five

-yes yes yes-

The words beat like war drums in her mind, and Quistis pulls away from Rinoa with a grimace as her head pounds with the force of the thought. Something is there, crawling around like a centipede over her mind.

"Rinoa..." she begins warily, pressing her hands against her temples. God, it hurts. "Stop it."

"I'm sorry!"

kill the beast, drink its blood

-yes yes yesyesyes-

The pain intensifies behind her eyes. She gasps and stumbles back against the counter, scrabbling for purchase against the ache. Her hand smacks into Rinoa's open coffee cup, and it falls. The coffee is scorching hot against her fingers.

-yesyesyesyes-

(She lets it in- there's no way to stop it, and there is a part of her that accepts the sensation, accepts the power.)

-yesyesyes-

She exhales, and is distantly aware of a faint scream. Who's making that sound?

Rinoa is reaching for her, tears streaming down her face, and her hands are morphing- lion's claws and a bull's horns and she will tear you to shreds with a look.

Quistis says something- I have to go- and it is only when she is out of the apartment, all the way down the hall that the pain behind her eyes abates just the tiniest fraction, replaced by the agony in her hand.

They are running out of time.

xx

"Don't turn on the light," Quistis mumbles the second Seifer steps into the bedroom later that afternoon. Her voice is strained, like just speaking is painful.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

There is a rustling of blankets as she burrows deeper into the pile she has created, even though it's not at all cold in here. She doesn't answer his question, though, and he makes an effort to tread lightly across the room. When he emerges from the bathroom after his shower, she is still in exactly the same position, huddled against the wall.

The bed depresses under his weight as he sits on the edge, and the springs give off a faint squeak that elicits a whine of protest from Quistis.

"Sorry," he murmurs. The pile of blankets shrugs. "I take it you don't want to come to the caf for lunch, then."

"Shut up."

He throws on a pair of sweatpants and a clean t-shirt and leaves her to her silence and her darkness.

The caf is bright and noisy in sharp comparison; he's arrived just after lunch rush, so there isn't much of a line. He grabs a tray and piles some food onto it- a hamburger wrapped in foil, a salad in its own little pristine, lidded cup, a bottle of water- swipes his card at the register, and scans the room for familiar faces. There are two, he discovers- Fujin and Raijin have occupied one of the far corner tables and he shoves his way past a group of first-years who go quiet at his approach, like they're going to get into trouble for giggling.

"Hey, boss," Raijin says. It's strange how stubborn Rai is- Seifer isn't the leader of some posse anymore, looking to stir up trouble and write up cadets for no reason, but the nickname has stuck since they were all thirteen, and will stick around until they're all dead, probably. "No better half?" he asks, craning his neck to see if Quistis might still be waiting in the queue.

"Nah, she opted out of eating, apparently." Seifer unwraps his burger; come to think of it, he can't actually remember the last time he's seen Quistis eat anything in the past couple of days, outside of sucking down vats of coffee, and that doesn't actually count as nutrition. Huh.

"Esthar?" Fujin asks. She's done away with the wigs and most of the makeup, compromising by dyeing her hair a dark brown and wearing colored contacts to make her blind-white eye seem almost normal. It's a bit disconcerting at first glance; it took Seifer a long time to be able to look at her straight on after the change. If it hadn't been for that mission in Galbadia, the one that legitimately killed Selphie and Irvine and had Fujin declared dead for about ten minutes, she wouldn't have to do this at all. But Deling City's drug lords are notorious, and a silver-haired, half-blind pale girl is memorable. She has a headstone in Garden's cemetery, marking the final resting spot of an empty box.

"Fine." Seifer shrugs. "We survived."

"Rinoa?"

"Crazy as ever." He takes a bite of his hamburger, chews, swallows. "Maybe crazier."

"That's the rumor mill, y'know," Rai comments. "She's losing it."

Seifer grunts around a mouthful of burger, noncommittally. Fujin wisely changes the subject to the Triple Triad regional tournament, and the rest of the meal passes in mostly small talk.

When Seifer leaves, he takes the unopened salad with him.

xx

"Again," Squall says.

"This vial," the scientist points out, "then this one. Then this one. One at a time."

Squall nods, and the entire bundle is folded up in a neat container for him, sealed in a biohazard bag that he is instructed not to open until he absolutely has to.

-i'm sorry sorry sorrysorrysorry-

He catches a ride on a cargo transport to Balamb. It takes an eternity, and all the while, Rinoa's thoughts are beating hard in his head, an ache deep inside his mind that will never, ever abate.

xx

She has moved, just a little bit, when he walks in after his lunch, slumped on their narrow sofa, a mug of tea in hand, steaming hot and smelling of mint. Her hand still aches, but the pain behind her eyes has dulled down from war-drum to light thud. The tea is helping; the aspirin helps slightly more.

"Ah," he says. "You live."

"More or less."

Seifer holds out one of the salads from the caf, and when Quistis doesn't move to take it, he sets it on the coffee table. "It'd probably help if you ate something."

"Thanks, but I'm not hungry." She shifts her legs a little, just enough so that he can sit down, then she puts her feet in his lap. He raises an eyebrow at her.

"Comfortable?"

"Eh." She shrugs, and he snorts, taking one of her feet in hand and squeezing gently, eliciting a sigh of pleasure from her. Quistis settles back against her pile of pillows and sips her tea. The warmth of her drink and the feel of his hands is a soothing combination.

Seifer glances at the bandage wrapped around her knuckles. "What did you do? Get into a fight with a Trepie?"

"Not exactly," she replies. "Spilled some coffee." She drains the rest of her tea and sets the mug next to the salad.

He works his hands down to her heel. Quistis closes her eyes, losing herself in the sensation, and doesn't really know how much time passes before she dozes off.

(Kill the beast and drink its blood. The red queen laughs, and the sky explodes.)

She jerks upright, dislodging one of the pillows behind her as she catches herself on the edge of the couch before she slips to the floor.

"What?" Seifer's hands stop moving. He is staring at her, his expression confused. "What's wrong?"

Something roils in her stomach, and Quistis can't answer him. She flees, narrowly making it to the toilet before she heaves up a foul mixture of coffee and tea and little else. The tile is cold beneath her knees; she holds fast to the toilet seat, gasping.

-i'm s-s-s-s-orrrrry-

Seifer is there behind her, saying something she can't understand, his hand solid against her back, warm through her thin shirt. Somewhere down the hall, she knows that a woman is crying, and she doesn't know how she knows that.

-the feeling of something crawling over her mind, not a centipede this time, but something sharp, something digging into her very being-

She gets to her feet slowly, holding onto the edge of the sink, her honed muscles betraying even the simple command to stand up straight. When she catches her reflection in the mirror, her eyes are wide and more black than blue.

She breathes. In, out. In, out.

(you have no choice.)

xx

She dreams of the void, of folding it upon itself, until she has nothing more than a square of dead space in her hands. She wakes shaking and gasping and knowing.

Somewhere, a woman is crying.

Somewhere, a witch is laughing.

Somewhere, there is the beating of a young man's heart, and it is getting closer.

Rinoa curls into a smaller ball in the corner of their big, big bed, inhaling air and exhaling a silent scream. Somewhere, somewhere, somewhere.

She is everywhere, and she is going mad with it.