If it was hours or days or months later that Fujin silently retreated from the lab, she had no way of knowing. By that time everyone had been assembled, waiting for good news and expecting her to bring it. It was too much--too much to ask, to mush to stand.

She stepped through the threshold and froze in place, horrified at the aspect of facing them, to unsteady on her feet to really evade. On her face, plain and open, was an expression none of them had ever seen her wear.

It was so strange, so foreign to her mien that for a long moment, no one could tell that it was grief.

Lu was the first to speak, biting her lip and fighting back emotion. "Anyev, I'm--"

"SILENCE!"

The room jumped, ponderous night stillness smashed to pieces. Fujin stood hunched, fists clenched, eye redder than normal--she was shaking, every muscle tense, teeth bared. She looked terrible.

"SILENCE!" she screamed again, hoarse with the volume, voice strained almost to breaking. "SILENCE! SILENCE! SILENCE!"

She didn't give anyone a chance to think before she fled the room.

Her shuriken was still sitting on the table by the door--she snatched it up as she went. She had disappeared before anyone knew what had happened.

She ran through the halls of the Institute--empty, so empty at this time of night--taking turns by instinct, losing herself as best she could. Getting away--away from that accursed lab, from the people she had never wanted to be here with, from everything and nothing, really, at all.

She collapsed against a wall when it seemed her legs wouldn't carry her any further, and for the first time heard noises of pursuit. Seifer was running after her--so predictable, just like every other step on this mess of accident and tragedy. he turned and sent the shuriken hissing at him, but her had was shaking--it dropped, skittering against the floor, and she dropped too. It was far, far too much.

"Fujin?"

He was standing over her as she cowered there, and under any other circumstance she would have been ashamed, But she couldn't think, now, couldn't--

"Nnnnot," she stammered, voice quaking. "Nnnnnnot Ffffujin. Aaanyev. Nnnnnot--"

Seifer made an open gesture. "...Anyev," he said, the word unfamiliar.

"Nnno," Fujin shook her head. "Nnnot...."

"Fujin, then." Seifer took another step closer.

"...who am I? What am I...?" Fujin huddled against the wall, staring at her hands as if sure they would disappear. "...wasn't supposed to be born, you know. Impossible."

"...looks like you're here, though," Seifer said. "You seem real enough to me."

"Who?" Gathering herself as best she could, she forced her feet under her and stood, leaning heavily on the wall. "Father," she pronounced, "was stronger than anyone. Than anyone. ...except himself." She shook her head. "...father was never strong enough for... for himself. Am--am I?"

"You think I'm going to let anything happen to you?" Seifer shook his head. "Not gonna happen."

Fujin shook. "I'm not going back to Garden!" she forced. "Not! Not! I'm--not going back there!"

"Then neither am I," Seifer said, folding his arms.

"Yes," Fujin insisted. "You are."

"Then you're coming with me."

Fujin stood there, and shook--and closed her eyes. "...yes," she whispered. "...I am."

"Because we're a posse," Seifer continued, "and no matter what happened before we all met up--and no matter what's happening now--we can still rely on each other."

Fujin bowed her head, choking painfully on her own emotion.

Not knowing what to do, but somehow feeling all too certain, Seifer took her by the shoulders and pulled her in. She didn't resist, her forehead against his collarbone, tears falling hard onto the blue fabric of his vest.

"You should have trusted me in the beginning," he whispered. "You think I wouldn't understand?"

She didn't answer. He didn't expect her to. They stood there in silence until the first fingers of dawn began to lighten the foreign sky.

-

The new day, when it broke, was bright and warm.

They were allowed to see the President for five minutes or so between terribly important meetings of one sort or another. He apologized profusely, extended his sympathies, and told them that he regretted that there was nothing more he could have done. There were too many things he wanted to say, and before he could say all of them he was ushered away by his aides.

The Palace and the Institute buzzed with their daily activities, going steadily along with no consideration for loss. Squall retreated into one of the offices, and contacted Balamb--who promised to have a transport there as soon as possible.

The Palace staff tended to them automatically during the day, attending to their duties and moving on.

Sometime in the evening, the massive form of the Ragnarok set down at the Esthar Airstation. Lu walked with them to see them off, although she didn't know how she could possibly give her farewells. It wasn't until they stood in the main Airstation hall that Fujin realized that there had never really been any question of her staying for a funeral--if there was going to be a funeral.

Her father was dead. What could a funeral say beyond that?

Lu forced herself to say something. It came out common and hardly noteworthy--and she didn't really hear what she was saying, anyway. Fujin forced herself to mumble something in reply, something not heartfelt and easily missed. Staring up at the grimacing face of the dragonship, she reflected that Ragnarok meant the end of the world.

Against all self-control, Fujin turned back to look over the Esthar skyline. From the Aristation it looked to be nothing more than a confused jumble of buildings--strewn haphazardly across the surface, congregating here by accident rather than design. If there was a sense behind it all, she couldn't divine it. It was an alien landscape, cool and distant, neither promising nor demanding anything.

From such a place had come the technology to rob countless soldiers of their humanity--and the technology to bring her to life. It had driven itself to miracles and tragedies, all up and down the spectrum of luck and emotion. And it was still going, millions upon millions of lives constantly changing the face of the nation, careening blindly forward without care for those they might trample or those drawn onward with them.

She didn't have anything to say to such a place--hardly had anything to think. Resolutely, she turned her back on it and started up the stairs into the Ragnarok's great, empty hangar.

The ramp retracted behind her as she stepped on board, and the engines powered up. The dragonship lifted smoothly off the ground, scorching the air behind it as the engines pushed them forward.

Out of Esthar.

...home.

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