direction, but I was still a bit miffed about the whole 'accessory' thing earlier and the fact that I was going to say something like that.

…Not exactly the same thing, per say. But something in the lines of 'How about we follow this and hope we get to the boss' kind of statement.

Eventually, we came upon the spring in a large hollow tree stump that has magical healing properties. Zidane decided that we could rest here for a while since the coast was clear. As I sat down with my back against the large stump, I saw Alyssa looking around for something. It wasn't hard to reach the conclusion to what was bugging her. She was looking for the moogle hiding in a much smaller hollow stump. There was no moogle hiding in a smaller hollow stump, much to her dismay.

I put my hand under the running water from the stump behind me and took a sip. It tasted like purified water from back home, which made me take more sips. I felt a lot better after I was done as I saw my shoulder wound close up. "Anyone else want to drink this?"

Alyssa took a sip from the spring and looked enlightened. "Wow. This thing tastes wonderful. Take a taste, Vivi."

The black mage walked up to Alyssa and held out his gloved hand to the running water. When he was done, he nodded in agreement to Alyssa. "I feel a bit less tired." He said.

Steiner followed and took a swig. "It's revitalizing. Maybe it has magical properties that heal whoever drinks from it," concluded the knight. Indeed it does, Steiner. Alyssa just shrugged and sat right beside me.

"Too bad we don't have a container we can use to get some. I bet this would sell for a lot of gil." I wondered. When Zidane was done drinking from the spring, he leaned on the sat on the edges of the smaller stump as Steiner stayed on guard. Vivi simply sat down and adjusted his hat.

"I've been wondering," Zidane spoke up with a hand on his chin. "Why were the two of you on the airship?" He pointed a gloved finger to the two of us.

"Hmm…?" I was too busy verifying the contents of the bag I was carrying to understand the thief's question. And yes, it did contain a tent. There was also a violet bottle stored in the corner of the bag. Perhaps it was the seed remover antidote Blank made specifically for the ones poisoned.

"Oh that…" Alyssa chuckled embarrassingly. There was a hint of nervousness in that chuckle. "I was there by accident."

"How about you?" He then turned to me as I was closing the bag. Odd how that answer quickly satisfied him. True, Alyssa's statement wasn't a lie, but that would at least warrant an explanation.

"Me? It's a long story actually." I replied with a shrug. "I don't want to tell an excruciatingly long story when we have a princess to save." The last thing I wanted was someone getting suspicious. Steiner was about to concede when the condition of the princess was brought up, but Zidane's curiosity was piqued.

"No, wait. Let's hear it." Zidane insisted.

"The princess's life is still in danger!" Steiner said, his voice was loud enough to make Vivi flinch.

"Okay, I'll humor you." I stood up and brushed off the dirt on my pants. "Long story short, some Alexandrian soldiers were chasing me and I thought it would be nice to catch a ride on an airship that was about to leave." I walked past the knight as I responded, using my hands to gesture a chase as I told my piece. I swear Steiner's forehead creased a bit as I talked. Here's hoping that Steiner does not remember that I almost murdered that one soldier. "Now I believe there's a princess we have to rescue."

"Right. Let's go."

-FF FF FF-

THWACK!

"Hey!" I exclaimed as I nursed the cheek the branch hit with my cast.

"Sorry! I'm so sorry!" That was the second tree branch to slap me across the face. The first was Zidane's fault when he was guiding us under some low branches and this time Alyssa was the culprit. Curse my luck.

The five of us were nearing the lair of the Plant Brain faster than I imagined. There wasn't as much opposition from the beasts in the vicinity unlike earlier. Sure we're glad that we were making progress like this, but I felt that there was something missing. What I noted was that one plant enemy hasn't attacked us yet. You really can't miss a large floating flower in a forest like this.

Then a buzzing sound started filling the air. It came in intervals like it was a large bird flapping its enormous wings. Alyssa looked up and pointed behind us.

"Look at that!" We all turned to the thing she was pointing at in the air and saw what it was. That's what was missing. The Dendrobium, a flying plant monster. It was around the size of three people standing side by side with their hands extended and had six red petals, six maroon colored lower petals and two pink limbs. I didn't know flying plant monsters made buzzing sounds.

Curse me. I did not expect it to just pop out of nowhere, not when it's the size of that.

"Scatter!" Zidane ordered, but it wasn't followed as Dendrobium forced us to do so with a Wind attack, sending us flying throughout the area. We got back up and drew all of our respective weapons as the floating flower descended. Zidane and Steiner charged, hoping that they would hit it, but it easily evaded them by floating a bit higher.

Can't they just stay back and think about this for a second and not just rush in? Thankfully Alyssa knows that she can't do anything on this thing, unless she can jump higher than any live human being. Okay, now think. Floating enemy, made of flowers, easily flammable. Vivi's obviously the man for the job.

"Vivi, you can beat this thing singlehandedly." I say to the black mage. His eyes widen in surprise.

"M…Me?" He asked, pointing to himself in disbelief. I nodded and pointed to the Dendrobium.

"Look, that thing is a flower and most flowers are weak against anything. Problem is, normal attacks can't reach it at the height its flying. Your Fire spell is the best thing we have on range and power. Think you can do it?"

Vivi looked back to the plant, seeing Steiner yelling at the plant to come down while Zidane somewhat had the right idea to use the trees to reach the enemy. Apparently, Zidane knows a bit of parkour. But that little tidbit did not help them as Dendrobium blew Pollen into their faces, blinding both of its attackers.

Without further suggestion, Vivi nodded and stepped forward. He gripped his staff with both hands and looked like he was focusing his power in it. After a while, he pointed the staff to Dendrobium and shouted the spell.

"FIRE!" A small burst of fire exploded at the hovering plant's center. The fire immediately spread and burnt the plant easily like a piece of paper. It gave out one last light buzzing sound before it crashed down to the ground.

"Good work, Vivi." Alyssa said with a thumbs up. "Blake, there's some Eye Drops in the pocket on the side of the bag. Get some for Steiner and Zidane."

I held up a hand with a smile sand said, "Wait. Watch this. Hey Steiner!" The knight straightened up as he struggled with the dust in his eyes. "There's a Goblin behind you! I think you can knock it out with a punch."

It just so happens that Zidane was behind him trying to get a feeling of where he was. Steiner took my word for it, turned a whole 180 degrees and flat out socked Zidane with a punch. "Hey! What the hell was that for, Rusty!?"

"I was merely defending myself. What were you doing back there?" Steiner answered indignantly. I, on the other hand, was having quite a laugh; a hearty, bellowing laugh, as the two argued in front of us. Vivi tilted his head while Alyssa gave an impatient sigh. She elbowed me on the side hard enough to push me two steps to the left.

"Fine, fine. I'll get the eye drops." I groaned as soon as my laughter died down. "Admit it, Alyssa. That was funny."

"That was cruel." She simply stated with her hand on her hips. I only shook my head as I dug into the side of the bag, grabbing the eye drops and walked up to the blinded duo. She just does not get comedy. That was called slapstick, one of the basic forms of said genre.

When Zidane and Steiner were done applying the eye drops, and after Alyssa apologized for my part in that whole punch thing – which I did not want to apologize for, but she insisted – we moved on. We eventually got to the part of the path where the ground no longer composed of pebbles and dirt, but vines and roots. Both were present so much that we came across an arch made of vines and roots.

I was going to make a sarcastic comment about the architecture and that we should adapt this very style so that we can revolutionize the entire world of architecture, when we heard a loud screech that stopped us in our paths. Above us, the birds nested in the numerous branches in the trees flew and fled as the screech echoed far beyond the reaches of the forest, perhaps alerting or scaring –or both – the other inhabitants.

I think I just broke an eardrum.

Zidane ran inside the archway when the screeching was done followed by Steiner and Vivi. Alyssa nodded towards me and went in with me in tow. "There it is!" Vivi shouted. He was pointing to the monstrosity in the middle of a vine-infested –or rather vine-decorated and vine-furnished– room.

Sitting in a pedestal constructed by thorns the size of USB cords with the thickness of five wi-fi modems stacked on top of each other: the seed that fell far from the fruit, the head plant, the petal with all the power, the root of all evil, the Plant Brain. Wow, that was a lot of plant-related puns. Anyway, the Plant Brain menacingly swayed it thick, hollow stems as we stared it down.

"There! The princess!" Zidane pointed past the standing mother plant to where the unconscious Garnet was found. She was placed high above the Plant Brain with a few branches and vines being used as a makeshift hammock. From the looks of it she looked pretty comfortable up there with her being all unconscious and stuff.

"So, this is the master." Vivi audibly mumbled.

"Princess!" Steiner shouted, hoping to get a response from her in return, but alas, Garnet was heavily under the influence of the seed poison in her system. "You stay out of this!" He pointed to me and Zidane.

"Me? What did I ever do to you?" I asked, feeling insulted by his treatment right now.

"Alexandria would be disgraced if a terrible murderer and a mere bandit should rescue the princess." He pointed out as he drew out his broadsword. Crap, he remembered. I think I said a little bit too much earlier.

"You think you can handle him on your own?" The leading thief inquired.

"…" Steiner was silent for a bit. The Plant Brain had enough of our rambling and screeched at us once again, this time a lot quieter than before.

"Let's get him, guys." Zidane looked over to Vivi, Alyssa and me as he unsheathed his Mage Mashers. All of us readied our respective weapons and stayed in formation. "Vivi, pepper that thing with your fire spells, Steiner and I are going to distract it. Maybe we can cut it down with force."

"We'll protect Vivi." Alyssa volunteered us and stood beside the black mage. No, I am not protecting anyone aside from myself. This dream is not going to end with me playing hero.

Zidane nodded and looked around this part of the forest. "Try looking for a spot that it won't reach." He said to us. He turned to Steiner and ran in towards the Plant Brain, both ducking under the attempted swipe from its crusty stems.

Alyssa gestured to me and Vivi to follow as we went to the side of the Plant Brain while it was busy with the welcoming committee. From where we currently were, it was obvious that the two are having difficulties with a monster the size of a small motel. Steiner and Zidane cut away at the Plain Brain's thorny base with the monster growling with irritation. How could I tell that it was irritation? How would you feel about small insects biting down on your feet, huh? Pretty much the same thing in this situation.

Because of its hulking size, its tentacles could merely attempt to grab the two attackers since it looked like it wasn't that flexible. Zidane expected this to happen and jumped over it, trying to cut the tentacle off with a slice. Only the tip came off from his attempt. Steiner wasn't that quick in his reaction as one of its left tentacles grabbed him around the torso. The knight improved on his reaction by using his sword to hack away at the tentacle as Zidane climbed onto its tentacle, ran towards the center of the plant and slashed away.

"This should be safe." Alyssa guessed as she looked around. We were standing in front of a large tree that was probably old enough to be a grandpa tree, yet stood so high and looked so healthy like one of those aged triathlon competitors. We were right somewhere behind its left where we could see what was happening in the front. "What do we do now?"

"We start holding down the fort." I told her. "Vivi, start focusing your power, but don't attack yet." I said to Vivi. Alyssa gave me a puzzled look, but Vivi understood it without question and started concentrating.

"What do you mean 'don't attack yet'?" Alyssa pulled me to the side where Vivi was out of earshot.

"I've played through this part numerous times. You've played it only three times. I know what's going to happen here." I answered, irritated that this girl dares question what I'm doing. "This fight will be going nowhere as it begins. Plant Brain here won't get affected by the attacks early on. We need Zidane to be in critical condition in order to make the fight move on to its second phase."

The brunette hesitated for a moment as an idea formed in her head. "You mean Zidane needs to suffer enough damage so that Blank can come in and save the day?"

"Not save the day, but help us out." I corrected her.

"That's cruel!"

"Cruel it may be, but that is how this fight goes."

Steiner and Zidane had managed to go without a scratch in the fight as they fought off the tentacles with their weapons. Plant Brain changed that right now as it waved its tentacles in the air. Zidane and Steiner thought that it was going to bring those down on them with a sweep, so they prepared their weapons to block the incoming attack. That was where they were wrong. It wasn't a physical attack it was going to do, but a magical one with a thunder spell. It connected with the two in one single flash from above, electrocuting the duo and stunning them long enough to get clobbered with a tentacle sweep.

"Blake, these are real people you're fighting with. Zidane doesn't need to be in a dire condition for the fight to start going in our favor."

"That's how this fight goes and what I say is final. Now I suggest you drop this conversation right now before you attract the Plant Brain's attention." I demanded to the girl.

"You can't use people just because the game is programmed to follow a scenario! What's happening to us right now is real, and a fact that comes along being real is that everything is unpredictable, meaning this whole event is unpredictable." Alyssa tried to reason, but my mind is already set. She saw it with how I turned my back on her. That was when she decided to go against my order. "Vivi, give it all you got right now!"

I turned to the black mage and saw him nod to the girl. I was about to yell at him to not listen to Alyssa, but it was too late. Vivi unleashed the concentrated power in his staff on the Plant Brain as it was about to smash Zidane and Steiner together, saving both men with a powerful blast of flame. Plant Brain let out a pained screech as the fire burned on its maroon petals, shaking the area with powerful strikes to the ground with its tentacles.

Then in just a full second, the thorny pedestal it was on began to shift and turn towards our direction. Now we have its attention. That was not part of my plan.

"Book it!" I pushed past the overalls wearing brunette and ran away with my knife drawn out. She grabbed Vivi by the hand and bolted the other way, with the black mage holding on to his hat and the hand dragging him along. Zidane and Steiner were just recovering from the shock they received from the plant as I passed them.

The Plant Brain let out a growl-like sound towards the direction of the running duo as it waved its tentacles around for another round of thunder spells. The two continued running as a number of thunder strikes came from above on their previous locations, just barely missing the two. I heard Zidane wonder aloud about the fact that plants can use magic.

Curses. I wouldn't be running around trying to dodge this thing's attacks if that girl just followed what I told her. The game's plot is definite and final; nothing changes that even if we tried. We just need to follow it to the end without making any attempts to change it.

It didn't bother with the yellow-tailed thief as it only focused on its now running targets: me, Alyssa and Vivi. It aimed one of its tentacles towards me and made it stretch towards me at an alarming speed while Alyssa and Vivi continued dodging thunder. I dived out of the tentacle's way before it could arrive to its target (read: me). But I wasn't out of the woods yet metaphorically speaking as Alyssa and Vivi tripped over my recovering form.

"Gah!" Alyssa yelled out when she fell onto the ground, quickly followed by Vivi. I groaned in pain, hugging my side which Alyssa clearly kicked before she went down. The three of us noticed that neither thunder nor tentacle had hit us while we were down. We looked up at the plant and saw that its form was rearing back. With a snap of its upper body, the Plant Brain started to blow Pollen towards our direction.

I climbed on top of Alyssa and ducked behind her with my eyes closed as tight as possible. She shrieked in surprise as the pollen-induced wind blew against us felt like we were standing in a low pressure area. When it was done, I waited a few more seconds before opening my eyes and freeing Alyssa from my grasp. I didn't feel anything on my eyes, so that was good. What I felt was Alyssa pushing me away from her.

"What the hell, Blake!?" She shouted as she rubbed her eyes, trying to see past the pollen in her eyes. "You used me as a shield!"

"At least I'm okay." I responded calmly, dusting myself off as I got off the ground. I took out a bottle of Eye Drops from the bag and gave to her. "Here, this might help." I looked over to the black mage and pointed to the Plant Brain. "Vivi, begin concentrating on ano—" Then I see him waving his hands around like a blind per – crap, I forgot to cover Vivi.

No matter, I have some eye drops in the bag – hey!

Before I knew it, a thorny vine grabbed hold of my left hand and forced me down to the ground, making me relinquish hold of my knife. It was gripping my arm tightly, the thorns digging into my skin. Crap, it hurts! One more vine came from the ground and secured me against the dirt. Great, more dirt on my vest and shirt. The guy who's going to clean my clothes is seriously going to have a bad time.

Hey, this didn't happen in the game! This is not fair! I demand proper game mechanic etiquette so I can take advantage of it!

Another vine took hold of Alyssa and Vivi and kept the two in place by their feet while another swatted away both their weapons. The vines didn't budge from its place despite how hard the two tried to force their limbs to move. Zidane and Steiner were sent flying towards our direction by a thunderous whack of a tentacle. The two groaned as they struggled to back on their feet.

"This isn't looking good." Zidane stated, sounding fatigued.

"We must persevere! The princess must be rescued!" Steiner was bent over his sword as he tried to stand up.

We were under the mercy of the Plant Brain, which had one of its petals burnt because of Vivi's attack and I'm pretty sure it didn't like that at all. I was trying to think of a way on how I could get us out of this mess, but that required me to have my knife, which was lying somewhere beside me. The vine did not allow much movement, making it impossible for me to reach the knife. At the same time, images of how the Plant Brain was going to finish us formed in my mind: Pollen-induced torture, squashed by its large tentacles, fed to its plant babies, electrocute us to death, wrap us in vines like mummies, or plant its seed poison in our system were the prominent ones.

Damn it, I don't want any of those to happen to me. I have so much to live for. Do it to them first so at least I have a chance of escaping!

It was apparent that the Plant Brain had now decided on how to eliminate us. The vines raised me, Alyssa and Vivi into the air in an upright position with our legs dangling and swinging around for the ground. Zidane and Steiner evaded the Plant Brain's attempt of grabbing them with its tentacles, but they were already spent and it was only a matter of time that they get caught.

They were hit by a thunder spell, stopping them in their tracks long enough for the Plant Brain to wraps is rough dark orange tentacle. The tentacle moved the two so that they were right beside the three of us. What the hell is it trying to do, hang us with vines?

My question was answered when a group of rotting flowers sprouted from the ground. It was trying to plant seeds into our nervous system, just like what Prison Cage did. Alyssa looked over to me, as if hoping that I would have a plan out of this. No, I don't have a plan out of this. This would have not happened if you did not mess up my previous plan. Now we're going to be plant chow and it's all your fault!

I close my eyes and held my breath as I prepared for what would be my last lungful of air. Well, if this is going to be the end, at least let me outlive these four even if it were only a matter of seconds. If only Blank was quick enough to act as our cavalry—

"Hiyah!" Someone yelled out and I heard something fall to the ground. I just hope it isn't one of the party members. I opened my eyes slowly, hoping for the worst when I saw a crouched figure in front of us. I looked to the right and saw its arm extended with a sword held in its hand. That was when all of us knew we were saved.

"Blank!" Zidane exclaimed sounding surprised and amazed. Even the Plant Brain was apparently surprised as it drew back the tentacle holding Zidane and Steiner.

"Whew! I made it just in time." Blank faced us as he said this, putting his sword on his shoulder and put a grin across his face

"You sure took your fucking time!" I shouted at him. The grin on his face soured.

"I was held back by a few flying flowers," said the thief as he cut down the vines holding the three of us in the air. We landed on out backsides, except for Vivi who managed to land face first. "Stand aside. I'll take care of this."

With the rest of us freed, we managed get back on groove with the fight. After Alyssa applied the Eye Drops to her own eyes, she tossed aside the bottle, glared at me momentarily before joining the frontline with Zidane and Steiner. What was that for?

The bandana wearing thief ran towards Plant Brain with his sword ready cut down the monster. He rolled underneath an incoming tentacle and slashed at another as it was coming down to attack him. Blank darted towards where Zidane and Steiner was hanging around, only to be stopped by a thunder spell that almost hit him if didn't jump back. Plant Brain used a combination of thunder spells and tentacle attacks with the hope of bringing down him down and almost succeeded if Alyssa didn't run in to save him.

She handed him a potion vial, which healed the wounds he sustained from the barrage of attacks. The two went back in while Vivi began casting Fire spells at the botanic monstrosity. With two attackers charging and evading its attacks plus a black mage throwing fire spells at it, it was only a matter of time until it was brought down. Vivi weakened the tentacle holding the blond thief and the captain of the Pluto Knights with a fire spell and was cut off by Blank's sword. The duo landed on the ground with a thud, but at least they were free.

"Master Vivi!" Steiner yelled out to the black mage. This vocal signal proved to be the turning point as Vivi stopped casting spells and focused. Steiner readied his blade as Alyssa, Blank and Zidane cut away the attacking tentacles. Plant Brain tried to even out the odds by using its Pollen attack at the trio. Alyssa and Zidane saw it coming and dived to the side, only to leave Blank in the middle of a Pollen spray.

When it ended, Blank stood with an arm covering his face. Then we heard him chuckle. "It's a good thing I wear this bandana on my face." He remarked. It was pretty much common sense, but I really did not expect that to happen. In the game, even if he had that thing on his face all game long, it didn't have any effect and would still suffer when he gets attacked by a Pollen attack.

He continued attacking the Plant Brain, but the monster had enough. It used the surrounding vines once again and trapped the trio in their places. Oddly enough, Zidane was facing towards us when this happened. He sheathed his daggers and whistled, attracting the attention of Steiner. The two nodded at each other and Zidane placed his hands together, cupping the one on top.

Ah! I figured out what he was trying to do when I see Steiner running towards him, his blade having a red radiant glow right on the tip. When he was near enough to the tailed leader, he jumped on Zidane's hand and used it to propel himself towards the face – or where the face should be located – of Plant Brain. It screeched as it tried to stop Steiner with a thunder spell, but that didn't hinder him as he implanted the sword right on its center. A millisecond later, the same area combusted with a red light and consumed the surface where it was cut, burning the plant in that intense burst of fire. Good thing Steiner managed to jump away to safety as it happened.

Plant Brain flayed and swung its tentacles around as the fire consumed it. Shortly after, the tentacles fell down to the ground as the giant plant began to droop down into the dirt until it was motionless.

"I…Is it over?" Vivi spoke up as soon as everyone went silent. He looked at me, hoping I had an answer, but the answer was as evident as the monster in front of us.

"Yes, it's over." I said. I saw Alyssa fall back on her butt and gave a sigh of relief. Zidane cheered with a victorious stance as Blank high-fived him. We were still missing one more detail. "Steiner, look!" I shouted over to the knight. High above the defeated plant, the branches that were holding the princess in place started to decompose.

"Princess!" Steiner ran as he saw one of the branches fall off. A few seconds later, every single branch gave away, making the princess fall down towards the ground. Everyone gasped as they saw Garnet fall while Steiner jumped into the air. In what seemed like slow-motion, Steiner managed to catch the princess just before she hit the ground, making everyone give out a relieved breath. Now Steiner was trying to wake up sleeping beauty by shaking her senseless.

Blank turned to me and pointed to the bag. "Give her the stuff." He says. I opened the bag and grabbed the purple bottle filled with the seed remover medicine he made. I gave it to Zidane, who knelt beside the unconscious princess and gently poured the medicine into her mouth. When the bottle was emptied, Garnet coughed a few times before settling down in the knight's arms.

"Is she gonna be okay?" Vivi asked. Zidane was about to answer his question when the ground started to shake. The remains of Plant Brain started to be absorbed into the earth as a giant hole opened up where it was. Everyone backed away from the hole as the shaking stopped.

Then something crawled out of the black pit, something spider-like with a red upper body like a corrupted rose and six green vine-like pointed tentacles for legs. It was the Plant Spider, offspring of the Plant Brain. Another one crawled up behind it and hissed at us. We were going to back up towards the way we came in when we heard a different set of hisses. There was another group of Plant Spiders entering through the entrance.

I saw the horrified look of the people around me. We were virtually surrounded.

"Let's get out of here!" Zidane told everyone and nobody disagreed.

"No sudden movements." I advised them. I raised up my hands as if I was surrendering after sheathing my knife and slowly made my way to a path to the right that led deep into the forest and eventually the way out. Zidane followed with Steiner close by. Vivi and Alyssa gently trailed behind them with Blank bringing up the rear ever so slowly, making Zidane shout at him.

The Plant Spiders all turned to our direction and menacingly approached us with its tentacles ready to attack. "Okay, this is the part where we run for our respective lives," I say to the others in a calm manner. I looked behind me and saw an open path leading downwards. "I SAID RUN!" I yelled at them, making them jump and bolt down the path.

Steiner (with Garnet in his arms) led the running troupe of airship emergency crash landing survivors with me, Alyssa, Vivi, Blank and Zidane following him in that very specific order. Our path stayed straight with a slight angle going downwards for most of the time, which I was thankful because my feet were about to give out and the fact that I could be devoured or implanted with a seed virus was the only thing that kept me going.

I looked behind me and saw everyone running and the Plant Spiders rushing excitedly to get its vines on our fresh human nervous systems. Suddenly, I collided with Steiner's armor and almost sent him tumbling down to the ground if it wasn't for Alyssa holding onto his armor until he balanced himself again. He stopped because the path was terribly misshapen, but the continuation was a feet or so down below. The three of us climbed down with Alyssa helping Steiner out with the princess's body. I was the first to reach the ground below and I regretted that achievement when a pair of Plant Spiders jumped down wherever it came from.

I just realized that Plant Spiders are almost bigger than us. Cue the wide eyes I did when it tried to attack me.

"Hold the princess for me, will you?" Alyssa said as she dumped Garnet onto my arms. She and Steiner quickly took their swords and sliced the Plant Spiders into pieces while the others proceeded to descend. And did I mention that Garnet was heavy. Dear lord, I felt my arms shake the longer I was carrying her and with enough shaking I could possibly re-break my right arm. Here I was with a messenger bag containing a tent, some vials of potions, eye drops and ethers that had been digging into my shoulders throughout this whole ordeal now straddled with the responsibility of carrying royalty. Curse my luck.

"The path is clear." Steiner picked the princess up from my arms and continued running. I'll complain about this later. Now I just want to get out of this forest.

Behind us I could hear Blank shouting at Zidane for stopping and making the correct observation that the forest is alive, like it was coming after us. He was going to hand the responsibility of taking care of everyone to Blank, which he did not want to have, in case something happened to him. He was trying to apologize to him in case he did something unnecessarily heroic, the idiot.

As we continued down the path that curved to the right with the trees beginning to thin out and widen out the path, we figured that fighting the Plant Spiders was slowing us down, so we all universally agreed to just run around, jump or evade the Plant Spiders. Somehow, Zidane managed to take the lead from Steiner. Far into what seemed like a never-ending horizon of trees I saw a clearing, a meadow with a tall, angled rock. That was it, the end of the forest.

"I can see the ending!" Alyssa gasped as she pointed straight ahead. With that, I channeled all the reserved energy I had through all of the times I was lazy into my legs to reach that clearing. All of us overtook Zidane as we neared the exit, except for Blank.

I didn't dare look back as we neared the last of the trees and finally, finally exited that demented woodland with a diabolical species of plants. Finally…

"Finally…" I managed in a breath as I collapsed onto the grass, fatigued, sweating and still alive. That was good enough for me.

I looked over to the edge of the forest and saw Zidane approaching as fast as he can with the vines just close by. It tried to get him with various swiped and overtakes, almost decapitating him once, but he proved to be too agile for the forest to handle. With just a few feet left between him and freedom, the blond member of Tantalus jumped out, successfully evading the grasp of the Evil Forest.

The vines of the forest, probably a bit unhappy that they didn't make their quota of petrifying people, sealed off the way out we had just used and proceeded to turn to stone too, surprising the three main protagonists at this turn of events. That made Zidane go a bit crazy, seeing as to what his friend's fate implied.

I managed to get to my feet with the help of Alyssa, who then tried to help Zidane calm down afterwards. Steiner and Vivi looked on with different reactions to this, but overall they were both tired. I was tired too. Hell, I was even more tired than all four of them combined if that even made sense.

Before I could even cool down and relax, I felt an increasing pain in my chest. I breathed out in surprise as the pain made it difficult to breathe. I felt dizzy as I struggled to breathe, but throughout that moment of dizziness I noticed that none of them has seen me having what I think was a heart attack. Not a heart attack per say, but I felt like I was having one.

It eventually subsided, making me gasp sharply. My sudden intake of air made some of the oxygen down the wrong pipe, making me cough loud enough to elicit some attention from the others.

"Are you okay?" I hear Vivi ask as he came up to me and patted my back.

"Y-Yeah." I shakily replied. "Fatigued, y-you know. I just need rest." And an oxygen tank, though I doubt they have a functioning one in hand.

What the hell was that!? What just happened? Did I just seriously almost die because of oxygen deprivation? What the hell…

If this is a sign of some almighty being telling me that I should improve my cardio then I'll admit that God does exist and I would happily oblige in a diet and an exercise regimen to do so. But I seriously doubt that is actually the case.

We have other things to worry about, other MAJOR things like following the plot and surviving. I can't just add my health problem all willy-nilly because of a little difficulty with breathing. I just hope that it's a one-time thing. I hope it is.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 9: A Good Cover Story Should Cover All of the Basics

-Alyssa-

The Evil Forest, previously a place filled with scary monsters and an equally eerie atmosphere, a place that Zidane, Vivi, Steiner, Blake and I escaped after a surprise crash landing in the middle of said forest, was now not a normal forest. As soon as we escaped through those last rows of trees, the vines wrapped around every single tree that was part of the forest until the vines covered every single nook and cranny of every path, leaving no area uncovered, making the forest with no way of getting in and getting out.

Now, I bet you noticed that one name was left unmentioned. There's a reason for that. Blank, Zidane's friend, sacrificed himself and saved Zidane from a horrible fate. And if that wasn't bad enough, the entire forest started petrifying itself during the final stretch of our run. Now the Evil Forest stood before us encased in white stone.

Too much overkill just to off one person, right?

Zidane was distraught. He was pounding on the stone vines, yelling out his friend's name, earning him the concerned stares of me and Vivi. I've seen and played through this part, and even with the knowledge of this thing happening, it still makes me feel sad for Zidane. I'm sure Blank and Zidane shared a lot of fun times with each other, you know like thieving and stealing things together and such, and just seeing a close friend sacrifice himself isn't something anyone can't feel bad about. Remembering the image in that FMV with Blank, petrified in the grasp of a Plant Spider, almost made me tear up.

"There is nothing to cry about someone you barely knew." Blake told me later when we were sitting in front of the camp fire. He said it so coldly that I saw how indifferent he was towards what just happened.

I didn't know the person, but it wasn't hard to feel sad. Sure, he gets better later on, but just think about what Zidane felt when he saw this happen. He was banging on stone with his hands and muttering how much of an idiot Blank was. If they switched roles, the same would pretty much happen.

I just don't want to think about it anymore. It's so saddening.

We made camp just a few meters away from what remained of Evil Forest. Zidane and Blake put up the tent, even though the latter refused to do so at first that I had to coax him into it, while I helped Vivi with the fire. Princess Garnet was still out of it, now currently sleeping inside the tent since she needed comfort for her to recover, with Steiner standing outside keeping guard. He's still cautious of almost everyone except for 'Master' Vivi, his distrust aimed mostly towards Zidane and Blake.

"It's because he thought I murdered that one soldier." The boy with the cast muttered to me.

When we were all settled into our camping spot with the sun's light starting to dim as it sets over the horizon filled with Mist, Blake and I were seated around the camp fire opposite to where the tent was as Steiner paced around it and grumbled something under his breath. Vivi had already nodded off into a nap in front of the tent. Zidane went off alone to find something to eat, and perhaps cheer himself up.

He eventually returned and brought a dead Mu, a small four-legged white and blue furred fox and wolf hybrid with a giant puffy tail, in his arms. It was slightly bloodied with two stab wounds, but that didn't bother him one bit. He set it down on a flat rock and put his daggers beside it.

"I hope the princess gets better." I said to nobody in particular. However, Steiner heard this and was reminded of the princess's state and the events leading to it, exploding into a heated accusation.

"This is all your fault!" Steiner exclaimed, pointing to the blond thief, loud enough to make Vivi jump up from his sleep. Zidane looked like he was actively ignoring him. There was a thick silence as Zidane only minded the dead Mu he was chopping up. "Have you nothing to say, you filth!?"

Again, silence. All we could hear for a full minute was the wind blowing against the tent, the cracks of wood being burned and Zidane slicing Mu meat. Blake had proceeded to lie down and enjoyed the minute of silence and Vivi warmed his hands near the fire. Steiner's hands were shaking in anger at the thief as he went on ignored.

Then he noticed the tent move. He jumped up and turned around, panicked at probably a thought that something jumped in it and could be threatening the princess's life. That was nixed when Princess Garnet exited the tent on wobbly legs and a hand on her head.

"P-Princess!" Steiner stuttered in disbelief. Everyone, except for Blake, looked over to her in surprise. It had been a few hours since we escaped the forest, meaning Garnet had a lot of rest for the seed remover antidote to work its magic. She even had more rest than Blake and Vivi combined. She still looked a bit pale and a bit dazed.

"…Steiner?" Her voice cracked too. She shook her head, but that only made her feel worse. "…How did I survive…You brought me here?"

"It is my sworn duty to protect you at any cost." Steiner said as he knelt beside the princess. Zidane heard this and didn't like Steiner not giving credit where credit is due.

"What are you talking about? It was Vivi's magic, Alyssa's skills, Blake's distractions and my dagger that got you out of there." Zidane stated as he pointed to each of us for our parts in her rescue. The princess looked at all of us with a gentle smile.

"I thank you all." She simply said.

"Distractions? That's not all I did..." I heard Blake mumble. Zidane apparently heard this too, turning around to the injured teenager and shrugged.

"Well, you can't fight. At least you still have some credit." Blake's features turned into a frown. Before he could answer back with something, Steiner beat him to the punch.

"That monkey deserves no praise!" He shouted. "None of this would've happened if you and your band hadn't kidnapped the princess! And how dare you claim that you have rescued her!? When we get back to Alexandria, I will –"

"…Steiner." Despite her voice being a little low, Steiner heard her amidst his shouting. He stopped and knelt back down beside her. "I left the castle of my own will."

"What a coincidence, eh?" Zidane crossed his arms and grinned. Even Steiner looked a bit confused at this revelation. "We went to snatch her, and she wanted to be snatched."

"That is quite the coincidence." Blake remarked as he sat up.

"Why did you want to get kidnapped?" I asked. We were playing dummies for this part, already knowing the reason for this and much more. But we didn't want to say that. Plus, who would believe that we know everything, right?

Princess Garnet looked away, not wanting to answer the big question in everyone's mind. "Impossible!" Steiner stood up, but Garnet put a hand up, silencing the trusty knight.

"It's true." She said with her eyes downcast. Again, still not answering the million dollar, er… gil question.

Zidane walked up to the fire with that ever confident and charming grin on his face. "So what do you say, Rusty? Friends?" He even held out his hand towards him. "Come on. Let's just enjoy this camping trip while it lasts."

And apparently, Steiner doesn't like the idea of camping in a place filled with dangerous monsters always on the prowl. Some boy scouts back at home would kill for an opportunity to camp out in a place like this so they'll get some badges. Too bad, the scout masters are so paranoid nowadays.

I remember a friend of mine telling me while he was a boy scout a few years back that he was able to catch a snake that got on their camping grounds with a couple of mouse traps and a butterfly net. It wasn't poisonous, but still scared a lot of boy scouts, even the scout master was terrified. Anyway, I got sidetracked. Where was I? Oh yeah, Steiner…

"Camping – you imbecile! Surely even you must know something about the Mist." He gestured the place surrounding us. Sure, the Mist was like fog by how it looked and by the definition that most dictionaries give it, but it wasn't Silent Hill. "The monsters it spawns! The abnormalities it stirs in the mind and body!"

"How bad is the Mist? I don't hear a lot of people complaining about it back at home." I said with a tilt of my head. Steiner turned to me and began to explain.

"It twists the mind, driving some denizens of the Mist Continent mad. It alters the body, injuring the organs in a certain way, making them incapable of functioning unless treated immediately. It hardens the heart, cripples the lungs, and deteriorates the overall condition of the person." Steiner sounded like he was supposed to scare little boys and girls with his tone and how most of those facts sounded like they were actual facts. Maybe they are, I just don't know.

"When you say 'hardens the heart', do you mean it improves cardio?" I ask innocently. Everything he just said was so grim. At least I tried to ease the tension a bit.

I personally didn't know anything about the Mist. The only thing I knew about the Mist was that it spawns monsters and is a central plot point later on. Aside from that, nothing. I turned to Blake to see if he had anything to contribute with just a look on his face. From what I got, he didn't have anything to say. He was deep in thought, something else was bothering him. I hope he's just thinking of what to do in the next area.

"What I'm trying to point out here is that we must leave this dangerous place at once," insisted the captain of the Knights of Pluto. He was right. If we were to stay here, then his charge would be in constant danger, something he'd not be willing to happen. She'd already been in danger once, and lord knows what else is out here. Well, there ain't much else out here except for the ice cavern.

"You've got to be kidding." Zidane interjected. "She hasn't recovered yet." He was right about that too. Garnet looked too sick to be walking around. I bet her legs would give out before we could even get ten paces to our destination.

"Silence!" Steiner really loves making us jump out of our seats. "Who asked your opinion!?"

"If I may," Blake raised his casted hand, opting to catch the knight's attention. "I know you're saying all of this so that you'll keep your favor with the princess, but I do ask that you think first." He pointed to the petrified forest behind us. "I am sure you remember what we just went through in that forest. I am sure you know how tired we are. And I am certainly sure that you know how vulnerable people are when they are tired. Now, no offense to the princess, but I think the four of us, who just barely escaped the Evil Forest with our lives intact, would face more difficulties if we were to walk around in a Mist-filled field carrying around dead weight with whatever remaining strength we have left."

…Did he just call the princess dead weight?

I look over to Garnet and saw her frown for a bit for the insult, but it softened into a thoughtful expression. She knew what he meant and let the insult slide. Steiner himself was thinking it over too. Zidane continued on for Blake after the momentary silence, thinking that he can add more things for Steiner to think about.

"And how do you plan on getting out of here? We're standing in a valley surrounded by tall cliffs. And last I heard North and South Gate were sealed off." He turned to the knight, now standing and still thinking over what was just said. With the quiet atmosphere around us, Zidane once again spoke, this time with a small grin on his face. "Yeah. That's what I thought."

With the knight stumped, left growling after being trumped with the facts, Zidane tried approaching Garnet as he was telling that the antidote takes time before the seeds are fully out of Garnet's system. When the armored man tried objecting to Zidane's leadership, the blond thief wanted him to state his sworn duty, which was to protect the princess at all costs. That meant her safety and well being has to be looked after too. That finally made him agree.

It was kinda funny, being forced to submit to the enemy's terms with your own sworn duty. Kinda ironic too since this would only endanger her more. But that's for them to figure out on their own. Blake and I are just in it for the fun of it all.

After that, everyone agreed that we were going to camp out here until Garnet's okay, which would probably tomorrow. With the gray sky over us and a thick blanket of Mist, we all went to sleep in agreed silence. Tomorrow is going to be a cold and long day.

The next day, I woke up around the same time the sun was rising. Bright orange light, not gray light that we came out of the forest, but orange rising sun light. It's surprising to me because the only time you see a sun rise up in the sky during the game is when you exit the Ice Cavern, and that could take while. That's probably one of the effects when you're currently living out a game right before your eyes, you know? Even virtual worlds have the ability to feel organic and real.

I sat up from where I was sleeping and looked around. Okay, still a bit Misty and thankfully nobody has been taken while we were sleeping. Zidane had his back on the tall angled rock beside camp, Garnet was obviously in the tent since she needs to recover, Steiner amazingly slept while he stood, Vivi was lying on his side facing the fire, or what was left of it, and Blake…

Blake was already up, standing right next to the stream near our camping site, hands held behind him as he looked out to the open area. How long has he been awake?

As I walked over towards him, I notice him double over for a moment, looking like he's struggling with something. What was wrong? He didn't show anything wrong with him before he went to sleep yesterday. "Blake, are you okay?" I asked as I ran up to him.

He heard me and instantly straightened himself, but he coughed for a few seconds before being able to turn around to look at me. "I'm fine. Just a bit tired, that's all." I looked over him carefully. I didn't know if he was lying or not, but early mornings is not the time to argue.

"Okay, if you say so." I said to him. "Enjoy your sleep?"

"Meh," He titled his injured right hand to the left and right as he said this. "I might've enjoyed it more if I had a pillow or something soft to cushion my head from the incredibly uncomfortable ground. And I think a bit of grass got in my ear."

I chuckled at the last bit. Now I have an image of him snoring unconsciously with his head sideways on the grass. He was checking his left ear if it did have some grass upon mention of it, but came up empty, which was a good thing. We don't want him to have a garden in his auditory canal. He doesn't look like the type to want one.

"Anyway," I said once my thoughts were organized again. "You're up early."

"That's because of the grass." He replied quickly, then a hesitant pause. I could tell that there's something else just fm how his eyes shifted. "…And there's something's bothering me." Bothering him? I wonder what that could be. "Judging from that look on your face, you're probably wondering about that." I could only rub the back of my head and nod. He's got it all figured out.

"Fine, I'll tell you." Blake sighed. He faced me and took out his knife, looking at the weapon with a frown. "Do you think I'm useless just because I can't fight?"

Whoa. Where's this coming from? Is it because of what Zidane said earlier and what Steiner told him in Evil Forest? Was he bothered by that? "Don't listen to what Zidane and Steiner said. Vivi wouldn't have been rescued if it wasn't for your plan. It would probably take them a bit longer to figure out that cutting the stems would help."

Blake shook his head, still looking upset. "He was right. I can't fight. If I'm to survive in a world like this, then I would need to know how to defend myself."

Then I had a thought. "I can teach you how to fight!"

He didn't even take my idea into consideration as he rolled his eyes at my suggestion. "Please," Blake scoffed. "I need someone with more experience, not from someone who learned from a middle-aged man with half-hearted lessons read loudly from a book."

Hey! Who do you think you are to judge my teacher just like that? One, he's not old, he's twenty going thirty; two, he has a lot of talent and is proud of sharing what he knows to his students; and three, he almost got into the Olympics once, so don't underestimate his skills just because you don't personally know him. He's a kind hearted expert, a soft-spoken master, and a gentleman. If you were rude in front of him, he'd floor you faster before you could even bend down to remove your shoes, and then you'd wish you bowed down before a great mentor.

Before I stomped away towards the camp, I remembered a certain thing he did to me yesterday. I focused all of the anger that came from that remark about my mentor and slapped him on the back of his head. He almost toppled over into the stream, but I pulled him back, making him land on his back.

"That's for using me as a shield yesterday!" I said before storming off. That guy really has some problems.

Some ten minutes passed and everyone started to wake up. Zidane was up first, yawning and stretching his arms, scratching his head while looking around. I greeted him, with him greeting me back, as he stood up. He saw Blake, who was still over there by the stream now pacing back and forth. Zidane asked me, upon seeing that everyone else was still sound asleep, if I was hungry. Now that he brought it up, I do feel a bit hungry. That made me remember how tasty that Mu was last night even if it was only put on a stick and fried on a stick with some seasonings the thief brought with him.

Why he would bring food seasonings is anyone's guess. Mine would be that he knew that we'd have to hunt for our food. It's kinda like those survival shows in Discovery Channel where they kill their own food.

That reminded me of that one time I went camping with my family, along with some of my cousins, and they insisted that we hunt our own food. They also brought some spices and herbs to make the dead animals taste better than plain dead animal. That was some fun I had with my family.

My family… Oh my gosh… I wonder if they know what happened to me. It's going to be hard for them to hear that their daughter got struck by lightning, and I don't even know if I'm just hallucinating or, like Blake's theory, dreaming. I've been so busy running around trying not to get myself killed that I forgot about my parents. I felt a tinge of guilt hit me in the heart. How could I not have thought about them the first time I woke up in the Prima Vista?

I wonder what they're doing right now. Have they realized that something has happened to me? Has Nina and the others called an ambulance and rushed me to a hospital? God, I wish I know what they're doing right now. Everything's just been so… bizarre that I haven't come to grips yet as to what has happened to me yet.

I just hope everyone back at home is okay and that this is just one massive electro-charged hallucination.

"Alyssa, are you okay?" I heard Zidane ask as he waved a gloved hand in front of my face. "You've been staring at your feet for a while there."

"Huh? Oh, I'm sorry," I said as I shook my head and tried to play it off. "I got lost in thought for a moment there."

Zidane scratched the back of his head, looking curiously at me. "Thinking of what? Something you wanna share?"

I arched an eyebrow at this. "No. It's something really personal." I walked on ahead, trying to put back my focus on our current objective: finding our next culinary victim. "What's with the sudden curiosity?"

"Nothing much." The thief said as he caught up with me with a few long strides. "You're always keeping to yourself or talking to Blake for some reason."

"Talking to friends isn't bad. I… uh…" Crap. This is why I only talk to Blake. I don't need to lie to him because he already knows how deep in trouble we are and how messed up this whole thing is. Okay Alyssa, just try to act casual and try to not blatantly lie to Zidane. He's a thief and thieves know their liars. "I don't have anything against everyone. I'm a friendly girl! It's just that… I… we… uh… how do I put this…"

"You're close?" Zidane suggested.

I shook my head at the thought. But there was a pause, trying to think of what to say do I don't give anything away, before I spoke again. But I can't lie to Zidane… "I don't wanna talk about it."

"Sensitive information?" He asked. Before I could reply, he made this sound that suggested something…off-putting to me. "Oh! Did you two-?"

"What!? God no!" If Zidane finished that line I would've smacked him in the face for even thinking about such a thing. I barely know the guy! His sister is the one I know and we're just acquaintances because of her.

Gosh…Nina. I wonder what's happening back at home…. Are we still unconscious on that beach or are we actually dead? The chances of lightning hitting us were very, very, VERY slim and the random chance generator managed to give us the lucky number. The more I think about that, the more my mind goes back to my friends. I wish they were here to tell me that everything's going to be okay…

Zidane's glove once again passed by my face. "You zoned out again."

"Sorry," I apologized. "Honestly, just seeing Blake, someone familiar, is… it just makes everything easier to handle, you know? It's easier to have someone you can comfortable talk with."

"You can always have a comfortable talk with me if you'd like."

I paused for a moment before looking at him, seeing a smirk on his face. "Are you hitting on me?"

The monkey-tailed actor just shrugged with a grin on his face. "C'mon, don't tell me this is your first time getting hit on." He was nudging me with his elbow in a teasing manner that got me to chuckle.

I shook my head as I tried to hide the smile forming with my hand. I can't believe this is happening. Really, this should not be happening. Zidane didn't just hit on me. "No. Please don't. It's flattering, but… just no."

"What? You've never been hit on before?" He asked as he kept smirking.

"I have, but it coming from you, it's kinda embarrassing. Here you are, an actor for goodness sake, trying to hit on a normal girl like me." Plus, he's not just an actor. He's a thief, a suave kidnapper and that he's one of the main protagonists in a videogame. It just seems very odd that someone very fictional, yet very real right now, to be trying to do that to me.

He eventually dropped the topic as we discussed other things. Thank goodness too, because if he would've pressed on the issue some more I would've run back to camp and let him hunt on his own. Anyway, we found some Mus patrolling a small wooden area. It was probably where they rested after spawning in such a big place. We only took down one of them, which wasn't that hard, and forced the others to retreat with only light wounds. They'll be back, and we'll have room for lunch when that time comes.

Vivi, Garnet and Steiner were awake when we got back. Well, I think Steiner is awake. I really can't tell with that guy standing and sleeping at the same time. I wonder how he can do that without toppling over. So weird… Oh, and Blake's sitting by the fire our resident black mage restarted. He is so awesome. Why can't the real world have magic? If Harry Potter is a sign then magic's the only thing keeping children sane, unless there's an evil wizard trying to take over the world.

Garnet still felt weak from her condition. Zidane tried offering an 'acting remedy' to cheer her up, but once Steiner caught wind of it he started shouting at the blond lady-killer for 'insinuating such activity', his words. I'm guessing she doesn't get sick often and when she does get sick it affects her greatly. Probably like a normal flu would only make a kid sick for a day but make a very vulnerable kid sick for two or three days.

We all had a change of topic when Zidane brought something up previously discussed in the forest.

"You know, you guys never really answered Rusty back there in the forest." That made Vivi and Steiner ponder back on what was said back then. Only Garnet looked confused since she wasn't there to begin with.

"Oh that," I nervously chuckled. "I guess we were in too much of a hurry to save the princess to answer."

"Well, we have all the time in the world now." Zidane said. He put a finger to the side of his head as he tried to remember what we said. "I think you said you got onstage by accident."

"Yeah. It's pretty embarrassing." I chuckle again, the Mu meat on a stick in my hand shaking as well.

"Not as embarrassing as your attire." Blake commented offhandedly with a twirl of his food. "And your name." That one was a murmur, but I was sitting beside him so that made it easy to hear. I pointed the stick with some Mu meat Zidane cut up and cleaned for consumption threateningly.

"Hey, I didn't have a choice!" I brought back my stick in front of me, noticing Zidane, Garnet and Vivi chuckling. "Anyway, I was working in the engine room of the Prima Vista when everything you guys did started happening. You know for a princess you're pretty athletic, Garnet."

"Thank you." Garnet said with a small smile.

"Please address Her Highness as 'princess'." Steiner told me, holding Garnet's food with his other hand. His excuse was the princess was still too weak to hold onto anything, so now he's helping her with it. Zidane just gave him a meaningful look.

"Sorry." I apologized and continued answering Zidane's question. "Anyway, I followed you guys at the urging of my coworkers and saw you guys were fighting. I told them what was happening, but wanted to see the end of the fight so I came back. When I did, oglops were already hopping everywhere. My coworkers helped with that bit while I noticed that Steiner, Zidane and Garnet here weren't there anymore. I moved to the next room and see the platforms going up. One thing led to another and in a panic I accidentally found myself on the last platform."

"Just out of curiosity, how in the world did you find yourself on that platform?" Blake asked with a sly smile forming at the edges of his mouth. Oh, you ass. You already know this, yet you want me to say it. Now you got Zidane curious. I can't weasel my way out of this.

"…Some oglops…got into…my clothes…and …and made …activate…the platform…by accident…" I muttered, trying to avoid everyone's gazes. A second later, Zidane burst out laughing alongside Blake. I saw Steiner raise an eyebrow, but had a smile on his face. Even Garnet was in on it, laughing inwardly with a hand on her mouth. At least Vivi looked unsure whether to join them or not, but there was still a smile forming on his face.

"Sorry…sorry." Zidane tried to say as his laugh began to die down, almost dropping his food due to the laughing. I glared at Blake, who stopped laughing immediately and grinned evilly. Oh, I see now. He's still miffed about the 'accessory' thing and he's just getting even. Okay, now we're even. I hope you're happy. "Man, I needed that."

"I'm glad you got cheered up on my expense." I stood up and sat somewhere away from the black haired teenager, which was right beside Vivi. He gave a comforting smile. Vivi, you innocent soul, you don't know how many lies were just said today. I hope you don't have to find out about it soon.

"How about you?" Steiner regarded Blake this time with his Mu stick. "Last time you mentioned Alexandrian soldiers trying to arrest you."

Blake waved at the claim dismissively. "Yeah. I didn't do anything against the law to warrant their attention, but they decided to harass me as if I did. I'm just a salesman trying to earn my place in the world." He's very confident with his own cover story. He's probably memorized every detail in that story of his to avoid any inconsistencies.

"Salesman?" Vivi asked. "You sell potions and that kind of stuff?"

"So you're a merchant with a fancy name?" Zidane added after taking a bite out of his Mu.

"No, not that kind of stuff." Blake said. "I'm not that kind of guy who sells potions, ethers or tents to adventurers to get an easy buck. I also prefer the term 'salesman' in order to sound professional." He gave Zidane a look with narrowed eyes, making it perfectly clear that he's intent on sticking with the word 'salesman'. "I dwell on the high quality merchandise people really want. And before you ask, no, what I do is not illegal."

"And what exactly did you do to attract the attention of the soldiers?" Inquired the princess.

"Now that's the funny story I was telling you guys about. You see, I had just arrived in Alexandria to meet with a very important client. A few minutes upon arrival, I was mugged and left incapacitated on the side of the street. Upon waking up and realizing that the item my client had bought was gone, I freaked out. Because of this I accidentally thrashed a stand there belonging to someone really frightening. It resulted in a chase around town that involved a few soldiers joining in. They managed to subdue the owner while I escaped."

"Wow. Looking at you, I didn't really expect someone like you to get in such a big deal like that." Zidane admitted.

"I know. It was quite the escapade."

"I saw you watch the play in the Nobles section." Vivi commented after remembering the crazy events of the Prima Vista's escape.

"Ah yes. My client was big on plays and was excited to see I Want to be Your Canary, so he treated me to it and bought me a ticket before I got there. It was odd that I didn't see him there. He IS a busy man, so that should have been no surprise. Apparently, the soldier at the gate 'recognized' me," He brought up his hands and air quoted the word with an irritated look. "She tried arresting me there, forcing me to get on the escaping airship since I had nowhere else to go."

Zidane nodded at the end of his story. Blake's already covered his reason of being in Alexandria at that time and another for being at the play. Maybe the part about the soldier was convenient or on purpose, but he's not yet shared with me if it was either when we were discussing about it. At least nobody is suspicious –

"How is it that you two know each other?"

Oh God. I forgot about that.

My head suddenly turned to the person who asked this. Garnet, it was Garnet who asked a question. I looked away the instant she turned to me for an answer. Why did you have to go and ask that? Crap! I didn't think someone would think about that and bring it up at the same time. I looked down to the ground hard. There's no way I can think of a lie that could properly explain that, and the fact that I'm no good in lying isn't helping. What am I going to do?

"Alyssa and I knew each other from way back." Blake spoke with a degree of indifference. I looked up to him as he glances over to me. "I met her through my father. I met Alyssa while they were conversing and we were friends ever since. We stayed in contact while we were young, trading letters here and there, visiting when able, and all those good stuff. Then we grew up and life started getting in the way. It's been a while, a very long time, but seeing her on the airship that night was a surprise I never thought was possible."

He smiled at me when he ended it. Something in me thought that the smile wasn't genuine. It was a mask he was using to further push the lies convincingly to the others, a manufactured smile. I didn't know that he could be so deceptive. The look on everyone's faces showed that they believed every bit of what he said. Convinced that we were already in the clear, he went back to taking a bite on his seasoned Mu.

Everyone chatted about something else after that. Whether it may be about the Mist, the performance of the stars in the play, which made Zidane happy when Vivi said his performance was great, or what our next move would be, they talked about it at great length. Vivi was the one who suggested to go through the Ice Cavern that was somewhere towards the south.

Afterwards breakfast was a boring time we all used to get some more rest. I would've suggested something more proactive other than lying around the grass and waiting for Garnet to feel better. If only they knew what was going to happen in that cavern.

As I was looking up to the sky, unhindered by the Mist, Blake walked up to me and looked down with a serious expression on his face. "What? Not yet done humiliating me?" I say to him with a frown. What he did back there is unforgivable. I could have died of embarrassment there. Now that we're even,

A small smile crept up on his face. "That? Oh, Alyssa that is just the tip of the iceberg." The smile turned into a sneer as he continued to look down on me. "This 'accessory' isn't ready to forgive just yet."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask upon sitting up. He straightened up a bit, but was still looking down on me and maintained eye contact, making me do the same.

"Food for thought." He shrugged. "Anyway, I want you to help me persuade a certain someone here to teach me how to fight. Seeing that you're good with people, your help would be indispensable."

You know what would be indispensable? An apology. "I'd help you, but I want you to say sorry first."

He cocked an eyebrow up at this. "Say sorry? What for?"

"What do you mean what for?" I got up and poked him at the shoulder irritatingly. "You embarrassed me in front of everyone. Most people apologize when they do that to their friends."

"Well, I'm not like most people." He put a hand on his chest and grinned as he referred to himself. "Plus, I was only making your story clearer, easier to understand. They would obviously ask the same thing if I didn't do so. So no apology needed. You should be thanking me just for that."

What!? The nerve of this guy. You know, I actually thought that he would be more friendly compared to his sister, but now he just seems a little rude than what I actually guessed. "Just for that you get no help from me." I turned on my heel and walked away from the boy. He said something towards my direction, but I ignored it. Let him do it on his own. If he can make up lies, I'm sure he can do a genuine inquiry on how to fight.

The question is who he will be asking.

He stood there silently, his casted arm crossed on his chest with his good hand on his chin, thinking of what to do next. I looked around and saw two possible choices he might have. Zidane was chatting up a conversation with Vivi, sharing a chuckle with the black mage; his other choice was Steiner, standing tall and unmoving from the front of the tent that contained Garnet's resting form. Vivi's not included since he can't use black magic. He can either pick between a skilled thief and an experienced knight, the tailed klepto and the captain of the Pluto Knights, the adoring blond of Tantalus and the man who accused him of murder.

It's not a hard choice. He's obviously going to pick Zidane. I placed my hands on my hips confidently, fully predicting what he'll do next. I can feel it. I am so totally right. No way in Hell I'll be wrong.

"Excuse me, captain?"

What!? Why'd he go to Steiner? The guy accused him of murder! Maybe that's not clear to him. If I was him, I wouldn't even want to seek help from him until he apologizes.

I see Steiner turn to Blake as the teenager was acting like he was embarrassed of asking help from him. He was scratching the back of his head with a sheepish smile on his face as he talked. Steiner was narrowing his eyes at the teenager as they talked, well as Blake talked anyway. The two exchanged some words for a little bit before Steiner begrudgingly nodded. The two of them walked off somewhere as I looked on. Zidane noticed this development and asked me where the two were going.

"Well, let's just say that Blake took what you said about him a bit too seriously." I said, making the thief flinch.

It's not his fault really. Blake has brains, but the thought of being useless during a fight must have struck a chord with him. Nobody wants to be useless in any situation. He's probably thought that there will be times when he'll be alone and would need to defend himself. Blake's not totally useless, mind you. All he needs is the right push to fight.

And right now, he's trying to remedy that with the help of Steiner.

-FF FF FF-

"Is she the same girl from earlier?" Vivi asked, to which I nodded.

"Yeah. She's the same girl that stabbed him in the chest. But good thing they can't die, right?" I said. "Though, they can still feel pain."

"I'd hate to be on the bad side of that kind of girl." Zidane commented. "And what about this Operation Tornado? How was it going?"

"Well, it was going smoothly…" Zidane, Vivi and I were sitting at our camp site with nothing to do, so I decided to tell them a story to entertain them while we waited for Blake and Steiner. I started to tell them about Angel Beats! I wanted to let the whole thing stay as it was, but I was wondering if this world had guns and that they couldn't identify with it. Zidane told me that they knew of guns, but they were hard to get nowadays. Thank goodness for that.

That meant I didn't have to change some aspects of the story. Well, there's the electric guitars and the whole band and their instruments, but I just changed it to other instruments and described the giant electric fans as 'a ventilation system installed within the buildings'. I'll worry about the ending of the anime with the computers when it comes.

Some thirty minutes, or I think was thirty minutes since I didn't have a watch on me, had passed since Blake and Steiner went off somewhere. If you didn't know, Blake needed some help trying to fight. I still remember what he said during the fight with the Prison Cage as he was making plans on how to attack it.

I'm a thinker, not a fighter.

That's what he believes. Maybe he doesn't know that there have been smart guys that got really physical. Sherlock Holmes is known to have some skill in hand-to-hand combat, Jason Bourne speaks in a lot of languages and can kick anyone's butt using anything from a screwdriver to a coffee mug, Vladimir Putin can throw down with judo and even Theodore Roosevelt was an excellent student and an incredible boxer with a ju jitsu belt to his credit.

Anyways, I managed to tell the story of the first episode of the anime quite well. Vivi and Zidane enjoyed it as far as I could tell. Vivi even asked if something else happened, to which I said that there were other things, but I promised him that I'd tell him more later.

My storytelling gig didn't distract me from just how long the two have been gone. I hope everything's alright. I'm sure Blake doesn't need another injured limb to go along with his broken hand. Zidane noticed this immediately, bringing my attention to him.

"You know, Blake doesn't even look like a fighter." Zidane comments as the subject of our conversation circled back to the two's absence.

"Vivi doesn't look like a fighter, but he can cast magic." I countered. Vivi adjusts his yellow hat when he was brought up. "Not that decreases your value to the party, Vivi. You're pretty powerful."

"Yeah," Zidane adds. "We wouldn't have beaten the boss back there if it weren't for you."

"Gee… I was only helping." He said, feeling a little embarrassed. I put a hand on his shoulder with a smile on his face, making him smile too.

"Nonsense. Steiner might've got the last hit, but your magic left an incredible mark on the fight." I say to him. He's just too adorable and too naïve right now that it makes me envious. He must think that this is just a little adventure he accidentally got caught up with. All of that is going to change when we get to the next town, and knowing about that and being not allowed to tell him about it makes me feel a bit awful.

"And we might've not rescued you if you didn't start putting that thing that captured you on fire." Zidane noted. Oh yeah, the fight with Prison Cage. The first was incredibly easy because of Zidane's Trance. The second one was harder, but we made it through with Vivi's magic.

"I panicked." Vivi admitted with a gloved finger rubbing against his cheek. Aw, so humble.

"You know who also helped with that? Blake." I said. "His plan about cutting off the stems was useful."

Zidane and Vivi nodded. When he suggested it to us, the tide of the fight immediately changed in our favor. If only he figured that out during the first fight with Garnet being the one held in captivity. I'm sure Zidane is thinking about the same thing just from the look of his face right now. Maybe he did it on purpose.

This fight will be going nowhere as it begins. Plant Brain here won't get affected by the attacks early on. We need Zidane to be in critical condition in order to make the fight move on to its second phase.

That was his plan for the Plant Brain. Let Zidane go down so Blank can come and save the day. What kind of plan was that?

Cruel it may be, but that is how this fight goes. That's how this fight goes and what I say is final.

"He's resourceful, I'll give him that." You wouldn't be saying that if you actually knew what his plan was when we were fighting that gigantic plant. That plan would actually justify your initial desire to leave him back at the Prima Vista.

"Yeah, I guess he is."

After a short while, we see two figures approaching us from the woodlands not far from camp. I guessed it was Steiner and Blake correctly, but Blake didn't seem like he had a fun time while they were there. He was coming up towards us on his arms and knees, crawling and panting like crazy while Steiner walked normally like nothing had happened. And I could hear Blake's panting from way over here.

"What happened?" Vivi asks Steiner since he was the first to reach us. Blake was still behind him, only managing to get to half the distance between the camp and the woodlands.

"He asked me to give him some advice on the essentials of fighting." Steiner replied as he pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "I told him that advice cannot be practiced by mere words, so we hunted some monsters for him to practice on."

"And how did it go?" I asked. I looked past him and saw Blake nearing. At the pace he was holding, it would be sundown before he could make it to camp, and also there's a possibility that he could get mauled by a Mu. That picture could either be funny or really, really sad.

Steiner replied with his arms thrown into the air, "Terrible! The man is not capable of putting up a fight even with a weapon. When faced with a monster, he tries to talk himself out of it, beg for an exit or attempt to give it money… sometimes all three at the same time!" He put a hand on his face as I tried to stifle a laugh.

"At least he's not completely useless." Zidane remarked.

"That he is not." Steiner replied. "He tried running around with a monster chasing him to tire it out. It did the opposite." Now I can't really stop myself from giggling. "I even gave him permission to use my sword, to which he was barely able to lift. Then after that, he managed to persuade a Mu to ignore him after he provoked it, only to stab it in the back and kill it as it was going away."

"He killed something. That's something, right?" I said amidst my giggling. Soon this is going to be full blown laughter.

"After half an hour, he managed to kill one – just one – monster. Even the most pathetic soldier in Alexandria can prove to be better than him." The knight assumed his position in front of the tent with his arms crossed. "I can't believe someone like him managed to murder a soldier."

"Not murder…" Oh finally. Blake managed to crawl into camp, desperately tired and looking ragged. He almost looked pathetic. Grass was in his hair, dirt and a few marks from attacking monsters covered his shirt and black vest. That's what happens when you crawl on the ground. "I just…pushed her off the airship."

"Some people have died from a drop at a height like that." Zidane said to the teenager.

Blake raised his hand and waved it to stop Zidane from speaking. "I'm not going to argue this right now. I'm tired and I have just proven to myself that I can't fight." Blake responded as he stopped moving face down on the ground, sounding crestfallen.

"There's a large difference between 'can't' and 'won't' fight." A gentle voice said this. We all turned to the tent to see an emerging Garnet, now looking radiant and comparatively better than earlier in the day. She's standing now and I could see that she's not feeling shaky anymore. Good for her.

And that means we can go to our next destination now. But first, let's hear what she's got to say to Blake.

"From what I have heard in your conversation, you avoid direct confrontation with the enemy." Garnet continued. Blake had managed to sit up with all of his remaining strength and looked at the princess as she talked.

"Why be direct…when you can work from…a different angle?" Blake replied to the princess as he was trying to pull out something from his pocket. I think what he's saying here is going with the course of action that requires less effort.

"Sometimes the easiest resolution is the one that is straight-forward." She advised the planner.

"I'm assuming you know this because you know how to fight," guessed Blake. Garnet nodded as she approached the group. Steiner stood directly beside her, always keeping guard just in case of an attack or some attempted approach by Zidane.

"I've had a great education back in the castle. Perhaps I know a little." It was Blake's turn to throw his hands into the air in exasperation. Geez, he's taking this quite seriously. Some guys back home would feel proud if they don't know how to fight. Fighting's not important anyway back home. All you need is a gun and you'll solve any problem with it.

"Great. The princess is better than me in combat. There goes my self-esteem." Garnet put a hand on Blake's shoulder when the boy slouched. Blake didn't turn his head towards the princess as she someone else spoke in her behalf.

"Maybe all you need is confidence in your abilities." Steiner suggested a course of action, but Blake shook his head at this.

"Confidence, now that I have." He finally got his hand out of his pocket with a vial of potion in it. "I just…don't like dirtying my own hands when it comes down to strenuous matters, you know?"

Zidane rubbed his chin after he stood up and walked towards Blake. "Then initiative is what you need. That's right!" He softly punches him on the shoulder and chuckled. "Speaking of that, now that Garnet's feeling a bit better we can probably move on out."

The red tie wearing boy groaned. "Five minutes. That is all I ask. Five minutes, then we move." He looked at Zidane straight in the eye with exhaustion written all over his face. Zidane agreed to it, saying that he needed some time to pack up the tent in its bag and check inventory. Well actually, I'm supposed to be the one to check inventory since it was my turn to carry the bag around.

Glad that he was given some time to rest, he popped open the potion in his hands and with a shrug he downed the vial of potion easily and gave out a relieved breath. He must've seen the 'what are you doing' face I was giving, making him instantly reply. "If potions can cure wounds, I'm sure it can cure fatigue."

Everyone started making preparations before we started moving out. We checked weapons and items carefully since we don't want to forget anything. Zidane went up to the remains of Evil Forest one last time, trying to find peace in his friend's sacrifice. Garnet joined him soon after and gave him some encouraging words. When they were done having a brief time of reflection, the two walked up to us side by side and nodded to all of us.

"Alright, let's get going!"

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 10: Knocked Out Cold

-Alyssa-

One thing I was looking forward to leaving camp was the moogle that flies in and gives the party a flute to use when they want to save or rest. You know what happened? Nothing! Here I was expecting one of the adorable mascots of the series to appear and they don't even pop up. I did this also back in the Evil Forest in the purified spring before Plant Brain, only to be disappointed. This is what happens when you try hard to anticipate something only to be left hanging. I'm sure Blake is laughing inside at my expectations.

Anyway, we walked towards west of the Ceebell River, whose name I have just been informed by Blake, for some two hours or so while encountering some Goblins, Mus, our ever cute source of food, and some Pythons. The latter were dark green-scaled serpents that slithered around and pounded on you with its body, mostly its tail, in rapid succession and could use basic thunder spells.

Most of the monsters were no big deal for our party. With three frontline attackers, two magic supporters and one strategist, we were pretty solid and had the easiest time when handling monsters. Blake was the one who devised this formation, using his 'common sense' as he would say it, so that nobody just wildly charges in and recklessly puts the group in danger. Most of the work came from the frontline. Vivi would come in if the attackers were in bigger groups of four or more while Garnet would use her White Magic to heal us. Blake would just stand back with his arms folded in front of him with a satisfied smile.

And on the way to the cavern, Vivi learned to use thunder spells. That was a great addition to his skills. I'm sure he's excited on using it. Giving those Pythons a taste of their own medicine would satisfy anyone hit by their magic.

"The Guild was located under almost a hundred floors and the way there was filled with traps. All made to stop Angel from getting to them if she ever found out where they were." Oh yes, I continued telling the story about Angel Beats. It was a good way to spend the time while we weren't fighting any monsters, which was most of the time. "But the problem they all soon found out that the traps weren't deactivated, meaning the passage to The Guild was perilous."

They all listened intently, including Steiner. Well, he doesn't want to show it, but there's a hint of curiosity on his face when I took a glance of him. I gave Garnet a condensed version of the first episode so that she was up to speed. Blake didn't want one, yet he encouraged me to go and tell it so he wouldn't be bored of the silence in the group.

"The first trap they accidentally activated was a boulder. The Afterlife Battlefront tried to run away from the boulder as it rolled towards them. They managed to find a space in the walls they can use to hide as a way to get past it. Unfortunately, Takamatsu wasn't fast enough and got squashed."

"But I assume he's alright." Garnet spoke.

"Yeah. They can't die. He's just temporarily out of it. Moving on…"

We knew we were getting near to the Ice Cavern when we felt the air get colder and colder even if the temperature out here is lukewarm. A breeze flows through the air towards us with an icy touch, and we could see it come towards us. It's like if you blow on some ice after drinking a cold drink and you'll see the air when you do it.

There it was, the Ice Cavern.

Underneath a valley where the Mist is less lethal and does not reach any towns and villages, the Ice Cavern welcomed adventurers brave enough to walk inside with an air that get chillier and chillier the deeper you go and a view of the frozen walls of rock and of the ground. Some flowers inside were also beautifully frozen to make it look like sculptures. Some snow were even piled at some corners of the cavern, tempting me to gather it up in one hand, shape it into a sphere and start a snowball fight.

The path inside the cavern was snowy like in the weeks leading to Christmas in some countries. It was soft and easy to walk on, as if they were plowed flat for adventurers to walk on. The frozen plants look even more stunning to look at up close than at a distance. I walked up to one as the others looked around and briefly talked about the cavern and Vivi's grandfather, who told him about this place.

Poor Vivi, having to remember his late and beloved grandfather. It's painful to remember relatives that have passed on. The memories they leave you always make you want to relive every moment you had with them over and over. One of my friend's relatives passed away months ago and the only way she can comfort herself was watching old videos of them when she was a kid. She did this for a week until she was able to leave her house without crying. Just the mere mention of someone passing away just makes me remember this. Sorry…

Garnet approached one of the lovely frozen flowers and kneels beside it, saying that they look beautiful. The light coming from outside the cavern makes the flower sparkle light-blue, despite the Mist blanketing the valley, making it more appealing to look at.

"Seeing the actual cavern is so much better than reading about it!" Garnet said as she waltzed from one flower to another. "Oh how pretty… I wonder what kind of flower this is…"

Steiner came in hurriedly with a worried look. "Princess! Please, don't touch anything!" He begged.

"Judging from the captain's reaction, I'd say it's called 'stayus awayticus'. Must be a rare breed." Blake joked at the expense of the worried knight. Zidane gave out a chilled sigh as he rubbed his gloves together.

"Can we get moving? I'm freezin' here." He says.

"I'm feeling fine." Blake shrugged as he walked past the thief. "That's what happens when you wear long sleeves."

The snow inside the cave started to thin out as we went deeper, ice walls surrounded us and reflected our movements as we ventured on. Our reflections were warped into thin or large images that imitated us. I didn't even notice the walls start to move away from us, expanding into the mountain. What I noticed was that the floor and the walls started to have a gap between them.

One look at it gave me a glimpse into a small dark crevasse that probably lead underground. The temptation of dropping a pebble into it just to see how deep it is nearly got to me, but Blake calling out snapped me out of it and got me moving again. Down was the last place we wanted to go. We want to go up and out.

Steiner was talking with Vivi about what else he knew about the Ice Cavern with Garnet giving some input from her what she had studied about the Ice Cavern during her time in the castle. Blake and I didn't say much of anything regarding the topic since we didn’t know any intricate trivia about this cave that would be more helpful and less spoilerific.

"Don't wanna slip anything that could reveal about us," Blake whispered to me when I asked why he was being quiet. I nodded in agreement. If we were caught off-guard and we drop a bombshell about us by accident this early, it would ruin our chances in getting the others' trust.

When we were done whispering, I saw Zidane peeking a look over his shoulder at us, but tried to act normal. 'Just don't worry about it. He's probably getting curious about my relationship with Blake.

Since all of us were occupied with something, we hadn't noticed the floor go from snow-crunching-under-our-feet walkable to slip-and-slidey when Vivi accidentally took a tumble and slid across the platform we were on right now, knocking some of us off balance. Thankfully, there was a step in front of him and it stopped him from moving any further.

"Are you alright, Vivi?" Blake was the first to recover and went to help the black mage.

"I'm okay. Thanks." Vivi responded when he received a helping hand. I skated, or my attempt at skating, my way towards them as Zidane and Steiner helped the princess instead. I guess that's what we get from not paying attention.

From the corner of my eye I noticed movement coming from the gap between the platform and the walls. Blue hands grabbed hold of the edge and pulled itself up from what abyss it came from. When I turned to it all I could see was this thing dressed in an arctic jacket to keep itself warm from the below zero temperature in the cavern, almost looking like a Russian ensemble. It pulled a knife and a bottle of yellow liquid from its jacket and opened it mouth to reveal a wild tongue and some gaps between each tooth. Guess dental hygiene isn't guaranteed when you're below the Mist.

I pulled out my sword and held it with both hands after I stopped myself from moving. "Guys, watch out!"

"Cave Imps!" Blake cried out, pointing to the emerging enemies. Everyone pulled out their weapons except for him and readied themselves, or something close to being ready since they didn't expect to be attacked while skating. Really, it should've been a given.

Steiner tried running towards the nearest one to the princess, but didn't remember that he was standing on ice and fell down chest first. One good thing he did was take down the imp using himself as a battering ram. Zidane held his balance perfectly as he slid up next to one and slashed it as he ducked down underneath its legs them sweeping them to add damage.

Unfortunately, one of the imps managed to douse Steiner with the yellow liquid called Sleeping Potion as he was trying to get back on his feet, rendering him asleep as the name implies. I stabbed the guilty imp before he could do it to anyone else. Vivi was encouraged to use fire spells by Blake and he did, ending the battle with burnt imps that either stayed down or retreated to the gaps where they came from.

"They're gone." Zidane put his daggers back as he surveyed the area.

I looked at the Cave Imp I took down and see the killing wound I inflicted on it. I'm still not used to killing monsters even if it was just self-defense. Killing will always have to be justified with every perspective on it. Self-defense, murder, survival, justice, whatever excuse anyone uses, it's still killing. You take a life and that's it. It's nothing you can get used to.

"Steiner!" Garnet slid towards the sleeping knight and checked if he was wounded. He obviously wasn't and he's perfectly fine, but we needed him awake right now. He can't be protecting the princess if he's sleeping on the job. "He's unconscious."

"We'll just fix that right now." Zidane slid past us and gathered some snow in his gloves and shaped it up into a circle. Is he doing what I think he's doing? "Prop him up, will you?" Garnet looked hesitant for a moment, but nodded anyways. Vivi was pulling on Steiner's arm in an attempt to make him sit up before Garnet pushed on his armored back.

Blake tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the dead Cave Imps before I could assist the other three. "Give me a hand over here."

"What do you have in mind?" I asked him as he knelt beside one Imp.

"Take their jackets. It could be useful. And hand me some of your empty potion vials." He answered. I started putting the vials beside him before I took the Imps' clothes.

I looked over my shoulder to see Zidane lightly toss a snowball up and down in his hand and looked at the captain. He wound up his arm and threw the snowball as hard as he physically could, connecting with Steiner's face with an audible 'swosh' as it splattered across his face. Steiner toppled down to the ice as he awoke, surprised of probably the cold projectile that woke him up. As entertaining it was to see Steiner struggle to understand what had just happened, we had to get moving before we freeze to death, which is another given because of the cavern's certain properties.

After Steiner had awoken, I proceeded to pull off the jackets off the Imps. Blake really thought ahead for this one. Maybe he expected some Imps to attack us in here. We could cover up some more with their clothes in an attempt to ward off the blizzard at the end of the cavern. More resistance means a bigger chance of having more party members at the boss fight.

I distributed the clothes to the others and took one jacket for me. Unfortunately for Steiner, his armor was too big for any of the jackets to fit. Instead of leaving him empty handed, I took one of the hats and placed it on his helmet. His face looked a bit dour when I did that. Sorry...

Blake was still on the floor, seated with the empty potions vials I gave him. He had some of the Sleeping Potions the Imps were using at hand and was pouring them into the vials. When he was done he disposed of the larger containers by tossing them into the crevasse near him.

"This will be useful…" He said with a grin on his face as he pocketed the vials.

With the 'ice skating' room, which I dubbed quite nicely, behind us, we moved deeper into the cavern. Steiner was still wondering what hit him on the face, making me and Zidane share a chuckle. He told him to figure it out on his own since he was able to think for himself. That silenced him for a while. I think he's actually trying to think it over. Well whatever, at least we're given some silence for our troubles.

Our party encountered some Flans that decided to enter into combat by dropping from the ceiling with a splat. Apparently, gravity didn't affect creatures that have gelatin and high amounts of sugar in their DNA. The Flans proved to be difficult to defeat with just physical attacks, which Zidane and Steiner learned. Vivi finished off our yellow and delicious gelatinous enemies before they could fire off a blizzard spell towards is with his own fire magic.

As we explored more of the Ice Cavern, we were starting to feel the bite of the ice cold breeze blowing from within, growing stronger and stronger, trying to hinder us and push us from its core. The walls were now full on ice, no more frozen flowers for decorations and were replaced by icicles hanging precariously from the ceiling pointing down at us with its sharp edge. Our path separated into other linear paths that leads to the same place save for a few that went into the walls.

Blake made an offhand comment about treasure in the cavern, making Zidane think about the possibility of finding some somewhere in here. That led to him asking Vivi for some help in melting some suspiciously frozen walls, which revealed to have some items hidden behind them after melting said wall from a burst of fire from the black mage. He found some potions, ethers, a new pair of Mage Mashers and a Leather Wrist. Now at least we have some new equipment.

Aside from the Cave Imps and the Flans, we also encountered the last kind of enemies that can be fought in here, although we did by accident. When we were walking and transitioning to another path, Vivi didn't see a billowing current coming from a small crack in the wall. When Vivi unconsciously went passed it, we started hearing the ice near the cracks breaking off bit by bit. That was when two creatures broke through, taking everyone by surprise.

The Wyerds, the distant cousins of the elephant from back home twice removed. They had light blue fur that keep them from freezing in this freezer, red eyes, a mouth with rigid teeth, four short limbs for support and two ling horns that curved upwards that proved useful for ramming enemies, which was felt by Zidane and Steiner. We heard them utter the phrase 'the wind lays out my path', creeping me out by the tone it was uttered. Garnet was almost a victim of its physical attack, but she managed to sidestep it and hit it with her rod for an opportunity to get some distance. If I remember correctly from my playthroughs, they have an ability called HP Switching that does what the name says. Fortunately, they weren't able to use it when Vivi fried them with a fire spell for each of them.

I was beginning to feel the sweat start to stick to my skin and slowly freeze against it as we progressed. Our path now was leading up to an incline, meaning we were nearing the end of the cavern. That meant good AND bad things. I was hugging myself by then. Even the jacket from the Cave Imps didn't help. I can't help but rub my hands against my arms to try to warm myself up, but that was turning up as a useless idea since the icy wind blew even harder at us.

I could see Zidane hunched over as he walked, also hugging himself. Garnet and Vivi, despite being clothed to a certain maximum plus the new jackets they had, also struggled with the temperature. Steiner himself had it worst of all. He could barely walk straight with majority of his body covered in metal and steel that was beginning to freeze and hinder his movement. Blake tried popping up his collar and put both hands, or tried to, in his pockets to avoid the chilling gust from getting underneath his clothes. Despite our efforts, we still felt the blizzard starting to do us in.

Then we got to the fork in the road. One path looked somewhat ordinary while the other had a bellowing gust coming from it. I looked to the left path and I remember that there was a frozen moogle there in the game. Should I make my way over there and check? Would anyone even want to go over there? Is there going to be an actual moogle in there if I go look for it?

Hmmm...might as well. What could possibly go wrong?

"Hey guys, we should check this path first." I told the others as I pointed to the left path. Blake apparently didn't like the suggestion as he knitted his eyebrows together. He probably wanted to get the boss fight over and done with already.

"And why should we?" Steiner shared his sentiment for the wrong reason. "That path might lead deeper into the cavern or a dead end."

"Maybe the wind would let up in here. It doesn't look like its going this way. And if it is a dead end then we could take a break." I said. I looked over to Blake and he somewhat gave up in rushing to the correct path as he walked over to me.

"Yes, a break would do us wonders right about now." Garnet said, hugging the jacket closer to her figure.

"There might also be a possibility of more treasure if we go here." Blake added. Zidane's eyebrows went up and he chuckled.

"The let's check it out then." He said, leading the way faster than we could walk. We were following his lead when we heard his voice echo from where we were. "WHOA!"

We all were met with the sight of a frozen garden of various fauna past a similarly frozen arch. I would appreciate the room normally, but my attention was focused on the sight at the end of the small room. On what seemed like a pedestal stood two figures encased in a ball of ice.

"What's that!?" Vivi wondered out loud when he saw the duo in ice. Pale skin, violet wings, and what looked like a red ball attached on an atenna on their heads were the primary apperance of these creatures called Moogles.

Wait...why are there two Moogles frozen in here? Even Zidane looked like he was curious about it.

We all took turns looking at it. From the looks of it, the moogles didn't expect turning out like this from the panicked look on their faces. Vivi immediately started melting the two from their cold prison. When the ice was gone, the two moogles jumped and started yelling.

"HOT! HOT! HOT! You bastards!" They both shouted. I could see Blake cover the ears of Vivi, as if expecting them to swear the moment they were freed. When the realization hit them, the confrontational atmosphere turned positive.

"Oh, we can move again!" One of the moogles exclaimed.

"Thank you, kupo!" Oh there's their catch phrase. And it sounds cute in person!

"I'm Monty. That's Mois over there. We would like to give you this for freeing us, kupo!" The moogle named Monty started digging into the small satchel he was carrying. "Here's some hi-potions and this flute! I'm not much of a musician, but that flute sounds great in the hands of great musician!"

Vivi received the gifts since he was the one responsible for setting them free. "T-Thanks!"

"Anytime."

Mois, who sat on the pedestal looking at us, pointed to the other moogle. "Don't you have somewhere else you need to be, kupo?"

It took him a full second for that register. He suddenly jumped and ran around the room. "Oh no! I have to go! Letters don't deliver themselves, kupo!"

And with that, Monty ran out of the room much to our dismay. I wanted to say he was going to be okay, but right now I'm not very sure. If he is the same moogle who was supposed to give us that flute when we came out of Evil Forest then why was he frozen here? That's a change we had no direct influence on. Blake even looked a bit shocked when he saw the flute. This could probably mean bad news for us.

With moogle shenanigans out of the way and a few minutes of rest done, we were on our way once again.

We struggled in our movements as we went to the path leading to the right. Zidane was up front with me, Steiner, Garnet, Blake and Vivi in respective order behind him. Thank goodness no monster had the bright idea of attacking us while we were like this. At least they have the courtesy to leave us alone in a time like this. Zidane stopped and looked back at us.

"Vivi, hurry up, or you'll get left behind!" He shouted over to the black mage. We all turned and saw Vivi barely able to make it to us. The poor guy, barely old enough to be even allowed out and now he was going to freeze.

"I…I'm coming." Vivi tried his hardest to get over to us, but he instead went into the other direction, the direction that ends like a cliff and plummets down a good three or four feet. Garnet said something that was lost against the wind, but her voice made everyone else turn around and we saw what happened.

Vivi didn't see it coming. He also didn't see the last step he made before dropping off from our point of view.

"Master Vivi!" Steiner called out with a chill in his voice. "Are you okay?" Vivi didn't respond. Steiner approached the edge of the cliff where Vivi fell off to see how was the young mage, but when you move like you're made of metal that is bound to mess you up. As the knight peeked over the edge, the weight of his armor made him shift his balance accidentally. Thankfully he managed to keep still and save himself.

For that time only. When he turned around, his foot slipped and he, too, took a plunge down right beside Vivi. Fortunately, no black mages were harmed in that fall.

"Yo, Rusty!" Zidane now attempted to look at the damage down below. He's careful enough not to go even close to the edge. "You're…not alright, are you?"

"What…makes you t-t-think of that, genius?" Blake sarcastically said to him as he popped the jacket collar up his neck. I guess he's wishing that he had gloves right now. His hands are the only thing, aside from his face, that wasn't covered with clothing.

Wondering what happened to the first two victims of the blizzard, Zidane jumped down to where the two were and checked up on them. They were unconscious, that we can tell. "Hey Rusty! Move it or lose it!" He kicked the armor of the captain, trying to wake him up, only to get no response.

"Get up!" He tried again, only this time harder. He hurt his foot in the process. When Steiner didn't react, Zidane gave up. "It's no use…"

As the three of us looked at Zidane's attempts, the blizzard blew stronger against us. That was when Princess Garnet dropped to her knees and fell down on the snow. "Garnet!" I shouted as I ran to the princess's side. She's out. There was obviously nothing I could do. Nothing Blake and I could do. Even with the extra layer of clothing, it didn't prevent or slow down the blizzard's effects.

"Oh no! Garnet! Not you, too?" Zidane hobbled over to us as he looked over the royal princess.

Behind him, Blake wordlessly and suddenly falls over on his side like a tree timbering down after being sawed by lumberjacks. And nobody said timber. I went to him and saw that blank, yet asleep, expression on his face. Even when he tried to prepare for this part, he still can't outlast the blizzard.

"They're knocked out cold..." I said to Zidane. I feel my eyelids starting to droop down, making me blink and try to stay awake. Zidane was trying to do the same, but the wind blew against his back like a mother would pat the back of her baby to lull it to sleep.

"Shoot…I'm falling asleep…" He yawned one last time before I saw him flop down to the snow.

"…Me…too." I forced my eyes to open, but every single time the blizzard coming from the chamber ahead of us would blow on my eyes to make it close. I was powerless and it was only a matter of time before I succumb to its effects. With one last gasp, I tried making my way to the chamber up ahead.

Fall before the blizzard…

The chilling wind blew once more, sending me into the air and making me land on my back. That was it. I felt tired and sleepy…There's nothing else I can do…

-FF FF FF-

A soft chime echoes in my mind. The sound makes my eyes blink open. All I could see before me was the snow on the ground and the ice on the walls and ceiling around me. I just realized that I was laying down face first on the ground. There's probably a good chance that a little bit of snow went into my mouth as I fell asleep. Now I'm worried if I'm going to freeze from the inside.

The white wind howled furiously as I heard something else aside from the chime. Footsteps. I was hearing footsteps.

I moved my head and looked towards the direction it was coming from. I could see gray boots walking, or trying to walk, away from us. A yellow tail was hanging down with a slight curve towards the end was swinging to the left and to the right with each step despite it looking like it had been in a freezer.

Zidane. Zidane's awake. And he's moving on to face the first Black Waltz, the cause of this horrible snow storm. I gingerly moved onto my arms and knees as I looked around me. Garnet and Blake lay unmoving from where they were before I was forced to sleep. I couldn't see Vivi and Steiner, but I'm sure they were still out cold. I crawled over to Blake, hoping that I could wake him up.

"…Blake…Blake…" I shook his body with both my hands, even dared to slap his face twice. He didn't react. He remained blank faced and still resided in dreamland. "…Blake!" I shook him even harder when I took hold of the collar of his jacket. Again, no response.

He's not waking up anytime soon. I released my hold on his jacket and let him fall back on the soft snow. Zidane's going to have back-up, one way or another. I crawled towards the direction Zidane went and slowly got up to my feet.

Before I could even take a step, my chest abruptly felt like it was going to cave in on itself. The pressure made me gasp for air, which was not reaching my lungs, as I went down to my knees. I continued struggling with my breathing that, from another perspective, I may be making a crazy snow angel. It was disorienting me. I thought my chest was going to burst from the pressure, but after a long minute, the pain eventually receded. When my condition went back to normal, my mind was so busy wondering what the hell had just happened that I forgot that I was down on the snow.

"Wh-wh-what was t-that…?" I picked myself up as I tried to think of what had just happened. Was I having a heart attack or something? Did my lungs freeze? I wasn't able to guess on some sort of reason for it to happen to me, but I think it's something I need to be careful about. Right now I need to worry about the thing causing this terrible blizzard and possibly that episode a while ago.

As I went on, I noticed that the snow storm somewhat weakened compared to how hard it was trying to blow us away earlier. I could feel my body getting somewhat warmer and my limbs getting limber even with the coldness around me. At least that's an improvement. Then I heard a roar so loud the icicles from the ceiling of the cavern almost give out. I rushed on ahead with a hand on the hilt of my sword, ready to help take down the Black Waltz.

"Zidane, a-are you here!? Zi– holy…..."

I looked up and saw the giant beast standing right in front of me. Standing on its tail at thrice the size of an average basketball player with blue frozen scales as skin, two wing-like limbs that flicker with movement as it hovered at its side, a gray face that looked like a mask, and icicles growing out of its back, the Sealion look too intimidating in real life than its videogame version. My eyes were as wide as snowballs when I saw it move towards me, making me draw my sword and point it at the monster in self-defense.

"Alyssa? What are you doing here?" I looked to the side and saw Zidane with his back against the ice, breathing rather hard than usual. Before I could answer him, I was cut off by something else.

"Another one!?" A voice coming from beside the Sealion spoke.

The figure was hunched up like a question mark, dressed in a brown oversized shirt to cover its also oversized upper body with arms so long that it reached the ground with tarnished white pants for its smaller lower body. It had a straw pointy hat like Vivi's that covered its face with a shadow that only revealed yellow orbs. There was also a pair of blue wings on its back, but the condition of the wings plus the size of the figure made it impossible for the wings to work.

Black Waltz No. 1. The first of three powerful manufactured mages that only exist to bring back Princess Garnet to Alexandria, orders directly from the queen of the kingdom. It was the source of the extreme blizzard we've encountered in the cavern, probably trying to kill us off one by one as subtly as possible. Who would question the fact that some crazy adventurers went in the Ice Cavern unprepared and died due to a blizzard? That happens most of the time in a place called Ice Cavern.

The hunchback mage pointed at me with the hand that held on to a small circular bell. "Why are you still alive!?"

"I don't know." I honestly answered as I tossed the tent bag hanging from my shoulder to the side. "But if you-you're the one causing that blizzard, trying to k-kill my friends, you're about to be in a world of hurt!"

The first Black Waltz sneered at my words and chimed his little bell. "Your words won't live up against us."

"Oh yeah? Says who?" I responded to his threat almost instantly. That was before I remembered the giant ice monster in front of me. It roared shockingly loud, making me drop my sword and cover my ears at the volume of the beast's intimidation tactic.

Okay, the thing has a say in this.

I picked up my sword and held it, ready to fight. "Well, I don't care whatever that thing said! You're going down!" I ran towards the Black Waltz with a mindset of immediately taking him down, but the Sealion slithered into my path and took out my legs from under me with its tail. It was about to flatten me with the same thing, only for it to miss when I rolled out of the way, giving me an opportunity to get in close to the mage. I was about to take a swing at it when a large wing swept me away from the winged magician.

"Ah!" I screamed as I flew into the air and landed on the soft snow. Thankfully the snow was here to cushion my fall. I picked up my sword and immediately charged in again.

The Sealion slid towards me and attempted to wing me into the air again, but I dodged it and slashed at the limb three times as it roars in pain. The Black Waltz audibly chuckled at my current plan as he blew a blizzard towards my direction, freezing me in my tracks and momentarily placed me in a block of ice. Vivi could've been useful here. His fire magic would've helped solve this gigantic ice problem in no time. Stopped and turned into ice, I struggled in my attempts to move, only to be freed when the Sealion used its tail to send me flying towards the entrance of the chamber.

Ouch! I felt cold and sore at the same time. This is going to be harder than I thought.

The first Black Waltz cackled at me as it casted a blizzard on its 'pet', healing the wounds I inflicted on it. I forgot about that. Crap. If Blake was here he'll be pointing it out like it was the most obvious thing known to man, or to him anyway. He'll also be telling us not to charge in recklessly like I just did. I think that last one made his absence a bit tolerable.

With the wind knocked out of me, I try to stand with the help of my sword as I tried to think of a way to get past the Sealion and drive my blade into the Black Waltz. The only problem with that is the huge ice creature standing in the way. The Sealion is large enough to cover any direct way towards it and just jumping past it or getting under it would be pretty hazardous. I look over to Zidane, who just downed a high potion he fished out of the bag. He looked a lot better compared to how he was before I started fighting these two.

"We need a plan." I said to him as he readied himself beside me.

"Isn't that what the other guy was for?" Zidane wondered out loud.

"He's out of it right now, so we'll just have to rely on ourselves right now." I told him. "I have an idea— move!" I dragged the thief away from where we were standing when I started feeling a chill creeping up on me. I looked back at the spot and saw the air become ice. That sneaky mage... It almost turned us into ice cubes.

"About that idea…" Zidane spoke up, making me stop glaring at the Black Waltz and focusing on the plan. I should carefully word it out. I came in here after the Sealion was summoned and even Zidane knows at this point that the thing behind it is called a Black Waltz. Here goes…

"Right. It looks like that thing isn't letting us anywhere near the mage, but we can't make a scratch on the thing if Mr. Pointy Hat over there keeps undoing any damage we put on it. We need to take him out first." I pointed to the two respectively as I referred to what we needed to do.

"And how do you want to do that? We can barely get near it without being thrown all over the place, and we—look out!" He cried out as he pushed me away while he jumped back. The Sealion almost landed its tail on us. Thanks Zidane! When we got enough distance between the two enemies, we continued our talk. "We also have to worry about the mage trying to freeze us."

I looked over to the Sealion, which was slithering towards us with intent to destroy, and the Black Waltz, who chimed its bell once again. Past the two was a frozen waterfall with a giant hole in the middle of a frozen stream, and seeing it just made an idea pop into my head. Apparently, Zidane also had the same idea.

"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?" He asked as he readied his daggers.

I nodded as I held my sword. "Definitely."

Both of us ran towards the Sealion as it roared and readied a combination of blizzard spells with the Black Waltz. We jumped and rolled away from the blast of ice and successfully got past the Sealion while inflicting some scratches on its body with our weapons. It immediately turned around and went after us in a hurry. The Black Waltz was yelling out orders to its pet as we neared it. We sailed past him and wounded him a little as the Sealion slithered in our direction. Great, we still have his attention. This is going to work.

Zidane and I got on the ice and spun around to face the ice monster. Zidane went on ahead and took the monster's attention with him as I skated around them with my sword pointed down. When I was sure that it wasn't looking for me, I started lowering the tip of my sword on the ice and began tracing a line on it. The ice looked thin enough to crack with just a powerful enough stab. Plus, the Sealion was beating the floor was no one's business. It'd give out eventually anyways.

The blond thief jumped on the creature and stabbed his daggers into its body, getting a wounded snarl from it as it tried to shake him off. He withdrew his weapons and went up to the glowing jewel on its chest, using his daggers as tools for climbing. The Sealion tried to get him off of him by thrashing around and shaking itself continuously. Despite its attempts, Zidane managed to hold on until I made a full circle trace around the monster. It's a miracle that I was still alive while that happened. I almost got nailed by the Sealion's wild tail when I accidentally slipped on my face. Thank goodness for luck.

"It is no use fighting…" We heard the Black Waltz coldly taunt us as it healed its pet with blizzard spells.

"We'll see about that. Alyssa, switch!" He jumped off the Sealion's chest with his daggers in hand with a backflip. I immediately took a breath in and hoped for the best as I jumped on the Sealion's body. I was in for the ride of my life.

I dug my sword in deep in the Sealion's torso and felt the wind around me starting to send shivers down my spine. It was getting cold, VERY cold. The Sealion abandoned the thrashing idea it had earlier with Zidane and instead tried to focus on freezing me to death and winging the thief down below. I wanted to shout out to Zidane as the creature swung its wings at him, but he masterfully dodged every move with cartwheels, flips and slides while he was stabbing the outlines I did with his daggers.

What's the plan, you may ask? You've probably figured it out by now, but let me reveal what we were trying to do anyway. I outlined the area in the ice with my sword to mark how big the Sealion was taking up space. When I'm done with that, Zidane and I switch places and he tries to dislodge the ice by impaling the outline. Hopefully, that will make the ice drop and send the Sealion down to the depths and give us enough time to take care of the Black Waltz before it comes back.

It's been going great with Zidane effectively evading the monster's physical attacks while I moved from the front torso to the back with the stalagmites showing. I climbed upwards to the back of its neck, ducking under an attempted swipe with its wing. Just hang on a little bit more then we'll be alright. Zidane was almost done with his part when he looked up and had a surprised look on his face. He pointed to the chest of the Sealion and shouted, but his voice was drowned out a sound of waves crashing…

Wait, waves crashing!?

Before I could even react, a tidal wave of extremely cold water (that could've been below -10 degrees) landed on me and washed me away from the Sealion. When the wave died down, I realized that I had my back on the ice, coughing out the water that got in my mouth and probably in my lungs. Zidane was doing the same somewhere to my left.

Not only was that the problem, but we were in serious need of heat. Our clothes were wet, we were shivering uncontrollably and our weapons were out of reach. Damn it, we were so close! How did I forget about the Sealion's other attack that included water? Whatever I had planned was a big bunch of nothing, and that tsunami attack was a bucket of cold water to wake me up. Damn it!

"All your effort was worthless." The first Black Waltz stated as his bell sounded off victoriously. "Now you will suffer a cold defeat."

"N-N-N-Not by a lo-lo-long shot…" I tried shouting out at it, only for it to come out as a whimper. The manufactured mage leered at me with its yellow eyes and proceeded to kick me in the gut.

"Alyssa!" Zidane called out as I coughed out more water from the kick I received. That knocked the wind out of me! Good grief, I'm shivering and getting a beating from something that barely looked like it was able to deliver any physical damage if it tried.

I looked around the floor of ice and saw one of Zidane's daggers near to my side. I coughed out once again, this time faking it as I tried to slide over to the side. The Black Waltz lifted its bell once again, focusing its magic into one more attack to bring down its opposition.

"Any last words before I turn you into a glacier?"

"Y-Y-Yeah. C-Catch!" I quickly dived for the dagger, got on my back and threw the short weapon towards the mage. It froze up mid-cast as the dagger luckily dug itself into its shoulder. The Black Waltz let out a cry of anguish as I scrambled away from where I was as the Sealion looked to avenge its master by winging me. But that was part of my impromptu plan. I was the distraction.

With the monster's attention focused on me, Zidane was able to pull himself up and lunge at the mage trying to remove the dagger. He pulled it out forcibly and stabbed the Black Waltz dead center in the chest. Its eyes widened like light bulbs as it looked down at the stab wound and back at Zidane. The thief put his foot on its chest and pulled it out with a backflip, making the winged monstrosity collapse on its knees. It looked over to the Sealion that was frozen in its place and demanded one last command.

"…Sealion, kill them…for me!" Afterwards, it fell over on its side, now officially dead.

The Sealion roared at the sight of its fallen master before turning to the one person who dealt the killing blow. The jewel on its chest changed to red and it started flapping its wings. I could hear he water beneath us shake at the will of the monster and I know that one hit from another tsunami would spell game over for both me and Zidane. I desperately slid over to my sword and skated to the front of the beast and stabbed it right below the torso.

Its attention shifted to me and the jewel glowed yellow this time. I wasn't able to react when all of a sudden ice came from the ground and froze my entire body. Even the scream that was coming up from my throat froze in between delivery. Despite that, I could still see what was happening in front of me in a warped visual sense due to the ice in front of my eyes.

Zidane cried something out, which I wasn't able to hear, before he lunged at the Sealion. It barely hit Zidane with a wing attack, but it did knock the frozen sword out of my hand. I seriously thought my hand was gonna come off with it too, and thankfully that didn't happen. Zidane cut at the Sealion's lower body as the jewel changed to blue. As it was either casting a blilzzard spell or trying to swat Zidane with one of its wings, the yellow tailed man took hold of the wings and jumped off to its face, successfully preventing a blizzard spell from coming.

He took one of his daggers and drove it into where one of its eye sockets should be. The Sealion flailed around in pain and howled, forcing Zidane to hold on tightly to his implanted weapon of choice. Through all of this, the injured ice monster accidentally struck me with its tail, freeing me from my icy prison and sending me flying into an icy wall.

Agh…That smarts! I lay there, tired and nearing unconsciousness, so I decided to just stay where I was. I did everything I can possibly do.

Zidane was about to set up for the finale as he slowly let his grip slip from the dagger. When he felt that he was comfortable, he dropped down and took hold of the edge of its gray mask-like headgear. He started swinging back and forth towards the chest area with one dagger in hand. The jewel changed to red once again, the Sealion readying once again to perform its tsunami attack, but Zidane would deny it the opportunity to do so as he swung and let go of the headgear and veered straight for the jewel. With a thrust of a hand, he stabbed the jewel dead center, making an audible crack even from where I was.

The scene stayed still for about a minute for me. The Sealion's wings frozen in mid-swipe, the water that rose from the hole the monster created slowly descended back down, Zidane's tail slightly twitched, and a distorted bellow from the giant ice monster turned to a small choking sound. Then everything went back to normal speed; Zidane pushing off from the Sealion as it plunged down to the ground limply and broke the ice as soon as it landed, taking its dead master with him to the depths underneath..

Was it dead? Is it over? Did we win?

I waited silently for something, anything, to answer my question. Zidane knelt before the hole in the ice, breathing slowly with his head down. About a minute passed before he moved. I just noticed that he didn't have his daggers with him. He must've forgotten to pull them out of the monster before it drowned in its own element. He stood up and limped over to me.

"You o-okay?" He asked, extending a shivering hand to me.

"I-I should be a-a-asking you th-that." I replied when I accepted his help. He pulled me up and let me lean against the wall. He walked over to the bag that was forgotten throughout the fight and tried taking out a few items from in it. Two vials of potions, one for each of us. "Thanks," I said as I took one and downed it.

When I felt the potion do its magic, my body wasn't so sore anymore, but I was still cold. I managed to jump up and down to test if I still felt physically terrible. "We won." I managed to say as I looked over to the remains of the battleground we just took place in. I noted that the extremely ice cold wind no longer blew, but a normal breeze that didn't want to kill you. Zidane must've noticed too since he nodded to the tunnel that led back to where the others were.

"Yeah, we did." He simply sighed. Fatigue was sure to set in for him, that's for sure. "C'mon, we need to see if the others are okay." I passed him a smile and walked back to where the others were.

He's gonna hear voices soon, voices that'll warn him about the second and third Black Waltz. He doesn't need me to know about it, but I do. Right now, I just want to check if everyone is alright and safe, not human popsicles.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 11: Thinking Mindset


- Blake -

I could hear a deafening noise. A ringing bell.

A roaring crowd. A battalion of feet pounding against the ground.

It's all familiar...

Even behind closed eyes, a bunch of random flashing lights made me flinch, making me open them.

It took a while for my eyes to focus and it finally dawned on me that the familiar feeling was there for a reason. The flashing lights were a combination of cameras and spotlights from the rafters. The noise was from the hundreds of people sitting behind me along with the separate crowd across the room. At the center were two teams fighting for possession of a single orange ball, all of them dressed in two distinct colors of blue and red.

This is a basketball game. What am I doing in a basketball game?

My eyes blinked furiously, trying to discern if this is actually real or not. I pinched my arm and slapped both my cheeks. All of the pinches and slaps hurt but it seemed like a stable reality. Even the fabric of the blue outfit I am wearing was somewhat similar to the jerseys of the players, the towel on my knee or the sweat gathering above my brow felt real. Even the surreal feeling of of having a crowd chant 'defense' behind me was off-putting. But the energy they put in their shouts as well as their claps felt real.

Then if it's all real then why does it feel wrong?

Just as I came to that thought a buzzer rang throughout the court. The action stopped temporarily. Each team's players started going back to their respective sides of the court. Time to talk strategy with the coaches on how to improve their chances of winning. I had to look up to the digital scoreboard on the wall to check if we were winning or not.

"Skylark! Get your ass over here and help refresh these guys!" I hear the coach of our team shout over the crowd's chanting and the music playing in the background. Even with all of those noises mixed in together, his voice made me flinch the moment I heard it.

"...Uh, sure." What a lame reply. Someone bounded over to me and clapped me on the shoulder. He grinned at me, nodding over to the blue cooler beside the bench. I shrugged off the hand and only realized it was my friend, Andrew, when he made a face of mock disappointment. Wait...what was he doing here?

"C'mon, Blake. Get some of the Gatorades in there. Don't want to disappoint me after going through all that hard work getting you this little job."

"Sure, Andrew." I said.

Both of us started handing out bottles of Gatorade to the team, the players thanking us before setting their focus back to the coach and their next strategy. One of them looked very familiar, especially when I felt his large hands pat me on the shoulder. I shrugged off that thought and kept doing what I had to do. With our part of the timeout finally done, though I still felt off about everything, Andrew pulled me back to our bench. A few seconds later the buzzer blared and the game continued. I couldn't keep my attention on the match in front of my. My eyes felt like they were going in and out of focus and any attempt to blink them back to normal would only be a temporary fix. I wish someone had some eye drops.

Suddenly things got a bit antsy. The players were too tense around each other. One of our players as glaring a hole at one of the bigger center guys on the other team. The problem was that this guy towered over him. And I wanted to say he was on something, but I can't prove that. Innocent until proven guilty, you know? I think I missed something like time had fast forwarded to a specific event. Even the audience was starting to get riled up. They've started to divide to two sides, booing the other team instead of cheering for cool shots and wonderful offense.

Then like montage started to happen. Our guy started fouling the other team's main player. A minute later, he retaliated. It seemed subtle without fault at first, but it escalated into tripping. And then THAT escalated to pushing. They were THIS close to just going to a bare-knuckled brawl when our guy got plowed through by their titan of a center. Our guy would've let it go, but when he heard him talk shit when he saw down. Plus, the referee didn't call the foul.

I felt chills run down my spine. My left hand rubbed my right arm, as if trying to comfort myself. When I felt the skin on skin contact of my palm on my forearm, I figured out what that feeling I had earlier was all about.

I didn't have a cast on my right arm... I'm not crippled. Not yet…

The moment this sunk in, things started going crazy. Our player had an argument with the ref for a minute, which lead to him marching up to Titan by the benches and shoved him. Both teams struggled to separate the two to the point that some of the concerned members of the crowd began to help. I found myself blinking blankly when my body automatically ran to my team's aid beside Andrew. The more hostile portion of the audience threw food and cups of bear at our team. I've felt more alcohol hit me than my sister had even drank in her entire life.

Of course, this lead to the game being cancelled. With the hostile crowd and the extremely tense atmosphere, things inevitable had to escalate. And things certainly came to a head. One massive brawl started from the top of the bleachers that rolled down to the court, engulfing both teams in the chaos. Men, women, children, coaches, and basketball players were scattered all over the place. Some had the bright idea of just fleeing the gym while security tried to get the place on lockdown. Unfortunately, there were too many angry fans and players for them to compete against, rendering them almost useless as their forces could barely maintain any shred of decorum.

I found myself sprawled over our cooler, my attire wet from the spilled water and ice from the container. I shivered as I tried to get up. My eyes instantly went over to the exit. Shit had gone down and the last thing I wanted was to be at the center of it when the cops arrive.

"Little water boy...Should've run away when you got the chance." I heard this deep, growling threat despite the panicked screaming in the air. At the center of the court was the Titan of the other team, looking more and more like a Monstar from Space Jam as he loomed over Andrew. My friend was visibly frightened at the sight of the basketball player, trying to crawl back with every step the player took.

"Run, Andrew!" I shouted over to him. That snapped him out of his panic, scrambling off the floor with the nearest exit as his destination.

But the Titan was faster than he looked, snatching Andrew from the ground and held him up by his jersey. He shook my friend as if he was a lifeless doll, existing only for his amusement alone. My concern for Andrew's condition made every bit of common sense leave me as I grabbed the nearest object I could get in my hand.

"Leave him alone, you oversized, steroid-junkie freak!" I yelled. It wasn't my voice that got his attention. It was the half-empty bottle of Gatorade that impacted against the side of his skull. His head craned over to look at me, his eyebrows flaring madly, his mouth twisted in an angry sneer.

"What did you say?" He said, his deep voice carrying across the gym. Police sirens could be heard outside. Even then I didn't expect them to save me from what I'm about to do.

I threw another bottle, this time filled to the brim and its cap tightly covered. I hit him square in the face. My next move was to not wait for a reply and just run up to him equipped with a basketball and a full bottle of my team's chosen refreshment. He tried to use Andrew's body as a bat, swinging sideways at me, but I was already inside his personal space before Andrew could hit me. I hopped and dropkicked him in the balls as retaliation for the abuse he's put on my friend.

I felt my feet collide with two objects that might as well be two small animals because they were roadkill by the time he was howling in pain. Andrew fell to the ground, an immediate groan coming out of him when he landed alongside the giant basketball player, who fell on his knees with both hands around his junk probably thinking he picked on the wrong water boy on the wrong day. I threw the basketball on his face just to further emphasize my point.

"C'mon, just fucking get up!" I was desperately trying to drag Andrew to his feet, an intense feeling gripping me in my gut with every second he struggled to get to a vertical base. "We have to get out of here now!"

"Thanks for saving me, man." Andrew said, relieved that he was free.

That intense feeling made me panic. It was very strange. Everything felt so misty and unreal despite the very real weight of my best friend leaning against me. The closer we got to the door, the colder things seem to be for some reason, like a chill blowing against my neck, despite my forehead and back covered in sweat. I had to make sure Andrew wasn't putting his face against my neck, only to see him looking blankly ahead.

Then I felt something grab my foot before I could assure Andrew that things are going to be okay. I stumbled, accidentally sending both of us to the ground. I looked over my shoulder and see a hand larger than my own leg hold on to my ankle. A terrified yelp slipped out of me when he pulled me towards him.

"You're gonna pay for that!" He growled at my face after he lifted me off the ground by my shirt. The two knees he applied to my gut and an elbow to my back made sure that he didn't appreciate rescuing my friend earlier. Then he simply threw me over his head like yesterday's trash.

I easily sailed through the air and landed a few feet behind him with a horrid crack punctuating my landing. My wailing voice could have filled the entire gymnasium, but the air was filled with a tense and profound silence despite my crying. I didn't even notice it then that the noise surrounding us started to wane down until silence enveloped the entire area. Tears flowed from my eyes in reaction to the pain my body felt. I tried to blink them out, to clear my sight and in between the blinks I could see a portion of the court.

Instead of the chaos stemming from angry fans and athletes, I could see everyone frozen in place just standing there not doing anything anymore. Each blink of an eye made them move. Some of them used to be facing each other just a moment from hitting each other, only to drop that and stand there looking lifeless. Even the ginormous basketball player stood over me with this dead expression on his face. A few more feet past him had Andrew sharing the same look. I couldn't make sense of it all as the pain was starting to be too much combined with the entire place starting to feel like a freezer.

Just before my eyes started to drop, my tear ducts having enough of it all and exhausting their reserves, I could see an unfamiliar person starting to walk over to me. A brown cloak followed their every movement, worn out boots soundlessly padded towards where I lied on the floor. Just as I was about to lose consciousness, I could see this person take a knee in front of me and put a hand on my arm, a lucid yet comforting touch. A soft voice spoke just moments before my eyes fully closed:

"Change your fate."

- Blake -

I sat up and pulled my face out of the snow faster than a blizzard could knock me out. My sudden movement surprised someone around me, but I wasn't able to take note on who it was. I found myself crawling over to the nearest wall in a panic. I clutched my right arm immediately when my back hit the frozen wall. It's alright and not broken, meaning everything's fine. The sight of the protective cement plaster around my forearm never looked so comforting in my life, assuring me that this is the right reality.

"Blake? Blake, are you alright?" A hand squeezed my shoulder, instantly making me look up. It was Alyssa. Her presence, once again, though I'm never going to admit this to anyone ever, was something I would never have thought to put me at ease.

"I-I-I…" I stammered, trying to get my brain working again by looking around. I remember now. Black Waltz No. 1 assaulted us with a blizzard and knocked us out. Zidane must have fought and killed him, taking the icy spell he put in the cavern with him. I swallowed the lump gathering in my throat and finally answered the concerned girl. "I think I'm fine."

"Thank goodness." She caught me off-guard when wrapped her arms around me. I felt colder the moment her body touched mine. Why is she so freaking cold!?

"The Sealion nearly drowned me," she answered, her voice slightly muffled by my shoulder.

What was that supposed to mean? Didn't the blizzard knock her out? Did the Sealion's attacks with the water get into this portion of the cavern?

"No. I helped Zidane beat it and the Black Waltz." Alyssa pulled back, slightly shivering at the loss of the assisted body heat.

I stared at her as she stood. "What—How—Wha—Why?" I guess the blizzard did a number on me if I couldn't say anything properly. The girl noticed my confusion and offered an answer as well as a hand.

"I dunno." She shrugged her shoulders. I noticed that the material of her clothes had stuck against her shoulder blades, causing me to look past her just in case my eyes wandered anywhere. "I just woke up to the sound of a bell, you know like how Zidane does in the game. So I stumbled into the middle of Zidane's fight. The Black Waltz was probably too distracted with him that the spell lost power."

A likely explanation! Not that I can poke holes in her answer as if it was a testimony in court. Not that I have the license to do so. There just wasn't enough proof in this cavern or in the world to provide any concrete explanation to it so I'm forced to take her word for it.

Zidane had just finished climbing up from where Vivi and Steiner fell. He probably went and woke them up before going to where Garnet was recovering from her forced sleep. And of course, the knight and thief were arguing with each other about what had just happened and what form of indecency Zidane committed while we were all unconscious. Alyssa had to defend our blonde protagonist from any blame since she was with him during that time.

While they were trying to resolve their little conflict I was still at a loss as to what happened to me. The blizzard knocked me out like everyone else when I hoped I would be able to help Zidane and Alyssa with the fight, providing some strategy or a distraction here and there. Even getting the extra layer of clothing on us didn't matter since it still knocked everyone out with the sole exception of Alyssa. The reasoning behind that is still a mystery. Not being able to assist Zidane is definitely disappointing.

But that dream… Can I even call it a dream? It was the basketball game where I broke my hand. Why did I even dream about it while under the influence of the blizzard? Did it have some sort of weird specific effect that I didn't know? I mean its magic! I know blizzards have the tendency to debilitate most people, but 'magic blizzards' might have different effects. And I'm wondering all about this even though I'm not an expert on it.

"So do you think you're still fine?" Alyssa had just walked back to me after defending Zidane's honor. A raised eyebrow prompted her to continue talking. "When I was checking on everyone after the fight, something weird was happening to you."

"And what's that supposed to mean?" I asked, crossing my arms.

"Everyone else was sleeping peacefully, but you were all fidgety and twitching." She explained, leaning in closer to me. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You were even groaning in pain. I thought the Black Waltz had done something to you and I tried to wake you up. Your breathing even picked up like you were having a panic attack! And then you woke up."

I had a panic attack mid-sleep? I'm pretty sure that all of my check-ups with my doctor were all in the positives and that any change would have them notify me of it. And I'm sure I'm a sound sleeper. I'm perfectly healthy, which means she must have been seeing things! On the other hand, I did have a weird dream. That could have made my brain go haywire and react wildly. Maybe I should go see a doctor…

"Were you having a bad dream?" Alyssa wondered.

I felt my eyebrow twitch. Hopefully, she didn't see it. "No. It was a dreamless sleep." I lied.

"You know you can just tell me the truth, right?" She looked at me and analyzed my face as if she was trying to determine if what I just said was untrue. I kept a straight face and just glared at her. "You can trust me."

"I don't want to talk about it," My lips couldn't help but mumble out. I had to turn around to avoid her intrusive gaze.

"So you did have a dream."

"Look, it's nothing to worry about. Let's just focus on getting out of this place and to the next town." I told her, shaking my head as the thought of the dream started crawling up into my brain. I felt her cold hand rest on my shoulder and squeeze it slightly.

"I'll be here if you need to get it off your chest, okay?" She said in an attempt to comfort me.

"I'll keep that in mind," I rolled my eyes, though it was just something I had to say to get her off my back. I could see the rest of our crew start to move towards us; Garnet and Vivi calmly leading a bickering Steiner and Zidane. Their arguing is adding to the headache that dream gave me. Please make them stop…

"Is everything in order?" Garnet asked the two of us. I looked over to Alyssa and saw her checking the tent bag we were carrying if our supplies would last us until the next town. "If any of you still feel the need to rest we can stop here for a minute or two."

"The blizzard may have stopped for some reason, but that does not mean the monsters within the cavern will not attack us." Steiner interjected.

"Well, I'm feeling pretty good. Everyone looks like they're doing well." I directed a smile at the inquiring princess before pointing a thumb over to the girl behind me. "Alyssa seems to want to get away from this nasty cold cavern as soon as possible. Let's take our leave then."

Garnet and Zidane nodded, turning around and leading the group to the exit above the next part of the cave. I followed them, Alyssa keeping pace with me, all the while trying to remove this blasted jacket off of me. Some big help another layer gave me for that damned blizzard. When I did manage to get it off, I handed it over to Alyssa.

"Here. Dali might have some clothes up for sale, but this might do for now."

"Thanks." She accepted the jacket, probably feeling glad to finally have something not drenched covering her, and swiftly put it on. I made a mistake of waiting for her as she made a glance at me once she was done. Why was it a mistake? Well, for one, I didn't like that smile she had on her face as she tried to walk past me. Then I noticed her giving me a weird look. "Are you blushing?"

That was one hell of an accusation and it came out of nowhere!

"Wh-Wh-What's that supposed to mean!?" My sudden outburst caught the attention of the group. "Look I'm just giving it to you because you're cold and your shirt is clinging to your skin a bit too much! Your overalls are barely managing in covering you up! C'mon, have you no shame around royalty?"

The moment she was made aware of this fact her face went so red she nearly became a tomato. Zidane couldn't help but chuckle while discretely trying to peek while Steiner turned the other way around in case he suffer the consequences of being branded as a pervert. Vivi, as young as he is, was a bit slow on the draw and had Garnet turn him to where Steiner is facing now as he tried to figure out what the commotion was all about.

"All right people, move along! We have a cave to get out of. Come on, get walking." I walked past everyone in the hopes they'll follow without argument and any added comment.

- FF FF FF -

It did not take us long to find the exit out of that cavern. The setting sun greeted us once we had made our first steps back in the outside world. We must have spent majority of the day under the spell of the Black Waltz if I were to judge the time difference now. We're going to have to make camp and use the rest of tomorrow to get to Dali then.

I chose not to take part in the group's squabble about Garnet changing her name to Dagger. If I did take part in it I would say that it would be a huge leap of logic that just changing her name to a basic weapon-type that it would effectively hide your identity. If people had any intelligent thought in their heads then they would be able to know what the princess of Alexandria looks like or at least recognize her if they get a good look at her.

Anyways, I let them have their argument. Alyssa, on the other hand, encouraged Garnet's chosen name change. Not that her part would have mattered since the events of the game are going along smoothly without our presence affecting it yet. I just hope it stays that way.

Within a few hours we managed to make it down the cavern exit and decently close the gap between us and Dali, however we all decided to make camp now right as it was getting dark. No need to have monster attacks while we journeyed under the blanket of darkness at night.

Even with the passage of time, the dream I had earlier still lingered in my mind. Why did I have to dream that whole thing up again? Experiencing it once is enough, but going through it again? That is too much. It also felt too real for it to have been a dream! I could still feel my arm tingling afterwards. And this is the first time I've had a dream about that. After all those weeks in school and at home when I had a normal life and this is the time my brain decides to put me back in that scenario. Why?

I know that the basketball game was a pretty traumatizing time. I accept that. The other school even sent a formal letter apologizing for what happened and even covered my hospital bill to make things right. And also I think I heard that the guy who did this to me was suspended.

Getting my wrist broken during all that commotion got me recognized for a bit in campus. I didn't need that in my life though, but it was pretty nice for a while before it got annoying, answering the same questions when a curious person came around to ask about it. It did, however, give me an opportunity to have fun with it by changing things up in the story or giving it a bit of flair. But it really did get annoying.

When people have dreams it often means there's something significant in it. Maybe that's why I had it in the first place. Okay, let's think about it. What else am I missing…

"Thanks for saving me, man."

Oh yeah, the most obvious thing about it. The whole reason why I even have a cast in the first place: I tried to be a hero.

I would still have an okay arm with less plaster on it if I didn't step in. I could lose all that recognition I had because of it, but that's an okay trade for some peace and quiet. And perhaps I wouldn't be in this mess if my sister thought to cheer me up by bringing me with her on that cursed beach trip. Maybe if I didn't act on instinct and let myself be a hero.

The what-ifs and could haves of the consequences of my actions. Being a hero didn't end up being all it could have been though. Here I am not physically a hundred percent in a foreign land, unable to do anything or contribute anything to the group, wishing for my same old, lousy normal life. What a hero.

"Been a while since we heard a peep from 'ya.." I look up from the fire Vivi had already made for our camp. Zidane was standing on the opposite side, looking at me with a hint of curiosity and concern.

"Oh…I was just thinking." I replied, surprisingly honestly. My mind must still be occupied and unable to think of a better lie.

"Yeah? What'cha thinking?" Zidane took a seat beside me, warming his own hand close to the fire. Even his tail wanted a bit of heat from it. I couldn't help but look at him warily.

Maybe I was too tired from the walk, despite the sleep I got in the cavern, or I was just being too paranoid but I'm really hesitant to talk to Zidane. Most likely that I will say something that will give away my secret. I looked around as subtly as I could, hoping for someone to whisk the sly thief away or to drag me into the woodlands near our camp in an attempt to kill me. Unfortunately, in regards for the former, everyone else is busy in securing the tent and the perimeter while we seem to be safe enough for the latter matter.

I sighed. Guess nobody is gonna save me from this. Quick! Make something up! "Just the whole thing at the cavern, you know? I know the place's cold and all, but wasn't it unusual for it to blasting with ice right where the exit is? It's like we set foot in a trap right then and there."

"When you say it like that it kinda doesn't make any sense." Zidane started rubbing his chin. His eyes went over to the princess. "Something didn't feel right with it."

"Nothing would feel right if you were freezing with three layers of clothes on," I tried to joke. That got a chuckle out of him.

"Wish it worked though." Me too. I would have been able to help out with that boss fight if it did.

"It might've allowed us to get out of that cave and in to the nearest town sooner."

Zidane shrugged as he stretched his arms and lied down on the grass, careful to move his tail away. He closed his eyes, resting them for a bit. "Might've, would've. We're here now. Don't need to think hard about it. All that matters is that we're all okay."

"Didn't know you care so much for a bunch of strangers. Sure you may be in a mission to take the princess somewhere, but I'm sure you didn't plan on adding some stragglers to your party to get there."

"Plans change. I can't do everything on my own. Tantalus was supposed to get Dagger out of the kingdom. We just didn't expect them to shoot us out of the sky."

"And that she wanted to come without a fight." I added. Zidane nodded.

"Besides, we're all pretty much friends now," The blond said. He opened an eye and looked at me, seeing me shake my head at his naïve use of the word 'friends'. "What?"

I leaned closer to the fire a bit, laying my cheek into the palm of my left hand, trying to hide the annoyance building up in my head. "Let's be honest. People become friends because they've hung out with each other for weeks and stayed with each other for months. We've only known each other for at least 3 days and we all barely know each other's history." Now that's not true. However, they don't know my history except for the fake background story I've told them. "By that definition, we have yet to be friends."

"That's your definition. Friends don't have to be physically around each other to be friends. People become friends because they help other people, they offer advice, stick with each other through thick and thin, and accept other people for who they are. Sure we've been walking around in the Mist for a few days now, but I'm sure we've started trusting everyone here since we met in Alexandria. Except for Rusty, I think."

We both glanced at the older knight, who had stood near Garnet/Dagger as she pulled up Vivi after he accidentally tripped on the rope holding the tent together. He must have noticed us looking at him as he quickly directed his attention to us and glared at us for some reason. I looked away before he could stare a hole into my forehead while Zidane chuckled.

"Plus, even if you don't trust me or Vivi or Dagger, you still have Alyssa, right?" What was that supposed to mean?

"Zidane's got a point." I almost jumped when someone dumped a bunch of firewood near the fire the moment I wondered who said that line. It was actually Alyssa who said it. She put a hand on my shoulder, I think it was to apologize for somewhat surprising me like that, as she sat down. "Well, the first part about friends, I mean. You should know that since you've already experienced what Zidane's said."

Looking back, what she said is true. Garnet/Dagger has given me advice after my diatribe of being useless, Steiner (even with his grumpy attitude towards me for my actions against that soldier back in Alexandria) helped me out the other day, and even I've done the same to Vivi by offering some direction when it came to fighting. I guess I've been wrapped up in my own definition of friendship that I never managed to look at it in another way.

Before I could even thank the two of them, we hear this sudden cry coming from the woods near our camp site.

"Wh-What in the name of Gaia was that!?" Steiner exclaimed, putting himself between the woods and Garnet/Dagger and Vivi in case they get attacked by whatever made that noise.

"It sounded like a girl…" Vivi added as he fixed his hat after jumping in surprise from hearing the scream. It didn't help that the bush seemed to be swaying as if something is ready to jump out.

Alyssa and Zidane started to gather near the knight with their own weapons out, preparing to face whatever entity that would come out at us. I know that screams from the woods never bode well to anyone bold enough to investigate, and it doesn't matter how many of us are here if this pans out like a horror movie. And what sucks about this is that the game never had an event like this happen during this time. It was all random encounters with monsters and the occasional friendly monster.

Hmm…what would be the chances of this encounter having a friendly monster?

"Help! Please help!" A woman crawled out of the bushes, her sudden appearance almost making everyone attack her. She was wounded, her attire had been torn a bit and we could see some bites on her arms and shoulders. Zidane was the first to be on her side, holding her up before she could drop to the ground.

"Alyssa, get a potion! She's seriously hurt!" She was already pulling out a blue vial just as he finished saying it. When she had her fill of the potion, she coughed but started to look better than she initially was.

"Please help…I got attacked by Pythons in the woodlands. My chocobo eggs won't make it to Treno if I leave them!"

"Chocobo eggs?" That was the only takeaway I had when she finished speaking.

Steiner put his sword down and knelt beside the lady. "It is my duty as a knight to protect those in need of help. How many of those pesky Pythons are there?"

"There were a dozen of them!" I think even Steiner blanched a bit at the number she gave him. I nearly choked on my own saliva when I heard it. Zidane, on the other hand, didn't let the amount of Pythons get to him.

"That's too much of them!" Vivi said, also sharing the surprise number of predators.

"Don't worry. We'll make sure your chocobo eggs are safe." Zidane told him, patting the black mage on the shoulder. He let the woman up and helped her stand. "Just hang out at our camp and we'll bring them over to you."

The chocobo lady was about to say something as Zidane made his way to the woodlands for a peek. He parted the bush and looked with the rest of us peeking over his shoulder. I frowned when I saw the amount of Pythons as well as the brown trolley carrying what had been double the number of monsters along with a single black feathered chocobo beside it.

"Are you kidding me?" I couldn't help but say. I felt two things nudge me at my sides and the sight of Garnet/Dagger and Alyssa's displeased faces at my statement welcomed me. "Fine. If you guys want to play hero, be my guest. I'll escort her to our camp and wait there."

I didn't wait for their approval as I guided Miss Chocobo past our tent. However, she had other plans. She grabbed my wrist, and thank goodness it was the good one, and turned me around.

"Wait! We need to get my chocobo out of there. She'll get hurt!" She said, pointing to where the others have charged off to.

I waved off her worries nonchalantly. "Don't worry. They're good fighters and they'll make sure your chocobo is safe."

"But I can't take that chance! You have to help me!"

I hung my head and breathed, trying to stop the urge to shout at her. It's not my place to just tell her to buzz off when we're already fighting her battle for her, but it's not really my responsibility either—

"If you're not gonna help then fine!" Her sudden cry snapped me out of my brief thoughts. She turned and ran towards the woodlands. The only thing I was able to do at that moment was to reach out and stop her, but that didn't work since I instinctively reached out with my right arm and my fingers weren't able to grab anything with the cast impeding such movement.

Before I knew it, I was after her. My mind had only kicked into gear when I was in front of a large black bird secured to a light-brown trolley with a handful of eggs under a tarp.

"Blake, what are you doing here?" Vivi piped up, attacking with fire on one of the Pythons trying to get a bite out of us.

"I have no idea," I honestly answered. When the Pythons hissed at me for my arrival, I pointed my knife at them. "Stay back!"

The bird was actually an adult chocobo and it wasn't even an ordinary one at that. I've only read up on the different kinds of chocobos and from what I could remember the ones with black feathers were really special. It was panicking, flapping its black wings in an attempt to threaten the Pythons. The Chocobo Lady was trying to calm it down, but it knew that having these predators around wouldn't help.

One of the Pythons slipped past Zidane and tackled the trolley with its head, knocking one of the wheels off. This sent three of the shelled cargo to drop, causing immediate concern for the Lady and her feathered friend. It managed to grab one egg with its beak, but the two were open and easy prey to our scaled enemies. Steiner had managed to cut down one slithering to the egg, however another one had wrapped itself on the other.

Seeing something so little be so defenceless made a part of my brain tick; Its mouth was ready to swallow the thing whole. The sight reminded me of that damned basketball game, Andrew being on the receiving end of who-knows-what from that guy. My best friend…so defenseless.

I didn't even realize my knife impaling that Python's face for reminding me.

"No breakfast for you." It wasn't my wittiest line, but it did the trick for me.

"Look out!" Alyssa had tackled me to the ground for two Pythons tried to bite me for interrupting their meal. It didn't take long for them to receive the business end of her sword.

"You want me to help. Fine. Then I'll help. Hold this for me." I gave Alyssa the egg in my hands before punting at one of the dead Pythons and going at it, knife leading the way, towards another.

"Wait up! You need back up!" She called after me. I saw her hand Vivi the egg we saved as she helped me out.

The fight only lasted for a few minutes with all of our combined efforts. I managed to get two more Pythons with my small weapon. It wasn't a big feat but it did earn me a few harsh bites and bruises from them, which was nothing with Garnet/Dagger's white magic assisting us. Plus, Alyssa kept watching over me in case I broke another important bone doing all these heroics.

On a side note, I noticed the others juggling that one egg we gave to Vivi to protect. Steiner actually took it from him since he thought it was impeding his casting. He didn't notice a Python get behind him and attempt to take a bite out of his armor, but Zidane was there to save the day and the egg from the attack. It caused him to get surrounded by the remaining monsters, however, which made him toss the egg to Gar—Dagger. The Chocobo Lady didn't like the egg being treated like a game of hot potato so she took it from the princess before it got cracked in the shuffle.

When it was all said and done, every Python looking for food was lying on the ground in their own respective pool of green blood. I was breathing harder than I could ever remember like my lungs were ready to collapse. Alyssa had to take away my knife just in case I jumped on another already dead Python. Double-checking if they were really dead probably made me look crazy.

"It definitely does." I heard Dagger comment. Thanks a lot, Dagger.

The trolley was assisted out of the woodlands near our camp so we could get the wheel fixed. Afterwards, the Chocobo Lady had faced us with a hearty smile after she covered her cargo with a fresh tarp to protect them.

"Thank you so much for protecting our precious eggs!" She exclaimed, holding the one egg that nearly fell victim in the attack closely to her chest.

"No problem! I'm just glad none of them got cracked or anything," Zidane said, scratching the back of his head nonchalantly. All I could do was shrug.

All while this was happening, I barely noticed the adult chocobo stalk behind me and rub its beak on my hair. I stiffened, not knowing what to do. I didn't want to make any sudden movements since large animals tend to take a bite of things that move suddenly. Well, that's what I remember from my time at the zoo anyways.

"Oh, she likes you." The Chocobo Lady remarked. Its black beak could easily bite my brain out from where it's going.

"Y-Yeah. T-Tell her the feeling's mu-mutual." I was nervous, okay! I don't know how chocobo's act so this is all new to me.

She giggled as she tried to lead it away from me. But as that was happening, they shared a silent moment before both turning to me. The chocobo nudged her master over to our group again, causing her to giggle.

"You know I just can't thank you enough for helping me over there that I'd like to give you something. Here." She presented the egg she had in her arms to us. We just looked at her for a second, unsure if she really wanted to do that. "C'mon, take it! Just promise me that you'll take care of the little thing when it hatches, okay?"

"We appreciate your kindness and accept your reward," Steiner bowed as he said this. The egg was handed over to the young black mage, who offered his own thanks.

One minute later, she was waving at us from a distance, walking alongside her chocobo as they travelled to the gate leading to Treno. Her gift made us just a bit happier for doing what we did. Zidane had this proud grin on his face, Vivi was giddy at imagining what the baby chocobo would be like, causing Dagger to enlighten us about newly hatched chocobos from her studies when she was younger.

I, on the other hand, was still shaking. All the adrenaline running through my system after a fight like that, aside from feeling just a bit threatened by the adult black feather chocobo, just made gave me a realization of how real things were. I guess it didn't register from that boss fight in the Evil Forest since I was too focused on game details. Just jumping in like that between the Pythons put things in perspective to me.

I'm not a hero, and I don't want to be, but even someone like me has something to fight for and that's something I can't avoid in this world. Whether for self-defense or for the sake of someone or something else, I have to fight and it doesn't matter if I know how. If not knowing how and just acting helped me save Andrew then I guess that'll be my main forte. Just take what I have and roll with it. I guess even heroes have times when don't know what they're doing.

But I would know what I'm doing. I'm a thinker after all. With all the information I have on the game, I can still use that to my advantage. I can go ahead and use what I have to avoid suffering any major damage. Use any boss information and character weaknesses against them until Alyssa and I can go home without changing the course of the game's history and events. Can't have an advantage if you change what happens.

Home…when will I ever see my home again…?

"Hey, you feeling alright?" Alyssa asks me. I close my hands and put them down.

"Yeah," I answer truthfully, smiling. "I think everything will be all right."

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 12: Change Your Fate

- Blake -

It was the middle of the night and everyone else was asleep. I could see Vivi and Zidane sleeping on their sides near the remains of our fire, the egg from the lady sitting between their heads. Steiner was silently snoring as he stood at the entrance of the tent like the good soldier he is. I'm sure Alyssa and Dagger were having a peaceful slumber in the tent.

That meant I was the only one still awake.

I couldn't really do this when everyone around me was up, but I needed to make sure my things were in order. I need to take note of what I have.

I fished around my pockets and pulled out my remaining potions as well as the sleeping potions I gathered from the Cave Imps. I had enough to count with two hands, a very useful item in case I needed someone or something off my back. Just break it on them and they should be snoring in a few seconds.

Speaking of Cave Imps, the jackets I borrowed from them should still be in the tent bag we have. I can sell that off easily for a lot of gill. I can have a spending budget once I'm done getting rid of them.

After that is the knife. My current go-to weapon. Unless I can get a short sword that doesn't make my arms shake as if I was trying to lift a chair then I'll have to stick with this thing. Either that or get a dagger set for myself. I can always just have a back-up weapon tied around my leg in case I get captured or disarmed. Catch your enemy off-guard with something clever like that.

Alongside my pocket items was my wallet. There's nothing of use in here. Just some 1x1 and 2x2 pictures of myself, IDs from my school, and some cash. It's the only reminder of the real world I have right now. If I somehow die in this journey then they can use my ID to identify the body, unless they get curious as to where my school is located. Ask too many questions about it and I'll only provide more of those than answers.

As I was putting things back to where they were, I noticed that I missed something where I out my wallet. It felt like a piece of paper. After pulling it out, it didn't look like any money I had or notes I've jotted down. The last thing I could remember about having a piece of paper on me was the ticket to the play in Alexandria. I Want to be Your Canary. An odd title for a play, but to me all plays were odd.

I unfurled the paper to expect some reading details about the play or something about Dagger's birthday being celebrated. That was not the one I see. These small paragraphs were no longer on the ticket, not even the title of the play or the date it was issued. No word about Alexandria or the princess. All of it was replaced by three words.

"Change your fate."

"Wh-wh-what?" I stammered. As hard as my eyes would want to stare at it, it didn't force the piece of paper that was supposed to be my ticket to change back to a plain old ticket. I even flipped it back and forth, hoping it would have been just an illusion like some trick cards I had when I was younger, but it didn't.

I felt a chill go down my spine. My hand felt clammy and I didn't know when my forehead had begun being covered in sweat. It wasn't the fact that the ticket was no longer a ticket was what scared me, but that it had become a faint reminder of something familiar.

It had taken me a few minutes to make an attempt to shake of the shock to think about this phrase. Someone probably switched it with my ticket. But who in the world would even want to do that? Why go to such lengths for a little trick like this?

I had to look around. Only the darkness under the silent trees and unmoving bushes from the nearby woodlands greeted my eyes. Aside from that there was no one out there snickering to themselves.

Wait a second. I've heard this before. Where did I hear this before…where…where…?

"Change your fate…"

A light bulb went off in my brain. It was that dream I had in the Cavern! The part where things went differently than what I remembered!

Goddamnit, I'm gonna go crazy…

My head snapped up at the noise I heard. It wasn't anything worth grabbing my knife, but I still did, when I noticed Vivi moving. He scratched at his eyes, sleep still framing his glowing yellow eyes.

"Blake? You're still up?" He asked softly, not wanting to wake up the others.

"Sorry for the ruckus." I replied, trying to put away some of my belongings. "I was just checking on my things. Don't worry about me, you keep on sleeping. I'll be unconscious in a minute."

The black mage looked at me for a second, his mind probably still lagging a bit due to being woken up, before he nodded and settled back down. "Okay. Good night."

"Night." I said. It didn't even take a minute for him to get back to sleep.

I lied down on my back, eyes staring out into the vast space in the sky, as my mind swam with questions. Lying to them with fake backstories and trying to find a way home is proving to be more annoying and troublesome than I expected. Maybe jumping on the Prima Vista was a mistake. And this mistake is giving me more questions about my being here than answers.

Looking for answers is really difficult. The bigger problem is, where do you start looking for answers when you don't fully understand the question itself?

- FF FF FF -

Most of my days would not start at the morning, instead I would wake up somewhere around noon and usually end in the middle of a sunrise. Since I'm not in the real world anymore I should have expected that same routine to change. Especially when I thought I would wake up on my own accord, even more especially with what I found out what happened to my play ticket.

What I didn't expect was to be woken up by being poked in the forehead. I could feel my irritation building up, my eyebrows just knitting together with each poke. My throat may have started off dry this morning but that still didn't stop me from snarling at whoever is trying to wake me up. You really cannot blame me from being mad at this early in the day when I could barely feel the sun grace me with its presence.

"Zidane…" I spoke up, feeling that I have the right person to blame since he's the kind of person to play this kind of trick. "If I open my eyes and see your cocky face trying to wake me up, I will cut you."

I hoped that would stop him from poking me awake. It didn't.

"…What?" I heard him reply groggily. And his voice was definitely farther than what I thought. My threat definitely fell off the wayside. Realizing this, I went for another guess.

"Vivi?" That was met with a slight snore to my left. The black mage sounded like he was still asleep.

"Alyssa?" No response. She must still be in the tent. My last two guesses were Steiner and Dagger, but I knew they are not the kind of people to do this. With my list of suspects completely emptied, I had to resort to the most obvious tactic I should have done just a minute ago.

I opened my eyes.

It still wasn't that bright at this time of day, the sky still somewhat dim and if I had to guess it was about 5 o'clock. I could barely see a figure at the edge of my right eye standing there right by my head. It was so close that it took me a while to realize that it was staring back at me, a pair of dead, beady eyes piercing through my soul. And suddenly and silently it poked me again.

One moment later after contact, my voice filled the whole valley.

I had already scrambled fifteen feet away from the thing attacking me in my sleep. Everyone else was wide awake and alert, brandishing their respective weapons and trying to find the source of the noise, like Steiner nearly fell from his standing slumber while Alyssa and Dagger ran out of the tent, sword and rod in their hands.

"Who's there!?" Steiner cried, eyes sweeping the whole area.

"That sounded like a girl is in trouble!" Alyssa added as she stood beside the knight. Then she found me cowering way past the tent. "Blake?"

I was frantically pointing to the spot I was sleeping in earlier. "I was being attacked in my sleep! It was terrible! I'm lucky to be alive! Please kill it!"

I was looking through the gaps between my fingers on my cast-encased arm as they all turned their heads where my finger is pointed. I heard them ready their weapons once they all had their target in sight, but I was dumbfounded when I didn't hear battle cries and weapons clashing. All they did there, as I saw through my fingers, was look back at me with what seemed like shame before dropping their fighting stances.

"What? Did it kill itself when it saw how many you were?" I asked, utterly confused why there wasn't any fighting happening.

"I don't know what's really scary with something so little…" Vivi said. It was when my brain registered that last part of that sentence did I ever begin thinking for the first time today.

My eyes focused on the spot where I slept near the burned out pile of ashes which was our camp fire and saw something particularly odd. The egg that the Chocobo Lady gave us was not a whole round object anymore. It was already broken apart by half with the other half was on the ground in smaller pieces. Near said smaller pieces was this small creature about the size of my palm looking like it had just walked out of a sauna due to its black feathers being so flat and thin and soiled. And it barely could even stand with its thin baby legs.

So it took about five minutes after waking up in shock for my brain to properly load up and realize that I panicked over something that was as threatening as a rock. It was merely a baby chocobo that hatched sometime early in the day. The shame came rising in a furious blush followed by an incredulous glare I aimed at Alyssa.

"I did not sound like a girl!" I rushed to my feet and stomped over to my former sleeping place.

"No shame in being scared, Blake," Zidane tried to calm me down. "You were taken by surprise. Big deal." I was seriously considering cutting him.

Dagger was actually knelt near the baby and was observing it alongside Vivi. "Are they normal?" He asked the princess. "My grandpa's only shown me chocobos with yellow feathers."

"There is not much information about the various types of chocobos that live in the land," Dagger responded. "But from what I've learned from my books is that dark feathered ones are very rare."

"Strange that we came upon two of them in two days," Steiner observed our luck with this kind of chocobo.

As they were conversing and wondering about some other factoids relating to chocobos, Alyssa fawning over the little thing like it was cute or Vivi wondering what could be used to help it get dry or Zidane musing how soon chocobo eggs were supposed to hatch, I was angry that I had gotten a less satisfying sleep than it did have a satisfactory hatching. I would normally be okay with only a bit of sleep, but after yesterday I feel like I've exerted myself too much that my limbs had started to ache.

Besides, after finding out that my ticket was nothing but a piece of paper with a mystery message on it really did not do me any good sleeping. Discovering that was not part of the agenda and it caused me to have this weird mix of a nightmare/flashback to that basketball game again. It was almost the same game, but the walls had that message all over the place. Not the best dream, easily topping my worst list.

But back to my lousy morning. I am not going to get involved in their conversation because I knew what a chocobo is, well general knowledge of it anyway, the only thought I had in mind was getting this thing over with and get to Dali since we're already up.

"The scoundrel is right. We should depart now while we are wide awake." I hear Steiner say. Then I noticed him standing right beside me. Damn, got caught talking to myself again. Everyone agreed and started to get their things. Alyssa pulled one of the jackets we stored in our tent bag and used it to wipe the baby chocobo's gross feathers.

"So what are we going to do with it?" Vivi asked Zidane as they watched Alyssa take care of the hatchling.

"Guess we'll have to take care of it now," he replied, a smile forming on his lips. "That lady did give it to us. Might as well make it our mascot."

"Yeah. Mascot. Maybe we should make up a team name as well and make uniforms." I added.

"That doesn't sound like a bad idea." Alyssa, please. I was being sarcastic. "I know. That doesn't mean I'm gonna let your foul mood ruin this." Ruin what? "The baby chocobo's birth! Hatching! Er…you know what I mean!"

Then I heard my stomach growl in the worst possible time. I'm already sleep deprived and now hungry. "Breakfast sounds good right about now." My eyes couldn't help but focus on the chocobo in the jacket in her arms when it chirped at me. I heard Alyssa gasp and take a step back. Then I noticed Zidane and Dagger look at me like as if I was insane. "What?"

- FF FF FF -

"Come on! Stop looking at me like that. I was only joking."

We had already started to move from our camping spot, put out the fire and put the tent back in its bag as we continued towards the village of Dali. We had spent most of the day walking and keeping an eye out for any monsters that planned to harm us. While doing so, we talked. Though I didn't expect it to be about what I had brought up at camp.

That previous statement was directed at Alyssa, who was still looking at me as if I planned a murder in front of her and insisted it would be for the betterment of mankind, like those insane villains in videogames.

"That's because you did plan to murder this poor little thing and wanted to eat him." Alyssa told me as she looked over her shoulder. I stayed all the way back of the group as they all presumed I was crazy. Well, Alyssa did. She had cradled the chocobo chick in her arms, 'protecting' it from me, as she says. She and the others managed to get that sticky layer on it with an extra rag, making it okay for us to touch it.

"That is beside the point." I replied to the girl, blocking a yawn with my cast. "Don't you know sarcasm when you hear it? I would never murder a poor, innocent, irrelevant chick."

"Then why did you push that soldier off the Prima Vista?" She interjected, trying to change the topic accidentally and bringing up something that was starting to annoy me.

"This is not a good time to be arguing about that thing." I said with a hint of irritation I was trying to hide. "Besides, she was threatening to torture me. Don't you guys understand how bad it would have been if I did not get rid of that girl. It would have been horrific. Plus, I bet she wouldn't last one second in the Evil Forest."

"The soldiers of Alexandria are trained by the land's greatest for if they didn't then they wouldn't be serving under General Beatrix." Steiner said with his serious voice.

"Alright, alright." I said, motioning for the two Alexandrians to calm down, especially Steiner before he loses his top again. "If I see that girl again, which would be never, I will apologize to her and to General Beatrix for pushing off one of her troops into a body of water. And who knows, I might even confess my love for her."

"Is that sarcasm?" Vivi asked innocently.

"Yes, that was sarcasm." I stated in the most deadpan tone I could ever do. "I'd never do what I just said."

"I bet a hundred gil Dagger's gonna force you to do it if you happen to find yourself on Alexandria." Zidane said as he nodded over to the princess.

"I'll take your bet, Zidane." I called over to him. "Hell, I'd even raise you a hundred more just because I'm quite confident it'll never happen, right princess?"

"No promises," said by the lovely princess with the eye contact she gave me was less than lovely. "And please avoid calling me 'princess'. It will blow my cover."

"Yes, ma'am." I slinked to the back of our group at Dagger's surprising glare. How come she doesn't glare at Steiner like that for continuously calling her 'princess'?

Anyway, the six of us continued our journey to the little village mentioned earlier. We had been walking for about two hours in a fragile formation due to our bantering about the baby chocobo, which worried me because a monster would probably attack any moment and we would be scrambling for our fighting formation. It's probably a good thing that we didn't catch sight of any monster with deadly intentions towards us, so that's a plus.

You know, all this talk about the chick just gave me a curious little thought that nobody has yet to ask: what is the chick's gender? Hard to believe that it took me hours to formulate that question. I wonder if Alyssa wondered over that same thought as she's petting the darn thing in her arms, cooing over it like it was a cute puppy she picked off the side of the road. Maybe I'll ask later. Dagger's my best bet to know since she's read up about chocobos.

And finally, after nearly half a day spent just around lunch time, we had finally arrived. I only felt excited due to the fact that I'm near a bed.

We walked into Dali welcomed by the sight of small, one-story buildings each with a curved roof and all having a white paint with only a few important ones being a little bigger, a stone arch for every doorway into said white buildings, a small road composed of flat stones for everyone to walk on and its signature windmill in the background as a beautiful and distracting set piece alongside a very tall and healthy tree with yellow fruit (mangoes?) hanging low from its branches. It was really THE epitome of a small, quiet village. Well, except for its well-guarded secret.

The windmill wasn't like the usual three or four bladed one that spins clockwise when it's being moved by the air. No, this one is different. Instead, it had five wind sails on the top of the structure and it would still move because of the wind. It's just an odd variation of the usual windmills I have been used to seeing back on Earth.

We saw a couple of small children playing around, laughing together and chasing each other as we entered the village's premises. Birds, pigeons or Gaia's version of pigeons flew above us and perched on the edges of the stone arches, looking at us like surveillance cameras. Vivi stared at the windmill as it distracted him as it spun around while the others were looking around. Steiner volunteered to look around the town for any sort of thing worth noting, such as the inn or the shop. He would have not volunteered if he knew that those two were already within reach upon entering the village, but we still let him look around. He came back a few seconds later.

"Vivi, the inn is this way!" Zidane called out to the distracted black mage.

"Aw, do we have to?" Vivi asked, to which Zidane nodded as a response. "…But I wanna go and see the windmill." He sure likes that windmill. I thought he only liked looking at it because he was only a kid, and like most kids they would have a short attention span. But from how he sounded like, he really wanted to look at it a little longer.

"I know. But let's get some rest first." He said, pointing to the inn, which was like any building in Dali, except it had a sign of a bed with a crescent moon and some stars on it. "We also need to decide what to do next." He's tired, we get it. He fought a custom made black mage with its friendly and charming Sealion alongside Alyssa and I know he deserves some rest, but did he even think about how much rest the others, including me, had while they were fighting? I think not. Steiner and Garnet even looked at each other, then me and Vivi, until they decided on a decision, and I knew what that would be.

"You guys go on ahead. I just need to conduct some…business." I pointed to the tent bag I had carried for the group after we departed from our campsite. My concern was trying to solve one dilemma I would surely have in the future. Might as well fix that now. Besides, I didn't feel tired. A bit disturbed because of my dreams, but not tired. I guess that chocobo chick scared the fatigue out of me.

"Okay, Blake's not sleeping yet." Zidane said as he approached the door.

"But please save me a bed." The thief shrugged at my statement as they filed into the inn. Alyssa had to snap Vivi back to reality, or my dream reality as my previous theory states, before they were left behind.

So with them trying to arrange our sleeping quarters, I decided to walk into the shop right next door, forcing down a yawn before I could open it. The lady there greeted briefly when I stepped inside, getting a polite greeting back with a similarly polite smile to go along with it. I immediately asked her if the winter weather was harsh for the farmers in the village or if they happen to experience really cold months near the end of the year.

I bartered with her for a while, trying to sell the jackets I procured from the cave. Seeing as they only have simple clothing in supply and such jackets were not that common in the area, she gladly accepted my five jackets for 400 gil. Why only five? Well, the last one is being used by the baby chocobo. Plus, it had that hatchling goo on it and I doubt she'd want to get that from me.

Now that I have some money on my hands, I bid the lady behind the counter my thanks and farewell before joining with the others. All I can say about the inside of the inn was that it's basically like the game, but with bigger space. The walls were also painted white, but you would be hard pressed to notice that with all of the plants and decorations put in here. The floor consisted of stone formed into small stepping patterns with green to cover the parts that aren't stone. A fireplace warmed the room with a small fire with a cat resting above said fireplace, spectating over us with its head on its paws. A wooden desk stood before what I think was a door, and behind that desk sat a man who was wandering the streets of dreamland. Guess the conversation with the others didn't wake him up hard enough. I let him sleep and just entered the only room available.

"Wait just a minute." Alyssa spoke up, making everyone look at her. Oh, I guess I walked in on that very important conversation about Dagger's motives. "So Dagger wasn't kidnapped against her own will, but she actually joined up with you guys because she wanted to get kidnapped?" The girl in question could only nod. "Why?"

Her 'being like an ordinary civilian' act is kind of off putting when she does it. She says she can't lie, but what she's doing right now is just asking questions she already knows the answers to, yet it is still lying. Is it just her own method of avoiding situations that demand her to outright lie? Well, one positive I can get from this is getting a summary of what they've been discussing while I was away. Surely it wasn't much.

"Everyone, please listen." Dagger spoke carefully. "There is a reason I must leave this kingdom I cannot tell you why… But… please…" All Zidane did was nod understandingly.

"I'll get you to Lindblum somehow." He promised. That was when Steiner decided to blow his top off for the sake of Alexandria.

"I've heard enough!" He shouted.

"Shhh!" I went over to the knight and hissed. "Do you want to be heard by everyone? Do you even know how much this kind of information will cost to the right people? It could be a fortune, so control yourself from letting everyone know!" I told him in the lowest whispering voice I had, but apparently he had other things to worry about.

"Princess, you cannot trust the words of a thief!" He said to Her Royal Highness. "He may expose you to even more danger, like he did in Evil Forest. I beg of you, Princess. Please return with me to the castle."

"He has a point there." I remarked offhandedly. Zidane stepped in, trying to defend himself from the captain's accusations. Well, not much of an accusation, but more of a fact.

"I know I screwed up in Evil Forest. But there's no doubt in my mind now. I'll protect Dagger with my life." Zidane said to the knight.

"Aw, that sounds so romantic." Alyssa said as she pet the chocobo in her hands, but Steiner disagreed vehemently.

"Don't be ridiculous! It is I who protect the princess, now and forever!"

"Then tell me. How do you intend to take her back to the castle?" Zidane countered.

"I-I will think of a way…" The armored man trailed off, trying to think of a way, making Zidane shake his head. They were going to go at it again, but they heard something that made them stop. Even Steiner had to stop himself from blowing a gasket when he saw where this noise they were hearing came from.

It was Vivi, dozing off on one of the beds.

"Master Vivi…" I heard Steiner sigh. Yes Steiner, Vivi might be a child, but he's mature enough to know that arguing with each other is useless and will not bring any resolution to our current problem. Though he is still baffled by mortality, war, and manipulation, but that's the norm around here.

"He was tired. But you had to go on a tirade." Yeah, shift the blame to someone else. You're as guilty as Steiner is, and you know it. Before Steiner could even respond, he was cut off and left steaming by himself.

The rest of us who weren't tired yet then started talking about something else unrelated to the castle or Dagger's reason for leaving said castle. Zidane and Dagger were talking more about on how to act like an average citizen of the continent while Steiner looked on, keeping an eye on the thief in case he made an unnecessary move on the princess. Alyssa and I, on the other hand, focused on the oversized chick that was now stuck with us. She's probably forgiven me for saying what I said earlier.

She sat down on the stool while I positioned myself on one of the vacant beds near her. I could easily see the chocobo's wandering eyes searching for something. I busy trying to stifle a yawn behind my cast when I heard it chirp, its head turned at me as I thought about going to sleep. It was like it was trying to get my attention with its constant twittering, but the only thing it was doing was making noise. As if on instinct I put up a finger and hissed at it, telling it to shut up. Of course it didn't since it did not have any formal training in understanding human body language and gestures.

"I think it's calling for you," Alyssa told me, trying to calm down the little thing by running a finger down its neck. "Wanna hold it?"

"Are you sure you want the guy who wanted to eat it for breakfast?" I countered to her, remembering how off-put she was with my comment. She frowned at me and pointed at me as if warning me. "Fine, I'll avoid making jokes about it so it'll finally pipe down. Hand it over."

Alyssa gently placed the jacket in my arms and my mind instantly went to thinking like handling it like a newborn. Technically it was anyway, but not of human birth but still a baby nonetheless. The moment it realized it was in my arms that it started to tone down on the chirping. Thank goodness with that. We didn't want to wake up Vivi. He needed all the rest he could get for the following day.

Zidane's conversation with Dagger eventually wavered until both of them yawned. "I think that's for it today. I'm gonna go to sleep." I looked over and Dagger looked equally tired while our resident knight was too busy standing in one place and eyeing the thief that he didn't even notice the fatigue clearly written on his face.

"Yeah, you guys get some rest. I'll be taking a look at the village." I said on my way out as everyone except Alyssa was yawning. Zidane, Dagger, and Steiner, who followed the two's lead hesitantly and kept an eye on the suave thief, each went to their respective beds and lied down.

"Hey wait!" Alyssa called out in a low voice when she came after me. We passed the unconscious innkeeper and exited the building and were greeted by a sky transitioning from orange to dark blue. The chocobo in my arms made a soft sound as it watched the sky. Both of us looked at the windmill that was still spinning at a time like this.

We didn't say a word for a while. We just stood there and looked at the horizon as the sun was winding down with the occasional chirp being added to the background. Nobody was around, probably in their respective houses trying to sleep through the night. Alyssa looked like she's enjoying the view of videogame world made reality, not sure if she is actually doing that, but I was thinking.

I may think of this entire sequence of events as one long lucid dream, but it's beginning to feel real enough for me to consider my theory wrong. Am I wrong? Maybe. That still needs to be proven. Does Alyssa believe that this is just a dream just like me? I don't know. I haven't asked her yet. Oh, speaking of things needed to be asked…

"You know, I have been wondering about this since you mentioned about your 'mentor' some time ago," I used air quotes because I believe her mentor is an old coot, not an actual capable trainer. "Why did you actually want to know self-defense?"

Alyssa petted the chocobo as she answered, "We live in a dangerous world. You really don't know when you're gonna get mugged or attacked. So, I trained in karate and other self-defense arts. I already told you that I studied with a guy who had a brother in a wheelchair, remember?"

Yeah, that sounds like ages ago. "And you happened to know how to swing a sword because of your self-defense classes?"

"Actually, my parents wanted me to learn fencing since I was little." She replied, looking down on the chick in her hands. "I'm not a clear-cut expert, but I know enough."

"That just sounds like a whole lot of coincidence." I said to her. "Aren't fencing swords like tons lighter than a normal sword? How did swinging a tinfoil stick give you the endurance to wield a sword?" She just chuckled, probably thinking of my ignorance to weapon handling somewhat stupid.

"I tried branching out after I gave fencing a try. Didn't really catch my interest. Besides, swords aren't really that modern and useful in our time."

"Ah, maybe you should have trained with a gun instead." I felt her shiver at my attempt of a joke. "Something wrong?"

"Nothing," she simply answered, shaking her head fast.

I hummed, thinking of our current predicament. My mind went back to my thoughts of lucid dreaming. "Do you think this is just a dream?"

My expected answer from her was to ask why I thought this was a dream, yet I earned a pinch on the arm. After I nearly dropped the baby chocobo and yelled in pain, she could only give me a goofy smile. "Sorry, but if this was a dream you would have woken up by now."

I frowned at her attempt at an apology, but did concede her point. I've been thinking about it for a while now. If this was a dream I thought I would be the prime host for the dream. Let's face it, I have the most experience with the game, gone through most of it than her combined three playthroughs. Sure it is impressive to completely finish the game like she did, but I had more experience with the game. That gave me a right to think that I would be the one dreaming and she's only along for the ride. Maybe we were hooked up in an Inception-esque briefcase that's allowing us to dream like this.

But it was easy to think of it that way because you can wake up from dreams. If I didn't like our current situation and realized this was a dream, I could easily simulate a 'jump' like in Inception and wake up. But you really can't wake up when something horrible happens in real life.

And that's the worst case scenario: Something terrible happening and being unable to escape it in this new reality.

"I think we're not dreaming." The girl finally responded. "I'm sure of it. This just feels too real for a lucid dream. I think we've been transported to another dimension or something."

"Oh, sci-fi. Lovely." I remarked. I'm not a big fan of sci-fi all in all, though I consider science as a big part of the human race. Some people are aiming at making hover boards, time machines, and long term space travel because of that genre. I'm just not a fan of the genre, but that does not mean I hate it.

"It may be too farfetched, but at least it's an idea." She continues. "Even if it's still not yet technologically possible –"

"Maybe you should switch technology with magic if you're going to continue down that path." I told her with a joking tone. She ignored my statement and went on with her explanation.

"Even if it's not yet technologically possible, there could've been a number of factors that could have enabled this. I mean, what are the chances of lightning hitting us, right? If that can happen, inter-dimensional travel can be possible too."

"A lot of people get struck by lightning all the time. Hell, the chances of someone getting struck by lightning and dying is less than someone dying because of a vending machine." I argued a point that I knew was a fact. She could only give me a reaction that read 'Really?' "But we're veering off topic here. So we have varying theories: A very lucid dream and inter-dimensional travel." I pointed to me and her respectively as I stated our theories. "We're going to need something to prove it."

"If only we could prove it…" Alyssa sighed. Both of us don't know how we ended up in this world. We just agreed to disagree at that point. No use shoving my theory down her throat if she keeps resisting, right? That would be torture and I know torture is certainly illegal in some continents.

Then I just remembered something. There is a single object in my belongings that don't actually fit with my mental inventory, which was something I discovered last night. The ticket I received for the play! It's not a ticket anymore but a mysterious message. This might be connected with our being here in this world. Definitely no coincidence!

Okay so that's one thing down. This feels like I'm starting my own wall of newspaper clippings and threads linking to various hints and objects. A conspiracy wall, my string theories. This is going to make me sound like an exceptional lunatic if this is actually true. But at least that's a lead, right?

"Hey Blake, you've been changing faces there for nearly a minute." Alyssa was waving a hand in front of my face, which was accompanied by the chocobo making noise once again. "I know what could relieve that tension! Dinner!" Her enthusiasm was reduced when she remembered one little fact. "Oh yeah, we don't have any money…"

"Actually, I do." I said nonchalantly. "Sold all those jackets save for this one. Got quite a bit that we can eat."

She was instantly elated to hear that we have money, but as fast as that came it was stopped by hesitation. "Are you sure? You look really out of it, like you need to sleep so much."

The moment she said 'sleep' my body forced a yawn out. Damn me for not being able to resist yawning. "It's fine. Think of it as my way of apologizing for the last few days."

Upon learning that I'm okay to have our combined budget and spend some of it, she shrugged and led me to the nearest food supplying building. So we stepped inside the building with the skull ornament – I think it looks like a skull ornament of an animal – and see two little girls working, busy with their current objective to even look at us. The place was tidier than my closet and that thing is three times smaller than this. There was a set of tables and chairs to the left and the right that were in the process of being set up as if they were closing up for the night. Purple and teal lanterns lit up the place quite nicely, though I think it is a strange decision to use those colors.

I went up to the counter and knocked on the surface loud enough to attract the attention of the girl working behind it, who was wearing a light blue hat. "Excuse me, are you closing? I'm looking for a place to eat and someone said this place would be appropriate."

The girl looked over her shoulder as she worked dutifully and said, "I think we can spare one more." Then we heard someone groan loudly at this statement.

"Ugh…Slai, we're supposed to be closing." The red hated girl complained as she put one of the chairs on the table.

"A bit more money will help us, Marin. Don't be selfish." The girl behind the counter, Slai, told her. She straightened herself as she came up to the counter with a pencil and a piece of paper. "What will you have?"

I first asked what they had available so that we may be familiar with the food we could possibly get without experiencing food poisoning. Slai described each dish they had on the menu as if she was trying to sell the newest car on the lot to possible buyers. She did her job well, that's all I could say about it. Eventually, I stopped her before Alyssa could drool over the food she was dreaming up in her head. We ordered a vegetable stir-fry and a pumpkin salad.

After being told that our food will be served in fifteen minutes, we were directed to her sister so we could take a seat. Despite her grumbling, Marin set us up a table and gave us a glass of water so we don't die of thirst while we waited.

I set down the jacket with the chocobo at the center of the table between our glasses, basically making the black feathered hatchling into a good piece of decoration. The thing looked around, somewhat enamored by the small building, yet its attention was easily taken away from our environment when it set its eyes on me. That made it start making noises again.

My first thought was it was hungry and that we should have asked for something easy to chew and swallow for a baby bird, which I could probably do with my own food. Alyssa's petting of it did calm it a bit but still made a few odd sounds. She encouraged me to do it since she's been doing it a lot, actually most of the day since she took it under her wing, no pun intended. And when I did it the baby chocobo got surprisingly silent. At least that gave my brain time to think.

"So what's been eating at you?" Alyssa suddenly asked. I had to stop touching the chocobo and started staring at her blankly. "It's very obvious. You're either yawning from lack of sleep or staring at the distance."

"Today isn't just my day." I groaned. "Or yesterday."

"What are you talking about? You stepped up and actively fought for the first time. We have a mascot because of you and learned that birds like you."

"It's a one-sided relationship…"

"Not for long." That was surprising statement. She pulled the jacket being used as an impromptu nest away from my grasp and prompted a noisy reaction from the bird, but she pushed it back towards me and it effectively silenced it. To prove a point, she did this a bunch of times and it got annoying the more she did it. I had to hold her arms so she can stop it.

"Okay, the bird likes me. Whoopie…"

Alyssa's shoulders slumped for a moment after my remark. "I thought you learning that you're a parent to a small chocobo might cheer you up."

It might have taken my brain almost a minute to even comprehend what she just said. I initially thought she was mocking me, but then my brain focused on the word 'parent', resulting in a double take between her and the bird. I had to put my face in my hand and groaned. Our food did arrive at that very moment with the little girl serving our respective plates in front of us. Alyssa thanked her and I just added a hum as she slinked away to the back room.

Things just keep get weirder and weirder since I got here. Realities changing, always making sure that I have my story straight, alternating dreams, tickets becoming ominous messages, suddenly becoming a parent to a newly-hatched chocobo…These things are starting to pile up and I'm sure something will eventually screw me over.

"Ominous messages?" I hear Alyssa ask about. I hissed and cursed under my breath. Why do I keep doing this to myself?

I sighed dejectedly. "I guess it's too late to take that back." She nodded. "Alright, let me briefly explain before I prove to you that I'm slowly going crazy…"

So I tried to summarize by beginning with my almost realistic dream flashback back at the cavern that had me very jumpy when I woke up, how it had a different ending to what actually happened. It was still painful to remember that event, and even when I think about it now sends a slight ache up my arm, but the final moments of that dream just confuses me when a certain phrase gets repeated by a foreign voice, one that doesn't belong in the dream. I tell her about the phrase, "Change your fate", which gives me no insight to my current situation or offer no comfort. Which then catches us up to current events…

"And now the crazy part." I start digging in to my pockets. It didn't take long for me to pull out the piece of paper that was formerly my ticket to the Alexandrian play. I look at it briefly, the phrase appearing in bold lettering right before me, before I hand it over to her. "That used to be a detailed invitation about I Want You to be My Canary. You know how tickets are, right? It should have the date, the time, and place. I even remember this one great picture at the back. But now, for some mystifying reason, all of that vanished and was replaced by three words. 'Change your fate'. Everything's been replaced! Was it magic? Is this like the Marauder's Map in Harry Potter? Who knows by now? I have a mystery in my hands and I don't have a suspect or any leads."

As I was busy explaining my side of the story, I didn't notice Alyssa making this very confused expression, her eyes not able to decide whether to stare at me as I made exaggerated gestures or keep looking at the paper she had on hand. When I finally caught myself and saw her making this face, I got concerned.

"What?"

"I don't see what the problem is with this ticket," Alyssa sheepishly said as she presented the paper.

"What do you mean!? What's so hard about seeing a blank piece of paper with only three words—" I grabbed it from her hands in anger and was about to angrily point out the obvious when it was the obvious was pointed out to me.

Instead of only three words, I see that the paper was filled with words I thought have disappeared last night. All I could do was stare at the invitation telling me about the princess' birthday and how it would be an excellent day being topped off by the play and a fireworks display. I turned it around and saw no trace of the enigmatic phrase that haunted my dream.

I shook my head as I slumped against my own chair. "That's it, I am officially insane. Maybe this is my punishment for tricking that noble during the play or for using you as a shield or pushing that soldier off the airship. If I knew insanity was going to be my reward for doing that then I should have never done it…"

"Look," Alyssa reaches over and puts a hand on my cast. "You don't need to show me anything. I believe you. If this paper is showing you some scary message that's threatening you then we'll try to find the source!"

"I would feel better if I have hard evidence." I waved the ticket around, hoping it would change back, but it did not.

"Don't worry. If you can figure out anything about the ticket then that would be your first clue as to why it changed or why you have it."

I shrugged. My other hand started to scoop up some of my food and eat it in an attempt to help my brain think. The hunger was only there to distract me from how stressful this little journey has become. It only made me realize that I was never hungry to begin with, but I did order it and it looks quite healthy. Besides, the chocobo was leaning into the plate I had in front of me so I was somewhat obligated to cut it little pieces of my own food. I would alternate feeding myself and the chocobo with looking back at the ticket, hoping it would prove that I'm not being crazy. Alas, it did not and I only realized it wouldn't when we were already done with our food.

We thanked the two girls for their services, well Alyssa mostly, before we went back to the inn. The little village was silent save for the atmospheric noises the crickets made as well as the occasional breeze and chocobo chirp. Alyssa carried our mascot and its impromptu nest since I didn't have the energy to carry it right now. Who would even have the energy to do anything after what I just saw?

We actually bumped into the innkeeper as he was on his way out. Weird that he's up and about during the night and napping all day. The explanation about his current activity is that he just remembered, after like an hour or so Alyssa and I left for dinner, that all of the beds have been occupied, which was no surprise to me. That's my fault because I didn't reserve a bed. The innkeeper gave us a back-up sleeping bag he had as a way of apologizing for the lack of rooming.

Of course, that leaves us with the incoming traditional argument on who should get the thing we want to use. I have an older sister and I have been through this argument too many times to count. To avoid spending a certain amount of time on a useless argument, I just waved off the innkeeper, thanking him for thinking about his customers and what-not, and went on inside. I was sure I noticed this remorseful look from Alyssa as I passed her.

Everyone in our party was sleeping peacefully, light snores and steady breathing filling our inn room. With no bed and no desire to find a suitable resting spot, I opted for what was the only thing available in the room: the desk at the left with the stool. I silently plopped down on the stool and rested my head on the wooden surface beside what looked like a crystal ball. I stared into it briefly, wondering why this madness was happening to me. It didn't take long for Alyssa to come in into the room.

She walked over to me and placed something in front of my face: A white pillow. It was enough to soften my impromptu sleeping spot. I muttered my thanks to her as she placed the jacket-nest near my head, the hatchling looking over to me as I stared back at it, while she set up her borrowed sleeping bag.

"Are you sure you don't want to use this?" She asked in a low whisper. I grunted in the negative. "You're gonna have some neck problems tomorrow." I made a noise that sounded like 'I know'. "We can share if you want?" Now that I didn't make a noise because I just turned my head to the other side of the room. I heard her sigh and start getting inside the bag.

"Just don't worry too much about the ticket. We'll find answers to it eventually." Alyssa tried to assure me.

"I hope the answers come tomorrow," I replied. She shared the sentiment with a hum.

"Well good night and sweet dreams."

I wrapped my arms around the pillow and groaned silently. "I wish..." I closed my eyes and hoped I would have a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 13: Inquiries Aboveground…

-Blake-

Turns out, dreaming were the least of my problems that night. Just after a few hours, I woke up to a semi-stiff neck. I figured I'd last longer than just a few hours since I do this at school for more than few hours. I think I set the record for sleeping through the most consecutive classes of all time and nobody has yet to beat it. Yes, I did get in trouble for it, but I at least I had the energy and attention to listen to the lecture I got from my teachers afterwards. And that's the moral of that little lesson.

Anyway, I had to adjust my position multiple times to the traditional bent-over-the-desk position to lying sideways on the pillow to leaning backwards on it (think of it how one would normally sleep in a car). There were a few good times when I almost tumbled off my chair while sleeping. The switch between the three occurred after a few hours after the initial change. I was comfortable with the last position up to until it was already morning despite the few close calls.

Safe to say that I got enough rest at the cost of my neck.

The morning after our arrival in Dali was a stiff one. My eyes fluttered open to the sight of someone from my left moving. If my ears were working properly at that time, I was sure I was hearing a melodic sound from the outside. The sound of feet approaching me made my head turn.

"That's a pretty comfy way of sleeping." The person said with a hint of humor in his voice. I forced my eyes to focus at the mirror in front of me as I sat up straight, yawning and stretching as I did so. Turns out it was Zidane standing behind me and he was referring to my impromptu sleeping quarters.

"I would have camped outside if I thought of it last night," I sardonically commented while I checked my own neck for nerve damage. Thankfully my various position changes helped and it didn't damage my neck. I don't want to have a neck of an 80-year old at the age by the time I'm 25. Since Zidane is out of his bed that must mean that everyone else is up and about. Even Alyssa and that sleeping bag of hers is nowhere to be seen. Guess this must be a good time to get up.

"You going out?" I ask Zidane as I stood up, waking the dark feathered chocobo chick sleeping beside my borrowed pillow. It chirped and flapped its tiny dark wings like it was trying to get my attention. Zidane nodded at my question.

"Yeah. Did you just hear that?" He must be referring to the song Dagger was singing. I know about it, but I'm a bit disoriented at the moment to confirm if I did or not.

"I have a stiff neck, not a pair of broken ears." I craned my neck to the left and right, trying to get the circulation going. "What did you hear?"

"Someone singing…" He trailed off. He's a bit unsure if the voice was familiar or if he was just hearing stuff.

"Well, let's just hope that the face it belongs to is just as lovely as its voice." I said to him. I already know that the face is just as lovely as the voice, but I'm just letting Zidane wonder about it some more. I put the pillow under my right arm and picked up the jacket the hatchling is using as a nest. The innkeeper's going to need his pillow back.

We exited the room together with Zidane's thoughts still going on about the 'mysterious' voice somewhere out there and mine intent on moving my neck every five seconds. The fireplace cracked with the fire started in it as the innkeeper kept his position on his desk like yesterday, napping as if he didn't get a wink of sleep last night. I just placed near his head and silently thanked him before leaving. In the corner of my eye, I saw him move the pillow under his head and sighed in relief.

He may be a spineless, useless waste of skin, but at least he's polite and knows what the customer needs. Kind of. He needs to put another bed or two in there if he wants some more business. But that's the problem here, isn't it. The lack of business. Maybe if they stopped the underground productions and instead used those funds somewhere else, then it would be a lot more useful than making weapons.

"So what's the next step in your kidnapping plan?" I turned to Zidane after we closed the inn doors behind us gently.

"Still working on it," Zidane answered. "Wanna go eat?"

"Not really." I shook my head. "I don't eat breakfast." He tilted his head at my statement.

"You're gonna be hungry before lunch rolls around."

"That's why I wake up around lunch. Or past lunch, in some cases."

"And you get your merchant stuff done how?"

"Not merchant stuff, 'salesman' stuff." I corrected him. "And yes, it's all possible for me to do it in less than ten hours." My cover story is really holding up. It's pretty easy doing it. It's like you're telling someone a story in first person and that you're the character. Reminds me of method acting. "Don't tell me all you do is laze around whatever place you call a hideout and wait for the perfect victim to walk around the corner."

Zidane put a hand under his chin, thinking about what I had just said. "You know, that's not a bad idea." I could tell he was just joking with that growing grin on his face.

"If you do steal my idea, just credit me when you get the chance." I played along, putting on my best smile.

"That's going to be the least of your problems when warrants for your arrest start appearing because of us." Well, thinking about it now, being credited for something illegal when you're not actually doing it kind of makes you an accomplice.

Perhaps his stomach was growling at him so much that he couldn't take it, Zidane walked off towards the small pub being manned by the two girls. I just stood there and let my chuckles subside. Zidane is a pretty cool guy, I can tell you that much. If he was a real guy, I'd probably be friends with him already. Too bad about that little fact that he's an Angel of Death. It would be pretty cool to brag about having a friend like that.

And then somewhere in the air, I heard a forced scream…

Moving on… If my foggy mind and my recovering neck are not affecting my memory, I am sure that we have half a day or so for preparations before the plot kicks back in.

So, I should use this opportunity to get some more sleep. This time I'm going to be on a soft bed. Oh man, just the image of a vacant bed in a time like this with a sore neck is so tantalizing right now. Last night was a pain in the neck. I can make up for that.

But as much as I would love to lay down on something soft, I have to get a few things together. My clothes are a little worse for wear, I don't have much items and I really want to change to a new weapon from this weak knife I have. Might as well do something productive while I have the time, right? And it is a good thing that I conveniently have some money to spend.

I stepped inside the establishment right in front of the inn with the chocobo chick right behind me and looked around. Just like the inn, the space inside was bigger than what the game has lead me to believe. Aside from the space, nothing had seemed to change from what I remember about this shop since I visited yesterday. The lady behind the counter was pouring something into a glass she had, gently maneuvering it with a steady trickle of liquid landing into the glass. There was a lovely scent in the room, which wasn't there last time, something reminiscent of my favorite milk tea flavor. The chocobo kweh'd, probably enjoying the scent.

The shopkeeper looked up at me as I came in and greeted her first – I assume I'm the first to come in today – customer of the day. "Hello, nice to see you again. How may I help you?"

My first business at hand was to ask if she had any clothes on for sale, but aside from the jackets I sold her as well as some pretty simple shirts she had nothing of interest to sell me that would be suitable for travel. So that was done within the first minute. I guess I'll just have to replace my outfit at Lindblum.

If clothes weren't on sale, I instead asked for a replacement for my shoddy knife, the same one I took off a dead Goblin. I was willing to sell it and buy a different weapon since it looked like it was about to give out soon. So I bought a pair of Mage Mashers from her for my troubles. I only needed one, but she insisted to take the pair for a back-up in case I lose one. Pretty forward thinking there, lady. I also bought two satchels so I have a space to put my items. I don't want to group all of my potions, both healing and sleeping, since that would be dangerous.

As I was moving my healing potions to the satchel, one of my other items fell to the floor. A piece of paper actually. I immediately picked it up, thinking that something from my wallet fell out, but on second glance it was one of the sources of my problems. It was supposed to be the ticket, yet it was only three words on one side once again: the mysterious message that was supposed to be my theatrical souvenir from Alexandria.

Change your fate.

The other day the ticket became this solitary piece and then last night became a ticket again. Now it's back to that stupid, cryptic note! Why is it switching back and forth!? Is it taunting me? Is there something I have to solve to get the meaning out of this thing? Whatever this thing means it has to be important. I can't simply dream about a phrase I have never thought of if it's not important. The answer is out there somewhere…

I place the paper with my items inside my little satchel, take the chocobo's nest off the counter, bid my farewell to the shopkeeper, and steadily depart from shop. As I pulled open the door, I wasn't prepared for what was on the other side since I didn't expect it. I almost headbutted someone as I exited the store. Good thing I was paying attention, because I managed to stop in my tracks and put up my disabled hand on shoulder level to stop her from colliding with me. Both of us were now standing so close to each other that I could see the texture in the pupils looking wide eyed at me.

It was Alyssa.

"Alyssa?" I tried to sound so calm in the midst of being so close to a member of the opposite gender. This happens rarely to me. I don't even stand this close to my own sister. I looked over her shoulder and see Dagger standing there. My eyes went back to the girl in front of me and reminded her, "You should always pay attention to what's in front of you, Alyssa." I stepped to the side and bowed slightly to hide my reddening face, making room for them to pass. "Right this way, girls."

"Thank you." Dagger curtly said as she passed me.

"So, how long have you two been up?" I addressed the question to the overalls-wearing girl and it took a moment for her to answer.

"…Um…I think an hour or so…?" She sounded unsure about that. Makes sense since we don't have watches on us right now. "How was your sleep?"

"Terrible. At least the pillow was comfortable." That was the only thing I said about it and moved on.

Alyssa explained that she's been tagging along with Dagger after they shared breakfast since she didn't know what she should do while waiting for the plot to make the next event happen, as to which I reminded her that she owed me for last night's dinner. That's two people she owes money for food now. She also added that she's helping Dagger blend in with the average non-castle citizens.

"Right, as if any of us are qualified for giving advice." I sarcastically told her. We were standing in the corner of the room, watching Dagger as she tried to make small talk with the shopkeeper while trying not to sound like she's been raised by royalty. My statement earned me a sharp nudge on the side. "Ow! That wasn't necessary, you know?" I hissed at her while I tended to my elbowed side.

"What do you want me to do? I had no idea what to do until Dagger showed up." Alyssa replied as she crossed her arms.

The two of us continued to observe Dagger's conversation with the shopkeeper until they were rudely interrupted by a child running into the store as if he came to report a fire. Of course, this was met with some scolding from the woman behind the counter, but Dagger let the kid talk so she can observe something. So now we were observing an observation. Lovely.

The kid described what I thought was the wildest tale I could have ever heard. It involved the sighting of a man with a straw hat. I doubt Dagger managed to catch on as to what the kid was referring to as he used childish descriptions and constantly let out a stream of words with no possibility of running out. Though he did run out of breath, only to draw in another breath and continue as if he didn't stop. I palmed my face at the kid while the girl beside me could only chuckle. I saw the chick in my arms look at the kid with its head titled slightly to the side. I bet if it had a hand it would do the same thing I was doing.

The kid soon finished his story for the shopkeeper and he excused himself from the store, running out to find the next great big scoop of the century. The shopkeeper could only smile and shake her head. "I'm sorry about that. The children around here are just so…"

"Hyperactive? Easily excited? Annoying?" I tried to finish her sentence, but she had another word in mind.

"…rambunctious," finished the shopkeeper, ignoring the last word I said.

"Oh I don't mind." Dagger said. Yeah, she doesn't mind as long as she can see how other average people converse. "I haven't been into this side of the country, and it is already being quite the experience."

"So you don't travel often?" The girl asked. Alyssa stepped in for Dagger in case she happened to say the phrase 'out of the castle' by accident.

"Yep! It's her first time to explore the world." Thank you, Alyssa. Dagger appreciated that little helpful interruption. With that, she stepped back into the corner with me and allowed the conversation to continue.

"Oh! A first time traveler! I know some handy tips for you, if you don't mind." The two then shared quality dosage of information on what to do in times of emergency when out in the wild or what to do if you are attacked by a Zanghnol when you don't have a weapon. That last one was kind of similar to playing dead when you're defenseless against a bear. Another was how to attract a group of Mus just by doing something that was certainly a mix of a howl and a snort. Weird stuff, but Dagger found it fascinating.

"I appreciate…I mean, thanks." Dagger corrected herself to try to sound like a normal girl.

"You're welcome."

And that concludes that little unseen portion of the Active Time Event that Dagger tries to act normal. The princess then looked around the store when their conversation ended. That led to Zidane coming through the doors and seeing Dagger absently looking at the items on the wall. He must've not noticed us when he approached the girl and looked over her shoulder to follow what it was she was looking at.

I thought that joining them would be funny, and I think Alyssa and I shared the same thought, so we came up behind Zidane and copied their actions. We went for a solid minute copying them, making the shopkeeper give us an odd, yet amused, look until Dagger fully looked over her shoulder and saw the blond thief.

"Zidane? How long have you been there?" Dagger asked, surprised to see him there. Zidane was about to say something when I decided to answer for him.

"He's been like that for some time now." I said, making the Tantalus member whip his head to me.

"When did you get in?" That was Zidane's turn to ask.

"He's been here before me and Dagger got in here." Alyssa responded from the other side of his shoulder. Zidane turned to her now then back to me, making Alyssa giggle slightly.

"Huh, I didn't even notice you guys. You almost scared me."

"You're joking right?" I deadpanned, not believing his words. It got me a grin from him as he responded quite easily.

"Obviously. Nothing scares me, especially in front of the ladies." He confidently stated. I don't doubt that for a second actually. Once he was done with that, he turned back to Dagger and congratulated her for sounding somewhat different than her old self. That followed some talk about the play, something I began to ignore.

Speaking of which, I took one of the satchels I had purchased and handed it to Alyssa. "Here you go. You need a place to put your items in and I thought you'd need one."

The girl in overalls inspected the bag and smiled at me. "Aw, thanks. How thoughtful."

I shrugged. Unfortunately, I can't do anything about her current poor choice in clothing. Then I noticed her glaring at me. "What?" When she didn't answer and continued glaring at me I then looked at the two chatting protagonists. "Is there anything else?"

"Not much really. We're going back to the inn and figure things out from there." Zidane said. "You guys have anything else need doing?" At the mention of that, the chocobo at me feet started 'kwehing' away. Thanks for reminding me.

"Yeah. I have to find something to feed this thing." I replied with a sigh. "And I believe we're missing someone here. I'll go look for the dear captain in case he's up to some shenanigans." Though, it would be hard for me to tag along with the guy. He's not a big fan of criminals, especially ones that have been accused of murdering someone.

"I actually have something else to do." Alyssa spoke up just before Zidane was about to say something. Great, I bet she'll be telling me to stop doing that. "And you know what; I'll go find Vivi so we can all meet up at the inn."

And with that, the princess and her 'kidnapper' went back to the inn to plan their next move while Alyssa and I stood there waving at them until they got inside. Before I could even say anything about what Alyssa and I should do next, I felt a hand slap the back of my head. It apparently wasn't supposed to be very painful, like it was just a tap, but due to my stiff neck it seemed to be more painful.

"OW! Was that necessary!?"

"Blake, you should know that girls don't appreciate it when you make fun of their clothes." Alyssa sternly told me.

"Really? Last time I checked, girls actually have a fashion sense." She feigned another strike, causing me to duck on instinct, but when I looked up upon realizing nothing hit me, she flicked a finger right on my forehead. "Okay, you need to stop doing that! Guys don't appreciate it when girls hit them." Unless it's a comedy show, then it would be okay. But this isn't really a comedy show, isn't it?

"Really? Last time I checked, you deserved it." The girl countered with her hands on her hips.

"Touché." I simply said while I nursed my forehead. "What is it that you need? Does it involve me? I have something to do, and I would love to go do it if I'm not needed for anything right now."

"Actually…" She shuffled in her spot and hooked her hands behind her back like an innocent child. "I need your help."

I adopted a thoughtful stance, but I already knew what it was she needed. "Let me guess. It involves currency." The girl nodded. "Alright, what do you need?"

"I think I need a new sword. Hopefully something lighter than the Pluto Knights' swords." Now that she mentioned it, the sword she's been using seemed too big for her size. Even I have difficulties hoisting up that kind of sword. Whether it was too big or I'm just incapable of lifting one. "Maybe you mean you don't have upper body strength."

"FYI, I do have upper body strength. I just…don't tend to use it that much." I drew in a breath before saying that last phrase. It's true, I swear.

I stepped past the girl and hoped she'd drop the subject before going up to the shopkeeper who has been in the background in the whole time. "Sorry to disturb you again. My friend here needs a lighter sword than this freakishly big one. Do you have one in stock?"

The girl from behind the counter asked for Alyssa's sword first before answering my question. She put it on her hands and lifted it up and down and then put it down on the counter. "I think that short sword over there would be enough." She pointed to our right, making us turn to the collection of weapons on the wall. Alyssa took hold of the very weapon she was directed to and pulled it to her.

"Wow. This one is very light!" Alyssa said as she did a few test swings. "It's almost like one of my fencing swords from back home."

I looked back to the shopkeeper and pulled out my gil pouch. "I believe the girl is satisfied. You may keep the sword, miss. How much would that be?"

After I paid for new weapon, along with a sheath and a belt, Alyssa wanted and sold off her old one, we exited the shop and looked towards the pub. I swear I'm beginning to think that I'm becoming Alyssa's personal bank account with the amount I've spent on her.

Anyway, back to looking at the pub. We both saw Vivi looking up to the windmill in the spot near the building it was on. I really didn't want to disturb Vivi while he was going over why the kids of the village was avoiding him like the plague and what they were referring to when they talk about him. Zidane does that thing and I think I won't be much help if I tried. Better let those more qualified to help him out here.

"Ah…Blake, I'll catch up with you later. You go feed your…uh…weird," She trailed off as she looked at the chocobo resting in its makeshift nest. "You haven't named it yet."

"Hmm… Glad you noticed." I just say to her. To be honest, naming it was the least of my worries. "I'll name it when I'm not busy. Until then, it shall stay nameless!" I said that like I was one of those Roman announcers proclaiming a new law being written or announcing some important factoids.

I proceeded to walk inside the pub and saw the two same girls working behind the counter. The bratty one of the two looked up when the door closed behind me. Her sister looked up once the other one lost interest, which was as soon as I started walking up to them. "Excuse me, but do you happen to have something edible for my friend here?" Slai, the diligent one, was about to ask who my friend was, but she stopped when I picked up the chick and put it on the counter.

Slai then looked like she was unsure about something. She turned to her sister and the two looked at each other as if they were exchanging words telepathically. Must be the 'twin psychic connection' I've been hearing about in regards to twin siblings. Either that or Slai was wondering what she should do while trying to see her sister's reaction.

She eventually went back to me and nodded. "I think we have something. Excuse me for a second." Slai left her station behind the counter and exited the pub. It only took her a minute to get back from where she went to. She arrived with a small object in her hand that oddly looked like misshapen carrot from back home.

"Here you go. It's a Gysahl Pickle. Chocobos like to eat them." Hmm… they probably keep the chocobo food somewhere not very obvious to the others. With an understanding nod, I paid for the food and took it. She also handed me a knife so I could cut the thing into small pieces for easy consumption.

I took a seat on one of the tables and started cutting a piece after putting the chick on the table. I sliced off the small end of it and turned it into smaller pieces until it was small enough for it to be eaten. The chocobo 'kweh'ed happily and started eating. I also requested for some water and a little bowl for it to drink off on.

While I was supervising this, someone clad in armor entered the pub. Lo and behold, it was Captain Steiner. "Oh, good morning captain!" I called over from where I was sitting. I got a surprised glance when he heard my voice. "What brings you here on this fine day?"

"You!" He shouted as he made his way over to me. "What underhanded motive do you have for being in this establishment!?"

I frowned at his instant accusation and muttered, "And good morning to you too, but ignore the fact that I'm just trying to be polite." I sliced some more pieces for the day-old chocobo before pointing the knife nonthreateningly at the knight. "As for 'underhanded motives', I don't have any. I'm just feeding this thing here. What about you? What have you been doing since you woke up?"

The knight eyed me as if I was trying something suspicious, or was about to do something suspicious, but he told me anyway. "I have been trying to search for any adults in the village. I have yet to find any."

"They're probably doing something important somewhere." I turned my back to him and focused on the eating chick on my table, trying to sound uninterested. I believe this is where Steiner will end up helping Slai in her duties until he can get something helpful out of her. Hmm… her sister is nowhere to be found, whatever. I'll just be over here watching it unfold over here.

I see Steiner approach the counter and announce his presence. "Excuse me! I would like to speak to any adult present right away!"

"Talk about subtle." I murmured to my chick. It looked up at the person with the booming voice. I swear I saw it shake its head before going back to its food.

Slai straightened herself and replied to the man, "Um… they're kinda doing something. They're busy at the moment."

Steiner looked around the pub and saw how it was… a little disorganized at the moment. "Would you like some assistance with your work? It seems that you're having difficulties trying to get everything in tip-top shape." I guess Slai's sister isn't much help when she's bored or busy being a brat.

"Hmm…" Slai thought about it for a few seconds. "Well, Marin is busy doing other errands…" She muttered to herself, though that was so audible I could hear it from over where I was sitting. "Maybe some help would be okay."

The knight in front of the counter nodded. He took a sweep of the place, taking mental notes, or I think he was making mental notes, before starting with the first thing he had in mind: forcing me to work.

"What!?" I shouted in disbelief. "You are not making me work!" I pounded my left hand on the table, causing the chocobo on the table and the pickle pieces beside it to bounce, as Steiner stood on the other side. The armor-clad leader of the Knights of Pluto only crossed his arms and stared at me, silently trying to will me in doing his bidding.

Okay, if he thinks that looking at me like that is going to work, then he has another thing coming! I've had many stare downs with my sister, ones that lasted even thirty minutes! Even my parents don't last long to the immovable object known as me when it comes to straining eye contact! You are foolish to believe that such a thing would work on me. I pity the fool who'd come up and try to stare me down and think they'd win. It'd be better if they give up because I won't! My mind shall resist and my will won't succumb!

-FF FF FF-

"All you need to do is organize the items in their respective shelves and drawers…" I can't believe it happened. It finally happened. Someone call Kuja and tell him to cast Ultima on me right now. I've failed… I've failed to resist.

It wasn't fair! He used Slai and turned the tides on me immediately. I mean, who could refuse a little girl looking at you with big, round eyes? Only someone as heartless and bastardly as the game's main antagonist could ever do that. I could've been successful with just Steiner only. Agh… there's nothing I can do now.

Slai gave me a piece of paper with the list of items I needed to organize and started to walk out of the room. "I'll look after your chick." She said with a smile. I took a peek over the counter and saw the little chick look at me before Slai started to pet it and encourage it to drink some water.

Eventually I have to name that thing. Maybe I'll think of a name as I work. Steiner's already started with some of the things at the back. I could even hear him grunt and move some of the things there. I guess I should get started now if I ever hope to finish.

Let's see… The items on Slai's list looked like the usual items used by travelers and adventurers: potions, ethers, tents, eye drops, etcetera, etcetera. She also wrote down in which drawers and shelves I had to move the items. That's very helpful. I looked at the spot near the counter and saw boxes sitting side by side. With a sigh, I knelt down and started opening the boxes.

To be honest, the task is very simple. You take as many items you can, place them in their respective drawer or shelf, and then repeat. But make sure that it's organized or that would beat the very purpose of the word 'organize'. I think Slai saw the cast and thought that something easy such as this would be enough for me to do. Maybe I'll thank her for being reasonable, unlike some knight I know.

The task assigned to me took more time than I initially thought. I predicted that I was going to be done in fifteen minutes, but I was proved wrong when Steiner brought some boxes with him from the back. That added another round of fifteen minutes to my time. In that overall time, I think my arms were about to fall off. Maybe I was exaggerating, but let me say that I am not a frequent worker. I don't do anything that needs me to exert myself if it's possible. I'm more of a laidback and let-everyone-else-do-the-work kind of guy.

After I pushed the last tent into the space underneath the counter, I sighed and decided to proclaim my duties as done. "I think that's all of them."

Slai stood up from the table and came to inspect my work. She nodded after a few seconds of looking. "Thank you for your hard work."

The little girl then went and took a few hi-potions from the counter I had put them in. I was about to say that I had done my best in making them look highly presentable and organized, but Slai surprised me by putting the potions into my arms. "What the…?"

She didn't even answer me as she went back to her station. Okay… You know what, I will not complain about this. I'll just take it as a 'thank you' gift. I made my way to my table and discovered that the chick had been sleeping. Well, I'm pretty tired myself and Steiner's still busy doing some work. Might as well rest.

"Firewood stacking duties are complete!" Just as I was going to lay my head on the table, out comes Steiner booming with no indoor voice. "I await your command!" He really needs to relax.

"It's my job to clean the bar. Why are you and your friend doing all this?" Slai asked. She had already taken her place behind the counter once again, making sure everything would be ready.

"I apologize in the behalf of the captain here." I spoke up and stood beside Steiner after picking up my little pet. "He's a very capable and dutiful knight. Sometimes he doesn't know when to be normal." I could feel someone burning a hole into the side of my head as soon as I said that.

"Well, now that you have the time, would you introduce me to some adults, like your father?" Steiner inquired. Why does that sound a bit awkward to my ears?

Slai paused for a second, probably currently contemplating whether to answer honestly or not. "My father won't be back until nightfall. All the other men are also working. They don't come here during the day."

"Sounds like your kind of people, eh Captain?" I said. Steiner only crossed his arms and ignored my statement while Slai went back to work.

"Pubs are supposed to be a prime source of information…" He mumbled to himself as he tried to think of something. Then he went back to the counter and talked to the girl again. "I need not to ask an adult. Let me ask you a question! I need to know about what transportation method people use in this village. I cannot tell you the reason, but there is someone I must escort to the castle."

That caught the girl's attention as she stopped whatever she was doing and faced us. She asked us if we were from Alexandria Castle.

"Indeed!" Both of us replied. I just joined in because it seemed like fun, but judging from the look Steiner was giving me he didn't like what I was doing. "I command the queen's Knights of Pluto! I am Adelbert Steiner, Captain of the Knights of Pluto!"

"Is your friend also on the same boat?" She asked, pointing to me. The moment she said boat my brain immediately went on a funny tangent that my mouth didn't stop broadcasting.

"And I'm the one he's supposed to escort. Vice Admiral of the Alexandrian Naval Fleet, Blake Skylark, at your service." Perhaps it was my nonchalant voice that made Slai a bit hesitant to accept what I said to be true or maybe it was Steiner looking like he was going to blow a gasket. I tried to add something that will hopefully not make my lie spread. "But don't tell anyone I was here. We were just finished with a secret mission. Black Ops kind of stuff. I've already said too much."

Boy, I bet Steiner is going to be so pissed with me after this.

Slai's contemplation period ended after a few silent moments. "Well, if you two are from the castle, I guess it's okay to tell you." She then proceeded to give us instructions to an observatory somewhere not too far just outside the village where an old man with the name of Morrid lives who handles the cargo ship business.

Pleased with the new information he had received, Steiner saluted and thanked the girl and took the chocobo that was finished with its pickles before leaving, and dragging me out in the process. I heard Slai thank us for our help before the door closed behind us. The dragging didn't stop until we were well past the tiny farm. When I managed to straighten myself, I saw the deadly glare the knight was giving me, making me shudder.

"I am so going to be hanged…" I muttered.

"You have made a mockery of the Alexandrian Naval Fleet! You dare impersonate an important officer of the fleet!" He yelled at me, jumping in the air in disbelief a few times.

"So there IS a naval fleet." I said to myself quietly, turning my back to the angry knight. "That kind of makes sense, but they're kind of irrelevant since nothing happens in the Continent's waters." I think the only times I've seen something that looked like a naval fleet from Alexandria is that one scene in the docks after Lindblum is in shambles and the ending of Disc 2, with the latter really showing how bad the fleet was. Looking back on that, it is kind of unfair that I came to that conclusion since the thing the fleet fought was Bahamut. But I guess that will still go on their track record—

"HOW DARE YOU!?" I almost jumped a few feet when Steiner's booming voice almost broke my ear drum.

"Now, now, let's just calm down." I tried to say.

"Nobody makes a mockery of the kingdom of Alexandria in my presence! To think you are just a harmless merchant." He shook his hands as he said this.

"It's 'salesman', not merchant." I corrected him. How can I make what I said there excusable? There's got to be a reason why that little girl trusted Steiner upon his introduction…I know! "And c'mon Captain, I didn't lie to the girl haphazardly. I have my reasons."

"I will not stand for this!"

"Then how about you sit down for a second and listen." I sighed. "Did you notice how she changed her tune from 'the adults don't come here until nightfall' to 'I might be able to tell you something' when you said you were from the castle? She wouldn't have told us anything if neither of us if you haven't said that. I only said those things in order to get her trust. And since I'm not from Alexandria, I think it's reasonable that I lied."

"That…That makes sense." That was all Steiner had to say. "Still, I condone all trickery and deception. If ever the princess may fall victim to one of your tricks, I will be sure to deliver swift justice. Understood?"

"Yes, your majesty..." I sarcastically replied, getting me another glare from him. "I mean sir! Yes, sir! Don't hit me in the face!"

Satisfied that he had gotten me straight, he then started walking towards the observatory. Okay, I may need to steer away all future lies from Dagger if I value my life. Though, I've been lying to her already ever since I told my cover story. Does that still count? Maybe it doesn't. So that means I'm the clear…? Maybe…

Now I'm just hoping that he would be the last one to catch wind of me or Alyssa lying. It's evident that Steiner highly dislikes anyone who puts the princess in constant danger and/or people who use her. If I get caught, I'd honor my promise and receive my punishment… by running the hell away from. If Alyssa gets caught, well, I'll run away, change my name and move to the Lost Continent for good measure; that is if I don't wake up from this dream. I do not want to be on the business end of Steiner's blade.

Throughout all of my mental ramblings, I didn't notice Steiner had already put a hefty distance between me and him.

"Hey wait!" I had to run up to him to catch up, careful not to drop my chick from my hand. "Mind if I…accompany you to this…observatory?" I managed to breathe out the words once I caught up.

He briefly looked down on me and then shook his head. "Fine, but no more lies!" With that, he continued walking. I was only a few feet behind him as I waited for my chocobo to catch up before picking it up again. After that we made our way to where the old man in charge of the cargo ships was located.

It was an uneventful walk, thankfully. I didn't know how I may have defended myself against a Python or a Goblin with a chick in my arms, though the method of pushing Steiner towards them and hightailing it to the observatory was very tempting if that may happen, but I believe I'm far enough in his bad side to know that I shouldn't aggravate him further. A few good deeds for the captain here and there would probably win me some positive points for my knight karma.

When we did reach our destination, we came across the old man's small hut at the base of the building. I volunteered to inspect the building first, with loud protests from Steiner that I was breaking and entering, only to be ignored by me. After opening the door slightly, I only found a kettle put under a small fire on a stove, a small replica of an airship and no old man.

"No sighting of Mr. Morrid, The Cargo Ship Handler." I reported to the knight. The wind decided to pick up, forcing me to cover my eyes a bit when dust blew my way.

"Perhaps he's up there." He gestured to the top of the observatory.

Looking up, the only thought that occurred to me is that looked like a lot of effort to talk to an old man. Then I heard something make a sound somewhere. A sound like clothes getting caught up in the wind. And then I heard a single step being made to my right. When I turned, nothing was there. Strange. I could have sworn someone was out here with us.

"I will look for him at the top of the observatory. You stay here in case he arrives here. Do not touch anything." Steiner then turns to exit the room and begin his trek up the long series of steps to the top of the observatory.

I took a seat on one of the chairs and sighed. I really need to pay attention. I honestly swear that I heard something moving around the two of us. The only people around the area are me, Steiner and Morrid, who was way high up in terms of altitude. There couldn't be any other people around… unless I'm hallucinating.

"Do you think I'm hallucinating?" I ask the chocobo before putting it down on the counter. It only kweh'd in response and looked around absently. "Why am I even asking you? You don't even know what I'm talking about." Hell, I think it barely understands English. This is what I get for trying to talk to small birds with dark feathers.

With another sigh, I hung my head. Hmm… aside from me not naming it yet, I have yet to know its actual gender is. Now, I am not a registered expert on the biology of birds, especially chocobos, but I fear that if I want to know what this thing's gender is I might do something that would get me hated by the bird loving society of the Mist Continent. I might as well wait for Lindblum to consult an expert. Plus, I could also get it checked up if it needs anything special or something.

Hearing the chirps of my little chocobo made me turn my head towards it. I sighed, thinking that it probably didn't have enough of the pickle I fed it earlier. Weirdly enough, I felt a bit dizzy when I took in a breath. It was like the air was thin and I was out of breath. It probably was the walk out here as well as the hard work I did for Slai under the captain's orders. Anyways, it took me long enough that it wasn't trying to get my attention but was making noises towards something else. Curious, I looked at the thing that had its attention and saw something out of the little building's window.

It was a person in a brown cloak. Their face was hidden by the hood it wore and it felt like it was looking at me through the glass. And it was pointing at me!

In a panic, I pulled out my new dagger and pointed it at the figure as it slowly made its way to the door. When did Final Fantasy include a horror movie killer? This wasn't in the game! There is no record of anyone stalking you menacingly in any guide or recorded video of Final Fantasy IX! Even if there was I would have known and desperately tried to avoid that scenario! I knew I should have taken my time and slept in today!

"Stay back!" I shouted. If it thought I was even slightly able to defend myself it surely didn't show when my hands were quivering. The dagger did not deter it from moving forward taking its sweet time with one step at a time.

Why is it even coming for me!? I do not have anything important on me and I'm pretty sure I am very unimportant to the plot. To any other person in this world I am just some guy with a cast travelling with a group of other uninteresting individuals at first glance. Whoever sent this person probably has gone out of their way to aim for someone like me. And if it wants something it would not want anything to happen to that thing, the same thing how the Black Waltzes don't want to harm Dagger in a fight.

God, I hope this works…

"You take one more step," I pulled back the knife and set it against my neck, "then you're going to see me bleed out before you can take me anywhere!"

Its movement stopped. It definitely wanted to take me somewhere or had business with me. Either way, a dead Blake Skylark was not in its objectives.

Its hands slowly started going up for some reason. It may be trying to gesture its surrender or for me to calm down, but I was not in the mood to take any chances.

"Put your hands down or you will see blood from wall to wall!"

Despite my threats, its hands still continued and touched on its hood. In one fluid motion, before I could shout again, it pulled back its hood to reveal that a woman who had graying hair tied down to a bun was the one acting like some horror movie antagonist, which matches with her battered attire and mysterious arrival. Now that she had put down the hood I felt that I'm looking at someone familiar. I am pretty sure I can only count the amount of elderly people in one hand. Whoever this is, she better than a solid reason why she was creeping around outside.

"Hello there, young man." She spoke with such a gentle voice that it did not match with her earlier approach. "It has been a while since we've last seen each other." So we have met. "Indeed we have."

"Who are you?" I asked, not bothering to lower my dagger in case she makes any sudden moves.

"I can assure you that I mean you no harm. Please, lower your weapon from your neck." She may have said the magic word and may looked like if my mom is fifteen years older, but the circumstances of our meeting here makes me uneager to trust her. So I told her I would rather not take any chances. "Very well. Though I would like to ask, how was the play?"

"The play?" I repeated, surprised by her random question.

"I Want to be Your Canary, the play for the princess' birthday. I assumed you watched it since I gave you the ticket."

If her request for me to down my dagger didn't work then reminding me who gave me that damned ticket sure did work. Instead of it being pressed by my neck, I pointed it at her in anger. "You! I can't believe I forgot all about you! You're the source of my problems right now, lady!"

"Excuse me?" She tilted her head in confusion.

I can't believe this is happening. This woman is surely feigning ignorance! I then proceeded to shout as I dug into my pocket for that cursed ticket. "Don't give me that crap! You're trying to send me a message, trying to make me worry about something mysterious to catch me off-guard!? And the play was great, decent actors and acting."

"That is good to hear. I have seen the play too many times to even count. All of them incredible." Of all the things she latched on to it had to be the irrelevant part.

"But that's beside the point! I asked you a question. Who are you? How did you get here? What was up with trying to scare me earlier?" She put up her hands and gestured for me to calm down.

"One question at a time, my child." The woman said. Oh I have a lot of questions, lady, questions that you're going to answer right now.

"Oh, don't you 'my child' me. Those are terms of endearment, and people who use terms of endearment on people they barely know mean that something very wrong is going to happen soon."

"Please, let me explain…" She then became silent. The only sound that was made was the wind whistling into the room and the fluttering sound of her coat against the wind.

"Well?" A chirp from my chocobo added some much needed punctuation on that statement.

"Oh, I thought you were going to interrupt me again." Either she was stalling or just trying to break the ice, I don't know. I can't be too comfortable being in the same room with a person I don't know. "It brings me absolute joy that you are safe from your journey."

I didn't move from my position and kept the dagger up as I scanned the lady in front of me. She's suspicious, very suspicious. How could an elderly person such as herself travel from Alexandria all alone? Sure, she had a day or so head start than our group and that we crashed in Evil Forest, but still she's been traveling alone and seems to have not encountered monsters on her way. Another weird thing is that she it doesn't look like she has a weapon on her. Now that's even stranger…

"I'm glad someone out here cares about my wellbeing." I replied cautiously. "Nearly froze to the death in the cavern and rescued this thing's previous owner. I'm a father now apparently."

She clapped her hands together, looking overjoyed to hear that last detail. "Congratulations! I hope the little chocobo grows up healthy and strong." Why is she acting like this? It's a bird! I'm not its real, biological father. "Also, I'm glad you enjoyed the play."

"Yeah? You should have been there. The play bombed, like literally it got bombed. I nearly died there too!"

"I'm so sorry to hear that." She said, now looking the part of an empathizing lady. After a solemn few seconds, since I was too confused at her act and was trying to think of a way to get answers, she spoke up again. "So, do you have an answer to my question the first time we met?" An answer? What did she ask anyway?

"Answer me this the next time we meet. What are you looking for?"

Oh yes, that little riddle she said to me after she handed me that ticket. I haven't really thought about it much just yet. Everything that's happened just took my attention away from a single sentence that was wrapped in mystery inside an enigma tossed down the rabbit's hole of madness. But I have a riddle of my own.

"No," I started digging into my pocket while keeping my eye on her. "But I do have a question of my own." Then I pulled out the altered ticket. "Just what about my fate should I change!?"

I expected to see an expression of shock on her face after I show to her, but her face just remained neutral, staring at me as if waiting for the big surprise. I blinked. She just looked at me like that for a moment while I waited for the proper reaction. I repeated my last statement in the same tone, hoping that would, at least, elicit the response I wanted.

"I believe you are mistaken." The woman broke the silence and reached out a hand. I took a step back to avoid her, but she already had her hand around my wrist.

"What?" I managed to say as I took another step backwards. Why isn't she reacting in surprise? This should be the part where she tells me how I can go about in changing my fate and whatever this message means.

"This," She then took the paper and turned it to me. "…is just a ticket." When I turned my eyes to the paper, the sight made my jaw tighten. I saw the phrase 'I Want to be Your Canary' it written near the top and something about me being invited to watch, no longer was the phrase 'Change your fate…' solely on it anymore.

"Wh-What?" I snatched the paper that was once again a ticket from her hand and inspected it closely. It certainly is a ticket again like when I showed it to Alyssa last night, but how did that happen? I flipped it to its back, only to see no evidence that the phrase was ever there. I snapped my gaze to the woman and asked. "Damn it, it did it again!"

"Again? Well that seems to be quite the conundrum." The elderly lady casually responded. "I thought you were losing your mind when you showed me the ticket, expecting something grand from me."

No, I'm not losing my mind. I'm completely sane! I swear that this didn't look like this the last time I looked at it! It plainly had that phrase on it clear as day. This wasn't a ticket, but a message! A mysterious message meant for me. Was it…?

"It's clearly there! This didn't look like a ticket a few minutes ago." My chocobo chirped a few times, probably trying to say that it believes me. I have no idea really.

"Perhaps next time you should try sleeping in a much more comfortable fashion." Her remark made me stiffen. How did she know that? The only people who know that are the people I shared a room with. Unless…

"…You've been spying on me?"

"I would have put it in a much subtler phrase, but I know of the struggles you have come up against." She solemnly admitted…in a way.

"So you HAVE been spying on me!"

She put up a hand to calm me down, but it failed. "There is no need to shout. If you want to put it that way, then yes. I have been spying on you." She took a few steps towards me some more and leveled herself so I even with her gray eyes. "Not because I have ulterior motives, but because I can help you."

"Help me?" Unless she's handing out free scholarships to a sword fighting school or mend my broken arm, then she can't help me.

The lady merely nodded. "Yes."

"Just who are you?" I asked with a quizzical look aimed at her.

"I am Meguro." She answered. Finally, I have a name to identify that tattered brown coat, tied-up white hair and dull gray eyes. "You should have already known who I am right after you have arrived to watch the play."

Already known…? Oh, for the love of… Of course I should have known! Her name was on the damn chair I was sitting on. It reserved for her after all. Damn me and my memory.

"It is okay." She offered me a smile that reminded me of my grandmother. Odd…

Then I heard a familiar knight's armor making noise that started to come closer from above. I took a step at the window for a moment and looked to see Steiner continually bugging Morrid to give him some information in regards to the cargo ship. Damn… I got so tied up on this woman that I almost forgot about those two.

"It seems my time here has been cut short. Before I make my exit, I must tell you that this exchange must never be brought to your friends' awareness, unless you desire unwanted attention. I would have offered you more explanations, but maybe next time will suffice." I heard her say as she approached the door. "Until then…"

"What? What do you mean 'until then'?" I went to grab at her hand, but she was too fast and had shut the door in front of me. I instantly took the knob and opened it, only to see no sign of a brown cloak or an elderly woman around, only the sight of Steiner and Morrid walking towards the hut.

What!? How in the hell–!? She's gone! She could have not just vanished like that. She Batman'd me, dammit! How did she do that in broad daylight!? Now I'm nowhere closer to having some of my questions answered except now I have name to go for and that she's spying on me. This actually just adds more questions, more than the ones I have failed to ask. Questions like 'how is she spying on me?', 'did she know that I needed a ticket before we met?', 'how long has she been spying on me?', 'why can't I tell the others, especially Alyssa?' and 'what does she mean by she can help me?'

Man, this is all making my head hurt, and my head doesn't hurt often.

Agh… Okay, top thinking about this for a second pay attention for a few minutes. Morrid is already looking at me funny for being in his house. Steiner was pretty much demanding Morrid to fork over as much information as he can with the old man just shrugging off his advances like a flicking off an ant on your arm. I just stood off to the side near the chocobo as Morrid was pouring coffee into his own cup. Seeing Steiner trying desperately, and failing, to get what he wanted out of the old man made me snap out of my thoughts and decided that I should get this going as fast as I can.

"I apologize for my friend here and his lack of subtlety," I spoke up from the door, making Morrid and Steiner look at me. Steiner was more like trying to burn a hole into my head with the look he's making. "But we would appreciate it very much if you can tell us something about the cargo ship."

Morrid looked me over for a brief moment before taking a sip of his coffee. "Now why can't you be more like him? People aren't so kind nowadays." He said to Steiner and shook his head. I was sure he was growling at me just for that. "Very well. The cargo ship is loading up and is heading for Alexandria."

"Thank you, sir." I said as I tried to drag the captain out of the house before he started shouting at me.

"Hey," I heard Morrid say, halting me in my tracks. "You're a weird kid, but you're nice and polite. How about some coffee before you head on out?"

You know what, a hot drink may help me calm down after a stressful few days. So I nodded and was handed a mug, which was shortly filled just halfway with coffee, a request I asked since Steiner is going to want to rush out to the cargo ship. Perhaps he's learned of the captain's tendency to rush after just a few minutes with him as the coffee he poured into the mug wasn't scalding hot but just right. I finished the mug in two minutes.

"Thank you, sir." I said to Morrid, feeling just a bit better, as I put down the mug in his sink and retrieved the chocobo. And with that we made our way over to the vehicle that was going to send us to Lindblum. I didn't hear what he was saying to me as he passed me because my mind was still on the enigmatic woman I had talked to. She just up and appeared from out of nowhere, then verbally circles around me and then vanishes. I guess this mystery runs deeper into the rabbit hole than I thought.

I walk up to the captain just as he notices something strange about the ground near the cargo ship. "Hey, wait!" I shouted after him once I noticed that he had bolted towards the ship. Of course, running after him, who seemed to be a bit faster than me even with all of that metal on him, was more of a challenge for me. I did catch up to him, however, with my lungs on fire and me bent over my knees as I tried to breathe in as much air as I could.

Steiner had already circled around the huge barrel that stood over him when I got there "…be shipping out from this village?" He was asking nobody in particular.

And then the barrel moved. It more of like shook once before standing erect once again.

"Did I just see that barrel move?" Steiner turned his head to me and then back to the barrel.

"I saw it too…" I managed after I evened out my breathing. I went to the other side of the barrel to inspect it more, but I already knew what it had inside. There were four people inside: one blond thief, one royal princess, one black mage, and one oddly dressed girl.

"Let's see…should I poke it…?" Steiner wondered to himself as he drew his broadsword. That was my cue to interfere. We don't want to have an impaled princess on our hands now, don't we? Even if the game made sure that nobody was hurt, just traumatized, it still would do us good if I stopped him from doing that.

"No! Let's not do—" As I was about to respond to Steiner's absent-minded suggestion, I was stopped by a sudden tightening feeling in my chest. I gasped involuntarily and fell to one knee, the sudden breathing difficulty made me drop the jacket where the chocobo was in. My good hand went up to my chest as I tried to breathe, but no matter how much I tried I wasn't getting any into my lungs.

This again…? The last time this happened was when we all got out of Evil Forest. Am I sick? Did I catch something? Maybe it's a side effect from the plant virus...

Then the dizziness came because of the lack of oxygen. I could hear a faint chirp coming into my ears as I squinted and tried to focus. I think I also heard a sword being sheathed.

Just as a few metallic footsteps came behind me, the feeling started to go away, though it was slightly slower than last time. I took in some air and made sure that it didn't go down the wrong pipe.

"What are you doing? This is no time to be lollygagging!" Steiner said upon finding me on my knee.

"Sorry…" I tried to sound normal, but I came off breathless instead. I absently coughed before straightening myself. "I thought…I saw a something odd."

Okay, at least I'm fine now. Deep breaths, Blake, deep breaths. This might be coming from that stressful talk with that lady. I think I need to go see a doctor, one that's an expert in plant viruses.

The barrel jumped once again, but this time it landed off on its side, almost flattening me and Steiner. We barely got out of its way before that happened though. The top came off upon impact, giving us an opportunity to peek inside. When we did look into the dark inside of the barrel, we heard something open inside and something crawling out.

A girl in overalls then jumped out and almost tackled me. She took me by surprise so much that she made me fall back on my butt.

"Wh-What is the meaning of this!?" Steiner demanded when he saw Zidane crawl out after Alyssa. As Alyssa and Zidane were helping the others get out of that barrel, with the only remaining people inside being Dagger and Vivi, I looked back on what had happened to me just now.

It happened to me again. Just when I thought that it would only be a one-time thing, thus adding to my ever growing list of problems. Now I think I have an unknown condition because of something I don't know, a woman in a brown coat supposedly spying on me, an unconfirmed theory, an adventure I had joined in with me knowing the outcome of it, and the upcoming boss fight among other things. Man do I have a lot on my plate.

Now I'm wondering how Alyssa's day went. It couldn't have been way better than mine.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 14: …And Dangers Underground

-Alyssa-

A violent rumbling came from the other room. Nights like this were usually quiet. But this was different.

Only in a panic was she sent away and allowed to have her feet move, leading her to the door in the back of the kitchen. Running down the steps revealed by the door and rushing into the dark depths of the room below where she found a tiny space at the far side of the room. Without hesitation she squeezed herself in and held her breath. Time passed, she eventually let herself breathe cautiously, holding them when she would hear a noise nearby. Afraid, lonely, and trapped, all she could do was wait until they came down to get her.

- FF FF FF -

What do you do when you wake up early in the morning in a world you don't belong in? I dunno. I really don't know what I should be doing right now.

Everyone has it easy that they all have something to do while we wait for the next plot-related event to come and happen while I don't know what to do with myself. Dagger is probably wondering how she will be able to properly act like an average girl during her stay here, Vivi is staring awestruck at the windmill or heavily thinking about some stuff, Steiner is looking for a way to get the princess back to Alexandria, all the while Zidane and Blake are still sleeping (though I wonder how he could even sleep at such a position).

Me? I'm sitting inside the place where Blake and I ate dinner last night, all lonely with nothing to do. I think it's a bar, but it's so empty that it doesn't feel like one.

Maybe I should get something to eat to calm my nerves, probably some pancakes or scrambled eggs – er, on second thought, I'll not have scrambled eggs. Maybe I can get a new sword? Replace this one I took from the Pluto Knights (if I ever see them again, I'll apologize for taking it) for a new one, one that's lighter and easy to carry around with one hand. I'm pretty sure my little arms can't hold on to this huge sword properly in a long fight.

The problem with those two suggestions is that I need money, a luxury that I clearly don't have.

Maybe I should have thought of this clearly before I got up earlier.

I woke up earlier to the sound of armor clanking together in a fit of panic. I thought it was just Steiner putting on his armor, but this one sounded like he was jumping up and down. When I turned around from inside the sleeping bag the innkeeper let me borrow, he was panicking over the bed near me, which was being used by Dagger.

Apparently Dagger was an early riser and had left to do something we both didn't know. He was stressing about this so hard that he looked like he was about to pop a very important blood vessel. This was so loud that Zidane, in a brief moment of drowsy annoyance, threw a pillow at him.

"First of, please tone it down. You don't want Master Vivi to wake up grumpy." I remember telling him, emphasizing his respect to the black mage, all in a hushed tone. "Second, I'm sure she's in no danger. Just a plain walk around the village, you know, to see what's around here." She obviously doesn't need someone always looking over her shoulder. "Just don't worry about it…" I yawned again and plopped back down to the floor.

I tried going back to sleep, but the whole conversation with Steiner, who left at that point, made me wide awake. With no intention to sleep, I got up, straightened up my clothes and rolled up the sleeping bag before exiting the room. I placed the sleeping bag on the chair of the innkeeper since he wasn't there yet before leaving the inn.

The sun was already up in the sky when I came out. If this was Earth, I would guess that the time right then would be 8 AM. But that was about an hour ago. And I don't even know how long I've been in here sitting down as Slai and Marin, or mostly Slai, was fixing the place up to begin the day.

I requested for a glass of water, which thankfully was free, as I tried to think of what to do next. Maybe I should take note of what's going to happen next. Yeah, that's something, plus it kinda is more productive than just sitting around waiting for the plot to pick itself up.

I placed the glass of water directly in front of me and looked at the table I was occupying. There's a salt and pepper shaker in the middle with a bunch of tissue, which seemed a bit harder than normal tissue. I took all of them and put them in certain places on the table to point out where in the story we were.

After folding the tissue into smaller squares all except for one, I put it to my left alongside the salt shaker. The square tissues are us and the salt shaker is the village of Dali. Okay, so this is where we are right now. Right now, I'm at the waiting portion of the event in Dali, but soon it'll pick up once Vivi gets kidnapped.

…Should I stop Vivi from getting taken? I mean, sure that would probably halt us from going underground and seeing the barrels with the familiar symbols, but would it be better if Vivi doesn't get kidnapped? He's the only reason we go down there and I don't think I can fake some information about the storage facility all on my own. I need Blake for that. He's much better at lying than me. Argh…I'll think about this later.

It's going to take us a while, but soon we're going to get on one of the cargo ships they use around here, which is symbolized by the last tissue paper that's folded into a rectangle, to get Lindblum, symbolized by the pepper shaker. But before that we have to uncover the secret of the village and face Black Waltz No. 2, represented by some pepper I sprinkled on the table.

Thinking about Black Waltzes sent shivers down my spine out of anxiousness and from the cold experience the last time I encountered one. Zidane and I were barely able to make it out of the first fight alive, all because of the thief. I just don't want to think about how I would've died in that fight. Brrrr…

Following that fight, we get on the cargo ship and fly to our destination while fending off the third Black Waltz. I do think that Black Waltz No.3 is the perfect manufactured black mage by Alexandria and I'm thankful that he's the last one. I swear, the first time played FFIX I was so unprepared that it took me awhile to get past him.

I don't even know how to prepare myself for fights like those. One's gonna be extra fast and pretty much untouchable and the other is really powerful with magic. Blake should be here and help think of a plan for the upcoming boss fights. He's mostly the one who…figures things…out…

I've played through this part numerous times. You've played it only three times. I know what's going to happen here.

I really don't need to depend on him to plot out how the fights go. You know what? I'll think of a plan of my own! Judging from how he handled that fight with the Plant Brain, he's going to have a crazy plan that wouldn't be safe for the others. How can he even suggest such a plan that needed the group to be in bad condition? Didn't he know that Blank comes in after a set period of time in the game, not just because Zidane or the others are almost dying. He should've known or else he wouldn't have done what he did.

He may think that this is just a wild dream he's making up, but I believe that what's happening right now is real, and that means the things and the people here are real too. Whether he believes that this place is real or not doesn't matter, we're here with living people now. We shouldn't endanger their lives because the game does it. No, that's not going to happen. Not on my watch.

Looking back at the whole landscape of things that I put together, I just remembered the Festival of the Hunt and after that the siege of Burmecia, represented by a small amount of salt and the glass of water respectively. And while that's happening, Dagger and Steiner goes back home only to be taken in captivity. That where the party splits into two. What should Blake and I do, split up too…?

"You seem to be deep in thought."

I nearly jumped a few feet when I heard a voice sneak up on me, making me hit the table with my knees that almost sent it toppling over. I was able to hold it still, but the contents of the table, including the shakers and the glass of water, crashed to the floor and shattered. The sound instantly summoned Slai and Marin, who both gaped at the mess I made.

"I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" I apologized to the two kids. "I'm so sorry! I'll pay for it! I swear I will!" I repeatedly begged for forgiveness as the two girls, bowing up and down continuously until one of them spoke up.

After the initial shock has been shaken off, Slai said, "Don't worry. We'll just clean this up." She urged her sister, who sighed annoyingly, to follow her and get some brooms and a mop. Then I felt a gloved hand land on my shoulder. I looked over and see Dagger standing behind me. Okay, so she isn't in the field. She probably witnessed all that.

"Dagger! How long have you been there?"

"I just got in." The princess replied. "I saw you were in such a focused state that I thought you were troubled, and I might have surprised you a bit." A bit? You almost gave me a heart attack. "I apologize…er… I'm sorry if I scared you."

"Oh no, it's no big deal." I told her, waving my hands in embarrassment. "I'm sometimes jumpy in the morning." The two of us took a seat somewhere away from the scene of the crime. I was sure that Marin was complaining under her breath about cleaning up someone's mess, making me feel guiltier.

"What were you thinking about so hard earlier?" Dagger's voice snapped me out of my thoughts, making me stare at her briefly before her message was finally understood.

"Uh…just thinking about some…stuff…" That was great, Alyssa. Maybe you should try practicing your lying in front of a mirror. "You know…it's weird that I'm out here with people I didn't expect to be with...I just didn't see myself being out here doing…things…"

"To be quite honest, it was not in my wildest expectations…um…I didn't expect it too. I thought that being kidnapped would have been simple, but that changed." She said looking at her hands intently. "Not that I expected it to be easy. From the way my mother tried to stop the ship I thought that I wouldn't reach Lindblum at all."

Oh, I should try and play stupid here. We don't want anyone to catch on that I know some stuff they don't. "How do you actually plan on getting to Lindblum now?"

Dagger adopted a thoughtful expression and said, "I am not yet sure." She stayed like that for a while, perhaps hoping that an idea would pop into her head and give her an "Aha!" moment. It didn't happen, so I tried to segue into another subject.

"Well, maybe some breakfast would help you think." I suggested. "It is the most important meal of the day." I am so tempted on continuing that with a lyric. Must resist! Forgive me, Gary.

"Oh, yes." She stood up and began to approach the counter until she noticed something. "You're not hungry?"

"Uhm… I'm kinda short on cash at the moment." I chuckled embarrassingly. "I was gonna borrow some from Blake, but he's asleep at the moment." At that point, I stood up headed for the door. "But don't let me stop you. I'll just…uh…take a look around the village or somethin'."

Before I could get anywhere, I feel a gloved hand take hold of my arm. "Join me, I insist." Dagger spoke as I turned my head. I can't just decline a princess's offer, especially if its breakfast, even more especially since this is a once in a lifetime thing. Plus, she's paying. Without even thinking about it, I nodded and followed her to the counter.

So, I spent breakfast with Dagger. Again, this is a once in a lifetime deal and that makes it feel rather weird since Dagger is a fictional character from a game and a princess. This made me a bit nervous. I don't know if I should watch my manners since I'm eating with royalty, and you know how people of royalty get when it comes to table manners.

Okay, now I'm just being paranoid. Dagger isn't like most nobles or those royalty types. But it doesn't hurt to be careful.

The two of us ordered some pancakes, mine with some toast and butter while she had some scrambled eggs – *shiver* – and orange juice. We thanked the two girls before digging in. I was silent at first, minding my manners while Dagger elegantly cut her eggs with her knife and sipped her juice. She looked up from her food and was curious at my sudden silence.

"What? Is something wrong?" Dagger asked, briefly putting down her utensils. I shook my head as soon as she finished her question.

"N-No, nothing's wrong." I replied with a lopsided smile on my face. "I'm just a bit nervous." When she didn't quite get what I meant, I leaned in and continued with a hushed voice. "You know, eating with royalty." That and the fact that you are eating scrambled eggs. Not that it highly affects everything.

"Oh," She finally got it, making her straighten in her seat. "Think nothing of it. From another perspective, we're just two girls sharing breakfast."

"Yeah. Just making sure, you know? This really doesn't happen to me often. Eating with a princess, I mean."

"If it makes you more comfortable, I haven't eaten outside the castle that much."

"I could imagine." I say. We were like that during our little time together over pancakes. We talked about some things that have happened earlier, like the events that lead to her rescue at Evil Forest. She commended the group's bravery at facing the giant Plant Brain, though from my description I think I made it too much of a challenge of fighting it.

From there we went from horrible plants to the beauty of ice skating. Dagger enjoyed it so much that if the seasons in Alexandria came to a point that the water between the city and the castle would freeze, she would invite the citizens of Alexandria to skate with her just to experience it again. Back on Earth, making an ice rink would be fairly simple if you had the necessary equipment, but I guess those very equipment don't exist yet in this reality.

"Thanks for the breakfast, Dagger. I owe you." I said to her after we finished eating. We left the bar and basked in the healthy sunlight beaming down on us.

"As I've already said, think nothing of it." She stated once again. Nonsense! Even if she keeps saying that I'll gonna get some cash from Blake and repay her, presumably lunch or brunch. It doesn't matter what I repay her with, just repaying her is enough for me.

Anyway, I see her looking towards the small field with the crops with a thoughtful look. Oh right, the Active Time Event, or ATE, where she goes off and looks at the crops before being 'scared' off by an oglop. If you didn't know, I used the world 'scared' in the loosest way possible. She's still trying to act like an average girl who wasn't raised in a castle.

You know what, I don't have anything to do right now. I just hope Dagger won't mind. "Hey Dagger, would you mind if I tag along with you? I'm not really comfortable being alone in a new place." The princess turns back to me and nods.

"It's okay." Dagger responded. "Maybe you can help me try to blend in." Alright! Now there's something I can do.

"I'll try my best! Lead the way, Dagger." And with that, Dagger leads us towards the small fenced area where the village's crops were growing, all the while softly singing a song that I didn't know. It must've been that same song she sings in Lindblum.

Dagger stepped into the field muttering to herself something about the castle being alright as I observed just outside the fence. She walked around the crops, deep in thought, while I noticed a small, rotund woman wearing a loose cloak and an orange bandana on her head. She was actually there to get rid of the bugs infesting the crops and Dagger was in her way. It's just as how the ATE goes.

As I was looking around, I managed to barely catch a glimpse of a yellow tail entering the food joint. It was enough for me to identify its owner as Zidane. Now the plot is starting to pick up.

Then I hear Dagger scream. I saw an orange dot in the sky stop ascending and start descending back down. The woman in the bandana was shaking her head as she went back to what she was doing. Dagger didn't want to disturb the woman anymore and quietly exited the area and came up to me.

"Was it convincing?" She inquired on her performance.

"The scream? It sure was." I answered complete with thumbs up. "If I didn't know what you were doing, I would've run down here and checked what was happening." Dagger only smiled at the compliment she received. It really sounded convincing to me honestly. "But just a tip, most girls are really terrified of bugs, yet that doesn't mean you have to. Acting like a normal citizen doesn't mean you have to be a 'classic girl' type. Just be yourself, but leave everything you've learned about being a princess at the door when you enter a room."

"I need to have more practice." Dagger said, nodding at my advice. "Let us go…er…I mean, let's go see if there's another place I can learn to blend in more." She began walking up towards the shop. Oh man… If she suggests that she pay for my replacement sword, even if it is a gesture of kindheartedness, I will need to insist to not have her pay for it. I'll feel terrible if I don't.

As I reaching for the door, it suddenly pulled away from me, opening by itself as if by magic. Well, that's what I thought when I didn't see the person opening the door. Both of us didn't expect each other to be on the other side, so we almost hit heads in the process, but the guy was able to stop me from hitting me by putting up a hand on my shoulder. I felt the hand and it wasn't an ordinary hand like half of it was covered up.

"Alyssa?" I heard the person speak. I looked up and saw that it was Blake. A chirp made me look down to his feet to see that he had his chocobo chick along with him. What is he doing here?

"You should always pay attention to what's in front of you, Alyssa." He said before stepping away from the door, trying to look away. Was he…blushing? "Right this way, girls." He opened the door a bit wider for us and bowed.

"Thank you." Dagger smiled at the teenager and his cheerful chick as we strode into the shop. Wow, who knew Blake was chivalrous?

Speaking of wow, the weapon store's a bit bigger than I thought. In the game, the place is small, yet adequate enough. But in real life, it's big enough to put my entire room in and there would still be some free space. Weapons were hung on our right side from knives to daggers to swords while pots were lined up on the other side for some weird reason. There were other items behind the counter sitting alongside the girl who was greeting us with a smile. And I think I smelled tea in the air.

"So, how long have you been up?" Blake directed a question to me as he closed the door.

How long was I up? "…Um…I think an hour or so…?" I tried to think of a sure answer, but I really had a problem of measuring time without a watch or a cell phone showing me the time. Man, I wish I had my phone with me… "How was your sleep?"

"Terrible." I heard him groan and put a hand on his neck. "At least the pillow was comfortable." He should've just traded with me or just slept on the floor. I told him he's going to have a rough morning sleeping like that. "What have you been doing since you woke up?"

I told him all what I have been doing the past hour or so like how I've been waiting for everyone to wake up, how I met up with Dagger at the bar and ate breakfast with her and how I've been with her giving advice on blending in with the average folk. I left out the part where I broke some items before eating with Dagger because Blake wouldn't have let me borrow money if he knew.

"Right, as if any of us are qualified for giving advice." Blake remarked about me giving advice to Dagger. I gave him a sharp elbow to his side, eliciting a gasp from him. "Ow! That wasn't necessary, you know?"

"What do you want me to do? I had no idea what to do until Dagger showed up." I argued. We kept our voices down as we talked in the corner of the shop while watching over Dagger and the shopkeeper's interaction. At least we were respecting their conversation.

Speaking of respecting one's conversation, a kid came rushing in and spewing whatever nonsense the kids in the village were talking about. Dagger stepped to the side as the kid got a scolding from the lady behind the counter, but Dagger insisted to let them finish first. I wish people were as kind as Dagger sometimes. We'd probably not have a lot of conflicts if we were that nice.

Anyway, the kid started saying something about a weirdo outside. I already knew where this was going. He was talking about Vivi and how weird that he was up and about the place, while the others weren't even moving. The shopkeeper just listened and nodded as the kid went on.

Kids trying to tell stories were sometimes funny to watch since they have a hard time describing things in small detail. Just seeing the kid breathlessly talk made me chuckle. Good thing I was ignored for the moment as everyone's attention was with the kid. Well, except for Blake, who has been kneeling down beside his chick and petting it gently as it chirped up to him.

He eventually finished his story and went off to find something else to do. The girl at the counter smiled as the boy left. "I'm sorry about that. The children around here are just so…"

"Hyperactive? Easily excited? Annoying?" Blake suggested a few words for her, but she didn't use any of them.

"Rambunctious." That was the word she decided on.

"Oh, I don't mind." Dagger said. She doesn't mind because at least she got to observe. "I haven't been into this side of the country, and it is already being quite the experience."

"So you don't travel often?" The girl inquired.

"Yep!" I stepped in beside Dagger and pointed to her with my thumb, indicating that we were traveling together. "It's her first time to explore the world."

"Oh! A first time traveler! I know some handy tips for you, if you don't mind." She then started giving tips on what to do in times of emergency such being attacked by a Zanghnol unarmed. It was weird advice coming from her. It was like I was listening to the Discovery Channel; weird but probably helpful things to hear about. Despite all that, Dagger was definitely intrigued by it

Blake kept silent in his corner and I joined him once the girl was done with the info dump. Dagger thanked her and decided to look over the little poster on the wall about equipment near the pots. That was when Zidane entered. He did not see me and Blake due to our spot in the corner and him immediately seeing Dagger contributed to that too.

My friend standing beside me thought it would be hilarious if we copied Zidane's actions, which was looking over Dagger's shoulder and copying her. So we did and stood behind both of his shoulders and mimicked him. We were like that for quite a while until Dagger noticed the closeness of the thief to her making her blush. She wondered as to how long he was standing there like that, but Blake answered for Zidane, much to his surprise. Once we were done with that, the lovely couple, though still unofficial as of right now, started talking about Lord Avon and how much Dagger is a big fan of his work while Blake nudged me and showed me something.

It was a satchel. "Here you go. You need a place to put your items in and I thought you'd need one."

Wow. Courteous and considerate. Again, who knew? "Aww, thanks. How thoughtful."

"Right. Too bad I can't do anything about your poor choice in clothing." And all of that just got cancelled out, and then some. Just for that I'm going to wipe that smirk off his damn face. He shrugs off the glare I was giving him as he turns to Zidane. "Is there anything else?"

Zidane tells him that they needed to talk about their next move over at the inn. He asks the two of us if we needed to do something else. Just then, Blake's chocobo started making noise like it was trying to tell Blake something.

"Yeah, I have to find something to feed this thing." Blake sighed, but he quickly sobered up and pointed something out. "And I believe we're missing someone here. I'll go look for the dear captain in case he's up to some shenanigans."

Then Zidane looks at me, silently asking me the same thing. "I actually have something else to do." I tell him. Since Blake's going out to find someone, I guess I'll cover for the other end and look for Vivi. I bet he hasn't moved from where I think he's at. "And you know what; I'll go find Vivi so we can meet up at the inn."

Our blonde de facto leader nodded and started heading out to the inn with Dagger closely behind him. The moment the door closed behind them, I channeled a response to Blake's comment about my current attire with a dope slap across the back of his head. He flinched in pain and cupped the spot with his other hand.

"OW! Was that necessary!?"

I frowned at him and crossed my arms. "Blake, you should know that girls don't appreciate it when you make fun of their clothes."

"Really? Last time I checked, girls actually have a fashion sense." My hand went on automatic and tried to dopeslap him again, but he ducked. I willed my hand to go back and it successfully struck him on the forehead. "Okay, you need to stop doing that! Guys don't appreciate it when girls hit them! Unless it's a comedy show, then it would be okay. But this isn't really a comedy show, isn't it?"

"Really? Last time I checked, you deserved it." I argued.

"Touché." He said as he now nursed his forehead, a hint of annoyance in that simple word. If he's annoyed now then he should have learned by now to stop making fun of my clothes. When I get to Lindblum, I'm going to turn this pair of overalls and pants in for anything, even if it's a frilly dress, I don't care. "What is it that you need? Does it involve me? I have something to do, and I would love to go do it if I'm not needed for anything right now."

I actually thought that he'd not even bother helping me after I'd hit him twice. Weird… I told him anyway that I needed his help, and he correctly guessed that it involved money. After getting confirmation, he sighed, "Alright, what do you need?"

I told him that I needed a lighter sword because my arms were starting to ache with this freakin' big sword I've been carrying since Alexandria. Then I hear him mumbling something about him noticing that the sword was a bit big for my size and that he has some difficulties in wielding swords with that kind of size because it was either too big or he just can't lift one. "Maybe you mean you don't have upper body strength." I comment.

As if he wasn't even talking to himself, he replies, "FYI, I do have upper body strength. I just…don't tend to use it that much." With that, he goes up to the shopkeeper and says a few words before pointing to me. He then took my sword from me and laid it on the counter, where the girl lifted it to see how heavy it was.

"I think that short sword over there would be enough." She pointed over to the wall of weapons beside me. I looked at the number of weapons hanging right there until I see the short sword she was referring to. I took it off the wall and was instantly surprised by how light it was.

"Wow. This one is very light! It's almost like one of my fencing swords from back home." I exclaimed while doing a few careful practice swings. I don't want to break more stuff than I had already broken.

And with that, Blake paid for my new weapon, along with a belt and a sheath for my new sword, and sold off the big Knights of Pluto sword. I swear I'm going to apologize to whoever owned that sword for stealing and it selling it off. If that means I'd have to pay for their next dinner, then I'd go and do it. I feel bad for taking it, but I had to or else I would've been defenseless.

The two of us exited the store as soon as our business was done there. Both of us were walking towards the bar, but both of us stopped when we saw Vivi still standing there, deep in thought. Blake seemed to be thinking about something as he frowns and directs his gaze to the bar.

"Ah…Blake, I'll catch up with you later. You go feed your…uh…weird." When I looked at his dark feathered pet, I just had a thought. Has he named it yet…? Well, I'll just assume he hasn't because he hasn't even referred to it by a name yet. "You haven't named it yet."

One of his eyebrows rose at my statement. "Hmm…Glad you noticed." I don't know whether he was being sarcastic or sincerely complimenting me, though I don't know why he'd give a compliment like that. "I'll name it when I'm not busy. Until then, it shall stay nameless!" He said in such a loud way that it got him weird looks from the kids playing nearby.

He made his way to the bar and entered without even looking back. I eyed the black mage and tried to think of a way to approach him. He's probably confused with all of the village kids avoiding him for some reason. Should I point that out or say something else? In the ATE during the game, Zidane mistakenly thinks that Vivi met a girl. How should I talk to him?

..Crap! I also forgot that he gets kidnapped here because the villagers think he escaped the underground storage facility and I still haven't thought of what I should do! Damn it, I should've decided on this earlier. What to do? What to do?

You know what? I'll just wing it! Maybe I can get a random eureka moment while I walk up to him. Okay… Here goes!

"Hey Vivi!" I came up beside him, almost making him jump out of his coat in surprise.

"Oh, Alyssa!" Vivi stopped his fidgeting once I was standing to his right. "Uh…hello."

"What's up, Vivi? You look kinda deep in thought." I expressed my curiosity as I looked at him.

"Yeah, I was…thinking about something…" He awkwardly mumbled a response. I think this is where Zidane changes the subject accidentally. C'mon, think of something. Look around and probably piece together a conversation. Oh! I think I got something.

"Is this your first time here?" I asked.

"Huh?" He looked up to me, his focus still circling around his thoughts. I repeated my question to him. "Oh, yeah. This is my first time going here."

"Really?" I tried to act surprised. "I bet its weird being in a new place you've never been." The black mage nodded, agreeing to my sentiment. "Kinda scary, huh?" Another nod from him. "I'm curious. Did you go to Alexandria alone?" He nodded once again. Okay, I need to make him answering in nods. "How long have you been traveling alone?"

"Not very long…" The black mage replied. "I got a ticket…for the play. I haven't seen a play before…so I went to Alexandria to go see it." I kind of get what he's saying right now. The first place you go to just happens to have a kidnapping plot happening the moment you were there. Who would expect that?

"And the whole kidnapping thing happened." I summed up to him. "It kinda sucks that it happened, but," I paused momentarily, getting Vivi to look at me, waiting for what I was going to say. "I was able to meet other people because of it."

"Other people…" He repeated my words, as if thinking that using a failed kidnapping attempt as a way to meet other people as strange.

"Because of what happened, I also got to see Blake. And I managed to meet Zidane, Steiner, Dagger and you." I chuckled. Just the thought of being able to meet my favorite characters makes me smile.

"I didn't think it would be like…that."

"Me too, Vivi. Me too." I think Vivi and I are on the same wavelength in regards to the expectance of being in an adventure. I knelt down beside the mage and looked into those bright yellow eyes. "If you're having any sort of trouble, don't be afraid to ask me for help, 'kay? I just might be able to help."

"S-Sure. Thanks." Vivi said with a nod.

"Alright, Zidane, Dagger and I will be at the inn thinking over what we'll do next. Would you –" Wait! Vivi gets nabbed here once I leave. Maybe I can convince him to leave with me and head on back to the inn. "Vivi?" The young mage turned to me, his full attention on me. "You wanna go back to the inn now? We can't talk about our next move without you."

"Really?" He asked.

"Yeah. You're a part of this group and we'd also like to hear what you'd say about…some stuff."

Vivi looked somewhat hesitant, wondering if his importance in the group is really that big. After a few moments, he faced the direction towards the inn. "Okay."

"Great!" I exclaimed. Wow, I did it. Now I just need to get him in the inn, and then all we need to do is wait for Blake and Steiner.

Well, that was the plan until the two of us got jumped from behind. I heard a muffled voice trying to cry out while I was being held down with my face on the ground. I think I'm going to inhale a lot of grass if these people didn't get off me. I tried to move my arms, but someone had a very good grip on my wrists that rendered me incapable of getting anywhere if I tried.

A pair of boots with a dark green camouflage design on started walking in front of me. The person knelt down and I heard him chuckle darkly. "Sorry about this, but we don't need someone interfering." It was a man speaking. Something about his tone really made that apology sound insincere.

But I wasn't able to think of why because I felt a cloth being put against my nose and then I started getting dizzy until I blacked out.

-FFIX FFIX FFIX-

What…is…happening? …tried…open…eyes…too heavy….some reason…

…Oh…uhm…oh man…why does it smell like chloroform…?

"Why did we have to bring that girl here?" There were people taking somewhere near me. I couldn't tell where exactly because I feel really out of it. This guy sounded a tad irritated.

"She's trouble, I could tell." It was a different voice this time and this one was more mature sounding.

"If she's too much trouble, then why did she go down that easy? She would've put up more of a fight."

"We jumped her, she didn't expect it. Now stop complaining. It's not our place to question orders."

"Just because some guy from the castle says a lot of things doesn't mean we should listen. We have a lot of things we should –" I was trying to open my tired eyes when they suddenly went off track.

"What was that about the guy from the castle?" A third voice joined the fray and this one sounded familiar. Whatever the other two were talking about, it got derailed as soon as this guy said a word. They were all silent for a while, taken by surprise by the arrival of the guy, or maybe it's something else? "Hmm…? Cat got your tongue?"

"N-Nothing, sir." That was the younger one of the two voices. I've gotten my eyes open, though what I saw was more of a blurry speck than an actual visual image.

"You see, I'm not who you guys should be worrying about." The late arrival said to the other two. "You don't want HIM to come down here and handle things Himself, don't you?" Even with my temporary lousy sight, I could see the two freeze upon the mention of that last phrase. 'Him'? Who is he talking about? Is he talking about Kuja?

"I thought so. So if you guys don't want to get on his bad side, then I suggest you get back to work. Starting with this guy…"

I looked at the conversing three and noticed that there was someone else with them: one who had an oversized blue and white coat and a pointy hat: Vivi. With my sight slowly clearing, I saw that he was looking over towards me. Where was I?

I turned and had a good look of my surroundings. I was in the underground storage facility of Dali, where the villagers worked on weapons of mass destruction for the kingdom of Alexandria instead of working on that farm above. I was specifically inside a fenced area with a bright light coming down from my left, which turned out to be a well with the light being the sun. Then I saw something yellow moving around: a fully grown chocobo. It was probably ignoring me, thinking that I was dead since I haven't moved for so long.

When I craned my head and straightened my back against the wall behind me, it whipped its head at me at the first sign of movement. I didn't know whether to be scared that it was staring me down or glad of being face to face with a big feathered creature like it.

The three people talking under the shed to my right had finally finished their little talk. Two of them had these familiar blue clothes I've seen from the game that was worn by the villagers working in here, but I noticed this other man, who's obviously the third voice in the conversation, with long black hair and a very weirdly designed maroon jacket walk away deeper into the facility. One thing I managed to take note was that this guy had camouflaged boots, the very same ones that were worn by the guy who knocked me out. All three of them were going to lead Vivi into the middle of the facility and store him in a box.

"Wait!" The long haired man stopped at the call of the older villager. "Who's gonna look after the girl?"

Maroon Jacket Man didn't even miss a beat as he looked at the other villager. "You keep your eyes on her. We don't want her getting loose."

The young worker nodded continually under the gaze of this weirdo and went back. He took a chair and sat down while keeping me in his sight. Speaking of getting loose, I needed to get out of here. I tried moving and that was when I realized that my feet were bound together and my hands were tied behind me. Maybe if I can get my sword out, I'll be able to cut the rope around my hands and—wait. Where's my sword!? Damn, they took away my sword. My mouth was also gagged. How did I miss that?

"You ain't going anywhere." The worker told me, leaning into his seat.

That's where you're wrong buddy! I'm definitely going somewhere and you, your boss and that guy with the weird colored jacket isn't gonna like it. But even if I knew that, I had to act like I'm a real prisoner. I said something to the guy, only to him to not understand what I was saying.

"What? Can't understand a word you're sayin'." He taunted me. I said a few more things, this time a bit louder than usual. I was only saying random things at him at the top of my head. My efforts in trying to get a word in must've entertained the guy since he was laughing at me.

Then I noticed a yellow tail from way over the barrel just over yonder. Finally, Zidane and Dagger are here. I almost smiled, but good thing I caught myself before I actually did. I just need to keep this guy looking at me for a while longer for them to sneak up on him. So I pushed myself off the wall and onto my knees and just went out shouting at him as loud as I can.

That sent him to the edge of his seat and completely guffawed like an idiot. Unfortunately for him, that got him knocked out cold. He just froze for a second and fell down to the floor in a heap. Standing behind him was Dagger and Zidane, who was currently armed with Dagger's rod.

"Alyssa, thank goodness you're okay!" Dagger was the first to reach me. She removed the gag in my mouth and I managed to finally say something coherent.

"Oh man, I thought I'd be like that forever." I sighed as Zidane began cutting the rope around my feet. I looked around absently, trying to act like I've never seen this place before. "Where are we?"

"We're under the village." Zidane answered for me. He explained it to me when I repeated his words with a questioning tone. "We don't know what this place is yet, but we found an entrance when we saw a pretty shifty guy we haven't seen before walk into the windmill like he owned the place." He finished with my bound feet and was now starting on the one around my wrists.

Could he be talking about that guy with the maroon jacket? I asked the two if they did see that guy. Both of them nodded. "Maybe he did own the place." I wondered out loud. "What got you two to go down here?"

"The both of us got worried when you and Vivi hadn't shown up at the inn after a long time." Dagger answered. "Zidane thought that you went off to look for Blake and Steiner. Vivi, on the other hand, being a very shy boy, would have gone back as soon as you told him, so we thought that his prolonged disappearance was odd."

"What about Blake and Steiner?"

"If Blake's with Steiner, then they'll be alright. Anyway, we went out and looked for him and found that guy. We also heard crying and chocobos. The crying came from Vivi. One thing led to another and now we're here." Zidane summed it up.

Okay, I think I got it. Only Blake and Steiner are above and probably looking for information while we're down here getting rescued and looking for Vivi. Wonderful. While I still know what happens here, what I don't know is who in the hell was that guy who chloroformed me. I don't recognize him from anywhere, whether it's from the main plot or a side mission in the game. He's a total unknown!

He's not here anymore, anyway. I'll deal with that problem later. Maybe Blake has something on him that I missed in the game. Let's just focus on rescuing Vivi and getting away from here. But before that…

"What do we do about him?" I pointed over to the guy they knocked out.

"Hmm… We can't allow him to alert the others." Dagger tried to think about their options. I didn't even hesitate on suggesting what I had in mind once I saw the rope that used to hold my hands and feet together.

"I think I have an idea…" I had a devilish grin on my face when I picked up the rope.

A few minutes later, I was finished tying up the worker in the same exact spot I had been sitting in for God knows how long. He was still unconscious and we weren't waiting for him to wake up before we left. We skedaddled and went on ahead. I eventually found my sword on one of the crates, waiting for me to pick it back up again.

"I don't think we should've left him like that." Dagger spoke up, looking back to the struggling worker.

"What goes around, comes around, Dagger." That was my simple reply to her. I don't even know if they know about karma or not, but I hope she got what I meant. In regards to the worker, I bet it won't be even that long until someone finds him. Maroon Jacket Man would probably go back and see him like that anyway.

We passed the room with the stacks of crates that were taller than the three of us. Some of them were covered in brown sheets, some were tied together in sets, and some were partially open. I looked up at the stacks of boxes and had this feeling that something's going to make them collapse and fall on over on us. For me, the sooner we were out of here, the better.

Zidane and Dagger didn't share my certain paranoia for falling crates since they focused on finding the kidnapped black mage in this storage facility. But finding Vivi would only make us stumble into a secret of the village. As we walked, the noise of machinery started to fill our ears. It made the two run up ahead with me trailing behind. We've finally gotten to this part of the facility.

"What the heck is that?" Zidane asked no one in particular.

Before he could inspect the machine in the far left that was spitting out eggs like clockwork, Dagger stopped him. "Zidane! Do you hear that?"

Zidane walked back up to us and listened in. "Someone's crying." I've already turned my head to the set of boxes placed in the corner of the room before the two could even figure out where the sounds were coming from.

"Over here." I pointed to a tall box a second later. We approached the box cautiously with Zidane up in front.

"…Vivi?"

"Zidane!?" A surprised gasp then came out from the box. Zidane, Dagger and I sighed in relief. Vivi's safe.

"It IS you! I'll get you out!" Zidane started feeling around the surfaces of the box, trying to look for a spot where he can pull it apart. "Help me out here, guys." Dagger and I looked at each other and nodded.

I spotted a crack in the side of the box near its edge. "Step back a bit, Vivi." I took my sword and warned the mage. I hoped he did what I told him as I put the sharp edge of my short sword into the crack and started pushing against the hilt. It eventually cracked that side of the box open, letting in some light inside. I could see Vivi inside, looking at the light source with surprise. With the combined effort of all three of us, we got the box fully opened and freed our friend.

"What happened?" Zidane asked the now free black mage.

"Earlier, Alyssa and I were going back to the inn when we were attacked." Vivi explained. "I was taken here while Alyssa was tied up by some guy in weird clothing. I don't know why they brought us here."

"Me either." I added. It would make sense why they would take Vivi later, but me being nabbed and put here doesn't.

Vivi continued, his voice starting to tremble, telling us that Maroon Jacket Man threatened to hurt me if he didn't stay put. He went on about the workers asking him why he was outside when the cargo ship hadn't arrived yet, only confusing him more and more. When he came to the part about being added to 'today's shipment', Dagger concluded that that was the reason why he was in a box.

"Well, I'm glad you're safe." Zidane told him. Then the thief went on to advise Vivi on doing something next time something happens like this happens again, like shouting back something at the person – like 'scumbag'. The usage of the word confused Dagger.

I've seen this happen in the game before, so I don't think I had anything to gain by adding my two cents. I just tried to remember what was going to happen next. We're going to see the process of how Alexandria's mindless black mage army is being made.

After Zidane made sure that Vivi was okay on exploring the facility, we then continued moving on. We first looked at the machine spewing eggs on the conveyor belt. The machine had the shape of a giant toy bucket turned upside down and looked like its tech had the look of a modern steam-punk imitation that was made in the 18th century.

Our group's leader made the very keen observation that the machine was dumping eggs on the conveyor belt like it was nobody's business. "This isn't a Mist engine, but there's Mist coming out of it…" He then turned his attention to the pipes coming from the machine, which lead to a pair of closed doors behind us. Underneath the door was Mist trying to get in.

"There's Mist coming from behind this door." Dagger pointed out.

"Should we open it?" Vivi asked.

"…That's a bit dangerous, if you ask me." I said. If we opened that door, monsters are going to pile in because of the presence of the Mist. I'm sure everyone here would like to avoid fighting anything in a cramped space like this.

"A quick peek won't hurt." Zidane insisted, looking at me and the princess as if asking for permission. Dagger and I looked at each other, contemplating whether we should allow it.

"Just a quick peek, Zidane." Dagger responded, getting a nod from the blond.

"Alright." I shrugged my shoulders. "Just be quick. We don't want any monsters to get in."

Zidane took hold of the knob while I stepped back a bit in case something was waiting behind the door. He pushed it open slightly and looked inside. He then started saying something about a machine being out there too, but the one he's seeing was sucking in the Mist. The pipes from the machine in the room we were in lead to the machine outside, making it easier for the others to make a connection that the Mist had something to do with the eggs.

As Zidane was telling them this and describing what it looked like, I suddenly started feeling a bit woozy. I even failed to realize that I was holding in my breath, but even if I exhaled and inhaled I was still feeling wobbly. My breathing got deeper as I tried to concentrate. I was seeing two Vivi's standing in front of me with his back turned. I turned around, not wanting them to see me in this…state.

What's happening? The last time something like this happened was back in the Ice Cavern during that blizzard, except without my chest caving in of itself. I put a hand on the machine beside me, trying to balance myself and avoid falling over, while I ran my hand through my hair. Falling over would only make things look worse.

I heard a click behind me and the voices of the others trying to think of how Mist was being used by the machine. Moments later, my breathing starting to even out and my vision clearing.

"C'mon Alyssa, we gotta get moving." Zidane called out. He was now standing over at the path aside the conveyor belt with Dagger and Vivi going on ahead.

"Y-Yeah." I shook my head, clearing the cobwebs a bit as I moved towards the group. I need know why I am feeling so sick. At least my lungs weren't collapsing, but that's only a minor positive when it comes to everything. This sick feeling… I have no idea why it's happening. I should get to the bottom of this before I get hit by it again.

With my mind lingering on the sickness I had encountered earlier, I think I had ignored whatever the others were saying about the machines and the eggs and what was happening. Because of that, I bumped into Zidane's back. I looked up from the floor and noticed that everyone had stopped walking.

"Ahhh! What is this!?"

This room…This is where Vivi sees black mages being churned out from the machine that hatches the eggs, and after that they're being put in boxes similar to the one Vivi was put in. Dagger realizes that, upon putting together what she had heard from the workers about the shipment being flown to Alexandria, the black mages were being flown to the castle. Both of them were shocked.

"Wh-What is this…?" Vivi managed. "Are they…dolls?"

"Why…? Is my mother behind this…?" Dagger tried to wrap her mind in what she's seeing in front of her. But she wouldn't have enough time doing that when I heard a pair of feet coming up from behind us.

Zidane was looking around as quick as he can. He heard the same thing I heard and was now trying to find a way out. "Alyssa, grab Vivi!" He told me as he took Dagger by the hand.

I was already clutching on the little guy's wrist when Zidane ran ahead of us. I was right behind him as we tried to find an escape route, but unfortunately for us we didn't find any. So, we took the next best choice we had been offered and dived into a spot near some crates to hide in.

"Did any of you say something?" I heard one of the male workers ask the people around him, but none of them replied positively. I slightly peeked out of our cover, hoping that nobody saw us run into our spot, and I saw one particular person who would love to see me right now: the Maroon Jacket Man.

He was walking alongside a familiar young worker, the very same one I tied up and left near the chocobo after being rescued. The worker was telling something to MJM, but the man only smirked and shook his head. I bet he's notifying him about my escape. The weird thing is, MJM seemed too cool about something. I thought he'd be more ticked off that I escaped. Maybe he didn't care about me being loose. That's probably it.

He soon turned around and wandered off with the young worker trailing behind him. Who is this guy?

"We need to get outta here." Zidane whispered. We heard someone from the opposite side of the spot we were hiding in approach, making us tense. Zidane led us far away from the spot and into the open.

"Let me see…" I took the lead and climbed up the stairs near the machine, looking over my shoulder to make sure that Zidane was right behind me. Once I got to the top, I froze when I saw someone on the opposite side of the conveyor belt. The guy's back was turned, but he would turn around eventually. In a 'panic' (used loosely here), I pushed our group inside the machine before an incoming black mage in the conveyor belt could knock us off.

"Whoa!" Vivi uttered. Then a lot of things started to happen. Something dropped from above us and Zidane was forced inside what I think was a box along with one black mage and then pushed out. The same happened to Dagger and Vivi in that order until I was next and packed in a box behind them.

-FFIX FFIX FFIX-

There were a lot of muffled cries that sounded panicked, worried and frightened coming from the others I was packed with. I think we were being loaded into something big that started to be turned on its side and being moved. Being inside a small box that was inside a barrel being rolled on its side was not making me any more comfortable and less nauseous.

"I think I'm going to be sick…" I groaned from all the movement that was happening. I didn't know if the black mage I was packed with was already moving, but if I were it and I had just heard that, I would've said something to voice out some sort of panic. But thankfully it didn't since I didn't lose my breakfast…yet.

Eventually the moving stopped and the barrel had been placed upright. Thank goodness for that. There were a pair of muffled voices, probably workers doing their jobs, but suddenly their calm voices became hurried. There were a few sounds I heard like something closing and something else rolling away with a loose wheel that faded out. It was followed by a sound of metal and steel coming towards us.

"Steiner!" I heard Dagger shout. It really was the beloved captain of the Knights of Pluto, come to rescue us. From what I could hear, Steiner was asking a lot of questions about the barrel. Since Steiner is here, that meant that Blake is close behind.

"Hey Rusty!" Zidane yelled, but his cries of the insulting nickname for the knight fell on deaf ears as the knight in question continued his ramblings.

"Try moving. Maybe that would get his attention." I suggested, trying to jump around in the hopes it would make our wooden prison move. I didn't hear anyone answer, but I was sure someone took to doing it because suddenly I felt the barrel move a bit. There was a surprised cry outside and for a moment everyone was silent.

Two voices said a few things to each other, and I was definitely sure that Blake was the other one talking to Steiner when there was a faint but identifiable chirp alongside their voices. "Blake! Blake, get us out of here!" I cried out.

"Are they going to rescue us?" Vivi faintly asked. I sure hope they do before Steiner gets any bright ideas.

"…should I poke it?" Was the last thing I wanted to hear, but Steiner let out those very words loud enough for us to hear.

"NO!" I shouted. I put my ear against the wood and tried to hear out what the two were saying to each other.

"No, let's not do—" Blake's voice tried to say, but was suddenly cut off. What happened? Did he fail to stop Steiner from stabbing the barrel?

There was a thick silence as I hoped that Steiner didn't do what I think he's about to do. Blake had stopped talking for some reason and the others in the barrel were surprisingly silent, maybe anticipating the worst or trying to come up with a plan. I strained to hear anything from the other side. Nobody was talking, that I get, but there was a noise that somewhat sounded like a sharp intake of air. What?

Anyway, maybe I should use this time to convince everyone to get the barrel to move again. "Guys! We need to get the barrel to move again."

"Alright." I heard Vivi agree. Zidane and Dagger soon followed.

"Okay, on the count of three, we push and hope that we topple over." Zidane instructed them.

"Won't we accidentally crush Steiner and Blake?" Dagger worriedly said.

"We'll worry about it when we do crush someone." I replied quickly.

"On three," Zidane called out. "One. Two. Three!" When the count came, all four of us slammed to one side. Well, that's what I did anyway. I felt the barrel tilt slightly to one side and come back down on steady ground. "Again!"

The four of us did this twice more, the force we used somewhat stronger than the last one in desperation. After we did it for the second time, the barrel tilted again and this time it continued to tilt until we felt it lurch over to one side and hit the ground horizontally.

The force of impact made me dizzy for a moment, and this one was gone faster unlike the sudden surge of dizziness earlier. I pounded against the top of the box I was in with both hands until I felt it loosen and eventually give out. I pushed it off and started crawling out towards the bright light that meant freedom from this ungodly barrel and box combination.

I saw a pair of silhouettes as I crawled out. It was probably Blake and Steiner, but I just wanted to get out of here so much that I jumped out at one of them.

Apparently the one I had aimed for was Blake, and because of me jumping out at him, he fell on his backside and was a shade paler as he stared at me. Whoa, did I scare him?

"Wh-What is the meaning of this!?" Steiner demanded as soon as he saw Zidane follow me out of the barrel. I helped Zidane get Vivi and Dagger out of their wooden prison box and contributed in the explanation that Zidane and Dagger rescued me and Vivi and found an underground manufacturing facility that made dolls that looked like Vivi. Our black mage was still in shock that he wasn't able to add to the story. There was also a mention of Maroon Jacket Man and I looked at Blake to see if he had a reaction to it, but I noticed that he wasn't paying attention. That means I'll have to tell him later then.

Blake looked like he had his thinking cap on. He's probably devising a plan on how to combat the next boss fight. Thinking about it made my hand inch towards my short sword. It's obviously going to be hectic and hellacious fight. We'd need all the help we could get, and all the help we had was knowledge of the future events of the game.

With that, I know that we'll come out on top of this next obstacle. I'm sure of it!

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 15: C is for Crazy

-Alyssa-

"Princess, what in the world is going on!? You scoundrel! Is this your doing!?"

"Steiner, please!"

"…Yes, Your Highness…"

"Zidane, I don't know what to say to Vivi. I never knew anything suspicious was going on at the castle…"

"We still don't know for sure. Let's stay by Vivi's side."

I stood by Blake the whole time the others were taking, not paying attention to their exchange as they were now trying to comfort the confused black mage while Steiner was either looking at the cargo ship, trying to hatch a plan to get back to Alexandria, or trying to get answers from Zidane as to why we were in the barrel. The two of us already have an idea of what's going to happen and what's supposed to happen next, but even that made me nervous. I don't know what's Blake feeling right now, yet he looks like there's something in his mind. I also noticed his chocobo pecking against his stomach like it was trying to get his attention.

My hand crept up to the hilt of my short sword as I eyed the area around us. It's about to come, I know it. It's just a matter to time. I know we can beat it, alright. It'll just take some strategic thinking and using advantages. If we just rush at it we'd be toast, as Blake would say.

Blake notices then that I have been looking at him for quite a while now, probably asking himself what was wrong. "I bet you're wondering if I have a plan." He silently says to me.

"No," I reply. "Looking around for…stuff. You know, for strategic purposes."

He chuckled. "Right," Blake remarked before patting me on the head twice. "Don't worry. This little accessory has a plan or two up in his sleeve." Ugh…that again?

"What's wrong with you two?" We both heard Zidane's voice and I immediately straightened, attempting to look like I've been paying attention. Blake didn't even bother with his posture. He just folded his casted arm just below his chest and put his chick front and center.

"Nothing. I'm just going over with her the stuff you guys saw underground." Blake covered for me.

"Oh! We saw this factory under the village and they were making dolls that looked like Vivi! We also saw this guy who kidnapped us. A guy in a maroon jacket!" Blake hummed in response. He looked at me with a slightly confused face, not sure if he was acting or trying to get me to explain more. I couldn't add the fact that the guy in the jacket was someone we didn't know in the story. So I just shrugged and repeated the word 'jacket'.

"This strange person in the oddly colored jacket… he sounds like an interesting fellow, don't you think?" He looked over to Dagger with the question aimed at her. She could only cock up an eyebrow at his words. The meaning of his words were lost on her, but to me it meant that this guy we've just seen could be trouble, one we didn't know, and that very trouble is something we should be wary of.

Zidane then started asking Steiner about the cargo ship's supposed destination. If it wasn't obvious enough that he's lying through his teeth by being all kinds of tense, then I don't know if you have your eyes on right. Even his voice sounded a bit shaky. He's probably not one to lie, being the model knight and all.

But even if Zidane and the others, sans Vivi who was still mentally occupied, knew he was, they didn't show it and just went along with it. To Zidane, if it can make Dagger board the cargo ship much faster, then it's for the best. He's a thief after all. He's not one to judge one's underhanded tactics.

Then that was when a figure over in the distance appeared, zooming towards our spot. Initially it was a dark spot in the horizon but it didn't take long for it to go unnoticed as Steiner pointed over to it. When it was near enough, it disappeared and reappeared to the side in a blink of an eye. It did this twice more, moving to our backs and to our front once again before finally stopping.

Black Waltz No. 2, a much bigger improvement than the first one. Instead of the hobbling and hunchback stature the first one had, this one was as straight as any line, though a bit diagonal as it was hovering in the air over us with dark blue wings that reminded me of an eagle's. A dark green robe and an altered pointy hat that had strange horn-like shapes on the side completed its look. Bright yellow eyes looked down on us chillingly, scanning the line-up of it possible enemies before focusing on Dagger. Everyone stared back at the mage, even Vivi, who has slightly recovered.

"Princess Garnet," It spoke with a hiss, bending down as if it was bowing. "The queen is waiting for you at the castle!"

"You were all sent by the castle!?" Zidane demanded as he stood between it and Dagger.

"What? What are you talking about?" Steiner asked.

"Alyssa and I fought one during the blizzard while everyone was out!" Zidane briefly explained to which I nodded.

"Yeah," I added. "It was also a Black Waltz, except smaller and probably dumbed down." The Black Waltz sneered at me and Zidane as soon as he heard that.

"You two are the ones who defeated No. 1? I am Black Waltz No. 2! My power, magic and speed make me far superior to No.1. Resistance is futile!" It said with absolute confidence. "Come princess," It held out an inviting hand. "The queen awaits!"

Dagger only stepped back. "No!" She replied defiantly. "I will not return to the castle!"

"Come with me, or you'll regret it!" It threatened, patience obviously running thin.

"Maybe you didn't hear her right." Blake stepped forth, but had Zidane in front of him as cover. "The kind princess said 'no'."

"Wait! I, Steiner, shall escort the princess back to the castle!" Steiner said to the flying mage, only for it to cackle at his words.

"You think I care?" Black Waltz No. 2 cackled. By then we had drawn out our weapons and held it at the ready. Blake stepped back to side alongside the princess with his chocobo in his grasp as he looked around, maybe trying to find some cover. "I won't let you stand in the way of my mission!"

With a mighty flap of its wings, dust flew into our eyes, making us use our forearms or hands as cover while it ascended. "Princess, stay right there while I kill the others!" It crowed right before sharply diving towards us.

Blake immediately ran out of dodge as soon as he saw it dive. I've managed to roll right out of the way of the Black Waltz. Dagger had run to a safe distance for cover from the mage's attack as Zidane and Steiner were barely able to avoid it. Vivi was unlucky that he wasn't good in reflex actions as the winged mage grabbed him by his coat and lifted him off the ground with one hand.

"Vivi!" I heard Zidane shout as he ran up to the Black Waltz. It didn't even turn its head when Zidane tried to cut it from behind. Before he could land the hit, it disappeared from his very eyes, only to reappear right on Steiner's side. It tossed Vivi into the arms of a surprised Steiner with such force that both men were sent toppling onto their backs a few feet away.

Since I was closest to it, I attacked with a side cut, but it did the same thing it did to Zidane. Disappearing from my front, it came back a moment later behind me and I felt a hand impact against my back. I tried spinning around with my sword hand extended to get a hit in, but the mage was once again gone. It reappeared farther in front of me and easily closed the distance between us and rammed me with his shoulders.

It was only playing with us at the moment. Its agility was inhumane and we can't react correctly. We needed to act fast before it decides to off us in an instant. "Target the wings!" I turned to the owner of the voice and found Blake near the large barrel, holding the chocobo close to his chest. "If you can ground it, then it'll be a more even playing field!"

"Silence you!" Black Waltz No. 2 ordered. It sent a quick Fire spell towards him and Blake dived to his left just to get away from it. Even though the barrel was the one burning and not him he was still in danger when the Black Waltz teleported right in front of him and grabbed him by the throat, making him drop the bird from his grasp.

Zidane and I started running towards it as Blake struggled in its grasp. I could see him desperately trying to get a hold of his weapon, but that proved difficult when you're basically one-handed and being strangled in the air. He stopped doing that and went with another course of action: he spat at its face, pulled down its hat and started kicking as hard as he can.

The Black Waltz didn't see that coming. Well actually he can't see anything right now. He immediately let go of the teenager and pushed up his hat while said teenager retrieved the black feathered chocobo and retreated to somewhere safe. He also didn't see me and Zidane nearing an attacking distance. I managed to get a large cut on where its stomach should be while Zidane slashed at his chest before it could pull away. Steiner came up from behind and cut at his back, barely missing his wings when the manufactured mage moved, but was still damaged. We weren't done yet.

"Zidane!" I called over to him and pointed up before cupping my hands together like a support stand. He got what I was trying to say, or I hope he did get it, as he backed up a bit before running at me. Sure enough he did as he stepped up onto my hands and I tossed him up as hard as I could. Zidane flew into the air with a hand reaching out as the Black Waltz finally got its hat off. It didn't notice Zidane grab onto its foot and acrobatically get on his back.

"Get off!" It yelled, swinging its arms wildly at Zidane. It wasn't able knock the thief off of him, but he did get off by kicking it downwards towards us after stabbing it in the back, right where his wings were connected.

It dropped to the ground and impacted hard against the grass-filled meadow. Blake sprung into action with his dagger and got on the Black Waltz's wing. He started stabbing random spots from the body to its wings, occasionally punching it in the back of its head. "This is for trying to strangle me! This is for dropping me like a sack of potatoes! This is for some other third thing!" He said to it with each punch he got in.

"Vivi!" I called out to our black mage. He had already pushed himself off the ground with the help of Steiner and was now looking at me. "Can you freeze its wings?"

"I can try." He nodded and started focusing on his magic through his staff. But the Black Waltz wouldn't be grounded for long as it used Fire on Blake to get him off of it. He started rolling on the ground in an attempt to put out the fire on his sleeve. After all the crazy stabbing Blake did, it looked like he just scratched its wings as it was still working.

Steiner, Zidane and I acted, hoping to distract it while Vivi readies up his spell. The three of us moved in with daggers and swords a-swinging with the Black Waltz backpedaling and dodging since it wasn't able to get back up into the air with us breathing down its neck. We were careful enough to not hit each other, yet we had a slight miscommunication when Steiner almost lopped off Zidane's head when the Black Waltz moved.

It capitalized on that by freezing Steiner's feet to the ground and then pushing me towards Zidane before using Thunder on both of us. The two of fell down as the current went through us, stunning us effectively. Even if we got bested for a moment, Vivi was still able to cast Blizzard on its wings. It didn't even flinch. It just turned around towards the black mage and glared at him.

"You call that a blizzard spell?" It asked as it drew in its arms like it was trying to squeeze a basketball, focusing its magic into a powerful attack.

"Move, Vivi!" I tried to shout, but the electricity introduced to my system was hard to recover from. Zidane was trying to stand while Steiner tried to dig out the ice using his sword.

"This is how you –"

"Ahhhhh!" I saw someone jump towards the Black Waltz, cutting him off from his usual line if Vivi uses a low level spell on him. It was Blake! He ran off the large barrel we were in earlier and jumped in an attempt to distract the Black Waltz from its attack and probably disable its wings.

While he did succeed in doing the first thing, he wasn't able to get a hold of the winged mage when it simply sidestepped him, making him land on the ground with a sick thud. Just think of someone belly flopping into a pool, but the pool is actually a field of land and the impact is a lot more painful. "Ow…" Blake groaned. That's gonna leave a mark.

The slight distraction was long enough for Steiner to break out of the ice. "Hurry, Master Vivi…" He came up to Vivi and tried to escort him to safety.

Black Waltz No. 2 didn't even miss a beat as it finished its Blizzara spell and launched it at our young black mage and the captain. They stood frozen in place momentarily like they were a pair of beautiful ice sculptures before the ice shattered and left them both gibbering and cold. The two dropped their weapons as they collapsed on the ground.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Dagger channeling her power momentarily with her rod in hand before swinging it. A white light shined over us for a moment before fading away. She casted a Cure spell on everyone. The feeling washed over me and I got physically better. I managed to stand on my feet without feeling static going up my spine.

"Thanks for that, Dagger!" I called to her. Zidane recovered with the help of the spell while Blake had received the effects of Dagger's magic only to continue lying down on the ground. Vivi and Steiner, however, were still on the ground, but they looked somewhat better than before. I think it's going to take more than a Cure to help them out.

The Black Waltz immediately glared at the princess before going back to work on us by breaking its wings out of its frosted prison with a simple Fire. It then started teleporting from one spot to another continuously as it was getting closer and closer. Dagger was working on another Cure for Vivi and Steiner while Zidane and I were back to back, trying to anticipate where the Black Waltz would end up. Both us were looking frantically at the places it used to be at.

"Dammit, it's too fast." Zidane said, frustrated.

"If only we can just get a hold of it for a second and cut off its wings." I replied with the same tone. The longer this fight goes on, the more difficult it would be to beat it.

Then I noticed that even as the Black Waltz got closer to us, it wasn't attacking us in the slightest. It was weird seeing that it was just moving about, but then I realized what it was doing.

"It's a distraction! Run for it!" I tried to tell Zidane, only for it not to reach him when we were engulfed in a blaze of fire. It was mildly hot at first with everything starting to get red all around me, and then the heat started building up until I could feel my skin starting to sear. I wanted to scream in pain, but it was over before I could open my mouth.

I dropped to the ground like a rock faster than I realized. My body felt like it had been left on the grill and was forgotten until it had been too late. The intense pain aching all over plus being almost barbequed made me want to die right then and there. Even if I felt like hell, I still fought to keep my wits about me.

Black Waltz No. 2 floated above us and laughed with satisfaction before looking at its next target: Dagger. It then hovered towards Dagger, who was trying to Cure us after seeing what had just happened, and took away her rod right after the spell did its magic to us. Despite her help, my body was still aching and burning from the damage the Black Waltz did. "It's time to go back, princess."

I blinked my eyes, trying to stay in the fight, as Dagger refused the mage's "kind offer". I failed to realize someone moving towards me. I moved my head to see who was running up an about. It was Blake, and he had something in his hand. He knelt beside me and I managed to get a good look of what that was. It was an open vial with glowing liquid in it.

"Here, drink this." He said to me as he put the open end of the vial to my mouth and helped me drink some it. After I managed to swallow some of it, I could feel its healing power starting to take effect. "You go ahead and drink that. I already gave Vivi, Steiner and Zidane Hi-Potions, so they'll recover in a bit. Meanwhile, I am going to initiate Plan C."

What? Plan C? What was Plan A and Plan B? When did Plan A and B happen?

I wasn't able to ask him these questions when he took hold of his dagger and charged on ahead, leaving me there holding to a hi-potion. With what remaining strength I had, I put the vial's opening against my mouth and started drinking it. The cool liquid soon worked its magic, but I still felt relatively weak though I can feel my body recovering faster.

I looked over to what Blake was doing and saw that he was running up behind Black Waltz No. 2. Is he crazy!? We already know that doesn't work. Even if I got to shout that out, it wouldn't help as our enemy just moved from his front to his back in a snap. Blake somewhat knew this was going to happen and immediately turned around, pointing his weapon at it as he stood beside the princess

"I believe the princess said 'no', twice." Blake told it. "Were you created with no manners or what?"

The Black Waltz looked at him for a second then laughed. "Ha ha ha! What do you plan on doing with a small weapon like that? Prick me to death? Ha ha ha!"

"I'm giving you a chance to surrender before I do something that would ruin your plans." He said, standing his ground.

"Highly unlikely! I will burn you to a crisp!" The flying mage readied its magic for what I think was another Fira at a single target.

Then in a surprising move, Blake reached out to his side, took Dagger by the wrist and pulled her up to him, putting the princess directly between him and the manufactured mage. "Blake!? What…!?" Dagger managed to say in surprise.

"Princess!" I heard Steiner shout as he saw what was happening.

"Uh, uh, uh." Blake waved his dagger in front of him and Dagger. This definitely got the Black Waltz's attention as it stopped its casting process. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said. It growled at him for having the gall of doing that.

"Blake…what are you doing…?" That was Dagger talking as she tried getting out of his grip. He has quite a grip for someone who can't lift a sword. She didn't know whether to be scared of the Black Waltz's power or whatever Blake had in store.

"I do all the talking here, princess." Blake told her, pressing his dagger against her neck. "And I would really appreciate it if you don't make any sudden movements." I could see his lips move some more, probably whispering to Dagger about his plan. When he stopped, I could see Dagger's attempt to wriggle free stop, but held on to his arm to maintain the illusion of a struggle.

Then the Black Waltz teleported behind the two and was about to attack, but Blake was smart enough to think that this would happen so he quickly turned around. It did this three more times, trying to go for different angles, only for Blake to respond by putting the princess between them, clearly sending a message that he will harm her. "I said no sudden movements! That counts for you too."

Is he crazy, threatening a Black Waltz all willy-nilly like that? Does he have a death wish or what? I can't believe Plan C is pointing a knife at Dagger…like a…madman…

Wait! I finally got what he's planning here. It's crazy, but I believe he's buying us time.

"Your mission is to bring the princess back, is that right?" He asked the mage in front of him. "Well, you seriously cannot bring back a dead princess. I mean you can, but that would defeat the whole purpose of even coming here to do so." He put his arm around Dagger's neck and readied his dagger near her face as he said this.

Oh, of course! He's thought this through obviously. In the game, Black Waltz No. 2 doesn't lay a finger on Dagger until everyone else is dead. He only puts her to sleep and nabs her, making it a game over for the player. He's exploiting our enemy's sole objective, and he's being an idiot about it! I can't believe he's crazy enough to do this!

"Tell me, why does the queen of Alexandria, the woman with all the power in her kingdom, send a monster like you to retrieve her daughter?" Blake was calmly talking with it, trying to get some answers out of it for Dagger.

"I don't answer to an insolent child like you!" It answered.

"Well you have to answer to this insolent child if you want Dagger unharmed, or maybe you want her delivered to the castle with a sliced throat?"

"What makes you think I'll listen to you?" It teleported closer for an attack. As a counter to this, Blake raised his weapon to Dagger's face and swiftly cut a small wound on her cheek. The princess yelped in pain, her knight in rusty armor cursing my friend while Black Waltz No. 2 stopped his attack.

"The next cut goes to her jugular!" He threatened.

I began to ignore Blake's words as I stealthily approached Vivi and Steiner, both who have drank the hi-potion Blake gave to them. They've already picked up their weapons and were ready to fight. Well, Steiner looked like he was ready to kill Blake the moment he gets close to him. "What is that criminal doing!? He has just attacked a member of the royal family!" He demanded to me. Even Vivi looked like he's unsure about the whole thing that was happening in front of him.

"Is he out of his mind?" Zidane approached us with a wary eye looking on at the situation Blake got himself into.

Blake's going to in so much hot water when we're done here. "It's part of his plan. Right now it's too focused on him." I tell Zidane and Steiner before turning to Vivi. "Vivi, we need you to freeze its wings again. Hopefully this time we can get it off its back."

"I-I'll try." Vivi replied.

"Me and Alyssa are gonna move from the side. Rusty, you get it from behind. It won't be able to act fast enough with its wings on ice." Zidane said to us. "Alright, everyone set?"

"My mission is to take back the princess! I will not be halted by a fool with a tiny knife!" That was the Black Waltz still at a stalemate with Blake. From where I was standing, I could hear all of what they were saying at the moment, and it seemed like our enemy is losing its patience.

"Mission this, mission that. That's all you keep talking about." Blake was having too much fun taking like that to a very dangerous enemy.

"Blake, please be civil." Dagger reasoned with him. Blake adjusted his right arm around the princess's neck, making her yelp.

"How about you surrender, Mr. Black Waltz? We both know how this is going to end."

"This will end with you and your friends burnt to ashes!"

I could see him raise an eyebrow at the threat and smile at him. "Oh, would you look at that?" Blake looked at an imaginary watch on his left wrist. "I believe your time has run out."

"What?" Black Waltz No. 2 only had a second to comprehend what he meant, and it was a second too late when a flash of ice suddenly formed around its wings, making it drop from the air and land on its feet awkwardly and drop Dagger's rod.

Zidane and I immediately jumped into action, rushing the mage from both sides with weapons ready to strike him down. It managed to get a glimpse of both of us and tried to dodge the two of us by jumping backwards. It got away from both of us, but it wasn't quick enough to evade Steiner's broadsword that sliced his frozen wings off his back with two mighty swings.

"NO!" It yelled. "I will not fail!" It even had the gall to say that when it was surrounded.

Too bad for him his dedication to his mission only got him where he was now. Zidane and I lunged at the Black Waltz, who was now bombarding us with Fire just to stop us, but Steiner cut him down from the back to stop the barrage while Zidane and I landed several attacks from the front. We executed a stab and slice combination, which I think was enough to kill it. Vivi finished it off with a Fire of his own right on the mark. Black Waltz No. 2 fell to the ground in a crumbling heap.

"Wh-Why…!?" It gasped at us as it writhed in pain and tried sit back up. Vivi quickly put it back down with a quick Fire to the face. Moments later, it finally lay on the ground, unmoving. It was finally over.

Black Waltz No. 2 was finally dead.

I gave out a breath of relief now that we don't have the second Black Waltz breathing down our necks. Now can we rest for a moment before we do anything else? That was a very difficult fight and I don't think I can stand any longer. I could feel my knees about to give…

"YOU!" Or we rest later. "YOU ARE UNDER ARREST FOR RECKLESSLY ENDANGERING THE PRINCESS AND FOR THREATENING A MEMBER OF THE ROYAL FAMILY!" Steiner stomped towards Blake with a gloved finger pointed at him and his loud shouts aimed at him. Zidane and Vivi trailed a few feet from him, the former looking at my friend with a cautious eye and a hand hovering over one of his daggers while the latter relieved that the fight was over.

Blake stepped away from Dagger, put away his dagger and put his hands up in surrender, showing that he's smart enough to not want a fight with a very experienced swordsman. "Now, now captain. Let's not do anything you'd regret." He said nervously, taking a few steps back as Steiner approached. I guess all that calm bravado he showed during the confrontation with the Black Waltz ran out.

"I'D REGRET!? THE NERVE YOU HAVE TO SAY SUCH A THING!" The more Steiner shouted, the more likely he was going to pop a blood vessel.

"Let me explain..." He was interrupted when he was grabbed by his shirt by Steiner.

"THERE IS NO EXPLAINING OF POINTING A WEAPON IN THE FACE OF THE PRINCESS! HOW DARE YOU WOUND THE PRINCESS!?"

"Well, I can't really explain if you're shouting at my face like that!" Blake had to raise his voice a bit as Steiner shook him up a bit. "This is no way for a knight to behave!"

"Rusty, can you shut up for a sec and let him go!" Zidane finally intervened and forced the knight to release Blake, sending him to the ground on his behind.

"I am supposed to be protecting the princess; therefore I should bring this maniac into custody to prevent any similar scenarios like that from happening again!" Steiner argued. I looked at the princess and I could tell that she doesn't know whether to agree with Steiner or to let Blake have a moment to explain all of this.

"First off, I'm not a maniac. Second, would you like to hear my explanation?" Blake stated as he picked himself off the ground and dusted off his pants. There was a silence between all of us, though Steiner was growling at him, but the overall silence prompted Blake to continue. "Alright, let me start off by saying I'm terribly sorry for that little display, Dagger. I apologize for, well, what just Steiner had stated already. I'm also sorry for implying that I'd cut your throat and jugular. That was not a very nice mental image."

Dagger was quiet, still sporting that small cut Blake made. The blood that spilled out had already been wiped away by her glove. She looked like she was thinking over what she should say, but Blake went on. "Now the reason I did that was because it was part of a plan I formulated. Everyone was getting decimated and this brilliant idea just popped into my head, so I thought that it would be a good distraction."

"Because of their mission?" Zidane asked.

"Yeah. There's no way a rescue could be done if the person being rescued is still in danger. So I acted on that line of thought and put Dagger in danger deliberately so that the Black Waltz would be forced to focus on me. And since I was putting Dagger between me and it, it wasn't going to be able to harm me. It seems like an act of desperation, but it was the only thing that would give you guys enough time to get back up. And the good thing about it is that is worked."

"And what if it had not worked!? The princess would have been abducted and we would have been all dead!" Steiner retorted, harshly jabbing a finger on Blake's shoulder.

"You really should stop shouting like that. God knows what kind of damage you're putting on your vocal chords." Blake offhandedly commented, almost earning himself another vocal assault from Steiner, who ignored his advice. If it weren't for Zidane it would've happened. Blake looked back to Dagger and sighed.

"I know that it was a reckless move on my part, but I did what I had to do in order to delay it from killing us off. I just hope you can find it somewhere in your heart to forgive me." Blake said to her as she casted a Cure on herself, the cut on her face closing without much of a scar being left. Dagger was done with her silence and had stepped forward after taking a deep breath and aimed the sternest look she could make. Blake visually flinched at the intensity of her expression.

"What you did was very irresponsible and would have endangered everyone else if it hadn't worked," Dagger began to reprimand the teen, her words making Steiner at least satisfied now that Blake was being told off. "Not only was it stupid to hope that such a thing would work, it was dangerous acting like that, provoking a dangerous enemy and recklessly swinging your weapon and such. Your entire act could have gotten everyone killed!"

I could see Steiner nod along with a smile on his face. He sure was relishing this since he can't officially arrest Blake. Maybe one day, if Blake does another wild stunt like that when it involves Dagger being put in danger again, but it'll be too soon to tell with how he makes his battle plans.

"But…" Then his smile started to drop. "The immediate threat is now gone and we're all still alive, perhaps thanks to your wild plan."

"WHAT!?" That was Steiner reacting to what Dagger had said.

"Steiner, please!" Dagger's short statement made him stutter a bit. It's a miracle nobody here in Dali has already gathered around us and wondered what the ruckus was about. Heck, I'm not even sure why we haven't attracted enough attention during that fight.

"E-Excuse me, Your Highness, but is that it? Are you just going to shrug off his crimes just like that?" He asked, occasionally glancing at the teen, who was now smiling.

"For now. Blake did those things hoping it would help us, and it did." She gave him an understanding look. "I just hope next time you wouldn't resort to such crazy plans."

"Well, I promise to never deliberately endanger you ever again." Blake said with his right hand raised like he was taking an oath, yet somehow I feel that his promise doesn't sound so assuring for the others. Despite all that, Dagger accepted it as it was. He then waltzed off to the barrels while we discussed something else that was on our minds.

"Black Waltz No. 2…" That was Vivi absently saying the name of our recent enemy. The Black Waltz, along with the black mage dolls we saw underground—even though I knew they weren't just dolls—still troubled him. I understand why. Suddenly, there's this whole underground factory making things that look almost just like you. I'd be very troubled if that were to happen to me, hell the word 'troubled' won't be even enough to describe what I would be going through.

Now I just want to go over to Vivi and hug him and comfort him like there's no tomorrow. He'd need all the cheering up he could get.

…Speaking of troubled, Blake just went over to the dead body of our enemy and stabbed it in the face five times.

"Did my mother really send it to capture me…?" Dagger wondered aloud. Of course, Steiner immediately resisted going to that thought and said something along the lines of not trusting Zidane since he was the only one, aside from me of course, to encounter the first one.

"I can seriously vouch for Zidane." I said. "There really was another Black Waltz in the cavern and we barely beat it. He's not lying." I could see Zidane give me a thankful look just for that. Steiner may be able to call Zidane a liar, but not me.

Dagger then begins doubting herself and being not too careful with her cover, while Steiner tells her that nobody can really hide her noble upbringing. Zidane came to her defense that she's been trying hard to do so.

When that was done, we went back to the topic of border crossing with Zidane's main idea being us hitchhiking on the cargo ship that's headed to Alexandria. He thinks it's going to Lindblum, but that's not going to matter anyway. We're basically hijacking a cargo ship.

This is so illegal in so many ways, and we have Steiner breathing down our necks while we think of doing this.

But before we could set out and get on it, Zidane suggested that we take a breather for a sec. Thank you so much! I really, really, really need some rest. He thought it would be best since the darn thing wasn't even on yet.

"Okay, let's head back to the village." Zidane told us, and nobody complained.

"Dibs on a bed!" Blake declared, running past us towards the inn, now with his little pet in his clutches once again.

Our troupe eventually arrived at the inn and was welcomed back with the sight of a still napping-on-the-job innkeeper. He stared in surprise at Vivi when Zidane woke him up and stuttered so much he wasn't able to come up with a coherent sentence until Zidane snapped him out of it. I could tell that he's mentally panicking about this whole thing.

All of us filed into the room given to us, which was still the same room with the four beds as before. Blake immediately dived into one before any of us could even decide which one to take. I guess he couldn't care less if someone doesn't get a bed or not, just as long as he has one. Can't say I blame him. After a long night of sleeping like he did last night, a bed would be the very high on his list of current needs.

I sat beside Vivi on one of the beds nearest to the door while Dagger and Zidane each got an individual bed. Blake was busy getting comfy on his bed while his little chick was trying to do the same thing. Poor Steiner was left with the little stool Blake used to sleep on. Well it's not like he's not going to complain about it. This is the same guy who slept while standing up right before we left for the Ice Cavern. I doubt a low stool would rip into his patience so easily.

We rested and lounged silently for a while. There was a slight feeling of uneasiness in the air, and I don't know how we should address it. I could see Vivi looking down on his lap while Dagger's eyes looked distant, both of them deep in thought. Both of them were still caught up with the revelation of the connection between Alexandria and black mages being made underground.

This was the beginning of Vivi questioning himself. Years back when I first played this game I thought that this was a very interesting way of kicking off the story with an event like this. But now I can see that it's a very difficult ordeal for someone that's only ten years old to go through. He's barely seen the world out of that cave he grew up in and now he's finding about his origins the hard way. Any normal ten year old would be worrying about other stuff, but not Vivi. He's having much bigger problems, one that's connected to the end of one world.

I put a hand on the black mage's shoulder without thinking. He looked up at me with those troubled eyes, which made me really want to cheer him up. How? I don't know. Maybe I should say something…

"Everything's gonna be alright, Vivi." I tell him. Even when I didn't say anything specific, he got what I was trying to say and nodded. I could see a small smile behind the veil of shadows underneath his hat and that was enough for me. I managed to lift his spirits a bit.

An hour had passed and half of the party was asleep. Blake was already out the moment he hit the bed, long before I had managed to say something to Vivi. His pet rested on his belly, also asleep. I'm kinda scared for it since it would get squished if Blake moves. Let's just hope he doesn't.

Dagger was sitting on her bed with a pillow to her back and a thoughtful expression on her face. Maybe I should say something encouraging to her too? But I don't really know what to say. I'd probably use the same line, but I think that won't be enough.

Steiner was alert on his stool with a constant eye on Blake and Zidane. It was easy for him to keep an eye out for both of them since they were asleep, but it tends to get boring. That didn't give him an excuse to sleep on the job though. He truly is a very patient man

Zidane, on the other hand, was also out, much to my surprise. Considering what we've experienced today—and what we're about to experience in a short while— some rest would be helpful even if it's just a short time.

Vivi fell asleep a few minutes later after I talked to him. I would have talked to him more, but I didn't know how to add to what I've already said. Plus, he needed his rest. I'm sure the next fight we're going to have is going to be more taxing than our recent one.

I was still awake, lying down at the bottom of the bed Vivi was using with my eyes directed to the wooden domed ceiling above. It was a good thing that Vivi was smaller than me, because the two of us wouldn't fit on the bed if he wasn't. I just lied there and stared at the ceiling for no apparent reason. I had nothing to think about like Dagger and Vivi, nor do I have some responsibility of protecting someone like Steiner.

Okay, I actually do, but all I can think of was how Blake and I got here and that guy with the maroon jacket and how do we get back? Everything about those three things all have questions upon questions that I can't answer alone. If only there was something or someone that can give me at least the tiniest of hints so I can get an idea to get my brain running for some answers.

Something tells me that being struck by lightning doesn't have the power to fling people into other dimensions. Plus, that man stuck out like a sore thumb; which makes me wonder that if he's in the game or not. If he is then how come I haven't noticed him until now? Getting out of the world of Final Fantasy IX doesn't sound so simple in the slightest when you have no idea on how to do that and having no leads to figure out how. Why do things have to be so complicated…?

There was a sudden rattle of metal that made me sit up. Dagger and I sat up instantaneously upon hearing the noise while the others just shifted, or in Blake's case snorted, in their sleep.

"Sorry…" Steiner apologized. "I just need to check on something. I will be back shortly." He gingerly made his way to the door while trying not to wake the others.

When he was gone, Dagger looked at me that meant something like 'What was that about?' All I could do was shrug, go back to lying down and hope that was enough to convince her that I had no idea.

It had been quite a while since we stepped into our room and right now I was being signaled by the universe –or by the plot— that things are about to pick up once again. With a sigh, I tried to tell myself that everything's going to be okay. We're still in the first disc and barely ten hours into the game. We're all well rested and armed enough for what's coming up. We're definitely ready.

Besides, what could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasy
Chapter 16: These Boots Are Made For Breaking, And That's Just What They'll Do

-Blake-

Oh sweet Heaven, this bed is pure bliss! I am so comfortable right now I could possibly die. My back, my neck and all of the other sore parts of my body would shout praises to the skies if they all had a mouth, so I'll just silently appreciate that I am on a bed right now. I just want to melt into this mattress! Whoever invented the bed should be awarded with a Nobel Prize for the best thing ever since sliced bread! I wish this would never end.

It hadn't even been a full minute before I fell into a delighted sleep, one that I deserved after what has happened recently. The last thing I think I heard was the soft 'kwehs' of baby chocobo as it stood on my body with its tiny legs. Those gentle, relaxing chirps…

Speaking of relaxing, I was having the time of my life just feeling like I'm floating while I slept. I don't know how many more praises I can offer to the bed, but I think I've already met my quota. Like if I can pick some place I could probably drown in, I'd pick a sea of beds. At least I'll be comfortable, right? I think I'm currently dreaming about drowning in a sea of beds of varying mattresses.

Before I could just revel in this joyful feeling that I was experiencing, my dreams begin to shift into something that made everything go sour.

Change your fate…

That phrase started to echo inside my head. The source was nowhere to be found.

Change your fate…

The sea of beds started to part like the Red Sea for Moses. I looked toward the horizon in front of me and found nothing but an ongoing road with mattresses for walls. Behind me was practically the same thing.

Change your fate…

The voice got louder and louder like a lumbering giant gaining momentum as it chased a rat. It got to the point that I had to cover my ears because the volume was so intense my eardrums were about to burst.

Change your fate…

Change…

"Blake! Blake, wake up!"

My eyes bolted open and my breathing was suddenly labored. It only took a second for my sights to focus on the girl standing to my side, looking down on me with a hand touching my shoulder. It was Alyssa. She was waking me up, obviously, but she had her eyebrows furrowed like she was worrying about something I don't know.

"I'm awake," I bolted up, my voice sounding a bit accented due to the surprise. "I'm awake," I repeated, this time sounding more of a yawn. I looked at her and realized that she had this shocked look on her face. "What?"

I heard a 'kweh' somewhere in front of me and that almost made me cringe. It was in Alyssa's hand and was making a lot of noises. Did it get hurt while I was asleep?

"You alright there, buddy?" I said to it as it jumped from Ayssa's hand to mine.

"I was getting worried about the little guy here. Thought it might get squished cause you kept moving," Alyssa told me.

"If that happened, I think we'd all have a free lunch," I smiled darkly. Her face paled at the thought. "Still a no for fried chicken?" It's fun messing with her. Plus, I wouldn't actually kill my pet just to eat something. I'd rather try cannibalism first before I go and kill something that looks at me like its own mother… or father, whichever you may prefer.

"A-Anyway," Alyssa started to say once she regained her composure. "You should get your stuff ready. Zidane's already outside and it looks like the cargo ship's about to move," She told me as she ran a finger over the baby chocobo's head. Her statement made me take a short glance around the room. Aside from me and her, Vivi was the only one with us as he was trying to get up from the bed he was on. The others were probably outside waiting for us to get our bearings before we leave.

I grabbed the satchel that was lying on my bed and made sure everything was inside, including my extra dagger and my little pouch of gil. The piece of paper that taunted me with the phrase from my nap was buried underneath the clutter, yet I was still able to see some of the writing on it. Ignoring the message, I closed the satchel, made sure my current dagger was on me, and then made my way outside with Alyssa and Vivi.

Zidane and Dagger were waiting for us behind the cargo ship, sharing a conversation that was perhaps about the ship itself and some other things. I don't know, I'm just drawing this information from what I remember about the game. The ladder that would lead us up into the ship interior stood tall. I would guess that if all five of us present were to stand on each other's shoulders and compare heights with the ladder, the ladder would probably win. It's definitely taller compared to its videogame version, but this is not all about the height of the ladder. This is about our attempt to take the cargo ship for ourselves so that we may be able to travel to Lindblum.

All I can say is if this is really a dream then I'll be very glad if that were the case. If we were to do this in real life, I would probably get a life sentence for it. Though the more times I say it, the less confident I feel about this whole thing being a dream.

"There you guys are," Zidane said as soon as we stopped in front of him. "Let's start climbing. The airship's about to leave without us if we're not on it now." I wanted to point out that one of my hands was disabled and that I wouldn't be able to climb properly, but I knew from the get-go that I still need to get up the damn thing so I didn't bother. I'll just have to suck it up and do it. But because of said disabled hand, I had to lend my pet to Alyssa. She can hold it with her two capable hands while climbing up.

"You better not let it fall," I say to Alyssa, nodding to the chocobo in her clutches. She nodded before I could begin going up the ladder, with Vivi following right behind me.

Alyssa followed while the two behind her were talking about something—or someone—they may have forgotten. Steiner must've gone off like he does in the game and tries to persuade the crew of the ship to allow the group on. Speaking of him trying to persuade the crew of the ship, how does he react upon seeing them? Either I missed it several times or I'm just forgetful, but I think it wasn't shown as to how Steiner handled his first interaction with the kind of people on the ship.

I scooted over to the corner of the small platform and held on to the railing as I helped up Vivi to his feet. He uttered his thanks and stepped to the side as he was followed by Alyssa. I took my pet from her grasp as a priority, petting it softly as I took my place in another corner. Right now Alyssa's giving me the evil eye just for helping my pet.

God, I need to name this thing fast. I'm getting tired of referring to it as 'my pet' or 'the little chocobo'.

Before I could manage to process any possible names for it, I hear Dagger's voice yelp. Cue being felt up by the thief. Yeah…Stay classy, Zidane.

The two were exchanging a few words between each other regarding their little 'incident', which obviously Dagger was exceptionally mad at the thief. The rest of us could just watch the two go on, but the cargo ship started to move and turn, making everyone hold on to the railing. We all watched as we felt the ship roll for a certain distance on the meadow just outside the small village like it was its own runway. The ship started pulling up to a certain degree until we were gliding across the sky. We were already in the air before we ran out of land.

It was quite the breathtaking experience to see a liftoff like that—metaphorically and literally.

"Come on, it's not like I did it on purpose," Zidane tried reasoning with Dagger

"Please, enough," Dagger's only reply was to turn down Zidane's poor excuse. The three of us who were not involved in the conversation looked down to the ground and… whoa… that's very…. high. It's like I'm looking at… a map… I think my mouth just went dry…

"Are you okay, Vivi?" Zidane turned to the black mage once he realized he was being ignored.

"Feels like I'm going to get sucked into the sky..." Vivi answered whilst looking down.

"I think something else is going to get sucked into the sky if we stay out here," Alyssa said, nodding to my direction. I noticed that I had practically shoved the chick in my hand into my chest. Yeah, it's going to get blown out of my hand if I didn't do that.

"Let's go inside, everyone," Dagger steps forward and opens the door to the inside of the ship. We all let Vivi go in first and I immediately followed.

It didn't even take ten paces for Vivi to suddenly stop in front of me, almost making me trip over him. "Whoa!" I was able to balance myself and avoid falling over when I felt someone else bump into me. It wasn't hard to guess that it was Alyssa.

"Vivi?" That was her trying to sound concerned.

Even with his back turned against us, it wasn't that hard to imagine our young black mage standing there with his yellow eyes widened at the sight in front of him. Someone else who was surprised to see this too was Dagger, who gasped upon seeing what was in front of us. Alyssa and I followed suit just so we can keep appearances.

There were black mages in front of us. Black Mages as in the ones dressed in black coats, white pants, gloves and a pointy hat just like Vivi's and the ones being made in the factory below Dali. They were walking around, working on the machinery of the cargo ship and made sure that it was going to be flying until it reaches its destination. A second later, we hear a door open behind us and Dagger's voice calling to Zidane. Vivi, on the other hand, had already gathered his wits about him and stepped up to the nearest black mage and tried to talk to it.

Soon, Zidane and Dagger came back and the thief was as surprised as the two upon seeing what was happening in front of him. "Wow, they're alive, and they're moving around!" He managed to say as he looked in front and above him. There were other black mages walking up and down certain walkways above us, doing things to keep the ship afloat and the machinery running. "So, the ones built in the village bring back the new ones?"

"Oh Vivi…" Dagger muttered as we witness him making a one-sided conversation with the black mage in front of him.

"Vivi!" Zidane called for the black mage, but he just kept on trying to talk to the nearest waking doll. He would follow it whenever it would move from location to location, busy minding its programmed job instead of noticing the young boy behind it. "Vivi!"

After numerous attempts on his behalf and being ignored, Vivi just slumped. He walked towards our way looking defeated. "Were you able to talk to any of them?" Zidane asked as he approached.

You know Zidane, that is a wonderful observation. Perhaps you may want to pay attention next time you see our vulnerable black mage be ignored multiple times by lifeless dolls when it's happening right in front of you.

"No…" Vivi replied with a shake of his head, his eyes still looking down on the wooden floor, his voice trembling a bit. "It's like…they don't even…see me at all…I tried…again and again…but…they won't even turn around…"

"I wonder what's making them so unresponsive," Alyssa mumbled as she observed the other black mages. They really are unresponsive, so much that it could only match the Grenadier Guards of the British Army when it comes to being impassive to other people.

Zidane turned to the rest of us and pointed over to the ladder on the far side. "I need to go upstairs for a little bit. I gotta turn the ship around before it reaches the castle," He told us.

"Don't you need to have certified documentation to be able to fly this thing?" I asked the thief.

"It's not that hard to fly an airship," He replied easily.

"Have you ever flown one before?"

"Once or twice…" That kind of response is something one should not hear from someone who is about to drive a car, or in this case fly an airship. "Relax. I have it under control."

"Just make sure to not crash us against a cliff."

"We'll keep an eye on Vivi while you're up there." That was Alyssa trying to change the subject. I guess she didn't like the thought of an airship crashing against the side of a cliff to be nice.

So Zidane went topside to go and take control of the cargo ship while we were left to give Vivi some support. Dagger and Alyssa were doing that, trying their best to cheer him up, while I looked outside through one of the porthole windows on the side. Our cargo ship slowly drifted through clouds at a leisurely pace. Just looking out at the view of the passing cliffs and the occasional airship with the humming of various machines behind and above me was somewhat relaxing.

The mindless black mages minded their own business and totally ignored the rest of us. Regardless of their current impassive personality, they still did their jobs well. Though, I had to hold my chocobo close to my chest and get out of their way so that the walking dolls don't knock me over and accidentally step on my pet. We wouldn't want that now, do we? Side note: Is it just me or did the chocobo grow more feathers after a single day?

Speaking of dolls, the third Black Waltz is coming. We're about to have another confrontation with the last enemy the castle is going to send our direction. Well, last for the time being. Just remembering that FMV in the game when the other black mages stand up against it and get fried for their efforts is sending chills down my spine.

"Hey," I hear Alyssa coming over to me; her voice's tone was low to keep Dagger and Vivi from hearing. They were just some few feet away from us so it doesn't hurt to be careful. "You feeling nervous? I saw you shudder just now."

I turned away from the porthole window and sighed. "Honestly, I do feel a bit nervous," I confessed as I kept my voice as low as hers. "This next fight isn't going to be easy. Dagger won't be there for any protection I may want to use."

"You know, after Steiner gave you one heck of a shouting I was thinking that you'd want to avoid plans like that," She said with a shake of her head. "Plans like that are…"

"Unnecessary?" I tried to finish.

"…Crazy." Oh thanks for having confidence in my brilliant plans. "It's not that I don't have any confidence in your plans. I think you just need to use ideas that aren't very dangerous."

"Well next time, you try formulating a life-saving plan that also defeats the enemy at the same time while I blindly rush in swinging my weapon with the overall coordination of seaweed, hoping that I can manage to fatally nick the guy."

"No need to be sarcastic about it." There was a beat of silence after that. I was about to turn around and look back out to the clouds when she spoke again. "Me too. I'm nervous."

Then I probably had the brightest idea that I could have ever thought of. "Here's a thought. How about we just hide in here while the rest of them battle the Black Waltz? It sure is a whole lot better than fighting alongside everyone."

My suggestion was met with a frown. "That's a horrible idea."

"It's not that horrible," I countered. "It's a basic and simple plan. We hide with these other fine black mages as they operate the ship. Zidane and the others won't think badly of us if we can convince them that we were only helping the mages. Besides, that would stop me from making other stupid plans."

She dismisses my idea and goes on to admonish me for even suggesting such a thing. "The others are going to need as much help as they could get. We can't just hide down here because we're afraid of getting killed. We're not cowards just as that fight with the second Black Waltz proved. We can fight. We HAVE to fight."

"No, we don't. They have to fight. I certainly don't have to and you certainly don't have to. The two of us don't have an obligation to participate." I looked back into the porthole window and look down on a passing cliff. "Just because we know when to fight and not to fight doesn't mean cowardice."

"Still," Alyssa insisted. "We have to help them. It's the only thing we can do right now."

"Don't you understand? There are consequences, big and possibly fatal consequences, if we try to play hero out there. It's reckless and would do nothing for our cause."

She crossed her arms. "Reckless? That sounds incredibly smart coming from you."

I ignored her statement and tried to move to a different topic. "Besides, we have other things to worry about. A lot of things…"

It didn't even take a moment for her to speak up about what I implied, "Like MJM?"

"Uh…what?" Okay, she didn't instantly know what I was talking about. Way to derail the conversation…

"Don't you remember? He's the guy Zidane, Dagger, Vivi and I encountered in Dali," She stated. "He was in the underground facility. Didn't you listen to what we said earlier? MJM for Maroon Jacket Man. Do you know anything about a man in a maroon jacket in the game?"

I racked my brain for something about Alyssa's mystery man in maroon. I tried recalling anything related to side missions since I'm pretty sure there was no such guy in the main storyline that wore such an odd choice of color and came out with nothing. Even Kuja wouldn't pick that color to go along with his drapes even if he was blindfolded and had to spin around ten times. That color would never be picked.

Perhaps this guy was a random bystander? But how can that be if I take into account that Alyssa described this guy as in league with the factory workers in Dali? There's no way a random bystander would be like that… This guy is a total mystery it seems.

"I got nothing," I shrugged. I could tell that this bit of news also disappointed her. "I'd suggest that this guy was merely a hallucination on a normal day, but we're beyond normal days right now. Anyway, that guy isn't what I wanted to talk about. I was talking about going home."

"Going home?" The addition of a new voice in the conversation made me stiffen. If that was my reaction I don't know how Alyssa reacted to that. We both turned around and saw Dagger standing there, curious as to what we were doing. Vivi was right behind her, still a bit overcome by sadness.

"Uh…" That was Alyssa blanking out. Thanks for helping me cover this whole shebang up. I cleared my throat and started lying.

"Yes, Your Highness, going home. I didn't mention that I live in Lindblum, did I?"

Dagger took a moment to remember if I did mention it, and ignore that I called her 'Your Highness', before replying. "I think this is the first time you've spoken about this."

"Well… I haven't been home for a very long time. Being a salesman requires me to wander around the continent for new and old clients. So this is going to be the first after a long time, going back home like the victorious hometown hero." I told her, circling everyone as I spoke while sounding a bit into my own shtick. "If only they can make parades for salesmen…" I sighed.

Alyssa just shook her head at me while Dagger kind of understood what I was trying to get across. "A-Anyway," Alyssa tried to insert herself into the conversation. "I wonder how Zidane is with the whole 'turning the ship around' thing."

All of us then simultaneously looked over to the hatch at the end of the hall and wondered about the answer for that question. Dagger and Vivi did all of the wondering actually. Alyssa and I just imitated them just to maintain our identities.

Alright, crisis averted. I managed to get my butt out of unveiling information that would shock anyone who does not exist in the real world. Dagger is satisfied with my answer and she's none the wiser about it, all thanks with some help from Alyssa, who just provided support from the sidelines. Maybe next time she needs help in getting out of a situation that needed lying I should just stand aside and let her do the work. Besides, she needs the learning experience – WHOA!

The ship just suddenly lurched to the side, making the rest of us stumble over to the wall. I impacted against the hardwood wall with a thud while everyone else managed to put their hands and arms out to soften the collision. I'm sure to feel that in the morning. During our physical argument with the laws of gravity, the black mage dolls just stood there with their hands on their sides after stopping whatever they were doing. They shifted their gaze to the hatch in a sort of slow but intimidating manner.

"What's going on?" Vivi asked the three of us.

"Whatever it is, I think it just made them mad," Alyssa answered, pointing over to the dolls that started gathering around the ladder to the hatch leading upstairs. Some of them climbed up while the others just waited around it for their turn to climb. Even though they're mindless dolls now they sure were nice enough to have manners. "C'mon, let's go check it out." Dagger and Vivi nodded.

The princess led the way towards the crowd of black mage dolls and was the first to attempt in getting past them, only to fail in doing so. Alyssa tried to negotiate with some of them with kind words, but was ignored. I used the only remaining logical choice we had left: force.

I had to hand someone my chocobo for me like a girl would in regards to her handbag. I stepped up and physically attempted to pull apart the dolls away from completely blocking our way. That method worked only as much as anyone would've predicted. I wasn't even able to pull one of them away. The one I tried to pry away from the group just looked at me blankly, as if its eyes had this piercing look that portrayed pity on me.

After I was done with my turn, the same doll looked past me and saw Vivi trying to get the chocobo in his hands to behave. It stared at him for the longest time and it wasn't long for the others to do the same thing, as in all of the black mage dolls in the same floor as we were started doing it too. I had to take away the chocobo before he even noticed the staring.

Vivi ironically stood there now that he had their undivided attention, currently at a loss for words. You have no idea how awkward it was for me, Alyssa and Dagger to be even witnessing such a thing. The two girls looked a bit unnerved by the wordless staring. I guess I have to do something here.

"Uh…Vivi, maybe you'd like to say something now that they notice you," I suggested to the black mage with a positive-sounding chirp from my chocobo.

I don't know if that was a very good idea or not, but Vivi eventually nodded at me and stepped forward. He adjusted his hat nervously and tried to find his voice in the midst of the other staring black mages. "Uh…Excuse…us…?" Vivi began, sounding very anxious of any reaction from the others. "We just want to see what's happening outside."

There was an awkward silence for a moment as soon as Vivi finished speaking, but as if in shared agreement, the mages started to move aside, providing a small path to the ladder. Vivi nervously went up first while we lined up behind him as he climbed up first. All four of us eventually exited through the hatch with the wind greeting us with a breeze blowing against us and a view of the cliffs and the Mist-blanketed surface below them.

As Alyssa was gently putting down the hatch while the other black mages continued staring at us from below the ship, we were welcomed with the sight of Zidane making a ruckus behind the wheel that was controlling the cargo ship while Steiner shouted at him and at the same time tried to catch him as a few black mages looked on. "Is that…?" Vivi started to ask.

"Steiner! Thank goodness we didn't leave him behind," Dagger sighed in relief.

"I think he was the one trying to leave us behind," I jokingly said.

"I'm sure he didn't mean to do that," Alyssa defended the captain as she was pushing down on the hatch to fully close it. "Besides, Zidane would miss his booming voice if—AH!" She yelped. At the same time, we heard something touch down right behind us.

When we turned around, we were met with the antagonistic sneer of Black Waltz No. 3

If there's one thing I can say about Black Waltz No. 3, I'd say that he's intimidating. Sure, most mages are stereotyped as the easily defeated individuals in a party when it comes to physical confrontation, but just looking at Black Waltz No. 3 just chucks that whole stereotype out of the window. He stood there with this menacing look in his orange eyes with his black mage signature pointy hat and a very distinct and extravagant-looking coat with a feathered collar along with white pants and a tall staff that had a yellow figure on the top that looked like a letter "U" in his hand. Was it a "U" or an eagle? I am not so sure.

Alyssa had to crawl away from the Black Waltz a second after it had just attempted to fry Vivi with a simple Thunder spell cast from his hand in order to avoid being shocked. "Vivi! Are you okay!?" She called out for the harmed boy.

"So, No. 2 was defeated by a small child!" Black Waltz No. 3 said. "You are no match against my power!" He flapped his wings once, displaying the eagle-like shape of his blue wings while making electricity collect on the top of his staff. "Kwahahaha! Princess, stay right there while I eliminate this child"

Then Dagger noticed something else happening. "The other black mages are coming over here."

"Oh no…" Alyssa uttered with a look of fear on her face. We both know what was going to happen next, and we both don't like any of it.

"Okay, I think we need to back up to where Zidane and Steiner are," I quietly suggested to the others as Dagger helped up Vivi to his feet while curing some of the burns inflicted by the thunder spell. The black mages were starting to line up in front of Black Waltz No. 3, forming a wall between him and us. I tried ushering Alyssa back to the small cabin where the others were heading, but she suddenly ducked under my arm and went to the front of the black mage group. "What the…!? Hey!"

"Are you protecting him?" The Black Waltz demanded from the manufactured dolls.

"Everyone, we need to get back! Um…there's an emergency! Just…go back to your…uh…stations! There's no problem here! Come on!" She tried to get the mages' attention by grabbing onto them and pushing them back, only for them to stay where they were.

"What is she doing?" I hissed under my breath as I looked on, trying to maintain my composure so the others won't see how irritated I am right now. Even the others had that same sentence plainly written on their face. Just what in the hell is she trying to accomplish standing there and trying to talk them into following her!?

"…Nonsense. You are no different from mindless dolls! What can you do?" It told the group of black mages as they started focusing their magic into their hands. Balls of fire started forming on the palm of their gloves, an implied threat was aimed towards the superior mage.

"Please! Listen to me!" Alyssa attempted once again, but the growing anxiety her body language was throwing all over the place was making it obvious that she was failing.

Black Waltz No. 3 straightened himself and chuckled evilly. "None of your words will reach their empty minds. Your attempts are pathetic!" Then he turned to the ones that he thought were more of a legitimate threat. "As for all of you, get out of the way! Do you dare fight a Black Waltz?"

"Don't you dare hurt them!" She drew her sword and pointed it at the Black Waltz.

"Alyssa, get out of there!" Dagger shouted from where we were. Something in me just wanted to run over and pull her away from the danger she put herself into, yet I didn't. She dug herself into this hole and now she has to find a way out herself.

When one of the mages threw the fireball in its hands, the third manufactured mage simply sidestepped it and sneered at the doll that tried to attack him. "I said, get out of the way!" The electricity that was being stored by the Black Waltz cracked with power as he shouted at the mindless dolls.

Then everything started to go in slow motion.

The winged mage sent by the queen of Alexandria focused his magic on the group of black mages standing defiantly in front of him. A simple Thundara was what he was doing. But things were always never that simple, even for the bad guys. The girl dressed in overalls stood in front of the two fighting groups, her aim, as to what I have guessed by now, was to prevent the death of many black mages from the onslaught of the powerful killer in front of her. And she wanted to do it even if it killed her.

I was shouting something from where I was stationed currently whilst holding onto the chocobo in my able arm, the same goes for Dagger. She had her hands on Vivi's shoulders, probably forgotten after she had dragged him behind the wheel of the cargo ship. Steiner was evidently putting himself between the princess and whatever was happening in front of them. Zidane… he wasn't there anymore.

It wasn't until the last minute when I noticed him diving from the ropes hanging from the side, tackling Alyssa to the side just as the Thundara from the staff went off. A static explosion sent the two crashing against the side of the bridge as the powerful electrical current went through the bodies of the lifeless dolls, sending some of them flying to various direction with only one destination: the ground more than a thousand feet below the airship.

Glass shattered, electricity cracked, fire burned, pieces of wood splintered off the floor, barrels dropped from their secured locations on the ship and bodies of dead or barely conscious mages flew… everything happened in slow motion. A violent, traumatizing slow motion… and it happened right before our eyes.

Vivi was backing away from the edge of the ship as he saw a barrel of the black mages that were designed like him fall into the Mist below us, an unfortunate end meeting them all even before their lives started.

"Wh-What cruelty!" Steiner managed to say after witnessing the brutality. Zidane and Alyssa had just scrambled back to our little cabin, both having their fair share of cuts and burns just from having the best seats in the house for experiencing what I would call a live crime scene.

"What in the hell is wrong with you!?" I snapped at the girl in overalls as I marched right in front of her. "What were you trying to accomplish with that stunt!?"

"Sorry…" She barely managed as her voice shook. "I was just…"

"Hey lay off, will you?" Zidane interfered, stepping between me and Alyssa just when I was about to say something else. Right then I just realized that I was overreacting. In my mind I wasn't, but Zidane's tone when he slipped in between me and Alyssa made it more evident that I was.

Why was I overreacting anyway? Simple, she would have died because of her idiotic actions. I mean, why in the world would she step between a group of powerful black magic wielding dolls and a much more powerful mage with wings that have control over stronger black magic? Granted, she was trying to save a few lives, even though said lives would not hesitate in taking hers later, but that still doesn't necessitate her "heroic" attempt.

…And I use the term "heroic" very loosely.

"Fine," I backed off after rationalizing that and ending my train of thought myself. "I was just… worried." I didn't want to say that last thing, but I'm sure the others would grill me for my reaction later if I didn't have an explanation.

But back to the situation at hand…

Black Waltz No. 3 stood over the carnage he had just caused. Okay, to put it more accurately, he hovered above it. Even behind the shadow that was hiding his face, I could see this twisted smile forming and it made my stomach turn. That was the kind of smile serial killers have on their faces just as they are dragged off to prison right after they admit to killing those poor victims. He aimed that smirk at us as if to challenge us to step up.

From the corner of my eye I could see Vivi shake underneath the gaze of the Black Waltz, but he wasn't shaking out of fear, he was shaking out of anger. "Aaaaaahhhh!" With one mighty bellow, Vivi shook Dagger's hands away from his shoulders and ran out to confront the enemy. Wait. Something's wrong here…

"Master Vivi, I shall assist you!" Steiner cried as he followed closely behind the black mage.

"Hey, you guys!" Zidane shouted after the two, knowing that their course of action was dangerous. He skidded to a stop and let out a gasp of pain.

"Wait, Zidane." Dagger called out. Shortly after she approached the thief, a white light covered him for a moment before vanishing. Dagger cured him of the burns and wounds he might have gotten from the rescue and then did the same thing to Alyssa.

"Thanks Dagger," both of them said. With that, Alyssa tightened the hold she had on her sword and went to accompany Steiner and Vivi. I guess she really is fighting in this one. I, on the other hand, just stayed right where I was with my chocobo wiggling in my arms.

"We'll take care of the Black Waltz. You steer the ship." Zidane said as he guided Dagger to the wheel. "Things are gonna get even more dangerous from here on. It's not too late to turn back. You can go back to the castle or cross South Gate into Lindblum. It's your choice." Dagger only nodded in response as she took hold of the wheel as Zidane continued. "I'll be with you either way! But try not to crash the ship!"

"That sure is helpful advice for someone who's piloted an airship for the first time." I remarked behind the two with an accompanying 'kweh' from the chocobo. Zidane then turned to me as he held onto his daggers.

"What about you? What are you going to do?" He asked.

I pretended to give it a thought by looking above me. I already knew what I was going to do and I was going to stick to it. "I think I will be staying here. I have already exceeded today's quota for crazy plans. You know, saving some of them for a later time."

"Alright," Zidane said. "Keep an eye on Dagger here."

"Don't worry about her. Worry about the thing that's trying to kill us," I told him. He nodded before running to the side of the others. I could see some uncertainty on Dagger's features when I glanced at her. "Have faith, princess. They're not going to die easily."

She glanced at me with a hint of confusion. "Why do you sound like their fate is already set in stone?"

I gave her a shrug and tried to point out what's already in front of her. I obviously cannot tell her that I know how this battle ends. "It's four against one. We're playing the numbers game and I'm sure we have an advantage." Besides, it is too early for anyone to die right now. We're still on the first disc.

"We had an advantage on the second Black Waltz and that proved to be difficult."

"Everything is difficult, princess. We still defeated Black Waltz No. 2. With odds like that, I'm sure our advantage will hold out in the end."

Right now, the others were shouting and demanding things from Black Waltz No. 3 with the manufactured mage only giving heartless responses with the occasionally cackle and threat to their lives.

With all of their weapons were out and pointed to the enemy, he only flapped his wings and raised his staff. "I will eliminate any who stand in my way!"

The first move was made when the Black Waltz tried to fry the others with four fire spells at the same time, but they each got out of the way of the spell and went on to attack. Alyssa, Zidane and Steiner came towards the enemy, only to be halted when a wall of ice rose from the floor to stop them. Steiner and Alyssa were immediately stopped by it while Zidane managed to think on his feet and used Steiner as a stepping stone by jumping on his back and used the knight's height as leverage to jump over the wall. Vivi blasted the ice with his own fire and made it possible for the two to continue towards the enemy. Zidane tried to take a slice out of the Black Waltz, but was blocked with his long staff. A fire spell shot out of the mage's hand and knocked back Zidane, singeing some part of his clothes and probably some of his blond hair.

"You are no match against me and the caliber of my magic!" He taunted the two sword handlers as they came back into play and both swung their respective swords at the third manufactured mage. It connected with nothing as the Black Waltz jumped up into the air and stayed there, flapping his wings to stay in midair, which was unfair since none of the members of Team Protagonist can fly.

Zidane tried to rectify this little complication by jumping on the edge of the barrier that kept everyone from falling off the cargo ship and onto the rope tying the ship to the zeppelin-like balloon above our heads. He climbed quickly as the winged magus cackled while raining down fire spells at Alyssa and Steiner. Vivi took its attention with a thunder spell from his hands, nicking the Black Waltz on the shoulder before he retaliated with a Thundara of his own. When he was noticed, a quick gesture made it clear that he was readying a spell towards the thief. Zidane jumped away from the ropes as a Thundara spell zapped past him and dived towards the mage, catching him with one of his daggers implanted on the side, making him shout in pain.

"Agh! You will pay for that you little pest!" He yelled. With the Black Waltz back on even ground, Vivi assisted Steiner by layering Steiner's sword with his fire spell, making his attack hurt a lot more when a small burst of fire overtook the enemy. He immediately remedied it by casting blizzard on the wound, cooling himself down. Alyssa lunged from the side and brought her sword up in an attempt to cut him down while the Black Waltz sidestepped, only for the girl to redirect her own momentum to complete a midair twirl, giving him a huge cut on his torso.

He kicked her back and knocked her back further by hitting her with his staff right on the stomach. The third powerful manmade weapon was about to launch a Thundara right towards Alyssa, but wasn't able to finish his casting when Steiner cut in with his sword, almost dismembering his arm off. The Black Waltz swung his staff and connected with the side of the knight. He was able to absorb the blow through the use of his armor, only to feel a sudden fiery sensation when it was immediately followed up by a Fira, blowing the knight away towards the feet of Vivi.

"Rusty!" Zidane cried when he saw this happen. Alyssa was already on Steiner with a potion vial in her hands while Vivi casted Fire against the Black Waltz, covering Zidane as he advanced. The enemy saw this coming as he prepared another Blizzara spell as Zidane closed the gap between them. Zidane attempted to cut away at him, but the Black Waltz leaped into the air and hovered above him before casting Blizzara on the thief. The part-time stage actor was then encased in ice as he tried to shield himself with his arms, making him look like a nice sculpture before it cracked and collapsed, leaving Zidane in a shivering heap.

"Cover me, Vivi," Alyssa called out. "I need to get to Zidane."

Vivi nodded as the Black Waltz prepped another spell in his hands. He knocked him off-balance with a thunder aimed to miss on purpose. It roused some anger from the enemy as he retaliated with some blizzards while Vivi countered with fire. Meanwhile, Alyssa ducked low and rushed over to Zidane. It would have been bad if the Black Waltz noticed her now. They were directly underneath him, so if she was noticed she'd share that cold feeling Zidane was having right now.

She was trying to get him to respond by talking silently, and he did by shakily nodding. After downing the vial, he steadily got up and grabbed the attention of the enemy with the help of Alyssa, who propelled him into the air after a running start. Zidane took hold of the mage's coat, surprising him as he stopped hurling magic against our black mage. "Eat this!" He then smashed the vial that was still in his hands on the face of the winged monster.

The Black Waltz bellowed in pain, shoving Zidane off him as he tried to remove some of the shards of glass that got on his face and/or implanted in his eyes. Zidane landed on his feet beside Alyssa, Steiner and Vivi as the enemy still struggled with the pieces of the vial on his face. For me, this would have been the appropriate time for a pun regarding glass, but I wasn't able to come up with one because the Black Waltz started blindly bombarding everyone with his magic. Some of them even came close to hitting where Dagger and I were.

Right then I noticed one detail, the one thing that gave me a feeling that something was wrong, which was important for someone who has already played this game: Vivi hadn't Tranced yet.

I looked over in the battlefield as Vivi countered with spells of his own against the castle's homemade lapdog whilst the others tried to wound him while he was on the ground. Why wasn't he in Trance? Shouldn't he be in Trance during this fight? What the hell is going on? He should be full of anger from what Black Waltz No. 3's actions against the mindless black mages and he should be taking that anger out on him with a barrage of black magic, and that powerful surge of emotion should power him up, not like this…

Before I was able to finish that train of thought, however, there was an explosion that shook the cargo ship. Smoke covered the front of the ship, preventing Dagger and I from seeing what had caused this new development. "Zidane, Steiner!" The princess called out.

"Vivi, Alyssa!" I followed suit.

It took a while for the smoke to clear, but when it did we both saw the third Black Waltz standing the in the middle with a fireball in his hands, Vivi and Zidane on the ground with Steiner and Alyssa barely able to stand in front of him. That last attacked must have wiped the thief and our black mage off the floor and rendered them unconscious.

Damn…I think everyone in this party needs to level grind.

"I'm surprised you managed to survive against the first two," Black Waltz No. 3 growled at the four, walking closer to them as he thought he had already won. "Your fluke victories end here. Watch princess, for I will rid you of your bodyguards." The fireball in his hand intensified, the look in his eyes spelled out the satisfaction he was drawing out in this. We all knew what was going to happen if he landed that attack: Vivi and Zidane might die, Alyssa and Steiner would follow them quickly and Dagger would be taken back to the castle.

Me? I'll just think that he'll leave me alone. Let's not think about negative thoughts now.

If he landed that attack, it would be game over. The adventure would have ended before it even got off the ground. Well… it did literally get off the ground, but you get my point. We've barely started and this is just the fourth boss fight. Maybe I can do something to disrupt his attack. I can't just run out there since that would take long. I know there's something I can do…but what?

I only had a definite idea when my gaze wandered over to Dagger, who was holding the wheel a bit too much.

"Sorry princess, but brace yourself." I uttered to myself before securing my chocobo against me. Then I got up and ran towards her. "Hold on to something everyone!"

"Wha—!?" She wasn't able to form a coherent sentence when I took hold of the wheel before forcing it to spin to one direction. The cargo ship swerved and dipped to the right away from the passing cliff. When I deemed that it was enough, I threw the wheel now to the opposite direction, making the ship swing, its side colliding with the cliff face.

This rocked the ship hard enough to toss out those who weren't prepared for it, meaning the Black Waltz found himself being tossed overboard unceremoniously by my actions. But that didn't let everyone get off for free. Zidane and Steiner almost tumbled off the ship, only to be rescued by a handful of the ropes and Alyssa respectively. Vivi slammed against the cabin with such force that it took the air out of him, and then some. Alyssa, apparently being the only one to have understood what I shouted, was only able to maintain her balance by stabbing her sword against the floor and bracing for impact.

Fortunately, that managed to buy us some time.

I slumped against the wheel, careful not to accidentally choke my chocobo against myself, as I hear Dagger approach. "Blake, what did I just tell you about resorting to crazy plans?"

"That wasn't part of any plan," I told her. "That was more of on-the-spot thinking." I pointed to the others and said, "They need your help, princess, since you know white magic and all."

Dagger sighs and shakes her head before running to the side of the others. I interpreted that as 'I am going to have a word with you once this is over'. I can't blame her since we had the same talk an hour or so earlier.

Our breather involved everyone getting healed by Dagger, all of them saying their respective 'thank you's to her while I kept a look out for the Black Waltz or South Gate, since that would mean we would be virtually safe if we pass through the gate. Safety would be great.

You know what else would be great? Vivi going Trance, which has not yet happened. Like, what the hell is going on? Did Alyssa and I do something wrong? Did our sudden existence in this (dream) world change—

Something landed right in front of me and I made the worst mistake of looking at him in the eye. Black Waltz No. 3 glowered at me at one moment and then I saw his unoccupied arm dart toward, occupying itself with my neck. A second later, he pulled me out of the window with the greatest of ease, making me shout almost an octave higher than my usual voice. Everyone whipped around with their weapons in hand whilst I tried to hang on for dear life, which was difficult when you only have one working arm and impromptu nest in my arms.

Now we have TWO problems: one is the most obvious one standing right before us, and the same one grabbing me by the throat; and two is that nobody is driving the cargo ship. With me in the hands of the Black Waltz, the wheel of the ship is unmanned and that could lead to a disaster.

Thankfully, that last problem I just mentioned was realized by the others as Zidane, Alyssa and Dagger tried to get past the manufactured minion while Steiner and Vivi combined forces to hold him back. I, on the other hand, tried to get myself away from the monster's grasp by driving my left thumb into his eye hard enough to make him let go. Upon landing on the floor ungracefully, I drew my dagger and took a few swings that were easily dodged.

While he was dodging my attacks, he flung a few lightning spells at the trio trying to get past him. It took a Blizzard Sword that nearly decapitated and frosted his head off for him to focus on the knight, though the added blizzard to that attack made him chill out, while Alyssa used this chance to get a hold of the wheel. She balanced the ship as her main objective before Dagger arrived at her side. Zidane assisted me in drawing the Black Waltz's attention with various strikes and swipes that I mostly missed. The overalls dressed girl switched with me in attacking with hers landing more often than mine.

"ENOUGH!" After being surrounded once again and almost on the way of being overwhelmed by the numbers, Black Waltz No. 3 drew in most of his power and focused it on his staff. He blocked Zidane and Steiner's attacks whilst keeping Vivi and Alyssa out of the way with two small, yet inaccurate fireballs.

"Guys! He's preparing a massive spell. Put him down or something!" I shouted at the others. The immediate response was them focusing their efforts in stopping the Black Waltz from releasing his attack.

But they were too late. He had stored enough magic and had kept the others at bay long enough for him to work on the spell. And without further interruption, he was able to cast it at them while I tried to shout warnings at them.

Black Waltz No. 3 slammed his staff against the ground and unleashed his attack. A wall of static electricity burst around the Black Waltz and enveloped the area around him with lightning, shocking his enemies thoroughly. At that moment, he intercepted every single one of our party's main attackers in one single attack. The only ones who weren't hit were Dagger and I, but just barely because I backpedalled so hard my back hit the end of the ship.

They all struggled to get up, pain probably overriding their senses while electricity ran through their system as they were all charged with lightning because of the attack. One of the ones trying to get up was Vivi, using his staff to support himself on his feet as the Black Waltz approached him.

"Why…?" Vivi breathlessly questioned him. "Why did you kill them? Why would you do such a thing!? Weren't they your friends!?" The answer he got from him was a dismissive shake of his head.

"You fool. Do I look like some lowly black mage soldier?" He countered, his voice sounding so demeaning towards the young mage.

"Even so," Steiner started to get up with some assistance from his sword. "If they weren't your allies, what you did was reprehensible!"

"Worry not about them; many more are being produced even as we speak." He cackled.

"They may be manufactured, but that doesn't excuse you from killing them!" Alyssa said as she looked up to the enemy. "That's still murder!"

The Black Waltz had started focusing on another thundara spell as he spoke the next words. "It does not matter anymore whether it is murder or not. You will all be dead by then. And I will have fulfilled my objective."

Oh man, we're waist deep in trouble once again. I could see South Gate in front of us so far in the distance, but that's still miles away right now. What I need to do right now is to swoop in and take out the Black Waltz while he had his back at me. A very simple concept, easy to pull off if you have light feet and a very graceful stance, which I obviously don't have. "Dagger," I whispered over to the direction of our resident white mage. "Try to heal everyone while I execute Plan D." That meant she was tasked on healing Zidane.

"Will this plan of yours have anyone put in unnecessary risk?" She asked in the same tone I was doing.

"Not you, that's for sure." I replied as I put the chocobo down on the ground, mouthing a 'Stay' to it while pointing to the ground. I have no idea if that was understood or not. Here's to hoping it got through to it. I then started to carry out Plan D by putting my foot on the now-glassless window panel right in front of Dagger.

"What are you doing!?" She hissed, completely concerned about this plan I had. I merely put a finger on my lips, the universal sign for 'silence', as I climbed on top of the cabin. Climbing said cabin was easier said than done since I have never done a pull up in my life and it was made more difficult by my well known handicap. No, it's not my lack of upper body strength. It's my right arm.

Okay, there was this one time in PE, but that was a lifetime ago, so I think it makes perfect sense if I maintain the belief that I have never done so. Nevertheless, I still managed to get on top of the thing that resulted in me getting really winded as my shoulders and arm muscles started to get sore. Plan D, in my head, is a very simple thing to do: First, I secure a high platform, hence me climbing on top of the cabin. Second, make sure my target is near. Third, get a running start. And lastly fourth, jump on the Black Waltz and start stabbing away.

Fine, when I said that no one would be put in unnecessary risk, I meant no one as in 'no one dumb enough' would be put in unnecessary risk. I do not belong in that category since I've thought this out in just a few seconds; worked out the gravity pull of my body, the trajectory of my jump, the necessary physics, and the chances of this not working out, all the technical nonsense nobody has the patience for, all except for me.

I'm a genius anyway, so I think I have this covered.

I looked down and saw that he was oblivious to my plan as he continued to charge that spell of his. He was close enough for me to this after all. Alyssa was talking, still insisting that what he did was a crime and that he'll pay for what he did, making the winged mage talk a bit longer. Whether she noticed me up here or not was a good thing. That gave me enough time to go for step four.

Taking a few steps back until I had no more space for me to back up to, I calmed myself with a few short inhales and exhales since I needed a clear mind to do this. Once I was done, I started my countdown for step four. One…two…three, run!

I took off running towards the edge and jumped when I had no more space. I hung in the air, arms and legs extended as I descended onto my target, my lips unable to suppress the shout that now alerted the Black Waltz. Before he could turn around, I land square on his back with the kind of impact that made him stumble but not fall. I wrapped an arm around his neck and tried to draw my dagger to start my attack, only for the enemy to start swinging around to get me off. Step four is underway!

"GET OFF!" He yelled a few seconds after I had secured myself on his back. Despite him being the most powerful Black Waltz to be ever made by Alexandria, he can't use that power to completely get a hold of me. I ducked under his attempts to reach me as I finally got my dagger in hand. "AGH…I SAID GET OFF, YOU INSECT!"

My first stab landed on his shoulder. The Black Waltz bellowed in pain, instantly dropping his staff. His attempts only got more frantic between the second and third stabs, which I aimed on his left arm and left chest. I'm guessing that by the time I am all done with this, Black Waltz No. 3 will be 'all right'.

Heh, get it? It's because I'm only attacking the left parts of his—whatever. It was genius.

"Oh look, the greatest manmade mage can't reach over to his back to get a teenager off. How sad is that?" I taunted him as I kept hanging on to Alexandria's 'finest weapon' while I wailed on him some more, and the realization that he was now off the ground hit me hard. Hard as in a slap on the cheek, a very hard slap.

He was now flapping his wings to further disorient me. It was annoying since the wings were swatting against the side of my face, plus it made it difficult to hold on. Not only that, but at the height we were at right now, I would love it if I didn't fall and break anything. I already have a broken right hand for Christ's sake. Have some consideration, universe.

The Black Waltz finally utilized the black magic he was armed with by setting fire to my left arm and freezing my right. The panic that I immediately went through was enough for me to be loosened from his back and attempt to put out the fire with my other arm, despite it being iced at the time.

At that moment in time, combined with the flapping of wings and the fire on my sleeve, it was enough contribution for me to be forced to let go. That was when I forgot that I was in the air with the Black Waltz. I wasn't sure how far I fell, but I was sure the impact that I felt as soon as I landed on the wooden floor on my back hurt so much that I think I rearranged my spine. My fall could have resulted in a small wooden crater for all I care.

"…Ahhh…ouch…" I moaned in pain, trying and failing to maintain consciousness. Maybe I should have reworked my math in regards to the chances of this plan not panning out the way I planned it.

Feet landed close to me, yet I didn't move in fear of further damaging my spine. I did, however, recognize the extravagant blue coat as Black Waltz No. 3 walked over to me. "You and your friends will die today," He stated that like it was a fact. "But you, you will suffer first."

His foot lightly stepped on my cast. Despite how lightly he put it on, I still felt the slight pressure he applied. My other hand immediately felt for the dagger that was supposed to be in the sheath on my waist, but I remembered that I had it in hand as I fell. Now it wasn't in my hand. I turned my head to the side and saw it laying there just an arm's reach away. I attempted to go for it, trying to endure the pain I was feeling as I did this, but the Black Waltz easily stopped me with his staff, the side with the gold end to be exact. He followed that up with a swift kick to my cheek.

"Hey! It's rude to kick someone while they're down!" I craned my head to the direction of the voice and saw Zidane running towards the Black Waltz.

"You dare lecture me about manners?" The manmade magus incredulously asked. He attempted to delay Zidane by aiming a thundara at him, which did the job as the thief dived to the side, nearly taking himself off the ship, only to be saved by his mastery of balance. The Black Waltz then decided to fulfill what he had planned to do by raising his foot and slamming it down on my casted arm; the wrist to be exact.

When Black Waltz No. 3 said that he is 'the most powerful' of three Waltzes, he sure did tell the truth. I didn't know that phrase meant magical AND physical power.

The cast easily cracked and shattered, the assault on my injury was fully felt, making me yell in mind-numbing agony. Maybe I didn't hear the crack of the bone, yet I instantly knew that there was something broken there because the limb that was attacked was still attached to me and was in the process of healing. It had been weeks since I felt this kind of pain and I had promised myself to be more cautious so that the same pain would be never come again. Apparently, I had not been cautious enough.

I tried to reach and cradle my re-injured injury with my able hand, only to be thwarted by the staff that had kept it in place. I was barely able to move my right fingers as they were fine shaking on their own, though the shaking was not being commanded by me but by the shock of having a cracked wrist.

Just when I thought things could get any worse, a second stomp landed on my wrist, an audible crack followed right away, furthering the damage that was initially dealt. I screamed a lot louder this time. Then a third followed. The pain was more intense than the first that I started to see spots. And then a fourth.

"Blake!" A few voices shouted my name, probably alarmed by the amount of screaming I had partaken today. One voice in particular was more worried than the others combined.

My desperate attempts to reach my injured hand finally got a result when I felt a short burst of fire push off the Black Waltz before he did more damage to me. Someone else pulled the staff off the floor. I cradled the broken wrist as I tried to back away from the battlefield that was the bridge of the ship while someone helped me in doing so. The pain was so intense that I had to shut my eyes and hold back the tears that were trying to force its way out of the corners. My feet were uncoordinated. I was stumbling desperately for cover…

"Oh…Oh my Go— Oh my goodness." I heard someone gasp as soon as I sit near the doorframe. No name came into mind as my mind was focusing on the phrase 'It hurts, it hurts, it hurts…'

Another voice sounded off, this time laughing maniacally. "Kwahahaha! It is a miracle that all of you have lived this long. But now, I will have to destroy all of you and then I will deliver the princess to the castle! Kwahahaha!"

"You… "Someone else spoke, this time it sounded young…and angry. "You hurt my friends. You hurt my friends and tried to kill them… You'll pay." His voice shook with clear emotion. The nervousness from his voice whenever he spoke to us vanished and was replaced by fury. I could hear him take a step forward, or away from me, as he spoke again. "YOU'LL PAY!"

Even with my eyes screwed shut, I could still see light blue just seep into my forcibly closed eyelids for a moment before it died down. It was followed by sounds of chaos. That seemed irrelevant at the moment when I felt a bit light for a moment. It made me open my eyes. Dagger was kneeling beside me with something in her hands. It looked like the jacket my chocobo was using for its nest. It obstructed my view of my injury, which made me somewhat grateful. I also noticed that my pet had found its way over to my side, making its presence known by kwehing.

I looked away from her hands before she could move it away. I only maintained level eye contact with the princess. "Thanks," I gasped, still hurting immensely.

"Don't thank me yet," Dagger said. "I only tried to diminish the pain, but I'm afraid your wrist is still broken."

"You can't…heal broken limbs?" She shook her head. "D-Damn. It's… f-fine. It's not like…this is the first time this happened." I paused on occasion because of my hurting wrist. "Who…Who's p-piloting the ship?"

"Alyssa," She simply replied. I may not know much about the girl, but I know she can learn fast. How fast was her learning speed? Right now, I really couldn't care less unless it kills me.

On that note, I let my eyes wander over to the one on one fight that erupted after the rupturing of bones that belonged to my wrist. Vivi went into Trance (finally) and was throwing spell after spell after spell at the Black Waltz with endless fury. Fire, blizzard, thunder, all three elemental magic followed one after the other in no discernable pattern to be seen. Black Waltz No. 3 continuously tried to cancel out the attacks with his own magic, and that was starting to fail him. He struggled with any evasive or defensive tactics against our black mage as he was not being let up any time soon.

With every spell that properly connected with him, he took a step back. Vivi's Trance helped him single-handedly force the most powerful mage to be made by Queen Brahne into a corner and let him recognize the pain of watching the dolls, his fellow black mages, die right in front of him. Zidane and Steiner didn't bother in aiding Vivi since he got everything covered. We all just watched as he handed the Black Waltz his butt on an extravagant, jewel-encrusted silver platter.

The effects of the ongoing assault were made evident. Black Waltz No. 3's wings were singed to the point the bones can be seen with the feather being forcibly molted off, various burn marks across the clothing and I'm sure the skin beneath them is surely affected, his right foot and left arm were frozen so hard that we could see our distorted reflections on them from a distance, and lastly we managed to hear it stutter broken phrases because of the constantly forced application of thunder to his system that bordered on abuse. Jim Ross's words rang true here, and those words are 'he's beating him down like a government mule.'

In layman's terms, Vivi had defeated Black Waltz No. 3 so bad that he should have been charged with a federal crime. And it could have happened if it weren't for the fact that the only witnesses to this are his friends. Who knew the young child that went with us had it in him to deal such punishment?

Black Waltz No. 3 staggered backwards against the back of the mast of the cargo ship. "You…You scum…!" He managed to spew out. "I…exist…only to…kill! I…exist…only to kill! I exist…only to kill!" He repeated that phrase in a low voice that was audible enough and easy to interpret as a threat that I could see everyone still had their weapons at the ready. Vivi was still on the go in regards to curb stomping him for a second round.

That was the plan before Black Waltz No. 3 jumped off and flew away as Vivi's Trance started to fade. Even Black Waltzes knew the better part of valor.

Everyone were rather on edge right after our enemy fled, like Steiner wondering how many more Black Waltzes they had to keep Dagger safe from. I heard Zidane explain the logic behind the meaningful names of our enemies, but I already knew that. I was more concerned with the injury I have re-suffered and the immense pain it was bringing me. I just slumped over the wall and closed my eyes, counting numbers in my head with the hopes that we would get to Lindblum without incident so I can get my wrist checked.

And when I say 'without incident', and when I say that I mean incidents that I don't know that's going to happen.

Right now, having my injury checked has just become my primary objective. Once I had that little tidbit implanted into my brain like a tumor, I passed out.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 17: A Grand Arrival

- Blake -

"Is he alright!?"

"I have tried my best, but it does not look good."

"This is all my fault..."

After my initial passing out, I went back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness during the short flight towards Lindblum.

"Someone get something to stop the blood!"

"Give him some room to breathe, guys!"

"Uh guys, we have company!"

I kept hearing things from the others, such as Steiner and Zidane's semi-argument on Dagger's decision to push past South Gate and Alyssa voicing her continued concern over something being tweaked, played in the background of my mind as our cargo ship forced its way through South Gate while Black Waltz No. 3 came back on another airship with his prime objective now was, and I quote, 'to kill'.

The bumpiness of the ride was NOT very comforting either. The constant shaking and sudden veering to different directions made me move, which in turn made my wrist hurt more due to unnecessary movement. I unconsciously gasped and groaned in pain while all of this happened despite my being partially unconscious.

"The Black Waltz...!"

"Everyone hold on!"

"Vivi and Blake-!"

"Rusty, Alyssa, make sure they doesn't fly over the railing."

Panicked dialogue continued to be heard from the other with one voice missing out in the entire thing: Vivi's voice. He hadn't spoken a word since he defeated Black Waltz No. 3 all on his own. If memory serves me right, he's staring over that one hat that was left hanging on the railing, the one that had survived the entire decimation of the black mage dolls and the fight with the Black Waltz.

Eventually the panic and the manic driving of the cargo ship mellowed out after a loud explosion roused me from my 'nap'. I craned my head over to direction of the explosion and saw Zidane and Alyssa both pulling Vivi back in after he almost fell off the ship. All was silent, except for the engine behind Captain Dagger that was making the ship continue its flight.

At that point, all I was thinking about the normalcy I had lost by just waking up in this game. This is not where I should be. I should laying somewhere on the sand with rain falling from the heavens, waiting for an ambulance after the shocking aftermath of a lightning striking me while being surrounded by people I barely know. That was normal.

"South Gate is a huge gate built exclusively for airships, but..."

"I want to do it on my own."

"We must turn back!"

"Not anymore! It's too late to turn around now!"

This? This is anything BUT normal.

I could be doing anything or nothing back at home; lying down on my bed, listening to music, ignoring everything around me that wasn't worth my time, playing videogames, staying away from the outside world...anything. That was normal.

But everything that has happened for the past few days is crazy. I'm sure there's someone out there who would love to be in my place, someone's been dreaming to be part of a wild adventure. I would be glad to switch places with them if it means I'd be back in the real world where I'll only imagine this as some sick lucid dream. Hell, I even wish I was lucid dreaming right now, but unfortunately there's no evidence that this is a dream.

I've read you can manipulate what happens in lucid dreams. If this was one of them then why has everything that's been happening to me been horrible? If things do get horrible in lucid dreams then the only out I would have is to wake up. But I can't simply wake up from this.

That's all I want right now. To wake up from this reality and be back in the real world, to be back home.

The ship's slow rocking eased me out of my thoughts. I looked up and saw that we were in some docking area in the sky. When I tried to move to look more, my arm acted up and the pain was still too fresh for me to ignore. I slumped back against the cabin and groaned. The moment I let a sound out people started to surround me. Dagger, Vivi, Zidane, and Alyssa gathered and checked on me.

"He's awake, thank goodness." Dagger sighed, relieved for some reason. I could see Vivi share the same relief behind her. A chirp rang and its black feathered source ran up against my legs, bumping into me until its tweets were muted by my pants.

Alyssa knelt in front of me and moved some hair off my face. Apparently I'd been sweating fiercely because my hair was plastered messily around my forehead and eyes. "Are you okay?" She asked, looking more panicked than her voice let on.

"What do y-you think?" I hissed through my teeth. "It f-fucking hurts." I was trying not to move in case another wave of pain strikes me.

"We've successfully docked, your highness!" Steiner's voice reported somewhere.

"Don't worry, we'll try to get you to someone who can fix you up." Zidane assured me. I nodded slowly in case any sudden movement would send a jolt of pain up my arm. "Just hang in there."

Dagger straightened and went around the cabin as fast as she can, another voice calling out to her to slow down. Two different voices spoke up, whatever they were saying were lost on me due to the distance and the wind blowing into the dock, and they were met with Dagger's rushed words. I'm sure they don't know what the hell she was talking about but at least she cares enough to pick up the pace.

"Let's get you up." Alyssa told me. Well I can't disagree since I need to have someone look at this in the next five minutes.

With Alyssa holding on to my other able arm, I attempted to get up on my feet. I tried to move while keeping the jacket around my wrist, which was hard when you're trembling in pain and was high up in the air via airship, so please excuse my shakiness.

"Easy," Zidane stopped my stumbling by holding me steady via my shoulders when I was up. "Let's take this one step at a time." I had to disagree there. We need to get this to a professional as soon as possible. Who knows what would happen if we let my wrist stay like this for an extended amount of time. The doctor might have to cut it off! I don't want that. "Just don't think about it then." Some assurance that was.

Alyssa was right at my side as we walked off the airship and across the dock bridge to the landing bay, holding me by my other arm to keep me steady. We were finally here in Lindblum, specifically the Lindblum Grand Castle. Everyone would be a bit more upbeat if it wasn't for my current condition, but who do I have to blame for that? Only myself since it was my plan that got my wrist in this state.

From what I could hear, the others were taking in the sheer size of the inside of the Grand Castle. Two soldiers dressed in white and blue garbs or something with armor on top with both of them armed with a long hammer-like weapon approached with one wearing a rusty red colored armor leading them. Another man had already emerged, different clothing and demeanor than the guards had, and he went from calm walk to a jog when he saw Dagger arguing with the guards, or 'The welcoming committee' as Zidane rightfully dubbed.

The man who just came in must be Minister Artania, the trusted second in command of the regent and uncle of Dagger. He stopped in front of her and exchanged a few hurried words as I watched her present her proof of royal heritage before pointing over to our direction. With a nod, he directs the guards towards us.

"Please escort Princess Garnet's friend to medical wing as the princess and I head to regent's throne once we get to the elevator. Go with great haste. The damage might become permanent if you do not hurry." The last two lines were directed to me. I interpreted that as him showing concern even if we didn't personally know each other.

I could only mutter my thanks as we hurried inside the castle, leaving behind Dagger and her uncle, who definitely have to get some quality family time with Regent Cid while we get to a doctor.

The seven of us, our four person group plus my pet in Vivi's hands and the two Grand Castle guards, walked at a brisk pace following our armed escorts to the doctor. I kept silent as my wrist continued to throb in pain, a grimace painting my face of the kind of rising discomfort I was going through. We eventually got on the elevator with the Grand Castle guard going on last. The elevator railings secured closed before moving upwards towards the next floor. I kept silent, breathing through my mouth in order compose myself through the pain, with my sole focus being on getting treatment.

At least I'm still able to walk. Definitely a good thing. If I had a broken leg or something similar that would cut my mobility by half while being in this crazy world then I might as well curl up in a ball and let a monster eat me. I'd be more useless than my current state. Anyways, I've had injuries back then that hindered that very ability. I am glad that that is not the case today. Reinjuring something is still not fun. Despite my unlucky tendencies, this must be the first time I've reinjured something while it was recovering. All that time I spent on recovery feels like they have been stolen from me.

Our escort lead the way through massive hallways painted in a peach or light orange color with a very long red carpet underneath our feet. It was not a very long walk since we only took like three turns before stumbling into a large room. It was office-sized, only instead of cubicles or desks filled with to the brim with paperwork it had beds with red separating curtains in-between each one, medicinal cabinets supplied with tools, herbs, bottles and other instruments that prove to be useful in the field of medicine, and a much smaller space that was separated by a door to the side. The room was as white as a hospital waiting room that wants to say 'Heaven' but feels more like 'Purgatory'. At least the sheets on the bed were light blue.

Then two people emerged from the smaller room to our immediate left, chattering about something I didn't care about. I just ignored their dialogue until one of them, who looked like someone in my age bracket but older, left. Probably a courier or something. The one left standing there was the person we were most likely seeking. Male, slightly taller than me, and a head of graying hair. He had a pair of glasses docked on the bridge of his nose and had this gray suit with black dress pants underneath a white doctor's coat; an ideal image for a doctor in my mind.

"Yes, what seems to be the matter?" He asked the guard with a jolly curious tone that sounded so eerie to me. It kind of sounded like he wanted to hear that someone needed treatment.

"We have a guest here that needs your immediate attention," replied the hammer-wielding guard.

"Ooooh, something to look at," the doctor said with delight clear in his voice. After hearing the same tone being spoken by the person supposedly in charge of this place, my mood changed from serving myself a pint of self-pity whilst being angry at the world to a full course meal of apprehension.

Okay, I am not sure if this is a very good idea anymore. If ever this was an excuse to not go see a doctor, this might be it. Hearing him get excited at the thought of getting a patient was creeping me out.

"Cool your jets, Blake," Alyssa whispered me, apparently noticing hesitation. "He's a doctor. You can trust him."

"Oh yeah? Would you trust Hannibal Lecter to serve you dinner?" I countered in a low voice so the others wouldn't hear me. "I don't think so! Sure he'd probably have a fine presentation, I'd give him that, but I'm sure the taste of his food would only cater to those with humanitarian tastes. And not that kind of humanitarian. You know what I mean."

"So young man, what is the fuss all about?" The man in the coat approached with hands behind his back. I quickly turned to the thief and the black mage with us and mouthed 'help me' before anything else happened. Zidane placed a hand on my shoulder, an attempt to calm me down.

"It's alright, Blake. He's a doctor." Zidane tried to assured me.

"Yeah. The doctor's a valuable asset to Lindblum. He's a great man and an even greater member of his profession." The guard who escorted us said.

"You flatter me," The doctor chuckled. "And it's professions. Emphasis on the last 's'. But he is right. I didn't get my doctorates just for fun. Anyway, I believe an introduction is in order; Dr. Gregory Thomas III, at your service. You may call me Dr. Thomas. Now let's take a look see..." Dr. Thomas introduced himself in a manner that was unlike any doctor I've ever seen, shaking all of our hands, even petting the small chocobo in Vivi's hands, before guiding me to a chair in his office so he can take a look at my injury.

Ever since I re-broke my wrist on the cargo ship I have never taken a direct look at it and that means that I have not seen the extent of the damage done to it. I don't look at any injury I have until I get to a hospital, where I can pass out upon looking at them without being judged. Now that there's a medical expert in the same room as I was, I finally removed the jacket in order to take a good hard look at my wrist.

And boy, did I wish I had passed out right then and there.

Black Waltz No. 3 was not so courteous when it comes to handing out wounds. I thought he stomped on the top or bottom of my wrist, but instead he stomped on the side. It was like the wrist was now slightly bottlenecked! Imagine my expression when I saw the damage. My brain just blacked out the instant the image of my wrist, bloodied and broken with a bone or two showing through the skin. Majority of the cast had broken away save for part of the forearm near the elbow. Blood covered the wrist and some of it partially dried up on my vest.

The only analogy I managed to think of was from the movie series Saw, only the wording out process failed due to my brain being out at the moment. I believe my mouth was partially open as I tried to breathe and my eyes were bulging wide at the sight.

I think it would have been better if I didn't see that.

"Oh my... This looks terrible," Dr. Thomas noted. Really? Just terrible? Talk about an understatement. More like horrifyingly traumatizing.

"Ugh...I don't wanna look at it anymore," Alyssa groaned as she stepped back while my chocobo chirped with chick noises I cannot translate. The guards shared her sentiment regarding my wrist and walked to the door. I swear Vivi's eyes were almost as big as plates when he saw the state of my wrist before he covered his eyes. Zidane wasn't a big fan too as he turned away.

Dr. Thomas hummed unpleasantly as he looked at my wrist. Despite my previous thoughts of him being an unhinged psychopath, he handled me with care. He didn't move the limb but he'd move himself to get a much closer look at it unless it couldn't be helped. After a minute or so of me wincing at my arm throughout the inspection, he straightened up and adjusted his glasses.

"What's the verdict, doc? Is he going to make it?" Zidane asked somewhere behind me.

"I'm not going to die, you know!" I said, showing my irritation at him by frowning.

"For dramatic purposes, let's say that he will make it," Dr. Thomas responded to the thief's question. "But in all seriousness, how would a harmless young man such as yourself get a brutal injury like this?" It's comforting that he thinks I'm harmless just because of how I look. I'll take that as a compliment. It put a smile on my face.

"The flight here wasn't very comfortable," Alyssa answered.

"Really? Most flights to Lindblum are always guaranteed to be comfortable. Certain airspace safety is what Lindblum thrives on. It usually attracts tourists and businessmen that way."

"Not ours, especially if you look at what happened to him. We had to fight something during our flight."

"I am pretty sure that airships do not usually allow monsters onboard. That is illegal."

"It wasn't monsters..." Vivi piped up.

"Well kinda. I can say this one IS a monster by personality." Zidane corrected for the smaller boy.

"Can we just cut to the chase and see how in the world we can fix this!?" I hurriedly interjected, derailing the interesting banter between the two. And when I say interesting, I mean completely unnecessary.

"Very well then," Dr. Thomas nodded understandingly and gestured over to one of the beds. "Please lie down while I gather some of my tools." He then walked towards one of the cabinets and started taking things out and putting them on a tray.

I walked over to the nearest bed and did as what I was told. Alyssa walked closer while still averting her gaze from my wound, offering comfort as she stood at the foot of the bed, with our resident actor and young black magician offering me some help get on the bed. Vivi let the black feathered chick on the bed. It immediately looked at me and clucked while trying to stand. It wobbled and bumped right into me and fell down, making the girl giggle at its antics. Okay, that is the least comforting thing ever.

Dr. Thomas eventually made his way back with tray in hand. He put it down on the side table beside the bed. I didn't bother looking at the implements that he's going to use since I already had enough with seeing anything unpleasant. Let's just let the guy with the doctorate handle things.

"Let us start this procedure with the bad news." Oh fantastic. I forgot the 'good news, bad news' segment any professional doctor does with their patient. "Bad news, your wrist is terribly broken, as in 'trampled by a Zanghnol' bad." Gee, thanks for pointing that out. Is that how you got your PhD? "Good news, I will be able to fix it."

"Outstanding," I sardonically cheered. "Now can we hurry with the fixing while I'm not yet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?"

"There is actually more bad news," The doctor informed me. Great. "To fix your injury, I have to..." There was a grim expression I was seeing right now, and the fact that he trailed off while looking like that was not giving off a relaxing vibe. Quite the opposite actually.

"You have to what? Cut it off? Break it a little more? Someone throw me a bone and get it over with!" I demanded impatiently.

With a sigh, Dr. Thomas takes something from the tray and continues. "To fix your injury, I have to reset some of the bones before doing anything else." Re...set...? "Yes, as in mend the bones by moving them back in place." Move...? "That is how damage is repaired most of the time. Painful, but effective. Unfortunately, our supply of hard anaesthetics ran out the day before. But we'll make do with some of the sedatives we still have." Oh God...

I froze. If I froze any harder a bone from my wrist would stick out even more, furthering the pain and eventually numbing my arm if it were to happen. It was traumatizing when the Black Waltz stomped a mudhole on my hand, but to have someone else reverse the effects of that physically just made me hesitant to want treatment anymore. Even my past injuries weren't so bad to insist resetting them by hand!

His latest bit of news was accompanied by him pulling out what looked like a steampunk injection from his tray of surgical implements. I'd be more horrified if the room was only lit by a small light and if the doctor had an intense gleam to his eyes. In reality, Dr. Thomas had this smile on his face, unsure if that was trying to calm me down or if he relishing the thought of moving around my bones.

"You know what," I started to say as I tried to get off the bed. "I think I'll take my chances. A broken wrist is going to be the least of my worries. It's not like I'll be here forever. Anyway, thanks for your time, doctor. It has been a blast. See you next time, or never, whichever works—Oof!"

Just as I was making good progress—that translates to about a step and a half—in my attempt to literally walk away, Zidane prevented my escape by standing in the way. Dr. Thomas then grabbed me by the shoulders and gently guided me back into the bed.

"Stop panicking and let the doctor help you." The blond told me.

"Traitor," I hissed. He shrugged, completely unaffected.

I honestly cannot believe that a man who is probably middle-aged just physically restrained me so easily like a small child being restrained by their parents. "It is not kind to judge a person's age by mere appearance. I am not yet even in my forties," He said, now wielding the injection. He saw me flinch. "Now, now, no need for unnecessary resistance. I am a doctor after all."

I didn't bother struggling after that as he injected my arm. How would you feel after having someone more powerful than you physically while you have a broken limb? That would be dumb. I was just lucky I got that far in my first attempt. So I just surrendered. To be fair, the injection was as painless as the past injections I had were.

"Just relax and let the doctor do his thing," Alyssa said to me, patting me on the shoulder to comfort me. Her touch was as light as a feather. Or was that my shoulder becoming numb? What kind of sedative is this if he's not using one of the hard anaesthetics?

I didn't spare her a look as Dr. Thomas explained. He would have rather let me drink an elixir so the setting could be avoided, unfortunately for me he was out of the precious healing substance. For now, directly setting the bones back in their correct position is the only option.

By the time he'd reached that part of the explanation my vision had started to go wavy. I think I was mumbling something to try and get their attention, but they turned their heads to me with confusion on their faces until the doctor spoke again. Even my hearing was starting to mess up, his words becoming incoherent. Alyssa walked over and gave me what looked like a smile before taking the chocobo off my chest. The rest started to leave, leaving me with Dr. Thomas being my only company in the room.

"Rest easy, young man. I'll fix you up in no time." He said as he walked over. I absently nodded as I surrendered to the effects of the sedative.

- Alyssa -

Time couldn't have passed any slower. I was sure I'd already paced back and forth about a hundred times in the temporary guest room they let me use. Well that was a few hours ago after we got Blake to a doctor to help with his broken wrist. Still can't believe how messed up it was. Thinking about it just grosses me out. That's something I'd want to clear out of my brain.

I'd be out of this room right now, but Dr. Thomas told me he had just finished operating on him and he'd need his rest. Okay, I agreed and went back here. The others assured me he'd be alright. Even though the doctor told me that I still can't help but want to see him. Just a glimpse of him sleeping peacefully or something might help me calm down, especially after he was freaking out before the anaesthetic.

A chirp from the bed caught my attention. The recently hatched black feathered chocobo was facing the door, tweeting at it as if calling for something, or in this case, someone to come through the door. The poor little thing's also worried in its own way. I take a seat beside it and ran a finger over its head and down its back in an attempt to calm him...her?

Not sure what its gender is right now since I don't really know about the defining gender characteristics of chicken. Wondering about that hasn't really crossed my mind before.

Anyway, I'm here worried about my friend and I just want to check on him. What kind of friend would I be if I didn't? Dr. Thomas didn't really say how long he's gonna be out and when visiting would be okay.

Screw waiting around. I've been doing that for a while now. Might as well give it a go. If that doens't pan out then I'll find something to do. I take the chicklet into my hands and go out to find the elevator.

I have to go down a level to get to the medical wing. It's still somewhat confusing to get around the Grand Castle when you're alone. Understandable to the others since they think I've never been here before. True to a point since I've never PHYSICALLY walked down these halls, but given my time playing the game I would at least know some parts of the castle. Like, for example, the fountain before the elevator at the ground floor.

When I get to the elevator, I see Vivi waiting for it as well. How long has he been there?

Deciding to ask where he's going, I jog over to his side and poke at his shoulder, prompting him to almost jump out of his coat. The chocobo in my hands tweeted in surprise as well. "Whoa there, Vivi. It's just me."

"S-Sorry." He sheepishly apologizes. "This place is just so big. And new. So many new people..."

"Yeah, it's kinda overwhelming to see so much people just in this place." I agree. It even reminds me of malls back home, except with less armed guards and more people looking to chill out and have fun.

I look over to him and see him fidgeting and hear him slightly mumbling to himself. Hmm...he's more nervous compared to back when we got here. When we met Regent Cid hours ago he was quiet and understandably confused when he saw him in his oglop form. Everyone shared the same level of shock when Steiner whacked the living daylights of Regent Cid. He's never going to live that down. After all that when the regent offered us lunch, Vivi was kinda out of it. Guess he has something in his mind since then.

"You look like something's worrying you." I mention as the wait for the elevator continued, the chick I was holding humming to itself.

Vivi fidgets with his hat when I brought it up. It takes him a while before he turns to me and sighs. "I was going to see Blake and apologize."

"Apologize?" I repeated, confused. I don't think he's done anything wrong to have the need to apologize, especially to Blake. He might be a bit of a smartass to me, but I'm sure Vivi's done nothing wrong to him. "Why?"

"That he got injured because of me." The elevator arrived the moment he gave his reason. He'd walked on first as I tried to wrap my head around what he just said.

"Dunno why you see it as your fault." I told him, hopping on the elevator and taking the spot beside him. I press on the floor where the medical wing is and the elevator starts to move. "If anyone has to apologize it'd be the Black Waltz."

"If only I didn't get scared..."

"Scared? You were angry at the guy. You were shining so bright and throwing spells at him left and right. If you were scared because we were fighting so high up in the air, that's fine since fighting in that altitude is unnerving."

"When he managed to overpower us with a spell, I was starting to think that I would end up like… them..." He was starting to mumble, yet I was still able to hear and understand perfectly what he was trying to say. "Those things that looked like me. The black mages. Black Waltz No. 3 killed them so easily and called them mindless dolls. I thought I was going to die like them...so I got scared. He'd hurt everyone I knew. Then he hurt Blake so bad." He looked up now when he said that. "That snapped me out of it. Then I Tranced. It took me seeing my friends to get hurt before I could Trance..."

I place a hand on his shoulder, Blake's pet also offering their own chirps. "It's not your fault, Vi." Seeing him blame himself for something out of his control was uncomfortable. Black Waltz No. 3 took Blake down and stomped on his wrist and Vivi was the hero who saved him from getting worse injuries. But despite my thoughts, he kept going.

"If only I'd Tranced faster, we might've beaten him earlier and nobody else would've gotten hurt. And maybe we might've prevented the South Gate from getting damaged too."

"Come on, Vi." I interrupted him. "You did what you could so it wasn't your fault. The Black Waltz was just powerful than us. We were in trouble and Blake thought he could help and he had to use his stupid idea before we got killed out there. He bailed us out of there with that jump of his, but you bailed him out before something else was broken.

"I still got scared..." The young mage insisted.

I shook my head and bent down so we could see each other eye-to-eye."Getting scared is a natural reaction. We all get scared." By the look he was making I was sure he was going to insist on it more, so I decided to give an example. "I get scared too when we fight those monsters. Did you know I've never fought a monster before I left home?" The black mage looked honestly surprised at my admission. "Even when I look brave and stuff, there's still that voice inside me telling me that I might die fighting out there in the Mist. Hell, I was scared when I fought a monster for the first time. Blake was telling me to kill it, but I've never killed anything before so the thought of taking a life, monster or not, terrified me. Back before I met you guys I thought I'd never have to think about that."

That's the truth. Back before I got roped up in this the only reason why I'd use what I've learned through my self-defense and sword classes would be just plain practicing. Didn't expect to be doing those things in this context. But what do I know? What were the actual chances of me predicting this'll happen to me when I signed up for those classes?

"Were you scared when you saved Blake from Steiner?" Oh yeah, that. I had to nod upon remembering what happened back then.

"Pretty much. How could I not get scared when this guy wearing full armor swings a sword like that at me? I even though he'd cut me to pieces right then and there. But I didn't let that stop me from helping a friend."

He nodded understandingly. Then there was a silence between us. I didn't know how to proceed after that. I've already tried to make him feel better and it looked like he was beginning to when the elevator stopped at our destination. He wasn't looking that down anymore. Glad I was able to at least cheer him up form that.

"C'mon, let's go see if Blake's awake." I urged him as we stepped off.

Vivi seemed to remember the directions to the medical wing more than I did. I basically started following his lead wordlessly until we arrived at a hallway that looked like we've passed by on the way to Dr. Thomas. As we walked, we passed by this person in a brown cloak with the hood up. Why would they even have that up indoors? I couldn't help but stare after them as they turned down the hallway we came from.

Vivi turned his head at me when I started hearing some familiar clanking noises somewhere. Accompanying it was a pair of voices talking amongst themselves.

When we went around the next corner we see three people walking ahead of us, the source of the noises: Zidane, Dagger, and Steiner. I'm guessing they also had the same idea Vivi and I had, though I hope they didn't go here to apologize for something that wasn't their fault.

Zidane must've noticed someone trailing behind them since his tail stopped moving and pointed straight at Vivi and I. He turned aorund when we were close to Dr. Thomas' office. "Oh, Alyssa and Vivi's here."

We exchanged greetings by the door and Dagger immediately answered the question I had in mind. "The three of us thought we should see how Blake is doing. He should be conscious by now." I noticed Steiner silently cross his arms as the princess talked. I guess he's not one to visit someone who he thinks is a criminal. They've probably had an argument about it before going her.

"He's gonna love all the visitors he's getting today," I chuckled before leading everyone inside.

We passed by Dr. Thomas taking care of some documents in his smaller room and greeted the doctor. He waved before putting all of his attention back to his paperwork. Between the times I was here earlier and now, it looked like nothing had changed. No one's gotten themselves injured or sick around here to make them go here save for the sole patient resting in the bed across the room. Since he was alone there was no need to pull out the separating curtains by his bed.

Blake slept soundlessly as we approached, us doing the same so we wouldn't accidentally wake him up, even his little pet was surprisingly quiet. He still had his bloodied clothes on except for the jacket that was wrapped around his broken wrist hours ago. It must've had so much blood it was beyond a trip to the laundry room. At least it looked like the Dr. Thomas' operation didn't add to the dry bloodstains on his clothes.

The wrist that had been re-broken, but now looking better than it had before and in one piece, now lay on a big comfortable pillow. Gone was the cast it had around it that was partly smashed by the powerful stomps it suffered and was replaced by this leather thing that looked like a forearm glove. I could see some white wrappings under the leather. Well, it's better than the big cast he had before, but I'm not sure if this'll work better than it and if it's comfier than the cast.

I let the recent hatchling stand on the bed while we started to gather around his bed. It nuzzled against his arm and rubbed itself as it went up said arm. Guess the little guy's quiet when its father figure is quiet too. Seeing the chocobo be comforted in the presence of Blake, I backed up a bit now that I know he's alright. Zidane, Steiner, and Dagger knight in rusting armor huffed and walked to the door now that he had completed his objective. Dagger shook her head at her knight's actions.

"He still sour about what Blake did back in Dali?" I asked the princess, to which she nodded. "I don't blame him. It's a miracle he wasn't fried then and there."

"Looks like he's full of reckless ideas," Zidane commented, looking at the still sleeping teen. Vivi had chosen to sit by the bed with the nearest chair to watch over the little chocobo and its master.

"He promised after that fight that he would never endanger anyone's life." Dagger recalled.

I raised a finger remembering that specific promise. "I think you're mistaken. He didn't promise that. He said, and I quote, 'I promise to never deliberately endanger you ever again.' A lousy promise, if you ask me."

"Once he wakes up, he will be in for quite a lecture." Alexandria's heir to the throne shook her head when she heard the quote.

Zidane stifled his laugh in order to avoid waking up the sole patient in the room. "Blake will surely appreciate that."

We watch Blake for a minute, expecting him to complain about the sudden increase of noise in the room as he wakes up despite being confined to a comfortable bed, but he kept silently snoring while the chocobo on the bed had paced up and down beside his arm. Looks like it's getting used to walking. Aside from that, I catch a frown forming on Dagger's face. Is she still thinking about Blake's fake promise?

"Something the matter?" I ask her.

She struggles to contain the frown as she shakes her head, but that doesn't really help convince me that nothing's wrong. "It's nothing of importance. Perhaps I was only seeing things or thinking too much into it."

"Well we're all ears here. Anything to clear your mind," Zidane encouraged. With an internal sigh, Dagger looks at us with a bit of unease.

"I'm troubled how my magic was not able to heal his wrist." She confessed.

Okay, I guess she feels just a bit guilty about not fully healing Blake's injury? Well broken bones are much worse than the cuts and bruises in terms of injuries. Plus, her tier one Cure spell is a beginner's version of healing magic. Surely you can't fix everything with the beginner's version. Now if she was using Curaga and it doesn't fix a broken bone then something's gotta be up.

Zidane hummed in thought for a sec. "How long have you been using your magic anyway?"

"Years. I have been able to practice healing myself and others while I was growing up in the castle."

"So you've already fixed broken bones with it?" I ask.

Again, she shook her head. "Not exactly. Small fractures, yes, but I am unsure about bigger injuries like Blake's since this is the only time I have tried healing something in that kind of condition. My magic would, at least, prevent more loss of blood. When I tried to cast it on Blake, the wounds around his wrist reopened as if my magic wasn't enough. This is the reason I wanted to see him today."

So she wants to ask him a few questions about that. Well, I wasn't there when she tried to heal him, but that's something I'd want to clear up too if I had magic and it didn't work.

Not sure how you can explain it not working. She was probably tired? That reason wouldn't make much sense though since she had a good nap before we got on the cargo ship. That meant she was well rested, unless it didn't. I wouldn't know since I don't remember her acting differently when we met up by the ship or if she didn't wasn't able to sleep nicely.

Also, that fight with Black Waltz No. 3 was the only fight we had after said nap along with the previous boss fight. She didn't use her magic that much against Black Waltz No. 2 and I'm sure she was only able to heal us once on the cargo ship after Blake grinded the ship against a cliff. So that means her magic should've still be effective by then since she used it only a handful of times. It still doesn't explain why it didn't work though.

Welp, I really can't think of anything else to explain why that happened. With my thoughts gathered, I shared my theories with the princess and her 'kidnapper'.

"Yeah, I guess the spell might not be the one you use for stomped on wrists," Zidane mused.

"Yes, it is possible I did not have the powerful version. But regarding your second thought, I am sure I was well-rested before we departed from Dali. If anything, my magic should be restored and more effective afterwards." Dagger said going to my second theory.

"Would your mental condition have anything to do with how effective your magic is?" He asked the White Magic user.

"Yes. If you are not able to focus in casting the spell then its effectiveness would be decreased." Yeah, that pretty much explains that part. Some of the shows I've seen with someone new to magic show this problem sometimes, like in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, because they've never casted a spell before until they can sufficiently focus enough to do it.

"You think you weren't focused enough when you were doing it?" He wondered.

"I was stressed during the fight, but not enough to render my magic useless." So things that affect the mind, like stress and trauma, like what Dagger will experience later in the story, will surely have a negative effect on the spell being casted.

Thinking about possible reasons why that happened was not working out for me. Zidane's looking like he's thinking about why that's so as well. He's not asking any more questions on his end. He's probably reached the same thoughts I had. There's just so many things that can explain this, but it looks like we're not asking the right questions. Maybe Blake will have more ideas when we run this by him after he wakes up.

For now I'll just have to remember what Dagger said about it. He might have some other questions in mind that might help in figuring out what was wrong.

"Let's just put a rain check on that since Blake's still out of it." I tell them. Dagger nods at my suggestion while Zidane shrugs. I look past them to check on Blake. He's still sleeping even with the chocobo now seated on his chest with Vivi watching its antics in his seat.

"In any case, I'll remember to check on him later in case he wakes up." Dagger promised.

"Yeah. We really can't stay here all day." I agree with Zidane. We'd be told to get out soon, probably exceeding in visiting time or something like that. "As much as I'd love to hang around the castle, I feel out place here. Might as well check up on a few things in town."

"Think your inner thief might get you in trouble in here?" I teased him.

He looked offended for a moment, but it wasn't very convincing for me and Dagger, before scoffing a few seconds later. "I'm a professional, Alyssa, not a klepto. What about you?"

"I might stay here in the castle until Blake wakes up." I don't really want to wander too far off without knowing when he'd wake up. I'm sure he'll appreciate it me being here when that happens. "So you're not staying here?"

"Yeah. Don't want to overstay my welcome." Zidane answered.

"I'm sure Uncle Cid won't mind having the people who helped take me here stay in the castle for a few days." Dagger mentioned. Well I'll take their hospitality if they won't mind.

"Nah, it's fine. I'm sure you don't want me around while you're bonding with your relatives." He grinned, giving the girl a wink. Then he looks over to the silent black mage and calls out to him. "Hey Vivi, you have any plans?"

Our resident black mage looked back to the still unconscious Blake before turning back to the group's leader. "Not really."

"Alright then. Well, since Blake's still out, wanna take in the sights of Lindblum for a while?"

"Okay." He stands from the chair, places it where he found it, and walks over to Zidane. "What kind of places are there here? Is it as big as Alexandria?"

"Not sure on the exact details, but Lindblum definitely feels bigger. We'll see some of the signature landmarks, like the theatre, some of the shops around town, or the museum, and try some food if you feel hungry." Vivi looked excited at the suggested activities, nodding at Zidane as they started to walk out.

"Do they also do big plays in the theatre like the one we saw in Alexandria?" Vivi asked.

"Yeah. They have a big cast there and do a lot of shows. We can see what they're doing now."

"Do they also shoot cannons and harpoons at the actors?"

"...I think that's something only Alexandria does."

As the voices of the pair started to fade down the hallway, Dagger bid her farewell as well a minute later with Steiner following close behind. I stand beside Blake's bed for a while, watching his little chocobo now looking like it was taking a nap of its own. As much as it loves being there, I can't let stay here without me.

I hear someone walking into the room. Dr. Thomas emerges from his office and starts walking over. "Good to see he has so many friends to visit him. Usually the patients I get are the guards after a big tussle with a criminal or two. They would get one or two of their fellow guards visiting."

"Let's just say we've been through quite a while." I chuckle at the short vague summary of the past events that's happened to us.

"I bet it is. In any case, it looks like he'll be on the road to recovery for quite a while. He will need friends to help him through each and every way down that road."

"Don't worry, doc. We'll be there to help him." I tell him as I gather up Blake's pet into my hands. "I'll come around again after dinner. See you later, doc."

Dr. Thomas nods after me as I exit the room. I spare one last look at Blake's sleeping form before turning the corner. That's right. We'll help him recover once he gets back on his feet. Until then just sleep it out for now. There's no rush. Besides, we're on a bit of downtime until the Festival of the Hunt happens. We'd all be relaxed and prepared by then.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 19: Attire, Conspire, Retire


- Alyssa -

My visit after dinner time, which the castle provided again and was even better than the lunch they made for us earlier (thank you so much Minister Artania and Regent Cid!), was somewhat uneventful and same-y like the previous time I was there with the others. I sat there for half an hour just watching him breathe gently and sleep soundly. The chocobo I was taking care of in his stead was very polite by being quiet compared to how loud it was during dinner time. How long is he going to sleep?

Zidane and Vivi came by just as was I about to leave. Zidane wanted to take Vivi back here after their exciting day before he went back to the hideout in the Theatre District. Since Vivi wanted to see if Blake was awake, they went straight here. I stuck around for ten minutes to chat with them, checking with how their day went. It sure looked like Zidane was an excellent tour guide with how positive Vivi talked about his experiences. Zidane smiled with each recounting of their activities, almost making me regret staying here all day.

I should take note of all the things they did so I can do that when Blake's all better. Don't wanna waste all my time just waiting around being a lazy bum until the next story event comes. I might try and find a way to earn some gil while we're here. We're on a limited budget and I don't want to borrow money from the others unless I get super desperate. Zidane probably knows a place that can help. A legit place...hopefully.

Speaking of which, that's also something I need to run by Blake. Since we have some free time until the Festival of Hunt, which I also need to get an exact day when it's happening, probably ask around or something, we can plan ahead as to what we need to do for the sake of the story. It never hurts to be prepared.

Blake's little pet is starting to get comfortable around other people, seeing as how it was nuzzling into Vivi's glove. It would usually be noisy with other people and tend to ignore their presence, which happens less when Blake is around, but with its exposure to more people came the comfort of familiarity. It's been more cooperative with me the longer I spend time with it. With that time comes the sudden responsibility of acting like a parent and directing it when it needs to do its chocobo business. I still need to apologize to the poor person who needed to clean that one pillow earlier...

"Have you been waiting for him to wake up all day since we got here?" Zidane asks. I had to think about what I've done for the rest of the day to check it this is all I've done.

"Well, this is my third visit counting us bringing Blake here. I would've visited more between the first and second times, but Dr. Thomas insisted no visitors after the first few hours. I've eaten lunch and dinner cooked by the chefs here," Zidane nodded, mumbling how good the food was, "napped for a bit, and looked after our mascot here. I guess I've been here more than doing anything productive..."

"I guess it wouldn't hurt to be around when he wakes up," He commented, shrugging.

"Waking up and seeing someone waiting there is very comforting, especially after the pain he went through." Though it makes me wonder how he can sleep this long. I'm starting to think that Dr. Thomas didn't really run out of his hard anesthetics.

"You sound like you've been through this kind of thing."

Not exactly, but I answer him with a shrug. It was met with a chuckle.

"You three, visiting time is about to end." The guard at the door, this one having a red armor with the white garbs, announced to us. We all nodded and he went on his merry way back to his patrol.

"Anyway, it's getting late. I'll have to run to the aircab before they close for the day. Don't wanna have to walk back to the Theatre District."

I nudge him with my elbow and smile. "Something tells me you'll manage without the aircab trip."

Exasperated by my jab, he slightly slumps for a moment before turning to the door. "I'm a thief and an actor, not an endurance runner." Zidane then starts walking to the door. "Good night Alyssa, Vivi."

Vivi and I spent a few more minutes hoping Blake would wake up briefly or, at least, mumble in his sleep. But nope, we chatted in low voices while keeping an eye on him and only got nothing eventful happen. Our visit had to come to an end eventually. So I pick up the little chocobo, after getting it to kweh good night, and walked got on the elevator with Vivi.

We're staying in different guest rooms some floors up from the medical wing and I just can't wait for Blake to experience a night in one of the castle's beds. It feels like heaven! I tried out the beds in the infirmary and it didn't feel as good as the one I was using right now. If he's still feeling that stiff neck he got from that night he slept on the stool then this should cure him of that.

Once Vivi reached his room, we exchanged 'good nights' and went in our own rooms to sleep. So I close the lights and prepare for a good night's rest by taking off my shoes and placed my sword by the bed. In case there's an intruder, you know? I didn't have any alternative clothes to sleep in (might as well add 'getting new clothes' on the to-do list) so I just plopped down on the bed with our team's mascot in hand, ready to sleep until morning. He gladly occupied a clean pillow I put on one side of the bed separated by another one.

Don't worry, the bed is big enough for at least two and a half people. Guests who sleep in here really are treated like VIPs. I'm just lucky enough to be involved in a royal kidnapping. Well, not directly involved since I "worked" with the airship crew, but my point still stands.

My night's sleep was so good until my ears were filled with kwehs. I sit up and find out that the reason for all the kwehing was that someone was knocking on the door. Not sure how long the chocobo has been making noises, or how long the person at the door has been at it, but I knew that I would've been dreaming if it wasn't for all the noise and that there was bit of light coming in just a bit through the curtains.

So I half-hurried, half-stumbled towards the door, grumbling about sleeping in later, to stop the knocking. I could hear someone calling me through the door, specifically using 'Miss Forsyth'. He sounds like he knows he's disturbing me but he clearly doesn't want to disturb the other rooms. I then turn on the lights and wipe the sleep off my eyes before opening the door.

"Yes?" I answer, pulling open the door just enough to show my face.

A man in the castle guard outfit pulled back his hand from knocking and cleared his throat. "Dr. Thomas has instructed me to come here and tell you that your friend has woken up."

I could have not run back to my bed, grabbed the chocobo, and dashed right out of there any faster unless I was told that someone found a portal back to the real world. No one in the castle, even the guard who woke me up, could've never guessed how fast I got out of there to the infirmary. My running might've caught some of the guards surprised. I could count this as my morning jog.

Dr. Thomas was there to greet me by the door way. Despite how early it was, he looked as presentable as ever, his suit and coat were all prim and proper and his smile was more infectious after learning my friend was awake. "Good morning, Miss Forsyth. I see you're quite the early riser."

"Just eager to check with Blake." I reply, the chocobo in my hand punctuating that with a kweh of their own. "One of the guards told me he woke up. Is everyone else coming?"

"Ah, well it looks like Mister Skylark does not share your level of energy despite the long rest he's had." He says as he walks into the room with me close behind. After what's happened, I can't blame him. "I suggested to inform your other friends, but he shot that down pretty quickly. Yet I insisted he talk with someone and he agreed to have you be informed."

At least he doesn't mind me around. We get to his bedside and he's frowning at the ceiling as if it wronged him. He was moving his left arm by slowly grasping at the air with his hand and stretching, probably trying to shake off his drowsiness or something. His other hand, the one with the leather wrapping thing, just laid there due to his familiarity of the injury. Blake sighed before letting his lefty arm drop beside him.

"Morning!" I greeted him, his chocobo also tweeting at him. He looked over to me and mumbled something I didn't catch before looking back at the ceiling. Hey! I've been worried all day yesterday and he doesn't even greet me back.

"How do you feel?" Dr. Thomas asked him.

"Sick," was Blake's quick answer. "Of this place. Of my arm. Of basically everything around me right now."

"At least you still have that charming side of your personality," I grunted at his complaints. His glare at the ceiling intensified, but he didn't say anything.

The good doctor then went on to check for basic things, like if he was feeling nauseous, if his arm was causing him major discomfort, if parts of his body felt numb, etcetera. Blake shook his head wearily when all the questions were asked, not even bothering to spare the guy who treated his wrist a look.

Taking note of his singular answers to each of his important medical questions, though I'm not sure if he just kept shaking his head to get the doctor to leave him alone faster, he began to tell him some necessary things about his condition. Things like avoiding any major physical activities that involve arm movement, being careful with the medication he will provide him, elevate the wrist when sleeping, don't try to move it until a week passes, always wear the sling he provided him if he goes walking, among other things.

And again Blake just lets the doctor talk and answers with a single tired nod. Thankfully, Dr Thomas didn't take any offense to it as he smiled once he was done and cheerily informed him he can stay in the medical wing as long as he wants until he is comfortable enough to leave. When the injured teenager didn't say a word in response to that, Dr. Thomas nodded and bid me a hearty goodbye so he can get himself a healthy breakfast.

"Oh, and Miss Forsyth," He stops at my side and talks in a low voice, "I would eat my breakfast without any worries if someone keeps an eye on this young man."

Dr. Thomas saw me nod and finally left the two of us there. Then I marched over to the bed and fixed Blake a ‘What the hell?’ look.

"What is wrong with you?" I demanded after seeing his behavior. "Couldn't you have, at least, thanked him for fixing you up? And he did that for free. Well, I think it's free. I dunno if he's gonna give us the bill after he's done with breakfast. But you know what I mean! Some respect would've been nice-"

He holds up a finger to interrupt me. "Shush. You're ruining my morning."

If he wasn't injured or in bed I would have smacked him in the head for being so disrespectful. Since the doctor has not allowed me to hit the patient, I gave him a warning glare before pulling a chair right beside his bed.

"Someone really woke up on the wrong side of the wrist this morning. It's a wonder I don't hear Nina complain about having a brother that often." I mutter, mostly to myself but still letting the newly-awakened teen hear it. But he didn't comment on it. The small chocobo did that for him, but since we both didn't understand the language of chocobos we let it tweet to its heart's content.

"I need to get out," he finally says, sitting up on the bed.

I couldn't help but worry a bit. I really shouldn't since he's had most of a day's rest and Dr. Thomas already said he can leave when he feels he's ready. So when he swings his legs over to the edge of the bed I had to be ready in case he falls off. Well he did stumble a bit, probably from his grogginess, and I managed to catch him by the shoulder before he took another step.

After muttering his thanks, which was surprising after how rude he was earlier, he straightened himself and started putting on his sling. It was white and different in a way to the modern one I've seen before, this one using buckles to help readjust the strap going over the shoulder, but was pretty much the same in structure. This one he didn't need help putting on.

"Don't just stand there all slack-jawed. Come on. You look like you need some air too." He called over his shoulder when he was already by the door. It didn't take long for me to catch up.

"So how are you really feeling?" I asked him after reaching his side.

"Same answer still applies," he answers with a single shoulder shrug. "My arm is still somewhat tingly and I know it'll get worse later through the day. That's where the medication comes in."

We reach the elevator. The patrols around here are bit lax at the moment save for the one guard standing near the elevator, but it looked like he was snoozing on the job. The others might be eating breakfast or something. "Just make sure you don't go overboard with those painkillers." I warn him. We may be in a fictional world, but we don't know if their medicine is the same with our world's. The ones the good doctor prescribed to Blake might be more addicting. You just don't know if they're more powerful or not. Might as well be careful with it.

"Yes, mom." His groan is met with the elevator opening and going to a lower floor. It was a short ride and it was spent in silence, save for the chocobo kwehing towards its master right beside me. I really should let him carry it since it misses him. Get them back together after almost all that time spent away from him. Blake might have a new use for the sling, use it to carry around the little thing. Hmmm...maybe not. Might avoid putting pressure or weight on it in the meantime.

The elevator stops at the Middle Level. There's more floors to the whole castle than just the three main levels. Like the infirmary is also in the Middle Level with the airship docks and workshops, most of the guest rooms and security headquarters. The Upper Level has everything needed to run the whole country, conference and throne rooms while also including Regent Cid's living spaces as well as some other private rooms, as Zidane called them, for visiting relatives. I bet those rooms have more comfortable beds than the ones that I've already used...

Anyways, I follow Blake past the indoor fountain and some guards patrolling. They greet us and we greet back, which Blake willingly smiled and nodded at them before going back to his 'bad morning' face when he puts some distance away from them. That reminds me of those girls back in school who would always fake their smiles at the other girls they don't like, but his is more kinda more practiced. Makes me wonder how genuine he has been with the others. Which of those smiles, chuckles, and laughs were real or not?

On a happier side note, he might do well in theatre. Maybe? He should try it out some time if he hasn't.

Our little walk ended at the aircab station, where the castle finally opens up to a platform looking into the city, the railway zipping in between some of the buildings towards the next platforms of the different districts until it circles back here. We were alone here, understandable since the day is just starting. Though this must be Blake's intent if he wanted to go outside. Blake takes in a big lungful of the fresh air blowing gently and lets it all out in an annoyed breath.

"What I would do to just wake up now and realize this is all just a dream..." He mumbles to himself as he looks out into the city.

We'd already talked about dreams before. I can't say I disagree with him though. Finding a way back to the real world is our unspoken goal since it's very obvious and logical to do so. Just how we find that and when is the question.

Blake continues to talk, not even caring if I was there or not. "Everything is just messed up. I could be back home if I took that cab ride home, but I guess I have nobody to blame but me for that. Maybe if I did take that cab you wouldn't be in here either."

"C'mon now, don't blame yourself for that." I stepped in before he could say anything else. First Vivi blames himself for letting Blake get hurt and now Blake's blaming himself for getting us in this mess. It's no one's fault and I'll keep saying that until I'm proven wrong.

"Not saying I was. But that's already in the past. I'm just ticked off that I'm back to square one." He gives his injured arm a disapproving look.

"If it weren't for you we'd be all fried."

"I'm sure we'd all pushed through nonetheless. The game's just started anyway. We can't die when we're only halfway through the first disc." I look at him, uncertain why he keeps referring to this as a game. Sure it is a game in the real world, but I've already argued that this world is as real as ourselves. I don't want to start that up again since he'd just woken up.

"At least we're in Lindblum now. That should give us some time to rest up before things start to pick up again." I tell him, my voice a bit lowered just in case, as I dismiss the thought of arguing with him.

"That's good. Next event is the Festival of the Hunt." Just saying that made him shiver. Guess he's doesn't want to be anywhere near monsters right now. "Do you know how long until that starts up?"

"Not really..." Though I did hear some talks from the guards that the preparations look to be going smoothly and the monsters should be arriving any day now. I should ask around in town when the exact day for the festival. "Here, our team mascot really missed you. It's been very restless."

He turns to me and lets the chocobo walk from my hand into his. "Hey there, buddy. Hmmm... Is it just me or did you get bigger?" It kwehed back at him as it walked around his hand.

“It’s been a few days since it hatched and you haven’t named it yet.” I pointed out. Most parents would name their child the moment they see them.

“I don’t even know if it’s a he or a she,” Blake uttered as he tried to examine the bird. That’s a fair point. Maybe he should consult a book or an expert? “Well then, I shall temporarily name it Chuck. It works whether it’s a boy or a girl. Though I should see a book about names here to get a more fitting name.”

“Now you truly are a parent.” I say, chuckling to myself. The newly named Chuck tweeted positively and nuzzled against Blake’s face for a moment.

He dismisses that comment and looks back at me. "Whatever. So we have a bit of vacation time. I'll probably lounge around, following doctor's orders. As creepy as he is, I really can't disregard what he said to me. I can't recover if I don't follow his advice. You, however, do what you want."

"What about what we should do next? After the Hunt, I mean." I bring up what I was planning to talk with him. He shoved Chuck up to my face, its kweh cutting me off.

"Later. Too many ears." His hand gestures around, mostly giving a look at the castle that made me curious. There wasn't anyone else around us. He's probably paranoid and doesn't want to talk about future events while having guards patrolling around us and overhearing what we're saying. All sorts of questions would be asked and we'd be outed as people from a different world.

What else should talk about? When should we tell them that we're not really who we say we are? Blake's already said his side of the argument back in Evil Forest, but I can't really keep up with him when it comes to lying. It doesn't sit well with me when I have to keep lying to Zidane and the others while we spend our days together. There’s gonna be a day when we slip up and they find out the hard way, and that’s gonna be a bigger problem when it happen.

Blake pulls back his hand and starts walking towards the stairs going to the aircab. "We'll talk somewhere else."

"So you're not staying in the castle?"

"Nope. You can stay here if you want."

"Oh no, I'm not leaving you alone. You're as fragile as a flower. God knows you break something else your wrist again. It could happen after you wake up and fall out of your bed or stumbling off the sidewalk. Someone needs to keep an eye on you."

I heard him grumble loudly. "Fine. Come along."

I point my thumb back to where we came from. "I'm gonna go back and get my stuff. You might want to get yours too before it ends up in a lost and found pile."

His instantly swerved from his supposed destination and instead comes back to the castle. "Right. Got it."

- FF FF FF-

"Dagger is going to be so disappointed she won't be able to deliver her long, deserved lecture to you." That made Blake noticeably pick up his pace, clutching his bag closer to him as he put some distance between him and the aircab we just departed from.

So we collected our stuff after our little meeting from our rooms. He had to get Dr. Thomas to sign off on his things before he can actually collect them. He had Blake's things secured because of security reasons. Apparently, there have been attempts before on the regent's life by faking serious sickness so they can sneak in. Didn't happen a lot, according to him, but enough times to be careful about it.

I managed to convince him to get something to eat once we got our stuff. It would be bad if he missed out on another meal. Despite his claims to not being hungry, he sure can pack it in if he wants. It's like every spoonful he puts in his mouth is replaced with another once he swallows. And he's not being sloppy, just doing it fast. Does he even chew? I bet he's eating fast to avoid seeing Vivi or Dagger. He still looks like he doesn't want to see anyone right now.

We hopped on an aircab when we were done, one that was headed to the Business District. Apparently a whole district that's a commercial hub for the city is a better place to talk about otherworld stuff than a smaller, more contained place like the Lindblum Castle. It's his decision and I'm just here to make sure he doesn't hurt himself. If he wants to be paranoid, I'm not stopping him unless he brings it to a disturbing level.

With the aircab on route to the Business District, he tells me we need to find a place to stay in. I immediately suggest the inn that should be just across the aircab station. He declines that option, saying that Zidane will find his way there eventually. Okay, so he clearly doesn't want to see anyone from the group. He has his reasons, I bet. And that's what we are doing now. Thankfully it was still early out and that there wasn't a lot of people up and about compared to the sun. It's getting bright and pretty cool out here, like a sweet Spring morning.

Blake and I tried to find other available inns in the district, but through our whole hour search it looked like there's a lot of competition for my first suggestion. And most of them had some pretty nice digs. The problem: majority of them have a hefty price, even if it only was just a single night's stay. Blake would look at the price and immediately turn away when it's beyond our limited budget. I'd try to convince him if we can find a way to get the innkeepers to make a deal with us, like exchanging menial labor work for a discount. Sure it's unfair because I'll be doing all the work since he's told to avoid physical labor, but that's just me wanting to pull my share of the burden with our situation here. Unfortunately, we can't make a deal with the ones we tried to negotiate with. One of them actually chased us out for even suggesting it.

Our first activity would end in a failure and us sleeping in the street, or as Blake told me, "Crawling back to the castle to ask for their hospitality again. Well, you would."

Well that is if Blake doesn't consider my first suggestion. It's a pragmatic option since we both know of it from the game, it's the only inn we see there, probably with good reason, and it's close to the aircab station. He doesn't take it too well, mumbling to himself about my 'smartass suggestion', before turning around and finally agreeing.

But before we proceeded to the inn, he told me about going to a detour before we take our rooms. He said he needed to know how much money we can still use without jeopardizing our stay at the inn. Spend for what, he wouldn't say, but he did have a cheeky smile on him as he led the way.

The first stop was a modest little stand I remember from one of the Active Time Events that involved Steiner. The morning shift had already started by the time Blake and I reached an agreement on the inn debacle. Most of the shops and businesses in the district have opened up and set up to begin their daily routines and schedules. He walks over to the stall and presents the little chocobo he put on his sling. Chuck walked and chirped happily at him while the Grandma Pickle, not her actual name but she introduced herself as such, cooed at the thing and gave him a small pouch of Gyashl Pickles.

My injured friend thanked her and paid for the items, but talked with her a bit more. I was observing from a distance of the pickle smell the stand had. I won't judge anyone who eats them, but from how Steiner reacted it sure doesn't go down well through the nose. I'd rather stay away from the smell and avoid it sticking on my clothes if I want to walk around town without anyone thinking I smell like chocobo pickles.

From how the conversation was going, with the chuckling and pointing, it looked like it was a success. Blake finally stepped away with his pet in his sling and pouch of pickles in hand, thanking Grandma Pickle while sharing a laugh before rejoining me. His laugh died down when we were far away, punctuating it with a tired breath. When I looked at him, he just rolled his eyes at my concern before continuing to our next stop.

When we got there, we looked at it and stared at it.

“To be clear, I have never seen such a place in my entire life,” He commented, still staring at it.

“Me too,” I agreed. “And I’ve been to weird places.”

“Define weird.”

“This place makes all those places I’ve been look like an amusement park...an amusement park of fashion...for children...color-blind children.”

"I think I’m color-blind right now."

“Me too.”

“...I bet that corset is looking mighty fine right now.”

I grunted at him for reminding me. “Don’t even remind me...”

Right now we were looking up at a building, and by God did it look like it stands out like a sore thumb. We found it deep in the Business District, apparently following the directions Blake received from Grandma Pickle. Trust me when I say this that anyone would be able to find this place even when you're not trying. The building's design is so extravagant I feel almost poor by just looking at it. Blake's even muttering about how he's never seen so much color that it hurt his retinas.

Lemme paint a picture here. Imagine a structure from the Renaissance Era. Pretty fitting with the environment here. Now mix every color known in the color wheel and splatter it on the building. To top it off, a grand name and logo at the top. It just looks so...colorful...in a sense. I don't mean that as a compliment too.

A chime made our collective attention snap to the source of the sound and we both found ourselves looking at someone peeking out of the strange building's entrance. It was a woman. She gave us a quick once-over and made this noise that was close to a squeal.

"Ah! Potential customers!" She caught me by surprise with her eagerness that I stepped back. I felt Blake's hand stop me from hitting him. "Please, come in, come in. Don't be shy! I am here to help with your desires!"

"Desires?" We both repeat in confusion. As if that was a signal, she opened the door with a flourish dressed in a flowing, flower-patterned, bright blue dress, looking almost like one of those beautiful models showcasing those awards on a TV game show. Both Blake and I were looking at her and then at each other, wondering would could be the worst thing that could happen, before following the lady into her shop.

What welcomed us was like a mini-department just lined up in rows and shelves of various articles of clothing. On hangers, folded neatly shelf by shelf, or displayed on wooden stick models you can find samples of the store's many clothing options. There were like four other people in here and they dressed almost as brightly as the lady who brought us in. In the middle of floor was where you can find the cashier's area, a moderately-sized square divided from the rest of the area by a waist-high counter with a small access door. At the far end of the room were cubicles of curtains and thin walls for what I assume would be clothes fitting.

The woman once again stands before us and spins in place for extra flair. "Welcome to Endless Color, where you'll drown in our excess surplus of clothes!"

"That doesn't feel like a catchy catchphrase," was all I took away from her presentation. Her bright smile almost fell but she kept it up despite my comment.

"I feel like I'm drowning already," Blake uttered dryly, punctuated by Chuck’s small kweh.

"My name is Jennifer and I am the owner of Endless Color! And as our first customers for the Week of the Hunt, the only week of the year where we make hunters look the part, you guys get a discount." At the end of her announcement, some of the other people clapped, almost like it was rehearsed but managed to make the excitement sound genuine. Her eyes then scanned us up and down, her smile looking like she was thinking of something...indecent? "And it looks like you two need a miracle."

I frowned and looked at my own clothes. Okay, so the clothes I took from the Prima Vista, a mechanic's overalls set, a plain shirt underneath, and a set of boots, look a little worse for wear. Some burn marks here and a few cuts there, at least it's still wearable.

"Yes, I agree." Blake spoke up. I turn to him and see him looking at me while imitating Jennifer. Is this why he was laughing like that with Grandma Pickle? His broken wrist didn't give him an excuse to be immune from a head slap.

"I told you I had limited choices! Stop making fun of it already!" I barked at him, crossing my arms in front of me.

"Doesn't mean it's not true." He whispered to himself, wincing as he held the spot I hit.

"Oh, what was that? You wanted an imprint of my hand on the back of your skull?" I raised my hand and he instinctively flinched and moved away. The next time he acknowledges my attire I'll make sure he has to double his painkiller dosage...

Jennifer laughed at us, calling our antics 'adorable' before briefly approaching one of her employees. I was already trying to see which ones would look good on me before I feel a hand land on my shoulder. It was Jennifer again and she was guiding me to one of the rows. Over my shoulder I see Blake's being escorted by a different lady close his age to a different part of the store and it looked like he very confused by this. Jennifer, who I'll call Jenny from now on, was actually going to help me out pick out a new outfit. Okay, I'm thankful for the assistance and all, but I think I can pick out my own clothes.

There were a lot to choose from and I didn't know where to begin. Blake's helper was already gathering an armful of shirts and pants while I scanned the closest row first. I was touching the material, comparing them to the ones I have on, and they all feel much better. If it feels like running water through my hands then that gets it higher on my to-buy list. But there's just too much to choose from. Jenny was already pointing out what would go great with what, talking about complimenting colors that help bring out the eyes as well as the attractive designs that draws attention. I would usually take advice like that, but right now I'm going for something comfortable wear first before wanting to stand out.

I've taken some blouses and pants that look like my size off the racks that looked comfy to travel in while Jenny grabbed these very pretty dresses and skirts. I have to take in mind how it would affect traveling all over the place. So with five outfits in my arms I then head to the changing rooms. I carefully change out of the overalls into the clothes I took and test them by walking around in them. None of them worked out in the combos I took them so I was about to mix-and-match them or get more if they don't work, but Jenny shoved the clothes she had before I had a chance.

Well I tried them on since it was already there and they all look good, some of them made me look like a stylish hunter invited to some dance, but aside from those it just wasn't my style. Majority of what she gave me weren’t that great for travelling and some of them would only hinder when if I have to fight. Then she started giving me silly outfits to try out. The outfits she had me go through ranged from a fashionable noble to a fictional priestess to an Alexandrian soldier outfit. Why does she have this and why is it in my size!?

I had to stop her when I saw her get a corset. Thanks, but no thanks! Let me get my clothes from now on. Though if I need something for a formal event then I know where I can go and find a beautiful dress.

As I was going to get some more fashion options, I can hear Blake getting testy with the girl helping him. She'd given him suits to ensembles to a human-sized chocobo costume. His chocobo seemed entertained with all the moving and changing though, and it looked like it was pleased to see Blake look like him even if it was just a brief time. He was already thinking of putting together his own outfit instead of taking advice from the staff. Guess they were all being TOO helpful.

I got this blue and white long blouse with elbow-length sleeves with the buttons lined up on the right side of my body instead of the center and it had this cute, intricate bow right on my chest. I had some leather gloves, and a belt to hold up my dark pair of pants that let my boots, which I kept from my old attire, go under the pants finish the outfit. They fit right and I felt like I could fight a Mu with this on. I tried some practice swings with my sword to test some of my movement and it didn’t bog me down than I thought.

Happy with my choices, I waited for Blake to finish while Jenny is putting together the prices for my new apparel. Blake eventually stepped out of the changing room double checking his new garments. Gone was his salesman wannabe outfit and replacing them were a black and red button-up shirt with its long, white sleeves folded up to the elbows and a pair of slim cargo pants. His burned tie was still snugly tied around his collar and it seemed like replacing it wasn't considered when there wasn't any type of accessory available. Still sticking to his old style, but at least he had new duds, though he did look less like a salesman now.

He gives me a look when he sees me standing there waiting for him. "Wow," he says in a surprised tone as he looked away, "You certainly look like a girl now. I didn't know you had it in you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I glared at him, putting my hands on my hips. He merely shook his head, probably to avoid digging himself in another hole. "You know what, whatever. You're paying for this anyway."

And he did. He wasn't happy with the price even with the discount given to us, but he pulled out his gil and paid for the both of us. I'm thankful that he brought me here, not counting those jokes thrown my way, so that I'll finally get into something comfortable. After a few days in this thing, being in something more casual feels like a relief.

One of Jenny's girls brought our old clothes to us all folded up and properly put together before asking us if we wanted to sell them. We'd have more money in our pockets if we did, but I was planning on using my old clothes for sleeping. Blake had other reasons to keep his, yet he kept them to himself, and that got us our old attire in paper bags.

Jenny thanked us for our patronage and walked us to the door. She tapped me on the shoulder and said something that might be helpful in the coming days. "If you or your friend need some extra gil, we can use a few extra hands here."

"We'll think about it," was my response. Might as well have options, right?

She nodded and smiled. I joined Blake outside and we started making our way to the inn.

- FF FF FF -

We eventually reach our destination with no more detours, walking through the door of the Bobo Bird Inn, the actual name of the inn apparently. The innkeeper there greeted us happily with a wave with what seemed like his signature greeting. We both walked over to the counter and asked if there were still any free rooms. Apparently we're lucky today as we find out that there are two vacant rooms due to "complications". That sounded a bit suspicious, but I'm not turning him down.

Since we've been going around the district for most of the day, I was thinking about going for some rest and a shower as the day gets hotter. I haven't gotten the chance to take one since yesterday's excitement. Plus, as much as I like these boots, I can't spend all day wearing them. After that I should be able to get Blake to talk strategy.

The innkeeper hands us our keys, mine had a 6 on the keychain while Blake had a 5, and directed us to our rooms. I took mine after thanking him and followed his instructions. Our climb up the stairs was met with a well-lit hallway and a bunch of numbered doors. The rooms were arranged in a way where the odd-numbered doors were on the left and the even on the right if you started to count from the stairs, meaning my room and Blake’s room were directly opposite of each other. A final door on the far side of the hallway wasn’t numbered, but had a sign of two figures instead. I was guessing that's the bathroom.

I opened my room and immediately closed in when I got inside. I was greeted with a small room painted green with flowery designs like leaves and stems near the corners. There was a bed fit for one person, a small side table with a lamp, a closet, two windows with brown curtains embroidered with designs of roses and sunflower, and a desk with a simple wooden chair. It's already better than the room we had in Dali, even though this one is simpler.

Checking the closet, I found that it only had two towels provided by the inn and some hangers. This should be enough room for all the clothes I have, which isn't that much. I grabbed one of the towels and made my way to the bathroom. There's enough room here to fit all you need in a bathroom. Moderately-sized shower with a mirror right above it, a sink, and a toilet on the other side. Good to know that they have these things available. I guess I should've expected them to when they have steampunk technology and magic.

About thirty minutes of a good shower and putting on my clothes again, I knock on Blake's door while I wrapped my towel around my hair to let it dry. He answers the door by opening it just a little bit. Only part of his face was pressed up against it to see me standing right in front of him. "What do you want?"

"I was thinking we should talk about what we should do next." I replied. The black-haired teenager in the room actually let me in, closing it the moment I was inside.

"Right. It never hurts to be prepared for the future." He says as he lies back down on his bed. His room was pretty much the same, from the curtains to the placement of the furniture. Most of his things I see lay scattered on the surface of the desk. I ignored his messy property and took the chair, turning it around and sat on it. "It's inevitable to plan out everything since we're here. We are bound to have changed something, whether it was directly or indirectly."

"I dunno if me temporarily working with the crew of the Prima Vista is gonna change anything, but I'm sure Steiner not being poisoned is my doing."

"Glad to hear you are finally admitting your fault in that." I see Blake grin from his spot. I only rolled my eyes at him since I'm not in the mood to argue right now. Especially when it's something that should've been forgotten. Bringing that up is my fault. Should've kept my mouth shut about it. "I did, however, cause a bit of a ruckus back in Alexandria. I still don't know if that will have a minor or major effect in the overall story." He looks away for a bit, looking thoughtful when he suddenly says, "Though that might have caused that soldier to go after me. Stupid girl with a crazy sense of justice..."

Speaking of not bringing up mistakes. "Pretty sure Steiner remembering you pushing that soldier off the airship will have some kind of crime be put over your head," I retort. His grin soured, a small victory for me.

"It's not murder if there's nobody-"

"No body? I'm sure there was a body falling about twenty feet down to a shallow body of water. There were a lot of witnesses, though." I tell him as I dry my hair a bit more before laying it around my shoulders.

"I meant if there's nobody to kill!" He corrected me, irritated of the accusation. "I didn't kill her! Besides, she's a non-factor. The kingdom wouldn't really care all that much for a single casualty with how they tried to get the princess back." I was about to interject another point, but he raised his hand to cut me off. "Nobody or not, that soldier's a irrelevant statistic. If I'm going to be accused of anything, it would be assisting gravity."

Moving past denial and blame-shifting... "The Festival is going to happen soon. The town's going to be filled with monster killing hunters for glory. It's a waste leaving the castle since we're gonna have to go back there when the event starts."

He waved off my point. "We wouldn't be having this conversation if we were still there. Too many guards patrolling the place, too little privacy. Just because the rooms look open and big doesn't mean we're safe. Only the regent can afford privacy there since he rules the place."

"Geez, you're thinking as if there's a bug in every room like back home..." Lindbum may look like an industrial marvel with their technology, but thinking that they're secretly similar to the infrastructure of Earth in the 21st century is not a likely thing to happen.

"Can't take any chances. We may be more advanced, they have magic here. We don't.” Do they have that kind of magic here? “But anyway, after the Festival is where the main story moves forward with the main conflict for the first and second disc..."

We reviewed each other on the events following the Festival of the Hunt. From the invasion of Burmecia to the journey to the Outer Continent in pursuit of Kuja up to where the main villain of the game takes control of Bahamut to eliminate the forces of Queen Brahne. That covered entire Alexandrian Invasion arc and then some and he left it at that for now. His reason being 'No need to focus on things that that far in the future'. With the events we went through, it looked like our presence here might have some small changes, hopefully those changes aren't big enough to alter story events.

There's also the problem of MJM though. He might be another variable in this equation or he might just be an extra we're overthinking about. Who knows? We don't. For all we know he's still in Dali taking care of the factory and the weapons they're making. If that's the case then taking care of business in the Outer Continent should fix that.

After that is the issue of going home. Will we be able to find a way or will we be stuck here forever? Blake looked like he was thinking deeply into finding a way back to our world, but he didn't have any clues on how to do that, and he expressed his anger in not knowing how to. I obviously don't either. I don't want to get complacent about this, but we don't really have any power that could bring about a way to solve this problem. Terra might have the technology to do it, with their study of souls and Garland's experiment there and all, but that seems very far off and I think waiting that long might not be in the cards. It's possible we won't last until then since the enemy would be WAY overpowered compared to the two of us—

No, don't think like that! The moment you think you don't have a chance it becomes real. Just focus on getting through the day before worrying about your future.

"At least there aren't that many things to worry about..." I mumbled as I went over the next future events.

"There might not be as many, but they're big enough. And we're one of those variables. Just us being has changed a few things. Who knows how much more?"

Then that brings up what I want to talk about. "Then that means we shouldn't keep everything as they should be, right?"

He sits up again, this time looking shocked. "What? No! We should KEEP everything as they should be as much as we can."

"Why?" I simply asked.

"Don't you remember what I said back in the Prima Vista? Information is power. We're just normal people in a cast of the extraordinary. What we know of the future is our only advantage!"

If we can change anything in this world, it should be how the future can be less destructive. We might be able to save lives! "Well we don't need to change a lot of things. Just enough to get a better future."

"The moment we change something major is when we shoot ourselves in the foot! We'll be limping into a battle we didn't know is an actual battle for our lives!"

"It's not like we'll be alone in this. I'm sure everyone will be willing to help."

Blake scoffed. "Oh yeah, the monkey boy who is also from a different planet, the girl with the royal burden, the kid with existential issues, and the overprotective knight. I'm sure telling them all of this won't bring about bigger issues."

"They're our friends. I know they trust us. But this isn't about them. This is about what we can do with what we have. We've already affected the world in multiple ways." We've already given out the points where we had an effect on the world.

"Those are mistakes." He glared at me as he put emphasis on that last word. "My encounter with that soldier is one. Trying to be a hero on the cargo ship is another. All of it has been a big pain in the ass. I don't plan on making more."

"Do you even know how much help we could be in this world?"

"I know it would be all a waste the moment we find our way back home!"

"What if we don't!?" Damn it, it slipped. It got tense and quiet all of a sudden. We both got into the heat of it and were basically leaning in to deliver our points. I had to take in a breath and let it out slowly, my back easing out to meet again with the chair. Blake looked like he was he wasn't letting his stance on the argument go. Thankfully he isn’t shouting anymore.

He then gets up from his bed, Chuck tweeting worriedly after him, but he ignored it and simply went to the door. He opened it and stepped aside. So that's it then? What he says goes and that's final? I shake my head before standing up.

"Us being here is wrong and you know it. But we’re not responsible for that. What we can be responsible for is what happens now that we’re here. We can still help them." I tell him when I stopped out of his door. Blake didn't bother to look at me, but by how he exhaled, hiding a grunt in his breath, he didn't like hearing that and wanted that to be the end of it.

"We can fight with them, but that doesn't mean we have to fight for them." Blake says decisively. He made sure to let me know how he felt with my points by slamming the door right behind me, causing me to flinch with the sound of the door's impact almost booming down the hall. I wouldn't be surprised if anyone peeked their heads out wondering what the hell was happening. There wasn't anyone else in the hallway, probably life giving me a bit of a break.

I didn't want to be in the inn after that tense exchange. As it turns out when I was trying to relax and let go of the argument, as much as I want to knock on his door and try to convince him that he's wrong, that my hands were clenched. It took me half the hallway to notice it and relax the hand. Blake might not want to hear about it today, but I can't let that be the end of it! But right now after dealing with his stubbornness I felt like going for a walk.

Walking past the confused innkeeper and out of the building, I had no destination in mind but my legs still carried me into the streets of the Business District. I didn't get into many arguments in my life, but when I did walking off helped clear my mind of it. I was marching around various people, trying to keep out their way while venting with my feet against the sidewalk, the various noises around me just going through deaf ears. Maybe I should've paid attention where I was going or what was happening when I nearly hit a parade of construction workers going for a break, but I couldn't help think about what Blake said as much as I want to put it behind me for now.

My mind keeps trying to find reasons why Blake is so adamant in keeping things the way they are. We've already changed a handful of things, he’s clearly admitted that, and it surely has affected the story, but there doesn't seem to be anything major that's going to screw us over in the next few days. Hell, even Blake taking Steiner's place in being poisoned by the plants back in Evil Forest did almost nothing to the story.

Okay, so that's a pretty easy thing to point out.

Blake had good points though, I'll give him that, but there's something about them that doesn't feel good about it, almost neglectful to the premise of his argument. It's like he sees a fight happening in front of it and knows how to stop it, but he stays in the sidelines watching the whole thing happen nonchalantly, only putting on his concerned face when someone looks at him for a brief moment during the fight and then instantly dropping it when everyone's attention if off him. He doesn't look like the type of guy to take joy in doing that sort of thing.

He's brought up this point back in the cargo ship before we fought Black Waltz No. 3. His suggestion was to hide in the engine room of the ship, not because we're cowards, but because we're not “obligated” to fight. Did he need obligation to take part in anything? He's avoided most of the fighting when he can because of his injury. Okay, that's fine. Maybe he doesn't want to reinjure it before the third Black Waltz went to town on it.

Yet when I look back in our past battles he did step in a lot when he had the opportunity. Like during the Prison Cage fight, he stabbed it like crazy when it went down momentarily, or when the chocobo cart was being attacked. There's also the boss fight with Black Waltz No. 2 that got him a lot of flak with Steiner. Even when he suggested to hide away from the fight or started the encounter in the cabin with Dagger, he was the one who stepped in twice to give us a chance to stop the third Black Waltz.

So what does that mean after all he's said about not having to fight? He believes that the both of us aren't obligated to fight alongside Zidane and the others, yet runs interference or helps out anyway.

Each time he jumped in the fight there's a calculated risk. He should've known the risks each time he intervened or caused a distraction. It just turned out that his most recent one didn't pan out greatly for him. When you take a chance, you always risk something bad or good would happen to you. Risk is something you face every day, whether you know it or not. That's also something we have to consider if we want to change something in this world, and Blake's already decided that is something not worth doing.

And that is what's frustrating about what he said! He clearly knows the pros and cons, yet he's the one facing away from something that could help us do some good in this world. We might be able to stop Alexandria early and prevent the disasters that country will cause later. Act now for the future and all that. It's frustrating he thinks that if we change anything that we'd basically sign our own death warrant.

Well he got plant poison in his lungs by accident, but he didn't die now, did he? I'm sure he's still breathing in the inn! Oh look, no one died because of that change!

If he knows how to change the world and knows the risk, then what is he afraid of!?

...Calm down, Alyssa. Breathe in, breathe out. You're walking so you can put this whole thing in the back burner and try again later. It might not happen today, it could be tomorrow or later (if I'm being positive and hopeful and if Blake's being reasonable) that he might help me with a way to do this.

Out of the corner of my eye as I was turning a corner, I notice something familiar pass me by. My peripheral vision caught some of it, but the sight of something brown flailing in the air with wind under it caused my head to turn after it. The moment I tried looking for it though, it was gone. Strange, I thought I'd seen something I've seen before. Maybe I should be focusing on where I'm going instead of rattling on and on in my head...

And when I turn back to keep walking, I feel something grab my shoulder.

Maybe it was my leftover frustration from my exchange with Blake that transferred over to adrenaline or my self-defense lessons kicking in, but whatever it was it kicked in and made me grab the limb, twist around it and throw the individual over my shoulder. I put my knee where its neck should be and ready a punch. Then I realize this person trying to grab me didn't mean to surprise me because of how shocked they looked. His other hand was held up in surrender and the shock transitioned to embarrassment. His yellow tail tapped me on the arm, probably trying to say he's tapping out.

"Zidane?" I lowered my punching hand, still confused as to what he was doing.

"N-Nice hustle there, Alyssa. Can you ease up a bit? Having trouble breathing here..." Zidane pointed to the knee putting pressure on his neck. Seeing that I was causing discomfort on him, I stood up as quickly as I threw him and put a hand forward.

"Sorry about that! I wasn't thinking straight!"

The former member of Tantalus coughed a bit, but he was back to his normal self just a few seconds later, waving it all off with his hand before taking my hand. "No big deal. It's not every day I get flipped over in the middle of the street."

I pull him up easily and watch him dust off his clothes. My little act there attracted a bit of attention from the surrounding folks, staring as if they were' waiting for a fight to happen. The moment I apologized they had started to disperse and move on with their lives.

"Why were you even sneaking up on me? Don't you know girls don't like it when guys do that?"

He was scratching the back of his head now. "You looked like you just walked out of a shower. Thought you were lost or something."

"Eh?" I look down and finally get what he meant. The towel I used earlier was still on my shoulders and my brown hair glistened from the moisture that's yet to dry, even after the talk with Blake and the venting walk I just had. Sometimes having long hair is a pain...

"You look like you need a break. Let's dry your hair off first." Agreeing with him, I was about to head back the way I went. Then I realized I'd basically wandered off into streets I don't think I've been to earlier. This is what happens when you "vent" without having any kind of destination.

"Can you help me get back to the inn? I kinda lost my way..." I ask him, blushing bit because of my stupidity.

"Inn?" He repeated, surprised I brought that place up. "Weren't you staying in the castle with Dagger and Vivi?"

I sigh. "I'll tell you all about it on the way there." Except for the parts about changing world events, otherworldly secrets, and the brief consideration of wearing a corset. Those are things he can live without knowing. Until I can find the right time, that is.

Not the corset though! No one needs to know about that!

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 19: Gil In One Hand, Questions in the Other

- Alyssa -

"So let me get this straight…" Zidane tried to summarize as we sat on a bench. "Blake wanted to leave the castle because he wasn't comfortable staying there and preferred somewhere smaller. Then after that you guys had an argument, which lead you to walking out into the street with your hair still wet that got me flipped over your shoulder because I caught you off-guard. Is that it?"

"That's pretty much the gist of it." I nodded as I dried the tips of my brown hair, the last portion that remained significantly wet. With that done, I started to fold the towel.

After my attempt to clear my head and walk for a few minutes, I got lost in my head and in the city and found myself wondering if it was a good idea to even wander about by myself. In hindsight it probably wasn't since the only parts of town I'm familiar with are the ones shown in the game. That's not much though when each district in the game only had like three to five screens with limited accessibility.

Good thing Zidane was there when I realized my mistake, though he might think otherwise after I threw him to the ground. That's why you don't sneak up on people even in crowded streets. Maybe since he's a thief he doesn't know that lesson. Glad I'm here to provide something helpful for the guy. I guess that makes us even now?

"Shouldn't he be in bed resting up after what happened," he asked.

"Well he was since he had a whole day to sleep in, but I guess the castle wasn't the place for him. And it sucks too since the rooms there are fantastic!"

"That's what Vivi says too. Have you told Dagger and Vivi you were staying somewhere else?"

I shook my head. I assumed Blake didn't want to deal with anyone else after being in such a bad mood when he woke up. It's understandable he'd be pissed at injuring his wrist again, but not wanting to talk with your other friends and just bolt out of there? Then again with how he talked about not telling the others about who we really are, it makes me wonder if he thinks of them as their friends. I do, especially after we've been through the past few days.

"Oh man, Dagger even wanted to chew him out for that stunt he did, but couldn't since he was out for the day."

"That's what I said to him earlier and that just made him get outta there faster!" We laughed. He might've gotten a bit roughed up by Steiner after what he did during the fight with Black Waltz No. 2, but I'm sure that might be far better than what the princess of Alexandria has to say.

"At least he has you to look after him." He commented.

"Dr. Thomas said it would give him some peace of mind if someone did. You know with how reckless the guy is, getting hurt again is pretty possible." And he kinda trusts me to do so. I would've added that, but that might only make Zidane ask why I was so trusted or how he doesn't trust the others to help out.

The former Tantalus member gave me a look, his lips almost curled to a smile as if hiding it but simply couldn't help himself. When I gave him a questioning look he probably realized the face he was doing and snapped back to reality and put up his hands in surrender.

"So he moved out of a place with a better bed and downgraded. Odd choice. And he's out like a light again?" I shrugged at his question. He didn't really say anything about what he wanted to do aside from out up his feet after a lot of walking. I'm just assuming he'd be napping in there. "How is that guy not full or energy yet?"

"He kinda looks like the type of guy who'd want to stay in instead of be out and about." I remarked. It's really surprising too after all the sleep he got.

"You sure know a lot about that guy." The guy beside me chuckled. What's that supposed to mean?

Zidane leans back into the bench after a few seconds of awkward silence, not caring about the looks some of the other people passing by gave us for being a bit too loud. Then he puts his chin in his hand as if he had a thought about something. It wasn't until a moment later, when he looks at me with a raised eyebrow, that he broaches the topic by pointing at the inn. "So if he wasn't comfortable in the castle, why is he staying at the inn?"

"Well that place is affordable and was the closest. The other places were too much for our pockets and—"

"I mean, why bother with an inn? Doesn't he live here in Lindblum?"

...Crap! He did mention that to Dagger in the cargo ship when our conversation got a bit too loud. When did Zidane hear about this? "Uh...I'm not really sure." Yeah, that sure sounds like it'd convince the guy, Alyssa.

"I mean you'd want to save money by going home instead of buying a room here. This inn is cheap, at least affordable to most people, but it's still a waste when you already live here."

"I...er..." Crapcrapcrap! Words fumbling. Excuses lacking. Need help!

"Plus, if he can make the brief journey to the Business District then he should be able to go over to his house, right?"

I laughed nervously and tried to nod, hoping that would get him to stop questioning. It didn't and Zidane went on as if he was making a vocal stream of consciousness journal.

"Unless he's avoiding going home for a specific reason. Reminds me of the one time I got Blank and Genero in trouble with the law, complete accident by the way, and the boss was waiting for me in the hideout. That was a group meeting I didn't want to walk into. Blank and Genero would forgive me, but the boss was a hard-ass back in the day so he's really wanted to teach me a lesson."

I guess this is another problem I have, and probably something I need to fix on my own. Blake easily goes through his backstory whenever Zidane and the others sneak up on us and ask questions. He's even the one who "gave" me one, though to be honest I didn't need it. Right now I just need to figure something out so Zidane won't be suspicious. Not that hard...right?

"...So I hid around town to avoid him, but a thief can never run for all his life. Baku got to me and thrashed me for being sloppy AND for running. Goes to show you that you need to face some problems head on. So, what's Blake's reason? Or maybe he just doesn't want to go home?"

"Not that. He actually wants to go home." A whole lot of truth to that one, but not the kind of home Zidane is thinking about.

Zidane hummed curiously at my interruption. He's looking at me as if he was waiting for me to say more. That brief answer didn't look like it convinced him either. Okay, just try something! Anything that could hopefully work! Oh! "Maybe for work?"

"Work?" He repeated. I nodded as my brain tried to think of more stuff to add to that. Then his tail stopped for a second, kinda like it was making him look like he realized something. "Oh yeah, how could I forget? He's a salesman."

"Y-Yeah. Salesman." I forgot that's part of his created backstory. He sure doesn't look like the part anymore, but what can you do when you need to buy a change of clothes. But still, I nodded more at what Zidane said.

He was nodding to himself, trying and successfully understanding the point he was making on his own. "I guess staying here makes sense since this is the Business District. Gotta be close to every customer and competitor in his line of work, especially when he's all banged up like that. Easier to get to and shorter travel time. He'd just have to walk for a few minutes."

"You got it." I let Zidane fill in the blanks while I internally felt the tension in my shoulders loosen.

"Anyway!" He suddenly declares as he jumps off the bench on to his feet. "It might be a bit early and it there's still plenty of daylight to go through. You got any plans?"

Yeah, there's plenty of time in the day yet. The day's just passed lunchtime anyway. Tons of things to do, tons of places to explore, probably might not do that last part by myself. I can't go running around without Blake since I need to keep an eye out for him. But with all I did this morning I kinda want to get some rest before going around town.

"I was kinda thinking of going to the castle." As I get up and collect my folded towel, I add what I want to do. "Dagger and Vivi deserve an explanation why Blake and I aren't around. I might invite Vivi later when I want to go around town in a few hours.

"Sounds fun. I'll just go with you and see what's up with everyone."

"Let me just put this away and then we can go."

Zidane nods and decides to wait for me as I bring my towel back to the inn and have it washed. I may have two towels in total but it sure does help to have this one dried out just in case. Most of my friendly get-togethers back at home had me having more than one towel available for so many reasons. Might as well keep that tradition alive here.

As I was walking up the stairs to the second floor of the inn, I hear some noises from one of the rooms. I slow my approach as I try to find the source. The noise is muffled due to the doors being secured and the walls being thick enough to make the inn feel private. It could be anything from one of the guests dropping their stuff to people having a 'playful' rendezvous, but it wouldn't hurt to know where it's coming from.

Then I find out that the sounds were coming from Room 5. That's Blake's room. Obviously he's not having any kind of rendezvous there. But why is he talking so much? He might be the kind to utter things to himself, but full blown conversations? He's probably gone crazy or has taken his meds and it's taking an undesired effect.

I rap my knuckles against his door. The sounds stop for a moment before it was followed by a toned down voice. "Blake? You alright in there?"

What sounded like feet started moving towards the door. The lock was opened and his face peeped through the crack he made at the edge of the doorway. "What do you want?" His eyes don't even meet mine, like he was looking at something else in the room.

"You feeling okay? It kinda sounds like you were talking in there."

He briefly looks at me as if I said something stupid. "Of course I was. I'm talking to Chuck here. Can't a parent chat with his chocobo without being judged? Sheesh, what a nosey woman."

Okay, that last part was uncalled for even if it looked like he was saying it to himself. Looks like he's still in a sour mood. "Well sorry I asked." I was about to leave him to his own problems when my brain just registered what he had just said. Then I turn around and grin at him, wagging my finger at him. "Well I'm glad you're taking your parental responsibilities seriously. Can't have a baby chocobo grow up without being treated properly~."

Blake realized his mistake and was mouthing numerous words like a fish gasping for air. His face started to go red and he finally let words form out of his mouth. "Oh shut up."

And with that he slammed the door closed, this time however I feel like I won that exchange. Let's just take that victory and hope we can get one where it actually counts. Now, where do I put this towel for washing?

-Blake-

"Us being here is wrong and you know it. But we're not responsible for that. What we can be responsible for is what happens now that we're here. We can still help them." Alyssa said as she stopped beside me, causing me to frown where she used to sit just a few moments before. I would have raised my voice and told her she was being a selfish know-it-all, but I settled on gripping the doorknob as hard as I can, refocusing all that energy into something that wouldn't attract any attention.

I face her as she stands there out in the corridor. "We can fight with them, but that doesn't mean we HAVE to fight FOR them."

And with that, I let the door smack against the frame with a noise that would have turned heads outside wondering what that was. The chocobo sitting on my bed looks at me with a slight tilt of the head and a soft kweh, possibly frightened by the slam of the door. Calming down with a few breaths, I walk over and retake my previous position, moving Chuck aside just a little bit in order to avoid squashing it.

I sigh and comb my left hand through my hair in an effort to relieve some stress. That girl is seriously a handful. There's always something bad about her line of thinking and with what she wants done. It's like her priorities don't include sustaining her own survival. Doesn't she even realize how stupid she sounds when she brought it up? 'We can still help them.' Blah. Her and her self-righteousness...

We seriously do not need to do anything that would clearly endanger us. She wants to 'help' the people here by letting them know what happens in the future. There are already three problems with that.

One, if we happen to change anything then we might get involved in bigger messes. Her intent may aim to have good effects in the world, but did she ever consider what kind of negative effects she might cause. If I do happen to agree with her and go about doing something with our information, like say, tell Regent Cid that Alexandria is invading Burmecia for example. Sure it might stop a war from happening, but what if that caused Lindblum to be annihilated by the queen's stolen eidolons? That's a possibility and I don't want to sit around thinking of infinite negative possibilities from these actions we introduce to the game's story.

There are always consequences when things change. I've handled as much consequences from the changes we've indirectly and directly caused. I would rather not encounter any more of these because, for the life of me, I want to experience less pain and even lesser broken bones.

Two, losing the ability to know what kind of dangers we might face. That's my main problem with her regarding this whole thing and a very big deal about our knowledge. I want to know how to stay safe and I can't assure myself that I am if I'm always looking over my shoulder or thinking I might run into something life threatening every five steps I take. I NEED to know that everything is going as it happens in the game. Why? Because it helps us not stumble around in the dark and know where to go. I don't want to change anything because it might change the major story beats. If we did we might run into major complications, like encountering General Beatrix where she shouldn't be encountered or bringing about the end of Queen Brahne sooner than the game's actual events. It also might push events farther in time or put them closer to today. I need to be ready for everything, and I can't deal with those complications if they happen out of order.

Three, giving away what we know will need us to reveal to everyone our secrets. If we actually do go through with this, people will wonder how in the world a stranger know about what happens in the future. Once they have a taste of that they will want the whole plate. They will get greedy and will want to track us down, demand to know more of the future, take advantage of every drop of information until we're run dry or unable to predict the future.

And that's just talking about everyone we don't know and those in power. What about the people we DO know? Zidane, Dagger, Vivi, and Steiner. As much as I think less of people I don't know, these are individuals I have traveled with and are characters I know about. I do not want to know how they will react and respond when they find out that we are not who we say we are. However, it is inevitable to hide secrets forever. There will be a time when this will happen, but I do hope that this happens when we have found our way home, when we'll be gone to even answer those questions for them.

Alyssa is right about one thing. Our presence here is one big disturbance that even the both of us don't know how to solve. I've already told her that there's bound to be someone out there that might use us for what we have. That is a major occurrence I never want to happen to either of us. If she insists on doing what she wants then it'll only be a matter of time that both of us get caught. I'd rather jump off the side of a cliff before I let them have the information in my head.

Can she, at least, continue to follow my lead without questioning my decisions? I've done a ton of stuff for her. I've provided a new sword for her, I made her backstory, I've forgiven her for her blunder that caused me to get plant seeds in my system, and I've now bought her a new outfit so I can no longer make fun of her disastrous mechanic uniform choice. I would appreciate it more if she just takes some of the weight off my shoulders by never thinking about the concept of change ever again.

"Kweh?" My ears pick up the sound of Chuck, disrupting my thoughts. With a sigh, I open my eyes and find it on my stomach tying to climb up my new shirt. It sure likes exploring a lot now and it's getting better at walking. Perhaps I should let it walk on its own now. No, it's still too small. It might meet its end on the boot of some poor individual not paying attention to where they are going.

"What's wrong? Hungry?" I let it get on my other hand and inspect it closely as I wonder why it was making those sounds just a second earlier. Perhaps it is hungry or just wanting my attention.

With that in mind, I get up and walk over to the desk where I let the chocobo down. It waddles over to the small pouch containing the tasty Gyashl Pickles. So it is hungry. Letting the pouch open a bit and pull one out for the little bird, I set one of the pickles on the desk and close the pouch before its major odor seeps into the room. I can handle one pickle in the room since it is going to be eaten in a few minutes.

A yawn escapes my lips as I watch Chuck nibble into the tasty treat. Watching it eat was barely boring at all. It must be all the walking I've done the past few hours as well as the whole clothes shopping. This new get-up should last me a long time, unless it gets wrecked in the future. This should be a good time as any to break it in.

"I'm going to take a nap," I tell it as I fetch one of the pillows on my bed. "Don't want to crush you while I sleep, so I'll leave this here if you want to sleep too after you're done eating." I place the pillow on the desk, tapping it to flatten it a bit before giving the chocobo one last pat before going to my bed.

Its soft kwehs lingers in the air as I position my injured arm on another pillow. When my head's rested on a pillow it turns back to the pickle to take another bite, comforted that I'm laying down and about to sleep. I let the thoughts of the argument slip out of my mind as I fall into, hopefully, a brief nap.

I didn't have anything on me or in the room to tell me about how long it was, but I did feel groggy when I was woken up. What roused me was this melodic sound coming from inside the room. My brain was still trying to wake up from that short sleep, but I am definitely sure I did not have anything that plays music on me nor is there any machine in the inn that functions like a jukebox.

I turn my head left and right in an attempt to find the source of this noise and my eyes catch a sighting of something brown by the desk. As comforting as finding the source was, I had to double take the instant my brain registered the fact that the source was a person standing in my room. I instantly sat up and cleared my eyes of grogginess.

Standing there with her brown cloak facing me and a gentle hand combing through the black, delicate locks of Chuck whilst humming this soft tone was Meguro.

"Y-You!" My body nearly falls off the bed as I tried to get off it and demand why there's another person in here with me. Thankfully I was able to grab on to the covers and save myself the humiliation of throwing myself off my own bed. The wearer of the brown cloak turns around, looking surprised that I was woken up by her little noises.

"Greetings, my child." She spoke, transitioning her humming to a gentle speaking voice. "Oh my, you look like you've just seen a ghost."

I touched my face and found a trail of sweat running down from my forehead to my cheek. I can't help feeling panicked when there's someone else in my room!

"Apologies. The cries of your little chocobo attracted my attention." Her eyes panned over to Chuck, who she was comforting by petting it. Chuck didn't look bothered by having a complete stranger touch it.

"How did you even get in here!?" The tone of my voice was probably attracting attention. One would be so loud like me right now if they did find an intruder in their room, especially when they could have broken in. A bigger problem aside from unwanted intruders is the mysterious kind of intruder, a perfect description for the lady in front of me.

Her answer was a simple, small smile. "How was your flight to Lindblum?" Changing topics. Can't let you do that.

"I asked you a question first."

Her eyes look towards the splint around my right arm. She hissed once she realized the implications of my arm's new look. "I see your situation has worsened. You have my sympathies."

"I don't need your sympathy. What I need are answers. You're clearly following me yet you ask me how I'm doing. Can we just cut to the chase and answer the questions you owe me!?"

She merely put up a hand, making me pause unconsciously before I started another rant. "Hush, my child. I will answer some of your inquiries. Please sit."

I blinked. After vanishing on me the last time we met, I expected some sort of resistance or stalling before she vanished again. As she took the chair from the desk and pulled it closer, I sat down on the edge of my bed. Meguro noticed Chuck tweeting behind her and cooed at the bird's antics to make it quiet down. She even took it from the pillow it was sat on and handed it over to me.

Once Chuck was in my hand, I trained my eyes on her, almost expecting her to not be there anymore if I happen to look away. Being Batman'd again before she answers my questions is something I would like to prevent. "Well?"

Meguro put up three fingers as she began. "I will only answer three of your questions. Nothing more, nothing less."

Wait. Only three questions? Are you kidding me? What's with the genie bullshit? Why even bother talk to me right now when you are going to limit the choices for conversation like that? Okay, let's calm down before I accidentally mutter all these questions and have her answer them when I have actual questions to ask. I can be angry all I want, but that wouldn't change the fact that she tried to equal any demand I might put forth with a limiter. It still sounds like she is hiding something and hoping that I don't ask the right questions.

But then a great thought comes into mind: what are the right questions to ask?

All I have on her is her name and that she apparently follows me around. I have not seen her in the distance or noticed her presence before until she wants it to be known. Perhaps her actual presence here is one of the many questions that I want answered.

"Just who in the hell are you?" I finally asked.

Meguro gestured to herself with a hand on her chest. "As I have stated before, my name is Meguro. I am a traveler. Most people who know me say that I am the observational type."

When she stopped at that, I found her answer very lacking. "Really? That's it? You couldn't be even vaguer if you tried. Well, I think you can be vaguer than that."

"Hmmm...? It is true at face value, that I can assure you." I narrowed my eyes at the woman. She's sitting there plainly with her hands folded at her legs, her hood down to let her bun-tied white hair breathe, and only waited for me to say something. I'm waiting for something to show me that she's hiding something, like a crooked smile, a twitch in her hands, anything that might give her away. Even with all my time spent watching Lie to me, her body language didn't give off anything useful. But my mind can't help but think she's sitting there chuckling internally and telling me to take what she said as what it literally means, and thinking about it like that pisses me off.

As little as that answer offered, I'm one question down for what it's worth. That is if I can take her answer seriously and trust that what she's saying has no vague second meanings.

"I do not mean to offend you, but your actions have caused some rather interesting results. Not everyone can lead a battalion of soldiers in chase like that in Alexandria."

"So you've been watching me since then..."

"I was in town and it attracted a lot of attention. I couldn't help it." Now that's a statement worth being curious about...

"Your responses, even though you've answered only one question, just reeks of suspiciousness."

She nods at my comment and none of her hair even goes out of place. "Being cautious is commendable, especially for someone in your situation. Trust is not a throwaway currency here so I understand your comprehension."

What did she mean by that first line? As tempting it was ask another question, I just wanted to point out something by her tone. "That sounds like what someone would say if they want to earn their trust."

Her head tilts at the side when she hears that. "Even if I were to help you with no cost?"

"That just makes you all the more suspicious," I pointed out.

It was her turn to ask a question. "Don't you trust the goodness in everyone's heart?" And she punctuates that by placing a hand on her chest, as if saying I can help you, you know?

I did not expect that kind of question from someone like her. A strange traveler walking in a cloak of mysteriousness, but even with that in mind I still answered her with what I impulsively thought about her question. "Nobody just goes out of their way to help someone. There's always something behind it. Whether it may be a pretentious feeling of heroism or becoming indebted to their helper or being a cog in someone's grand master plan. There's always a motive. Always."

"I see..." The enigmatic lady trailed off, nodding at my answer. She didn't look offended at my answer, and I wouldn't bother caring because it's my opinion, but her expression made her out to be intrigued by what she heard. "You have two more questions. Keep in mind that you may want to avoid the trivialities."

Good point. We can't just branch out and talk about something like vagueness and trust all day.

Just as I was trying to piece together my next inquiry, I hear a knock at my door. Both of our heads turn to the noise. Everything is quiet until another voice, muffled, speaks.

"Blake? You alright in there?" Alyssa? What's she doing out there?

Meguro simply smiles and gestures to the door, as if granting me permission to take care of the nuisance out in the door. I don't need your permission. She just took me by surprise. I thought she wouldn't want to talk to me after what we said to each other before. I hurried over to the door whilst keeping an eye on the woman in the chair by my bed. It would have completed my intentions with a "keeping my eyes on you" signal with my hand if I wasn't so busy opening the door.

"What do you want?" I ask through the small crack in the door.

"You feeling okay? It kinda sounds like you were talking in there." The girl with her somewhat-still-moist brown hair tried to open the door more and I kept it in position with my foot. Concerned, are we? I guess caring for what you can change in the world isn't enough.

I answer as I constantly switch my sights between her and Meguro. "Of course I was. I'm talking to Chuck here." Can't a parent chat with his chocobo without being judged? Sheesh, what a nosey woman.

"Well sorry I asked." She accepted my answer and was about to turn to her room when she suddenly faced me again, this time with this weird smile on her face and wagging her finger at me. "Well I'm glad you're taking your parental responsibilities seriously. Can't have a baby chocobo grow up without being treated properly~."

That coming from her caught me off-guard. I tried to come up with a suitable comeback, but I was stuck combing through words with my mouth flapping open and closed before I went with something generic. "Oh shut up."

I closed the door forcefully, hopefully with the same impact as the same time she left earlier, but it didn't feel like it as I grunted at the now closed door. Chuck's kweh after the ending of that little exchange brought me a bit of comfort.

What didn't give me comfort was the empty chair sitting between the bed and the desk. In the tiniest moment I had looked away, Meguro had once again disappeared.

Desperately looking around for a sign of the cloaked woman, nothing seemed to point to any way she might have gone to. The window hadn't budged, the closet looked untouched, and there didn't seem to be any hidden doorway or entrance anywhere! I tried to move at the chair and see if she's just invisible or not. When my hands didn't touch anything, I tried calling out to her softly. That also failed.

My left hand clenches in anger. That woman did it again! At least Batman has an excuse. That he's a busy superhero, always on duty to protect the citizens of Gotham from whatever villain-of-the-week is on the loose. She doesn't have that. Can she, at least, offer some courtesy and say where she's going and where she can be found? And she still owes me two questions! Now I don't even know how I'll get to continue this conversation with her popping in and out when she wants.

...Okay, let's look at things differently for once. At least I won't be put on the spot like now. I can actually think about what I want to know from her. She seems to know more than she lets on. There's also what she said back in Dali, that I shouldn't let anyone know I was talking to her and that she can be helpful. There's a lot of questions that I can put together and find out which ones take precedence.

I need a pen and paper...

-Alyssa-

Once I put away the towel and properly dried my hair and collecting my stuff (I was taught not to leave my stuff in any inn/hotel room unless there's someone guarding it, like literally staring at it in case someone moves it), I meet Zidane back at the street and we rode the aircab to Lindblum Grand Castle.

We see Vivi looking into the fountain as soon as we enter the castle. Steiner was also there with him, talking to his "Master" and another of the guards about something related to knighthood and their duty. Vivi was enthralled with their conversation and looked like he was so into it that he's learning a lot just by being there.

He did notice Zidane since he was in front of me. When he saw me his waving turned to running up to me. The leader of the Pluto Knights' mood shifted from averagely glad to sour the moment his eyes caught Zidane beside me. I guess the animosity for 'kidnapping' the princess and his overall roguish shenanigans still rub him the wrong way. Can't say I blame him. He has to be cautious about a lot of people, especially someone who was hired to take the princess even if it was with the best interests. Maybe he still hasn't heard the full explanations from Cid's own oglop-y mouth or from the princess herself.

"Alyssa, where were you? The guards said you weren't around this morning and Dagger was worried..." Vivi would have gone on about what he's done during his panicked morning if I hadn't knelt in front of him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Sorry about that. I'll explain in a bit, but Blake's finally up and walking." I told him.

"And where is that cretin now?" Steiner asked, his conversation with the guard having ended the moment we walked into the scene.

"In the Bobo Bird Inn at the Business District." Okay, just stick to what you've told Zidane and you won't let anything else slip. Focus on retelling what you've already said, Alyssa, and you won't even have to resort to full blown lying.

"A relief then that such a criminal is farther away from the princess." The knight crosses his arms, feeling a bit content about that little tidbit of a fact, but I'm sure he's still weary that Zidane's around.

"Allegedly a criminal," Zidane corrects. I would've actually done that if he didn't beat me to the punch. "He's bound to instantly deny that he's done anything close to a crime. And maybe you want to pipe down about that 'princess' stuff. You might as well announce she's here if you keep that up." That comment didn't leave quite the positive note on Steiner. He was about to enter his Rusty Ranting Mode if Vivi didn't step between them. "Anyway, speaking of which, where's Dagger?"

"She's been with the Regent and the Minister for a while now." The black mage pointed up to where the princess is located. I think this should've happened yesterday, but with all the excitement around our arrival and Blake's injury it might've pushed that talk to today. That's another thing we changed indirectly and didn't plan on doing. Add that to the list of mistakes.

"Since all of her worries had actually walked out of the castle without even considering to talk to her before they left, she has requested to talk with her uncle because she had a limited time of doing so yesterday." Wow, Steiner. If I didn't know who you were talking about I wouldn't have known that was a subtle jab. However, it's good that he's not shouting his head off.

Knowing that she's busy for a while, I might as well make a visit to Dr. Thomas. He hasn't given me any notification about anything regarding paying back the operation he did. Given that I don't have any money and that I plan on taking some work to earn some gil, I might as well know how much would be needed so I can work to that level.

"If that's the case, I'll be going over to Dr. Thomas for a while. Wanna come, Vivi?" The black mage thinks about it for a few seconds, having to think why I need to talk to the doctor, but still agreed to come along. I excused myself from the group and walk over to the elevator. Unsurprisingly, Zidane still joined me, probably so he can see Dagger when I ca finally talk to him. What was surprising was Steiner trailing behind him. His eyes were basically homed in on every action the thief was doing.

"Do not mind me. I am simply keeping a close eye on this scoundrel in case he has any plans on doing anything mischievous." Ever the overprotective knight. Not that I can stop him from doing anything. Let's just hope they don't get into their routine before Dagger comes along.

We eventually arrive at the medical wing at our casual walking pace, with Steiner doing what he said he is going to do by guarding the back of Zidane's head and was only waiting for him to breathe wrong to spring into a rant. The gentleman with the PhD was found sorting his equipment from a disorganized mess in a tray into drawers after being cleaned by a towel in one of his hands. His head turns when I knock on the open door.

"Good morning to everyone!" He greeted with a toothy smile and a wave despite his hand was holding a scalpel. "What can I do for all of you?"

Everyone else who doesn't have a question had stopped by the door and I was about halfway across the room when I realized this. "Ah...well actually I need to ask you a question. Something about Blake's injury."

"Very well. Ask away then. Has he done anything to cause stress on the wound or is he following my advice?" Dr. Thomas nodded and gestured for me to come closer. Another surgical tool was placed into the drawer in front of him after a swift yet efficient cleaning.

"He's actually taking it easy for now. I was meaning to ask you about the cost of the work done on Blake's wrist." The result of the whole Black Waltz No. 3 mess was a very bloody affair with a mish-mash of broken bones. I'm sure the whole procedure would cost a lot of pretty pennies just to get that done. If Blake was here to ask about it he'd probably complain about a sudden pain in his pocket if he were to hear the price.

The castle doctor chuckled at my question as he out away another device. "Oh don't worry about that, my dear. I won't require you to pay for it."

Whoa, did he just basically say that the operation was free? Even if Blake was at his grumpiest that would definitely turn his frown upside down. Then came the question why. "That's great and all, but why?"

"For one, you and your friends looked like the aftermath of a brutal encounter. Now I like myself a good brawl because of the number of possible patients it tends to result in, but your friend's injury was a sight to behold! Very bloody and something unsuspected from a lad like him." I'm starting to believe Blake's initial opinion on the middle-aged scholar being slightly off. "And second and the most important one, the Regent paid for it."

My eyes went wide when he got to his second point. "The Regent? Why?"

"As reckless he was in the cargo ship, he helped save us from a horrible predicament." A different person answered. The doctor and I looked at the source by the doorway and found Dagger walking into the room. The others were as surprised as me to find her there when we were just waiting for her to be done. I guess she's bound to find out we were here after her talk with her uncle. "Uncle Cid felt that this was a way to repay that kindness."

As someone with nothing to her name aside from the clothes on my back and the sword on my hip in this world I don't belong in, I would be stuttering all of my thanks at that kind of kindness. But this was for the guy who basically tried to grapple in the air with a winged mage that had his bravery rewarded with an awful injury. They see me as his friend. I'm only here to explain why he moved out. I'll at least show some gratitude for his sake while I'm here.

"Wow. Thanks, Dagger. I'm sure he appreciates the gesture."

"Don't thank me. It was my uncle's decision. I hope he is recovering well wherever he decided to rest in."

"Yeah about that." I rubbed the back of my head.

I explained to her and Vivi, as well as the rest of the group who wanted to know, that he's in the Business District because he didn't feel comfortable being in the Grand Castle. "Not that everything wasn't good. It was awesome being here! Couldn't imagine this would be the first place I'd go to in my first time here. This is the Grand Castle and it felt really, really grand being here, but he's just a salesman. I'm just his friend and I had to look after him." That last part kinda felt like I was just spewing words, but I hope I got my meaning across. Plus, I tried to make it sound less dismissive, because Blake would come off like that if I didn't add his paranoid thoughts. I added the little tidbits Zidane gave me earlier about being closer to work. Thanks for the accidental assist!

Dagger nodded understandingly after I explained it to her. Vivi accepted it as well as he took it all in whilst I apologized for not telling them about this before we left. I would've if it wasn't so early then. Everyone deserved a good night's rest after what happened to us on the way here. Anyway, that's one more favor I owe to the princess even though she doesn't know it yet. I'll just have to find out a way to pay her back for it.

Then it got me thinking. She's connected to Lindblum via family ties even if it's just friendship through their parents. He cared enough to have her taken here, where he thinks it's safe and away from Queen Brahne and her current weird ways. But the truth of the matter is the city isn't a safe place away from the queen. This is just another target in her ploy to take out most of the other powers here in the Mist Continent. There's definitely a way to change all that now that I'm here.

But the problem is Blake. He doesn't want any more changes to happen to the events. There's a handful of things we already messed up and he believes if we do more it'll make things harder for us to predict what might happen next. He'll definitely know when something's up and it'll surely lead back to me because I'm the only one who knows what he knows.

I don't want to mess things up more, but there's just so many things we can change for the better! The world would be a better place if we just stepped in. But we can't.

"Alyssa?" I looked up to see Dagger waving her hand in front of me. Even Vivi had joined her in the hand waving. Must've stared off into space thinking too hard.

"Sorry. I was just thinking how I can repay you is all." I sheepishly replied.

Steiner and Zidane were already arguing with each other, the former trying to get Zidane to say why he didn't stay in the castle as well with the latter answering that he simply didn't stay to check on his old hideout. That prompted the knight to think that he's up to no good. They're all background noise at this point. That's how the middle aged doctor treated the entire room as he finished the rest of his tools.

Her hand found its way on my shoulder, a caring smile forming across her lips. "You don't need to."

But even when she says that I still feel the need to at least return the kindness.

With what I wanted to do here in the castle now done, I felt that I should get out of everyone's hair for a while. I do have other plans that might take the rest of the day to go through. Now I'm debating whether I should bother Zidane some more or not. Might ask Vivi to come along too so we can hang out some more. We did have that talk yesterday. I feel we should hang out more with and bond without the angst, y'know?

So I thanked Dagger again for the huge assist on the medical fees and excused myself before going to Zidane and Vivi. The yellow-tailed man already went around the entire town to show Vivi the ins and outs. They've bound to have run by a place or two that offers a job. So I ask them if they want to help me find a part-time job. They both said yes and after bidding the princess and her loyal knight goodbye for now, soon we were on the next aircab back to the Business District.

I had to run by the inn and check up on Blake to see if he's still in there or if he went outside. I was met with a yell that he's still fine followed by a tweet from Chuck. Running back out to the street completed my check with him before an entire minute had passed. Here's hoping he continues his good behavior and keeps following what Dr. Thomas told him to do.

For the rest of the day until near dinner time we scoured the city, Business District first since that's a logical place to look for jobs but we expanded our search to the other districts at Vivi's suggestion (he remembered he wanted to look at the library in the Residential District and that sparked his idea). We passed by quite a number of places that needed an extra hand or had an opening for a job. I'd taken notes about their businesses and what role they needed filled, but didn't immediately take it.

I had to know which ones I'd be qualified to do and not do. Kinda like basic job hunting back home. I even made a list of qualifications so I can avoid what happened at the Prima Vista. Not to say that it was a bad place to work in, but I'm not exactly knowledgeable in the field of operating complicated machinery, especially airship machinery.

After hours of going around town and asking if anyone's hiring, we stopped at a family diner in the Residential District. I'm looking over the list as I'm waiting for my order. There was babysitter, librarian, cashier, shop mascot, temporary assistant just to name a few, but there's a lot to choose from. I might've used a lot of paper for my notes and lists though. For the random passerby and customer I probably look like a student too busy reading her papers to mind her other friends.

We were having some casual talk between the three of us, some parts they were trying to suggest what I should do

Soon after our orders came and our conversation went down a more casual road like what we're looking forward to. Vivi wanted to explore the city a bit more, I was just hoping that the jobs I've listed down were still available tomorrow, and Zidane showed interest in the Festival of the Hunt. The youngest of our group wondered what it was and Zidane vaguely described it as a competition with his mouth full of steak. I might've elaborated more on it if I hadn't remembered that Vivi wouldn't be in the Festival if he knew he had to kill monsters by his lonesome. Just avoiding any changes I might cause. So I just shrugged and said that I didn't know much about it.

Zidane perked up his eyebrows when he heard this, but I didn't pay it that much thought as I went back to my salad.

Once we were done with our meals, Zidane and Vivi pooled together their funds and paid for it. That's another addition to the people I owe even if they keep saying it's fine not to repay them in the future. I swear I need to stop this habit because I'm gonna be piling up favors for them up the wazoo if I keep this up. And just when I thought I'd be even with the thief now...

Zidane and I separated with Vivi when the aircab got to the Business District, bidding him goodbye as it drove towards the castle. Turns out he's already been staying there since day 1 of our arrival here. I guess Blake and I were just lucky to have not run into him before we got our rooms. We're greeted by the innkeeper, who was keeping most of the lobby tidy so that it's presentable in the morning.

We bid each other good night before turning to our own rooms. I looked at Blake's door and heard nothing this time. He must be out like a light now since it's late. Even Chuck didn't sound like it's up after listening a bit. He's not gonna appreciate it if I wake him up just to check if he's in there. I'll do that in the morning.

Locking my door when I get in, I change to my old outfit before getting on the bed so I can get comfy for my last read through the list of possible part-time jobs, y'know whittle down my options. Since' I've been at this for a while before dinner so this should take less time. By the time my eyes get heavy I'm sure I'd have one candidate that I'd want to sign up for.

Eventually I finished reading my list and made more notes, scratched out the options I didn't like and was left with only a handful. I folded the papers back and put it away with the rest of my stuff before settling down on the bed for a good night's rest.

The next morning, I end up in front of a familiar shop. I've started telling myself that this could be a bad idea as I look up at the Endless Color sign.

I guess I should've listened to the advice some of my teachers said when it comes to job hunting. 'If it's available, immediately send a resume.' I would if I had a resume on me, but I was so focused on thinking which job would be great for me that I didn't check on the availability of the positions.

So I woke up, I went out after freshening up to get ready to ask if get the job at the places I asked around. I knocked at Blake's door and ask if he wants to come along looking for a part-time job. My attempt was met with loud groaning that was kinda zombie-like that I had to step away in case the door gets kicked open. He's REALLY not a morning person. I left a second later to avoid getting shouted at.

My teachers were right, because the moment I went up to any of the bosses of each place it turns out someone had already applied and was working that day or the spot that needed filling was filled by the person who used to do it because they came back. I'm left standing there each and every time surprised that this even happened. Now I'm thinking I should've asked what the odds were of their old employee coming back or how fast the spot would be filled after I asked. Maybe I should've just went with one instead of being "analytical" about it.

Now I'm standing in front of the Endless Color store to take up Jennifer's offer because she still had a sign saying she's looking for workers. Very vague, but it's still a job.

Sighing, I take a few steps towards the door and then knock. Jenny answers a few seconds later with a curious look on me at first, but something in her eyes told me she realized why I was here and it wasn't for demanding a refund for the outfit. A smile grew on her face as I pointed to the sign on the door. She opens the door invitingly and I follow her inside.

"And that's why I'm in this." I flourish my arm over my outfit: a long, flowing dress that seemed to hug at my figure and looked lavish and shiny with fur at the collar and sleeves, completed by a sleek red finish.

Blake and Vivi stare at me as I completed my explanation. Vivi tilted his head as he tried to think of what to say. "I don't think you would be able to fight off monsters in that,"

The injured one of the two raises a finger to assert a point. "Once again, you certainly look like a girl right now. Surprisingly feminine."

I point at him and march up to his face. "Maybe you'd like to wear this dress and then we'll see who'll look more girly than the two of us." Chuck shared in his uncertainty with a single chirp.

He frowned at what I said and took a step back. "I have no idea where in the world that sounds threatening. Except for being labeled a crossdresser. That I can do without."

"Uh...guys, maybe you shouldn't fight in the street." Vivi was right. I was once again attracting unwanted attention like yesterday. At least I haven't flipped anyone on their back.

Anyways, the reason why Blake and Vivi were out in the Business District was Zidane brought out Blake of the inn for lunch. Looking at how resigned the black-haired "salesman" is, he's not at all interested in actually coming out of his room. He's either gone full protection from the outside world like in that one episode in Spongebob Squarepants or he doesn't want to owe Zidane anything. Vivi just happened to pass him by on the way here and now he's here.

We left for the diner Zidane's waiting at. Blake was told the name of it, but with how disoriented he is because of his exposure to the sun this early he couldn't point us where it is exactly. Vivi was the one who directed us to it since he's gotten the grand tour from the lovable thief. We eventually got there and I had to go back to Endless Color to change back to my outfit for my lunch break.

I take my seat beside Vivi after running back. "Alright. What did I miss?"

"Zidane's still not here." Vivi looked over to our empty fourth seat.

Blake sighed, nuzzling Chuck as it walked around in front of him. "What is he doing anyway? He invited me here and he's not anywhere near this place."

"Maybe he got distracted by a pretty girl on the way here." I comment to which Blake agreed with a nod.

"Right. I hear they are very rare to find around here." Blake looked like he found his own remark funny as he tried to hide it. Vivi and I seemed confused, but that didn't matter since the guy we've been waiting for just arrived, casually strolling in with a cheery greet to the owner tending to the counter.

And then he tried hitting on the waitress that passed him. I think two out of the three of us reacted in an 'Oh c'mon Zidane' that didn't like his lateness and unwanted flirting. Most of the patrons weren't fans of his attempts at courting, especially a certain red-wearing individual by the counter. I called out to him and he immediately stopped, turning to see us seated around a small table with one empty seat meant for him.

His approach slowed when he saw Vivi and me sitting with Blake. "Hey guys, what are you doing here?"

"I thought you might enjoy more company." Blake said as he patted the seat near him, a certain twinkle in his eye said excuse to bring us here was for a less friendly reason.

"And here I was trying to get you some fresh air." Zidane shrugged while he sat down.

"I can get fresh air from my room, you know. It's called a window. Open and close. Ever heard of that?"

I interrupt the two before they could get louder and disturb the other people eating around us. "Alright ladies, you're both fine and perky this morning. Can we get something to eat before Blake melts from sun exposure?"

A brief run-through the menu and an order later we were waiting for someone to bring us our food. Zidane said it was cheap here, but it was quick to serve. That gets the place a lot of lively customers any time of the day, which is saying something when almost everyone has a very animated conversation between each other. I wish I could say the same for our table, especially when Blake is slumped against his table with Chuck providing some comforting chirps. Vivi's busy soaking it all in, probably trying to understand how everyone acts to chipper this early in the morning.

"So I hear a particular shop got a particular girl to work for them," Zidane wiggled his eyebrows at me after taking a sip of his water. I sank a bit into my chair at the mention of my part-time job.

"You heard?" I ask, which prompted him to lean on his elbow.

"I saw." I covered my face with a hand and shook my head. I guess that's unavoidable. "Looks like you don't like it. What happened to the other ones you've listed down?"

"I dunno! They suddenly had other people come in or have old employees return!" It was like fate wanted me to take Jenny's offer from the very start. He may have seen me in that dress, but that's only the tip of the iceberg I've found myself crashing into.

Blake's silently snickering in his seat at the mention of my job. I growled at him and kicked him under the table, making jump and hiss in pain. Good thing our food had arrived before he could demand a reason why I'm kicking him.

Zidane chuckled. "Relax, Alyssa. Now you have a reason to have people ogle at you."

"Please stop..." I begged, already tired of the compliments/teasing.

"Zidane?" Vivi spoke up as he received his bowl of baked beans with an additional bagel. Zidane looked at the mage as he prepared to go through his soup du silence. "That guy's been looking at you for a while now." His pointed fork lead over to the red-clad person by the counter. She didn't even look away once all our attention were centered at her.

"You got a problem, buddy?"

The occupant at the counter responded over her shoulder with a hint of annoyance in her voice. "Do you mind, BUDDY? You're disturbing the rest of us with your lame flirting."

The former actor left his seat and walked over to the counter. He was standing behind the guy when he spoke again. "Maybe you wanna say that to my face."

And so went the meeting of two old friends after they started calling each other rat-face and monkey-tail and almost threw down until Zidane was hit with a pang of realization and familiarity.

When Zidane was done feigning ignorance about Freya's identity, they calmed down and the tense atmosphere in the building moved on. They exchanged a few words, most of them still audible from where we were sitting, until he remembered he had a bowl with his name on it. He nodded over to our spot before going back to his seat with Freya and her drink trailing behind.

"Guys, meet Freya. She's an old friend from Burmecia." Zidane introduced. The woman standing before us is Freya Crescent, a dragon knight of Burmecia, a skilled spear wielder. It kinda shows that she's a fighter with her still wearing her armor in a casual day like this, a clear sign you shouldn't mess with her any day of the week, unless you want your ass handed to you.

"Hi there, I'm Alyssa." I extended my hand and she promptly shook it. "Isn't Burmecia the city that always rains? I wonder how hard it is to live under a constant barrage of bad weather."

She nodded with a faint smile across her lips. "Yes it is. Once there was a time that the rain didn't flow so freely, told to us by legends long past. But alas, it is our city and we love it nonetheless. We Burmecians don't let lousy weather deter us from living."

"Blake Skylark." Blake looked up from his plate for a second when Zidane pointed to him before putting his attention back down to help feed Chuck part of his...omelet? Isn't that cannibalism? "And this is Cloud."

"Cloud? Not Chuck anymore?" I found the name change a bit surprising.

"Black feathered chocobos have the ability to fly, soaring above the lands and gliding through the clouds." Freya imparted us with her knowledge about the giant birds. "An appropriate name."

Blake frowned at what he thought was an interruption. "Yeah, it can fly. Thanks for stealing my thunder." Now Freya stared back at him, a bit displeased at his tone. "Oh, you know what nevermind Cloud. Lightning is its new name. It will fly as fast as lightning and thunder will sound as it speeds through the sky, thus all land walkers and airship will know it has arrived! Though we have to work on your flying soon."

"Anyway, this one is Vivi. He's a powerful black magician." Zidane directed her attention to the boy sitting beside me. Vivi waved at the dragon knight and his greeting was reciprocated with a nod.

"I'm not that strong. I only helped out whenever the monsters attacked." Aw...you're so humble, Vivi. Please never change.

"Nonsense! You're incredible with your magic." The thief proclaimed.

"No doubt there will be a time where you'll be mowing down monsters with just a wave of your hand." Blake added in an attempt to bolster his confidence.

With all the introductions done, Freya felt comfortable enough to take a seat with us, borrowing one of the vacant seats from the table next to us. While she was waiting for a refill on her drink, Zidane brought up a question to the Burmecian about her reason why she's in town.

"The Festival of the Hunt. What else? It's a good opportunity to test my skills." Freya answered instantly.

Zidane should've said something about Sir Fratley here, but kept quiet. Probably because of the company present not knowing her personal troubles. Blake and I just shared a look when he didn't say it.

"Aren't you participating?" She continued curiously after a brief silence.

His answer was a short shake of the head. Then he directed his sights on me. "How about you guys? Any plans on being in the hunt?"

"What's the Festival of the Hunt?" Vivi asked. I realized that he didn't actually learns what the hunt is until at the very last moment, aside from second-hand info that it has animals. Blake probably had the same thought too when he stopped moving his fork and froze up a bit.

-Blake-

Shit!

I was too busy trying to make Zidane literally pay for waking me up and bringing me out here by having Vivi and Alyssa here to increase how much he'll pay for lunch that I didn't consider what consequences and changes I have brought down upon myself. The little black mage wasn't supposed to be here and hear about the Festival now.

Who knows what will happen if he doesn't enter the Festival now. He was only interested because of having the chance to be around cute and harmless animals, only for it to be dashed when he learns about the truth before it begins. But if I remember correctly Zidane enters him anyway even if he doesn't know that it's a participatory event. That blond monkey still believes that Vivi's strong enough on his own despite his own admission and lack of confidence and might enter his name as a combatant. Perhaps it might still happen...

No! I can't take that chance. I have to correct this mistake.

"It's an event about animals!" I blurted out. It was the right thing to say, but it happened to be a bit too loud for the tables around us, attracting curious stares from the other patrons. Even the others sitting with me gave me weird looks. With a gulp, I tried to recover by desperately saying more nonsense. "Yeah, lots of animals in town. A full day dedicated to them. Different kinds of animals, from big ones to small ones. Kind of like a zoo."

"Wow!" The young one beamed with awe. Well that somewhat fixes that, but Zidane and Freya still gave me curious looks. "I haven't been to a zoo before!"

"Well this Festival is your chance to see one." I smiled at his reaction. My eyes turn over to the blond and his Burmecian friend and I can basically see the questions running in their minds. "Hey Vivi, can you approach one of the waitresses over there? I think everyone here needs a refill and little Lightning here seems to be parched." The small chocobo gave a cheerful tweet as thanks as Vivi nodded and moved towards the counter.

"What was that about?" Zidane let the question in his and Freya's minds finally have a voice. Even though Alyssa looked surprised, she knows the reason why I did it.

"I think Vivi would appreciate not knowing about the Festival. He's already had it rough on the way here with all the monsters we've fought. All of us have. It would be better if he doesn't partake in more fighting." I explained as I straightened my back.

"You do know he can choose not to fight, right?" Alyssa mentioned that choice. Woman you are killing me here. At least help me out.

"Choosing not to fight? Sounds like something you wouldn't consider before." I argued. Before she could say another word, I presented another point I had. "Well I'm not technically wrong. The monsters ARE animals in some forms, right? And the event will take up majority of the day. The monsters involved can be small like a Mu to massive like a Zaghnol. People will watch the event on the sidelines like how they would do in an actual zoo." She might have realized what I was saying and finally let it pass by staying silent.

"I don't see why there's a need to deceive him." Freya pointed out, aiming this unsatisfied look at me.

"Did you see how happy he was?" I countered, ignoring her stare. "His yellow eyes were as big and bright as the stars when I told him that."

"He wouldn't have that look if you just said what it actually is." Zidane added to Freya's argument. Aren't you supposed to be on my side? "Hey, I'm just saying that lying isn't necessary."

"Perhaps we should just let Vivi imagine something to be happy and magical and ordinary for once and not violent with horrible undertones for once." This is making me sound like an overprotective parent. I see that Lightning's hatching is affecting me to act like one.

"Let's see what he'll think with a hypothetical question." Yeah, have fun with that. She leaned back on her chair with her arms crossed in front of her. I noticed Vivi on his way back with one of the waitresses carrying a pitcher of water with her. "Vivi, what's your opinion on monster hunting? Would you enjoy it?"

The water I was drinking had difficulty coming down with the surprised breath I drew, almost causing me to choke upon hearing the question.

"Monster hunting? Like killing monsters?" Freya nodded at the question. "I don't think I'd enjoy it that much, but you guys look like you fit for it than me."

At least that helps out my cause. Thanks for seeing it my way, Vivi, even though you probably don't know how much you helped me there. I grinned as I went back to my omelet, petting Lightning victoriously unbeknownst to the black mage who had the last word about the topic.

Zidane noticed the tension and tried to carry it back to casual conversation by asking if Alyssa even knew about what the Festival is.

"Yeah...technically." She hurriedly answered. The addition of that word made me glare at her. I tried to help her by following up by telling them she liked reading about the Festival back in her home in Treno during her younger years as well from the letters I wrote to her and have not actually experienced it in person. That should be consistent with the backstory we created. She offered a thankful glance as I went back to my plate.

Then the ever so curious thief asked if she wanted to be in the Festival. I can hear her voicing her disinterest in it, saying that she'd only get in the way of everyone else. By that point I was already tuning out the conversation. Majority of the group already knew my stance on the whole event and if they didn't then one single display of my new splint would make them understand.

Lunch soon finished and we started to walk out. A flash of distaste could be seen from the dragon knight's features as I walked past her. Whatever she thinks doesn't really matter. I did that to preserve the events of the game. If Zidane still thinks Vivi would be fit for the Festival of the Hunt then that's his choice. I chose to have Vivi believe what the game originally wanted him to believe. If that's still the case then I made the right move.

Alyssa excused herself, telling us that she didn't want to exceed her lunch break in the first day of her job. A likely story. She probably didn't want to be seen talking to me after what happened in there. If looks could kill, Freya would have already thrown her spear at me as I sat in front of her after talking like that. I guess this is my punishment for trying to keep things the same as they should be.

Anyway, the reason why I hold up Alyssa for a few more seconds was to ask her if she knew where I could look for any gil-earning opportunities. I'm currently running short on gil. She might earn a lot in the next few days with her current gig while we wait for the Festival to commence, and I do not want to owe her anything when it comes to finances. She might have an idea or two on where to find a job with a good pay.

She hurriedly pulled out some folded pieces of paper from her pocket, all the while giving me worried glances, and told me to check the crossed out ones. I'm left there without an explanation why I'd consider the ones she had not. I sigh and scan through her handwriting and see some viable part-time occupations that might consider hiring me briefly despite my current state. Who would not want to use an extra hand (literally only one hand)?

Unfortunately, most of the ones she crossed out weren't interested in hiring a one-handed man. Majority of them were polite about it, sprinkling some genuine apologies as they turned me away, while others didn't pull their punches. To be honest, being rejected like that stings. I've never applied for anything laborious, part or full-time, but is this what someone usually feels when they're not picked for the job? And this is just from the ones in the Business District. I still have to go through the Theatre and Residential District (apparently there are more districts here than I thought). I don't think I can handle more rejection...

I had to run out of a painter's house in my first attempt at asking for a job. He wanted to literally rip out poor little Lightning's feathers in order to "grasp the purity of a newborn" and paint it on his canvas for his next masterpiece. Good luck on finding your own newborn, pal. Scratch that one off the list. Another one tried to convince me to pose nude for her class of newbie painters. As flattering as that is, I don't think I'm ready to be painted like that. One more option passed over. Let's see what else is here...

Then I notice this guy walking over to me from one of the benches.

He looked normal enough with his short, gray hair and frilly outfit filled with ruffles at the sleeves and collar. A closed leather-bound book occupied one hand as the other waved at me to stop walking. "Excuse me, you look like you're out of a job."

I furrowed my eyebrows when I heard what he observed. "That sounds very judgmental, but let's say you're right. What do you want?" I keep a hefty distance between the two of us in case he does anything shifty. He did look nervous when he spoke.

"I was looking for anyone to help out in the theater. I'm lacking in staff and I need all the extra hands I can get!"

"Well then, I hope one extra hand is okay for you instead of two." I looked down to my arm sling and splint, which made him tilt his head momentarily before figuring out what I meant.

"Ah, a comedian!" He laughed, his nerves appearing to have lessened. Yeah, I'll be here all week. Tip your waitresses or whatever. "In any case, you'll do just fine. Please, follow me." he then turned around and started making his way up the staircase that lead to the theatre.

I followed his lead while asking him a few questions, the major one being how much the pay is, how much work I'll need to do daily, and what percentage of said work is physical. He didn't answer directly, only providing some keywords like 'decent', 'enough', and 'not much'. I initially didn't like how he answered, but this is an opportunity that came to me. I'd be a fool if I didn't take a look first before walking away.

The entrance to the theatre is packed with rabid fans of a certain actor possibly hiding inside while bragging about his numerous fans' daily incursions just to meet him. We sifted through the pack of fangirls, I carefully braced Lightning and my injured arm against my chest in case they jostle me from their fanatic cheering, and finally get through to the main theatre.

I was honestly expecting a massive mess to greet my eyes when we walk into the main stage area, thankfully all I see are hardworking people focused on working what looked like one of the sets they might use in a show. There is a small group of men and women at the side gathered in a circle, all of them reading from a page aloud. I could sense the ham just wanting to be released as we got near them.

We stopped a few rows up from the group with the man putting a hand up between us. "I'm afraid I haven't introduced myself. My name is Heath. I manage the finances and the pay for everyone in the production group." I shake his hand and was about to introduce myself, only to be cut off as he continued. "Everyone is working hard right now. You can say that we're on crunch time. We're trying to take advantage of the added crowd the Festival is bringing in so we have this special show we're planning on doing, so you can see why everyone is focused on their respective roles. This is where we need the extra hands, or in your case, hand."

He continued to explain that majority of the staff is busy perfecting the sets, trying to get their performance practice, and getting the right outfits. The director was busying helping out the actors and actresses with their scenes while the stage is being worked on. No one can be in two places at once, and that is where his problem was and it is where I come in apparently. Heath will be assigning me to run between the different crew members for various things, like get their outputs on scenery designs from the director and relay their feedback for example. What else needs communicating has to run by me so I can run it through the right people.

It sounds particularly taxing, all that moving and running around, passing what people tell me to another group. It's much better than actually working on the sets though and I only need to work my legs and keep listening. Completely doable even to my standards, especially with my broken arm and all.

Anyway, we walk over to the director just as they are taking a break. "I see Heath managed to convince someone to help after all. Reagan Creed Haverhill, director." I shake his hand politely as I attempted to introduce myself, only to be interrupted when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

"Sir, there seems to be a problem with the script of the third act." This girl showed him multiple pages and explained further. "Multiple misprints and typos. It's like someone didn't bother double-checking before printing these up."

"Damn it, that's gonna cut into our practice time for later. Alright, try to get the scripts corrected and we'll practice these scenes tomorrow instead. I'll deal to that guy in a bit." The girl nodded and hurried off to correct the mistakes. "All right, sorry about that. Welcome to the crew...uh, I think I didn't catch your name."

"My name's—" A crash from the stage broke my train of thought as well as everyone in the vicinity. A lot of the staff around them voiced their shock and concern at the fallen set piece. Lightning started chirping a storm in surprise, but a few pats from me managed to calm it down.

The director pointed at the crew members and shouted. "Hey! Careful with that! We don't have time to redo most of the sets, y'know!? Everything has to be perfect and we only have a few days until the premiere!" Multiple voices aired their apologies before they started to replace the piece back where it fell off. Director Haverhill turned back to me and sighed.

"Sorry again. Anyway, first thing you can do for me. Try to find a kid named Carlton backstage. He's probably one of the guys painting the sets since he supposedly finished printing the script. Tell him to get the original prints of the script and follow Katelin to the press to fix his mistake." He instructed and asked me to repeat it just in case I wasn't listening.

After bullet-pointing what he wanted me to do, Heath follows my pace as I walk towards the backstage rea. "Oh, don't forget this pin. This should help the staff know what your role is around here." He pulled out this pin half the size of my palm and handed it over. It had a colorful design with this flowery letter at the center. Seeing that I'm in a bit of a disadvantage with my hands, he pins it to my collar. "There you go. Now go on and do your best!"

A pat on the back later, he scurries off to whatever he does while everyone else is practicing and doing the heavy lifting. Just when I took three steps I just realized that no one has even told me how much I am getting paid for this. Probably with everyone not letting me speak it might fall on deaf ears. With an annoyed grunt, I continue on to the backstage area, Lightning now finally settled and calm in my sling.

Finding this Carlton kid was easy when I asked around. He excused himself and put down the brush safely before briskly joining me. I relay to him what Haverhill wanted him to do and he practically wanted to vanish right then and there when he learned of his massive mistakes. He apologized profusely before I had to remind him that the Katelin girl was waiting for him. One second later he was rushing out of the theater at record speeds.

"Hey new guy!" One of Carlton's fellow set painters called. "Come over here for a sec."

"I do have a name, you know. It's—"

The guy waved me off to stop speaking. "Whatever." Is everyone in this theater rude? "We were thinking about what color scheme this other set should use. We kinda forgot what he said the first time we went through this. Can you ask him what it should be?"

Not that I can refuse asking because it is my job. I nod and head back to the front.

And that's basically how my day went. Going back and forth from one place to another, from being asked to clarify one thing to informing a certain person about deadlines. If I had a clipboard I would complete the look of an assistant and be able to write down what I need to be asking, saying, and reminding, but my writing hand is too messed up to move. Alas, all I can do is try to remember what is being said to me and say it back the same way.

That resulted in a very tiring first day. I arrived back at the inn in the middle of the afternoon and basically collapsed on the bed. Those theater bunch were the right amount of demanding that didn't get me internally complaining and hardworking that it is actually admirable just observing them, yet I felt it wasn't just for me because of how exhausting it is being both at the same. At least the pay is good. A small envelope weighty pouch of gil was handed by the group's financier, and for the first time in my life, I was proud of the work I did.

However, I no longer had any energy to go outside for the rest of the day aside from taking a long, relaxing shower. Lightning went through one Gyashl Pickle during that time and it was enough to make it groggy. It rested on one of the pillows on the bed when I came back. I swiftly changed to a single shirt and my old pants and closed the curtains, not wanting to be reminded there were some seven more hours left in the day and that the darkness the room had helped whisk me away to dream land in a matter of minutes.

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 20: In Days On and Off

-Blake-

Work just seemed to make time flow as a steady river that ends daily in an exciting drop worth about 350 gil, I counted the pouch Heath would refill each day to make sure the amount is the same, a very useful amount to someone with nothing to his name, until it would circle back up to the start where I'd all over again. The entrance to the theater would always be filled with the same fangirls that seemed to have no life aside from singing the praises of Lowell Bridges. As tiring as it is hearing their shrill cries, it must be as annoying for the apple of their respective eyes. However, that only motivated everyone else to be better for the next show with their improved handmade scenery and decorations.

With me getting used to my duties in the theater and those two days passing through, it seemed like I got to be less tired compared to the day before. My third day on the job concluded with me managing to get a decent meal after a shower. I crossed paths with Zidane on the way and he was surprised to see me be moving about. I had to use my 'other job' as an excuse, that I had been neglecting my clientele for a while that I had to act fast. He did point out that I was going to the Theatre District a lot the past few days. When did he see me there when I barely saw anyone from our group over there?

Whatever. I lied by telling him that my big-time client was really indecisive and I had to come over a lot so we could get business going. He gave a thoughtful hum before letting it go. Zidane's getting really antsy with all his questions. It's like he gets more curious with each passing day. I really should be careful. He's not as dumb as he looks.

Anyways, back to my theater duties. It seemingly increased the moment they became comfortable with having me around, which turned out to be the time I walked through that entrance a third time. They were waving me down, chatting a bit with me and I'd nod and smile until they let me know what I need to relay to the director or the props or the actors. I was actually given additional things to do, well more like asked as a favor, some a bit would be considered out of my job description. If it increased any chance I had at having more gil by the end of the day I did it.

One such example is providing a solution of escape. Remember those fangirls at the front of the theater? It is such a bother for a particular actor they idolize that he can't leave for the day without being swarmed. So when they heard my mutterings of an outlandish suggestion, which was feigning that Lowell had a medical condition and had to be rushed to a hospital, complete with two other people carrying him off on an improvised stretcher, they actually went with it and it was successful. Lowell's obnoxiously passionate advocates weren't at the theater most of the day too! I have other ideas ready for use in the future, like having an egg cart outside and have Lowell hide in an egg disguise as we can roll him to safety. Sounds like a lot of effort, but these girls require it in order to lose them.

Things have been going smoothly so far, everyone's all business today and all. The third act practice went so well they tried to get a dry run through the entire thing while the stage crew was on break. Costumes were basically gathered and completed, the ones in charge were making sure they label it correctly for each of the actors and actresses. Right now I was remembering to give the notes Lowell and a handful of others had for their costumes regarding their initial fitting earlier this morning. Once I was done, Katelin wrote them all down in bullet points and finally nodded.

"Alright Mr. Skylark, I'll run these through the costume department and make sure everything's all accounted for." Oh man, I sure like the sound of that. MISTER SKYLARK. I'm glad this pin offers a bit of rank around here. And yes, I finally managed to get my name mentioned between today and two days ago. "And can you remind Director Haverhill that he's yet to get measured for his tux. The guys from the tailor are gonna be coming by later."

"I'll be sure to run it by him." I nodded, Lightning chirped from my sling to add to my confirmation before walking off to find the director.

Since I have been exposed to the routines of the crew members, finding Haverhill would be easy if you try to listen for a booming voice hamming it up with only a few breaks between sentences. From what I am currently hearing, aside from someone from the set designers giving out instructions to carefully adjust the set pieces and a few laughs from the stage crew that are on break, Haverhill's voice is echoing backstage along with some of the actors working a scene.

I was about to go around a corner when I hear two voices talking about to do the same. I was readying a greeting in case they take a second to do the same when I stop on the spot upon seeing who it was.

A certain traveling elderly woman with her brown cloak folded up in her arms. Without it most of her mystique is gone and her age becomes a more prominent feature.

She and the guy talking to her see me and stop their conversation. He's part of the props group so he's a familiar guy around here. He nods over to me and smiles. "There you are, Blake. This lady's looking for you."

"Thank you, young man." Meguro bows a bit, making the props guy stutter a bit.

"It's no big deal, ma'am!" He laughed, trying to hide his surprise. "Blake is usually easy to find since he's just walking around. Sometimes it's easier to find him when you listen for his chocobo or someone muttering around the corner."

"Hey! Don't make me sound crazy!" I retorted, putting down my foot to stop him from saying anything else. "Alright, job well done. Now how about you check on those props and make sure they're in perfect condition. Go on!"

My demands weren't taken seriously as usual as he just nodded amusingly and walked off. Then I set my eyes on Meguro, who looked like she enjoyed seeing me in a different environment if that smile on her face had any meaning.

"Good to see you trying to fit in. I actually thought you would be cooped up in that little inn until your recovery." She takes a step forward and places a hand on my arm. Her hand was warm to the touch. "But it's good to see you are doing well." I backed up a few steps away from her in case she tries anything funny.

"This is temporary. I need the money since my funds were dwindling. But that's irrelevant right now!" I raised my voice while simultaneously keeping it down to avoid attracting attention, which made it come out as me shouting in a small voice. "I've been looking for you for some time now and you certainly appear out of nowhere on your own volition. I am tired of your Batman bullshit. You still owe me two questions!"

Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion, the concept of Batman was probably lost on her, but she nodded anyways.

She gestures for me to go ahead with my questions. As I am trying to get my questionnaire from my belongings, I can't help but realize that she does not deny that she appears out of nowhere. That is troubling. It's like she knows it and does not bother explaining it. I guess I should add that to the list of questions I should ask, file it under 'Mysteries about Meguro' category right beside the 'Important Questions' category. Speaking of which...

"I see you have put some thought into the answers you want from me." She sees the paper in my hand and smiles. Nothing particularly off about that smile, but I can't help but think otherwise.

Ignoring her comment, I go straight to the point. "You mentioned back in Dali that I shouldn't tell anyone about for some reason. Care to explain that to me?"

The cloak wearing traveler seemed somewhat disappointed at the question, but it was a question she had to answer since she is bound to her word. "Attention."

I tilt my head when I hear that single word being uttered. "Sorry, what?"

"As someone who inadvertently finds it easy to attract attention, I would have thought you already knew the importance of having less eyes analyzing every move you make."

"I don't get it." This isn't the first time I don't understand what's happening or being said. That stupid ticket is still in my pocket and I'm sure it's still changing back and forth between being an actual ticket to having a mysterious message and I don't have any clue why it does that when I show it to other people.

She takes a breath and adjusts the cloak in her hands. "The reason why I suggested, not outright expressed a desire to keep our meetings a secret, is because this will surely attract unwanted attention."

I am trying to wrap my head around this and the fact that me talking with this weird lady is somehow attracting attention. Is she saying someone is keeping tabs on her as well? "Hold on, that doesn't make sense."

"Remember your reasoning as to why you wanted to get away from the castle?" I only did that because I didn't believe I will be able to discuss otherworld stuff with Alyssa with people patrolling the hallways and having so much people around didn't make me comfortable to even mention private things. "Countless people walk and pass by you, glancing at your direction with every step you make in case you bring certain harm to their leader. It is similar to that, except they don't do it out of protection. The moment your friends know about our private meetings, a certain pair of eyes will divert their focus on you."

That sounded VERY ominous. "Just curious. Maybe you can expound on this 'certain pair of eyes' and what happens when they focus on someone. I really hope they don't kill or do something worse."

Her eyes darkened as she took a step closer. "You are vulnerable to many things, Blake. Death would be a relief than a threat if they are to focus on you."

Okay, TERRIFYINGLY ominous then. Lightning seemed to notice my terror as it nuzzled against the sling and my injured arm, a gentle tweet snapping me out of my thoughts.

"Follow my advice if you desire to live a normal life." Being in a different world is anything but normal, yet I couldn't help but nod in agreement. 'Death as a relief' is something I'd never want to think about.

There was something with how she said that I couldn't help but think that her choice of words were specific and weird at the same time. I'm thinking of a way how to interpret what she said when someone came along our little corner of the theater to interrupt our private Q&A. Heath and his trusty book stops by us and taps me on the shoulder. "Blake, Haverhill is looking for you. He says he wants to participate in today's escape plan for Lowell." That man is really just want to have fun at the most inappropriate time. Though I guess he's earned some time to slack off with all the work that's been done today.

"Fine, I'll run him through the plan. Can you tell him to meet me by the stage? I still need to remind him of his tux fitting." I told Heath.

"Sure thing. You finish up talking to your...grandmother?" Heath tried to guess, earning him a sigh from me and a laugh from the mysterious woman to my side as he left us alone. Once I'm sure we are a lone and that no one might not be listening in, I turn to her to ask my final question. I fully expected her to have vanished by then, and as it turns out she stayed there, finally understanding that she has to keep her word.

However, as I tried to analyze which question would be fitting for this third and final question, she places her hand on the paper and lowers it.

"I would suggest you ponder more on this final question I will be answering you. What is, in your mind, worth knowing the answer to?" What!? Are you seriously just doing this to make fun of me? What if I'm ready to ask that question now? "If that is how you feel then I would not hesitate in giving you what you desire."

Wait. Hold on, Blake. She's right in a way. Let's think about this for a second. Most of her answers have been borderline vague so far. What's stopping her in continuing that streak? I'll need some actual helpful answers if I actually want to learn more about her. With that I will need to think of how to broach the next question carefully. Approach it so no loophole can be used so that it will have to be answered directly and satisfactorily.

I finally agree to her suggestion with a cautious nod. "So how will I know where to find you?"

"Perhaps I will find you with my 'Batman bullshit'." Meguro answered, complete with air quotes, as she walks away. That's what I get when I call her out on her own shenanigans. At least now she gave me a heads up when she's about to leave.

-Alyssa-

Some of my friends think that the best way to spend the two days in the week you don't have to go to school is just stay in bed and laze around at home. The problem with doing that, as much as helpful the rest is, that the inconsistent schedule would mess with you. It's better to be moving around at a decreased rate compared to the weekdays.

Not a lot of my friends share the same opinion. Though they might have better productivity if they did, but that's beside the point.

Anyway, my suggestion to spend the first weekend and my first day off as a part-time employee is get to get used to Lindblum's streets and districts. My little tour wasn't enough since I only passed by each district for jobs a few days ago. Sure I'm only going to be here for a few more days until the Festival comes and probably a couple more when the Alexandrian air fleet comes by, but it sure would still help knowing my way around town.

I managed to get some decent sleep and went around the Business District for a good hour. Business is really good at the weekends, especially this early in the day. Most of the people around here probably prefer to buy early to get around the long lines and waiting times. When I was done with my breakfast, I explored the district and made sure to look for landmarks that I'll recognize. Don't want to end up getting lost like before.

Once I've felt like I got to see most of the district, I thought it would be good to include the other like Blake or Vivi, hopefully both, in my little adventure through town. It might do them good to take in more of Lindblum's culture, broaden their horizons and stuff like that.

I came back to the inn at 11 o'clock and tried knocking on Blake's door. There was no answer. I tried calling out through the door and still no response. I know things have been tense between us, our discussion gone badly about changing story events and even the lunch with Zidane, Vivi, and Freya went awry. He hasn't been around since three days ago. Is he avoiding us?

One more attempt and getting him to answer his door still resulted in silence. Even Lightning wasn't tweeting a bit. They're probably asleep. Lightning's slowly becoming like Blake if he keeps sleeping like that.

Fine then, maybe Vivi would appreciate what I'm doing with my time. Oh, if Zidane's up for it he can come too. Not sure if Dagger's willing to come out of the castle. I think she doesn't even leave Lindblum Grand Castle until the Festival is over. Well, I'm passing by the castle nonetheless to ask Vivi. It wouldn't hurt in asking her just in case.

The aircab to Lindblum Grand Castle arrived a few minutes after I started waiting at the station. It had a few stops on the way there, a good number of passengers hopping on and off the aircab at each stop. One of the new people getting in is one of the guys I am looking for. He found me waving at him to join me in my seat, which only took him a few seconds right before the cab left for another stop.

"Even on the weekends you're on the move? Rest days are used for, you know, resting." Zidane leaned back on the chair beside me, enjoying the aircab ride to the castle.

I smiled, appreciating his ribbing. "I've had a lot of rest already. Besides, what do you want me to do, stay in the inn all day? I'll probably go stir-crazy."

"Unlike someone we both know." It's not that hard to figure out who he's talking about. I could see him looking at me questioningly. "Have you talked to him recently?"

I shake my head. Strangely enough, since I gave him my part-time opportunities list I haven't really seen much of him. Not anywhere in the Business District, not anywhere Jenny wants me to go with her hunting outfits, or not in the inn as well. Though I could hear Lightning chirping in the other room in most nights, that's pretty much it. Was he avoiding us?

"Don't think about it too much. He's probably working too hard that he's forgotten about us." Zidane thought out loud casually.

"Yeah. Maybe." Honestly, he does things with a reason behind them. The last time we saw him was in that awkward lunch with Freya. Him bringing Vivi there was on him and he's probably kicking himself for doing that. As much as I want him to learn that he can't have everything follow how things should go, trying to follow how he wants it, going through that in an attempt to fix it was probably more damaging.

When the aircab stopped at our destination, Zidane told me in passing why he actually wanted to be here. He wanted to see Dagger for a while now to see how she is, but Steiner's been guarding her even harder than ever apparently. Like the man would shove him before he could even get a scent of where the princess is and turn him away. He's hoping that he can get a lucky break today. I'm all for trying to bond with the girl, and at least he's not being outright rejected, but the man sure has resilience.

Vivi wasn't that hard to find in the castle. We were directed to him by one of the guards and found him soaking in the view of the city from one of the bridges to the airship docks, holding on to his precious hat in case a breeze happened to blow by. He liked the idea of taking in the city's culture since Zidane just gave him a passing tour of most of the city.

Just as when we're about to go to the elevator to look for Dagger, we see Steiner frantically searching up and down the halls. He's quiet like he's trying to avoid suspicion, but was seriously struggling to avoid shouting. I had three guesses as to what's gotten him like this and one of the included a certain Alexandrian royalty. Zidane didn't have any time trying to think why he's acting this way when the knight started rushing at us. Zidane went to find a place to hide in case he gets an earful from the overprotective captain.

"Master Vivi! Did you happen to see the princess on your way here?" Steiner asked, falling to his knees so he can be eye level with the small mage. When he shook his head, Steiner almost as horrified as someone would once they realize they left their child in a car without any open windows.

"But we're about to go out to town!" Vivi excitedly announced. Then Steiner gave me a look, then turned back to Vivi, and finally one more to me. His eyes then went wide.

"Of course! She might have taken an aircab into the city. She has been in the castle for so long that she may have desired some time outside, looking for a breath of fresh air, so to speak." He muttered in realization.

Well, that's one way of looking at things. But if I remember correctly, Dagger might still be in the castle and simply out of reach if you're not a crafty thief.

He inched his way to me and took my hand. "Please let me come with you. We might be able to find the princess with more than one person looking out for her."

This was surprising because an older man with a rank in his country's military basically asked me if he can come along! He doesn't need to because he can just pull rank on me. Then my eyes turn to where Zidane's at. He's already seen what's happened and was giving me this pleading look. Puppy-dog eyes aren't that effective at that range! I want to help him out, but I don't think Steiner's gonna like it if he finds out I tricked him.

Looking at both men, I sigh give in to the older man's request. "It wouldn't hurt to try. But you know it's possible that she's still around here, right?"

"Eliminating the option with the most possibilities is a quicker way of getting results, Miss Forsyth." Steiner stated as he got off his knees. "Let us make our rounds over at the Residential District!" And with that, he leads Vivi into running to the aircab station.

"Good luck, lover boy." I silently utter to myself as I see Zidane giving me a thumbs-up before he made his way through the castle halls, the roguish thief off to find his princess.

I hope he thanks me properly for leading on an armed knight in a false search and rescue operation. Forgive me, Steiner.

Anyway, we reach the Residential District of Lindblum. I kinda understand that the original game didn't have to show the player where the citizens of Lindblum live when they only need to show the important parts that have uses for the player (the shops in the Business District) and establishing the city's character (the Industrial District showing the technological prowess of the city while showing a brief glimpse into a different industry in the Theatre District's entertainment focus). Since a different dimension doesn't have that kind of limitations, it's nice to see a different part of Lindblum I haven't seen in the game.

In my first time here, I was surprised to see how big the Residential District is. Sure majority of the place is dedicated to the average citizen's housing, but there's also a few places a family or a group of friends can go see and have fun in like the library, a museum, and a park to name a few. There sure are a lot of people around here, almost matching the streets of the Business District. That made Steiner's search a bit difficult.

I suggested we first go the museum, to which Steiner linked to his search due to Dagger's prowess in her studies to pursue informational learning through a different source. I just nodded because I couldn't think of a better reason why we should go to the museum aside from simply wanting to see it. There sure was a lot of history stored in that one building that it could match one of the national museums back in Earth. There were exhibits on the evolution of the airship, another on monsters used in the Festival, and one on the history of the Regents.

As I finished reading an entry on Cid Fabool VIII, I felt my throat dry up and my chest tighten suddenly. Just when I've gotten used to this kinda normal life, normal in the sense of getting used to the things around me that I've forgotten about the not-so normal stuff like having surprise breathing problems. It got me so bad that I almost fell into one of the Cid exhibits, but I realized I might damage it so I turned away from it as much as my body can. The second I got away from the exhibit my chest wasn't so restricted anymore, but I did bump into this other person.

I tried apologizing, but my lack of breath didn't help me properly make a sentence. He held me in place as I tried getting back my breath and understood the whole thing more than me as he shook his head, his long white hair following his motions quite smoothly, and only offered a chuckle as he apologized for wandering too closely to the exhibits. My eyes couldn't help but focus on his strange coat as he bent down to a bow, but I snapped out of it and did the same in case that was a culture thing.

With our apologies out of the way, he nodded and went on his way as I tried to think why I had another of those episodes. I'm a healthy and active girl before I got here in Gaia and I'm very sure of that. Something has to be causing this problem. My thoughts didn't last when I see Steiner talking very loudly with one of the museum staff.

After learning quite a bit in the museum and Steiner not finding any traces of Dagger in there (of course he won't), we moved over to the city's public library. The place could've ended up as a private mansion if it didn't have so much books. Speaking of which, there were three floors worth of books in there! Absolutely massive. I've never been to a library as big as this. I'm pretty sure if we didn't have the internet, all the libraries in Earth would have to be this big.

According to one of the people working there, the public library had a book in every single topic known to everyone in Gaia and that if you wanted to read every single one it would take 300 years. Thank goodness I'm not that interested in doing that. Just a little good would be fine by me.

While Steiner is busy patrolling every inch of the library, thinking that Dagger would be hiding away in some secret space to take in the knowledge she has yet to see in some of the books present, and Vivi found a recipe book that used an illustrated Qu in the cover, I was trying find an interesting category to dip my toes in, somewhere close to world history or self-defense books, when I heard a chirp beneath someone delivering a lecture. Something told me those two things were connected with people starting to leave this part of the library along with some "Shhhh!" in their wake.

Going around the corner to find where this commotion is coming from, I see someone in this tweed hat that didn't look like it fit with his lab coat. Right as he paced in front of the reading table in front of him I see a glimpse of a black feathered chocobo chick following his movement. Sitting there witnessing the whole thing happening in front of him with a resigned look all over his face was Blake trying to read a few books in front of him.

I'm surprised to see him out here, even more that he's in a library. I walk over to them as Dr. Thomas continued, not even noticing the number of people leaving their seats because of his noisy lecture and me creeping up behind them. My taps on their shoulders got two different reactions, one pounded their forehead into the table and the other just adjusted the glasses on the bridge of their nose.

"Leave me alone..." Blake groaned into the table and was quickly followed by a chorus of "SHHHH!". Lightning tried to comfort him by nuzzling against his hair.

"Ah, Miss Forsyth! Nice to see someone else take delight in learning through the means of pages in paperback and hard cover." Dr. Thomas announced and was on the receiving end of a chorus of frustrated library-goers demanding silence. Blake stiffened when he heard my name and it looked like he wanted his face to burrow into the table deeper. "I was just regaling young Skylark here about the anatomy of chocobos, but it looks like I have gotten out of hand."

"That's one way to say it." Blake's mouth has not yet left the table.

"Long story short, you have been travelling with a male baby chocobo." The doctor summarized, much to the relief of Blake.

"Great. Makes choosing a name easier." My injured friend sighed as he pulled himself off the table and was now leaning back on his chair with a single book in hand. It had the word 'baby names' in big, bold letters.

"So what other names do you have in mind for Lightning?" I asked, getting the little bird to stop kwehing up a storm. Petting it sure did help calm it down. Is it just me or it's getting bigger and slightly heavier? I noticed Blake giving me a careful glance before flipping through some pages.

"There's a lot of interesting ones. Actually I'd renamed him to Tuft just this morning. Now his name will officially be Nero." He finally found the page he was looking for, his finger directing my and Dr. Thomas' attention to the name his chocobo now has.

"It is derived from the name 'Raniero' which means 'wise warrior', or from older text could mean 'black'. How it would live up to his new name lies on your shoulders. "The older man read for us in a considerably lower tone before putting a hand on Blake's shoulder." Anyways, I've only come by to check if they have a copy of 'Root of the Stars'. Good to see both of you doing well. G'day." A bow, a flourish, and a tip of his hat later, the Grand Castle's medical expert walked away with the some charm and cheer in his step.

That left me alone with Blake and the newly renamed Nero in a somewhat empty corner of the library. I backed off his chair and thought it'd be better if we finally get the elephant out of the room. So I sat down beside him, only for him to turn the other way.

"Good to see you out of the inn." I tried easing our way into that lunch topic.

"I can't hole myself in there forever," he says as he tries to open a different book.

"A change of pace is good for everyone." I comment, eyeing the baby names book as Nero walked around the books placed messily on the table. The chocobo stopped when Blake hit the table with his hand.

"Seriously? You really can't let that go, can you?" His face twists into a bitter glare when he begins to turn in his seat.

"Whoa, whoa, I'm just trying-"

"Trying is always the functional word with you. Trying to help, trying to make things better. Can't you just focus on the most important thing we have for us and just let everything else go!?"

"I wasn't talking about that!"

Both of us were bombarded with an even louder wave of "SHHHH!" from an increasing number of people. Blake leans back into his chair, still irritated about what he thought I was talking about, probably mistaking it for our last big disagreement almost five days ago, but I guess he feels the same about both times.

"I had to do what I had to do. It was my mistake and I had to fix it." He gives me a short look, one of disappointment. "Besides, you didn't do anything to help me there. It looks like I can only rely on myself on leading on everyone around us."

He's right on that one. I didn't offer much to help that time because it happened so fast. The moment we heard the question I just couldn't think of anything. When he mentioned the zoo part, my mind also went blank and didn't have any idea how to expand on it. Now we're just hoping that it didn't damage any of the continuity he wants to leave unchanged.

Apologizing about it won't make it go any better now that it's all in the past. Just forget about it for now and relax on your day off, Alyssa. Since I was just doing that with Steiner and Vivi, I might as well extend the invitation to Blake.

"Might as well. These people sure don't appreciate my presence here after all the noise we've been making." He gathers Nero into his sling as well as the books he has used in his other hand, not even asking for my help to put them back. "I'll be at the entrance in a minute." That's kinda cold.

Let him be, Alyssa. He's still sore about everything so far. Let him sort it out if he doesn't want help. He knows I'll be here when he needs my help in case he needs it.

Finding Steiner and Vivi took about a few minutes. The black mage didn't move an inch from the spot I left him, and was now looking through unusual Qu recipes when I told him we're going to a different place. Steiner was just about to be thrown out by the staff for his 'searching methods' when I had to apologize on his behalf before getting out of there in case the knight wants to argue some more. Blake followed just a few seconds later, looking amused at what Steiner's antics.

Of course, Steiner pointed a blaming finger at him the moment he heard him "You! Where have you put the princess, you cretin!"

"Captain, please contain yourself before you fling wild accusations at me." He held up his hand defensively. Nero agreed with him by tweeting at the armored man. "I'm not like Zidane. Or maybe she just wanted a stroll without you looking over her."

"Can we all calm down, guys?" Vivi told the two as he adjusted his hat.

"Yeah. We might find Dagger at the park. That's a good place to take a stroll." I suggested to the tense knight. He agreed and let Blake off the hook, walking ahead of us despite not knowing where the park is.

The Residential Park was surprisingly big when we got there. It reminded me of Central Park with what they had here, but Residential Park was only like a fraction of it. It had three types of terrain all separating the park into parts: one with the grassy, flowery, meadow-type with small hills, wooden benches, and a nice open area, one forest-y type that had a jogging/walking area with a small pond in the center, and one filled with brown and red tiles for floors, stone benches, some gazeebos, and a fountain.

Everyone had their favorite part of the park where they want to spend time in. Vivi wanted to run through the trees and see the pond. Steiner continued his search by following his Master Vivi first. Blake wanted to take a seat in one of the gazeebos and Nero just chirped with him since he can't decide for himself just yet. Mine was to take it easy by wandering by the hill.

-Blake-

Wandering past individuals and couples waltzing through the park, I tried to find a nice place to sit down and not think about anything. It was hard finding such a spot in a park, despite the open spaces and large area this place covered. If I am not trying to avoid people my age or older just standing around doing nothing, I have to keep a look out on nosy kids wanting to pet Nero. If they want to touch a chocobo, go to a zoo or hatch your own. This one is too young to be surrounded with nuisances.

Eventually I find a nice spot near one of the gazeebos that has no kids around, open enough to put Nero down so he could walk around, and with enough shade from said gazeebo to cover us from the heat of the sun. He enjoyed the feeling of dirt under his tiny chocobo feet as it circled around the initial area I put him down. Chirping at me, I give it a nod to acknowledge him, though I'm not sure if it understands human body language. Well, probably not yet.

Looking around the park, I could see a lot of people casually spending their time together with their loved ones. I can't help but feel envious and regret even going out of the inn and getting roped into going here. Those kids running around their parents lovingly holding each other in their arms, those teenagers having a laugh by the fountain, or that elderly couple just gazing at the scenery before them. They all have someone important to them right beside them while I don't have anyone aside from a baby chocobo who thinks I squatted and pushed out his egg.

I've never been away from home this long since that week-long vacation I spent with some of my cousins, and at least then I was with people I've grown up and spent time with. Even then Nina would be there with me spending girl time with the girls around there. One of the most prominent incidents during one of those vacations was me tearing a massive hole in my leg after a biking accident. Nina was extremely annoyed and made me know about it as we hastily rode to a hospital.

How she's coping with me getting struck by lightning and possibly in a coma is something I can easily imagine being similar to that biking accident. The jury is still out how I think my parents would react to it.

Maybe I should've pushed to stay in the library to avoid this environment, just stick my nose into a book or two to pull my mind away from thinking about work or the future I have to keep track of. That or sleep all day and night today. What were the odds of me being found by Dr. Thomas and Alyssa in the same ten minute timeframe?

I lie down on the grass to relax, turning my head where Nero was bumping into my shoe and chirping with each nudge he does. I slipped off the sling and cradled my injured wrist against my chest, making sure it was secure from anything around me that could intentionally and accidentally harm it, keeping an eye on the small chocobo and my environment.

"If you keep looking like that, you won't be able to relax." My ears pick up on a pair of feet crunching the grass beneath them approaching as my eyes follow to the source. One glimpse of a flowing brown cloak made any interest in finding out who it was die out as I dropped back down to the ground.

"We really should stop meeting like this. We've met in person four times already and I can already tell you're not the scheduling type. Maybe you're the kind who likes to surprise people?" I questioned, though it seemed like it didn't register with her as she took a seat on the grass beside me.

"Sometimes I like to keep people guessing." She answers with a hint of playfulness in her tone. I rolled my eyes at her attempt to lighten the mood, but I preferred to be direct to the point, especially with Meguro and her surprise antics.

"If you were wondering, I've already given thought to my final question. That is if you want to be here to hear about it." I wave the folded paper I just pulled out that contained my thoughts and other listed questions for her to answer.

Meguro simply nods, gesturing me to go ahead. The list was necessary at the start, but now I had the question I had to ask in my mind since yesterday. Anyway, I don't bother opening it and recite my main final question.

"I'd like some clarification about something you mentioned before. You mentioned back in Dali that you can help me. What do you mean? I mean, you look like you hardly can take care of yourself in a fight. No offense."

One simple shake of her head let it pass. "It's alright. It's unavoidable especially with how I look. Everyone sees me as a dusty, old lady who shouldn't be outside city borders by her lonesome. Regarding your question, there are multiple ways of helping. Like right now we are exchanging information."

"Too bad the way you're "helping" right now isn't exactly worth much." I crossed my able arm under my injured one as I made my point.

"Trust remains to be a big factor for you, I see."

"Well of course it is. You're this stranger I keep running into who likes to serve more questions than answers. You walk around as if you're shrouded in a mist of secrets." Aside from that the fact that you aren't also in Final Fantasy IX makes it harder for me to trust you.

"Let's see if I'll be able to get a fraction of your trust today." That smile of hers come out again. It's like she knows something but really enjoys keeping it to herself until the exact time she wants to reveal it. I felt even wearier as I watched her take out something from her pockets. "You dropped this in your wild chase in Alexandria."

In her palm rested a small square object with a color similar to her hair enveloped in jumbled wires. A single look at it and I immediately recognized it. It was my mp3, a small device that held almost 500 of my songs that has carried me through days and nights back at home. Seeing it right in front of me sparked this feeling of happiness, but I stopped myself from reaching for it in fear of revealing one of my secrets. So I kept my mouth shut about knowing what it is. I can feign ignorance on it and say there was a crowd present during that whole debacle so it could have been dropped by anyone else.

"That's not mine. I have no idea what that object is." From the look on her face, she found my words hard to believe.

"I can sense the tension in your body, my child. But don't fret. This is what I meant. You can keep your secrets and I can aid you in doing so." I'm not sure what she interpreted when I stumbled on my words and failed to make a coherent sentence, but she did continue speaking. "Not every traveler must be easily read like an open book."

I point at the mp3 in her hands after finally finding my voice. "Okay, so let's say that this thing is mine, even though it's definitely not. Hypothetically speaking, what would you do with it then?"

She shrugged as she examines the device briefly. "Then I would ask to make sure this is yours. If not then I will hide it away until I find the rightful owner." She then examines the mp3 closely, looking impressed at the tiny device even though she didn't know what it can do. "It would be such a shame if such a device were to be lost to its owner." Then I noticed her eyes glint almost slyly at me with her next words. "However, none such individual exists because this kind of technology doesn't exist yet. Such a sleek and simple device would take numerous iterations to make. The technology here is...cruder and bulkier and inferior to this one."

Great, she's well-versed in technology as well. She honestly doesn't look the part but I guess I shouldn't be surprised. She just keeps getting weirder and weirder the more she speaks. There's going to be a point where she reveals that she's actually Gaia's oldest 'Renaissance Woman'.

What if she actually knows that this is mine and knows that the mp3 wasn't made here? She can already tell it looks out of place. Then the question will be, what are the odds of her knowing I also look out of place? Still I can't admit that that thing is mine. Too risky. She may have been spying on me, but she does not know the full story yet. Besides, I may be able to use this to my advantage just a little bit. Let's see if I can play her game.

I dug through my own stuff and got my wallet. "You know I think I found that certain individual's other belongings as well."

The contents weren't all that important, just some various pictures of solo headshots of me and other shots of my family in different sizes, coins, paper bills, arcade cards, coupons, and my school ID. That last one I was thinking of keeping in case I die and someone has to find an object that may tell of my identity, however that ID doesn't belong in this world and would only create more questions than offer answers, so I kept it in and presented the whole collection to Meguro.

"That person may be looking for this as well. Couldn't help but think they're out there wondering who got their stuff."

She takes the wallet and weighs it in her palm. "So you do understand what I mean."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. We are only talking about hypothetical situations." I crossed my arm and continued to play coy. Her laugh doesn't ease the tension between us, yet she does take the wallet into her pocket without any objections.

I know that someday someone would be curious enough to sift through my stuff. Removing anything that doesn't belong to this dimension would decrease the chances of that person looking into me more. Might as well do that now while I have the chance. I'd advise Alyssa to do the same if she has any on her.

"Very well." She's pretty accepting of this. I wonder if she expected this outcome or she just manages to roll with the punches easily.

"So you really are fine with helping me."

"An odd statement, especially coming from someone who didn't trust a word I said the last time we spoke to each other."

I shrug and eye her carefully. "You keep offering, but I still can't find it in my heart to trust what you're saying."

The woman nods and places a hand under her chin. After a brief silence between us, she keeps position but mentions something. "Well, if that's the case then I should just ask something from you in order to understand how I can truly help you." Her eyes then look me up and down for a few seconds, something with how her eyes moved was different from how she would look at me before and it makes me uncomfortable. "I've seen how you act around your friends. One can't help but wonder why you would continue to associate with them if you tend to hold them farther away from an arm's length despite their acceptance of you."

I raised an eyebrow at her supposed observation. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Perhaps you're not comfortable being around them." That's kind of true since I always have to be alert whenever Zidane and the others are around. I need to be aware of everything I say around them because one wrong line might cause them to dig into our backgrounds. That would mean discovering that we're not who we say we are and that is something I would rather not happen. "My guess would be you would like to never worry about them."

"Never worry about them how?"

"Your discomfort comes from being around them. You should feel better if you were to be some place...familiar."

"Alright, you're going into vague territory. Can you talk in words easier to comprehend?"

"A place familiar like home."

I sit up and look at her, trying to understand what she is saying. She only brings up an eyebrow, silently asking if I got it or not. "You're going to have to explain what you meant." I turn to her and almost expected to vanish like the two previous times, but surprisingly she remained there with a smile across her face.

"Like I said before, what I said can be taken at face value. All I need is a little trust."

"I hope you're saying what I think you're saying." I narrowed my eyes on her. This is something she couldn't mess around with. You do not bring up or imply something like that and not have a way to bring it to the table. But if she really us serious then I have no idea how she can actually go ahead and do that.

"We'll see. You just might need to prove to the world you are worthy of help."

"Don't you mean prove to you?"

"Not to me. You've already proven it to me." She gently places a hand on my sling. It almost felt like she wasn't touching me, but the presence was there. "But the Crystal."

…What? What in the hell is she talking about!? What Crystal?

The silence between us is comparable to a stare down in a library, just plain people moving around you in their own bubbles and words being held back in our throats in case we gave away the secrets we don't intend to spill. But at that point I've already lost as I've turned away from Meguro in case she sees the reaction my face went through, from questionable curiosity to horrified shock. Apparently this is what she expected as a response when she stands up and dusts the blades of grass that got on her cloak.

"How you will prove your worth is up to you. It does not have a definite will, but it will surely feel the results of your actions." Her words register a blank in my head as I stand up from the grass.

One of her hands reaches behind her right under the cloak and brings out this small object. It was covered in multiple layers of cloth and an oddly designed purple handle. She takes my hand and puts the strange object in my palm. It was light and felt familiar. Is it a weapon?

I look up to her, trying to understand what was happening and failing incredibly. "What do you mean by that? Why did you bring that up? What is this?"

Meguro only looks at me warmly as if she is trying to quell my curiosity. "You wanted help, I have brought help to you. It just comes down to how you choose to interpret the information you have now and introduce it to your plan of action. But that should be all for now." She sets up her hood and begins to walk away. "All I can hope for is that you are successful. Until then."

"Hey wait! I'm still talking to you, damn it! You can't just drop the mic like that and walk away! There's no mic to fucking drop! Hey!" People were starting to stare because of the unexpected profanity, but I could not care any less as I tried to get after her once I picked up Nero from my feet.

I picked up Nero into my hand and ignored the sling hanging off my arm, trying to run up at the elderly woman and stop her. She proved to be surprisingly faster than I imagined. It might be because of the people walking and running around I had to stop in order to not collide with everyone around me, which made it harder for me to reach her. My hand desperately attempted to catch her cloak, thinking that I can pull her to a stop, but it seemed that the wind sided with her as it fluttered away from my fingertips as she increased the distance between us faster than I thought was possible for someone her age.

Before I knew it, she vanished in between the passing crowds near the entrance of the park in front of me. I tried looking around, away from the sudden crowd that formed and could find no trace of her. I cannot believe it. She managed to leave me in a closed room and in an open area as well. I stomp my foot at the ground in frustration as I let my anger stir. Nero could tweet all he wants in the sling but his untranslatable words were no comfort to me.

It is just as I feared. Meguro may have answered my questions, but her constant need to be vague and unbelievable ability to provide more questions as she answered them made it all the more frustrating. Now there's nothing I can't do about it unless she appears beside me to provide more context for them. My head could not help but turn to both of my sides in case she was there. It was all for nothing as all I could see are random people walking in and out of the park, passing me to get to their preferred destinations.

All I have now are vague answers that I need to interpret, her suggestion, possibly to mess with my head or a genuine way to hold my hand at this mystery she left on my lap.

How to interpret the crystal's will and impress it? How in the world can I do that? That sounds clearly insane. Where do I even begin? There's also the question if she knows I'm not from here or not. That's an easier question to answer, but it'll take her appearing and getting her to talk to have that answered.

Something touched my shoulder and I could have sworn I left my mortal body for a few seconds.

"Blake?" Standing behind me was Alyssa. There was something in how she stood made me think she was tired. Of what, I could only guess. "You're very twitchy right now. Something's not right."

I tried to shake off the surprise and get myself presentable, hiding the item Meguro gave me by placing it in my pocket. Forget about what Meguro said for a few minutes and analyze it later.

"The reason why I'm twitchy is you caught me off-guard. Hard to see you coming when I'm deep in thought and surrounded." I insisted, brushing off the last of grass on my back. As I was inspecting my clothes, I see her look over her shoulder when I notice a red-attired foreigner from a rainy city standing there like a guardian angel. "What is she doing here?" I asked Alyssa.

"Leaving, actually." Freya answered for herself. "If you were aware, panic was in the air after our brief exchange with some monsters in the street."

Wait hold on. Did I hear that right? "Monsters?"

- Alyssa -

Just a few minutes ago…

You know what would make this whole thing better? A parade.

Not that I decided then and there that the city should have a parade. I wouldn't know how to organize one if someone asked me to. But the city surprisingly made an impromptu one when I heard some of the children call their parents to see the animals in the parade. Since I didn't know there was one, I thought I should go and check it out.

And what do you know, it looked like a parade but it was more of transporting that somehow people enjoyed like a parade. Monsters locked in cages were rolled through the street by adult chocobos, guardsmen armed with lances and swords stood by each cage politely telling the residents to move to the side and let their entourage of soon-to-be prey for the hunters in the Festival. The monsters growled and roared and snarled at the human and animal population looking at them, scaring some of the kids and surprised adults, but majority were staring in awe at the captive beasts.

It was interesting to watch, but it's the first minute that you need to see because it doesn't get that much different afterwards. Once people gather around to see the mean monsters locked up, you soak it in and move on. The monsters just roar and growl, but not much else aside from those. Sure there's like two or three that get testy and act up in their little space, yet there's nothing it can do but hit, scratch and bite the bars.

I shrug and enjoy what I see and thought that would be the end of it. I hear a bunch of metal clanging against each other. "No sign of the princess- What are they doing showcasing monsters like a bunch of variety floats!?"

"I dunno what the harm is. This just how they transport them, I guess?" I tried to make a reason. Steiner might be right on some level though.

"Nonetheless, they should be hurrying more than this casual pace they are on." He said a bit too loudly, the guards doing their jobs not appreciating the added criticism.

"C'mon Steiner, let's look by the gazeebos. Maybe Dagger's relaxing there or something." I said as I tried to lead the knight away from getting the guards ticked off at him for slinging unwanted critiques and back to his 'mission'.

What got him to plant his feet down into the grass and dirt was when he heard a few people gasp.

He was looking at one of the cages at the back and it looked like the trio of Fangs they managed to lock in a single box were getting very rowdy to the point of biting and scratching at each other. The force of their attacks on each other played against the size of the box containing them, so picture the faces of the citizens watching that the wheeled cage is rocking back and forth. Everyone who wasn't armed was being told to get away from the cage as they tried to contain the monsters by clanging against the bars and hitting them with the blunt side of the their weapons.

That didn't prove to be enough as it pissed off the monsters even more. The Fangs then directed their anger from each other to the stick whacking them. They probably thought it would work since they did it, but there was something wrong about the Fangs when they looked at the guard hitting them. One of the Fangs blinked and I could've sworn it had something bright green in its eyes before it charged the bars.

In one pounce, one of them caught the lance of the offending guardsman and wouldn't let him go. The others kept pouncing against the bars, the force of their attack against it caused the wheeled cage to teeter to the side on two of its wheels. The guard realized what was happening and tried to escape, but was too late when the cage leaned too far and fell down on his back.

The civilians nearby moving away from the street as more of the guards moved in. Steiner jumped the fence dividing the park and the parade to assist. However, they didn't really pay attention to the ruckus caused by this one cage to the others. It's like it awakened the others. A lot of barking and roaring filled the street and it gave me this bad feeling in my gut, the noises starting to scare the chocobos pulling the parade.

Instinctively, I tried feeling for my sword at my hip, then I realized I left it at the inn thinking my rest day wouldn't involve possibly fighting monsters in a busy street. Annoyed of my current circumstances, I hopped the fence to join Steiner in helping with the man under the cage. The fall bent some of the bars out of their straight positions and this sight of loose openings made the Fangs desperate to force their way through. With how close the guards helping the wounded guy out, they might be in danger of getting attacked.

"Come on and pick up the pace! Lift like your lives depend on it!" Steiner shouted at the guards as they concentrated their efforts at lifting part of the cage. They heaved and managed to start pulling out the guy. His legs were scratched up by the Fang and I'm not sure about his back, but at least he's alive.

Finally the Fangs managed to squeeze through the bars and immediately went for the closest person's shoulder. The attack, as well as the pained scream of their comrade, caused the lifting guards to seize up. The brief distraction made them drop the edge of the cage back on their buddy and sent some of them down to the dirt. Steiner had his hands caught and struggled to lift it alone with the scrambled attention of the guards around him.

Just as another Fang joined its monster buddy in the street, the other parts of Lindblum's forces tasked with handling the monsters tried to quell the unleashed beasts. Unfortunately that combined with making sure the other cages don't rattle enough to free more monsters, calming their chocobos, and ensuring the safety of the civilians proved that their numbers weren't enough to help Steiner. So I did the only reasonable thing I had in mind.

I ran to Steiner and took his sword just in time to stop the other Fang from getting to him. The monster's mouth was filled with steel, biting down on the weapon keeping it from getting its claws and fangs on me and Steiner's back. I struggled a bit against the captain's armor in trying to adjust my stance, but a helpful nudge from the knight gave me the boost to kick away the Fang. It landed against the other one, freeing the guard fighting it off so he can seek his weapon and fight back.

"Sorry, I hope I can borrow this for a while." I apologize to him over my shoulder as I adjust my grip on his broadsword. Again, the sword was heavier than the one I had in the inn. Why do the knights in Alexandria carry heavier weaponry anyway?

"Are you sure you will be fine on your own, Miss Forsyth?" He responded with a grunt. There's other guards around, but they're making sure the public don't get hurt and that other monsters don't get loose. The guy who was initially attacked looked like he was not able to fight, but at least he got away before any major damage happened to him.

As if to make things worse, the chocobos were sent into a panic and the cage tied to them started to veer away from the road and collided with the corner of a building when both of them tried to run in two different directions. The large birds were jerked back and down to the ground due to the force. This gave the three Mus in them a way out through the loosened bars and an easy pair of prey to feast on.

The Lindblum guards in charge of them gathered and tried to contain them in their own fight away from us. It looked like they had that in lockdown for a while, but I need to focus on the two in front of me. While Steiner and the others are trying to get the guy under the cage out, I'll just have to put these Fangs down or hold out long enough for the others to be in the okay and give me a hand.

"I hope I am." I reply, keeping track of both monsters in front of me.

Both of the Fangs pounced at the same time. Blocking both would only result in me getting hurt so I rolled to the side and put up my sword defensively in case they followed up. When they didn't, I went on the attack with an overhead smash with the blunt side of the sword. It connected with the back of a Fang, but it was heavy and going for another attack took half a second to adjust, but it was enough for the other Fang to jump in with its claws. With no other item to use defensively, I pulled the sword up as fast as I can to block, only for my forearms to catch most of the damage.

Jenny was going to ask a lot of questions why her employee has cut on her arms and her newly-bought clothes. I set the thought of her curiosity and the pain of the marks on my arms starting to drip with blood aside as I tried to counterattack. A direct stab made both Fangs move away, but one of them went for another claw cut at me and didn't expect me to redirect my footing so I could spin in a circle, extending the blade with a long circle slash.

The Fang was sent rolling back, its attempt at getting back was met with stumbling and shaking its head as blood ran down its face. I think I managed to nick it in the eye, seeing as one of them was closed and bloody. The other tried to avenge it fellow escapee by running at me with its mouth open. Once I again I put the sword between me and it, and this time it wants me more than the last time as it pushed it with all its might. I tried pushing the edge of the sword into its jaw. It worked and cut through its skin until I hit bone, but it proved resilient when it roared through the sword and bit at me, only covering the sword with more of its blood and further injuring itself, while desperately pawing at me with its front legs.

I had an idea on how to get away and it involved a bit of rolling, and I was stopped from doing so when I saw the other black-furred beast starting to charge at me. My mind tried to thinking of another way of getting both of them down, but I guess I wasn't thinking fast enough that it already was in the air, its jaws wide open to take a chunk out of my body.

Suddenly something collided with it in midair and a second later found itself solidly planted into the ground. It took me a second to realize that a spear from the heavens had saved my life. Then someone in red landed beside it to retrieve their weapon from the dead body of the beast.

"You can finish off that one at your pace." Freya turned and spoke to me.

Snapping me out of my shock, I turn back to the Fang in front of me, grip my sword with both hands and use the monster's force against it by rolling backwards and keeping the sword in its mouth. We completed the roll and I managed to find myself on top of it. Then I plant my elbow between its eyes, a wild yelp leaving its injured mouth, and I got the sword against where its throat should be and cut it. The Fang convulsed momentarily before lying limp with blood gathering on the floor. I stand before it could dirty Steiner's sword any more, shaking a bit after seeing the life of the Fang drain away from its eyes. I know it's still a monster, but maybe I should've picked a less brutal way to beat it.

"Thanks for covering me." I call out to Freya, my voice a bit shaky. She used the fur of the dead Fang to wipe off the blood it had on the blade. "Your aim…Wow!"

She nodded as she walked towards me. "You're welcome. The Dragon Knights of Burmecia are trained in the arts of spear-wielding, whether it may be on land or in the air. Our effectiveness is only sharpened by dedication to our training. You were not bad yourself."

I swallow and calm down a bit from her compliment. "Could be better if I had my sword. I didn't really think I'd need to fight today."

With one more collective grunting and heaving, Steiner and the merry band of Lindblum's finest finally got their friend out of the hot zone and carried him to the nearest medical facility. The other group managed to keep the Mus at bay and under control without having to kill them. Guess they're better at this than I am if they can do that. Obviously they are. Though looking back at the Fangs, I can't help but feel I missed something.

A scream echoed in the air from the park and my head turned to it. In the distance, people were running away from a loose Fang, the third one from the same cage the first two was from. I kept my hold on Steiner's sword as I jumped the fence and ran towards it, shouting at everyone to keep away from it.

It stopped and threateningly growled at this older lady. She backed up one step and it followed her with two of its own. My shout got them to look at me, the Fang shooting me a dangerous glare as I interrupted it from picking out its meal. Freya and Steiner stopped beside me when the Fang barked before rushing us, not understanding that it's outnumbered. Freya stepped up and spun her spear above her and brought it down with precision right on its head, flooring the wild beast.

"Leave this to us. Please escort this woman away from the violence." Steiner asked of me as he took back his sword. I agreed and ran around the fight to get the elderly woman away by the hand, not dragging her behind me but gingerly directing her to safety.

"I can't thank you enough for saving an old lady like me." When we were away and safe, she could only give me this warm smile as she held my hand with both of hers as I make sure that she's alright. No bites or claw marks on her clothes, which was weird that it looked almost as old as her, no offense to her look though. How she managed to follow me without tripping proved she might be more active than the usual older person.

I shook my head and return the smile. "It's fine, ma'am. Everyone has their duty. I just thought it'd be nice to help out."

I didn't have to look over my shoulder to see that both the Burmecian and Alexandrian worked together effectively as they didn't let the Fang move in an inch as they systematically beat it. No one probably could've imagined both of their home countries waging war with each other in a couple of days. Anyone watching them would've been impressed if they weren't scared and going to a safer place from the park and the street where the monsters came from.

She starts digging around her pocket. "Here. Please take this as a token of my gratitude." Eventually she pulled out this thick necklace made of stainless metal with a purple jewel as its centerpiece. She gently gathered it in her palm, gave it one more look before extending her hand to me.

"I can't take this. Please, you don't really need give me anything..."

The lady held my hand and placed the necklace in my palm. "I certainly insist. This was a gift long ago I received from aiding an old friend. Now I pass it on to you and hope it protects you as it did me."

I saw how she looked up at me and how thankful her eyes seemed. As someone who didn't know what was gonna happen at that street, I guess I understand how she feels to have someone be there for her. Finally I let her close my hand around the necklace in it and allow her to let go of it, patting it one last time before stepping back. She seemed to brighten, her eyes seemed to widen with happiness after I accept it.

"Thanks..." I say as I examine the necklace. It was light to the touch except for the jewel, which felt as heavy as a small pebble. The whole thing was beautiful, making me wonder why she'd part with it, but I guess she's sentimental enough to pass it along like her old friend.

The whole monster commotion was finally put to rest when more of the city's guardsmen came in to control the unsettled chocobos and hostile monsters. One of them didn't look like he could swing a mace around, but whatever he sprayed at those monsters made them go from very agitated to very docile in a matter of minutes. All of them were lying on the floor, staring into the distance which made for an easier escorting experience. Thankfully none of the civilians in the park or in the street weren't hurt, only the two guards caught off-guard at the beginning were injured and brought to nearest hospital.

We were thanked by the guards for our efforts. They didn't seem bothered that we killed those monsters. Heck, they were almost glad to be rid of one pack of Fangs to carry back to where they're storing these things for the Festival. Glad we're not getting scolded for killing the event's prey and partially ruining the Festival. Once everything was under control again, things seemed to have went back to normal. People were still tense as the "parade" started to leave the area, but at least there weren't any monsters on the loose anymore. Well, until the actual Festival, that is.

"You handled yourself well there." Freya observed once her, Steiner, and I were alone.

I rubbed the back of my head in embarrassment. Who knew I'd be getting praise from one of Burmecia's best? "Well, I could've panicked like the rest, but Steiner was having a tough time getting that cage of that guy. Might as well stop the Fang from getting to him before things got worse."

"She is more capable than she looks, which I can attest to witnessing first-hand on our initial meeting." You too, Steiner? This day just keeps getting better and better.

"Aw, you're making me blush, guys! I was just trying my best. I couldn't have gotten out there without a scratch if Freya didn't jump in. Literally."

"One of the many virtues my dragon knight brethren have lived to personify is help when and where you can. Most of them are duty-bound to this belief. I would like to believe that I can embody such a virtue myself. If we fail, all we can hope is inspire those around us." There was a proud note in her voice as she spoke about her fellow dragon knights while I stared at her in awe. I guess the titles may be different but they still function to be these people you can look up to.

All I managed in response was a weak but still amazed, "Wow..."

"Nonetheless, you're good with a sword. Have you thought of giving the Festival of the Hunt a try?" Freya rested her spear on her shoulder as she presented me with a thought.

"Well... I'm not really in the competitive field of monster hunting..." Besides, I really think there are more people who's fit to be in the Festival than me. I wouldn't want to take a spot from someone who wants it more. My answer before was I'd only get in the way of more competitive people who want to be known as the better hunter.

Freya nodded understandingly, but continued to speak. "Yes, it is a competition for most, like me. Although there are some who use this opportunity to hone their skills, to build upon the foundation of their abilities and improve. I see potential in you and it would be a waste if you let it flounder without any significant training. And besides, there are no limits in entrants in the Festival."

A lot of good points, can't argue with her since she's the one with a hell of a lot of fighting experience over me, but it's something for me to think about. Nothing's really stopping me from going in art this point after knowing there's no limit.

Okay, there's still something I would have to keep in mind. One, the monsters will really kill if they get the chance. There's no load game option to save me from failing. All I can do is rely on my own skills and items if I do choose to enter. It's every person for themselves in the Festival, the individual with the most points win.

"I'll think about it."

The Alexandrian knight gave our surroundings a sweep and sighed with relief. "Now that everything is back to normal, I must say I'm glad I did not see the princess in this area."

There was a brief, subtle tilt in Freya's head when she heard that. "Princess?"

"Uh...it's a long story." I stammered, not sure if I had Steiner's permission of honestly answering that or not. "Maybe we should head back and check with the others. Meet back here in a few minutes?"

Steiner nodded and directed his attention to where Vivi was, saying he was a bit worried that his master might've noticed the panic in the park. Freya accompanied me to where Blake was. Not that I didn't mind her being around. I just thought she had important places to be. Her reason for sticking around was that I was still shaking a bit from the adrenaline. Guess the sharp aim goes well with sharp observations.

Something from what she said earlier stuck in my mind. We've been quiet on the walk there so I thought it'd be nice fill the silence with a brief question and some of her thoughts.

"Hey, there's something you said earlier. About dragon knights being duty-bound to help." I paused briefly just to make sure Freya heard me, her hum acknowledging my statement. "Do you guys travel the world and do that stuff wherever you go?"

"Some of us do, but the majority of us stay in our homeland to serve our land and king." She responds proudly.

"...So you're saying that those who traveled the world have done a lot of positive stuff in the world? Like help those in need, protect the weak, and whatnot."

A nod follows her next answer. "I'm confident they have. Whether it may be big or small, they have contributed their best efforts and intentions. I know of one who is still traveling and I would like to believe that he is still out there doing what he can with his abilities. Though I pray he comes home unscathed."

Ah yes, Sir Fratley. That…uh…gonna be a painful topic in the future. But she sounded hopeful right now. "Sorry if I'm being too question-y about your culture, but I was just wondering, hypothetical scenario, don't need to be a serious answer, but if you know that this place is in danger in the future and you can aid them now at a great risk, would you still go there and help out?"

"Without a question, I will still offer aid." She replied in an instant. "Personally, the risk does not matter if the results end in the positive."

I stop for a moment to turn to the red-clad woman, somehow my investment in the hypothetical interested her enough to get an answer like that, "But what if there's a chance it ends in the negative?"

Her face was unreadable because of her hat tilted down. Even so I could feel how her dedication in her work carries through her voice. "Then that's a risk I'm willing to take."

I nod as I let her answer sink in. She's really the type to work as a knight for the people in need. I thank her for her answers, real ones and hypothetical, though it looked like she honestly didn't mind, as we continue through the park.

Only a minute of walking got us to the park's tiled section. Beautiful center fountain, sizeable gazeebos, and overall a nice place to hang out in like the rest of the park. He wasn't in the immediate area, which was a bit confusing since I know he'd rather be in a single place. It was hard trying to find Blake out of a moving crowd, yet it looked like Freya had something to go by as she homed in on a single direction.

"I can hear a young chocobo nearby." Freya picked up a noise I couldn't hear with all the people around us.

She leads me to one of the nearby exits where the word about the monster parade has just passed through leading to a lot of people moving away from the park. Might as well get to safety in case it happens, I hear some of them saying as we pass them. Not a bad idea to make sure they're safe. There's some of the city's guards patrolling the area now as a precaution.

The dragon knight tapped me on the shoulder, taking my attention away to point at the sidewalk just out of the park. Standing there looking left and right furiously was Blake. He looked tense and mad, his mouth was moving as if he was having one of his moments, with a faint kweh coming from his direction. His back had some grass on it and his sling wasn't worn on properly. He was probably relaxing before he went for a walk? I dunno.

I walked over to him and called his name. My hand was on his shoulder for just a second when he suddenly turned around, eyes a bit wide at the sight of me. He had something in his hand, something with a purple color he tried to hide behind him.

"You're very twitchy right now. Something's not right." I stated. He backed off a step and tried to fix himself, avoiding eye contact for a few seconds as he dusted off the grass and fixed his sling.

"The reason why I'm twitchy is you caught me off-guard. Hard to see you coming when I'm deep in thought and surrounded." His dismissal wasn't that believable after seeing his jumpy shock a few seconds ago. I could see Freya giving him her own look, which he caught the moment I glanced over my shoulder. "What is she doing here?"

"Leaving, actually." Freya answered, tapping her spear on the ground. "If you were unaware, panic is in the air after our brief exchange with some monsters in the street."

"Monsters?" Complete confusion filled Blake's face.

We had to give him the long story short about the parade sailing by the street for the hunt, a complete thing I didn't expect to happen. As we told him what happened, he let it sink in for a moment before aiming this accusing glare at me, making things as tense as our introduction with Freya a few days ago. She noticed it too, but didn't exactly show that she did. I didn't know what I did to get that look. All I was doing was relaying what happened.

"So, what made the situation change?" The emphasis and the glare made the accusation more obvious. Somehow, someway, he thinks this might've been our—no, MY fault.

"As far as I could tell, the monsters just started acting erratically. After that, a brief time of chaos in the street." Freya responded with what she and I saw before everything happened. He didn't appear satisfied with the answer, but from everything that's happened between us he's not all that pleased with everything.

"Well whatever. At least it didn't go for too long. All's well that ends well, I guess." He shrugged, walking past the two of us accompanied by Nero's chirps in his sling.

"Hopefully that will be the only unexpected fun this town gets until the actual event." Freya addressed the thought everyone had regarding this whole thing.

"Yeah, hopefully." Blake repeats with another look at me. With a breath he changes tracks and smiles. "Thanks for looking out for my friend here. Sometimes she jumps before looking. A pretty dangerous habit, if I do say so myself. I, on the other hand, have to leave and go sleep off this stress. No need to cut your 'day off' short on my expense." He didn't even wait for another word out of us as he turned around, waved, and left for the aircab station.

Freya could only shake her head at Blake's attitude. I couldn't help but agree and pinch the bridge of my nose a bit. He's not the one who fought off two Fangs and rescued this old lady today. I should be the one who should sleep off stress. Also, I didn't need his glares and looks too! That whole parade thing wasn't my fault. Well, not that I know anyway since I've yet to find any connection to what we've done so far to it happening.

Except the Fang having green eyes for a second. That was suspicious.

Now that I've made sure Blake is okay, Freya had accompanied me enough. I thanked her for her time and for her help again and she accepted my kind words with a single nod before leaving. Her reason? "To train for the Festival," she said before jumping off to where her training is happening. She soared in the air with a grace only a dragon knight in this world can have.

I met up with Steiner and Vivi afterwards. The black mage wondered what the commotion was earlier, but didn't actively chase it when he was distracted by this family of swans gliding through the pond. He said they all looked very pretty and watched them as an elderly hippo couple feed them bread. Steiner had to end his princess search and relented that she might still be back in the Grand Castle.

"Do you have another place you want to visit, Alyssa?" Vivi asked me.

I shook my head. "I think that's enough sightseeing for me, Vivi. Might use this time to relax and get some dinner."

"We've taken in enough of Lindblum culture from what we've seen and done today." Steiner felt pleased with his experience despite not finding Dagger.

The three of us then took the aircab back to our respective rest places, the Grand Castle for them and the Business District for me. I waved them goodbye for now as the aircab started moving and picking up speed to its next stop.

"Note to self, always carry sword."

-OLaF-

Something in the air felt like things didn't go back to normal after that parade in the park. Sure the air feels a bit electric with all the excitement for the Festival of the Hunt. There's been an increase of visitors from the neighboring cities in town, along with more people coming by Endless Color and Jenny pushing for more aggressive marketing. The Business District's basically bustling with potential customers left and right and I'm sure the next few days are going to be good for every business in town until the Festival finishes.

That doesn't mean things can't be on the bad side of not being normal.

Normally I'd be focusing on doing my (part-time) job to get people to come and see what Endless Color has in stock by parading in Jenny's chosen outfits like a mascot. But what Freya said back then in the park, about her duty and my skills, it kept coming back to mind whenever I'd have a calm moment like right now when I'm travelling to the Industrial District via aricab. I do appreciate her compliments about my fighting ability, bolsters my confidence in it since not a lot of my friends appreciate self-defense, armed or not, and the basic fact that only enthusiasts care about swords back in Earth. She even went on to say I should try out in Lindblum's annual exclusive event.

It's hard not to think about joining in on it since almost everyone in town is talking about it. Zidane's excited about it for personal reasons, Freya wants to test her skill, and a lot of people want to prove themselves in it. Thinking about being part of the festivities like that with monsters roaming every corner in a contest of pride and ability is kinda nerve-wracking. Yet she's not wrong.

I'm not worried about that. It's just that I don't know if I should.

What I'm actually worried about is Blake. He's just been all over the place since we got here, acting up and being unnecessarily testy with me and Freya. I can believe that meeting people in the mood he is right now isn't really the best time. They probably just don't seem to mix together all that well if that first meeting's going to show something. I just hope he'll be fine and back to his kinda annoying and weird, normal self when things start picking up again.

An announcement by the aircab driver that we've arrived in the Industrial District gets my attention. A lot of workers shifting out were waiting at the platform patiently for those stepping out. I join those disembarking and step to the side, trying to get my outfit straightened out. There's a bunch of guys getting on the aircab passing a glance at me, causing me to sigh. It's not every day they see a girl with a hat and poncho straight out of a spaghetti western (that I'm okay with), a normal set of gloves, boots, and button-up shirt, but the short shorts and chaps were the eye pleasers (and the part of this outfit I can do without, thank you very much).

"If you like, maybe you can go to Endless Color for more variety in hunting outfits." I suggest to them, throwing in a wink as well- hoping it would be passable enough to please the Jenny in my head (curse her for making me wear this).

Ignoring the comments of the other men there, I left as the aircab started to drive it way out of the platform. My annoyance distracted me enough that I didn't notice this person wearing a white hood when I finished walking up the stairs, causing in a little collision that thankfully didn't end up in both of us on the floor. We were both apologizing at the same time that I didn't notice anything off about this person, but they did when they looked up at me.

"Alyssa?" A familiar tone of royalty came out of the hood. There were only two people I knew who were in line with royalty and one of them wasn't as small as this girl.

"Dagger?" Her pulling down her hood only confirmed my guess. We were happy to see each other out of the castle, but I couldn't help but wonder where her rusty bodyguard was.

"I hope you can keep this as our little secret. Steiner has been trying to relax and I know he can't relax when constantly keeps an eye on me. So I snuck out, as one might say." She explained her presence here in a bit of a whisper.

"Guess it was only a matter of time that he'd drive you crazy in that castle." I joked. "Also, props to consistency." I help straighten out her hood. We share a good chuckle for a bit before moving over to somewhere we can stand without blocking everyone's way.

I ask her how she's been during her stay in the Grand Castle. Dagger shared how good it was to be in the company of people she loves, how comforting it is to be around her uncles as busy as they are with the upcoming city-wide event. That was one of the reasons why she was out here today. She'd already taken a lot of their time, she believed so anyway, during the past week so now she is stepping aside for them to focus on the Lindblum and their various responsibilities.

Aside from that, I asked if she's had any notable experiences while we were here. There was a noticeable pause between us with a hint of a smile across of her lips. Can't help but think of that thief we both know. He was working his magic as usual, but Dagger was not the type to admit so she vaguely answered but specifically mentioned a desire to visit the Theatre District.

"Well I think you might have a hard time getting in the theater itself since the city's most famous actor has fangirls always blocking the way." I said as leaned on the wall to get in the shade the wall offered and away from the sun's brightness.

"Darn. I would have enjoyed experiencing what a play in development looks like from the inside." She huffed as she joined me in the shade, leaning on her arms and hands against her back.

"I'm sure if you say that you're the princess of Alexandria they'd instantly part like the Red Sea and present the way."

"What do you mean by 'part like the Red Sea'?" Her head tilted to her right when she asked me. I slap myself mentally when I realized what I had said.

"Sorry! Figure of speech!" I waved the question off, trying to get past it as fast as I can. "I mean disperse! Unblock the way, um, step aside, you know." Thinking about it, Red Sea was kinda appropriate with all the fangirls being there. God now that's a dumb mistake and an even dumber joke!

The princess nodded once I was done explaining in a panic. "It shouldn't be necessary for me to use my title like that. I, for one, loathe the use of rank and title as an advantage."

Well that's something I can admire in her. Something else I can admire her for is her knowledge of plays. I haven't really went out of my way to see one, but a friend of mine took me to LES MISERABLE once a year ago in the summer. It was awesome. Dagger listed a lot of plays she has seen like Sins of The Father, The Devil's Tears in Purgatory, Long Lost Sailor, Road to Nowhere, A Duelist's Fire, and The Lawful, The Chaotic, and The Hideous were the ones I manage to catch, but let me tell you her list is way too long for someone her age.

"That's sure a lot..." I commented. Thank God she wasn't interested in novels. If she liked novels as much as she did plays then we might be here all day sharing stories about them.

"Majority of the plays I have seen are tragic. Doomed love, forbidden romances, and the like often appear to be major themes in them. I do, however, like to see ones where love triumphs all, where the heroes rise to the occasion and ends on a happy note.

"Don't we all in general." I say, nodding in agreement. There's always an audience who loves to see that kind of stuff. Ending with happy endings seem to resonate with audiences faster than the tragic ones.

"I wish I could say the same for my country." She hangs her head as I hear this from her. "All I can hope all is well with mother."

"Hey, things'll work out. They always do." I tried to assure her, but that wasn't true at all. Still, I offered a hand on her shoulder, silently telling her it will be alright. But would it…?

"We're in a dangerous world right now and we know what's going to happen to it."

I understand that. All I know is that everything is still on course to get worse and honestly telling her that wouldn't cheer her up, yet there's still something I can do about it. 'Can' and 'will' are two different things though. And if I even think about it there's this thought that guiding them by using what we know or changing parts of the story will have unpredictable changes, that it might render our efforts to naught.

"Don't you understand? There are consequences, big and possibly fatal consequences, if we try to play hero out there."

It wouldn't be 'playing' hero if there are actual lives on the line. We might not belong to this world, but their lives still matter to someone here and that's enough for me to know that they all matter. Sure it's reckless to depend on the change we cause, but didn't we used to live in a world where the future's uncertain. There are a lot of people out there who would still think of the same things I do and also want to change things for the better. We only fear change because of the future we'll no longer see what's ahead of us.

"Those are mistakes…I don't plan on making more."

Change involves risk and playing that risk means we understand the result of our actions. Blake argued that we're only alive because of what we know, that once that's gone we're gonna be easy pickings. I don't want to believe that.

"Dagger," I finally speak. "If you had the power to make things better, even if it's just a little bit, would you do it?"

She looks up at me with curious surprise. Once the question sinks in she nods, that resolve I saw in Freya also rang through her voice. "Absolutely. I am hopeful for bright future like most people. But the journey there would perhaps prove perilous."

"Nothing's always easy." I agreed.

"What made you ask that?"

I shrugged and tried to smile. "Just a hypothetical question." I pause for a second to bask in the bright sunlight of the day. "If you're wondering what my answer is to that, if it's the right thing to do, I'll do it too."

Blake may believe that lending our knowledge would be a major risk, but that's a risk I'm willing to take. Well if we come and find out that it was a mistake then I'll accept it. I knew the risks and I still went through with it because I believed it's a right thing to do. Besides, waiting for a way to bring us back home isn't really doing us any favors. Maybe changing things up would give provide us some opportunities to find out how and why we're here.

I guess the only thing I need to figure out is how to do this without giving myself away. I'm not ready to reveal where I'm really from just yet.

"You know, there's someone there I know and I might be able to help getting you in and see what a play in the works looks like." I nudge her a bit, remembering that this girl likes plays while trying to lighten up the mood.

She did lighten up, but became hesitant a second later. "I hope that is not Zidane you are talking about." I shake my head with a smile.

"Nah. It's someone you wouldn't expect."

I was about to take her to the Theatre District so we can speak with this guy I was hinting at, but I stopped when I saw that very person walking up the stairs from the aircab platform. He looked down on his sling and spoke to the black-feathered chocobo in his sling before walking off to who-knows-where.

"Was that Blake?" I hear Dagger ask by my shoulder. I nod and prompts her to ask another question. "Why is he here?"

"Let's find out then." I tell the princess, waiting for Blake to get deeper into the street past the plaza, but not enough to lose him, before getting on his trail.

He entered a street that had a lot of factory buildings set side by side with each other. I didn't bother looking at what kind of factory they were or what they were making since I kept my eyes glued on the injured teenager who is supposedly working at the theater right now. Maybe it was his break time? If that's the case then why is he out here? I'm sure there are better places to spend 20 minutes of free time in.

It looked like he reached his destination when he stopped by a door on the left side of the street. Said door was part of a factory, details on what kind was scarce since Dagger and I hid in an alley to keep an eye on Blake but didn't have a view into the building. The person who answered the door was massive and he looked down on my friend with a scowl. Blake reached into his pocket and handed something to him, which made the doorman's face lighten up with his eyebrows still knitted together before he closed the door.

The black-haired 'salesman' looked around the crowd behind him, then left and right, as if to make sure he wasn't being followed. Is he taking part in espionage? Sure he was a bit paranoid when he moved out of the castle, but this was a kinda too much. Plus, how did this fit in with his work anyway?

My questions seemed to pile on when the same doorman came back out and this time handed Blake a bag. A big one at that. He tried to open it in one hand, only to struggle with it and had to put it down to examine the contents. That was when Nero became like a kid in a grocery store as he jumped down from the sling, landed on the bag, and ran past the doorman's legs. Blake panicked and immediately went after his beloved pet, much to the chagrin of the burly man who made chased after the two inside.

"Any clue or guesses what that was about?" I turn to Dagger, who was already pondering possible reasons in her mind.

"Perhaps he was making another customer for his profession." She suggested. "He did mention this is hometown, then it would be right to assume that he is merely making an honest day's work." Something felt like this was not part of his 'honest day's work', but if he's going this far to sell his backstory then kudos to him.

Whatever he was doing here, it didn't feel right. Dagger was the one who suggested to catch him where he was working to surprise him, an idea she got from one of the plays she'd seen before, one that she said focused on a mystery. I'd be stupid to not take her up on her idea, so I suggested to take the next aircab to the Theatre District, sidestepping some of her questions on how I knew he'd be there by saying he's been around there constantly for the past few days.

We only waited for a few minutes until Blake arrived there, only a full aircab ride separating our time of arrival between us. He bowed courteously to Dagger when he spotted us. Aw, no special greeting for me? Surprisingly, he didn't have that mystery bag he had earlier, only that item satchel hanging off his shoulder.

"Where you'd been? We've been looking all over for you!" I asked as I waved for him to come closer.

"Lunch break," was his simple excuse. Could be true, but he sure wasn't spending that time eating.

"And where did you go to eat for your break?" It was Dagger's turn to question him.

He quirked an eyebrow at the both of us but couldn't help grin. "There is this small family place by the station in the Residential District. 'Right on Track' was the name of the place. Pretty quaint, affordable, and delectable. You should try it sometime when you're not hiding out in the Grand Castle. Heard the guy in charge was Alexandrian until he married. He might like a visit from the princess one of these days."

I could see Dagger trying to discern what could be lies from his statement, but this is Blake. He covers his tracks like his backstories, makes sure that no one would ask any more questions about them. It was clear we weren't getting anything out of him, as clear as his belief in change. What he wants is what he gets.

The sling-wearing teenager then changed tracks by suggesting he show Dagger around in the theater, obviously trying to steer her attention away from the important questions. She looked at me, hoping I'd have any more ideas to get him to spill the beans. Again, he's tight-lipped until he wants to be, so I just shrug and basically tell her to have fun with a nod.

He might think he's in charge of this whole 'being from a different reality/dimension' and doesn't take suggestions from anyone else involved (and I'm the only one involved with him in this), but not this time. It's time to share the responsibility and I want to make life better here in Gaia. This is bigger than just us

Figuring out how to do that may need some thinking.

I hear someone whistling a tune around me and notice this little girl skipping over to this cylindrical shape in the corner. She opens is and drops this letter in it.

Lightbulb!

- FF FF FF -

The day has finally come.

I examined the light-colored envelope in my hands, huge capital letters spelling out 'URGENT' on the back side, making sure that it's sealed properly so the letter inside wouldn't drop out and get whisked away by the wind. After pouring out my thoughts in one sheet of paper and trying to get all the important details down and then condensing all of them in an easily understandable explanation and lastly making sure it didn't give me away, I finally have this to help Lindblum and possibly Burmecia as well. I literally burned through a candle getting this done the other night and I had to read it the morning after to make sure it made sense.

Once I was done inspecting it, I reminded myself to find a good place for this letter as I gently put it in my satchel and walked into the Grand Castle.

The day I got the idea on how to do this was also the same day I decided to enter the Festival of the Hunt. I think it was the adrenaline after convincing myself how to get this letter out that got me brave enough to put my name into this annual competition. I don't really have anything to prove in this event, but I'm in it to prepare for the fighting that's soon to come afterwards. Not really aiming to win, doing well on the other hand is a goal.

Not dying is also a big goal. Don't want that to happen, especially when we're still so close to the beginning of the game's story.

One of the guards direct me to one of the castle's conference rooms where the rest of the participants were waiting with their plus ones encouraging them and pumping them up. A few of them near the door looked at me, scanning me for a second as if trying to gauge if I'd be a threat. Don't worry guys, just a casual entry!

To the right was Vivi talking with Dagger and Steiner. The princess of Alexandria was observing the room with concern, probably not hard for her since these people would be putting themselves in danger to bolster their pride and win their named prize. Steiner, on the other hand, was keeping idle conversation with the black mage beside him, who was wondering where a specific blond thief was.

I walk over to them while the air is filled with various conversations from the others.

"Man, I can't wait to get out there and kill monsters!"

"I must focus…"

"Here's hoping I don't choke unlike last year."

"Here's to another victory this year."

"Where's Zidane?"

"Please princess, you might actually enjoy it."

"...Okay."

There was quite the number of people in here for the Festival as they either tried to pass the time. Some of them were visibly shaking in anxiousness or they were pacing to keep their nerves in check or they were being silent and observing their competition, just like what Freya the Dragon Knight was doing in her side of the room. Most of the people here I saw while I toured the town in the behalf of Endless Color, busily preparing their things and making sure they had everything they needed.

"Hey Vivi," I greeted the black mage. He looked up to me and greeted me back, happy to see someone me. "You excited for the Festival?"

Vivi nodded, having to adjust his hat after doing so. "Yeah. I can't wait to see the animals!" well that answers the question if he's figured it out already. I guess I'll be the one to do so.

"Well, about that..." I was just about to tell him when the doors opened to reveal Zidane entering the room. The eyes of his fellow competitors fell on him momentarily at that particular moment, slightly interested, which his only reaction was to smile to himself, before they went back to doing their own thing. He eventually spotted us and made his towards us.

"Hey guys. Sorry I'm late." Zidane said. I could see Zidane and Dagger share a silent moment of eye contact with each. I bet he's still thinking of that airship cruise he promised Dagger and the fun they'd have. He grinned when his eyes turned to me. He barely looked surprised at my presence, probably expecting me all along to come. "See. I knew you'd come," he said with his hands on his hips along with a smile on his face.

"Freya got me to enter. She has her way with words. Besides, you were gonna enter me anyway!" Yeah, he was there when I entered for the Festival and was actually thinking about putting two other names there, the first one being mine, without our permission. Good thing I resolved to be part of it.

He rubbed the back of his head, Dagger giving him a sharp look. "Nah, what are you talking about? I wouldn't do such a thing. Anyway, you'll do great in there. You might even win if you focus."

"That's pretty optimistic of you." I've thought about it and the chances of me winning is pretty much the same as me winning the lottery. That needs a whole lot of luck, which is why I'm not thinking about winning.

Someone outside our little circle of conversation joined in when I felt someone walk up beside Zidane and I. "You sure took your time getting here." It's kinda hard to see who she was looking at with her white hair and part of her hat blocking my view of her eyes so I really couldn't tell.

"At least I'm here, aren't I?" Zidane grinned at the knight. Freya turned her head to me and Vivi, an actual sign of her looking at me. We exchanged nods before Zidane put his arm over Freya's shoulders, directing her attention to the two Alexandrians with us. "Oh yeah, you might've heard of these two."

"Yes, Princess Garnet till Alexandros XVII. Pleasure to finally meet you." She bowed to each of them while keeping her tone soft so the people around us wouldn't hear, while the two appreciated the gesture, despite Steiner keeping a glare at Zidane. "Captain Steiner, on the other hand, I've met during a little incident in the Residential District a few days ago."

Zidane was surprised to hear that, but shrugged it off a few seconds later after Steiner explained what happened.

You get that feeling that you want to cut the waiting time already and just get to do it? Yeah, well that's starting to get to me that I started hopping from one foot to the other to avoid thinking and just keep an empty mind. Just fight monsters, prepare for any actual fighting after this, and survive. Points aren't important, but it'd be nice to keep score just to see how I'd do.

"Nervous?" Freya was observing me, yet I couldn't help but nod. "Don't worry. By the time you start fighting the monsters, you will be running on adrenaline and all your worries will disappear. But do be careful. There have been casualties in this festival before." She advised.

"Gotcha. I'll take that to heart."

I felt someone nudging me by the shoulder and heard Zidane whisper, "Don't let her scare you. You'll do fine."

"It must have been irritating travelling with this guy and his constant harassment." I'm guessing she's talking about Zidane's penchant for hitting on girls.

"So far it's been subtle," I answered with a smile. But now that she's said it, Zidane's probably gonna go to the next level of flirting when Dagger's not around. I wonder how he manages to keep it in his pants through all of his adventures.

"I'll give you all support when I watch the entire thing," Dagger said, looking at me, Zidane and Vivi a determined look.

"Good luck, Master Vivi," Steiner bowed to the young black mage as he said this.

"Uh, thanks..?" Vivi managed to say, still a bit uncertain with the knight's worship of him and his power.

The door opened once again to welcome the other arriving participants. I would've finally told Vivi about the truth about the Festival when the new entrants caught my attention. There were two of them, an older man with a talkative guy walking beside him as they took a spot on the far left in the back.

First off, it looked like the older man didn't mind the ongoing one-sided conversation happening to his side, his straight, white hair reflecting his patience. A dull silver coat covered his body from the neck down to the toe with dark gloves and boots dressing his hands and feet. The way he walked made it seem like he was hovering off the air because of how he took each step. His eyes never left the floor as his head was tilted a bit to the ground, but despite that he moved like he's seeing perfectly. Something about him was familiar though.

I immediately noticed something about the second person. The man beside him had this confident grin on his face that didn't look too cocky but had this loose air about him. His hair is extremely dark and probably long without the tied ponytail behind his head. That wasn't it. I realized it when my eyes caught his attire. His jacket had the weird designs, the maroon color theme. From an angle, his boots had the striking dark green camouflage on them.

It was MJM from Dali!

The smell of chloroform and the unwelcome darkness of the underground facility in Dali came back into mind along with the image of Maroon Jacket Man. I don't know if this is the same guy or not, but I haven't seen boots of the same color since that day. Though I'm not sure if the same of kind of footwear is hard to come by or not. But this sense of familiarity that's sticking out of my mind is sending very bad vibes to my core.

"My, you look like you've seen a ghost."

And the surprises just keep on coming. We all turned to the source of the familiar voice.

"BLAKE!?"

Standing before us is the injured 'travelling salesman' with his splint, and black-feathered chocobo in his sling. But he wasn't dressed normally. Strapped over his button-up shirt was a metal chest piece while his left arm and legs were dressed in simple armor as well.

Please no more surprises...

Chapter Text

Of Lies and Fantasies
Chapter 21: The Part Where The Points Do Matter

-Blake-

Today is the day where the blood of monsters will run in the great city of Lindblum, loud cheers will fill the air, and eventually a victor will be named to crown this year’s ultimate hunter. Unfortunately, I already hate the first two of the three things I mentioned, especially at the current time of day.

I am currently sitting in an aircab headed for the Lindblum Castle along with some overly excited fans of the event, who I heard they will be watching and cheering for last year’s winner because they would not shut up about it. Good thing I sat alone in my seat with Nero in my arm so that it’d not fly off when the aircab would curve around a turn. I didn’t mind its occasional kwehs since I’ve been taking care of it for days now. That wasn’t hard, but trying to get comfortable in the armor I’m in was another story. Good thing they were cheap.

Going back to what I said earlier, I am obviously not looking forward competing in the Festival of the Hunt. I’ve done the math (obvious lie there) and every single time it would end horrendously for me unless if there’s some sort of wild card that appears completely out of nowhere to possibly save me.

And despite all that negative thinking, as I walk through the castle doors after exiting the aircab alongside a guard escorting me since I told him I’m competing, I am here with my intention of winning the Festival clear in my head. Let’s get this straight once and for all. In the real world, I would not have a chance of winning any physical event in the condition I am today. I have useless arm, I can barely compete when it comes to physical aspects of a competition even if I had a good arm, and that I don’t usually participate in anything. All of that results in clear defeat for me.

But this is because of that enigmatic woman who wouldn’t give a straight answer. Impress the world, the crystal? All crazy talk. No one even knows if there’s an actual crystal out there so why think that it’s possible. Unfortunately, that’s all I have going for me and upon a lot of thinking, almost an entire night’s worth of internal debate, this is the closest I can think of possibly fulfilling that criteria as soon as possible. It’s a longshot, but one I hope I can make with all the planning I made through the past few days.

I stopped a few feet short of the door as the guard readied to open it. I calmed my anxious heart by giving out a breath before putting Nero down on the ground.

“You ready?” I asked my dark feathered pet, and then realized I was taking to a chocobo who could not speak English. I need to remember that little tidbit. “Here it goes then.”

Walking through the opened doors made me more nervous about my whole plan. I don’t need to be nervous. I have everything under control. Everything’s planned out. All I need is to get in, simple as that. Just focus.

Oh hey, I can see Vivi, Alyssa, Zidane, Steiner and Dagger. And Freya’s already over there making small talk. I wonder what they are talking about. As I was making my way to them, I noticed Alyssa staring at someone from the side of the room, but I didn’t see who it was as a group of wannabe hunters gathered around the person. It’s either accidental or on purpose, yet I did not care. Guess I should make my presence known.

“My, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” I commented as I walked over. The sound of my voice is immediately recognized, only not in a good way.

“BLAKE!?”

…It looks like I am unwanted around these parts. That could be the case or they just didn’t expect me to arrive looking like this. I really shouldn’t be surprised though. No one in their right mind would enter themselves in competition with the level of danger such as this, but I have my own reasons. Reasons these guys should not know.

Though I have yet to tell Alyssa of the multiple reasons I have why I am here. I should work that in a casual conversation if I happen to meet her during the Festival. Speaking of that girl, right now she looks like she’s seen a ghost.

“Good morning, fellow hunters!” I said once my appearance has sunk in. Nero chimed inform my sling with ‘kweh’ of his own.

They all looked at each other and then back at me. What? Did I say something wrong? I’m pretty sure someone here has something to address. Vivi was the first to say something in regards to my arrival. “Hey Blake, are you here for the Festival?”

“Why, of course I am, Vivi.” I replied, adjusting my burned tie for a much more comfortable placement. “Isn’t that why we’re all here?”

“Aren’t you supposed to stay away from this type of event?” The question was made by Freya. What look she’s giving me, I wouldn’t know because of her hat and hair blocking it. “Should you be even here with an injury like that? That would make you an easy target for the monsters to pick off.”

“First off, my injury is my business. Second, those things we’re hunting out there are called monsters for a reason. They only have instinct, not brains. And third, I’m prepared.” I could faintly hear her hum to herself after what I had said. She probably did not like it because she turned around and went to where she left her weapon.

I looked at the others around me and I got this feeling that they did not like what I said. Especially Alyssa, because she just looked at me with confusion. “Wha-What? What are you even doing here?”

“I think I already answered that question,” I looked around the group of participants who were waiting for the same announcement all of us were waiting for before turning back to her. “I’m doing what all of you are doing, which is waiting for the Festival to start.” I gave Alyssa a quick look and then leaned slightly towards her. “You‘re kinda tense. Is there a problem?”

“Blake, I think what Alyssa is trying to say is that you should not be here,” Dagger said. Zidane stepped in to support her royal highness.

“Yeah, shouldn’t you be lying down and resting your wrist?” Zidane inquired, pointing to the splint and sling.

“You still don’t look so good,” Vivi observed. That must be because I’ve been pacing myself last night in cold sweat after making preparations; almost tired myself out of worry.

“It’s only been, what, a week? You shouldn’t be even up and about that much after what happened,” Zidane added.

Finally, someone addressed the gigantic, airship-sized elephant in the room! Didn’t know when someone would bring that up. I merely shrugged at them. “I don’t think there is a rule about barring the recently injured folk entry into the Festival. If there was I didn’t get the memo.”

I honestly had no go-to excuse for that one. I tried thinking up of a few lies, but they got extremely convoluted with various reasons that I saw as very unnecessary. It was like I had rehearsed three lies with five layers of complicated deception. I eventually realized that I didn’t need to do that, especially when I figured that I should go the ‘handicapped are capable too’ route. That’s much easier, less layers to worry about.

“In all honesty, you should not be even worrying about little old me. It’s not like I’m going to be someone you should worry about with all the monster killing you guys are going to be doing,” I remarked, waving off their worries like it was no big deal. It actually is, but don’t let them know that. “Besides, I’ve had worse injuries than this.”

“In case you didn’t know, Blake, there’s going to be numerous monsters outside waiting to tear us hunters limb from limb, and you‘re still okay with that?” I nodded at Alyssa’s words a moment after she told me this, making her more confused.

That very scenario has run through my head a number of times as I mentally prepared myself for this. Just the possibility of dying out there terrifies me, but if I don’t go out there and try to win this would mean I would have to stay in Gaia longer than I want. I want to be out of here as soon as possible, and this is my ticket out. You do not know how much thinking I spent trying to convince myself that this is a bad idea. A lot, just so you know. It basically is a VERY bad idea, yet here I am. I so want to be out of here in a snap so bad that this whole ‘being in a game’ has been Hell for me if you don’t know. I think I’ve said that a lot recently.

“I guess that’s my problem then,” I reply to her, trying to look confident. “Are you actually worried about my own wellbeing or are you actually thinking I’ll only get in the way? You guys should instead be excited that I am up and about.”

It seemed to the others like what they were saying to me is not coming across as an important message. The brunette frowned at me as if I said something she didn’t agree on. “Of course I’m worried about your wellbeing! You might get hurt!” Chances are high that I will get hurt, but maybe you can up your hero game and be there when I need help. If someone were to tell me that a one-handed man cannot kill enough monsters, get enough points, and beat the other able-bodied hunters in a contest I would have agreed with them. It is absolutely impossible.

Well that is if you are not prepared. That’s because I am.

I spent the days leading up to the Festival of the Hunt preparing for it like reading books, researching about the monsters they were letting loose, buying items necessary for survival, checking if my current weapon is up to par for the job. If Zidane can handle numerous monsters with two daggers, why can’t I? Every single moment in those couple of days was used so I can be ready specifically for this event.

So new weapons, a handful of armor, and some research and I’m all fully prepared for anything. Well…aside from the other stuff I have in my sleeves.

Now let’s just hope everything goes according to plan. There are a lot of extraneous variables walking around this very room for everything to work out as they should. I know I don’t control everything here. Circumstances will change some parts of my plan, but things should go smoothly. If not, well worst case scenario…let’s not think about that.

“You’re clearly not listening.” I blinked. I see Alyssa standing before me with her hands on her hips, her face looking a bit aggravated. Was she talking while I went over that bit? “Of course I was!”

“What?” I blankly said.

“Come over here.” She grabbed me by the tie and dragged me to an area of the room that had fewer hunters so we had some privacy as Nero followed closely. When she let go of me, after I told her that she was choking me, she finally said something after taking a breath.

“Something’s up here. I know that you’re smarter than you look, but this is something that you should’ve thought twice about.” She emphasized that point by putting her finger into my chest twice. “And after what happened with the third Black Waltz I could’ve sworn you would’ve stayed fifty feet away from a battle. If that’s the case, why are you here? Why do you want to participate in something you know you can’t do!?”

I looked at her and tried to think. I’ve been meaning to inform of her this for a while now. But Meguro told me that I should not let anyone know that I have been talking to her, yet this is important. I just cannot let Alyssa know incomplete details.

"The reason why I suggested, not outright expressed a desire to keep our meetings a secret, is because this will surely attract unwanted attention."

You know what? The hell with her! Meguro has been playing me and I’d like her to actually prove something for once. Maybe I can have some liberty when it comes to trading information with someone I’ve been traveling with. She’s not going to know much anyway. What’s she going to do, appear behind me and tell me that I went back on my word? There was never even a word! We never agreed to it anyway.

“Alright, you want to know?” I asked the girl. She eagerly nodded. “Well then let’s just say this our way out.”

Alyssa’s eyebrows would have crossed the space between them twice if she could. “What?”

I lower my voice in case the others were listening in. This is vital information for those who only need to know. “All I need is to get the most points and prove to this world that I can accomplish something for once. No more games and no more adventuring. If I win, we get to go home. Maybe we can team up out there and help each other out.” I nudge her just a bit to make my offer obvious. I could see her struggle with words in accepting my offer, but it’s still way too early. She can just answer when we meet up. “Don’t worry about me. All we need to worry about is the Festival’s monstrous main event.”

“But…how? Why?” She looks at me, at my sling, and back to my face. One of her hands reach out and touch my forehead. “You’re not sick, are you? Have you been taking those painkillers in moderation like how Dr. Thomas said?”

I pull her hand away from my face, a bit annoyed with all the questions. “I’m fine! You shouldn’t worry about this little ‘accessory’, you know. I can handle myself.”

“Did you even hear a word I just said? It’s not safe for you if you take part in this!” She was leaning towards me, a glare drilling a hole between my eyes. The way she looked at me irritated me.

It reminded me of how my sister would always talk to me. You know, that’s one thing I’m glad I’m here. I don’t have to hear my sister and her stupid ramblings that always get me nothing but a severe headache, especially if it’s about me. So I glared back at Alyssa.

“You know what, how about you? Why are you even here?” I said. “You’re only as good as me. Sure you can swing a sword and you had a lucky break on Steiner and your limbs are all okay, but that does not mean you should put yourself in a deadly competition. Do you even have an actual reason why you’re here?”

“Of course I do! I’m here to prove something to myself, that I can handle fighting these monsters and improve my skills. And don’t tell me that I had a lucky break. You should be telling yourself that.”

“Excuse me?”

“Things could’ve gotten worse for you in every part of this adventure, but you’re just lucky things ended up the way they have.”

“If I was lucky, this,” I raise my injured arm with an alarmed kweh going with it, “wouldn’t have happened to me. And seriously? Improve your skills?” Honestly, that sounds pathetic.

“I don’t have to tell you every single thing I have and want to do. My participation shouldn’t change anything.” Oh, she’s throwing that back at me, eh? Just because she doesn’t understand everything has to be similar as to how it plays out in the game doesn’t mean she can cry foul when I’m trying to keep things in order. And what did she mean by that first part?

“Alright, everyone listen! We’re about to begin the Festival of the Hunt!” One of elite guards in the red armor stood in the middle of the room with his voice raised. Everyone in the room turned to face him and get near in order to properly hear what is going to be said next. The brief commotion gave Alyssa an excuse to walk away. If she wants it that way then so be it.

As I was trying to get closer to the elite guard starting his introductions, I spot someone to the left side of the room. Standing against the wall with her hood down, Meguro was giving me this strange look. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was from the distance and the people between us, but there was something reminiscent of how my mom would look at me when she caught me eating half of the family’s leche flan. Then she started walking towards the door without a word.

Another appearance and another mystery to add to the ones piling up. Whatever, I can just sort that out later if she wants to talk it out.

The elite guard began explaining the rules concisely for everyone in the room. We had an hour and thirty minutes to kill as many monsters that are on the loose in the city with the bigger kill meaning we get more points. Once the allotted time has gone down to zero, the person with the most points win.

However, the methods of getting said points seemed to have changed, which made me really uncomfortable. We get points by killing the monsters and collecting tags. They would be conveniently located on the body of each monster, such as necks or legs, so that it’ll be easy to get them once they are dead. The person with the highest score will be awarded with their requested reward and will be crowned the ‘Master Hunter’. He also added that we can surrender and retire on our own volition, but we can also be forced to retire if we become too wounded.

“And those are the rules. Does anyone have any questions?” The hammer-wielding guard looked around the room to see if anyone needed clearing something up. When everything was clear the doors opened again with the right timing while the guard stepped aside.

Three guards waltzed inside the room; ones in blue this time, all the while Minister Artania graced us with his presence as the elite guard continued off. “Hunters, if there are no more questions, then proceed to any one of us so we can note what reward you will receive if you are victorious.”

Zidane approached first to the elite guard with Freya going to one of the blues to say their respective rewards while Alyssa came a bit prepared with hers: a powerful sword. Not too bad. I heard theirs and briefly contemplated what reward I wanted. I knew I was going to win this, so I did not want to go with very extravagant rewards. Though the idea of an airship, a statue to myself or a city district named after me popped into my mind, I declined to further think about it as I just went with a simple cash reward. I am a bit on the short end when it comes to finance anyways.

Then when almost everyone was done declaring their rewards, they asked if everyone was done. Zidane came up to the guards and whispered something to them, all the while trying to inconspicuously point at the black mage standing by the cabinet. The one in red nodded and walked over to him. “And you, Mr. Vivi? What would your reward be?”

It took a second for him to sink in before reacting with a, “WHAT!? I never signed up!”

This then was followed up by Zidane’s innocent bet that had a date with the princess of Alexandria on the line. Of course, with any mention of the princess came Steiner’s loud voice demanding to know what ex-Tantalus member had planned. I swear if Steiner’s voice had been louder the room would have shook. When they were off the hook, Vivi named his reward and the proceedings continued.

“Now for your district assignments!” Now with the rewards done, the guards then started going around with boxes in their hands. Apparently, we were to get a piece of paper inside in order to randomly pick where our starting points are. Basically like a lottery box, which reminds me of a few episodes of Dragon Ball Z when they pull out balls from a box to get their positions in the tournaments.

With another orderly go around for the guards, each of us took a piece and opened them up to reveal where we’re going. I overheard some of the placements for the people I know. Zidane had the Theatre District, Vivi had the Business District, and Freya got the Industrial District. That covers the three base locations. Alyssa had this mixed look of surprise and worry when she got the Noble District. Think of it like a gated community for rich people but bigger and with proper security. Both of us have yet to step into the Noble District and being assigned to an unknown place is going to be a great disadvantage. I may have not been there yet, but I have a back-up plan in case I do get assigned to such a place.

My paper got the Residential District. Okay, familiar territory. That’s great! Not as great as getting the Industrial or Business District, but it’s what I’m handed so I’ll just have to make do with it. The others probably can’t see it, but I am jumping for joy for something finally going my way. My luck is starting to turn, and luck is what I need right now.

The other hunters continued to get their initial placements until everyone has their own starting points. I’d already tuned out when I knew where anyone important was starting. What I did hear is that I am sharing a district with two other people, a girl and guy respectively. One of them looked wickedly armed with her two katanas and ready to kick butt and earn points, while the other looked like he walked out of the set of West Side Story with that obnoxious face of his and gelled up hair.

With all of the important matters dealt with, Minister Artania spoke up and the room went silent. “The annual Festival of the Hunt is now at hand. The best of luck to all of you hunters and huntresses, and may the better hunter or huntress win!” The competitors roared their excitement as the door opened, allowing the different contestants of the festival to exit and head to an aircab that would deliver them to their district assignments.

I stopped in my tracks, feeling that there was something I haven’t done yet, and felt a small nudge on my injured arm. Nero was nuzzling into my limb and that served to remind me of the thing I am forgetting. I quickly went back to the conference room and reached Dagger and Steiner just as they were leaving.

“Hey Dagger, can I ask a favor?” The princess’ eyebrow rose as I spoke. I pulled out a small pouch from my pocket and presented it to her. “Can you look after Nero for a while?”

“Nero?” D