Chapter 15

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"What a trip," Zidane groaned painfully as he staggered through the massive gates of Lindblum Castle City, and collapsed in a betailed heap on the ground. "Remind me never to do that trip all in one go again. Ow, by the way."

"We will make certain to hold you to that," Steiner said, glaring at Zidane, trying unsuccessfully to massage his sore feet through his foot armour.

"Agreed," Dagger said emphatically. "A whole week, without a single break?"

"Or a single bathroom break," a small, yellow and blue comet added in a voice remarkably like Vivi's as it shot past and into the nearest Lindblum Texico station.

"When did this place get gas stations?" Amarant wondered before promptly falling asleep and unfortunately not remembering to sit down before he did so.

"Ow!" Zidane whimpered as first Amarant and then Freya landed directly on top of him.

Wondering vaguely if this were a sign that fatigue had become too much for her, Dagger burst into a helpless fit of giggles once again. Really, this was much funnier than it should have been…

"Laugh it up, Dagger," Zidane croaked, his voice muffled by the pile of weary travellers. "I just hope you never have to go through it."

"You know, you three," she finally managed through her laughter, "you'd probably have a more comfortable nap at the Grand Castle than in the middle of a crowded street."

"Yeah, guys, she's right," Zidane called weakly from beneath his friends. "So, if you could just get up now, I'd really appreciate it. I like breathing."

"He's dead to the world, I'm afraid," Freya informed him mournfully, looking up briefly from the task of poking Amarant repeatedly in the side of the head.

"Cut it out," he muttered sleepily, batting at her hand.

"Well! That was a little disturbing! Help me out here, Zidane," Freya concluded, seizing Amarant's arm and trying to drag him off the betailed youth.

Zidane glared frostily up at her.

"And how am I supposed to do that when I can't move?"

"Just give him a shove!" Freya replied, exasperated.

"Would you like some help?" Dagger giggled.

Zidane laughed heartily, if a little wheezily.

"C'mon, Dagger! You're gonna help us? No offense, but I don't think you'll do much good."

Dagger froze and then turned slowly toward Zidane. She crouched down next to him.

"What exactly do you mean by that, Mr. Zidane?"

"Well…"

"Are you calling me weak?"

"Well…"

"Just wait! As soon as we're all a little better rested, you'll see just how weak I am!" she declared furiously before storming over to the pile of scrap metal that was Steiner.

"I'm sure I will," Zidane grinned.

"Stop it!" she exclaimed almost tearfully. Then, calmly, she added, "By the way, I wasn't saying I'd help you myself. I meant I'd wake Steiner up to help you instead."

"At least that might do some good," Zidane snickered.

"You're mean!"

"Dagger," Freya called weakly. "Could you get Steiner woken up and over here quickly?"

Dagger turned, and then stared in bewilderment at the rather odd spectacle before her eyes.

Amarant had rolled over onto his back, thus pinning a very miserable Zidane to the ground even more fully. He had also apparently shaken his arm free of Freya's grip, and had then proceeded to fling it over her, thus pinning her effectively to him.

"He's begun to cuddle," Freya explained rather unnecessarily.

"And that bugs you? I'm surprised," Zidane cackled.

"Not being able to breathe does "bug" me a little, yes," Freya replied coldly.

With a sad shake of her head, wondering if they had come all this way only to meet their end during a particularly violent nap, Dagger knelt down next to Steiner, and shook his shoulder gently, creating a festively tambourinesque effect.

"Meine Lieblingskissen…" Steiner murmured sleepily, opening his eyes slightly. Then, as they lit on Dagger, he leapt to his feet, nearly knocking her unconscious with his shoulder. "Yes, Your Highness? What is it?"

Rather than answering in words, Dagger pointed mutely to the heap of travellers up against the brick arch leading into the city.

Steiner pondered the sight for a moment, his finger to his chin. Finally, his mind made up, he turned to Dagger.

"Do you think they know that they would be more comfortable sleeping somewhere else?"

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The day was not going well for Quina Quen, most famous member of his tribe, if one asked the average video game enthusiast. He would never have thought that a lack of midday patrons would be a problem in a Lindblum tavern, but here he was, on his fifth day as a tavern manager, waiting idly for someone – anyone – to step in for a quick mid-morning bite or sup. Waiting as idly as he had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that.

Finally, with a sigh, he pushed off of the bar he had been leaning against and trundled into the back, where four very bored serving girls and three very bored Junior Chefs were gathered around a bucket of cold water – the closest thing to a water cooler they could manage – discussing the outcome of a new play that had swept through the city like wildfire, Companions. The story of seven young people living in a big city and trying to deal with the frustrations of everyday life and such issues as jobs, dating, and their own fights amongst themselves, was it any wonder that Companions was a favourite among Lindblum's young adult population?

"I just can't believe Toby ended up with Maria!" a pretty young brunette exclaimed.

"I know!" her friend agreed emphatically, adjusting her kerchief over her thick blonde braid.

"I knew it from the start," one of the Junior Chefs, a lanky redheaded youth, said airily.

Both girls wheeled on him.

"You did not!"

"How did you know?!"

"It was obvious," he said wisely.

Quina shook his head in annoyance, his tongue flapping from side to side as he did so, and would have told the boy blisteringly that anyone could predict the outcome of something after the fact, if he hadn't been fairly certain that this would start an argument of some sort that he frankly didn't feel like dealing with.

Instead, he cleared his throat.

"No customers now," he proclaimed. "Everyone take hour break. Come back half hour before lunch rush."

There was a panicked murmur from the workers.

"Break with full pay," Quina added, rolling his eyes as well as one could roll something vaguely resembling a pair of fried eggs.

"Whoo-hoo!" was the general consensus as a stampede for the door ensued.

"Quina hired a bunch of shmucks," the Qu grumbled as the door of the tavern slammed shut behind the last of his employees. "What made Quina, unassuming small-marsh Qu, leave friendly big city of Alexandria and come to unfriendly bigger city to open tavern?"

He pondered this for a moment. Then he brightened.

"Ah! Quina remember! To make money, to buy food! Ah, food. Quina's true purpose."

At this moment, he was distracted from further ponderings of the meaning of life by the bang of a door opening abruptly and emphatically. Quina's grin, which was essentially constant, could only widen, and widen it did, as four strangely garbed people entered.

Customers!

"Hey!" the first newcomer, a young girl of around fifteen or sixteen with masses of bright red hair greeted. "We've been travelling all day—"

"It's only the middle of the morning, Lina," the second newcomer, a man clad all in beige, his face hidden by a mask and hood that nearly met somewhere around his nose, reminded her grumpily.

"I know that! I thought we'd have made better time, or we would've stopped for breakfast at a house along the way! Well, mister," she continued, addressing Quina once again, "let's see some food!"

"Food Quina's specialty," Quina said jovially, starting off to the kitchen. He turned. "Please, you and friends make yourselves comfortable in Quina's humble establishment."

"Try not to eat this place out of business too, Miss Lina," a tiny girl of about fourteen clad in white and pink, with short dark hair, admonished as she followed the other two in.

"Remember who we're talking about, Amelia," a very tall man with long blonde hair sighed. "Food, food, food!" he added enthusiastically as the four took their seats.

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"Keep it coming, pal," the redheaded girl that the other three had called Lina mumbled between mouthfuls of a thick, rich soup. This is pretty good, for a little place like this, she noted, surprised.

Quina peered curiously at her dish.

"Why Quina's guest eating gravy by itself?"

Lina turned green for a brief second. Then she shrugged. Who cared what it was, if it tasted good?

"Never mind that! Just bring us…two more of everything."

"Quina pleased you enjoying our food," the Qu said, endeavouring to look modest as he surveyed the redhead and the blond man mowing through appetizers, main dishes, and desserts alike at a dizzying rate.

"Don't flatter yourself," the hooded, cloaked man in beige said, sipping delicately at a cup of coffee. "They would eat like this if it were raw and rolled in dirt."

"Quina…see," Quina said hesitantly. Then he turned. "Two more of everything, coming up!"

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"You let a magician handcuff you together?!" Eiko exclaimed, circling Amarant and Freya slowly, examining the handcuffs. "Why did you do that?"

"Ask Zidane," Freya suggested, glaring fiercely at that same boy, who had flung himself comfortably onto one of the plushy red couches that abounded in the guest apartments of Lindblum Grand Castle.

Eiko shrugged.

"Okay. Zidane, why did Amarant and Freya let a magician handcuff them together?"

"To be honest, Eiko," Zidane began with a mock-sigh, straightening up from his lounging position, "I don't really know. Grown-ups do strange things sometimes."

The little girl considered this for a long while. Then she turned to Dagger.

"Hey, Dagger, do you think it's something like when Papa Cid and Mama Hilda bought some handcuffs? They said that maybe it would help them be adventurous."

Dagger, who had been in the process of taking a sip of soothing hot cocoa that a concerned Hilda, seeing her on the verge of breakdown, had insisted she take, promptly experienced an abrupt and explosive migration of liquid by way of her nose. Coughing and sputtering in a most un-queen-like fashion, she shot Steiner a pleading glance. This was lost on the knight, who had been lost to the world for quite some time, snoozing blissfully where he had propped himself up against the wall.

Eiko gazed about her in confusion. Dagger was wiping hot chocolate off her face and inspecting her now stained blouse mournfully. Zidane was twisted into knots of wild giggles. Amarant and Freya were trying their hardest to kill him with a joint-effort-death-glare. Finally, realizing that it was no use looking to these silly grown-ups for answers, Eiko turned to Vivi.

"What's wrong with them?"

Vivi simply shook his head mournfully.

"They've been acting funny the whole way here. Hey, Eiko, do you know what Left Foot Yellow means?"

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"Quina never seen anything like it," the Qu marvelled as the massive pile of food before the tiny redheaded girl and the tall blond man – the fifth Quina had brought out –dwindled to a pile of nothing. 

   "A light snack for them," the man in beige shrugged.

   "Their appetites almost as big as Quina's!"

At this fatal statement, time seemed to slow, and then teeter to a stop.

The man in beige and the girl in white exchanged pained looks.

The blond man in blue continued to eat, noticing nothing.

The redhead, however, dropped the turkey she was in the process of chomping on, and lifted her head slowly to glare at Quina.

   "Is that a challenge?" she asked, eyes beginning to flicker dangerously.

   "Quina would never embarrass his guests that way," Quina said soothingly. "No one can eat more than Quina."

   "Oh, really?" Lina asked sweetly.

   "Quina hate to brag…"

   "Sit down," Lina ordered. "Gourry, Zelgadis, Amelia, wait outside. This could get ugly."

   "But I'm still hungry," the blond man, Gourry, lamented.

   "Never mind, Mr. Gourry," the girl in white, Amelia, said soothingly. "Maybe we can find a different place."

   "You wasting time," Quina said airily as the three proceeded to scramble for the door.

   "Enough talk," Lina growled, wondering where this odd sense of déjà vu had come from. "Bring it on."

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   "And that's the whole story," Dagger finished sadly, readjusting her position on the big, soft blue cushion to which Eiko had directed her when they had entered the little girl's personal sitting room.

Eiko blinked, silent for several moments.

   "So…tell me again how the Twister board fit in," she requested.

With an annoyed grumble, Dagger launched back into the tale.

When she had finished, Eiko once again blinked in a stunned silence.

   "So…is it something like when Mama Hilda and Papa Cid bought handcuffs?"

  "No!" an indignant Freya exclaimed from the wall that she had selected to lean against.

    "I think it's because you wanted to spend more time together," Eiko giggled.

   "And I think you'd better shut up fast," Amarant said calmly, the hair over his eyes nearly singeing from the sheer force of the glare he was aiming at the little imp stretched out across the frilled blue and white spread covering the massive bed on the other side of the room.

   "Hey!" Eiko exclaimed, frowning indignantly. "This is a girl-talk time! No boys allowed!"

   "Then why is Vivi here?" Dagger asked, indicating the behatted mage, who was shifting nervously from foot to foot, obviously ill at ease amidst all the lace, frills, and general "girliness". Strange; Eiko had never seemed that kind to him. But probably the decorating of the room hadn't been left to her.

   "Vivi's not a boy," Eiko explained with all the cool dignity of an outraged six-year old. "He's just Vivi."

   "Should I be mad?" Vivi wondered to himself.

   "But no other boys are allowed!" Eiko was meanwhile continuing.

   "Believe me, I wish I had a choice," Amarant grumbled.

   "Don't worry; I'll leave, too," Freya hastened to assure the little girl. "In fact, I think it's about time for me to be burying myself deep underground, never to emerge until life has stopped repeatedly slapping me with the rubber chicken of silly incident after silly incident."

   "Um…Freya?" Dagger began hesitantly, exchanging worried looks with Eiko. "Are you okay? You never used to mix metaphors. Or come up with new, completely stupid ones."

    "Oh, really?" Freya murmured, wondering if just being silent wouldn't have been a much easier option. Certainly, the chances of being questioned would have been less.

   "Yes! And you're becoming sulky and…really, kind of badass! And you keep leaning against things! I think Amarant's having a bad influence on you."

   "Believe me, Dagger, I agree wholeheartedly," Freya said emphatically.

   "Hey!" Amarant said angrily and just a wee bit reproachfully. "You're supposed to wait until I'm not in the room to say things like that."

   "Wonderful idea!" Freya exclaimed sarcastically. "Why don't you just step out for a moment, until we're done discussing you? Oh, hold on," she continued, holding up her wrist and staring at the handcuffs, pretending to notice them for the first time. "I guess you can't."

   "And you're getting bitter," Dagger added decidedly. "And not only that, but just the other day, you threatened to throw Amarant so far, he'd hit his own shadow."

   "Oh, come on!" Freya protested. "That was only after he threatened to jump on me and poke me with a big stick!"

   "Maybe it's not just him influencing you," Dagger said mournfully, inwardly reflecting that this last statement of Freya's had sounded a good deal more suggestive than it should have, and once would have. While we're on the subject of people influencing other people, I think I've been around Zidane too long.

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   "Your Highness?" Steiner called tentatively, trying vainly to work the ache that came from sleeping up against a wall, from his neck and shoulders. "Master Vivi? Freya? Amarant? Monkey Boy?"

When, upon searching around the hallway for several minutes, he was still unable to find any of his elusive friends, or "party members", if you will, he pouted.

   "Why do I always get left behind?"

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   "Man, am I glad to be out of there!" Zidane mused as he ambled through the theatre district of Lindblum. "I was sure I was gonna start laughing when Eiko asked all those questions. And then Amarant and Freya would kill me. Going for a walk seems a little safer."

Scarcely had Zidane spoken these fatal words when a large, white-and-red shape approached him. The figure's face wore a huge grin, but his gait was drooping and dejected-looking. Zidane's eyes widened in surprise.

   "Quina?!"

At this, the Qu looked up.

   "Hi, Zidane," he replied sadly.

   "Hey, hey, hey, what's the matter, Tongue Man?" Zidane asked gently, steering Quina over to a bench at the side of the street.

   "Quina lost an eating contest."

   "Whoa," Zidane breathed in awe. "I don't even wanna see the horrific creature that out-ate you."

Quina's eyes narrowed at the memory of his humiliating defeat.

   "Little redheaded girl."

Zidane blinked.

   "Uh…a kid beat you in an eating contest?"

An instant later, as Quina broke into sobs, the blond wondered if he had said the wrong thing.

   "Aw, Quina, it's gonna be okay."

   "Nothing will ever be same again!" Quina wailed. "Quina having a crisis of identity!"

Zidane's left eye began to twitch slightly.

   "Okay, man, I understand that you're upset. But knock it off! The world just isn't ready for Quina-angst."

   "There the monster now," Quina growled, shooting a scathing glare at a short, slight figure making her way towards them, followed by three others.

Zidane looked up absently, and then, as it occurred to him exactly why a petite teenage girl, with long red hair, garbed in the clothes of a sorceress, and followed by a swordsman, a dark-haired girl in white, and some blue guy was significant to him, he looked again, and so abruptly that it took a few seconds for his eyes to catch up with his head.

   "Dude!" he exclaimed. "That's the girl that destroyed the tavern we were in! We've been looking for her, because we thought she might be able to get Amarant and Freya out of the handcuffs they've been stuck in for the last week!"

Quina blinked his twin fried eggs several times. Then…

   "Quina not want to know."

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Author's Notes: Yes! The story seems to have almost caught up with the plot, which means the end should be nigh, unless things take another totally unexpected turn.

[Glares at her extremely unmanageable characters]

Anyway, many apologies for taking so long, I hope to have the next bit up soon, and all that jazz. ^_^