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a one-shot by Dare

        The STRA athletics center was a large wing of headquarters where agents and employees came to either train or relax from stress by working out. The middle set of floors was a general purpose shower and fitness area. A wide track encircled the building's perimeter for those who liked to jog while in the middle below was a wide array of exercise equipment and weight machines. The top floors featured racquet courts. The floor below had the simulated environmental conditioning rooms or SEC. They were basically holographic imaging chambers that could recreate any environment anyone could want to train in. From skiing on snow-covered mountains to running along sandy beaches, anything was possible. On the same floor were several rooms where classes were held ranging from basic training, advanced training, covert and ultra-elite. During off-hours, they also served as aerobics and general fitness. On the other side was the shooting gallery where agents came to practice their marksmanship. The SECs could also simulate more realistic environments if the user so wished.

        Talon found himself in one of these SECs. The set up was very simple. He was in a large room with a marble floor. Each corner had a column that supported the high ceiling. The arena was properly lit, but beyond the boundaries of the floor, all was dark.

        A large, built man stood ready before him. He wore tight fatigues that accentuated his muscular body. His blond hair was cut in a crew style almost like Talon's but much shorter. He twirled a long staff expertly.

        "All right, let's see how you do, Talon Gauss," the man said. His name was Jarod Baref, and he was one of the professional trainers STRA had hired to prepare their agents. He stopped twirling his staff and butted it sharply on the floor. "Where's your weapon?"

        Talon pulled out his retracted staff from his pocket. Settling it in his palm, he squeezed the two triggers and it extended rapidly to full length.

        Jarod whistled in admiration. "Neat trick," he complimented Talon. "Now, let's see if you're as good using it." With a yell, he launched himself at Talon.

        Talon blocked the attack easily, and they began a long stretch of hitting and blocking. Occasionally, Jarod would swing widely at Talon, but he was able to duck or jump of the way. Talon tried to hit an open area, but Jarod was too quick and blocked each attempt.

        Once Talon got careless and he was slow to retract his hit. Jarod took advantage of that, and hit Talon with his staff. A jolt of electricity raced through Talon's body, shocking him mildly. He clutched his arm as he lay on the floor, staring with disbelief.

        "What? Did you think I would actually play fair, too? It's going to hurt extra if I hit you, so don't let me! Get up!"

        Talon gritted his teeth and got up quickly. With renewed vigor, he began attacking. The two were equally matched from that point on, and they battled wearily for many minutes. Talon decided to feint an attack, carefully shifting his body and even his eyes to make it seem he was going for one attack. Jarod read the attempt instinctively and moved his staff to block. With lightning speed, Talon reversed and hit the opposite way. Jarod had to move quickly to counter that attack but it left him off balance and out of rhythm. Talon countered again by hitting him successfully, rotating and hooking his bo on Jarod's leg. Yanking, he knocked Jarod down hard.

        Talon leaned on his bo, breathing hard. He had won.

        "Hmmm.." Jarod remarked with a wipe of his brow. "I'm impressed." He reached up a hand and Talon helped him up. "Unfortunately, time's up for today."

        "Next time?" Talon asked.


        Talon turned to leave. Unfortunately, he had lost his bearings from the sparring and didn't know he was standing in front of a column.

        "Watch out!" Jarod warned.

        Too late. Talon hit his head on the column. The world spun around and went black.

* * *

        Talon's eyes fluttered open. A bright light was shining down on him. His head was pounding. He couldn't believe he walked into a post. How stupid of him. He sat up and blinked. Where was he?

        The entire room, if he was in a room, was pitch dark except for a spotlight that illuminated him. Yet when he looked up he couldn't see the source. He had to shield his eyes from the bright light.

        "Hello?" he called out. There was no echo. The sound was flat. In fact, there were no sounds other than his voice. No smell either, nothing. He stood up and walked around. To his surprise, he remained illuminated no matter where he went. It was as if someone were tracking him with the light. He also discovered he wasn't in a room. If he was, it had to be huge for he ran a few minutes without finding the wall. He couldn't understand where he could be that was so dark, yet a light surrounded him and only him.

        He was getting nervous. He wasn't scared, but he knew something wasn't right. He reached for the materia that was on his bracelet. It was missing! He looked at his wrist and indeed his bracer was gone. He felt around his pocket. His bo was missing too. Had he been captured by someone?

        Suddenly, he could hear faint footsteps. They were getting louder --someone was approaching. He crouched in a low, defensive position. If he had to, he could spring up quickly and grapple whoever it was.

        It was Samui.

        "Samui?" Talon asked, "what's going on?"

        "'Samui'?" Samui repeated.


        A mirror instantly appeared beside Samui and she looked at herself. Talon watched as she turned around and checked herself over. "So, this is what I look like to you."

        "What are you talking about?" Talon's eyes narrowed. "You're not Samui are you?"

        "No, I am not 'Samui'. I have no name, no form but I can choose to be whatever they wish me to be. You have chosen me to be this."


        "Those who come here," she plainly answered.

        "Where is here?"

        Samui was troubled by that answer. "Here is..." she shrugged, "here."

        "I don't understand," Talon said, "who are you? You said they choose you to be whatever form you wish."

        Samui shook her head. "No, it is not my choosing. It is...a means for me to communicate with you. It is you who have chosen me to appear like this. Sometimes, it is the form of a loved one or someone they love. For this is the form you are most comfortable with. So that you wouldn't feel frightened."

        Talon blinked. He was taken aback by what she said. The form of someone they loved? He didn't think he had any feelings for Samui and neither Samui for him. This definitely didn't feel right. Then, he suddenly realized something. "I'm dreaming right? I'm not awake yet. I'm dreaming all this weirdness. Well, I'll just wake up and be on my way."

        "You can't leave."

        "Why not?"

        "Because you are not dreaming, and because you have not done what you came here to do."

        "But I didn't come here! I'm not anywhere! I'm inside my head, that's where I am!"

        "No, you came here. Maybe not of your conscious choosing, but subconsciously you sought this place out. And, I do no not know what circumstances allowed you to come here; perhaps you were injured?"

        Talon threw his up arms. "This is ridiculous."

        "Why are you here? Is it something that troubles you? All who come, there is something that troubles them. Something that makes them, not whole. What is it you are seeking?"

        "I don't understand," Talon said again.

        "You are a seeker, but there is something eluding you."

        His eyes narrowed again and he felt angry. "How did you know that? Are you inside my head? Stay out!" He ran the opposite way and the bright light followed him. He couldn't shake it, not even an inch. It remained perfectly centered on him no matter how long he ran. Finally he stopped, bent over panting.

        Samui materialized in front of him again. It was more like she stepped out of the shadows. "What is it you are running from? Are you running from the very thing you are seeking?"

        "You're not making any sense!"

        "Everyone who comes here is looking for something. What is it you are looking for, Talon Gauss?"

        He snapped back at her, "How do you know my name?"

        She smiled. Something Samui, the real one, would never do. "I'm slowly seeing things." She closed her eyes and everything around them changed. There was a scenery. It wasn't real but more of a film that was projected all around them. The colors were faded, the air misty and odorless. Things were fuzzy at first but they sharpened into focus and Talon gasped. It was Rodick.

        "Where is this place?" Samui asked aloud. "A place from your past? Aplace where you grew up?" Her eyes narrowed. "No, not a place where you grew up. But in a sense, you did grow up here, yes?"

        "What do you mean?"

        "When a child becomes an adult, that is when he grows up. So is the same for you, in this very place. But, you did not grow up in a physical sense. You grew up mentally. And so, now you've come back to grow up again, spiritually."

        The scenery changed but only to be replaced with fire. Fire was everywhere, burning the buildings, burning the houses. "Do you know what a phoenix is?"

        "A mythical bird that is reborn from the ashes of a fire," Talon answered automatically.

        "So, you shall be reborn in this fire." She waved her hands dramatically and suddenly they found themselves inside one of the burning houses. Talon knew this house. He had tried so hard to forget about it, but he never could. It was the house where the boy...

        "HELP!" the boy cried. He was huddled in the corner, scared. Talon tried to reach out for him but he couldn't, for he was only watching and not actively part of the background.

        The door smashed open and he watched his younger self emerge from the flames. The boy cried for help, and seeing Talon, he moved from the corner to him. But, it was too late. The ceiling came crashing down. Talon yelled as he raced to the burning rubble, clearing it away with his bare hands. His hands and face were black with smoke and soot but he didn't care. He opened the fiery coffin that enclosed the boy, for he was now dead. Talon screamed and lay still for a moment before forcing himself to leave.

        Talon watched as this all happened again before his eyes. He sank to his knees and tears streamed down his face. "I tried.. how I tried. But, I couldn't. I was too slow. I was too weak."

        Flaming pieces of wood fell down around him and the roof came down eventually but Talon knew it wouldn't hurt him. Not that he cared either. He could have died at that moment and it would have released him. Finally, when the entire house had collapsed in a fiery rubble, the scenery was replaced with the dark and light from before.

        "Talon Gauss," Samui asked, regarding him on his knees, "what is murder?"

        The question abruptly stopped his grief and he looked up. "Murder? Murder is when you end someone's life. Murder is cold blooded, with intent to kill."

        "Did you murder that boy?"

        "No!" Talon screamed. "I.. I don't know. Maybe I did in the end."

        "Why do you say that?"

        "Because if I hadn't been so blind to what was going on, he would still be alive!" he yelled. "If I hadn't been so foolish and naive and stupid!"

        "But did you murder that boy?" Samui repeated her question.

        "Stop asking me that!"

        "Talon Gauss," she said again, "what is truth?"


        "Truth. What is it?"

        "Stop it, please," Talon sobbed.

        She cocked her head slightly. "I want to know. What is truth. Is it something that will make you better?"

        "Truth is truth. Truth is the opposite of false. The opposite of lies."

        "So, is it the truth that you murdered that boy?" Talon put his face in his hands, not wanting to answer. "But, I do not understand your logic. It is contrary. For you did not murder that boy. You did not have intent or cold blood, as you said. Then, it is not true that you murdered him."

        Talon looked up.

        "It was an accident. Something you could not prevent. It is unfortunate, yes, but unavoidable. Such is this delicate existence that you call life."

        "Then, why does he haunt me to this very day?" Talon asked. "He taunts me in my dreams, he appears to me in my waking hours. He reminds me day after day of how I killed him."

        Samui smiled. "Is that what you believe, Talon Gauss? Oh, Talon, you are a foolish, foolish man. You are indeed a contrary person. You seek, yet you deny the one thing you are seeking."

        "What is it I'm seeking then?"

        "You tell me."

        "Dammit, what kind of answer is that!?"

        "Only you know what you are looking for. What is it you are looking for, Talon Gauss?"

        "What am I looking for?" he asked, mostly to himself. "I'm looking for.. for forgiveness. But, who will forgive me when nobody knows what I've been through. Nobody understands what it's like to have been so filled with pride and ambition that it made me a fool to what was going on, under my very nose. Nobody understands what it's like to have someone die because of your foolishness. Especially, a boy. A young boy, whose life was just beginning. And, I stole it from him. Nobody understands..." He was sobbing again.

        "Indeed, who can? But, I know someone who can forgive you. He is who you must seek. And, once you find him, you will understand. For he too is the only one who understands."

        Talon reached to her desperately. "Tell me! Who is he?"

        She drew him closer. "Look, and I will show him to you." And before Talon's eyes, Samui changed into the one person who could finally set Talon Gauss free. Talon Gauss.

        "Do you understand?" a voice around Talon whispered. "Talon? Do you understand? Talon?"

* * *

        "Talon?" the voice said. "Talon, are you okay?"

        Talon's eyes opened quickly. He looked up and saw Samui's face for she was standing over him.

        "What the hell?" he said woozily.

        "You hit your head on the concrete post in the SEC room, Talon. That was very dumb of you."

        "I'm back," Talon whispered.

        "Of course. You've been out for a few minutes, but we were unable to wake you during that time. It was very strange."

        "I understand," he whispered to himself. A tear escaped his eye. He did really understand, now. And, in the corner of the SEC where Talon was sitting, the boy appeared like he always did. But, instead of taunting him, he merely nodded, walked out of the arena, and into the darkness. "I understand. And, I'm sorry."

        "Sorry for what?" Samui asked.

        Talon smiled. He had grown up.

* * *

        "And, the last thing I saw when she vanished was me, standing before me," Talon concluded his story to Samui.

        "A very interesting and enlightening experience," she remarked.

        "I must have dreamt it all when I was out cold," he admitted. "It was probably my subconscious or conscience trying to reach out to me when I was vulnerable and unable to block them out like I had done for so many years now."

        "That may not be entirely true," countered Samui. "I once heard Shelly talk about a place. Well, not really a physical location, maybe a subspace pocket of some sort. Nobody's ever been able to find it or prove that it even exists, but every once in a while there's stories about how people have sort of stumbled upon it and returned changed."

        Talon nodded. "I do feel different. And, I think it was for the better." Then a thought occurred to him. "Say, Samui? Have you ever been to such a place?"

        But Samui chose not to answer.

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