A/N: My sincerest apologies for the long delay. As usual, life came up to occupy my time while inspiration decided to focus on other projects. Rest assured this story isn't abandoned (especially considering I have the ending finalised; hurr durr! I've got a long way to go as I'm not yet even halfway for what I've planned...TIME!). Those looking to get their fix of Squall/Lightning may want to turn to my drabble series Scenery Called 'Everyday' for now, though. Or Notes on an Adventure in a Public Place if you're looking for some family time. Currently, I'm doing volunteer work in, so that's been taking my time on top of more life.
The sharp sound of twigs snapping coming from their bonfire brought the sleeping lion back to his senses.
His eyelids opened, blinking once as his iris refocused and his mind rapidly briefed him of the situation thus far before methodically taking stock of the whereabouts of his current allies.
Aerith was fast asleep close to the fire. The sound of her light snoring was testament to how tired the flower girl really was. Squall sharply averted his gaze from calculating her allegiance.
'As long as Prishe trusts in her.' he reminded himself. Speaking of whom…
Squall slowly stood, and was satisfied to find that he wasn't as dizzy as before. Shiva and the rest of his Guardian Forces were making headway in helping him recover from his wounds, fatigue, and blood loss.
'It was not easy, Contractor. You will need sufficient nourishment as well.' Shiva's cool voice whispered to him. The ice elemental sounded slightly miffed - irritated. Tired. 'Next time, do take extra care not to swim with a hole in your forearm.'
'Didn't really have choice.' Squall rolled his eyes at her dry chastising. The ground beneath him had given way during his battle with Kain and the manikins, after all. 'But noted. Thanks.'
'Mhmm.' She hummed, not quite agreeing with his response but nonetheless accepting her contractor's sincere gratitude.
Feeling Shiva's presence retreating, Squall gave Aerith one last studying glance, before making his way outside. At once, his eyes found the Phantom Train waiting beside the entrance.
"Awake now, flesh bag?" It greeted with what seemed to be customary disdain. Squall was beginning to think the Phantom Train hated everything in general.
'Then again', Squall thought, 'If I were torn out of my world and forced to suffer in this land for so long, I would be spiteful too. Hnn…'
Squall wisely chose to drop such parallelisms with his current situation. "Where is Prishe?"
If the train had a face, Squall felt that distaste would be etched across it.
"The loudmouth marched off towards the lake." A low rumble that sounded like a chuckle left the metal golem's frame. "She may be contemplating death after what you put her through."
Storm-blue eyes glinted with deathly steel at the golem's mocking. "Perceptive, aren't you? Regardless, stay here and keep watch." His blade flashed into existence, a threatening weapon gleaming with promises of death. "Or else."
"We had a deal, flesh bag. I shall conform if only to reap your soul to forever remind you how pathetic your struggle really is."
A tense silence fell upon the pair. Squall's jaw was tight as he could not get a read on the golem- no thanks in small part to the Phantom Train not actually having a face.
He turned away.
"See that you do." He commanded as he rested the dull edge of his weapon against his shoulder. Squall he made his way to the lake, leaving the Phantom Train behind to watch over Aerith.
The walk to the lake was uneventful; a rare respite as the usually relentless manikins were nowhere in sight. Still, Squall remained alert, his posture not too tense but not at all relaxed as he stood before the lake. His eyes spotted the silhouette of Cosmos' Sanctuary on the far other side, its radiance only slightly dimmed from his vantage point on the Elven Snowfields.
In the dead darkness of the night, the Order's Sanctuary was like a beacon of hope as it illuminated the lands.
Taking his eyes off from his objective, Squall scanned the area for the no-doubt brooding Elvaan monk. Prishe's habits flittered to mind, and he instinctively looked for an isolated place – a boulder, a gulf, anything of the like. He spotted her almost immediately, seated with her legs sprawled before her atop a low hill overlooking the lake, even as her dark skin and purple hair blended with the night.
The mercenary braced himself for the long-overdue confrontation with the monk. Squall inwardly cursed the cowardice of his past incarnations that forced him into this role.
"Prishe." He called out in a mellow tone so as not to startle the excitable girl.
Prishe glanced to her side lethargically, and Squall was treated to the sight of her purple eyes slowly widening as she registered his presence; the melancholia in her figure slowly dispersed with the small grin she flashed at him.
"Heh, is my shift over already?" She glanced up at him when he stopped by her side.
Looking down at her, Squall was reminded of a guilty child attempting to hide a pack of stolen sweets as the monk tried to dispel whatever somber thoughts had plagued her.
At his lack of reply, Prishe made to get up only to feel his gloved hand pressing against her shoulder, holding her down.
Squall silently sank to his knees next to her, and Prishe watched as he made himself more comfortable. Her gaze returned to the watery expanse before her and the Sanctuary in the horizon. Hearing him finish making himself comfortable, the monk took in a deep breath.
"…you ready to talk?" There was no heat in her tone; just weariness brought about by Squall's exchange with that damn golem. The embers of Prishe's anger had already been snuffed out. There really was no point anymore at getting angry.
If Squall- since Squall chose to leave her here at the end of this cycle, she couldn't really do anything about it. It was his choice. He was his own person. She could rage about it all she wanted, but nothing would change. For all her power and for all her experience, she was still nothing but a bystander watching time flow by. Really, she should have known that if people were not dying around her, then they would just be getting tired of walking beside her and move on. This was her curse, after-
-Prishe's eyes widened when his weight suddenly fell against her shoulder.
"Your thoughts are showing." He commented offhandedly. Her face flushed at the unexpected contact - from this bastard no less! – and she elbowed him roughly.
"…and you're frickin' heavy, fatass." She muttered back sharply before shoving him. "Get off me!"
"Hnn." He complied, having successfully broken the monk from her introspection. It was Squall's turn to take a deep breath. "You know, Prishe-"
Her eyes flashed.
"No, I don't know why you're being so talka-"
"Hey. Shut up." He elbowed her back.
Squall inwardly frowned at her hostility. He could tell that Prishe clearly was still angry at him with how her barbs were becoming more cross than her usual banter.
He really did screw up earlier when he made that offer to the Phantom Train. At the time, he was too focused on grasping the opportunity presented to him to realize what his words may have sounded like to the Elvaan monk.
And now Prishe was trying to stall him and run away.
He really had hurt her a lot.
'Wasn't that obvious, Leonhart? Your last parting with the midget wasn't exactly friendly.' Squall silenced that annoying voice in his head that reminded him of all his faults and failures.
That was the past. There was no point dwelling on his mistakes any further, not when he had much more important matters to deal with. He could beat himself up when he died.
"I'm ready to talk now, Prishe." He told her, answering her earlier question.
Their gazes met silently.
Prishe studied his face, purple orbs reflexively taking in the scar that ran down his forehead to just under his eye first before tracing the rest of his moonlit face. She pursed her lips, wondering what it was about this man that always had her on edge before realizing exactly what it was.
Squall had given her hope, a torch to wield against her own darkness and, abruptly, he snatched it away.
They were two peas in a pod, her and Squall. They were drawn to each other by self-imposed solitude despite the painful yearning rattling their bones for someone to keep them warm, a yearning that they fervently and stubbornly attempted to hide because of their fears. Whereas Squall was afraid to bring people within arm's reach for fear of being the one left behind, Prishe was simply tired of outliving everyone she ever cared about.
When Cosmos had summoned her those many cycles ago, Prishe leapt at the opportunity to traverse to a different world, telling herself that there was just nothing to do in her old world any longer. Besides, if she was able to kick some ass along the way, then all-the better, right? In the deepest part of her heart, the part where hollow truths were kept in a black box and ignored, she really was just searching for a place to die.
But even in this world, she couldn't fall into that distant, eternal slumber.
Even worse, in this world, everyone she knew disappeared that much quicker.
And then they'd return.
Once upon a time, Prishe would have thought this was the answer to her problem. Nobody seemed to perish forever, after all. Such fantasy was immediately dashed, however, as she watched everyone struggle fruitlessly. They came and they died while she remained standing on the same spot watching the world turn by. She tried to help them, yes. She fought to keep them alive, even when they couldn't remember her name anymore.
Her heart broke when both Cosmos and her Warrior of Light couldn't even recognize her, the latter even drawing his blade and leveling it at her throat when she became persistent.
It was then, Prishe realized, that she truly hated this world.
"Prishe." Squall suddenly called, and Prishe's head snapped towards her companion.
She took in his worried look and realized that everything was so blurry. Prishe felt a trail of moisture down her cheek, and she immediately ducked her head so he wouldn't see her.
Squall… was different. At least, she thought he was different; now, she wasn't so sure.
What started off as a rivalry between the two of them – the scarred bastard was a murderous Chaos goon when they first met, after all – turned into an odd sort of friendship. Amidst the cycles that passed, Squall was the only one that always stood by her side. Naturally, she would always have to remind him of their time together; just like all the others, whenever she'd meet Squall again, he had no recollection of her. What made Squall stand out, however, was that he'd always believe in her, and then they'd be off in a merry adventure.
A part of her started to think that Squall was unique, that way. It didn't matter how many times they parted because Squall always returned to her, again and again.
She was honestly happy.
But it seemed she was the only one. After all, it was clear that Squall was already tired of her- of keeping her company in this world.
Otherwise, he wouldn't bargain his soul to the Phantom Train.
'He really is just like the rest...' That thought was really depressing. She sniffed and rubbed at her eyes, willing herself to regain her composure. 'C'mon Prishe, you're better than this!'
Her body froze when she felt a gloved hand rest on her head before it began to awkwardly pet her.
"E-eh?" She peeked from the corners of her eyes.
True enough, Squall's lips were pursed as he struggled with this task. Even under the moonlight, it was easy to see how embarrassed Squall was, and she couldn't help the wide grin from splitting her cheeks.
Prishe opened her mouth only for Squall to cut her off.
"…Not a word." The brunet grumbled.
"You suck." She blew him a raspberry. When she felt his hand stop its stiff petting, she told him haughtily. "But I suppose you may continue explaining. Only if you want to of course…" Her tone may have been more scathing than normal; it was about damn time, after all."…jerk."
There was a brief pause as Squall hesitated. His mind raced. How was he supposed to begin this delicate conversation? The answer came to him suddenly when his eyes found her expectant purple gems.
"Prishe… I'm sorry."
The monk was caught off-guard.
"Th-there's-! You don't have to be sorry for nothin'." She ducked her head again when she felt her eyes suddenly water. Damnit, something probably got in her eye or somethin'. "I get it, y'know? It's your life. I guess I was just too delusional to think I had any say, right?"
"But you do, Prishe." His answer caught her off-guard, and she glared up at him. Immediately, Squall continued before the Elvaan monk would erupt. "You told me yourself. My life is no longer my own now that we're friends."
Friends. It was such an alien word- but so comforting as well. After all they've been through- no, after what the previous Squalls had been through with her- they were friends, more than rivals and comrades.
Prishe's hands balled into trembling fists as she willed herself to speak calmly. "Then… then why'd you make that deal? I mean, when you do die, you'll never return again since that thing's gonna eat your soul. Friends don't abandon each other!"
"I know. And I don't abandon my own." Squall agreed. His hand stopped its petting and he fully faced her. "I will return, Prishe. You can count on that." Prishe opened her mouth to protest at the contradiction between his actions and words, but Squall continued. "Don't you find something odd about the Phantom Train's story, Prishe?"
His sudden question caught the monk off-guard. Prishe folded her arms and began to think. "Hrmm… like, what?"
"When we die, our souls are consumed by Shinryu." Squall elaborated, and he inwardly smiled when he could see the gears in Prishe's head begin to turn. "Isn't that the same as what the train's trying to do?"
"…And yet, you're here." Prishe pointed out slowly, the realization widening her eyes before doubt set in once again; her brows creased. "But that doesn't make sense. Unless-"
"Unless I'm someone else." This time, it was Squall who turned away after admitting the dark possibility. He was rewarded with and odd look from the Elvaan girl and he couldn't help but smirk darkly. It really wasn't funny at all. "More specifically, I'm another Squall."
- "My memories… tell me that I know Prishe. My body reacts to Prishe's presence as if I've known her all along, yet another part of me knows that it wasn't me that knows Prishe. These memories feel like they came from a dream." –
Prishe gaped at him as she struggled to process his revelation. "But- that's- how's that possible?"
She couldn't be sure but for the briefest of moments, she thought she saw Squall flash her a pained glance.
"Prishe… how much do you remember about being summoned here?"
"A… fair lot." She replied slowly, wondering where the mercenary was going with this. "I remember Cosmos calling to me, asking for my help to stop Chaos. I can't quite remember exactly what she said…" Prishe's eyes darted to the side, but before Squall could comment, she quickly continued with a wide grin that threatened to illuminate the night. "…but I was sold once she said I could kick some divine ass!"
Prishe pumped her fist in the air triumphantly as if for emphasis, nearly knocking his head off his shoulders in her excitement.
Squall rolled his eyes at her, though there was a small smirk on his lips. "Figures." Prishe felt her chest tighten at his remark, but before she could amend her words, Squall continued. "I don't remember what my first incarnation must have thought of, but I imagine he wished for the same thing as I do now." His eyes lost all his warmth and when he spoke, it was with the chilling frost of death. "Ultimecia's head."
Prishe stared at him uncomprehendingly. "Squall…"
"But that's not the point I'm getting at." He swiftly interjected, and just like that the ominous tension between them disappeared. Squall cleared his throat, willing himself to focus on the matter at hand instead of the matter of his heart. "In order to be summoned here, we have to answer their call. In order to answer that call… we had to have had a wish." He glanced at her wryly. "Or in your case, a silly motive."
"H-ha, ha!" Prishe chuckled nervously as she scratched the back of her head. 'If only you knew what I really wanted…But still!' "That's a good one, Squall! I think you're thinking too deeply."
"How else do you explain all this?" He wouldn't relent. "If Shinryu does consume our souls, if this God that stands above Chaos and Cosmos – yes, Aerith deciphered the report - why do we still return?" Squall's argument was very convincing. "Prishe, I'm not the Squall you knew!"
"Shut up!" Prishe erupted. Her fists flew to his collar and she dragged him down to her level with an angry glare. "You're my Squall!" She howled at him. "You're- we travelled together! A lot! You killed me! You saved me! I saved you! You- we- we're friends! So stop it with all these absurd theories and accept that you're stuck with me!" The fire in her eyes dimmed and her head lowered. Her hands clenched at his sleeves and she whispered to him pleadingly, "Please, Squall… don't leave me again."
"Prishe…" Squall slowly began, suddenly mindful of how he should approach her and trying to ignore the daggers in his heart. 'Hyne, why is talking so hard?' "As your friend…" His arms awkwardly wrapped around the Elvaan monk's shoulders. Prishe really was so small despite her strength and her boisterous nature. "As your friend, I need to tell you the truth."
He held on to her tighter, wordlessly telling her he wouldn't let her go. "I've started to remember- to learn what the previous Squall felt. The one that drugged you, anyways." This was so confusing. "When you approached him the first time, don't you remember how he acted?"
"Like a colossal prick." Prishe snapped back harshly. She peered up at him with an accusing stare. "Not much of a difference from now. You're still the same."
"Tell me what you remember." He urged her before quickly adding in a small attempt to lift her mood, "And no embellishments this time."
Prishe sucked in a breath deliberately, as if trying to buy herself more time to quiet her angry spirit, and began to recount their last meeting. "I stumbled into the Sanctuary. Y'know, after waking up again. I knew you would return- you always did, after all." The memory, though just a bit hazy, was something she always treasured. "Heh. There I was; walking into the Sanctuary like I owned the place, uninvited…" her ears drooped at the bitter thought, "…it was no wonder why everyone was suddenly wary of me."
Prishe had pleaded her case, and began pointing out everyone's names and nuances. The Warrior of Light had then asked Cosmos if Prishe was one of her warriors, to which the Goddess of Harmony shook her head.
Then everyone drew their weapons at the foolish assassin that dared venture into Cosmos' Sanctuary.
"I couldn't find you, that time." She continued, eyes misting with fond remembrance. "But you followed me out. And while you didn't recognize me immediately, you still followed me." Prishe grinned up at the scarred man. "It- it felt good, y'know? That everything we went through actually meant something, since a part of you still remembered me."
"Prishe…" Her heart ached at the pain in his voice. "I… didn't." Prishe blinked at him in confusion, an action Squall interpreted as her either not comprehending exactly what he meant, or her reflexively denying his confession. Whichever was the case, it still twisted the knife in his chest, and he almost lost his nerve – his resolve – to tell Prishe the truth she deserved to know. He swallowed the pins in his throat and repeated more clearly. "I didn't remember you. Not at the time."
Prishe's eyes remained confused, and her lips were parted with a shaky grin. "…H-huh…?"
Squall held her closer, subconsciously rubbing his hand against the dark skin of her nape to keep her calm and remind her of his presence. "I followed you because you mentioned knew Ultimecia." His jaw clenched with his struggle to admit the truth. He had already hurt Prishe so much, but still, she had to hear this… so he could make things clear.
And with any luck, he would never hurt her again unintentionally.
"I wanted information." Squall inwardly winced; aware of how cold he sounded. "I didn't care about Cosmos' war, and I didn't care about returning to my world. Not until I vanquished Ultimecia, anyway." Their eyes met and Squall cursed himself inwardly for the pain he saw in her purple orbs. "You were my lead- an informant. That, Prishe, was what I felt."
This man had used her.
All that time she thought they had an unshakeable bond…
All that time…
She had misunderstood his intent.
"You…" Prishe's body trembled. Squall could feel her hands tightening around the bones of his clavicles, and he immediately held her wrists to keep her from breaking any more bones in his body. "You selfish, self-centered, conniving, manipulative bastard!" She exploded at him with eyes alight with fury. "All this time-! I thought-!"
His hands left her wrists to settle on her shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Prishe." Squall apologised sincerely, and Prishe's anger abated at his solemnness. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
The tension tightening her frame slowly slackened, and her hands, now devoid of life, dropped to her sides.
"No." Prishe pressed her eyes tightly, knowing whose fault it really was. "I'm- I'm the one who should be sorry. I misunderstood everything."
All this time…
Prishe sucked in a deep breath and slowly exhaled through her mouth, her shoulders seemingly sinking lower than before. "S-so… where do we stand, now?"
She blinked once when she felt his gloved hand cup her cheek, wordlessly urging her to look up at him. With uncharacteristic hesitance borne of the fear of what she may find in his eyes, Prishe slowly met his gaze.
Squall's eyes radiated with very determined warmth.
"We're friends." He told her resolutely, and Prishe snorted at the typical Squall reply. "We still have to get you out of this hell." Squall's arms tightened around her as if trying to reassure her that he would be with her every step of the way. "If I do die, and the Phantom Train takes my soul, I'll always come back. And we'll meet again. And we'll still be friends."
"Ri-ight. I- I knew that!" She whispered sharply, her voice cracking with unbridled happiness. The Elvaan monk tucked her head under his neck - out of his sight – and cleared her throat. "But even still…" She muttered against his chest, "I don't want you dyin' on me if you can help it, y'hear? It's… not right, y'know? For you to throw your life away just like that…"
"…" Could he promise her that?
"I'm not askin' you not to die." Prishe explained with a hint of annoyance in her tone at Squall's lack of response. " I'm, y'know, just askin' you not to use your life as a bargaining chip or, or! Y'know, as part of an experiment! It's doomed to fail, so why bother trying!" She glanced up at him wildly. "Are ya listening to me?"
Squall inhaled sharply when her fist collided against his gut.
Squall wasn't really sure what he was agreeing with, though. He honestly didn't see the problem. His life was not worth much, and it was his life to spend.
No, that wasn't right. As his eyes trailed over Prishe's happy features, he reminded himself that his life wasn't just his own any longer…
… No matter how miniscule its worth was.
"Good!" Prishe nodded to herself, unaware of how Squall truly felt. "So long as you understand, blockhead. I'm guessin' you couldn't tell me this earlier because that stupid golem was listening?"
"Yeah." He nodded, his chin rubbing against her purple crown. "My bad."
Prishe shook her head and pouted. "I wonder if I should be jealous of Arty. After all, she's the only one that's always connected to you."
"I'd rather sever that connection." Squall replied gruffly.
Prishe blinked at his reply before she realized that Squall really was still angry at her once friend; the undertone of malice her ears picked up was a clear indication of his lethal intent.
"Heh… you really are still Squall." The monk teased, trying to steer the conversation from dark territory. Really, his answer was just like what she'd expect the Squall – her Squall, would say…
Her nose scrunched up as she could feel a headache coming…
"Don't think too hard about it." Squall suddenly said, and she realized Squall was still studying her. It was uncanny, really, how this man seemed to know what she was thinking. "Even though I'm not exactly the person you know, I'm still me. And…" he trailed off softly. "I even have his memories."
'In fact, it's getting harder to distinguish mine from his. This… is really just like a dream, one that can't be forgotten. Or permanent déjà vu.' While he wasn't sure which analogy was better, he did know one thing they had in common, and he inwardly groaned. 'Hyne damn it.'
The monk inhaled deeply, still buried in her companion's chest, her eyes straying towards the glistening surface of the lake. "It's kinda hard not to, y'know? All this is so confusing. I mean, for starters, why do you even have his memories? And what about the others?"
"My case is simple: Shiva." Squall pointed out matter-of-factly. He then rested his chin against Prishe's crown in thought, ignoring the pout the monk shot up at him at being used as a headrest. "As for the others, who knows? Maybe fragments of everyone's memories are floating about after Shinryu devours them, just waiting for their hosts to return." He tried to ignore the obvious connotations associated with that idea. Judging from the snort Prishe let out, he figured the monk pieced that puzzle and was entertained by the idea that their residual memories was actually Shinryu's excrement, or something unsavory along those lines. "I wouldn't really know. In the first place, where would memories come from? Do they just float around until a compatible host arrives? And if there wasn't a host, where would memories-"
Suddenly, the Phantom Train's words echoed in his mind.
Soulless abominations… amorphic ores leeching off anything and everything it came into contact.
Squall's eyes widened at the dreadful realisation.
Imperfect replicas of themselves.
The Transient Lion that was persistently stalking his footsteps, waiting to sink its fang into his chest.
The Fleeting Flash that was trailing after Lightning when they were traveling together.
Could- could it be?
Was that how the manikins assumed their form?
"Squall?" Prishe's worried voice cut in when she felt his body stiffen.
A master of words, he was.
"Your heart's beatin' really fast, mister." She deadpanned her observation. The frown on her lips suddenly curled upwards mischievously, and she wagged her eyebrows at him suggestively. "Am I too sexy for you?"
"Gah!" Squall immediately let go of the madly grinning monk. In his haste to detach himself, Squall stumbled backwards before crashing onto the ground. "Ugh…"
"Hah! So very Squall-like!" Prishe stuck her tongue out. Her merriment suddenly evolved into wonder when she realized what she just said.
He really was still Squall Leonhart, no matter what he said or what time he came from. And because of that simple fact laid before her very eyes over and over again, she could really believe that no matter what happened between them, Squall would never leave her be.
She couldn't contain her excitement.
The mercenary grunted when the wind was knocked out of him as the purple-haired sugar bomb pounced on his chest and wrapped him in a bone-crushing glomp.
He winced. "…my ears…"
"Squall, you're you!"
"I think I said that before."
"No matter what, you're still you!"
"You're a bastard!"
"So, we'll always be friends!"
"…yeah." Squall rolled his eyes. 'I'm not even gonna bother guessing what she's on about now. Especially when I have other things to worry abou-'
"Stop thinking depressing things, little man!" Prishe's face filled his vision.
"Tonight, we're both restin'! It's really cold, and I really need a blanket. You're gonna volunteer to be one again."
Squall frowned at the sudden turn of events. "But-"
"Blankets don't protest! And they don't think depressing things either! They shut their traps and keep me warm." Prishe's eyes narrowed imperiously, and Squall felt himself subconsciously nod at the purple orbs that bore into his soul. The monk smiled. "Besides…" She trailed off in a slightly softer tone. "Haven't you thought enough for one night?"
"…" Truth be told, despite having just woken up, he was already exhausted. Maybe it was the conversation they just had and the subsequent weight it lifted off his shoulders, or maybe it was just trying to keep up with Prishe, but he was already dead tired. "Fine. Get off me."
"Nuh-uh!" Prishe denied him childishly. "Blankets don't get to order people around, most of all me!" She snuggled closer to her friend,and Squall flushed at the intimate contact. While so many physical acts could be considered intimate when it came to him, Squall was quite sure what the impulsive monk was doing was crossing a line, albeit in her typical blunt and oblivious fashion. Then again, because it was said extroverted monk making contact, then whatever line it was she crossed meant absolutely nothing.
Squall sighed and gave up. All traces of tension left his muscles as resignation seeped from his bones.
Regardless of what he thought, Squall knew it was pointless to argue with the girl now that she had her mind set.
"Oh right, you're on guard duty since you just woke up." Prishe whispered against his ear as she tucked her head against his neck.
He blinked at the sudden command.
"Stay awake, little man." Prishe elaborated. She then yawned tiredly, curling into a ball against his side and nestling her head against the muscles of his deltoid. "Don't want any unwelcome surprises, right?"
What, was he supposed to pull sentry duty like this? "…sometimes, I wonder why we're friends."
"It's 'cause you're attracted to my awesome."
Prishe grinned as her eyes fluttered to a close.
Despite Squall's hesitancies, an arm secured itself around her shoulders, making Prishe smile warmly in satisfaction.
'Thanks for staying with me… you big jerk.'
The moogle watched the waxing moon with mixed feelings.
It had been a while since the last group of travelers had left and, thankfully, manikins hadn't attacked this time around, unlike when that group of two stayed the night. He recognized the man, of course; that scar running down his forehead distinguished him easily enough, though it was mildly surprising to see him carrying another – a woman with pink hair that he hadn't seen before – on his back.
He remembered how this man adamantly refused to travel with anyone except that purple-haired girl with the unusually long and pointed ears. An odd pair, that, but one, he figured after careful observation, that made sense from a polar standpoint, which was an entirely senseless perspective he could never fathom.
Nevertheless, the moogle was thankful that the manikins hadn't raided the town in their search for their prey, as it allowed them to rebuild the humble traveler's lodge. It wouldn't do to be caught by a storm; wet fur was anything but pleasant.
And yet, though he was thankful that the manikins hadn't attacked as per normal, the moogle was still with heavy heart. After all, that the manikins did not follow their routine meant someone had interfered, and given that Cosmos' warriors were always ripe and fresh and so very, very clueless about cogs that turned this world, it only meant that Chaos' chosen moved their hand.
Cosmos' warriors were truly pitiable.
None of them had the slightest idea what they were truly up against.
The sheer number of manikins now roaming these lands had convinced the moogle that, somehow, Chaos' chosen had found a way to tap into The Rift. It was a chilling thought – how cunning they summoned could be; how much had they already deciphered? – but the moogle was not worried. Despite the unexpected win Cosmos' side had managed those many cycles ago, breaking their cycle of defeat and purging the God of Discord of his amassed strength, Chaos' power still far eclipsed even the strongest of his chosen…
…A fact which made their adversary's situation all the more piteous.
Should the Warriors of Cosmos ever triumph against the relentless and limitless manikin horde, they would have to face their killers, Chaos' chosen. And if by some miracle they would once more emerge victorious against their butchers, then they would have to face Chaos' might.
By his estimation, Chaos had already amassed enough power to rival Shinryu in battle.
And lastly, the moon was becoming fuller, brighter, with each passing day.
The oblivious Warriors of Cosmos were truly very piteous.
They had absolutely no idea what they were up against, particularly if the ever-hungry Shinryu decided to hasten his next meal. Knowing how impatient the dragon god could be, the moogle prepared his heart – steeled his conscience - for the inevitable slaughter.
The moogle tore his gaze from the waxing moon, willing himself not to think of the inevitable fate of Cosmos' chosen warriors. Everything was going according to the plan he had carefully constructed and implemented; Cosmos' downfall was never a surprise.
But… they were piteous.
His heavy heart constricted painfully.
Maybe…. Just maybe Cosmos' chosen could pull off another miracle amidst all the odds against them.
The thought was not enough to ease his pain, however.
After all, should they manage to surpass all his calculations and prove that their first victory wasn't a fluke, that it wasn't the anomaly present in every dataset…
…they would be forced to return to the slaughter again.
Cosmos' chosen were truly cursed.
And it was his fault.
He threw one last glance at the waxing moon and murmured to himself in an attempt to rid his mind of his guilt.
"It's time to get to work… kupo."
Where was his resolve?
This routine was becoming harder to stomach with each passing cycle.
"That's impossible." The witch whispered to herself in disbelief, unable to believe the sight her yellow orbs drank.
On the floor below her walked a woman with long raven hair cascading down her back with its tips bunched together in a short horse's tail that brushed against the curve where her rear began with each of her wandering steps. Her face was shaped like a heart – features so sweet one might even say they were angelic.
Liquid fire suddenly boiled through Ultimecia's veins, burning through the ice that had previously occupied it when she first laid her gaze at the woman.
And just as abruptly as her tumultuous emotions rage, so too was she able to still them.
"Think clearly." She calmed herself with a murmur.
This must have been a test.
Fate had always conspired against her.
Fate was never at her side.
Even here, in this world ruled by that godling, Fate saw fit to send that mindless lion after her paws.
Oh Ultimecia remembered the First Cycle – she remembered pathetic little Artemis.
So piteously innocent.
So frustratingly gullible.
So unbearably weak.
That memory recalled old wounds of her youth. It reminded her that no matter where she went, she would still be bound by that accursed prophecy. It reaffirmed Ultimecia that what she was doing was just; she was fighting against the death Fate saw fit to bestow upon her!
A cross she was fated to carry before she even came into existence!
So, why should she be surprised if Fate saw fit to send that wretched devil after her now that she was so close to becoming a god? If this marked the arrival of those wretched hunters, then she would face them with her claws poised for battle.
She had already proven that the lion was not infallible – that the lion was merely a cub with fangs too sharp for his own bite.
Ultimecia's claw flew to her breast where a sudden ache undulated – a phantom wound where the cub had sunk his fang in when he, that devil, and the rest of his accursed posse stormed her castle and challenged her.
With a sinister smile, Ultimecia made her way to greet the devil.
It was only moments later when she realized that this woman wasn't the devil that walked beside the cub.
Regardless, maybe tormenting this wench was not without merit, especially when her appearance incited her so very furiously.
It was a brand new day.
Aerith blinked away the bright sun's gaze as she exited the cave. Her hands flew to her arms when a cool breeze wrapped her in its embrace, causing her shoulders to reflexively shiver. White mist escaped her through her pink lips as she glanced around, looking for her companions.
The first her emeralds found was the Phantom Train. Under the sun's light, the golem and its two carriages no longer appeared as menacing as the previous dusk, and it showed when Aerith approached it with friendly, if a tad bit cautious, steps.
"Good morning." She greeted the golem cheerfully, a smile as warm as the sun on her lips.
"There's nothing good about this morning." The golem drawled its gruff reply as it remained perfectly still. Had it had a nose, it would no doubt sniff in derision at the perky flower girl.
Despite the unsavory reply, Aerith's mood wasn't soured. She nodded at the golem curtly as she passed it by. Aerith's feet carried her forward towards the lake in search of both her companions and to possibly refresh herself.
A glimmer of color caught the corner of her eyes and she immediately snapped towards it.
A radiant smile blossomed at what she saw.
Prishe was dancing – no, that wasn't quite right – the monk was prancing before a crouched and dazed Squall, laughing a loud, hearty laugh with a wide grin splitting her cheeks. Aerith couldn't quite get what the monk was jeering this time, though it seemed to make her companion more tired despite it being so early in the morning.
In stark contrast to the clearly happy Elvaan girl, Squall had his head dipped as he shook it in… defeat? Or was that resignation? Regardless what it was, Squall slowly stood up and, seemingly trying to ignore the monk, brushed past the girl.
Even as far away as Aerith was during her approach, her emerald eyes did not miss the way Prishe's amethyst orbs sparkled with the sun as she grabbed Squall's hand just as he walked past her and sharply tugged the much larger man to collide with much her smaller but more sturdier frame. In one smooth motion, Prishe let go of his hand and wrapped herself around his arms and stuck her tongue out to the annoyed and disoriented man.
Squall rolled his eyes and dragged the whooping Prishe in her direction; their eyes widened when they finally noticed Aerith and her knowing smile.
Squall flushed a rather embarrassing shade of scarlet while Prishe's booming laughter only grew.
"May I ask what that was all about?" Aerith questioned them with a curious, playful tone.
"You may." Squall began seriously before setting her with a glare. "But I'm gonna have to kill you."
He received a rather loud thwap to the head courtesy of the mighty Prishe; if the mood wasn't so serious – and if Squall hadn't been making such jokes with a straight face – Aerith would have chastised the monk's casual use of violence. As it stood, Aerith merely giggled.
"You gotta work on your jokes, Squally old boy!" Prishe admonished the much larger warrior, who was still blinking in confusion. It wasn't that the hit had rattled his brain – Squall was genuinely confused how Prishe, who just barely touched his twelfth rib, managed to hit his head without jumping nor raising herself to the tips of her toes. "Try smiling a bit!"
Squall suddenly smiled at her. He promptly earned another smack to the head.
"Not like that! That's just plain creepy!"
"Whatever." Squall rolled his eyes. He glared at Aerith, who was attacked by another fit of giggles at the slapstick comedy. "Oh you shut up."
Squall was still red.
"Sorry, sorry." Though Aerith's chuckling had died down, a glimmer of mirth still sparkled in her eyes. "But, I just never thought, you know, with you being like that…"
Prishe snorted. "Don't let the little man fool you, Aerith!" The monk relinquished her hold on the mercenary as she marched up in front of the flower girl pompously, waving a finger as she lectured. "He's actually got a sense of humor. Sure, it's buried somewhere in that face he calls a rear of his, but if you wiggle your finger just right," as if for emphasis, Prishe's forefinger squirmed, "You just might get a hootin' toot outta this ass!"
Aerith erupted into another giggling fit.
"'A hooting-'!" Squall spluttered at Prishe's colorful syntax. His brows creased in annoyance and he opened his mouth to protest in anger –
"Ah, ah!" Prishe cut him off, throwing a wide grin over her shoulder. "It's my time now, ain't sport? We agreed that if I won that spar, then I'm deciding what we're gonna do next."
'Well', Aerith thought to herself as she watched the exchanged with a mirthful smile, 'I now know what they were up to before.'
Squall folded his arms. "In case it slipped by you, I'm on a tight schedule, Prishe."
"It didn't." Prishe rolled her eyes. "But all I'm asking is for you to lighten up while we go rescue those pansies."
Aerith blinked. "Rescuing pansies?"
Prishe spun around sharply and grinned maniacally at the flower girl. "Yup! We're gonna go catch ourselves some Warriors of Cosmos before the traitor catches up to them. Hell, we'll catch the traitor if we see him, too!"
As if to punctuate her statement, Prishe slammed her fists together.
"And… how are you planning on achieving that?"
"Well, it took me some thinkin' but, if that tin can's capable of finding Squall by tracking his soul, then surely he's capable of tracking all the other guys too!"
"…I came up with that plan." Squall grumbled at Prishe's explanation.
"Details!" Prishe waved it off as she skipped back towards Squall to take his arm. Grinning up at him, she gestured her free arm forward with a flourish. "Well, shall we, princess? Your carriage awaits!"
Aerith giggled as Squall stormed past them, dragging a chuckling monk in tow.
It seemed Squall and Prishe had finally managed to patch their relationship.
Now, if only the rest of their journey would continue just as joyfully…
A/N: Anyone feel like drawing a comic strip of a mischievous Prishe luring Squall with promises of Ultimecia's whereabouts?
Regarding the way Squall acted throughout the first part ie his heart-to-heart with Prishe, blame Squall's self-consciousness. He is aware of how he is acting (his monologue to the unconscious Rinoa in disc 3 reveals as much, but other examples are in his thoughts) or what he must sound like, and he's doing his best not to trip up in a situation he knows is very delicate.
As for the timeline, since I can't be bothered anymore to type out another 3-6k words translating the game's events into story format (just go watch them on youtube, I guess? Transcribing feels like wasted effort at this point), events that have already taken place are Laguna's reunion with Vaan, Yuna's encounter with Mateus and subsequent kidnapping of Jecht, and Tifa meeting with Ultimecia, which I think was before her rescue from Sephiroth by Cloud. Lightning's still galloping her way to the Sanctuary.