Disclaimer: Square Enix wouldn't recognize the characters, but they're theirs. The Brothers Grimm shall rise from the dead to berate me for what I've done to their work — but hey, all they did was scribble down old folktales, right? I make no money from either characters or plot. Actually, I make no money at all. The lawyers representing Square Enix and the Grimm estate can fight to the death for the right to sue me first. Bwaha!

Second Disclaimer: Portions of text were lifted straight from my copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales. However, my copy is an old translation, and I'm fairly sure it has passed into public domain. If not — oopsie! But I really do believe I'm on the sunny side of the law on this one.

Notes: Everyone gets bashed. Deal with it. Characterization is based on my soul bonds/muses/House Guests cluttering up my mind, and not necessarily as presented by Square within the game. To get a better idea of the personalities of my House Guests (as well as myself), try reading Wal-Mart Lost&Found.

Warnings: Yaoi, yuri, het: it's all good! I repeat, gender plays no role in who a person becomes romantically involved with. If that sorta free thinking disturbs your world view, leave now or forever hold your bitching.

Secondary Warnings: Lesse… Language, hell yeah! Mature content of a sexual nature; a wee bit more than innuendo, I do believe, though no one actually has sex. Cross-dressing. Violence. Frog abuse. Yeah, you heard me. Several frogs were severely traumatized during the writing of this fic. But not Laguna-kaeru; he never made it into the story. And last, and likely least: Esse was able to evade the grammar Gestapo for the past month. If you belong to that elite organization, this fic might make your eyes bleed. Be warned, oh English elite, be ye warned!

Aside: I hate Document Manager. I really, truly do.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.
A Tale Too Many
.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

There was once a General who was very poor. Not in a monetary sense; financially he was quite well off, thanks to royalties from his wife's hit single, and the interest from his wife's life insurance — the bulk of which he was denied access to, according to the dictates of his wife's Trust, and the whims of her designated Trustee. No, when people talked about General Caraway, they usually used poor as a polite way of saying that the man was a complete, bumbling incompetent.

Most of the citizenry didn't bother being polite about it.

However, the gossiping masses more often whiled away their hours talking about the General's poor but beautiful daughter, leader of a rather shabby resistance group currently going by the name the Timber Owls (having lost the rights to call themselves the Beatles, the Black Panthers, and the Teenaged Wolves in a succession of increasingly high profile copy write infringement suites). Rinoa was poor much as her father was poor; namely, she was a complete failure as a gorilla fighter, was rather hazy on the concepts of both strategy and tactics (which she was certain had no place in the kidnapping of top-ranking politicians), and was a mediocre sorceress at best, who often turned her loyal resistance fighters into frogs by mistake.

Now, it once happened that Caraway had occasion to speak with Cid Kramer, Headmaster of a school of top-notch mercenaries the like of which could only be found in other top-notch mercenary schools located around the globe. The General, having just gotten news of his daughter's latest terrorist action — the attempted hijacking of the Timber bookmobile, which the librarian (a spry great-grandmother with a hundred and ten year's worth of experience under her compression stockings) easily foiled — was trying to gain Rinoa admittance into the famed academy. There were many obstacles blocking her admission: her age, her test scores, her habit of calling anyone who dared contradict her Big Meanies…

Finally, in desperation (for his daughter was due to show up back home any day now, weeping salty tears and complaining about the lack of good manicurists near the Timber Owls secret hide-out), to give Rinoa an air of importance, he said, "She can spin gold out of those little twisty-tie things they use on bags of bread to keep the loaves fresh."

Cid choked on his mouthful of cola-laced rum, and quickly calculated how much gold it would take to pay off his debt to Norg, who'd taken over his beautiful school's basement, and played loud, annoying music constantly making it hard for the students to get a decent night's rest, and threw wild parties to which he invited the less desirable members of Shumi society. Pushing his glasses further up his nose, Cid said, "That is an art in which I am much interested. If Rinoa is as skillful as you say she is, she'll be a great asset to the school. Bring her to Balamb Garden tomorrow, and I will put her to the test. If she can do as you say, rest assured she'll get a scholarship, with her tuition fully covered, and, as an added bonus," his voice lifted happily, and he took some brightly colored pieces of cardboard from his wallet, and passed them over, "she can marry one of my dear foster sons. Those are their Triple Triad cards; handsome fellows, aren't they?"

Caraway would've replied in ecstatic relief if he'd not been interrupted by the two young mercenaries accompanying Cid — rank A SeeDs, the both of them — their arms full of bags and boxes and bottles holding the results of their Headmaster's shopping spree.

"Gold?" Selphie wrinkled her nose, cutely, and stomped her foot, cutely, and glared at Cid with moss-green eyes that were cute in a gonna-fuck-you-up kind of way. "What's so special about gold? I," she shifted the weight of the largest box to her left hip, "can make a bomb out of anything. Now that's a good skill for a mercenary to have."

"A most impressive skill," Quistis agreed, tucking a strand of long, blonde hair back behind her ear. "Worthy of a scholarship, as is my ability to put any creature to sleep with the sound of my voice. Headmaster," and she joined her friend in outraged glaring, "we demand the chance to win one of your sons. I call dibs on Squall!"

"Irvine's mine!" Selphie chirped, bouncing in excitement and ignoring the crystalline tinklings now coming from several of the bags.

"You're actually interested in those losers?" Cid yelped, choking once more on his liquid refreshment. "Uh, what I mean is, of course you'll have the opportunity to compete. I have three sons, you're three girls with remarkable abilities — you'll make my fortune yet! Tomorrow we'll begin the tests."

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Several miles away, in the highest tower of the floating monstrosity that was Balamb Garden, Squall and Irvine sneezed in quick succession, while Seifer shivered, tucking his hands deeper into the pockets of his trench coat, forbearing from slipping tadpoles under the fluffy white collar of Squall's favorite leather jacket.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Once upon a time, a mother sent for her three children. Well, she would have sent for them, had she been rich, and in charge of a plethora of servants to whom she could point, and demand, "Bring to me my children!" But she was poor — truly in the monetary sense, possessing far more brains than Caraway and Kramer combined (but not the nest egg to nurture into the riches she knew she was capable of finagling) — and was a servant herself, working as a maid at the local hotel, and so, instead of sending for her children, she walked halfway up the stairs of their home, and yelled into the rooms above, "Get down here this instant!"

And so the children descended, to face their mother's wrath. Adopted mother's wrath. For the poor woman (lacking funds, but not a devious turn of mind), had never been quick enough to run down a man and club him into submission, and thus could not have any children of her own. So she'd adopted, an easy enough thing to accomplish with the orphanages full to the rafters with children left parentless from the never-ending skirmishes between global powers. And since the harried social worker in charge of far too many cases had asked her no questions, Ma Dincht had not been forced to tell her any lies.

There was Fujin, first to come down the stairs, her head held high and her uncovered eye glittering in barely contained contempt. There was Raijin, second down, his steps rattling the wooden frame of the house, and his hair brushing against the stucco ceiling. And there was Zell, youngest and brashest of her children, and the one — in her well-reasoned opinion — least likely to make anything of himself, being the youngest and the brashest, though far and away boasting the best command of the common tongue of the three.

In truth, a dying Balambfish had a better grasp of the common tongue than her three children had.

"WHAT?" Fujin demanded, standing frighteningly straight, and looking as if her spine were liable to snap at the slightest unnecessary movement.

"Yeah, like, what, ya know?" Raijin repeated, running a hand through his hair and brushing bits of clinging stucco to the floor. "I was, like, thinkin' 'bout doin' something, ya know?"

Zell, who'd not made it off the stairs, was too busy trying to tie the laces of his high-tops to pay any attention to his siblings' questions. In his defense, each shoe sported five pairs of laces, so his difficulty in getting them sorted out and properly knotted was somewhat understandable. That he had to pull out color-coded instructions, with helpful diagrams and warnings that lace E shouldn't go into eyelet 7-a, was also somewhat understandable. That he'd yet to put either shoe onto either foot — that was a little bit harder to understand.

Ma Dincht, who'd learned better over the years of raising her rambunctious brood, no longer tried to understand anything her youngest did. She just helped him get on the little bus each morning, with his bagged lunch and his partially completed homework, and hoped each day that the sparrows would eat the trail of hotdog bun crumbs he consistently left behind him, making it impossible for him to find his way home.

"Children," she began, swatting Zell with the twiggy end of her second-best broom to get his attention. "I am now old. My end is approaching, and I would fain provide for you before I die."

"DIE?" It would be poetic to say that Fujin paled at the announcement, but since Fujin naturally possessed the complexion of the undead, and the personality as well, it must be assumed that Fujin was in no way shocked, and that instead she was merely asking for time and day, to fit it into her busy schedule of kicking her brothers, and volunteering at the local animal shelter.

"Ma, Ma, you ain't old!" Raijin sniffled, and rubbed away a tear. "Who's gonna cook dinner for me, if you ain't here? Oww!" He jumped back, rubbing at his shin. "Don't kick me, Fu! I was jus' sayin'—"

"Ma ain't dying, you idiot." Zell pushed the hopping Raijin out of his way, and got off the staircase, the laces of his high-tops knotted together, and his shoes flung over his shoulder. "She's ditching us. Don't deny it," he pointed at his adopted mother. "I saw the travel brochures. You're selling the house, and moving to Winhill."

"Well, yes." Ma would have patted her youngest on the head for being such a smart little puppy, but he'd recently taken to spiking his hair, to prevent that exact manifestation of motherly affection. "I'm sick of you leeches, and your constant mooching, while I work myself into early middle age just trying to keep food on the table — I'm looking at you, Raijin," she jabbed her older son in his gut with her elbow. "If I'd known a teenage boy could eat so much, well, I would've only adopted Fujin.

"But don't think I'm leaving you empty-handed!" To Fujin she handed a rusting ball of iron wool, to Raijin a mop resting inside a dented bucket, and to Zell a feather duster along with an Estharian maid's uniform. "Money I have none, for I've already spent it all betting on the chocobos, and what I give you seems of but little worth. It rests with yourselves alone to turn my gifts to good account. Only seek out a land where the local inn is hiring housekeeping positions, and your fortune is made."

Fujin clenched the steel wool tightly, drawing beads of blood along her palm. Raijin dishearteningly wrung the water out of his dingy mop. And Zell unfolded the maid's uniform, gaping at the tiny thing of lace and black satin. "Uh, Ma? Shouldn't this've gone to Fu?"

"Are you questioning my wisdom?" Ma asked, whapping her youngest again with her second-best broom. "That's your fortune you're disparaging!" He ducked away from her third swing, only to catch a face full of linty twigs on the fourth. "You unappreciative wretch. That uniform will open a lot of doors for you. Granted," she lowered the broom, and her wrinkles smoothed away into thoughtfulness, "they'll be perverted doors in the seedier sections of red-light districts, but really Zell, it's not like you have any skills to fall back on. Now give your Ma a hug, and wish her well in her new life of pleasure and leisure."

The children hugged their mother, then were unceremoniously pushed out the front door and locked out of the house.

Fujin, bloodless lips set into a fearsome pout, crossed the cobblestone street and tossed her worn piece of steel wool into an open dumpster. "SUCKS."

"Yeah." Hefting his mop, Raijin snapped it in half across his knee, and threw it in with the rest of the garbage. "I hadn't even finished lookin' at the current issue of Girl Next Door; that's just cruel. Ma ain't never been this bad before. Think she forgot to take her pills this morning?"

"Nah. I think she's had this planned for a while." Zell crumpled up the maid's uniform, and was prepared to discard it when Fujin smacked him, pushing the sleekly black outfit back into his arms. "What was that for?"

"Um, I think what Fu was tryin' to say was, well," Raijin blushed, and kicked his bucket, adding another dent. "Maybe Ma had a point, ya know? I mean, remember last summer, and how old man Jacobs paid you to wash his windows? Twice a day? Wearing nothin' but your swim trunks?"

"Yeah? So?" Zell blinked quizzically at his siblings, who glanced at each other and gave identical, simultaneous sighs.

"MORON." Fujin shook her head sadly, and gave her little brother an almost gently kick. "WHERE TO?"

"I guess," Zell said, bundling up his outfit and stowing it in a pocket (an easy enough task, considering how small a bundle his outfit folded down into) and waving his feather duster towards the East, "we should follow Ma's advice, for now. You know, seek out new lands—"

"With new inns…" The blush hadn't entirely faded from Raijin's face, and with the direction his thoughts had suddenly turned, it burned anew. "Hiring… Fuck, Ma's one twisted woman. But Zell's right: We don't got much of a choice right now. Fu, what's the most perverted city you know of?"

Fujin, whose own thoughts mirrored those of her brother, might have blushed as well, had she the blood to spare, or any stray morals to shame her. "DELING." She led her brothers down the street, to the square beyond. "TRAIN."

And so it was the three siblings set out to seek their fortune — in the form of a perverted-yet-filthy-rich geezer with wandering hands and a fondness for blonde boys dressed in Estharian maid uniforms.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Rinoa had arrived at Balamb Garden with all due ceremony, meaning she was snuck in during the darkest part of the night, bound hand and foot in baby blue leg warmers to keep her from escaping back to the safety of her Daddy's mansion.

In the morning, mostly unbound, and with a breakfast of curds and whey sitting somewhat queasily in her stomach, Cid conducted her to a chamber quite bare, except for a stainless steel bowl half-full of crinkled twisty-tie thingies. He then gave her a spinning wheel and reel, appropriated from the Garden's Home Ec class, and said, "Now set to work. And if between this morning and tomorrow at dawn you have not spun these twisty-tie thingies we've ruined so many loaves of bread to supply you with into gold, you must pay your full tuition into Garden."

"I'd rather die, you Big Meanie!" Rinoa stomped her booted foot, and brushed her raven-dark hair, and pulled her Wing Edge from subspace and turned it upon the rapidly retreating Headmaster. "Or better yet, you can die!"

Thereupon Cid Kramer fled for his cowardly life, locking the door of the chamber behind him, leaving the General's daughter alone with her twisty-ties and spinning wheel and loyal dog of indeterminate sex, Angelo.

Finding no chair in the chamber (for it had already been noted that the chamber was bare and that wasn't likely to change any time soon with the door locked and triple barred, sheesh) Rinoa sat upon the linoleum floor, and sulked, and for the life of her did not know what to do — a not uncommon state of affairs. She had not the least idea how to spin multi-colored twisty-tie thingies into gold, and she became more and more distressed until at last she leapt to her feet, and began pounding on the secured door, wailing for her immediate release and weeping great, luminous crocodile tears.

Then all at once, in a puff of floury dust and a haze of sulfur, a tall, gray-haired black-winged woman appeared who said, "Vhat the fuck is that noise?" She then coughed on the ucky sulfur fumes, and stepped out of the cloud of magical vapors, one of the unfortunate by-products of teleportation. "Oh, it's you, General's daughter," she said, finally recognizing the girl trapped inside the chamber. "Vhat the hell are you karrying on about this time?"

"Alas," answered Rinoa, who'd have preferred to be referred to as a maiden, but several ex-boyfriends had made that designation a bit problematical, "I've got to spin gold out of these stupid twisty-ties, and I don't know how to do it."

Then the woman said, "Vhat vill you give me if I spin it for you?"

"My necklace," said Rinoa, who quickly undid the chain, and pulled off her prized ring, handing over the nickel-plated length.

The woman took the necklace, and frowned, for the bit of jewelry was tacky, and clashed with her dress. "Ah, hell, since I'm already here…" She stood in front of the spinning wheel, and poked at it hesitantly, then stared down into the stainless steel bowl dubiously. "You know, I am an alchemist — but there's no vhay of turning this krap into gold. Chicken salad sandwiches, no problem. Matchbox racers? Feh, a few minutes vhork at most. But gold?"

Shrugging, the winged woman dumped the twisty-ties into her purse, and pulled out a handful of Centra half-dollars. "'Fraid this is as good as it gets, dearie. Tah!" And in yet another billow of smoke and stink of sulfur, she vanished.

"Great. Just — great." Rinoa tossed the spare change into the bowl, then sat down and waited for the day to pass.

Immediately at sunrise Cid came, and when he saw the half-dollars resting forlornly in the bottom of the bowl he was astonished, and much pleased, for they were the exact type of currency the vending machine in the student lounge took, and he'd been wanting a Triple Peanut Cluster Bar forever. He pocketed the coins, and hugged Rinoa (his hands strayed just a tad, so she only had to slap him once), and took out his hankie and blew his nose in excitement.

"Wonderful, just wonderful!" he said, cavorting around the chamber as much as a rotund, middle-aged man could cavort without throwing out his back. "Selphie blew up classroom 2-B with nothing more than vinegar, prune juice, and Irvine's confiscated yaoi doujinshi. Quistis put the IRS agent into eternal slumber by reciting his own regulations back at him, saving me a most unpleasant stay in Balamb's federal prison. And you, you my dear!" he tried to hug her again, but a quick jab to his neck dissuaded him. "What a wonderful day!"

And Cid was happy, of that have no doubt, but because of his good fortune (and his wistful longing for a Loopy Fruit Yum as well), his mind became only the more avaricious. So he had the General's daughter taken to another chamber, where a bowl of broken zippers awaited, and he ordered her to spin them in one night, if she valued her scholarship. He did not demand gold — for he hadn't gotten it the first time — but he was rather hopeful for a few Dollet nickels.

And he wasn't actually considering withholding Rinoa's scholarship. He was rather looking forward to seeing her in the teeny tiny Balamb Garden uniform. In the teeny tiny skirt of the uniform in particular. For, if he were lucky (and if his wife didn't catch him and castrate him), he might catch a glimpse of the regulation white lace panties all female cadets had to wear.

Yes, for Cid, life was good — and was about to get much better.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

"Like, where the fuck are we, do ya know?"

"RAGE!" Fujin lashed out in righteous wrath, and soon the train conductor was but a mushy lump in the corner of the luxury compartment. "LIED!"

"Hey, it's not my fault." Zell had crossed his arms, more to protect himself should his sister's ire turn towards him, than in any desire to appear nonchalant. "He," he tilted his head to the mushy ex-animate-conductor, "said this train was going to Deling. But, I dunno, he seemed a bit flustered when I asked him. He wouldn't look me in the eyes. He kept staring down at the stupid outfit. I don't know why I let you guys talk me into putting it on."

"'Cause we had no money, and the only reason he let us board the train in the first place was 'cause you were wearin' it." Raijin would have normally been the one to carry their luggage off the train (being part beast of burden, part bouncer, and three-tenths opera singer) but since their Ma had kicked them out of the house without even a spare change of clothes (besides Zell's inheritance (and Raijin, who had a much better developed sense of propriety than his sister, couldn't help but feel guilty over what they'd asked their younger, clueless sibling to do)), there was no luggage in need of carrying. "If you hadn't kneed him, we might've actually made it to Deling."

"He pinched my ass!"

"SO?" Shrugging, Fujin stepped over the conductor, and looked out the window to the city beyond. "FH. IDEAS?"

"We can't stay here; someone's bound to notice the dead conductor eventually, ya know? I say we head into town, see what's what, like, if anyone's hiring, or something. I guess." Raijin got off the train, wrinkling his nose at the smell of rotting fish and decaying iron wafting in on the ocean breeze. "Hyne, this place is scummier than Balamb. And that's sayin' something."

Together, the siblings walked down the steeply curved sides of the artificial landmass to the town below, if the collection of driftwood shanties and canvas dwellings could be called a town, and not a slum. They stopped once they reached the center, being somewhat tired, and having nowhere but up to go if they continued further.

There, in front of a structure that almost qualified as a building, was a woman sitting on a moisture-warped bench, and crying. And they could tell she was crying real tears, for her face was all blotchy and unpleasant, and her nose dripped far more often than she was bothering to wipe at with her sopping tissue.

"Grossness," Zell whispered, wishing he'd found some way to untangle his laces, because he was really having second thoughts about wandering about barefoot. "I wonder what her problem is?"

"Dunno." Raijin walked towards the distressed woman, and lowered himself by her side, ignoring the wet splat that occurred when he sat. "Hey. Yo. Weepy woman." He leaned forward, and tried peering up into her face. "S'up?"

"Oh sir, oh kindly sir, my tale is one of utmost woe!" She swooned against Raijin's side, and discreetly blew her nose against his vest. "I am the princess Flo, from the far away democracy of Esthar, and I have suffered ever so long. For when I was young, I used to have no greater pastime than escaping my nurse and sneaking out to the great, dark wood next to the royal housing track. There, I would sit by the well under the old linden tree, and play with my golden ball. And it was mine," her redly painted lips curled into a scowl. "No matter what that bitch Eilonwy claims; as if I'd touch her stupid bauble.

"Now it happened one day that I was careless, and tossed my golden ball straight into the well. It wasn't a particularly deep well, but the water was all green and slimy; I wasn't sticking my hand in there; for all I knew, the old sinkhole could've been used as a midden by a passing horde of robbers. So I did the only thing a proper princess could do in such an awful situation. I began to weep, and lament, and I tried to call Daddy but my cell phone's battery was dead.

"And in the midst of my weeping I heard a voice say, 'What ails you, Angharad's daughter? Your tears would melt a heart of stone.'

"When I looked to see where the voice came from, there was nothing but an old toad stretching his thick ugly head out of the water. 'Oh, is it you, old waddler?' I asked. 'I weep because my golden ball has fallen into the well. And how many times do I hafta tell people I'm not that bitch Eilonwy? As if I'd ever marry an Assistant Pig-Keeper. I'm Flo! Flo Flo Flo!'

"Well, the toad said he'd fetch my ball for me, if I promised to love him, and have him for a companion and play-fellow, and let him sit by me at table and eat from my plate and yadda yadda yadda; you know, the standard demands amphibians make to golden-haired princesses. So I promised. Of course I had no intention of keeping the promise; I mean, please! He was an ugly old toad! He brought me my ball, and I laughed at the sucker, and went back home to the royal housing track.

"But he followed me! And damn, but he must've played Frogger a lot, because he made it across two freeways and the interchange to get to my house. And when he explained to Daddy my promise — Daddy took his side! I was married to the toad that night, because Mommy said it wouldn't be proper otherwise, him sharing my little bed and all.

"I've been stuck with Toady Doby ever since. We moved here so he could be closer to the bait shops. I've cooked for him, cleaned for him, even given him kinky froggie blowjobs. And I began to despair, and plan of ways to end my pathetic life.

"But you, oh kindly, kindly sir! You…" Flo hugged Raijin closely, and mucked up his vest a bit more with runny mascara and vivid crimson blush. "You have saved me from my foul fate. Indeed and verily, the moment you sat beside me on the bench, you removed the source of all my troubles. When you sat, you squished Doby flat with a most satisfactory kersplat. My hero! Take his place as Mayor of this wretched town, and tax the citizenry till they can eat at Red Lobster no more, and your fortune shall be made!"

"Oh. Umm. Well," Raijin scratched at his head, and blushed, and tapped the toes of his scuffed shoes together. "I, like, wouldn't hafta marry you, would I?"

"No, no, no indeed! I'm going home, along with this darling vial of blowfish poison, to have my revenge on Daddy and Mommy for making me marry Doby." Flo stood, smiling happily, vial displayed in one hand, and golden ball clenched in the other. "Oh, how they shall pay! Farewell, my hero, farewell and good luck!"

And Flo skipped away, while tossing her ball high into the air and catching it, and Raijin stood as well, warily patting the seat of his pants. "Oh man. I did sit on something. Something," he looked down at the bench, then hastily back up, "really ugly. It might've been a toad, ya know?"

"Grossness," Zell repeated, "and congrats, Rai. Promotion through regicide. Ma would be so proud."

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Rinoa was at her wit's end (not a far trip, even in the best of times, but this was the second day in a row she'd missed her shows, so she was a bit closer to the edge than usual) and had been weeping for the last few hours. Once again there was a puff of smoky sulfur, and the winged woman appeared and said, "Vhat vill you give me if I spin the zippers into — something non-zipperish — for you?"

"The ring off my finger," answered Rinoa, still snuffling slightly since now she'd never find out if Oliver married his twin sister Rebecca, or if Leslie ran off with one, or the other, or both in an unexpected ménage à trois elopement.

The winged woman, looking forward to the lovely ring seen the day before, quickly agreed, then frowned when, instead of being handed the delicate piece of platinum jewelry, was instead given a raspberry ring pop. "Damn," the woman muttered, slipping the ring pop onto her own pale, skeletal hand and giving it a quick slurp, "I've gotta stop agreeing before I aktually get the goods." But a deal was a deal, and by morning the broken zippers had been exchanged for a partially eaten bag of pretzels and a gift subscription to Girl Next Door.

Cid was delighted with the pretzels, and obscenely delighted with the subscription, but was not even yet satisfied. "With nothing more than a cherry-scented candle, a summer sausage, and a newly discovered and confiscated cache of Irvine's yaoi doujinshi, Selphie managed to blow-up the library, along with three of the library committee girls! Quistis talked the cafeteria staff into eternal slumber by reading them the ingredients of a Twinkie, and the entire Garden was saved from mystery meatloaf night! And you, my dear, dear Rinoa, have made it possible to sleep with my wife again! Girl Next Door," he whispered conspiratorially, "is her favorite."

Cid had the General's daughter taken to a still larger chamber, this one with a waste basket brimming with cardboard toilet paper rolls, and said, "This you must spin tonight into something equally as pleasing, but if you succeed, my son Seifer shall become your husband." Even if she didn't succeed, he planned to give her Seifer, for the boy was downright disagreeable, and the entire Garden would benefit by him going on a nice, long honeymoon. In Deling. Where, with any luck, Caraway would find a place for him in his army, and Seifer could spend the rest of his days slogging about in the jungles of lower Esthar, and never trouble his foster father with his surly presence again.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Fujin and Zell had bid a solemn goodbye to their brother, now Mayor of Fisherman's Horizon and glory-hogging every second of it. No tears had been shed, for Fujin wept for no one, and Zell had finally become acclimated to the corrupt miasma that permeated the entire shantytown. Raijin had wished his siblings well on their journey, then strolled off to his favorite pier, fishing pole in hand, with the hopeful expectation of a nice Balambfish dinner later on.

The two siblings walked back to the mainland along the empty railroad trestle, for the train that had brought them to the decrepit town had been a fluke — due mostly to the conductor being preoccupied with ogling his newest, maid's outfit clad customer instead of hitting the proper switches to get his passengers to their proper destinations.

They were not far from the bustling city of Timber when they came across a most unusual trio of men. One was quite large, and one was quite slender, and one was dressed in a pretty green silk sari and crying as though his world were ending. Fujin stopped, though they were still some distance away, and glared at them. Then again, Fujin glared at everybody, so noting the fact was of no particular importance.

Zell, tired of walking, and a bit footsore due to his lack of proper footwear, was happy at the distraction. He pulled out a quarter, and smirked at his sister. "Flip ya for it?"

Fujin snatched the quarter and smacked her brother along the back of his head. "IDIOT." She smacked him once more for good measure, then explained herself in one solitary word. "BRIGANDS."

"You think? They don't look particularly dastardly to me." Flustered, Zell pulled out his feather duster and proceeded to clean the top of a nearby boulder, upon which he sat once it was suitably clean. "They look," he rested his chin upon his arm, and his arm upon his knee, and it was a terribly immodest position in his Estharian maid's uniform, "like they have less business roaming the wilderness than we do. Take a chance, Fu; ask them what's wrong. Besides," and his smirk slipped back into place, "it never hurts to help."

So Fujin marched over to the trio, her back held painfully straight and her head lifted high, managing, despite her diminutive height, to look down her nose at the considerably taller men. "PROBLEM?" she asked, kicking the large one on the ankle for good measure.

"Oh, fair stranger!" the sari-draped man briefly stopped his sobbing, and placed trembling hands over his rapidly beating heart. "How kind of you to ask, for mine is such a tale of woe that—"

"YEAH, YEAH." Possessing no patience (nor any other redeeming quality that had ever been discerned) Fujin punched the man in the shoulder. Lightly for her, bruisingly hard for the tear-streaked man. "JUST TELL."

"Ouch. Oh, well," the man wiped at his damp cheeks, and bit back a rising sob. "I'm the princess Laguna, and these are my loyal handmaidens, Ward and Kiros."

The large man, Ward, gave a breathless grunt, while the slender man, Kiros, rolled his eyes and pulled out a cigarette, muttering, "Not this again; I'm so frickin' sick of this story."

Fujin, frowning even more than usual, punched Laguna again. "MEN," she stated, clearly not believing.

"But I was born a princess!" Laguna wailed, but bravely managed to keep from crying, in mortal fear of being whacked a third time. "Please, oh please, just listen to my story…" He flinched, awaiting a blow, but when it wasn't forthcoming, he cracked open one eye, then sighed in relief. "A long time ago — Oww!" He rubbed his shoulder ruefully. "Okay, okay, the Cliffs Notes version.

"Queen Mumsie was thought to be barren, but while she was skinny dipping a frog paddled up to her and predicted that within a year, she'd give birth to a daughter. And while frogs have never been known for their clairvoyance — only their ability to turn into handsome young princes when kissed — this one knew what he was talking about, for Mumsie gave birth to me before the year was out.

"Now King Pop could not contain himself for joy, and he prepared a great feast of chili dogs and beer. He invited his relatives, friends and acquaintances, mistresses and insurance salesmen and the chimney sweep who did such wonderful chalk drawings, and also the fairies, in order that they might be favorably and kindly disposed towards me. There were thirteen of them—"

"Hey, I know this one!" Zell chirped, having gotten up from his rock to listen in, for he'd always loved a good piece of gossip. "Your Dad only had twelve golden plates for them to eat from, so one of the fairies had to stay home."

"Golden plates? How cliché." Laguna, much cheered at being able to relate his history, pulled his long, dark hair back into a ponytail. "I'll have you know my family uses Butterfly Meadow, and we have enough pieces to serve sixty-four guests in style. No, all thirteen fairies got invited. The feast was held in all splendor; and when it came to an end — after the banana splits had been served — the fairies all presented me with a magic gift. One gave me even odds in any game of chance I'd care to try, another a clear complexion throughout my life without the need for Noxzema, a third a healthy sense of experimentation, and so on, until the twelfth fairy had her say.

"Giggling, she called out in a loud voice, 'The princess shall only be romantically interested in those of the same gender, and shall draw beautiful shojo manga for a living.' And without another word, the fairy passed out on the floor, dead drunk.

"Everyone was terror-stricken, most especially King Pop, for he was counting on the hordes of princes attempting to win my favor to stabilize our country's economy, but the thirteenth fairy, whose wish was still unspoken, stepped forward. He could not cancel the curse but could only soften it, so he said, 'It shall not be princesses you want, but princes, as is only right and proper and necessary to our country's economic recovery. You shall prick yourself — we'll leave exactly which prick gets you up to the whimsical hands of fate — in your fifteenth year. After, you'll fall into a deep sleep, and when you awaken, you'll be a man. Who'll only be interested in those of the same gender. And our fair country will be saved!'"

Laguna plucked disconsolately at the shimmering folds of his sari. "And it came to pass. I'm a princess, stuck in this awful manly body…" Kiros bit back a harsh crow of laughter, while Ward silently shook his head in disbelief. "Hush, you," the transformed princess warned her not-all-that-maidenly handmaidens. "So I wander the world, searching for a cure to my — affliction."

Fujin, who'd heard enough of the pity-fest, slapped Laguna hard across the face. "BE A MAN," she ordered him, raising her arm threateningly to strike again.

"But, but, oww!" Laguna complained, getting smacked once more. "What kind of woman — ouch! Quit it! Would you stop — hey! That hurts! Go away you Big Meanie! Waaaaa! Kiros, save me!" The sari-draped man cowered behind his chortling handmaiden, begging for his intervention. "Save me from the banshee!" he wailed.

Kiros managed to catch Fujin's swinging fist, and he grinned down at her in a kindly sort of way. "You've spirit, and a fine uppercut; you may be the lass we've been looking for." With his free hand, he lifted his cigarette to his lips and took a long drag. "There is a cure for Laguna, Ward, and I, but it is most perilous for the one attempting it. A maiden, fair and pure of heart, must weave for us three pairs of lederhosen — with bright, rainbow-colored suspenders — out of dandelion greens collected from golf courses at midnight. And from the moment you pick your first dandelion, to the moment we wear the lederhosen and attend Oktoberfest and are returned to our rightful forms, not a single word can pass your lips, or you'll be sued for breach of contract. But your reward if you should succeed is Laguna's hand in marriage, and you'll be crowned prince of Esthar."

Tapping her chin thoughtfully, Fujin looked down at Laguna who was now trembling in abject fear, his eyes wide in shock and his head whipping back and forth in adamant denial. "NO TALKING?"

"Not so much as an eep," Kiros assured her, releasing her clenched fist. "It's really not all that hard; Ward hasn't spoken a word for years, and he seems to manage well enough."

Rolling his eyes, Ward shrugged, and hauled Laguna to his feet.

"CAN STILL SLAP?"

"I insist." The slender man's grin was blindingly white. "So will you do it?" He recaught her hand before she could strike Laguna. "Umm, the lederhosen thing; we'll save the slapping for later, if that's all right?"

"YES." To the mission, to the withholding of her abuse, or to the invitation she could see gleaming in Kiros's dark eyes, it was hard to tell, but Fujin was now smiling as well, and it was a horrific sight to see. She turned to her brother, and kindly told him, "SOD OFF!"

"Fine. Be that way. I hope you and your princess have a wonderful life together." Zell tucked his feather duster under his elbow, and began trudging off. "Like I care. There's gotta be, like, tons of better fortunes out there, all I've gotta do is find one…"

"ZELL?"

The youngest sibling turned around hopefully, for he wasn't looking forward to traveling the wide world alone, with nothing but his duster and his lacy black outfit. "Yeah, Fu?"

"SOD OFF FASTER."

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Back at Balamb Garden, with nothing more than silly string, sealing wax, and a third confiscated cache of Irvine's yaoi doujinshi, Selphie let out a triumphant, "Booyaka!" and imploded the training center.

A few miles West of Balamb Garden, Quistis faced the mighty army of the Tyrant of Deling, and lured them — down to the last man, louse, and moomba — into eternal slumber by reciting to them selected excerpts from Sun Tzu's magnum opus, whose principals she eschewed, but whose book she favored for beating snoozing cadets over the head with.

And in a chamber barren except for a trash can filled with cardboard toilet paper rolls, her dog, and herself, Rinoa filed her already sharply pointed nails and waited for she knew not what (for Rinoa wasn't the brightest bulb on the Hynemas tree, and had yet to figure out that her mysterious benefactor had to show up, due to the Rules of Three enacted during the fourteenth century for just such occasions as this).

In a puff of sulfur and a stench of smoke (explainable by a miscalculation on the amount of bat spit needed for the teleportation) the winged woman appeared again and said, "Vhat vill you give me if I spin the toilet paper rolls for you this time?"

"I have nothing more to give," answered Rinoa, who actually still had her pretty shiny ring, and her doggie, and her Timber savings bonds — but those still had a year to go till maturity.

"Vell," the woman fluttered her pinions, and paced across the chamber, pausing to stare down into the waste basket, "promise me your first child if you marry Seifer, for I am kurrently short a knight, and do sorely miss having a henchperson to boss around."

"Not that I'd mind giving you the squalling brat," Rinoa said, "but don't these kinds of deals normally come with loopholes?"

The winged woman nodded, and pulled out a thick roll of parchment. "Of kourse. See? Here it says that I vill give you three days, and if vithin that time you diskover my name you shall keep the child. Pretty fair, huh? So, you sign here," and the woman gave Rinoa a pearl-encrusted pen to sign her name with, "and I sign here, and now the kontract's nice and valid." She blew on the ink to help it dry faster.

Rinoa nibbled on the end of the pen, her dark eyes narrowed on the signatures. "Umm…" She blinked, then blinked again for good measure. "So you're Ultimecia, huh?"

"Vhat?" The woman flung out her wings. "Vho told you that? Vho told you that?" she shrieked, and stamped her stiletto-healed foot on the linoleum flooring, causing an ugly scratch on the scratch-resistant vinyl.

"Well," Rinoa lifted up the contract, and pointed with the pen, "you did, sorta. When you signed your name. Which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it, 'cause I was looking forward to all the sympathy and teacakes when you absconded with the baby."

"Foo." Ultimecia pouted for a minute more, then turned to the trash can and the task that she was legally bound to complete. "Lesse. Kardboard komes from trees. Vhat else komes from trees?"

"Bird droppings," the General's daughter supplied helpfully. "And baby birds that get kicked out of their nests. And naked men raised by apes. Although those don't fall out too often, more's the pity."

Ultimecia smirked as she dumped the toilet paper rolls into her purse. "Got that right. But no. Nuts kome from trees. Vhich, I suppose, explains the naked men… Anyvay!" She shook her head to rid it of glorious visions of the nuts of naked men. "Presto chango, and now you have honey roasted pekans. Tada!" She placed the canister of pecans where the trash can had been, and left a stack of napkins beside it. "Done, and done."

She then disappeared, by expediently opening the door and walking out, her heels clicking merrily down the hall.

When Cid came in the morning and found the canister full of honey-roasted pecans, he clapped in delight and did a little jig, chortling and gloating to himself while filling up a napkin and snacking on the nuts. "My dear! My most talented cadet! My son Seifer is yours! We'll have a triple wedding, and invite the crème de la crème of high society, and register you at Wal-Mart!"

Together, they began planning the nuptials.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

In the highest tower of Balamb Garden, three young men were informed of their impending doom by their foster mother.

"Now Squall," Edea scolded, "Quistis is a fine woman, and an asset to this Garden. You should feel honored that she's chosen you for her husband."

Squall sighed, and looked down at the pleasant countryside passing by at a rapid pace below. "No, Mama-san, I think I'm much better off jumping to my painful, gooey death. You've met Quistis, haven't you?"

"Well, yes…" Edea admitted, tilting her head to the side. "You do have a point, but don't you think this is a bit extreme? Not to mention terribly melodramatic; you could just be holding your gunblade to your head like your brother Seifer's doing."

Squall glared apathetically (don't ask me how he managed; Squall can do anything apathetically) at his elder brother, who returned the favor by raising his middle finger in salute. "And if Seifer decided to throw himself from the highest tower of the Garden, you'd be fine with it."

"That's because Mama-san knows I'd plunge to my death with style, pansy boy." Seifer snorted, holding Hyperion steady all the while. "But I'm not stupid enough to try; there's a chance I might survive the fall — and that's not a risk I'm willing to take. I've dated Rinoa, remember? Trust me, I'm going to be much happier once my brains are safely dripping down the wall."

"I don't know why you two are so worked up over this," Irvine drawled around his mouthful of Bavarian cream doughnut. "I couldn't be happier over marrying Selphie."

"Maybe 'cause marriage is the only way she'll let you boff her?" Seifer asked snidely, with a quick, longing look at the pink doughnut box. "I'd marry Selphie, or Quistis, but gruesome, messy death is far preferable to life bound to Rinoa."

"I can see you've made up your mind," Edea said, then quickly raised her hand as her older boy began to squeeze the trigger of his gunblade. "But wait! There is a third option. I love you as if you were my very own children." She ran her hands down her simple black dress, smoothing out slight wrinkles. "And so I'm willing to let you go. I shall turn you into ravens, that you might fly away and seek a solution to your engagements." She raised her arms, and purple sparks sizzled from her fingertips. "Now it's been a while since I've done this spell, so there might be a little bit of agony—"

"…!" Squall said, almost letting go of the railing to avoid the transformation.

"What he said." Seifer flipped Hyperion, and pointed it at his mother. "You ain't turning us into ravens."

"How then will you escape this tower?" the woman asked, pouting over her interrupted spell.

"We have T-boards, Mama-san."

"Oh, fine then. Be that way!" Edea crossed her arms, and singed her dress with the last few clinging purple sparks. "Take your T-boards and go, you ingrates. See if I offer to help, next time." And she turned around, and walked down the stairs, muttering angrily to herself all the while.

So the three brothers fled from their fiancées on stylishly painted T-boards, soon leaving the Garden far behind. And as they disappeared over the far horizon, if a person listened hard enough, they could hear, carried upon the freshening wind,

"But I want to marry Sefie!"

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

"So, Mister…?"

"Dincht."

"Right. Dincht." The woman pushed her glasses back up her nose, and perused the form in front of her. "You're new to Deling, and are seeking gainful employment. Good, good; you've come to the right place. We have a 76 success rate in placing unemployed individuals such as yourself…" She trailed off, and gave the young man in front of her another, longer searching glance. "Well, not quite like yourself, I do admit…"

"I'm actually seeking my fortune," Zell told her, brandishing his feather duster. "The outfit, that was Ma's idea. I don't normally dress this way. Really."

"A shame," the woman whispered, then placed the form in a folder authoritatively. "Anyway, it's nice to see an individual thinking ahead for once. For fortunes can be hard to achieve, and steady employment during the meantime can only be advantageous. Now, we do have a few positions needing to be filled, though they're somewhat unusual…"

"How bad can they be?" Zell patted the feathers of his duster, and leaned forward. "I'm a hard worker, Miss. And right now, I don't even have enough spare change in my pockets — if I had pockets, that is — for a cup of coffee."

"A situation I hope to remedy," the woman said, smiling and nodding and feeling somewhat envious that the young man fit so well into the maid's outfit, while she'd busted the seams out of hers during the last costume ball. "There's a King currently hiring all sorts of people. He has twelve daughters that are sneaking out at night to the local clubs. He wants to know which club, so that he can properly wage war against them and their unethical practice of serving alcohol to minors. The king has declared that the first one to find out can choose one of the princesses to be their wife, and shall rule the kingdom after his death."

"Sounds okay," Zell said, toying with his sharply spiked bangs. "But what if I can't figure out which club?"

"Oh, it's the standard failure clause: Your life is forfeit, and you'll be forced to spend the remainder of your days serving in his harem, and so on, and so forth."

Zell flinched, and scooted further back in his chair. "Guess he doesn't believe in 'If at first you don't succeed,' huh? I think I'll pass on that one. What else?"

"Let's see… The Seven Little Men Mining Corporation has recently acquired the Hi Ho Motel chain. They're looking for someone who will keep house for them, and cook, and wash, and make the beds, and sew and knit, and keep everything tidy and clean, and tuck them into bed each night, and kiss them goodbye each morning on their way to work—"

"Whoa! Hold on a sec!" Zell had leapt to his feet, and was leaning over the table, trying his best to peer at the woman's computer screen. "Aren't there any jobs in Deling that don't require lewd acts of perversion?"

"That don't…?" The woman twirled a strand of frizzy hair around her finger thoughtfully. "That makes things a bit more difficult. You know, you're awfully fussy for a guy in drag." She expertly ignored the blonde boy's outraged shriek. "There is one opening that might fit your requirements…"

"Yeah?" He wasn't going to get his hopes up. By now, he was seriously considering hitchhiking to Winhill, and begging his Ma to let him in to the new house.

"Well, General Caraway's looking for an au pair. He has a daughter, but she lives elsewhere. Basically, there's just light housekeeping. No cooking to speak of. And you'll need to be willing to serve pigs-in-a-blanket during parties. His butler — ex-butler, I should say — refused, saying it was beneath his dignity."

"Pigs-in-a-blanket? Those are, like, little hotdogs wrapped in biscuits, right?"

"…Yes…"

Zell didn't bother wondering why the General needed an au pair when his daughter didn't live with him. It didn't worry him that an au pair was supposed to use their employment to gain a better understanding of a foreign language (for as has been noted, Zell spoke the common tongue so poorly it nearly was a foreign language). For Zell, the position he was being offered was like a dream come true. A wish upon a star granted. A two for one hamburger special.

"I'll take it!"

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Seifer, Squall, and Irvine had made a successful escape from Balamb Garden. Or, to be more exact, Seifer and Squall had escaped, and forced their youngest brother along with them, because Irvine was the only one of them that could read a map, or a road sign, or see the gigantic white hand hovering over their heads letting the passers-by know that They Were Here.

Eventually they came to a crossroads; one road led to the mountains, one to the ocean, one to the town of Balamb, and, as anyone whose been paying the slightest bit of attention would know, the last led directly back to Balamb Garden, for it's the road the brothers used to reach the crossroads to begin with. Gee. As the oldest, it was up to Seifer to decide whither they should wander. But oldest didn't necessarily mean wisest, for he decided that the best thing for them to do would be to split up.

After a prolonged game of rock-paper-scissors, Seifer headed towards the town of Balamb. Squall, who'd never managed to win a game against his older brother since he refused to twist his hand into the required shapes, was forced up the steep path towards the foreboding mountains. And Irvine, who always won, because Seifer had never learned that paper beat rock, every time, joyously skipped back the way they'd come, thinking happy, horny thoughts of his beloved Selphie.

The road to the sea, with the fabulous treasure, and mermaids, and pirates, and strawberry-rhubarb pie, was left untaken.

Now while on the way to Balamb town, Seifer came upon a Shumi standing in the road, who cried, "Whither away so fast?"

Astonished that the Shumi could tell that he was whithering, and not just strolling leisurely into town on Garden business, Seifer became suspicious, and snapped back, "Stupid little fellow, what business is it of yours?" He then saluted the Shumi with two impolite fingers, and whithered on, soon forgetting entirely about the strange encounter.

The Shumi was very angry (they took hand gestures quite seriously, you know) and made an evil vow. But since the vow had to do with the evils of moogle prostitutes, it affected Seifer not at all.

Meanwhile, upon the dangerous craggy cliffs of the most ominous mountain in the entire foreboding mountain chain, Squall came upon a second Shumi. Or it could have been the first Shumi. It's not like Squall could tell the difference. Or care.

The Shumi asked Squall, while the young man struggled up the nearly vertical cliff face, where he was going in such a hurry.

Squall, who was only climbing the cliff so that he might throw himself from it, intoned dolefully, "What does it matter to you?" and continued on his way up, not bothering to look back.

The Shumi, sensing that there was nothing he could do to make the young man any more miserable than he was making himself, shrugged philosophically and traipsed down the path to the more hospitable plain below.

Elsewhere, whistling to himself and fantasizing about an extended honeymoon with his childhood sweetheart, Irvine came upon a third Shumi — though it could have been the second, which might have been the first, but since Irvine refused to wear his glasses, he couldn't make out the little fellow's nametag to tell for certain. And the Shumi asked him where he was hurrying off to, because Shumis were terribly nosey creatures that had no mommies to teach them manners.

"I am going to Balamb Garden, where my true love awaits me," Irvine replied, with little hearts in his eyes and little twitches in his britches.

"Do you know where it is to be found?"

Irvine tugged at his ponytail, and peered myopically into the distance. "Down this road, right? I mean, this is the road I took away from it, so it should be the road back…"

"As you have spoken pleasantly to me, and not been a Big Meanie like your foster brothers, I will help you and tell you that the Garden's floated off. But your love is right over there in the field behind me, beating a caterchipiller to an oozing green pulp."

"Hey, thanks!" Irvine said, rushing off the road to the field beyond, where his Selphie indeed stood, whacking a cringing caterchipiller with her nunchaku. "Sefie, my love, you've come for me!"

"Whaaa? Oh, it's you Irvie. Umm, yeah," she paused in her attack, allowing the beaten bug to crawl back into the ground, "I've been looking for you." She walked over, grabbed her fiancé by his ponytail, and pulled him down to eye level. "What the hell were you thinking, running away? Huh? I want an answer, mister, and it better not be some lame-ass excuse like your brothers made you do it!"

"Heh, about that…" he cringed as she held her nunchaku over his head. "I love you, Sefie. I do. It was all Seifer's fault, and Squall's, they made me — Oww!"

And they could have lived happily ever after, if Selphie hadn't put Irvine in the hospital for the next several weeks.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

"Yes?" General Caraway asked, eyeing the young man in front of him dubiously. "Can I help you?"

"Uh, it's more, like, how I can help you." The young man stuck out his hand expectantly. "I'm Zell, Zell Dincht. The employment office sent me." Realizing that the General wasn't going to shake his hand, he lowered it, and wiped it sadly on his lacy apron. "They said you were looking for an au pair. I can do that. I can clean, and baby-sit, and serve snick-snacks to the hoi polloi at your hoity-toity hootenannies."

"…Well, you certainly fit the description; I have no idea what you just said. Come in," he beckoned the young man, opening the door wide and allowing the blonde to pass through. "I do have a daughter, but your duties would include watching out for her instead of watching her, keeping her from entering the house if at all possible, or if not, then at least hiding me well enough that she can't find me, and whine about how unfair her life is. How that girl can whine."

"Oh." Zell scratched at the back of his neck. "I dunno, when I used to play Keep Away, I'd just pick up a guy and fling him, but I don't know if I could hurt a girl. How else—"

"But you could learn, couldn't you?" Caraway cut him off, clasping his hands earnestly. "It's the only way she'll take a hint, I swear to you. A few good body blows, maybe a toss into the briar patch; please, please say you'll come to work here! I'll pay you 300 gil a week, along with room and board. I'll even," he threw himself down on the ground and clutched the young man's leg, "even buy you a new feather duster. A larger one! With chocobo plumes!"

"A new duster?" Zell looked down, both at his bedraggled duster, and the man stealthily trying to sneak a grope while groveling pathetically. "You've got yourself a deal," he said, while bopping the man with practiced efficiency. "As long as you keep the lewd acts of perversion down to a minimum. The lady at the employment agency promised you wouldn't be a threat to my virtue. Capeesh?"

"S�, certamente," Caraway avowed, releasing his grip and rubbing his aching head ruefully. "You'll still wear the outfit though, right?"

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Squall sat at the edge of the cliff, deep in thought (consisting mainly of repeated song lyrics and the niggling suspicion that Fate and Lady Luck were ganging up on him) and growing hungrier by the minute. Yet he felt no urge to eat (being apathetic), trusting that his hunger would pass, as all things would pass (or so his apathy informed him); he sat, and thought, and let his belly rumble unhappily.

Thus he was taken unawares when an alien, pale blue and staggering drunkenly, came up behind him.

"Good morning, Squall," PuPu said.

"Is it?" he answered — apathetically, of course; Squall knew of no other adjectives, having failed last semester's grammar course. How could he have passed it, with Quistis teaching? The only way to keep from falling under her spell was to ignore her entirely. Squall did sometimes become bored with his perpetual apathy though, and during such occasions promised himself that he'd take the remedial class the next time it was offered. If he weren't otherwise occupied, apathetically speaking.

PuPu cooed, and rolled his great swirly eyes, and wriggled closer to the sitting young man. "Whither away so early, Squall?"

"I haven't whithered at all," he snapped back, kicking his legs over the side of the cliff. "I've been here all night, weighing the pros and cons of suicide. Are you trying to annoy me on purpose?"

"Ooo, no no," PuPu chirped, spinning around, and cooing some more. "Maybe. Yes. Elixir, please. I need some elixir — so hungry."

"Why should I give you an elixir?" Squall scooted back away from the edge, and faced the alien head-on. "I'm hungry, but you don't see me walking up to strangers and begging them for a ham on rye." He fluffed the fur of his collar haughtily. "And… Hey!" He pointed at the little alien rudely. "What a big antenna you have."

"The better to pick up DirecTV, oh dear."

Squall brushed back his chestnut bangs. "I guess. But, PuPu, what big eyes you have."

"The better to watch HDTV with, oh dear."

"Really? You must've had the technology a lot longer than us, then. So what's the deal with your itty bitty arms, PuPu?"

"The better to hold the remote with, oh dear."

Now thoroughly intrigued, Squall rubbed his stomach and promised it 'soon.' "But PuPu, what a delicious looking marshmallow body you have. Must come from being a coach potato, hmm?"

"The better… What? What was that? Oh, eek!"

Squall pounced, and with much crunching and gnashing and a satisfied burp at the end, Devoured the cute Peeps-like alien, thereby increasing his speed and decreasing his hunger to acceptable levels.

And it would be nice to say that he lived happily ever after, but this is Squall; happily is an adjective, and thus not in his vocabulary.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Seifer had traveled far, through many strange and exotic lands, and had met and insulted many strange and exotic people. And because most of those people took exception to being insulted, Seifer had fled through many strange and exotic lands, from strange and exotic people after his blood, his body, and his beloved trench coat, though not always in that order.

And so it was he came upon the city of Deling, where the father of his unwanted fiancée resided. It was to him, General Caraway, he went, for he figured the last place Rinoa would ever look for him was with 'That Man.' Rinoa tried her best (laughable, but true) not to come home, being estranged from her father and his rules and his refrigerator that never had diet cola; with her new scholarship to the Garden to keep her busy, there was a good chance she'd never step foot on the mainland again.

His knock on the General's door was answered by a young man with spiked blonde bangs and soft blue eyes, wearing an Estharian maid's uniform.

"Yeah?" the young man asked, waving a gigantic feather duster menacingly.

"I'm here to speak with Caraway," Seifer answered, not intimidated — no, not at all — but properly respectful of the strength it took to heft so many dusty plumes. "It has to do with Rinoa."

"Rinoa?" a voice squawked, and Caraway himself appeared at the door, dressed in his nightshirt and sipping from his nightcap. "Did you say Rinoa? I — I don't believe it; Almasy, is that you?" At a nod from the man standing outside, the General shivered, and invited him in. "It's been so long… I thought to never see you again, after you escaped from my daughter's clutches…"

"I'd hoped to never see either of you again," Seifer snarled, pushing his way into the mansion. "You wouldn't've happened to be in on Cid's little plot to engage me to Rinoa, would you?"

"Engage you to… oh dear." Caraway took a long sip from his drink, and closed the door behind them. "Zell, I think I'm going to need something stronger tonight," he told his au pair, handing him the empty glass. "And bring our guest something as well. Are you hungry at all, Almasy? Zell makes a mean mini corndog, and you must be famished after fleeing the Garden."

So Zell went and got drinks, and put together a tray of assorted greasy tidbits, while Seifer and Caraway discussed their common problem. And after several hours of shouted accusations, stinging slanders, and one rather messy mud-wrestling match, they came to the conclusion that the wisest course of action would be to ensconce themselves inside the mansion as if they were under siege, and pray to Hyne that Rinoa never caught wind of where they were hiding.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

Quistis waited long and long for her one true love to return. To pass the time, she wrote sappy poetry; to pass even more time, she sprang pop quizzes based on her sappy poetry. And when torturing her students no longer amused her, she'd take long walks around the Garden, that usually ended up in the Quad. There, she'd sit on a bench, and watch the clouds float by.

Then, one day when she was feeling particularly down, she noticed that the Quad was being overrun with weeds. Being at heart a woman of action, she changed into a worn pair of jeans and a sweater washed of all its color. With her gardening gloves on, and her kneepad in place, she began pulling the weeds from the flowerbeds.

And she pondered the nature of happily ever afters, while singing quietly to herself. There was room enough in the Quad to plant a garden; fresh tomatoes were always wanted, but seldom supplied at the café. Quistis went to the work shed, and returned with a shovel, which she leaned upon while watching the sunset.

But Quistis was practical, and soon looked away. She knew life wasn't a fairytale; if she wanted her own happily ever after, she'd have to find it within herself. The garden was just a start. And if she dug the pepper bed a little further to the left, she'd have room to plant a patch of rampion.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

"Chicken-wuss, fetch me a root beer."

Zell gritted his teeth and headed into the kitchen, returning with the requested drink.

"Chicken-wuss, hand me that movie, the one with the Sorceress Knight."

Biting back what he wanted to say (as well as his tongue, for that was the quickest way he'd found of keeping quiet; pain did wonders for his tolerance), Zell merely nodded, picked up the movie, and flung it across the room, not caring if Seifer caught it, or if it smashed into the vase full of flowers he'd arranged that morning.

"Chicken-wuss, iron my shirts."

"The hell!" The younger man lunged across the room and grabbed his nemesis by the collar of his coat. "Do I look like your fucking maid?"

Seifer leered, and fingered the lace-trimmed apron. "If the skirt fits…"

"Shit! That's it. No lousy job is worth putting up with you. I didn't sign on for this!" His voice was steadily rising, and a hot flush stained his cheeks. "I don't have to deal with a jerk like you. There're other jobs. Even catering to the whims of Seven Little Men is starting to sound good, compared to… to…" He snarled, and slapped away the hand still stroking his apron. "Hyne! I'm sending this fuckin' outfit down the garbage disposal. Keep your pervie hands to yourself, Seif!"

"Aww, but you're cute when you blush, Chicken-wuss. C'mon, stop dusting the book shelf already, and come watch the movie with me." Seifer patted the cushion next to him, and leered as benevolently as could be managed while leering. "I've got popcorn," he shook the bowl temptingly.

"Because I fucking popped it," Zell grumbled, setting aside his duster and settling down on the couch next to the taller man.

"Such language," Seifer murmured, picking up the remote and starting the movie. "You know," he continued, as the opening credits rolled by, "you wouldn't do these things for me, if you didn't care some tiny bit. Admit it."

Zell peered at him from the corner of one eye, grabbed a handful of popcorn, and propped his bare feet up on the coffee table. "You're a jerk, Seif."

And Seifer knew that every time Zell called him a jerk, what he was really saying was 'I love you.' So he threw an arm over the younger man's shoulders, and cuddled him close, and got an elbow jabbed into his gut for his trouble.

It was, he thought as he grabbed up his own handful of popcorn, rather sweet, the way Zell bared his fangs and hissed, "I said hands off, pervert!" His growing happiness was almost enough to lure his attention away from the ache in his side. Almost. And as soon as he could draw in a full breath, he'd try again.

Practice, after all, would eventually make a complacent Zell.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

She had traveled far, and she had traveled wide, and she had eaten a few too many Dollet pastries than were good for her, or her figure. Or it could have been the Timber sundaes. Or the D-District meatloaf surprises which she'd developed a taste for during her extended stay while settling the unpleasantness surrounding her vandalism of the Deling Park & Ride. Whatever the reason, she reached her hometown bloated, gassy, and suffering from PMS.

Rinoa knew her way around the city; how could she not, when the public buses had revoked her pass when she was 14? Forced to walk from section to section, she stopped fellow pedestrians, and showed them the paper clutched in her sweaty fists. There, in black and white glory, was her fiancé Seifer Almasy, last seen in the vicinity of Balamb Garden, reward offered for any information leading to his return — dead or alive. Rinoa had soon come to realize it made little difference to her.

No one stood up The Timber Princess. No one.

And lo and behold, she came upon a withered crone who admitted to seeing her pookie-wookie. At her father's house. Across town.

With a sigh, Rinoa thanked the woman, and shook her hand warmly, and accidentally turned her into a frog by mistake — as opposed to accidentally-on-purpose. Sighing again, Rinoa pocketed the frog, and promised it she'd let it go as soon as she walked past a pond, or a fountain, or a Shumi restaurant.

She hated her father. Hated his wimpy, whiny-ass attitude, his continued grief over his wife's death, and his constant harping on her decision to drop out of school and lead a resistance group; he'd be so much prouder, he'd said, if she'd just finished up beauty school like she'd originally set out to do. She hated him with a loathing borne of long association, nurtured by mutual dislike, and fertilized with the crap they shouted at each other over the phone on holidays.

And that her father was harboring her fiancé? Protecting him from her? They'd pay, the both of them, she vowed, slapping her hip for emphasis. She then grimaced, and pulled the squished froggy out of her pocket, holding it up from one crookedly bent leg.

"Grossness," she said, and tossed the frog out into the street and into the path of an oncoming bus. Which should teach even the most gullible of souls that, yes, sometimes it does hurt to help. Dreadfully. That, or never do a favor for a witch.

It took her three hours to cross the town, and she cursed the moron who had designed the city, and his ancestors (which were her ancestors as well, but Rinoa had so much going against her she barely noticed the additional karma building) and his drycleaner. By the time she reached the Caraway mansion she was out of breath, out of Tic-Tacs, and out of Midol. And frustrated with everything occurring in groups of three, she purposefully pounded on the door eight times.

"Yeah? Whaddaya want?" a voice asked from the other side of the door.

"I'm Rinoa Heartilly. This is my house, and if you know what's good for you, you'll let me in right now, and let me speak to Daddy!"

"Rinoa, huh?" There was the sound of several locks being drawn before the door cracked open, and a single azure eye peered out at the young woman from above the gold chain. "I dunno about this being your house, but I have strict orders to keep you out. Bring back proof of ownership, along with legal counsel and a representative from the Galbadian Housing Commission, and I'll see what I can do, 'kay?"

"No 'kay!" Rinoa stomped her foot, and pushed up the legwarmers covering her arms in preparation of a catfight. "You let me in, you… you… Big Meanie! I'm warning you!"

"Are those the dulcet tones of Miss Heartilly I hear?" The chain was removed, and the door swung wide, revealing a young man in an Estharian maid's uniform, and her dear, longed for Seifer-weifer in his adorable trench coat. "They are! Rinoa," Seifer smirked at her, leaning half out of the doorway, "what brings you here? Shouldn't you be at Garden, fending off the unwanted attentions of the horny Headmaster?"

"Seifer, you big silly, I came for you!" She flung out her arms and jumped forward to glomp the object of her affections, but slammed face first into the hastily closed door instead. "Ouchies. Ooo, Seifer, stop playing hard to get. I won you fair and square… mostly. Now come back to the Garden with me; we'll get married, and you can get a job mopping the Balamb train station, and I can stay at home and watch my stories on the telly. Doesn't it all sound wonderful?"

"Not really." Seifer reopened the door, wincing at the girl's vapid smile. "Rinoa, you must know I don't love you. At all."

"Oh, foo; what's so great about love? I don't think you understand yet, dearest." Rinoa's smile broadened, and she pulled a certificate out of her brassiere. "I own you. You're mine, signed, sealed — and cash on delivery. Witnessed by the Headmaster of Balamb Garden, the Sorceress Edea, and the district manager of Centra Social Services. You have no choice; you're going back to Garden with me, even if I have to have you handcuffed and dragged away by law enforcement."

"Hmm, looks pretty official," Caraway said, having walked up while Rinoa was gloating. "Nothing a person can do once Social Services has stepped in. They've granted her custodianship. Rotten luck, my boy. Well, it's been nice having you; come by and visit with the grandkids sometime—"

"Wait! That's it? You're just handing me over to her?" Seifer raised Hyperion (hey, you don't think he came to the door without his trusty gunblade, do you?) and held it to the General's throat. "If I'm going down, I'm taking you with me. All heads off, mine alone remain!" He waited expectantly, then frowned, lowering Hyperion and tapping the tip against the marble tiles. "What the…? Oh, that's right, Mama-san removed the spell when I accidentally beheaded the entire chemistry club." He hung Hyperion up on the coat rack, shrugging. "I can still make your life hell, Caraway, see if I don't. Doesn't it matter at all that the mere sight of your daughter makes me nauseous?"

"She has that effect on everybody, I'm afraid." Caraway shook his head sadly. "No, no; you'll have to go with her. It's the only way to get her to leave; if she stays on my doorstep, property values are sure to plummet."

"What if I could get rid of her?" Zell had been listening to the conversation, wondering when he should step in and throw the annoying girl into the rosebushes lining the porch. "If I could get Rinoa to leave, and never return, would you let Seif stay, General?"

"I suppose…" Caraway tugged thoughtfully on the tassels of his many medals. "I honestly don't see how you could do it, though. My daughter is nothing if not persistent. And mule headed. And she drifts in a cloud of fragrance that always makes me want to buy cotton candy…"

"Yeah, Chicken-wuss. What do you plan t' do? Dust her?"

Zell crossed his arms, accidentally whacking himself in the face with the plumes of the feather duster. "Ya want my help or not, you jerk?" he asked, dropping the duster to the ground.

"Be my guest." Seifer stepped back into the room, leaving the doorway clear for the younger man. "You manage t' get rid of Rinoa, and I'll be your loyal servant forever."

The grin Zell turned upon the other man wasn't entirely pleasant. "I'll be holding you to that. Now…" he flexed his fingers, and green glimmers began to glow around his hands, "it's been a while since I've done this, but it goes something like — this."

Behind Rinoa a dark cloud formed, ominous, and chilling, and emitting little batty squeaks. And from the column of shadow solidified stepped a creature of crimson and ebony, with flared wings and entirely too many claws. And the creature fixed glowing ruby eyes upon the people in front of it, and opened its maw of a mouth, and said, "Zell, my dear! It's been ever so long. Why, the last time you summoned me was Big Bad Rascal's birthday party. Fun times, that. So, what do you have for me to do today?"

"Hey Diablos." Zell waved at the Guardian Force. "Meet Rinoa. Rinoa, meet Diablos. Rin-Rin — meet Dark Messenger."

Diablos chuckled darkly, and flattened the surprised sorceress underneath a pulsating ball of congealed gravity. "Fun times indeed," he said, staring down at the smooshed girl. "Anything else you were wanting, my dear?"

"Could you take her back to the underworld with you? I just — don't trust her. A paper-thin sorceress is still a sorceress, you know. Even if she's a very poor sorceress."

"Of course, of course." Diablos picked up Rinoa, and folded her neatly, winking at Zell while he did so. "If you don't need me for anything else, I should be going. Left a soufflé in the oven; you know how it is." And as he slowly faded out of sight, he blew the young man a kiss. "Don't be a stranger, my dear."

Somewhat in shock, Seifer came out of the house, and stared down at where Rinoa had been. "What — the hell — was that?"

"Diablos?" Zell wrapped an arm around the taller man's waist, and giggled. "One of my six servants. Hmm, seven, now. You did promise, after all." He looked up, and blinked golden lashes charmingly. "A promise is a promise is a promise, forever and ever."

"I guess…" Seifer allowed himself to be huggled, but couldn't quite bring himself to enjoy it, for there were still too many questions flitting about his brain. "But Zell, where did you get six servants?"

"Met them on the way to Deling. C'mon Seif, lets go back inside. Caraway's ecstatic, and if we don't get him out of the champagne he'll drink himself sick — and that's not something I want to deal with tonight." With a tug on his trench coat, Zell led the other man back into the mansion.

"But he, he just squished her, splat…"

"I wouldn't worry about it. She's bound to recover; Diablos knows what he's doing. Right now, they're probably both sitting, watching As the Underworld Turns, and eating lemon soufflé. What, you don't actually think I had Rinoa killed, do you?"

"Umm…" Seifer blinked, and began to appreciate the warm body pressed up against his own. "No. Maybe. Well, actually, yes. I mean, I've tried to kill her myself enough times. It took cutting the brake lines of her car to escape from her in Timber."

Zell giggled again. "Well, you don't have to worry about her any more. Now sit down while I pry the bottle away from Caraway, and I'll come back with a nice cuppa. Sound good?"

It did sound good. So Seifer sat, and soon Zell was seated next to him, and together they drank Oolong tea and ate cranberry scones.

And the next morning, once General Caraway recovered from his hangover, he kept his word about letting Seifer stay. He hired the man on as his manservant, and had him dress in an Estharian butler's suit complete with tailcoat and eye-achingly white gloves. When standing next to Zell, they made a matched set, and were greatly in demand by those throwing cotillions and masques and shindigs — but Caraway seldom loaned them out, having grown used to their constant bickering and making out… Up! Making up. Stupid Freudian slips.

And they lived happily ever after, except for those days when Seifer happened to be particularly obnoxious, and got banished to the couch for the night, which seemed to happen every few weeks. But Seifer never left, 'cause he was Zell's, forever and ever.

He'd promised.

.oOo. .oOo. .oOo.

End Notes: For those that are curious, from the top of my head, the tales referenced are RumpelstiltskinThe Three Children of FortuneThe Frog PrinceBriar RoseThe Six Swans (or The Twelve Brothers, since they're mostly the same), The Seven RavensThe Twelve Dancing PrincessesSnow-White and the Seven DwarfsThe Four Accomplished BrothersThe Water of LifeRed Riding HoodRapunzelThe King of the Golden Mountain, and The Six Servants. Also thrown in for good measure was The Princess Bride, and mention was made of The Chronicles of Prydain. There might've been more, but my brain is too woozy to recall them.