To Absent Friends . . .
by LunarCry





This one was kinda sad to write :( but I think it's impossible for someone, even Selphie, to stay that happy all the time. I mean, the sugar's gotta run out sometime :P


" . . . And then there's Nueilla with her sore throat - no way will she be able to sing in the Festival in three days time. Kerry broke her wrist lifting that stage apparatus so the piano's out. And no matter what I say, Irvine says he will not do the tap dance again!"

Selphie paused for breath, pouting slightly and tapping her fingers along her arm, and then giggled.

"Squall's getting a little irate over this whole delay thing. I guess it's kinda my fault . . . but a Trabia Garden Festival would cheer everyone up, don't you think? Even if it does delay the new block of dorms . . . We've been working way too hard! We need a break! That's it! Posters!" She clapped her hands together, her eyes lighting up. "Recruitment posters! For the Trabia Garden Festival Committee! I know I'm only gonna be a temporary member, Balamb Garden needs entertainment, too, but I can at least get it started over here!"

In the near distance, the rumble of machinery and the high burble of general conversation brought her attention to the present. Her expression faintly sad, she viewed the construction work over the top of the nearest building and sighed.

"Remember that stage you designed, Jen? With the Garden motif and the swirling patterns? Well, I'm resurrecting it! That's gonna be the official Trabia Garden Festival stage! It'll look great! Tina said she'll help make it - she's good with arty stuff like that." Forcing a smile onto her face, she turned to look at all of them. "Jen, Feena, Michael . . . everyone . . . We'll do it justice! Just like we planned to, before . . ."

And then it started to hail.

Selphie's smile faded, and she brushed the top of the closest tombstone with one hand reverently. The air was cold - she should really get inside soon, or at least go help with the work to keep warm. She wouldn't be able to rest until Trabia Garden was rebuilt, but the going was slow. A heck of a lot of damage had been done . . .

Irvine said she was his rock to cling to when he felt down. It was hard to imagine him looking or feeling depressed, but then she expected a lot of people thought that about her. Selphie always smiled, and never let anything get her down . . .

Yeah . . . most of the time.

The thing is, if you have that much optimism, sooner or later the bad feelings catch up.

Underneath these gravestones lay her friends. Being in Trabia again made it incredibly hard to forget that, at any time. There was no bitterness, no anger . . . Selphie thought herself incapable of that. But the sorrow that made her eyes ache and her throat tighten - that never left her. Not even when she was surrounded by her new friends. Sometimes she even felt slightly guilty, which was silly, she knew. After all, why would Jen and the others be jealous? They would hardly want her to remain friendless for the rest of her life out of dedication to them. And Selphie would hardly be able to stand pulling off a 'Squall'!

Smiling again, Selphie patted the headstone once more and began to make her way towards the entrance of the cemetery, treading carefully between graves. It would be most disrespectful to tread on one!

The weather was always pretty bad this time of year - a gentle hail now, sleet and heavy snow later on. The construction work was going to get messy. Perhaps a little judicious help from the Guardian Forces might prevent a few accidents? She'd have to put the idea to Squall - Cid was giving him a little more experience before handing his beloved Balamb Garden into the hands of the young SeeD. Squall was a great leader, but he still had a habit of trying to do everything himself. Cid hadn't specifically mentioned it, but helping the presently group-leadership of Trabia was teaching her stoic friend the rules of delegation.

Selphie paused as she moved to turn the corner into the main section of the Garden. Shiva was sitting on one of the wider makeshift fence posts hammered into the frozen dirt, defying physics as she . . . snowbathed?

"Squall let you out?" she asked with a grin.

Shiva's expressive pout informed her that Squall was only her keeper when she wanted him to be.

"You aren't causing this hail, are you? You might mess up the construction work!"

The Guardian Force lifted a delicate eyebrow, indicating that she was above that sort of low-level-only-just-acknowledged-its-powers-monster-type-thing.

"Could you stop it? It's cold!"

She closed her eyes and smiled sensuously. Selphie presumed that that meant Shiva was enjoying it too much to stop it, though she could, if she wanted to. She just didn't feel like it, that was all. Selphie shook her head despairingly at the immortal Ice elemental and took another step forward, her eyes lighting up when she heard a very familiar voice yell in outrage: "What is this? Slave labour?"

"Irvine!" And she charged off in pursuit of the person who probably meant more to her than anyone. Shiva watched sceptically, wondering why it was that mortals so enjoyed falling in love.

The gentle hail stung her eyes, as Selphie was finally forced to face it head on. All she could see when she looked up was a flurry of white against grey. Then she realised a rather heated argument was taking place on the current construction site, and that Irvine was somewhere in the middle of it.

The construction site had vastly expanded since they had started the work. Between the sports court and the old quad area, the damage had been deemed too severe to simply rebuild. Everyone had been forced to start from scratch. Selphie remembered her frantic efforts to cheer everyone up after that disappointing beginning.

Now the girders and scaffolding for the new dormitory block were in place, and machinery was moving across almost every half inch of land. Crowded was an understatement, and with the worsening weather, things were going to get dangerous.

Irvine was 'conversing' with Jonas, one of the Trabians who had governed the Garden loosely after the old Headmistress had been killed in the missile attack. And neither of them looked very happy.

"Selphie."

She glanced left, surprised to see Squall addressing her of his own free will, clipboard in hand and a pen behind his ear. Then she giggled - well, he did look funny in one of the bright and padded coldsuits everyone had to wear.

"Squall, orange isn't your colour," she grinned.

He drew his lips to one side in a sneer. "I'm aware of that. Aren't you supposed to be on break?"

"No one else is. And if they can keep going, I can, too!"

Squall rolled his eyes and released a long-suffering sigh. It hit the air as a cloud of mist. "No one else was up until six this morning negotiating plans for a mid-construction Garden Festival."

"You were. You were the one I was negotiating with!"

"I'm different. I can get by on two hours of sleep a night."

She tutted, still smiling, and wagged a gloved hand at him. "It'll hit back with a vengeance later."

"It's got to catch me first. Anyway, if you're determined to stay here, then could you go and see what's bothering Irvine so much? And tell Jonas ten minutes, then a break, for everyone. He's already delayed it twice. Got it?"

Selphie nodded exaggeratedly. "Okay!"

"And watch it. The ground's icy. I'll discuss health and safety with you later."

She waved at him as she padded across the frozen ground, hoping her boots had enough grip to make it without a single slip-up.

They didn't. No sooner had she reached Irvine than her right foot slid forward. She threw her arms up with a shriek, and was extremely grateful when Irvine's warm hand caught her flailing wrist and held her upright. Sometimes, his eight and a half inches in height over her was actually an advantage.

"Hey, Sefie," he grinned, still holding her arm while she regained her balance.

"Irvy! Squall sent me remind Jonas about the break, and to ask: What's going on?"

A frown crossed his face, and he glared at Jonas. "This guy wants us to keep working through our break."

Selphie pursed her lips. "Jonas, we need a break anyway to discuss health and safety. The ground's icy, and the site's too overcrowded. Squall thinks more efficient shifts might -"

"Oh, the great and mighty Squall yet again," the Trabian grimaced. "You know, some of us want the Garden re-established before we all have grandchildren!"

"That's no reason to compromise health and safety," Irvine said firmly. He, too, was wearing a garish orange coldsuit, but he had refused to remove his hat. He'd told her that it protected his hair.

Selphie spared an insane moment in the middle of that argument pining over her own hair - the hail had melted in it, and her perfectly styled locks were now a bedraggled mess. She blinked, and returned with a thud to the conversation.

" . . . and anyway, I don't see you doing any of the manual labour," Irvine was muttering.

"You've only been working four hours since the last break!"

"Well, at least Squall is prepared to accept the needs of the majority! He ain't the only one who wants this job finished as soon as possible, you know!"

True, thought Selphie. Trabia was too far for Rinoa to come visit often, and she'd seen Squall moping around in the few moments when he thought no one was watching him. Besides, while Squall was devoted to Garden, Trabia wasn't his Garden. He sympathised, but he didn't feel the need to see it up and running again as keenly as she and her fellow Trabians did.

However, that didn't mean he was doing a shoddy job!

"Why did you Balamb people have to stick your noses in anyway? Trabia is our concern - we take care of our own!"

Selphie's eyes widened, and she quickly caught Jonas' arm in her hand. "You don't mean that! Jonas, we need all the help we can get! They -"

" 'They'?" He sneered at her. "You, Selphie, you're the worst! Would you have ever come back if we hadn't been bombed to hell?"

"Now wait just a minute!"

"Oh, sure, you had to take your SeeD exam . . . but why didn't you return straight away? If Trabia's that important to you, why didn't you come back as soon as you had your godforsaken SeeDship?"

Selphie's stomach had turned to water. For once, she could think of nothing to say in reply.

"Let's face it! You only came back afterwards to soothe your guilt trip! You're just as bad as them!"

Her dead friends, the living ones that were left . . . did they all think that of her? When she had ignored the occasional cold shoulder, blaming it on depression and sorrow for lost loved ones . . . had that been the real reason for some of their icy attitudes towards her?

"Hey," Irvine was uttering softly, and he took off his hat and placed it affectionately on her head. To Jonas, he said: "That's no way to talk to a lady."

And then he leaned closer, baring his teeth in a snarl.

"Especially," he growled, "not mine."

Selphie suddenly felt dizzy and hot. Tears began to well up in her eyes. Surely Jonas was lying . . . but why hadn't she come back? Back then there had been no rush, no worries. She'd kept in touch with her old friends through the Garden Network - of course it wasn't the same as seeing them in the flesh but . . .

It wasn't until much later that she had valued Squall, Zell, Quistis, Rinoa and Irvine as close friends. So if it had been a matter of friendship, she would've left for Trabia as soon as receiving her SeeD status. Could she really have preferred Balamb to Trabia, her beloved home?

The accusation was too much. Selphie spun herself out of Irvine's grasp, wanting to run far, far away, but she forgot that the ground was slippery, and only managed a few metres before her feet flew out from under her and she fell backwards, cracking her head against the frozen earth dully.

"Selphie!"

The sound of her name swam through the fuzziness of her hearing, and the head injury was only part of the reason why she felt sick. Two blurred faces appeared in her vision, and only after seeing both of their lips move simultaneously did she realise they belonged to the same person.

"Selphie, can you hear me?"

She nodded, and understood that doing so was a bad idea when the pain intensified. However, she did recognise the voice as Squall's. If that was so, then where was Irvine?

"I'm used to seeing you fall over, Selph, but rarely do you actually hurt yourself in the process."

She wanted to laugh - that was Squall's dry humour, all right.

"Can you move at all?"

"I don't know . . ." she croaked weakly. But she slowly turned her aching head from side to side, and heard Squall's discreet sigh of relief.

"All right." And then an arm supported her head and neck, and another behind her knees, and she was lifted as carefully as possible. "Selphie, put your arm around my neck, would you?"

She did so.

"Squall . . . where's Irvine?"

"Trying to beat up Jonas."

Despite herself, Selphie grinned, closing her eyes. "If you fall over, too, we'll have to carry each other, you know that?"

"That's why I'm trying not to fall over." He sighed. "We've gotta get rid of this ice somehow."

"Ifrit."

"Then we have water, and then we have soggy ground that we can't work on."

"Ifrit twice."

"To evaporate the water?"

"Yes."

"Hmmm . . . maybe."

And then there was a loud crash that grated through her senses, the grinding of metal and the frightened gasps of people. Squall had stopped abruptly, whirling around to face the source of the noise so violently that Selphie was hard-pressed to keep her lunch down. She couldn't see anything except a vast blur, but she certainly heard Squall's low, shocked exclamation.

"Oh . . . my . . ."

Darkness, and Selphie thought no more.

***

Irvine was so busy throttling Jonas that he wasn't watching, he didn't see the JCB make yet another monotonous attempt to mount the ramp and reach the higher ground. All he saw was the shadow that loomed over them all when the wheels of the machine skidded against the icy slope and it thudded backwards, hitting even ground and lurching to the right . . .

Where Squall, with Selphie in his arms, had stopped, and was turning back to see what was happening. He caught the widening of the SeeD's eyes and the utterance of a few undecipherable words before the JCB came crashing down between them, obscuring the view.

Irvine released Jonas, turning oh so slowly to face the scene of destruction, expressionless and silent.

There's something so very beautiful about fire in an icy environment. The fallen machine was leaking fuel, and that fuel was working with the damaged, sparking cables revealed by the collision with another vehicle that had occurred in the process, and now flames ran magnificently along the ground, inside the machinery, all over the skeletal, barely underway structure of the new dorms like liquid light, fleeting and flickering. The reflections in the ice made the glare intense and deceptively widespread.

In any scene of horror, there is always a lengthy pause before people start to scream. That pause was just passing, and cries of panic filled the air.

And an image came to the forefront of Irvine's mind. It was of Selphie, surrounded by fire and molten metal.

"SELPHIE!"

The roar was almost primal, and he didn't recognise it as his own as he charged across the melting ice towards the carnage, dodging around the burning JCB and skidding to a halt. Irvine's thoughts became pure, driven emotions of rage and panic and despair, wordless, but encompassing his entire being with their power and motivation.

How could anything have survived? But . . . there was movement, and it came from somewhere beneath the machine.

"Irvine!"

He scrabbled around the side, startled to see Squall glaring out at him. His body was almost covered by the machine's hulk, but he didn't seem to be trapped.

"Hey!" Irvine dropped to his hands and knees, trying to see why it was that his friend hadn't simply crawled out from under the wreckage. "What's -"

Squall flicked his head towards his left arm, wincing slightly.

Irvine squinted into the moving shadows, and grit his teeth. The SeeD's arm was pinned beneath a section of metal. A sudden, almost selfish thought hit him.

"Selphie! Where is she?"

A crooked grin crossed Squall's face fleetingly. "I threw her over there," he said. "After seeing what you were doing to Jonas, I didn't want to suffer the same fate."

Irvine smiled, tossing a glance backwards. Sure enough, the petite girl was lying a short distance from the worst of the disaster, humorously dwarfed by her orange coldsuit and out cold, if her inert body was anything to go by.

Insanely, Irvine gripped the lowest edge of the toppled excavation machine and tried to lift it.

"Irvine, I don't think that's going to work."

The flames were spreading quickly, and the calmness in Squall's voice was almost irritating. Irvine let go of the metal and swept a quick glance around the corner. Not much progress was being made around the other side either.

A rush of icy air startled him. He turned to see Shiva sitting cross-legged in the snow and looking at Squall with a condescending smile on her frosty face.

"Yeah, yeah," Squall breathed. "Very funny."

Irvine blinked. The whole scene was surreal. Just as he thought things might get a little too weird, the Guardian Force rolled her pretty eyes and stood up, lowering her hands to the metal. It lifted easily, and Irvine blinked again before dropping to his knees and offering a sturdy hand to Squall. The SeeD somehow managed to get to his feet, but his left arm hung strange and limp at his side and he made no attempt to use it.

"Shiva, see what you can do about the flames," he said briskly. "I want an orderly . . . orderly line -" And then he was stalking off to dish out further orders. Irvine smiled - Squall might not enjoy assuming leadership of any enterprise, but he was damned good at it.

Although there were clearly higher priorities on a practical level, Irvine's personal ones overcame them, and he dashed towards Selphie, feeling for a pulse, just to make sure. She seemed okay . . .

Certain that he wouldn't be able to rest until she was out of sight, though never out of mind, he carted her off in his arms towards the outskirts of the accident scene. Finally satisfied that she was safe, he wiped his brow and ran back into the fray, to offer any help he was able to give.

***

Flames and fire. Smoke. Burning fuel. Squall, yelling commands and people frantically trying to follow them, not just because the ideas presented were sensible, but because they didn't want to disappoint him.

Selphie smiled. Squall had that sort of effect on people.

Wait a minute . . . She was awake? Since when?

Blinking, Selphie realised she was awake and tried to sit up. The dull pain in her head had subsided a little, and the initial nausea and confusion of the mild head injury were also gone. Surprised at such a quick recovery, she tried to assess her current situation.

For the construction work, several makeshift dorms had been set up. They weren't cosy, but they were warm and for that at least she was thankful. She shared with Tina - a fact that had disappointed Irvine - but her friend wasn't here at the moment. The other bed was empty.

Sighing, Selphie tried to figure out what had happened. Squall had turned around . . . and then nothing. Nothing but the fire and smoke. Why were they significant? She wasn't in her coldsuit anymore. Someone had removed it, and the faded jeans and baggy, woollen 'I Love Moombas' jumper she'd been wearing underneath were visible. Irvine's hat hung off the bedpost to her left. How much time had passed? She needed a clock . . .

And then the pain of Jonas' accusation rang inside her head, and caused her to falter. He was lying . . . wasn't he? Nobody really thought that about her . . . did they?

A shimmer of silver caught her eye. She turned her head to the left and frowned, picking up the photo frame and cradling it in both hands.

She didn't need to look at it to know exactly what the photo contained. She was in the centre, grinning and laughing. Michael had her in a bear hug and was lifting her off her feet. Feena was off to the left, hands on hips - the camera had caught her mouth open in an admonishment aimed at Michael. Jen was around the other side, trying to dominate the picture by squeezing past Selphie and her friendly attacker, and Tina stood on the far edge of the photo, her body ramrod straight and a hand to her smiling mouth in a pose that was reminiscent of Quistis in many ways.

Selphie opened her eyes, running her fingers delicately over the glass, over each familiar face. She could still remember the day it had been taken as though it were yesterday. Every detail was still vivid and alive in her memory . . . strange, since the Guardian Forces had a habit of dulling recollections, if not deleting them altogether. Maybe, because it had been such an important day for her, they had left this one scene alone. Releasing both a sigh and her junctioned GF simultaneously, Selphie dropped her head back on the pillow, allowing a faintly glowing Carbuncle to scramble under the warmth of her arms, before closing her eyes and reminiscing.

The snow had been falling thickly, but the weather had been unusually mild for that month. Selphie could remember everything, from the warm hum of the snowmobile to the fresh, icy smell in the air, tainted with fuel from said vehicle. The wind had been lax, but strong enough to displace some of her hair. She was amazed at such a recollection - she'd smoothed her hair back behind her ears with two fingers and a thumb of her left hand, blinking snowflakes from her lashes.

It had been quiet. Nothing but the faint rustling of the wind and the snowmobile's engine. She'd stared at the vehicle with some apprehension.

"Nervous?"

Selphie had turned to face the person who owned that rich, chocolate-sweet voice and had a dark, exotic complexion to match. Feena's soft black hair had been sailing to the right in the wind, each individual strand gleaming. The young woman had taught Selphie everything she knew about hair - how to keep it shining almost perpetually, how to get it to stay in place no matter how strong the wind . . .

"Yeah," Selphie remembered herself saying softly.

"It's too bad the Garden Festival never worked out, Selph," Jen said, smiling gently. She'd been wearing a pair of fluffy chocobo earmuffs, Selphie's favourite accessory from Jen's extensive wardrobe, and a yellow scarf with a moomba motif. Jen had been into cute things, big time!

Selphie had cried a lot over the Garden Festival disaster. Everything had been going so well at the start. But then people had started to drop out. The exams and classwork intensified tenfold. For a horrible moment, she'd suspected everyone of doing anything to stop this Festival, just to get at her personally. In the end, the whole thing had just been cancelled. She'd never gotten around to organising another before she left. SeeD work, training and exams always got in the way. Never enough time . . .

"You wait 'til I pass my practical," Selphie had beamed confidently. "Then I'll come back and start a new Garden Festival. It'll kick ass!"

"Looking forward to it." That was Michael, responding with a little less exuberance than he probably would have liked. Still almost twice her height, he'd been leaning against a tree to disguise that fact, arms folded and his expression sad.

"Love the enthusiasm there, Mike," Tina had giggled. Selphie had seen pictures of Raine, in Laguna's private suite, and Tina was a lot like her, in some ways. The same round face, the same almond eyes, the same fragility to each varied expression she wore. Her laughter had broken the uncomfortable ice enveloping the five friends. They'd been together for so long, ever since Selphie could remember. The orphanage . . . it was still a haze, she hadn't even remembered it back when the photo had been taken, but these guys had been with her since her enrolment in Trabia Garden.

"I can't believe," Jen had said with a huff, "that of all five of us, you were the only one to pass the theory test, Selphie!"

"One word, Jen," and Michael produced one of his infamous grins. "Revision."

"You might as well speak in a different language, Mike," Feena had contributed next.

"I revised! Besides, what were you guys doing? I don't see any of you . . . leaving . . . Trabia . . ."

Those three words had done it for Selphie. She'd bowed her head ever so slightly, but her friends had become so attuned to her feelings that they knew when something was wrong.

"Hey, Selph, don't worry."

"Yeah! We wanna hear about your victories in battle!"

"But not too many battles . . ." Everyone had swivelled at that nervous remark and cocked an eyebrow at Feena. "What? I just want the girl to be careful!"

"I will," Selphie had smiled, as brightly as she could, though her throat had been tight and her eyes had burned with unshed tears. She hadn't been sad, not really. She'd been incredibly happy to receive her results and discover that she was one of the few students at Trabia Garden to have passed the theory test and be on her way to Balamb to finish the job. SeeDship had never looked so inviting, and yet . . .

"You'll keep in touch, won't you?" Jen had asked that, looking the most worried that Selphie had ever seen her.

"Of course I will! The Garden Network's back online, isn't it? I'll mail y'all as soon as I reach my new study panel!"

"Good!" And then Jen had smiled, reached into her pocket, and produced a small, blue velvet case. "We, uh . . . we -"

"We wanted to congratulate you," Michael had butted in.

"And just treat ya," Tina had quickly added.

"And . . . say goodbye." Feena's eyes had glimmered then. Selphie remembered her surprise at the tears of silver streaking down her ebony cheeks.

The case had contained a small silver necklace.

Nothing expensive, nothing all that unique or special. Just a necklace, with a small, shell-shaped pendant on the end. But the thought behind it, the symbolism of it . . . it had made tears of her own fall from her eyes.

But they had been happy, terribly happy tears. Selphie had felt she was so lucky to know these four people, even luckier that they liked and cared for her. The embraces she had afflicted on all four of them hadn't been enough to show how much they meant to her . . . but they knew it. They knew it and loved her back.

"Hey, people, could you get a move on?" the driver had yelled, clambering out of the front seat. She'd rummaged around in her bags quickly, finding her camera and slamming it in his hand as he'd approached. "What the -"

"Just one picture, and I'll come," Selphie had pleaded. Few people could ignore the Selphie Eyes, as Michael had so wittingly called them, and the driver was not one of them.

"All right . . . sheesh. Pose, would ya?"

They had. The picture she held now had been the result. When Michael had finally released her, she'd hefted her bags and started walking towards the back seat of the snowmobile. But she'd stopped, and turned.

"Don't be silly, Feena," she'd smiled. "This isn't goodbye. I'll be back before you guys even notice I'm gone! And we'll sort that Festival out together!"

A tear hit the glass in the photo frame.

But it had been goodbye.

Not to Tina - Tina had survived and she was very, very grateful for that. But it had been goodbye to their group friendship, to that era of their childhood. They'd waved all the way, until the snowmobile had rolled out of sight of Trabia Garden. Her last image of them was that scene through the misty back window of the shuddering vehicle - four young people, waving as their friend went off to a successful future . . . when three of them didn't even have a future.

Michael, Feena and Jen were all dead.

Salty tears crashed against the picture, blurring the image, and Selphie dropped it onto the blanket, hugging Carbuncle so tightly that the little Guardian Force squeaked in protest. She grabbed at her necklace and sobbed wretchedly.

It didn't seem real. This picture had been taken only . . . only four, no, five months ago. She'd spoken to them all via the Garden Network, sent them pictures of her new Garden and the quad, and her plans for the Garden Festival she would hold there, if she could, like a little kid with a whole new playground to explore. They'd chatted just like old times, about small, insignificant things. She could recall Feena describing her new hairstyle - she was gonna send a picture as soon as she had one - and Michael and his perpetual girl troubles, and Jen asking for help with her classwork, and Tina . . . reminiscing . . .

None of them had suspected a thing. The troubles in Galbadia had been far away, distant problems, nothing to do with the isolated Eastern Continent, or the backwater country of Trabia.

And then she'd passed her SeeD exam. And Cid had asked her, he'd asked her: "So, heading straight back to Trabia, my dear? Or do you plan to stick around for a bit?"

And. She. Had. Said: "I'm staying, sir, at least for a little while."

Why?!

And the next morning, she'd received her first mission. There had been no time to mail her friends to tell them she'd passed the exam.

One thing had led to another. Their mission had led them to Balamb, to Timber, to Galbadia Garden and to Deling City. There they had been captured, and there they had learned about the missiles.

Those missiles had been fired. Directly at Trabia. Selphie could, quite vividly, recall the panic and horror and despair and heartache when Irvine had said they were targeting Trabia first. She'd dropped to her knees and trembled, but there had been no time, no time, before she was off again, on her way to the missile base to avert more disaster, more pain.

She didn't have the time to think about it again until they left Fisherman's Horizon, and she'd offered Trabia Garden as a destination. And then they'd reached it. The utter devastation had almost broken her, but no, she was Selphie, the happy little messenger girl, who never ever realised the gravity of the situation, and she'd kept smiling.

Even when she'd seen Tina, and had been horrified by the lines and the sorrow in her once delicately serene features, she hadn't absorbed her meaning.

"I'm so glad you're okay!" Selphie had yelled, embracing her and stupidly, stupidly bringing up her next point of discussion. "Where are the others?"

Tina's small, sad smile had hurt a lot. Tina wasn't supposed to smile like that. But here she was, smiling like that and saying softly: "The others . . . they're gone, Selph. They're gone."

Selphie had blinked. It . . . it just hadn't registered at the time. She'd reeled, but hadn't really believed it, not in her heart of hearts could she ever have believed that the aggressive Jen, the laugh-a-minute Michael, the ever-anxious Feena, were dead. Then Squall had arrived, and diverted her attention. Tina had smiled weakly up at him.

"So you've been looking after Selphie?"

And Squall had said, to her total surprise: "Selphie's been a great help."

And she'd gotten lost in that compliment, and the shock of it coming from Squall, of all people. Not long after that, she'd been rediscovering her past, and visiting the orphanage, and saving the world . . .

She hadn't yet taken the time to accept their deaths. Selphie realised that now. Even after Ultimecia's defeat, and the party afterwards, and even when she'd arrived at Trabia with Squall and Irvine to help rebuild it, she'd avoided thinking about it. She realised with horror that she'd even tried mailing Jen, Michael and Feena after visiting the ruined Garden for the first time and learning about her friends' fates. She'd stopped with her cursor over the send button just in time, wondering what the hell she was doing. She'd giggled. Oh gods, she'd giggled at her mistake.

All this time, and it hadn't even sunk in yet!

Well, it was sinking in now, and it hurt more than anything she'd ever experienced before. Why, oh why hadn't she returned to Trabia Garden after obtaining her SeeDship? She could have seen her friends one last time . . . before . . .

Just as she reached the pinnacle of her weeping, the door slid open, and a wide-eyed Tina stepped inside.

"Selphie! What's wrong, are you hurting that bad?"

She tried to stop crying - it wasn't right for people to see Selphie the Selfless sparing any thought as to her own feelings and emotions, to show a sign of weakness . . . but she couldn't. She just sat there, rocking backwards and forwards, hugging a little furry green creature that Tina wouldn't even be able to see and crying her eyes out.

"Selphie, please tell me what's wrong!" Her friend was gripping her shoulders tightly, stooping to the bed.

"I . . . didn't . . . say . . . goodbye," she managed to blurt out between heartbroken sobs. "They probably hate me . . . I didn't even come back . . . and they probably hate me for it! And I left you here, on your own, and all the others, every single trainee and accomplished SeeD and I wasn't here when you needed me most!"

Tina glanced at the tear-smeared photograph lying on the bed, and her brow creased.

"Come on, Selphie, no one hates you . . ."

"You don't understand, Tina! You don't understand at all!"

"Try me, for the gods' sake, Selphie, try me!" Tina had lost the ability to be subtle when the first of those missiles had smashed into the Garden.

Selphie tried to slow her breathing a little, still hiccupping with the violence of her tears. She was going to hyperventilate . . . hell; she was hyperventilating . . . if she didn't stop.

"I told you guys it wasn't goodbye," she said slowly, her breathing still a little ragged around the edges. "But it was. It's not right, I should have been here, Tina . . ."

"What good would that have accomplished?" Tina demanded almost angrily. "You'd have been killed like Michael and Feena and Jen and then I'd really be alone, wouldn't I? Oh, Selphie . . ." She wrapped her arms tightly around the shivering young woman.

Tina had no tears left. She'd spent them all by now, spent them all that first cold and lonely night, trembling atop the fountain in a little bundle of bruises and cuts, freezing and soaking from the rain and listening all around to the moans of the injured and dying and taking no pleasure from the fact that three of her best friends hadn't suffered, that the most important people in her entire little world had been killed instantly in the attack.

That dull ache never left her. It was there, behind her eyes, in her stomach, tearing a hole in her heart, but she had learned to cope with it. The guilt at being the only survivor of their small, close knit group had also faded, if only a little.

But Selphie never spoke about it. She sometimes wandered off to the messy, overcrowded cemetery and spoke to her old friends there, but Tina had watched once - the girl didn't see them as dead. She didn't expect a response but she spoke to them as though they were living, breathing people. When Selphie had first visited the Garden, not long after the missile attack, she hadn't seemed to understand what Tina had told her. Only now did she comprehend that Selphie had never really accepted the fact in the first place.

Tina wished she'd possessed Selphie's blissful ignorance, even if only for a few days. After the Garden had been destroyed, she'd spent much of her time by that fountain, in a zombie-like daze and unable to help those who had survived.

Selphie's tears were subsiding a little now. Tina hated to leave her, but she'd only popped in to check on her, she didn't have the time to comfort her right now . . .

"Selph, I'm so sorry but I have to leave you for a minute," she said softly.

"Why?" For a moment, she looked like a lost child, emerald eyes blinking up at her pleadingly.

The Selphie Eyes. Oh gods Michael, stay out of my head right now!

"I'm helping the doctors out, I only came in to see if your head was okay . . ."

Selphie shook said head slightly, and gripped Tina's forearm weakly. "What happened? After I blacked out?"

Tina sighed. "One of the excavators slipped on the ramp. It fell over and started a fire. You were nearly killed! It fell right on top of you!"

"Squall!" Selphie sat bolt upright, tears forgotten momentarily. "Is he okay?"

"Yes," and Tina looked irritated, "he is, and he won't take our advice and rest up! He's been wandering around giving orders for hours . . ."

"Hours? How long have I been out?"

"Since five this afternoon, Selph. It's just gone two am."

Selphie stiffened. "Wow."

"Will you keep an eye on Squall if I send him here? I might crash out in the refectory after I've sorted this stuff out, but Squall and Irvine's room has been taken over by a two guys with a pair of broken legs between them."

"Sure thing." Selphie felt a little numb, a little detached from her body right now. "You'll . . . come back, won't you?"

"Of course," Tina said as she headed for the door. "And we'll talk . . . later. Right now, I'm needed elsewhere, Selph. See you later, and don't cry anymore, okay?" She smiled frailly, and was gone.

Selphie snuggled down under her blanket, picking up the photo frame with one hand and placing it on the bedside table. Then she stared into space for a long moment until she heard voices outside the room.

" . . . whatever."

"Damn, Squall, just shut the hell up and stop moaning!"

The door slid open, and a haggard-looking Squall Leonhart stepped through it. His left arm was in a sling and he looked grumpy as hell.

Irvine barged in after him, shooting Selphie a quick grin before ushering the aggravated SeeD onto the bed.

"I was doing fine," Squall insisted.

"You were falling asleep on the spot! And you wouldn't let us look at your arm!"

"It didn't hurt after a while."

"Shock, Squall, shock, and you were going numb with the cold anyways!" Irvine rolled his eyes. "Keep an eye on him, Selph. He's not allowed to leave the dorm!" He flashed a grin in her direction. "Speak to ya later, Sefie!"

Then he was gone, too.

"Exactly how bad is it out there?" Selphie asked, her eyes wide.

Squall sighed, falling backwards onto the bed dramatically. "Bad enough. We had to put the fire out and then we had to expand the infirmary into the dorms and now there are loads of people with nowhere to sleep, because the shifts are screwed up."

"What did you do to your arm? Are you okay?"

His lips twitched. She knew how much he hated being debilitated for any reason. He still saw it as a sign of weakness.

"Well?"

"Fractured my wrist, broken my forearm, dislocated my shoulder, okay?"

She giggled. "Okay. You should get some sleep."

"I plan to."

Her smile faded, and she sunk back into the depression that was so unlike her. What she needed was a confidant. Someone, anyone, to talk to, to assuage her doubts.

But who? Irvine was busy, and, though she loved him so very much, she didn't feel like telling him right now. She could talk to Tina later, but . . . she needed someone who'd been at Balamb, who might be able to help her understand why she hadn't returned to Trabia before she did.

If everyone had been here, she still would have had a hard choice over who would listen to her. Quistis was lovely, but became a bit condescending when it came to other people's problems.

Zell? He'd just wanna know who was to blame and when he should go and beat them up for her.

Rinoa would possibly be her person of choice, but even she had a habit of blaming something else.

Xu was too scientific sometimes; she didn't understand people when it came to knotty problems like this.

Nida? He'd get all embarrassed that she'd remembered him at all and choke under the pressure.

Irvine was already a no-no - he just wouldn't take her seriously.

So that left . . .

"Squall?"

I'm losing it, she thought. I'm gonna ask Squall for advice. This thing really has me messed up!

"What?" His voice was muffled with weariness, and she almost felt guilty for disturbing him.

"Something's . . . bothering me."

"I know."

She performed an almost comic double take. "What? How?"

His lips were barely moving. He was sprawled on his back with his eyes closed and he could have passed quite easily for being asleep. "You've been crying. I saw it when I came in. And crying isn't something you carry off too well."

"Why didn't you say something, then?" she asked, surprised.

"Because I don't get involved in other people's personal problems. Because I don't care. Because I'm tired and my arm hurts and my head aches, and I know that, if I felt as bad as you seem to, I'd wanna be left alone."

"Still?" Selphie had been fairly sure that Squall was over that stage of independence.

"I won't change, Selphie. Can't. This is me. Even Rinoa can't make me want to understand people too deeply. I have enough problems of my own to deal with."

He was definitely tired. She could hear it in his voice. "Then . . . you really don't care?"

Squall sat up, his eyes slightly bloodshot, and looked directly at her. "Come on, Selphie, of course I care. It's . . . you. One of my friends. I just don't like getting tangled up in these things."

"Then you won't hear me out?"

"Goddamn, Selph, are you determined to keep me awake? The main reason I didn't say anything about you crying is because I knew you'd tell me!"

She blinked. Squall looked angry but she got the impression that his weird sense of humour had wormed its way up through his temper.

"When people want a confidant," he said slowly, "they don't primarily want advice. They just want someone to listen to them. I may not like hearing these things, but if there's one thing I've learnt during our time together as a team, it's how to listen. And it looks like I'm gonna be putting that skill to use right now. So shoot."

With that, he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes again. Selphie wondered what her old friends would think of her choice of new ones, but just the thought made her ache.

"Well, you see . . . I never told you guys anything about the time before I came to Balamb Garden." She sighed, cuddling Carbuncle closer to her. "You know I came here originally, well, I had four very, very close friends. You know Tina, right? Well, she's just one of them. The others . . . they . . . they're . . . dead."

Still no response from Squall. She lowered her gaze to Carbuncle's furry ears.

"Tina told me . . . after we got here the first time, from FH. But I didn't let it sink in; I didn't have time to. I was crying because . . . well, I finally did let it sink in, Squall, just this minute." Selphie rubbed her hand over her eyes. "But . . . that's not the problem."

Her throat tightened again. "Jonas . . . Jonas asked me why I didn't come back to Trabia after I passed my SeeD entry exam. He said I'd only returned now because I had a guilt trip, that I probably wouldn't have come back at all if the missiles hadn't been launched. I'm worried that everyone thinks that . . . and I can't figure out why I didn't return! It doesn't make any sense!"

"Jonas is a dumbass."

The comment startled her into a slightly nervous giggle. "That's not the point. What he said made sense, Squall! Why didn't I come back? Why?"

He was silent a long time before he finally responded. "Selphie, you're looking at this the wrong way. If you had come back here, you would most likely have been killed in the missile attack. You think your friends hate you because they're jealous of your survival? Don't be so na´ve. If Tina had left, and you had died in the attack, what would you think of her?"

Selphie frowned slightly. "I'd be happy for her, and want her to do well."

"If they were such good friends -"

"They are . . . were . . ."

"Whatever. If they were such good friends, they'd be glad you and Tina survived and you know it. It's not your fault you didn't predict the attack and come back to die in it. Jonas might consider dying that way honourable, but it's not. A missile attack is one of cowardice and its victims aren't heroes - they're just victims, pure and simple civilian casualties. Trabia had nothing to do with the Neo Sorceress War in the first place and it didn't deserve this one bit. It's a tragedy, but not a part of the battleground we were in. There hadn't been any rush back then. You didn't know you'd never get another chance to talk to them. It seems to me that you liked Balamb and didn't feel the intense need to hurry back home, because once you got there you'd probably stay there and might have missed out on what we had to offer."

"Wow, that has to be the lengthiest monologue you've ever come up with, Squall," Selphie grinned.

"What about this angle?" Squall's head turned to the right, and he caught her gaze. "Maybe you were meant to survive. If you hadn't survived, if you hadn't stayed at Balamb Garden, you would have, quite likely, been killed. Look at the facts, Selphie. If you had been killed, then there would have been no one to go to the Galbadian Missile Base and mess with the attack on Balamb. The Garden moved just in time, but if you hadn't decreased the accuracy of the missiles, it wouldn't have mattered one bit. We'd've been blown to hell, just like Trabia. Therefore, no one would have opposed the Sorceresses, no one would have been around to go to the future to fight Ultimecia, and everyone would be dead anyway through time compression." He smiled wryly. "How's it feel to be an important part of history?"

Selphie was too busy trying to digest his words to answer.

"You can't change the past, Selphie. Even Ellone figured that out in the end. All you can do is work towards the future. And that's what you're doing, right here, right now. You're rebuilding Trabia Garden. And if your friends are as good as you say they are, then they'll be damned proud of you for the gift you've given to this world."

"Squall . . . you really think so?"

"Yes, I do. Have I done my part now? Can I sleep?"

Selphie couldn't help herself. She laughed at his weary question and nodded quickly, dimming the light from her overhead lamp as Squall turned his out completely.

"Selphie . . ." he murmured softly. "For an obsessive hyperactive optimist, you sure do worry about some crazy things . . ."

And Selphie laughed some more. When she was fairly sure he was asleep, she reached up and caught Irvine's hat, slipping it on her head before switching off her light. Though her thoughts still swam with Michael, Jen and Feena, she was too exhausted to stay awake because of them.

"You know your problem, Selphie?"

"Squall! I thought you were asleep!" One day, she'd find out how he did that so effectively. "What?"

"You haven't said goodbye yet. You just haven't said goodbye."

***

It was that idea that carried her from consciousness to sleep. The very first chance she received the next day, in between helping the injured and trying to fix the construction work, she took Irvine, Squall and Tina out to the cemetery.

While SeeDs weren't as militaristic as a true army, they did have certain traditions. Which explains why, on a frosty autumn afternoon amidst the ruins of Trabia Garden, four young men and women stood facing the tombstones, right hands raised to their heads in a strong SeeD salute, and remained that way, silent and thoughtful, for two reverent minutes.

When that time was up, Tina and Selphie stepped forwards to their friends' graves and replaced the flowers left there.

"See ya, guys," Selphie said softly, to the wind. "I'm trying hard to live up to your expectations . . ."

"You already did, Selph," Tina smiled, and wrapped an arm about her friend's shoulders. "And there are loads of people queuing up for the Festival since you announced it 'in honour of those we lost'. Good idea!"

"Well, I had to do something to attract people's attention. And it's gonna be Trabia's first Festival so I wanna make it special!"

As Selphie neared Irvine and Squall, she grinned and threw her arms around the latter.

Giggling at Irvine's cries of, "I don't believe it! I lost my girl to Squall!" she released him before she did his arm more damage.

"Thanks, Squall," she said, and winked.

"What the hell did you two get up to in that dorm last night?" Irvine was raging.

Squall was still blinking in surprise. Selphie waved cheerfully and started to run off. "Hey, where are you going now?"

"I just have one more thing to take care of!" she yelled back, and disappeared into the makeshift comm. room.

"Looks like we got the old Selphie back," Squall said with a grin, before finding himself under the full force of Irvine's wrath.

***

"Coffee, coffee," Quistis sighed, kicking off her boots and resting her feet on her desk. "Oh, how I love thee, coffee . . ."

"Do you ever drink anything else?" Rinoa asked with a smirk. Without waiting for a reply, she started for the door. "I'll be back soon, all right?"

The Instructor was halfway through a mouthful of her drink, so she just nodded. No sooner had Rinoa left the room than the message icon on her computer screen flashed. Quistis clicked it, and watched the abrupt note appear.

"Hey, Quisty! I've updated the Garden Festival page! Please check it out for me!"

Selphie's messages were usually pages long and generally made little sense, so Quistis shrugged, accessing the Garden Network and dropping to her absent friend's flowery site. The 'My Friends' page had apparently been updated. Selecting it, mostly because she had nothing better to do, she clicked through the stuff she'd already seen, and stopped at the newest entry.


Hey, guys! Booyaka! Yeah, I know, this is supposed to be about my friends and not me, but for some reason this didn't belong in the 'My Diary' section. Well, first up, I wanted to tell you about Tina, my closest friend at Trabia. She's gonna write something herself real soon, but right now we're really busy (check out My Diary to see why!). So, instead, I wanna make a dedication.

You know, just 'cause a friend's not around anymore doesn't mean they shouldn't be acknowledged. Which is why I'm telling you about three people who meant more to me than . . . than the Garden Festival!

Firstly, there's Jen Horne. Think of a big sister and you're almost there! She was kinda bossy at times, but only because she worried about us and tried to hide it.

Then Michael Harrison. He used to tease us all a lot, but we just mashed him into the ground with comebacks, even though he was the tallest of us all, and a guy, too! He never did have any luck finding a girlfriend, though he tried real hard all the time and came to me for advice. I hope he's having more luck now, wherever he is.

Finally, I wanna mention Feena Ikwastra. She got nervous a lot and tended to worry too much, but her heart was in the right place, and if it weren't for her common sense, we might never have gotten out of some of the scrapes we found ourselves in!

So guys, I just wanna say, thanks. For everything. I'm not alone; I have other friends to look after me, though they are a little mismatched! And I'll take care of Tina for ya!

If anyone's still wondering why I'm writing in past tense a lot, then I guess I should explain: Jen, Michael and Feena were all killed in the missile attack on Trabia. I knew before, but I didn't accept it until recently, and I had to express these feelings somehow.

I know a lot of you think I'm just a cute lil' girl who eats a lot of sugar ^__^ but I'm not. I'm gonna go off the deep end, and tell ya this:

The friends you have now, the friends you had once and lost . . . never forget them, 'cause I sure as hell know they wouldn't forget you!

XxSelphie TilmittxX


Quistis smiled. Selphie had grown up. A lot.


Oh, and P.S. . . . Booyaka! Tee hee!


Or perhaps, not that much, Quistis thought, her grin widening. If she ever grew up too much, then she wouldn't be their Selphie!

And that, as they say, would be unforgivable.

***THE END***


The usual disclaimer ^^: Final Fantasy VIII belongs to Square, though Selphie's four friends are original characters.