Paine stood at the plateau edge, still staring into the cloudless sky. She slowly moved her gaze to fall on the only Marlboro wandering the plains of the Calm Lands. She drew her sword and leaped off the cliff, landing easily on her feet. She made her way to the massive tentacled monster and gave a hollow smile.
'It's time.' Paine thought ruefully. 'I'll find a way to end my lonely and empty existence here.'
The Marlboro gave a deafening roar as it launched one of its tentacles at Paine in an attempt to regain its solitude. Pain leaped nimbly out of the way at the last second, beckoning death evermore closer to her. Again the Marlboro struck, its frustration and anger growing. Time and time again Paine evaded at the last possible second, walking the line between life and death dangerously close to crossing it. With each miss and failure to rid itself of the distraction from its peace, the Marlboro increased its speed and power behind each strike. With another roar, the Marlboro launched its bad breath attack, enveloping Paine in the inhibiting cloud of poison.
'It'll all end soon.' Paine thought. 'I'll finally be free of my loneliness and anger.'
As the cloud cleared, the Marlboro roared again in triumph as Paine fell to her knees, and it lashed out for the final time with a thick tentacle aimed at Paine's heart. With her eyes closed, Paine prepared for the inevitable, but nothing came. Opening her eyes, Paine saw darkness. No moon, no stars, no Calm Lands. She stumbled around in her poisoned state momentarily, before she finally gave into the nagging voice in the back of her head shouting "Use Esuna!"
"Where in the hell am I?"
Quistis lounged in her quarters in the newly renovated residential portion of Balamb Garden. Still mobile, the garden had released all graduates, current SeeD members, and all staff as well as Faculty for nearly a half a year. During that time, Squall and the others, Quistis included, had all stayed with Laguna and Ellone at Esthar's Presidential Palace. The Garden was in Esthar as well; Odine and several other top-notch engineers, designers, and scientists renovating and adding to it. Quistis enjoyed the time off from battling and teaching. It was a welcome break.
'It got boring and very lonely after the first month.' Quistis thought sadly. 'Rinoa and Squall were dating, Selphie's nowhere to be found half of the time, Irvine's flirting with almost every girl here, Zell, well, Zell's gotten himself infatuated with the student librarian.' Quistis gave a deep sigh. 'Fujin hasn't been seen much after her and Rai's return. Seifer, he up and left without a word to anyone except Headmaster Cid, Matron, and Squall.'
Quistis got up from the sofa in the living room and walked toward her bathroom. She slowly removed her teaching uniform and let her hair down. She gathered herself a clean bra, pair of panties, and a fluffy, pink bathrobe. She made sure to place two towels on the counter from the built-in linen closet. She finished undressing and turned the water on, setting the temperature to a comfortable soaking level. She let the tub fill, steam rising from the heated water and into the cooler room's air. Once the tub was filled, Quistis turned the water off and sunk into the heated liquid.
'The past year and a half may not have been hectic as the time of the Ultimecia and the subsequent crises, but it was pretty eventful.' Quistis sifted through the turbulent memories of the team's return from Ultimecia's Castle and focused on the clearest memory of the after events.
'First, Headmaster Cid and Matron welcomed us back and congratulated us on our victory.' Quistis smiled at Matron's and Cid's matching smiles. 'I missed Matron's smiles. I'm glad she's back to herself.' Quistis relaxed into the water and let her mind follow the flow of her memories.
'We all came back tired and battle weary.' Quistis winced at the thought of the two weeks she spent bedridden upon Dr. Kadowaki's firm and unyielding orders. 'Everyone in the Garden got three months of vacation and leave after Ultimecia's defeat. Squall, Rinoa, Selphie, Zell, Irvine, and myself however, got six months to recuperate and relax. Since we were all bedridden for two weeks, we spent that time letting our wounds, physical and mental alike, heal. After those two weeks, we spent most of the following month and a half together, enjoying the freedom and battle-less atmosphere to the fullest. After the students and Cadets returned to classes, I was given my Instructor's license back. Upon my return to active duty as a SeeD and Garden Instructor, I was given the small class of Cadets that had passed the SeeD preliminary exams. For the next six months, I taught them I could to help them pass the final written and battle field exams. To my great surprise and overwhelming joy, all of them passed with great success. I was then given a large class comprised of both SeeD Cadets and students attending for the academic studies.'
"How are you handling your new class my child?" Edea asked.
"They're doing well Matron," Quistis answered, slightly tired.
"I'm glad to hear it," Edea smiled broadly. "I'm happy you get to teach again. You did well with the last SeeD graduates."
"Thank you Matron," Quistis bowed and smiled radiantly. "I was overjoyed when they were all called to the Quad to receive their graduation papers. I couldn't have been prouder of them all."
"They all earned it," Edea nodded briefly. "As you deserve your instructor's license."
"Thank you Matron," Quistis bowed again. "I'll make you proud of me."
"You already have my child," Edea smiled warmly. "You all have."
'Shortly after that, all the classes were canceled and the Garden began it's renovation. The four months we all spent in Esthar were eventful enough, but it was all basically vacation like things. We did have a few airspace infractions occasionally, but it was cleared up pretty fast. After they unveiled the larger and more functional Balamb Garden, classes and life here became normal quickly. Everyone is happy about the enlarged living quarters and all. Zell's even more joyful about the added restaurants in the cafeteria. No more running out of hot dogs. The theater and arcade are the hottest spots for the younger and more entertainment going crowd. I personally like the renovated training center. They made it two floors, the top one having a gym, pool, and open park-type wooded and grassy area. The monsters and magic centers are on the lower floor. I'm especially glad that they released all of the T-Rexaurs and made most of the monsters far more tame.'
Quistis rose from the cooled water and wrapped her dripping hair in one towel and her body in another. She walked out of the bathroom and sat on the bed. She slowly toweled herself dry making the work less frustrating by letting her skin dry in the room's cool air. She left her hair wrapped in the towel and proceeded to dress. After she finished putting on her bra and panties, she laid out on the bed and closed her eyes.
'The living quarters were made bigger, but the overall dorm area was enlarged to five floors, the topmost reserved for faculty and the six who took on Ultimecia. I enjoy the larger room and wonderful kitchenette, but I have nothing to do with it all. I've been growing more and more lonely as time passes by, but what am I to do?'
The dark void was vast and barren. Paine wandered the dark abyss aimlessly, wondering if this was the life meant for her after death. She knew she still felt hunger, pain, tiredness, and pretty much everything else, but had no idea as to why that was or what to do about it. She let her eyes roam the dark and bleak expanse of her new world.
'So this is it huh?' Paine thought to herself sadly. 'I guess it's fitting, if I think in an odd "I'm undeserving of heaven, yet haven't done enough to warrant an eternity in hell", kind of way. What a bleak existence.'
Paine let herself fall and folded her legs comfortably. She placed her head in her right hand and sighed deeply. She closed her eyes and thought about Yuna, Rikku, and the others aboard the Celsius. She ran from them without any word, and now she regretted doing that. She should have told them something and at least said goodbye. Now she'd probably never get the chance.
'This is one miserable purgatory.' Paine grumbled to herself. 'I guess this is my judgment, I'll have to serve my sentence here, then maybe I'll have paid penance for my crimes of morality.'
Paine sighed again and felt like crying for the first time in ages. She realized now that she'd miss Rikku and Yuna, maybe even Shinra, Buddy, and Brother. Although an annoyance to most aboard the ship, Brother was a kind man and a fair leader, or so he thought. Paine had to smirk at the thought of Yuna actually filling the leader role.
'We never actually said anything about it, but we always let Yuna run things after she joined.' Paine smiled a little wistfully. 'She made a few mistakes now and then, but she was far more level-headed and rational than any of us. She was a good person. I hope she finds the happiness she deserves.'
As Paine sat contemplating her memories, she failed to notice a light surrounding her. As she roused from the impromptu trip down memory lane, she was blinded by a bright flash of pure white and she disappeared from the void she had been occupying.
Quisits awoke to the pleasant smell of bacon frying in her kitchenette. Taking a moment to let herself wake fully, she failed to recall that she lived alone. After rousing from sleep efficiently, her brain abruptly reminded her of this fact. Cursing, she grabbed the fluffy robe she had left at the foot of her bed after her bath the night before. She rushed into the living area to see Squall, Irvine, Rinoa, Zell, and Selphie all sitting in her living room, chatting quietly. Well, scratch Squall from the chatting, but he was there watching with mild interest as she barged into the room in the robe.
Quistis arched an eyebrow and coughed to gather everyone's attention. It worked immediately. "Now that you all are aware of my presence, I have one question." Quistis narrowed her eyes at them. "Why the hell are you in my apartment without asking?"
At the apparent venom in her voice, all but Squall and Selphie winced. Squall arched an eyebrow in return and gave her a questioning look. Selphie, being herself, only smiled as if this was a party and rose to her feet happily.
"Quisty!" the energetic brunette squealed. "We thought you might want to see us all, so we decided to surprise you with breakfast." At the end of the sentence her face fell a little. "I got banned from the kitchen even before I offered to help."
Zell, being his usual self, spoke up for the group. "We dun need Quisty killin' us cause we let ya blow her place up by addin the wrong thing to the food yer cooking."
Getting a death glare from the two females in the room and derisive snort from the other two guys, Zell cringed and held his hands up in apology. Placated slightly, Selphie turned back to Quistis and gave another wide smile. "So Quisty, how are ya?"
Quistis grumbled a bit at her friends intrusion on her privacy and folded her arms. "I'm just fine thank you." She replied sourly. "I don't need my friends coming over for some kind of pity party or whatever."
At Quistis' final statement, Squall's head fell and he sighed deeply. Rinoa, however, bristled at Quistis' words. She walked up to the older woman and gave her a level glare.
"Alright Quisty," She said hotly. "I know you're lonely and all, but that's no reason to take it out on us. We came over to share breakfast and have a nice day with one of our closest friends. If you think so little of us, we should leave until you can apologize for wallowing in your own pity. We love you, and we want to be around you. Do we have to have a special reason to be around you now?"
Quistis met Rinoa's glare with her own, but as Rinoa's words hit home, she deflated. "You're right Noa. I am pitying myself I guess. Damn, I hadn't realized I had gotten this moody and bitter."
"BREAKFAST," Fujin said, breaking the somber mood. "WHAT WRONG?"
Selphie's face lit up like a light and she bounded over to the silvery haired girl. "Fuu," She purred, "you're a real mood breaker."
"WHAT?" Fujin balked.
Rinoa giggled a bit and smiled at the two. "You know, I'd thought at one time you and Irvy were an item Sephy."
Fujin grumbled a bit at that comment and Selphie shot Rinoa a glare. "We might have if he didn't flirt with everything wearing a skirt." She said shortly.
Irvine had the decency to look repentant at that. "What can I say?" He asked weakly.
Squall, by this time, had gotten fed up. "That's enough," He said sharply. "We came over to visit Quistis and we end up bickering. Let's just eat and enjoy the company. That's an order."
Sheepishly, everyone sat down around Quisits' apartment while Selphie and Fujin handed out the plates of food. Once the meal was eaten and the group had regained their calm and civility, conversation was attempted again.
"How are classes?" Squall asked, surprising everyone in the room.
Quistis balked for a second and then calmly replied. "Well actually. Most of my students are SeeD candidates, but I've got a good number of kids willing to just learn non-combative courses."
"That's good Quisty," Rinoa said. "It's nice to see you enjoying teaching again. Watching you in class is like watching a fish in water sometimes."
"Yeah," everyone agreed.
"You've gotten good at handling the SeeD candidates and the kids as well," Irvine chipped in.
Quistis blushed a little and smiled at her friends warmly. "Thank you." She whispered.
"Well, it's been nice hangin out again everyone." Zell said as he rose from his spot on the sofa. "I gotta take the Ragnarok out ta gather some more gym supplies. We lost another set of dumbbells last week."
"I've got to get ready for classes tomorrow too," Quistis sighed looking at the clock. "I've got a mountain of papers to grade. I hope you don't mind if I kick you all out now?"
"WISH LUCK," Fujin said brusquely, pulling a beaming Selphie out the door.
"Bye Quisty!" The energetic brunette said brightly. "Have fun!"
"We'll talk later," Squall said, walking toward the door. "Be happy Quistis."
"Sorry for blowing up earlier," Rinoa said following her stoic boyfriend.
"Think nothing of it," Quistis replied easily. "Have a nice day off."
"Well, I guess it's just me and you ma'am," Irvine drawled.
"No, it's just me, you're leaving." Quistis said shoving him out the door.
"Aw, don't be like that Quisty. I was just--" Irvine complained.
"Bye Kinneas," Quistis said, shutting her door in his face.
Breathing a sigh of relief and sadness, Quistis went back into her room to change. Although comfortable, the robe she was wearing wasn't practical for sitting at a desk. She slipped the robe off and onto a hook and walked over to her dresser. She pulled a worn t-shirt and shorts from it and quickly donned them. Pulling her long blond hair into a comfortable pony-tail, she put on her glasses and sat at her desk. She sighed and went to work.
Three hours later, Quistis rose from her desk and stretched languorously and walked into her kitchenette. Grabbing the fixings for a few sandwiches, she shut the door to the refrigerator. Fixing herself a light lunch, she looked about her apartment.
'I guess I have been ignoring everything outside of work.' Quistis reasoned. 'It must have been a subconscious, maybe even conscious effort to avoid the lonely feelings I've been having.'
Lying herself out on the sofa, Quistis pondered why she felt left out from the group. Most of them were dating, but not all of them. Irvine was still single-ish. He seemed happy though.
'But that's cause he flirts shamelessly, just like Selphie said.' She mused. 'He seems to like that life style, but I never could do something like that. I'm not a person that can get by on meaningless sex and flirting. I'm looking for something permanent and long-lasting. I want to share myself with someone that knows who I am and still loves me, flaws and all. Bit old fashioned, but still used.'
Quistis sighed and rose from her sofa and walked back into her room. Now that her work was finished, she had the day free. She shed the battered black shirt and put a sleeveless lime-green blouse on in its place. Shedding the shorts as well, a loose beige skirt was put on to cover her legs. She absently grabbed her whip and put a thin cardigan on over the blouse. She left her apartment, locking the door and walking down to the elevator. She pressed the button for the main level and let the doors close.
Exiting the elevator, she walked down the path out of the residential section of the garden and navigated her way over to the training center and walked up the stairs there to the second level. She skirted around the gym and pool, headed directly into the park that occupied the far section of the center. She strode into the wooded area and made her way to a small, secluded clearing that most people hadn't really noticed. She inhaled the fresher air and sat down on the grass sighing. She looked up, and through the glass shielding the garden, watched as the clouds rolled by the mobile Garden. Letting herself fall to the grass, she picked out different shapes in each cloud she saw. Soon, the silence and lazy pace of the clouds lulled Quistis to sleep.
Quistis stood in a black void. Life was non-existent here. She looked around her quickly. The blackness seemed to stretch on for eternity. She broke into a frenzied run and searched for signs of life. Her breathing grew deeper, more labored as she ran, her search coming up with more and more blackness. She came to a stop and collapsed mournfully.
Letting a sob escape her lips, Quistis tried to control her despair. 'Why am I here? What did I do to deserve this loneliness?'
Her control failing, Quistis broke into sobs filled with the pain of loneliness. She cried for a long time, her body finally giving out and rendering her mind unconscious. She came to in the same void, and another wave of despair washed over her.
'Is this my destiny? To live alone forver?' Quisits asked herself. 'I don't want to live like this. It's too much. I can't live alone forever. I can't do it.'
Tear threatened to fall from her eyes again as hoplessness settled into Quistis' heart. She didn't want to cry anymore, but it seemed as all that was left was tears. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them and rocked herself back and forth, hoping to fight the tears. As she began to lose to her hopeless despair, a voice cut into her reality.
"You don't have to be alone," The voice said. "There is someone who needs you as much as you need her. You aren't alone; you never were."
"What?" Quistis called out to the darkness. "Who is she? Why can't I see her? Where am I? Please don't leave me here!"
"Hush child," The voice answered. "You have nothing to fear. Just remember that you also have your friends. You need to wake now, go and fulfill your true destiny child."
The darkness began to brighten and Quistis found herself becoming groggy and disoriented. She wanted to call out, but her voice and body would cooperate. She fell and soon all thoughts were ceased as her mind fled into unconsciousness.
Above the sleeping Quistis, the glass of the Garden began to warp and become distorted. As Quistis woke from the nap, she was blinded by the flash of a bright white light.
Paine came to in a strange place. Around her, she saw green trees and the sky through clear glass. Sitting up quickly, she groaned as she felt a stabbing pain in her skull as though it was struck by a large, metal hammer. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her head until the pain subsided. She opened her eyes to see a beautiful blond looking at her with a shocked expression.
Attempting to smile, Paine waved at the blond. "Um ... hi." She said lamely.
To Paine's surprise, the blond fainted.