by Rocket

How long had it been?  Days?  Weeks?  Months?  She could not tell anymore.  It didn't matter, truthfully; not to her.  Many had spent their time counting the seconds that had passed since light and color left the land, but she failed to see the point.  Those days would never return.  They were gone, forever, and all that remained were the vacant shadows cast by the fragmented dreams of those who yet survived -- the hopes and wishes and promises of tomorrow that now found themselves dead, slaughtered prematurely by a man that dared fashion himself in God's image.

Perhaps that was why she found herself here today.  Here, Jidoor, brushing noses with the upper crust, with society's elite.  She could remind them of yesterday, of the rosy sunsets and lush green meadows, of flowers and laughter, of smiling children and crystalline waves.  She could take them to a happier place, one untouched by the savage emptiness that now ran rampant, untamed, like a beast of the wild Veldt.  She could, for a brief moment, allow them to live again in a world that no longer existed.

Live again.  Her glass hit the counter with an audible clink.  What she wouldn't give to live again, rather than sulk here, alone, in this bar, drinking herself into a stupor.  She was young, perhaps too young, certainly too young, to be drowning her troubles in the murky contents of the devil's bottle.  Yet none protested, nor did they attempt to stop her.  Who could blame her?  She was alone.  Alone in a world of nothing.  There were a number of worse ways for her to pass the time, that was for sure.

Well, she was not entirely alone.  She allowed her gaze to fall upon her only steadfast companion.  The dog.  He lay resting at her feet, black muzzle settled on thick brown paws, intelligent eyes surveying the area with a calm vigilance.  Her guardian.  Her protector.  And, at times, when she was in her foulest of moods, her bane.  The creature had kept her alive -- no, not alive, merely had prolonged her existence -- in this bleak and colorless reality, this unrelenting nightmare of dusk and broken ambition.  The sight of him took her back to home to Thamasa, forced upon her the terrible images of blue skies, of the summer sun, of singing birds and friends and family, made her feel the wretched love and longing she so desperately tried to push away...

She became aware that her head was bowed, her glass held in a vice grip, her eyes suddenly wet with the sickening salty something that threatened to spill down her cheeks, threatened to betray the dark thoughts that permeated her mind.  She exhaled, the tension escaping through her lips and allowing her small shoulders to relax.  Clasping the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, she willed the tears back, composed herself.  No sense crying over spilled milk.  That was over.  Over.  All of it, over.  Perhaps if she kept repeating it, she would one day believe it.

Sounds behind her.  Footsteps.  Approaching her.  The dog knew before she did, lifting his head in quiet curiosity, feral muscles visibly taut, ready to spring and defend his self-appointed charge if necessary.  She did not turn around, did not move from her spot; simply threw back another long sip of her poison.  She was safe with the dog.  And if she were not, the worst that could happen was that she would be removed from this misery.

The figure crouched.  A hushed voice was heard, and she sensed a slow, reluctant movement from the canine.  A warning was in order.  "Leave us," she said evenly, brown eyes fixed on the countertop.  "The dog eats strangers."

"We're not strangers," a voice replied with the same steadiness.  A familiar voice.  Two and two frantically battled to connect, to make a solid four in her mind, though outwardly she did not show it.  Smoothly, she sent an indifferent glance over her shoulder.  Not one, but three people stood there, all within ten feet of her.  Few got this close without the growling objections of her faithful sentry.  But the voice was right -- these were not strangers.

A thin blonde-haired woman was hunched beside the dog, accompanied by a broad, rugged man of roughly the same age, and an older, roguish fellow with long, silver-white locks.  Each studied her with expressions that ranged from bewilderment to awkward interest, and each seemed to be a thousand years older than she remembered.  Once, long ago, she had called them friends.  But that was then.  She was a different person now, having shed the carefree skins of childhood and innocence like a rattlesnake in autumn.  She knew them, yes.  But they no longer knew her.

She averted her eyes, returned her dull stare to the drink in her hands.  "We meet again."

"We're very glad to see you're safe," the other woman offered, her tone tinged with a genuine relief and happiness that had become almost foreign in the blackened void of the ruined world.  There was a soft rustle and tap of boots as she stood and stepped nearer.  "We heard that the local gallery owner hired a new artist, and somehow we knew it was you."  A pause, another step forward.  She repeated herself.  "We're very glad to see you're safe."

Kind words, but ones the girl did not acknowledge.  Silently, she sipped her drink, allowing her gaze to wander along the ceiling.  With a tiny sigh, she allowed the memories of that day to race back into her mind, to sweep her from the here and now.  The earth quaking, shrieking, the white-hot energies that spewed from the heart of the planet, the maddening screams of a demented Imperial, the jagged groans of the airship as it careened through a sinister sky, its wooden frame splitting as if it were but a twig, its occupants tossed from the deck, plummeting into the raging ocean.  They should not have survived.  She should not have survived.  The very ground they stood on died that day, and yet humanity -- fractured though it may be -- stubbornly refused to go down.

"At the very least you could give me a response," the woman suddenly said with a touch of indignance.

Ice clinked in the girl's glass.  Mahogany orbs slid from the ceiling to the intoxicating drink, where they lingered as she spoke.  "What do you want me to say?"  She squinted, fingers tightening around the cylindrical form.

"Something!  Anything!  Are you... are you okay?"  The blonde moved toward her again, haltingly, and the girl could sense concerned eyes boring into her back.  "Where's your grandfather?"

"Dead," came the deadpan response.  She finally did turn around now, appraising the three phantoms that had returned to haunt her.  The two men seemed content to let their female counterpart do the talking, though their anxiety was certainly more than obvious.  Both seemed to swallow a little too hard, glance away a little too quickly, shift a little too jerkily where they stood.  This was not how they pictured their reunion with the diminutive artist.

The woman balked, disbelief painting her pale features.  Drawing a hand to her forehead, she seemed to drive away the possibility that the gentle old man had in fact been lost with a slight shake of her head.  "Dead?" she queried.  "How... when did he...?"  She shook her head again, this time more violently, then raked a hand through her hair.  "No, I'm sorry.  Forgive me.  I'm very, very sorry to hear that."

"I don't know when or how," the girl snorted matter-of-factly, folding her arms across her small chest.  "I don't even know where.  But we barely made it out in one piece, and we've got the benefit of youth.  He was an old bag," she added bitterly, bringing the beverage to her lips again, brow furrowing with some unidentifiable but clearly negative emotion.  "His bones must've cracked the second they hit the sea."

"You don't know that!" the blonde retorted.  She looked quite as if she were going to say more, but stopped herself, mouth working for a moment.  She raised her hand and blinked, gathering her words, then repeated far more gently, "you don't know that.  He could be anywhere, hon.  I thought everyone was dead, too."  Her fingers unconsciously made their way to a tattered blue bandanna strung about her belt loop.  "You mustn't lose hope.  Your grandfather is a strong man.  Old, yes, but strong.  Come with us, and I can almost guarantee we'll hear news of him somewhere."

The little girl rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically, bringing one knee to her chest and wringing her hands around it.  A condescending half-laugh followed.  "Come with you.  And do what?" She quirked an eyebrow, scrutinizing the woman.  "'Paint some portraits?'  Is that what you want to hear?  Forget it," she smirked, dismissing the very notion with a wave of her hand and spinning back around in her seat.

"So you'll stay here, by yourself, and nurture that little vice of yours?" The question was pleading, incredulous.  "I'm sorry, but I can't allow that.  What will it take for you to come with us?"

Propping her head up with her hand, the girl mulled over the question, fingers drumming on the bar.  Seconds flew by, and she could almost taste the impatience of the ragtag outfit behind her.  She glanced sidelong at the dog, who simply sat on his haunches, tail thumping happily against the cold floor.  Looking away again, she pursed her lips and swallowed, a strange decisiveness spreading across her face.  "Just enough to feed my dog," she said at last.

"Done," the woman muttered, weariness in every letter.

A nod of the head, and then the girl rose from her seat to stride toward the three.  "Interceptor," she called, gesturing to the dog, "come."  The animal clambered to his feet, obeying the command, and trotted after her, stubby tail wagging freely.  Instinctively, she rested her hand on his strong neck as she walked out of the establishment and onto the cobblestone street.  There, just on the horizon, she could spy the shuddering behemoth that had no doubt carried her companions through the clouds and back into her life.  Had it, too, defied death?

She quietly mused how easily the Reaper had been foiled, even now, as the world decayed around her.  But she was certain that upon embarking on another journey with these individuals, whose every move seemed to invite his embrace, that he would always be just a step behind her.

- Fin -

Author's Note: In case you're slow, it's Relm. I know, horribly OOC.  But I think this would've been a lot cooler than saving her from a damned painting, and definitely a lot cooler than a dream sequence spelling out her parentage for us.  Such is the way my mind works.

Final Fantasy VI and all related characters are the property of Square-Enix, Ltd.