On Earth as it is in Hell
by Caleb Nova
Chapter 15: Twilight Liason
"Being with her was the most wonderful thing ever. It was.... Strawberries and cinnamon, sunshine and butterflies."
They had all taken shelter a little ways from the road and given in to exhaustion, each slumped wherever they could find minimal comfort. Zell felt this would be short lived since the storm was getting close to breaking. He was disappointed for two reasons.
The first was obviously the fact that he was very tired and had hoped to rest for awhile longer. The second was that during their respite, Selphie's lithe form had somehow become wedged up against his back, a position more titillating than usual since Selphie was in a definite lack of uniform. And thus two parts of him exulted- the part that loved Selphie and was giddy to be this close to her, and the part that wanted Selphie and was excited by the contact. The latter part was ordering him to innocently shift in his 'sleep' to an even more pleasing position against her, but somewhere deep in his conscious common sense told him that wouldn't look good to the others. If she shifted any closer though, he wouldn't care.
He was spared the decision when Rinoa sent a resounding call to wake up reverberating through his brain, and from the sudden start everyone else gave, he wasn't the only one. Sitting up, he was pleased to see that Quistis was awake, albeit still a bit dazed, and Squall was filling her in. Selphie was still unconscious, but her breathing seemed regular and she wasn't too pale, so there was no immediate danger. Irvine was shaking Scott awake, who of course couldn't hear Rinoa.
He figured he would carry Selphie, since Irvine was limping, the Scott guy was sick or something, and Squall was too busy....... Well, he would be doing something else. He was just being helpful, right? At least as far as anyone else knew, and he intended to keep it that way.
Scott still felt like crap. It was just like a hangover but worse, since at least if he had a hangover he knew what caused it and that it would eventually go away. He wanted to go home. A pervading sense of xenophobia was setting in, and he couldn’t shake it.
He had a suspicion though. In the end, it might not even be worth it to go back. There had been a certain amount of speculation about time, and how it flowed in different universes. Speculation, and not much fact. His transition from Earth to Galbadia had seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, but if such theories were true, it may have been days, even years. Thus, every one day here could equal a hundred in Earth space, or on the other side of the coin, every day here might be worth only a second elsewhere. If the former was true, the Earth he would return to, if he returned, would not be the one he left. It was something best not to think about.
Squall called for a quick meeting to decide their next destination. While heading for Dollet would be the fastest way, it was also the most dangerous. Instead, their options were to go for Timber or attempt to contact SeeD for an amphibious pickup. The decision was made when Rinoa informed them she had already talked to the Headmaster, and an amphibious craft was on its way to a beach several miles east of their position. Scott waited uncomfortably as they all stared into nothingness, absorbing the news flash. Again, they all forgot he couldn't hear.
Scott cleared his throat to get their attention. "So, what's the good news? It is good, right?"
Squall, true to character, ignored him and Zell was already lugging Selphie up to the road. Quistis was still a little out of it so it fell to Irvine to respond.
"Yeah, there's a boat heading for us," He said, wincing as he stood. "Just a few miles. So cheer up! A few hours and we'll get you a hot shower and some clean clothes."
That sounded pretty good to Scott. He could worry about what happened after later. He and Irvine turned to go up the road and saw the other three already on their way. They hurried to catch up.
Scott wanted to clear some things up. So far the person he knew best was Irvine, so he turned to him for some answers. Ducking under Irvine's arm, he shifted some of the wounded cowboy's weight onto himself, easing off his wounded leg.
"Thanks," Irvine grunted, hobbling over towards Scott to balance. "The spells kill the pain but I still need to see a doctor when we get back."
"Right, right," Scott said. "The cure spell things."
"About that... how does it work?"
Irvine smiled. "You want the short or long of it?"
"Somewhere in between."
"Well then, lets see.. Quistis would probably be better at this, but I can give you the general idea. Many of the creatures around here, which we call monsters, are from the moon. And these monsters have magical powers. We don't know why or how these powers work, but they do. Humans like us cannot use that power. You with me?"
"Okay, we can't use spells like the animals. But you guys cast spells."
"Some scientist guys, like Odine, he's a scientist in Esthar, a country across the sea, figured out a way for people like us to junction GFs, or Guardian Forces, to ourselves to imitate this magic. It's not real magic, but something called proto-magic. It's adapted for our use."
Scott still really didn't understand what a GF was or how the whole thing worked, but he had a vague idea. It was enough for him. It didn't matter all that much anyway.
So Scott nodded like it was all clear to him. "All right, I get it. I think the real question is, can you magically get me back home?"
Irvine glanced over at him. "Don't ask me, I'm just a sniper. I'm sure Squall will find the right people for you to talk to when we get back to Garden."
He could see Scott was still less than convinced. Irvine laughed, punching him in the arm.
"Relax, man. We have plenty of time to figure it out. We'll do whatever it takes to get you back home."
"Sure," Scott said, keeping his doubts to himself.
Odine found himself in front of a desk, behind which sat a man he had never seen before and knew nothing of. His new boss. He could not help but be somewhat nervous as this man put away the files he had been looking at.
Julian leaned slightly back in his chair assuming a relaxed attitude. It was an attitude he had to work at to pull off.
"Doctor, Odine, is it?" Julian began. "I see here from these files you have done extensive work for Galbadia in the past. Good work, of course."
"Yes, zis is true," Odine said, desperately trying to get the measure of the man in front of him. Julian remained an enigma, his eyes giving away nothing. Odine thought it was very odd he had never seen this man before. He had thought he knew of all the major power players in Galbadia.
"According to these, sources, I have, you have done some work on Project Spreading Sun."
Officially, Odine's agreement with Poleground called for complete silence about the project. But since it was apparent Poleground was no longer part of the picture he had nothing to gain by not talking.
"Zis is also true."
"Good. Then you will be of some use to me. You lead the project to success in the past, and now we must finish it. We have other plans that depend on it's completion. You will help us do this."
It wasn't a question.
"First, we need to know how to use it, and who to use it on."
Odine cleared his throat. "I imagine zat you already know ze basics. It is a wind carried virus with a limited range, easily curable by those zat know how. Ze former leaders used zis to eliminate various rebels, destroying their respective revolutionary cells. Ze preferable method of use is by some equipment I created, an airborne distributor zat is programmable to seek out ze target. If you wish to complete ze planned project, you would kill ze remaining three leaders of ze largest rebels factions in Galbadia."
"How long would this take?"
"Ze virus is quickly lethal, and has a short life span. No longer zan two days."
Julian nodded and gestured over towards Hendrow, who had been standing by the door. "Michael here will take you to the area were you will work with my scientists to do this. You will be blindfolded during the trip. You will address Michael as Mr. Hendrow."
Odine said nothing, and followed Hendrow out the door, pondering this odd turn of fate.
Thanks to his work, little by little the powers that be knew about what went on down in the facility, and with every passing day they knew more. The Agent had insinuated himself into the normal working patterns of Julian's employees, posing as a low-level scientist assigned to studying the energy emissions from the portal. He was educated enough to do this, but he would have a hard time making his way amongst the higher ups.
It still seemed to him like some fantastic movie set, complete with a glowing sci-fi portal and faceless men running about in white suits. Like everyone else in the facility, the Agent quickly learned to wear goggles when in the portal room, where the strange light could cause pain in the eyes. This was actually a good thing since the goggles made everyone look alike, a fortuitous circumstance for a spy.
The first real breakthrough had occurred when someone mentioned GPSS. A scientist, probably in the rec room. Of all the things he heard, it was lucky he did a little research on this one. He hit pay dirt, and was amazed to read the file on the whole affair. He was aware the document was already on file at some government facility somewhere, but the information tied everything together for the first time. He wondered if they already knew this was related to what happened at GPSS, but asking questions like that was very stupid. He reported it as new findings.
He spent most of his time now trying to find out where this portal went. The GPSS papers didn't say, and the way they read he suspected someone had removed quite a bit of information from them. And between the omnipresent security and closemouthed technicians, just finding out where the bathroom was became a struggle.
It would take time, and he wasn’t sure he had it.
It took only two hours for the boats to arrive, the plume of water just visible on the horizon and growing closer every minute. Scott would just be glad to get off his feet and out of danger. Maybe he would be excited about going to Balamb Garden when he was there.
When the boat touched shore Squall was the first one on, followed by Quistis. Both went up into the drivers compartment, probably to get on whatever form of communication the boat used to call the Garden. Zell lay Selphie down on one of the seats. Scott noticed he started to sit next to her, but then moved over to sit across when Irvine limped on board. There was obviously something going on with Zell and Selphie, but from what he had heard, Irvine was her boyfriend. Or maybe he wasn't. Scott didn't know, and the love triangle or whatever it was wasn't any of his business. What he didn't realize was that nobody else knew either. As the outsider, he had seen it first.
The interior of the ship was fairly bland, although it looked like there was a way up to some sort of deck above, which he thought he might check out later. Other than that there was some sort of screen on the far wall and that was it. Irvine sat across from Scott, leaning over towards him, apparently to brief him some more.
"We use these ships all over the world," Irvine said, patting one of the bulkheads. "They are extremely fast and pack a fair amount of fire power too. Top of line in amphibious landings, so it's a pretty sweet ride. We're lucky Cid diverted one to pick us up."
Scott figured he had to at least pretend to be impressed or have some sort of reaction. So far Irvine was his only friend here, and he didn't want to lose that. Unfortunately being friendly was becoming more and more of an effort. "They keep pretty busy, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Beach landings are the most common method of getting where we want to go, or at least most of the way there. You have amphibious assaults where you come from?"
Scott smiled at the question, odd as it felt. "June 6, 1944."
"Very famous date in my country, and not a few others. Biggest amphibious assault in history. Or my history at least."
"Really? Tell me about it. There's nothing else to do."
So Scott did. He was past the invasion and talking about Cherbourg when Quistis came back down. She took a seat next to Zell, since Selphie took up all the rest of the other seat.
"So, what happened to you?" Zell asked.
Quistis leaned forward wearily. "I took a blow to the head when Rinoa's dad's house nearly collapsed on me and Squall."
"Oh. Does it still hurt?"
"What do you think Zell?"
"Oh, well, I was just thinking that maybe you were still hurt or something, so... Uh... I don't know."
Irvine laughed, leaning back into his seat. He looked at Quistis. "Don't confuse the poor boy Quistis. You know he has a limited capacity for sarcasm. Don't worry Zell, it's not your fault. You can't help being handicapped."
Zell frowned. Quistis just closed her eyes.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Zell said, eyes narrowing. "I'm not handicapped."
Irvine started laughing again, and Quistis sighed, eyes still closed.
"Nothing, Zell," Quistis said, resting her head on the seat back. "Don't worry about it."
Nightfall was nearing by the time Balamb Island was in site. Scott was standing up on the deck, enjoying the sensation of the craft speeding across the water top. Getting closer every second, he could see the sparkling lights of a town he assumed to be Balamb. He was surprised at the size- towns that small were rare back in his world. Or at least the parts he had lived in.
They passed several other boats coming in, fisherman returning home for the night. Scott dutifully waved back at them. Then, as they turned into the docks, he caught a glimpse of the Garden, or what he thought was the Garden, shining just above the treetops to the northwest. The lights glowed bright yellow and blue. He immediately revised what he pictured as the Garden in his head, his memory of the game vague and incomplete. He had figured it to be like any other military academy. Bright lights didn't fit into that.
As they docked, he went back downstairs to see if he had to wake anyone up. It wasn't necessary. Squall and Quistis were already at the door with Irvine. Zell was still trying to wrestle Selphie into a comfortable carrying position. The craft shook slightly, then came to a bobbing rest. Hydraulics hummed and the door opened with a woosh, its three prongs coming apart like a peeled orange.
The streets were mostly empty. Everybody was in for the night and most stores were closed. The street appeared vacant of vehicles except for one, idling at the entrance. Scott figured it was a SeeD vehicle when everybody else lit up at the sight of it. This was confirmed when the driver waved at them, opening the side sliding doors. When he was closer, Scott saw it was also armored.
Zell was the first one in, leveling Selphie into the back seat. The driver looked at her in concern.
"Is she okay?"
Squall nodded, sliding into the front passenger seat. "She's healing."
"Does she need to go to the infirmary?"
Squall nodded again, already staring out the window. Once everybody else was in, the driver shifted gears and started the trip to Garden. On the road, he tried to start up conversation again.
"So, who's the new guy?"
Quistis was looking drowsy, Irvine was already asleep, Squall was unlikely to talk so Zell fielded the question.
"It's a long story," He said, trying to put a seat belt around the limp form of Selphie. "But he'll be at Garden for awhile."
"Long story huh?" The driver laughed, looking at Squall next to him. "Looks like it. What happened to your clothes?"
Zell grunted in exasperation. Selphie had almost fallen off the seat. He struggled with the seatbelt without answering. Scott reached over the seat back to help him.
"What, not going to tell me?"
"Huh?" Zell asked, not paying attention. With the combined strength of Scott, the seatbelt finally snapped together. "Oh, look Nida, we're saving it for debriefing. I'll tell you all about it later, okay?"
"Fine," Nida said, applying the brake to avoid hitting a large pothole at high speed. "But I want all the details."
Garden came into view about fifteen minutes later. Scott was surprised, and not a bit awed, at the huge structure. It didn't look anything like any school he had ever seen. The picture in his head had been of a standard military installation of boring concrete gray and monochrome tiled halls. What stood before him had more in common with some massive dance hall, complete with bright lights and terraces.
Nida pulled the car into the Garden garage. After it was parked and turned off, he hopped out and he and Squall helped Zell pull Selphie out. Squall lifted Selphie up with Zell and turned to Nida.
"I want you to find Scott a room for the night. We'll sort all this out with the headmaster tomorrow."
"Yes sir," Nida said, saluting. He motion at Scott. "He's Scott, I gather."
Squall didn't bothering answering such an inane question. He looked at Irvine questioningly. Irvine was hobbling to catch up. He nodded to the unspoken query.
"I can walk."
The three went off to the infirmary, leaving Scott and Nida standing just outside the car. Quistis slid out the door a bit unsteadily and went off after the others.
Nida looked over at Scott. He thought about asking a few questions, but held back. His curiosity could wait until tomorrow.
He motioned towards the dormitories with his head. "Let's go, I guess."
Scott followed him out of the garage into the commons area. As soon as Scott stepped out into that vast space, he froze, taking it all in.
It was a huge room, a dome shaped structure with branching hallways leading off into the outer rings of the Garden. It was apparent the entire place was concentric rings leading out from each other, the hallways neatly stacking to make a narrowing circle. Nida explained that the large square shaped protrusion on the other side of the Garden was a large auditorium and ball room. Surrounding the central walkway were fountains, which were also spaced in a smaller circle around an elevator shaft which was directly centered in the Garden, looking for all the world like a hollow glass support beam. Halfway to the ceiling was the first stop of the elevator, with branching suspended walkways leading off both sides into the upper portions of the Garden. At the very top built into the roof itself was a large circular space that the elevator shaft ended in, which Nida told him was the headmasters office and quarters and the control station for when the Garden was in motion.
"This thing moves?" Scott asked incredulously, eyeing the sheer size of the place.
Nida smiled, secretly proud to be showing off the Garden. "Indeed it does, thanks to the antigravity ring that rotates around the bottom. The Garden is actually partially buried in the ground at the moment. There are a lot of passageways and rooms filled with machinery and stuff below us right now."
"But you guys have a ton of water in here. Wouldn't that mess the place up?"
Nida nodded, remembering. "It did when we first moved it. Damn near flooded the lower sections of the Garden, although thank Hyne the library was spared. Now we drain it all before we move."
"Where do we move or where does the water go?"
"Where does the water go?"
"Holding tanks at the bottom of the Garden. There was a bunch of space there that wasn't being used. If we need more speed we can just dump it out while moving."
Scott felt the strong need to explore, but it would have to wait. He followed Nida around the ring and down the hallway into the dormitories. The hallway ended in two stairwells to the left and right. Nida lead him up the right stairwell into the second floor men's dormitories. There wasn't anyone down here either, and Nida explained it was after curfew. After going up one more flight into the third floor they went down about twenty doors when Nida stopped at one.
"This is yours," He said, handed Scott a keycard. "It's a single room for higher rank SeeDs. Most rooms on this floor are doubles and the second floor is all triple bunks."
"What's on the first floor?"
"Like you saw, the first floor doesn't have that many rooms except that few along the entrance hallway, and there are about ten more behind the stairwells. Those are for teachers."
"How many floors are there?"
"Six. They get progressively smaller the higher you go up. The central elevator goes only to floors three and the headmasters office, where Squall has his own freaking penthouse. Not that I'm bitter or anything. Between you and me, it also goes all the way down, but most students don't know that. There are a few other elevators. One in the cafeteria that goes to the classrooms above, one in the library, and a maintenance elevator in the Training Center. No one is allowed to use the maintenance elevator and the library elevator only goes to some conference rooms over head. And only teachers use the one in the cafeteria, to get to their rooms from their breakfast before class. With all the kids here everybody just has to use the stairwells, and the one place we could really use an elevator or two is here in the dormitories, which we don't have."
Scott looked incredulous. Nida laughed at him.
"I know, it's not a very convenient system at all. Especially for such a large structure. But this place was converted into a school. It wasn't its original purpose. This whole thing was a mobile shelter built by the Centra."
"I should probably let Quistis or someone handle that question, I'd probably be talking a bunch of crap. Well, have a good night. I'll probably be the one they send to wake you up tomorrow."
With that, he left Scott standing in the dimly lit hallway. Scott realized Nida hadn't told him how to use the keycard. Well, there was only one pad on the door, and said pad had only one slot. There was only so many ways you could stick a rectangular card in a slot. After a few tries, he did it right and the door slid open.
The room was fairly bare. There was a dresser against the wall to his right, a small bathroom to his immediate left, a closet next to that a bit farther down, and against the far wall directly across from him an already made up bed. The bathroom had a shower that couldn't be more than three by three feet square, and a toilet and a sink with a mirrored medicine cabinet over it.
He looked down at himself, still wearing nothing but boxers. He sure was glad that nobody had been out and about in the halls. He opened the dresser. Unfortunately, it was empty. He was about to accept the prospect of spending the next day in his briefs when there was a quiet knock on the door. He fumbled with the pad, before deciding he should probably press the green button that said 'open' beneath it. The door slid aside to reveal Irvine, now clad in his usual gear. He tossed a bundle of clothes to Scott.
"Here," He said, turning to go. "Put those on tomorrow. Considering what those boxers have been through, I suggest you sleep naked if you want to sleep at all."
Scott looked down at the uniform his was now holding. "Right. What time are we getting up tomorrow?"
Irvine shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about it. We've all been through a lot and the debrief can wait. Get up whenever."
He started to leave, then turned back around and smiled at Scott. "Unless, of course, you’re not planning to sleep. I happen to know several ladies who might be interested in the company of a fine young man like yourself...."
Scott blinked. Was Irvine trying to pimp him out? Maybe he was just joking. Scott was too tired to tell.
Irvine just laughed at his lack of response. "Kidding, man. Just kidding. You’re probably wiped anyhow. See you tomorrow."
With that, Irvine walked off down the hallway. Scott did nothing more than key his door shut before he collapsed into bed, and promptly fell asleep.
But for others in the Garden, sleep was far from reach.
Selphie found herself wandering the Quad. It was past midnight now, 1:23 by her watch, and the Garden was silent but for the soft background noise of the fountains, and the faint hum of ancient machinery deep beneath her feet.
They had released her from the infirmary half an hour ago. She felt kind of bad that they had to run a late shift just for her. They had been nice about it though, and Quistis had went and picked up some clothes from her dorm. Now she was struggling to see if she could remember any of the mission after she had been shot. She thought she vaguely remembered another tunnel, with that man Scott sitting with Irvine across from her. But besides that, nothing.
Her footfalls echoed softly in the cavernous space of the central dome when she walked up the stairs. She wasn't sure why she was still up, especially after just fully recovering from a gunshot wound. She had just been sitting on the stage, thinking. About things she hadn't had time to think about before. About Irvine. And maybe.. A little about Zell.
She decided she should go back to the dormitories. She wasn't sure if she could sleep, but she should at least give it a try.
She was walking down the hallway to the stairwells when she saw Irvine coming down. He had one of his many guns with him, and all of his gear. Training at this time of night? Apparently she wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep. He stopped when he saw her. A smile spread across his face.
"Look who's up," He said, running over to give her a careful hug, since he knew she was probably still sore. "They give you a clean bill of health?"
"Yeah," She said, not looking at him. He slowly let go, unsure of what to do next. Her attitude puzzled him.
"Irvine," She said, now looking up at him. "We need to talk."
A dreaded sentence. He was about to reply when one of the teacher's dorm doors slid open, revealing one irritated geography professor.
"If you don't mind," He hissed, glaring at the two of them. "Some of us have to teach a class tomorrow."
They just walked away without answering, neither wanting to get into a loud argument and wake up anyone else. Automatically, without talking, they went to the Training Center. They stopped just in front of the double doors. There was an uncomfortably silence before Irvine broke it, fidgeting nervously with his gun.
"I... Guess we haven't talked much lately," He said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Selphie said nothing, waiting for him to continue. What was there to say? Their relationship was like a bridge that had collapsed in the night. There was no sabotage here. Just a lack of maintenance. Irvine opened his mouth, then stopped. Suddenly he grunted in anger.
"Hyne, why does this have to be so hard?" He burst out, looking at her. "Selphie, it's obvious we're not.... Together, anymore. I just want to know. Was it my fault?"
"No, Irvine," She said, shaking her head. "No, it's not. It just happened. Don't blame yourself. I don't."
“I just can’t help but feel that I failed somehow.”
“No,” She almost whispered, blinking hard. “No. You never promised me anything Irvine.”
He felt like she had slapped him but she was still speaking- “I know you weren’t ready for anything more, but maybe I am now. I loved having fun with you. But I need something serious.”
“I’m sorry Selphie,” And he meant it. “But I can’t give you that.”
She had already known these truths but it hurt to hear them spoken. “Then I guess this was the best thing to happen.”
He nodded, not knowing what to say next. It created some obscure pain in him to know that she had outgrown him and his affections.
"Irvine. We may not be a couple, but I don't want this to break up our friendship. Can we put all this past us? It won't be easy, but maybe if we just tried to move on... I don’t want you or me to be tied to this, to each other."
He smiled as best he could. It wasn’t easy to let go of something he knew he could have had. But it wasn’t his time yet, to commit like she wanted. He could not have met her needs. There was a momentary ache somewhere deep inside as he came to terms with what he had lost, a life with her, because he hadn’t reached that place she seemed to be yet, and maybe never would. But he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, and he knew it was the way it should and had to be.
He laughed, and it was an honest one, pulling her in for a hug. "Come here you!"
They shared a hug for a few seconds. Irvine broke it off. He sighed, still smiling.
"Well, as far as breakups go, that went well. No slapping, screaming, or kicking."
She smiled, feeling that something that had been weighing on her for some time had been lifted. “I guess we could always arrange that if you’d like!”
“No,” Irvine said, backing away. He gestured at the Training Center. “That’s alright. I’ve got enough things behind those doors that want to kick the shit out of me.”
He smiled, and she smiled, and then they walked away, and didn’t look back.
Selphie’s mood was subdued as she walked back towards the dorms, but she felt freer in a way that she hadn’t ever since the day she had realized that she wanted more than Irvine could offer. It would be so easy to be hard on him, she knew, to hate him for withholding that from her, for not being the man she needed him to be. But it wasn’t his fault- he had never made any pretensions of being anything other than himself. He had never lied to her either through voice or actions and she felt then that it was her fault for not leaving sooner, for pretending like she had never wanted more from a relationship. She was the liar, fooling herself and him, locking her heart in stasis to meet expectations.
She shook her head. It was over now. She had left, he had let go and there was no point in placing meaningless blame.
She was circling towards the dormitory hallway when she spotted something extremely odd. There was somebody sitting on a chair on the third floor walkway off the elevator. On closer inspection she realized it was Zell. What in the world was he doing up there?
Having nothing else to do except go to bed, she decided to find out. Traversing the tiled floor and up the stairs, she entered the central elevator and rode it up to the walkway. The doors slid open, and sure enough, there was Zell. He was sitting on a folding chair, leaning halfway back, dressed again in his usual attire. He was holding several packs of Triple Triad cards in his hands, shuffling them. He looked over at her and smiled. His smile made her feel warm, and she shivered slightly.
Zell, of course, was oblivious. "Sweet, you’re back up! Feel okay?"
She opened her mouth to reply but was suddenly cut off by a strange moaning noise that seemed to come from nowhere. She started in surprise and looked around, but it was only her and Zell on the balcony. She was even more confused when Zell snorted in laughter, chuckling as he leaned farther back in his chair.
She looked at him, eyes wide. "Two things Zell- What are you doing up here, and what was that?"
Zell shrugged, sinking lower in his chair. "Sometimes I sit up here at night to think. It's a great view, and there's no one around to bother me."
Selphie bit one of her fingernails. Was he mad at her for bothering him? He didn't sound like it. It wasn't really fair of him to think she came up here to bother him, how was she supposed to know? She leaned against the rail across from him.
"Yeah, it's nice up here. What about the noise?"
"Shhh," Zell shushed her, lips spreading in his trademark grin. "Listen for a second and you might be able to tell."
They waited for a few seconds and it came again. Definitely a human moan. Female. But what was.... Ohhhh. Her cheeks reddened in a widening blush as she realized Squall's room was directly above them. She looked up and sure enough, there was a vent. Then Squall and Rinoa were...
Zell started quietly laughing at her, leaning his chair back even farther. She frowned, half in embarrassment and half for Rinoa's sake.
"You shouldn't be up here listening to them!"
Zell contorted his face into a expression that said 'So?'. "I was here first. I didn't come up here just to listen. But it helps pass the time. I'm playing a little game with myself- every time I hear Rinoa, I lean my chair back a little further. I'm trying to see how long it takes before I fall."
He had no sooner finished speaking when a particularly loud moan came drifting down the vent and sure enough, Zell tipped over with a crash that seemed incredibly loud in the silence. Selphie grabbed his hand, pulling him up and dragging him down the hallway towards the classrooms.
"You are not going to stay there and listen," She scolded, walking quickly. "And what if you woke somebody up with that crash?"
"Oh, come on Selph. Where's your sense of humor, man? 'Sides, we saved the freaking world, I think they can cut us a little slack for being out past curfew."
Out past curfew with Selphie Tilmitt. Out past curfew with Selphie Tilmitt who was holding his hand. Out past curfew with Selphie Tilmitt who was holding his hand and was already taken by one of his best friends.
Play it cool, Dincht. He told himself. Don't do anything stupid.
"Besides, it's not like anyone's going to think we're making out or something."
My brain doesn't listen to me.
"Unless of course, you want to."
My brain wants me dead.
Selphie was a bit confused. That was a very Irvine flavored line Zell had just delivered. Zell Dincht, who, last time she had checked, blushed when a girl looked at him. Did he go through some type of rapid change in maturity, or was he high? Either way, the prospect of making out with him seemed suddenly appealing. Before she could ask him, he was already apologizing.
"Oh, sorry Selph, I'm just kidding. I don't know where the hell that came from, I'll... Just shut up now."
Selphie said nothing. What was wrong with Zell tonight? This just wasn't like him at all. Staying up late, listening to Squall and Rinoa? The Zell she knew went to bed after exhausting himself in the Training Center, and would have been far too embarrassed to stay on the walkway. Now that she thought about, he had been acting strange for awhile now. Well, he was her friend, and she was going to get to the bottom of it. She knew just where to do it too.
There was a room she had found once, a small one, that was not part of the known Garden structure. She had seen it on some defense plan blueprints of Garden, which she had found on the computer system in the basement. It had been after they had discovered the Garden could move, and Squall had requested that they be printed in case there was anything else important they needed to know.
It was apparently the remnants of some stairwell construction that was never completed, a room built into the ceiling over the third floor classroom hallway. It wasn't anything important that she needed to tell anyone else about, it was empty. The only way to get to it was by releasing one of the light fixtures underneath it and crawling up inside the framework that held the Garden together. If you carefully crossed a series of beams, you could climb up and over into the room which was about ten by seven feet rectangular, with walls about four feet high. Just a small framed box with no top, sitting there in the beams.
She had only been in it once, right after she had found it in the blueprints. Late at night she had made her way into the ceiling just to see if it was still there. And now it was the perfect place to talk to Zell without getting caught out after curfew.
"Hey," she said, tugging on his arm. "I want to show you something."
Zell's mind jumped to all the obvious male conclusions on what exactly she wanted to show. But figuring there was no way in hell he could be that lucky, he settled on being clueless.
"Come on," Selphie urged, not answering. She led him a bit further down the hallway until they had completely circled the third floor by walking, and back to the place where the walkway met the hallway. She remembered the exact spot well, since it was where she had first met Squall.
Zell was confused further when she stopped and started jumping up towards one of the lights. She stopped and looked at him, judging his height. Zell had hit his growth spurt after fighting Ultimecia and had gained quite a few inches.
"Here," She said, putting her hands on his shoulders. "Give me a boost."
Zell complied, easily hefting her up towards the ceiling. While she fiddled with the light, he spent the time studying her well rounded posterior, which happened to be right by his face. He could think of few better ways to spend a night out past curfew than communing with Selphie’s well rounded ass. He was a weak man when it came to her ass.
With clank, the fixture came free, and she pushed it up into the hole it had come from, sliding it back out of the way. She looked down at Zell to tell him to let her down, and saw him doing what could only be described as staring at her rear end. He gave a start when he realized she was looking at him, eyes wide. Unable to quickly think of a way to cover, he just lowered her back down to the floor, averting his gaze.
Selphie wasn't really sure what to think. With the bent her feelings had been going in lately, she took it as a sign that he might be feeling some of the same things she had been to. And deep inside her, something decidedly feminine felt triumphant, and maybe just a little bit wicked.
She jumped up again, pulling her self up and over into the ceiling. Zell just followed without asking questions. Going up into the ceiling in the middle of the night was weird, but it was with Selphie, so he wasn't complaining. Once he was in, Selphie slid the light back into place.
Zell had figured it would be pitch black, but instead he could see just fine. The lights in the lengths of the hallway gave off their dim glow up here too. The fixtures weren't covered on the top. During the day, they would be even brighter.
He followed her along the beam, one foot in front of the other. He wondered, if he fell, would he fall through the ceiling back into the hall? It was best not to find out.
It was only a few yards before Selphie lowered herself down into something he couldn't see yet, since it was below his line of sight. When he came closer, he found himself looking down into the box, surprise stamped across his features.
He hopped down into the box, his impact making a louder noise than he expected, echoing through the rafters and sending vibrations through the floor. He winced, (although even in his embarrassment he couldn’t stop himself from enjoying how her breasts had jiggled slightly on his landing) looking apologetically over at Selphie. She just sat down, patting the floor indicating that he should too. Warily, he complied, not at all sure what was happening.
"Zell, we've all been a little worried about you," Selphie began, figuring 'we' would be safer than 'I'. "You just haven't been yourself lately."
Oh, so that was it. Anger, that old friend, stepped up to the plate, pushing aside Lust and someone else with a small voice whose nametag might have read ‘Love’. This was a therapy session for Zell, the only one in the group who just couldn't be normal, just couldn't get a girlfriend or be happy all the time. Well, who was she to talk?
"Me?" Zell demanded. "What about you? What's been up with you?"
"This isn't about me," She stammered, off balance from the sudden attack.
"I don't see how it's any of your business."
"Zell, why won't you let me help you? You should have asked me, or any of us for help if you need it."
"Maybe I don't need help."
"And maybe you do Zell!" She said, anger coming through for the first time.
Zell jumped to his feet, pacing back and forth. He couldn't sit still when he was like this. Or when she was this close. Maybe it was an exercise in self control but for fuck’s sake he just couldn’t think when she smelled so good and looked so soft just sitting there, and he was trying to talk, to leave, to do anything. How could he really talk to this girl, this woman, his friend when all he wanted to do was bury his dick between her legs? Crude maybe, but it was the truth and it was driving him crazy.
Selphie watched him in silence, waiting for him to say something or sit down. He sat down.
Zell was not the kind of guy who could really hide his feelings, it was obvious that something was eating at him. She repressed a sigh of exasperation. They had always been close, and if he couldn't talk to her, she didn't know who he could talk to. She wanted him to open up to her. She wanted him to let her in.
"Zell, please," She pleaded. "I just want to help."
He looked up in anger, but when his eyes met her crystal green ones, he just couldn't say no any longer.
This was a mistake, he told himself. But she looked so worried about him and oh Hyne she was doing that biting thing with her lower lip again and he was glad he had changed into some looser pants and there was nothing left for him but to spill it.
"It's just," He tried to start, struggling with the words. How could you talk about these things while still holding parts of yourself back?
She nodded, wanting him to know that she was listening.
"You know, it's... Well, Squall is with Rinoa, obviously...."
'You’re in love with Rinoa?"
"No! Hyne, it's just you have Irvine and I have no-"
"Me and Irvine broke up."
"You see? That's exactly what I'm- What?"
"Me and Irvine broke up."
Zell felt something that could only be likened to a brick impacting somewhere in his mid torso. Selphie and Irvine. Broke up? When? How? Why? Who cares Dincht, this is your chance, before some other guy snags her! As if. Ironically, now that she actually was free, he was even more nervous. Before when she was with Irvine at least he couldn't tell her because Irvine was his friend. Now, she was unattached, and sitting up in the ceiling alone with him in the middle of the night. Be careful what you wish for. Zell might have been comforted if he had known that during his entire train of thought, his face, for once in his life, actually betrayed nothing.
Selphie, for her part, was trying to read into Zell's reaction, with no success. Rather shocking, since usually Zell was an open book to the world. He was thinking hard about something.
Well, so was she. There had been something between them for awhile now. She was a single woman who, she could now admit, wanted him. She wanted Zell Dincht. Even with Irvine she could never recall really wanting someone, feeling the need to pursue them. But tonight was an opportunity, and she wasn’t going to let it slip through her fingers.
Selphie had never been much of a tease, but she was definitely a woman. Keeping silent under the pretense of not wanting to disturb his thinking, she innocently shifted her position on the floor, allowing her dress to ride up to expose few more good inches of thigh. She was immediately rewarded when Zell’s eyes zeroed in on the newly exposed flesh like it had said his name.
She suddenly stood up and walked the few feet between them, slumping down next to him. She felt him stiffen at the closeness.
"What are you thinking?" She asked him, looking down at the floor. She rubbed her hand across the floor as if idly feeling the texture, her hand 'accidentally' brushing his several times.
Zell figured now was not a time for honesty, since if he voiced his thoughts at this particular moment it would result in a restraining order. "Nothing."
"Mm." She hummed noncommittally. Then she took the big jump. She leaned her head back as if staring at the ceiling, resting it against the wall, looking straight up. Giving Zell a clear line of sight down her shirt front.
Booby trap, she thought to herself wickedly.
For Zell, it proved to be too much to resist. The first glimpse of those porcelain curves and that sweet, dark dip between them and he was lost.
She let about two seconds pass before she jerked her head up and found him rapturously taking in the view. He gave a sudden start when he realized she was looking right at his face. His eyes met hers, filled with guilt and apprehension at the immediate backlash he knew was coming.
Instead, she took the final plunge. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him.
Her lips were smooth, Zell thought with remarkable detachment. Warm, too. Realizing he should probably be doing something, he tentatively kissed her back. He felt he was starting to get the hang of the rhythm and breathing through his nose. Then she shoved her tongue inside his mouth and his thoughts vanished liked smoke. Libido rolled up its sleeves and got down to business.
Selphie gave a little squeak as he rolled over on top of her that went straight to his cock, and even as he almost frantically ground against her he had the vague presence of mind to hope she wouldn’t smack him for it. These fears were proven to be unfounded when she grabbed the back of his head and kissed him harder.
Things, he felt, could only get better from there on.
Chapter 16: Contigent Deception
"We would all find out later that Seifer was under the Sorceress's control during the thing. I can't imagine what he went through, remembering doing all those terrible things and not being able to stop. While eventually we all forgave him, I don' t think Quistis ever needed to."
-Irvine Kinneas, The SeeD and the Sorceress
Rinoa rolled over in the bed, squinting as the bright sunlight streaming through the blinds hit her still closed eyes. She yawned, stretching her arms out as far to the sides as they would go. Squall was gone, as she had known he would be. He would be in his office, already getting a head start on the paperwork. Through the walls she could hear a humming reverberation as Xu made an announcement, most likely something concerning the cafeteria, and the faint chatter of students early to rise. Just another day in Balamb Garden. With Ultimecia defeated, the purpose for which the Gardens had been created had become obsolete, and slowly but surely the Garden was shifting more and more towards becoming nothing more than a advanced private school. It was expected that in a matter of years Garden would no longer train new SeeDs, and the number of mercenary contracts that were accepted would dwindle off into nothing, no doubt resulting in the creation of a hefty tuition fee. For the moment however, a generation of fighting SeeDs was still housed in the Garden, and the art of combat was still taught in its gilded halls.
Rinoa showered and dressed, brushing her hair to until it held its usual silky sheen. Today was a day off for her, so she didn't have to worry about classes. Crossing the carpet she slid open the door that led directly into the adjacent commanders office. Squall was intent upon something or the other, alternating between scribbling furiously and peering into the glowing screen before him. She smiled. He looked so cute when he was concentrating. Coming up behind him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on the top of his head.
"Good morning," She said, leaning against him.
Yes. Only Squall Leonhart could respond to a cheerful 'good morning' with a yes. Still, at least he had said something.
"Whatcha working on?" She murmured in his ear, trying to make out the words on the screen through the haze of sleep in her eyes.
He absently scratched at his scar. "Deling. Haven’t been able to find out which faction made the bid for it.”
He shook his head, scrolling more text down the screen. Rinoa knew he would be behind the desk for at least another hour. She however, was hungry.
"I'm going down to the cafeteria," She said, walking towards the door. "Do you want anything?"
"Ate already," Squall mumbled, still staring at the screen. He gave a slight start when he realized he should probably be a little more polite to his love. "Thanks."
Rinoa smiled to herself on the way out. He was improving.
The cafeteria was half full when she reached it. For a school cafeteria, it actually wasn't that loud. Breakfast was usually fairly subdued as the students tried to wake up, it wasn't until lunch that things became raucous. She ordered a bagel and cream cheese, opting to take it back upstairs rather than eat at one of the tables.
On her way back to the elevator, she noticed Quistis taking roll call outside the Training Center. Another 'field trip' for the younger students to train up on Grats. Other than a small bandage adorning the side of her head, Quistis looked fine. Rinoa waved, walking up the stairs and Quistis smiled and nodded back. After all Quistis had been through over the last couple days Rinoa had thought Cid would have offered her the day off to rest and recuperate. Of course knowing Cid, he had, and knowing Quistis, she declined.
When she returned to the office Squall was still behind the desk, but instead of studying the screen he was shuffling papers, digging around in the contents of one of his many filing cabinets. Someday he would take the time to get it all computerized, but for now he was forced to flip through a filing system that became more random with each passing day. His frustration was apparent.
Rinoa sat on the edge of his desk, munching on her bagel while he continued to dig through files, his motions becoming increasingly fierce. He was about five seconds away from putting his boot through the cabinet when he found what he was looking for, a manila folder containing reports on known Galbadian revolutionaries. Rinoa finished her bagel and cleared her throat. Squall looked up at her.
"What did you say that man's name was again? Scott?"
"Scott Keyor." Squall was still deep in thought over his files but was attentive enough to spare her a glance.
"I think," She said, hesitating. "That me and him should talk. Where is he?"
Squall paused, sliding his chair over to the computer screen and keying in a query. The information scrolled onto the screen. "Room 63." He looked at her, concern apparent in his eyes. "Will you be okay?"
She nodded, twisting a strand of ebony hair in her fingers. "I can't sense him unless I'm trying. I just want to get the story straight from him, and maybe I can understand what's happening."
Squall doubted anyone could ever completely understand the present circumstances, but it was worth a try to see if Rinoa and Scott could fix whatever was causing her mental blackout. In regards to sending Scott home, he had already sent an inquiry to Esthar concerning Odine. He expected a call from Laguna within the next few days, a prospect he was not looking forward to. He never knew what to say to the man.
Rinoa left the office, crossing the commons and climbing the stairs to the men's dormitories. 45, 59, 61, and 63. She looked behind her at the digital wall clock that was omnipresent in all the dorms. 8:46. Worth a shot. She keyed the doorcom buzzer.
Scott was woken by a harsh buzzing noise that emanated from the wall somewhere to his left. It took him a moment to remember where he was, gazing blearily at the unfamiliar room. The loud buzzing permeated the room again, and he pushed himself up to his feet. Stumbling over to the doorcom, he stared at it for a second before remembering which button to press, the door sliding open to reveal… Nobody he recognized.
Rinoa studied the stranger's face. Shaggy dark blond hair hung in his eyes, stubble adorned his chin and there were several large bruises on his body. He didn't look like he was in good shape at the moment, but Rinoa could see that cleaned up he would cut a swathe through the Garden's female population. In fact, what struck her the most was the passing resemblance to Seifer, the thought briefly bringing a feeling of unease. Nobody would mistake him for the Knight, but it was there.
Scott crossed his arms over his chest uncomfortably, suddenly aware of his state of undress. The women before him was examining him, making him feel like he was on parade. He cleared his throat. "Uh yes.... ma'am?"
"You’re Scott Keyor?"
"I am, yeah.”
Not much like Seifer at all. This guy actually seemed a little reserved.
"I'm Rinoa Heartilly. I thought it’d be good if I could come talk to you, maybe clear a few things up…"
Things started making a little more sense. She was the only one who didn't know everything about his situation. She was a sorceress. Oddly, she didn't look any different than anybody else. For some reason he had been expecting more.
"I see. Nice to meet you."
He almost winced. His social retardation picked the worst times to manifest itself. Usually around women.
Rinoa almost smiled. He seemed nervous. One of the others must of had told him about her. There were a few experiments she wanted to do, but she wanted everybody else to be there in case something went wrong. At the moment, she had just wanted to meet him face to face and see if there was some sort of reaction. He shifted on his feet, speaking again.
"I suppose you want me to tell a little about myself...."
Rinoa did smile this time. "Okay. Do you want to get dressed first?"
Scott gave a little jump when he once again realized he was still in his boxers. "Right, right. Um, you can come in. Well, I mean of course you can, it's your Garden or whatever.... I'll go change."
He went into the bathroom, leaving the room door open so she could come in. There was some rustling from behind the door to the bathroom before it slid open and Scott stepped out, now attired in casual SeeD uniform. It was a bit tight around the collar, but it fit well enough. Rinoa sat on the edge of his bed, it being the only seat the room had to offer. Scott leaned against the wall. He blew out a breath, running a hand through his hair.
"Well, it all starts a couple years back. I was drafted from a select training program through the Army.."
Nida was first and foremost the Garden's pilot, more qualified than anyone else who lived under its roof to steer the ponderous vessel when in motion. At the moment however, the Garden was dry docked, so he was relegated to what he felt were lesser tasks. Sometimes these involved things like filing papers or the occasional mission, or maybe even library duty, which he didn't mind much anymore since he could hit on the attractive female staff. More often, they involved things like starting up the coffee machine on the command bridge. This particular morning, he had the chore of finding Zell Dincht and Selphie Tilmitt, who were missing. Squall wanted to put together a meeting of some sort that required their presence, so he had called upon the closest available SeeD to do the job. Nida, filling the coffee machine.
So far he had stopped by their respective dorms, the Training Center, the secret area in the Training Center, the Cafeteria, the Library, the Quad, the Garage, and even the Infirmary. Now he was roaming the upper level classroom halls for some sign of them, with absolutely no success, and silently praying they weren’t to be found in the MD level.
It was on yet another lap around an upper story hall that a light fixture above him popped loose, dangling slightly out of its position. He frowned. Some days it seemed like the place was falling apart. He jumped up, trying to push it back into place, but couldn't reach. Well, he didn't have the rank of Level 28 SeeD for nothing. Backing up slightly, he went into a running start, jumped off of the wall and with a tremendous and probably melodramatic 'Hi-ya!', took out his frustrations on the fixture by kicking it back into place.
"AAAAGH! FUCK! MY FUCKING FINGERS!"
The ceiling shook as more violent cursing echoed down, immediately following which a steaming mad Zell Dincht jumped through the hole where the light used to be, cradling his battered hand to his chest and threatening Nida with the other.
"Oh Hyne! What the hell man, you 'bout took my fucking fingers off!"
Nida held out his hands, trying to placate him. "Now, let’s not be hasty here,” He stuttered nervously. “How was I supposed to know you'd be up in the ceiling?"
Zell's glare softened somewhat as the logic of this sunk in. He snorted, backing off a little. "Yeah whatever. Just next time, don't be kicking no more lights until you’re sure somebody's not holding it, alright?"
Nida was pretty sure he wouldn't be in another situation like this. "Right, right. It's cool."
By this time Selphie had lowered herself down too, coming up behind Zell. "Let me see those fingers."
Zell them out towards her, the ring of skin around his knuckles already turning a dark purple.
"Cura!" Selphie said, the magic sending glowing sparks around Zell's hand. The purple receded, leaving only a faint yellow tinge to the skin. "There we go."
Zell grinned and kissed her, and they went off down the hallway hand in hand. Nida stood there, now by himself. Zell and Selphie, kissing? Up in the ceiling all night? Holding hands? He was sure nobody would bother to explain anything to him. He sighed, looking up at the light fixture, still swinging free. He figured he might as well put it back into place before someone told him to.
They were all gathered in Squall's office, sitting on various chairs and couches. Zell and Selphie sat together on a couch by the door. Everyone was looking at them askance, not quite sure what to make of it. Irvine was fairly uncomfortable. Sure, she wasn't his girlfriend anymore, but it would take some getting used to seeing her with someone else, especially Zell. Squall surprised himself by not being surprised. Rinoa was rubbing off on him more than he had thought.
Squall kicked it off by nodding to Quistis, letting her do the talking as per usual.
"Scott," She began. "Why don't you go over your story again, just so everything is fresh in our minds."
So, taking a deep breath and thinking about how much he was sick of telling his story, he launched into it again. It was a rather long story, and this time he added even more detail, in case there was an important piece he had missed telling the previous times. It was almost noon by the time he had finished and everyone had asked whatever questions were on their minds.
Quistis had one more question. "So nobody else came through the portal? There weren't any other experiments?"
Scott shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know. The portal collapsed behind me, and I used to think that was the only one, but now... I realize there could have been more. I don't know though, the whole operation seemed like a first time thing to me, they were winging a lot of it."
"And you still went through the portal?" Irvine asked incredulously.
"They paid me a lot of money."
"Must have been."
Zell raised his hand. Everyone looked at him, and he put it down sheepishly. "Uh, do you have hotdogs where you come from?"
Squall put a hand to his forehead, Selphie and Rinoa giggled, Irvine laughed and Quistis rolled her eyes. Scott didn't get the joke any further than that it was a strange thing to ask about.
"Yeah, we've got those." Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener....
Quistis looked to the clock on Squall's wall. "Speaking of which, I think we should adjourn for now and go to lunch."
"Right on!" Zell exclaimed, jumping to his feet. He was out the door with Selphie before Squall actually said it was okay. Squall shook his head, getting up.
"Adjourned for now."
Rinoa and Squall were the last to leave the office, tagging along behind Irvine and Quistis who were discussing something or the other. Scott was already out of sight, probably trying to catch up to Zell and Selphie so he could find the cafeteria. Rinoa slipped her hand into his, giving it a squeeze. Squall still felt a little uncomfortable with public displays of affection, but it wasn't worth it to remove his hand. Anyway, he figured he better get used to it.
The cafeteria was becoming crowded by the time they reached it, but their usual table was empty. Officially speaking it wasn't actually reserved, but nobody was going to steal the table of those particular SeeDs. It might be unhealthy.
By the time Squall and Rinoa sat down, Zell and Selphie already had their food and had made room for Scott on the end. Irvine was just sitting down and Quistis was at the front of the line after several of the Trepies had let her cut. As Commander, Squall probably didn't have to bother waiting in line, but he did anyway. Rinoa turned to him.
"You can go sit down," She said, smiling brightly. "I'll get our food today. I think it's my turn anyway."
Squall's eyes narrowed, attempting to detect subterfuge. Usually she would dodge her line-standing turn. Detecting none, he shrugged and sat down. Rinoa smiled to herself. She was buttering him up so he'd be more amenable to getting of work earlier to spend the evening with her.
Slowly but surely, the line moved forward and she soon found herself at the front ordering the usual. While waiting for her order to be processed, she moved to the side of the line and bumped into a friend she had made in one of her classes, Michelle Kliner. She was obviously excited about something.
"Rinoa!" She said excitedly.
Rinoa smiled, clasping her in a quick hug. “ Hey Michelle.”
Michelle went straight to the point. "Tall blonde and handsome, over at your table. Who is he?"
"Oh, you mean Scott. He's.... From Galbadia Garden, a transfer."
Oops. Scott probably didn't know enough about the Gardens to accurately fake being a transfer student. But the way Michelle was checking him out, asking questions was the last thing on her mind. Rinoa was a little surprised, Michelle wasn’t usually so aggressive.
“Oh, does he have a girlfriend?” Michelle pouted, taking Rinoa’s silence the wrong way.
She didn't know enough about Scott to know whether or not he would want the attention. Did he have a girlfriend?
"Hold on," Rinoa said. "Let me see if I can set you up."
She walked over to the table, sitting down and pretending to wait for her order. She turned to Scott.
"Scott," She started. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
He frowned at her. The way she said it made it clear she wasn't hitting on him, and with Squall right there he didn't want her to. "Uh, no."
"Oh. Just trying to get to know you better."
"Okay." Fairly numbed by his experiences, Scott took the bizarre conversation in stride.
She stood up again, walking back over to the counter. "He doesn't have a girlfriend."
"He's married isn't he?"
"What in the world makes you think that?" Rinoa said, staring at Michelle.
"Just covering all the angles, Rinoa. Besides, if a guy like that isn’t married or taken he’s probably gay."
"You’re just making that up."
Rinoa sighed. "No, I don't want to bet. If you want to talk to him, just do it."
"I can't just go up to him! Introduce me."
"I need to wait for my food, hold on." Rinoa wasn’t sure she was up to the task of playing matchmaker, but considering Scott’s circumstances she couldn’t imagine anything would come of it.
Her food arrived shortly, and she carried the steaming tray back over to the table with Michelle in tow. She took her seat next to Squall, and Michelle sat next to her, facing Scott. Rinoa put Squall's food in front of him, then leaned over the table so Scott could hear her.
"This is a friend of mine, Michelle." Rinoa said, trying to modulate her voice enough to be heard over the dull roar of the cafeteria. "Michelle, this is Scott Keyor, from Galbadia Garden." Scott shot her a look which she apologetically returned.
Michelle turned on the charm, flashing him her best smile, pleased to notice that it had an effect on Scott after all. He hesitantly smiled back, averting his eyes. He had never been good with women. The military didn't leave much time for personal life.
Rinoa spent most of the rest of lunch focused on Squall, occasionally turning her attention to Michelle's shameless flirting. She plied Scott with all the usual questions about age and whether or not he liked it at Balamb Garden. So far there hadn't been any questions about Galbadia Garden, and Scott steered the conversation from such subjects by asking questions about her. Really, he just wanted her to go away. She was trying really hard to get him to like her, and she seemed nice enough, but the joke was on her- he wasn't going to be around long enough to get into any sort of relationship. Horribly, he wondered if that joke was in fact on him.
After about ten minutes, Rinoa took pity on him. She leaned over to Squall and whispered something in his ear. He looked at her quizzically, one eyebrow raised.
Please, She mouthed.
He rolled his eyes and set his fork down. Clearing his throat, he turned to Michelle and Scott.
"Keyor," He said, getting Scott's attention. "We have some matters to discuss." He looked pointedly at Michelle. She took the hint, and left with a small smile and a 'See you later.'. Scott breathed a sigh of relief, giving Squall a look of thanks. He shrugged and indicated Rinoa with his head, going back to eating. Rinoa grinned at him, cocking her head to the side.
"Well," She asked impishly. "What do you think of her?"
Scott put his head on his arms, already full. "She's nice enough I guess, but I don't think a long distance relationship would be possible over dimensions."
Zell stopped stuffing his face with hotdogs long enough to break into the conversation. "Hey, that's too bad man, since half the chicks in here are checking you out. Fresh blood I guess. You’re the new guy."
Scott raised his head to verify this. Sure enough, wherever his gaze traversed female heads quickly swiveled away, while the braver ones stared back at him, giggling amongst themselves. He sighed. If only this was happening back at home. Then he could... Could what? He knew he was fooling himself if he thought he would take advantage of their attraction to him even if he was in familiar settings. There was no way he could ever work up the self-confidence to ask any of them out. Lousy brain. Cramping my style.
Well, at least the food had been pretty good. By this time, everyone had finished but Zell, and were talking about whatever. He just listened since he didn't know enough about anything to converse. Rinoa was talking to Selphie about her sudden relationship with Zell.
"So when did this happen?" Rinoa asked, eyeing the couple. "It's only been a few days since I last saw you, and Zell was just your friend."
Selphie giggled, giving Zell's hand a squeeze. "Just last night, but it's been a long time in coming. We just didn't realize it sooner."
Rinoa leaned in conspiratorially. "So what, you guys were in the secret area?"
Selphie put on an arch expression, leaning back. "Oh, I have my own secret area. And I'm not telling!"
"You guys were alone all night?" Rinoa’s eyebrows shot up, a smile spreading across her face.
Zell determinedly continued stuffing his face with food, avoiding the conversation and all eye contact. Selphie inwardly cursed her fair physique that made the blush suffusing her cheeks that much more obvious.
Rinoa's smile widened, and Selphie became more flustered.
Selphie narrowed her eyes. "I know a certain Sorceress who was with a certain Commander last night, and I could hear you downstairs doing a certain-"
"Okay! Okay!" Rinoa gasped, putting her hand over Selphie's mouth. "Let's talk about something else."
Scott didn't want to know. Zell was too full to talk, and from the look Squall was giving a grinning Irvine, their conversation had run along the same lines as Rinoa and Selphie's. This was very nice of them and all to include him, but he was more interested in knowing exactly how he could go home, and socializing at lunch wasn't getting him any closer to his goal. Putting his head back down on his arms, he closed his eyes and tried to doze away the remaining time.
The man had been found in during a bit of browsing Hendrow had been doing through some random government files, trying to familiarize himself with the state of the country. The name had jumped out at him from the paper, instantly recognizable. He had brought it to Julian's attention immediately.
The files eventually led them to his present whereabouts, a prisoner in the D-District facility. Besides his name and location, nothing else had been found. Everything about the man in the public databases had been erased at some point. There was no doubt in Hendrow's mind that this man had been left to rot. But he was useful to them for purposes Julian had conceived, and Julian Foss never let an opportunity go to waste.
It was in this fashion, handcuffed and chained, that Seifer Almasy was brought before the desk of Julian Foss.
The man before Julian was not the arrogant young SeeD trainee that the game and book had portrayed. The man before him was a broken man, dressed in the pitiful remains of a trenchcoat, unshaven, undernourished, with only a faint spark in his eye to show that he had any spirit left in him. This was a man who might be desperate enough for freedom to give Julian what he wanted.
Seifer was unsure what to make of his situation. He had fully expected to die in the prison, killed in some minor riot or executed at some officer's whim. Now he was brought before a man he had never seen before sitting in what had been the office of the former ruler of Galbadia. Seifer glared at him, hoping to take some pleasure in intimidating another weak-chinned politician. To his surprise, the man stared fearlessly back with a quiet yet cold gaze of his own.
"Seifer Almasy," Julian began. "Former resident of Balamb Garden, SeeD in training.... Sorceress Knight..."
"Oh, thanks," Seifer snarled. "'Cause, see, I had forgotten who I was for some reason and I needed you to tell me. Who the fuck are you and what the fuck do you want?"
"Temper, Mr. Almasy, will get you nowhere. I brought you here because I wanted to meet you, to make the acquaintance of a man who has affected the course of this world so much. And because I would like to ask a favor of you.”
Seifer was becoming angrier. This soft-spoken fat bastard dragged him out here in chains, and then expected a favor from him? "Listen you fat fuck, I can't imagine why the hell you think I owe you anything since you bastards threw me into jail without a trial. 'Oh, thanks so much for the prison term, I love getting butt-fucked in the shower while the warden takes pictures.' Who the hell do you think you are?"
"Mr. Almasy, I had nothing to do with your incarceration. I think you misunderstand my intentions. I am trying to help you."
"Because you can help me."
"And what do I get out of it?"
As Julian had suspected, Seifer calmed down, now assessing his opponent with more intelligence. He wanted to be free, and badly.
"What do you want?"
Julian smiled, motioning for Hendrow to pull up a chair. Seifer sat down, the guards coming in further to stand behind it. Julian leaned forward slightly, tenting his hands. "I am... New, to this area. My path to power was sudden, and there are many who are unaware of my current standing. I will cut to the point. I would like you to be my envoy to Balamb Garden, and extend my offer of peace towards them. These are turbulent times, Mr. Almasy, and there is no gain in having uncertain relations with one’s neighbors.”
Seifer laughed incredulously. "What, that's it? The terms of service?"
"Yes. Your freedom is part of the offering. I am extending my hand in peace, and returning one of their own to them. As further proof of my intention, you will also be making a delivery."
"After I'm free, what the hell makes you think I'll go where you want me to?"
"You will go to Balamb Garden whether I told you to or not, because you have no place else to go."
Seifer was silent as the truth of this hit him. Julian continued.
"After you leave the country, you will not be welcome back here. Right now, only I know of your presence. If the Galbadian people find out, they will want you dead."
"You’re not Galbadian." It wasn't a question.
Julian did not reply. "What will it be?"
"What am I going to deliver, a fucking box of chocolates?"
Julian bent down and with both hands lifted an object up onto the desk. It took Seifer a minute to realize what it was. Lionheart. Squall's ultimate gunblade. The implication of this struck him like a hammer. He could feel his mouth drop open, but he didn't care. Squall was dead. He didn't know how to deal with the emotions that surged through him. Shouldn't he be happy? He had never liked Squall. But they had grown up together. He had been a rival, worthy competition. He could have been a friend. Julian gestured for Hendrow to move aside, revealing the assortment of items that were lying on the floor behind him. Selphie's nunchukas, Irvine's shotgun, and Quistis's whip. It hit him harder than he could ever have imagined. They had been enemies, but before that they had been comrades and family, they had been something more.
They had been all he had ever had.
He didn't know, but whatever it was, it sent a crippling sadness through him, quickly followed by his body's only defense against such emotion- white-hot rage.
"YOU SON OF A BITCH! I'll kill you, I'LL KILL YOU!" Seifer screamed, leaping forward out of the chair, hands outstretched to throttle the life out of the focus of his anger. The guards quickly pulled the chains taught, yanking him back into the chair and sending it falling over backwards. One of the guards kicked him in the ribs, forcing the breath out of his lungs as the other pointed a gun at his head, foot on his throat. Hendrow had jumped back in alarm, but Julian hadn't flinched.
"Please Mr. Almasy. Calm yourself."
The guards flipped the chair back up and forced him to sit in it, gun still to his head. He was shaking with rage, his eyes full of seething hate, glaring at Julian. Julian was not perturbed. He gazed calmly back, waiting for Seifer to settle.
"Mr. Almasy, I had nothing to do with whatever fate befell the SeeDs. Now, your freedom is at stake here. Control your outbursts and make yourself useful, and you will be in Balamb by tomorrow. I'll even throw in your weapon as a bonus. You'll need to do a little cleanup I'm afraid, it’s been sitting in a rather damp basement."
Seifer wanted to spit in his face. But he also didn't want to go back and die in prison.
With little choice, Seifer assented.
Three hours later, Seifer found himself on the outskirts of Deling, the assorted weapons in a sack over his shoulder. He felt a physical need to remove himself from the country as quickly as possible. Starting up the vehicle Julian had given him, he sped off in the direction of Timber, where he could board a boat.
Julian and Hendrow watched the faint dust trail of the car recede out into the plains from the top of the wall. Julian smiled to himself. Someday soon the time would arrive to strike at Garden, and all the better it should come unexpected. The peace overture was a sham, but it would serve to mask his true intentions until the time was right.
Finally Seifer’s vehicle was beyond his view, and Julian turned to Hendrow.
“Let us return, Michael. It would interest me to see what sort of television they watch here in Deling.”
Chapter 17: Subitaneous Arrival
"Whenever I think about Garden, it always strikes me as odd that such an installation could be accepted at face value. But we did. A gigantic school founded for the single purpose of molding young children into mercenaries. It turned out to be a facade, but what does it say about a world that never questioned such a thing?"
-Quistis Trepe, What's Hyne Got To Do With It?
Like the night that had come before, Balamb Garden was sleeping, the faint gurgle and deep hum always present in the great structure the only noise. But unlike the previous night, Scott Keyor was the one who roamed about the tiled floors like a ghost, a sleepless soul in search of nothing.
He had been unable to sleep. The meeting that evening had not given him much to hope for. It had been made apparent that no one present could help him achieve his goal of returning back to his native dimension. The others repeatedly referred to an 'Odine' who was the most likely person to be able to help him, but he resided in another country and they had yet to reach him.
He wasn't sure what time it was. He hadn't looked at a clock since he had left his room what felt like hours before. He sighed. There was no point in wearing down his shoes for no reason, he should at least try to sleep again. Still, he had to admit that there was something strangely comforting about the Garden at night, a sense of security that felt strange in a large dimly light room that should have been creepy.
He slowly made his way back to the staircases, pausing by one of the fountains to look down into it, watching the bubbles rise to the surface. He couldn't get over how fancy this place was for a military academy. When he reached the stairs, he stopped, hidden in the shadows when he saw someone else coming down the girls dormitory steps. His nerves kicked in. What if it was a teacher? Would they bust his ass for being out past curfew, or would it not matter since he wasn't a student?
It all became a moot point when the shadowy figure in question turned out to be Selphie. She moved quietly and with extreme stealth, obviously utilizing her training. She disappeared up the staircase into the men's dormitories. Scott figured he knew exactly where she was going, and it wasn't any of his business. He was relaxing a little bit when yet another unknown came out of the shadows to his right. He gave a tremendous start, barely stifling a yelp. He saw the other person do the same. It was Nida.
"Holy shit," Nida gasped, leaning against the wall. "You just about killed me. What the hell are you doing up?"
"I could ask you the same."
Nida shrugged, pushing himself back up. "Hey, I'm legit. I was over fixing one of the Training Center doors. Some wise ass stuck a bunch of sticky tack in the lock."
Scott decided he knew Nida enough by now not to be tactful. "I thought you were a SeeD. What's with the janitorial work?"
Nida shrugged again. "I have no idea. This stuff just always seems to fall to me. Squall hands off these odd jobs, usually while staring at some stack of papers, and of course I'm the only guy near by not conspicuously doing something important." He sighed. "If I'm not piloting, I'm being ignored. I've learned to live with it."
Scott knew the feeling. He had been a late bloomer in High School, one of the scrawny little kids who always ended getting seated next to the teachers desk and was told to run papers to the office. He had graduated in three years, all of them spent in obscurity. He hadn't been picked on, but he hadn't made many friends either.
"Hey, that sucks man."
"It's not so bad. I still get sent on missions sometimes, and I'm lucky to count Squall and the rest of them as my friends. Between you and me, it really helps my status with the ladies. Before I really was totally ignored, now at least I can bask in their reflected glory."
Scott laughed, cutting it off when he realized where he was, sending a darting glance towards the closed dorm doors closest to them. Nothing moved. He sighed in relief, turning back to Nida.
"That's cool. I suppose being the friend of heroes would get you some female attention."
"You’re not so bad yourself, I saw all the looks you were getting in the Cafeteria today."
"Well, I can't really get involved."
Nida looked at him thoughtfully, reminded that he had never heard the full story on Scott. He filed it away once more for another time. "That's too bad, since this is the place to get involved in."
Scott nodded in complete agreement. "No kidding man. I haven't seen an unattractive girl here yet. It's amazing."
Nida smiled, raising his eyebrows. "That's what's great about living in a school that emphasizes on combat. No fat chicks."
Scott snorted, covering his mouth with his arm to keep from making noise. "Amen."
With that, they went upstairs together, quietly cracking jokes. They split up on the second floor, Nida's dorm being on the fourth. Scott keyed open his door and lay down in bed, finally succumbing to sleep.
Morning dawned on the Garden, the sun dispelling the shadows of the night before. It seeped through the blinds of Quistis's room, falling softly on her luminous features. The Garden had once housed morning bells, now a thing of the past after it's sudden transformation. They had been broken in the collision with Fisherman's Horizon, and now lay gathering dust in some storage room deep in the MD level. As such, she could no longer rely on the bells to wake her and had to resort to the crude screech of a digital alarm clock. It emitted said screech at precisely 6:15, which was fast approaching.
The alarm was superfluous since she was already awake, having been so for several minutes.
Another day at Garden. Another class to teach. More tests to grade, more students to send to detention. Another meaningless day at Garden.
This was why she wanted to go on missions, because it was so much easier to believe her life meant something when she was doing something important. When she was making a difference. When she was too concentrated on completing the objective at hand to think about her life. She hated being alone like this in her room, hated the self-pitying thoughts that sprang unbidden in her mind. Get up and do something Quistis. People will be counting on you today.
She needed a vacation, she needed a different job, a different existence, a different life. She didn't know what she needed. Well, whatever it was, she wasn't going to find it laying in bed.
While Quistis prepared for the morning ahead, someone else not too far away did the same under very different circumstances. Seifer had been on the boat most of the previous day, and now he faced the task of lugging his load the rest of the way on foot. He could see the Garden in the distance, the just risen sun giving the dome a glittery sheen. There was no way he could just walk in the front entrance, too many people would know who he was. In fact, now that he was almost near his destination, he realized he had no idea how to go about doing what he was about to do. It would be of the utmost idiocy to waltz in carrying the weapons of the dead commander and his friends. They could and probably would blame him anyway, the last thing he needed to do was to provide evidence. The only people who wouldn't attempt to kill him on sight were Cid and Edea. Top floor, the three windows near the peak if he remembered correctly. He would have to wait for nightfall. But then again, if he broke into their room in the dark, it would look even worse. He would have to somehow scale the side of the Garden unseen in the middle of the day, carrying several hundred pounds in equipment up the almost sheer walls, and then break through the bulletproof windows into Cid's office without making too much noise. Seifer looked at the Garden, looked at the bag he was carrying, and looked back at the Garden.
Ten minutes later, Seifer walked in through the front entrance. The SeeD manning the gate gazed up from his magazine and did a double take.
The SeeD dived back down behind the counter and slammed on the alarm.
The alarm jolted Squall out of his paper work stupor, sudden adrenaline coursing through his veins. He knew it wasn't a drill, he hadn’t planned a drill. He quickly moved from his chair to the row of security monitors that lined one of the walls. The monitors had little LED lights on their sides to indicate which camera was closest to the alarm that had been trigger. The only monitor flashing was the one overlooking the entryway, and via its colorless lens he could see a lone figure attempting to fend off several students with a gunblade. Like lighting, recognition shot through him. Seifer.
He assumed the worst. If Seifer was indeed attacking the Garden, there was no guarantee he would be by himself. Squall pulled his gunblade from his sheath and ran for the elevator. Another thought made his blood run cold. Rinoa had gone down to the cafeteria as per her usual schedule. Rinoa was down there with him. Fear gripping his heart, Squall ran faster.
Seifer knew he had overestimated his own stamina. He was quickly tiring, trying to fend off several trainees while protecting his precious luggage, now stashed behind the counter of the stall, and more students were gathering every second. The instructors had evacuated the younger kids from the area, and everybody else seemed to be waiting for something. Fools. If they all attacked at once they could take him down, but they hesitated, waiting for someone to take charge. What if he had been at full strength with the actual intent to cause some damage? They would not have stood a chance, not with their best fighters and leaders dead. Well, not if he had been at full strength anyway.
"Back off!" He snarled at the nearest SeeD, clumsily swinging his gunblade to ward her off. He looked straight into her eyes and tried to reason through the fear he saw there. "I need to see Cid, I don't want to hurt you!"
A javelin was thrown from somewhere in the back and he barely dodged it, sweeping his blade up to cut it in half. It would only be a matter of minutes until someone scored a hit, possibly a fatal one. It was at that moment that Seifer was distracted by a ghost.
Squall Leonhart came barreling out of the elevator with a gunblade in hand and murder in his eyes. Seifer froze, utterly confused at the scene before him. The students surrounding him melted away, and then before he could even draw breath, Squall was on him.
He barely blocked the first blow, sparks igniting at the contact, both blades sliding away to bite into the floor. He tried to back away but was too slow, and before he could raise Hyperion again Squall had kicked him in the gut, sending him sprawling backwards. The kicked was followed by a lethal downward swing. He could feel the metal brush the top of his hair as he pulled himself towards Squall with his feet, just removing his head from the impact. Squall jumped to one side and used Seifer's position under his legs to deliver another kick to the former Knight's side, sending him crashing into the counter.
In desperation, Seifer used most of his strength in a leap over the counter, Squall's gunblade carving a deep slice were his legs had been. He was out of shape and taken by surprise, dragged down by fatigue and atrophied skills. He didn't stand a chance and he knew it. He painfully crashed to the floor on the other side of the stall and rolled over, one hand grasping into the bag. His hand found the hilt of the Lionheart just as Squall was halfway over the counter. Out of time, Seifer held the Lionheart at his chest, waiting for the end he knew was coming. There was the sound of Squall's feet hitting the floor, the all too familiar swish of a gunblade, and then.... Nothing.
Seifer lay perfectly still, the point of Squall's blade tickling his throat, length of the sword resting on the Lionheart. Squall's gaze was fixed on it, confusion plainly stamped across his features. A voice broke the standstill. A familiar voice.
Rinoa came running, Zell, Selphie, Quistis and Irvine in tow. The sea of students parted to allow them through. Slowly, Squall backed away from Seifer, business end of the gunblade still pointed carefully at his enemy's head.
The group reached the stall and froze in disbelief at the scene before them, at someone they had never expected to see again. Everyone but Zell. Rage lit up his features, and it was almost as if he had expected something like this to happen.
"SEIFER!" He roared, clearing the counter in a single jump. Quick as lighting, he brought up his fist to strike a blow to Seifer's head.
"Zell, no!" Rinoa cried out, stopping the martial artist from carrying out his intentions. Zell slowly backed away, sliding back over the counter, still fuming. Selphie tentatively gripped his hand soothingly, trying to calm him down.
Seifer sat up and everyone jumped, leveling their weapons at him. He held up his hands, wiggling his fingers in a mocking fashion to show he wasn't armed. He looked at Squall, who was still fixated on the Lionheart, unable to understand its presence. Scott stood in the back, trying to see over the heads of the gathered students and wondering what was going on.
"That's gratitude," Seifer grunted, trying to ignore the pain that was just now beginning to register in his system. A few cracked ribs, at least. "I bring you back your shit and you kick the crap out of me. Yeah, go ahead and let Dincht hit me, I'll just keep these."
Seifer reached back and opened the bag, spilling its contents on the floor. The SeeDs' eyes widened at the rest of their weapons. Even the present situation couldn't stop Selphie from letting loose a squeal at the sight of her Strange Vision. Zell only turned redder.
"Where the fuck did you get those?!"
"If you answer, 'Why the fuck aren't you dead', I might know why the fuck I have these."
Zell opened his mouth for what was sure to be some angry retort but Quistis held him back, placing a hand on his arm. She looked around at all the gathered students, staring at the confrontation, whispering amongst themselves. She motioned to Squall. "Your office would be a better place, I think."
He nodded. Nudging Hyperion out of Seifer's reach, he bent down and warily helped him to his feet, eyes carefully gauging the blond man's state. He let go of his arm as soon as Seifer was standing, backing away with Lionheart now in hand. The rest of the SeeDs quickly recovered their weapons and surrounded the two. Squall opened the gate leading out of the stall. Forming a circle around the battered Seifer, they walked to the elevator, parting the students again. While the others escorted their somewhat willing prisoner to the top floor, Quistis dropped behind to send all of the students back to their classes, trying to restore some order. Reluctantly, the crowd dispersed, leaving Scott standing with Nida at the foot of the stairs. Quistis smiled apologetically at Scott.
"I'm sorry, this is SeeD business, so...."
"Oh, no, it's cool," Scott said, passing it off with a wave of his hand. "Nida was going to show me the MD level anyway."
"All right then. Be careful though, and stay away from the turbines."
With that, she too went up the elevator. Scott turned to Nida, noting the fading anger in his eyes. Apparently he had some issue with whoever that had been too. Although the blond guy had looked familiar... He was distracted from this line of thought when Nida seemed to shrug off whatever was bothering him, leaving it to Squall to handle things. He smiled at Scott.
"It's pretty cool down there man, you can go swimming in the tanks since there's always some water in them. The tanks are freaking huge."
Scott raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't that be a little dangerous if they happen to dump the fountains? I think having several tons of water fall on top of you might be a little damaging."
"Don't worry about it, we only do that while airborne, and besides, an alarm goes off first. Come on, let’s go."
Seifer was careful not to let his feelings show on his face. He was surrounded by people he had assumed to be dead. Obviously, this assumption had been false. He looked at all of them, the tension clearly affecting each. Zell was being held back by Selphie who was trying to soothe him. The chicken-wuss and Selphie? Pointedly, he sent a glance at both of them, looking back and forth between them before letting out a low chuckle. Zell tensed up, face coloring, but Selphie only gave his hand a squeeze, sticking her tongue out at Seifer. Over in the other corner Rinoa was doing the same thing for Squall, albeit much less noticeably. Squall had always had much more self-control than Zell. Irvine was the most relaxed of all of them, hat drooping halfway over his eyes. He met Seifer's gaze with a steady one of his own, nodding his head slightly as if in recognition.
The elevator doors slid open, and Seifer was walked into Squall's office and seated in a chair across from the desk. Zell and Selphie sat to his right, Irvine to his left. Squall sat behind his desk with Rinoa standing behind him. Seifer hid a smile. The evil Overlord with his right-hand babe, a movie cliché come to life. Fucking pathetic.
There was silence until Quistis arrived moments later, standing to the other side of Squall, completing the picture. He was unable to read the look in her eyes, so he winked at her, noting with pleasure the total lack of response. Cold as ever.
Squall started the dialogue with his usual manner. "Where did you get the weapons?"
Seifer leaned back, faking a thoughtful look. "Well you know Squall, I'm not quite sure. Maybe five bucks would refresh my memory....."
No reaction. Seifer sighed, shaking his head at Squall. "All this time and still no sense of humor. Rinoa, I'm disappointed in you. I figured if anything some hot sex would-"
"Shut up!" Zell snarled, half out of his chair. "He asked you a fucking question!"
Seifer frowned, studying him not with contempt, but with genuine curiosity. Had chicken-wuss grown a spine? He tried staring Zell down, but Zell stared back with even more fury. Interesting. He decided to dispense with the mocking attitude... For now. He shrugged.
"The new rulers of Deling. They wanted me to bring them back."
Squall frowned. "Why?"
"The fat man said it was a peace offering. Sorry, but he didn’t tell me his top secret plans so I could relate them back to you verbatim. I thought you were dead, didn’t know you could ever drag yourself more than ten feet away from your sword Leonhart."
"Oh, I see, those two words just explain everything. Will somebody who can actually talk do so?"
Rinoa had always been insightful, and her new powers only enhanced the natural cognitive abilities she had. Seifer might be acting like his old self, but looking into his eyes she could tell it was all show. He was worn, inside and out. Just a shadow of the arrogant young man he had been. She opened her mouth and cut into the conversation.
"Where were you?"
"Where were you when they asked for your help?"
Seifer leaned forward. "They didn't ask for my help, they demanded it. He said I was supposed to return the weaponry as a peace offering, I was going to bring it to Cid.”
Zell snorted. "In Deling doing what, sleeping in dumpsters? You look like shit Almasy."
"So do you, and you've been showering every morning. Probably with Squa-"
"Stop it, both of you," Quistis broke in, walking over to stand between them. "It's not important where he was, but what he knows."
Seifer raised an eyebrow. Quistis, defending him? Some sort of residual teacher instinct kicking in no doubt. "Hey, I brought back your stuff, and I know things about Deling. You don't get something for nothing."
"Then what do you want?" Squall asked quietly.
What did he want? What did he want? I want to change the last few years, I want a rewind on all the shit that went wrong, I want to go away and hide for the rest of my life. I want, I want.... Oh hell, I want-
"A second chance."
Several days had passed, and the Agent still wasn't getting any closer to the truth. He was wandering the deserted halls late at night under the pretense of searching for the bathroom, the location of which he was well aware of, but it was hard enough to find that he wouldn't draw any undue suspicion.
He needed papers. He needed video, computer files, anything. He needed evidence. And that was in short supply. The GPSS files had told him all they could and were now useless unless he could find the unedited version. When he had first arrived it had seemed like the clock was ticking, they had been gearing up towards something, men and machinery coming and going, research moving at a frantic pace. Then one day the crowds had disappeared and things had gone quiet around the base. Whatever had been going to happen had, and he had been too late to stop it.
He might not have a second chance.
The six had gathered in Squall and Rinoa's room adjoining his office, sitting on various chairs or the bed. Only Zell stood, pacing back and forth in front of the window. Seifer was under guard in the Headmaster's office, awaiting the decision. Squall knew that technically the choice was his and Cid's to make, but he felt the others deserved some say after all that had happened. Zell was the first to speak.
"No," He said, arms crossing across his chest. "No."
"Zell-" Rinoa started.
"No goddamn way. Not after what he did. Not anymore. No."
"Give us the chance to talk this out before you-"
"How can you even think it Rinoa? Remember Adel? Remember that shit he tried to do to you? And now you want to let him the fuck back in?!"
"I didn't say that Zell."
"Yeah, well, I did. And the answer is no, and if your smart that's what you'll say too."
Squall sighed. He didn't know what to think. Most of him agreed with Zell, but he could tell at least Selphie and Rinoa and probably Irvine too were willing to at least give him a chance. Quistis seemed impassive, but he knew her well enough to see that the wheels were turning. Her decision would be a mystery to him. Seifer did not seem all that repentant though, and it wasn't weighing in his favor.
It was then that Edea walked into the room, her presence a breath of fresh air, a comforting feeling of security. She was their mother, and they all loved her. Whatever she had to say would be listened to well.
Edea delicately sat in a chair by Zell, placing a calming hand on his arm. The effect was immediate, and Zell stopped pacing, sitting on the floor next to her. Edea was still beautiful, face only barely lined from the passing of years.
She looked at all of them. How far they had all come, how much they had grown.
Squall, always the silent one, so bitter so young. But even now he was changing for the better. Just the day before she had seen him smile at something Zell had said, and she rejoiced that at last he could be happy.
Irvine, more complicated than most gave him credit for. Ladies man, sharpshooter, philosopher. He had brought the group back together when they had all forgotten, himself once more an integral part of the tight knit friends. They were all held together by bonds more profound than they could imagine, and he was one of them.
Selphie, the sunshine and laughter. They could count on her during their darkest hour to be the light that led the way, no matter what it cost herself. Edea wished that she could forever be so bright without cost.
Zell, such a firebrand, always so loud and outspoken. But Edea had seen the loneliness that had been hidden behind the facade, and she was glad to see Selphie by his side, to be a calming Yin to his raging Yang.
Quistis, still the leader even when she didn't realize it. Squall had been forced to lead by circumstance, Quistis took responsibility without thought to protect her family. Now she hid behind that responsibility from a life that held no meaning besides her friends, and Edea hoped that she found something to bring her happiness soon.
Rinoa had not been in the Orphanage, but Edea felt that she knew her as well as the others. She had become one of them, and despite her pampered childhood events of the recent past had left her as much of a hardened warrior as any in the room. She was the supports that held up Squall, the other half of him. It was good she was here now, for he would need her to make the right choice.
And they were all here to decide the fate of her last child, Seifer. She had come to tell them what they needed to hear to make the right decision, before they condemned him without knowing enough.
She sighed, ready to defend him just as she would the rest of them. "I came here to ask you to give Seifer a second chance."
Nobody was surprised, but Zell clenched his fists, willing himself to be impervious to whatever she had to say.
"You hate Seifer because you believe he betrayed you all," Edea said, making eye contact with all of them. "You all suffered at his hands, but no one suffered more than him."
"So he spent a few bad months in Deling," Zell grunted, not looking up. "And that just makes it all better?"
"Seifer betrayed himself and was unable to stop. He was controlled Zell, every step of the way. I....." She stopped, blinking for a minute. Only the passage of time would cleanse the burning memories. "Ultimecia, twisted his sense of valor, his desire to protect, to be a Knight to her own purposes. He does not remember much of what has occurred, he.... Does not know of Trabia or what happened between Rinoa and Adel."
Nobody questioned Edea's knowledge of this, even without powers she could see things others could not. What Edea said only confirmed what Rinoa had suspected all along. Seifer had always been too ambitious for his own good, but never evil. She and everyone else also understood the unspoken request not to tell him, at least not yet.
Zell put his face in his hands, knowing what was coming. Seifer may have been controlled, but that didn't change his feelings one iota. Seifer had been his enemy before anyone had ever heard of Ultimecia.
Squall sighed, nodding his acquiescence. "He can recuperate and take the SeeD exam. If he passes, he will be reinstated. If he should cause problems, he's out."
Edea smiled. "That is all I can ask."
Chapter 18: Bitter Retrospect
"Seifer and I had always had a strange hot and cold relationship back at the orphanage, and the little game of insult and counter-insult continued when he returned."
-Quistis Trepe, The SeeD and the Sorceress
Seifer lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. The room brought back so many memories, some good, some bad. When had it all gone wrong? After the Sorceress Affair. Where it had gone wrong to start with was abundantly clear. When Time Compression had faded he had found himself on the Balamb docks. Fujin and Raijin had been there too, and that had been a good time, healing the wounds inside him. Then Balamb Garden had returned, and they had been forced to leave before some SeeD on leave found him there. They had left to Deling, to become lost in the big city.
He had grown a beard and didn't cut his hair for a few months, leaving his trademark trenchcoat safely in the closet. It hadn't been so bad then, getting a low profile street job and spending the nights in bars with his only friends. But something had happened, somehow somebody found out.
They had an apartment downtown, it had been after midnight on a Saturday, all three of them basking in the warm alcoholic glow before the hangover and reminiscing on the old times that they cared to remember. Then the door was kicked in, and armored police swarmed the room like locusts.
If they had been prepared, then maybe things might have been different. Maybe Raijin wouldn't have stared in shock for a second too long and have avoided that shot to the head. Maybe Fujin would have reached her Pinwheel in time to kill the soldier in the entryway before he riddled her with bullets. Maybe Seifer would have been able to kill more than three of them before he was brought down from behind, the butt of a gun slamming into his skull.
He had been given a 'trial'. It had been nothing more than a sentencing. It had taken place in front of the top members of the Galbadian court. They should have killed him. Instead, he had been doomed to life in prison, sent to rot away in the bowels of the D-District holding facility. He supposed they had chosen not to kill him in light of twisted politics. He could have been useful someday if the public execution of a famous war criminal and SeeD would sway the people back in their favor.
The thoughts were like a burning crack in his brain, a bright light too painful to look at directly. Beneath it all were the harsh sounds of cold laughter and the barely remembered touch of black lacquered fingernails. What would he say if Cid ever asked him? 'Sorry Cid, I can't remember if I fucked your wife and my surrogate mother behind your back, and did I mention it's tearing me up inside?'.
Try not to think about it, roll over and study the glow of the digital numerals on the clock face next to the bed. Three-thirty in the morning. Three hours to go before daylight gave him respite from the torture inside his head. Maybe two hours and thirty minutes. Too long either way.
He tried to shift his thoughts to something else. Trepe. His new babysitter. He had been back for a day and she was already telling him what to do. Wonderful. His only comfort was that he could make sure she would hate it as much as he did. Push some buttons. Make it fun. For him, anyway.
In that frame of mind, he was almost looking forward to it.
Selphie tiptoed around the dorm getting ready for the day ahead, trying not to wake up the still softly snoring Zell in his bed. She giggled quietly at the sound. But she didn't have time to stay in bed today, she had people to lampoon into working on the Garden Festival, which was just six weeks away. And there were two people in the Garden she hadn't asked yet, Scott and Seifer. She didn't think Seifer would be amenable to the suggestion, but Scott seemed like a nice enough guy to lend a hand. And if he didn't want to, he seemed like a little bit of a pushover too. After all, they had brought him back to Garden, so he owed it to the Garden to help with the Festival, right? She thought so.
Keying open the door, Selphie looked at the piece of paper she had in her hand, on which she had written Scott's dorm number after a little research the night before. '63' it read. It didn't take long to get there. She rapped out a cheery little beat on his door, and almost screamed when it opened.
To say Scott was disheveled was to say the least. He had bags under his eyes that were bigger than the eyes themselves, and his blond hair stuck out in every conceivable direction. Rough stubble adorned his face and it looked like he could barely keep his eyes open.
"Not a morning person, hmm?" Selphie asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Scott winced. How could anyone sound so alive and perky at this time of day? He was used to getting up early from his time in the service, but that didn't mean he was pretty about it.
"Well, cheer up!" Selphie chirped, making him wince again. "I've got just the thing to wake up sleepyheads like yourself!"
"How would you, like to be.... on.. the.. GARDEN FESTIVAL COMMITTEE!"
"The what now?"
"The Garden Festival Committee silly," Selphie said, beeping him on the nose. "It's only the best committee ever, and its goal is one we can all enjoy!"
"Weeell... Every year we have a Garden Festival, which is the best party ever next to the Graduation Party, and between you and me, I think its way better. Anyway, we plan and build a stage in the Quad, get a band to perform, arrange catering and bingo! We have a Garden Festival. I'm in charge, and I just need some volunteers to help me make it happen!"
"What do you need me for?"
"I knew you'd come through for us!"
"Whoa, wait, I didn't say-"
"Just show up this morning at ten o' clock sharp and I'll put you to good use!"
"Just a minute-"
"We're going to make this the best Festival yet!" She exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck in an impromptu hug. "Right Scott?"
Looking down into her excited green eyes, he knew it wouldn't matter if he said no. Looks like you got yourself a committee. "Right."
"Thaaat's right! Later!"
She skipped off down the hallway, no doubt to find some other people to 'ask' about the Festival. Oh well. It would take his mind off his other problems anyway.
Ten o' clock rolled around a few hours after he had forced himself to get dressed and eat something. He stopped to consult the directory before heading off to the Quad, descending the short flight of stairs into the large auditorium space. It was fairly bland now, not much happening scenery wise, but he could see construction had already started. He spotted Zell lugging timber into carefully stacked piles for the stage flooring and Selphie and Rinoa busy assembling the various attachable pipes that would make up the structure itself. From the amount of pipes still stacked in their various boxes, it was apparent it would take a long time. He sighed and rolled up his sleeves, walking over to give Zell a hand.
Over the next half hour a few more students rolled in to help out. Irvine had of course been roped in by Selphie, and Nida dropped by too. The whole situation seemed somehow bizarre in its normality, just a bunch of people putting together a stage for a big show. Weird after all the other things he had been doing lately, like fleeing for his life. Taking a break from the lumber, he walked over to stick some pipes together for Rinoa and Selphie, both of whom were crouched over a large blueprint of what it would all look like once completed, an extremely thick book of instructions lying unused nearby. That couldn't be a good sign. He could only hope Selphie might know what she was doing, having done this sort of thing before.
Soon he was lost in the incomprehensible jumble of seemingly unrelated pieces that would somehow form a stage. In order to preserve his sanity, he zoned out all distractions, concentrating fully on fitting together things that might be supposed to fit together but most definitely did not.
Close by Rinoa was talking animatedly to Selphie. "I don't know, I think those pieces might be in a box we haven't opened yet. Hyne, you'd think this would get easier after all this experience. I remember back in D.C.-"
That jerked Scott out of his stupor. "D.C.?"
"Yeah, Deling City."
"Oh. Deling City.”
She gave him a strange look. "What's wrong?"
Rinoa gave him another look before she turned back to the diagram, continuing whatever tale she was telling about 'D.C.'. He shook his head and tried to get back to the pipes at hand. Lousy pipes.
Nida had also quit hauling wood and was trying to put the stage together. His frustration was evident as he banged two pipe ends together in an attempt to force them to fit.
"These pipes suck ass!" He grunted, one of said pipes slipping from his grasp to clang noisily on the tiled floor. "We do this every year and we never learn a damn thing. Goddamn fucking pipes-"
Nida realized how ridiculous he sounded swearing at the pipes. He laughed at himself. "I suppose there's a morale to be learned in all of this."
"And that is?"
"Pipes suck ass."
They worked in silence for awhile longer before Nida spoke again. "I always love the Garden festival. You should have seen the prank Zell pulled last year with the cake. Well... Maybe its better you didn't."
"What did he do?"
"I've been sworn to secrecy along with everyone else who witnessed it. If you really want to know, better ask Zell himself."
Another stretch of silence.
"Hey, Scott," Nida said.
"These pipes suck ass."
It had only been a matter of time before Spreading Sun finished the task it had been conceived to complete, and now the only remaining rebel factions left in Galbadia were decimated and leaderless. A strange sickness had fallen upon all of them, and the total loss of life was staggering. There would be no recovery for them, and the government troops that descended on them shortly after only finalized their doom. Galbadia was whole once more, and on the road to regaining its full power. Julian was pleased.
He set the report aside, now turning his attention to the next matters of business. A city called Timber, and a recent escapee from the downtown prison, a Galbadian General named Caraway.
Caraway had killed the deposed Poleground, and had somehow overpowered a guard and escaped shortly after. While Caraway had been an important political figure at one time, Julian did not feel this was of any import at the moment. Caraway would only become a concern if he attempted to regain power, and should he resurface Julian would be quick to step on it before it became out of hand. He would still inspire loyalty in his troops, and Julian was disappointed, since he knew Caraway could not be persuaded to work for him even if he was recaptured. No matter, to be dealt with another day.
Julian knew Timber was a revolutionary state on the edge of Galbadia. Timber had been its own country until annexed only a few decades past. Currently, it belonged to Galbadia only by paper alone, since all the forces that had been occupying Timber had slowly been removed, either by mutiny or legitimate order. Julian supposed he could order a reoccupation, but for what? While Timber had at one time been a rich source of wood, now its thick forests were a thing of the past, and its only real value lay in the railways. No, he would not waste time and manpower trying to conquer Timber. One country was enough for now.
So much had happened before he had come to take charge. The former government had left its fingerprints everywhere, and Julian was still trying to sort through the aftermath of the sordid affair which had taken place during the nights leading up to the invasion, an attempted kidnapping of four SeeDs. All of the SeeDs in question had been implicit in the Ultimecia Affair, and Galbadia had good reason for wanting them removed, no doubt part of their larger campaign against Garden. A campaign whose remnants Julian planned to put to good use. The SeeDs had escaped, fleeing the city the very night Julian had entered it, their flight recorded by the city limits security. He found it fascinating how close things had come to turning out very differently. But it was another piece of information gleaned from the newly printed files that interested him. A fifth SeeD, someone not involved in ventures past. Someone the SeeDs had called Scott. Someone who had been inexplicably in Deling City. Julian had a photo of him.
He reached for the com on his desk, studying it for a moment before remembering how to correctly operate the device. It was just a phone really, but the dialing was a bit different, using lettered switches instead of numbered buttons. He wondered if it was different outside of Deling. The com rang only twice before there was a pickup on the other side.
"Michael. Something of interest has come up. I've found our wayward soldier."
After three hours, Quistis felt she would rather go another round with Ultimecia than face another pile of paper work. So many tests, so many new students. Gardens' population had increased nearly a hundred and twenty percent, and they were forced to turn away more students than ever, many capable enough to have made it in the past. The eventual reconstruction of Trabia Garden would ease some of the burden off Balamb, but that was years distant, the Gardens coffers still hurting from the recent trials.
Really, she would even like to go down and help Rinoa and Selphie with the stage, as nightmarish as she knew that would be. Still, it was good that Rinoa had joined the committee.
When she had first come back to Garden, the fact that she was a sorceress had caused quite a bit of trouble. Most of the SeeDs involved in the entire affair knew, but it was a fact kept from the newer students, and wisely so. Those that had been there knew that Rinoa had helped save the world. Those who hadn't would only see a Sorceress. The first few months had been rough for her, but with Squall's constant support she was eventually accepted. The Commander could do no wrong, and if it was okay with him, it was okay with everybody. Still, she was sure there were always a few holdouts, hate secretly seething under a facade. They knew this, so discretely one of them was always with Rinoa.
When she went down to the cafeteria every morning, Selphie or Quistis would talk to her. If she wanted to exercise in the training center, Zell would be innocently nearby doing some training of his own. If she was reading in the Library, Irvine just happened to be flirting with the girls behind the counter. And of course anytime he could wrench himself free from his work, Squall was attached at the hip with her. Even Nida was sometimes called upon to play watchdog. He may have often been ignored, but he was still a top-level SeeD, and a damn fine one.
She looked at her watch. Eleven thirty. Half an hour away from her extra assigned duty. Putting up with Seifer. She hated being handed the responsibility, but she knew she was the only teacher who could probably handle it. She knew Seifer better than anyone else from her time as his teacher. Now she would be his teacher and parole officer. Just like old times.
She spent the next half hour trying not to fall asleep at her desk. She had inadvertently slipped into a doze when she was rudely awakened by two booted feet dropping on her desk in front of her face. She looked up to see the now cleaned visage of Seifer sitting in a chair on across the desk, feet up, attitude on.
"Instructor," He began, trademark sneer gracing his face. "I didn't want to disturb you before since you were busy, but I see that was a misconception."
She looked at the clock in horror to find that it was twelve forty-five. She had slept unknowingly for over an hour, and of all the people catch her at it, it had to be Seifer. She didn't let any of her feelings reach her face.
"I didn't hear you knock."
"That makes sense, because I didn't knock. Should I assume this is nap time everyday?"
She didn't deign to reply. Getting up, she smoothed out her clothes and motioned for him to follow.
The Headmaster first wanted her to take Seifer to the training center and evaluate his present skill level. From the incident at the front gate, she could tell he was far from top form. The trip to the Training Center was left in an unusual silence, and Quistis began to think that it might not be as arduous as she had assumed. The halls were empty at the moment, for which she was thankful. No doubt some sort of trouble would have erupted had the students seen Seifer.
The Training Center was also devoid of other people, and they tramped through the thick underbrush towards the bridge. Halfway there, the bushes rustled and the telltale chittering of a Grat could be heard. Quistis stepped behind Seifer in a good position for support, and Seifer readied his gunblade.
The Grat burst forth from the foliage, tentacles waving in menacing patterns. Moving quickly, but without his former grace, Seifer easily ducked beneath its guard and brought his blade up through its torso in a crippling blow, the bullet speeding through whatever organs the Grat called its own and out its leafy back.
Arms still moving feebly, the Grat slumped to the ground and died. Seifer pulled back and she could see he was panting heavily, and wincing with pain from his ribs. He had refused bed rest. Even such a simplistic assault tired him at this stage. It was clear he would be no match at this point for the more powerful creatures that roamed the enclosed jungle. Making her notes on her clipboard, she looked up at Seifer as he turned around.
"I think that's all for today."
Even as she said it she could see the anger rise in his eyes. Seifer despised weakness, and none more so than his own. He would never admit he was exhausted.
"What the hell are you talking about Trepe?" He spat, eyes narrowing. "We just got here."
"I have enough information to make my repor-"
"You'd have more if you hadn't been sleeping on the fucking job. Stop trying to duck out of your work, Instructor, and instruct."
She stiffened, eyes flashing. "Perhaps I would have more to report if you had any skills worth reporting."
He almost winced. Almost. Like usual, she managed to hit him harder than anyone else. He opened his mouth to fire back but she was already walking away. He frowned. That was new. Usually she would fight him until they were forced to stop for some outside reason. He could remember back at the orphanage sometimes he would hurt her feeling enough to make her cry. She had outgrown that, and now apparently she had outgrown the need to bother with him.
He shook it off, sheathing his gunblade. He headed off to the weight room, a small smile on his face. Next time, Quistis.
Chapter 19: Irreverent Crusade
"Sometimes I feel there are those who would interpret our actions as some mechanism for the end of the world. A doomsday brought about by unnatural occurrence. Myth is rife with such things. 'And the wicked shall inherit the earth'. A charming sentiment for those who can afford it. But you and I must see beyond the customary black and white, and examine the shades of gray between. If history has anything to say, it's that nothing is ever justified. The conquerors and the conquered each have their own very different viewpoints, and each comfort themselves with the knowledge that they stand with the side of Good."
Starting today we will begin actions that many would condemn us for. Recognize this fact, and except it. Face the truth that what we are doing falls beyond the boundaries of standard morality. What the preacher in the pulpit gives forth can only apply to things smaller than himself. Like a man who sleeps with another man's wife and then calls her a whore, those who would judge us are themselves steeped in hypocrisy and lies. Abandon such thinking, and do not hold yourself to any standards but your own."
Over a thousand years ago a great Crusade was launched from Europe with the sole purpose of bringing the Middle East beneath its heel. Now we launch our own similar venture, but we will not be blinded by illusions of grandeur and the false righteousness instilled by religious fervor. We will not go forth in the name of a misguided attempt."
Today, Michael, we start the Crusade of Personal Gain, the only kind that makes sense."
Chapter 20: Unforseen Consequences
"Progress is the Future, and the Future is infinite."
-TAA company slogan
As soon as he put his foot on the step, he knew something was wrong. Maybe it felt just a little too slippery, or maybe his foot was on a slightly wrong angle. Whatever the reason, Scott found himself painfully tumbling head over heels down the first floor dormitory stairway. He shut his eyes just before his head impacted with the tile floor at the bottom. He lay there dazed, still half on the stairs. He figured it probably wouldn't be a good idea to get up until he could make out the light fixture on the ceiling above him. It was just starting to come into focus when a large object talking quickly in concern blocked his vision.
"Scott? Scott? Oh my Hyne, can you hear me?"
"Can you hear me?"
"I think so."
"Here, let me help you-"
He was slowly pulled up into a sitting position by a feminine pair of arms. He uncrossed his eyes and immediately recognized his savior. It was Michelle, the girl he had met in the cafeteria, Rinoa's friend. And maybe it was just the severe blow to the head talking, but-
"What?" She said, an uncertain smile crossing her lips.
He shook himself, mortified. "Uh, nothing. Thanks for the help, I feel pretty- Uh, really stupid."
"Oh.... Well, no problem. Did you slip?"
"Yeah, yeah, just slipped on the stair there...."
"Do you need to go to the infirmary?"
"No, no I'm fine. Just a little bruised...."
Michelle chewed on her lower lip, hoping he would say something else. She had been trying to talk to him again, but he had always been off doing something with Nida or working in the Quad. She had just helped him, the least he could do was ask her out, right? She had questioned herself somewhat on her sudden and inexplicably intent interest in this man, but she felt drawn to him, even if she didn’t know why.
Scott could see the way she was looking at him, he wasn't stupid. Not really stupid, anyway. He did owe it to her for taking the time to help him, but he didn't want to get involved considering the situation he was in. And Michelle seemed like the kind of girl he would want to involved with, too. He had seen her at the Garden every now and then. She was smart, and funny, and really hot, if sometimes a little bit of a ditz. And her breasts pushed against those uniforms in just such a way that he couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel to walk up behind her and mold their soft weight in his hands- but he really shouldn’t be risking an erection until he could stand up and straighten his pants so he pushed those thoughts aside.
"Well, uh, thanks again," He said, getting to his feet. He held the railing for a second to steady himself. "I guess I'll see you around."
"Yeah.... Bye then." She said, obviously disappointed.
Scott quickly walked away. Now, where had he been going? Ah yes, Nida had wanted to show him some secret area in the Training Center. Now what was up with that?
Seifer grunted as he lifted the barbell, veins standing out on his arms. He was struggling to lift less than half the weight he had used to, and he wasn't happy about it. Getting in shape was going to take more time than he wanted. It was embarrassing, really. There had been no gym in prison. Strange, since the thought of prison usually brought to mind the image of inmates pumping steel. They had it right over in Galbadia. Weak inmates equaled less resistance. The algebra of politics.
The gym was an extension of the Training Center, a small entryway to the left of the large steel doors that kept the creatures where they belonged. It was fairly large, but not very used, Garden policy being that fighting monsters was superior training to weight lifting. Sometimes classes did come in on rotation, but today the gym was empty save for Seifer, and he was glad of it. However, he had little doubt Quistis would be back to check on him periodically. The stupid bitch, he mentally tacked onto the end of the thought for good measure.
His solitude was interrupted as the door banged open, and Seifer froze when he saw the figure entering the room. Zell Dincht. This could only go downhill.
Zell also stopped in his tracks. His face registered several emotions before it settled on rage. Seifer struggled to keep his mouth shut, knowing whatever insult he uttered would only worsen the situation. As much as Seifer loved to give Zell a hard time, he also wanted to stay in Garden. And keep his ribs intact. Zell stared at him for a few seconds, fists shaking, before abruptly turning on his heel and leaving, slamming the door behind him.
Seifer let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. There was no doubt in his mind that if Zell had opted to stay there would have been trouble. He mentally thanked his newfound self-control. There were many at the Garden who would use any excuse to kick him out again, and a fight with Zell might have given them the ammo they needed.
Shaking his head, he went back to the weights.
If Squall was a man given to outbursts of frustration, which he wasn't, then he would have no doubt been in a state somewhere near frothing at the mouth. After six hours of queries, waiting on hold, and more queries, he could make only one conclusion based on the information he had received- Dr. Odine did not exist.
No one had seen him. His laboratory was empty. His secretary could not be found, and every trace of his work was under lock and key. The only useful piece of information he had gleaned had been from an Estharian Home Front officer, indicating that it was quite possible the Doctor was no longer in the country. But not even the prestigious position of SeeD Commander could open any more doors. Odine had slipped into a hole and filled it shut behind him.
Squall was jerked out of his trance by the sudden opening of his office doors, and a female SeeD entered carrying a large bag marked as postage. No doubt something important that had come in the mail. He frowned, trying to remember her name. Michelle something. SeeD in training, currently a temp for one of the many secretarial positions needed to run the office side of Garden.
Michelle mistook his frown to be directed at her and, smiling apologetically, quickly set the bag down and left the office. Squall picked it up, finding it to be surprisingly light for a bag of its size. He opened it, and his eyes grew wide at the sight of its content.
It was their clothes. There was Selphie's yellow outfit and Quistis' pink vest. Irvine's trenchcoat took up most of the bag. At the bottom was the faded and tattered jumpsuit of Scott’s.
Squall pulled out his leather jacket, relishing the texture of it. He would never admit it to anyone, but he had missed his old clothes. He just never could get comfortable in SeeD uniform.
He picked up the bag, turning it over. No return address. The report clipped to it stated it had arrived in Balamb on boat with the rest of the standard mail. With common sense Squall could deduce it had come from Galbadia, most likely from Deling City. Another strange peace overture? Unless more clues could be gleaned from the bag itself, there would be no way to trace it back to the precise location it had been sent from or, much more importantly, under whose name it had been sent in.
Swiveling his chair back to face the desk, Squall pressed the intercom button.
The rest of the group had assembled in less than fifteen minutes, pulled away from their various teaching assignments, or in Rinoa's case, class. There was a minute of silence as Squall threw the bag on the floor in the middle, its contents spilling out on the floor. He was already dressed in his usual attire.
Selphie was the first to make a sound, squealing with joy as she pulled her dress out of the bag. Zell scratched the back of his neck, puzzled. Irvine was busy pulling his things out of the bag, and Rinoa was hiding a smile, noticing that Irvine was already wearing an exact duplicate of his lost outfit. Scott didn’t really care that much if he recovered his rag tag jumpsuit, but bent down to pick it up anyway.
Quistis looked at Squall. "How did you get these?"
"Mail. Evidence already went through them. No bugs, no traps. No return address."
He sighed. "Yes. I don't even have an idea why they didn't just send this back with Seifer. Assuming the simplest explanation we could even suppose they simply forgot."
Zell was pacing, a sure sign he was thinking about something or the other. "I don't get it man. They went through all that trouble to grab you, and now they're giving back your stuff?"
Quistis was deep in thought. “Obviously the change of government in Deling was total. This is probably another gesture of friendship.”
"Maybe they've had a change of heart then!" Selphie chirped, laying her dress on the floor and smoothing out the wrinkles. "Maybe this is their way of saying sorry for what the other government did?"
Quistis rolled her eyes. "I don't think Galbadia is very sorry about anything."
"So, maybe they're all cool with us then?" Zell asked, popping his knuckles. "Sending back our shit seems pretty friendly."
Selphie smiled delightedly at her dress again. "Well, I'm sold!"
Quistis frowned, still unsatisfied. "I don't know. How come they haven't contacted us then? If this was a peace offering they should have given it with the clear message that it was intended as such. At least Seifer acted as a clear messenger."
Squall put a hand to his forehead, not replying. It was all so puzzling. Who would bother to return clothing by mail? It was almost as if the new Galbadian government didn't want the clothes on their hands and decided to get rid of them by giving them back. Squall had attempted contact with Deling several times, to no success. Whoever was on the other end of the line wasn't talking back, and the steadily increasing lack of information on the Galbadian situation was becoming worrying. Nothing fit together, nothing made sense.
A great feeling of aggravation descended on him as he braced himself for the inevitable, which he had successfully stalled up until this point. He would have to talk to Laguna and see if he knew anything. He had learned what he could through strictly diplomatic channels, but now he would have to call in some favors. He winced in distaste at the thought of using his 'relationship' with Laguna for something like this.
First, however, the matters at hand. "I don't think we can learn anything else standing around. Get back to your classes, I'll tell you if anything else turns up. Anybody missing anything?"
They all replied with assorted negatives, every missing piece of clothing back in the hands of its rightful owner. "Good. Dismissed."
They all left the room, Rinoa giving him a hug and kiss on the cheek before heading back to her class. Squall turned back to the monitor, reaching for the dreaded com button to Esthar, when he noticed Zell hadn't left yet, hanging around the water cooler next to the door. He frowned yet again. What exactly had Zell been doing today? Surely he had been working on something or the other. Zell met his gaze, and Squall raised an eyebrow in question.
Zell kicked the floor sheepishly, hands in his pockets. "Hey, man, look, uh, I was wondering if maybe you wanted to, uh, hang out today, or something?"
Squall raised the other eyebrow.
"Well, you know, Sei-, uh, somebody else was already using the weight room, and Selphie is too busy today so we're not putting up the stage, and I'm tired of training by myself. It didn't look like you were doing anything, so I figured....."
Didn't look like he was doing anything? No Zell, I'll go waste time with you. You’re right, I wasn't doing anything, just working my ass off over matters of extreme political import. Obviously, all I need to remove that pole up my ass is a half hour with you in the Training Center.
Squall almost smiled at his inner monologue. Almost. He sighed, rubbing his eyes. Wasn't everyone always saying he needed to take more breaks? What the hell. He would take the rest of the day off and then make sure in future that Zell always had something to do.
"Have you ever heard the saying, 'complete the motion if you stumble'? A wise choice. Try to keep some perspective. This is only a minor setback."
Hendrow shook his head, marveling that Julian could be so calm. He himself was shaking and sweaty, and no doubt would have been near panic if it weren't for Julian's calming aura. God knew the rest of the men were. And unless something could be done soon, there was no predicting what might happen.
Whatever the consequences, it was clear that at 4:14 Earthside Eastern time, the portal had folded in on itself and disappeared. There had been no warning, no messages of alarms from the lab. In a matter of seconds, the portal had lost integrity, wavered, shrunk into nothing and vanished. They had received word of the incident from base camp just a moment before, over an hour after the fact. And judging by the wording of the message, the atmosphere at the camp was fast going from bad to worse.
Julian folded the communiqué, a text message relayed by a hookup the base had established with the Galbadian communications system linked by the tower in Dollet. Voice and video were not yet available.
"Call up one of the APCs. We need to get back as soon as possible and make the best of this. I'm sure all we need is to give the people Earthside some time to reopen the portal, and the last thing we need is for panic to set in," Julian said getting up, confidence still in his posture. "I must address the men."
The Lab was becoming more tumultuous by the minute, and the Agent was neck deep in it all.
From the strangled whispers and frantic mutterings all around, he had gathered that something was desperately wrong. The worst possible scenario had come true, and the Portal was in jeopardy. Technicians ran back and forth through the halls, wide eyed, lab coats flapping behind them. Reports were circulating and everyone had been called forth for active duty. And when things quieted down in the momentary lulls between the panic, the Agent thought he could hear alarms faintly blaring in the distance. And he knew what he had to do.
Summoning his courage, the Agent prepared to use the confusion to his advantage. He would attempt to penetrate the lock doors from which he had been turned away before.
It was now or never.
Hyne felt a great load slip from her shoulders as the portal collapsed, and some of the damage wrought was righted. The pulsing tangle of the Knot still wore at her, but without the rasping presence of the Portal scratching at the back of her mind, she could deal with it better. But no matter what, she could only delay the inevitable.
She watched as the Outsiders left Deling. They would try and renew the Portal, and she wished them nothing but failure. She could see the movement of their army, their troops positioning themselves. Soon, this mighty force would be launched at her children, and she would be powerless to help them.
The tiniest spark of an idea settled in her conscience. Powerless, unless... Yes, it could happen. But it would have to happen just right.
Reaching out, Hyne began to put her grand scheme into motion. Once she was finished, it would be out of her hands and into the less capable ones of Fate. She could only watch, and wait, and hope.
At which point it should have fallen into your supposedly capable hands.
If you keep interrupting me this is going to take forever.
And thus I must remind you that we have forever.
Yeah, but I’m sure as hell not going to spend it with you.
You may very well be spending a great deal of it on a desolate rock somewhere if you can’t talk your way out of this. Continue.
Continue to Part 4