Filling In The Blanks

Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy IX or any of its characters.

Chapter 76: Two Times

As far as early evening went… the streets were still considerably busy. People still chattered at vendors instead of hurrying to lock their doors, and there were even still a few children outside, playing with next door neighbors, never venturing too far.

"We've got plenty of time!" Both of them agreed, emerald and sapphire eyes locked onto a pair of long, thin legs sporting strappy stage heels, wearing a fluffy skirt shorter than her shoes.

"Do you think Baku will notice?" The blonde questioned, his eyes never quite making it to his partner's face.

"All they're doing right now are pick pocketing from the guards down the street… I think they could do without us," the redhead argued with a slight nod of his head as though that would help make it more acceptable.

"I think he'd understand," the taller one added, even though he had asked the question in the first place. "We can say that we were trying to improve our stealth skills!"

"I know you need help with that, Zidane," Blank grinned, turning towards his friend for the first time. "That's just about as reasonable as it gets."

"If anyone's going to be mad, it's going to be Ruby," Zidane teased back, poking the thief in the chest, "Don't let your girlfriend chew you out too much."

His face turned crimson – whether from frustration or embarrassment, the blonde didn't know – and he twisted uncomfortably on the spot. "She's not my girlfriend, that's gross. You know I don't like her anyways!"

His best friend let out a hearty laugh, "Whatever, Blank! I know deep down, you do like her somewhere, even if it's only a friend like."

"It is!" he insisted, his face turning all the redder.

The taller thief turned with a triumphant grin, "I knew you did."

"That's not fair!" Blank whined, stomping his foot. Zidane shook his head and ushered him forward without another word.

"We have a lady to follow!"

The two young boys darted between hiding spots, always watchful of the beautiful girl. Little did they know that she was circling – unaware of a presence behind her. She took a few rights, stopping at the vendors still open for some quick shopping before dark.

Zidane and Blank followed her religiously, never stopping to check out their surroundings, or bothering to realize that they were looping back around to meet their team, only about two blocks away from them.

It wasn't until they were close and heated yells of panic and frustration were heard. The girl slowed as she made her way to an alarmed team – one older man with five younger pupils searching around him – two boys, two dog-like creatures, and one girl, all yelling the same two names.

"Blank! Zidane!"

"Where are you?!"

"This ain't funny anymore, boys!"

The two stopped like deer in headlights, realizing that the rest of their team missed them more than they originally thought, more time having passed than they cared to admit.. Zidane was hanging off of a wooden sign by his tail, and Blank's limbs were wrapped around a light post, and both of them looked incredibly guilty to be there.

Before they could react, making it appear as if they'd just wandered a little too far (hell, even the guards were half-heartedly searching), Cinna's keen (and slightly perverted) eye, caught glimpse of the girl, and flanking sneakily behind her were his two teammates.

"Shit…" Blank mumbled.

Zidane made to chastise him for his horrible language at such a young age, but his jaw was dropped as he watched Cinna, as if in slow motion, open his mouth and suck in a breath to yell at them. As soon as his loud voice boomed through the air, the entire area, both team and onlookers, were staring at them.

The girl included.

She blinked her surprised, but as soon as Cinna started shouting about following a girl, her face grew rosy and she ducked her head, tucking her long multi-colored hair behind her ear, before darting away in the most composed fashion possible.

"You little shit heads!" Baku boomed, racing like an angry bull towards them. The boys didn't even have enough time to react before their boss was peeling them from their faulty hiding spots and shaking them in the air. "Do you little bitches have any idea what the fuck you put me through?! I am going to choke all of the god damn air out of your puny little lungs –"

Most of his rant was drowned out from the world shaking violently all around them.. Zidane's head bobbled back and forth, and he felt more like a rag doll than an actual person, his head lulling side to side as the older man yelled at them.

Guards started coming over, indicating they were really beginning to cause a scene. Marcus, that little traitor, was by Baku's side in a second, yanking at him, telling him they had to go. Everyone knew that if Baku wasn't around – Marcus would be in charge… And everyone was a little resentful towards him for that.

Blank glared at the eldest pupil, ready to make a snide remark about how much of a 'teacher's pet' he was, before Baku threw him back on the ground, eyes flashing in rage.

"You two will get your punishment tomorrow! Move!" He ordered roughly, "Now!"

The two scampered away towards the rest of the group, Blank never hesitating to shoot Cinna and Marcus a resentful glare. Baku tried to smooth things over the best he could with the guard – a job the rest of the team would take on when they were older… His gruff voice and use of cuss adjectives weren't a particularly good mix when speaking to Kuja's soldiers.

Eventually the guard got too irritated and waved him off, mumbling something about rudeness and disrespect. One look from Baku send the whole group spiraling back towards the inn, too afraid of the darkness, and more afraid of their leader, to stick around any further.

"Well?! What do ya got to say for yerselves?!" Ruby's hands were on her hips, torso leaned forward and blonde hair hanging limply over her shoulders, a scowl resting on her face.

Blank pushed passed her, obviously still bitter against everyone else for ratting them out. "Shut up, Ruby."

"Don't tell me to shut up ya dang –"

"Enough!" Baku bellowed, slamming the door to the room where they'd all piled into. "You two think you're hot shit running off because of a girl?! Do you realize there's danger out there?!" He demanded, "Danger that we're supposed to be protecting civilians from?!"

Zidane settled himself down by the window, trying to keep his eyes on Baku, but failing to look interested in what the man said. Truth be told, he was terrified of the night, even in Treno where complete darkness was never quite achievable. The things that lurked out there made his job of helping defenseless people extremely unappealing, and as he heard a rustling and a long screech somewhere a few streets down, his eyes jerked away from the gloom looming outside, separated from them by only a panel of glass. He didn't want to see anything unnatural on the outside, disrupting the peace.

"We're supposed to stick together as a fucking team!" Baku pointed at the two of them roughly, "And last I checked, following a pretty girl wasn't a god damn part of the job description! All of the stupid training you damn brats went through to get this far didn't include wandering recklessly away from the fucking group! I didn't put up with you shits for years for you to be picked off easily in the brightest city in all of fucking Gaia! Blank! I'm tired of your whiny bitchiness towards everything because it's fucking taller than you, and Zidane! I'm done with your constant need to lighten the dim fucking mood with mischief and recklessness that's going to end up getting someone killed!"

The whole lot of them flinched back. Marcus, who never really felt sorry for anyone because in his thirteen-year-old mind, he was superior to everything, side-glanced at them, a crack to his confidence that maybe getting Baku all riled up when he realized they were missing was a bad thing to do.

Their boss never put anything in such blatant terms before, and hearing the bluntness of the situation was a lot more than just a sting. The two of them sat, blinking at him, rigid and awaiting something more.

"You two are doing extra patrols tomorrow! You're going to do a damn good job, and I'm not going to hear one bit of whining from you!" He barked, narrowing his eyes. "You're also getting dinner duty –"

"Anything but that!" Zidane whined, shoulders slumping forward.

"Shut up!" Baku cried, "Dinner duty for three weeks instead of just two, and laundry for a week too… Everyone's laundry!"

"Baku –" Blank started, but was forcefully silenced with a glare that was more affective than a slap in the face.

"Now you little bitches shut the fuck up and go to sleep!"

He marched to the door of the adjoining room and threw it open, storming inside before slamming it again. This probably meant that everyone would be sharing a room tonight, instead of the usual split to make more space.

Ruby pounced on a bed before anyone could stop her, rolling around on it to make it all the more unappealing. Everyone turned their nose up at it, and tried finding a more respectable place to spend the night.

Zidane was too chicken to stay by the window, so he gathered what little dignity he had left and curled up on the floor off of the foot of Ruby's bed, stealing most of her extra blankets to billow around him.

Marcus tried to act brave and took the cushioned bench by the window (even though he would later slink into the bed with Cinna, too terrified of the noises outside to continue his tough act when everyone was passed out).

Cinna plopped on top of the other bed, being the closest to it, before kicking off his shoes. The smell emulated so powerfully, that everyone volunteered to sleep anywhere but on the same mattress as him, and Blank found himself curled up on the large armchair next to the door. He grudgingly accepted the last of Ruby's extra blankets and one of the throw pillows from the window-bench before nestling into a relaxed position.

There was a lot of uncomfortable moving about before things quieted down. Ruby shifted and finally got up, changing from her rough skirts into stage shorts, piling her long hair on top of her head in a bun, while Zidane moved from the foot of her bed, to the middle of the floor, to the wall before moving back again, deciding that his first spot was indeed the most comfortable.

Cinna was the first asleep, snoring and grunting and occasionally saying names – some familiar, and some unknown. He even let out a few small farts that nobody would let him live down for the next couple of days. Marcus was the only still one, too paralyzed by the sounds he was already hearing outside to move, let alone sleep, but eventually everyone found a place and lulled into a sleep as peaceful as it could get.

There was a looming darkness in their future – everyone could feel it – even Baku, as he stayed awake for the next few hours in bed, debating if he'd been too hard on the kids who just wanted a few minutes to be kids in such a war-stained world.

But nobody expected it to be the very next night…

"They don't start sending out the creatures for another half hour!" Blank was whining already, and they'd only been on patrol for fifteen minutes.

Zidane's shoulders ached in the agonizingly sweltering sun. It was humid out, and he scrunched his nose against the rays shining harshly into his eyes.

The 'creatures' that the redhead had mentioned were used to scare. They weren't really strong enough to kill someone with any sort of fighting experience, but they weren't even supposed to be for that anyways. They were released simply to frighten people back into their homes – giving Kuja a stronger grip on Treno – something that was growing each day.

Patrols like this were designed to take out these creatures. While nobody wanted to be out in the dark anyways (not even Kuja's guards went out at night), especially with the strange things that lurked about, wreaking havoc that no one would ever see, it was the relaxing fact that someone was out there taking down these things so civilians could rest easier at night.

"Well, let's play a game them!" the blonde suggested, his tone a forced sort of happy. Blank would always be his best friend, but the kid sure knew how to gripe.

"What kind of game?" his curiosity was peaked, and already his tone sounded a little brighter.

"Hmmm…" The genome collapsed on his butt, making a loud thud on the gutter of the building they currently resided on. "Let's play Frisbee?"

"Frisbee?" the redhead parroted with a much more skeptical undertone in his voice. "That's lame! We don't even have a Frisbee!"

Leaping from the building, the blonde swiped up a circular disk off of the ground. "This'll do, right?"

A toothy grin overtook Blank's face, emerald eyes sparkling in the fading sun. "Let's do it!"

Back and forth, back and forth. They leapt up on buildings recklessly, rolled over cobblestone without a care in the world. The two were distracted as time ticked by. Laughter echoed in the streets – maybe doing more for the people who could hear it than a simple patrol ever could… But eventually, these things always had to come to an end.

Blank tossed a particularly long pass, and while in the midst of running for it, the blonde's azure eyes caught glimpse of a creature standing in the middle of the street. It seemed to be scouting, causing no harm (yet), but not quite noticing the two Tantalus members thus far.

The Frisbee hit it square in the face.

With an enraged howl, it tore forward, getting down on all fours to gallop. These types of creatures did nothing to scare them, as they were trained to take them down in a single hit. With his blue-steel dagger glinting in the light, Zidane slid under the quick-moving beast, slicing it up the belly.

It roared again, before falling on its side, legs still racing, as it slowly dissipated into the air.

"Another one!" Blank shouted, catching up to him quickly. They grinned at each other as more and more creatures appeared the further along the street they went, ducking around fountains and weaving around light posts. They made a sort of sport out of it to help pass the time.

Cerulean eyes glanced over to the redhead beaming at his kill after what seemed like an hour at this game.

"Who knew this job could potentially mean action?" Blank looked up and smirked at him.

Zidane grinned back.

"It's weird..." He decided, before letting out a light chuckle. "Who knew that Baku could pick something fun for us?"

"I thought this was supposed to be punishment!" The shorter thief spluttered, rolling his eyes and rocking back on his heels.

"Apparently, he favors us much more than Marcus and Cinna!" the blonde joked, an impish expression overtaking his face. Both of them knew that wasn't true, but they also knew Baku tried hard not to play favorites.

They watched Blank's blade-work on the creature slowly dissolve first, becoming almost ash on the wind as it began whisking away the entire creature, until nothing was left but a few particles floating away.

Zidane finally caught glimpse of the fading sun, realizing they needed to make a swift retreat back into the inn. Their job was to kill these patrol-creatures and get home safely, with enough time to eat with the gang. They were having beef – fresh beef that you could only buy in Treno certain times of the year – and potatoes with Cinna's specialty - peanut butter pie… something nobody wanted to miss. If they missed their curfew, nobody would come looking for them – or bother saving them a piece.

"Blank..." The blonde started, his eyes narrowing.

"Yeah, Man?" The redhead spoke, sheathing his dagger in its place before turning to face him.

"How long do we have until it gets dark?" He questioned, eyes darting, never staying on one spot for more than a few seconds. He turned slowly in a circle, and Blank scoffed next to him in confusion.

"I don't know... Maybe a half an hour," he shrugged nonchalant and turned to see just what his best friend was talking about, "Why? What's going on?"

With a shaky hand, the young teenager pointed at a threat far greater than the one they just faced. "This shouldn't be punishment if it's way out of our league..." The tone was scared and much different than it had been a few moments ago - or any time the redhead had ever heard his partner speak.

In the shadows of the alley, silver glimmering eyes glared right at them, locked onto their bodies as though they'd already be the next prey. The genome visibly shivered.

"Zidane... They won't come at us in the light. We need to hurry..." His friend murmured taking a step backwards.

Said thief glanced around, realizing their surroundings weren't as familiar to him as their regular patrol lines. He'd been here once with Baku just two days ago when their boss demanded someone come with him for a few errands. They drew straws and Zidane lost. "It's probably close to a forty-five minute sprint from here. We've gone too far off of our mark…"

He bit his lip, making an unconscious decision. "Blank I want you to go..." He muttered, out of the enemy's ear shot. The figure in the shadows was still gawking at them.

"What?" Blank gasped, stumbling to turn and stare at the blonde. His eyes bulged a little, and his breath hitched slightly just imagining why Zidane was saying such a thing. "Are you crazy? He or she or it or something will kill you!"

He shook his head rapidly, heart dropping into his stomach. "It'll kill both of us if you don't go... See if you can get help. I'll lead him in a different direction."

"You're crazy..." Blank whispered, horrified at such an idea. They were supposed to go home and eat some pie, and harass Cinna about his baking skills, and get angry at Marcus for being a know it all, but finally having Baku off their back. They'd done their time – now they had to go home and laugh and goof off again. "You can't... Zidane, we need you back at -"

"You're wasting time!" He growled, trying to make Blank move a little faster. Harshness wasn't going to make him leave, but it was his job to protect, and that's what he was going to do – especially for someone as important as his best friend.

Besides, Blank was faster – he would be able to get back faster… Zidane was better at maneuvering and thinking of creative solutions… He'd be okay…


"Please..." Tears pricked his eyes, but he refused to let himself cry. Twelve year old thieves didn't cry, and he wasn't about to show Blank that he was scared. Nobody would ever have to know… They'd come and get him, and he'd shrug it off like it was no big deal. "Go..."

"I'll bring someone back... I promise..." Blank mumbled, his mind still numb from the decision he just made to leave his best friend behind. He took off at a sprint, tripping over both of his feet. He caught himself on the pads of his fingertips, before shooting off again, panic bubbling in his gut, threatening to turn into hysteria.

Zidane took off in the other direction, eerily watching the sun set around him. The world seemed to slow down, if only for a moment, as he tried to remember his most cherished memories. Everyone in Tantalus, meeting each person, getting to know them, training, going on missions, sleeping in the hideout, waking up under the stars, the touch of the sun, the sound of laughter, getting his first dagger so long ago on the ship – every good feeling he'd ever had, he tried to pull to the surface now.

But as the first shots of darkness pooled on the cobblestone beneath him, he knew he was in trouble. After what now seemed like the quickest sprint of his life, he was attacked. The creature and he skidded across the ground, and he registered for just a moment the pain of road rash, and the stabbing cold of the stone below him, before the world around him blotched, and eventually blackness took him over.

It was all Blank could do to keep it together. With ragged breaths he burst into the inn, ignoring the yelps of civilians, and the gripes of the militia stationed inside about him not closing the door.

He flew down the halls, his feet barely touching the ground, before he almost knocked the door off its hinges in an attempt to get inside the room.

Everyone was just settling down to a nice game of cards, dishes forgotten on the long table they'd set up, when all eyes landed on Blank.

"He – you – and the thing – and I –" He couldn't seem to form words, his mind in disarray and breath fighting to overtake the spot of his words.

"What are you talking about?" Cinna asked, sporting an offended glare. "I can't believe you missed the peanut butter pie –"

"Zidane!" The redhead yelled.

"What?" Baku asked, standing up. "What happened? Where is he?"

Frustration was threatening to take hold, and Blank truly felt like he wanted to flip the table, scattering the dishes, before heaving it at all of them. "The thing is after him!"

No more words were needed for Baku to understand. He didn't need a description, and he didn't need to know why they didn't make it back before dark. He was out of the room in such a rush, he almost knocked the youngest of the group over. Zenero and Benero were tripping over each other in a hurry to follow, swooping up everyone's' discarded weapons as they went. Cinna was yelling words that Blank's ears – muffled like he'd just been through an explosion – couldn't pick up as he stumbled after them.

He pointed in the direction he'd come from, still panting from the long sprint. He'd cut a forty-five minute drive down to thirty, racing through the streets feeling like he was on a slow-going airship.

Into the night they scurried, all fears of creatures unknown vanished, replaced with the gnawing, definite feeling that they'd lost a friend tonight, and would probably never see him again…

Blank awoke with a start, clutching his dagger still strapped to his side. His eyes were blurry as he shot up, unsure if his dream was a dream, or if it had happened all over again. His barely visible eyes swept across the room, spotting Zidane snoozing, sprawled uncomfortably across a chair, just across the floor.

A puff of relief burst from him, as he rubbed his face. Sweat beaded across his skin almost everywhere, and he realized in the midst of making plans the night before, he must have fallen asleep on the far-too-comfortable feather beds. He was the only one still in full armor, the others at peace, no longer afraid of what they heard around them, and hardly phased by the nightmarish past Blank had just been reminded of.

He ran a hand through his damp hair, yanking the band away and letting his short, crimson locks droop in front of his eyes. He blinked them, trying to get accustomed to the darkness of the room, as he kicked off his shoes and shucked his gloves, dagger, and any other uncomfortable, lumpy accessory onto the floor.

"Are ya alright?" Ruby's light whisper rang out sharply in the room, causing him to jump.

"I'm fine," he lied, even though he was still shaking.

She sat up, and he turned to stare into her large, almond eyes. "Do ya wanna talk 'bout it?"

"Nah… Go back to sleep…" He laid back down, but his eyes refused to close – refused to remember what happened after the next eight hours of searching. Cinna had been the first to suggest they rest… Always in his eyes he saw that as the first to give up. He spent the rest of the day out there, one by one his teammates retreating to rest, even if it was for just a few minutes, until Baku dragged him inside, determined not to let those demon creatures snatch another one of his boys.

He went kicking and screaming the whole way, and couldn't sleep a wink the whole night. At first light, he was out again, the rest of the crew revived and ready to follow.

Trying to tear his mind away from the horrors of his dream, he fell into thinking about Zidane now. He seemed, for the most part, unaffected by that night. He no longer cowered at the dark or any sort of danger, and after a year and a half back with the people who cared about him most, he wasn't clumsy with his weapon anymore, or didn't stumble when he trained. As entirely fine as the genome seemed, Blank knew in his heart that he would never forget the daunting memory that was so long ago it almost felt - especially now that Zidane was back - like it never happened. But then being back in Treno, and dreaming about it heavily in the midst of a normal night, he knew he would always be reminded of it. No amount of time with his best friend now would make that first struggling year ever go away.

His thoughts about Zidane ultimately lead him, after much musing, to Dagger and the others, all the way on the other side of the continent. He recalled his first meeting with the girl, and her gentle voice as she slowly, over the next few months, coaxed him out of an unhealthy depression.

He hoped that she was okay, and hoped for the sake of his sanity that the moment they saw her again, Zidane would just tell her he was being dumb. He wanted nothing but happiness for two of his closest friends, and he realized then that they were all intertwined by some sort of bond, created because the blonde had gone missing in the first place.

As the sun bore down comfortably over her, the grass tickling her through her clothes, Dagger breathed in the scent of fresh flowers, waving in the wind. She opened her chocolate eyes, watching as Quina examined all of them, knowing that he was wondering which one would be the tastiest.

She'd been stuck with the qu for the day, since Freya and Fratley had a meeting with some Bermecians that had taken refuge in Cleyra after the first raid of their own city. They wanted to catch up with those who were familiar to them, and Dagger really didn't blame them… When she'd seen Hilda for the first time in over ten years, she wanted nothing more than to sit down and simply talk with her.

Beatrix had disappeared by herself, leaving Steiner to brood by himself. The young girl wasn't really feeling like dealing with his attitude today, and opted out of his groaning and complaining – at least for a few hours. She held Steiner very dear to her heart, but with the stress of the last few days, she just wanted some more peace and quiet.

Quina really wasn't all that bad of company. His speech was broken, and sometimes difficult to understand, but he held easy conversation with her when the opportunity presented itself. She was glad he didn't ask questions about her thoughts and opinions – for once, she wanted company that didn't concern themselves with what she was pondering.

Instead, she watched in amusement as he tried to pick a flower, tongue wagging back and forth, not quite as slick with saliva in the hot sun, despite drooling over the 'treats' in front of him. She closed her eyes again, a smile ghosting over her lips.

"Dagger look tired!" She jumped, eyes fluttering open only to scare her again seeing Quina just inches from her face.

His star shaped pupils flickered back and forth in apprehension as he waited for a reply.

"I'm just relaxed," she decided on with a light grin.

Before she could say anything more, he thrust his hand forward, a sloppy bouquet of slightly wilted flowers (complete with one bitten off, only leaving the stem) bunched in his fist. "These for Dagger, make her feel better about being away from Zidane!"

Her eyebrows shot up in adoration, and her eyes went large, sticking her lips out in a slight pout. "Oh Quina!" She gasped, accepting the flowers as though they were the greatest gift ever handed to her. "They're beautiful!"

"Quina try hard not to eat them!" He nodded, his tongue flying up and flopping against his apron with the quick movement. "Quina proud!"

"Good job," she praised, taking a look at the flowers. The girl wasn't sure they should be picking the blossoms from the Cleyrian gardens, but at that moment, she really didn't care.

"Quina hungry," he said suddenly. His tone was the same, but his stance was completely different – determined instead of relaxed. "Quina find yummies!" He wandered off then, leaving Dagger blinking in surprise.

She pressed her hair behind her ear, holding it there for a moment so it wouldn't fly back in front of her face, watching the retreating form of the qu waddle away. She would never quite understand that species, but they never failed to amuse her in some way or another.

Once again, the girl was left alone.

Deciding now, with a handful of flowers in her grasp, that she wasn't going to be able to shake what the qu said from her mind, she stood up and began an aimless walk through the tree-city.

Make her feel better about being away from Zidane…

A decision she'd made while drifting off to sleep a couple nights ago came to the forefront of her mind. She wanted, for sure, to go see Kalipso. But then she couldn't get Freya's harsh eyes out of her mind, or Fratley's strange expression away from her view, so she squashed the desire peppering her that maybe she'd like to go see the strange woman.

A crease developed in her forehead, and she figured maybe it was time to go hang out with Steiner again to distract her. She didn't want to talk with Kalipso if the others said she shouldn't – no matter the temptations at a glimpse of the future.

What could be the future.

As she worried about her unconscious decision, she stepped along the stone path at the base of the tree, not really knowing where she was headed. Her eyes were trained on the grass poking beneath the mineral below her, concentration focused on this one thought.

Dagger's head only snapped up when she finally bumped into someone. "Oh!" She stumbled back, eyes training in on the tall figure in front of her.

Robes of many different colors and designs flowed lightly in the wind, long, silver hair fluttering down to her thin, petite waist. Her icy-blue eyes were wide and accented with dark make up, jewels and flowers adorning her neck and wrists from bracelets and necklaces.

"I'm sorry," Dagger started, blinking at the Bermecian, not quite able to look away. "I was not watching where I was heading and –"

There are more problems in your young mind than you let on.

Her mouth snapped shut, and though her gaze never broke away from the Bermecian's face, she never saw the woman's lips move.

There are many questions I would like to answer for you…

Dagger unconsciously took an intimidated step back. Was this woman speaking to her… in her mind? The thought gave her flashbacks of Ipsen's Castle – the last time something spoke to her like that, millions of monsters came out of nowhere, and she ended up falling into a hole only to fight a big centipede beast.

Her eyes darted around before she could really help it.

Hush child… I will not hurt you… She extended a hand, an unreadable transient smile on her ruby lips. You wish to see your future… I can see it in your soul. Will you not give in to temptation?

It seemed like an eternity before she could quite come up with an answer. "No," she blurted, even though she wasn't sure that's what she wanted to say. "I have to get going. I apologize for running into you…" She ripped her eyes away, with it, tearing the eerie connection between the two of them. Though she could feel the woman's cerulean eyes following her up the path towards the inn, she ignored it the best she could.

Throwing open the door to her room, she saw Steiner inside, papers sprawled out around him. She wasn't quit ready to talk to anyone after that strange incident, but her racket entering the room caught his attention.

"Dagger," he let on a rare, genuine smile. "What has you in such a rush?"

"Nothing," she answered shakily, knowing instantly he knew it was a lie. She walked slowly over to the bed and sat down, "What are you doing?" She tried to shift the subject off of herself.

He turned back to the parchment scattered all around him, reading the small notes he'd made here and there over the years. "Just… distinguishing a supplies list and such… With so many new members who will join us in the forest…" he trailed, biting his lip in concentration as he scratched his head, suddenly falling back into his work like he was never interrupted at all.

She watched him for a moment, wondering if he would pester her anymore on the subject. Steiner was always so protective of her. The raven honestly had trouble believing that the last few months, he had given her any freedom at all. It had been dangerous, but up to this point, nothing but trivial things had really happened. Dagger knew, especially with the almost-capture in Lindblum, Kuja had more to worry about than kidnapping her for her summoning powers.

She took in a loose breath before leaning back, propping herself up with her elbows. As much as she tried – with any topic really – to get her mind off of the present, she really couldn't muse about anything for that long.

Her chocolate eyes stared out the window towards the path she'd just stumbled up as her legs kicked absentmindedly, but softly, at the side of the bed frame. The woman was no longer down the path, but Dagger couldn't shake the strange feeling from earlier. Goosebumps rose on her arms, flitting across her like something was crawling along her back.

The gloves on her hands squeaked as she unconsciously gripped the quilt beneath her – tighter than she had to, rumpling the once smooth cloth.

Steiner could sense the inner turmoil from across the room, but he pretended to be engrossed in his work to give the girl her peace and quiet. Steiner hadn't had to ask Beatrix what exactly had the girl down the last few days, but he knew the moment he saw Zidane again, if he wasn't groveling on his knees, begging her to take him back (where in a perfect world, she wouldn't), he was going to personally murder the thief.

As much as he was itching to turn around and make conversation with the girl, he clutched the paper in his hands harder, and tapped his impatient feet on the ground in a rough pattern to calm his restlessness. He knew for a fact that while he would always, always be her protector, she had grown apart of him in the last year – apart and… well up. She connected more with Beatrix, both of them being women, but not only that… She was connecting with the others her age. No longer did Dagger see herself as someone who had to take on so much responsibility and respect all by herself.

The ex-knight didn't know how long any of them had left in the world, but seeing Dagger act her own age with Tantalus, and even – grudgingly – Zidane, was a relief. If all of them were doomed in their final battle with Kuja, at least she spent the last years of her life happy.

That's all Steiner could ask for in the end.

"Freya and Fratley are meeting with some knights they thought would be interested in joining our cause."

The fact that he'd spoken at all surprised her. She perked up a little, pulled back from the insanity of her wild thoughts. "Oh? I thought they were just catching up."

"It started that way, but Fratley did say something of the sort of convincing them just before he left."

She nodded, "Do you think any will come?"

"Cleyra has a strangely tight grip on all of its troops… But hopefully, despite their seeming neutrality after being savagely attacked once, they are still supporting our cause. Even any supplies would be helpful."

"I think those not native to Cleyra might have a shot at coming," she offered hopefully. This part of the mission would have been such a waste – getting everyone riled up while they were here, everyone having different reasons – for them to leave again empty handed.

"Even recruiting one or two will make this trip worth it," he told her, as though reading her thoughts. He however, still refused to face her, feeling that it would make her uncomfortable, and hole up into herself again.

"Steiner!" An excited voice echoed down the hall – they could tell it was Beatrix's even though she was still a ways away, and the pitter patter of her footsteps told the knight she'd be there within a few seconds. "Fratley came to get me!" Her voice was bursting with enthusiasm, "We're needed at the meeting! They're going to try and tell us how many troops they can spare!" When she finally wheeled into the room, she saw the man clutching his parchment too heavily, and Dagger worriedly staring out the window, trying to act inconspicuous.

"You too Dagger…" She added after she thought about it for a moment, "They said that we should gather everyone we know where they are. Fratley even told me he's found Quina!"

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of forced conversation, charcoal eyes finally slid to the petite girl sitting helplessly on the bed. Her shoulders were slumped in thought and exhaustion, and her hair fell around her face like a veil. Making a quick decision he piped up gently. "Dagger isn't feeling the best…" He shrugged innocently, the words tumbling out of his mouth. "Probably some of the weird flower foods they gave us for breakfast this morning…" He stood and stretched, stealing a glance at the girl, staring at him with a half-relieved, half-horrified expression on her face. "You don't think they would be offended if she opted out to rest, would they?"

Beatrix puckered her lips in thought for a moment. While the raven did look a little pale (paler than normal anyways), and her stature wasn't as top notch – polite and confident – as it normally was, she believed the story fed to her.

If only just a little.

"I'm sure it would be alright if we explained the situation…" She gave a slow nod, "Let us go then, they are waiting on us!" The brunette ushered him out, but scurried back down the hall before she bothered to look if he was following.

"Dagger," he spoke softly, and she glanced up at him almost shyly. "You owe me one…"

She released the breath she didn't know she was holding and let on a shaky smile, "Thank you, Steiner."

"And an explanation when I get back," he pointed at her sternly, before turning and marching out the door.

Her smile didn't fade right away as she heard the two's banter down the hall until they disappeared out of the inn. She was left alone again with her thoughts, and she wondered for a brief moment if Steiner really had been wrong when he said she hadn't been feeling good.

Dagger fisted her hands, chewing on the inside of her lip in indecision. What to do? What to do? One glance out the window told her that the sun was setting behind the windy fortress of the city, and within a few minutes, it would be nightfall.

She let herself reel in the quiet of the night, listening to the rill outside the window trickle. The music from the very top branch of the giant tree floated down to her, the plucking of the harp making her sleepy.

Dagger brushed her hair behind her ear, eyelashes sweeping over her porcelain cheeks. Pushing up off of the bed, she paced to the window, clutching the wooden windowsill and curling her fingers around it, poking her head out the opening.

The wind blew all of her hair to the side, the shimmer of leaves whispering on the wind – many voices that couldn't quite come into focus. The music still played above all other noises, and she was lulled into a sort of daze in the quiet room. Briefly, she recalled the sun finally disappearing, and the stars blinking on one by one in the navy dusted sky.

A whole new symphony of animals began then, blending with the chorus of the harp. Dagger's thoughts stumbled worriedly onto her friends – her family. Maybe for the course of the past couple of months, she had been so hooked on the dangers Zidane faced, she didn't realize how many of the others were in danger too…

While Kuja held a firm grudge against the blonde dreamer, he wouldn't hesitate if he caught any one of the Tantalus members in his traps. What would she do if Beatrix or Steiner, or Blank or Vivi faced their death?

Her hand shot to her chest, clutching her shirt over her heart. This strange atmosphere around her cluttered her thoughts, and she fought claustrophobia as these thoughts reigned in her mind.

I know what you seek…

The voice suddenly rang out in her mind again, and whether she had just imagined it or not, didn't matter… She was racing out of the inn, stumbling up the wobbly stone path. She wasn't sure where she was going, but her feet were taking her there.

Past the lounging gazebos and many organic slumbering spots for the Bermecians and Cleyrians both residing in the city, she teetered across thin branches and rickety bridges, towards the top – following the sound of the harp. Nobody paid her any attention as she moved, almost silently through the night.

The curiosity was suddenly eating away at her, and her hair stood on end, as though an occurrence of disaster awaited on the horizon of their fate. She had to be consoled to a certain extent, or at least brace herself for what would eventually come. Hypothetical futures or not – they would help her relax this feeling.

She slowed without realizing it and for all of the cliché, dramatic changes that came with an epiphany, the scenery remained mostly unaffected. But there in front of her was Kalipso, standing proudly, with a bizarre sort of smile on her lips. She opened her arms wide, and finally, finally opened her mouth to speak.

"What brings you here to my dwelling tonight?" Dagger peered closer; for having such a goddess-like story about her, she looked dissonantly like Freya.

"I know you already know…" She mumbled, surprising herself with her own words. She felt breathless as her eyes hardly made contact with the Bermecian in front of her.

"Ahh," she hummed pleasantly, "Perhaps I do…" And suddenly, the eccentric mood that had fogged Dagger for the last half hour was lifted, and it seemed like an increasingly normal night.

The woman in front of her tilted her head, a friendly smile planted on her face. She gestured with a jerk of her head to the inside of the make-shift house.

"Come inside child… Let us look into your future…"

A/N: I ADORED writing the flash back about Tantalus – as horrible as that sounds… It's good to finally get out the full explanation circling Zidane's abduction. This chapter was an absolute beast! To those who are reading and really don't like super long chapters, I thoroughly apologize!

Anywho, I hope you enjoyed the rest of the chapter! :D