Whew; Chapter 17 is finally done! :D Sorry about the delay; the normal craziness again. XP A bit of news – Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow is finally out! *cheers loudly* … Chances are, I won't be able to get it for a long time; let's just say that funds aren't abundant for me right now. ;.; I'm hoping that the rest of you, though, will be able to get it and enjoy it. :) Don't tell me too many details about it, okay? I want it to be a surprise. XD (Plus, it gives me a chance to write Along the Way without being influenced by the actual game.) Anyway, forgive me for the long note; I know I promised they'd be shorter, but I couldn't help it. *blushes* Anyway, review replies!

Inita: Ah, I didn't look it at that way; I guess that gives me plenty of time before I'm actually late. XD You're welcome. :) Oh, no, not at all. I'm always happy to see other people doing review replies; I think it's a nice thing to do. :) I enjoy doing it anyway, but like you said, it gives the author a chance to thank the readers that reviewed. :) There's actually a button for it now that the site added – it works like a PM, I think - but I prefer doing it this way. XD (I do use it for my oneshot stories, though.) I know what you mean – I almost fell out of my chair when I realized it had really, actually, finally come out. :D … And then I mentally wailed, because I realized I probably wouldn't be getting it for a while. XD I've been looking out for news, too – specifically a strategy guide – but I haven't been finding much. (It has been a while since I checked, though; I should look again.) No, I didn't know; I wish I could play it! XD Do you happen to know if the voices are the same as the first game? I've been worried about that… I know the Japanese voices were the same, but I haven't been able to find out about the English voices. Anyway, it sounds great. :D (I think refight is a word – at least, my spell checker didn't go off, so I'm just presuming. XD) Me, too; I can't wait to start writing them. :D Ah… Maybe so, though I'm not sure how much the actual Blue Dragon creators were involved with the anime (still, they might have written most of it; my Japanese is bad)… Anyway, I'm getting off track. :P I know; they seem like they would be really good friends. :( (That's why I'm trying to emphasize it in Beyond.) I think there're still hints of their friendship, even though it's certainly not what it had the potential to be; the game Kluke is much calmer than her anime counterpart, and I think that helps her and Sahlia to not have such a volatile rivalry like the anime Kluke and Bouquet (still, I think those two ended up as pretty good friends, though like the anime Jiro and Shu, they're not prone to admit it). Yeah; there are hints of it in the first game, so it must go in. Exactly. *nods* I know; it was so disappointing! :( If I hadn't played the first game, I'm not sure if I'd even be able to tell that Jiro has feelings for Kluke. :( I'm doing it again, too… Oh, I do; just more in the game. ;) It's just that in the game, when everything's said and done, I can only really see Kluke ending up with Jiro. However, I don't mind the occasional Shu x Kluke moment as long it isn't too frequent or overly serious ("serious" meaning them possibly ending up together). In the anime, before Tenkai, I did like Shu x Kluke in the anime more than the game (just a little more). I thought the scenes between them in Episodes 2 and 15 were cute (I also liked them because Kluke acted a bit more like her game self, especially in the second episode). :) I still, however, preferred Kluke being with Jiro (that's still the case, even now). Once Tenkai started, though, I liked it less (though I did still like it). I guess it was because it seemed to me like they had changed. I hadn't seen the last episodes of season one – still haven't, actually, though I certainly plan to – but I presumed something had happened between them (perhaps Andropov developing feelings for Kluke had had something to do with it). In any case, I had a harder time seeing them being together. (Though it might've just been because I started loving Shu x Bouquet even more than I did before. XD) Anyway, since I'm definitely rambling right now… I know; I basically limped through chapters two and five of Precious Memories. XP Ah, really? I'd like to read it! :) (I'm still trying to work my way up to the more recent fan fictions in the Blue Dragon archive; I'll get there one day!) Yeah. :) Me, too – game or anime, I always prefer Jiro x Kluke. Really? That's weird; I thought you liked him… I had originally liked Andropov quite a bit – and still do, actually – before I even knew about what I still refer to as the Andropov-plot-twist-bomb (still seeking a shorter name). For a while, after finding about the unexpected Andropov x Kluke twist, I wasn't quite sure what to think of him. Soon enough, I decided that I still liked him, and still preferred Jiro x Kluke. In short, the way I feel about Andropov x Kluke is the much the same as with Shu x Kluke, except that I like the latter more. Yeah; I've often wondered if creators of games, anime, etc. read comments about and fan fiction of their work. XD Yeah, they do; Kluke always seems like she's watching out for Shu, trying to make sure his adventurous impulses don't get him killed. XD Yeah, they did… Me, too. :( Yes. :) Nah, not really corny (at least, it didn't seem that way to me). XD Oh, I thought it was the nickname for Blue Dragon Beyond. I'm not sure, though; it's been a while since I wrote that chapter (and I'm too short on time to go and check). XD No, it's fine. :) I did. Really? Huh… How strange… Anyway. Yep. :D That's true. XD I've often wondered if everyone even reads my replies… It's alright with me if they don't, though; I'll just be happy if they enjoy the story. :) Okay. (Though it seems like you've already changed it back…) Oh… Ah, I see. Well, it does have a sort of ring to it. :) (No worries; I don't even really know what Twilight is.) There is; I think this might be the biggest review I've ever received. :D (Thank you!) That's okay. :) Oh, I rant quite a bit myself (as evidenced in this reply); I like talking about Blue Dragon. XD Well, there is a PM character limit, but the limit is longer than for a review… I think; it's been a while since I wrote a PM, too. XD Good to hear. :D (Details, Jiro.) (Jiro: *groans*) He does, doesn't he? :) (Jiro: What are you talking about?) I like seeing them, too. :D My goal for this series (one of them, anyway), is to have all of the characters interact with each other at least once by the end of Hoshi to Tsuki. I know. XP Yeah. :) The meeting with Yasato is still a ways off, but it'll definitely happen. ;) Hm… I'm not sure what he would say. XD (Oh, nothing, Shu! XD) Jiro's hair is brown, too? :O (Jiro: … I can't believe you. I really can't.) Ah, really? Sorry; it wasn't intended to be mean. If it seems out of character, I don't mind changing it. Yep; coming up very soon. ;D Yeah; fortunately, Kluke and Bouquet are getting along very well, so they won't be fighting like they do in the anime any time soon. :) Oh, alright; just let me know if you want to know what's coming up. As long as it's nothing overly big, I'll be happy to tell you. :) You're welcome. Glad to hear it; that's what I was aiming for. Thanks; I was worried about what people would think of him. I usually tend to avoid bringing OCs into my stories unless they're minor characters; Abraham could probably be considered a minor character, but being Sahlia's brother, he has a bigger role than most. Thus the reason why I was worried. XP Yeah… I had the impression that Sahlia wasn't an only child, which is why I came up with Abe. Good to know; thanks! :) Really? I must have written that scene better than I thought. :D Aw… Thank you! :D Thanks again. :) (Sahlia: He won't stop calling it that!) (Jiro: Now you know how I feel; welcome to the team.) XD It would be nice to see them getting along… I know. :( (Jiro: Why were you blushing anyway? Are you feeling alright?) (Bouquet: U-u-um…) Indeed… (Oh, don't worry, Kluke; I think you'll be finding out sooner than you'd like…) Me, too (and I'm writing it!). :( *blushes* Thank you! :D Really? I thought you liked Zola a lot… (… I'm really off when it comes to the characters you like, aren't I?) Here is the long-awaited (I think) update! Sorry for the wait; I'm not even going to go into the crazy stuff that's been happening to me. Anyway, hope you like this chapter! :)

whitewolf105: *blushes* O-oh, n-not again… (Will I ever get through these reviews without my face turning red? XD) Thank you! :D Really? I guess it was a bit obvious, wasn't it? XD Thanks; I was worried that the scenes jumped around too much. :) I know; I do, too. :(

Review replies done! I apologize in advance for how much shorter this chapter is than the last few, as well as apologizing if it seems like the scenes themselves are too short. There was going to be more, but those parts seemed sort of unnecessary and dragged the chapter down. Hopefully I didn't overdo the editing. Anyway, read on (and hopefully enjoy)! :)

Chapter 17: Sousaku (Search)

The morning sun was bright, reflecting slightly on the window's panes; fortunately, leaning against the window sill and looking at it from an angle, the light wasn't blinding. It seemed maybe too bright, considering the grim circumstances. At least, Jiro thought so.

Saying that yesterday's events had been disconcerting would be an understatement. Sahlia had gotten her Shadow, though she and Shu had almost been killed in the process. The truth of the sandstorm had been revealed, but that had seemed to result in once again more questions than answers. And Zola...

Jiro shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he was leaning more heavily on the sill than before.

The team was in shambles. Marumaro was inconsolable, varying at regular intervals from sorrow to rage. Bouquet had gone utterly silent, which somehow seemed worse. Shu was in an almost constant state of anger - strangely, though, he kept most of it in check, much like a dangerous storm about to hit at any minute. Marumira and Marutora seemed rather flustered, both of them worriedly hovering around their brother and trying to figure out what to do. Sahlia was in a similar disposition to the Devee siblings, though she was much calmer about it; she hovered around everyone, but mostly Shu, and was given to regular sighing. And Kluke...

Jiro glanced at her now. It had been a bit unexpected to him, but aside from Marumaro, Kluke seemed to be taking Zola's disappearance the hardest. The night before, when they'd gotten to the quarters King Jibral had arranged for them, she had dropped to the bed face down and had not moved, save for moving her face to the side several minutes later so she could breathe better. No one had been able to get her to talk. The next morning, she'd been up before everyone else - she had been sitting very quietly in one of the chairs, and with visibly shaking hands, had slowly been sewing the holes in Zola's slightly torn bandana. She had done this without ceasing.

Jiro was worried sick about her.

As for himself, he had been trying his hardest to ward off all emotion and look at the situation logically. Planning, trying to take a strategic approach. So far, Jiro hadn't been very successful when it came to holding off his feelings on the matter, but he had come to somewhat of a solution fairly fast.

The only thing they could do was go after her.

There were still many gaps in the plan, as well as possible contingencies that needed to be accounted for, which was mostly what he tried to currently work through in his head. But the thing that remained indisputable was this - Zola was their friend and ally, and she was very possibly in danger. So that left them with no choice but to go and find her.

Now, as soon as he got those edges smoothed out, he could tell the others.

As soon as Jiro had finished speaking, Shu broke out into a bright grin. "Finally. What took you so long?" Without another word, he strode toward his bed and, after plucking it up from the ground, swung his canteen over his shoulder.

Jiro had opened his mouth to speak, but Shu had started talking again (maybe a bit oddly, he felt glad that he'd been unintentionally cut off), "Marumaro, go with Marumira, Marutora and Sahlia to pick out some supplies. You know what we need." Shu straightened, his share of the supplies (as well as belongings) resting on his shoulders. "Jiro, go with Bouquet to the library."

"The library?" Jiro interrupted, incredulous.

Shu stood akimbo. "See if you can find something out about this continent or gateway that King Jibral mentioned." When Jiro's expression didn't change, he added, "Jiro, finding out more about stuff is what you do. With Bouquet helping you, if there's anything in that library about what we're looking for, you guys will find it."

Jiro started, "I-"

"Come on." Bouquet smiled at him, taking his hand, pulling him towards the door, where Marumaro was leading the way outside, who sounded just slightly more chipper at the notion of going after Zola.

"Wait." Jiro stopped with a hand on the doorframe, halting both his and her steps.

Jiro's eyes were fixed on the center of the room, where he saw Shu momentarily putting his things down as he sat next to Kluke, then say her name softly. He said something else to her, but Jiro couldn't make out what. He did see Kluke nod once, then again, this time more energetically. Shu said a few more things to her, and then she smiled, reaching over and ruffling his hair. Shu yelped.

Jiro smiled, already eager to get back as he took off down the hall, reversing roles with Bouquet as he pulled her along.

King Jibral leaned heavily on his desk, feeling weary and double his age.

It was his fault. In his mind, there wasn't any doubt about it. He had sent her. It was his responsibility.

Because of him, Zola was gone, and he could never forgive himself for it.

He just prayed that she returned safely. If for no other reason than that he wanted her to be safe and well, he hoped for the chance to apologize.

Bouquet, Jiro wryly noted, treated books much like a dehydrated person in a desert treated water.

She loved artifacts - which was something they shared - but she loved books almost as much (also shared, he corrected himself). She had been practically bouncing as she moved from shelf to shelf with a seemingly unmatchable fervor.

However, as much as she seemed to love reading, there were quite a few things she didn't know. As such, Jiro had ended up pointing out and explaining things to her as they conducted this little research project.

So maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise to him - a surprise with much blushing - when he heard her new name for him.

"Thank you, Jiro-sensei!"

He had just frozen. Frozen, like a statue. He thought his heart might've even stopped for a few beats.

And when she'd said it, Bouquet's eyes had... had been shining. It was if he'd looked at an amethyst under a light. There had been something else, too, in that look. It was something he felt he should know, something he felt he needed to know, but he couldn't figure out what, as hard as he tried.

He would not know until much later.

A pen, a long-ago gift from a befriended king, moved across a sheet of paper.

I should have known, back then. Looking back on it, it's actually ironic - we were so alike, and I never even knew how much. But it was too late. It had always been too late. If circumstances had been different... Then, maybe… A sigh, heavy with the weight of fifteen and a half years. It's probably too late for it now... And it's not the first time I've said it. But if I say it anywhere, at anytime, it should be here and now. A pause. Another paragraph, though short. Filled with the regret of something that cannot be changed.

I'm so sorry, Bouquet.

Shu led the way as the eight group members headed towards the curving staircase leading to the castle entrance; they'd just come back after informing King Jibral of their plan, receiving his approval and pledge to help however they needed. Jiro and Bouquet hadn't turned up with any information, but they were well stocked now, so with all errands done, it was time to set out.

As he reached the top step, Shu wondered if they'd be able to do this - Bouquet knew a little about the place, considering that it turned out to be her homeland. But they didn't even know how big this continent was; how could they find one person when they had no clue where she might be?

Shu shook his head. No. I won't give up. I don't care how long it takes; we will find her. He grinned. After all, it isn't the first impossible thing we've done.

Sahlia glanced behind her, at the majestic Jibral Castle. She sighed softly.

She would've liked to stay here a little longer, to explore this city - this amazing city, so unlike anything she'd seen in Devour Village - but she couldn't. Circumstances had changed now, and they couldn't afford any lags, any wasted time. There would be more time later, enough time to come back. Or, so she hoped.

"Sahlia, come on!" Shu's voice, but distant.

She snapped her head around. "I'll be right there!" With one final glance, she was gone.

Though it usually depleted them, they warped, to the Lal Mountains Camp in order to reach the desert quickly. To their surprise, they discovered that with a larger group, the warping took less away from their energy than usual, and they only needed to rest a little while. Since food tended to equal magical stamina, they were now all circled around the campfire, eating the meal that the Sheep Tribe had been generous enough to offer them as soon as they'd arrived.

Bouquet tilted her head towards Jiro. "Jiro-sensei-" But whatever she'd been about to say was soon interrupted.

Kluke choked on the water she'd been drinking.

Shu blinked at Bouquet. "What did you call him?"

Jiro only wanted to find a rock and hide under it.

Bouquet blinked back at him. "Jiro-sensei. Why?"

Jiro swallowed as he looked pointedly away from Kluke, feeling her eyes boring into the back of his head.

"It's just a bit..." Shu searched for a word. "...strange, I guess."

"It's not strange." Bouquet took on an affronted look. "In the Ra Clan - before Nene, of course - people who had great wisdom or knowledge were greatly respected, and it was always proper to add 'sensei' to the end of their names. Jiro obviously has both wisdom and knowledge, so it's only right to call him that."

"Why didn't you call him that before, though?" Marumaro asked her.

Bouquet ducked her head, embarrassed. "... At the library today was the first time I said his name out loud."

"Oh. Okay." That seemed to satisfy Shu, who took a bite of rice. But Jiro realized he'd been mistaken in that assumption when his best friend grinned at him. "Hey, Jiro, maybe I should start calling you that, too."

Jiro glared at him. "Don't you dare." He snapped his head around, annoyed, not wanting to look at Shu's grin. Forgetting that he was avoiding meeting Kluke's eyes.


Big mistake.

Jiro felt a very definite chill go down his spine when his vision was met with Kluke's icy stare.

She held his gaze for a very long moment. Then, very quietly, she said, "I'm done eating." She got up, leaving her food on the stump where she'd been sitting (there was still more than half of it left), and walked away.

Jiro watched her go, then turned back around and sighed miserably. That was not a reaction I'd been expecting...

"Jiro-sensei?" Bouquet leaned her head towards him again.

"Oh. Right." He shook his head. He'd go after Kluke in a minute, try to talk to her. Maybe apologize, since she seemed mad for some reason, but he didn't even know what he'd be apologizing for. "What's wrong, Bouquet?"

"Before, in the castle..." Bouquet hesitated for a split second. "You said that Zola's bandana had been torn on purpose." She furrows her eyebrows before continuing. "But, I don't get it. Why would someone tear it on purpose?"

He looked into the fire. Thinking. Trying to find a more positive reason, but coming up with nothing. "A message. For us. Or a warning."

Once they've flown over the desert and entered the archipelago of deserted islands, once Shu can see the sandstorm, it feels like his veins have been filled with ice. All he can see is that nightmarish experience - that time that brought him closer to dying than anything else that happened on this journey.

Being torn from the cockpit. Taken up into the unknown before feeling himself spiral downwards. That second he'd thought he heard Jiro screaming his name.

The fall. Oh, the fall - that single moment of terror, just like when he'd been five years old, both times feeling certain of his death...

His hands have loosened on the mechat controls, and the ship has slowed to a crawl, almost to a complete stop. The engine hums quietly.

Shu starts at the hand on his shoulder, the sudden Shieldus spell surrounding the ship. "Don't worry. We've got you this time." Jiro's voice and hand both tremble, and Shu knows it's from the strain of keeping a high-level spell constantly going. Not a Shield, and not a Shielda - Jiro was clearly taking no chances with this. Shu feels a mixture of gratitude and worry, both overwhelming.

Shu feels someone else on his right, leaning with one arm against the back of the chair; knows instinctively that it's Kluke. "C'mon, Shu. No giving up, right?"

Shu nods, relaxing. He grits his teeth before throwing the controls forward, the mechat nearly reaching top speed as it rockets into the vortex of wind and sand.

Emerging from the sandstorm, Kluke thought, was much like when she, Shu and Jiro had emerged from the purple clouds during their escape from Nene's Fortress. They had been surrounded by darkness, and then were suddenly enveloped by light.

The sky was a bright blue above them, but instead of ocean, a sandy expanse framed by rock walls on each side stretched out before them.

Bouquet came up beside her. "Kolin!" The younger girl was right; unlike when she'd been on the ground, now from the air, Kluke could see the tops of the city's tallest buildings.

Kluke glanced at Bouquet, thinking of the name she'd bestowed on Jiro. She couldn't feel any anger at the younger girl, not truly. Having their parents murdered at Nene's hand was a misery they both knew, and Kluke couldn't stay mad for long at anyone who'd gone through that - not when she knew how much it hurt. Besides, Bouquet... Well, Kluke had thought of her as an ally since back in the Ancient Sphere. She'd felt sympathy for her, had wanted to help her. And she'd quickly come to think of her as a friend - it had been such a smooth transition that Kluke hadn't even noticed it happening.

Whenever Bouquet called Jiro by that name, though, Kluke's heart would still for several long seconds. And in that time, for that very short time, she would dislike both of them.

It made Kluke hate herself a little. Just a little bit, but enough.

"We'll set down outside the city," Shu's voice broke her out of her thoughts. "We can ask if anyone there has seen Zola."

"We should ask if there have been any mysterious or violent attacks, too," Jiro added. "Whoever or whatever attacked Zola and King Jibral's men, they probably didn't go near the city. But if we can track down any leads on strange events, we might be able to find a connection."

Shu grinned. "That's what usually works, anyway."

Kluke sighed out some of her tension, trying to relax as she half-heartedly listened to Shu and Jiro talking about some of their previous "investigations" - such as the time in Alumaru Village - and relating it to the newer members of the group who had not been there. She glanced at Jiro. He seemed calm - rarely was he not - but she knew him well. He was still upset. Very upset.

He had tried to talk to her in the mechat cabin about Bouquet's new name for him, after they'd left the Sheep Tribe camp, but Kluke had steadfastly ignored him. She'd only responded when he dropped the subject. She felt bad that she'd been so cold, but if she had the chance to do it over, Kluke didn't know if she could act any differently.

Kolin was getting closer. She turned and headed for the cabin, preparing to disembark.

Maybe she couldn't change what had already happened. But she could still try to fix what had been done.

Something was wrong with Jiro and Kluke. Shu was certain of this. He just had no idea what it was.

If only he knew more about people, the way his best friends did. If it was Jiro looking at Shu and Kluke, he would've figured this out in no time-

"Come on, Shu," Marumaro pushed insistently at the back of Shu's leg. "Lady Zola needs us!"

Shu drew himself up. Right, then. Back to the important stuff. Feelings could wait; they were too confusing anyway.

Having lived here for a good portion of her life, Bouquet guided them through the city streets with ease as they searched for people to talk to. Shu usually started the conversations, but left most of the talking to Kluke - she had a knack for getting people to open up. Even with that, though, after an hour they had still turned up with nothing.

Marumira stopped walking; the others turned as she began to speak, "This city's too big! There has to be a faster way to find out what we need to know."

Shu put a hand on his hip. "Got any ideas, Bouquet?"

"Well..." She took a few steps forward, looking down the long street. "The bulletin board in the square might have some information. Usually it's just advertisements for stores or posts asking people for help with an errand, but every once and a while you can find useful information."

"Sounds like it's worth a shot," Sahlia nodded, smiling. "Let's get going; lead the way."

Following Bouquet's direction, they soon found themselves in the aforementioned square. Shu recognized it instantly by the fountain in the center, the one that Bouquet had showed him during his first visit. Only sparse feet away from where they'd officially become friends.

When he looked to the side, he saw Bouquet staring it. Something flicked across her features, lit up her eyes - sadness, maybe? Shu wasn't sure. Before he could try to figure out anymore, Bouquet was turning around and already moving, waving them over and saying, "It's this way."

As they stopped in front of it, Shu eyed the board from bottom to top. It was covered in papers and tablets, nailed to the wood, all with writing on them. All of them would have to search; there were far too many for a single person alone to look. "Alright, guys; everybody start looking. Keep an eye out for anything promising."

Only two minutes in, and Shu was feeling agitated. Impatience was one of those things that came naturally to him, and it would only get doubled when a friend was very possibly in danger. Four minutes in, and he was worried; the most he had found were things like requests for grocery deliveries or recruitments for the city guard. The task of finding Zola was starting to once again seem impossible; if in a city bigger than Jibral they couldn't turn up with anything, how were they going to search a continent in which Kolin was only a small piece?

Five minutes yielded results. Jiro took a paper from towards the top; he was the tallest of the group by only a few inches, but no one else had been able to reach that height on the bulletin board. He read it aloud, "'Nirvana of the West pleads for help. Our city is being attacked by a fearsome serpent of fire. It is killing our people daily. Men, women, or children - it does not care. It slaughters any and all. Please, send help. We beg of you, send someone to defeat this horrible monster.'" When Jiro lowered the paper, he was furious. "Why hasn't anyone helped these people? What's Kolin waiting for?"

"The Emerald Dragon." Bouquet spoke up nervously, wringing her hands.

Marumaro tilted his head. "What's that?"

"It appeared about five years ago. It's made a home in Albarose Pass, and it attacks anyone who tries to go through. Only two people are known to have come out alive. I guess it would have to be three, since someone must have posted that notice," Bouquet nodded at the paper Jiro still held. "But it's the only way to get to Nirvana from here. That's why no one's gone."

"Well, we're going." Shu crossed his arms. "Those people need help; we can't just stand around and let this happen. On top of that, it could have something to do with Zola going missing. Maybe this serpent or whatever is Nene's doing. If it is, then maybe it took her. So, do we have to go through the Pass, or can we use the mechat?"

Bouquet shook her head. "In the west, there are sandstorms worse than what we had to go through to get here. They don't usually bother you if you're on the ground, but if you look up, then you can see them in the air. There aren't really any in the east or south, but you can't get to Nirvana from there."

"Alright." Shu brought a fist to his open palm. "Let's get going and get this over with. It's not the first nasty thing we've had to fight."

"We should probably rest first," Bouquet smiled sheepishly. "We won't make it there before nightfall, and it's not a good idea to wander around in that area after dark."

Shu shut his eyes, letting out an annoyed sigh. "There's always something trying to stop us."

She swung her feet over the side of the bed. The inn room was dark now, but she could make out the shapes of the other seven beds in the room. The girls' beds were against one wall, and the boys' were against the opposite wall. One of the other walls held three windows, and the other had the door.

Kluke mentally groaned, pressing the back of her hand against the lids of her closed eyes. She always did this when she was only half awake - mapping out the room in her head, even if it was her own bedroom.

She stood, abandoning her shoes and going barefoot (excluding the red bands on her ankles and legs); just because she couldn't sleep didn't mean she wanted to wake anyone else up. Near silently, she padded over to the door, which led to the room that served as a sort of living room/cooking area. She paused with her hand on the doorknob, musing that Kolin's inns were awfully courteous; they had looked at more than one inn, and all had offered the same arrangement of two rooms (albeit with different furnishing and price). She shook her head to clear it of its wanderings, and then opened the door.

A few feet away, a head shot up, a stubborn lock falling into a face warmly lit by candlelight.

Idiot, she scolded herself. While she had seen the beds, she hadn't looked to see if anyone was actually in them.

"Sorry." Jiro pushed his hair out of his eyes, flashing a timid smile in her direction. "I couldn't sleep, so I was just looking through my notebook. I didn't wake you up, did I?"

She shook her head. "No. I couldn't sleep, either. I didn't even know you were awake." She closed the door behind her, then crossed the short distance to him. She placed a hand on the chair across from him. "Mind if I sit?"

"Not at all." He closed his small book as she sat down.

They were both quiet for a moment. Then Jiro said, "Kluke-" just as Kluke said, "Jiro-"

"Sorry." Jiro's face seemed to lightly tinge red. It might've been the candle, though; Kluke couldn't tell. "You go first."

She swallowed hard. For a moment, she'd had courage, but now it felt hard to get the words out. She reminded herself that it didn't matter if it made her uncomfortable, because Jiro needed to hear it. She owed to it him. Kluke let her eyes meet his and spoke.

"I'm sorry, Jiro. About earlier. I just... need to sort out a few things. And make a few decisions that I should have made a long time ago." She noticed his sudden puzzled look, so rare on his face; she pressed on. "Still, it was uncalled for. I didn't mean to take it out on you." A long pause followed, but fortunately not an uncomfortable one. "Are you mad at me?"

"No!" He looked astonished, and perhaps a little hurt. He hadn't shouted, but he lowered his voice regardless. "No. Of course not. How could you even think that I'd be mad at you for this?" She heard the unvoiced whatever this is. He smiled at her, wry and tired. "I thought you knew me better than that."

She let out a relieved laugh. If they were bordering on harmless bantering, then she knew she'd been forgiven.

She had a suspicion, though, that Jiro didn't think she needed to apologize in the first place.

The desert sun was hot today. It reminded Jiro of Talta.

This desert between Kolin and Albarose Pass looked a lot like Talta's desert, too. The sand had that same mixture of gravel and soil; no one had ever been quite sure what had made it that way. Jiro wondered if there was any information about it on this continent; perhaps in this place, they had put more investment into researching things like that.

Marumaro's voice snapped him out of the reverie. "Jiro! You're gonna get left behind!"

"Coming!" He hurried after them, slipping into the back of the group, beside Kluke.

He glanced at her on the aside. She caught his eye and smiled; he returned it. Whatever had gone on between them yesterday seemed to have passed, and Jiro was grateful for it. Being on bad terms with Kluke had distressed him to no end, especially since he wasn't entirely sure how and why it had happened. Being like this, like they always were, felt right. He decided that it had probably just been a sort of squabble between friends, like the one he'd had with Shu in Pachess Town.


He resisted the sad sigh that wanted to get out.

They walked for a little while longer, encountering nothing, before coming upon a towering mountain; the rock was the color of indigo, the height unable to be determined due to the violent sandstorm blocking their eyes from seeing anymore of it.

"Well," Bouquet started, sounding unsettled. "Here it is. Albarose Pass." A short pause. "... We're not really going to go in there, are we?"

"We gotta," Marumaro stomped his foot. "If Lady Zola is there, Maro will do whatever it takes to find her."

"Right," Shu nodded. "Dragon or no, we have to go through here. So let's get going."

With various voiced agreements, they headed towards the cave-like entrance.

A shower of small stones cascaded down the side of rock, right next to the path. Jiro immediately came to a stop; his eyes darted left, then up, searching. Pebbles didn't fall down the side of a mountain for no reason; it had to be caused by something moving.

"Jiro!" A quick turn of his head revealed that Kluke was standing at the pass entrance, waiting for him. "Are you okay?"

He turned his head toward the side of the path again. Everything was still. "Yeah. It's nothing. Just my mind playing tricks on me, probably." He sprinted a few feet, worried about being left behind, but slowed as soon as Kluke was at his side. The two of them followed the others down the darkening path.

Outside, seen by no one, a single, larger stone tumbled down the rocky mountainside.

Chapter 17 done! :D Four notes concerning names in this chapter: 1. Whether you go by the English or Japanese version, Bouquet calls Jiro, "Jiro-sensei" in both. 2. Nirvana is, as most readers probably know, the capital of White Brigade in Tenkai no Shichi Ryuu, the second season of the Blue Dragon anime. 3. The Flame Serpent comes from A.S.H. (Archaic Sealed Heat), Mistwalker's first title for the DS, which (very unfortunately) has yet to be released outside of Japan. It was also the first DS game to be released on a 2 gigabit DS card. 4. Albarose is the capital of Rosenkreuz in Tenkai. It is also Matilda's birthplace; though her whole name is unknown, she is known fully as "Matilda of Albarose". Anyway, enough about the names – I have another, more important note.

We're entering a very open part of the story, that "episodic" part that I mentioned in the prologue's notes; Beyond became much bigger than I expected, so it took longer to get to this point (however, it's not really "episodic" now that I have notes, both in my head and on my computer, of the story's general framework). Now that we're here, though, ideas are even more welcome than they were before; it's a big continent Shu and the others are traversing, so there's plenty of time for stuff to happen. ;) So, if you have any idea of things you'd like to see, just submit it in your review. I'll say now that I can't promise everything will be included; the most likely reason for this is that it didn't fit into the general framework of the story I have planned. However, if I like the idea enough, I may consider making a little side story (if it spirals out enough, it may develop into a full-blown story). Still, if you don't have anything in particular in mind, no worries; I should have enough stuff to fill in any gaps of time. :)

So, if you can, please review and let me know what you think! The poll will be put back up after this chapter is uploaded, so feel free to vote at any time for which story you'd like to see updated next! :) As usual, I'll try to update after 10 hits, but considering how long it's been taking me lately, it may be awhile. *sweatdrops* Still, it may come faster than I think; there's going to be a lot of excitement next chapter, so I'm eager to get to it. ;D See you soon! :D