PuPu's Saga Chapter 16
by Jeremy Chapter
Setting 16: 2128 DAY
15, Trabia Coast-bordering Forests
is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts,
to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence."
"'Scared' she'd called me,"
Zell scoffed at the recollection of the challenge he had received
from the waitress in the Chinese diner ten minutes prior. One
two, one two.
The night grass was
crisp beneath his feet, their resiliency buoying up each of his
steps. The effect was an overall springier sprint through the
shadow-shrouded underbrush. At the same time, he did not forget
how his brand new running shoes factored into the elastic benefit
he was now enjoying. One two, one two.
scared?" Zell objected. "Certainly not I."
As he surged into the
forest, the patterns of the branches flashed across his ivory
skin that matched the moonlight, pale for pale. One two, one two.
I am a leopard. I am
a striped stallion. I am a speckled owl.
Zell hurdled nimbly
over a fallen log, cartwheeled between two boulders, and then
leapt over a crevice. Keeping the count in his head, he realized
that the only way to land and resume his run without losing his
rhythm would involve a mid-air flip and then a roll to get back
on his feet. One two two-and-one, one two two-and-two. He pulled
it off to perfection.
One two, one two.
I am a mountain
Zell caught a glint of
moonlight from a puddle on the ground ahead and realized that an
entire segment of the trail before him was still muddied from the
recent showers. He wondered if he could afford spoiling his brand
new sneakers before he had even broken them in. The passing trees
were all slanted just enough from the vertical and supple enough
to act as springboards. That gave him a crazy idea.
slightly. One two three, one two three.
Just as he reached the
edge of the boggy terrain, Zell grabbed one of the overhanging
branches and used his forward momentum to swing himself into the
air. On the way, he caromed off one of the plane trees on the
side, touched off another, and continued ricocheting from tree to
tree until he had reached the other side without setting foot in
the wet earth. One two two-and-a-half, one two two-and-a-half.
After jumping onto the
last sapling, he tarried a moment longer, hoping to maximize on
the boost it would give him when it snapped back. It worked, and
he was able to perform a back-flip with the additional height. He
didn't lose a single beat upon his soft landing, smoothly
resuming his running. One two, one two.
I am a hawk.
He was nearing an even
larger gorge. It would take a running leap to traverse it, and so
Zell picked up the pace.
One two three four, one
two three four, one leap...
I am a rock, he
thought as he reached the peak of his trajectory, eagerly
anticipating the moment in which the soles of his feet would
reconnect with solid ground.
...land two, one two,
He somersaulted over a
few potholes, rolled under and through the space between the
grass and a tree stalk that had snapped and collapsed over its
trunk. Scrambling to his feet, Zell tucked his body in for a
mini-flip that carried him over a hedge. The next ravine was too
wide to jump, but the vines dangling from overhead gave him the
extra yards he needed.
Zell took a deep
breath, decelerated, and jogged in place to give his heart ample
time to slow down to it's normal rate of reps. He turned around
and was satisfied that not even the watch tower, at the moment
the highest point of Nova Trabia Garden constructed, was visible
from where he stood. Maybe if he climbed to the top of that
nearby evergreen it would come into view.
He had run nearly two
miles on a full stomach and it vexed him that he had not run into
a single monster along the way. Someone deserved a beating and he
was going to give that beating. His pulse had dropped to normal
by this time, and, holding his arms out, he closed his eyes.
Taking a deep breath, Zell commenced to clear his mind of all the
excess baggage it had picked up during the course of the day. His
body operated more effectively without the mental burden anyway.
It was so easy to get distracted by all the disparaging remarks
people made about him. But this was his alone time. This was
officially Zell time, during which Zell could appreciate Zell's
own opinions and the forest would bow reverently to Zell's
presence. Two miles away from civilization, he was certain that
there would be nothing but happy thoughts from here on out.
I am a chump.
Having ruined the
moment, Zell flopped down on a patch of grass that promised to be
Zell groaned and
shifted his weight to a more comfortable spot. It seemed as if
the entire world were against him today. In truth, there was
probably little to be gained from cursing at that tuft of grass.
He told it off at it
anyway. If need be, he would be the best damned blasphemer of
rocks the world had ever seen.
But he was a chump. He
had admitted that just a few seconds ago, had he not?
The waitress must have
thought so after his embarrassing performance in the diner.
Zell buried his face in
his hands. He felt like screaming. Eventually he settled back and
grinned, realizing that he'd probably laugh at the whole incident
Yeah, when I'm six
feet under and no one can hear me, he contended caustically.
He would think twice
before accepting any challenges from the young waitress just to
impress the girls seated at the nearby tables.
Zell swallowed with
difficulty, the knot in his throat ascribed to his realization of
how dangerously close he had come to becoming Irvine Kinneas.
Thinking back to the
occasion, he was puzzled by why he even felt the need to impress
them. It wasn't as if he didn't already have a girlfriend.
Zell sighed and rubbed
his eyes with his knuckles.
He missed her. He
missed her so much.
What a chump he was!
Whoever told him that
his body was composed of mostly water was dead wrong. He had been
feeling completely hollow inside ever since the night of the
celebration in Balamb Garden when he last saw Mina. The moment he
realized that Mina had left, it was as if all the hot dogs he had
eaten that evening vanished into the void he housed within. He
didnt have any luck finding her on any of the three floors,
but while double-checking the first floor he had run into a
crabby Rinoa as she emerged from her room. Had Rinoa not called
him dense so many times for interrupting her one moment with
Squall, Zell would have readily accepted the pretense of his
innards being composed of air alone. It sure felt like it.
He had been running on
empty for over two weeks.
On some subconscious
level, he was probably willing to do anything to make the hurt go
away, even if it meant indulging in an alternative source of
attention. The fifteen days of Mina deprivation had been costly.
The more he longed to hear her voice, the more he thought he
heard it. It always turned out to be someone else though, much to
his disappointment. The rub was that the more he thought he heard
her voice, the more he longed to hear it for real. Trapped in
this deleterious, never-ending cycle, he was afraid that he might
become delusional if his situation were not remedied soon.
He had been so
depressed when he entered Garden Noodle. He must have ordered
something before sitting down, but he wasn't entirely sure. The
alluring voice of Mina asking him how he was doing had pushed him
to look up, yanking him out of his stupor with more force than
the Ragnarok turbine could supply. The genuinely concerned face
his eyes focused on belonged to a female Garden student of no
more than fifteen years. No surprise there; every girl had begun
to sound like Mina.
Upon seeing her and
realizing that his addresser was not his girlfriend, he had
frowned in annoyance. Who was she, a total stranger, to approach
him when he had not first solicited her commiseration? Did he
have a sign on his head that said, "I'm miserable, please
comfort me"? Then he figured out that his banging his head
repeatedly against the table had probably tipped her off. With
that thought, his features had softened and he had bid her to
take a seat across from him.
She did not sit down
initially, rather she just stood there sipping on her beverage
that he would later find out was a Raspberry Arctic Latte. She
just stared at him. That one moment that seemed to drag on to
infinity was devoid of everything and everyone except and her
large, round eyes, the red straw between her lips, and him. He
could almost picture Mina doing the same thing. In retrospect, he
did her picture doing the same thing.
said cheerfully, "I'm Rishi."
She extended her hand
for him to shake while asking his name.
It was so small. He had
marveled at how dainty a thing his new acquaintance was. He was
dimly aware that he had not inhaled in quite some time.
Now he wished that he
had taken her hand. It didn't seem right for him to snub her like
that, but she was probably too kind-hearted a creature to care.
She just wanted his name, and he was making her wait for it. What
a chump he was to keep her waiting! What was he going to say?
Why, I'm the great
Zell Dincht, savior of the world, of course!
He tried to remember
what he really answered. It was something to the effect of
"Zell," but through a stammer that lasted for about ten
She squinted with a
small degree curiosity, trying to piece together what he had
said, though he read mostly pleasant amusement in her gaze. Never
once did her smooth petals for lips leave the confidence of the
The girls sitting at
the table behind where she was standing and where he guessed she
had come from were giggling. A little bit of rose found its way
to her cheeks, and Rishi, realizing that she herself was
blushing, looked furtively at her toes and wiggled her shoulders,
holding her hands behind her back. But she kept on sweetly
sipping her latte, not wishing to encroach on his personal space
that was not exactly overflowing with confidence at the time. It
hadn't occurred to him just then how thoughtful she was being.
The giggling had become
How many girls were
Zell looked over at
their table but stopped counting when he got to three. He felt
his time was better spent letting his forehead fall back onto the
table. He was not aware of the pain at the time, but judging from
how loud the impact sounded, it should have hurt a lot.
Though he was staring
straight at the tabletop, out from the corner of his eyes he
could see Rishi half saunter, half skip around him and take a
seat beside him, tacitly turning down the chair he had offered
across from where he sat. This deliberate gesture managed to
carry a meaning more explicitly received by Zell than implicitly.
Amazingly enough, the
girls at the other table grew silent.
"Tell me what's
wrong, Z-z-z-z-z-z-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l," Rishi
joked, matching the pitch of each phoneme Zell had stuttered
through as his introduction. There was also a subtle twang of a
southern accent in her voice, obviously inserted to goad him into
Zell snorted but did
not look up. On a brighter day, he would probably have fallen out
of his seat laughing, but on that same day, he also wouldn't have
introduced himself like a scratched record. On a brighter day, he
would not have caught her interest by banging his head against
the table over and over. Mina was simply radiant. Someday he
would have to ask her how she managed to light up the room the
way she always did. It was a pity that he usually took that light
for granted, not realizing how much it was worth until he was
ensconced in darkness.
What I wouldnt
give to put my arm around her right now.
My arm. I would not
give up my arm.
Shut up, Zell! You
think too much.
Zell blinked. He didnt
think too much, did he? At least I dont think so.
Yes! You either dont
think at all, or when you do, you think too much!
Zell frowned. Wha-?
Stop arguing with
Stop arguing with me
then! Zell hollered silently.
Zell. The only time you activate me, you choose to think about
this kind of stuff.
No one asked you to
come, Zell reasoned. Feel free to leave.
I just might.
Zell froze. It occurred
to him that it would not bode well for him if his mind actually
decided to leave. No! Come back!
scared of me.
sardonically. Im not scared of you.
conceded reluctantly, shoulders dropping, maybe just a little.
You are such a
The table looked a lot
bigger when his eyes were right on top of it. He had no idea that
loneliness was this cold. It was a wonder that Squall could
endure it. It explained the all-weather jacket at least.
His vision compromised,
Zell was not aware of Rishi's facial expression at this point,
but was pretty sure that she was still sucking on that straw.
Even though he had not made a real attempt, he did not want her
to leave either. She was a curiosity, and a very likable one too.
It surprised him how much she reminded him of Mina.
He heard a screech as
the legs of her chair rubbed against the floor. She pushed the
seat back, preparing to leave.
Is she getting up to
go? he wondered frantically.
No. She had placed both
hands on his shoulder and started shaking him, begging him to
talk to her.
He spared a moment to
twist his head slightly for a better view. He found himself
staring right into her big brown eyes, barely two inches away
from her face.
cried triumphantly. "I see you!"
Zell was too surprised
to say anything. She had caught his mind napping and that being
the case, he figured his mouth didnt have a chance at
producing a message more coherent than his initial pronouncement.
Only one escape route lay open to him.
Zell turned back to the
Rishi frowned as if her
feelings had been hurt, or at least he imagined she did. Giving
him a quick shove, she whined, "Youre so mean to
"But I dont
even know you!" Zell cried in his defense, his tone rife
He regretted it
immediately, dreading the sight of the wounded look on her face.
Maybe she wont
He checked, blindly
hoping that she hadnt taken him seriously. After all, she
could very well have mistaken the direction of the comment. He did
happen to be facing the table when he spoke.
What a chump he was!
He knew the signs well.
Her brow had already begun crease, and the slight quivering in
those flushed cheeks was sure to follow. Next her face would
fall, and after that would come the deluge. It would be a natural
disaster, lest he do something to salvage the situation.
To his apprehension, he
did not find a single Blind spell in his magic stock. Granted it
was not the most ethical way to stop someone from crying, but
Zell considered himself a flexible guy. In this particular
juncture, he was especially open to any sort of solution.
itself. He was getting so tired of seeing Nothing.
Drops of sweat lined
his forehead as he settled in for the worst.
"I just wanted to
ask if you wanted to try a sip of my Raspberry Arctic
Latte," Rishi wailed, loud enough to earn the sympathy of
every customer in the restaurant and make him the villain in
their eyes, "and offer to buy you one if you liked it!"
Zell kept his face
glued to the counter. Its cool surface did not quench the
burning sensation he felt about his face.
Eyes watering, she
continued to pout, "But so far all youve been talking
to is the table."
Her voice indicated
that she was neither happy nor kidding. Zell was sure this time
around that his ears had not deceived him when they registered
Minas voice; it was perfectly legitimate for him to have
thought that that because to him, all girls sounded the same when
they were upset.
"You make me feel
so ugly," Rishi sobbed, her tears running down the sides of
her face as she sipped the last of her latte.
really pretty," he replied, at last lifting his head from
the table and turning his entire body to face her.
She responded by
turning away from him and burying her face in the sleeve of her
believe you!" she cried, unmistakably moping.
me," Zell insisted gently, putting his hand on her shoulder.
Rishi pouted, wiping her eyes with the handkerchief that each
Garden student was required to keep tucked in the sleeve of their
Zell blinked, not sure
how to prove the verity of his words. Unlike Irvine, he didnt
carry a mirror with him wherever he went.
"How do I prove
it?" he asked Rishi.
on the menu and eat with me," she replied too quickly for
Zell to believe that she did not have a response planned ahead of
Zell was about to
protest that he had already ordered something, but decided
against it because it was perfectly possible that he never did
and just assumed that he had. It was also too much work for him
to rationalize how Rishi figured his eating and her beauty were
related, so he just sat back and shrugged. Rishi took his silence
as his assent, and she waved brilliantly to get the notice of the
"Can I help
you?" the lady asked after she walked over, taking out a pen
and her notepad.
Zell," Rishi urged, nudging his arm.
The Mina Deluxe
Dinner Special, please.
"Um, anything is
fine," he voiced instead.
Rishi made a face,
making Zell wonder what he had done wrong.
The waitress kindly
pointed out that he would have to give her the number of the item
to write on her notepad; otherwise, the kitchen would not know
what to prepare.
Zell made up quickly.
His serveuse raised an
eyebrow while she jotted the number down, but his response seemed
to satisfy her. Rishi didnt give him a hard time after
that. Instead, she just relaxed her face and smiled. As the
waitress headed for the kitchen, Zell settled his head back onto
Zell affirmed, speaking into the polished wood. "Youre
not ugly at all."
you," countered Rishi, "so why were you hiding
I am a chump.
The words echoed
through his empty system.
right, he admitted.
He was a chump, wasn't
Zell wasnt sure
if it was he who had assented or the annoying little voice in his
really sad. Lost," Zell admitted at last.
suddenly brightened, and a look of interest her crept into her
"- I havent
seen in forever, and its killing me," Zell finished.
It was getting rather
stuffy in the diner, but Rishi didnt seem to notice. Was it
all in his head, then?
probed, eyes flashing.
Zell echoed defensively.
Rishi begged. "I want to know."
"Why do you want
to know?" he inquired suspiciously.
"Cause I just do.
Im a girl, tell me!" she whined, shaking his arm.
debating whether or not the excuse she had given him would have
been valid in a court of law.
please?" Rishi tried.
Zell didn't budge. For
some reason that eluded him at the present, this scene seemed
awfully familiar to him.
"I love hearing
about this sort of thing," she pleaded again when she saw
that he unconvinced.
In a more ominous tone,
she added, "Humor me or I wont let go."
She had a nice grip. He
had to give her that much. There was also a subtle tone of fierce
determination in her voice. He read from her expression that she
was not afraid to call all of her girl friends over and pressure
him if he refused.
At this point he was
too heartsick to indulge in a game to see if she would go back on
her word. Seeing how there was no easier way out of his
predicament, Zell sighed and settled back in his seat,
concurrently lifting his head and staring at her with a defeated
look on his face.
She covered her mouth
with a free hand, trying desperately to hide a laugh that the
sight of Zells red forehead had incited. His temple had
been glued to the table too long.
"Do you want to
listen or not?" Zell demanded, feeling a flash of annoyance.
she chirped, quickly regaining her composure.
"Are you friends
with Mina Charleston?" Zell asked.
Rishi nibbled on her
fingernail as she tried to recall when she had last heard the
name, but at last shook her head.
but I can't place the name with a face," she admitted.
"She works in the
library," Zell added.
exclaimed in surprise. "You mean the pretty one?"
(Mina as Rishi Recalls - Drawn by Zen (firstname.lastname@example.org), umm, frenetic follower of
Pupu's Saga (Jeremy didn't give me an alliterative caption for
Zen, so I made one up! -Mazrim))
not the only pretty one, but I'd say the prettiest," Zell
Rishi looked rather
envious, but she signaled for him to go on with his story.
"I keep beating
myself up because I hardly paid any attention to what she was
saying on the night she left," Zell continued, "and now
I really want to know!"
"You guys never
listen us when you should," Rishi pointed out critically.
"That's because we
get chastised like we didn't hear you or something, even if we
did," Zell asserted.
"But you never
seem like you want to hear what we're saying," Rishi said.
"I love hearing
Mina talk, even if it's not about anything in particular,"
protested Zell. "I just save the work of listening for
Like when she's
waving a knife.
"Is that why you
dont have a clue what she tried to tell you that
night?" Rishi guessed, realizing the difference Zell was
trying to draw between hearing and listening.
Zell conceded, clearly surprised by how quickly she caught on.
Zell's thoughts echoed, I am a chump.
"What were you
doing instead?" she asked.
Zell colored slightly
and answered, "Eating."
Rishi rolled her eyes.
"What did you do
after she left?" she questioned, moving on.
I wilted and slapped
"What do you think
I did?" Zell countered. "I chased after her of
"I'm guessing you
didn't have any luck," Rishi remarked.
Zell shook his head
Nope, luck was not
on my side like it was at the Balamb nightclub. That was the
first time I ever saw her. Wasn't too articulate that evening,
but I can't blame myself for that. She nearly leveled me when she
came over and commanded me to dance with her*. My lower jaw had
to be on the floor. I was so weak! I am so weak
capitalized on it. Led me around like an euphoric puppy off to
bury a big bone. Nearly fell down when she pressed her warm body
against me too. Knees were shaking so hard
weakling! She had to have noticed. Must have thought I was a
total klutz. I'm such a chump! And now there's this other guy-
*Raine Ishida (email@example.com)
gives the full account of Zell's first
encounter with Mina in "Dance."
Rishi waved her hand in
front of his face, calling out, "Hello?"
When he was slow to
respond, she started slapping him repeatedly on the arm with her
small palms and pouted, "Talk to me, you big ol'
Zell was thus coerced
to repeat everything he had just thought to her. He did not
notice the periodic dreamy sighs she'd give or how her face
flushed. It seemed odd that he could say all these things in
front of a total stranger and not feel awkward about it, but he
supposed it was easier to talk to a woman. He could not imagine
himself having this conversation with Squall or Irvine. Or
Seifer, for that matter.
"Are you sure you
did a good job looking for her?" Rishi asked.
"I checked every
floor twice!" Zell exclaimed. "Then I checked her room,
her best friend Helen's room, and their mutual friend Janiika's
"Was that all she
was worth to you?" Rishi jeered.
huffed. "I even ran all the way to Balamb to see if she had
gone to Helen* or Janiika's houses."
*Raine Ishida (firstname.lastname@example.org)
gives the full account of Mina's friends
in "The Library Girl's Secret."
"Did you bother to
check the landing pier or the ticket booth?" asked Rishi.
Zell's eyes widened,
mentally kicking himself for not thinking of that at the time.
Why hadn't he thought
He was about to snatch
Rishi's drink and pour what was left of it onto his face when the
waitress returned with the dish he had ordered. It was actually a
large bowl with a lid on it as opposed to an actual dish. She set
it on the table in front of him.
thirty-four," she announced matter-of-factly and waited for
him to open the lid so she could take it back into the kitchen.
Zell lifted the lid,
revealing noodles and vegetables immersed in a reddish liquid.
this?" Zell asked.
thirty-four," the waitress repeated as if she were replying
to a nincompoop.
"What is number
thirty-four?" Zell tried a second time.
ordered," the lady answered in exasperation.
Zell felt stupid.
tomato and carrot juice, right?" Zell attempted one final
time to seek her reassurances.
waitress returned absent-mindedly, relieving him of the lid in
his hands instead of the doubt in his mind.
"Hurry up and
eat," Rishi urged him, tugging on his elbow.
The waitress witnessed
this and smirked.
"It's better to
eat it all while it's still warm," she told him.
In afterthought, she
added, "If you're not scared, that is."
Leaning over, she
whispered furtively in Zell's ear, "It really impresses the
ladies if you can eat the whole thing in one breath."
Zell looked from the
big bowl of noodles to the waitress to Rishi to the table of
girls whose eyes had not left them from the moment Rishi sat down
and back to the waitress again.
he asked with a questioning look.
She shrugged and
replied earnestly, "I would be."
Zell took her input
under consideration. Rishi's insistence, meanwhile, persisted.
The girls at the opposite table blushed in unison when he cast a
second glance over at them.
Why did Mina really
go to Galbadia? Who is that guy?
He stopped caring.
Without another word,
Zell took the bowl up in both hands and began to chug down its
The waitress, not
thinking that Zell would actually do it, dropped the lid but
caught it before it hit the ground. Rishi's eyes widened with
excitement. Zell heard the other onlookers gasp.
Having emptied the bowl
in record time, Zell victoriously set it back down and wiped his
mouth with his sleeve.
that?" he gloated, looking at the serveuse.
She edged away from the
"I'll go get you
some green tea," she offered, "but I doubt it will
what-" Zell began, but was cut short by the burning
sensation flaring up inside his mouth. It felt like Seifer was
playing around in there with a flame-thrower, having gone mad.
Rishi inspected the
bottom of the bowl curiously.
"These look like
red pepper seeds," she told him. "I didn't know you
liked hot peppers!"
Zell couldn't wait
around for the green tea. He desperately needed something to
douse the inferno that was working its way down his throat. Then
he remembered the waterhole right outside the Garden gates.
It would have to do.
Zell jumped to his
feet, knocking his chair over in the process, and ran out of the
If he had forgotten to
pay, so be it.
He could imagine Rishi
sobbing about how he didnt even say good-bye.
thought to himself with a cheesy grin. To help him vent, he
tossed into the shadows a handful of grass that he hadn't
realized he had uprooted during his rumination.
The waterhole had not
been a pleasant experience, but it had served its purpose. Still,
one would like to think that an organization as rich wealthy as
Garden would have invested in an actual, sanitized reservoir.
Something was wet
he was sitting on it.
Zell regretted shifting
from the uncomfortable patch of grass to the damp soil. A grass
stain, at least, was not a liability. If he went back to Nova
Trabia now, the trainees would all think that he dirtied his
pants, all on the account of the stupid humus. No one would
believe, and unfortunately for him, Garden was more gossipy than
it was mature.
Zell beat the ground
with his fist in frustration. Why couldn't he be more like
Squall? Squall had everything figured out. Wearing black pants
was ingenious. A dirt smudge was just one less thing about which
He didn't realize that
he had been pounding the soil the entire time. With each blow,
the earth sank and the tree beside him swayed by degrees that
grew increasingly precarious. He had mistaken it for a pine,
common in these parts, but was made aware of his initial,
erroneous assumption when the first of the small dogwood leaves
fell and those that followed began to flutter around him in the
place of the supposed pine needles.
He had been similarly
unaware that the spot he had been striking was matted with
gravel, not grass. The small jagged edges of crushed rock had
lacerated his knuckles, which would have soon been bloody had he
not caught himself right then. One particular puncture had been
rather deep, and it stung when Zell pulled the stone chip out of
his skin. The rest of the rocks had been neatly pulverized into
fine sand. Rubbing his knuckles, Zell stifled a grimace from how
the minor flesh wound smarted. Seifer would have laughed at him
had he done otherwise, and Squall would have followed Seifer's
suit if he knew how to laugh.
The number of dogwood
leaves had been steadily dwindling. Even if the sporadic breeze
had been nonexistent that night, to catch the leaves would still
have been challenge. They swung back and forth with no apparent
pattern or timing, swaying as if they were hanging from the end
of a confused pendulum. Additionally the desultory spin on the
leaves afforded them the fleeting cover of night, because only so
often would any given leaf arch wide enough to catch any of the
limited moonlight, peeking through the treetops. But how they
glistened when the moment was just right! In a word, it was
In the columns of
moonlight, each leaf glowed like the vanity of the moon goddess
herself. Now a coruscating curtsy, now a silvery strut, then
perhaps a diaphanous dip designed to steal your breath, and just
when you least expect it, a frivolous flash by the flip of her
naughty dress before she whirls away. And just like the moon, all
attempts of capture would prove fruitless as she always flees
before your grasp, but sure enough, the moment you withdraw your
hand, so does she reappear, fearing your turning away more than
your touch. Thus did each leaf flicker and flirt, even without
Zell reaching for them, and thus did he sit there, enshrouded by
the night swirl of blinking eyes, the peacock tail of a twilight.
Sensing that their
dance was almost done, Zell broke the calm and let his arm jet
out like a snake's head snaps, stabbing confidently into the
darkness. He left it there and took a moment to savor the feeling
of piercing the midnight air. All good things end quickly,
probably because they are so easy to miss. Most of them were,
indeed, hard to catch.
Feathers. Now feathers
were different; they were easy to catch. These dogwood leaves,
though, were something else. Clumsy yet graceful, and elusive all
in one. Zell marveled at that.
thought smugly, nothing can hide forever. Sooner or later
you're bound to be found.
With that, drew his
hand back and slid the pierced dogwood leaf off of his index
finger, careful not to tear it. It was came off like a ring too
tight for his tastes, and it felt so much like a white rose
petal. He wondered if it would fit her and then smiled at the
thought of giving a flower to flower.
Would they even
recognize each other? Or would it be like buying flowers for a
flowergirl and she would find it tasteless?
Something about it
caught his eye, and so Zell held the fragile loop under the light
and scrutinized the surface.
Sure enough, it was
dappled with cherry stains to which he realized his blood was
culprit. The puncture in his knuckle that he had not thought was
that serious had reddened and began to drip down his fingers and
onto the leaf, comparable to throwing strawberries into the fresh
winter snow. Had he ruined the purity or had he made the gift
more precious? Was his adulteration a signature or
self-expression that made the white circlet more dear to its
future wearer? Would she cherish it now because he was somehow
all about it in essence?
Zell pocketed his token
and made a mental note to give it to Mina first thing the next
time he saw her. That and a thousand hugs and kisses. Then,
without expression, he made a fist and inspected his minor flesh
wound. It was just a scrape, but he was happy that it had
happened. It seemed so familiar, this scratch. He wondered where
he had seen it before.
His eyes widened at the
He recalled first the
delightful shriek she gave when he pulled her into the water with
him that one time. Having reciprocated the favor of completely
soaking the other's clothes, he then swam to the ladder and
pulled himself up. He must have brushed his hand against a
protruding nail or the edge of a cracked plank in the process.
Neither of them had noticed when he proceeded to help her out of
the water, but she saw it later just as he handed her his towel
Her first reaction was
give the same surprised shriek that she had when he pulled her
into the water, but the slightest hint of worry had crept audibly
into her voice and changed her entire tone enough to break his
heart and make him feel ashamed for having distressed her so. She
frantically threw the towel aside and used instead her shirt to
clean his hand, after which she kissed and cried over it. He was
so dumbstruck at the time that he could offer her no words of
reassurance; rather he tried to comfort her with a hug, and while
neither of them dared to break the silence, it was then that he
knew she loved him. She was something special, and in that one
second, how blind he had been through each second of his life
before that one became suddenly insignificant, because for once,
at last, this time, here, he saw it, and he saw it clearly. As
clearly and plainly as he could see her standing before him, he
saw how special she was to him.
Woefully, though, that
wall of silence was extended by the group's whisking him away
through Time Compression, a phenomenon that he understood no more
than he understood her. Mysteries, rushes, life-altering
experiences those two were. One a maze of the mind, the other a
maze of the heart. Mina was simply a maze to him. To him, Mina
was simply amazing.
Zell colored, frowning.
Mina was always keeping secrets from him. He wondered what she
refused to tell him that day at the dock*. Could she have been
thinking about this other guy?
*Raine Ishida (email@example.com)
gives the full account of the incident at
the dock in "The Library Girl's
Zell shook his head in
frustration. But then again, he supposed all women were as
secretive and behaved the same way. It was just another method
perfected and practiced to keep guys like him on their toes, pins
and needles, the edge, curious, coming back. To keep things
discovered and undiscovered alike- that was their charm, the
woman's way. All of them except Rinoa anyway, who told Squall
Zell sighed, and leaned
back against a tree. Squall had it made. Squall was omniscient
about their missions and about women, or his own at least. Squall
did not have a huge wet spot on the back of his jean shorts.
Squall had a girl that always hung around him.
Zell tapped his
No, I forgot. Rinoa
is back in Balamb. Looks like Squall and I are in the same boat.
Mina had left him on
her own accord, just like Rinoa did Squall on the balcony. Who
were they but two poor schmucks abandoned on the same night?
Zell jumped to his feet
when his ears picked up a faint but distinctly feminine shout
coming from his left.
no, wait. She's in Galbadia.
He listened intently to
make sure he wasn't hearing things.
same cry followed more to the left than he had originally
It was hard to place
exactly where the sound had come from in so dense a jungle, but
he guessed the source was about seventy meters away. Zell brushed
the dirt off of his pants and hurried in what he hoped was the
right direction. One two, one two.
"Merali, was that
you?" the female voice rang again.
The night, two miles
away from the Garden lights, was not a good companion to
loudmouths. Zell, recognizing the unnecessary danger that the
girl was soliciting, picked up the pace. One two three, one two
better get your cute ass out here now!" she shouted next.
She was not too far
now. It was a race between him and whichever hungry nocturnal
creature happened to be in the area. If he got there too late,
she wouldn't have a head with which to shout. One two three, one
"I don't care how
smooth it is, I'm going to kick it back to last Friday if you
don't show yourself!" the mystery girl threatened, still
oblivious to how she was putting her life in jeopardy.
It would not be too
long now. He could not see her yet, but he could almost sense her
standing right beyond the next row of trees. Was it his
imagination or did the brushes a few meters away stir? He thought
he caught the shadow of something other than him moving in her
direction. One two three, one two three.
"Hit a tree with a
stick or something, or bat a rock in this direction, just give me
some sign to let me know where you are!" the girl called
Zell's blood chilled
when he heard a faint rumble and saw a serpent-like tail
disappear behind a tree trunk a short distance away. Branches
snapped and the grounded leaves rustled. One two three four, one
two three four.
The woman must have
heard it too because she hesitated before murmuring shakily,
Run! Zell wanted
to tell her. He was having a hard time keeping up with the still
unidentified monster, so he hoped desperately that she was parked
in a clearing and would head into the woods when she saw it
coming. He would be hard-pressed to reach her before it did. One
two three four, one two three four.
Must go faster,
he commanded himself.
No sooner did he think
that before thundered through the neighboring foliage. It was of
the hair-stiffening, skin-prickling, muscle-tensing,
blood-freezing, bone-jarring, ear-splitting, heart-stopping type
that Zell recognized on reflex, having endured various battles in
the field and Quistis' relentless language lab tape drills,
belonged to a Blue Dragon. It was either that or an inebriated
Wendigo trying to mate with Bahamut. Zell went with the more
probable and less ugly theory.
Both the squawking of
birds overhead and the regularly returned echoes indicated to
Zell that the cry of the beast was steadily radiating outwards
into the rest of the forest. He could almost see the mechanical
sound waves physically ripple through the dense niches and stir
up the wildlife. The indigenous animal population was clearing
out like a pack of rodents fleeing from a raging forest fire.
In the next instant
Zell saw a slender figure standing by herself a little ways off.
He felt a wave of joy wash over him, realizing that she was
almost within his grasp. The subsequent wave that hit him was the
fourth echo of the monster's first bellow, driving him into a sea
of fear. It stemmed from the fact that the serpent was leading
him by a few strides and from the doubt he had in his mind about
whether or not he could outrun a beast in frenzy. If there had
been a longer distance to cover and if the monster's dinner was
not immediately in sight, Zell would have bet a full month's
worth of wages on himself. As it was, the odds favored the
ten-ton snake with wings.
I am supersonic.
One two three four five
six, one two three four five six.
Hearing the roar and
feeling the boom, the girl had spun around in alarm. The look on
her face was distinctly the same as that which one puts on right
before she screams. Zell knew that her screaming would be a very
bad idea because it would surely attract any creatures hungry
enough to take their chances with the dragon and tarry in the
vicinity after hearing its sound.
If only he had longer
legs. If only he were not so unlucky. If only he were not such a
damned good Samaritan. The ideal cool-headed SeeD like Squall
would not have lifted a finger until he saw a notarized contract
with the Headmaster's official stamp on it. They were
mercenaries, and the only thing that sustained this way of life-
the way of the gun- was cold cash. Theirs was a crude world,
moralistically acknowledging only black and white,
materialistically recognizing only green and red- credits were
the currency and blood was the object to be bartered. It was as
simple as that, unless a SeeD fell for a client, or a client
happened to be the sorceress whose life the SeeDs had a hidden
agenda to take. In simple Squall's case, the clients from each of
the two extreme cases happened to be the same person, and that
would make things difficult.
The dragon was
practically on top of her. They had come to the end of the track.
It was now or never. One two three, one two-
I wonder if I can
wheedle some hazard pay out of Cid for this, Zell reflected
as he dove towards the girl, her glittering hair slung over her
shoulder and her pink mouth parted for what Zell feared would be
a scream that would certainly doom them even if they made it past
the Blue Dragon. A frantic girl made a perfect after-supper
snack, scrumptious enough to lure out the hard-hitting contenders
that were at first reluctant to fight the Blue Dragon for her, or
even worse, a bigger creature like the Red Dragon.
As Zell shuddered at
the thought, he was reminded of the only other time in his life
when he was stressed enough to have to involuntarily shudder in
midair. It happened during his boss fight with Ifrit on his trial
run to Fire Cavern to qualify as a SeeD candidate. While he was
dodging a fireball, Quistis told him to stop fooling around
because the exam was being timed. It galled him that she did not
mention that crucial fact when they entered the cavern. She later
explained that she was trying to keep him relaxed. He secretly
believed that Instructor Trepe deliberately forgot to mention the
time restriction, her purpose being to induce that very reaction
from him while he was sailing through the air. Shuddering before
touchdown basically rules out a soft landing, and he couldnt
very well see Quistis' look of satisfaction with a job well done
while his face was in the dirt. On top of that, he nearly tripped
up again when she told him that he could not keep Ifrit after he
had already won the GF. ! Apparently one other student had yet to
make the Fire Cavern run, and so, by her flawless reasoning, Zell
was to give up his rightful reward because some runt had slacked
off. Zell could not wait to get his hands on the punk that
deprived him of his GF. As soon as he found out who the last
candidate was, that kid was going to pay.
Zell ground his teeth
together. Quistis was definitely out to get him. He would have to
watch his step around her. Zell then took a millisecond to wonder
what Quistis had said to Squall to "relax" him.
Whatever she said, it was probably ineffectual. Knowing how
cold-blooded Squall was, nothing short of a blow to the head
could relax him, either because Squall was perpetually relaxed or
perpetually high-strung. Perhaps he was constantly both. A true
paradox Squall was.
The entire forest
seemed to fade into the blurred obscurity as he neared the
mystery girl. All he saw was her, and she stood alone against the
darkness, the single, illuminated focal point of his current
efforts. His eyes found her moon-silver flood of hair frozen
about her neck, around which a rosy ribbon fluttered with each
falter from her pale pink lips. Now, just a few inches from her
ivory face, Zell wondered why he had gotten this close to her
without the dragon interfering. It could have long since
swallowed the girl and batted him away with its claws.
(Pearl - Drawn by Zen (firstname.lastname@example.org), umm, talented treasurer? of
Pupu's Saga (Jeremy didn't give me an alliterative caption for
Zen, so I made one up! -Mazrim))
Momentarily drawing his
attention away from the girl, Zell could hear the beast's
frustration, its straining, its ferocious roars, its clawed feet
tearing up the ground and throwing forth a froth of dust. He
could also hear the nearby trees uprooting, the vines snapping,
the branches cracking, the trunks splintering, and the leaves
rustling with a hollow howl as harrowing as that emanating from
the dragon's throat itself.
Zell realized gleefully, for indeed the enemy's neck and jaws
were tangled in web of shoots and greenery between the last of
the trees, a space that it had mistaken for being empty and would
provide no impediment between it and its meal.
With newly infused
relief circulating in his system, Zell felt as if he were ready
to take on the world. This new development would afford him time,
not much, but enough to make the situation seem hopeful, and
perhaps enough time, even, for a vainglorious war hoot.
Zell quickly decided
against the war hoot. Squall would have done nothing of the sort.
Short of thirty Tiamats, Zell did not know of anything that could
induce his suitemate to even flinch. Even when the possessed Edea
threw an ice popsicle through Squall's shoulder during the
parade, Mr. Invalid himself had only raised an eyebrow. Cool as
ice, the commander was. Aloof, disinterested, cold-blooded,
callous, almost inhuman.
Well, now that I
think about it more-
Zell reconsidered his
original estimation of the blow to the head as a surefire way to
tranquilize Squall beyond his usual imperturbability. This new
insight was spurred by Zell's recollection that Squall always
seemed tense whenever he was unconscious. Zell suspected that
Squall had nightmares every night, because every time he snuck
into Squall's room to copy homework while the latter was asleep,
Squall would kick and turn over restlessly. His actions during
his unconsciousness betrayed the internal turmoil he hid from the
rest of the world during his consciousness. In light of this
evidence, it would be justified for Zell to assume that Squall
was perpetually high-strung.
Maybe that was what was
getting on Rinoa's nerves, Squall's kicking in his sleep, and not
Zell's barging in on the two of them on the balcony. How
I am such a chump!
Zell scolded himself, just as he felt his fingers connect with
skin and cloth. She tensed at his touch.
The monster lurched
back and forth, pushing its scaly head forward, kicking,
screaming, and batting at them with its angry claws. The
lightning-quick swipes narrowly missed Zell as he slammed into
the woman. She smelled like daisies after a light sprinkle, or
was he hallucinating about Mina again?
The last vine groaned
and gave way, snapping apart and in agony. In no time at all, the
massive jaws of the carnivore descended upon the two. Had Zell
looked up, his eyes would have been as white and round as dinner
That is to say, had
Zell stalled, he would have been eaten. Yet, the serpentine jaws
slammed into the ground, the grotesque teeth sinking into nothing
other than the earth's soft soil. The split-second during which
the dragon was hampered by the creeper tree's tendrils had
afforded Zell just enough time to tackle the maiden to the ground
and roll out of harm's way with her in his arms. He was not
willing to place a bet on how grateful she was going to be for
knocking the wind out of her in what looked like an overly
exuberant, desperate, and mindless attempt to cop a feel through
the blue-and-pink-striped tank-top, but he could say with near
certainty that if they both lived through the Blue Dragon, he
would have another enemy to deal with.
Or another enemy to
run from, Zell admitted to himself when indeed he felt
something that he had not meant to feel. His face contorted
awkwardly, unable to reconcile how to simultaneously blush in
embarrassment and pale with dread.
The Blue Dragon spared
him of his dilemma. Having tasted with his last strike more grit
than blood, all of which had been spilled from his own tongue,
the beast lifted its jaws in fury. Its raging eyes screamed
bloody vengeance, and it leveled its sights menacingly on Zell as
the frantic SeeD scrambled to lift his companion to her feet. The
dragon snarled, nostrils flaring, opened its mouth, and let out a
burst of flame. The wild, red tongues reached out to Zell who was
Since when do Blue
Dragons breathe fire? the thought ran through his head a mere
stride quicker than the blaze ran through the air towards its
target. Zell found himself back on panic's porch, rapping on its
Mina, what do I do?
He was a mercenary, not
a bodyguard; he did not have the proper training that the
situation called for. By all rights he should have rolled out of
the way even before the dragon let loose its fiery breath, but it
seemed morally wrong to move or duck out of the way after
gesturing to the girl to stay behind him.
Still, the days of
morality having passed, would he really be condemned for saving
his own skin? Probably not, but the lack of penalization did not
make it right.
"The crime does
not make the criminal; the police cameras do," he
remembered Irvine's maxim. It was the same line Irvine used
constantly to excuse himself and turn the argument on anyone who
would accuse him of philandering. Evidently the cowboy still
considered himself to be pure in heart and immaculate in
conscience because he had never been caught diddling anyone,
diddle as he might. Innocent until proven guilty. Pristine till
shown to be otherwise.
By the same shaky
reasoning, with no one to condemn him, Zell could have easily
slipped into the forest and let the girl fend for herself with no
one being the wiser. And he would have done it too had Irvine
been the ultimate authority on honor. Being as Irvine was a
sneaky, womanizing sniper, though, Zell decided to do the exact
opposite of what Irvine's code called for. He would hold his
ground until she was safe. If he didn't, then he did not deserve
to court Mina. If she had been in this girl's place, would he
have even hesitated?
He wasn't sure, and he
sure as Eden did not want to leave it as an uncertainty. He had
to know. If he could save the girl now, then he would surely save
Mina later. If he selfishly chose the path of cowardice and ran,
even if he could side-step the guilt of having sacrificed the
life of an innocent for his own no-good existence, he would be
able to escape neither the self-doubt about his worth as a
warrior, nor the inquietude from knowing that his girlfriend
deserved a better, worthier man and that he was depriving her of
this other person. Both the doubt and the inquietude would plague
him incessantly and catch up with him eventually. In essence,
Mina was the girl, and the girl was Mina. It was all one big
test. True or false.
What's it gonna be,
Zell? he could imagine Cid asking. What's your answer?
Dont you mean
what am I, and not what my answer is? he heard his voice
resonate in his head.
Are you true or
false, Zell? Cid would have rephrased it.
Zell wished desperately
that it had been an ordinary SeeD test. This time, though,
Squall's answers weren't handy and if he cheated, he would not
only be cheating himself; he would be cheating her too. How could
he have her suffer that? She did not deserve that.
Zell was quickly
realizing that his predicament had become too serious to be a
game. Relationships seldom were, and life-threatening situations
even less frequent.
He felt so unworthy. He
had to be, for why else would he be debating about making a
choice that ought to have been so immensely obvious had he been
I am so unworthy,
he confessed to himself.
You are! his
inner voice agreed.
I am, he
repeated hollowly, not fully believing that he was giving up
without a fight.
You better believe
it, the voice replied.
She was obviously too
good for him.
She is too good,
At last we agree,
Zell realized sadly.
Zell saw the snide
comment coming so it did not ruffle him half as much. It was not
like he had any pride left to lose. To care about pride was
silly; he was a guy and that was how guys were built. It served
him right to fall for a goddess trapped in a mortal body.
Time was speeding up
again. He was back in the forest and could feel the heat wave
heading towards him. The moment of truth had arrived. He could
dally in his thoughts no further without getting hurt by the
incoming burst of flames.
Zell looked at the girl
Forgive me, Mina.
Zell pushed the girl
away, immediately after which he landed a quick kick on her rear,
propelling each of them in opposite directions. Even as he
spiraled away, though, he could feel part of the blast wash over
The girl cried out in
pain when Zell booted her into the bushes, and from the way she
was groaning, he guessed that her landing had been hard one. In a
more graceful display, Zell rolled smoothly back onto one knee
upon landing and brushed out the small patches on his socks that
Having dispelled the
danger that required his immediate attention, he raised his head
and yelled out to the girl, "Run!"
She rose to her feet
slowly, wincing from the pain that he had inflicted, looked at
him dubiously for a second, but then quitted her hesitation and
soon, carrying out his instruction, the battlefield itself.
After noting her
departure, he spared a glance back down to his feet. The sides of
his sneakers were seared, and the soles were partially melted
into a gummy mess. Had they been an old pair of running shoes, he
might have been inconsolable over the loss of so comfortable and
familiar a relationship. Being as they were practically brand
new, he was more irked than upset that he had been gypped of a
full three months of perfectly workable performance. The limited
edition footwear had been imported at his request from Galbadia,
offered the maximum traction for optimal handling without
compromising speed, was cushioned to adapt to the shape of each
foot, and promised to push the athlete's abilities to their peak.
It was also signed by the great Mr. Jammy himself-
He could no longer
ignore the awful odor that seemed to cling to his body, and took
in a big whiff in hopes of finding the source. Struggling not to
hurl, he presumed that the irritating smell climbing up into his
nose was from the vapor streaming from his legs. Upon inspection,
he saw that all of his precious hair in that area had been seared
off. The corollary sentiment of despair was quickly replaced by
that of indignation.
Zell rubbed his singed
calves furiously, deciding that he had a major problem with
barbecued Zell legs being on the menu without his explicit
written permission. If he and Mr. Toasty were going to have
themselves a problem, then it was his job to make sure that by
the end of the fight, it was all the latter's problem.
buffalo," Zell hissed indignantly, "I want fried dragon
Zell cracked his
knuckles through his Ehrgeiz gauntlets and repeated the action on
his other hand. Someone owed him some fancy running gear, and
that someone was going to pay.
"You have three
seconds to apologize to me in English before I kick your
green-tailed ass!" he shouted at the creature, flagging it
off in the process.
In response, the Blue
Dragon roared cacophonously and whipped its aquamarine tail
around, leveling three good-sized trees in the process. Zell
somersaulted at just the right time so that when his body was
inverted at the peak of the flip, by extending his right hand, he
was able to plant his palm on the killer tail and catapult over
it as it sped by. Still in flight, he grabbed a projecting branch
and swung himself up to a higher perch. There he settled quietly
in the shelter of the shadows yielded by the foliage. He peered
through the green mesh and spied his enemy wheeling back around
to face the clearing. The price of the surprise spin-move had
been the forfeiture of Zell from its line of sight for a
split-second, and now it could not reacquire its target. Zell
watched the reptilian fiend scan the environs, its bulgy eyes
rotating, oozing, slowly through a full revolution on each side
of its ghastly jaws. It let out a few hit-or-miss spurts of fire
to test any possib le hiding spots in the prox! imity. On all
four feet now, with its tail swaying opposite of its massive head
for counterbalancing purposes, it seemed more and more like a Red
Dragon to Zell. For one thing, it behaved more like its fearsome
cousin than the normal lot of Blue Dragons that he had fought
It flicked its tongue
over the gleaming set of daggers inside its mouth, then moved
forward to cover more ground, slowly at first, but soon picked up
speed as its hind legs stirred to life. Craw strafing and eyes
snaking, it raked the area for Zell's corpse with surprising
speed and systematicity, obviously not the geezer with loose
screws that Zell hoped it would be. He could see the outline of
the dragon's veins protruding out from under the moon-glazed
scales, the haunch muscles tightening, filling and stretching the
skin, the ground groaning under the weight of each of its steps,
the crusted nails digging into the flesh of the earth.
Zell actually felt
sorry for the dirt that had been trodden underfoot. Eyeing the
beast's spacious, pothole-like footprints, he stiffened at his
guess about how unpleasant it would feel to be trapped under and
crushed by the gigantic paw of that walking trash compactor.
Zell nearly jumped out
of his skin when he thought he saw the monster's jaundiced eyes
widen, presumably from having sensed his initial alarm or smelled
the fear pouring from his pores. The drops of sweat gathering on
his brow and lining his arms hollered and hooted up a ruckus,
waving madly to grab the beast's attention, inviting the
disclosure of Zell's location. He was so going to punish them by
showering the living daylights out of them when he got back, if
he got back, tonight, but for now, he lamented that he had not
the foresight to wear an airtight, full-body suit instead of his
trademark shorts, shirt, and jean jacket for this evening jog.
It was a jog that
promised to be more costly than an everyday workout. Whoever
coined the phrase, "no pain no gain," had obviously
never run across a Blue Dragon in the weight room. Another look
at the demonstration of compressive powers honed by the creature
gave Zell a whole new perspective on "doing crunches"
in the Nova Trabia Garden Gymnasium.
Seeing how the dragon
was torching everything in sight and stomping around, Zell
decided that if he did not live to sign back in at the front
gate, it would not take a genius to figure out what had happened
to him when they stumbled upon his remains the following morning.
He reckoned that with their combined astuteness, the search
party, investigation committee, and intelligence team had a fair
chance of arriving at the right conclusion, then. After all, it
was common knowledge to even the second-class Garden trainees
that every criminal made at least ten mistakes and left the
investigators at least ten clues as to his identity. Judging,
though, from the way it was trumpeting its attendance to all the
world with its thunderous snarls, the Blue Dragon did not seem to
fear being caught and indicted by the locals.
The monster drew near.
Zell, having breached the threshold of anxiety for quite so time
now, was figuratively pissing in his pants, expending every last
effort not to do it literally.
What would Squall do
in this situation? he racked his brains for an answer
The only response that
turned up from his query was a sarcastic Well, for starters,
his pants would not be wet.
But Zell was over that
already. He was above it. Beyond it. He was Zell. He didn't have
to be Squall, not if he didn't want to be, at least. He could
handle everything just fine on his own.
But he sure wished
Squall were around. Squall would know what to do. It was
impossible to lose with Squall leading the team.
No sooner did the
thought cross his mind that Mina's face flash against the screen
of leaves before him. He gasped and reached out to touch her, but
the mirage had already vanished in a flicker. The only part of
her that lingered- her frown of disapproval - did so in his
memory. The image jabbed into his heart and ran it through,
forcing him to pull back, fingers shaking, like he had cut
himself on accident while wiping his mother's kitchen knife in
He was always telling
Mina to be braver. It was her turn to tell him to be brave. That
was the message he read from her disappointed eyes.
Tough as it was for
Zell to admit, she was not wrong to think that. The verdict
itself might have been wrong, but he could not blame her for
making that judgement based on the lousy evidence he had
presented to her. Every action or thought he had carried out in
the past hour could qualify, at best, as misleading if not
downright contrary to what he wanted to prove of himself. Even
now, fear held him by the reins, riding down on him hard as he
knew the Blue Dragon would if he did not get his act together. It
was the same fear that ruled over Mina, the same that he
constantly urged her to overcome. It was ironic that he was no
one to coach her on how to conquer their common nemesis when it
came to the crucial moment.
effective shackles on one's will. Now, with it being inches from
his face, this principle was illuminated. Never before did he
sympathize with the need for solitude that her shyness of spirit
dictated. It used to bother him that she would rather dance with
the cover of night* than with him, to practice under it than
before his eyes. Now, though, freezing up in the face of fear did
not seem all that absurd. She would rather dance alone than face
her demons under the silent moon, but he could save her and
redeem himself. This was his chance to take her turn for her, to
assume the dance with the devil and beat it once and for all. She
did not have to be afraid anymore, if he could endure enough fear
for the both of them.
The devil drew near.
Darker became the black pitch of night.
*Raine Ishida (email@example.com)
gives the full account of Mina's late-night
dancing in "The Library Girl's
The dragon's nostrils
moved up and down as if it were sniffing the air once more to
confirm the direction from which Zell's scent was the strongest.
Maybe it really could smell him. This would be an interesting
complaint to raise to the Garden Personal Services Committee
about the Garden-issued soap.
The creature's muscles
tensed when it was sure that it had found its prey. Its sharp
intake of air and equally hurried exhalation was an indication
for Zell to make his exit. The quickness of breath signaled that
a strike was underway. Sure enough, the swaying tail had grown
still, and Zell guessed that once it snapped to life, he would
not be able to see it again until it was on him.
Zell quickly grabbed a
thick branch, pulled it back with one hand, and broke it from the
tree trunk with the elbow of his other hand. Once freed from the
tree and resting in his arms, the small log felt much heavier
than it had previously looked, as he had anticipated. His only
worry was whether or not it had enough weight to pull off what he
intended to do next.
The still tail
disappeared from view, its initial explosion into motion too
quickly for the eye to follow. It would cover a wide arc around
the dragon's left side, picking up speed and whistling like the
devil. Zell threw the log outwards, jounced the limb to pull more
height, and jumped into the clearing after it.
I am a falcon.
Zell spiraled into the
air, catching glimpses of smashed tree in whose composition he
would have taken part had he lifted off a second later. The
fallen, splintered mass wept over its ruin, and Zell might have
followed in suit had he nothing else to worry about. However, the
apprehension of the dragon rearing its head up and launching a
breath of fire afforded him no such worry-free luxury. Somewhere
in the shadows of the past, Mina danced along side of him,
matching him revolution for revolution with her own triple-axle.
Zell mumbled a curse
when he saw the dragon's eyes follow his movements. He was
banking on the possibility that it would lose track of him among
the flying debris. Now he had to pray that his invented
calculation with the wooden log would work out when tested in
real life. He wished that he could have tried this out in the
Garden Computer-Simulated Battle Program multiple times to tweak
out any mistakes instead of being forced to give this one
unrehearsed, impromptu performance that actually carried more
consequence than hitting the restart button. But "there was
nothing better than imminent death to ward against
complacency," Quistis had lectured in class once. Zell,
traditional antagonist of the "survival of the fittest"
precept and proponent of the "survival of the most well
prepared," found something morally wrong with her line of
I am an eagle.
After reciting a quick
prayer, Zell reached out to catch the chunk of wood that he had
initially thrown above him but had now begun its parabolic
descent. Still on his way up, Zell found his target out of reach,
but quickly turned his horizontal, streamline position into a
front flip by deliberately overarching, shifting his center of
gravity back, destabilizing his own equilibrium, increasing his
vertical moment, and consequentially tipping forwards, both feet
over his head. After pulling out of this somersault at the peak
of his jump, his feet settled perfectly on the topside of the
wooden board. Mina shadowed him on the ground far below, her
parahuette completely synchronized with Zell's own acrobatics.
"Ride it in," she motioned to him in a language of pure
feeling beyond the capacity of words to describe.
Zell took his breath
and held it as he dropped into the dragon's air space. Even
though he was directly on top of it and could not see what it was
doing because of the board in between them, Zell could imagine
the beast sitting up onto its hind legs, straightening out,
lifting its head back, opening its jaws, and letting loose a
fearsome inferno. All he had to do now was sit tight, ram the log
straight into the creature's gapping mouth, lodge it deeper into
the throat, and hope for the best.
Once he felt the flames
fanning out around him, he was both relieved and vexed that his
estimation of the dragon's movements was flawless; the beast had
indeed titled its head back and spewed forth a jet spray of fire,
into which Zell was now falling. Seated in a one-way convey into
hell qualified as the last place Zell wanted to be.
At the same time,
though, he knew that jumping off the convoy was the last thing he
wanted to do. He had seen Seifer scrimmaging with Squall the day
before the SeeD exam and remembered how the initial blast from
Seifer's Fire Cross had knocked Squall down. It would have been
worse had Squall's gun-blade not taken the brunt of the
flame-burst, splitting the explosion down the center. Still, the
two severed halves of the flames curled back around the blade,
diffracting outwards to hit, with one combined force, Squall
whose surface area was too large for hide behind the blind zone
created by the deflection. Zell reasoned that it would be
similarly disastrous for him to attempt to jump off and leave the
protection that the log provided. Should he do so, he would
surely find himself engulfed by the column that formed a deadly
canopy above him. He decided to kneel down into a tight tuck, as
close to the pseudo-shield of a board as he could, and wait for
his next move.
As he fell deeper into
the inferno, he gritted his teeth and held on despite the
sun-colored tendrils that climbed over the edges, threatening to
char him beyond recognition. The sensation he felt resembled that
of an accelerated tan, one where he could personally witness the
color change of his skin, if his irises did not burn off first.
Whether his epidermis would peel or not was not the question; the
question was whether it would be pink or black. Without prompt
Curaga-ing and timely relief from this aerial oven, he would to
die. His instinct told him that without need of confirmation from
any additional mathematical calculation.
Suddenly he felt the
board shake, as if it landed on something hard, and the flames
overhead withered away. Even before the dragon emitted a
multitude of choking howls tinted with surprises, frustration,
and anger, Zell knew that standing at the doorway of death, the
doorway, humorously enough, of digestion. He had successfully
navigated the log into the creature's mouth, which was the last
thing his adversary expected. Within seconds though, the
juggernaut would regain its composure and crush the wooden mass
with the brute force of its jaws.
I am a buzzard.
There was no hesitation
before Zell struck the log with both fists and jammed it into the
fleshy part in the depths of the gigantic throat. He could
vicariously feel the sharp edges and protrusions sinking into the
soft tissues of the beast under him as clearly as he could feel
being thrown up into the air and out of the animal's jaws in
reality when it bucked up and tossed its head back in pain.
Zell tucked his knees
against his chest and maneuvered himself through three full
rotations before he felt himself beginning the descent. The
dragon was still twisting its body and flaying about in agony as
Zell straightened out and timed his next sequence of attacks and
aerial stunts. As he drew near to the dragon's head, he checked
to his side to see if Mina was still with him. Her essence was
there, even if her person was not.
encouraged, Zell let himself fall a bit further, just past the
dragon's head, before reaching out and catching the left horn and
swinging himself forward, transforming his vertical displacement
into horizontal translation. This thrust moved him below and
across the dragon's chin where he landed a heavy blow from his
knee and another from his elbow to the creature's exposed neck.
He was moving quickly enough to throw himself back up and over
the other side of the dragon's head by grabbing the outer rim of
its chin and switching the direction of his momentum. Sliding
along the slimy skin, Zell vaulted over the nostrils, kicked in
the dragon's right eye in passing, and somersaulted back to its
left side, pulling his body into a precarious horizontal
orientation parallel to the ground.
I am your worst
The trick was to kick
the dragon as many times on the way down without shifting too
much of his weight to his legs. If his center of gravity moved to
his lower body, his head and torso would tilt downwards and he
would land headfirst. What he needed to do now was to kick
quickly, keep his body from rotating, land on his hand without
breaking it, and flip back onto his feet. The speed with which
the hand-flip was to be performed was crucial because the beast
would surely topple over after the assault, and Zell was neither
overweight nor desperate enough to rely on a falling wall of
bricks to make himself look and feel thinner.
Zell eyed the spots he
was to assail in the few seconds he had before he hit the ground.
Everything was moving so fast that it looked like the dragon was
jumping and he was standing still as opposed to him falling and
the dragon being static. The overall effect was the dragon
zooming by and he struggled to kick whichever places he could
clearly mark with both eyes, switching between his right and left
Neck. Kick. Falling.
Shoulder. Kick. Falling.
Armpit. Kick. Falling.
Hip. Kick. Falling.
Zell's arm shot out to
cushion his fall. He did not stiffen his arm the second he
planted it because he needed an arm's length of time to build up
enough normal force to neutralize his negative velocity. It was
also the only way to keep his arm from breaking under his weight
and speed. Zell slowly exhaled as he slowed to a stop, drops of
sweat slipping from his forehead and down around the curve of his
cheek. His tense arm convulsed spasmodically, straining to keep
the rest of his body balanced. The initial danger was over, but
if he tipped over on his hand now, he would risk crushing his
wrist with his bodyweight, pulling the tendons from his digits to
his palm, and dislocating a finger or two. Meanwhile, the Blue
Dragon, already stunned from the blows to its head and off
balance from the kicks in the midsection, was in the process of
bowling over. Its wobbly collapse was expedited somewhat
unpropitiously by Zell taking its legs out from under it.
With only seconds
before the mountain of reptilian muscle toppled on him, Zell,
well aware of Garden's inept medical plan and unwilling to be an
accomplice to Dr. Kadowaki's fiscal burgeoning, summoned the last
bit of his reserve energy to push himself off the ground before
either his hand crumpled under him or he crumpled under the
beast. After a crisp, back-bending flip and the extension of his
arms to increase his moment of inertia that forced him
decelerate, Zell floated neatly back onto his feet, just in time
to witness the carnivorous hunk of mass slam into the ground
where he would have padded it had he not moved away with
punctuality. He marveled wide-eyed at the ring of sand thrown up
during the collision, and stared as each grain sagged sorrowfully
back down to the ground, gasping for air but unable to escape the
claws of gravity. Zell let out his own sigh of relief, realizing
that he had better luck than the upturned sod and had escaped
with his life.
The na´ve sigh was
retracted, and Zell suffered an involuntary gasp in its stead. No
With the enemy lying
cowed on its side, Zell stepped forward for a closer look.
It was no mistake.
He felt a chill
permeate just under his skin through his entire body. He had seen
that marking on the horn-impaired goat that had booted him off of
the roost. This time, though, the cryptic word was carved on a
thin copper plate whose edges had been run through the skin on
the monster's back. Zell reached out to touch the plate and
confirm its composition, careful to watch the back of the
dragon's head for any movement. The monotonous panting sounds
coupled with the rising and falling of the creature's rib cage
allayed Zell's wariness.
He guessed off the top
of his head that sticking the plate into one's flesh would have
hurt as much as branding the word onto the skin. Either way, he
was stuck with the puzzle of figuring out what the word meant and
who had placed it there. He would have to tell someone about it,
but whom? Squall would tell him to write a report and Quistis
would have told him to proofread it. Zell considered telling
Having let down his
guard, he did not catch the movement of the dragon's notorious
tail out of the corner of his eye. It had curled back when he
approached to study the incoherent marking and he was not agile
enough to dodge it when it swung forwards and caught him across
the ribs, sending him flying through the air until he was stopped
abruptly by an uncomfortable tree trunk. He fell facedown to the
ground like a crumpled rag, wondering if the collision had broken
any part of his backbone, and if so, how many.
"I can't," he
hissed through his teeth, still wrestling with the pain.
Get up, fool,
his will repeated more forcefully.
Zell whined, his fingers turning white from clenching his fists
Get up before you
get eaten, bozo.
move," he moaned.
Zell picked himself up
and raised his knuckles weakly, reassuming his battle stance. To
his infinite mirth, the dragon was already lumbering away back to
its nest. It had suffered its own set of casualties and had no
desire to wait around for other carnivores to stumble upon them
and overpower it. Apparently even a mangled Zell for dinner was
not worth the extra time and fight.
The Blue Dragon's
snubbing was a devastating blow to Zell's self-esteem. He would
have protested had he felt up to task of substantiating that
protest. Frankly, though, all he wanted right then was a x-ray
machine, some Hi-Potions, and Mina. Had he any GFs junctioned to
him, Zell could have cast Curaga on himself. As dismal luck would
have it, he had to scrounge around on his knees for some M-Stones
pieces or Magic Stones and make do with Cures and Curas. Wizard
Stones to be refined into Curagas were particularly rare, and
fate was behaved stingily when it came to distributing them to
battle-weary SeeDs. Even if he found the stones, though, without
the benefit of GF-refining abilities- particularly Siren's Life
Magic Refining- he would have to grind it into powder manually
and ingest that in order to produce the same healing effect.
Zell flopped down,
exhausted. Sprawled on the ground and staring into space, he felt
his mind wander immediately to the memory of the last date he and
Mina had before he had to undergo Time Compression. How nice it
had been then in Balamb, purely a spur of the moment get-together
that he drove her to enduring at an ungodly hour for his own
selfish reasons. At half past midnight he had taken her for a
walk along the dock. The reason why he did not take to a movie
and buy her dinner earlier that evening was because he did not
save enough Gil from his last paycheck, but she never minded his
financial precariousness much. If the boardwalk had suddenly cost
money to walk on, he would have just walked her back to Balamb
Garden and toured the library in the great tradition of urbane
She seemed so sullen at
the time that he had been forced to ask if there was anything
wrong and why she was not speaking.
"I'm laconic when
I should be comatose," she announced with a yawn.
Dry humor was never her
forte, and Zell sifted out the true cause of depression from her
Trabia, isn't it?" he asked, guessing that the latest piece
of news regarding the commercial decisions in post-bombing Trabia
had just reached her ears.
She nodded without
looking up. After walking another few steps, she suddenly moved
closer and borrowed his arm. Her cheek claimed his shoulder, her
fingers his hand, and he disappeared into her wounded splendor.
He could not fathom how
she must have felt when she got wind of the latest statement by
Trabia's insanely selective Angel Dance School* about their
decision to put off admitting any new students for the year on
account of the population loss and woebegone mood inspired by the
destruction of the township and its neighboring Garden. It had
been a longtime fantasy of hers to get accepted into the elite
dance academy, and she had practiced her heart out for the then
upcoming auditions, but now that glimmer of a dream had snuffed
out. It pained him beyond words he could express that the
unfortunate announcement could have also put out the fire within
her that he loved more than he loved himself. He would die before
telling her that, though.
*Raine Ishida (firstname.lastname@example.org)
gives the full account of the Trabia's
Angel Dance School in "Hope."
"I'm sure things
will return to normal once they start rebuilding Trabia Garden
and the locality," he lied, not really sure at all.
She faked a smile to be
unselfish and to lead him to believe that he had indeed fooled
her like any decent boyfriend would have tried to do, but he saw
through her ruse too.
"You have a real
chance," he insisted. "Don't throw it all away on
account of their decision for the hiatus, which, by the way, has
nothing to do with you."
She heard him without
really listening to what he had to say, and nodded in feigned
recognition. After a moment of silence, both persons asked the
other simultaneously, "Why do you like me?"
Mina looked at him in
surprise and giggled for the first time that day.
she told him, pulling on his hand, "just answer this one
thing for me."
asked, lifting an eyebrow.
"Why is the blush
of midnight blue?" she posed abruptly after looking up and
studying the umbrella of twilight.
"Yes, I know that
one!" Zell shouted with artificial excitement and alacrity
just as she finished. He also snapped his fingers and did a
little jig in the process.
silly," she replied in a stern tone he had no reason to
expect, "I want an answer."
"Why do you want
to know?" he inquired suspiciously.
"Cause I just do.
Im a girl, tell me!" she whined, shaking his arm.
debating whether or not the excuse she had given him would have
been valid in a court of law.
please?" Mina tried.
Zell sighed and
"You know this has
nothing to do with what we were just talking about, right?"
he asked, seeking her confirmation.
Mina winked and
answered, "It does and it doesn't."
"Glad we got that
cleared up," Zell retorted, rolling his eyes.
She bit fiercely into
his shoulder hard enough to leave marks on the skin under his
Zell began to yelp but
caught himself. So long as she was there, he should not complain.
He looked over and stared into her soft eyes, treasuring the
brutal nibbling for what he knew it meant- a release of her
frustration for the dance academy projected onto him. The thought
of making her happier made him smile. He leaned forward to kiss
When her eyes drifted
upwards and she saw him looking at her, she paused, realizing
that he was not offended and that he was not going to fight her.
She blushed, releasing him and quickly turning away before he got
At that moment, more
than anything else, he longed to find the brightest flower and
place it in her hair. But then he wanted so many things- small
things that somehow meant so much to him- things like her
squinting and cry of surprise when he flicked water in her face
while they sat on the dock behind his house*, or the feel of her
hand when she'd let him hold it in the quad, or the slight bounce
of her hair at sunset, however she chose to wear it, or her
fragrance that he could never dismiss when she managed to sneak
up from behind him and throw her arms around him, or the look of
joy on her face whenever she was on the old swing, or how she
would belt him when he teased her. He'd give up just about
anything to have her punch him in the stomach now, just so he
could feel her touch and be in her presence. It never hurt
because she was always half-playful, but just to get hit was
heavenly. He wondered what he did to deserve having her little
pearls sink into his shoulder. He must have done something! right
to receive so paramount a reward. Why else would he be standing
so close to heaven? It seemed completely irrational.
But irrational was
*Raine Ishida (email@example.com)
gives the full account of the incident at
the dock in "The Library Girl's
"You can't kiss
me," she told him, her back still turned. Agitatedly, she
crossed her arms and hugged herself.
Before Zell could
protest, she added, "Not until you solve the riddle."
important about this riddle?" he inquired, squinting with
"It's not just any
riddle," Mina explained, "it's mine."
Zell stuck his hands in
his pockets. Okay
"I want to know if
you really like me," she explicated, sensing his
"So what does it
mean once I solve it?" Zell asked, kicking a stray pebble
over the edge of the boardwalk.
"It means I'm
yours and you can keep me," she replied so gently that all
the whisperers in the world grew jealous.
Zell took one hand out
of his pocket and rubbed the back of his head while deciding what
best to say next. It didn't seem like a moment appropriate for
making one of his usual interjections. Mina spared him of his
Turning around and
staring squarely into his eyes, she told him wordlessly how much
it meant to her for him to answer her riddle. Through the silence
she made him understand that he could have as much time as he
needed to find the answer, but it was a one-shot deal. She would
wait as long as it took for him to find her key- the key to her-
but in the end, it had to be to the right one. Her eyes bored
down so deeply into his own that he could have sworn she grazed
the base and captured his soul.
Zell blinked, realizing
that he had never felt so vulnerable, so fragile in his life. She
He wondered what Mina
was thinking right then.
Or what a chump you
are, the voice his head second-guessed him.
Lying on the forest
floor, Zell sighed and rubbed his forehead with his palm.
That was basically how
their last date ended. After the mutual staring had ended, she
demanded to be escorted back to her room and he obliged her. He
did not see her again till the ball after Ultimecia's defeat. The
hotdogs had been particularly distracting that evening.
Floating above the
drooping foliage, the gray clouds looked that much grayer. Grayer
now that she was not with him. How the sky could be visually
blacker than the most dismal pitch was, among many other truths,
hidden from him, but the soul is neither blind nor bound by
optics or any other concrete physical characterization, and so
the eyeless judge within his heart was telling him that at this
moment, the night sky was indeed blacker than black and that it
was indeed emptier than empty. That much it could discern, and
thus spoke the visionless wonder to Zell.
He covered his face
with his grubby hands, the visage of the male character in the
photograph having returned to haunt him.
you!?" Zell screamed into the apathetic wilderness.
Who are you!? he
heard it throw the echo back at him again and again.
tumultuously, no longer able to fend off the fear that it was
undoubtedly his fault that she had turned away from him.
Give me another
chance, Mina, he appealed inside, broken, frightened.
Just don't give up