CHAPTER III: Testing Reality.

It took about an hour for the three teens to walk to the city of Balamb. They were forced into a few battles along the way, but since they kept mostly to the road those were minimal.

"Oh, jeez, I forgot how long a walk that is!" Rodor complained as they reached the edge of town. He turned to Sloane, "Next time remind me how much I hate it before I agree to come."

Sloane chuckled a little, "Thatís what you get for using a lazy weapon like the shotgun," he commented a little too innocently, "Now, see, I use a staff, and I hardly noticed the walk at all."

Lark narrowed her eyes and punched the muscular teen in the arm, "Hey, I use a shotgun, too," she reminded him, "And Iím hardly tired at all. Roís just a wimp, donít try to pin it on the shotgun."

Sloane laughed and Rodor went red. "Sorry about that, Raven," Sloane replied, "Iíll remember that next time."

At the same time Rodor exclaimed, "I am not a wimp!" Lark could only smirk at the mischief sheíd caused.

Rodor shot both of them glares once he had recovered his embarrassment, then wheeled on Lark, "Since youíre so full of energy, I challenge you to a race down to the docks. Iíll prove to you Iím not a wimp!"

Larkís smirk didnít fade, "Youíre going down."

"You wish," Rodor grumbled. He turned so instead of facing her he was facing down the road, "Okay, on your mark," Lark prepared herself also, lining herself up with Rodor, "Get set," with a smirk, Sloane positioned himself in line with them, "Go!"

The three teens set off in a run, neck in neck as they raced through the town of Balamb. Lark, barely remembering the place from her gaming experience years ago (She vaguely remembered an incident with a dog and some fish) kept an eye on the other two boys to ensure she was going the right direction, holding back on speed until the docks were in view.

It seemed the other two had been using this same strategy, for as the ocean came in view and they were running down the last hill, all three of them sprinted forward with an extra spurt of energy theyíd been holding back. Sloane barely managed to stop at the edge of the landing, and Lark skidded to a stop just behind him. Neither of them saw the smirk playing on Rodorís face as he ran even faster to cover the last few feet between them.

Lark turned around to see how the shorter red head was doing and her eyes widened when she saw he was about to run into her, but before she could even command her legs to move they collided and she fell backwards from the impact into a surprised Sloane. Sloane, having also been caught unaware, fell forward from the impact while trying to twist his head around to see what was going on.

The three of them seemed to hang in the air, balanced impossibly at the edge of the landing before plummeting into the cold salt water. Lark went under for a second, her mind still working through what exactly had happened, and she instinctively kicked for the surface. She broke through spluttering and coughing out the bit of sea that she had swallowed and looked around for her friends.

Rodorís face was already white from the cold, contrasting sharply with his reddish brown hair which was dark and plastered back with water. Despite this, he was grinning widely, laughing a little and shivering a lot. Sloane was nearby, coughing and taking gasping breaths like Lark had. He used a hand to brush back his soaking brown hair from his face, and glared fiercely at Rodor as soon as heíd recovered his breath.

Rodor put on his most innocent expression, "Oops."

It didnít fool either of the others. Lark was sure she was at least as white as the other boy right now as she shivered in the cold water, but she pushed this feeling aside in favor for revenge. "You are so gonna die." She commented before swimming towards him.

Rodorís eyes went wide and he yelped before quickly treading water to get away from her. Sloane was after him, too, but before either of them was able to catch up, Rodor had managed to reach the ladder and was climbing out as fast as freezing limbs would let him. Sloane climbed up next, followed by Lark, who paused at the top, her teeth chattering as the wind hit her soaking body.

Rodor stepped over, his grin slightly subdued, "You alright, Raven?" He asked. Lark nodded mutely, clinging to the ladder more, her hands shaking slightly. Rodor frowned and extended his hand to her, "Here, let me help you up. You look like youíre freeó"

He never finished his sentence. Lark had taken the offered hand and, with her other hand tightly curled around the top prong of the ladder, yanked as hard as she could. Rodor went flying over her and back into the water, breaking the surface with a satisfying splash. Sloane smirked at this, and offered the girl his hand, which she took and climbed up the rest of the way.

They both watched with innocent smiles as Rodor surfaced below, coughing and spluttering. "Oh, very funny!" He called, shivering as he swam over to the ladder again, "Very mature, Raven!"

Lark shrugged innocently, "Who said I was mature?" She asked, "Besides, you canít claim you didnít deserve it."

Sloane, from beside her, nodded, "You should have seen that one coming, Ro, after what you pulled."

"I didnít pull anything!" Rodor exclaimed, having reached the ladder, "Ravenís the one who pulled me!"

"Ha, ha," Lark recited mirthlessly, rolling her eyes as the dripping boy climbed back onto the landing. She turned to Sloane, "Some people are such bad losers."

He agreed, "Just because I smoked the two of you in our race isnít any reason to push us into the water."

"Smoked?" Lark repeated, turning to the taller boy, "You didnít Ďsmokeí me, Sloane, I was only a step or two behind you. I wouldíve won, but I slowed down so I wouldnít fly off the edge like Ro did."

"Sure you did," Sloane said in a patronizing tone, "Well, if thatís what youíd like to believeÖ"

"Of course thatís what Iíd like to believe!" Lark exclaimed, "But only cause itís true!" Sloane was still wearing a smile that said ĎI donít believe you but Iíll let you think I do.í Lark wheeled around to face the other boy, "Ro was behind us, he saw it! Tell Sloane I was in front of him."

Rodor glanced warily between the two, "Actually, I didnít notice."

"It was your stupid idea to race and you couldnít even pay attention to who was winning?" Lark demanded irately, fire burning behind green eyes.

"Hey, I was a little preoccupied at the time," Rodor said, taking a step back and raising his hands defensively, "All I know is that you were both standing in a neat little line right at the edge of the landing when I got there."

"Well, Ió" Larkís sentence was cut short as she sneezed.

Sloane frowned, "We should get inside and warm up," he told the others, "Thereís an inn around here, isnít there Rodor?"

Rodor nodded, "Yeah, itís right up the hill. They have a foyer downstairs with a big fireplace in it. We can warm up around there."

"How do you know so much about this place?" Lark asked as the three started back up the hill to the inn, "You didnít grow up here, did you?"

Rodor shook his head, "No, but my grandma lived here for most of my childhood, so we visited pretty often."

Lark nodded in understanding. When they reached the inn, Sloane held the door open for his two smaller friends, and the three teens entered together. Several heads turned towards them, and twice as many eyes followed the dripping youths as they walked across the room.

"What happened, you fall in the sea?" An elderly man asked, sitting near the fire place with a paper unfolded on his lap.

"Yeah, something like that," Lark muttered, giving Rodor another glare.

"Hmm, itís a little cold for swimming, isnít it?" The man asked.

"Yeah, we figured that out, thanks." Sloane said, trying to ignore the stares they were receiving.

"Oh well," the man said, raising the paper in front of his face and turning his full attention to it with a soft muttering of: "Kids these daysÖ"

The three friends crowded around the fire in a desperate attempt to get warm. People around them eventually lost interest and turned back to their own business, although Lark was sure the old man was listening in to their quiet conversations.

"Sorry today hasnít been much fun, Raven." Sloane apologized, "Wasnít exactly what I had in mind when I suggested a trip to Balamb."

"Hey," Rodor said, immediately taking offense, "Well, it did get her mind off the test, I bet. Didnít it, Raven?"

"Oh, crap, I think Iíve forgotten everything I memorized last night!" Lark exclaimed in dismay, then promptly sneezed again. She turned glaring eyes at Rodor, "If Iím too sick to take the test tomorrow Iím never forgiving you."

Rodor blushed red and looked away from her gaze, "Sorry," he muttered.

"Well, maybe I will," Lark decided at length, "If you make me some of those muffins."

Rodor looked up and grinned, "Fair enough," he decided.

Sloane rolled his eyes, "I think youíre letting him off too easy, Raven."

Lark shrugged, her eyes staring into the fire, mesmerized again by the flames. "Hey, guys," she said quietly some time later, "Did you ever feel likeÖ"

"Ever feel like what?" Sloane prompted, looking across at the bronze haired girl curiously. He was momentarily surprised at how small she looked, her wet clothes clinging to her in places (it made it so obvious that she was a young woman that he was embarrassed for all the times it slipped his mind), and baggy sleeves weighted down by extra water.

"What I mean is," Lark sighed a little unsure how to continue. "Well, do you ever feel likeÖ like this place doesnít really exist?"

Rodor looked over at her in surprise, "What do you mean?" He asked, "How could this place not exist? Weíre all here, arenít we?"

"Itís just I really thoughtÖ" She frowned, "Well, Bretta said it was just a dream, and itís starting to get all foggy in my head."

"What dream?" Sloane asked.

"My home," Lark answered, finally looking away from the fire to make eye contact with Sloane, "At least, I thought it was my home. I mean, I donít really know anymore." She sighed again.

Rodor frowned, "Your home?" He asked, Lark turned to look at him, "Hey, you never really told us. Where are you from, anyway?"

"Yeah," Sloane agreed, "You know Rodorís from Winhill, and Iím from FH, but what about you?"

"Thatís the thing," Lark said, "I thought I was from home, well, I canít really remember what it was called right now, but it was like another world."

Sloane frowned, "MaybeÖ Esthar?"

Lark shook her head, "I canít remember much about Balamb except for what Iíve seen or read in the last couple of months. It kind of slipped my mind, I guess, with all the studying I was doing."

"It kind of slipped your mind that you werenít remembering things?" Rodor asked, "Thatís crazy, maybe you have amnesia."

"When I try to think about something I can remember it, but only when Iím concentrating," she shrugged helplessly, "I donít know, maybe I got dropped on my head as a baby."

"Thatís kind of serious, though," Sloane commented, "You should probably talk to doctor Kadowaki about it." Lark made a face at the mention of the resident doctor.

"Yeah," Rodor mused on her other side, "The doc would probably know whatís up. Maybe itís an affect of GFs, I heard thereís some research connecting them with memory loss."

Sloane nodded, "Yeah, I read something about that on the net. Most of the research is done in Galbadia, thatís why they donít use GFs in G. Garden anymore."

"Thatís not it at all," Lark interrupted, "GFs donít work that way."

Both boys looked back at her instead of each other, "Huh? What do you know about GFs, Raven?" Rodor asked curiously.

"They erase long term memories," Lark said, "Like itís hard for GF users to remember their early childhood or something." She paused, then nodded, "Yeah, thatís why Squall and the others didnít remember growing up with each other."

Slaone exchanged a confused look with Rodor who shrugged before turning back to Lark. "Wait, Squall?" The brunette asked, "Whatís he got to do with anything?"

"He becomes a SeeD and meets up with the rest of the Orphanage Gang to defeat Seifer and save the world." Lark said, "And I think thereís an evil sorceress in there too, she controls Seifer or something like that." Another pause and she added, "Oh, and thereís Laguna, heís kind of creepy the way heís always talking about love and peace, but heís hilarious, really."

The two boys exchanged another confused look over Larkís head. "Um, Raven?" Rodor asked uncertainly, "Are you delirious or something? Maybe youíre coming down with a fever, we should get you back to Garden."

"Seiferís that blonde jerk you sometimes hang out with, right?" Sloane asked, "When did he start working for an evil sorceress?óThough I wouldnít put it past him."

Lark rolled her eyes, "Obviously it hasnít happened yet," she told the other two with exasperation, "Squall hasnít even passed his SeeD test."

"Oh, yeah," Rodor said with a nod, "Obviously."

Sloane shot him a look, Ďyouíre really buying this?í

Rodor shook his head and shrugged back. Lark was oblivious to this exchange.

"SoÖ you dreamt about the future?" Sloane asked tentatively.

"No," Lark said, still sorting out the foggy memories in her mind, "It was more likeÖ Oh, I remember now!" She slapped herself lightly on her forehead, "Right, the game!" She finished, standing as well.

"Uh," Rodor shot Sloane a look as they too quickly got to their feet, "What game?"

"Final FantasyÖ Eight, I think it was," Lark answered, "Seven or eight, but Iím pretty sure it was eightÖ" She paused in thought, "YeahÖ Cloud, Squall, Zidane. Seven, eight, nine."

"Iím still lost," Sloane admitted, "What does Squall have to do with this again."

Lark shot him an exasperated look, "Okay, see, where I come from thereís this game called Final Fantasy VIII," she paused slightly until the two boys nodded, then she started walking for the exit as she continued, "In the game, there was this guy named Squall Leonhartóyes, the Squall from my classówho has to save the world. Seifer Almasyóthe jerk I sometimes hang out with, as you so eloquently put it, Sloaneówas used by the sorceress somehow against Squall and Irvine and the others. And Lagunaís in there for some reason, too." She looked at the apologetically, "Sorry, itís been a couple of years since I played it so I donít really remember the details."

"No offense, Raven, but thatís crazy." Sloane said as they stopped before the doors.

Lark shot him a glare, and pushed them open to be hit with a blast of wind that felt cold on her still damp clothes. She shivered a little and crossed her arms to preserve body heat. "I know it sounds crazy," she admitted, "But Iím sure about what I remember."

"Then why didnít you bring it up earlier?" Sloane questioned.

Lark shrugged, "Well, at first I thought this was a dream then, like I said, I got caught up in everything I had to do around here. Thatís why I was having trouble with my shotgun and magic and stuff a while backóIíd never actually done any of that before."

Rodor shook his head, "No, that doesnít make any sense, Raven. I know you, weíve been having classes together for years. I didnít just imagine that."

"Roís right for once," Sloane agreed, "I donít know whatís up with that dream, but it canít possibly be real. Youíve been here since I first started coming to Garden."

"WellÖ maybe there was another me here or something," Lark thought, "And I justÖ I donít know, stepped into herómy body somehow."

"Okay, letís entertain your hypothesis for a moment," Sloane said amiably, "Youíre from another world where all of this is some messed up game and you woke up here one morning." He paused, stopping Lark mid-stride with a hand on her arm, "How?" He asked, "How, in the name of Hyne, is that possible?"

"I, er, I donít know," Lark stammered, "ButÖ It has to beÖ somehow."

"No, it doesnít," Sloane argued, "It doesnít sound realistic because itís not. Thereís got to be a logical explanation about all of this. GFs, or something to that effect. Lark, I know youíre not making this up or anything, but I also know when somethingís possible, and what youíre proposing just isnít, so stop trying to tell us it is." With that word he stalked away again, walking ahead of the two stunned red heads.

After a brief silence Rodor spoke up, "Wow, I donít think Iíve ever heard Sloane talk to you like that."

"Heís right," Lark said with defeat, "Itís crazy. Maybe itís the stress getting to me or something."

Rodor didnít reply and followed after his friend as she started walking again.

The walk back to Garden was only forty five minutes, though it felt a lot longer with the tense silence between Lark and Sloane. Rodor tried to ease the mood a little by starting light conversation, but every attempt failed and he eventually tired of hearing himself talk when no one was responding. They arrived at Garden still a little damp and quite cold.

Nida, who had happened to be walking by the elevator as they entered the main plaza, waved and started to walk over to them. By the time he reached the group, Sloane had already left, not caring to wait.

"Whatís up with him?" Nida wondered out loud, staring after the irritated brunette.

Rodor shrugged, "Heís been funny all afternoonÖ well, for the last hour."

Nida turned his attention over to his other two friends. Rodorís red hair had curled a little as it dried, and Larkís hair was still a little damp. Both teenís looked paler than usual and he involuntarily reached out to brush against Lark. "Jeez, youíre freezing!" The black haired teen exclaimed, stepping back in surprise, "What happened? You guys werenít actually crazy enough to go for a swim, were you?"

Lark shot Rodor a mild glare, and the slightly shorter red head scratched his head in embarrassment. "Actually, I kind of ran over Raven and Sloane and we all fell into the sea. Oops."

"Oops," Lark repeated, rolling her eyes, "You make it sound like it was an accident."

"Well it waó" he caught her glare and laughed nervously, "Well, no, it wasnít, I guess. I wasnít really thinking about how long it would take us to get back or anything."

Nida laughed, "Yeah, it sure sounds like you werenít thinking about anythingÖ So, is that why Sloaneís mad?"

Rodor looked nervously over at Lark who didnít seem inclined to include herself in the conversation again anytime soon. "No, thatís not itÖ Itís kind of complicated."

Lark rolled her eyes and started down the hall in the direction Sloane had gone. "What? Wait, where are you going?" Rodor yelped, running over to catch up with her. Nida right behind him.

"Iím going to take a hot shower," Lark responded acidly, "Do you have a problem with that, Rodor?"

Rodor stopped, shaking his head dumbly as Lark stalked away. Nida exchanged a surprised look with the other red head and watched their friendís retreating back as well. "This canít be about the water, can it?"

Rodor shook his head, "I donít know whatís gotten into them," he admitted, and turned to walk the other way, towards the library with Nida at his side. "Alright," his tone was quieter now like he was about to break a big secret to his friend, "Hereís what happenedÖ"

Lark drowsily drug herself out of bed the next morning, her alarm clock blaring like an ever present headache. She cursed under her breath at it, blinking wildly and displaying the time: 7:32.

She slowly took some clothes out of her drawers, a usual pair of black pants, and a long sleeved black sweatshirt with a hood and a circular design in white on the front. She grabbed her necklace, but didnít bother with bracelets as theyíd be covered up by her shirt anyway, and then half-stumbled out of the room and into the shower.

It was a despairingly short shower, in Larkís opinion, being only fifteen minutes, and she was all too soon sitting at the counter with her daily serving of Pop-tarts. Bretta sat beside her, a bowl of cereal being slowly consumed.

"I heard you and Sloane had a fight," the black haired girl said at length, "Are you going to be okay on the test?"

Lark rolled her eyes, "It wasnít really a fight, we just didnít see eye-to-eye. And besides, Iím not going to cry my eyes out like some sissy girl over her boyfriend." She looked at Bretta sharply, "And Sloane is not my boyfriend, you know. He never has been."

"Whatever you say," Bretta responded, not at all sounding convinced, "You donít look too good, though. Maybe you could talk to Doctor Kadowaki, she might give you a pass so you can take the test later instead."

Lark turned to glare at the girl, "I donít need to take the test later," she hissed, "Because Iím not sick and Iím not upset and how did you know we had a fight, anyway?"

Bretta rolled her eyes, undaunted by the other girlís grumpy attitude, "Oh come on, everyone knows how close you guys are, and there were plenty of people who observed your less than friendly attitudes toward each other last night. Rumors spread fast. So, what happened, anyway?"

"I told you," Lark said, "We just didnít see something the same way. Itís not a big deal, okay? Iíll be fine on the test."

Bretta shrugged, "Okay. But remember, if you decide you do want to talk about itÖ Iím here, okay, Raven?"

Lark rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath, "Please, if I wanted to talk about it and there was something to talk about, youíd be the last person Iíd talk to about it."

"What was that?" Bretta asked.

"I said leave me alone." Lark grumbled, leaving her barely eaten Pop-tart on the counter as she got up to leave the room. Bretta didnít really have a chance to stop her.

Lark sat in her desk a good ten minutes before the test was scheduled to start. Most people that would have usually talked with her were keeping a fairly large berth, and it was kind of bugging her. But at the moment she didnít mind too much.

"Raven," the cocky voice of Seifer Almasy interrupted her calculating thoughts, "I heard about what happened between you and Sloane."

Lark resisted the urge to hit her head against the desk. Seifer continued, "You okay?" She resisted the urge to hit her head against the desk hard.

"Yes, Sefer, Iím fine," her tone was only barely tolerant.

Seifer nodded, "Thatís what I figured, Raijin thought I should ask. Fuijin thought I was insensitive."

Lark snickered, "You are."

"Hey!" Seifer drew back slightly in offense, "Iím not that bad!"

"You could be worse," she agreed, "Like Squall." She followed the brunette in question as he crossed the room to his desk, completely oblivious to the fact that someone was talking about him.

This time Seifer laughed, "Yeah, a horse would look sensitive next to him."

Lark rolled her eyes, but the smile fell from her face as another teen stepped up beside Seifer. Seifer frowned, "Hey, whatísó"

"Seifer, could you give us a minute." Sloane was hardly asking a question.

Seifer scowled at him but nodded and went back to his own desk. An awkward silence hung between the two friends for a long moment before Sloane finally spoke.

"Hey, um, I know I was kind of strong on you the other day, but, umÖ"

"You were right," Lark interrupted, "It was stupid of me to think that stuff. I guess it was just the stress of finals and everything getting to me."

"Yeah, maybe," Sloane said, "But, uh, I meanÖ" Lark looked up at him curiously, "I mean, it isnít completely impossible, right?" She raised an eyebrow in surprise. "I heard that, um, monsters come from the moon, they come down here in some kind of crazy group migration, I guess. So then, itís possible other worlds could exist."

Lark searched his face for sincerity, "You really think so?"

Sloane rubbed his arm uncomfortably, "Well, I guess. I donít know how possible it is that you actually came from another worldÖ Or that you played some game that told the future, butÖ I think we should look into it a little more before we dismiss it completely, I guess."

A slight smile tugged on Larkís lips, "We?" She repeated, "You want to help, even if there might not be a nice, neat, logical explanation."

Sloane grinned sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head and coloring slightly, "Well, yeahÖ Youíre my friend, Raven, and even if we find out you really did come from some crazy dimension, I donít want that to change."

Lark grinned back, "I donít either. Letís just put that argument behind us, kay?"

Sloane readily agreed, and shook Larkís hand on it, "Okay, great."

"Yeah," Lark agreed, "It was getting really annoying with everyone talking about how broken up I must be because of our fight."

Sloane chuckled a little, "Yeah, it was kind of a pain to have all these girls coming up to me and telling me what a jerk I was, too."

Lark laughed outright at that, "You are a jerk, Sloane, sometimes. But it would be really boring if we agreed all the time."

A loud cough from the front of the room distracted them, and they turned to see Instructor Trepe staring at them expectantly. Sloane blushed a little and looked back at Lark, "So, Iíll see you after the test, then." She nodded, "Good luck."

"You too," Lark returned, watching the other boy make his way to an empty seat heíd be using for the test.

"Now that everyoneís taken your seat, we can begin." Trepe announced. She continued on with her introduction, "This is the written part of the SeeD Final, it is for senior students with permission from their home room instructors only." She smiled thinly, "Iím afraid that means you will have to leave us, Claerance." A boy that looked at least two years younger than the majority of the students in the room stood up, snapping his fingers in a sign of disappointment before reluctantly leaving the room.

"As for the rest of you, the test will proceed as follows," Quistis continued, "The first part will be multiple choice. You will have an hour to work and an indefinite number of questions to choose from. The computer will display them randomly and no two students will have the same questions at the same time. You can choose the best possible answer in your opinion, or you can choose to pass. But remember, if you pass on a lot of questions, it will be reflected in your grade, so itís a good idea to try to answer every question you get. The more questions you correctly answer, the higher your score will be, but if you answer a lot of questions wrong, then youíll also receive a high negative score which will bring down your overall grade, so donít just guess.

"After the multiple choice section, weíll have a ten minute break, but you wonít be allowed to leave the room. Once break is over weíll start the short answer part of the test. You will each receive five questions, and you will have to answer three of them. Only three questions will be graded, so if you answer more it may count against you if one of the ones not graded is answered better than one that is. After you are through with this section of the test, you will receive a specialized multiple choice test which you will begin immediately. You will have forty five minutes for that portion of the test. Once you are done with that, you are free to go and there will be no more classes for the afternoon." Instructor Trepe looked around at the students, "Any questions?" There was no response.

"Good," Trepe said, "One last reminder, if you didnít take the Fire Cavern Test last week, you only have one more week to take it, so you should try to schedule a time with your instructor as soon as possible. If you havenít passed before the time of the Field Test, you will not be allowed to go and will have to wait for the next testing date which is not for another five months. Questions?" Again, no one had any questions. Lark waited anxiously for the words that would follow, but they didnít come as one student hesitantly raised his hand.

"Yes, Kleaur?" The instructor asked.

"UmÖ I was just wondering how our essays are going to be graded." The boy said hesitantly, shying back slightly from the looks he was receiving from his peers.

Instructor Trepe nodded, "Thatís a good question. A team of six experienced SeeDs will be grading your responses. You will know which one graded yours, and you can ask them questions on the grading anytime during the next week. Anymore questions? No? Okay, start."

The computer screen before Lark came to life and she quickly averted her eyes from Quistis to the question. "There are eight general types of Elementals. Which of the following is not one of them?" It read. Listed below were, "PoisonÖ DarkÖ HolyÖ EarthÖ WindÖ Thunder." After a momentís thought, Lark confidently selected Dark and the next question appeared on her screen, along with a message in the corner stating "Correct."

"What does the Status Affect "Curse" do?" The choices were: "Targetís life slowly drains until he/she is Knocked OutÖ Recovery Magic and Items cause damage to TargetÖ Target becomes unable to obtain Limit BreaksÖ Increases probability that Target will be attacked by monsters." Lark looked over the choices several times hesitantly before continuing with the test.

As the hour wore on the questions became more difficult and more involved, several What-If questions growing among them. It was clearly meant to be a difficult test, and Lark found herself passing on a few now and again. Then, quite without warning, her screen went black. She glanced up in surprise, looking around her to see if anyone else was having the same problem.

Instructor Trepe answered her unspoken question, "Timeís up, your screens have been cleared. The computer will total up your scores and give you your positive and negative scores so far. The computer will give you the option of looking back at the questions you answered incorrectly; you are encouraged to do this in case you need to take the test again. But remember, there is only a ten minute break before the short answer portion begins."

A general murmur began to flow through the collected students, and a couple of students got up from their desks to talk with their friends, starting a general trend. Sloane, Nida, and Rodor joined Lark at her desk.

"I was so nervous," Rodor said, his face almost as pale as it had been the night before, "I probably failed!"

"I didnít think it was too bad," Sloane commented, "Shouldíve had Raven wish you good luck, like I did." He chuckled a little at his own joke, as did Nida and Lark, although Rodor was still uptight.

"What about the next section, short answer," Lark started, "Theyíre giving us a whole hour for three short answer questions?"

"I think theyíre usually scenarios," Nida commented, "You know, more What-Ifs."

"The term Short Answer is kind of misleading," Sloane added, "My roommate took the test last year, he said it took him a good two pages to answer one question, so theyíre more like Essay."

"Two pages?" Rodor repeated incredulously, "Oh, man, Iím going to fail this thing! Raven, quick, wish me good luck!"

Lark rolled her eyes at the teenís antics, "Good luck, Ro." She dutifully replied.

"So, how did you do?" Nida asked.

"I think I did pretty well," Lark replied, "I was able to answer most of them, at least. How about you?"

Nida nodded, "The same, although there were a couple at the end I didnít do so well onÖ"

"Yeah, well, we still have two more sections to make or break our grades, right?" Sloane interrupted, "So we donít have too much to worry about, yet."

The others agreed, except for Rodor, who had nervously returned to his seat to see his grade. They chatted a bit more before Sloane and Nida reluctantly returned to their own seats as well. Lark turned her attention back to the screen, which was asking her if she wanted to see her scores now. She clicked "Yes."

The screen flashed black for a second before color was restored. The top half was green, and the bottom half was red. Large black numbers were written on both. Lark was delighted to see +175 in the green section and only Ė13 in the red. Then she realized she wasnít even sure if those were good or not.

Lark didnít have much time to ponder this as the next section of the test started, her screen going black again before being replaced with a list of five questions. She clicked on the first, which was two paragraphs long, and had a answer box below it to type in. With a small sighósheíd always hated essay questionsóshe got to work and read over the scenario.

Lark stepped out into the hallway, the door sliding shut automatically behind her and let out a exhausted breath. After three long tests, almost five hours of non-stop brain abuse, she was finally done. Sloane was standing across the hall, leaning against the wall and currently involved in what looked like a serious conversation with Rodor, who was sitting beside him.

Sloane glanced up and saw her weary expression, and offered a small smile, "Hey, Raven."

Lark returned with a weak smile of her own, "Hey." She slid down the wall on the other side of Rodor, "I never want to do that again."

"Yeah," Rodor agreed, "This is officially the worst day of my life."

"I wouldnít say that until you get your score," Sloane commented.

"Why wait? I doubt I passed," Rodor said dismally, "I can see my score now, a big minus one million right next to my name. The only section I did good on was the one about shotguns." He paused a moment then grinned up at Sloane, "And the two questions I had about the staff."

Sloane chuckled, "See? It does pay off to hang around big, sweaty guys like me."

Rodor and Lark both laughed at that. "So how did you do, Raven?" Sloane asked.

"Decently, I guess," Lark answered, "I donít know. I didnít have any major sticking points, so I think Iím okay."

"Iím sure you did fine," the brunette assured her.

"Nidaís still in there," Rodor commented, "Probably spell checking his answers or something."

"I wonder whatís taking him so long," Lark said, "Iím sure he knows all that stuff, he studied enough for it."

"Well, heís only got fifteen minutes to finish up, whatever heís doing," Sloane said, glancing at his digital watch.

"And we wonít know our scores until tomorrow," Rodor lamented.

"I donít think I can hold out that long," Lark said, "Iíll probably get ulcers or something."

The door to the classroom slid open again, and a tired looking teen stepped out, rubbing at his forehead as if his brain hurt from thinking so hard. He walked over to the other three.

"So, howís the damage?" Rodor asked, hardly looking up at him.

"ItÖ wasnít as bad as I thought it would be," the boy admitted reluctantly.

Sloane chuckled, "Nothing less than what weíd expect from you, Nida. Flying colors all the way down, right?"

Nida flushed red with embarrassment, "I wouldnít go that farÖ" He mumbled, not meeting anyoneís eyes.

"Well," Lark sighed, "We wonít know for sure until tomorrow, so we should at least try not to worry about it."

"Yeah," Rodor agreed, pushing himself off of the ground, "I was in there for over four hours. Iím starving!"

Lark rose as well, and they all headed down to the cafeteria, trying desperately to think of things to say that werenít about the test. It didnít work very well since everyone they passed were also talking about it.

"And the grand total isÖ" Sloane started, peering up at the screen outside the classrooms, searching for his own name among the list.

"Ninety-eight," Rodor said cringing as he found his name in the red section near the bottom of the list. He let out a heavy sigh, "Oh well, thereís always next year, I guess."

"A hundred and sixty-nine," Sloane recited, finding his name in the middle ground, only one or two names into the green. He shrugged, "Could have been better, but Iím glad itís not worse."

"Two hundred and seventy," Lark read from near the top. She looked over at Sloane, "Thatís good, right?"

Rodor groaned again. "Raven, youíre the third name down on the list. The only people who scored higher than you were Squall Leonhart and Seifer Almasy, do you think itís good?"

"I didnít know they were sorted by rank," Lark said, glancing down the list of scores to see that they did indeed go from highest at the top (in the green section), and lowest at the bottom (colored in red).

"What did you get, Nida?" Rodor asked, ignoring the girlís comment.

Nida mumbled something, turning slightly red in embarrassment, but the smile on his face bore testament to the fact that he had at least passed. Sloane, after glancing up the list read out loud, "Two hundred and fifty-three. Good job, Nida."

"How did Seifer score higher than me? Heís no better than a delinquent!" Lark complained, looking up at his score, shining "289" above her name.

Sloane laughed, "Well, he has taken the test once or twice before."

"Heís pretty good, too," Nida added, glad no one was talking about his grade anymore, "The only reason he didnít become a SeeD last year is because he disobeyed orders. His marks in class are pretty high."

"Yeah," Rodor agreed, "But not higher than Squallís." He looked up at the list, "How anyone can get 291 on that test, I donít know."

"He probably studies a lot," Nida said.

Lark laughed, "Yeah, cause we all know he doesnít do much else. Maybe if I was more like Squall and had spent the day before the test studying instead of being pushed into the sea by my friends, I wouldíve gotten a higher score, too."

"You donít need a higher score," Rodor said, "Youíre already the third highest in the class."

"Then again, itís only the written part," Sloane put in, "Thereís still the field exam."

Lark made a face, "More tests."

"Hey, if it wasnít for the written part, I might become a SeeD this year instead of four months from now. I got high marks on the Fire Cavern." Rodor argued.

"What did you get?" Sloane asked.

Rodor smirked, "A hundred and ninety points," he said proudly. Then added, for Larkís sake, "Out of two hundred and fifty."

"Thatís pretty good," Sloane admitted, "I only got a hundred and fifty-eight."

"Raven, what did you get?" Rodor asked.

"UmÖ By Fire Cavern you mean what, exactly?" Lark asked uncertainly.

Sloane groaned, "Donít tell me you havenít taken it yet!"

"Okay, I wonít," Lark agreed amiably, "So what is it?"

"Another test," Rodor said, "You have to go through the Fire Cavern and earn your first official Guardian Force, itís no big deal."

"You have to get your score before the Field Exam, though," Sloane put in, "So youíve only got today and tomorrow to take it."

Lark sighed, "I never get a break, do I? I guess I might as well take it today and get it over with."

Nida nodded in agreement, "Youíll have to talk with Professor Trepe, she has to approve your time and assign a staff person to go with you."

"Just hope she doesnít decide to go with you herself," Sloane added, "Itís distracting and she acts like you donít know anything."

"I had Xu," Rodor put in, "She was really good, you should see if you can go in with her."

Lark nodded, "I donít think Iíll have much of a say in who I go with, but Iíll keep that in mind."

"Professor Trepe should be in her office right now," Nida said, "Probably grading the junior classmenís tests. Do you know where that is?"

"In the classroom?" Lark hazarded a guess.

"No," Nida said, "Itís downstairs. Do youÖ want me to show you where it is?"

"Sure," Lark agreed, "Might as well get it done with now." The two teens turned to go, calls of goodbye and good-luck following them from Sloane and Rodor.

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