A/N: Holy crap, an update! Hath Hell frozen over?

No really, it's me. With a different penname. And… like… one year older XD

I'm not going to waste you time giving excuses as to why it took a whole year for me to tackle this story again, but you're at least entitled to a few quick explanations, unless you received the e-mail I tried to send to everyone about a month ago. Due to the workload of the previous year in uni and pressure from elsewhere, I almost abandoned writing period. The only writing I've done this year is in role-playing boards. Granted, it's been a chance to explore a different type of writing and I've learned a great deal out of it (I still continue to rp), but I've missed this. I've missed my fanfics.

This is by no means a certain promise that I'm getting into fanfiction again for good. I'm done giving promises I need to struggle to keep. I do, however, have a somewhat renewed interest in fanfiction and there is a new little story that I had in mind a LONG time ago which recaptured my interest. So I might be getting back into it, but without any promises this time around. It's the only way I can remain sane and guilt-less over abandoning my other stories.

First things first… I'm here to finish what I long ago began. I know I said I would never leave a story unfinished, and this is exactly what I'm going to try and rectify. I'm sorry to say that I can't find it in me to start right where I'd stopped. My writing has changed through the course of this year and quite frankly, I'm sure that the people who were interested in this story are much more eager to hear how it ends, rather than my reheated version of the Ultimecia fights. I may go back to add the missing chapters at some point, but for now, I just need to tie all loose ends and get some long-needed closure.

The epilogue begins right after the final Ultimecia is beaten. I hope you enjoy it. Oh and... I intended for the format to be much less... 'blocky' but apparently there have been quite a few changes ever since I was last around. shrugs


A second chance

By: Sickness in Salvation

Epilogue


She fell on her knees, uncomfortably warm, clothes sticking to her skin. Feeling dirty, tired, worn-out… Her arms were gloved, but she was certain that if she could see her hands right now, her knuckles would be white by the force she was clutching her whip with.

"Is it done?" her voice sounded almost foreign. She tried to catch her breath.

"It's over." He knelt down in front of her. Scraped, bleeding, perspiring like she was, but he was alright. They all were. "We made it," he breathed out, tattered glove tips touching her cheeks.

She smiled, her gaze wild around the seemingly hollow, bottomless room, searching for everyone else. They were there. Wounded, but happy. Alive She hadn't torn them apart.

"Quistis, look at me." He touched her face with both hands now, making her look at him. "It's time to go. Are you ready?"

Nodding vigorously, she leaned in, lips crushing against his for a mere second, then pulled away and reached up to grasp his hands tightly. "You won't let go?"

He grinned at her and shook his head. "Never."

Time Compression…


She was swimming.

Right into the midst of an endless ocean of memories. All of them liquid, pliable, melting away when she brushed her fingers against the air, trying to reach for them.

"Squall! Squall, wake up!"

Her heartbeat was reaching her ears. Everything was too loud, too colorful, too painful…

"Call the others, hurry!"

"Is… Is she--?"

"YES, GO!"

Matron's voice, singing lullabies at night. Her voice soft, but filled with static, a cacophony of high-pitched frequencies pounding against her eardrums, like a malfunctioning record.

"It hurts…"

"Heart rate's picking up…"

"Booyaka!"

"No, it's not good… It's picking up too fast…"

"Everything hurts…"

"Oh Hyne, no… Not now… Not when she's so close…"

The orphanage… Matron… Ellone… Everyone…

"Seifer…"

"Sis… don't let go…"

"One hundred and ninety…"

"Hold me… don't let go… I'm slipping… Hold me; everything hurts…"

"She's going into arrest."

"ELLONE!!"

"Will you SHUT UP and let her concentrate?! Irvine, take her outside."

"Squall—"

"OUT. NOW!"

"You said you wouldn't let go!"

Darkness…

"Don't you dare give up now…"

And then… a voice. "I'm right here."

His smile.

"Take my hand…"

Seifer…

She reached out…

And held on tight.

A gasp for air.

Clawing the air, reaching out for anything she could grasp, eyes rolling back on their sockets, a silent scream on her lips.

"QUISTIS!"

Rinoa, Selphie, Squall, Zell, Irvine, Xu, Dr. Kadowaki… Everyone standing above her, eyes shining with unshed tears and tainted with black circles.

And Ellone.

Red-faced, soaked in sweat, holding her hand tightly, trying to catch her breath. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

And then… she managed a smile. "Welcome back, Quisty."


One year later…

She had been putting on her slippers when the 'voice of God', as Xu liked to call it, sounded from above on the PA.

"Garden will be docking at 1700 hours. Prepare to disembark in five minutes."

Balamb… Zell had been anxious to see his mother again for ages and everyone else was just as excited over the prospect of some rest, and some quality food for a change. Squall had grumbled and had reminded everyone that there were missions and paperwork to take care of.

The only one he didn't seem to be in the mood to pester had been her.

For twelve whole months, Quistis had been feeling as if she were trapped within a glass sphere.

Whereas she appreciated her friends' concern and patience, she had never felt there was the need to treat her like a ticking bomb about to go off any second now. Her situation had been 'delicate' at best for quite a while, but she had come a long way since that day she woke up in Garden's infirmary, surrounded by faces of worry.

"How… How long?"

"Two months," Dr. Kadowaki replied. The rest were all standing above her cot, faces considerably grimmer after the initial celebration. Edea and Cid had joined in, making the small room feel suffocating.

"Did we… Ultimecia… is she—?"

"We made it." It was Squall who replied. "She's gone."

Her eyes traveled around the room nervously. She had the distinct feeling everyone knew what she wanted to ask, but no-one would be willing to answer.

"And… Seifer?"

The room suddenly fell silent. Tension was tangible. Instinctively, she feared the worst.

"He… he didn't… Did he make it?"

Ellone bit her lip. But just as she saw Quistis's eyes widen, she hurried to speak. "He's alive."

Alive… Air had never felt sweeter to breathe in… Though… Ellone's words… She made it sound as if—

Ellone sighed. "Quistis, there is a lot to explain."

They told her everything that day.

Seifer had never joined them. He had disappeared alongside Edea in the back room of that TV station in Timber, just like it was meant to happen.

She remembered feeling that horrible knot in her stomach. Had it all been a dream? Had she imagined everything, from the moment she'd woken up in a different life, under different circumstances? Had she been cheated into a dream of alternate reality just to quell her guilt over Seifer's imminent execution?

"Quistis… you never made it back from Time Compression in the first place."

They told her everything… How they all returned, only to find her soulless body waiting. Alive, but unconscious.

"We tried everything," Selphie said, tears welling up in her eyes again. "Dr. Kadowaki said you couldn't be in a coma. That's when we realized what had happened. Sis was the only one who could help, but she didn't know how. None of us did."

Lost in Time Compression… Not enough memories to hold on to…

"We had to find something to trigger a strong emotion in your subconscious to bring you back," Ellone went on. "I tried every strong memory I could find that related to all the people who were close to you. None of them worked."

She began to catch on. She realized what was coming next.

"Why Seifer?" Quistis asked. In reality, she had never fallen for him. They had never even been friends. Why him?

"Your guilt," Ellone replied. "It was accidentally, really, that we found out. I was trying out for memories with Squall, and Seifer happened to be in one of those. You reacted."

After trial and error, Ellone had her plan.

If Quistis didn't have enough memories to bring her back to consciousness, then they would need to create memories for her to hold on to. And Seifer… Seifer had been nothing but bait. Feeding off the most intense feeling within her, guilt over the wrong path Seifer had chosen, they had constructed new memories for her. Memories to make her believe it had been real. Memories carbon-copied from her already existing ones, but with Seifer inserted within them. Using familiar settings to keep her oriented.

It had taken a long time for her to fully comprehend this, but in retrospect, she had realized a lot of things. Such as why she had never left Garden during her alleged 'sessions' with Ellone in her fabricated little universe. Every place she had visited was one she had been to before. Nothing altered, nothing new. Everything derived from her real memories to construct the new, artificial ones.

There had been no execution, no alternate life, no different past memories… nothing. Everything had been fabricated to make an even more fabricated relationship feel real. Something for her to come back to. Fake, but real in her imagination.

For the longest time, she had hated them all for making such a decision on her behalf.

She had hated them for creating fake feelings in her heart, feelings of something, someone who had never been hers. Someone who probably didn't care if she had returned from Time Compression in the first place. Someone she loved… without ever having truly known.

It was a cruel world to wake up to, a world of peace when pure chaos and confusion reigned within her.

She had attended the much awaited and postponed party over the downfall of Ultimecia with a forced smile on her lips. Everyone else had been in spirits higher than ever. Laughing, celebrating, trying to cheer her up. Irvine and Selphie taping the whole event, Zell choking on hotdogs, Squall and Rinoa kissing…

Eventually, it had all brought a tiny smile on her face. A smile that was in fact a promise to herself. A promise to make things better and reclaim her life, once she had picked up the pieces of her broken self. It would take some time… But she would make it. She had to.

One year later, she was living up to that very promise. Getting ready to visit Balamb again, enjoy life with her friends and… make a small stop to deliver a special message.

There was a knock on her door.

"Enter," she said, getting up from bed and straightening her clothes out.

It was Selphie who stepped inside, looking somewhat hesitant. "Just came to see you off," she said, but Quistis already knew the brunette had something else in mind.

"That was nice of you," Quistis said, removing the clip from her hair and running her fingers through her locks a couple of times.

Selphie remained silent for a fair few seconds, but she seemed about ready to burst at the seams unless she spoke. So she did. "Are you absolutely sure about this?" she asked. Quistis could see the slight pang of hurt in her eyes.

"I know you don't like him—"

"I hate him," Selphie said, shrugging. Her tone wasn't hostile, but she was being honest. "But I love you more than I hate him."

Quistis looked down at her feet, smiling. When she looked at her friend again, her eyes shone with a feeling that got as close as happiness had ever been to her. Not quite there… but close. "Thank you."

Selphie waved her hand airily, shoe shuffling on the floor. "You do know that… you still have us right?" she mumbled.

Biting her lower lip, Quistis approached the younger girl, placing her hands on her shoulders. "I know. And I'm not saying it's not enough. It's just—"

"Not enough," Selphie finished for her, grinning. "That's okay. I understand what you're trying to say," she said. Sighing, she motioned towards the door. "C'mon, go. And uhh… tell him… Tell him he's… welcome here," she finished, grumbling.

With a lightning-fast hug, Quistis waved at Selphie and disappeared through the door, leaving the brunette behind, shaking her head.

"Hyne help us all…"


Her slippers clanked against the wooden platform as she took one step forward at the time. Precariously, with bated breath and a head that seemed about ready to explode.

What does one say to a person they once cared about, then came to loathe, then came to care about again and eventually fell in love with? What does one say to a person who was entirely absent through this grand change of heart? What does one say to a person who may be nothing but a perfected image they had molded, only to place up in a high pedestal and hope against all hope that reality would reach their impossible expectations? Then again, Seifer Almasy had been flawed even within the deranged, surreal world she had built up in her head. Her refuge, her sanctuary. Her mind's cruel little game of holding on for dear life, fighting Time Compression against all odds, desperate to survive. Yes, the Seifer she had dreamed of for so long came very close to reality. But did he have the potential to care? Did he have the potential to change? Did she even want him to change?

She was running out of steps that would keep her a safe distance away from what she was head on walking towards, but the questions remained endless, relentless. She had been told she'd find him there, and she had.

"Seifer Almasy?" the middle-aged, local fisherman had repeated, face screwing up in thought. "Nope, never heard of 'im."

Typical Balamb. The world had come to the brink of destruction only a year ago; the quiet seaside down had felt the brush of death sweep right by it… and yet it was so quick to forget. Forget anything had ever happened, and remain blissfully ignorant as to what had occurred in other corners of the world. Perhaps they had never even bothered to know more than what affected them, and ever since Garden had flown away from the confines of the small continent, the citizens of its sole city had returned to their daily routine with religious-like reverence.

This would definitely explain the absurd, almost hilariously awkward welcoming ceremony the townsmen had organized for Garden's fist docking to Balamb after peace was restored. She remembered all too well the stubby mayor of Balamb, shaking his sweaty hand with Squall's and bursting into a loud and pompous speech that no-one really understood. The town's philharmonic, comprised of sturdy lads with an age average of eighty, erupted into a cheerful military march. Zell chose that particular moment to whisper into Quistis's ear that this must be what evil sounds like. The crowd simply stared dumbfounded, apparently having no clue what on earth had happened and why those 'darn kids' deserved a welcoming ceremony to begin with. As the mayor went on, large spots of almost puce-like color rose to his face in obvious embarrassment and everyone eventually became equally uncomfortable. The mayor had tugged at his tie. Squall had groaned. Rinoa, Selphie and Irvine had all been snickering rather loudly. Zell had crouched behind them, coolly downing the contents of the lunch pack Mama Dincht had hastily slipped into his shirt pocket before she went to join the crowd.

And Quistis hadn't been able to keep her eyes away from the mayor's sweaty, untucked shirt, watching as his pot belly seemed about ready to burst at the seams. It secretly made her wish she had a needle and see just what would happen if she poked him.

In retrospect, it had all worked to her benefit. No-one in Balamb had heard much about the war, at least not enough to keep them away from their daily routine, so there were only very few –if any- people who would fear the name 'Seifer Almasy' in this town. Luckily, she hadn't stumbled upon any of the select few.

"Tall, blond, green eyes? Around twenty?" Quistis had asked again hopefully. "May have been here along with two friends. A woman with silver hair and an eyepatch and a rather er… brawny, dark man."

The fisherman's eyes lit up in recognition, but his expression remained the same. "You talkin' 'bout I.C.? Young fellow with a nasty ol' scar across 'is forehead?"

Scar on forehead, check. But… I.C.?

"Er…"

The fisherman pointed over yonder, down at the docks. Quistis squinted against the sunlight, making out the solitary figure of a man with his back against a barrel and a fishing pole in hand. Right on cue, he stood up, picked up a pale gray coat from the barrel and began to rummage around its pockets. During the briefest of moments, Quistis caught sight of a crimson Fire Cross emblazoned on the sleeve. She smiled.

"That would be him, yes," she said, her smile growing wider.

"Well that is I.C. Weiner," the fisherman pointed out. Figures. Only Seifer would have given a fake name like that one. "Why d'ya say his name was Kiefer Lamassie, then?" the fisherman inquired.

Short-term memory not in particularly good shape, apparently. Point two for Lady Luck.

"I've always called him by his two middle names," Quistis invented quickly, taking the first step down the wooden platform towards the docks. "Thanks for your help!"

"Dun mention it."

As she was getting closer, she began to make out his legs, dangling laxly from the edge of the peer. The large barrel was almost completely obstructing him from view, save for a flash of faded, loose blue jeans covering his legs. That and a huge cloud of smoke, she noted with a frown. Her steps faltered for a moment.

She was almost there, but still had absolutely no idea of what to say or do. A million profound suggestions of what to say entered her mind. I dreamed of you. I want you. Be with me. I love you, even. But all she could concentrate on was the lazy manner in which he was curling and uncurling his bare toes in boredom. Hyne, when had she turned into one of those frilly little girls she had always scorned? The kind that pined after someone so much they squealed over every little detail, every little thing…

She tried to kick her mind into more coherent thoughts again, and force her lips to utter something particularly witty or deep for their first 'conversation' in over a year, but all that came out as she took that last step forward was, "I.C. Weiner? Really?"

Seifer came into full view the moment she moved forward. His head jerked up at the sound of an obviously familiar voice --or at least she hoped so, and she took a good look at the sole occupant of her latest dreams.

Clad in a pair of jeans and a vintage fisherman's hat only, the man before her was almost exactly like she remembered him. A few changes were apparent, but overall, the image before her was warmly, pleasantly familiar. Fishing hooks pierced on the rim of the hat swished around when he looked up sharply, making it look even more amusingly absurd on Seifer's head. It was the only thing slightly out of place that she could point out. His hair had grown into messy little locks of pale blonde framing his eyes, and he had lost some of his soldier's muscle, but the definition and slender body was still there. Balamb's sunshine had caressed his skin from a naturally pale peach color into a much more tanned version of it, one that particularly flattered him and made his eyes stand out even more. A beer can stood by his side and a cigarette was dangling from his fingers, the fishing pole resting on a sturdy base just a couple of feet away. Beads of condensation had formed on his chest and forehead, and she couldn't blame him; Balamb was almost insufferably hot in the summer.

Still, they made it hard not to stare.

"Trepe?" he spoke at long last, pushing the rim of his hat up to make sure his eyes weren't playing games.

Back to last names. A pang of pain burned in her chest, but she chose to see this as a promising start. She had to.

Smiling at him, Quistis stepped out of her slippers and crouched down to his level, taking a seat by the edge of the peer. The cool breeze swept under her long, white skirt pleasantly and she rested her hands behind her back, stretching.

Seifer's eyes followed her with the reverence of a bloodhound. He seemed to be quite at loss. He hadn't seen this woman in over a year –at least not in person, and today, out of the blue, she showed up in Balamb and took a seat next to him like they were just a couple of buddies going way back. Well, coming to think of it, they perhaps had been at some point, but a lot had happened in between. He half expected her to light one up for herself and nudge him playfully into a spitting contest.

Does Trepe even have the glands necessary to spit? He wouldn't put it past her to having gotten them removed.

But wait, he was supposed to be wondering why the fuck she had shown up right there, right then. Not about the state of her glands.

Her hair was loose. She turned to face him after having stared at the sea lovingly for a few moments, wisps of hair being blown against her cheek. "How have you been, Seifer?"

"Peachy. What the hell are you doing here?" Straight to the point.

She hadn't exactly expected a warm welcome, but a less bitter one would have done wonders for that little burning sensation in her chest that was beginning to grow. "We docked here a few hours ago," she replied, trying to keep her smile up. "I felt like taking a walk and I was told I'd find you here."

"You were looking for me?"

Well, he had always been sharp. "I don't know," she said, shrugging. "Maybe."

Seifer arched a highly skeptical eyebrow. The hell? Was she messing with his head? "So… You just came here… and thought you'd drop by to say 'Hi'?"

That obnoxious smile, Seifer grumbled inwardly as she nodded. "Pretty much," Why did she have to smile? It threw him off; she didn't use to smile. And why the hell was she there?!

Shaking his head at her response, Seifer made a move to get up. "Fuck that," he growled, trying to get on his feet. He didn't need this shit. Especially not when he was fishing.

"Wait, where are you going?"

His head swept to the side, staring from her to the hand on his arm and back again. He shook his arm viciously. "Don't touch me." It wasn't a suggestion.

Quistis pulled her hand away quickly, her chest by now flaming and aching. She hadn't expected this to go smoothly, and although Seifer wasn't helping the least bit, perhaps she had been doing something wrong as well. "Sorry," she muttered, shifting her gaze over to the sea again. The sun was beginning to go down. "I didn't come here to fight," she said quietly.

Seifer seemed to be reconsidering his departure. He stared at her, long and hard, and eventually returned to his previous seat, tossing the cigarette into the water. "Then why did you come? Just to screw with my head?"

"No," she replied firmly. "I'm telling the truth. I just came to see how you were doing."

"And I said I was peachy," Seifer snapped, placing both hands on his stomach at glaring at the sea. " Mission accomplished; can you leave me alone now?" He didn't want her there. A reminder of the past. He'd tried to put everything behind him. Doing a shitty job at it, but trying nonetheless. And he didn't need ghosts of things past to stir up his shaky equilibrium.

"Is my presence that annoying?" A sad smile.

"Yes."

"…Why?"

"Because. Now get the hell out of here." He lit up another cigarette.

Anger flared inside her. She was trying to make conversation and he was being unbearable. The same impudent, heartless, nasty little toerag he'd always been. A toerag she'd foolishly placed on a shiny pedestal and worshipped. A toerag that had kept her alive during Time Compression. Irony has a really malevolent way of coming back and biting you on the backside, Quistis thought bitterly. Besides, it was Ellone who had rescued her, not him. Perhaps she was the sole person she felt so intensely about and that was why she'd used him to bring her back to consciousness. Intense hatred.

"It's not your dock," she spat back, frowning. "I can stay for as long as I want."

Seething, Seifer considered his options. He could get up and walk away, get some peace, but that would mean he would be the one retreating. And it may not be his dock, but this was his spot, his planks, dammit! Now he could either be a man or a child about it…

He tossed her slipper into the water.

Man.

Quistis watched in stunned silence as the leather slipper, her favorite, comfortable leather slipper, made a graceful arc in mid-air and fell onto the surface with a plunk, sinking down into the depths of the water.

Have it your way, she thought vengefully. She yanked the cigarette from his lips and sent it to meet her long-lost slipper along with the whole pack.

Oh, you bitch.

Chuckling sinisterly and shaking his head in disbelief, Seifer took off his hat. In one fluid motion, he dipped it into the bucket of bait, scooping up a rather large amount, and forced it onto Quistis's pristine, blonde head with an almighty splat.

Horrified, and thinking her teeth might shatter from the force she was gritting them together with, Quistis felt the still alive little pieces of worm bait inch their way down her neck, her shoulders, her blouse. She felt the urge to stand up and scream like a little girl in between attempts to take them all off, but Quistis Trepe had never been a little girl. She had hit adulthood the moment she had set foot into that orphanage in Centra, which was as far back as she could remember. Instead, she stood up, ignoring Seifer's triumphant grin –he no doubt thought she was going to walk away- and marched purposefully over to his fishing pole.

She grabbed it, bent one knee and snapped it in two, discarding the pieces onto their owner.

Looking positively murderous, Seifer stood up. He easily towered over her, and even though she didn't shrink at all when he glared down at her, he knew he had the advantage. Break my favorite pole, will you? He pushed her into the water.

Moments later, when she'd scramble up to the dock like a wet, humiliated cat, he'd take a moment to appreciate how much being wet improved her. And would actually voice that thought. Within seconds, he'd find himself splashing stomach-first onto the surface of the water as well. And then would scramble out himself. Wet and humiliated as well.

"What are you going to do next? Beat me to death with half a pole?" she'd challenge.

"What am I going to do next?!" he'd thunder, rising one accusatory, index finger up…


"You lost me my favorite slippers."

"I only 'lost' you one."

"Well they come in pairs, you see. Lose one, and the lone slipper loses its purpose in life."

"You lost me my cigarettes."

"You covered me from head to toe in filthy fish bait."

"You broke my pole."

The sun had set by now. Balamb was painted in beautiful hues of dark red and mauve, but the two blondes withholding such a breathtaking sight were otherwise occupied.

"…Are you sure you're not cold?"

"Don't pretend you suddenly care, Trepe…"

"Well, I wouldn't put it past you to sue me if you catch a cold."

Seifer turned to glare at Quistis, his now longer blond hair slicked back and held together by the sea salt. The jeans were far from dry and still stuck on his legs uncomfortably, but at least he had his shirt to pull back on. The lady had been greedy enough to grasp the opportunity of snatching his coat when he'd foolishly offered. "Isn't it getting a bit late for you?" he snarled. "Your buddies are going to start wondering what happened to you."

I don't care what my buddies are going to think. I just want to stay here, cold, wet and keep on being humiliated by you just so you'll stay close to me. You're rotten to the core. But I love you…

She chose not to reply to that. Kept her thoughts to herself. If she voiced them, he'd freak out and flee the continent. "You never answered me…" she said quietly, staring at her bare feet.

"Answer what?"

She grinned. "I.C. Weiner?"

Seifer had to try hard to stifle a grin. He failed. "I thought it was funny."

"You would…"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Grin vanished as quickly as it came. Smooth, Quistis… "Nothing. Must you take everything personally?" she said, pulling her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.

Silence.

"So why Balamb?" she asked.

"Why not?" Seifer countered with a shrug. "It's warm, has a beach, no-one recognizes me here… And I can fish."

"I didn't know you liked fishing."

"No kidding. There's a great deal you don't know about me."

"Come back to Garden," she said suddenly, without even realizing it herself that she had meant to say this.

Seifer's face contorted into a frown. He should've known there would be an ulterior motive. Trepe didn't just visit people for shits and giggles. Even when dressed like this, she meant business. "No."

"Don't you miss it?"

"Miss being the black sheep of SeeD? Hell no."

"I meant us."

Us? What the fuck? "…you and me, 'us'?"

I wish. "You, me, Irvine, Zell, Selphie, Squall… and now Rinoa. That 'us'."

"We were never an 'us'."

"Yes, we were," Quistis said, her voice now more forceful. "Save Rinoa, we all grew up together. And now she's one of us. We all share memories, we all—"

"I don't remember shit."

"Yes, you do!" Quistis snapped, slamming her fist on the wooden peer, turning to face him.

Even Seifer was caught off guard. Her nostrils were flaring, and she had a wild, but passionate look in her eyes. It actually made her look— No, don't go there. Last time you thought about anything even remotely close to that you ended up in a train with her, pushing buttons, screaming, yelling, teasing… until… until the train reached Timber.

"I was your Instructor, dammit!" Quistis went on, her voice rising in decibels. "I know you never junctioned a single Guardian Force. You do remember! The orphanage! Cid, Edea! The fireworks, the beach, the fireflies!"

Seifer watched at her, trying to keep pain from reaching his expression. She remembered the fireflies? The lilies in her hair? He thought she had forgotten… He thought he had forgotten after everything that had come to pass. He turned away… away from the ghosts that were spilling out of her eyes and voice, threatening to take him under again. "That was a long time ago."

"Well I want it back," Quistis countered, staring stubbornly at the slowly disappearing shreds of light in the horizon. It was beginning to get dark. "I need it back. We all do."

"What makes you think it would be any different?" Seifer drawled, his own eyes following her gaze as well. "Commander Puberty and I will keep on fighting, might even end up with crosses on our foreheads… Chicken-Wuss will continue to be a coward, the cowboy will continue to chase tail, Messenger-Girl will keep trying to get us all together to sing 'Kumbaya' and go fucking hippy all over the place, Rinoa and that bitch of hers will continue to annoy every living creature on the face of Gaia, and you and I…"

Yes?

"…You and I will continue to act like kids around each other and argue." he finished.

Quistis smiled, resting her chin on her bent knees. "I know."

He turned to look at her, bewildered. "And that makes you happy?"

"More than anything in the world."

Seifer stared at her in silence, but this time around his gaze held no hostility. Instead, he was just confused. Confused beyond belief over the mystery Trepe was. Once, a long time ago, he had been bewitched by that mysterious air of hers. Tough, relentless, unyielding, beautiful… a challenge. A challenge he simply grew tired of lusting after when she had eyes only for someone else. He'd never even tried to fool himself that he had actually fallen for her, but… it had been a close shave. And then Gaia had grown crazy, and he had had his say in it. Helped the madness stir, grow, unfold and envelop everything. Him, her, everyone else, his undeveloped feelings and the whole world around them. Crush everything during his downward spiral so that he wouldn't be alone when he would hit rock bottom.

Just because he could.

Just because he didn't want to be alone anymore.

"You're a fruitcake…" he muttered quietly, but his voice was soft. She knew immediately he was joking. Or not… It didn't really matter. All that did matter was that it had been a good-natured tease. Dare she even say 'friendly'?

"Maybe I am…" she mused out loud, her content smile never faltering.

Silence again.

Night was upon them by now; the city lights were on, although the one closest to them was many feet away, rendering them in semi-darkness. Letting out a sigh, Quistis checked her watch. Spite or no spite, Seifer had been right; it was getting late, and people would start to wonder where she'd gone. "I should go…" she muttered half-heartedly.

Seifer turned to look at her. He didn't want to admit it, but her company hadn't exactly been that dreadful. "Well—"

He was silenced when she leaned forward.

For a second there, he froze till. Was she going to—? Indeed, she was coming closer now, her eyes still open, but her lips only half-shut. Pink, full, luscious… Was he supposed to close the rest of the distance? Hell, he couldn't deny he was still having a hard time to believe she had even shown up, but he wouldn't say not to a nice f—

Oh.

Quistis's warm lips pressed against his cheek. Just for a moment, but it felt like forever. And yet it also felt like the tiniest fragment of a second when she pulled away. She lingered, staring into his eyes. He stared into hers.

Are we going to fuck already?

"We all miss you. I mean it. Just… think about what I said," she said.

I guess not.

All he could do was give her the feeblest of nods.

Quistis smiled a beaming smile at him, and shrugged the coat off her shoulders. "Thanks for the coat," she said softly, and took a moment to fold it neatly before placing it on his lap.

"No problem," Still utterly bewildered. And still wondering where the hell that came from if she wasn't going to go the whole way. Balamb had a shortage of hot chicks and it had been quite a while since he'd—

"We're going to stay in Balamb for a week," Quistis said as she got up to her feet, wet clothes still clinging to her body. "I guess everyone's dying for a small break. Well… everyone except for—"

"Puberty Boy," Seifer finished the sentence for her, having by now risen to his feet as well. He regarded her, trying to keep his eyes above her neckline and her damned distracting pop-up thermometers. Focusing on her face seemed to work, and he regarded her with a smirk, slipping his hands in his pockets. "Does he ever?"

"Don't be mean," Quistis said, but her voice was still gentle and there was a hint of a grin on her lips. "Anyway, let us know when you… make up your mind."

"Don't hold thy breath." Kiss or no kiss –hell it hadn't even been a real one- the decision of whether to crawl back into the awaiting arms of Garden or not wasn't going to be one he'd make overnight.

"I just might," Quistis replied off-handedly, slipping her foot into her solitary slipper and beginning to walk away.

Hynedammit. "Quistis?"

A flutter in her chest. He hadn't addressed her with her name in ages.

She turned around. "Yes?"

He stood there for a second, tall, proud, beautiful but broken, even though he would not show it. "Why?"

Why? Why what? Why had she kissed him? Why was had she tracked him down? Why had she made this offer?

She hesitated, staring at her feet for a moment before looking up at him. "Because everyone deserves a second chance. Edea was granted hers. I was granted mine… in a way…"

Second chance? Seifer wondered, not so much angered that she believed he had screwed up –which he admittedly had- to need to be offered a second chance, but more intrigued about what she was implying for herself.

"Because everyone needs a home," Quistis went on. "And we've been ripped apart from ours twice. Third time's the charm, or so they say…"

"So Garden is your home?"

"Isn't it your home, too?"

No reply.

"And… because…"

Because?

"Because… I guess… I'm a little selfish…" Quistis said, smiling in a strange way. "I need to have someone to argue with." Someone to love, someone to hold… And it can only be you. But if you come… I'll settle for arguing if that's the best I can get. "Goodnight, Seifer."

He watched her walk away, unbeknownst to him that all her hopes and expectations had been single-handedly crushed by none other than himself tonight. He watched her walk away, not knowing that she had built him up so high that it all went down to Hell when reality hit her in the face. Not knowing that she was slowly going to build that pedestal up again, but not that high… Just high enough to reach him, reach out for him and try… Try against all odds to gain something she never really had, but never understood how much she needed either. He did not know that Quistis Trepe had lost and had reclaimed her love tonight. She had regained someone to argue with, someone to push her buttons, someone who could see right though her and break her, crush her, mold her, destroy her and at the same time breathe life into her.

He did not know that she didn't want him to change. He did not know that all she now wanted to do was make a man out of a scared boy, a boy she had somewhere along the line fallen for, because he was who he was. Her firefly-bearer. Her favorite student. Her adversary. Her verbal sparring partner. Her love.

Perhaps fate had been cruel to them once and hadn't given them nearly enough time to live and discover one another, but now they could.

And they would.

But Seifer Almasy knew nothing of that… yet.

"Goodnight," he said, but by the time he'd mustered enough courage to speak it was too late.

She was already gone, leaving behind a trail of single footprints with her un-slippered foot, and his voice hadn't reached her, but had simply resonated into the dead of the night.

He had no idea how long he stood there, watching her silhouette grow thinner and thinner until it was completely gone. Letting out a sigh, he turned to look at the black sea, calm and silky as ever…

This was going to be a long night. And a much longer week.

There was a lot of thinking to do.

Looking over his shoulder, he made out the distant lights of Garden, docked right into its primary location.

Home… Fancy that…

He began to make his way back to his little dingy flat near the docks, where thinking, plotting and a few more sleepless nights awaited. As he went up the wooden steps leading away from the peer, he let out a wry scoff.

"They're damned if they think I'm re-reading that fucking manual, though…"


A/N: For anyone who may have wondered, the voices when Quistis was waking up belonged to (in order): Rinoa, Rinoa, Squall, Rinoa, Dr. Kadowaki, Selphie, Dr. Kadowaki, Xu, Selphie, Dr. Kadowaki, Dr. Kadowaki, Selphie, Squall, Irvine, Xu, Dr. Kadowaki, Zell.

I hope the ending wasn't confusing for any of you, but if it was, I'd be happy to answer some questions via PM or e-mail.

And now, a few closing words.

This is it. The end.

Or rather a new beginning.

This story is for everyone who, like me, noticed the empty smiles on Quistis's face during the after-party of the game. Smiles that never reached her eyes. It is for everyone who wondered if she had enough fond memories to grab hold of, to return to consciousness after Time Compression. For everyone who wanted the strongest heroine of the game to have a better ending, rather than remain a fifth wheel among blossoming couples. A heroine who deserves someone to call her own, be that in a romantic way, or, in her words, just "someone to argue with".

I'm only toying with possibilities and starting points. The real end of the story is up to you to imagine.

This is the very first idea of an ending that had formulated in my head when I began working on this story. There are many fanfic scenarios in which Seifer asks for a pardon and returns to Garden out of his own volition, and I have always mused with the idea of someone actually asking him to return for once. I never wrote the thing down, however, as I was quick to discard it. There are about… four different endings to this story that I actually wrote instead. One of them was optimistic, much like this one. One was bittersweet. The other two were just plain depressing. Ever since I saw the end approaching in this story, I've been in a huge dilemma (or quatri-lemma, as the case would be) over which one to choose. The end grew nearer and nearer, until I eventually stopped writing this story for reasons I've stated above.

One year later, I return, deciding that this should end exactly how it was originally supposed to. Am I happy with it? Yes. Perhaps my extremely long sabbatical eventually worked out for the best, in regards of the story. It got the ending it deserved. Nothing more, nothing less.

All I can say right now is that I finally feel content and got my overdue closure. I hope you did as well. I can't even begin to thank all of you who read, reviewed and embraced this story so warmly. I still remember the thrill of standing in front of the computer, with a cup of tea in one hand, trying to wake up before I get into some clothes and rush off to uni, and reading the very first reviews I'd gotten overnight. Whether good or bad, they always brought a smile to my face, and I have each and every one of you to thank for that.

So, in a nutshell… thank you.

Crys.