Well, looky here! Look who decided to update for once. It was about time for me to end my usual 3 month hiatus. Haha! I really enjoy updating for this story, especially now that we're almost at the half-way marker! Just 2 chapters until we hit the big 10. Once I reach that, I know there is no way this story will not reach its finale, even with me enduring college life. So as always, I'd like to thank those that have stuck around!

Kudos Corner: Many thanks to the readers and especially the reviewers—Quistal, Zefie Kirasagi, OkonoMiyagi, AnriMia24, Moonlight M3lody, Loleus, and Link Fangirl01—for your time in reading the last chapter. Seeing your reactions to the work I put into this story really pushes me to do my best! Also, I want to thank those that personally messaged me over my time of inactivity. You guys know who you are, and I don't want to forget to repeat that I very much appreciate those kind author check-ups. Really, they always bring smiles to my face and remind me that my stories, like this one, still have an audience. :)

Chapter 7 Challenge Victors: Congrats to Quistal, Moonlight M3lody, and Loleus for participating and getting the answer correct!

Time to grab some snacks and sit back, you guys. Even though this chapter has been in the works for quite some time, just like some of the other chapters, I hope you'll find some entertainment value in it!

Disclaimer: Never in my life will I ever own Tales of Symphonia and its characters. Nor will anyone else but Namco... Unless they give away the rights to some other company, but I highly doubt that.

Ch. 8: This World of Make-Believe

Trudging back to the cottage house whilst being in the middle of a storm turned out to be less of a hassle than I pictured it to be. Sure, we—Presea, Alicia, and I—were sharing the same tiny umbrella, but it was an entertaining return trip with all of us squished together. Made the experience not as awkward as a trio. Martel knows what embarrassing things I would get myself into if I was alone with Presea and in these conditions, so having Alicia breaking the ice with her infectious enthusiasm was an indeed a plus in my book. Her singing in the rain, it brought smiles to Presea and me. Even the worst of weathers can't tame the rambunctious youth that was Alicia Combatir. No matter what, you can always find a smile and a spring in that petite pink-haired's step. That free-spirit that I'd always see in Colette thrived in her too as well as that go-getter attitude of Lloyd. It was no wonder why I was comfortable talking to the youngest Combatir; it was as if she was someone I had known all my life—or rather, two people.

By the time we reach their home, despite having the umbrella for protection, we find ourselves smothered with dirt from the knee down. We clean up accordingly, taking shifts for the shower room. As the youngest, we allowed—more like forced actually—Alicia to freshen up first, while Presea and I attended to dinner. Once Alicia finally joined us, she took care of setting the table and Presea left to clean herself up. That meant I was the unlucky soul who had to go last and deal with the cold water, the hot water being used by both girls. But I toughed through it, conditioned through the many days and nights during the Journey when we had to shower in the most unconventional ways. When I popped out, cleansed and hungry, I returned to a dreary sight. Alicia and Presea were sitting by themselves in the dining room, their gazes off to the front door, as if waiting to see their father waltz in and gather them into a hug. The sight causes my heart to drop and a frown cuts the edges of my lips. When they realize my arrival, however, their faces brighten and they invite me politely to dinner... Nights like this really must be hard for them both, even if they don't want to admit it.

I settle myself down in my usual spot, in-between the two sisters and across from the single empty seat that used to be Sieg's. Not sensing Sieg's presence, regardless of his analyzing and cold eyes, it just wasn't the same... We ate in morbid silence that night, listening to the downpour loop outside. Occasionally, I'd notice the two girls glance out the window or turn to the front door upon hearing a knock resound through the house. Unfortunately, it'd just be the wooden frame of the cottage shaking from the turbulence. Two days in a row without their father... I prayed to Martel that night there wouldn't be a third. And I prayed that Sieg was okay, because tucking them in at night, especially Alicia, leaves me heartbroken.

"There, is that okay? You need anything, a cup of water or something?" I say to Alicia, as I pulled the bed covers over her.

Shaking her head, Alicia replies, "No, I don't want water." She snuggles deeper into her blankets, pondering on a thought. She, recumbent, suddenly launches upright in bed, ruining the nicely organized covers I had just set. Internally, I groaned knowing that my work was for naught. "Oh, but I do want something else! A bedtime story!" Her face beams a blinding grin, causing my once irritated self to fade. For someone about to go to bed, this seemed to be a second wind of life.

"A bedtime story?" I repeat curiously, a brow of mine raising.

"Mmhmm!" Alicia jubilantly bounces in her seat and bobs her head up and down. "You know, like fairy tales and fantasies."

"Fairy tales and fantasies, huh?" Being honest here, I may be a genius who has read every book lying on the bookshelf in my own house and in the schoolhouse of Iselia. So you can count on me knowing stories. I knew the ancient mythos of the Giant Kharlan Tree, the history of the Desians, the origins of the angels, and so much more... Just not kids' stories. If there's one thing I didn't expertise in during my childhood, it was childhood itself. I had lived a rather sheltered life given the fact that Raine and I were still incognito about our true race. So I stayed indoors often—probably why I'm so pale—and read whatever books she had on-hand, which were of course history books. Something tells me, though, that Alicia wouldn't appreciate the hard-facts of reality as a bedtime story. Nevertheless, I give it a shot anyway, wanting the easy way out for once, "Hmm, I don't know any kid stories... How about some Tethe'allan history instead?"

Her face scrunches up in disinterest at my offer, and her body slouches back down into her sheets. Going back to bed, Alicia says with disappointment, "Oh nevermind, Genis." A pseudo-yawn ascends from her throat. "I'm actually getting pretty sleepy again anyway, so don't worry about it... Good night."

"Oh, okay..." I recoil back from Alicia's side of the bed, feeling hurt for having let down such a sweet girl. Unable to do anything more, I simply follow up with a "good night" of my own, and glance over to the other side of the bed to make sure Presea was fine too. Receiving her signature beam, I send back a good-night smile also before slinking myself into my own bed sheets and drifting asleep.

~ 21 Days 14 Hours 12 Minutes 21 Seconds ~

Sizzling oil echoes into my ears, the sound perking them up to attention. My nose catches whiff of the smell of frying meat. And my grumbling stomach solidifies my deduction. A breakfast, and a fresh one at that, was being served. I roll out of bed, excited to start a new day. Having folded the sheets of my bed and dressing up, I scurry around the corner into the kitchen. I rub my eyes momentarily, the dreariness not quite gone... Could this be true? But once I reopened my blinking eyes, my doubt is erased. There he was bent over the stove, flipping eggs in a pan. Sieg was back to business, fixing up breakfast for us as usual. Not that I don't mind the feast of course, I'm just in shock over the fact that Sieg returned so early. "Sieg?" I say, stepping to his side. "When did you get home? I didn't hear you come in last night."

As he cooked, Sieg rubbed the temples of his forehead with one hand. It was then that I saw first-hand how miserable Sieg looked. He looked abnormally exhausted, dark bags hung from his eyes and the scruff on his face even more unruly than usual. His once acute dissecting glare has softened from being tired, the bitterness sucked out of his pupils and replaced with a dull glaze. He must have gone through a really long and arduous journey trying to get back home. "I tried to come home as early as I could, but the rain wouldn't stop until a few hours before daybreak. I took the chance and weathered through the light rain, and made it back just as dawn edged over the horizon and the rain stopped," he tells me, as he holds back a yawn. Plating a couple of eggs, bacon, and toast onto a platter, Sieg hands the serving to me. "Figured, since I was already awake, I might as well make breakfast like I always do."

I force a grateful smile and accept the meal with a nod. For him to continue his daily routine, despite the set back of the weather and his own exhaustion, Sieg was one determined father. That kind of steadfast determination is why I was starting to highly respect and admire him for. But those sacrifices of his, it's hard for me to just stand by watching someone give up so much. If only there was something else, something more than just lumberjack apprenticeship to prove to him my thanks... Appreciative of his dedication, I say, "Thanks, Sieg." Taking the plate, I swoop around the kitchen counter and sit at one of the barstools, so I could converse with Sieg directly as I ate. In-between bites, I ask, "So what are we going to be doing today. Heading out into the forest and cutting down more trees, cutting logs here, or building something?"

"Actually, you're off-duty today. Not gonna need you around," Sieg bluntly says while flipping bacon strips.

"Huh?" I utter, my fork clanging down onto my plate and my mouth hanging ajar. Wait... did he just say I'm not working today? "I'm not working? How come?"

"Thought it was obvious. I just got home this morning and I've come down with a slight cold and a headache. I have important plans, yes, but it's something I can go out and do on my own. Besides, don't you appreciate having leave from work for once?" Sieg counters bitterly. Although harsh and upfront with his words, he did make an honest point. We both needed a break—no point in arguing about that.

"Oh... I get it," I quietly say in response, sounding as respectful as I can. For the rest of the time I'm sitting at the barstool, Sieg cooks his own breakfast in silence and I eat mine just the same. We don't exchange any formalities after that, even after I finish my meal and go clean my dishes. It's not until I'm done stacking my glass wares back into the cabinets do I receive acknowledgment from Sieg that causes me to stop what I'm doing.

In the middle of plating his own breakfast, Sieg informs me, "Presea and Alicia are off school today. They're outside if you wish to keep them company."

Hesitantly, I silently nod in a neutral manner, not entirely sure how to react to him telling me that. Then, I take the cloth I had been using to wipe the dishes with and hang it over the sink faucet. Just as I'm about to jog outside, intending to join the Combatir sisters, I'm again halted by the intimidating low, gravely voice of Sieg.

"Hey, boy!" Sieg calls out, his tone leaning toward more of a command, however. I flinch, fearful of what Sieg could possibly scold me for. All of the things I did and all the things that transpired underneath this roof while he was gone comes instantly to mind. And I gulp, holding my breath. I wait for the worst, but for some odd reason... I don't receive the wrath of Sieg. Instead, Sieg's vicious demeanor has diminished, a soft flare of acceptance lingering in his throat as he speaks, "Thanks... Thanks for taking care of my girls in my stead... Presea—she told me everything you did for them, did for her. I don't say this often to people, but I appreciate what you did for my family... I thought you deserved to know that." Hearing that simple gesture from him, I felt respected. The new trust we had formed was finally strengthening, and no longer was I feeling the same animosity from Sieg when I first arrived. The realization was satisfying, expelling a sigh of relief that I was hanging onto.

Shifting sideways to half-face Sieg, I flash a humble smile. "Thank you, Sieg."

"Now, what are you waiting for? Go head out—they're waiting for you out there!" Sieg orders, shooing me off with a spatula covered in egg batter. The sight cracks a smile on my face: Sieg in the kitchen, dawning an apron at the waist and waving a spatula around. It's hard not to reserve your emotions at a sight like that, but apparently, Sieg doesn't appreciate my amusement. He threatens dauntingly with a raised spatula, "Don't make me change my mind!"

I stifle a chuckle from ascending out of my mouth and wave good-bye to the oldest Combatir. As I do so, for a brief second, I swear I catch a glimpse of Sieg's renown scowl transform into an almost half-grin. I smile wider in thought... Maybe, just maybe I was growing onto that stubborn old man known as Siegfried Combatir. "Later, Sieg," I say rushing outdoors before Sieg can tell me otherwise. The kiss of sunlight pouring down from the heavens was a pleasant surprise to my skin, as I stepped to the edge of the patio. After two nights of consecutive rainfall, the sight of the sun hovering over my head brought an air of frivolity in me. I soon found myself simply soaking in the light rays with open arms, breathing in the decadence of a bright sun-soaked day. "What a beautiful morning..." I say to no one in particular, and a beam incited by the absence of the gloomy clouds shapes my lips.

A presence I had not sensed earlier interrupts my appreciation over the change in mother-nature by agreeing, "It does, doesn't it?" My gaze flutters to my side, and I almost flinch in fright, the sight of the person throwing me off-guard. There, sitting calmly on the porch railings and swinging her legs without a care in the world, was the youngest of the Combatir sisters. I don't know how long she had been sitting there, staring above and into the clear blue skies along with me, but a little courtesy "hello" as a warning would've been great nonetheless.

Upon regaining my composure, I ask, "Alicia, how long have you been here?"

"I don't know," Alicia shrugs while bobbing her head side-to-side, "maybe ten, twenty minutes? Been sitting here ever since I finished eating breakfast."

"You have nothing else to do? No plans with friends or anything?"

She replies by shaking her head. "Nope." Huh? A young girl with nothing to do during a school break? That's a darn shame... I frown. There has to be something for her to spend her time. Not many chances to have free-time without having to think about the woes of school, so you have to live it up.

"What about things you and your family like to do? Anything fun you and your dad do, or you and your sister?" I suggest considerately, but then the realization hits me. Her sister. Where was Presea? I reel my attention back away from Alicia, pulling my vision to other parts of the house. I look over to the usual stoop on the front porch where I'd see Presea the most. She normally sat there when she carved in order to prevent the wood shavings from making the house dirty. However, my eyes fail to spot her. I turn to peer into the house, checking to see if I missed her while I got ready for the morning; but again, no sign of her anywhere. Even her clunky gray boots by the doorway were gone... Just where did Presea go, and why unannounced? I'm tempted to check my shoes to see if I missed a note addressed to me, but I choose not to when I feel nothing poking my feet. Instead, my attention falls on Alicia again, my mind bustling with questions. "Speaking of your sister, where is Presea?"

Once more Alicia shrugs. "I don't know. Probably out to her favorite secret spot in the forest. She goes there from time-to-time, and she never brings me with her." Alicia expels a disgruntled huff and crosses her arms, hurt from the abandonment. "I mean, can you believe her? I'm her younger sister, but she chooses to not play with me and goes into her own little place in the forest. Hmph. Talk about being selfish." At first I feel empathetic toward Alicia, the feeling of being abandoned still burns deeply in my heart. The thought of my own mother materializes from my sea of memories—the only memory I have of her in fact, and ironically enough, the first memory of my mother: It was our encounter with Virginia on the floating metropolis of the half-elves, Exire... The slanderous words of Raine ring violently in my head, pounding my thoughts as I tried to remember the face of the woman who had left me for dead... "She's unbelievably selfish! She tosses us aside on a whim… and then forgets us… And just goes off into her own little world of dreams!" Those words... Those were Raine's exact words about our mother, and, at the time, I didn't blame my sister for bearing those thoughts. I just... couldn't. But could Alicia, who spoke just the same, truly mean what she said about Presea, her own sister? Thinking of the possible similarities, the coincidences, causes me to feel uneasy and conflicted, and I fear the reason behind Presea's actions. A part of me wants to find Presea and confront her about it, but then again, I wouldn't be able to find her, let alone find my way out of the forest all by myself.

"... She'll be back, right?"

"Yeah, she usually gets back later in the afternoon... Still, I get bored easily without her. I have nothing to do until she gets back," Alicia confesses in a depressed tone. Seeing Alicia so uncharacteristically somber causes me to feel sad for her, but at the same time, hearing the news that Presea will be back brings relief. Alicia was just over-exaggerating like little kids do; I shouldn't have read too much into her words.

"That's a long time just waiting. You sure you don't want to do something else until Presea returns?" I reiterate, concerned for Alicia.

"Well..." Alicia sings, as her mind drifts off to Martel knows what. Her lips curled in thought and her eyes darted around as she pondered while humming. A few moments later though, an idea finally reaches her and she enthusiastically says, "You can play make-believe with me!" A crescent smile from ear-to-ear adorns her face, one that emits undeniable cuteness. And I have to fight myself to not give in then and there to her whimsical smile... Play make-believe? I can't do that, I remind myself. It's one thing playing with a children; I'm fine with that, because it seemed like simple babysitting to me. But playing make-believe with them? Now that's where I drew the line. There was no way that I'd agree to such a childish thing. I outgrew those antics long time ago. Heck, even when Lloyd and Colette wanted to have fun back in Iselia, I would sit out and read most of the time because they were too out-there for me. It was since then that I had set my own maturity levels, and I didn't plan on breaking it now.

Not wanting to hurt her feelings further, I politely decline Alicia, "Sorry, Alicia, but I'm too old for that kind of stuff. And I told you before, fantasy isn't my thing."

"Too old?" Alicia sends me a mystified look of disbelief. She promptly vaults off her perch on the porch railing and steps closer to me until she is directly underneath me, peering up at me. The disregard of my personal space leaves me feeling uncomfortable, and I have to restrain myself from disrespectfully stepping away from Alicia. Her lips then purse-up when she speaks her thought aloud, "How old are you again?"

I tentatively answer, unsure of the point of her question, "Uh, fourteen..."

"Fourteen?" Alicia says baffled, her blue orbs widening. "You're still a kid! How can you not like playing make-believe?"

"I-I'm not a kid, a-and I just don't, okay," I retort defensively, shyly retreating away from Alicia's examining glare. She too was definitely her father's daughter—that judging look was unforgivingly daunting! I don't cower into silence from the stare, however, retaliating back with my own inquiry, "Why are you so vehement on playing make-believe anyway? It's not even real."

Alicia looks at me, a mixture of frustration, pity, and worry settling in her eyes. "Real? Is that why you don't want to play, because it isn't real?" Abruptly, she giggles at me. "That's the whole point, Genis! The joy of the endless possibilities of what the mind can dream up, the instance where everything and anything comes true, and the thrill of the journey of fulfilling your deepest dreams... Like when the knight in shining silver armor goes out to rescue the princess who has been captured in the darkest depths of some fortress, bringing her safely back home! Oh, how I love those kind of fantasies!" Alicia's attention drifts off, a dreamy grin plastering her face. For a young girl so adamant on a world of make-believe, I had to give her credit for her imagination. However, that smile of hers eventually does melt away into a teasing smirk. "... You can fulfill that fantasy, you know?"

"Fulfill what?" I say, taken-back by her change in tone. If hanging around Lloyd and Colette during recess taught me anything in Iselia, it was that that conniving look on Alicia's face and that sly manner of speech told me that she was up to something. I tried to brace myself for whatever it was.

"You know," she hops up and down while waving her arms sporadically, "be the knight in shining silver armor who brings the princess back home!" Despite my best precaution measures, I almost choked upon realizing it… She meant me and Presea.

"T-that's a stupid fantasy," I stammer, as I attempted holding back the blushes from bombarding my cheeks. Thankfully, I am able to do so, but that doesn't stop Alicia from pursuing further. In fact, the rejection seems to only entice her even more, like it was some sort of challenge in her eyes.

"Oh, c'mon! You can be a hero! Please, oh please play make-believe with me!" Alicia pleads with clasped hands. Her judging glare has faded by now, an angelic gleam in her eyes instead. I have to look away or else I'd succumb to her charms. But then she throws me in for a loop, adding pursed lips to her puppy-dog stare. "Don't tell me you don't care about my sister? Aren't you worried about her?" That... that manages to break me, and I fall deep for the vulnerable, adorable look that Alicia showcases so well. A perfectly executed pout from her and I'm a complete sucker.

"Fine, but only because I'm concerned about Presea," I relent through a groan.

"Yayyyyy!" Alicia cheers exuberantly as she pops right off the patio. She speeds off, without a second to waste, skipping toward the edges of the Gaoracchia Forest. Amidst her celebration, Alicia calls back to me with hands cupped around her mouth, "Let's go, Sir Genis! A knight in shining silver hair mustn't leave the fair maiden in the forest waiting!"

A blush taints my cheeks, and regret immediately sets in as I raise a hand to my forehead... Martel, what have I gotten myself into?

~ 21 Days 01 Hours 40 Minutes 08 Seconds ~

Wilderness finds its way in enticing me back into its clutches, its vines and branches swaying their arms to venture in. The Gaoracchia Forest, despite the vicious tempest of the past few nights, has endured its eerie, hypnotic gloom. I find myself strolling along its dirt pathways that I've become slowly acquainted during my trips scavenging for lumber with Sieg. Though, this time around, the gargantuan lumberjack is no longer with me to provide protection and comfort, and nope, no Francesca either. This time, all I have to guide me is a dusty old map, given to me by the big man himself. It puzzled me on how lenient Sieg was acting today, not scolding me on being close with Presea and freely letting me borrow a map to find her. I don't know how much of that was in due part of our newfound trust with one another, but something about the way he acted as we departed hinted at an underlying motive in shooing me and Alicia away. I remember distinctively the look on his face then, the turmoil brewing in his eyes and the distraught carved in his brows...

"Just take the map and stick to the pathways. I've raised Presea well enough to know that she wouldn't stray far from the safety of the trails I've shown her, so you should find her easy. You be sure to stick to them, too," Sieg, monotone, had told me.

"Aren't you concerned about Presea? Why don't you come with us?" I had asked with raised eyebrows, appalled at his change from the overly-protective father to the don't care dad.

And it was the very words he said next, while bearing a broken voice, that resounded deafeningly in my mind: "There's certain things that a person has to do on their own, just like my own duties that I have to get done today..."

Certain things that a person has to do on their own? Just what did Sieg mean by that? And how did it connect with Presea? My brows cross further in thought, my eyes sharpening at the map in my hands as if doing so will help me locate Presea faster.

But even the map is out of my control. Pink enshrouds my vision, and I feel the map fly out of my grasp. An energetic ball of joy named Alicia Combatir now held the map in her petite hands, her eyes erratically scanning the trails. Lifting her head, "Sir Genis, hasten your step! Princess Presea awaits!" Alicia urges from the front of the pack several paces ahead of me. A juvenile grin is plastered on her face as she waves the map carelessly in the wind. I cringe at the sight, fearing that frail map doesn't have much left in it to stay in one piece. To our luck, it doesn't rip and Alicia quickly pockets the parchment before treading forward without me. "Onward 'o slow knight!"

A sigh escapes my lips as I closely watch the pink blur go racing off into the distance, cautious to not lose sight of her. Even though Alicia was nothing like her father, the protective one, or her sister, the caring soul, I somehow found a sense of peace with the youngest Combatir. Maybe it was the sense of familiarity that I shared with her, knowing that she reminds me of my two best friends, Lloyd and Colette? I'm almost sure of it, because traversing through this forest with Alicia rekindles so many old memories from within my subconscious. The days spent climbing the hill and going through the Iselian Forest to get to Lloyd's house is sparked in my mind—how Colette and I would follow Lloyd and Noishe home to play, thinking of that causes a smile to break my stoic demeanor. However, a harsh reminder of the past is presented before me. Alicia has opened up a pouch of cookies, bringing one closer to the edges of her salivating lips. The cookies, they bring up memories of Colette's birthday, one of the most bittersweet moments of my life. It was on that day that I decided to follow Lloyd back to his home like I used to, but things were different that day. That day, I detoured to the Desian Ranch, and it was there that I gave the extra cookies from Colette's present to the warm-hearted old lady I had befriended... Marble.

"Marble?" Alicia says skeptically. It's here that I realize I had spoken my thought aloud, and that leaves me speechless. In my time pondering over the past, Alicia has slowed down significantly for me to catch up. I blink profusely, trying to gain my bearings, as Alicia decides on not taking a bite of her cookie, reeling it back instead and turning to me. "It's not a marble cookie, Genis, but it is a snicker-doodle. You want some?" Kindly, she offers me one, waving the round disc to me.

Respectfully, I find my voice to decline. "No," I shake my head, "thank you, but no thanks... I think I've had my fill of sweets back when I was your age." Inwardly, I scoff—there would be no way for Alicia to understand the truth behind my last sentence. That sweets weren't a sugary treat; to me, they were bitter reminder of the past.

As expected, Alicia doesn't pursue the meaning further and simply shrugs. Biting into her crispy treat, she says, "Suit yourself!"

The sight of her so bubbly, having a spring in her step, it caused me to smile again. Although I've had only a couple of personal exchanges with Alicia, I never fail to find a piece of Lloyd or Colette in her. Something about the brilliance of human charisma in them, it's the first thing that gave me hope that not all humans were bad. The same was true for Alicia here, with every step she took, giggle she made, or even the occasional quirky comment about me. If it wasn't for Alicia, I wouldn't have truly felt at home here, in this time. My contemplative grin fades, however, upon noticing what Alicia is doing.

"Alicia! W-what do you think you're doing?!" I frenetically warn, hustling my way to where she was. In the middle of the clearing Sieg and I normally go to, Alicia was crouched over, crumbling her excess cookies up for the critters of the forest. They were monguirrels, minute hybrid beasts of squirrels and mongeese that have beady eyes, tiny fangs, elongated frames, and a bushy tail. With a courageous palm out, she was hand feeding each and every one of them. Worried that she might get attacked by them, especially a rabid one, I hastily rushed to her side, grabbed onto her shoulders, and pulled her back onto her feet. "Alicia, those are wild monsters! What makes you think feeding them is a bright idea?!"

Her cobalt eyes instantly appear hurt from being scolded, but instead of seeing the innocent gleam that I saw from Presea yesterday, I see the complete opposite: a rebellious glint burns in her eyes. And her stance becomes hardened, causing me to be overcome with intimidation. This feeling... "So what? They are still living beings too. Why can't I give them a cookie or two just like you? Just because you didn't want it doesn't mean they can't have it either," Alicia defensively retorts and crosses her arms. This feeling... It was the same feeling of justice I always get from Lloyd. Recognizing the parallel leaves me dumbfounded, and my hands release Alicia. Immediately, Alicia bends back down to the ground, feeding the furry creatures that have begun to squabble at our feet. "There, there, little guy. I didn't mean to ignore you. Mean Sir Genis is to be blamed." As if understanding her words, a slinky monguirrel, the youngest of the pack, hisses in my direction; and I back-step, hands-up in submission. Just like I predicted, her Colette-side shows, though not to my benefit.

Sorrowful, I cough and rub the back of my head. "... Sorry," I say, but Alicia doesn't regard my weak apology. Her focus is at the high-pitched squeaking friends she is making, their tiny tongues licking at her fingers. She giggles as more and more come to gently nimble at her fingers. "You like caring for cute animals, don't you?"

"Well, these cute animals deserve it!" A laugh ascends out of her endless smiles. She pats the heads of the ones still lingering around her. "They are my sidekicks after-all!"

"Your sidekicks?"

Breaking up more crumbles, Alicia nods. "Mhm! I am the Summoner in this party and these creatures are my pact-mates. You know, like in the Tale of Spiritua—" Her attention rises to me, but her smile disappears when she makes eye-contact with my eyes. "Oh, that's right... You don't believe in fairy tales." The ambiance around us turns cold, and we're left in silence. Not even the monguirrels let out a single cry.

Constantly I have been questioning Alicia and her right to believe in a world of fantasy, where I am a knight in shining silver hair, she the vigilante summoner of all things adorable, and Presea the damsel in distress... But who was I, someone who had slept through time, to deny her the right to believing in fairy tales? I was a complete hypocrite. I slept through time to fulfill this dream of Presea's, to make her happy—yet, how is any of that even possible? Could Fate really be doing me a favor? ... Or could it be that my own pathetic mind has created this world of make-believe to allow me to delude myself into living a secret dream of mine? … Just like my mother. Could I—am I? … Am I just like Virginia? Broken so far that I've begun falling into insanity? … No! I shake my head. This world of make-believe, it does exist. I know it, I can feel it. This hourglass hanging at my neck proves my point, I think as I desperately grasp onto the instrument, seeing the ones and zeros spinning around my head. I let go and I return to the present, where Alicia is still playing with the animals... And even if I am dreaming, that this world is nothing but a fantasy, a fairy tale... This world to me is just like how Alicia perceives playing make-believe: real.

Gradually, as to not frighten Alicia's sidekicks to go scurrying away, I kneel down on my right foot and extend one of my arms to Alicia. She incredulously stares at me, wondering what my intentions are, but I let my actions speak for me. With sincerity glistening my eyes, I hold out an open hand.

"You... you want to feed them, too?" Alicia gently asks.

I supportively nod. "Can I?" She replies by crushing bits of her remaining cookie into my open palm, which I accept by clutching it safely in my grasp. When I lower my closed fist over to the runt monguirrel, the same one that was malicious to me before, it hisses at me yet again. But once I open my hand, revealing the glorious sweet treat, the runt softens instantly and slinks its long body closer to my fingers. It sniffs my hand to see if the meal is safe before diving head first and chowing down energetically. The runt monguirrel was actually rather cute nibbling on the cookie crumbs, and I smiled at its content squeaks at me. Rising, I send a glance to Alicia, and we both send a satisfied grin at one another. Finally, I had made peace.

However, as to contradict that, another hiss erupts from one of the tiny fur-balls at our feet. The call appears to have come from the largest monguirrel out of the entire pack, the rodent being triple the size of a normal monguirrel. He had to be the alpha male, and boy was he irritated about not being included in the food fest, flashing his sharp fangs amidst the hisses. Believing that some food would calm him, I bend down to the ground again and hold out my hand. "Alright, Mr. Alpha, there's no need for animosity. There's still some cookies left. Here—" Alicia hands me the final cookie, and I try to split the disc, but the head monguirrel, impatient, beats me to it. Snatching onto the cookie with its vicious jaws, it wiggles the food right out of my hand. "Hey!" I cry disapprovingly. But the critter ignores me, promptly dragging it and its fat tail away into the thicket of the Garaocchia Forest, bringing its monguirrel pack with him. "Talk about being greedy," I snide, half-expecting Alicia to make a witty comment; however, I hear none. "Alicia?"

Right behind the monguirrel pack, Alicia is taking chase, falling on their heels in an attempt to stay with them. "C'mon, Sir Genis! The monguirrels are taking us to where Presea is! Hurry or else you'll fall behind!" And just like that, she disappears into the trees.

Leaving no time to dawdle, I bolt from my kneeling position and break out into a full-sprint after the commotion. I close my eyes occasionally, letting my acute elven hearing pin-point their direction, but the forest environment, its overgrown vegetation, has slowed my pursuit. Every time I catch onto Alicia's voice or the scratching of a monguirrel, I aim for that direction, only to be halted by a tree, a thorn bush, or a huge rock formation. Panic sets in as Alicia and the creatures fade from my vision and my hearing... I'm losing them.

So I start running harder, faster, adding strained screams in my pursuit. "Alicia! Wait up! Alicia!" I don't know how long I kept running and pushing desperately through thicket barriers, but I do know how it felt, having every cry end in silence, my calls unanswered. Helpless, I take pause, bending forward with my hands resting on my knees and my eyes fallen to the forest floor... The floor—my eyes widen—it's not dirt. It's grass. Sieg's advice rings loud in my head: "I've raised Presea well enough to know that she wouldn't stray far from the safety of the trails I've shown her, so you should find her easy. You be sure to stick to them, too." … Shit, I've traveled far off the beaten path. I shuffle through my pockets frenetically. But I stop, as it hits me. Alicia took my map from me... Lost and without a map, I nervously laugh aloud to myself. Of course this would happen to me.

Reasoning how pointless it would be to continue running aimlessly. I sit down to rest on a patch of grass, making sure to not make noises that would attract monsters this way. If anything, I'd be even glad to see another random monguirrel. No such creature greets me, however, and I'm stuck alone. I sigh... At least Alicia has the map. She can use it to get back home. Hopefully she'll be smart enough to do so. I cross my fingers that she won't come find me, afraid that will only get her into even more trouble. I pray to Martel that maybe she and her monguirrel sidekicks might even find Presea. Maybe with her they can save me? I erase the smug expression from my face at the same time I kill the thought. That would just be pathetic. Alicia had said that Presea was the princess in needing of saving, and I was the knight who would save her; if Presea saves me, the knight, then what kind of fairy tale would that be? I scoff, wallowing in my self-pity... Genis, if you're lucky enough, you'd lay down and die.

And so, I attempted to do just that. I simply laid there, staring at the leafy canopy above me. I wasn't even graced with the sight of the sun, and the thought dropped my spirits further. I must have laid there for a few minutes, just listening to the sounds of the Gaoracchia Forest at work, accented by the hourglass' countdown timer ticking away second after second. Tick. A bird rustles in the canopy. Tick. A lone feather descends from above where the bird took flight, the dark blur soaring deeper into the vices of the forest. Tick. The fleeing bird's feather airily floats into my open grasp, and I, twisting it around and around by the stem, notice the feather to be a scarlet-blood red. Tick. I peer down to the hourglass ticking away at my neck, putting the sand glass and feather together. Click. Could that bird have been the same one that took my hourglass on the first day?

"Hmm?" I mumble in thought. What were the chances of that being the same red bird I saw before, and here far into the forest? In fact, why would there be a docile creature like that in the Gaoracchia Forest of all places. If anything, only monsters dwell in these parts. How would a bird like that be able to survive with all the monsters having the advantage to most of the food resources? The crease in-between my brows deepens as I slowly rise from my resting spot. Looking off into the distance where the bird disappeared to, my sapphire eyes close shut, allowing my sense of hearing to amplify ten-fold... I drop the crimson feather in my hand, as my ears pick up a repetitive trickling further north from my position. "I should have known," I lastly criticize myself before setting off yet again.

I'm back to swerving in and out of bushes and tree stumps, strafing past huge rock formations and ravines, wary not to trip over a root or vine. Honed in on my new destination, I can't stop proceeding forward with a hastened step. The sound of my target resonates more and more the closer I get, heightening my motivation. If that bird can survive in this forest, then there's one area I know for sure that it can... I shove a layer of overhanging foliage out of my way, and step into the blinding light. Blinking madly and shielding my eyes with an arm, I let my sights readjust to assess the new area before me. A smile cracks onto my lips, as my thoughts were proved right. "... Water," I say.

There before me was a pristine river. Its waters were calm, completely clear and barely emitting much noise, which is the reason why I didn't realize its presence until earlier. For the first time in hours, I saw the sun glistening off the water's surface, radiating life onto the bushels of berries, stalks of reeds, and lily flowers floating lazily down the river. The grass in this place was a much more verdant shade of green, not like the dried up blades that covered the forest floor. This isolated place was teaming with life compared to all of the Gaoracchia Forest. A piece of pure life, in the middle of a desolate wasteland. A place so mesmerizing, I took a step closer to the river bank and froze. Being hypnotized by the sight of the luscious river, I had failed to notice the person sitting at the edge of the waters.

"Presea?" I, dumbfounded, utter without thinking and proceed a step closer to the pink-haired girl by the river bank. Her back turned to me, she seemed to have been staring just as mesmerized into the river as I was. "... Presea?" I call out once more, unsure if she heard me the first time. I receive no answer, and outstretch a hesitant hand out to her. Intending to tap her softly on her shoulder to gain her attention, I lean forward ever so slightly. But instead of me greeting her, a hand to the collar of my black t-shirt welcomes me with a hello yank. I am too slow to retaliate and I'm left sky-rocketing forward into the crystal waters ahead. "AHHH!" I manage to squeal just before breaking the surface of the water. The water, although warm and inviting, wasn't something I wanted to swim in at the time, so I resurfaced moments later and seize the bank-side, all the while flailing and coughing.

"G-Genis?! Is that you?" I hear the worried voice of Presea say.

Clearing my throat, I weakly reply, "I-in the flesh... or should I say, in the water?" My hair is dripping down into my vision, but I can still make out the vibrant pink and purple that was Presea. She has scuttled over to where I was wading in the water and hunched over me.

She fakes a laugh to my joke, and I can sense she already regrets what she did. "Here, let me help you up," Presea tells me and offers a hand.

I grab it without arguing and I am hulled up out of the river with little to no energy expended. Other than the fact that my clothes and I are completely soaked, I didn't get hurt surprisingly. Squeezing as much water as out of my clothes as I can, I ask in good-nature, "Where'd you learn to do that, anyway?"

"Sorry about that... It was my father who taught me," Presea answers simply.

I chuckle. "Well, that figures," I say, believing it to only be fitting for the daughter of a lumberjack to know how to defend herself. "I'd be worried if you didn't know how to protect yourself like that, especially being way out here."

"Since you mentioned it," Presea coyly back-steps away, "why are you here, Genis?"

"W-w-well," I stutter, causing me to stop wringing out my clothes. She has cornered me well and it takes me a momentary pause before I can gather myself. "W-well, I—" I shake my head and correct myself, "Alicia wanted to know where you went. Said that she was lonely. You know how younger siblings can be."

Although the edges of Presea's lips curl, she keeps her smile furtive, feigning innocence in its place. "I know," she says and wanders off, taking her seat at the river bank. Glancing up at me she pats a patch of grass, quietly gesturing for me to take the spot next to her. Following her wishes, I walk over and take a seat. She doesn't speak to me after I do so, only stares out into the flowing stream. The exact look that I witnessed earlier has fallen onto her face. That look so contemplative, her cobalt eyes appeared blank... Just like the Presea I knew in the present.

I have to turn my attention to the river in order to break my trance. "Okay, so I answered your question. Now it's time for you to answer mine... Why are you here all alone?" I glance over to check if Presea acknowledges my question, but the grave expression on her face leaves me uncertain until she speaks.

"This place, this river... It gives me peace of mind that I can't find back at home. I love daddy and Alicia both ever so dearly, but there's something out here, with this river, that I can find inner peace. The calming sound of the rushing water"—she closes her eyes—"the feel of the healthy grass beneath me"—her hands grasp the earth below—"and the isolation from reality..." Then a smile breaks her stoic face. "It's this kind of paradise, my own little world, that I can come to, to take refuge from everything. No matter what happens out there, in here, in my world, nothing can touch me and I feel... happy," Presea admits, a glint of contentment shown in her eyes.

From her sincerity, I can tell that she's happy, but it's that kind of talk that scares me. The bridge between dreams and reality, that barrier that divided the two was being torn down. And when one is unable to distinguish between them, a person gets lost in it... That's what caused me to be concerned for Presea. The words she spoke, they reminded me strongly of the state my moth—Virginia was in, lost in a world of fantasy and dreams... I didn't want to see Presea have to achieve happiness this way, and I definitely did not want to lose Presea like that.

Before I could attempt to speak, Presea cuts me off, leading the conversation in a lower tone, "I come here alone because... it's special to me." Her eyes drift away from the river, down into her lap. She twiddles her fingers anxiously while biting her bottom lip. "And I know it sounds selfish, but," her voice has gotten weaker, the tone utterly melancholic, "mommy and I... this was our special place. I... I can't share that with Alicia." Her fingers cease to twiddle now. The croaks in her throat wound me at each word, as she struggles to get through her confession. "... Today's the anniversary of my mother's death."

Words Sieg had told me run through my head, "There's certain things that a person has to do on their own..." I bite my tongue, working it with my teeth. I feel suffocated by the truth to Sieg's words and what Presea was telling me... How could I have possibly believed that she was so selfish and would delude herself in a make-believe world? It was now that I truly understood the connection between fantasies and reality... Presea wasn't deluding herself, nor was Virginia. The stream before me was no ordinary stream, it was a link to Presea's mother. And the doll that Virginia kept, I knew that too to be a link to Raine and I as well. The river and the doll, those weren't pathetic ways of coping with loss... They were spiritual ways of keeping the ones you love.

By now I could sense that the river wasn't the only thing flowing... Heavy tears, that Presea wouldn't let me see, fell from her crystal-blue eyes. Finally empathetic to her cause, I wanted so earnestly to repent, to have her forgive me somehow. Even though she wasn't the Presea I knew, she was still Presea, and I wanted her to know the truth about me. To break the mold of me, the one I perceived. The one where I was invincible, where I could protect her and keep her smiling. My world of make-believe. Now is where I woke up and faced the truth... "I'm sorry," I mournfully whisper, "I'm sorry I don't understand how that feels. I..." I clench my fists. "I can't pretend and say that it'll be better, or that the pain will end. And finally... I know I'm no hero. I can't promise you that I can make you happy..." I raise my head, my spirits, and my courage to confess to Presea, "But what I do promise is what I've said countless times: I'll be there for you."

Here she giggles, choking on what I can imagine are the knots in her throat and the tears stinging her face. From the corner of my eyes, I see her wipe her face, and the curl in her lips lets me know she has collected herself, she's okay. "Daddy was right... You are a strange one." She tenderly smiles at me. Then from the back pouch of her belt, she conjures a familiar face. "Here, I finally finished it while I was out here. Thought you might like it."

I take the object into my hands, and smile. It was completely done. The trinket who bore my resemblance was dawned in full gear. My signature elven swirls were now found on my shorts and jacket; the distinct black undershirt also was now clearly cut at the elbows. The stance of miniature Genis was further defined as well, tall and straight with the shoulders thrown back confidently. I stood next to a new severed stump—one foot on the stump, the other off. Francesca was by my side, propped up as if she was my scepter and I was the king. What didn't change, however, was the look on the figure me's face. Still valiant. Still protective. Still proud... So, Presea did see me this way? Because if that was true, I didn't feel like it, didn't think I was that guy she carved. My attention moves, descending with my ego, to the sole of the trinket, and widen just as fast as I had became crestfallen. There wrapped around the pedestal was my famous, belabored quote. "No matter how bad it gets, I'll be there for you," I read in a low whisper, and my smile returns twice as bright.

"I knew you'd get a kick out of the personal quote," Presea says, her voice gaining back strength as her tear stained face regains its color. "It really fits you."

I laugh. "You think?" We sit in silence for a moment, and it is during that time that I find myself lured back to the trinket that was me, staring scrutinizingly at its face, my face. Valiant, protective, and proud, huh? I grimaced inwardly a little, still feeling as if this version of me didn't do the real me justice. I know this wasn't the true me because I know that deep down I'm just a weak and insecure coward. And there was no way that I was deserving to be held this highly, even in carved form. I spin the trinket Genis once more around in my hands, fully examining it before making a sure decision. Begrudgingly, I hold out the trinket to Presea. "You keep it."

Presea, looking as if it her art piece wasn't good enough, wonders, "Huh, I'm sorry? … You don't like it?" The shimmer of disappointment casts over her angelic face, and it strikes a pang of guilt through me. But I know what I must do.

"It's perfect," I sincerely begin, choosing my next words carefully with a well placed pause, "maybe even better than myself. That's why you should hold onto it, so you can always hold me to that standard." My attention hones in onto her eyes, enticing her to make eye-contact with me. Thankfully, she does, staring back with an initial unconvinced eye. A quiver crosses her lips to test me, but I don't flinch.

Tentative, she finally caves and takes it through a frown. "Okay, I'll take you up on that offer..." Presea pockets the trinket and her disappointment, only to immediately manifest a grave proposition instead. "But if you break it, you owe me."

"Oh yeah? And what would that be?" I jokingly rally in defense.

"Hmm..." Presea hums while in thought, swaying a bit in her seat. A sly grin soon beams from her lips not too long after. "Well, I do love Katz-Katz, and I've been hearing that Altamira is getting a new Katz-Katz drama theater for their parks. Soooo," she effectively sing-song stretches her word in such a cutesy manner, then friendly pokes me in the arm. "You take me there to see it!"

"Just a Katz-Katz show? Then it's a date," I say and, without giving it much thought, bump into her shoulder.

"A date... Y-yeah," Presea uncharacteristically replies. She tries to playfully bump back but we soon find ourselves sitting side-by-side and her arm resting on mine, her body leaning into mine. Her soft laughter vibrates against me, "You're still wet, Genis." But regardless of my wet clothes, she chooses to stay. Right next to me. The touch though insignificant to an outsider was worth millions of pounds of gald for me. It was perfect, though corny. But I didn't care. So this is how it feels to have your own fairy tale ending... until it's shattered by reality.

A macabre, almost inhumane cry pierces through the sky, shaking us out of our world of paradise. It isn't a second later that a flock of birds ascends from the canopy above, fleeing from the noise. We flinch at the commotion, and we instantly react on our instincts. Both Presea and I break away from one another, popping up from our seats to stand at attention and listen closely to the echo of the scream. Deafeningly repeating in our heads was a scream of anguish, pain, and fear. As the call for help fades into a silent mumble, our eyes connect and I can see the reflection of my own stress and anxiety escalate in Presea's cobalt orbs. There was no reason for Presea and I to exchange any words on the matter. There was no need, because we both knew that voice by heart... It was Alicia.

Author's Note

What a ride this time around, huh? This chapter was a drastic shift from the previous chapter filled with fluff and cuteness. Sure there were some moments here and there, but I wanted to return to a more serious focus for a majority of this chapter. Sorry if that wasn't your cup of tea, but hey, how else am I going to progress the story?

Fun Facts of the Chapter:
* Fantasy vs Reality: A huge premise of where I wanted to go with this chapter was the basis that Genis was struggling with trying to understand what is truly "sane." This explains why I played around with the concept of his mother, Virginia, whom Genis could not accept for the way she acted post-abandonment. Hence, the reason why Genis never acknowledges Virginia as his "mom," because he is ridden with shame. Alicia's view on make-believe as well as Presea's river of paradise were the other concepts I planned to create this trifecta of insight into a person's sanity.
* Monguirrel, what? Monguirrels, as it is stated by Genis, is a crazy hybrid of a mongoose and squirrel that I made up. It was inspired by one of my awesome reviewers, Quistal! Thank you to Quistal for the creativity. The scene where the Alpha Monguirrel rudely snatches away Genis' cookie was actually inspired from true events that happened to me. Although, it was with angry birds—no joke!—and my pizza. I was so young then... and so was the pizza. Man, what cruel creatures are out there. Haha.
* Best of Both Worlds: Another biggie that I wanted to put emphasis on in this chapter was Alicia's character. I wanted to explore her innocence deeper and show further how Lloyd-like and Colette-like she is and to varying degrees. Like it is depicted, Alicia isn't exactly like the two childhood friends, but she is a piece of both fused together.
* "Don't Care" Dad: In regards to Sieg's actions, I feel like it's clearly justified why he chooses not to search for his daughter. However, I want to elaborate. It's not that he does not care; it's simply that he understands that Presea must come to terms with the loss of her mother on her own. Just like how he trains Genis by making him tough it out alone, Sieg believes that Presea's time by the river strengthens her in ways that he could not.
* Cry Me a River: You know that final cry at the end? Well, I think that was the most dramatic cliffhanger I've made so far in THE. I debated on making that the opening line of Chapter 9, but ending such a serious chapter on a fluffy note with Genis and Presea sitting together wasn't the tone I wanted to end with. So I left the cliffhanger in and I'm proud of it. And I hope it has left you wanting more. Haha.

A note about fan-art giveaway, I must say that the free fan-art giveaway I mentioned before is going to close. I will still do my best to commit to finishing the ones that I have said I will do, but I'm afraid that is all. Sorry! I gotta prioritize heavily nowadays.

On a different note, hope this chapter will hold you all down until December. Final exams are coming up in a couple weeks, so I won't have time to write anything. I only got lucky and finished this because of Thanksgiving Break. Also hope that nobody got ran over if you shopped during Black Friday! I ended up getting Assassin's Creed III for like half-price, so that game and Halo 4 are really eating into my free-time... and my wallet. Haha.

And that leaves me to depart with the Chapter Challenge! Chapter 8 Challenge: What is it that spurs Genis to run towards the river after being separated from Alicia? Drop the answer and the preview for the next chapter is yours!

Until Winter Break, take it easy, everyone~ :)