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PuPu's Saga Chapter 13
by Jeremy Chapter




Setting 13: 2041 DAY 15, Nova Trabia Garden Officer’s Lounge 1F


"A woman was leader of this deed."

-Vergil
Aeneid II
Selphie couldn't tell for sure if her legs were still attached to her body.

Usually even if she worked hard and long enough to lose the ability to communicate with her lower body's nervous system, she could make sure just by looking down and do a quick check with her eyes. Today was different though. Today, she was visually challenged.

I hope no one sees me with these on, she worried. The officer lounge looked empty when she came in and plopped down on awkwardly over-sized SeeD-approved sofas. It seemed safe enough to whip out her binocular-like spectacles and try to ascertain the current status of her thigh-hip connections.

After some struggle to lean forward far enough to see both of her waxed legs in their entirety, she sighed happily and sank back into the huge sofa. It was surprisingly easy to sink into. I wonder if anyone would notice if this thing swallowed me.

In fact, the plushy material had come up so far around the edges of her body that she was becoming aware of the danger of being totally engulfed. As the sofa continued to adjust itself and pour itself out around her contour, Selphie felt the need to question whether her slim shape just happened to afford the sofa maximal absorption capabilities or if she was heavy enough to continuously displace the sofa stuffing with no apparent diminishing marginal rate of return.

Both possibilities frightened her, and so she decided it was a good time to stand up.

Much to her dismay, the harder she fought, the quicker she sank. Pretty soon, she was completely immersed in sofa plush. Had Selphie not left her nunchakus on the common table beside her construction portfolio, daily Garden news sheet, and evening officer reports, she would have tore the couch apart. The sentiment of regret coursed pitifully through her veins.

Deciding to look on the bright side, Selphie decided to check herself out while she was hidden from view. For some reason she felt fat even though she could not locate single locus of flab to grip. Half cheered, she reflected, Well, if anything, eating disorders only apply to Rinoa.

The sofa had covered her face for awhile now, mashing her glasses against her face, and the number of things less pleasant than that feeling was coming dangerously close to approaching the number of times Irvine hit his mark that one time they hired him to assassinate the Sorceress- zero. After much straining and less than comfortable contorting, she managed to remove her eyeglasses and return them into the pocket of her orange jump suit.

"Wait! Back up a minute!" Selphie corrected herself out loud. "My sweaty…itchy…ugly construction uniform."

A fair amount of effort went into producing the desired, caustically emphatic effect for the last words in the pronouncement. Another flood of remorse raced through her. Tonberry be damned! I left my orange skirt in my suitcase!

Selphie began bawling, wishing earnestly to be sitting in the standard-issue, conference-room-style, upright chair by the common table where she could just reach down into her suitcase and produce her casual dress. She missed her dress and freedom so much that she started to list aloud the number of things she would give up just to have access to those two things.

Her day had been awful and even now, when she finally had a moment to herself, it showed no sign of getting better. Unless of course, she griped to herself, one considers being swallowed by a sofa and kept from the rest of the world forever a great way to top off a day of various accidents at the construction site, losing a contact lens, and getting trounced in the intro to engineering with applications class by the level 4 SeeD students!

Selphie could not understand why the rest of the group had it so easy. There was no tangible reason that she could think of that might explain Headmaster Cid’s decision to have her supervise construction all by herself. Just because she had uploaded her personal journal online and organized the Balamb Garden Festival Committee for extracurricular functions, he and everyone else automatically assumed she was enthused with the idea of directing the ground crew. To tell the truth, she deeply resented having to perpetuate her cheery disposition 24-7. It made everyone think she actually liked having all this responsibility and being the last officer to clock out every evening. Selphie’s mood went from light showers to treacherous downpour on the analogous weather meter.

It isn’t fair, she fussed, how Squall can just sit by the beach and ignore the problems of the world when I get to rebuild an entire Garden?

Selphie really did want to help rebuild her home Garden, but what meant by "help" did not go so far as to include the totally unattractive role of wearing a construction hat, misinterpreting messy, indecipherable blueprints, being embarrassed in front of the workers when she held them up, or trying to remain undaunted by the humiliation she felt when they finally found it convenient to point out just how wrong she was. The ratio between the number of orders she announced through the distastefully masculine-sounding loudspeaker and number of declarations she had to make rescinding her previous order was fast approaching one to two because she had gotten herself in the habit of botching every initial order of correction.

On the bright side, she confessed stormily, after these past two weeks, I’ve proved myself so completely inept to every worker that I have no more face to lose.

She thought about what she just admitted. Is that good or bad?

She observed nothing but silence for a few minutes, wondering which of the many events of her day was most responsible for her feeling so crabby and dissatisfied with everyone in the world, including herself.

And that Irvine! she protested with nostrils flaring. Where is he? He’s been site-seeing with Zell for the past two weeks.

More meekly and perhaps even resentfully, she added, Why couldn’t he have taken me?

The missing words "instead of Zell" at the end of her thought were implied.

Oh, wait, she caught herself just in time with a sudden blush that surprised her, there is no way I’m going to think about him.

But even in that almost insignificantly short span of time she took to bring him up, Selphie had somehow managed to frown and miss his company. But what was there to miss when all he did was prod her into smacking him, or acting so goofy that it would be impossible to take him seriously anytime afterwards, or censure his wandering eyes and arms when he snuck away from her to hang around, and oftentimes all over, Quistis and those squealing SeeD trainees. If a facial reproach was not the remedy, a lengthy verbal castigation or in some extreme cases a de-cleating, full-body tackle could be relied on to keep him in order.

Eden knows how mad he made her sometimes!

Selphie’s countenance darkened at the cognizance of the possibility that Irvine was having the time of his life with whatever and whomever he might find titillating, having finally escaped her tyrannical clutches. Not that there’s any reason why he isn’t allowed check out other females since he’s not beholden to me.

Immediately after that thought, her eyebrows quivered for a second as a new, scary idea dawned on her. Why should his spending time on other girls bother me unless-

Impossible! she broke into her own train of thought furiously and quickly dismissed it in all of its absurdity. For some reason though, the possibility was so overwhelming and had caught her so completely off guard that it had created a suffocating effect and threw off her breathing patterns. She would rather be daily ravished by three Behemoths simultaneously than go out with him!

It was unlikely that any of the teenybopper Garden interns would pass him up, though, so she resolved to make sure that it would be the end for whoever so much as batted her eyes, licked her lips, tossed her hair, giggled, ran her eyes over him head to toe, brushed his fingers past his arm, or jutted her hips in his direction. It would be literally the end.

Forcing herself to move on to the next topic, she wondered what besides Irvine’s absence, which she could and had plainly ruled out, could induce her to feel so depressed and crabby?

It could be a number of things, Selphie acknowledged with a sad sigh. Where do I start?

She revisited first the awful three hours during which she whipped all the workers through the demolition of a good two days’ work because she had read the plans wrong. All the while she had prayed that Squall would not notice that they were tearing more structures down than they were putting up, but with his constant dereliction of office, it was by no great feat of providence that Squall never stumbled upon the deconstruction site and wonder what was going on. The wrecking crew had been doing a satisfactory job, but morale was low so she went down to the ground floor and tried to inspire everyone with her presence as a figurehead. Her decision, she soon realized, was badly miscalculated, and the most probable reason why morale had fallen in the first place was because of her interference.

Selphie whimpered ashamedly at the recollection of poking her nose into the area marked for leveling via explosives. In retrospect, just bugging the jackhammer operators would have been a better idea than observing the detonation team’s progress without the protocol safety goggles. But she had found the eyewear too bulky to put on her face and clashed too much with her orange construction uniform to include it in her wardrobe, even for five minutes. And now Selphie was sorry.

She rubbed her left eye, still swollen from catching that nasty bit of concrete shard, picked up by the mischievous wind and insidiously carried over to her side. She had cried in pain and instead of just waiting for medical support, had rubbed it furiously, working up a storm in the inflamed socket and a great deal of huff from her. On top of all that, the oppressive sunlight that had been bearing down on her all week was very near giving her a heat stroke to go with the distastefully dark tan. The temperature had become so unbearable in the construction uniform that after the accident occurred, she just threw it off without caring if she had anything on underneath. It just so happened that she had her skimpy but trusty orange skirt to cover her.

Still, her body was gleaming with sweat as she stepped out of her own personal oven of a costume, and because of her crippled left eye that resembled a wink, her every action was misconstrued as an invitation for a pick-up line. It was beyond her workers to grasp the concept of ethnographic analysis, in the true, semiotic approach of ethnography, of her non-wink, or twitch, as opposed to a wink, so every guy in the quad-to-be thought he had a date with her this coming weekend. It was not beyond her to realize after a few failed attempts to educate them that all additional attempts would be futile as well, and that she would just have to bear their swooning, just like she had to bear her job.

Meanwhile, her impairment was bad enough to make Selphie relinquish the use of the contact lens in that eye, though she stubbornly tried to walk around for another hour with just one contact. The lustier passersby tried to hit on her, mistaking her for being drunk and winking at them. Those she dispersed with screams of harassment through her still fully functional loudspeaker. After that, she felt it wiser to restore the accursed orange jump suit to her body, but unwilling to risk sunstroke, she decided to pack her orange skirt in her briefcase.

Eventually, after stumbling around like she was learning to walk all over again, Selphie had to take out the remaining contact and toss it on the ground. Not satisfied with just doing that, Selphie retraced her steps and made sure that she had trodden over it. This flurry of kicks and stomps was veneered by her hopping up and down on it. The students who walked past her during her episode took it with more consternation than confusion, and only one gathered enough courage to ask her if she needed help finding the infirmary. She tried to dunk him in the nearby fountain, of course, but whether because her eye was hurting so much or because of the lingering fear in the back of her head that she might hurt him due to the lack of water in the fountain, she stayed her hand and settled with just knocking him over.

A further nuisance, which Selphie did not look forward to handling, was calling up one of her aides at her Balamb office to have her send replacement contact lens via Chocobo Express. Each pair had been prescribed by Dr. Kadowaki as being effective for one month of wear. Selphie had planned for her next replacement set to be shipped to her along with all the other domestic supplies by the biweekly transport. She had not planned on discarding her current set of contacts so soon and have to wait for that transport’s next arrival, still a lamentable number of days away.

Deeply nested in between the folds of the sofa, Selphie shivered at the realization of the cost of an overnight delivery via Chocobo Express for her contacts. Even if she had 100,000 Gil to burn, she wasn’t sure if they would get it to her all in one, or in this case, two pieces.

While they’re usually dependable, she fretted, every now and then you get a chocobo rider who misreads his map, confuses his routes, or lights up the chocobo’s apportioned Gysahl Greens and smokes it on the road. What you end up with is a hungry and unforgiving chocobo who will eat its rider when he gets so high from the fumes that he falls off the mount.

Selphie remembered other bizarre cases where either the chocobo or the rider grew hungry enough to exhaust both the chocobo’s feed and its tag and began eating the contents of the package they were delivering. She cringed at the thought at what her contacts tasted like. For this order, she would need a well- fed chocobo with abnormally brisk feet and a well-fed rider who wouldn’t be smashed on some random toxin, on the leg of the trip to her anyway.

If Selphie’s arms had wider ranges of motions, she would have covered her face in despair; she hadn’t begun to list the number of natural mishaps that could arise on any trip, including a sprained ankle on land, a torn wing muscle during the overseas flight, a thunderstorm, or a head-on collision with another chocobo going its maximum speed.

She sighed loudly and miserably. Chocobos are everywhere! Chocobo taxis, chocobo air lifts, other chocobo mail carriers, and even fast-food chocobo delivery boys!

Danger, it seemed, was ubiquitous if not imminent.

Selphie considered the alternate solution of buying a new set from Dr. Kadowaki in the Nova Trabia Garden infirmary down the hall. How much did they cost again? Selphie almost cried when she recalled the figure she paid for her last set.

After the initial purchase had put a nice gapping hole in her budget, the additional purchase of a second set, a decision made largely in response to her foresight that now turned out to be quite propitious, had sucked her credit dry and then some.

Tears forced their way out of her swollen eye sockets at the remembrance of the number of experiences she had during that period when Squall refused to drive her from Balamb Garden to the town store to buy items for her womanly needs. The Garden infirmary did not provide them, and for all the Gil that Rinoa got from her daily allowance from her father or that Quistis received from Garden benefits as a SeeD instructor or Nida from similar benefits as a heavy-machinery operator, none of them were ever willing to lend her any from their own respective stocks. Every time Selphie had an emergency situation, they refused.

Thus deprived of aid and bereft of both a ride to town and the means to take a choco-cab, poor Selphie was forced to run from the Garden to the Balamb store and suffer a myriad of itchy and uncomely Bite Bug welts. She was not particularly happy with Rinoa, the richest one of the three who had spare Gil, not bailing her out.

But I showed Rinoa! she affirmed proudly. I stole the entire box of chocobolates from the Balamb Garden cafeteria and made off with all of Zell’s coveted hot dogs!

She was not sure what any of her grievances had to do with Zell, but she was sure he had to be punished anyway. Surely someone had to reimburse her for the humiliation to which she had been subject even after she’d entered the town.

It might as well be Zell, she figured.

She preferred to ignore the blatant non sequitur and focus on how far she had to stoop to amass the money needed to buy the products she badly needed. The store manager refused to budge an inch, as if some charity in light of Selphie’s plight would kill him. In order to procure the required Gil, Selphie had to hobble around town, soliciting for donations and oftentimes receiving instead the rude kicks that beggars have to risk and, once incurred, endure. Repeated occurrences had eaten away so much of her dignity that it was a wonder to Selphie herself how in the Ifrit she had managed to not to just surrender herself to do any of the "favors" the choco-cab driver requested in place of the taxi fare, as she could have debased herself any more than she already had.

No! she told herself forcefully. I’m better than that!

And yet, she could not dismiss the stifling disbelief that covered her when she evaluated where all her efforts had gotten her- this fine mess.

All because of some contacts! Selphie marveled in disgust mixed with dissatisfaction. Contacts to which I don’t even have access!

Selphie’s eyes narrowed at the thought of Dr. Kadowaki again. While she was out begging for pocket change the good doctor had passed by in her shiny new sedan, never bothering to cast a glance in her direction. Given a choice though, Selphie would have preferred anonymity for she was not proud of what she was doing. Once classy car had even splashed a good deal of roadside filth that had collected in a murky pothole onto Selphie’s leg. At the time she had been in such a state of desperation and embarrassment that there was little problem in resolving not to press for reparations.

Selphie now wondered how Dr. Kadowaki could afford so expensive a ride.

No doctor can possibly make that much from customary wages, Selphie analyzed, unless he makes huge rips off fraudulently bloated fees.

The truth hit Selphie like a bag of bricks. To Diablos with it! The price for my contacts is outrageous enough!

Until just then, she had no idea that being gypped could feel so awful. The connection she made between her penury, the so-called "specially-priced contact lens," and Dr. Kadowaki’s wealth bore a gnawing hole through the back of her throat and into the depths of her stomach. It was only fitting that the drilling effect be implemented figuratively on her organs as it had already put a figurative hole in the pocket that contained her wallet. It was painstakingly obvious to Selphie that while her skirt never afforded her the luxury of a pocket, the fact did not preclude her losing the luxury of having a purse or any kind of luxury at all.

Unsurprisingly the results of her comparing the price of a brand new set of contacts to that of the overnight Chocobo Express delivery for the last five minutes were inconclusive. The only conclusion she had reached was the certainty of her maliciously complete destitution to complement her tragic career as a construction forewoman and visual impairment, the remedy of both of which were still very much in question.

Well that’s just GREAT!!! she screamed internally with no one particular addressee in mind. I hope you all rot in hell! And take Diablos with you!

She flailed helplessly in the sofa’s unrelenting clutches, venting all her bitterness on the imperturbable buffer between her and the rest of the world. It got her nowhere, and after a moment, when fatigue finally overcame her, Selphie settled down and sulked quietly.

It can’t all be bad, she reasoned. I’m sure there has to have been at least one part of the day that was good.

She searched and searched and searched.

"Crap-dammit!" she cursed. "Nothing at all!"

Well this is clearly unfortunate, she huffed, but then considered, What about my lunch break?

Selphie’s eyes flashed at the suggestion. She had forgotten all about her lunch break, and if there was anything she could count on to brighten her day, it would be that.

At least that’s what Rinoa always said, Selphie thought gingerly, Rinoa, who has never had a job in her life!

She briefly wondered if all her hostility towards her fair-skinned companion was legitimate. Passing over the fact that Rinoa was probably having the time of her life, lounging around the sun deck at Balamb Garden without a care in the world, Selphie still had cause to furrow her brows and grind her teeth together. It wasn’t because Rinoa was selfish or because she was dead rich and spoiled, but because Selphie was sure that her girl friend probably had a more expensive, classier, heartier, and in all ways better lunch than she did.

Face it, Selphie, she told herself, Rinoa has everything better, maybe because she’s better in every way.

If she tried she might have been able to slap herself. What are you thinking, stupid! No way is Rinoa better than me!

The conviction disappeared from her face again and she moped, "Then why does everyone gawk at her and why does her skin glisten like a lady?"

The sterner side of Selphie replied, I can be a lady too.

Nodding, she straightened up and affirmed with resolve, "Of course I can! I can be gentile! I can be elegant!"

The less confident side of Selphie recoiled and shakily posed, But then why is she given chopsticks at Garden Noodle every time she sits down at a table? Selphie frowned at the illumination of inequality in service. Yeah, they always give me a fork!

That can’t be because Rinoa LOOKS Asian, can it? her confident side scoffed.

"No, that’s too obvious," she mumbled under her breath and continued to rack her brains for another solution.

Trust me, her more self-assured side continued, it’s because you look Caucasian.

"The restaurant doesn’t discriminate!" Selphie chuckled, dismissing the outrageous notion. "Besides, Rinoa isn’t even Asian."

Not even with her black hair, how she orders her meals in some oriental dialect or tips the waiter in yen? her confidence sneered at her.

You shut up! her insecure side disagreed in a manner quite unlike her insecure side. It’s obviously because Rinoa is a better person.

Are you off your rockers? her confidence screamed in return. I’m definitely better than that-

"Enough!" Selphie cried, officially ending the conversation with herself.

Having put her foot down, figuratively, she tried to ignore the sickening feeling churning wildly in her bowels. It was sickening because she remembered how even when she and Rinoa went to Garden Noodle together, Rinoa would always receive chopsticks without having to ask, and she just the opposite. If Rinoa was reserving seats before her party arrived, every seat would have a pair of chopsticks in front of it. If Selphie herself arrived early, a fork marked each seat. Each experience renewed the stigma of it all, just like being branded over and over by a hot poker in the same place to reveal the desiccated scar that her heart had tried so hard to heal.

"They gave me a fork today," Selphie mumbled sadly, "even though I didn’t eat with Rinoa."

She couldn’t decide if the latter part of her sentence was propitious or not.

Frankly she was in no mood to give Squall’s little burden another thought.

Selphie focused on what happened at Garden Noodle during her most recent lunch break. She had ordered beef wonton noodle soup but they had given her the item without wontons. Their argument was that the soup in which the noodle was immersed had been saved from boiling the wontons. Technically they reserved the right to give or withhold wontons from the beef noodle with soup from wonton boiling. They also lectured her on how she should have specified her desire for wontons by ordering the beef wonton noodle soup with wontons. At first she had tried to argue with them, pointing out that it seemed redundant to use the term wanton twice in the name of a single dish, but the head cook had snapped at her how ordering beef noodle soup instead of beef wonton noodle soup implied that the noodle was made of beef.

At that time Selphie was still convinced that she could win the debate so summoning all her courage, she pointed out to him that because there were no separate slices of beef in the noodle soup and that all the beef happened to be in the wontons, Garden Noodle would be falsely advertising if they gave her beef wonton noodle soup without either the beef or the wontons. Had the head waitress not stopped her husband, the chef would have smacked Selphie with whatever blunt utensil he happened to be holding just then. Unfortunately for Selphie the head waitress was more polemical than her spouse and had a much better grasp of the English language. The woman had proceeded to point out how beef wonton noodle soup without wontons could still technically qualify as what the restaurant advertised because even if there was no beef in the bowl itself, the soup had been made in part from wontons in which beef had been wrapped. Thus, the essence of the beef pervaded the soup which now filled the bowl of noodles. Further, had they included separate slices or chunks of beef, they would have to change the name of the dish from beef wonton noodle soup to beef wonton noodle stew, and anyone could see that it was not a stew.

Thus sinking all of Selphie’s hopes to acquire her wontons and squelching any cause for further complaints, the head waitress left her crying at her lonely table, wishing Irvine had been sitting next to her during the polemic and act goofy enough to draw the brunt of the restaurant staff’s wrath.

Any appetite she had left disappeared when she realized that she had not specified which of the eight types of noodle she wanted in her noodle soup; all their noodle soups could be served with eight different types of noodle, and by not asking for the third type, her favorite because each strand was wide and soft, she ended up with the stringy, hair-like noodle which was impossible to pick up without the use of chopsticks. Selphie glared at the smirking waitress, completely aware that this predicament had been the evil woman’s plan all along. Not ameliorating the situation at all was the fact that the default stringy noodle was also the most expensive of the eight noodles. Selphie was not unaware of the waitress’ calculation of this small detail either. Once, two dining experiences previous to that one, she had gotten into heated argument with the head waitress about the validity of charging more for the default option than a specialty. That confrontation had left her in tears as well.

So then, because both her appetite and utensils were been lacking, Selphie had been doubly unable to eat her wontonless beef wonton noodle soup, by now cooled to a stone-cold, gruesome, curdled block of grease. The smartest thing she could think of doing was paying for the meal and attempt to strut out of the restaurant in her gritty construction uniform with as much pride in each step as she could muster. That activity, too, was discouraged when the cashier chased after her while flinging the loftiest bunch of invectives she had heard in a long time, demanding that she leave at least fifteen percent over the bill for gratuity. It didn’t matter to him if Selphie was exactly zero percent grateful and wanted a complete refund for a dish she hadn’t touched, he just had to have 3 Gil before she was allowed to walk out the door.

Later that day there would be floating around the underclassmen student body the rumor of a level A SeeD dressed in an ugly construction uniform, wailing her heart out at the entrance of Garden Noodle, trying vainly to shell out the 3 Gil she needed to buy her freedom.

It suddenly occurred to Selphie, sitting snugly where she was, that being trapped in the sofa was probably the safest place to be. This furniture-induced asylum of hers was a pseudo-treat-yourself, organically healing getaway where she wouldn’t have to be bothered by anyone and could have time to herself. She hadn’t felt this state of peacefulness since she planted those three rosebushes at daybreak, right before she had to don her jump suit and prove her incompetence to the world yet again. They had taken her awhile, but she was an early riser and she enjoyed the tranquility of the dawn. Besides, the roses never complained, letting her do her job the way she wanted to.

Selphie’s face revealed a grin. At the expense of sounding redundant, which she felt she could comfortably afford, she celebrated internally, It’s my personal Selphie-time!

Just then she heard the hissing sound of the automatic door opening, followed shortly by the clicking sound of a pair of high heels. Selphie groaned on reflex. Just great!

Sunken though she was inside the sofa, she could smell the distinctive lily scent that now flooded the air. Only one person she knew could be reeking of so much perfume, that scrawny, whiny, little-

"Instructor Tilmitt?" the SeeD trainee called out in a prissy, squeaking, high- pitched voice.

Selphie rolled her eyes. It was clear that little miss Lily, also a daddy’s little girl like some blue-and-black-clad general’s daughter she knew, was poking her nose inside the restricted officer’s lounge to see what it looked like and maybe to catch a glimpse of Squall napping. It was no secret that all the teenybopper girls whom Garden edified started out this way.

Too bad for Rinoa, Selphie reflected, many of them ended that way too.

Lily in the meantime had strutted towards the center of the room.

You’re not supposed to be sneaking around, Selphie thought giddily. Girl, you are mine!

"Instructor Tilmitt?" Lily called out again. "I saw you come in here."

To Diablos with her! Selphie swore silently. Now I have to get up.

It did not occur to her how embarrassing the view was of her hand, poking out between the cushions and waving frenetically in the blind hopes of catching Lily’s attention, was until it was too late. Lily tried her best not to giggle too hard before rushing over as quickly as her high heels would allow and try to pull her instructor out of the sofa.

While Selphie was not a heavy body to lift, the unorthodox angle at which her arm breached the surface afforded little leverage for her short pupil who was even less heavy and whose fingers were much more dainty. Selphie took the opportunity to squeeze those detestably smooth, virgin hands with her own weapon-broken, callused ones.

While no more than half of her intent was geared towards pulling the squeamish girl into the same ridiculous position she was in, the frivolous tug caught Lily while she least expected it. The girl teetered unstably for a split-second before falling into the snare. This strange development surprised Selphie more than it did her victim because the last thing she needed today besides a visit from Ultimecia was Lily Furgle’s face on her chest. Granted it wasn’t there long because the poor girl immediately began to struggle and scream, Selphie’s anxieties did not diminish, due largely to how quickly Lily’s painted fingernails found her face and how deep the girl’s high heels were digging into her thigh.

For once Selphie was glad to have been wearing the plastic construction uniform, which dulled the points of the heel sand distributed the force of the thrusts over a larger area. With the mini-skirt on, Selphie’s leg would have had no such protection and the unpleasant gash that would have no doubt resulted from the shoe to skin interface would haunt her as a permanent stigma of her ineptitude.

Nothing like a flesh wound to remind you of your follies, Selphie contemplated bitterly.

It was obvious that Selphie’s well-being was not one of Ms. Furgle’s priorities.

She was frantically pushing her instructor down in order to propel herself up.

Had they been in the water, it would not have been a pretty sight, assuming that it was pretty at the moment.

What are thinking? she corrected herself. Pretty? If we were in the water, this would be murder!

The girl continued to push Selphie deeper into the sofa.

Ingrate! Selphie fumed. Where is your sense of duty?

She was only fooling herself though; it’s not like her first reaction in a life- threatening situation would be to sacrifice herself for the salvation of a superior officer.

Ironically teaching the differential equations class with Lily in the front row asking questions off of a list was what had exhausted Selphie so much that she decided to flop down on the couch in the first place. Now they were together in this mess, she and her least favorite student. It would not be inaccurate to describe Selphie as being weighed down by the largest grievance of her day, in both the literal and figurative sense.

The girl refused to listen to her commands, drowning out Selphie’s shouts with her own screams as she continued to flounder around. Those high heels are really beginning to hurt.

Lily was lucky enough to break the surface and pull herself out before Selphie took the liberty of breaking her ankles. With one final shove with the foot, much to Selphie’s consternation, Lily was out and scrambling for the door.

Before she could make it out of the door, Selphie managed to vocalize a threat to lower her grade in the class. When she heard the skidding sound of Lily’s high heels against the floor, she knew the ruse had worked. The girl pulled off a tight revolution in one smooth motion to face Selphie and chirped indignantly, "Hey! You can’t do that!"

"Why not?" Selphie countered.

"The instructor’s code doesn’t give you that privilege!" Lily argued, making an effort to jump up and down to emphasize her point.

And how would you know that? Selphie thought with a frown. Actually I can’t fail you because we need you father’s donation to pay for all the materials for the new Headmaster’s quarters..

"How about out of the goodness of your heart, then?" Selphie posed.

Lily seemed to consider it semi-seriously before replying, "Nah."

Selphie rolled her eyes. My whole life, as I know it, has been dismissed by one syllable.

"I’ll give you extra credit," Selphie sweetened the deal. And I won’t rip your heart out.

"I don’t need the extra credit," Lily responded politely.

How about your heart? Do you need that? Selphie thought in a rage.

Instead of saying what she wanted to say, she deferred to the plea, "What do you want, then?"

Lily, obviously expecting her instructor to hand her the carte blanche, blurted out almost immediately, "A one-on-one session with Commander Squall!"

Selphie had seen that coming, but lifted her eyebrow simply because the girl was audacious enough to say it. Not a chance, sweetheart; the other girls would tear you apart the moment they found out.

"You don’t want anything else?" Selphie asked on the slim chance that Lily was being facetious just to distress her.

"Nah," was the same, terribly annoying reply she got.

"That’s impossible, even for me," Selphie said honestly. "A kiss is the best I can do."

"Not good enough," Lily pouted.

"Take it or leave it," Selphie pronounced flatly. Just don’t leave ME!

Lily flipped her smooth, excessively-washed hair over her shoulders as she was accustomed to do while she thought.

Selphie was praying in the name of every GF that Lily had been purposely over- bargaining.

"Fine," Lily decided after another moment of excruciating silence, "what do you want me to do?"

"Help me out of here," Selphie said at a speed where there would be no way a listener could mistake her words or misconstrue their meaning as a whole.

"I’m not strong enough to do it by myself," Lily whined lazily, "so should I go find some help?"

Selphie’s answer was immediate: "That would be no, hun." Trying to embarrass me in front of other people, are you? Well, I won’t give you the satisfaction!

"Grab my nunchakus from the desk and hand me on end," Selphie suggested instead. "Hand you your what?" Lily asked, not sure what language her teacher was using. "That’s not a dirty word, is it?"

"Goddammit no!" Selphie shouted, flailing her arms miserably. "My ‘Strange Vision.’"

When the girl did not move, Selphie clarified, "Those two long sticks that are chained together lying on the table." Is there anyone home upstairs?

After walking to the table and fiddling with the "It looks too heavy for me Shiftless little waif! Selphie reflected savagely. How much did your father promise us?

Somehow, Lily Furgle managed to lift the weapon. From the clumsy knocking noises she heard, Selphie assumed her student had picked up at least one end of the weapon.

"Good girl, now hand me one end and tug with all your might on the other," Selphie directed.

"But it’s heavy!" complained Lily, and rather disturbingly a sniffle followed, as if she was close to tears. She is probably blistering her hand, Selphie guessed with some degree of scorn, but I guess the Adamantine in the "Strange Vision" can be a little trying for one who has never handled anything heavier than her comb.

After much shuffling, one of the sticks finally found its way to Selphie’s outstretched hand.

Wahoo! Selphie rejoiced. It’s about time!

"Now tug on the other end as hard as you can," Selphie instructed.

There was no tug from the other end.

"Lily?" Selphie called out. Come on! Let’s get this show on the road!

"So I get a kiss from Commander Squall for saving you?" Lily questioned dubiously.

"Yes," Selphie assured her with some amount of exasperation. Let’s go, let’s go!

"Where will he kiss me?" asked Lily curiously.

Selphie was on the verge of breathing fire. Covetous little punk!

"Do you want me to get out and show you?" Selphie snapped caustically.

"I just wanted to know," replied Lily with a quivering voice.

"Our original deal was that you’d get to kiss him," Selphie clarified. "I said nothing about Squall kissing you."

"Why do I need you then?" Lily asked.

Just wait till I get out of here, Selphie thought, saying at the same time, "I’ll hold him still so you can pull it off before he can run away."

"You promise?" Lily asked.

"Mercenary’s Honor," Selphie swore, perfectly aware that she was using a standard term in the SeeD manual of operations that allowed the beholden to wheedle her way out of 412 possible predicaments without perjuring herself. If her memory did not fail her, a promise made under duress to ameliorate the plight of the enunciator was situation 65.

Lily snorted in a very unladylike way.

"No deal," she said, "because you’ll just cop out using clause 65 as cover."

To Diablos with you! Selphie cursed. Oh well, Squall will forgive me.

"Not sure if Rinoa will though," she added just softly enough to escape the attention of her subordinate.

More loudly she conceded, "Fine, Lily, if I renege, you can kiss Irvine and Zell."

Lily found herself in a highly delectable situation and began tugging on her end of Selphie’s "Strange Vision" with all the force she could summon from her delicate, first-class limbs.

Little by little, Selphie’s arms and construction uniform materialized from the sofa which wasn’t giving up without a fight. Lily redoubled her efforts and abruptly Selphie popped out of her snare and landed on the cold Garden floor. Lily, who had managed to catch herself and forgo the fall, did not move to help her up.

Figures, Selphie said to herself before turning her attention to her newly acquired bruises.

Her knee had met the ground awkwardly and she rubbed it gingerly. All the while, Lily had not budged.

Well, it’s obvious that she’s not going to offer me a hand, Selphie concluded, but the fact that she hasn’t walked away is sure evidence that she still wants something.

"What is it now, Lily?" Selphie asked, trying to pick herself up. It was a difficult task because she had not moved her legs since the sofa engorged her. "I actually came in here to ask about a differentials problem in the homework you assigned," Lily notified her.

You’ve started next week’s assignment already? Selphie gaped and rolled her eyes almost instantly. I don’t even remember from which textbook it was assigned. Loser.

Lily smiled proudly and out of nowhere pulled out some notes and a pencil.

Oh great, Selphie thought, a chance to revisit today’s fifty-minute session of stump your teacher because you think it’s fun.

"What is it?" Selphie dared to ask. Go ahead, give me your best shot.

"Problem 34," her student read from her paper, "Chocoboy has lost his GF Carbuncle and cannot refine his supply of elixirs into mega-elixirs-"

Selphie chuckled, forcing Lily to pause for a second. The word problem had humored Selphie in two ways: First, with the wording, and second, with its choice of guardian force. Carbuncle belonged to Quistis, who probably wrote the book, and she would never in a million years lose a GF.

No way is our Quisty as dumb as Chocoboy! Selphie thought confidently.

Frowning at the interruption, Lily coughed and then continued reading, "- so he prepares a 10-liter vat full of water. He does not realize that this will slow the mixing process considerably, but you do because you are SeeD trainees."

Selphie snickered again, but this time Lily ignored her and went on, "Chocoboy pours in one liter of elixir every twenty seconds. If he stirs steadily enough to homogenize the vat’s contents so it will pump out a well-mixed liter of solution at the same rate he is pouring the solute in, how long will he have to mix before he starts to produce mega-elixirs? Hint: 10 well-mixed parts of elixir is equivalent to 1 part mega-elixir."

Lily looked up from the page as she finished, catching the exact moment when Selphie’s eyes lit up at the realization that it was a mixed rate problem. It was exciting for Selphie because she actually knew how to answer it.

Selphie was sure now that the problem had come from Quistis Trepe’s Useful Differential Equation-Solving Skills To Have As a SeeD Trainee because Quistis had actually pulled her aside and showed her how to do the exact same problem while writing the book, unless of course she was plagiarizing. Selphie had tried to get her former instructor to shorten the title, but Quistis was a die-hard attenuated textbook-title author.

Selphie eagerly pointed out how the solution equation to problem 34 was the same as the solution of a linear, first order, non-homogeneous, differential equation as a function of time with initial conditions, and whose rate of change set equal to one liter of elixir divided by the total volume of the vat minus the total percentage of elixir concurrently exiting the vat. Clapping her hands together as if to dust off any moss that had gathered there during her professional explanation, Selphie beamed.

Lily Furgle had never encountered a situation in which Selphie played the more intelligent one so she did not know how to handle her instructor’s swaggering.

She decided to ask her teacher about nonlinear, nth order, piecewise-continuous, non-homogenous, differential equations.

Selphie wisely deferred to Squall’s unique knowledge of solving such problems; it was obvious that he came across it routinely during his work. She thus tricked Lily who skipped happily out the room under the naďve pretense that Squall was the god of Laplace transformations that she needed to vanquish to evil that piecewise-continuous, differential equations posed to the entire free world.

How juvenile, Selphie commented dully. Shaking her head, she sat down by the desk, finally getting the chance to check out the docket for tomorrow as dictated by her construction portfolio.

On the first page she rediscovered the damage assessment. It embarrassingly confirmed her original suspicions; they had indeed shipped out more tons of wreckage than tons of construction material. The standing figures exceeded their original financial allowances, implying that Selphie could have built more than one Garden with all the resources she had already used. It was a miracle that whoever was sponsoring the whole reconstruction had not backed out. Selphie herself did not know the identity of the backer, but at this moment she was more troubled by hiding these numbers from Squall, onto whom she would, of course, shift the blame. Nerve-racked, she began biting her nails.

I better hope Squall is too infatuated with Rinoa to notice this small, trifling detail, Selphie kidded herself. It was growing increasingly obvious that her facetiousness wasn’t fooling anybody. She knew she was very lucky to have so gifted a cover-up committee that could juggle the misappropriated construction crew and the demolition team following their footsteps, and make her look good in the process.

Selphie laboriously regained her composure and scanned over the next page. Complaints of leaks and cracks in the walls of the new rooms, neither of which were good. Her chief architectural advisor had left a note in the margin that was screaming to be heeded. She groaned and woefully clasped her forehead.

I might as well just cross interior design off my list of dream professions now, Selphie counseled herself. Maybe they’ll have something open in the landscaping department.

She flipped to the next sheet and smiled. In perfect script were all of Dante’s notices for her to keep in mind. The cursive letters could best be described as bubbly-looking, which she thought was extremely cute.

"Donny is extremely cute," she whispered to herself and mused, "What a funny little man."

If he hadn’t been recently transferred from Balamb Garden to assist her, no one would have caught the grievous mistake she made earlier that day that could have easily cost the Garden millions of Gil and the entire second and third floors.

And while there was no record in the Garden computer network of his being assigned to her under Cid’s orders, she knew that the old Headmaster was looking out for her and had sent him secretly to repair the image of leadership in the Garden.

"That or he is just keeping tabs on me and making sure I don’t endanger any lives," Selphie surmised without any seriousness in her voice.

"He could almost pass for a little boy," Selphie mused, returning to analyzing Dante, "if he weren’t so serious."

If he’s not careful, Selphie theorized, he’ll turn into Squall!

At the thought, Selphie laughed so hard that she almost fell out of her chair.

She found it quite hilarious and had to make an extra effort to exercise some maturity and return to her reading like a exemplary forewoman.

She turned her attention to the news sheet. She didn’t bother to any of the articles she thought were lemons, focusing instead on the calendar of upcoming events. Nothing really important was scheduled within the next two weeks.

Selphie dreaded the repetitively unproductive inter-Garden conferences and the equally tedious attendance of regular intra-Garden workshops. The only thing that caught her eye was the upcoming masked ball. Well-advertised and hyped up, the huge dance promised to be quite a thriller. Selphie’s lips curled unnaturally, revealing a smirk as she saw the theme of the ball: The Lunar Cry.

There would be more than a few sorceresses or Rinoa simulacrums at this big costume party, of this much she was sure.

Selphie read over the section more carefully out of curiosity and discovered that there was also a short segment set aside during the dance for a break- dancing battle. Her face lit up, remembering that this was the perfect opportunity for her to extract some new moves from Squall, who had always been reluctant at the orphanage to show her any techniques or tricks.

Just as she was finishing up the article and about to dismiss the rest of the news sheet as unnewsworthy, by chance her eyes ran by what looked like an amusing photograph. Raising her eyebrows, she took the time to inspect the item at greater length. It did not cease to disappoint her sense of humor, not that she expected an image with the caption "Semi-tame Goat Terrorizes Quad, Injures 3" would have.

Even though it was not a cleanly-taken picture and could have easily been taken for a photographer’s spoof, Selphie tried to make out the images anyway. The quadruped certainly did resemble a goat, but she had never known a wild goat to wander into a densely human-populated Garden nor had she seen any goats being secretly raised in the dorms. According to the report, authorities had not been able to arrive at the scene in time to apprehend the animal, which the amused students had been peacefully feeding for awhile before it decided to charge a few of them with its horns. It seemed clear to Selphie that it had been fed by hand before, but she could not place a finger on what provoked its aggression.

Still, she reminded herself, there could have been a million things that excited the animal. Overcrowding, being cornered, a loud voice, an offending touch-

Selphie stopped herself, realizing, These all seem to indicate that it was not domesticated at all.

Blindly searching for the cause was becoming too confusing and too hypothetical for Selphie to delve into any further and because of this, she lost interest in it the instant after.

What else is there now? Selphie wondered in a completely disinterested mood. She leaned back in her seat to stretch and yawn before restoring her elbows to their place on the table where the resulting position of her palms could provide the best cushioning arrangement on which to rest her chin as she tried to finish off the remaining announcements. She was determined to peruse all the officer reports while expending as little energy as possible; her energy was in short supply and she needed to save it for dreaming good Selphie-dreams.

Selphie was convinced that she would dream better if she wasn’t completely pooped out when she fell asleep; the better the condition of the person, the better the quality of dreams. Irvine had laughed at the notion when she mentioned it absent-mindedly once. He also woke up the next morning in the infirmary with a black eye, an end which Selphie felt justified in having effected.

The recollection of Irvine’s overnight hospitalization was uncannily well-timed because his name appeared in the security chief’s report, the recognition of which brought all eight of Selphie’s cylinders to a clunking halt. Her eyes widened and for a moment she felt light-headed.

"I-Irvine is back!" she stammered, almost not believing it.

Kicking back into action, Selphie’s mind added spitefully, And he hasn’t come by to see me yet?

The report, which Selphie had picked up in her left hand upon seeing his name, was now somewhat crumpled, her hand having tightened at the thought of Irvine purposely avoiding her, possibly philandering in the girl’s locker room.

Meanwhile, her right hand had reached instinctively for her nunchakus. She could imagine Irvine’s smirking face and the perfect spot in between his eyes where she could reintroduce her "Strange Vision."

She looked back down at the paper, hoping to find out what he had been up to. While she smoothed it out and set it flat on the table, she swore reprisal if it turned out that he had been involved in any episode that warranted a suspicion of his womanizing.

"Irvine Kinneas stripped of all Nova Trabia Garden basketball court privileges and sentenced to all due compensation for damages and injuries," Selphie read from the sheet.

Holy Shiva, Selphie murmured. Unbelievable.

Her right hand, which still gripped the "Strange Vision," seemed to speak, "You got off easy this time, cowboy, but just you wait."

Selphie checked the rest of the report out and whistled. Not only had Irvine’s court privileges been revoked because he summoned Jumbo Cactuar and Tonberry King and thus violated the new rule that banned GFs from the court, but he was sure to be in serious debt from the looks of the extensive damages the two GFs inflicted on the court, equipment, baskets, backboards, surrounding buildings, and any of the players unfortunate enough to have been playing in his line of sight. There was no estimation of the aggregate cost of reparations listed.

Apparently Jumbo Cactuar had popped out of the ground, breaking the concrete floor of the court and sending the huge blocks in all directions. The mustached GF proceeded to spring into the air and fire a thousand needles randomly into the surroundings. Some needles ended up decorating the backboards and walls of the court, but others found their way to the flesh of innocent bystanders and to the skins of all the basketballs in the area. In total, he had sent forty-odd persons to the infirmary and popped eighteen basketballs. There was no way Dr. Kadowaki could have been pleased.

Tonberry King had also opened up a whole in the floor of the court, climbed out, waddled over to the only backboard that remained standing after Jumbo Cactuar’s "1000 Needles" attack, and chopped it in half with his chef’s knife. Having satisfied themselves, the two GFs both nodded in harmony and disappeared. They had reduced that part of the sports center to rubble.

Selphie assumed that Zell had been at the scene with Irvine and had somehow provoked his partner into coming up with so hair-brained an idea.

Knowing those two, Selphie extrapolated from the text with the help of a little intuition, they probably scrambled over the fence like jackrabbits to escape the needles the moment they realized that Jumbo Cactuar was counting down to his attack.

It was not a question of who identified the danger first, but why in the world neither one of them chose to knock the GF out during its post-summoning prep time for activation. Even so, it was likely that Zell had gotten off without a punishment since his name was not mentioned, and even Irvine was released from custody after only an hour and a half of detention.

So he still had plenty of time to visit me at the construction site today, Selphie reasoned, even after he decided to go ahead and play basketball without dropping by and saying hello first.

Unnecessary was the reiteration of the sad truth that he hadn’t.

Feeling a storm of passion rising within her, she tried to single out each element of the emotional tornado but found it difficult to differentiate between anger, worry, and amusement. No longer comfortable with just sitting in the lounge by herself and reading when she was really just itching to find Irvine, Selphie flipped through the rest of the officer reports in a haphazard manner fashion, catching only fragments of sentences or those printed in bold lettering. These she paraphrased and read aloud for no other reason than to provide some basis for her to say later that she had read them, even if she wasn’t really paying any attention to the words:

"Ranger reports observable increase in aggression of creatures in the forest; something making them rowdy; cases and complaints of theft continuing to rise steeply; Quistis Trepe and Disciplinary Committee have identified the culprit allegedly responsible for all the thefts-"

She lifted her eyebrows here, impressed by their blatant overestimation of a single man’s ability to menace the entire society of that Garden, but continued absent-mindedly:

"Selphie nominated to arbitrate two cases tomorrow; case one with McChocobo’s restaurant franchise litigated by customer who burnt her tongue on some coffee-"

Selphie chuckled at the frivolous plaintiff, ready to dismiss the case right there and arrange for the eatery to counter-sue.

People these days, she said to herself with incredulity, will make up anything for Gil.

She continued, "Second case involves car company General Feathers being sued by a foreign customer whom the company had the local constables arrest because she was being rowdy when in reality she was only trying to ask about a problem with a car that they had sold her earlier-"

Selphie scoffed and made a mental note to herself that the car company was not to win this case, which was a clear instance of tribal discrimination due to a language barrier.

She flipped to the last report, reading, "Chairman of construction on medical leave; blue Malboro cigarettes; Dante to assume position; the end!"

She had secretly congratulated Dante when she read that, but was so relieved to get the summaries out of the way that she didn’t stop to cheer for him in mid- sentence. Clearing the clutter of papers that she had tossed all over the desk while she going through them was all that remained between her and her quest to crucify Irvine. Shoving them all messily into her briefcase was no problem for Selphie.

All of this was done in a single breath, and in her second she had already grabbed all her belongings and was heading for the door when she remembered that she was still in her scratchy, plastic, forewoman’s uniform.

Did I wear this throughout the differential equations class? she wondered in horror.

She had.

"No wonder all my students were laughing at me today," Selphie groaned.

Well, Doomtrain take them all! she cursed, realizing that it was too late to change anything.

At least I still have my skirt in the briefcase, she comforted herself, which I should probably put on now if I don’t want anyone I know to see me in this disgusting, clashing, retro jump suit!

The fact that it smelled as bad as it looked expedited her decision to and act of taking it off. Selphie did not see changing in the lounge as that big of a problem, especially since the officer’s lounge was one of the most infrequently used rooms in the compound A, and quite possibly the least used room in Nova Trabia Garden.

As she unzipped her jumpsuit, under which she had nothing to cover her, she assuaged her lingering doubts, figuring that since she hadn’t seen any of the officers all day, it was highly unlikely that they would walk in on her while she was changing now.

As Selphie reached inside her briefcase for her orange skirt, she added mentally, Irvine and Zell especially, since they had been avoiding her all day- Her thought was interrupted by the hissing sound of the opening door.

Holy Shiva!

In that second of alarm Selphie was frozen stiff, vacillating between diving behind the sofa or quickly slipping the rest of her skirt on. In that moment of indecision, a dark, curved, boomerang-like projectile zipped through the air and caught her in the head. Selphie clasped her head that was throbbing in pain, and fell over behind the couch. The unfastened skirt fell to her ankles.

Later she would be able to replay the sequence of events back to herself and describe the color of the boomerang as more of a purple, but whose edges varied a good deal from black to pearl. She would even realize that it was a blade-like horn, not a boomerang. At the present, however, Selphie was too dizzy to see straight, and indecent besides, but decided to stand up and retaliate.

All her senses of perception were going nuts but she could make out two distinct voices in the haze and a figure She paled when she realized that the voices belonged to Irvine and Zell. She quickly reached for her skirt with one hand and her nunchakus with the other. Three images of Irvine appeared to run through the door in her direction. She tried to clear her head and focus on just one of the images, but her perception did not improve.

It was obvious that he had come in to retrieve the boomerang, or rather what they had been using as a boomerang. Whether he was chasing it because he threw it or Zell threw it was irrelevant to her. Among the few other things that Selphie was able to discern were the cheap water-gun in Irvine’s hand, how he was firing the water-gun at some target outside of the door and beyond her line of sight, how he was running forward even though his head was turned, and the shouted dialogue between Zell and himself. It seemed like Zell was chasing Irvine in a water-gun fight and Irvine had not looked to see if anyone was in the lounge, which meant that he hadn’t spied her yet.

"Take that, Zell!" Irvine yelled confidently in mid-stride while firing another shot. "Maybe next time you’ll think twice before slandering Rinoa’s mother!"

"You couldn’t hit me even if you had your Exeter," Zell taunted in return. "This only proves that you’re dead wrong about Julia because your grasp of music is as bad as your aim!"

"You’re just making up this Faye Wong character just to be difficult," Irvine shouted back, "because you know you can’t win this water-gun fight!"

"Ha!" Zell scoffed and retorted, "If you can’t hit a stationary target while she’s trapped behind bars, what makes you think you can hit a moving one?"

"Very funny, Zell," Irvine hooted, dodging another spray, "but records show that the copyright for ‘Eyes on Me’ belongs to Julia Heartilly! You might as well admit defeat now!"

"You can fight all you want," Zell called to him, "but if your 800-Gil peashooter can’t even find its target, how are you going to squirt me with that 2-Gil plastic toy? Believe me, Faye Wong performed that song!"

"Who has even heard of this Faye Wong?" Irvine gibed as he continued to run forwards. "Just be a gentleman, Zell, and surrender to save us both some time!"

"Being gentle is something we leave to you," Zell sneered from just beyond the door, "Mr. Crybaby who can’t take the pressure in intense situations!"

Selphie considered her options during this loud exchange. She could just cover her face and run past them without putting her skirt on, and in that way preserve anonymity at the cost of displaying everything, but she realized that even if she took her "Strange Vision" and trademark orange skirt with her, there would still be telltale signs left in briefcase that would lead back to her.

That left her with no choice but to go with the only option that remained. She considered reconsidering, but the remembrance of his not visiting her when he had every opportunity to do so hardened her soul enough to make sure that her hands would not go soft during the deed.

After Zell’s last taunt, Irvine began turning his head back around to see where he going, fully bent on throwing an insult that would level his rival, when all of the sudden everything went black and something knocked him over the head. He collided with the blow at such a speed that he was knocked off his feet and managed to sail over some furniture before hitting the ground hard where he remained, lying face down in a crumpled heap. Irvine groaned something incomprehensible.

Selphie went over to his side and pulled her skirt off of his head where she had tactically tossed it a second ago. Then she proceeded to put it on over her and tried to fasten her two breast clasps as quickly as her nimble fingers could, but she only managed to get one done before Zell appeared in the doorway.

As soon as he saw her fiddling with her skirt, he looked away, well aware of the repercussions of doing otherwise. At the same time he asked, "By Odin! Selphie, what are you doing?"

"What did it look like I was doing?" Selphie rejoined just as she finished the last clasp. Raising her nunchakus with both hands menacingly, she demanded, "Did you see what I was doing?"

"No, no, I didn’t see anything," Zell replied honestly, "Besides, Mina would gut me alive if I did."

Selphie shot him a "You’re getting off easy this time" look. Then she took a better look and asked, "What in Eden are you riding on?"

With a smile that had obviously been practiced, Zell looked down at his equine animal and patted it proudly. He then sat up straight, pointed at himself with his thumb, and yapped, "Look at me, I’m a knight, I’m a knight! I’m the sorceress’ knight!"

Selphie was not amused, and tapped her foot to show that she was still waiting for an answer to her question and that he had better not repeat the joke for Squall.

"Don’t you see the sign?" Zell asked with a hint of condescension that forced Selphie to raise an eyebrow. "It says ‘Donkey.’"

Selphie looked at the piece of paper taped to the dark gray, fur-covered side of the goat-like creature. There was a word on it formed by crayoned-in letters of different colors.

Only these two morons, she thought, shaking her head, would take a child’s play tag seriously. Besides, he read it wrong; it's upside down.

"By the way, it says ‘haxuoCl’," she informed him coldly, "not ‘Donkey.’"

Zell scowled and asked, "Why do you and Irvine use the same nonsensical word? Am I missing something?"

Apparently even Zell had enough wattage in his attic to figure out that he probably had overlooked something, and so he leaned over and scrutinized "What do you think?" Selphie challenged him.

Zell thought three times as long as he normally would have to make sure that he had a good response before answering, "A donkey with dark gray fur on the bottom and silvery hair on the top."

There was a long, embarrassing pause as Selphie tried to find the right words to launch her tirade and Zell tried to maintain a look of confidence to show that he would stand by his answer to Ifrit and beyond.

"Selphie?" Irvine murmured, still lying face down on the ground but dimly recalling that Zell had mentioned her name at some point in the past.

"Yeah, she’s here," Zell replied dryly.

Trying to be funny, he added, "Why? Didn’t you see her?"

Selphie gave Zell a look which smacked so unmistakably of intolerance that he silenced himself immediately.

Irvine was by now slowly regaining his mobile skills and he moaned, "I think I ran into a pole. Either that or a rod of some sort."

Looking fearfully at the ends of the nunchakus that Selphie still wielded firmly, he remarked, "Well actually, Irvine, you just about hit it mark with that guess."

Ignoring Zell’s pun, intended or unintended, Selphie demanded, "Who threw the boomerang?"

Rubbing her temple where it had struck her, she thought furiously, If this leaves a mark, I will gut both of you!

"It was Zell, I swear!" Irvine confessed honestly, cowering in the corner. Please don’t gut me, Selphie!

"It was Irvine, I swear!" Zell professed at almost the exact same time and matching the same degree of truthfulness in tone. Please don’t gut me. Selphie! Unable to decide which one of them was the actual defender and ruling out the skill and coordination required of both men for them to have hurled the boomerang simultaneously, she decided that it would be best if she dealt with that issue later.

"Where did you find ‘haxuoCl’?" she went on and asked, still troubled by Zell’s mount.

"We found him a few minutes ago just outside the quad," Irvine replied. "He was close to finishing his meal of these three rosebushes that some genius planted without protective fencing."

My rosebushes! Selphie cried internally, her heart skipping a beat.

"I found him first," Zell chimed in proudly, "and the boomerang."

The two men saw how close Selphie was to spitting fire and immediately assumed they had once again offended her with something they said.

All that effort put into planting them! she mourned, half-way hysterical.

Calming herself without making a display was a great labor, and as she struggled with it, Irvine decided it was the best time to bring up a proposition that he had been saving until the right moment. Granted this was not the best of times, he figured quite correctly this was the only chance he was going to get to fit it in their interaction.

Clearing his throat, he began, "Hey, Zell, you know how we are paid based on the number of steps we walk during a mission?"

Zell indicated the affirmative, not the least bit surprised at the random topic Irvine picked to mollify the tension in the air.

"Did you ever notice that a group of three gets paid the same amount of money as one person even though they triple the number of steps taken altogether?" Irvine continued.

Zell hadn’t ever noticed that.

"Do you know why this is?" Irvine asked him.

Zell did not know.

"It’s because the two people that are following the leader just go over his steps," Irvine explained simply, "and there is no reason why Cid would pay the party three persons’ worth of salaries for the same path of steps that one person took."

"What’s your point?" Zell asked, his interest in Irvine’s ramblings fading rapidly because he found something else about ‘haxuoCl’ that was more amusing. "Even discounting Rinoa because she isn’t a SeeD," Irvine elucidated, "we could still extort five times our current wages from Cid!"

Pure genius! he thought giddily. I’m so lucky Quistis rants and raves out all of her subconscious ideas when she gets drunk.

"But I thought you liked working with us," Zell prodded him with a tone that denoted that his feelings had been hurt.

Pure genius! Zell reflected. So unlike Irvine.

"I do, I do," Irvine reassured him, and Selphie, hurriedly, "but you have to consider social welfare!"

He proceeded to regurgitate verbatim for them what Quistis had said to him, "By only paying us one fifth of the amount we could have, which also translates to how much Cid is willing to pay, he is converting a lot of consumer surplus, that would be ours, into his producer surplus. We as a society are being cheated doubly because he isn’t maximizing the labor he can hire at a set wage still profitable for him to offer, thus creating massive deadweight loss."

How Irvine was making it seem like he’d realized this all by himself and the fact that he was so right only increased Zell’s suspicion that it wasn’t really Irvine’s idea and incited him to ask from his mount, "This sudden for propensity for Gil wouldn’t by any chance have been inspired by the current 590,000-Gil debt you owe to Garden, would it?"

Damn! Zell is unusually bright today! Irvine silently swore. And I was really counting on this scheme to pull me through this financial crisis!

His hopes were going down in flames. The emotional devastation he was feeling now was so different from the thrill he got from catching up with Quistis the night of the cocktail party in Balamb Garden. She had rebuffed his first few attempts to get cozy with her at this celebration where he thought they were supposed to let go and have a little fun, well deserved from saving the world and defeating Ultimecia. After all, was a hug from a blonde in pink too much to ask for after enduring a return trip from Time Compression?

He sighed, recalling the events of that hectic night. After Selphie had chased him around the ballroom a couple of times with a fork, Cid had saved him by calling them over and giving them their next assignments. Basically he got stuck with Zell on some weather survey. Afterwards, he’d figured that a breather from Selphie and the corollary chance to reacquaint himself with the Balamb Garden honeys was auspicious, and left under the pretense of looking for fresh camcorder batteries, but for some reason Rinoa had left the party early as well.

The difference between them was that she was looking for her room, running by him in tears.

She locked herself inside and wouldn’t answer his knocking. Quistis soon followed and tried to talk to her as well, but all they could hear were sobs. He left her coaxing Rinoa through the door and went to one of the stockrooms. On the way he ran into the cute pigtail girl from the library. He remembered that she was Zell’s girlfriend but had forgotten her name.

Irvine scowled and tried to recall it now. Was it Tina? Gina? Something like that, maybe Rena. No! Mina! That’s her name!

Sitting on ‘haxuoCl,’ Zell wondered what in Eden had Irvine to smile about.

Doesn’t he realize that Selphie is preparing to whack him with her nunchakus?

Unfortunately for Irvine, he was too engrossed in recreating his own history to be aware of the real world and its real dangers.

So Mina was her name and he had run into her as she was leaving the Garden. He was surprised then because he had seen her leave relatively earlier than had he; out of the corner of his eye the second time around the ballroom with Selphie in pursuit he had spied her making a quiet exit. He doubted that Zell had even noticed her leave.

Obviously she had lingered, but by now had made up her mind to just go. Still, she recognized him and remembered his name, so they made some friendly chit- chat. He told her that he was on a quest batteries and she told him that she was looking for a photograph that she had dropped. It wasn’t that important so she was leaving for Galbadia without it. Irvine wasn’t really listening at the time and so he didn’t comment. She too had nothing left to say. During this awkward silence it became quite clear that neither of them would have engaged in the conversation had it not been for propriety, it was agreed upon to postpone the discourse for a more opportune time.

He continued on his way and found another storage room by the ballroom entrance.

While rummaging through some boxes of electronic peripherals and hoping that some cute girl would find her way to that closet and lock them both inside, Zell had run by, skidded to a stop when he saw Irvine, backed up, and asked if he knew where Mina had gone. Irvine purposely said that she had gone to the restroom and that he had nothing to worry about because she wasn’t going anywhere. After hearing that, Zell had sped down the hall even more speedily, just as Squall stepped out into the corridor from the ballroom exit.

Squall hadn’t noticed Irvine but walked straight past him and to the radio control room. He had muttered sarcastically, "A message from him? This ought to be good."

The moment Squall disappeared into the room, Quistis rounded the corner at the far end of the corridor and began walking in Irvine’s direction. It did not seem to him at the time that she noticed the sound of Squall shutting the door behind him, she being visibly distraught for her own reasons. He heard her mutter, "Now I have no chance," and assumed that she was upset because Rinoa had refused to open the door and show Quistis her doll collection, or whatever girls happened to fancy.

He had followed her back to the party and watched her down multiple shots of vodka before stopping her. Her red face, alcohol-reeking breath, garrulity and boisterousness all indicated that she had had enough to drink for one night, if not longer. So he sat her down and took advantage of her verbosity, picking up her ingenious idea which he had hoped to cash in himself. She had been raving other suggestions and ideas that she would never have vocalized or acted upon had she been less inebriated. How happy he had been!

Irvine’s revisitation of that glorious night was interrupted by a knock from Selphie’s "Strange Vision." The blow to the head left a ringing sound in his ears, causing his eyes to vibrate in the process.

Zell whistled and smirked. He should have seen her coming.

Selphie was still furious and took the time to deflate Zell’s invisible bubble of happiness.

"By the way," she informed him maliciously, "that’s not a donkey that you’re sitting on."

Zell purposely made no reply, intent on showing her that she couldn’t disturb him or his bubble if he was determined not to be disturbed.

"I figured it out while Irvine was trying to sell his idea, which, by the way, was founded on skewed economic principles," Selphie continued.

Zell made sure that his personal bubble of happiness was still intact, even though he was curious what she was getting at.

Selphie knew she had him and moved in for the kill.

"I didn’t recognize it aft first because I’ve always seen them with their horns," she said. "That purple thing you were using as a boomerang was the horn."

Zell was beginning to sweat. He looked around frantically to make sure his bubble was still there.

And now for the checkmate, she thought with a blend confidence with malice. Yes, I will break you.

"You’re sitting on a Mesmerize."

Its identity revealed, the monster bucked its rider off and galloped out of the room and down the hall. It happened so quickly that Zell didn’t have the time to be frightened. Luckily for him, though, he landed right on top of Irvine, who, while attempting to rise to his feet from the place where Selphie had put him, indeliberately managed to position himself right where he could break his partner’s fall.

Selphie watched as ‘haxuoCl’ the Mesmerize made his getaway, painfully aware that they would have to go hunt it down later. Briefly she wondered how a Mesmerize could have found its way into Nova Trabia Garden; while nomadic tribes of Mesmerizes would occasionally migrate through the Bika Snowfield, they were most abundant in the plains of Esthar.

How did this one get all the way out here by itself? she pondered.

Irvine moaned weakly as Zell wondered why he had hardly felt anything during what should have been a nasty fall. Selphie was not about to let Irvine get away that easily, though.

"Could you be more selfish?" she chastised him as she forced him to his feet.

"This is for coming up with that proposal to separate us for money," she said as she belted him in the stomach.

She struck him so hard that Zell, who was just observing the penalty, whimpered.

There was no dispute that his bubble of happiness had been popped.

"This is for leaving for two weeks without calling," Selphie justified herself as she threw an elbow across his jaw.

It connected soundly, inciting Zell to wince. Irvine, meanwhile, was writhing in pain and shivering in fear.

"And this is for not coming by to see me earlier," Selphie elucidated, concluding the punishment with a devastating slap to his face that knocked him off his feet and onto the table.

While she was doling out the blows, Zell had somehow grabbed a pillow and was now trying to hide behind it. Irvine, on the other hand, was paralyzed.

Selphie’s glower unexplainably melted into a sorrowful frown and she raced over to him with a cry. He cringed, fearing another onslaught, but she only wept and her hands over his face to see if he was okay, much to the amazement of both men.

Just when Irvine thought it was safe lower his guard, though, Selphie suddenly scowled, wiped away the tears, and slapped him again. No sooner did Zell hear the loud slap was Selphie bawling and kissing Irvine again.

She suddenly realized what she was doing again, pushed him away from her and off of the table, and then ran out of officers’ lounge covering her face with her hands and crying uncontrollably.

That was new, Zell confessed to himself as he came out from behind his pillow- shield.

Irvine slowly rose to his feet, rubbing his stomach and then checked his jaw.

"Your nose is bleeding," Zell notified his companion.

The look he got from Irvine communicated, "As if I couldn’t feel that."

Walking over to Zell, Irvine held up his hands questioningly and asked, "So was that good or bad?"

Zell looked at Irvine and made a face before walking over and slapping him.

Irvine misread Zell’s parody of Selphie and tackled his assailant with a battle cry.

Outside in the hall, Selphie was crying so hard that she couldn’t see where she was going. She bumped into Quistis, who was also red-faced and shaking. They exchanged surprised looks before Selphie moved closer to hug Quistis and then rested her cheek on Quistis’ shoulder where she continued to sob.

"Irvine?" Quistis spoke first, guessing the instigator of Selphie’s ocular deluge.

Selphie nodded, nuzzling her face deeper into Quistis’ shoulder, soaking that part of the white shirt.

Quistis in a white shirt? Selphie marveled. No way!

"There, there, now," Quistis comforted Selphie and stroked her back soothingly. "Boys will be boys."

Selphie eventually regained her composure and asked between sniffles, "Why are you so red?"

"It was nothing," Quistis replied though her face reddened. "Some administrative stuff, that’s all."

In Selphie’s opinion, Quistis’ body was extremely warm while her clothes were somewhat cold and damp.

"Were you outside just now?" she asked her colleague.

"Yes, I was," Quistis answered.

Selphie couldn’t guess what possible administrative duties Quistis had to execute outdoors that could get her so heated up.

"On the way here a black and silver goat-thing ran past me," Quistis brought up hastily, changing the subject.

Selphie looked straight into Quistis’ eyes and said, "Zell."

Quistis nodded, understanding perfectly.

"I won’t ask," she replied.

They walked back to officer’s lounge and peered inside. Zell and Irvine were wrestling on the ground, each striving for the upper hand.

Whoa! Quistis thought, blushing slightly. That’s pretty risqué.

"Whoa!" Selphie cried. "You two getting to know each other?"

Irvine was about to shout a reply when Zell freed his hand from Irvine’s hold and tried to cuff him. Irvine dodged and they ended up rolling on the ground, cursing each other.

"I think they need some alone time together," Quistis told Selphie purposely loud so that the two men might hear her.

"Yes," Selphie agreed in good humor, "it’s cute and all but we’d better leave them alone."

"Play nice, kiddies," Quistis called to them before the two women turned to leave, in the process of which Selphie made an attempt to wave good-bye.

That got Irvine’s attention and he pushed Zell away.

"I’m going to find ‘haxuoCl’," Irvine used as an excuse to quit the fight and chase the two females.

"Keep going until you smell it," Zell advised Irvine with a trace of disdain. "Not a problem," Irvine shot back, "I’ll just follow the scent you left on him."

He raced off before Zell could get in another word.

Zell jumped to his feet and ran after him, but stopped at the door; Irvine had already reached the ladies who were walking side-by-side and proceeded to put one arm around each of them. Even though both ladies immediately threw his arms of their waists, there was something about Irvine’s rampant womanizing that bothered Zell. It might have been how comfortable Irvine was with flirting.

Zell took out the photograph of Mina and the stranger without really knowing why. They looked really close, and way too close for Zell not to worry.

Zell’s thoughts shifted back to Irvine, the busy bee that visited one flower after the next, as if they were all the same to him and one wasn’t enough.

He felt disgusted and wondered, How does he do it?

He sighed and, looking back at the photograph of Mina, asked aloud, "How could she do it?"

It was all too confusing and heart-wrenching for Zell to think about. He wanted an explanation. He wanted a piece of that guy in the picture. He wanted to ripe him to shreds. He wanted to-

Zell took his last thought to the wall, not entirely aware of what he was doing. His fist broke though an inch of the concrete and sent cracks running out radially from the smashed epicenter.

He gulped, scared by the sight of mutilated wall that he affected in his rage.

Better get out of here before Squall sees it, Zell told himself.

He ran out of the room and headed for the Chinese eatery by the entrance of Nova Trabia Garden. Just outside the lounge he was tripped up by a really short Garden student whom he assumed was a child.

Zell pushed past him rudely and callously shouted, "Outta my way, punk!"

He did not know that this one action of his would cost him the world.

Next chapter


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