Disclaimer: In no way do Star Ocean 3 and its characters belong to me, nor do I make any profit from writing this story.

AN: I'm sorry it's been so long. I won't even attempt to justify my hiatus. I hope you enjoy the chapter.

Cast-Iron Dreams

Chapter 5

She awoke, and suddenly there was awareness. Not the hard jolt of revelation, but the cynical, quieter grip of realization, bitter and aching both at once.

She was in prison. In for a crime.

Since when had it become a crime to hope?

Her dream had been tinged with the softer details of her last enactment. Outside the pod she had felt, once more, the mild sunlight creeping with chill sweetness into her skin. She could feel the warmth deserting her as she entered and cold metal encased her; she could almost see the wispy tendrils detaching from her body like steam in black air.

Her hands had reenacted the search for the communicator. Fingers scrabbled in darkness like spider legs without a body: a mockery of swift desperation.

The communicator, next. Coveted by those spider legs, caressed with a mutant thumb. The thumb slid through the metal's gash as easily as if it had been tailored to fit through ruin.

Softer details. Her dream had kindly censored what the gash had meant; she had thought nothing of it when something sharp prodded her back and she looked down her front to see a sword impaling her chest. She turned her head to see a blur of blue and green and she smiled.

"Silly, that doesn't hurt at all," she chided affectionately. "I'm glad you're here though. I was looking for you."

The blue became the backdrop for the green as the green bled to a metallic silver like the pod's. Evacuate, an alarm had shrieked at her, but no, her feet were rooted, her lips were frozen, as green bled to silver and silver vanished high into blue. Don't leave me behind, was the scream her opened mouth had preserved in ice. The sword was still inside her, but her eyes were too fixed on the blue for a glimpse of green to notice. And all while the mild sunlight had seeped sweetly in and out her skin, too benevolent to melt the ice. Footsteps--the very ones which had froze her lips--approached her, but it was then that Sophia awoke in prison for her crime.

She was in a different cell from last time. The hacking coughs and guttering torches, heard clearly in the other, more open cell, was muffled. So, too, had the torchlight through the iron bars become concentrated instead of diffused. She looked and there was a door to her left, a heavy oaken door in which a single square was carved. It was against this solid wood that sound impacted but mutilated halfway through; the square through which torchlight threw a vivid patch, broken only by the shadows of iron bars, on the floor. She did not bother to get up to try the door.

Sophia believed in hope. She believed in it. She gripped hope's silvery robes as a child might a stranger's frayed coat, pleading with snow-lashed eyes to please take her chilled hand and guide her towards home. There was nothing tainted about hope that Sophia could see. So long as one pleaded long enough, believed hard enough, there was no such thing as bitter disappointment, no such thing as betrayal brought about by one's own making.

So Sophia closed her eyes patiently and breathed out quietly, hoping for a miracle, hoping because to not hope would have meant wondering if people in the Middle Ages burned women at the stake for telling the truth: that they were not witches capable of conjuring fire.

As Sophia longed for a hearth to warm her hands, it was with a cold horror that she realized, upon opening her eyes, what wavered in the palm of her hand was fire.

-----

He had lost his father to fire.

The moment his father died had been anything but dramatic. The shrieking, a sixteenth note sharp without an echo, cut the silence with the finality of a blade. It was an accordion's compression, the dissonant sound of glass fragmenting, the raw agony of realization that flesh was being burned alive and life was charcoaling away. It was his father who shrieked and Albel who cried.

The boy told himself during the funeral, when he watched the hard ebony casket being swallowed by an earth which had no appetite, when he gripped his charcoaled arm and used pain to silence the tears, that the world held no room for weaklings. Those who cried were weaklings.

Those, too, who were killed were weaklings. Albel swallowed hard and wished he'd had his katana to grip.

It had never used to be about survival. When Albel was permitted to wield, for the first time in his life, a sword made not of wood but of real metal, his first cry on the training grounds had been: "Father!" It was a cry in which heady joy had clashed with the heavy sounds of metal scraping and men grunting their exhaustion. Back then, Albel Nox had had little luck with winning matches. His opponents would capitalize on the moment the boy turned his head to search the castle battlements.

His father never could understand why Albel would laugh, when a blunt blow later flattened his tiny form against the snow. Sprawled on the snow, hands splayed flat over his footprints, the boy seemed almost as if he were carelessly hiding something. Albel had not been called the best swordsman in the land back then.

As a boy disarmed of the power to mock and the capacity to destroy, Albel had loved his father's rage.

"Look at this." His father had pointed at the ground one day after a particularly close match, one in which Albel had emerged just shy of victor. Glou Nox's voice was gruff, not quite yelling. "Point out your footprints, Albel."

Albel did so.

Careless, intricate footwork imprinted the telltale snow. Each footprint aimed unswervingly towards the footprints from the opponent's soles. Yet whereas the opponent's imprints had sunk in deep and churned a mound of snow around their grooves, Albel's imprints were shallow, without a heel, as if the owner had moved and struck with deliberate laziness.

"Should I be ashamed?" The boy's tone was insolent, too innocent; his eyes, as his father's brow darkened, were wickedly delighted.

"Of course you should you be, you fool of a son! Look at this! Look at--" Military lips relaxed into a scowl. Fire in disciplined eyes. Swipe-and-halt gestures jerking plated arms; subconscious pacing lightning-quick. He saw it. He saw it all. All the things that spilled over Albel soaked in. He had to stop himself before he quivered.

Glou Nox abruptly halted in his pacing. The commander's sword raked the snow, split a faint imprint in half. His eyes were bright, the color of flickering fire. "Demonstrate your chicken dancing again, Albel."

Something gave his son pause. "With you?"

"Against me. Pick up your weapon, soldier."

In an instant Albel discarded his innocent expression. The boy grabbed his metal sword and flung away his insolence. His fierce grin seemed on the verge of spilling into laughter, laughter full and exulting.

He had been anticipating this, Glou Nox thought suddenly. The father glanced down sharply at the imprint-laden snow. It dawned.

A template. Just for him.

Memories buried out of shame surfaced in an instant's shock of clarity. One memory stood out, wondrous in its new light. Glou remembered, once, seeing Albel stumble during a match. His son's eyes had gone white; a look of seemingly utter revulsion had twisted his lips; he had lunged, then, and it was the closest his Albel had ever come to winning. But it was during the middle of the second lunge Glou turned to address Vox; and when he looked back, his son's flattened form had trumpeted his loss. Humiliation had discretely hid the sight from Glou's mind.

But now, now he could see it, marked so many hundreds of times the snow could not erase it.

Not a plea for forgiveness or a plea for his eye. What lay in the snow, crafted with failures, was this, only this: the offering of a steadfast promise.

I can become better. Just show me how.

Fierce pride stamped itself across Glou Nox's eyes.

Laughter finally spilled from Albel's lips.

"So…spoils?"

"My katana."

"You have two."

"Your choice. The other will be yours by my death."

Albel was amused, the amusement of gazing at the impossible.

"What do you have to offer me, son?"

"Did I not make it clear, old man?"

His father laughed suddenly, and it was a sound Albel absorbed with the sharpest of pleasures.

"All right. Show me your chicken scratch."

-----

At thirteen Albel received his first katana while sprawled on the snow, breathless from exhaustion and from laughter full enough to stream tears.

It had not been about survival then. It had been simpler, sweeter, a game of matching his footsteps to a man whose feet were twice bigger. His life then had had more purpose to it than murder.

Later, at seventeen, Albel received his second katana from the charred remains of his father's sword hand. He had loosened it himself, watching as fingers which had once gripped his shoulders dropped as brittle ashes to the floor.

Two katanas, one death. Before and after.

He dropped the second katana with the girl, the stranger without a faction.

No flame. No casket, no toothless earth with dyspepsia. Only white, siphoning white, soft and numbing white. A frozen heaven.

Where acid--regret--should have burned, there was only the opaque emptiness of indifference.

-----

The slab of oak shuddered open; the fire in her hand winked out. For one moment her eyes were motionless as the single patch of light on the floor exploded into a strip of fiery yellow. It was as if a hunched body had risen to its full height and thrown its arms wide, loosening a cry so exultant the very echoes crashed like a waterfall upon the listener's heart. Iron bars did not exist within this vivid pool of light: the cell's exit was thrown back, thrown wide.

A shadow dammed the pure plane of light.

Sophia could not explain away the sensation of plummeting, of hurtling back-first through static sky, as light, shuddered to a halt, spilled over the shadow's back. The dull silver of metal gleamed, and then the shadow was prodded towards the wall directly opposite her, defining itself the further its back drew away from the flood of light. In a moment she recognized its features.

A guard unlocked the shadow's chains, snapped on the cast-iron ones embedded in the wall. The guard afforded her one incurious glance before he left the way he came, slamming the oak slab back in place.

All this done without a word. She did not know if the shadow saw her where she sat, back pressed solidly against the unlit wall.

In the minimalist of movements, she drew breath and arms hard around her knees. The image of a glowing hearth again seized her mind; she dared not give the desire voice. She would have preferred complete darkness to the yellow light rimming the shadows before her. At least then she would not be seen.

With the rattle of chains, the hope of invisibility dropped away.

She saw the shadow's bangs shake, its eyes gradually lift as they wandered the stones between its feet and hers. She saw it start, freeze. She could only make out the sudden compression of thin lips, the piercing gleam of red eyes as they lit on her huddled form. The rest was shadowed by the lack of light, their distance.

With the acute feeling of a forced observer, she watched as her body rose and wandered--mechanically, incautiously--on an unlit path towards the shadow before her. Her footsteps stirred quiet echoes; they seemed to resound in time with the calm beat of her unsettled heart. In five beats the shadow ceased to be and in its place was a man silent and chained.

She stood before him, her wrists bound with ropes, his arms weighted with chains. The iron cuffs set low in the wall forced his body to stoop, leveling his eyes with hers. Her clothes were soaked with melted snow; his, slashed, as if by a sword.

All Sophia could think of was her miracle.

This man would know what to do. He had once pressed a sword to her neck; he could just as easily take that sword and save her. What did it matter that she did not know this man and he did not know her? Was he not human like her? Did he not suffer now as she did? Harsh breaths fluted through Albel's curled lips. Did he not read the whisper of Hope on her lips? Her mute, inelegant face? There was nothing beautiful about her expression, she knew. Her eyelids verged on collapsing, and her mouth she could not force into a smile no matter how hard she tried.

But she had hope. She had hope. Could he not see that?

She shut her eyes when spit, warm and frothy, splattered across her cheek.

And quietly, like a scream painted in dusky blue, she broke.

How did one traverse the space between planets? How did one detach her feet from gravity and hurl herself through space, the span of absolute nothingness, a medium more barren than air?

Sophia was no engineer. She could not fashion blueprints in her mind as Fayt could: her blueprints were the gossamer webs of dreams. She could no more thread a spaceship in reality than she could explain what made up her dreams, the raw feelings that sustained them. Sophia wanted to lead a good life, happy with herself, happy with what she did. That was all. She never saw how copper and wires and spaceships fit into that picture, and so she had never bothered to learn the mechanics of flight. What did she care for other planets? She was content on earth, her portion on earth, designated by parents and a best friend who embraced her without a word.

Yet here she was.

Here she was.

Her hands rose to cover her face as his name ripped from her throat.

-----

Something she would always wonder, later, with a divided sort of smile, was this: if her spells had the all-powerful ability to conjure images from her imagination, why, then, at that moment, could she not conjure her best friend? Was the incantation found to be lacking? Should she have called out louder, shouted out stronger, given full justice to the vivid image of Fayt handing her an imaginary staff in a room full of monsters? Saying with his toothy grin, We'll make it through, you and me. Just watch us.

Silly Fayt. Always placing full trust in her when she didn't even know the rules of the game. Such confidence made her happy, in a way she knew could not last even if it would be remembered.

Why could she not conjure Fayt? The answer was simple.

Fayt was still alive. And her spells could not conjure what was not dead.

-----

"He can't hear you, you know," a dry voice said.

Something was broken. Lost. Before the thought solidified in her mind Sophia's hands had left her face. The spit, by now cool, lay streaked from her left cheekbone to her lower jaw. A streak of the same appearance was applied on Albel's right cheek.

"Take your filthy hand off me!" snarled Albel as Sophia drew back her palm. Something almost fierce--not quite a smirk but close--touched her face. It was gone as soon as it came.

As Sophia stared down at her hand, at the spit and tears that mingled both at once on the skin of her palm, the imprisoned man began to laugh. Slowly. Richly. "You've gone mad."

She did not allow herself to think twice. The image flashed once in her mind and she allowed her tongue free reign: "I can free you."

His eyes dared her to continue.

"I can find a way to break us both out."

Albel took in her ropes and laughed.

"I'm serious. I know," hesitation sapped some of the fire from her voice, "I know how to use magic. You saw it, once, when I healed you. Remember?"

He would not acknowledge the question. "Why free me? What happy fate have you to gain, maggot?"

"I need your help. Help me look for someone." Unable to swallow the word down, Sophia added, "Please."

"What makes you think I will?"

Breathing deep to expel the fear that twisted inside all at once, Sophia met Albel's eyes head on and said, "You sat at the king's table. A guard locked you in here. If you went missing your king would know. What does that say about your situation?"

"Bravo, maggot." He would have clapped if he could. "Anyone could piece together my situation but you still haven't answered the question. What makes you think I won't slit your throat once you set me free?" Albel's metal claws clicked slow, one at a time.

"I'll burn you."

Something in his eyes stilled. "With what? Dragon's breath?"

Sophia took one hair from her head and pictured the tip on fire. She moved the hair beside his right cheek, where the yellow-orange light glowed along his streak of spit.

Albel laughed. "That's it? You couldn't kill a rat with this."

The hair was incinerated. The flickering ends of the flame flattened into scales; the center roared up until its length coiled into a snake. It was at the head of the dragon, where a fiery jaw was hinged loose, that the air stirred and the beginnings of an explosion could be seen.

"Claws," murmured Albel with a smile.

"What?"

"It's missing claws."

Unable to formulate a response, Sophia let the dragon disappear from her mind.

With the light from her flame now extinguished, darkness once more softened the edges of the world. Drained from sustaining the dragon in her mind, Sophia's eyesight blurred, reeled, until finally her eyelids slid shut. Before Sophia fell she balanced on her heels, so that the weight of her body tipped her towards the ground rather than onto Albel.

Body molded against the stones, exhaustion finally blanketed all aches, told her mind to hush. For once, Sophia did not want to dream, only to sleep. Tomorrow she would need her energy to find a way out of this boxed cell of madness and clarity.

"You still haven't answered my question."

"Who is this worm to you?"

"Someone close."

"A lover," he scoffed.

Firmly, "My best friend. Will you help?"

"Free me first."

"No. Your word first. Promise me."

"You're so naïve, wench."

"Promise."

Albel was silent for so long she thought he had fallen asleep.

Then she heard it: a murmur that mixed with the sharp, soft sound of metal claws clicking one against the other. She could not see the smile that curled one corner of his lips.

"I promise, witch, to hunt out this Fayt for you."

If she could find Fayt, if she could just see him, feel his hands gripping her shoulders, shaking her, urging her to keep moving when all her muscles screamed No!, perhaps she could feel whole again. Strong. As if she were capable of anything, even when the rules of this world were unknown to her.

Sophia smiled. Until then, this Albel would be her miracle, whether he liked it or no.

-------

AN: Have you ever written something and reread it a year later, then realized all of a sudden you've lived what you wrote without ever realizing it? It's a rather eerie and disturbing feeling, haha. I can't explain it. Anyways, hope you've enjoyed the chapter. No promises on when the next'll be out, but I do promise I will finish this story someday. Thanks for reading. :)

(3/1/09)