The Liberation of Timber
Have reached outlying settlements of Esthar City. Training proceeds well.
Quistis sighed as she read the terse message, wishing Squall understood the importance of personal notes. As any SeeD on assignment was required to do, he checked in nightly and reported on his progress. Quistis didn't need to know that Rinoa was doing well in her SeeD training; she had guessed that would be the case very early on. The things she wanted to know, Squall would never say. How were they doing? Were they happy? It wasn't required of SeeDs to report on their state of emotional health unless it impacted their mission, but those two were her friends. She wondered when Squall would hand over the job of checking in to Rinoa. Usually it was the duty of the lowest-ranking person on a mission.
She pushed the screen away from her, and took off her glasses as she closed her eyes. They were nearly at Timber, and she'd only just finished setting up squad assignments. Since being relieved of her teaching duties she'd lost touch with the cadets, and hadn't had time to re-establish the bond since becoming Headmaster. She had had to rely on instructor reports, and comments left behind by Cid and then Squall. Sorting through several screens of such had left her with a large dose of eyestrain and an incredible need for aspirin.
Still. Timber wasn't half the size of Dollet; a hundred SeeD cadets should be able to liberate the town.
The pleasant silence was destroyed as Selphie, Xu, Zell and Irvine bounced into the room. With her headache, Selphie's cheerfulness was almost insulting. She put her glasses back on and tried to act presentably.
Xu opened with, "I hope Squall was right in choosing Zell to lead the SeeD. I think there's something going on."
Zell snorted, and responded with, "Yeah, and its name is Seifer. Look, I can do this, all right? Just 'cause I really really want to knock the grinning bastard into next week doesn't mean I'll go against orders to do it." He smacked his fist into his palm and grinned, "I'll be real nice, and let him take the first swing."
Irvine looked worried, and said, "Maybe I'd better go with you. I can work on the Garden's rumor mill after the fight. Seph, you think you'll be ok here?"
Selphie gave her partner a mock-insulted look. "Yeah, I'm stuck behind the walls of Garden while the rest of you get to go crack heads. I'm just peachy."
"I'm stuck behind too, Selphie," said Quistis tiredly. "Someone's got to make sure Garden stays safe, and we can't enter the fight without demoralizing the cadets."
Xu tactfully said nothing. As Garden's new Commander, she could choose whether to fight or not. Instead, she asked Zell, "If Irvine's going with you, who's your other choice?"
Zell grinned. "My friend from the library committee. She kicks ass, lemme tell ya."
Xu smiled. "Does she have a name? I'll need to note it, if she wants to get paid for taking the mission."
"Bella," replied Zell reverentially.
"The way you say that, you must be head over heels over her," chuckled Irvine. "What's her specialty?"
At this, Zell broke into a big grin. "Throwing stars." He noted that this did not get the expected reaction; the entire group was looking puzzled. "Look," he finished, "wait till you see what she can do with 'em! Trust me, she's good."
Xu waved her hand, trying to calm Zell down. "It's all right. You were given discretion to choose your companions. If you want Bella, you've got her. Quistis, are you giving them any cadets?"
"No," said Quistis. "The cadets will take care of the Galbadian military. If you don't mind, I'd prefer that Zell and his team focus on Seifer. I agree with you - I can't believe he's leading an uprising out of the goodness of his heart."
Xu nodded. "Yes. The cadets would be no match for Seifer and his posse. On the other hand, I don't know that Zell and Irvine - and Bella - could defeat them either."
"We don't want to fight him," Quistis said. "He's working on the same side we are in this, whether we like it or not. But Zell and Irvine are well known to those three - they might pry a few answers out of Seifer without having to fight. At least I hope so."
Irvine raised his hand. "Best leave that to me. Seifer's no more fond of Zell than Zell is of Seifer."
Xu shrugged. "I'm not going to tell you how to handle him. Just find out what he's up to, and report back here. If you can take out any Galbadian forces along the way, you're more than welcome to. Are you hearing me, Zell?"
"Yeah, yeah," grumbled Zell. "I hear you."
"So what's your game plan?" asked Selphie. "You've got..." she checked her notes "about a week before the funds run out."
Quistis unrolled a cloth map of Timber and laid it out on her desk, using colored marker pieces to denote the various forces.
"The Galbadian military is in great disarray," she began, "and their defense of Timber is therefore weak. Mostly, it's concentrated at the commercial entry points; town entrances and the train station. Rather than try to penetrate all the entrances, I'll be ordering the cadets to break the defense at the main entrance. It's too wide for them to hold for long. From there, the cadets will head for city center, and disperse along the roads to the other entrances - where the forces should already be scattered in response to the initial attack. I'm hoping that the visible presence of SeeD will incite the local resistance factions to battle - providing us with a degree of assistance and protection we did not enjoy in the liberation of Dollet."
Xu checked the plan over and nodded. "Yes, that should work." She looked over at Zell and Irvine. "You two had better get ready; we're almost there."
The two men looked at each other. "Get ready? We're set now," said Irvine.
Xu sighed, exasperated. "No, you're not. Have you forgotten? All SeeDs are required to be in uniform during field exams - so the cadets know you're on their side."
"Oh. Yeah," said Zell, chagrined. "Um. Yeah. We'll go get...ready. And I'll tell Bella, too." Quickly, he and Irvine left the room.
"Tell me what you see in him again?" Xu asked Selphie.
Selphie just grinned. Then she said, "I'm going to go check on the missiles. Just in case the Galbadians bring in another Black Widow. We don't want the cadets to have to face that." Losing her smile, she shuddered. "That was waaaay too close for comfort."
Quistis nodded. "It took a lot longer to shoot it down than I'd thought it would. Well, I'm off to inspire the troops." Pushing herself upright, she took a deep breath to dispel the tiredness she felt, and left the room. Xu soon followed, leaving Selphie to take the elevator up to the bridge to check on the weapons array.
Fujin had just finished taking down a Galbadian officer when the message-com beeped. She quickly grabbed the dead soldier's hand for print verification and scanned the message. Frowning, she printed it out before heading downstairs, where Raijin was busy clearing the floor of more Galbadians. When he'd finished - a matter which didn't take long - Fujin showed him the message.
"SeeD? Here?" Raijin groaned. "I'm betting Seifer's not gonna like this, ya know?"
"FOOL," snapped Fujin. "SEIFER?"
"Across the street, I think," said Raijin. "Said he wanted to make sure the bar was liberated in time to be clean for the victory party."
Fujin didn't wait but immediately headed for the bar. The only living person in it at the moment was Seifer, who by the look of things had killed every Galbadian in the building. She didn't bother with greetings, but handed him the message. Somewhat to her surprise, he smiled.
"Perfect," he said. "I knew if we kicked up enough fuss SeeD would get involved. When did this come in?"
"MINUTES," said Fujin.
"That recent? And by this we've got," he checked his watch, "about an hour before SeeD gets here. Damn. Go get Raijin; we're going to take a break. Pick a semi-level rooftop and then come get me. I want to watch this."
"AGREE," said Fujin, and went back to get her partner. Seifer turned around and yelled up the bar's stairs, "Hey, Watts! Zone! Get your asses down here! We've got company coming!"
Moments later, Rinoa's friends from the Timber Owls were standing before Seifer. "Yes, sir?" said Watts. Seifer showed them the printout.
"Your friends are coming in to finish the job we started," Seifer said. "Go get the welcoming committee together. Me and my posse are going to go keep the Galbadians distracted, so it's down to you."
"Yes, sir!" the two chirped. "Rinoa's gonna be so proud of what we've done!"
"I'll bet," said Seifer. "Get all the factions together. By nightfall this should be a free town."
Seifer watched as the two rushed out of the bar. Once they were safely gone, he laughed until he had to hold his stomach to keep breathing. Some days, life was just too easy. "Yeah," he said to the doorway. "Rinoa's going to be real proud of you boys." He spun his gunblade, Hyperion, in his hand before sheathing it, and strolled out of the bloody bar as though he were a newly crowned king.
Quistis and Selphie stood on the bridge of Balamb Garden, using high-powered binoculars to watch the cadets charging the gates of Timber.
Selphie also kept an eye on the surrounding countryside, alert for any movement that might signal the arrival of Galbadian reinforcements.
Quistis stood in front of a recently installed rack with a host of buttons. Since the end of the worldwide signal interference, SeeD had begun using small transmitters to keep track of squads during exercises, each squad on a different frequency. Occasionally she would press a button and order a squad to a new position. It was much more efficient than using messengers, as they had previously had to do.
The downside to using a field exam to send in more than the contracted three SeeD was that some squads knew when to stuff their orders and act independently, and some squads needed to be told. Quistis was kept very busy trying to watch all twenty-five squads. There were also a few that acted independently when they shouldn't - and those could blow the whole mission.
There were twenty-six letters to the alphabet, so the rack could handle twenty six squads. But the last one didn't need any direction from Quistis. Zell was beating the daylights out of the Galbadians without any encouragement whatsoever. Indeed, Irvine and Bella were having a hard time keeping up.
Quistis noted that one squad had completed its assignment but lacked initiative. She pressed one of the buttons, and said, "Squad F: secure Timber Maniacs," and watched as they bustled off.
Irvine was wishing that Squall hadn't given command to Zell. He was also wishing he hadn't agreed to come along. For six months, Irvine had had nothing overly strenuous to do, and he was a tad out of shape. While Zell, of course, had been leading martial arts classes and running around Garden like a maniac. The net effect was that Irvine had no breath to spare to even ask Zell to slow down; it was all tied up in gasping for air while aiming frantically at any soldiers that came into view. At least his aim was still perfect.
Bella was everything Zell had promised, and took care of the closer targets with her throwing stars, neatly depositing them in the throats of her enemies as if they were stationary dolls. But she was a very shy person, and didn't have a word to say even to Zell.
It didn't matter. Zell was making enough noise for all three of them. The Galbadians were probably happy to die after a few of Zell's overexuberant shouts at close range. Another effect of the shouts was to alert the local populace that SeeD was here; when the people learned that, all of a sudden the streets were chaos. Irvine wondered - was every citizen of Timber a member of a resistance group?
Selphie turned to Quistis. "I see tanks," she said. "Didn't take them long to send reinforcements. How are the cadets doing?"
"I estimate about half the city is cleared," said Quistis. "Zell has alerted the resistance groups to our presence, and it's getting harder to see the squads. ETA on the tanks?"
Selphie judged the distance. "About half an hour," she said.
Quistis frowned in concentration. "I think I can get them to barricade city center in that time."
Selphie grinned. "No need. You wouldn't let me go play with the others, so this is my turn to have some fun."
Quistis turned from her communications board for a moment to look at Selphie. "What?"
"You weren't paying attention when we got Garden repaired after the crash into FH. The techs repaired everything - and it turns out we've got a load of missiles. I'm in the mood to blow some tanks UP!"
Quistis sighed. "If it keeps the tanks away from the cadets, Selphie, have a ball. Try not to take out too many hills."
Selphie grinned like a kid who's just been given the keys to the candy store. Quickly she powered up the weapons rack, and turned to face the dots on the horizon that would be her targets. There was nothing Selphie had grown to love more than blowing large objects into tiny, tiny pieces.
Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin watched the battle quietly from a shaded overhang. Even the SeeD candidates assigned to rooftop sniper positions didn't see them. The Timber Owls, the Forest Foxes...every single resistance movement in Timber was out on the streets now, with whatever weapons they could get their hands on. Seifer had grown to know each one very well in his weeks here. They thought he was a hero. Seifer smirked at the thought. I'm much more than a hero, Seifer thought. It's too easy to be a hero, even Chicken-Wuss can be that much.
I'll be the Sorceress' Knight. I'll be a fuckin' god.
He turned to Fujin. "You see any sign of them?"
"NEGATIVE," snapped Fujin.
Seifer's eyes narrowed. "Raij?"
Raijin shook his head. "Doesn't look like they came."
"It's her fuckin' resistance group on the line here, her cause we're winning. If anything could lure that bitch out of the Garden this would be it. Damn!" Seifer drew Hyperion, his gleaming gunblade, and swiped it through the air. "I've had enough of this pussyfooting around," he growled. "If they didn't show I guess I'll just have to kick someone else's ass to make up for it. You with me?"
Both of his companions nodded. Just then, Zell's group came into view. Seifer grinned.
"Follow my lead," said Seifer, and leaped off the roof into a group of Galbadian soldiers. Fujin and Raijin looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.
Zell was having the time of his life. Between Irvine's long-range bullets and Bella's short-range shuriken, Zell never had to fight more than two or three Galbadians at a single time with his fists. The three SeeDs had had an easy time cutting a swath through the Galbadian forces, but as yet had seen no sign of Seifer.
Zell saw a large group of soldiers ahead and made for it, Irvine and Bella trailing behind. Suddenly he saw a sword swinging at him - a surprise since Galbadians preferred guns. Just for a moment, Zell thought 'Squall' - until his brain kicked in and reminded him Squall was on another continent by now. But in that moment, the sword cut a deep line across his cheek.
"Why you goddamned motherfucking bastard," growled Zell, "I'm gonna pummel your ass extra hard for that one!"
"You couldn't pummel bread dough, Chicken-Wuss," came the retort. Zell blinked, and yanked his arm back to prevent the Punch Rush he'd been preparing from going through.
"Seifer?" he said. Sure enough, it was Seifer, grinning a smug grin at the thin line of blood down Hyperion's blade. At that moment, only his orders not to injure Seifer kept him in check. Fujin and Raijin stood by dispassionately. The battle seemed to just be moving around them for the moment.
Then Zell remembered what else he was supposed to do, besides let Seifer live. "What are you doing here, Seifer?" he demanded. Damned if I'm gonna be nice to a guy who's just tried to slice my face open, he thought.
"No hard feelings, Chicken-wuss," laughed Seifer. "I was just taking out some Galbadians and took a swing before I recognized you. That's all."
Zell's eyes narrowed. Even he wasn't stupid enough to swallow that load of tripe. But he had to play along, orders being orders. "Sure, no hard feelings," he said noncommittally. "What're you doing in Timber?"
"Why, setting it free, of course," replied Seifer with an innocent look. "I was helping Rinoa with this long before she ever met up with puberty-boy. Where is she, anyway? Thought she'd want to be here to see the day of victory and freedom."
"None of your business, Seifer," growled Zell. It wasn't that he thought telling Seifer would be dangerous, it was simply that if Seifer wanted to know, Zell automatically felt that he shouldn't be told. He felt a hand on his shoulder - Irvine.
"She couldn't come," said Irvine. "But don't worry, we'll tell her all about the fun she missed." He tugged on Zell's sleeve. "Come on, we got work to do." Screw the orders, Irvine was thinking. If I don't get Zell out of here before he snaps, we're gonna have to take on the posse and I for one am too goddamned tired for that today.
"Yeah, work," said Zell. The next few soldiers to come in range of his fists were really going to regret it.
Seifer watched them head off. What is Rinoa up to? he thought. He turned to his posse. "We're out of here," he said. "Let the children finish this game."
The three of them ducked down an alley, and began making their quiet way out of Timber.
The battle was won, the cadets returned to Garden. A treaty guaranteeing Timber's independence was even now being signed by the newly elected Mayor of Timber and the President of Galbadia. SeeD did not concern itself with that; the fighting was over and their job was done. Contract filled.
Quistis pored over the reports of the cadets actions. Of the 100 sent, thirty had died in the fighting - all of them orphans. The incinerator would be busy for the next few hours. Of the seventy who had survived the exam, only five had managed to complete all the requirements to SeeD standards. Still, that was an improvement. Squall's class had been the last one, and only four had passed that test. She decided that she would inform the graduating students of the honor herself, as Headmaster. She'd never liked the impersonal way the faculty tended to handle it.
She checked the names against the computer records. Squall had noted one of them already as having potential; she was pleased to see he'd been right. The student had challenged Zell to a fist-fighting match because challenge had to be offered to proceed. He had fought knowing he would lose but not resigned to it; that was indeed a good indicator of SeeD potential. She set that one aside for future consideration, along with Bella's report.
She rubbed her forehead, exhausted from a day of trying to keep track of everyone's movements. It was a pity that Timber had suffered such great losses in the fight, but that was to be expected when half-trained civilians took on an army. Judging by the mounds of the fallen, Quistis guessed that fully half the population of Timber had died in the battle. That's what happens sometimes, Quistis thought sadly. She wasn't looking forward to telling Rinoa about it.
Thinking of that, Quistis typed in one last message before taking the certificates for the five new SeeDs and leaving her office. Tonight was to be a night of revelry, the yearly SeeD ball for the new graduates.