There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed---and then no more of Thee and Me.
- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Reflect on your... childhood...
...your sensation. Your words. Your emotions.
Time. It... will not wait.
No matter how hard you hold on...
...it escapes you.
And...Time was an oddly mutable thing, more tangible and visible than it should have been. It wrapped around her, moving as she moved, pressing against her and pulling her hither and thither, as if she had been caught in the undercurrent of some vast ocean. Images--disparate moments layered atop each other, merging and flowing--blended to form an omnipresent tapestry, one whose sheer impossibility defied comprehension and only registered as a shifting whiteness that assaulted her eyes from all directions.
It was an impossibility, she knew. It didn't exist, couldn't exist, couldn't be reconciled with the idea of existing. It was illusory, as much mind as magic, as elusive as something imagined.
At that moment--those moments, whatever they could be called--the one thing Quistis wished more than anything else was to know how a person could conceive something as unnatural as Time Compression. She wanted to know what could have driven someone to these straits.
And, because wishing was a dangerous thing in Time Compression, the world began to fade in around her.
It was--the art gallery, Quistis recognized--but not as it had been when they had come there. Only three paintings were up on the wall, and the area was brighter than it had been. The banisters and picture frames shone. There wasn't a speck of dust on anything.
And, in the middle of the room, an old woman sat at an easel, palette and brush in hand, adding minute details to a nearly-finished portrait of a lady in rich red clothes.
Alerted by some sense--Quistis couldn't be sure what--the woman turned to look at her.
It was clear--though Quistis couldn't tell quite why--that the woman was a sorceress. And in this room, in this castle...
"Red would look good on you," was the first thing the Sorceress said.
Quistis was so taken aback that she didn't know how to respond.
After a moment, Ultimecia shook her head. "No," she decided. "I guess it wouldn't. It would overpower you. Grey, though... a smoky grey would look lovely."
Quistis stepped forward, maintaining a tremulous grasp on her nervousness. "My name is Quistis Trepe," she said, giving a hesitant SeeD salute.
"But your friends--excuse me. Some of your friends call you Quisty, right?" The woman nodded judiciously. "History-book pictures don't do you justice, my girl."
Quistis was taken aback. "Then--you know--"
"Yes, yes." Ultimecia rose, placing her palette and brush down on a nearby table. "Oh, but let's not dwell on that unpleasantness, shall we?"
Quistis digested that for a moment. Ultimecia walked to a closet, shuffling through the clothing there until she came up with a grey silk shawl, edges subtly embroidered with a graceful, curving pattern.
"I've had this old thing for years," Ultimecia said, turning back and walking over to Quistis's side. "Never have had the chance to use it. I think it would look darling on you, though." With a wrinkled smile, she offered it out.
Quistis reached out to take it before her brain caught up with her hand and she paused. "You want me to have this?"
"Of course." Quistis pulled her hand back. "I can't accept this," she protested. "It's beautiful, but--"
"Oh, go ahead. Hyne knows it's not getting any use here." Ultimecia tucked the shawl through Quistis's elbow. "Hyne knows I need to be clearing out this old house, too. It's getting terribly cluttered."
Quistis shook her head in silent amazement. "...you're not at all how I pictured you," she said.
"And you're not at all how I pictured you," Ultimecia said. "You always looked so stern in those pictures. I was worried that you didn't know how to be a lady."
Ultimecia headed back toward her easel, and sat down. Quistis took a careful breath. "I came here to ask you something..."
"Well?" Ultimecia picked up her palette and brush, scrutinizing her work carefully. "Go on, then."
"I..." standing there, with the shawl still tucked under her arm, Quistis felt even more uncomfortable with the question she was about to ask. "I just wanted to know... why you did it."
Ultimecia chuckled. "Why did you think I did?"
Quistis blushed. "Actually... it was the common perception that you were... ah. ...rather insane."
"Is that what you think?"
Quistis regarded her. "I... guess I did. Now, though..." She watched the Sorceress closely. "You don't seem insane," she said, hazarding a blunt observation. "I'm beginning to think... did you have a reason for all of this? Is there, maybe, something you had to change?"
"Oh, Quisty. Are you thinking about helping me?" Ultimecia mixed a couple of colors on her palette, studying the painting in front of her. "No. There was no reason for all of it. You and your friends had it right on the nose--I was insane."
"But--" Quistis began.
"In sane, out of sane, whichever, whoever, whatever. Quisty, every Sorceress I've ever known or heard of begins as a saint. Every one. And every Sorceress I've ever known or heard of has become corrupt and cast down. Power corrupts, and Sorceress power corrupts, ultimately. I guess some might have forfeited their power before that could happen, but it's hardly normal. It's hardly likely."
"But--" Quistis took a step forward. "If that's the case--how can't you give it up? How can you know that, and just wait to become--"
"Evil?" Ultimecia laughed. She had a beautiful laugh. "Oh, Quisty! Don't you see? It doesn't matter if I become evil or not, because you can't destroy Sorceress power. So suppose I give it up, and it finds someone else. That person will suffer for it! Suppose they try to give it up before anything happens. You can't choose who it's passed on to--it just goes. Sooner or later it'll find someone who doesn't have that much willpower, or who'll be corrupt the moment it finds them. Now, suppose I keep it for as long as I can, and eventually become evil. Then it passes on to another young woman, who holds it as long as she can. It's the same thing, without the hot-potato! Fewer people have to suffer, in the end."
Quistis looked down. "...it's not fair," she said.
"Oh, you shouldn't pity us." Ultimecia smiled at her painting, brushing soft highlights onto the woman's elegant features. "It's power, and we're lucky to have it. There's a price you pay, of course, but nothing's free any more."
"You don't seem like anyone I would have chosen to fight," Quistis said. "Why did it have to be you?"
"Dear, who would you rather it be? I'm an old woman. I could have been a grandmother by now, if I'd have found anybody. I wield a paintbrush, not a sword. When the inevitable happens, what threat could I pose to the world?"
Quistis was silent, reflecting back on what she could only describe as a day's worth of hell. The Castle--so warm and inviting, now--still loomed like a menacing shadow in her mind. "...you could end it," she said softly.
"But I don't, do I?" Ultimecia looked back at her, eyes twinkling. "You take care of that."
Quistis looked down. "...I guess we do."
"Then there's no more than the usual harm done."
Quistis shook her head. "It's still not fair," she said. "It's not right."
"When you're as old as I am," Ultimecia said, "you stop worrying about that. You look back on everything, and everything is just... a mosaic. The good, the bad, the confusing, the painful... it's not fair or unfair or anything, it's just you. You and your past. And then you realize that, really, that's all right. It's what creates you, Quisty, it's what you are."
Quistis stared at her, unable to formulate a response. A wave of dizziness passed through her--the world twisted--
"Ah," Ultimecia said. "That's your train home, m'dear. Go on--time doesn't wait for anyone, you know."
"I don't want to go yet," Quistis protested, trying to push her way back to Ultimecia's reality. "I--"
"You can't hold on, dear!" Ultimecia smiled. "Go on. It's all right."
"I'm sorry," Quistis said, faintly. Then, forcing a smile, she appended "Thank you."
Ultimecia waved--and her world disappeared.
For a moment, Quistis still fought to go back. But Time Compression was unyielding--it snatched her away, plunging her into the current again.
The silk shawl she had forgotten she was holding rose slightly in the impossible atmosphere, brushing against her face as it was moved about. She tightened her grip on the slick fabric, looking down as if to reassure herself that the entire experience hadn't been some bizarre dream.
(No matter how hard you hold on...)
With a heavy sigh, she closed her eyes and thought of home.