Chapter 12: Balamb

For a long time, Odin followed Quistis down Mount Gagazet, his horse's breath puffing over her shoulder in great, steamy clouds. She hoped that his continued presence meant that Seifer had decided to follow her. When the aeon finally retreated back into the ether, she dared a glance back but found herself alone, the huge flakes of falling snow already filling in her footsteps.

Guilt assailed her. She'd stranded him the same way Squall had stranded her on the temple steps in Kilika.

She hesitated.

If she went back now, he'd want to continue the pilgrimage. He would drag them both to Zanarkand where they would die before ever reaching Sin. Their lives tossed away for nothing. For a dream.

If she continued on to the Ronso village, she'd never see him again. He'd stay behind and freeze to death out of sheer pig-headedness. Or he'd eventually find his way back to civilization but want nothing to do with her, the image of Quistis Trepe in his mind forever associated with failure, disappointment, and abandonment. Either way, they had no future together. Not as friends. Definitely not as anything more.

Better alive than dead, she thought, a hand over her heart, and continued down the pass. Maybe someday he'd come to forgive her.

When she returned to the Ronso village, she went straight to Kiros and Ward's house but did not find either Raijin of Fujin there. Kiros told her that they had left some time ago but hadn't said where they intended to go. Perhaps they hadn't quit acting as Seifer's posse after all. She hadn't noticed them on her way back, but the weather had truly closed in now, socking the mountain in, and she could have passed them by mere meters without noticing.

"You should stay in the village until the storm passes," Kiros advised. "They may return soon."

"No. I think I'd rather return to the Calm Lands as soon as possible," she replied. It would take her weeks of travel to return home and suddenly she very dearly wanted to see Edea, Cid, Laguna, Ellone, and the shallow, blue-green waters of Kilika again. Besides, she didn't think Seifer would want to see her when he made it back.

Kiros bowed. "We would be honored to accompany you, Lady Summoner."

She smiled. "It is just Quistis now."

They set out immediately, hoping to drop out of the storm before it intensified any further.

It felt strange to pass back over ground that hours before she had seen for what she'd thought would be the very last time. Over the course of her journey, she ahd said so many goodbyes that the future, even Spira itself, now felt awkwardly open and vast. What would she do with the rest of her life?

She hadn't needed to think of such things in more than a decade.

Since she had left behind her bow, officially and symbolically giving up her position as a summoner, she no longer felt permitted to call upon her aeons. Odin, however, continued to appear whenever they encountered fiends along the trail. Kiros and Ward handled most without her assistance. The rest Odin dispatched with his blade.

"You don't have to help me anymore," she told him quietly in the aftermath of a battle, pyreflies still sparking around them.

"My service is not granted to summoners," he told her before vanishing. "It is earned by warriors."

She smiled to herself at the compliment.

They made good time. Snow turned to a light, spitting rain as they crossed the wooden bridge that spanned the steep chasm between Gagazet's foothills and the open expanse of the Calm Lands. Not long after that, the clouds above parted, revealing an almost full moon. Quistis unbuttoned her heavy fur coat and let the breeze stir her clothing. The night rose gooseflesh on her skin but felt balmy in comparison to the mountain frost.

Ward ranged far and wide to gather tinder in order to build a roaring fire when they stopped to make camp.

"Would the two of you like to go with me all the way to Kilika?" she asked once they'd eaten and settled in for the night. "I'm sure Laguna would be happy to see you."

Kiros smiled, the firelight making the expression even more fierce than usual. "Kiros and Ward look forward to seeing him again."

Glad to have their company, Quistis returned the Ronso's smile.

Across the fire, Ward made a noise and pointed up at the sky.

Following his gaze, Quistis squinted. The dazzling light from the fire made it difficult to see anything beyond their camp, but after a second she made out what had drawn the Ronso's keen eye. A blinking light, changing from red to white and back again, moved between the stars. It traveled slowly at first. Then faster, the light growing until it split into three.

"What is it?" Quistis asked.

"A ship," Kiros replied.

Al Bhed?

They watched as it drew closer, brighter, and more massive. Finally they could hear its engines, all machina whir and chemical roar. It flew right over them, close enough to the ground that all three of them ducked instinctively. Then it turned, banking on one massive wing, and circled back around before lowering onto the grass. Quistis's coat plastered against her legs in the buffeting gale from the engines as they wound down.

A door opened in the ship's massive, red dragon belly and a group of three people walked out.

"Quistis?" one of them said. "That you?"

Immediately, she recognized the tiny figure.

"Selphie?"

"Booyaka! It is you!" Selphie turned around, then cupped one hand around her mouth to yell back up into the ship: "Hey! It's her! Get out here!"

Quistis heard a click as Zell and Irvine disarmed their machina weapons. Then two more people came down the ramp out of the ship.

Rinoa ran into the grass, her duster flying out behind her. Not far behind, but walking at a comfortable pace, Squall descended as well. He crossed his arms, took in the campfire and the group around it, and asked, "Where's Seifer?"

Tears welled up in Quistis's eyes: both for Seifer whom she'd left behind and for Squall who hadn't given up on her after all. She hoped that he couldn't see them. It took some time to explain what had happened and to introduce him to Kiros and Ward, his father's long-lost friends. Rinoa put her hand over her heart and shook her head at the end.

"We were going to go all the way to Zanarkand, you know. To help fight Sin. Anything that we could do to maybe save you. I guess I'm glad we don't have to now. But…poor Seifer."

"I'm sure Raijin and Fujin went to get him. They're loyal to the extreme," Squall replied, his tone so even and reasonable that Quistis felt silly for doubting Seifer's dedicated posse even for a moment.

"Still, we could look," Rinoa said. She turned to Irvine. "You can fly low over Mount Gagazet. Right?"

"Sure. If the storm lets up."

Quistis felt a moment's misgiving: she doubted Seifer wanted rescued, and she felt uneasy climbing on board the Al Bhed ship. But she followed Squall up the ramp anyway. She could always explain away the rescue as Rinoa's idea, she figured.

The ship's shiny red hull changed to bare metal on the inside. It had the look of something half-finished, or recently salvaged, with catwalks rather than floors and exposed bundles of wire running through walls missing their paneling.

"Welcome aboard the Ragnarok. She still needs some work," Zell admitted as he opened a door up to the bridge. "She's only been off the ocean floor for two years. Took us half that long just to kill all the propogators nesting in the holds. But we think she goes all the way back to the machina war between Zanarkand and Bevelle. Pretty cool. Huh?"

Inexplicably, Selphie turned out to be their pilot. Quistis belted herself in tight and held onto the seat's armrests as they took off, expecting the ship to either launch directly up into the stratosphere or explode. It did neither, taking off gently and angling off into the dark. Although she sensed that the ship was moving very fast, Quistis couldn't feel the pull of inertia. She relaxed enough to take a long look at Squall who sat next to her, his jaw firm, his eyes staring forward.

"You came for me," she said quietly.

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "Yeah."

"Thanks."

His head inclined gently, an acknowledgement of their new relationship. Friends.

"It's snowing sideways up here," Selphie said. "Don't think we're going to be able to see much."

The ship rattled with turbulence. Expertly, Selphie guided them through it. But eventually the currents of hard, tumultuous air became too violent for the Ragnarok to handle. Metal strained and the belt bit into Quistis's thighs as they sailed over the mountain and back again.

"The storm will pass. We'll keep looking when it does," Irvine said.

In the morning, the sun a yellow disc snuggled between mountain crags, they found no sign of Seifer, Raijin, or Fujin. Even in the Ronso village, no one reported seeing them. Quistis tried not to let her disappointment show. But Rinoa put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

"Where to from here?" Selphie asked.

Quistis drew herself together and tried to push Seifer out of her mind. "Kilika. Take me home."

0 0 0

Through the thick haze of cigarette smoke, Seifer watched as a woman in a tastefully revealing black dress walked out on stage and sat down at the bar's piano. She didn't stop to introduce herself. Just placed one foot against the pedals and began to play. The bar patrons all shifted to face her. Seifer had his back to the wall, his feet propped up on a nearby chair and a half-empty glass of something that tasted like turpentine in his hand. Good liquor remained difficult to come by in Bevelle, even now that Yevon's grip on the city had begun to wane.

A week ago, Yuna - now High Summoner Yuna - fresh from the front lines of battle in Zanarkand had delivered news of Sin's demise to all of Spira. Not just a calm this time. Sin, she'd explained, was now well and truly gone. She'd urged all the people of Spira to begin rebuilding and to never forget those who had been lost along the way. Although Seifer hadn't heard the speech for himself, it had been reprinted in full in Bevelle's papers. He'd read over it a dozen times.

The bitterness it filled him with was two-fold: half arising from pure jealousy that Yuna now enjoyed the everlasting fame and adulation that he'd wanted so badly for himself, and the other half rooted in the fact that he had sacrificed everything for a dream that had never been within his reach after all.

In front of him, Raijin and Fujin sat at a table of their own, their heads inclined toward one another as they talked.

"How much longer do you think he'll want to stay here?" Raijin was asking.

"DUNNO."

"We should be in Kilika by now, ya know?"

"AGREED."

Seifer slammed his glass down. "I can hear you guys, you know."

"AWARE."

"We're not going to Kilika. In fact, we're never going to Kilika. So you can quit bringing it up."

"What about Luca then?" Raijin asked as he turned around. "Can't we at least go home? I'd like to get back, ya know? The blitz season's gonna start soon."

Truthfully, he'd lost track of how many days they'd spent in Bevelle now. He kept hoping that he'd have some epiphany. That his life would come back together and he'd wake up one morning knowing what to do next. But he felt just as untethered and lost as when Raijin and Fujin fetched him from the icy slopes of Mount Gagazet. Leaning back in his chair, he buried his hands in his coat pockets and let the fingers of his right hand tangle in the length of black, satin ribbon he kept there.

Maybe it would be best to return to Luca. The trip, at least, would give him more time to think.

With one eye-watering gulp, he finished his drink, then got up to leave. His posse followed close on his heels.

The next morning, he told them what he'd decided: that they would finally go home. Both sagged with relief, though Fujin tired to hide it.

Like their long trek down the mountains and across the Calm Lands, the trip out of Bevelle filled Seifer with unwanted memories. On their way to the city's gate, they passed the street fair, roaring with joy now at the prospect of a world without Sin. The smell of fresh popped popcorn and sound of carnival music made him think of the hint of lemonade he'd found on Quistis's lips when he'd leaned in to kiss her that night. He wished now that he'd taken the time to at least do it properly. He'd figured when he did it that he'd never get the chance again, but he hadn't counted on being alive much longer to dwell on that fact.

To get back to Luca, they had to make the entire pilgrimage again, only in reverse.

They spent their first night on the road bedded down in Macalania Woods. Seifer stared up at the blue and silver leaves of the canopy until he fell asleep, and then dreamed of battling back hoards of forest fiends until the pyreflies swirled around him so thick he couldn't see the trees anymore. Quistis found him there. She smiled up at him, the dazzling lights tangling in her hair and reflecting in her eyes, and then she took his sword from him. She peeled off his coat. Leaned in to press her warm mouth to his shoulder as her hand trailed down his bare arm.

And then he woke to Macalania's ever-present darkness.

The journey home proved more difficult than the pilgrimage since they made their way now without the benefit of aeons or healing magic. Seifer took solace in the bone crushing exhaustion of hiking and fighting. The Thunder Plains, in particular, sapped the life from his veins. He slept like the dead once they arrived at the travel agency. Nothing kept his thoughts at bay for long, however. Everything reminded him of his failed pilgrimage. And of Quistis.

He needed, he realized, to start thinking about something else.

A new occupation.

"How about going back to blitz?" Raijin suggested when he brought it up.

"I've been banned. Remember?"

"Yeah. But you could still probably coach, ya know?"

Somehow, Seifer didn't think the league would allow him anywhere near impressionable, young blitzers.

The defeat of Sin hadn't changed Guadosalam any, although the door to Maester Seymour's large estate sat open. The rumor mill in Bevelle had been churning hard over Seymour's reported death. No one seemed quite certain on the specifics. Some said that he'd died at Yuna's side, fighting Sin. Others whispered that he'd been involved in his own father's death and that Yuna herself had fought and killed him among the crumbling ruins of Zanarkand. Yet another element to add to her legend, Seifer supposed with a bitter sigh.

They passed out of Guadosalam, over the Moonflow, to Djose where word reached them that all of the temple's fayth had turned to stone. Spira would see no more summoners. No more aeons. Yevon's priests had left and a small faction of Al Bhed wandered the place - drawn, perhaps, by the electricity in the air.

Everything had begun to change. At least he wouldn't be the only one struggling to find a new part to play.

By the time they arrived back home in Luca, he had no more answers than when he'd left Bevelle. He dreamed and thought far too often of Quistis, both of the two of them wielding the power of the final summoning to crush Sin and snatches of moments far less grandiose but no less arousing.

Luca remained comfortably unchanged. The small apartment Seifer had rented before leaving for Kilika had been emptied out, all of his meager belongings repossessed to pay back the many months' rent he'd let lapse. So he moved in with Raijin, who let him sleep on his living room floor under a pile of Luca Goers blankets.

As expected, the blitz league didn't welcome him back. Nor did anyone seem particularly interested in paying for his services as a soldier for hire. The Al Bhed had begun installing machina along the highroad to keep back the fiends and the travel agency acquired several hovers, allowing more people to travel safely without any need for a sword.

No one needed him.

No one wanted him.

Unemployed, alone, and homeless, he reached his breaking point.

"Screw this, Raij," he said. "Let's go to Kilika."

0 0 0

Evidence of Sin's attack still marred the city of Kilika. Huge swaths of the waterfront remained destroyed and bits of broken wood lay heaped on the beach, ready to be either re-purposed or disposed of. Everywhere, Seifer heard the sound of construction. The entire layout of the town had been redrawn. No intersection or building or thoroughfare looked familiar. Seifer stood for a long time on the dock where the ship dropped him off, his head still fuzzy with seasickness, and tried to orient himself.

Quistis's house had been to the right, perched over top of a shallow, crystal-blue lagoon.

Now, no homes existed in that direction. Even the lagoon had changed, it's shoreline forever scarred by Sin's passing.

Her home could have been rebuilt anywhere in the city. Where to start?

"TEMPLE?" Fujin suggested.

It was a stretch - with Yevon's fall and Quistis no longer a summoner, Seifer doubted she'd be spending her days up on the mountain. But perhaps someone there would have some idea where to find her. Surely she would still be in contact with the priests who had tutored her.

Kilika's interior teemed with fiends left over from Sin's attack, making the trip through the forest and up the mountain that made up the island's spine long and grueling. When they finally caught sight of the temple, they found the eternal flames extinguished, snuffed out along with the fayth that fed them. They passed no one on their way up the long, stone staircase carved into the hillside. The temple commons proved just as deserted.

"Hello?" Seifer called out as he pushed open the door. "Anybody home?"

A matronly lady in an ankle-length dark blue skirt, white shirt, and plain wedge shoes appeared. She had her greying hair pulled back into a severe bun and her clear eyes assessed Seifer with the same quick, penetrating glance that Quistis had used when they first met.

"She's not here," the woman said.

"Who?"

"Quistis. That's who you're looking for, isn't it? You're that boy. The one who broke precepts, claiming to be her guardian."

"I'm not a boy," Seifer replied.

The woman raised an eyebrow, then repeated, "She's not here."

"Then where is she? And who are you?"

The woman offered her hand. "My name's Kadowaki. And I don't know where she's at."

"No idea at all?" Seifer asked, suspicious. "I mean…is she still even in Kilika?"

Kadowaki shook her head. "She left with the Al Bhed."

This bit of news rocked him. "What? Why?"

She shrugged. "Starting over I suppose."

"Well…what about her parents? Edea and…er…"

"Cid. They went with her."

"Squall?" Seifer asked, desperate.

Kadowaki held her hands up. "They're all gone. I'm sorry. I'm assuming they were probably on their way back to Bikanel."

The powers of the universe itself seemed to have aligned themselves against Seifer. He wanted to scream. To tear down the temple piece by piece to show Yevon just how much he loathed the bastard. Somehow, he held on to a thin thread of control. Fujin and Raijin guided him out of the temple and back down into the forest where he left a visible wake of pyreflies on his way back to town. It soothed the ache deep in his heart only a little.

"She might come back, ya know?" Raijin offered cheerfully. "She grew up here. This is her home, ya know? She'll be back. We'll wait."

So they did.

Seifer pitched in with the rebuilding and earned himself a small hut on the edge of town with an expansive view of the sea to the south and a stubby bit of unused dock that Raijin took to fishing off the end of. Every day he got up, pulled on his gloves, set to work with hammer, nail, saw, and thatch. And he waited. An eye ever in the direction he thought Bikanel to be. He had no idea if he was really looking the right way. No one in town could seem to agree on the exact location of the Al Bhed homeland.

"Come fish with me today," Raijin said one morning. "You need to unwind, ya know?"

"RELAX," Fujin agreed.

He'd have preferred to spend his day cutting wood or (better) slaughtering fiends in the forest as part of the city's efforts to do away with the last of the sinspawn. But Raijin insisted. So they walked down onto the dock and settled Seifer in at the end with his own pole and tackle box. The fish, Raijin explained, liked to shelter under the pier during the heat of the day, making them easy prey. Seifer would catch a big one in no time. Guaranteed.

With some effort and a scowl, Seifer baited his hook and tossed it down into the water. The sun beat down on his back and the waves lapped just below his feet.

Nothing happened.

For what felt like forever.

He blew out a long breath. How the hell had his life come to this? He was supposed to be a hero by now, lauded everywhere he went, standing for paintings and statues. Or dead. Not this.

Behind him, Raijin let out a hoot and he glanced over his shoulder in time to see his friend pull a huge fish from the water.

Something inside Seifer snapped. Swearing, in a total rage, he threw his fishing pole down on the dock. Loser, he berated himself. Damned, worthless, piece of shit screw-up.

Fujin clasped her hands behind her back, sent Seifer a sympathetic smile, then placed her foot right in the middle of Raijin's back.

"Hey! What're you-!" He hit the water with a messy splash. "Fujin! What the hell, ya know?"

Despite himself, Seifer laughed. It bubbled up without warning and seized him. Deep, healing laughter. He found himself suddenly wanting to grab Fujin by the shoulders and pull her into a crushing hug. Raijin, too, once he found his way back up onto the dock. The faithful. Even now.

A low rumble caught his attention.

"What the heck is that?" Raijin asked from where he bobbed in the water.

Seifer turned. A plume of sea spray hid everything but a huge, silvery blue fin that, for a second, made Seifer think reflexively of Sin. But as the thing slowed, some of the spray settled, and he was able to see a golden ring pulsing around the craft, propelling it across the water. A ship, he realized. Enormous. Ugly. Al Bhed.

Its shadow passed over him as it turned and headed for Kilika's main port. As it blocked the sun for a split second, he saw more detail, including a balcony perched on the ship's massive side. A woman stood there, her arms folded against the railing, her blonde hair rippling in the sea breeze.

His heart swelled, then began to race.

And for the first time in months, he grinned.

Serendipity.

0 0 0

After so long at sea, it felt good to return to dry land. Quistis changed out of the skin-tight Al Bhed uniform and goggles that she'd taken to wearing and pulled back on the skirt, boots, and vest she'd worn what seemed like a lifetime ago when she'd lived in the little, seaside town. Even though she no longer recognized the streets or houses, she wanted her old neighbors and friends to recognize her. To see how she'd grown and changed.

"The lower levels flooded," Irvine said as he joined her on the balcony overlooking the town. Far down below, their ship bellied up to the tiny-looking dock. "We'll have to run the pumps again and install some patches before setting out for Bikanel."

"How long will that take?"

"A couple of days. But we can stay longer if you want. There's no hurry."

She looked out over the city, already mostly rebuilt. It didn't look like it needed her or the Al Bhed anymore.

When she'd first returned to Kilika on board the Ragnarok, she'd found it completely destroyed, bodies still clogging the lagoon. The days she'd spent alongside Squall, Rinoa, Zell, Irvine, and Selphie helping to put the city back together had reminded her all-too-often of Sin's previous attack when she'd lost her mother and father. Luckily this time her entire family escaped unscathed. Cid and Edea had set up shelter along with Squall's family just outside the woods. All of them welcomed her back with open arms. No one appeared disappointed in her for giving up her pilgrimage.

When word reached Zell from Home of a ship that had been found in deep water some week's south-southwest of Kilika, it didn't take Quistis more than a second to decide that she wanted to go with them. Anything to get away from sinspawn and death for a while.

Surprisingly, her entire family decided to come with her.

They spent months salvaging the ship from the bottom of the ocean and learning enough Al Bhed to order lunch, ask for directions, and insult someone's mother. The Al Bhed had no idea where the ship had come from, whether it had been built by Bevelle or Zanarkand or some other ancient city. It had the name "Balamb" dashed across the side. The size of a building, it contained more rooms than they'd had time to explore including what appeared to be dormitories. Some other, larger spaces the Al Bhed had already begun sectioning off to become the cafeteria, the library, and the infirmary. Someday, Irvine told her, Balamb would be a fully functional mobile city.

Already they carried more than forty passengers. In Kilika, they hoped to pick up a few more.

"Selphie wants to have a party tonight," Irvine said.

"Selphie wants to have a party every night," Quistis replied.

"This one is to celebrate Kilika's rebuilding, Balamb's raising, and Sin's defeat."

"Do we have to help her plan it?"

"She's searching for people to round out her band."

"You're kidding."

Irvine gave her a we're-talking-about-Selphie-here kind of look.

"Well, she can count me out. I have no musical aptitude."

"Might want to try and avoid her then," Irvine said and smiled. "I gotta go help Zell with the pumps. See you later tonight?"

"Sure."

Rather than head down into Kilika, Quistis walked back through Balamb.

For a while, she'd thought of this adventure with the Al Bhed as a temporary thing. Something to keep her occupied until she figured out what else to do with her life. But the past few weeks on Balamb had felt so comfortable, familiar, and homey. Like she'd lived here in a past life.

New tile had been laid in the main thoroughfare and the fountains had been scrubbed clean and renovated so that now they ran with clear, fresh water. Down a corridor marked by a red sign written in Al Bhed, she heard people talking and eating. Down another she spotted Zell having an awkward conversation with a girl with two, perky pigtails. Quistis didn't know her name but recognized her as the woman in charge of building the library.

One of the larger chambers still ran thick with fiends. She found Squall there, his sword drawn and Rinoa beside him, a projectile weapon attached to her arm. He'd been using the fiends there to teach Rinoa how to fight. Some other Al Bhed had expressed interest in the training as well. Squall had wanted nothing to do with it - he didn't like talking in front of large groups, Quistis thought - so she'd taken it upon herself to educate them. Every afternoon. It was her favorite time of day.

Even Cid and Edea had found something to do here by taking on many of the administrative duties involved in keeping Balamb up and running.

Everything had fallen into place.

Well…almost everything.

The absence of Seifer and his posse still bothered her. But she tried not to think about that. By now, he could be anywhere in Spira. She'd never find him and doubted that he wanted her to anyway.

Quistis went about her day as usual until evening fell and Selphie's voice came over the intercom to announce the start of the ball. The building's elevator hadn't been repaired yet, so Quistis took the stairs up to the second floor where the party had already begun. Up on stage, Selphie sang while a group of uncomfortable looking guys slow-jammed behind her on instruments Quistis didn't recognize. Irvine stood recording the whole thing on a shiny sphere.

"Quistis, dear." Edea waved her over. "Have you been down into Kilika? It's amazing. You can hardly tell Sin ever attacked."

"And it will stay that way this time," Cid added with a smile.

"Thanks to Yuna," Quisits agreed.

Cid patted her on the back and out of the corner of her eye Quistis saw Irvine turn and catch them on his sphere camera. Being recorded made her uncomfortable. It was one of the things the Al Bhed did that she wasn't sure she'd ever be comfortable with. But she waved and put on a pleasant expression anyway. Irvine didn't stay on her long, shifting instead to record Zell who sat at a table stuffing his face with rudtukc - a type of Al Bhed delicacy that resembled sausage. Given the choice, Zell could live off it. The cafeteria on Balamb chronically ran low, much to his dismay. Selphie somehow had managed to gather a feast's worth for the party.

"Hey, Zell…slow down!" Selphie yelled as she hopped off stage, her song finished. "You're gonna-"

Zell's face turned red as he began to choke.

"Cred!" Selphie ran across the room and began pounding Zell on the back.

Quistis joined her, the both of them hammering until finally a chunk of half-chewed food flew out of Zell's mouth and landed with a soggy thud on the table.

"That is totally going on the highlight reel," Irvine said. "Hope your library girl saw that. Very smooth, Zell."

Zell barreled across the table at Irvine like a runaway chocobo. "Give me that sphere!" he yelled in Al Bhed.

Smiling to herself, filled with affection for her friends and her new home, Quistis drifted back away from the party so as to take it all in. Her whole life, she'd never had this. Never belonged. In Kilika, she'd spent most of her life in the temple training to become a summoner, something which had increasingly isolated her from people her own age.

A cool breeze ruffled her hair from the open door behind her leading out onto one of Balamb's many balconies. She stepped out onto it to look out over the island, illuminated from below by a hundred tiny windows and from above by the huge moon hanging in the cloudless night sky. The sea lapped far below her feet against Balamb's hull, the water peaceful and safe for the first time in living memory.

"You know, you're not an easy person to find," said someone behind her.

Her heart skipped a beat.

Seifer stood in the doorway, his arms crossed. He looked the same as she remembered: blonde hair pushed back away from his face, silvery trench coat falling about his calves, his mouth drawn into something that was not quite a scowl but not friendly either. Behind him, she could see her friends gathered, pointing. Irvine lifted his sphere camera and began to record.

"Did you know that Pubes is on stage in there right now? Along with his dad, his sister, and two Ronso," he continued when she didn't say anything.

"Rinoa gets him to do things no one else can," she replied. Her mouth felt dry. "You've been looking for me?"

"Yeah. But you'd left by the time I got here."

She clasped her hands, feeling awkward. "I went with the Zell, Selphie, and Irvine to salvage this ship. We just pulled it up off the bottom of the sea."

"I can tell."

The insult stung. "Well, it's home now. I'm going to stay here."

"And do what?"

"Right now, I'm teaching."

The corner of his mouth ticked up. "Teaching? Like we talked about?"

"Sort of. Nothing academic. I'm teaching some of the Al Bhed how to fight."

He smirked. "I think I met some of your students on my way up here. Caused a stir asking about you. They call themselves The Trepies, you know."

"They do?" She hadn't been aware of anything of the sort.

"Yeah, well…in Al Bhed they do. They're saying a lot of other things, too that I'm sure you don't want me to repeat. So I'm just gonna say, I told you so, Instructor."

Over his shoulder, she saw several of her students gathered, whispering to one another and watching their exchange. The Trepies? She flushed with embarrassment as her mind raced over what sort of things they'd been saying about her. Her knowledge of Al Bhed was still limited. And while she'd been aware of them chattering away in her classes, she'd always assumed that they'd been discussing the technicalities of her lessons - helping one another to understand.

"Don't worry. I told them to knock it off."

"You didn't have to do that. You're not my guardian anymore."

He stuck his hands in his coat pockets and for the first time looked uncomfortable.

"I could be," he offered. "Seems I'm no good for much else."

Without thinking about it, Quistis took several steps closer. "I'm sure that's not true. You're strong and smart. You could be anything you want."

"Maybe that's the problem," he said. "I don't want to be something else."

"Seifer," she breathed. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to abandon you or destroy your dream."

"No. That's not what I meant." He sighed as if she were stupid. "You think I came all the way here because I still give a damn about Sin? Or that I wish even for a second you were dead? You think that's what I dream about now?"

He pulled something out of his coat pocket. It slid dark and shimmery between his hands. Only once he stretched it out and looped it around her waist did she realize what he had: her satin summoner's ribbon. With deft, delicate fingers he tied it in a bow and then hooked his fingers around the ribbon to pull her a step closer.

Her stomach drew into a hot little knot as he leaned down toward her. Often, she'd replayed in her head the moment when he'd kissed her under the fireworks in Bevelle. That one had been quick, over before she'd had the chance to respond. This time, he moved slowly, deliberately, giving her plenty of time to process his intentions. When he finally pressed his mouth to hers, her heartbeat was roaring in her ears and her feet no longer seemed to be touching the floor.

Molten satisfaction flooded her.

She knotted her hands in the lapel of his coat.

A high-pitched chorus of whoops reached them from the ballroom. Seifer broke away and in the half-second before he slammed shut the balcony door she saw Irvine standing next to Raijin and Fujin, still recording, and all the rest of her friends watching, their hands cupped around their mouths as they cheered her on.

Seifer rolled his eyes. "Figures I'd blow this, too. Right? Just like how I screwed everything up on Mount Gagazet. Told you. I'm only good at killing things."

Dropping her hands, she gripped his where they still hooked around the ribbon at her waist. "I can't wear this anymore," she told him. "I'm not a summoner. And I don't need a guardian."

He frowned uncertainly.

"But a knight..." She squeezed his fingers and leaned into him. "I missed you, Seifer."

He released a long breath. "Me too."

"Stay here. Balamb can be your home, too. It's where we both belong. I know it. We're going to Bikanel next. We can find out together whether there really are giant cactuars there."

Taking the initiative, she kissed him this time, lingering long, reluctant to separate herself from him. Afraid that he might leave. That this new life she imagined for them wasn't something he could see. Or even something that he wanted. So she kissed him harder, hoping to impress upon him how right this felt. No doubts here. No uncertainty.

"I suppose someone has to beat back your admirers," he said at last. "It's like there's no discipline at all on this boat." His arm drew tight around her. "Balamb, huh? Suppose I could give it a chance."

"In that case…" She grinned up at him and took his hand in hers. "I've got something to show you. A secret area I found. And I think you're going to like the way we've got to go to get there. Did you bring a weapon?"

"Are you joking?"

Her heart raced.

"Let's go, then." She unhooked his fingers from her ribbon and teased: "This is my last order as your summoner."

They walked hand in hand back into the party and down to Balamb's main level, through the fiend-infested training area, and to the hidden door at its back which led out to a balcony illuminated entirely by the ship's lights and the stunning, golden ring still orbiting in the water below. A private star-field that she'd saved for him, her knight.

And they embraced, made buoyant as they shed the weight of broken dreams to start a new story. One without Sin.