TWISTING, he ducked away from an angry claw swipe, spinning low to come up behind the beast's elbow and hit a glancing blow. With a roar the blue dragon whirled around, slapping his sword from his hand to spin across the room where it clanged against the rock wall. It drew its head back and sent an icy blast his way.

Luxiere took a breath, and threw himself out of its path, rolling across the rocky ground and up to his feet. He turned to face the dragon, not fast enough as its tail came around to connect with his stomach and send him hurtling into the wall alongside his stricken sword.

He slumped to the ground, folding his arms around himself to clutch his ribs tightly. He was winded, struggling to draw breath enough to fight the pain and stand. There was no time! He heard the dragon thundering towards him, saw it rear up on its hind legs to come down on him jaws first.

Hurting, he reached for his sword, throwing it up over his head to catch the monster's teeth as they snapped close to his head. His blade jammed between its cheeks, tip slicing through one side. It jerked its head away, yanking the weapon from Luxiere's hands, roaring in pain as the sword slipped further and further through its soft flesh.

He tried to move, but hesitated. His sword was out of his reach, flying back and forth above his head. Without it... He could get it back – leap forwards, plant his foot in the bend of the monster's elbow and jump up above its head easily, drawing his sword from it in the process. Flip backwards on the landing and be standing ready when it stopped moving its head. Easy, what his instincts told him to do, but...

He couldn't do that. Too rash.

The dragon shook its head wildly, clawing at it with one foot in an effort to remove the painful object. With one last hard jerk to the left, the sword came loose, flying free from its cheek only for the dragon to snap its head around and catch it as it fell, shattering the blade between its teeth, the remnants flung across the cavern to the far wall opposite.

Luxiere moved, breaking into a sprint to get away from the dragon and into open space. Now it was free it was going to -

He was knocked back, the dragon's claw swiping him from his feet and coming down over his chest to pin him to the floor. Triumphant, it raised its head and gave a booming roar that echoed up among the stalactites in the high ceiling of the cavern. The roar died away to a snarl, deep in its throat. It lowered its head to enjoy its meal.

Luxiere squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away.

Its jaws never reached him. He opened his eyes and looked up to find it frozen, teeth inches from his face. It fizzled, flickering briefly. The cavern around him shattered suddenly, the pieces falling away into squares of digital information and disappearing before they hit the floor. The dragon began to fall away also.

Its claw vanished, Luxiere took a deep breath, filling his air-starved lungs. He felt as though he had been hit by a train. His ribs were surely going to bruise. He screwed his eyes shut once again. That was going to affect training...

"Good effort." Captain Fenrick's voice crackled to him over the microphone from the control room.

Luxiere sat up, drawing his knees up and leaning forward that his hands dangled between his calves. "Not good enough, though. Right?"

"There's still time."

He shook his head. 'There's been plenty of time.'

"Come on out of there and hit the showers. Then report to the med bay and get your injuries checked out. We'll resume training tomorrow morning, presuming there's no real damage."


Aching, Luxiere got to his feet. 'Bombed on that one, huh? Way to go, Lux.'

Stepping out of the training area, he found Captain Fenrick to be waiting for him. Luxiere sighed, and gave a light salute. The Captain merely nodded.

Though he wasn't any older than twenty-seven, the Captain was a man of experience. Being a First Class SOLDIER himself, and taking part in numerous conflicts, he knew what to look for in other SOLDIERs. He was also kindly, and encouraging in his training methods. As a mentor, Luxiere knew that he had done well. Even now the Captain wore an encouraging smile, though he had to be disappointed. Luxiere lowered his eyes to the floor, feeling his arms move to fold around himself despite his wish to remain at least a little professional.

"I messed up." He murmured. "Again."

"It was a tough situation you found yourself in there." Fenrick assured him, though there didn't seem to be as much conviction in his voice as there used to be. "You just need a little more confidence in your abilities, Luxiere."

"Yeah. Maybe."

"That's all it is."

Was that really it? He just needed to be more confident? That was easy to say. It took all kinds to work well as SOLDIER. He did alright, but that was it. Maybe he had the strength, and the body of a SOLDIER, but he didn't have the mind of one. He was nothing special – not like Zack, or Sephiroth, or the others. He did want to make First, that would be his dream, but...

"Get your injuries checked." Fenrick disturbed his troubled thoughts. "I'll see you back here tomorrow. 0900 hours."

Luxiere nodded, and saluted woodenly. He turned and left the room, his tail between his legs.


Kunsel stood at the top of the stairs, his hands on his hips, one ginger eyebrow raised in disbelief. Luxiere sped up a little, almost sprinting the last few steps to join his friend. Apologetic, he raised one hand to the back of his head and looked somewhat sheepish.


"What's that all about?" Kunsel shrugged, taking his phone from the pouch at his belt and absently flicking through it with one hand. "You're faster than me. What's the hold up?"

"No hold up. Just don't like running inside, is all."


Luxiere nodded, messy blonde locks bouncing with his head. "Yeah."

"That's it?"


With a raised eyebrow, Kunsel turned away and started across the SOLDIER floor towards the notice board near the windows. Today was the day. The list of new Firsts would be posted up. He had a good feeling about this one. He had been working overtime, taking any missions the Company could throw at him and completing them with zeal to spare. They had to have taken notice, he'd not given them a chance to ignore him. He flipped his phone closed and tucked it away at his belt. Two hundred new messages, and that was since breakfast time. He'd need a sit down sesh later to go through them all.

As well as giving him a chance to flex his muscles, the extra missions had let him build his network further. The number of other SOLDIER members he counted as friends now was getting out of hand. He'd soon forget who's birthday parties he was at.

Grinning, he threw a glance over his shoulder at Luxiere. His friend was still lagging behind. While he knew Lux to be a total goody goody when they were apart, the whole running indoors thing just didn't wash. "Okay." Kunsel halted, waiting for Luxiere to catch up before falling into step with him, "What's the problem?"

"Problem? There's no problem."

"Lux, your lies are worse than your haircut. What's on your mind?"

Kunsel had him, didn't he? Didn't matter what he said, the guy would see through it like glass. Embarrassed, he folded his arms over his chest and shrugged lightly. "Nothing much. Just messed up in training today."

"Oh yeah. How's that going?" Maybe that was a stupid question, considering what his friend had just said, but Lux was too polite to say anything about it. He just did what he always did and answered the question he assumed had been asked of him:

"Okay, I guess. It's hard to tell."

"Not seen you on many missions lately."

"No." He shook his head. "Captain Fenrick's got me on intensive training. He's... trying to sort out my confidence issues."

Kunsel didn't say anything to that. He didn't want to stick his size nines in that one. Luxiere had always had confidence issues. They had been in the same intake when they made SOLDIER, though they had not met properly until they met as mutual friends of Zack. When they did, they just clicked. Some people did that.

Right from the off it had been clear that Lux didn't hold much self-belief. He tended to put his faith in others, rather than himself. It didn't really help that the guy was a whacking great pacifist, either. Training couldn't fix everything, though it was hardly a wonder that Shinra weren't picking him up for missions. The thought of Lux facing down a band of enemy fighters, standing there and trying to reason with them was simply not funny, purely because it was probable.

His lack of confidence was the reason he had idolised Zack so. Zack was everything Lux wanted to be, and he could draw strength from knowing that it was possible to be like that. Since Zack's disappearance, however, Lux had retreated into his shell, and not been selected for a single mission. He had taken a massive back step. As his mentor, Captain Fenrick had taken it upon himself to fix Luxiere.

Kunsel sighed quietly, and cast a sidelong glance at his friend. The Captain hadn't known exactly how hard a task that was going to be.

Still, Lux's dedication had to count for something. He was a decent enough SOLDIER. It was possible that both of their names would be on the list. There were normally no more than two or three comprising the whole list, but it was possible that they could both be there. That was the ideal scenario.

The lounge area was quiet. That was unusual for promotion day, but then, being in the know always put Kunsel at the scene before most other people. There was however, a familiar face.

Sheridan, the infantryman was there, leaning against the wall looking out over the city below.

Spotting two purple uniforms reflected in the windows, he stood to attention, throwing a brief salute. Any semblance of regard for rank fell away at the sight of the two men descending the steps. "Kunsel. Lux."

"Sheridan. My man." Kunsel clasped hands with him briefly, moving aside for Lux to do the same. "The list up yet."

"Not yet." Sheridan bumped fists with Luxiere, and glanced at the empty noticeboard. "They're late today. Guess they must still be deliberating."

"Difficult decision this time?"

Luxiere shook his hair out of his face, meeting Kunsel's eyes to find a similar expression to his own there. "Maybe there's a good few this time?"

"Doubt it. Numbers are always scant, As much as you want everyone to make it."

"It'd be cool."

"No hurt feelings? I hear you." True, it would be cool if all the candidates considered could get the promotion. Unfortunately things didn't work that way. Only the very best made it. That was why this was such an anxious day. Waiting to find out if you were good enough was a strain. It shredded the nerves.

The two of them always came up to look at the list, though until now Kunsel knew that he had not been ready for consideration himself. His mentor had put his name forward, as Captain Fenrick had done for Lux before Zack vanished. He had hoped to be put out of his misery by now.

"They've never been this late before." Sheridan mused aloud, likely having been thinking of it before his two friends arrived. "Maybe it's something to do with the new Director?"

"New Director?" Kunsel felt a smile tugging at his lips. "Well, got beat to the punch this time, huh?" He faced Sheridan, flicking his hand forward that his finger flipped to point at him, "Come on, spill!"

"Really? I'm surprised you don't know."

"Cut the coy. I want to hear this."

"Not much to tell." Sheridan lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug and fell back to lean against the wall, gazing out over Midgar once again. "SOLDIER's being absorbed into the army proper. You're all gonna fall under Heidegger's Department."

"Public safety Maintenance?" Luxiere wrinkled his nose. "Will that change anything?"

"Nope. Not really. Get this, though. Heidegger's handing the materia research contract over to Scarlet and Weapons Development. That's the word on the grapevine, at least."

"Sheridan!" Kunsel feigned outrage, "Where's this grapevine, and how can I get a hold on it? I haven't heard any of this stuff."

"You have now. How come you haven't started broadcasting it all around Shinra?"

"Good point."

Turning away to grab his phone and begin spreading the message, Kunsel left Luxiere and Sheridan to it.

Luxiere smoothed his shaggy hair away from his forehead with one hand, peering at Sheridan from under it like a frightened sheepdog. "So, the new Director's kind of hands on, if he's already involved in the decision today and the handover hasn't happened yet?"

"The guy keeps a tight grip on control. While I doubt there'll be many changes out in the field, things up here'll be very different."

That sounded ominous. "Different good or different bad?"

"Personally, I'd call it different different."

"That's a cop out."

"More a diplomatic decision."

"Uh... huh?" Luxiere shook his head, trying to clear out the cobwebs and absorb what he had just heard. Things were changing for real, then? No Lazard, no Angeal, Genesis or Sephiroth. No Zack. This was a whole new SOLDIER. He raised one hand to the back of his head and buried it in his hair, twining his fingers around the untamed strands. The question was, where did he fit in with a new SOLDIER? Would he fit in?

Kunsel drew his attention with a whistle. He dropped his hand and looked round at his friend, blinking. The ginger SOLDIER waved him over,

"That's it. I've had enough hanging around waiting. You want to hear it straight from the horse's mouth?"

This meant being naughty, didn't it? Luxiere bit the side of his lip, feeling a smirk coming over him. "Why not?"

Being classified as good boys was boring. Even without self-confidence, Luxiere knew that. Sure, he was a good boy when he was on his own, but when led astray...?

First it had been the odd disciplinary: A signed form, press ups in the yard, cleaning everything in sight, things like that. Now, it was a resigned sigh, the exasperated shake of a head, maybe even the occasional, weak, 'why?' What did that say about them?

Luxiere grinned quietly to himself, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the elevator as it ascended. Maybe his service record was bland, and not much to write home about, but his behavioural files? He had seen them a couple of times, usually when something new and disparaging was being shoved into them. The first time it had been a slim manilla file, boring and flat. Now? It was kept in a box file to stop all the written warnings from falling out. The pages themselves were a veritable rainbow of colour-coded stickers and tabs, all of them meaning something bad.

His grin grew, a slight, sudden chuckle behind it. He was a bad boy. No amount of shrinking violet behaviour, or lack of confidence in battle could disprove that. He leant forward, resting his knuckles on the carpeted floor in front of his shins.

'28/3 Disciplinary action against Corporal DeLoran, L: Wilful destruction of Company property' – Destroying a plant pot while playing soccer on Floor 49 with Kunsel and Zack, and his helmet. Dented beyond repair. Therefore also destroyed.

'2/4 Disciplinary action against Corporal DeLoran, L: Disruptive activities resulting in suspension of Company services.' - Sliding on the newly waxed and polished floors, into the elevator and jamming a sword in the doors, effectively breaking it and causing problems for people below.

'7/4 Disciplinary action against Corporal DeLoran, L: introduction of unwelcome element onto Company property resulting in call out of maintenance crew, use of dry cleaning services and expense to the Company. Director's comments: Why? Really, why?!': Putting a bucket of water above the door of the men's bathroom, just to see what would happen. Lazard getting very wet, apparently.

Luxiere swallowed his smile. The Director had taken it in good faith. 'No harm done. It was just a prank after all. Though, I would ask that you didn't do it inside next time, and that it be directed away from me if, you please.'

That he had said 'next time' was telling. Lazard was an okay guy, and seemed to get that naughtiness was going to happen when you stuck a bunch of guys together in repeating battle situations. You had to blow off steam somehow, and as the Director had said himself, at least their chosen method was harmless.

He looked up at Kunsel. His friend leant against the rail at the back of the elevator, nodding his head in time to the music on his headphones. It wasn't down to him alone, being a bad boy. Kunsel and Zack had been the ones leading him into it. They had turned him from the path of good behaviour, and he had gone willingly. They had always been involved in the pranks. Long may he continue on that path.

There were a few SOLDIERs with bad boy records, but none of them boasted the thing his did. He almost laughed out loud. His claim to fame – the only one so far, but a good one considering its unique nature:

'7/8 Disciplinary action against Corporal DeLoran, L: Destruction of Company property resulting in major repairs and expense incurred by works. Further expense incurred by call out of maintenance crew. Commission of offence while serving punishment detail. Punishment authorised: Tier two punishment, commencing immediately. Duration: One day.' - Suggesting that he and his comrades use their brooms for playing hockey instead of sweeping the parade square, resulting in an awesome and forceful goal by himself of a steel bucket at breakneck speed through a downstairs window. Not just any window, but one of the massive plate glass ones fitted to the main building. The noise, and the way it shattered, the whole thing had been beautiful in its own way, even if he had nearly vomited all over the place in scared response. It wasn't what he had done that was unprecedented.

Committing another offence while already completing punishment duties for one was unheard of. Until then it had never been done, nor since.

They wouldn't throw him out for that. SOLDIERs had done worse, and it had been an accident, even if he was misbehaving when it happened. He had received Tier Two punishment for it, however. Lazard had left it up to Sephiroth to decide the disciplinary action, and he had done so with maybe a hint of an amused smirk. Tier Two translated as short term imprisonment. One day in the brig.

Neither Zack nor Kunsel had ever been locked up for misbehaving. To his credit, he had taken it very well, despite being terrified of what it would look like on his record. He had even managed a mock salute as the General shut the door of his cell. That had won him a slow head shake, and what sounded like a breathy laugh as the electronic locks slid into place. The only time he had interacted with Sephiroth, and he liked to think that maybe he had left an impression. Even if it was as a cheeky bastard.

Zack had been protesting his punishment up until he was locked up, and by the sound of it all the way down the corridor on the return trip from the cell at the General's heels. Oh yeah, it had been a fun day..

How the three of them hadn't driven Lazard completely bonkers, he didn't know.

His smile fell away. He became downcast. The three of them. Zack was gone, disappeared up in Nibelheim along with the General and his friend from the infantry, Cloud. Under strange circumstances to say the least. Kunsel was investigating, of course. He was too, but without the extensive network his friend had at his disposal. Very little was known among his own friends about the incident, and it didn't look like much was going to be known.

Without Zack, their three was down to two. They had both decided to continue the campaign of mischief in their missing friend's honour. It seemed only right, to go on in the manner they had begun.

What they were doing now, for instance. If they were found out it would be immediate Tier Two. This was ultra naughty. Maybe that was what made it so much fun?

The elevator halted on Floor 66. For a moment after the doors pinged open, it seemed as though nobody was going to step out. A wisp of ginger hair, and a mess of blonde appeared very cautiously around the edge of the doors, followed by a single glowing blue eye apiece.

Nobody was around. The two SOLDIERs stepped out of the elevator and crept along the corridor, skirting against the wall to peer around the corners. Eventually they made it around the back of the boardroom, dodging the security cameras with all due diligence. To be fair, it was unlikely that they would be seen, even if they were to stroll along the corridors all casual-like. Gus, the guard most often assigned to the security bay, said to have square eyes, was likely asleep. He usually was. They should bake him a cake, to say thanks for all the mischief his neglectful attitude had allowed.

They made it to the door of the women's bathroom and flattened themselves against the wall outside. Hesitant, Kunsel knocked on the door. No answer from within. He ducked inside, followed closely by Luxiere.

This part was always uncomfortable. To be caught in the ladies' bathroom... Neither of them had been present when that little incident had occurred. Though they had heard about it, how he had been chased out with his arms defensively over his head, trailed by flying rolls of toilet paper. Straight out the door, right into the General.

Sephiroth had just shaken his head, looked down at Zack collapsed on the floor, looking back at him and just stated flatly, 'Don't want to know.'

That was a good thing, or this little gem may have been detected.

Kunsel opened the door of the middle stall and climbed up onto the toilet bowl. He took out his pen knife and loosened the two screws he knew were present actually holding the grate in place, and shoved it up and to one side with a quiet scrape.

Luxiere gave him a boost up into the vent, and climbed up onto the toilet to take his friend's hand and climb in after him.

It was looking a lot cleaner than usual. The maintenance teams must have actually been doing something with their time, other than cleaning up after pranksters. The exterminators had been through also, though neither team through the vent in the bathroom if it was still accessible they way it had been left.

"Bugs are gone." Kunsel whispered back to his comrade, crawling slowly along the smooth steel. Up until recently there had been a colony of small beetles living in the vents. They had a habit of falling on the board table while there was someone in the vent. Perhaps that was why they were gone? Because they had fallen down one too many times?

Luxiere felt a little sorry for them, but didn't dwell on it too long. Kunsel had halted up ahead. As silently as he could manage, Luxiere squeezed alongside him and flattened himself out on the vent floor to gaze down through the vent at the meeting going on below.

There wasn't a massive presence in the room. Just a small gathering to discuss the candidates put forward for promotion. It consisted of Heidegger, Director of Public Safety maintenance - soon to be boss, if Sheridan was to be believed and the guy's info, in the rare instances he got wind of it before Kunsel, was usually solid – Captain Fenrick, Second Lieutenant Kyle, Kunsel's mentor, Sargent Peacock, and Hojo, Director of the Science Department.

Luxiere rested his chin on his arms. If Peacock was there, then Dorian Felix was up for promotion too. It was just the three of them, then? Discussions below looked... strained?

Heidegger scanned the list in front of him. Just three names. He shook his head. That wasn't promising. SOLDIER was only producing a few First Classes with each promotion wave? That wasn't effective. No wonder the Department had suffered a mass desertion. There was no chance of progressing in the venture, that wouldn't do at all. SOLDIER had far too few Firsts. He would ensure that changed once he took over. He cleared his throat rather loudly, "So, these three candidates are the ones for promotion? What makes them stand out so much over the others?"

Peacock spoke first, a grin on his face. He was an interesting man, dedicated to his work, but with a sarcastic streak a mile wide. Sitting there at the table, elbow propped on its surface, resting his forehead against one finger, he definitely thought himself cock of the walk. He almost scoffed at the question,

"Dorian has everything it takes in spades. You point him at the enemy and he trashes them just the way you want. The boy's skills as a leader are second to none, and you want someone to work alone? He's your man. He's a one man demolition squad when you need it."

Heidegger seemed pleased with that, nodding his head readily. "I have heard that he enjoys his missions."

"You could say it like that."

"I'm convinced."

Kyle and Fenrick said nothing. They merely glanced at one another. Felix was very similar to his mentor in temperament and fighting style. That was probably why Peacock liked him so much. He did need to come down a peg or two...

"What about... Matthews?" Heidegger, frowned at the name, having heard it somewhere, but he could not place where.

Kyle nodded once, a lot more subdued in his answer than Peacock, but with no less confidence in his candidate. "Kunsel's exceptional for his class. He's a strong fighter, and I have no issue trusting him in charge of a mission. He's also the best intelligence agent I have ever known. Some of the information he picks up, he has on occasion made the Turks look amateur."

Hojo snorted at that. "Be careful what you say. You never know who's listening."

Up in the vent, Kunsel and Luxiere glanced at one another and grinned.

"Anyway," Kyle went on, "Kunsel's ready for this. He has been for a long time. He's earned it. He's put in the work and proven himself more than capable. You have his file, you know what I think of him."

"Your report is glowing to say the least."

Kunsel felt himself smiling. This was it, then? SOLDIER First Class Kunsel on the cards for sure? Heidegger was flicking through the report, nodding. His acquiescence was all that Kyle needed, Kunsel's friend and mentor nodding also, a demure smile on his face.

He felt Luxiere's hand on his shoulder, looking round to find his friend nodding also, a proud smile on his face.

"Congrats, man."


Heidegger's voice drew them back to the discussion below. "DeLoran?"

"Hm." Captain Fenrick, folded his arms over his chest, his eyes fixed on the board table in front of him. He looked conflicted. "I don't know what to say."

Heidegger shot him a look of surprise, his bushy brows drawn together, "Pardon?"

The Captain was quiet, staring almost into space. Heidegger was taken aback. Was the man not going to fight for his candidate and sing his praises the way the other two had?

Up in the vent, Luxiere felt his stomach clench.

Fenrick shook his head slowly. "Luxiere... he's taken something of a back step in training recently. The promise he began to show has all but vanished. He's having trouble handling even low level enemies. In training today he was bested by an enemy attuned for a new starting Third. I believe that it may have been a mistake to put him forward for promotion."

"You're serious, aren't you, Captain?"

"Deadly, I'm afraid, Director. Luxiere is a capable SOLDIER, but not even up to standard as a Second at present. Promoting him to First is impossible to consider. His confidence issues affect his ability too much."

Heidegger looked stunned to say the least. Lazard had not recorded anything like this in his notes regarding previous promotion discussions. "What about the others? Wouldn't they take orders from him if he was promoted?"

Fenrick sighed. "He is well-liked. The boys would do as he says quite happily. I just don't think that he would feel comfortable giving orders."

Beside Heidegger, Hojo was leafing through a copy of Luxiere's record. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Captain," He addressed Fenrick, "but Corporal DeLoran has recorded a possible aptitude towards Exponential Energy Projection, has he not?"

"I believe so, though I have never seen it."

"I see." Hojo laid Luxiere's file on the table in front of him and laced his fingers atop it. "That is unfortunate."

"I agree."

"The last side affect of the SOLDIER process to create this level of excitement in my labs was the Digital Mind Wave ability detected in Lieutenant Fair."

"DMW hasn't been detected in any of the others."

"Neither has EEP."

Again, Captain Fenrick shook his head. "I don't think he even knows how to use it. He has never even shown any inclination towards doing so, despite the process being explained to him several times."

"Be fair to the boy." Hojo told him, perhaps a tone of sympathy to his voice? "It is all theoretical, after all. For all we know the process explained to him may not even work."

"Yes." Fenrick looked uncomfortable, as though his teaching methods were in question. "That could be so, but I reiterate that for now I don't feel comfortable considering Luxiere for promotion."

"That is a shame."

Luxiere lowered his eyes to his arms, resting on the floor in front of him. The Captain was really doing this to him? He had thought...

Kunsel's hand on his shoulder was no comfort. He had thought that the Captain was his friend. For him to turn around and stab him in the back like that -

That's not what was happening, though, was it? Fenrick was his friend. He was looking out for him by withdrawing him from consideration like that. The man was looking at this with clear judgement. Promoting someone who was not ready would only go and get them killed, or someone else. That would be worse, to have someone die because he couldn't handle things the way a First should.

This wasn't the Captain's fault. Luxiere shook his head, swallowing the lump in his throat. This was down to him. He couldn't make the cut, and worse, he wasn't even able to operate at the level he was meant to now. Captain Fenrick was doing him, and everyone he would potentially be partnered with, mentoring or in command of, a favour.

Kunsel squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry, pal."

He had nothing to be sorry about. The only person who did was himself. He had held himself back and promotion to First would only mean that he held everyone else of his Class back.

"Is it likely that he will be up to par before the next selection wave?" Hojo asked below.

Fenrick shook his head. "Not the way he is going now, no."

Peacock spoke up then, making Luxiere feel even lower in himself. "What's the problem, Fen? He not cut out for it at all?"

Fenrick shook his head quickly. "That's not it. He has the capability. It's the confidence. It impedes him from making the right decisions. He's second-guessing himself all the time. That monster he faced today, he could see what to do, but lacked the self-belief to do it. That's what I'm seeing in him with every session."

"What're you going to do about it?" Kyle asked from his left. "Give up on him?"

"That's not what I'm saying at all." Fenrick brushed a hand back through his hair. "He has potential, and I believe that I can bring it out in him. It may take some time, but I think it can be done."

So, Captain Fenrick was going to keep on with what he knew would be a long haul, maybe even a failed effort? Luxiere dropped his head to rest his forehead on his folded arms. He couldn't do that to his friend. That was unfair. He wouldn't let him do it.

"You say it's confidence." Hojo piped up, leafing through another file, this one thick and filled with brightly-coloured tags and stickers, the whole thing lifted from a box file to sit on the table. There was another similar box file near Kyle...

"It is confidence-"

"But this is not the file of a SOLDIER lacking confidence." Hojo cut Fenrick off.

"That is all disciplinary action-"

"I am aware of that... Very interesting. I haven't seen a file this terrible since Genesis. The same goes for your candidate." He nodded to Kyle's box file. "Very interesting indeed. The psychology of your candidate, Captain is unusual, I must say."

"What do you mean?"

"Is it not obvious?" Hojo scoffed, closing the file with a hefty slam. "He lacks self-belief enough to have you convinced into withdrawing his candidacy, yet some of his behaviour recorded in this file says otherwise. He lacks the confidence to even defend himself on the battlefield, yet is able to cheek the General, and get away with it? The boy has confidence enough, Captain. Though it appears to be misplaced."

"It's true that when he is with Kunsel he is quite the handful." Fenrick rested his head in his hand and massaged at his temple a moment, before sighing and going on, "Yet alone he is a completely different person. Any faith in his abilities simply disappears."

Heidegger drummed his fingers on the tabletop, the sound loud enough to cut him a path back into the conversation. "Enough psycho babble and science. You are really set on withdrawing your candidate, Captain?"

"Sir." Fenrick answered, a certainty to his tone.

"I see." The Director huffed. "It is just Felix and Matthews, then."

Peacock and Kyle appeared pleased with that. Fenrick was silent on the matter, leaning forward and clasping his hands together out in front of him on the board table.

Hojo placed Luxiere's record back in the box file and shoved it that the whole thing slid a way across the table towards the Captain. "It is a shame." He murmured, moving to stand. "It would have been very interesting to see the boost in EEP following repeated use. Not yet, it would seem."


Kunsel and Luxiere began to crawl backwards, making their way towards the grate and freedom.

They walked in silence back to the elevator, only taking a little care to hide their presence from the cameras. Once inside, with the doors safely closed and the whole thing on a downwards heading, Kunsel got up the courage to speak.

"I'm sorry, Lux."

Luxiere stared at the floor, feeling his shoulders shaking. He raised his head to look at his friend and managed a smile. "It's okay. Hey, congrats again to you."

"Yeah." Kunsel forced a smile. "Now to get back to 49 and look surprised when Kyle tells me."

Luxiere didn't say anything to that. Just remained standing in the centre of the elevator, his arms hanging limp by his sides.

The sight of him made Kunsel uncomfortable. They never should have listened in. Lux would have seen from the list that he hadn't made it, and Captain Fenrick would have told him the reasons without them laid bare and picked apart without thought the way that they had been. That had been harsh. Just like it was harsh to see Lux so clearly upset. "You got plans for the rest of today?"

It was such an inane thing to ask, but what else could he say? This subject was going to be sore, and talking about his own promotion, as much as he burned to, would be unfair.

Luxiere looked up at him again, a brighter smile on his face this time. "Nope. Not going to miss your big moment."

Kunsel hesitated, but couldn't help his grin. "Good. Wouldn't be the same without you there, man." He clapped his friend on the shoulder, holding it a moment and shaking it. "Still gonna cause trouble, aren't we?"

"Try and stop me."

"There's always next time."

He shouldn't have said it. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew that it had been a mistake. Luxiere's expression turned down, and away.

"Could be."

Damn. "So." Kunsel smiled, punching him lightly in the same shoulder. "You fancy putting in a call to the place down the street and ordering five hundred Wutaiese meals to Heidegger's office? You know, to say hello and welcome to the new Director?"

Luxiere swung away from his friend and folded his arms over his chest. "You know what? I'm good right now. Don't really feel like messing stuff up today."

"Okay. That's cool."

"Might just go for a walk."

"Sounds like a good idea. You want me to come with?"

"Actually... I'm good."