CHAPTER I: Bewilderment.

Lark’s sleepy mind slowly registered a faint beeping noise and she shifted uncomfortably in her bed, adamant about ignoring it. Seconds later her alarm was blaring full-force and she stumbled out of bed in a panic to find her clock, slamming her hand down mercilessly upon it to stop its bloody cry. She just stood there, one hand on her alarm clock and breathing heavily for a long moment, looking back at her bed longingly.

Finally shaking herself from her daze she opened her dresser and pulled out a pair of black cargo pants, laced with pockets and zippers everywhere. Fumbling through another drawer she pulled out a black T-shirt reading "PH34R ME" in large red letters across the front. She quickly grabbed the few other things she would need including her cross necklace, a belt, and a pair of leather bracelets that more strongly resembled shackles than anything else.

Now mostly awake it was an easy job to find the bathroom and hop in the shower, water turned just about as hot as it could go. This, of course, only lulled her back to sleep again and she found herself nearly falling over a couple of times and having to startle herself awake to prevent her from actually crashing to the bathtub floor. After running a comb through her dripping copper hair, she hurried down to the kitchen to get herself a Pop-tart before she was forced to catch the bus.

School went as usual. She met her friends: Robert, Chris, Steph and Kyle—the latter of which she wasn’t quite sure knew she was of the fairer sex—they were excitedly chatting about the latest RPG they’d found and how Chris was already most of the way through the game. The English teacher harassed her about her report that was almost a week past due, the Algebra teacher harassed her over her failure to understand the polar coordinate system and the gym teacher just plain harassed her. Like the many days preceding it, though, she made it through all right and came home at the end of the day to collapse tiredly on the couch.

Her house was eerily silent compared to the din of the bus or the whole school in general. She was, after all, the only one home. Mom and dad worked late and she was an only child, such was her life. Sighing, she flipped on the television, clicking through the one hundred sixty channels with little interest. At last she found a somewhat bearable science fiction movie (somehow men from the future were always hotter than the guys in her class) and curled up into a comfortable position to settle down for the long haul. She was asleep in less than ten minutes. So, of course, she missed the extraordinary things that were just about to unfold.

At precisely 4:30 three men appeared around the sleeping girl, each musing silently with the others. Where exactly they came from was hard to say as all the doors and windows were locked and explaining they came through the wall just sounds silly. But nonetheless they were there, pondering the young creature before them.

"A hundred years says a month." One man silently mused to his companions.

"I’ll take that. Two months at least, I say." Another wordlessly put in.

"How about it?" The first asked the last without making a sound.

"I think it’s very immature. You’re both a couple of juveniles if you ask me."

The first one chuckled soundlessly, "I’ll put you down for fifty then?"

"A hundred is fine with me."

"Where shall we put her?" The second asked again, as wordlessly as before.

"Don’t ask me, I’d rather not get involved." The third replied the same manner as previously.

"Let’s have it be a surprise, then," the first silently suggested, "we’ll randomly drop her off somewhere. It’ll be more fun that way."

The second’s eyes sparkled, "Yes, then we don’t even know what we’re betting on until she lands."

They both turned to the last as if to ask for permission. He shrugged, "Go ahead. But I’ll deny involvement if anyone asks."

"Fair enough." The first agreed. The first two raised their arms above the girl and, a bit reluctantly, the third joined. A white flash surrounded the four of them and they were gone.

The girl’s living room was completely empty, no body asleep on the couch, no mysterious figures standing around uninvited. The TV droned on to an empty room, devoid of any seeking its entertainment. The ceiling light illuminated no one and provided unneeded light to the small dust bunnies collected beneath the couch. The whole house, in fact, was empty.

The tone of an alarm clock once again brought Lark reluctantly to her senses. She stirred in bed with a half-hearted utterance to her alarm clock which it was sure not to hear. Stumbling out of bed, still mostly asleep, Lark crossed her room—only to run into an unexpected wall where her dresser should have been.

Being jolted awake in this unpleasant manner and still having the annoying blaring of a clock echoing around her, Lark looked around in great irritation. Her irritation turned to surprise and then to fear as she didn’t recognize her surroundings. As her eyes coasted over the unfamiliar room, scanning over the perfectly organized desk—clearly not her own—the now messy bed which was quite a bit smaller than her own and finally landing on a small set of drawers right next to her bed. Her eyes narrowed at the alarm clock buzzing energetically on top.

She stalked across the short distance and, after fumbling around with it for a few moments, violently shut it off. Her attention was next turned to herself and, looking down, she saw she was still wearing her clothes from yesterday. Already knowing she was in unexplored territory, Lark cautiously made her way to the door. She tentatively grasped at the doorknob and gave it a careful turn.

The door gave way and she went through it to find another room most unlike any she had been in. Right in front of her was a short counter, dirtied up with a couple of dishes apparently left from the night before. On the opposite side of the counter was a small kitchen area, complete with cupboards, a small stove, and a half-sized fridge. There was another door to the left, along the same wall as the one she had just come through, and another door, slightly ajar, on the perpendicular wall to her right. Her attention wheeled around to the left side of the room.

Before she could properly take in the details of the small living room, her attention was drawn by a quiet laugh. Her eyes quickly zoned in on a young girl—about her own age, with black hair and ice-blue eyes—sitting in one of the two chairs in the left half of the front room. The girl was smiling as she looked at her. Lark almost jumped in surprise, but her surprise quickly faded way to suspicion.

"Who are you and where am I?" Lark demanded angrily, her need for answers forcing away the sluggishness she usually exhibited in the mornings.

The other girl giggled again, "Jeez, Lark, calm down! It’s just me, Bretta. You know, that girl that’s been your roommate for the last three years. And you’re still in Garden, the same place you were yesterday. You get really weird in the morning, Lark, you know that?"

Millions of questions and ideas flashed through Lark’s head all at once. She didn’t know any Bretta, did she? Roommate? She’d always had her own room. Why would she be in a garden? This didn’t look like a garden… and "I do not act weird in the mornings!" Lark exclaimed indignantly.

Bretta laughed again, "Come on, we’ve shared a room for three years, I think I’d know by now whether or not you act weird in the mornings." Lark glared at the other girl and Bretta continued, "You always try to kill your alarm clock—don’t deny it, I hear you all the time. Then, when you finally make it out here, you’re either dead to the world or cursing up a storm about how you have no idea where you are or who I am… did your parents drop you on your head when you were a baby, or what?"

"Well, I don’t!" Lark said firmly, then quickly added: "Have any idea where I am, that is."

Bretta rolled her eyes, "Would you like me to explain it in small words so you can understand?" Lark, not quite awake enough to catch the implied insult, nodded. Bretta grinned and continued, "You are in your room—number G37, by the way—at Balamb Garden, the elite military training school. You’ve been coming here for just over four years now and somehow you still manage to wake up in the morning not realizing where you are." She shook her head with a sigh, "I think you’re a lost cause, Raven Till."

"Right, and I suppose home, Robert, Chris, Steph and Kyle—I suppose all of that was just a dream?" Lark asked skeptically.

"Oh!" Bretta exclaimed, "You dreamt about them again? You always seem to be more out of it after those dreams. What happened? Did Rob ask you out yet?"

Lark gave Bretta a look that mirrored the horror she felt. Rob asking her out would just be… weird. "No!" She exclaimed, "And besides, it wasn’t a dream! If anything, this is a dream! I can’t be at Balamb Garden because Balamb doesn’t exist!"

Bretta rolled her eyes and finally stood from the chair, "Suit yourself," she agreed, "I swear, there’s no talking sense with you when you’re like this. If I didn’t know better I’d think you’re clinically crazy…" She paused as she opened the small refrigerator, "Hmm, you’d better eat here until you find your right mind again. Can’t have you walking all over Garden claiming Balamb doesn’t exist. People think you’re strange enough already, no reason to add another oddity to the list, right?"

Lark mumbled something inaudible but was beginning to feel tired again now that she knew she wasn’t in any immediate danger, and sank into one of the three stools at the counter. Bretta smiled at her again—Lark was deciding that Bretta was far to happy in the morning and she did not at all approve—and placed a bowl of cereal in front of her.

"Here you go, eat up." Bretta encouraged.

Lark looked at her without moving her head which was currently parallel to the table. She muttered a few more inaudible things before eventually taking the spoon and grudgingly shoving a bite in her mouth. Bretta laughed at her sour expression and walked past her to the small room next to the counter.

"You work on that," Bretta advised, "I’m going to take a quick shower."

Lark glared after her out of the corner of her eye until the door to the bathroom closed, "See, this is why I don’t like girls," she mumbled as she turned her disgruntled gaze back to the cereal she had been given.

Hardly ever bothering to eat breakfast—and then only pop tarts—Lark wasn’t exactly thrilled at the concept of eating the mushy substance in her cereal bowl. It looked to her like some kind of dog food… some kind of really soggy, disgusting looking dog food. But, tired as she was, she was far too lazy to go in search of a pop tart, so she slowly ate away at the ‘cereal.’

Fifteen minutes later, Bretta emerged from the shower room and Lark had moved from eating her cereal to simply spooning it around in her bowl. Bretta glanced at the clock on the far side of the room as she wrapped her black hair in a towel to dry it. She then glanced down at Lark’s slumped form and held back another giggle.

"If you want to take a shower, you’d better take it now," she advised, "homeroom’s in twenty minutes… you do remember who we have for homeroom, don’t you?"

Lark responded only with a yawn and sluggishly rose from her seat to amble into the now vacant bathroom. Now, Lark was one of those people who would stand in the shower for a good hour if you’d let her. Bretta was one of those people who wouldn’t let her. Ten minutes into her shower, Bretta knocked on the door to remind her of the time. Five minutes after that she knocked again. Two minutes after that she knocked again and threatened to turn the hot water on in the kitchen if she didn’t hear the water stop right then.

Lark reluctantly turned the water off, having no desire to get soaked with cold water, and reflected to herself that Bretta sounded eerily like her mother. She dried herself off quickly due to Bretta’s constant nagging through the door and was dressed and out of the bathroom in record time. She was not at all happy about this, her arms crossed sullenly over her chest.

"Alright, we have homeroom on the second floor, with Instructor Trepe," Bretta reminded her, "that starts in two minutes, we’d better run if we want to get there on time."

Suiting action to words, Bretta darted from the room. Lark watched her leave with disinterest and then slowly ambled after her. The halls were almost empty, only a few late students running in the direction Bretta had gone, but this did not phase Lark. She had never been one to fuss about getting to classes on time, much to her parents’ dismay, and she was never one to run without good reason.

She eventually found the elevator in the middle of the grounds, all the while thinking everything looked vaguely familiar and maybe she perhaps had been here before. She took the elevator up to the second floor—which was completely deserted. Following the empty hall, she peeked into the doors as she passed. During one of these peeks, she was able to spot Bretta in the second row back, her seat conveniently near the door. Still looking through the window, Lark quickly located the last empty seat in class and quietly opened the door.

The young woman at the front of the class paused in what she was saying to give Lark a pointed look, "Miss Till, if you’ll kindly take your seat with the rest of the class perhaps we can continue without any more interruptions."

Lark paid no attention and continued to the empty desk at the contentedly slow pace she had taken to class. A stifled wave of giggles rippled through the class as Lark hesitated at her seat as if trying to decide if she really should sit there.

"Miss Till!" Came the instructor’s warning voice, irritation clearly directed at the teenager.

Lark shrugged as if deciding the seat would do and nonchalantly plopped herself down, resulting in more subsequent laughter. "Yes, I’m sure you all find Miss Till’s antics very amusing, but if you’ll focus your attention back up here, class, we can continue," the instructor said, breaking through the noise. Silence ensued quickly and she continued lecturing.

Instructor Trepe began telling the class of the various seminars they’d be able to sign up for today in addition to their regular classes. There was a weapon’s master from Galbadia coming in for a special two hour lecture that afternoon, and the ballistics instructor from Galbadia Garden would also be appearing for a guest lecture later today. Lark quickly zoned out and began looking for something else to do—homeroom had always seemed like a waste of time to her.

Turning her attention to the computer monitor in front of her, she began wondering about what capabilities the system had. It took less than a minute for her to find a chat system on which she could converse with other student over the Local Area Network. She glanced down the list of user names connected to the computer and picked one that was similar to the name she had used on Instant Messenger at home.

As soon as she had logged on a message window popped up.

Goldenboy: Bravo on your entrance today, Raven.

Lark read over the message twice before assuring herself of what it said. Only her closest friends back home had ever called her Raven so she could only assume that whoever this "Goldenboy" was, he must be a friend. She quickly typed in a reply, her fingers flying over the familiar keys.

L33Tskillz: I try my best.

Goldenboy: lol. Yeah, class gets pretty dull without someone to shake it up. That’s why they need people like us.

L33Tskillz: Right. People like us.

Lark again wondered who this "Goldenboy" could possibly be. She stole a quick glance around the classroom, but didn’t notice anyone who stood out. She looked back down at her screen.

Goldenboy: What say we just blow off the rest of the class an leave? I’d love to see the look on Trepe’s face if we did that.

L33Tskillz: That’d be great, but my parents would probably kill me if they found out

L33Tskillz: If Trepe didn’t first, that is.

Goldenboy: Yeah… Trepe does have some violent tendencies, it might not be the safest choice to humiliate her in front of the whole class.

L33Tskillz: What? You afraid?

Goldenboy: Me? Afraid of her? I don’t think so.

L33Tskillz: Then go, what’s stopping you?

Goldenboy: Fine, I will.

Trepie13: You will what?

Goldenboy: Get your butt outta here, Flatt!

Trepie13: Not until you tell me what you’re planning on doing. You’re not going to embarrass Instructor Trepe, are you?

Goldenboy: If you don’t get out of here now, I’ll write you up for a detention.

Trepie13: Fine. But if you do anything to embarrass Instructor Trepe, you’ll regret it!

L33Tskillz: Who was that?

Goldenboy: Trevor Flatt, one of Trepe’s oh-so-annoying fans. Hyne, I’d jump on the chance to give that kid detention.

L33Tskillz: There’s a fan club for the Instructor? That’s wrong on so many levels.

Goldenboy: Of course there’s a fan club for Trepe, it started years ago. Where have you been living, under a rock? They’re everywhere, I swear!

L33Tskillz: lol. I guess I just never really noticed.

Goldenboy: Trepe alert.

L33Tskillz: Huh?

Lark looked up from the computer screen to see the Instructor striding dangerously near to her seat. She quickly exited out of the program and tried to look like she was paying attention. While she didn’t go out of her way to make teachers like her or anything, she preferred not to attract their attention.

Actually, she’d only walked into classes late like that on one other occasion. She was usually on time. She felt, however, when she did come in late, she needed to put on a show for it. Otherwise you just ended up looking stupid. And that was something she wanted even less than the attention.

When the class was released twenty minutes later to continue on with their respective schedule, Lark obediently followed the last minute command of Instructor Trepe and hung back until the last of the stragglers made their way out. One straggler in particular caught her eye and after watching him slowly make his way from the back of the class to the front, her mind frantically racing to match the face with a name and place, she suddenly came into an astonishing realization.

"Hey!" She exclaimed loudly—the attention of the few students plus Instructor Trepe immediately focusing in on her, including of the student she recognized. "That’s Squall Leonhart!"

Squall’s face reddened slightly as soon as he realized she was talking about him and he quickly lowered his face again. Instructor Trepe gave Lark an unimpressed look, "Yes, it is," she confirmed, "did you have a point or were you just trying to amuse your peers again?" There weren’t really any peers left to amuse.

Lark looked sharply up at the instructor, "Duh, that’s Squall Leonhart—as in the ho… uh, the SeeD from Balamb Garden, as in the guy who beats that evil lady in the end of the game, as in… he’s not real!"

Instructor Trepe frowned, "What are you talking about?" She questioned irritably, "Of course he’s real; but he’s hardly a SeeD and I don’t know where you’re getting a notion of evil ladies in games."

Lark looked back and forth between Squall and Instructor Trepe, her little brain working double time as it attempted to process what in the world was going on. Squall’s back had already vanished through the door by the time she came upon her second major realization.

"And you’re that one girl!" Lark continued, oblivious to the instructor’s continued confusion and annoyance, "The one that followed Squall around all the time! Jeez, this must be some crazy dream or something. Next, I suppose, I’ll spot Seifer or Irvine."

The instructor frowned deeper, "You’re not going to get out of detention by pleading insanity," she informed the girl, "Of course Seifer is here, he was just in homeroom, you know that. As for Irvine, I’m not sure who you’re talking about there."

Lark’s mind was suddenly torn from the improbability of all this and she looked at the woman aghast, "Detention?" She asked indignantly, "What for?"

Instructor Trepe rolled her eyes, "This was the third time you were late to homeroom this term, you’re assigned an hour detention for that. Try not to be late again or you’ll get two hours."

Lark clenched her jaw in irritation but didn’t argue further, "Fine. When do I have to come in?"

"You can report back to this room at 4:00 or…" she broke off, looking like she was thinking very deeply.

Lark finally got impatient with waiting, "Or what?" she prompted.

"What lecture were you planning on attending this afternoon?" Instructor Trepe asked.

"Huh? Oh, I’m not really into lectures." Lark answered, one hand moving to dig around in her pocket, just what was Instructor Trepe getting at?

The older woman hesitated before finally saying, "Well, if you’ll go to one of the lectures this afternoon, I suppose I could let you off without detention… this time."

Lark’s eyes narrowed slightly, "An hour detention or a two hour lecture… which would be a bigger waste of my time?"

"Alright, you don’t have to go to the lectures," Trepe responded, "it was just a suggestion. What with your finals coming up at the end of the year, I thought I might offer you an alternative. With your studying habits you probably don’t need to worry about it, though."

Lark’s eyes narrowed even more, "What’s that supposed to mean?"

"Well, I know you don’t take anything but the bare minimum of classes here," she replied, "so I figured you must be studying on your own time to make up for it, in which case you’ll probably do fine on exams."

"Studying?" Lark fumbled over this strange word.

Instructor Trepe raised an eyebrow, "You mean you haven’t been studying at all?" The tone of her voice seemed to be shock and Lark suddenly felt as if something dire would occur if she hadn’t been studying. She paled slightly and shook her head meekly.

"I didn’t think finals were coming up so soon…"

A wry smile crossed the woman’s face, "That’s what I thought, you students always lose track of time. All is not lost, though, you still have enough time that if you work hard you can pass the test well enough!"

"Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer then," Lark conceded, now in full-fledged fear for the tests she hadn’t even heard of before today, "What lectures were there, again?"

Instructor Trepe ran through the list again, providing Lark with a brief explanation of what each of them were about.

"I’ll take the ballistics lecture," Lark decided, "that’s at three?" The instructor nodded. Lark fought the temptation to write the time down on her arm and glanced at the door.

The instructor nodded again, "You can go now," she conceded, "I wouldn’t want you to be late for Tactics."

"Right, Tactics…" Lark muttered, her mind racing to figure out what room that class was in. It pulled up a blank for the obvious reason that she’d never actually been there before. She took a few faltering steps to the door and then turned back, "Uh… Tactics is in room three, right?"

Trepe raised an eyebrow, "Fourteen," she corrected.

"Err, yeah, fourteen," Lark repeated, her face reddening a little with embarrassment, "that’s what I meant." She made a hasty retreat from the room, Instructor Trepe chuckling after her.

Tactics was fairly uneventful. Lark made it to class with almost forty seconds to spare and she sat through it without getting yelled at by the Instructor. However, she was also mostly lost. The figures on the screen she was shown meant nothing to her and every other student seemed to be answering things much better than she could. Her heart sank as the thought of finals popped up in her mind again.

Someone caught up with her on the way out of class, "Hey, Raven, you okay?"

Lark looked up at a young man with dark hair whom she drew a blank for a name, "I’m fine." She answered, wondering who this was and how she should know him.

"You looked kind of confused in class," the boy pointed out, "you’re sure you’re feeling well?"

Lark rolled her eyes, "I’m feeling just fine, you worry too much." The boy’s look of concern didn’t fade. Lark sighed, "I guess I’m just a little tense."

"Is this about Instructor Trepe?" The boy asked.

"I guess you could say that," Lark responded, "she just told me I’m supposed to take finals at the end of the year and now I feel completely lost in everything. Jeez, it’s like I’ve been transported to some freak dimension and have no idea what’s going on."

The boy chuckled, "Hey, don’t stress about it. Instructor Trepe always makes the final out to be such a big deal—well, I guess it is… but if you don’t pass you can always retake it next year, right?"

"I guess so…" Lark responded although in reality she never would have thought of that.

"Hey, if you want to I can help you pinpoint the areas you’re having trouble on and we can work on those more—if that would make you feel more at ease about tests." The boy offered.

Lark nodded without a second thought, "Sure, that might help."

The boy grinned, "Alright, I’ll meet you in the library at six, okay?"

Lark nodded again and the boy ran off ahead of her. She hadn’t taken two steps before someone else took his place. A tall blonde that it took a second for her to recognize.

The blonde chuckled, "You shouldn’t lead him on like that, you know."

Lark couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw Seifer Almasy walking beside her… so she didn’t even bother to try. "What do you mean?" She asked innocently, deciding that it probably wasn’t Seifer at all and just someone who looked a lot like him… Yeah right, and that boy from before wasn’t Squall, either. And that instructor wasn’t from her game at all. She must have hit her head on something.

The Seifer-look-alike rolled his eyes, "Don’t act innocent, you know what I mean. Nida, he likes you. He’s going to think you just agreed to a date or something."

Lark looked down the hall to where the other boy had disappeared around the bend, "I’m not leading him on," she insisted, her mind suddenly jumping to Chris, "I don’t even like him in that way… at least I don’t think I do… do I?"

‘Seifer’ chuckled, "Hey, if you don’t know, how am I supposed to? Anyway, I guess who you lead on is your own business just as long as you don’t break any rules doing it."

"Seifer, man! There ya are!" Two more figures walked up to them. A towering man with tan skin and a young woman with short silver hair who looked comically short in contrast to her companion.

"Hey, Raijin," Seifer acknowledged with a nod, "What’s up?"

"Ah, the usual, ya know." The man responded, "Me an’ Fuj were just looking for you, we’re having a DC meeting over lunch, we’ve just got a list of the new rules set in place this term, ya know."

Seifer nodded and turned back to Lark, "See you ‘round, Raven."

Lark watched as the three people making up the Garden Disciplinary Committee disappeared around the corner, the subsequent two shouting back farewells to her also. She took the elevator back down to the first floor, assuming—correctly—that she probably had lunch now. She set out from the elevator to start a search for food when a group of three guys walking past called her over.

Lark obediently joined them and noticed the teenager who had talked to her earlier was among them. Other than that she was surrounded by strangers.

"You ready to kick some ass in training today?" A brown haired boy Lark didn’t recognize asked.

"Uh, sure." Lark responded, "I mean… I don’t know."

"Well, do you have your Remington with you?" The boy questioned, glancing at her with a slight frown.

"My, uh… no." Lark stammered.

"Huh," the boy sounded only slightly surprised but he shrugged, "well, we’ll pick it up on the way to class. Meantime, up for some grub or are you into all that dieting junk girls seem to be all into nowadays?"

"Me?" Lark asked skeptically, "I wouldn’t last five hours on a diet, I’m starving!"

The boy chuckled, "That’s what I thought."

"Hey, Raven," the third boy, bearing a head of hair about as red as Lark’s but several inches shorter, started, "you checking out any of the lectures today?"

Lark nodded, "The ballistics lecture."

"Cool. That’s the one I’m signed up for, too." The boy stated, grinning at the revelation.

The brown haired boy rolled his eyes, "Of course you two signed up for that one, what with you both specializing in shotguns. Personally, I think you only chose a shotgun cause you’re too wimpy to handle anything else, Rodor."

The red haired boy glared, "Handling a shotgun takes ten times as much skill as your stupid staff, Sloane!"

"You’re just jealous cause you can’t handle a real man’s weapon." The brown haired boy retorted. Behind them Nida rolled his eyes.

"Why would I be jealous of a stupid stick?" Rodor asked, "The shotgun is way better, tell ‘im Raven!"

Lark, at a loss of what else to do decided to nod her agreement, "Ro has a point."

Sloane simply laughed, "That doesn’t prove anything, both of you use shotguns, of course you’re going to stand up for them. What about you, Nida? Which do you think is better, the shotgun or the staff?"

"I don’t know," Nida said quietly, "I guess it depends what you need them for. Obviously, the shotgun is superior in range, but the staff usually has better accuracy—"

"Unless someone’s a great shot, like me." Rodor put in.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, but which one’s better in your opinion?" Sloane pressed, "I couldn’t care less which one is technically more useful in one situation. Which one is more glamorous?" Lark nearly choked on her laughter at this point. She wondered vaguely if all guys were this pathetic or if it was only the ones she ever got to know.

Nida reddened slightly at the reprimand and finally answered, "The shotgun, I guess."

"The shotgun?" Sloane repeated incredulously while Rodor smirked triumphantly beside him.

Nida nodded, "Yeah, you guys using staffs always get so sweaty during practice."

Sloane nearly choked on laughter this time. Rodor and Lark didn’t even try to hide it, loud laughter quickly bursting forth from them. "He’s got a point." Lark managed as she gasped for air.

Sloane and Nida joined in on the laughter. Sloane shook his head, "I knew when I signed up I shoulda taken a casual weapon. I guess sweaty guys just don’t attract ‘em like they used to."

"Well it’s not very glamorous, least wise." Nida put in, quite red now.

Sloane chuckled a little more as he pushed the door open in front of them and, the view restored, Lark noticed they were now in the cafeteria… and she still had no idea how to get there. She sighed, this was going to be a long day.

After eating lunch and getting to know the three guys who claimed to be her friends a little better, Lark followed Sloane back to her room where they picked up her shotgun case before heading down to the Training Center. The gun felt overly heavy in her hand and she began replaying every scene of a man shooting a shotgun she’d ever seen… the list was comparatively small, especially since she wasn’t sure what the difference between a shotgun and a rifle was.

The instructor welcomed the class, briefly outlined what they would be doing today—practicing against low level grats, whatever they were—and then told everyone to pair up before they entered the Training Center. Lark paired up with Sloane and they had soon entered the room. It was definitely not what Lark had expected. Sure, she had played Final Fantasy VIII and, somehow, beaten it… but her knowledge of Garden’s layout was: here’s Squall’s room, here’s the second floor exit, and here’s the command deck. For everything else she checked the directory and had little to no idea what she was looking for. She couldn’t even remember entering the Training Center in her game.

"Um… Sloane?" Lark started hesitantly, unskillfully trying to figure out where to put her cartridges.

Sloane glanced at her, "Yeah?"

Lark turned an interesting shade of red, "Can you, uh, help me… load my gun?"

This time Sloane looked her over enough to notice what she was doing and almost burst out laughing. He managed to stop most of it, but a few chuckles still escaped. Lark glared.

"Are you going to help me or just laugh at me?" She demanded.

Sloane quickly stifled his amusement and took on as serious of an expression as he could muster, "Raven, you can’t load a gun through it’s muzzle!"

"I know that!" Lark snapped irritably although she clearly had not known that until Sloane mentioned it.

Sloane rolled his eyes and took the shotgun from her. "Your idea of a joke or something?" He asked, "I only know how from watching you and Ro." Setting the safety, he unlocked the action bar and pulled back the fore-end to open it. He slid one shell in and pushed the fore-end forward again, "I mean, I’m not an expert or anything… but when you’ve loaded a firearm as many times as you have, I wouldn’t think you’d forget." He slid several extra shells into the magazine, closed the opening and handed the shotgun back to Lark.

Wandering a little deeper into the Training Center together, they soon ran into a grat. Lark shuddered and resisted the temptation to ask Sloane what it was as it seemed perfectly expected to him.

"You want to take the first hit?" Sloane asked, glancing over at Lark.

"Err, sure…" Lark pulled back on the trigger of her gun after aiming it at the creature… nothing happened.

"Lark, the safety." Sloane said, irritation clearly evident in his voice.

"Right," Lark quickly found the button to release the safety lock and switched it over, "the safety." She pulled the trigger again and this time the ammo exploded out of the end of her gun to cause a satisfactory amount of damage to the grat… as well as throwing Lark back with the unexpected recoil.

Sloane rolled his eyes and ran up to the creature to beat it with his rod. "You okay?" He asked as he ran back to Lark’s side where she was brushing the dirt from her pants.

"I’m fine." Lark growled, instinctively pulling back the fore-end and pushing it forward to eject the empty shell and chamber the next shell from her magazine. She took aim at the grat again and fired. This time she was ready for the recoil and was able to keep her balance although she was sure it would leave a bruise on her shoulder. As soon as the shot was off, she quickly readied the chamber for firing again, the same way as before, not even bothering to watch Sloane run up to attack the grat on his own again.

By the end of the hour, Lark had reloaded her shotgun twice and had only fallen over three times, she thought that was pretty good although Sloane seemed to think there was something wrong with her.

"If you’re feeling sick I could walk you down to the infirmary," Sloane offered as they left the training center. Students had a half hour break after training before their magic class—enough time to allow them to go back to their dorms for a shower.

Lark, although feeling tired and a bit beaten up for obvious reasons, shook her head, "I already told you, Sloane, I feel fine… besides, I hate doctors."

"But Dr. Kadowaki is nice, you shouldn’t let your feelings of doctors make you suffer quietly." Sloane pointed out, "Look, I could stay with you during her examination, if you want."

Lark rolled her eyes, "No. One, I don’t feel sick; and two, if I did, I wouldn’t need you to baby-sit me."

"You’re sure?" Sloane insisted.

"Sure about what?" Lark asked, "That I don’t feel sick or I don’t need you to baby-sit me?"

Sloane grinned, "Both," he answered happily.

Lark rolled her eyes again and gave Sloane a playful shove, "Yes, I’m sure… to both."

Sloane shrugged, "Okay, but if that’s the skill you’re at, I think you should start practicing with Ro mornings. I’m practicing with Raijin, we’re both advancing our levels with leaps and bounds."

Lark reluctantly nodded, "I guess I’ll ask him about it."

Chapter Index | Fanfiction Main | Next Chapter