A/N: This was written for the lj community 'The Third War', which was the wonderful idea of one irish_ais. The community asked the question, 'what if the Liberi Fatali were pitted against Rinoa? What if the SeeD had to fulfill their purpose and kill the sorceress?' This was my response.

Time is a funny thing. Not funny in the side-splitting sense, of course, but funny because we set goals and dreams and lives and watches by it, and it doesn't really exist in the first place.

Well, not really, if you want to get technical about it.

We're born, we live, and we die, of course, but it's not because of time. Not in the way we think. Realistically, time is a human measurement of entropy, a way to quantify disorder in little packages that the human brain can understand and plan by. I don't think the universe recognizes the concept of five o' clock anymore than it registers Winter Solstice or Hallows Eve or any other human invention. If that's how us mere mortals want to measure out our lives, well, it's all the same to the universe, isn't it?

The part of me that's human, though, has felt time like any other. It's been like some imaginary physical pull in my flesh, keeping pace with my heart as fate carried me along in its currents. I felt it at the orphanage, standing at the water's edge. The ocean seemed so big and incomprehensible then, the tide swirling around my ankles, tugging at me, pulling me into a future I couldn't see or understand. Time felt like that to me then- some big incomprehensible ocean that would one day sweep me away to wherever it is we go when we close our eyes for the last time.

Maybe that's what they mean by 'Fate', I don't know, I just always felt as if there were some invisible force in my life, pulling me towards something big and great and inevitable. Maybe there's no such thing as Fate, I'm not sure- I can only tell you how I felt. Maybe there's no such thing as time. Maybe the 'Liberi Fatali' was just a name they gave us to explain why a group of orphans saved the world.

Whether time is real or not is immaterial too, I suppose; still, it affects me, particularly now- it measures out my remaining time in breaths and beats, which seem to be coming faster and faster with every passing one.

That's an illusion too, of course- the ideas of time dragging or rushing forward are human ones, tempered with emotion and fear. We can't change time- or even the idea of time- we can't slow it down because something we dread is coming, or speed it up to get something awful over with. The pace of the universe, whatever it is, marches over us and through us at its own leisure.

Changing time is a thing for Sorceresses, and it never quite works out for them, either.

It's a silly thing to think about, I know. I suppose I'm only thinking about time right now because there seems so little left.

I'm sure I ought to be afraid; after all, in only hours, I might be gone from the world as I know it. It's an odd thought, imagining myself lying quietly in a coffin, probably in some silly monument that will only grow moss and obscurity as time passes. But fear has never been a regular companion of mine- doubt, certainly, self-recrimination definitely, and loneliness has been a frequent guest as well. But not fear- at least, not for myself.

Well, that's not entirely true.

I've always feared my Blue Magic a little. It seems silly, being afraid of something that's a part of you...and yet, perhaps the thing that scared me the most was that I'd never found its limit. It's like swimming in a well with no bottom- you don't know how deep you can dive, or if you'll be able to get back up once you sink down far enough.

At Garden, I was always asked when I first knew that I was a Blue Mage, and I think my answer was always disappointing to those that heard it. The truth is that I knew the first moment I learned my first spell. I wasn't born knowing that I had the ability, which is probably what they wanted to hear. It sounds much more romantic. If I had been aware of it, it probably wouldn't have been as disconcerting when it first revealed itself.

The magic first manifested itself at Garden, and before that, I'd been like any other student, struggling through junctioning and blistering my fingers on Fire variants. After I became a Blue Mage, the Instructors took more notice, and I was given greater freedoms to practice my magic. Over the years, the magic has grown with me like a vine spreading tendrils across a tree trunk, twisting and reaching into unpredictable shapes, apart and alien to the very tree it embraces. I still don't quite understand it, but fortunately, the magic doesn't require my understanding to function. It has a life of its own.

I remember being frightened by it the first time, shivering as my hand came in contact with the Knowledge. I'd been in the fields, at the time, hunting Funguar, digging through the kills in hopes of finding enough M-stone pieces to sell for a new whip upgrade. As I knelt in front of the kill, I'd touched the green, oozing mucus in the whip-wound at its side and in that instant, I Knew as easily as blinking or breathing, and I understood Laser Eye as if I'd been practicing it all my life.

'Knowledge'- there's no other word for it I can think of. The Knowledge itself is immediate and absolute- it comes from and returns to a place in herself I can't name or find in the span of seconds, and changes me in a way I can't quite quantify. It's like walking, I suppose, or talking- you know for certain as a baby you did not always have the ability to do these things, but you can't really remember life before you did. Blue Magic is the same way. Once you have it, the Knowledge seems as if it's always existed, but of course you know it hasn't.

And for all its usefulness, there is something very disconcerting about a thing that acts from within you and without your permission- a phantom limb that reaches out and takes Knowledge from death and hands it to you without your asking. Even as I used that magic, I was always a little afraid of it.

I often wonder if Rinoa felt the same way about her magic...but then, there's no knowing what Rinoa thinks anymore. Rinoa is gone...or, at least, the Rinoa we used to know.

But then, she was always a bit of a stranger to me.

I don't know quite how to think of the Rinoa, even now- 'friend' seems too generous, while 'enemy' is far too harsh. We fought alongside each other and once, for the merest of moments, we struggled over the same boy, though I'm sure Rinoa never knew. Teenaged melodrama aside, we faced a war together and shed blood together- I suppose in some ways that makes us closer than sisters.

For me, it has never been a matter of liking Rinoa, but rather, understanding her.

Rinoa smiled at the drop of a hat. She believed that wishing on stars could make all your dreams come true. And maybe she was right. Hers certainly seemed to. To me, she appeared to float through life, charming everyone as she went with all the ease of breathing.

Meanwhile, I had spent most of my life in a military uniform, covered in blood and sweat and dirt and wanting to be good enough- whether it was for Cid or Squall or someone, anyone else. I had certainly never wished on any stars and if I charmed anyone, well, I was certainly unaware of it. I'd spent my time at Garden struggling to reach to top, only to realize it was just as lonely as the bottom, and without a clue what to do once I got there. I had no parents to praise me, no siblings to compete with. Garden is the only home I can really remember, though perhaps that's because I don't try very hard. After all, what good is remembering what's lost?

Rinoa had a family, an overprotective father and the memory of a mother that was beautiful and sweet and sad. And for all that I couldn't wrap my head around her, Squall fell in love with her. So did Seifer, for a time. Me, I suppose I wasn't any different- I loved the idea of her, of being her. Of being happy and free and loved without even trying.

Love... it's like time- big and broad and completely unfathomable. It's a little word that stands in for tremendous feelings we can't explain any other way. I wonder, now, if I ever really understood it at all.

My world has always been full of words I've never been able to understand.

Matron had loved us, I suppose, but there is a difference between knowing something and hearing it spoken aloud for your ears alone. And she never said it. She was always cautious with her words, doling them out as carefully as treats into our open palms. I understood her distance- well, I should say I understand it now. Matron was a troubled woman with a terrible secret, doing her best to raise six equally troubled children. In the end, I had always felt that Matron's was the sort of love you give to something you know you will lose- the way a farmer comes to love an animal he is raising to slaughter.

They way you love children you are raising to destroy you.

In any case, no one has ever said that word to me. At least, not that I can remember.

I suppose always envied Rinoa the ability to speak that word so easily and to so many, but even without it, Rinoa and I had lived completely different lives. And for all that Rinoa struggled in my world, I would have been just as helpless in hers. I was a mercenary and she was a princess- a fish and a bird for all the ways in which we were different. How could I have ever understood her world? How could she understand mine? There was always that distance between us.

And yet, I suppose we were alike in some ways, too; we were both witches in our own rights. We were united in the greater sense of the old magics, united in a power that chose us rather than the other way around. It is a distant similarity from across a battlefield, but it is a deep one, too, and I know I will feel it when I face her this last time, if only for a moment.

A moment...

...and we're back to time again.

It's inescapable, I suppose, for those of us born to mortal worlds and mortal minds. We measure our time out by the spoonful, in seconds and hours and years, from the moment of our birth until the end of our days. The line that connects our beginning and end is a straight one, merciless in its direction. Being a soldier, I know that. I've seen it and I understand it, in all the ways that I can. But understanding something and accepting it are two different things, and right now, so close to the end, the part of me that wishes is louder in my thoughts than the part of me that knows.

The part of me that is not a mercenary wishes things were different. Wishes I were different, that time could spiral backward and form a new world in which I am not a killer about to be killed.

Perhaps, in that time, that world, I could have become a girl like Rinoa, a girl that loved and was loved in return and believed that things as large and distant as stars could grant wishes. We could have walked to school and traded secrets- we could have attended our weddings and had children and grown old alongside one another. Perhaps in that kind of world, Rinoa could have been my friend.

The part of me that is SeeD, the part in this present world, knows that is impossible. This part wants it over quickly.

In this world, in this time- I will do all I can to end her life before she ends mine.

I wonder if the part of Rinoa that is still herself is thinking the same thing as she waits in the flower field behind me, waiting for us to come and finish it. The part of me that is SeeD wants to believe that no such part exists- that the collection of smiles and words and deeds that used to be Rinoa Heartily is already gone from this world. Because if that's true, then we are only destroying a husk of a girl, and not the whole of her.

It occurs to me that maybe that is where the fear ought to come from now- the idea that, for some of us (and likely me), everything is coming to an end, and there is so much I still don't understand. I have never windsurfed or eaten fried chicken with my fingers. I have never wished on a star and I have never told anyone I loved them or heard it in return. But I don't feel afraid. I feel resigned. I am an orphan and a soldier. I have never wished on a star in my life that I can recall, and it seems silly to start now.

"Hey," comes a familiar voice behind me, and the world comes back into sharp focus from the free-floating clouds of my thoughts.

I am no longer in the troubled sanctuary of my mind, but standing ankle-deep in the ocean, the wind in my face and the salt spray peppering my battle gear with beads of moisture. Clouds are rolling in over the water, and in the distance, I can hear the first rolling claps of thunder that signals the storm.
Seifer is waiting for me at the shore near my discarded shoes, one hand resting on his sword. The other hand he extends towards me, waiting for me to join him...to join the others.

I wonder how long he's been standing there.

Maybe a minute.

Maybe forever.

After all, there's no such thing as time, is there?
But if there was, well, there would be different times, wouldn't there, double and triple helpings of it all stacked like cake layers on top the other And our double and triple selves would lead different lives, parallel to this one- worse lives and better lives and lives where all your wildest dreams come true.

Maybe in one of those other times, there is another me wearing a beautiful dress, and he is holding out his hand to me to dance with me, because he loves me and he always has. We'll dance this afternoon away, and after, we'll depart for our castle in the clouds, where we'll live happily ever after. Caught up in that almost-possible place, I want to say those words, too, however foolish they might be.

But I know saying those words and not hearing them returned would be worse than never saying them at all...

...so I don't.

Instead, I step towards him and take the hand he offers me, and in that moment, it seems that I've never felt a thing in my life...at least, not the way I'm feeling it now.

I can feel the warmth of his hand through two layers of battle-softened leather. I feel the weight of his gaze, on me, that pleasant, unnerving pressure of his full attention. I feel the salt-air stinging my cheeks, the cold sand between my toes, and for a moment, I can almost see our castle in the sky.

….and then I feel the familiar weight of my whip against my thigh and see the sword at his waist, and we are once again soldiers on a beach. The girl in the dress falls away into a world of maybes.

It's no good missing this girl in the beautiful dress- she never existed in my world, my place, to begin with. But then, there's never any logic where Seifer is involved. Everything is a maybe. Everything is possible. It's like something about him defies logic- if for no other reason that he's too bull-headed to go with the flow of things.

And though, in this thing approaching us, rolling towards us like the rumbling clouds over the water...in the face of this horrible thing, it does not seem unreasonable that in another time and place two people are standing on a beach dancing instead of dying.

I believe it because I want to.

I think maybe Seifer's thinking the same thing- but before I can ask him such a silly question, he kisses me-

-and every foolish thought inside of me stands still and bursts into a thousand more foolish thoughts.

Seifer's hand drops mine and instead snakes around my waist, pulling me closer, so that we're hip to hip, my hands on his chest and my thighs brushing against his. Heat blossoms out from our connection, like a flower unfolding, and I feel every inch of my skin come alive.

He changes his angle, tongue and teeth and lips devouring mine. The hand at my waist isn't light, and his kiss isn't either- there's as much stirring in him as there is in me, I think, because I can feel it in the force of his body against mine.

I don't know why he's kissing me, and I don't want to know- because he cares, or because he can, or because he doesn't want to die without one last grand romantic gesture. No, I don't want to know. My hopes have always been better than realities, and I want to keep this last thing whole and sweet in my mind. I want to die with it still on my lips. We deserve that much, don't we? To have this last sweet thing before the end?

I lean back into him, standing on tiptoe and closing my eyes. My hands grip his shoulders, holding him and this moment in place because-

-well...it doesn't really matter why, does it?

All too soon he's pulling away, but he doesn't go far. His thumbs brush across my cheeks, my head cradled in his hands as he looks down at me for one long moment. I can still feel the ghost of his lips on mine and hear his breath shuddering against my cheek, but I can't guess what he's thinking. And I don't want to.

I look up at him and try to smile, and he tries to return it. I'm sure my smile is every bit as forced as his, but what can we do? Even as children, we stood at this very same shore, watching the ocean and wondering where it would take us someday, it was not a question of where we would choose to go or dreamed of going, but, instead, where the currents would take us. Even then, it seemed I was living a life that was not mine, and now, it seems inescapable, inevitable, that we would come back- that it would end here, on the island that created us.

Perhaps he's tired of trying to keep up his smile, because he leans in so that our foreheads touch, closing his eyes. I rise on tip-toe and wrap my arms around his waist, pulling him close, holding him as if I can shield him with my body...as if he can protect me with his. But what will come will come- we are ants in a maelstrom, and the idea that we can save each other is as impossible as it is foolish.

But we are fools already, aren't we? He was a fool to kiss me, and foolish of me to let him, now, when we're so very close to the end. The hope that I feel here in his arms is worse than fear, and yet, I wouldn't banish it if I could. It's been too long since I felt hope...since I felt...

...well, I still don't understand it, do I?

I can feel tears in my eyes, burning along the edges, but I will not let them fall. I can't. Because if I start crying now, I might never stop. For me, for him, for a girl I never understood, but loved just the same.

I want to laugh, too...and there's nothing funny about this moment at all. I suppose it's because here, now, for all my discipline and my determination, for all that I know it's futile to hope, I find myself no different than anyone that has ever come before me, and, most likely, anyone that will come after. For the moment, I'm normal- I'm just like anyone else; I want this moment to go on and on. I want the future to stay where it is, with us frozen in it.

I want more time with this world. With this life.

More time with him.

But then, there's no such thing.