PuPu's Saga Chapter 16
by Jeremy Chapter




Setting 16: 2128 DAY 15, Trabia Coast-bordering Forests

 

"It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts,

than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence."

 

-Gandhi

 

 

"'Scared' she'd called me," Zell scoffed at the recollection of the challenge he had received from the waitress in the Chinese diner ten minutes prior. One two, one two.

The night grass was crisp beneath his feet, their resiliency buoying up each of his steps. The effect was an overall springier sprint through the shadow-shrouded underbrush. At the same time, he did not forget how his brand new running shoes factored into the elastic benefit he was now enjoying. One two, one two.

"Who's scared?" Zell objected. "Certainly not I."

As he surged into the forest, the patterns of the branches flashed across his ivory skin that matched the moonlight, pale for pale. One two, one two.

I am a leopard. I am a striped stallion. I am a speckled owl.

Zell hurdled nimbly over a fallen log, cartwheeled between two boulders, and then leapt over a crevice. Keeping the count in his head, he realized that the only way to land and resume his run without losing his rhythm would involve a mid-air flip and then a roll to get back on his feet. One two two-and-one, one two two-and-two. He pulled it off to perfection.

One two, one two.

I am a mountain lion.

Zell caught a glint of moonlight from a puddle on the ground ahead and realized that an entire segment of the trail before him was still muddied from the recent showers. He wondered if he could afford spoiling his brand new sneakers before he had even broken them in. The passing trees were all slanted just enough from the vertical and supple enough to act as springboards. That gave him a crazy idea.

He accelerated slightly. One two three, one two three.

Just as he reached the edge of the boggy terrain, Zell grabbed one of the overhanging branches and used his forward momentum to swing himself into the air. On the way, he caromed off one of the plane trees on the side, touched off another, and continued ricocheting from tree to tree until he had reached the other side without setting foot in the wet earth. One two two-and-a-half, one two two-and-a-half.

After jumping onto the last sapling, he tarried a moment longer, hoping to maximize on the boost it would give him when it snapped back. It worked, and he was able to perform a back-flip with the additional height. He didn't lose a single beat upon his soft landing, smoothly resuming his running. One two, one two.

I am a hawk.

He was nearing an even larger gorge. It would take a running leap to traverse it, and so Zell picked up the pace.

One two three four, one two three four, one leap...

I am a rock, he thought as he reached the peak of his trajectory, eagerly anticipating the moment in which the soles of his feet would reconnect with solid ground.

...land two, one two, one two.

He somersaulted over a few potholes, rolled under and through the space between the grass and a tree stalk that had snapped and collapsed over its trunk. Scrambling to his feet, Zell tucked his body in for a mini-flip that carried him over a hedge. The next ravine was too wide to jump, but the vines dangling from overhead gave him the extra yards he needed.

Zell took a deep breath, decelerated, and jogged in place to give his heart ample time to slow down to it's normal rate of reps. He turned around and was satisfied that not even the watch tower, at the moment the highest point of Nova Trabia Garden constructed, was visible from where he stood. Maybe if he climbed to the top of that nearby evergreen it would come into view.

He had run nearly two miles on a full stomach and it vexed him that he had not run into a single monster along the way. Someone deserved a beating and he was going to give that beating. His pulse had dropped to normal by this time, and, holding his arms out, he closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, Zell commenced to clear his mind of all the excess baggage it had picked up during the course of the day. His body operated more effectively without the mental burden anyway. It was so easy to get distracted by all the disparaging remarks people made about him. But this was his alone time. This was officially Zell time, during which Zell could appreciate Zell's own opinions and the forest would bow reverently to Zell's presence. Two miles away from civilization, he was certain that there would be nothing but happy thoughts from here on out.

I am a chump.

Having ruined the moment, Zell flopped down on a patch of grass that promised to be fluffy.

It lied.

Zell groaned and shifted his weight to a more comfortable spot. It seemed as if the entire world were against him today. In truth, there was probably little to be gained from cursing at that tuft of grass.

He told it off at it anyway. If need be, he would be the best damned blasphemer of rocks the world had ever seen.

But he was a chump. He had admitted that just a few seconds ago, had he not?

The waitress must have thought so after his embarrassing performance in the diner.

Zell buried his face in his hands. He felt like screaming. Eventually he settled back and grinned, realizing that he'd probably laugh at the whole incident some day.

Yeah, when I'm six feet under and no one can hear me, he contended caustically.

He would think twice before accepting any challenges from the young waitress just to impress the girls seated at the nearby tables.

Besides, that's Irvine's metier.

Zell swallowed with difficulty, the knot in his throat ascribed to his realization of how dangerously close he had come to becoming Irvine Kinneas.

Thinking back to the occasion, he was puzzled by why he even felt the need to impress them. It wasn't as if he didn't already have a girlfriend.

Zell sighed and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles.

He missed her. He missed her so much.

What a chump he was!

Whoever told him that his body was composed of mostly water was dead wrong. He had been feeling completely hollow inside ever since the night of the celebration in Balamb Garden when he last saw Mina. The moment he realized that Mina had left, it was as if all the hot dogs he had eaten that evening vanished into the void he housed within. He didn’t have any luck finding her on any of the three floors, but while double-checking the first floor he had run into a crabby Rinoa as she emerged from her room. Had Rinoa not called him dense so many times for interrupting her one moment with Squall, Zell would have readily accepted the pretense of his innards being composed of air alone. It sure felt like it.

He had been running on empty for over two weeks.

On some subconscious level, he was probably willing to do anything to make the hurt go away, even if it meant indulging in an alternative source of attention. The fifteen days of Mina deprivation had been costly. The more he longed to hear her voice, the more he thought he heard it. It always turned out to be someone else though, much to his disappointment. The rub was that the more he thought he heard her voice, the more he longed to hear it for real. Trapped in this deleterious, never-ending cycle, he was afraid that he might become delusional if his situation were not remedied soon.

He had been so depressed when he entered Garden Noodle. He must have ordered something before sitting down, but he wasn't entirely sure. The alluring voice of Mina asking him how he was doing had pushed him to look up, yanking him out of his stupor with more force than the Ragnarok turbine could supply. The genuinely concerned face his eyes focused on belonged to a female Garden student of no more than fifteen years. No surprise there; every girl had begun to sound like Mina.

Upon seeing her and realizing that his addresser was not his girlfriend, he had frowned in annoyance. Who was she, a total stranger, to approach him when he had not first solicited her commiseration? Did he have a sign on his head that said, "I'm miserable, please comfort me"? Then he figured out that his banging his head repeatedly against the table had probably tipped her off. With that thought, his features had softened and he had bid her to take a seat across from him.

She did not sit down initially, rather she just stood there sipping on her beverage that he would later find out was a Raspberry Arctic Latte. She just stared at him. That one moment that seemed to drag on to infinity was devoid of everything and everyone except and her large, round eyes, the red straw between her lips, and him. He could almost picture Mina doing the same thing. In retrospect, he did her picture doing the same thing.

"Hi," she said cheerfully, "I'm Rishi."

She extended her hand for him to shake while asking his name.

It was so small. He had marveled at how dainty a thing his new acquaintance was. He was dimly aware that he had not inhaled in quite some time.

Could it...Mina?

Now he wished that he had taken her hand. It didn't seem right for him to snub her like that, but she was probably too kind-hearted a creature to care. She just wanted his name, and he was making her wait for it. What a chump he was to keep her waiting! What was he going to say?

Why, I'm the great Zell Dincht, savior of the world, of course!

He tried to remember what he really answered. It was something to the effect of "Zell," but through a stammer that lasted for about ten seconds.

She squinted with a small degree curiosity, trying to piece together what he had said, though he read mostly pleasant amusement in her gaze. Never once did her smooth petals for lips leave the confidence of the straw.

The girls sitting at the table behind where she was standing and where he guessed she had come from were giggling. A little bit of rose found its way to her cheeks, and Rishi, realizing that she herself was blushing, looked furtively at her toes and wiggled her shoulders, holding her hands behind her back. But she kept on sweetly sipping her latte, not wishing to encroach on his personal space that was not exactly overflowing with confidence at the time. It hadn't occurred to him just then how thoughtful she was being.

The giggling had become quite distracting.

How many girls were there?

Zell looked over at their table but stopped counting when he got to three. He felt his time was better spent letting his forehead fall back onto the table. He was not aware of the pain at the time, but judging from how loud the impact sounded, it should have hurt a lot.

Though he was staring straight at the tabletop, out from the corner of his eyes he could see Rishi half saunter, half skip around him and take a seat beside him, tacitly turning down the chair he had offered across from where he sat. This deliberate gesture managed to carry a meaning more explicitly received by Zell than implicitly.

Amazingly enough, the girls at the other table grew silent.

"Tell me what's wrong, Z-z-z-z-z-z-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l," Rishi joked, matching the pitch of each phoneme Zell had stuttered through as his introduction. There was also a subtle twang of a southern accent in her voice, obviously inserted to goad him into looking up.

Zell snorted but did not look up. On a brighter day, he would probably have fallen out of his seat laughing, but on that same day, he also wouldn't have introduced himself like a scratched record. On a brighter day, he would not have caught her interest by banging his head against the table over and over. Mina was simply radiant. Someday he would have to ask her how she managed to light up the room the way she always did. It was a pity that he usually took that light for granted, not realizing how much it was worth until he was ensconced in darkness.

What I wouldn’t give to put my arm around her right now.

My arm. I would not give up my arm.

Shut up, Zell! You think too much.

Zell blinked. He didn’t think too much, did he? At least I don’t think so.

Yes! You either don’t think at all, or when you do, you think too much!

Zell frowned. Wha-?

Stop arguing with yourself, Zell.

Stop arguing with me then! Zell hollered silently.

You’re pathetic Zell. The only time you activate me, you choose to think about this kind of stuff.

No one asked you to come, Zell reasoned. Feel free to leave.

I just might.

Zell froze. It occurred to him that it would not bode well for him if his mind actually decided to leave. No! Come back!

See? You’re scared of me.

Zell sniffed sardonically. I’m not scared of you.

You’re terrified.

Well, Zell conceded reluctantly, shoulders dropping, maybe just a little.

You are such a chump.

The table looked a lot bigger when his eyes were right on top of it. He had no idea that loneliness was this cold. It was a wonder that Squall could endure it. It explained the all-weather jacket at least.

His vision compromised, Zell was not aware of Rishi's facial expression at this point, but was pretty sure that she was still sucking on that straw. Even though he had not made a real attempt, he did not want her to leave either. She was a curiosity, and a very likable one too. It surprised him how much she reminded him of Mina.

He heard a screech as the legs of her chair rubbed against the floor. She pushed the seat back, preparing to leave.

Is she getting up to go? he wondered frantically.

No. She had placed both hands on his shoulder and started shaking him, begging him to talk to her.

He spared a moment to twist his head slightly for a better view. He found himself staring right into her big brown eyes, barely two inches away from her face.

"Ha!" Rishi cried triumphantly. "I see you!"

Zell was too surprised to say anything. She had caught his mind napping and that being the case, he figured his mouth didn’t have a chance at producing a message more coherent than his initial pronouncement. Only one escape route lay open to him.

Zell turned back to the table.

Rishi frowned as if her feelings had been hurt, or at least he imagined she did. Giving him a quick shove, she whined, "You’re so mean to me!"

"But I don’t even know you!" Zell cried in his defense, his tone rife with exasperation.

He regretted it immediately, dreading the sight of the wounded look on her face.

Maybe she won’t…

He checked, blindly hoping that she hadn’t taken him seriously. After all, she could very well have mistaken the direction of the comment. He did happen to be facing the table when he spoke.

Shoot! She does.

What a chump he was!

He knew the signs well. Her brow had already begun crease, and the slight quivering in those flushed cheeks was sure to follow. Next her face would fall, and after that would come the deluge. It would be a natural disaster, lest he do something to salvage the situation.

To his apprehension, he did not find a single Blind spell in his magic stock. Granted it was not the most ethical way to stop someone from crying, but Zell considered himself a flexible guy. In this particular juncture, he was especially open to any sort of solution.

Nothing presented itself. He was getting so tired of seeing Nothing.

Drops of sweat lined his forehead as he settled in for the worst.

"I just wanted to ask if you wanted to try a sip of my Raspberry Arctic Latte," Rishi wailed, loud enough to earn the sympathy of every customer in the restaurant and make him the villain in their eyes, "and offer to buy you one if you liked it!"

Zell kept his face glued to the counter. It’s cool surface did not quench the burning sensation he felt about his face.

Eyes watering, she continued to pout, "But so far all you’ve been talking to is the table."

Her voice indicated that she was neither happy nor kidding. Zell was sure this time around that his ears had not deceived him when they registered Mina’s voice; it was perfectly legitimate for him to have thought that that because to him, all girls sounded the same when they were upset.

"You make me feel so ugly," Rishi sobbed, her tears running down the sides of her face as she sipped the last of her latte.

"But you’re really pretty," he replied, at last lifting his head from the table and turning his entire body to face her.

She responded by turning away from him and burying her face in the sleeve of her Garden uniform.

"I don’t believe you!" she cried, unmistakably moping.

"Please believe me," Zell insisted gently, putting his hand on her shoulder.

"Prove it," Rishi pouted, wiping her eyes with the handkerchief that each Garden student was required to keep tucked in the sleeve of their uniform.

Zell blinked, not sure how to prove the verity of his words. Unlike Irvine, he didn’t carry a mirror with him wherever he went.

"How do I prove it?" he asked Rishi.

"Order something on the menu and eat with me," she replied too quickly for Zell to believe that she did not have a response planned ahead of time.

Zell was about to protest that he had already ordered something, but decided against it because it was perfectly possible that he never did and just assumed that he had. It was also too much work for him to rationalize how Rishi figured his eating and her beauty were related, so he just sat back and shrugged. Rishi took his silence as his assent, and she waved brilliantly to get the notice of the waitress.

"Can I help you?" the lady asked after she walked over, taking out a pen and her notepad.

"Order something, Zell," Rishi urged, nudging his arm.

The Mina Deluxe Dinner Special, please.

"Um, anything is fine," he voiced instead.

Rishi made a face, making Zell wonder what he had done wrong.

The waitress kindly pointed out that he would have to give her the number of the item to write on her notepad; otherwise, the kitchen would not know what to prepare.

"Thirty-four," Zell made up quickly.

His serveuse raised an eyebrow while she jotted the number down, but his response seemed to satisfy her. Rishi didn’t give him a hard time after that. Instead, she just relaxed her face and smiled. As the waitress headed for the kitchen, Zell settled his head back onto the table.

"So there!" Zell affirmed, speaking into the polished wood. "You’re not ugly at all."

"Neither are you," countered Rishi, "so why were you hiding your face?"

I am a chump.

The words echoed through his empty system.

Maybe you’re right, he admitted.

He was a chump, wasn't he?

Yup.

Zell wasn’t sure if it was he who had assented or the annoying little voice in his head.

"I’m just really sad. Lost," Zell admitted at last.

"Why?" Rishi asked.

"This girl-" Zell began.

Rishi’s face suddenly brightened, and a look of interest her crept into her eyes.

"- I haven’t seen in forever, and it’s killing me," Zell finished.

It was getting rather stuffy in the diner, but Rishi didn’t seem to notice. Was it all in his head, then?

"And?" Rishi probed, eyes flashing.

"And what?" Zell echoed defensively.

"What else?" Rishi begged. "I want to know."

"Why do you want to know?" he inquired suspiciously.

"Cause I just do. I’m a girl, tell me!" she whined, shaking his arm.

Zell hesitated, debating whether or not the excuse she had given him would have been valid in a court of law.

"Pretty please?" Rishi tried.

Zell didn't budge. For some reason that eluded him at the present, this scene seemed awfully familiar to him.

"I love hearing about this sort of thing," she pleaded again when she saw that he unconvinced.

In a more ominous tone, she added, "Humor me or I won’t let go."

She had a nice grip. He had to give her that much. There was also a subtle tone of fierce determination in her voice. He read from her expression that she was not afraid to call all of her girl friends over and pressure him if he refused.

At this point he was too heartsick to indulge in a game to see if she would go back on her word. Seeing how there was no easier way out of his predicament, Zell sighed and settled back in his seat, concurrently lifting his head and staring at her with a defeated look on his face.

She covered her mouth with a free hand, trying desperately to hide a laugh that the sight of Zell’s red forehead had incited. His temple had been glued to the table too long.

"Do you want to listen or not?" Zell demanded, feeling a flash of annoyance.

"Yup yup," she chirped, quickly regaining her composure.

"Are you friends with Mina Charleston?" Zell asked.

Rishi nibbled on her fingernail as she tried to recall when she had last heard the name, but at last shook her head.

"Sounds familiar, but I can't place the name with a face," she admitted.

"She works in the library," Zell added.

"Oh!" Rishi exclaimed in surprise. "You mean the pretty one?"

(Mina as Rishi Recalls - Drawn by Zen (g4239565@au.ac.th), umm, frenetic follower of Pupu's Saga (Jeremy didn't give me an alliterative caption for Zen, so I made one up! -Mazrim))

"She's probably not the only pretty one, but I'd say the prettiest," Zell replied honestly.

Rishi looked rather envious, but she signaled for him to go on with his story.

"I keep beating myself up because I hardly paid any attention to what she was saying on the night she left," Zell continued, "and now I really want to know!"

"You guys never listen us when you should," Rishi pointed out critically.

"That's because we get chastised like we didn't hear you or something, even if we did," Zell asserted.

"But you never seem like you want to hear what we're saying," Rishi said.

"I love hearing Mina talk, even if it's not about anything in particular," protested Zell. "I just save the work of listening for special occasions."

Like when she's waving a knife.

"Is that why you don’t have a clue what she tried to tell you that night?" Rishi guessed, realizing the difference Zell was trying to draw between hearing and listening.

"Basically," Zell conceded, clearly surprised by how quickly she caught on.

Basically, Zell's thoughts echoed, I am a chump.

"What were you doing instead?" she asked.

Zell colored slightly and answered, "Eating."

Rishi rolled her eyes.

"What did you do after she left?" she questioned, moving on.

I wilted and slapped myself silly.

"What do you think I did?" Zell countered. "I chased after her of course!"

"I'm guessing you didn't have any luck," Rishi remarked.

Zell shook his head sullenly.

Nope, luck was not on my side like it was at the Balamb nightclub. That was the first time I ever saw her. Wasn't too articulate that evening, but I can't blame myself for that. She nearly leveled me when she came over and commanded me to dance with her*. My lower jaw had to be on the floor. I was so weak! I am so weak…and she capitalized on it. Led me around like an euphoric puppy off to bury a big bone. Nearly fell down when she pressed her warm body against me too. Knees were shaking so hard…Zell you weakling! She had to have noticed. Must have thought I was a total klutz. I'm such a chump! And now there's this other guy-

 

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

gives the full account of Zell's first

encounter with Mina in "Dance."

 

Rishi waved her hand in front of his face, calling out, "Hello?"

When he was slow to respond, she started slapping him repeatedly on the arm with her small palms and pouted, "Talk to me, you big ol' meanie!"

Zell was thus coerced to repeat everything he had just thought to her. He did not notice the periodic dreamy sighs she'd give or how her face flushed. It seemed odd that he could say all these things in front of a total stranger and not feel awkward about it, but he supposed it was easier to talk to a woman. He could not imagine himself having this conversation with Squall or Irvine. Or Seifer, for that matter.

"Are you sure you did a good job looking for her?" Rishi asked.

"I checked every floor twice!" Zell exclaimed. "Then I checked her room, her best friend Helen's room, and their mutual friend Janiika's room."

"Was that all she was worth to you?" Rishi jeered.

"No!" Zell huffed. "I even ran all the way to Balamb to see if she had gone to Helen* or Janiika's houses."

 

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

gives the full account of Mina's friends

in "The Library Girl's Secret."

 

"Did you bother to check the landing pier or the ticket booth?" asked Rishi.

Zell's eyes widened, mentally kicking himself for not thinking of that at the time.

Why hadn't he thought of that?

Chump.

He was about to snatch Rishi's drink and pour what was left of it onto his face when the waitress returned with the dish he had ordered. It was actually a large bowl with a lid on it as opposed to an actual dish. She set it on the table in front of him.

"Number thirty-four," she announced matter-of-factly and waited for him to open the lid so she could take it back into the kitchen.

Zell lifted the lid, revealing noodles and vegetables immersed in a reddish liquid.

"What is this?" Zell asked.

"Number thirty-four," the waitress repeated as if she were replying to a nincompoop.

"What is number thirty-four?" Zell tried a second time.

"What you ordered," the lady answered in exasperation.

Zell felt stupid.

"That's just tomato and carrot juice, right?" Zell attempted one final time to seek her reassurances.

"Sure," the waitress returned absent-mindedly, relieving him of the lid in his hands instead of the doubt in his mind.

"Hurry up and eat," Rishi urged him, tugging on his elbow.

The waitress witnessed this and smirked.

"It's better to eat it all while it's still warm," she told him.

In afterthought, she added, "If you're not scared, that is."

Scared? Who's scared?

Leaning over, she whispered furtively in Zell's ear, "It really impresses the ladies if you can eat the whole thing in one breath."

Zell looked from the big bowl of noodles to the waitress to Rishi to the table of girls whose eyes had not left them from the moment Rishi sat down and back to the waitress again.

"They would?" he asked with a questioning look.

She shrugged and replied earnestly, "I would be."

Zell took her input under consideration. Rishi's insistence, meanwhile, persisted. The girls at the opposite table blushed in unison when he cast a second glance over at them.

Why did Mina really go to Galbadia? Who is that guy?

He stopped caring.

Without another word, Zell took the bowl up in both hands and began to chug down its contents.

The waitress, not thinking that Zell would actually do it, dropped the lid but caught it before it hit the ground. Rishi's eyes widened with excitement. Zell heard the other onlookers gasp.

Having emptied the bowl in record time, Zell victoriously set it back down and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

"How about that?" he gloated, looking at the serveuse.

She edged away from the table nervously.

"I'll go get you some green tea," she offered, "but I doubt it will help."

"Help with what-" Zell began, but was cut short by the burning sensation flaring up inside his mouth. It felt like Seifer was playing around in there with a flame-thrower, having gone mad.

Rishi inspected the bottom of the bowl curiously.

"These look like red pepper seeds," she told him. "I didn't know you liked hot peppers!"

Zell couldn't wait around for the green tea. He desperately needed something to douse the inferno that was working its way down his throat. Then he remembered the waterhole right outside the Garden gates.

It would have to do.

Zell jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over in the process, and ran out of the restaurant.

If he had forgotten to pay, so be it.

He could imagine Rishi sobbing about how he didn’t even say good-bye.

Chump, he thought to himself with a cheesy grin. To help him vent, he tossed into the shadows a handful of grass that he hadn't realized he had uprooted during his rumination.

The waterhole had not been a pleasant experience, but it had served its purpose. Still, one would like to think that an organization as rich wealthy as Garden would have invested in an actual, sanitized reservoir.

Something was wet…and he was sitting on it.

Zell regretted shifting from the uncomfortable patch of grass to the damp soil. A grass stain, at least, was not a liability. If he went back to Nova Trabia now, the trainees would all think that he dirtied his pants, all on the account of the stupid humus. No one would believe, and unfortunately for him, Garden was more gossipy than it was mature.

Zell beat the ground with his fist in frustration. Why couldn't he be more like Squall? Squall had everything figured out. Wearing black pants was ingenious. A dirt smudge was just one less thing about which to worry.

He didn't realize that he had been pounding the soil the entire time. With each blow, the earth sank and the tree beside him swayed by degrees that grew increasingly precarious. He had mistaken it for a pine, common in these parts, but was made aware of his initial, erroneous assumption when the first of the small dogwood leaves fell and those that followed began to flutter around him in the place of the supposed pine needles.

He had been similarly unaware that the spot he had been striking was matted with gravel, not grass. The small jagged edges of crushed rock had lacerated his knuckles, which would have soon been bloody had he not caught himself right then. One particular puncture had been rather deep, and it stung when Zell pulled the stone chip out of his skin. The rest of the rocks had been neatly pulverized into fine sand. Rubbing his knuckles, Zell stifled a grimace from how the minor flesh wound smarted. Seifer would have laughed at him had he done otherwise, and Squall would have followed Seifer's suit if he knew how to laugh.

The number of dogwood leaves had been steadily dwindling. Even if the sporadic breeze had been nonexistent that night, to catch the leaves would still have been challenge. They swung back and forth with no apparent pattern or timing, swaying as if they were hanging from the end of a confused pendulum. Additionally the desultory spin on the leaves afforded them the fleeting cover of night, because only so often would any given leaf arch wide enough to catch any of the limited moonlight, peeking through the treetops. But how they glistened when the moment was just right! In a word, it was enchanting.

In the columns of moonlight, each leaf glowed like the vanity of the moon goddess herself. Now a coruscating curtsy, now a silvery strut, then perhaps a diaphanous dip designed to steal your breath, and just when you least expect it, a frivolous flash by the flip of her naughty dress before she whirls away. And just like the moon, all attempts of capture would prove fruitless as she always flees before your grasp, but sure enough, the moment you withdraw your hand, so does she reappear, fearing your turning away more than your touch. Thus did each leaf flicker and flirt, even without Zell reaching for them, and thus did he sit there, enshrouded by the night swirl of blinking eyes, the peacock tail of a twilight.

Sensing that their dance was almost done, Zell broke the calm and let his arm jet out like a snake's head snaps, stabbing confidently into the darkness. He left it there and took a moment to savor the feeling of piercing the midnight air. All good things end quickly, probably because they are so easy to miss. Most of them were, indeed, hard to catch.

Feathers. Now feathers were different; they were easy to catch. These dogwood leaves, though, were something else. Clumsy yet graceful, and elusive all in one. Zell marveled at that.

Still, he thought smugly, nothing can hide forever. Sooner or later you're bound to be found.

With that, drew his hand back and slid the pierced dogwood leaf off of his index finger, careful not to tear it. It was came off like a ring too tight for his tastes, and it felt so much like a white rose petal. He wondered if it would fit her and then smiled at the thought of giving a flower to flower.

Would they even recognize each other? Or would it be like buying flowers for a flowergirl and she would find it tasteless?

Something about it caught his eye, and so Zell held the fragile loop under the light and scrutinized the surface.

Sure enough, it was dappled with cherry stains to which he realized his blood was culprit. The puncture in his knuckle that he had not thought was that serious had reddened and began to drip down his fingers and onto the leaf, comparable to throwing strawberries into the fresh winter snow. Had he ruined the purity or had he made the gift more precious? Was his adulteration a signature or self-expression that made the white circlet more dear to its future wearer? Would she cherish it now because he was somehow all about it in essence?

Zell pocketed his token and made a mental note to give it to Mina first thing the next time he saw her. That and a thousand hugs and kisses. Then, without expression, he made a fist and inspected his minor flesh wound. It was just a scrape, but he was happy that it had happened. It seemed so familiar, this scratch. He wondered where he had seen it before.

His eyes widened at the remembrance.

He recalled first the delightful shriek she gave when he pulled her into the water with him that one time. Having reciprocated the favor of completely soaking the other's clothes, he then swam to the ladder and pulled himself up. He must have brushed his hand against a protruding nail or the edge of a cracked plank in the process. Neither of them had noticed when he proceeded to help her out of the water, but she saw it later just as he handed her his towel to use.

Her first reaction was give the same surprised shriek that she had when he pulled her into the water, but the slightest hint of worry had crept audibly into her voice and changed her entire tone enough to break his heart and make him feel ashamed for having distressed her so. She frantically threw the towel aside and used instead her shirt to clean his hand, after which she kissed and cried over it. He was so dumbstruck at the time that he could offer her no words of reassurance; rather he tried to comfort her with a hug, and while neither of them dared to break the silence, it was then that he knew she loved him. She was something special, and in that one second, how blind he had been through each second of his life before that one became suddenly insignificant, because for once, at last, this time, here, he saw it, and he saw it clearly. As clearly and plainly as he could see her standing before him, he saw how special she was to him.

Woefully, though, that wall of silence was extended by the group's whisking him away through Time Compression, a phenomenon that he understood no more than he understood her. Mysteries, rushes, life-altering experiences those two were. One a maze of the mind, the other a maze of the heart. Mina was simply a maze to him. To him, Mina was simply amazing.

Zell colored, frowning. Mina was always keeping secrets from him. He wondered what she refused to tell him that day at the dock*. Could she have been thinking about this other guy?

 

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

gives the full account of the incident at

the dock in "The Library Girl's Secret."

 

Zell shook his head in frustration. But then again, he supposed all women were as secretive and behaved the same way. It was just another method perfected and practiced to keep guys like him on their toes, pins and needles, the edge, curious, coming back. To keep things discovered and undiscovered alike- that was their charm, the woman's way. All of them except Rinoa anyway, who told Squall absolutely everything.

Zell sighed, and leaned back against a tree. Squall had it made. Squall was omniscient about their missions and about women, or his own at least. Squall did not have a huge wet spot on the back of his jean shorts. Squall had a girl that always hung around him.

Zell tapped his forehead agitatedly.

No, I forgot. Rinoa is back in Balamb. Looks like Squall and I are in the same boat.

Mina had left him on her own accord, just like Rinoa did Squall on the balcony. Who were they but two poor schmucks abandoned on the same night?

Zell jumped to his feet when his ears picked up a faint but distinctly feminine shout coming from his left.

Mina? Could it…no, wait. She's in Galbadia.

He listened intently to make sure he wasn't hearing things.

"Merali?" the same cry followed more to the left than he had originally presumed.

It was hard to place exactly where the sound had come from in so dense a jungle, but he guessed the source was about seventy meters away. Zell brushed the dirt off of his pants and hurried in what he hoped was the right direction. One two, one two.

"Merali, was that you?" the female voice rang again.

The night, two miles away from the Garden lights, was not a good companion to loudmouths. Zell, recognizing the unnecessary danger that the girl was soliciting, picked up the pace. One two three, one two three.

"Merali, you'd better get your cute ass out here now!" she shouted next.

She was not too far now. It was a race between him and whichever hungry nocturnal creature happened to be in the area. If he got there too late, she wouldn't have a head with which to shout. One two three, one two three.

"I don't care how smooth it is, I'm going to kick it back to last Friday if you don't show yourself!" the mystery girl threatened, still oblivious to how she was putting her life in jeopardy.

It would not be too long now. He could not see her yet, but he could almost sense her standing right beyond the next row of trees. Was it his imagination or did the brushes a few meters away stir? He thought he caught the shadow of something other than him moving in her direction. One two three, one two three.

"Hit a tree with a stick or something, or bat a rock in this direction, just give me some sign to let me know where you are!" the girl called out.

Zell's blood chilled when he heard a faint rumble and saw a serpent-like tail disappear behind a tree trunk a short distance away. Branches snapped and the grounded leaves rustled. One two three four, one two three four.

The woman must have heard it too because she hesitated before murmuring shakily, "Merali?"

Run! Zell wanted to tell her. He was having a hard time keeping up with the still unidentified monster, so he hoped desperately that she was parked in a clearing and would head into the woods when she saw it coming. He would be hard-pressed to reach her before it did. One two three four, one two three four.

Must go faster, he commanded himself.

No sooner did he think that before thundered through the neighboring foliage. It was of the hair-stiffening, skin-prickling, muscle-tensing, blood-freezing, bone-jarring, ear-splitting, heart-stopping type that Zell recognized on reflex, having endured various battles in the field and Quistis' relentless language lab tape drills, belonged to a Blue Dragon. It was either that or an inebriated Wendigo trying to mate with Bahamut. Zell went with the more probable and less ugly theory.

Both the squawking of birds overhead and the regularly returned echoes indicated to Zell that the cry of the beast was steadily radiating outwards into the rest of the forest. He could almost see the mechanical sound waves physically ripple through the dense niches and stir up the wildlife. The indigenous animal population was clearing out like a pack of rodents fleeing from a raging forest fire.

In the next instant Zell saw a slender figure standing by herself a little ways off. He felt a wave of joy wash over him, realizing that she was almost within his grasp. The subsequent wave that hit him was the fourth echo of the monster's first bellow, driving him into a sea of fear. It stemmed from the fact that the serpent was leading him by a few strides and from the doubt he had in his mind about whether or not he could outrun a beast in frenzy. If there had been a longer distance to cover and if the monster's dinner was not immediately in sight, Zell would have bet a full month's worth of wages on himself. As it was, the odds favored the ten-ton snake with wings.

I am supersonic.

One two three four five six, one two three four five six.

Hearing the roar and feeling the boom, the girl had spun around in alarm. The look on her face was distinctly the same as that which one puts on right before she screams. Zell knew that her screaming would be a very bad idea because it would surely attract any creatures hungry enough to take their chances with the dragon and tarry in the vicinity after hearing its sound.

If only he had longer legs. If only he were not so unlucky. If only he were not such a damned good Samaritan. The ideal cool-headed SeeD like Squall would not have lifted a finger until he saw a notarized contract with the Headmaster's official stamp on it. They were mercenaries, and the only thing that sustained this way of life- the way of the gun- was cold cash. Theirs was a crude world, moralistically acknowledging only black and white, materialistically recognizing only green and red- credits were the currency and blood was the object to be bartered. It was as simple as that, unless a SeeD fell for a client, or a client happened to be the sorceress whose life the SeeDs had a hidden agenda to take. In simple Squall's case, the clients from each of the two extreme cases happened to be the same person, and that would make things difficult.

The dragon was practically on top of her. They had come to the end of the track. It was now or never. One two three, one two-

I wonder if I can wheedle some hazard pay out of Cid for this, Zell reflected as he dove towards the girl, her glittering hair slung over her shoulder and her pink mouth parted for what Zell feared would be a scream that would certainly doom them even if they made it past the Blue Dragon. A frantic girl made a perfect after-supper snack, scrumptious enough to lure out the hard-hitting contenders that were at first reluctant to fight the Blue Dragon for her, or even worse, a bigger creature like the Red Dragon.

As Zell shuddered at the thought, he was reminded of the only other time in his life when he was stressed enough to have to involuntarily shudder in midair. It happened during his boss fight with Ifrit on his trial run to Fire Cavern to qualify as a SeeD candidate. While he was dodging a fireball, Quistis told him to stop fooling around because the exam was being timed. It galled him that she did not mention that crucial fact when they entered the cavern. She later explained that she was trying to keep him relaxed. He secretly believed that Instructor Trepe deliberately forgot to mention the time restriction, her purpose being to induce that very reaction from him while he was sailing through the air. Shuddering before touchdown basically rules out a soft landing, and he couldn’t very well see Quistis' look of satisfaction with a job well done while his face was in the dirt. On top of that, he nearly tripped up again when she told him that he could not keep Ifrit after he had already won the GF. ! Apparently one other student had yet to make the Fire Cavern run, and so, by her flawless reasoning, Zell was to give up his rightful reward because some runt had slacked off. Zell could not wait to get his hands on the punk that deprived him of his GF. As soon as he found out who the last candidate was, that kid was going to pay.

Zell ground his teeth together. Quistis was definitely out to get him. He would have to watch his step around her. Zell then took a millisecond to wonder what Quistis had said to Squall to "relax" him. Whatever she said, it was probably ineffectual. Knowing how cold-blooded Squall was, nothing short of a blow to the head could relax him, either because Squall was perpetually relaxed or perpetually high-strung. Perhaps he was constantly both. A true paradox Squall was.

The entire forest seemed to fade into the blurred obscurity as he neared the mystery girl. All he saw was her, and she stood alone against the darkness, the single, illuminated focal point of his current efforts. His eyes found her moon-silver flood of hair frozen about her neck, around which a rosy ribbon fluttered with each falter from her pale pink lips. Now, just a few inches from her ivory face, Zell wondered why he had gotten this close to her without the dragon interfering. It could have long since swallowed the girl and batted him away with its claws.

(Pearl - Drawn by Zen (g4239565@au.ac.th), umm, talented treasurer? of Pupu's Saga (Jeremy didn't give me an alliterative caption for Zen, so I made one up! -Mazrim))

Momentarily drawing his attention away from the girl, Zell could hear the beast's frustration, its straining, its ferocious roars, its clawed feet tearing up the ground and throwing forth a froth of dust. He could also hear the nearby trees uprooting, the vines snapping, the branches cracking, the trunks splintering, and the leaves rustling with a hollow howl as harrowing as that emanating from the dragon's throat itself.

It's caught! Zell realized gleefully, for indeed the enemy's neck and jaws were tangled in web of shoots and greenery between the last of the trees, a space that it had mistaken for being empty and would provide no impediment between it and its meal.

With newly infused relief circulating in his system, Zell felt as if he were ready to take on the world. This new development would afford him time, not much, but enough to make the situation seem hopeful, and perhaps enough time, even, for a vainglorious war hoot.

Zell quickly decided against the war hoot. Squall would have done nothing of the sort. Short of thirty Tiamats, Zell did not know of anything that could induce his suitemate to even flinch. Even when the possessed Edea threw an ice popsicle through Squall's shoulder during the parade, Mr. Invalid himself had only raised an eyebrow. Cool as ice, the commander was. Aloof, disinterested, cold-blooded, callous, almost inhuman.

Well, now that I think about it more-

Zell reconsidered his original estimation of the blow to the head as a surefire way to tranquilize Squall beyond his usual imperturbability. This new insight was spurred by Zell's recollection that Squall always seemed tense whenever he was unconscious. Zell suspected that Squall had nightmares every night, because every time he snuck into Squall's room to copy homework while the latter was asleep, Squall would kick and turn over restlessly. His actions during his unconsciousness betrayed the internal turmoil he hid from the rest of the world during his consciousness. In light of this evidence, it would be justified for Zell to assume that Squall was perpetually high-strung.

Maybe that was what was getting on Rinoa's nerves, Squall's kicking in his sleep, and not Zell's barging in on the two of them on the balcony. How embarrassing!

I am such a chump! Zell scolded himself, just as he felt his fingers connect with skin and cloth. She tensed at his touch.

The monster lurched back and forth, pushing its scaly head forward, kicking, screaming, and batting at them with its angry claws. The lightning-quick swipes narrowly missed Zell as he slammed into the woman. She smelled like daisies after a light sprinkle, or was he hallucinating about Mina again?

The last vine groaned and gave way, snapping apart and in agony. In no time at all, the massive jaws of the carnivore descended upon the two. Had Zell looked up, his eyes would have been as white and round as dinner plates.

That is to say, had Zell stalled, he would have been eaten. Yet, the serpentine jaws slammed into the ground, the grotesque teeth sinking into nothing other than the earth's soft soil. The split-second during which the dragon was hampered by the creeper tree's tendrils had afforded Zell just enough time to tackle the maiden to the ground and roll out of harm's way with her in his arms. He was not willing to place a bet on how grateful she was going to be for knocking the wind out of her in what looked like an overly exuberant, desperate, and mindless attempt to cop a feel through the blue-and-pink-striped tank-top, but he could say with near certainty that if they both lived through the Blue Dragon, he would have another enemy to deal with.

Or another enemy to run from, Zell admitted to himself when indeed he felt something that he had not meant to feel. His face contorted awkwardly, unable to reconcile how to simultaneously blush in embarrassment and pale with dread.

The Blue Dragon spared him of his dilemma. Having tasted with his last strike more grit than blood, all of which had been spilled from his own tongue, the beast lifted its jaws in fury. Its raging eyes screamed bloody vengeance, and it leveled its sights menacingly on Zell as the frantic SeeD scrambled to lift his companion to her feet. The dragon snarled, nostrils flaring, opened its mouth, and let out a burst of flame. The wild, red tongues reached out to Zell who was completely dumbfounded.

Since when do Blue Dragons breathe fire? the thought ran through his head a mere stride quicker than the blaze ran through the air towards its target. Zell found himself back on panic's porch, rapping on its weary door.

Mina, what do I do?

He was a mercenary, not a bodyguard; he did not have the proper training that the situation called for. By all rights he should have rolled out of the way even before the dragon let loose its fiery breath, but it seemed morally wrong to move or duck out of the way after gesturing to the girl to stay behind him.

Still, the days of morality having passed, would he really be condemned for saving his own skin? Probably not, but the lack of penalization did not make it right.

"The crime does not make the criminal; the police cameras do," he remembered Irvine's maxim. It was the same line Irvine used constantly to excuse himself and turn the argument on anyone who would accuse him of philandering. Evidently the cowboy still considered himself to be pure in heart and immaculate in conscience because he had never been caught diddling anyone, diddle as he might. Innocent until proven guilty. Pristine till shown to be otherwise.

By the same shaky reasoning, with no one to condemn him, Zell could have easily slipped into the forest and let the girl fend for herself with no one being the wiser. And he would have done it too had Irvine been the ultimate authority on honor. Being as Irvine was a sneaky, womanizing sniper, though, Zell decided to do the exact opposite of what Irvine's code called for. He would hold his ground until she was safe. If he didn't, then he did not deserve to court Mina. If she had been in this girl's place, would he have even hesitated?

He wasn't sure, and he sure as Eden did not want to leave it as an uncertainty. He had to know. If he could save the girl now, then he would surely save Mina later. If he selfishly chose the path of cowardice and ran, even if he could side-step the guilt of having sacrificed the life of an innocent for his own no-good existence, he would be able to escape neither the self-doubt about his worth as a warrior, nor the inquietude from knowing that his girlfriend deserved a better, worthier man and that he was depriving her of this other person. Both the doubt and the inquietude would plague him incessantly and catch up with him eventually. In essence, Mina was the girl, and the girl was Mina. It was all one big test. True or false.

What's it gonna be, Zell? he could imagine Cid asking. What's your answer?

Don’t you mean what am I, and not what my answer is? he heard his voice resonate in his head.

Are you true or false, Zell? Cid would have rephrased it.

Zell wished desperately that it had been an ordinary SeeD test. This time, though, Squall's answers weren't handy and if he cheated, he would not only be cheating himself; he would be cheating her too. How could he have her suffer that? She did not deserve that.

Zell was quickly realizing that his predicament had become too serious to be a game. Relationships seldom were, and life-threatening situations even less frequent.

He felt so unworthy. He had to be, for why else would he be debating about making a choice that ought to have been so immensely obvious had he been worthy.

I am so unworthy, he confessed to himself.

You are! his inner voice agreed.

I am, he repeated hollowly, not fully believing that he was giving up without a fight.

You better believe it, the voice replied.

She was obviously too good for him.

She is too good, Zell conceived.

She is!

At last we agree, Zell realized sadly.

Chump.

Zell saw the snide comment coming so it did not ruffle him half as much. It was not like he had any pride left to lose. To care about pride was silly; he was a guy and that was how guys were built. It served him right to fall for a goddess trapped in a mortal body.

Time was speeding up again. He was back in the forest and could feel the heat wave heading towards him. The moment of truth had arrived. He could dally in his thoughts no further without getting hurt by the incoming burst of flames.

Zell looked at the girl sadly.

Forgive me, Mina.

Zell pushed the girl away, immediately after which he landed a quick kick on her rear, propelling each of them in opposite directions. Even as he spiraled away, though, he could feel part of the blast wash over him.

The girl cried out in pain when Zell booted her into the bushes, and from the way she was groaning, he guessed that her landing had been hard one. In a more graceful display, Zell rolled smoothly back onto one knee upon landing and brushed out the small patches on his socks that were burning.

Having dispelled the danger that required his immediate attention, he raised his head and yelled out to the girl, "Run!"

She rose to her feet slowly, wincing from the pain that he had inflicted, looked at him dubiously for a second, but then quitted her hesitation and soon, carrying out his instruction, the battlefield itself.

After noting her departure, he spared a glance back down to his feet. The sides of his sneakers were seared, and the soles were partially melted into a gummy mess. Had they been an old pair of running shoes, he might have been inconsolable over the loss of so comfortable and familiar a relationship. Being as they were practically brand new, he was more irked than upset that he had been gypped of a full three months of perfectly workable performance. The limited edition footwear had been imported at his request from Galbadia, offered the maximum traction for optimal handling without compromising speed, was cushioned to adapt to the shape of each foot, and promised to push the athlete's abilities to their peak. It was also signed by the great Mr. Jammy himself-

What reeks?

He could no longer ignore the awful odor that seemed to cling to his body, and took in a big whiff in hopes of finding the source. Struggling not to hurl, he presumed that the irritating smell climbing up into his nose was from the vapor streaming from his legs. Upon inspection, he saw that all of his precious hair in that area had been seared off. The corollary sentiment of despair was quickly replaced by that of indignation.

Zell rubbed his singed calves furiously, deciding that he had a major problem with barbecued Zell legs being on the menu without his explicit written permission. If he and Mr. Toasty were going to have themselves a problem, then it was his job to make sure that by the end of the fight, it was all the latter's problem.

"Forget the buffalo," Zell hissed indignantly, "I want fried dragon wings tonight."

Zell cracked his knuckles through his Ehrgeiz gauntlets and repeated the action on his other hand. Someone owed him some fancy running gear, and that someone was going to pay.

"You have three seconds to apologize to me in English before I kick your green-tailed ass!" he shouted at the creature, flagging it off in the process.

In response, the Blue Dragon roared cacophonously and whipped its aquamarine tail around, leveling three good-sized trees in the process. Zell somersaulted at just the right time so that when his body was inverted at the peak of the flip, by extending his right hand, he was able to plant his palm on the killer tail and catapult over it as it sped by. Still in flight, he grabbed a projecting branch and swung himself up to a higher perch. There he settled quietly in the shelter of the shadows yielded by the foliage. He peered through the green mesh and spied his enemy wheeling back around to face the clearing. The price of the surprise spin-move had been the forfeiture of Zell from its line of sight for a split-second, and now it could not reacquire its target. Zell watched the reptilian fiend scan the environs, its bulgy eyes rotating, oozing, slowly through a full revolution on each side of its ghastly jaws. It let out a few hit-or-miss spurts of fire to test any possib le hiding spots in the prox! imity. On all four feet now, with its tail swaying opposite of its massive head for counterbalancing purposes, it seemed more and more like a Red Dragon to Zell. For one thing, it behaved more like its fearsome cousin than the normal lot of Blue Dragons that he had fought before.

It flicked its tongue over the gleaming set of daggers inside its mouth, then moved forward to cover more ground, slowly at first, but soon picked up speed as its hind legs stirred to life. Craw strafing and eyes snaking, it raked the area for Zell's corpse with surprising speed and systematicity, obviously not the geezer with loose screws that Zell hoped it would be. He could see the outline of the dragon's veins protruding out from under the moon-glazed scales, the haunch muscles tightening, filling and stretching the skin, the ground groaning under the weight of each of its steps, the crusted nails digging into the flesh of the earth.

Zell actually felt sorry for the dirt that had been trodden underfoot. Eyeing the beast's spacious, pothole-like footprints, he stiffened at his guess about how unpleasant it would feel to be trapped under and crushed by the gigantic paw of that walking trash compactor.

Zell nearly jumped out of his skin when he thought he saw the monster's jaundiced eyes widen, presumably from having sensed his initial alarm or smelled the fear pouring from his pores. The drops of sweat gathering on his brow and lining his arms hollered and hooted up a ruckus, waving madly to grab the beast's attention, inviting the disclosure of Zell's location. He was so going to punish them by showering the living daylights out of them when he got back, if he got back, tonight, but for now, he lamented that he had not the foresight to wear an airtight, full-body suit instead of his trademark shorts, shirt, and jean jacket for this evening jog.

It was a jog that promised to be more costly than an everyday workout. Whoever coined the phrase, "no pain no gain," had obviously never run across a Blue Dragon in the weight room. Another look at the demonstration of compressive powers honed by the creature gave Zell a whole new perspective on "doing crunches" in the Nova Trabia Garden Gymnasium.

Seeing how the dragon was torching everything in sight and stomping around, Zell decided that if he did not live to sign back in at the front gate, it would not take a genius to figure out what had happened to him when they stumbled upon his remains the following morning. He reckoned that with their combined astuteness, the search party, investigation committee, and intelligence team had a fair chance of arriving at the right conclusion, then. After all, it was common knowledge to even the second-class Garden trainees that every criminal made at least ten mistakes and left the investigators at least ten clues as to his identity. Judging, though, from the way it was trumpeting its attendance to all the world with its thunderous snarls, the Blue Dragon did not seem to fear being caught and indicted by the locals.

The monster drew near. Zell, having breached the threshold of anxiety for quite so time now, was figuratively pissing in his pants, expending every last effort not to do it literally.

What would Squall do in this situation? he racked his brains for an answer frantically.

The only response that turned up from his query was a sarcastic Well, for starters, his pants would not be wet.

But Zell was over that already. He was above it. Beyond it. He was Zell. He didn't have to be Squall, not if he didn't want to be, at least. He could handle everything just fine on his own.

But he sure wished Squall were around. Squall would know what to do. It was impossible to lose with Squall leading the team.

No sooner did the thought cross his mind that Mina's face flash against the screen of leaves before him. He gasped and reached out to touch her, but the mirage had already vanished in a flicker. The only part of her that lingered- her frown of disapproval - did so in his memory. The image jabbed into his heart and ran it through, forcing him to pull back, fingers shaking, like he had cut himself on accident while wiping his mother's kitchen knife in the sink.

He was always telling Mina to be braver. It was her turn to tell him to be brave. That was the message he read from her disappointed eyes.

Chump.

Tough as it was for Zell to admit, she was not wrong to think that. The verdict itself might have been wrong, but he could not blame her for making that judgement based on the lousy evidence he had presented to her. Every action or thought he had carried out in the past hour could qualify, at best, as misleading if not downright contrary to what he wanted to prove of himself. Even now, fear held him by the reins, riding down on him hard as he knew the Blue Dragon would if he did not get his act together. It was the same fear that ruled over Mina, the same that he constantly urged her to overcome. It was ironic that he was no one to coach her on how to conquer their common nemesis when it came to the crucial moment.

Terror furnished effective shackles on one's will. Now, with it being inches from his face, this principle was illuminated. Never before did he sympathize with the need for solitude that her shyness of spirit dictated. It used to bother him that she would rather dance with the cover of night* than with him, to practice under it than before his eyes. Now, though, freezing up in the face of fear did not seem all that absurd. She would rather dance alone than face her demons under the silent moon, but he could save her and redeem himself. This was his chance to take her turn for her, to assume the dance with the devil and beat it once and for all. She did not have to be afraid anymore, if he could endure enough fear for the both of them.

The devil drew near. Darker became the black pitch of night.

 

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

gives the full account of Mina's late-night

dancing in "The Library Girl's Secret."

 

The dragon's nostrils moved up and down as if it were sniffing the air once more to confirm the direction from which Zell's scent was the strongest. Maybe it really could smell him. This would be an interesting complaint to raise to the Garden Personal Services Committee about the Garden-issued soap.

The creature's muscles tensed when it was sure that it had found its prey. Its sharp intake of air and equally hurried exhalation was an indication for Zell to make his exit. The quickness of breath signaled that a strike was underway. Sure enough, the swaying tail had grown still, and Zell guessed that once it snapped to life, he would not be able to see it again until it was on him.

Zell quickly grabbed a thick branch, pulled it back with one hand, and broke it from the tree trunk with the elbow of his other hand. Once freed from the tree and resting in his arms, the small log felt much heavier than it had previously looked, as he had anticipated. His only worry was whether or not it had enough weight to pull off what he intended to do next.

The still tail disappeared from view, its initial explosion into motion too quickly for the eye to follow. It would cover a wide arc around the dragon's left side, picking up speed and whistling like the devil. Zell threw the log outwards, jounced the limb to pull more height, and jumped into the clearing after it.

I am a falcon.

Zell spiraled into the air, catching glimpses of smashed tree in whose composition he would have taken part had he lifted off a second later. The fallen, splintered mass wept over its ruin, and Zell might have followed in suit had he nothing else to worry about. However, the apprehension of the dragon rearing its head up and launching a breath of fire afforded him no such worry-free luxury. Somewhere in the shadows of the past, Mina danced along side of him, matching him revolution for revolution with her own triple-axle.

Zell mumbled a curse when he saw the dragon's eyes follow his movements. He was banking on the possibility that it would lose track of him among the flying debris. Now he had to pray that his invented calculation with the wooden log would work out when tested in real life. He wished that he could have tried this out in the Garden Computer-Simulated Battle Program multiple times to tweak out any mistakes instead of being forced to give this one unrehearsed, impromptu performance that actually carried more consequence than hitting the restart button. But "there was nothing better than imminent death to ward against complacency," Quistis had lectured in class once. Zell, traditional antagonist of the "survival of the fittest" precept and proponent of the "survival of the most well prepared," found something morally wrong with her line of reasoning.

I am an eagle.

After reciting a quick prayer, Zell reached out to catch the chunk of wood that he had initially thrown above him but had now begun its parabolic descent. Still on his way up, Zell found his target out of reach, but quickly turned his horizontal, streamline position into a front flip by deliberately overarching, shifting his center of gravity back, destabilizing his own equilibrium, increasing his vertical moment, and consequentially tipping forwards, both feet over his head. After pulling out of this somersault at the peak of his jump, his feet settled perfectly on the topside of the wooden board. Mina shadowed him on the ground far below, her parahuette completely synchronized with Zell's own acrobatics. "Ride it in," she motioned to him in a language of pure feeling beyond the capacity of words to describe.

Zell took his breath and held it as he dropped into the dragon's air space. Even though he was directly on top of it and could not see what it was doing because of the board in between them, Zell could imagine the beast sitting up onto its hind legs, straightening out, lifting its head back, opening its jaws, and letting loose a fearsome inferno. All he had to do now was sit tight, ram the log straight into the creature's gapping mouth, lodge it deeper into the throat, and hope for the best.

Once he felt the flames fanning out around him, he was both relieved and vexed that his estimation of the dragon's movements was flawless; the beast had indeed titled its head back and spewed forth a jet spray of fire, into which Zell was now falling. Seated in a one-way convey into hell qualified as the last place Zell wanted to be.

At the same time, though, he knew that jumping off the convoy was the last thing he wanted to do. He had seen Seifer scrimmaging with Squall the day before the SeeD exam and remembered how the initial blast from Seifer's Fire Cross had knocked Squall down. It would have been worse had Squall's gun-blade not taken the brunt of the flame-burst, splitting the explosion down the center. Still, the two severed halves of the flames curled back around the blade, diffracting outwards to hit, with one combined force, Squall whose surface area was too large for hide behind the blind zone created by the deflection. Zell reasoned that it would be similarly disastrous for him to attempt to jump off and leave the protection that the log provided. Should he do so, he would surely find himself engulfed by the column that formed a deadly canopy above him. He decided to kneel down into a tight tuck, as close to the pseudo-shield of a board as he could, and wait for his next move.

As he fell deeper into the inferno, he gritted his teeth and held on despite the sun-colored tendrils that climbed over the edges, threatening to char him beyond recognition. The sensation he felt resembled that of an accelerated tan, one where he could personally witness the color change of his skin, if his irises did not burn off first. Whether his epidermis would peel or not was not the question; the question was whether it would be pink or black. Without prompt Curaga-ing and timely relief from this aerial oven, he would to die. His instinct told him that without need of confirmation from any additional mathematical calculation.

Suddenly he felt the board shake, as if it landed on something hard, and the flames overhead withered away. Even before the dragon emitted a multitude of choking howls tinted with surprises, frustration, and anger, Zell knew that standing at the doorway of death, the doorway, humorously enough, of digestion. He had successfully navigated the log into the creature's mouth, which was the last thing his adversary expected. Within seconds though, the juggernaut would regain its composure and crush the wooden mass with the brute force of its jaws.

I am a buzzard.

There was no hesitation before Zell struck the log with both fists and jammed it into the fleshy part in the depths of the gigantic throat. He could vicariously feel the sharp edges and protrusions sinking into the soft tissues of the beast under him as clearly as he could feel being thrown up into the air and out of the animal's jaws in reality when it bucked up and tossed its head back in pain.

Zell tucked his knees against his chest and maneuvered himself through three full rotations before he felt himself beginning the descent. The dragon was still twisting its body and flaying about in agony as Zell straightened out and timed his next sequence of attacks and aerial stunts. As he drew near to the dragon's head, he checked to his side to see if Mina was still with him. Her essence was there, even if her person was not.

Relieved and encouraged, Zell let himself fall a bit further, just past the dragon's head, before reaching out and catching the left horn and swinging himself forward, transforming his vertical displacement into horizontal translation. This thrust moved him below and across the dragon's chin where he landed a heavy blow from his knee and another from his elbow to the creature's exposed neck. He was moving quickly enough to throw himself back up and over the other side of the dragon's head by grabbing the outer rim of its chin and switching the direction of his momentum. Sliding along the slimy skin, Zell vaulted over the nostrils, kicked in the dragon's right eye in passing, and somersaulted back to its left side, pulling his body into a precarious horizontal orientation parallel to the ground.

I am your worst nightmare.

The trick was to kick the dragon as many times on the way down without shifting too much of his weight to his legs. If his center of gravity moved to his lower body, his head and torso would tilt downwards and he would land headfirst. What he needed to do now was to kick quickly, keep his body from rotating, land on his hand without breaking it, and flip back onto his feet. The speed with which the hand-flip was to be performed was crucial because the beast would surely topple over after the assault, and Zell was neither overweight nor desperate enough to rely on a falling wall of bricks to make himself look and feel thinner.

Zell eyed the spots he was to assail in the few seconds he had before he hit the ground. Everything was moving so fast that it looked like the dragon was jumping and he was standing still as opposed to him falling and the dragon being static. The overall effect was the dragon zooming by and he struggled to kick whichever places he could clearly mark with both eyes, switching between his right and left legs.

Neck. Kick. Falling.

Shoulder. Kick. Falling.

Armpit. Kick. Falling.

Midsection.

Kick.

Kick.

Kick.

Hip. Kick. Falling.

Knee. Kick. Falling.

Shin. Kick. Falling.

Stop! Land!

Hand.

Zell's arm shot out to cushion his fall. He did not stiffen his arm the second he planted it because he needed an arm's length of time to build up enough normal force to neutralize his negative velocity. It was also the only way to keep his arm from breaking under his weight and speed. Zell slowly exhaled as he slowed to a stop, drops of sweat slipping from his forehead and down around the curve of his cheek. His tense arm convulsed spasmodically, straining to keep the rest of his body balanced. The initial danger was over, but if he tipped over on his hand now, he would risk crushing his wrist with his bodyweight, pulling the tendons from his digits to his palm, and dislocating a finger or two. Meanwhile, the Blue Dragon, already stunned from the blows to its head and off balance from the kicks in the midsection, was in the process of bowling over. Its wobbly collapse was expedited somewhat unpropitiously by Zell taking its legs out from under it.

With only seconds before the mountain of reptilian muscle toppled on him, Zell, well aware of Garden's inept medical plan and unwilling to be an accomplice to Dr. Kadowaki's fiscal burgeoning, summoned the last bit of his reserve energy to push himself off the ground before either his hand crumpled under him or he crumpled under the beast. After a crisp, back-bending flip and the extension of his arms to increase his moment of inertia that forced him decelerate, Zell floated neatly back onto his feet, just in time to witness the carnivorous hunk of mass slam into the ground where he would have padded it had he not moved away with punctuality. He marveled wide-eyed at the ring of sand thrown up during the collision, and stared as each grain sagged sorrowfully back down to the ground, gasping for air but unable to escape the claws of gravity. Zell let out his own sigh of relief, realizing that he had better luck than the upturned sod and had escaped with his life.

'haxuoCl'.

The na´ve sigh was retracted, and Zell suffered an involuntary gasp in its stead. No way!

‘haxuoCl’.

With the enemy lying cowed on its side, Zell stepped forward for a closer look.

It was no mistake.

He felt a chill permeate just under his skin through his entire body. He had seen that marking on the horn-impaired goat that had booted him off of the roost. This time, though, the cryptic word was carved on a thin copper plate whose edges had been run through the skin on the monster's back. Zell reached out to touch the plate and confirm its composition, careful to watch the back of the dragon's head for any movement. The monotonous panting sounds coupled with the rising and falling of the creature's rib cage allayed Zell's wariness.

He guessed off the top of his head that sticking the plate into one's flesh would have hurt as much as branding the word onto the skin. Either way, he was stuck with the puzzle of figuring out what the word meant and who had placed it there. He would have to tell someone about it, but whom? Squall would tell him to write a report and Quistis would have told him to proofread it. Zell considered telling Irvine.

Having let down his guard, he did not catch the movement of the dragon's notorious tail out of the corner of his eye. It had curled back when he approached to study the incoherent marking and he was not agile enough to dodge it when it swung forwards and caught him across the ribs, sending him flying through the air until he was stopped abruptly by an uncomfortable tree trunk. He fell facedown to the ground like a crumpled rag, wondering if the collision had broken any part of his backbone, and if so, how many.

Get up.

"I can't," he hissed through his teeth, still wrestling with the pain.

Get up, fool, his will repeated more forcefully.

"It hurts," Zell whined, his fingers turning white from clenching his fists so tightly.

Get up before you get eaten, bozo.

"I can't move," he moaned.

Chump.

Zell picked himself up and raised his knuckles weakly, reassuming his battle stance. To his infinite mirth, the dragon was already lumbering away back to its nest. It had suffered its own set of casualties and had no desire to wait around for other carnivores to stumble upon them and overpower it. Apparently even a mangled Zell for dinner was not worth the extra time and fight.

The Blue Dragon's snubbing was a devastating blow to Zell's self-esteem. He would have protested had he felt up to task of substantiating that protest. Frankly, though, all he wanted right then was a x-ray machine, some Hi-Potions, and Mina. Had he any GFs junctioned to him, Zell could have cast Curaga on himself. As dismal luck would have it, he had to scrounge around on his knees for some M-Stones pieces or Magic Stones and make do with Cures and Curas. Wizard Stones to be refined into Curagas were particularly rare, and fate was behaved stingily when it came to distributing them to battle-weary SeeDs. Even if he found the stones, though, without the benefit of GF-refining abilities- particularly Siren's Life Magic Refining- he would have to grind it into powder manually and ingest that in order to produce the same healing effect.

Zell flopped down, exhausted. Sprawled on the ground and staring into space, he felt his mind wander immediately to the memory of the last date he and Mina had before he had to undergo Time Compression. How nice it had been then in Balamb, purely a spur of the moment get-together that he drove her to enduring at an ungodly hour for his own selfish reasons. At half past midnight he had taken her for a walk along the dock. The reason why he did not take to a movie and buy her dinner earlier that evening was because he did not save enough Gil from his last paycheck, but she never minded his financial precariousness much. If the boardwalk had suddenly cost money to walk on, he would have just walked her back to Balamb Garden and toured the library in the great tradition of urbane romance.

She seemed so sullen at the time that he had been forced to ask if there was anything wrong and why she was not speaking.

"I'm laconic when I should be comatose," she announced with a yawn.

Dry humor was never her forte, and Zell sifted out the true cause of depression from her words.

"It's about Trabia, isn't it?" he asked, guessing that the latest piece of news regarding the commercial decisions in post-bombing Trabia had just reached her ears.

She nodded without looking up. After walking another few steps, she suddenly moved closer and borrowed his arm. Her cheek claimed his shoulder, her fingers his hand, and he disappeared into her wounded splendor.

He could not fathom how she must have felt when she got wind of the latest statement by Trabia's insanely selective Angel Dance School* about their decision to put off admitting any new students for the year on account of the population loss and woebegone mood inspired by the destruction of the township and its neighboring Garden. It had been a longtime fantasy of hers to get accepted into the elite dance academy, and she had practiced her heart out for the then upcoming auditions, but now that glimmer of a dream had snuffed out. It pained him beyond words he could express that the unfortunate announcement could have also put out the fire within her that he loved more than he loved himself. He would die before telling her that, though.

 

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

gives the full account of the Trabia's

Angel Dance School in "Hope."

"I'm sure things will return to normal once they start rebuilding Trabia Garden and the locality," he lied, not really sure at all.

She faked a smile to be unselfish and to lead him to believe that he had indeed fooled her like any decent boyfriend would have tried to do, but he saw through her ruse too.

"You have a real chance," he insisted. "Don't throw it all away on account of their decision for the hiatus, which, by the way, has nothing to do with you."

She heard him without really listening to what he had to say, and nodded in feigned recognition. After a moment of silence, both persons asked the other simultaneously, "Why do you like me?"

Mina looked at him in surprise and giggled for the first time that day.

"Never mind," she told him, pulling on his hand, "just answer this one thing for me."

"What?" Zell asked, lifting an eyebrow.

"Why is the blush of midnight blue?" she posed abruptly after looking up and studying the umbrella of twilight.

"Yes, I know that one!" Zell shouted with artificial excitement and alacrity just as she finished. He also snapped his fingers and did a little jig in the process.

"No, really, silly," she replied in a stern tone he had no reason to expect, "I want an answer."

"Why do you want to know?" he inquired suspiciously.

"Cause I just do. I’m a girl, tell me!" she whined, shaking his arm.

Zell hesitated, debating whether or not the excuse she had given him would have been valid in a court of law.

"Pretty please?" Mina tried.

Zell sighed and shrugged.

"You know this has nothing to do with what we were just talking about, right?" he asked, seeking her confirmation.

Mina winked and answered, "It does and it doesn't."

"Glad we got that cleared up," Zell retorted, rolling his eyes.

She bit fiercely into his shoulder hard enough to leave marks on the skin under his vest.

Zell began to yelp but caught himself. So long as she was there, he should not complain. He looked over and stared into her soft eyes, treasuring the brutal nibbling for what he knew it meant- a release of her frustration for the dance academy projected onto him. The thought of making her happier made him smile. He leaned forward to kiss her.

When her eyes drifted upwards and she saw him looking at her, she paused, realizing that he was not offended and that he was not going to fight her. She blushed, releasing him and quickly turning away before he got any closer.

At that moment, more than anything else, he longed to find the brightest flower and place it in her hair. But then he wanted so many things- small things that somehow meant so much to him- things like her squinting and cry of surprise when he flicked water in her face while they sat on the dock behind his house*, or the feel of her hand when she'd let him hold it in the quad, or the slight bounce of her hair at sunset, however she chose to wear it, or her fragrance that he could never dismiss when she managed to sneak up from behind him and throw her arms around him, or the look of joy on her face whenever she was on the old swing, or how she would belt him when he teased her. He'd give up just about anything to have her punch him in the stomach now, just so he could feel her touch and be in her presence. It never hurt because she was always half-playful, but just to get hit was heavenly. He wondered what he did to deserve having her little pearls sink into his shoulder. He must have done something! right to receive so paramount a reward. Why else would he be standing so close to heaven? It seemed completely irrational.

But irrational was good.

 

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

gives the full account of the incident at

the dock in "The Library Girl's Secret."

 

"You can't kiss me," she told him, her back still turned. Agitatedly, she crossed her arms and hugged herself.

Before Zell could protest, she added, "Not until you solve the riddle."

"What's so important about this riddle?" he inquired, squinting with incredulity.

"It's not just any riddle," Mina explained, "it's mine."

Zell stuck his hands in his pockets. Okay…

"I want to know if you really like me," she explicated, sensing his exasperation.

"So what does it mean once I solve it?" Zell asked, kicking a stray pebble over the edge of the boardwalk.

"It means I'm yours and you can keep me," she replied so gently that all the whisperers in the world grew jealous.

Zell took one hand out of his pocket and rubbed the back of his head while deciding what best to say next. It didn't seem like a moment appropriate for making one of his usual interjections. Mina spared him of his impasse.

Turning around and staring squarely into his eyes, she told him wordlessly how much it meant to her for him to answer her riddle. Through the silence she made him understand that he could have as much time as he needed to find the answer, but it was a one-shot deal. She would wait as long as it took for him to find her key- the key to her- but in the end, it had to be to the right one. Her eyes bored down so deeply into his own that he could have sworn she grazed the base and captured his soul.

Zell blinked, realizing that he had never felt so vulnerable, so fragile in his life. She had him.

He wondered what Mina was thinking right then.

Probably nothing, he guessed.

Or what a chump you are, the voice his head second-guessed him.

Lying on the forest floor, Zell sighed and rubbed his forehead with his palm.

That was basically how their last date ended. After the mutual staring had ended, she demanded to be escorted back to her room and he obliged her. He did not see her again till the ball after Ultimecia's defeat. The hotdogs had been particularly distracting that evening.

Floating above the drooping foliage, the gray clouds looked that much grayer. Grayer now that she was not with him. How the sky could be visually blacker than the most dismal pitch was, among many other truths, hidden from him, but the soul is neither blind nor bound by optics or any other concrete physical characterization, and so the eyeless judge within his heart was telling him that at this moment, the night sky was indeed blacker than black and that it was indeed emptier than empty. That much it could discern, and thus spoke the visionless wonder to Zell.

He covered his face with his grubby hands, the visage of the male character in the photograph having returned to haunt him.

"Who are you!?" Zell screamed into the apathetic wilderness.

Who are you!? he heard it throw the echo back at him again and again.

He groaned tumultuously, no longer able to fend off the fear that it was undoubtedly his fault that she had turned away from him.

Give me another chance, Mina, he appealed inside, broken, frightened.

Please, just…

Pause.

Just don't give up on me.

 

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