CHAPTER VI: On the Road Again.

Lark yawned widely as she stepped off the train at Timber Station. She wasnít sure if she expected to find anything there but it was where all the trains leaving Balamb stopped. She walked into a small gift shop right outside the station and bought a map, settling it over a small table outside. Taking a seat she began to look over the map, trying to plan her next action as she began to eat her supply of pop-tarts.

"You, Ms. Till, are the biggest idiot, ever." A voice growled over her shoulder.

Lark reluctantly looked up at the towering visage of Sloane, dark and shaking with barely controlled theory. She smiled nervously, her eyes darting around for somewhere to run.

"Youíve done some dumb things in the past," the irate teenager continued, "But this is by far the dumbest, most idiotic thing you have ever done!"

Pushing hard with her legs, Lark managed to propel herself backwards, using her hands to roll over the short fence that the table sat against just in time to avoid being given a concussion by Sloaneís staff. Immediately she pushed herself to her feet and took off at a run as Sloane vaulted over the fence behind her.

"Sloane! Calm down! It isnít going to helpó" Lark hastily avoided a few more wide swings, "óto knock my head off!"

"No, but itíll make me feel so much better," Sloane quipped as he brought his staff around low, sweeping Larkís feet out from under her.

The dark haired teen stood over his friend, his staff poised over her so that with barely a momentís notice he could bring it down. Lark didnít move, breathing heavily and staring up at the boy with wide eyes.

"Sloane, let Ďer up," Rodor said, stalking up beside his friends, "Youíre making a scene."

Reluctantly Sloane pulled back his staff, letting it stand by his side at ready, and continued to glare at Lark. Rodor offered Lark his hand and hauled her to her feet. Lark was about to thank him when he reached over and hit the back of her head.

"Hey!" Lark cried, glaring at Rodor and then Sloane again and trying to smooth down the mess that was now her hair a little.

Rodor shrugged nonplussed, "You needed some sense knocked into you."

Lark glowered at him, "It didnít help. I already knew it was dumb, but I had to do it."

"Raven, youíve got no idea how dumb it was," Sloane quipped, glaring at the girl darkly, "Did you realize SeeDs and SeeD candidates that leave Garden are considered deserters?"

"Er, no," Lark reluctantly admitted.

Sloane snorted, "And did you realize that deserters are at worst ordered killed on sight and at best apprehended by the Garden to appear before the Headmaster?"

"... No," Lark felt her face going slightly red, "But people are dropping out of Garden all the time!"

"Yes, after theyíve been debriefed," Sloane said tightly. "Youíre lucky the staff is so preoccupied right now over the mess in Galbadia."

Lark frowned, "Whatís happening in Galbadia?"

"The president has announced a new ambassador for Galbadia," Rodor said, "Sheís supposedly a sorceress and things got pretty tense back at Garden really fast. I wonder what everyoneís so upset about, governments donít have any effect over us."

"The sorceress?" Lark asked in surprise, "But sheís the bad guy!"

Sloane rubbed his forehead and sighed, "Thatís what I thought this was all about." He said, "That Ďgame worldí you were talking about before."

Lark nodded, "I canít go back to Garden until I understand whatís going on and why Iím here."

"Then weíre going with you!" Rodor exclaimed, punching a fist into the air and narrowly missing Sloaneís face. Sloane scowled at him but Rodor didnít notice. "Weíve just got to stick together, you know?"

Sloane shoved Rodor to the side so his hand wasnít in his face anymore, "We got permission from the Headmaster for two weeks leave to visit our families. I hope you wonít need any more time than that."

Lark frowned, "I hope it wonít take that long," she said.

"So, where are we going first?" Rodor asked as the three teens made their way back to the abandoned table.

"I figured the best place to go would be Esthar," Lark replied, pulling a second seat up to the table as Sloane took the one already there. She frowned, "But I canít find it anywhere on this map."

"Thatís because Esthar disappeared about fifteen years ago," Sloane explained. He pointed to a large region on the eastern continent, "It used to be somewhere around here, but thereís no telling whatís there now. No oneís come out of Esthar since the Sorceress Wars. Many people think it was destroyed along with Sorceress Adel."

Lark shook her head, "Thatís impossible. Laguna is the president of Esthar, so it canít be destroyed. It must be there somewhere."

Sloane raised an eyebrow, "We canít really count on the information from your dreams to be reliable. Thereís no proof that theyíre based on reality."

"Thereís no proof that theyíre not." Lark said, glaring at him.

"Well, we might as well check it out," Rodor interrupted, "I mean, whatís the worst that could happen? If itís not there we just go back to Garden, right?"

"Right," Sloane said, "Because if it isnít there that proves your dreams false, right Raven?"

"Right," Lark said, "But they are real."

"Yeah, try saying that when we get to Esthar," Sloane said with a smirk, "Or the ruins that once were Esthar."

"So, how are we going to get there?" Rodor asked, "The bridge is closed, the Galbadian soldiers wonít let any trains or people cross it."

Sloane pointed at the map again, "If we can get to Fishermanís Horizon we could make it. Theyíre neutral, so we can get onto the bridge. There still wonít be any trains, but we can walk across."

Lark nodded thoughtfully, "So all we need is a boat to take us to FH."

"The Galbadian Navy controls all boats leaving from anywhere in Galbadia," Rodor said, "And they consider FH an enemy continentónot hostile, but not someplace they want to ship people to."

"So we need to get outside of Galbadia," Lark reasoned. She groaned, "Donít tell me we have to go back to Balamb."

"We canít," Sloane said, "All trains running to and from Balamb were cut off. Apparently thereís been a security breach. We made it on the last train that was allowed to run."

"Alright, so we get to Dollet," Lark said, "They arenít affiliated with Galbadia, right? So we should be able to get a boat from there."

Sloane shook his head, "The only train left today is one headed for Deling City. Itís leaving in about," he glanced at his watch, "Five minutes."

"Crap," Lark said, "Does that mean we have to wait until the trains are open again?"

Sloane shrugged, "Or we could go to DC."

Lark shook her head, "Weíll never be able to get tickets and get onto the train before it leaves."

Rodor smirked, "Well, then I guess itís good that we bought three tickets when we arrived."

Lark stared at him incredulously for a moment before grinning, "Thatís great! Now we can get out of here!"

"Uh, Raven," Sloane started.

"What?" Lark asked, slightly annoyed.

"If weíre going anywhere weíve got to get to the train station in the next three minutes." Sloane said.

"So?" Lark asked, "Itís right there." She pointed to the train station nearby.

Sloane shook his head, "That station only services Balamb, Winhill, and FHówell, only Winhill right now. The station that services the North is on the other side of town."

"Crap!" Lark exclaimed, jumping up and quickly grabbing the map, "Weíve got to go now, then!"

"Race you!" Rodor shouted, running in the direction of the North Station.

Lark and Sloane quickly followed, chasing their red-haired friend through the city.

"Youíre just in time," a man said as they ran up to the station, panting for breath. "The trainís leaving now. Tickets?"

Sloane whipped them out and handed them over. The man looked at them, nodded, and handed them back. "Have a good trip." The trio ran onto the train, the door closing behind them as the train lurched to a start.

"Instructor!" Rodor exclaimed in surprise as he led his friends into a forward compartment.

Everyone was silent in surprise for a moment, staring at each other. At length Quistis frowned, "Rodor, Sloane, and Lark," she said, "What are you three doing away from Garden?"

"We have permission," Sloane said quickly, "Two weeks leave. We were, ah, going to visit my family on FH."

"Then what are you doing in Galbadia?" Quistis asked, looking at the three teenís suspiciously.

"Bad communication," Rodor said, scratching the back of his head, "I thought he said WH. You know, for Winhill."

"So now that weíre on the continent, we decided to check out DCís shopping center. Itís supposed to be the largest in the world," Sloane explained, "Second only to Estharís."

"You picked a really bad time to come," Quistis said.

"Why, whatís up?" Sloane asked, frowning.

"Didnít you see the television broadcast earlier today?" A girl asked from behind Quistis. She had black hair and was dressed in blue.

Rodor shook his head, "No, why?"

"Seifer attacked the president of Galbadia," Quistis explained, "Itís likely theyíll retaliate against Garden."

"What?" Sloane and Rodor exclaimed at the same time.

Lark just smirked, "Thatís me one, you none," she told Sloane.

Sloane frowned, "How can you be thinking of that dream at a time like this?" He demanded.

"Oh, no! Are they going to attack Garden?" Rodor asked with concern.

"Iím sure Garden and your girlfriend will be fine, Ro," Lark said, smiling at the boy and ignoring Sloane. "Oh, by the way," she turned to acknowledge Zell, "You ran off so fast after graduating that I never got the chance to congratulate you."

Zell made an uninterested noise in his throat and brushed the comment aside. "Iím glad to see youíre alright," he said, although he didnít seem too thrilled about it.

Lark frowned. She hadnít known Zell long, but from what she did know, he was the kind of person who was on a constant sugar high. "Whatís wrong?"

Zell shook his head and looked away.

"Heís just feeling down about the situation with Garden," the girl in blue supplied.

"Oh," Lark said. She looked at Zell again, "Donít worry about it, Zell, Iím sure theyíll be fine. In fact, Iím positive Balamb Garden will pull through whatever happens." She turned back to the other girl when Zell just looked moodily out the window. "Iím Lark Till," she said, holding out her hand, "My friends call me Raven, though."

The girl smiled and shook her hand, "Iím Rinoa Heartily," she said, "Why do they call you that?"

"Itís my middle name," Lark said with a shrug, "I didnít like the jokes that came with Lark."

"Jokes?" Rodor repeated, "Do tell."

Lark raised an eyebrow, "Iíd rather not," she said dryly. She turned back to Rinoa, "These guys are Sloane and Rodor," she explained, indicating each of the boys in turn. "So how do you know Zell and the Instructor?"

Quistis shook her head, "Iím just a regular SeeD now," she said. The three students looked at her in surprise.

"What?" Rodor asked, "But you were a great instructor! I mean, you know everything!"

Quistis chuckled, "Hardly," she said.

"Still, youíre a way better instructor than freaky faculty members that are always wearing the masks," Rodor said with a shiver.

Sloane rolled his eyes, "Theyíre Shumi; youíre such a loser, Rodor."

"I am not!" Rodor exclaimed, immediately bristling at the insult.

Lark rolled her eyes, "Guys, do you really want to fight in front of two SeeDs and someone we just met?"

She didnít receive an answer but the two boys settled down considerably. "Anyway," Lark said, smiling apologetically at Rinoa, "How did you meet Zell and... er, SeeD Trepe?"

"Well, Zell is one of the three SeeDs contracted to help the Forest Owls," Rinoa explained, "And Quistis showed up at the TV station." She shrugged.

"What happened to the other SeeDs?" Sloane asked with concern.

Rinoa smiled, "Oh, theyíre up front right now."

"Squall and Selphie are also on the squad," Quistis explained.

"The gangís all here," Lark said with a smirk, "All we need now is Irvine and weíll have a big, happy family again."

Quistis frowned, "Thatís the second time youíve mentioned Irvine," she said, "Who is he?"

"Oh, youíll find out soon, no doubt." Lark said evasively.

Sloane shot her a glare, "Shut up, I wonít take any responsibility for the consequences of you telling everyone you meet about your crazy ideas."

"Didnít we agree I was right until you prove me wrong?" Lark asked.

"No," Sloane said, "We agreed youíre wrong until you prove yourself right."

Just then the door behind Rinoa opened and Squall walked in. He looked around the room, a slightly confused look flashing across his face for only a second before falling back into an emotionless mask.

"What are you three doing here?"

Lark shot him an annoyed look, "Thatís it? No Ďhelloí? No ĎIím glad to see youíre not deadí? We really need to work on your people skills, Squally." Quistis and Rinoa giggled as Squall bristled in anger.

"Donít call me that," he hissed, glaring at her. Lark glared back, a hand on her hip and a scowl on her face. He sighed in irritation, "Fine, Iím glad to see youíre not dead. Happy, now?"

Lark smiled, "Yes, actually."

"So what are you doing here?" Squall asked.

Lark fought back a laugh, knowing he hadnít meant to be funny. "Just traveling," she replied with a shrug, "Iím told weíve come at a bad time, though."

Squall nodded, frowning. "You should all return to Garden."

"Canít do that, Squall," Sloane interrupted the conversation a bit rudely. Squall glared at him. "No trains running to Balamb, remember?"

"You will come with us to Galbadia Garden, then," Squall said. "This isnít a good time for SeeD students to be running around Galbadia."

"Címon!" Rodor exclaimed with irritation, "We can take care of ourselves! Just because you graduated and we didnít doesnít mean you can boss us around!"

Squall didnít reply.

"Ro, Iím sure he didnít mean it like that," Lark put in.

"Oh, yeah?" Rodor asked, still glaring at Squall. "If it hadnít been for that car, both Sloane and Raven would be SeeDs right now! Theyíre every bit your equal, if not better! And Iím not some mediocre, either."

"Are you through?" Squall asked with annoyance, glaring right back.

Lark sighed and hit the back of Rodorís head when he opened his mouth to retort. "Quit being an idiot, Ro," she said sharply, "Thatís my job."

Sloane laughed, "Sheís got a point, Rodor."

Lark glared at Sloane, hitting him, too. "Can we at least try to be mature until we reach the train station?"

"Well, you wonít have to strain yourself too long," Quistis said with amusement as the train began slowing down and the conductorís voice came through the overhead speaker. "Weíre here."

"So, what are you going to do?" Quistis asked as everyone got off the train.

"Weíre going to Dollet," Lark answered, "We have important business we need to attend to and we canít waste time at Garden."

Squall frowned, "There will be Galbadian Soldiers all over the place still, remember they were just at war."

Lark gave Squall another glare, "I know that," she replied with irritation, "That car didnít knock all the sense out of me."

"Donít worry," Sloane put in, throwing an arm around Larkís shoulders. "Iíll take care of her."

Rodor glared at him, "Hey, if anyoneís taking care of anyone, itíll be me taking care of both of you idiots." He put an arm around Larkís shoulders from the other side.

Lark rolled her eyes in annoyance and shrugged out of their holds. She smiled at Squall and the others, "Weíll be careful," she assured them, "Iíll look out for these two."

Squall seemed to consider this for a moment before nodding. "Iíll see you back at Garden."

Lark nodded, "Yep, see ya." She agreed, turning away from the others and dragging the two boys with her before they could comment.

"Quick, before they change their minds," she whispered. They nodded and the three of them ran off.

They were able to follow the road most of the way to Dollet. However, they ran into a small problem when the reached the pass through the mountains which provided the only way into the small peninsula where the city was built. There was a Galbadian road block.

Now they had two choices. They could try to find a way around it, which would likely take another hour or two. That option was quickly vetoed due to the fact that there was only about an hourís worth of sunlight left. Everyone agreed they would have to try some low-handed plot to get past.

"Hey, you there!" One of the guards yelled when he noticed the three teenagers sneaking up to the road block. Lark, Sloane, and Rodor quickly jumped upright, staring at him like a family of deer in the path of an oncoming train. "Stop right there, this roadís blocked!" He finished, jogging over to where they were.

"But weíve really got to get to Dollet!" Rodor said.

The guard crossed his arms over his chest. "Iíll be the judge of that." He said, "Whatís your names and purpose for traveling to Dollet?"

"Sloane, Raven, and Rodor," Sloane replied, indicating each of them in turn. He stepped closer to the guard and added in a hushed undertone that everyone could hear, "Weíre trying to get our friend to his doctor," he motioned covertly to Lark, "Uh, he thinks everything is a video game."

"Stand aside, Sloane!" Lark said in what she felt was a particularly masculine and heroic tone, "Iíll deal with the NPCs!"

The guard took a step backwards and eyed her warily.

"So, what do you want?" Lark asked, peering at him through narrowed eyes.

"Uh..."

"Some super-rare artifact from the south?" Lark pressed, stepping closer, "A dozen soup posters collected from around the area? A Ďpretty stoneí?"

"Uh..." The guard looked uncertainly between Lark and Sloane.

"Er, maybe you can just give him the Ďpasswordí..." Sloane suggested.

Lark grinned, "Oh, yeah! The password the wandering toad gave us!" She leaned in closer to the guard, glancing around with paranoia, before whispering, "Rose... Warlock..."

"Uh..."

"So, can we pass?" Sloane asked, stepping up beside Lark, who looked like she was trying to stare the guard down.

Hesitantly the man nodded, "Uh, yeah," the three grinned and started past the blockade. "Go get your friend to that doctor."

"Doctor?" Lark echoed, feigning confusion, "I thought we were rescuing a princess!"

"We are!" Sloane quickly reassured her as they cleared the guarded area, "Uh, see, she was kidnapped by her uncle whoís a doctor."

"Oh," Lark said before grinning. "Hold on princess, here we come!" She accentuated this statement by charging down the road. The two boys quickly followed her, Sloane waving and thanking the guards before disappearing around the bend.

"I canít believe they bought that!" Rodor laughed as the three of them entered town about fifteen minutes later.

"Really," Lark agreed, "Iím a horrible actor. I couldnít even think of a good password to give him."

Sloane shrugged, "Doesnít really matter since we got past them."

"Yeah," Lark conceded, "But, seriously, what kind of a password is ĎRose warlockí?"

"Apparently the kind delusional heroes learn from wandering toads," Rodor supplied, laughing.

"It does make me wonder what you think about in your spare time, though," Sloane said thoughtfully.

"Alright guys, just let me do the talking. My dad worked on a fishing boat for a couple of years when I was younger." Sloane said as the three teens walked to the docks the next morning.

"Sure, Sloane," Rodor said, "I mean, it must be very difficult. ĎAre you going to FH? Can we come along?í"

Sloane rolled his eyes, "You donít actually think that would work, do you?" He asked, "Captains are all about cutting out losses. If we want a ride to FH thereís only two ways weíre going to get there. The first is by paying and I doubt any of us have that kind of money. The second is to find someone willing to let us work for passage."

"Weíre mercenaries, Sloane, what kind of work are we supposed to do on a ship?" Rodor asked with annoyance.

"Dumb muscle work," Sloane replied, smirking, "If someone tells you to pull on a line, you pull. You move crates, fix nets, tie knots, swab decks..." He shrugged, "Anything you can do to make yourself less of a free loader."

Lark laughed, "So long as they donít want you to cook anything, Ro, youíll be fine."

"And youíll have to try to blend in, Raven," Sloane added.

"Huh?" Lark asked.

Sloaneís face was slowly turning red, "I mean... most ship crews are, you know... some captains are kind of superstitious about, well, you know..."

Rodor laughed, "How can we know if you donít tell us, idiot?"

Lark rolled her eyes and punched Rodor in the arm, "He wants me to pretend Iím a guy, you idiot."

Sloane was very red by now, "Itís just that our chances of getting a ride will be much smaller with a girl." He stammered.

Lark smiled, patting Sloaneís shoulder, "I know what you mean." She said, then shrugged. "Ro didnít have any clue I was a girl until I told him, I think I can manage to hide my overwhelming femininity from a bunch of sailors for a couple of days."

Now Rodor was red as his friends laughed at his expense. "Well, how was I supposed to know?" He demanded indignantly. "I mean, that isnít exactly a conversation starter: Hi, Raven, how are you? Oh, by the way, are you a girl?" The other two laughed harder.

"Alright, so we all understand the plan, right?" Sloane asked as they approached one of the ships.

"Aye, aye," Lark and Rodor responded in unison, grinning at each other like a pair of stupid monkeys.

Sloane rolled his eyes, "Idiots. Wait here for me."

Lark and Rodor watched him go.

"What does he think weíre going to do?" Rodor asked as he watched Sloane initiate conversation with one of the sailors.

Lark shrugged, "Probably use pirate slang and break into drinking songs." She suggested as the brown haired boy gestured at them.

"Arr," Rodor said, "I wouldnít embarrass my matey like that, you swash-buckled scalawag."

"Do you even know what any of that means?" Lark asked, raising an eyebrow at the other red head.

"Aye! Of course I know what it means, yeh yellow-bellied land-lubber!" Rodor returned indignantly.

Lark rolled her eyes. "Shut up, here comes Sloane."

"So, when are we leaving?" Lark asked when Sloane walked up to them again.

"Apparently the Captainís eager to leave," Sloane replied, "But heís a few hands short right now. Theyíll allow us to work our way to FH as long as weíre willing to leave today."

"Why are they in such a hurry?" Lark asked.

"I got the impression I shouldnít ask," Sloane answered dryly. "Anyway, itíll take them about three days to reach Fishermanís Horizon."

"Is that fast?" Lark asked skeptically.

Sloane nodded slowly, "Itís pretty fast. It takes about a day and a half to get to FH from here if you go straight there. Iím told this is the only ship thatís leaving today, so itís unlikely we would be able to find passage on another ship and arrive there any sooner."

"Well, we want to get there as soon as possible," Lark said, "So if this ship will get us there the fastest, then letís take it."

Sloane nodded again, "Okay. Weíll help the crew get everything loaded and we should be leaving in a couple of hours."

Sloane was unquestionably the most helpful of the three teenagers. Lark and Rodor managed to be of some use, but after seeing how little they actually knew about working on a ship, the first mate resorted to showing them single tasks at a time and having them practice them over and over until they could do it almost without flaw. He told them he expected them to be of more use after they had learned the basics.

The three teens joined the rest of the crew below deck that evening for supper. Lark sat to Sloaneís right and Rodor sat to his left. The two of them could only stare at their food as Sloane and the other sailors dug in.

"Sloane," Rodor said at length in a faint voice, "My dinner is staring at me."

"Mine, too," Lark agreed, staring at her plate forlornly.

Sloane rolled his eyes, "Itís not staring at you, itís dead."

"Yeah, but... itís head!" Rodor exclaimed, poking at the dead fishís head, "Itís... Well..."

"Still there," Lark finished with disgust.

"So cut it off," Sloane said with a shrug.

"I canít cut it off while itís staring at me like that!" Lark exclaimed.

"Well, poke itís eyes out," Sloane offered with a smirk, "Then it wonít stare at you anymore."

Sloane!" Lark exclaimed in shock.

"I think Iíll name him Pocky." Rodor declared, still poking at his fish.

"It isnít a pet, Rodor, itís dinner," Sloane said, raising an eyebrow.

"I canít eat Pocky!" Rodor exclaimed, "Heís been like a brother to me ever since I met him!"

Sloane laughed, "Which was, what, ten minutes ago?"

"Know what? I really donít think Iím hungry anymore," Lark decided, pushing her plate back.

"It isnít the quantity of the friendship, but the quality," Rodor insisted.

Sloane sighed heavily, "Fine," he said. He took Larkís plate and quickly chopped off the head of the fish, then returned it to her and did the same to Rodorís before either could complain. "There, can we eat now?"

"Wow, I expected more blood," Lark said, staring at the now headless fish. Shrugging, she started to eat as well.

"You killed Pocky!" Rodor exclaimed in horror.

"Pocky was already dead, Ro," Lark pointed out, rolling her eyes.

"Just eat your fish," Sloane added, "People are starting to stare..."

Rodor and Lark looked up to see that the sailors, having their immediate hunger already satisfied, were now staring at them with amused confusion. Rodor turned red and quickly returned his attention to picking at his dinner. Lark laughed at him and did the same.

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