I have seen the stars fall and in their burning descent they carve the way for cataclysm. That which rests on high is aloof to us, but it is not the distance which proves the greatest threat. Our strongest allies are those who we hate and envy most, so far away.

Who would doubt that the sun in rising climbs far from the lonely earth? Who would doubt that it is in its glory at its zenith, so high above? When it is closest, bloated and swollen at rest on the horizon, it is a weak and pale blood-light, spilling across the firmament into nightmare. Be banished, sun, for it is in thyne absence that we become most fond.

-

"Rinoa?"

Rinoa jumped. The voice that came through the Ragnarok's communication systems was familiar, certainly--but unexpected. What possible reason could Seifer of all people have to be calling her?

"Rinoa, dammit, answer. This isn't a joke."

Carefully, she walked over to the Ragnarok's control console and hit what she hoped was the communications button and not one of the controls for the blast cannon or something similar. "What's going on, Seifer?"

"Where the hell is Squall, and what are you people doing?"

Something about Seifer's tone was putting her on the defensive. "Why should you need to know?"

"Because something's wrong. He just attacked Quistis."

...that was such a logical non-sequitur that it took Rinoa a moment to formulate a response. "What?"

"He attacked Quistis and then ran off, and I want to know what the hell is going on!" If anything, Seifer sounded annoyed--then again, it was Seifer, and she should certainly expect that more than his evident concern over Quistis or his largely incredible claims against Squall.

"Don't be ridiculous," Rinoa shot back, unnerved by the accusation. "Why would he do something like that?"

"Yeah, that's what I want to know. What are you two doing with the Ragnarok?"

The unsettled feeling was only growing. "...that's not your business."

"Is he there?" Seifer's voice was urgent. "Rinoa? Is he there?"

"He went back to the Palace to get his gunblade. I don't know when he's going to get back!"

There was a moment of tense silence. "...are you safe there?"

(Safe? From Squall?) Rinoa shook her head incredulously. "What are you trying to say? You can't expect me to believe--"

"Believe it of not, it's not going to change anything. I'm asking you questions. Is--"

"This is ridiculous." Her voice fell flat without her awareness, and gained a harsh edge she didn't intend. "Of all people, I would think you would know how far you can stretch a joke. This isn't funny, and I don't appreciate it at all."

"Dammit, Rinoa, it's not--"

"Goodbye, Seifer." She hit the button to terminate the conversation, cutting him off before he could make another nonsensical protest. She was scowling--she put both palms to her forehead, sighing. Seifer had put her in a bad mood--worse than she would have expected, but how could he radio her and make all these accusations, she couldn't be expected to buy into them, not seriously--

There was a noise behind her--footsteps and the scrape of metal on metal, and she startled and turned around.

To see Squall.

He was walking up the aisle between the passenger seats, gunblade out and dragging on the floor by his side. There was a glint of red along its edge.

Involuntarily, her heart skipped. She still didn't believe Seifer, but having Squall advancing on her with a bloody gunblade was hardly the thing to ease her mind. "S--Squall?"

He blinked, as if trying to place something mentally. "...what is it?"

"Is... is something wrong?" Something was wrong, she could feel it.

"I'm not sure." He shook his head, otherwise unmoving. "What's going on?"

"...Seifer just called in," she said uneasily, uncertain what kind of reaction it might elicit from him. "He said... he claimed that you attacked Quistis." The edge of blood on the gunblade was clearly there--not enough for her to chalk it up to a trick of the light. "...you didn't, did you?"

Squall put a hand to his forehead--thankfully, not the one that was holding his weapon. "I don't know," he said. "...I can't remember."

"Wh--you can't remember? What do you mean?"

His hand didn't move, aside from pressing a bit harder into his skull. "I remember going back to the Palace, and I remember getting back here. I can't really remember anything between those times."

Rinoa took a deep breath. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," she said carefully. "Maybe we should just go back to the Palace, not go to the Lunatic Pandora...."

"Why?"

She stared at him, not at all sure that she had heard the question right. Surely Squall, of all people, would rather play it safe than take this kind of a chance...? "Because we don't know what's going on."

"Then we have to find out."

"Yes, which is why--Squall, are you sure you're all right?"

Squall's hand dropped. He looked tired--worn out, worn down. "...I'll do what you tell me to."

(...you need rest. You need a vacation, you need--) "Let's go back to the Palace," she said, concern totally overriding any residual curiosity about the Lunatic Pandora.

"All right," he answered--and maybe it was only fatigue that made him sound so meek.

"...Squall?"

He stared at her, as if he couldn't dredge up the energy to answer to his own name.

"...put away your gunblade."

He glanced down, as if he had forgotten that he was holding it. Then he hefted it, sliding it back into its sheath without even bothering to wipe away the blood. "...let's go," he said.

Rinoa nodded, took his elbow because it seemed like the right thing to do, and lead him out.

-

Seifer had never been hung up in his life before this week.

Not that he had had much occasion to make phone calls in his life--in Garden there was never anyone to call who couldn't be reached in an easier fashion, as the Sorceress's Knight he had had aides to contact people for him, and as a freelancer in Esthar he hadn't wanted to call anyone--and wouldn't have known how to if he had. And now Xu had been mysteriously disconnected, some fool who thought he was Osan was calling to deliver truncated messages, and Rinoa had just cut him off in the middle of a conversation. Added to everything else, he was wondering if--for all that he was hearing voices--the rest of the world was going insane and he was the only one left.

He would have been willing to bet actual money on it when he realized that sometime during the conversation, Quistis had snuck up on him and was leaning with one hand against the wall, listening intently for Hyne knew how long.

Seifer was working his way into a bad mood, but somehow he didn't think snapping at her and stalking off would help anything. "Well?" he asked--as much a prompt for her to explain herself as to explain everything else.

"She doesn't listen," Quistis said. "I would have thought you'd know that."

"I knew she was stubborn, I didn't know she was stupid," Seifer growled.

Quistis smiled wanly. "That's a bit harsh, isn't it?"

Seifer stood up. "Yeah, sometimes the truth hurts. What's it to you?"

Quistis pushed herself off of the wall, looking a bit unsteady. Seifer had to resist the urge to grab her shoulders so that she didn't fall over. "You know, she has as little reason to believe you as you have to believe her."

"Please. Don't get started on the boy who cried Malboro--"

"It's not a matter of that." Quistis turned, walking for the door as if she expected Seifer to follow her by habit. "But if everyone is acting strangely, and no one can perceive that they themselves are--well, everyone is disinclined to trust anyone else, at the moment."

"Tell me," Seifer deadpanned, "how am I acting strangely?"

"Well, taking an active concern in someone else's well-being is certainly--"

"Oh, shut it!" Seifer stopped Quistis in her tracks, and she turned in the threshold of the room. "What, it's totally out of the realm of possibility for me to mind once in a while when the world goes to hell around me? Am I just supposed to play the fiddle while Esthar burns, or something?"

Quistis looked hurt, and Seifer fought the urge to ram his head into something. "...I didn't mean that," she said softly.

"No, I'll bet you didn't." He groaned (More likely, you just didn't think you meant that.). "What were you getting at, anyway?"

Quistis glanced at the floor--then back up at him, meeting his eyes steadily. "I'm suggesting a tactical alliance," she said. "I'm not sure we can trust either Squall or Rinoa at the moment, and we haven't heard anything from either Selphie or Zell, so that leaves us. We know something is going wrong, and unless we work together to figure it out...."

Seifer folded his arms. "I thought we were already working together."

"Not so much, no." Quistis stepped back into the room, still staring directly at him. "Neither of us is aware of any change in our behaviour. What I'm saying is--I'll watch your back, Seifer, and you can watch mine."

Seifer considered. Something wasn't adding up right--but damned if he could place what. "What about Squall and Rinoa? What do you plan to do about them?"

Quistis glanced away. "...I don't know," she replied--then looked back, with as much resolve as she had ever shown. "...but if either of them becomes a problem, I'm sure we'll be able to handle it."

His ears were ringing. It reminded him of the resonance in the Lunatic Pandora. "...all right."

He turned around, walking back to the seat by the radio. There was a series of quick, light footsteps behind him, and Quistis laid a hand on his arm. He glanced over, wondering what it was now.

"...thank you," Quistis said earnestly.

he felt as if he had just stuck a knife into someone's back, and he didn't know why. "...yeah," he answered. "...glad to help."