PuPu's Saga Chapter 18
by Jeremy Chapter
Setting 18: 0716 DAY 16, Trabia Coast-bordering Forests
human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate
summons, monarchs must obey.”
“Arrrgh,” Zell croaked weakly as he
slowly came back to life.
felt as if his vertebrae had doubled in number overnight. He was also having trouble turning his head
from side to side on account of how he must have strained his neck muscles by
resting his head at an unnatural angle during his sleep. The ground had not been the most hospitable
surface on which to rest, and his bones did not try to conceal how sore they
felt from having stayed there against their will. Had it been possible, his skeleton would have just walked back to
the Garden and left Zell lying there, itself emotionally detached from any
sense of loss or remorse.
took a rare minute to wonder how he usually woke up. To the best of his foggy recollection, before his egression from
Balamb to fight Ultimecia, Mina usually provided the reminder and exigency for
him to wake up in her own pleasant, if sadistic, way. It had only taken him a handful of mornings to figure out that
she would climb on top of his chest to impede his breathing, pinch his nostrils
shut, and then clamp her lips over his own in a truly suffocating kiss. When he was out of oxygen, he would stir
himself up. She was light to be enough
to be thrown off the bed once he sat up, and proceed to chew him out if he did
not realize what he was doing and catch her in time before she ended up on the
floor. Personally he believed that Mina
liked being roughed up because she repeated the procedure every morning, but it
took a sturdy heart on his part to live with this organic alarm clock that
doubled as a murder device each night.
he discovered what she was up to, he flipped out and reprimanded her for taking
such a dangerous and unnecessary gamble with his life- not that she took any of
it to heart. In the end, Zell found
himself bereft of grounds on which to argue as she did not buy his claim to
have not enjoyed it. At the suggestion
of using one or both of his ears alternative airways for her to block, she only
jeered that she would wind up with a candle when she pulled out her tongue,
which made him even more self-conscious.
took an enormous amount of labor for him to sit up, a task that his waist,
receiving no cooperation from his brick-heavy upper torso, had to stomach
alone. It felt as if he had to rise
with Mina straddling him, the catch being that she had gained enough weight to
make Ward balk. Towards the end of this
traumatic episode, it occurred to him how it would be so much easier on him to
execute the basic maneuver if he had a fresh supply of energy, an actual
incentive to get up, an arrangement of pulleys latched to a team of oxen, his
wits about him, motors skills that were not impaired, all the time in the
world, and a brand new back- spinal cord included, eighty-year guarantee, and
no assembly required. It took less time
than it took to him to force himself to his feet for him to realize that none
of these desired conditions were fulfilled.
in the world did I get up then? Zell asked himself.
dunno, replied his mind.
I just flop back down again then? he wondered.
his brain paused to think. I defer
my decision-making authority to-
“Come on,” he interrupted the thought by
rapping his head with his knuckle, “Wake up, Zell.”
Yeah, his left-brain teased the
right and administered a mental kick, snap to it!
Zell quickly switched to another line of
thinking and focused on getting back home before he was made an unwilling
spectator to the internecine fistfight between the two sides of his brain. Had he remained tuned in to their frequency
and suffered witnessing the entire brawl, he would have inevitably relapsed into
a vegetative coma until the end of his days.
What is the point of having a healthy,
young body if I cannot move around in it? he asked himself rhetorically.
His legs felt very weak. It would take an estimated three hours of
additional training to get him back in top shape. A personal fitness schedule laxer by any degree would surely
jeopardize his chances at beating Squall in the break-dancing battle at the
upcoming Nova Trabia masked ball. Even
though he hardly ever revealed it, the commander was holding a pair of aces
over kings between the ballroom dance steps that Quistis had taught him and his
own street hop. It vexed Zell to have
to acknowledge even one event in which Squall proved to be more athletic than
Zell landed a punch in his free palm and
cracked his knuckles in good humor. It
was going to be one hell of a match, and he could hardly stand the
suspense. The whole notion of the
contest even taking place, though, was held in the good faith that Rinoa’s
auspices would be smiling upon Squall that night and that she would allow him
to participate. Rinoa’s caprice and
spasmodic mood swings made her mandatory blessing of the event a very
precarious proviso to ensure was met; quite frankly it was just madness to keep
the anticipation of a great break-dancing battle around in one’s head. The first defect of optimism was its
prematurity. The second was its
inadequacy to deliver.
He never could figure out how Rinoa’s
mind worked. The complexity of her
language vied with that of a Linear C yet to be discovered by man and for whose
jargon no single Rosetta Stone could illuminate by itself. Her native tongue knew only idioms,
colloquialisms, abbreviations, antiquated conventions, and bastardizations.
Deep within Zell, a faint feeling
stirred. He decided that it had to be
his pity for Squall. Zell could hardly
claim that he was jealous of the commander’s predicament; in some ways he was
grateful that Mina was not as troublesome as Rinoa. In other ways she was, though.
At least Rinoa doesn’t just run
off without telling anyone where she is headed, he conceded.
It was then that Zell realized that the
gnawing sentiment he felt was not just pity for Squall, but for himself as
well. He too had his share of girl
trouble, worries, and headaches. It
made him mad to realize that he was worrying about her because it recalled to
mind the frustrating adage of Ma Dincht about how one could not be worried by
other things; rather one willfully rendered himself the worrywart. Indeed, it did not make much sense to him
how deep down, he actually wanted to worry about her, but it was clear that his
life would not be the same without the call for concern to his object of
affection. Was she really so heartless
as to deprive him of his dream to care for her and condemn him to his pitiable
station as the derelict darling?
Who knew what is racing through their
heads anyway? Zell pondered.
What could possibly explain the way they act sometimes?
As the years passed, humanity had taken
to calling their irrationality their ‘mystique.’ To be enigmatic had become attractive; to be impossible was now
arousing. All the while, it was
unfeasible to comprehend their motives well enough to fit them into a model
with which to predict their next move.
Any signals they emanated were unreadable or too badly distorted to be
broken down and deciphered correctly by logicians, mathematicians, or
psychological slicers. Every woman
spoke and thought in a dialect different from her male counterpart. It was one of Hyne’s biggest jokes. Zell would not be surprised if their brains
ran along diametrically opposite paths, their minds revolving around
perpendicular axes, their reasoning traveling along separate, skewed
lines. Maybe it was finally time for
Zell to admit to himself what the locked door Mina posed really stood for- a
dead end. He had no magical key into
her world on his pathetic key ring. It
was probably best for him to stop lying to himself.
Yet it seemed so unfair that she held his
key and exercised no moderation in flashing it in front of his face all the
time. Somehow she seemed to know
exactly how and when to sneak up on him.
He figured it was not that hard of a task considering that her timing
and manner were not as important so long as her presence was there. That last aspect alone was probably more
than enough to stimulate the internal flutters he felt. She truly was a walking bundle of love and
joy that induced the good kind of heart attacks in him. He found himself longing for it, making it
more a psychological request than a cardiovascular arrest.
But she was gone now, and her absence
tore his heart to pieces. It would be
difficult to concentrate on his daily duties bereft of his emotional
essential. He also had to deal with the
vexation of knowing that she was probably having the time of her life with the
Zell’s jaw tensed and the hair on the
back of his neck bristled at the mere thought.
He relaxed one of his reflexively-clenched fists, uncurling it so as to
reach down into his pocket and draw out the portentous photograph. From the way it was crumpled, Zell guessed
that he had turned over more than once during the night. He tried to straighten out all of the folds.
The trivial task proved to be a challenge
for the stiff-fingered fighter because he went out of his way to avoid smearing
any part of Mina in the photograph; he loved her too much to touch her. Just the opposite, he loathed the other man
so much that he struggled to not to get his fingers anywhere near the bastard. Even if he could forgive himself for
dirtying his fingers on that man’s image, his spirit would not. He could conceivably cleanse his hands with
soap, but his soul would feel forever sullied and he would know the
difference. Frankly Zell had no
interest in playing around in a self-destructive, guilt-trip whirlpool. Thus, with the mentality to avoid this
fashion of eternal self-condemnation, Zell drudged through an excessively long
period of awkwardness but finally managed with the help of his chin and elbows
to smooth out the photo, on which there were only a few spots not occupied by
either Mina or her new lover.
Having seen to its being relatively
flattened out, Zell took a figurative step back to gawk at the couple. He bemoaned the fact that it would have
looked so much better if he had been in the stranger’s place. Perhaps he could convince Selphie to scan
the picture and digitally alter it so as to insert his own image beside Mina,
but that that would require him to show her the photo and incite a bombardment
of questioning looks and source next month’s richest topic of gossip. It was in his best interests to wait
patiently until the stranger stumbled into his hands, after which he could sort
out this affair internally by pounding the living daylights out of the
You lucked out this time, thief,
He picked up his feet and began his long
walk home. The morning air had yet to
grow tepid, but the midnight mustiness still lingered in the wake. Albeit it would be no big problem to get
back to the Garden before noon, at which point the temperature in the humid
jungle would pick up some intolerable thirty degrees as was accustomed this
time of year, but he did not want to take any chances; it was perfectly
possible to run into another Blue Dragon, and, in the light, he would not be
able to resort to his tactics of stealth as he had done the previous evening.
The muck that Zell had run through then
was more waterlogged than he had guessed.
Instead of leaving a trail of footprints for him to retrace, the
impressions were obscured by the displaced mud the moment he lifted his foot
each step of the way. As the black sky
no longer loomed overhead, the Garden’s beacon was virtually invisible, meaning
that he could not check his direction.
Realizing that it was impossible to detect the light against the blue
and white horizon, Zell changed his course and began to head for the beach, the
only destination that could guarantee his way out of the forest and into a
clearing. From the Trabia shore he
could, going along the forest perimeter, work his way back to Nova Trabia.
The rumble of waves was faint but
discernible. As easy a task as it was
to follow his ears, Zell’s heart leapt when the washing sound against the sand
intensified, meaning that he was on the right track. His trekking grew brisker the closer he felt he was to breaching
the remains of the verdant expanse and gaining the fresh shore. The imperative variation of scenery was long
overdue, and this SeeD had no intention of prolonging the translation of
landscapes with his sluggishness. He
pushed on with added vigor and the self-confidence of one who had not any mud
stains still garnishing his pants.
After another few minutes, he reached the threshold.
Nature seemed to halt in her steps and
grow quiet for a second before Zell burst through the last row of bark and
squinted under the sun’s sudden flood of brilliance. When he could fully open his eyes again, he saw that he had
successfully traded off the green for the white-decked blue. The crags rested to his right, and the beach
water snored invitingly in front of him.
Zell let loose a wild, war hoot and charged the coast, shedding the last
of the pine forest scent and leaving it for future transcendentalists,
naturalists, or recluses more appreciative of the environs than he was, to
The sea air blasting against his face was
refreshing for about as long as he could ignore the sand that had happily found
a home in his sneakers. How those
insidious little specks of annoyance managed to creep into his footwear, he had
no idea, but to deter any more of their friends from moving in and having a
party under his heel, Zell forced himself to penguin-waddle through the rest of
the sand bunker until he was standing beside the shallow tide.
The crisp, cool water promised to provide
a light-feeling lather on his neck, an activity that for the time being would
be able to get his mind off of the silicon shards slipping between his toes and
frustrating his attempts to get comfortable.
What Zell really wanted to do was tear off his shoes and fling them into
the sea where they would do well to flounder and sink, bereft of any internal
air pockets that might buoy them up to where they could bob on the surface in
defiance of his greatness. If, however,
they recalcitrantly refused to sink to the bottom of the ocean and take the
nettling grains with them, he would be justified to Dolphin Blow the targets to
The soothing temperature of the water
doused the anger steaming from his head and stayed his hand, which in
retrospect he realized was a good thing because his sneakers were technically
still brand new. The silky film left by
the retreating waves did not provide the static, reflective surface he sought,
so Zell walked along the shore until he came across a puddle of seawater
deposited in a serration on the banks.
He bent down and stared intently at his mirror image.
“Whoa,” Zell marveled apprehensively.
The night in the forest had taken more
than just a toll on his back- it had also severely punished his hairdo. The top of his head looked as grizzled as if
it had gnawed on by a pack of starving wombats. As much as he hated to admit it, for once the hairstyle in which
he prided himself for sporting was dragging him down. The sight was truly that embarrassing. There was nothing of the majestic, cock-like plume, the mere
sight of which could trumpet his entrance and buy him the right to parade his
influence, prestige, and masculinity before the world. The best he could hope for now was that the
people could be convinced that some crazed topiarist went through his hair with
a weed-whacker. With those odds, he
wondered if it was propitious for him and his public image to return to Garden
without some fixing up first. Maybe no
one would be so judgmental as to shackle him down to the floor of disrepute and
unfashionableness based on first impressions.
“Fat chance,” he grumbled, guessing that
in all likelihood his frazzled face would end up on the front page of the
He sighed and looked mournfully at his
reflection again. He checked his
gnarled crown from each viable angle before recoiling in abhorrence. It was all so emasculating. The dereliction of a feature so
rudimentarily integral to his identity would cripple his status and stigmatize
his person as if he had fallen from grace through an ejection by divinity. He wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
If he had been serious, he would have
started digging. Luckily for Zell, he
had spotted the silver lining and realized that the temporary defect on his
head could still be emended.
“Better mousse it down before anyone
recognizes me,” he said aloud and began splashing water over the warring
streaks of blonde and brown.
He figured that if the pretense of
grooming could preclude any criticism that might undermine his reputation, then
it was well worth the time he would have to spend in the shower scrubbing out
the thick smell of brine and fish from his hair. In the meantime the stench would tolerable until he could make it
back to his room and shower. The
officers’ quarters in Nova Trabia Garden had been pre-selected for construction
close to the main entrance on the first floor, opposite of the Garden Noodle
and the corridor that led to their lounge.
As early as it seemed in the day, he could probably gain the solace of
his private chambers without having to the wade through the usual first period
traffic of students. The fact that most
of the Garden’s classrooms were built on the second floor would minimize the
number of trainees whose eyebrows would be raised after getting a whiff of him
while he dodged past them in the hallway.
Of course, he would have to wallop them in afternoon gym class if any of
them brought it up then.
It took Zell a few tries and frequent
checks in the puddle’s reflection before he recaptured the look that he
wanted. Afterwards, he ran his fingers
along his cheeks and chin to feel the stubble of a beard already besieging his
boyish countenance. He shrugged off the
distaste, judging that another hour of not shaving would not kill him.
“Am I sexy or what?” he gloated instead,
grinning exaggeratedly to check his teeth.
‘Or what’ is right, his inner
voice piped in.
“Who asked you?” Zell challenged
indignantly, evidently upset by the unsolicited intrusion.
Well, someone has to say something
meaningful once in a while, was the retort. It’s not like I like this job any more than you like listening
to me. Sometimes I just wish you would
act smart on your own for like twelve hours so I could take a day off, but I don’t
see that happening anytime soon because your IQ is as inert as a brick in the
side of a building. You are
unbelievable, you know that? I have to
freaking supervise you even while you sleep because your closing your eyes does
not render you any less of a danger to yourself. How in the world did I get stuck with an assignment like
this? Did I wrong you in my past
life? I doubt it, so forgive me when I
seem a little cranky because I work both day and night shifts with no bathroom
“Okay, okay,” Zell reacted defensively,
“I get the picture, but when are you going to get off my back about that?”
The day you stop acting like you have
a bad case of the stupids, was the retort.
“Oh great,” Zell muttered. “Now my own head is treating me for
stupidity as if it were a disease.”
If it were up to me, I would have had
you locked up long ago, his mind pronounced callously.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Zell
remarked sourly. “It sure is nice to
know that someone out there believes in me.”
The neat idea of escaping this
conversation with himself by deserting the pool and leaving his thoughts with
his mirror image occurred to him. He
took one last look at his reflection before getting to his feet and recommencing
his journey along the beach.
This isn’t exactly the best job in the
world. In fact, it doesn’t even come
close, his inner thoughts
rang. What are the perks of this job?
A shabby health care package that barely covers the family of mine that
I have not seen in seventeen years. No
vacation, no sick leave, no accommodations, no chance for promotion, and no
Christmas bonus. Oh, and how could I
forget- the pure joy and gratefulness I feel to work with you 24-7. Most employees would count the fact that
there is no competition on the job market for this station as a good thing, but
for me that is the bane of my life.
Heck, I don’t even get an attractive secretary. And what have I to look forward to? Sixty more years before your senility comes
to relieve me, and the miserable pension won’t get me by half of the year with
the expenses my luxurious lifestyle necessitates. And all the while, I am worried to death that the board in their
renowned judiciousness will give me tenure to this Godforsaken position!
“I heard your grievances the first time,”
stressed Zell as he broke into a run.
His ploy to desert the wise-ass voice was not working, and every new
word spoken added a brick weight to his stomach.
Just my luck! the voice
continued. My mother warned me about
getting a job in consulting because she was certain that it would never amount
to anything more than pain and anguish.
I have applied for transfers to all of the major cities but they never
answer. Why couldn’t the board have
stuck me with Quistis, Selphie, or Rinoa?
I could be sunbathing on the beach and advising any one of them on which
part of their nubile bodies and luscious skin to rub the lotion-
“Hey!” Zell interjected. “We love Mina, remember?”
Oh yeah, it recalled without the
slightest trace of excitement in its tone, her. Psssh.
“Well,” Zell replied, “she is kind of
important to me so I would appreciate it if you did you best to remain civil
when you mention her.”
His mind ignored him and pressed, What
is so good about her? From what I have
seen so far, the only thing noteworthy is how adept she is at getting your
“You know,” Zell commented, stepping over
a conch shell, “I read that you only exist to help me become aware of what I
What is your point? replied his
“Get with the program,” Zell stated
simply. “If you are going to channel my
desires, you should know that Mina would keep me happy for the rest of my
Where did you read all of that? it asked skeptically.
“Sartre,” Zell replied, “and it would not
hurt you to look it over yourself.”
Well, , you are just going to have to accept
the sad fact that Sartre was confused.
I act in my own best interests.
I look out for number one, and I do what I do to get what I want.
“No,” corrected Zell, “you mean what I
No, it repeated with a tone
reeking of pretentiousness, I meant what I want.
“You have it all wrong,” Zell scoffed,
shaking his head and dismissing the line of thought all together.
Well then, maybe I’ll just decide to
forgot that I am conscious of you and you’ll cease to exist, the voice
threatened. I really would have no
problem with an early retirement.
“Ha!” Zell countered sharply. “You are part of my For-Itself, so if I die,
you disappear too!”
Are you one hundred percent sure about
that? his mind checked him. Who
says that consciousness has to be finite?
If I asked you to guess how many lifetimes I have lived and who I had to
possess the last time around, what would you say to that?
“Some kind of activist, lobbyist or union
demagogue,” guessed Zell. “I mean, you
complain more than anyone I know. More
than me, even.”
Was that an attempt to be clever?
the voice prodded condescendingly. Because
if it was, you had better get your facts straight, buster. The ‘I’ and ‘me’ you used to refer to
yourself are technically just modes through which I can obtain what I desire on
your materialistic, perceived world. I
am not your anything, not your conscience, because there is no “you.” I am merely a consciousness of you.
Zell did not answer, figuring that it
would leave him alone if he just concentrated on his running and ignored
it. He focused instead on the ringing
of his monotonous steps and the feeling derived from the slight skidding against
the wet grit, the occasional lapping of the waves against the side of his
sneakers, and the dirt thrown up by the soles of the shoes as he pushed off,
head in the wind.
The pink horizon was brightening nicely
into a fulsome yellow. Having lost its
shyness long ago, the sun threw off the veil of the ocean and began flaunting
itself in all of its splendor. Zell
mushed on, proud that his heart was strong enough to regulate his pulse to a
rate slower than his strides’. His
trusted shadow raced along beside him, bobbin up and down, as protean as the
texture of undulating topography he left behind.
“You know,” he finally remarked, “if we
are both parts of the For-Itself, don’t you think it is about time we began
acting in some mutually beneficial interests?”
What for? the other asked suspiciously. And cui bono?
“To add new meaning in this life,” Zell
clarified, “and to instill it where there was none before.”
Add new meaning to your life? the
voice scoffed in feigned humor. Now
is that my function? What have I
been doing all these years? So that’s
the missing part of me! That’s why I
feel I have been feeling so incomplete lately.
no was mistaking the sarcasm and contempt in the voice. For a minute Zell felt devoid of its
presence and rationalized dejectedly that it had gone off somewhere to roll
around and laugh its ass off. Still, it
was a refreshing hiatus between insults.
Realizing this, Zell dropped his guise of glumness and settled down to
take advantage of the reprieve from being the shooting gallery of his own
Hey, how about this for meaning?
it broke back into his head and suggested.
You’re a chump. Digest that!
“Yeah, that was what I was talking
about,” Zell commented dryly.
You’re confused, his consciousness
“Like Sartre?” sneered Zell.
Like Sartre, it concurred.
“Then you’re obviously not doing a very
good job,” Zell analyzed.
Be still my beating heart, his
inner voice bemoaned exaggeratedly.
More realistically it added, I can
sleep at night because I know that no one else would fight me for this
position, no matter how badly I manage it.
Up to his throat in resentment, it was an
understatement to say that Zell was getting fed up with the mock sarcasm.
He lashed out, “What I don’t get is that
you are supposed to be a non-personal and non-reflective consciousness, but it
don’t act like it at all!”
Yeah, so? his mind countered
“Non-reflective means that you cannot
take yourself as an object!” Zell conjectured, voice rising with his
excitement; it was all coming together now.
“You are not supposed to be conscious that you are conscious! That is your pre-reflective ego’s job.”
His consciousness grew silent and seemed
to consider the argument laid before its feet.
Ack! it suddenly choked, realizing
that it had been defeated.
“I hereby banish you!” Zell cried
triumphantly with a clap of his hands to mark the end of the hard-won
A curse on both your houses! the
little voice screamed and vanished with a blip.
Zell smirked and walked with a new bounce
in his step. He replayed each line from
memory and beamed with pride at the revisitation of the denouement where he had
laid down the sinker.
“That ought to hold him at bay for
another day or two before he finds a loophole in the wording of the
phenomenology,” he told himself.
Zell slowed to a stop and turned for a
second to admire the surreal view, all the while continuing to run in place so
as not to lose his rhythm or elevated heartbeat. How the water naturally took turns flowing both ways seemed so
organized, and yet so organic. It made
him feel like the child he wanted to be again who could waddle through the
water with no repercussions and not the man with rounds to make and a class to
head in the afternoon. It was best that
he get going again.
He caught the glint of something
reflective of the sun’s rays at the corner of his left eye, tucked a small
distance from the edge of the overhanging promontory. There was no way that any individual speck of silicon on the
beach could give off so lustrous a sparkle, a fact that urged him to check out
the anomaly. The twinkle could have
been sourced from an enemy soldier’s armor, the lens of a sniper rifle, or even
worse, the canines of a wandering dragon.
Or it could just be a glass bottle carelessly littered on the otherwise
immaculate landscape. Before he had
visual confirmation though, from this point on, it was best to proceed with the
acme of caution.
Zell quickly threw himself down in the
lee of a nearby sand dune. If the
danger from above was a shooter, it was best that he remain out of his line of
sight. In all probability, Zell had
been spotted already. The only reason
no shot had been fired was that he was out of range. Lying flat against the white mound, Zell looked to his left and
right and tried to find a route he could take that would offer him full cover
as he circled back around in a wide arc.
That way he could conceal his position from further monitoring, and,
hopefully, gain a sneak attack on the rival scout if he was cautious enough to
prevent his own discovery along the way.
The combination of initial fear and
corollary curiosity was inductive of a keen sense of excitement, and so,
without further persuasion, Zell ducked down low and ran from the base of one
white hill to the next, beginning his long journey to circle around his
adversary’s possession. “Outflank for
the Preemptive Attack” was one of the rules he recalled from Trepe’s
Handbook of Military Tactics. He
would have to remember to thank Quistis for finally coming up with something
that was actually applicable to real life situations.
Now that he actually thought about it,
Zell frowned at how little sense it still made to him that Headmaster would
have demoted Quistis from SeeD instructor status at Balamb all those weeks
back. He never got the whole story
because it inappropriate to solicit her side of it and risk reopening a wound
that must have been a hell to heal thus far.
Zell had always prided himself in being competent with counting numbers,
but this just did not add up. It seemed
unlikely that Quistis would take the fall for Seifer voluntarily, and knowing
his errant and erratic behavior, Cid could hardly have coerced her into doing
so. If the Balamb Garden Department of
Student Insurance was unwilling to cover Seifer’s health and well being, then
it was unreasonable to make Quistis responsible for his actions.
Zell wondered briefly how Seifer and
Raijin had formerly landed positions on the Disciplinary Committee in
Balamb. Was it an artful attempt by the
Headmaster to curb Seifer’s mischief-making by artificially instilling a sense
of work ethic in his already overflowing ego, or just another endeavor,
seasoned with a zest of craziness customary of all of Cid’s crooked antics, to
incorporate the age-old aphorism of “fighting fire with fire”?
Zell shook his head. The Headmaster was as insane as he was
complicated. Cid Kramer thought in
circles; with him, it was never a direct, linear neural pathway that connected a
point of intention to a point of action.
Rather it was only through a roundabout road of reasoning comprised of
multiple twists and discoveries that one could trace his orders back to his
motives. With that in mind, it must
have been irksome for Edea to hand herself over to him at the altar when she
probably did not know any of the real reasons why he wanted to take her as his
bride. Like all women, Edea probably
spoke her own dialect based on the mystifying Linear C and to put her in the
same home with the cryptic Cid was to warrant for years a noteworthy debacle
and basic breakdown of functional communication in the history of human
language. One had to stop and think
what sort of divinity would purposely build so volatile a time bomb and humor in
its inevitable, internecine outcome.
One day, when he was the Headmaster, Zell
was going to marry a pretty girl far too good for him too, and then lounge
around, reveling in his girth, dispensing antiquated aphorisms and enigmatic
orders at random, and have them be falsely mistaken as words far superior and
ingenious for comprehension by any mere subordinate, as he was rightly entitled
to. Misplaced reverence for a façade of
sagacity was the privilege of senility, after all.
Zell sighed. The thought of marriage had revived the ache in his heart for the
long overdue and whom he felt was at current the largely displaced Mina of the
pigtails. He almost did not care about
the other man in the picture, the fling in which she had broken from him, her
boyfriend, to indulge. Now, staring
straight into the eyes of death, his own life hanging in the balance, all he
could do was worry about her and wonder helplessly if she shared his fate. He had not heard from her since she just
parted from him over two weeks ago, and he needed more than that to know that
she was at least okay. Silence would
not do, but just a few words from her rosy lips would let him rest worlds
easier. If she was happy with her new
lover, that was fine; if she was not, so much the better.
But he was digressing from where he should
be appropriating his attention- trying to keep his head from getting shot
off. Zell loved every part of head and
he loved where it sat on his neck just as much. It was be a damned shame if he would let some rookie shooter get
lucky and pop it off, especially after he spent so much time in front of his
reflection in the puddle to smooth each delinquent hair back into its set
position so as to optimize his visual charm.
If the gunner was going to blow Zell’s head off, he could at least have
had the decency to do it before the intricate art, and it was an art, had been
performed to completion. It would be an
insult if one’s motherland spent millions of Gil on negotiators and airlifts to
reconcile with and return all of her defectors, only so they could be taken
down by another country’s anti-aircraft missiles on the way back. Zell was not about to lose face to an Irvine
wannabe who wanted to score big with a cheap shot.
The edge of the beach was drawing to a
close with the beginnings of the grass plain peeping out from under its sandy
blanket. Zell crept to the peak of the
last mound and peered over it. There
was no visible movement from the cliff, no sign of activity that would have
been noticeable had they been able to follow and detect his movements. He had successfully navigated around behind
their keep and the path looked clear.
He methodically surveyed the target area and searched for men, vehicles,
and other machinery, as well as telltale signs and markings that could give
away the enemy’s identity.
To his surprise, the land seemed
amazingly flat and devoid of life all the way up to the cliff edge. In all probability though, if there had been
a sniper, he would have been lying flat on the ground with his rifle in
hand. Zell knew there was something
metallic or crystalline in the vicinity, which would attest for the flash of
light he had gotten a glimmer of.
“Where are you?” Zell whispered under his
breath with impatience.
Just then, in the process of visually
scrolling from left to right, his eyes caught something out of the
ordinary. A stationary object standing
in a lopsided position about thirty meters out and four degrees off to the
left. He was too far away to discern
exactly what it was, but at length he decided that it was immobile. All he had to decide now was whether or not
identifying the anomaly was worth the risk of getting shot by any motion
sensors during his approach. Zell was
ambivalent about both scenarios. If he
had a coin handy, he would have flipped it to see what he should do. The smartest thing, of course, would be to
fling the coin at the target and see if it got fried before it hit the
ground. It was either that or Zell
charge at the contraption and play chicken with the defense laser beams.
It did not appear to be attended, and
Zell saw no place on the cliff for a person to hide. It was time for him to take a look at what he had found. He stepped out from behind his hiding place
and advanced with caution towards the machine.
It was unmistakably metallic, just as he had guessed it would be
initially. After another few steps
though, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped at the realization of what he
was walking towards.
It was a blue A09-series Garden
motorbike, even better than the jet-propulsion A08 motorbikes that the
Galbadian soldiers had used to jump from the Seifer’s Garden to Balamb’s during
the battle by Edea’s Orphanage. Zell
had seen advertisements for one of these demons of speed in the ‘Combat King’
magazines, but he had no idea that they were out on the market yet. He was probably looking at a prototype or
limited edition, promotional, collector’s item. Zell licked his lips, unable to contain the excitement he felt. He would have to tell Squall about this when
he got back to Garden; it would be of definite interest to him because he made
mention of it when he saw the same advertisement in the ‘Weapons Monthly’
catalog. Of course, it would be
difficult to convince Squall that there was actually one already out of
production and on the streets.
Zell wiped the dribble that clung
tenaciously to his chin, but never once did he take his eyes off of the dream
ride. It was the paradigm of beauty and
technology. The chassis was waxed and
glazed, the tires still slick, and the pipes spotless. Judging from how juiced up the motorbike
was, he would have to guess that the owner treated her like the love of his
life. Some of the alterations and
upgrades looked costly. The improvements
on the peripherals that had no effect on the performance of the vehicle were
made in accordance to the owner’s tastes despite its neglect of frugality. The chic, chrome rims had obviously been
custom-fitted, the tires mounted were of the wider, low profile, professional
sporting kind, the exhaust pipe had been changed to an excessively large one
that promised a loud hum, the handle bars painted and shined, water-filled seat
cushions with plush covering, the factory lights had been replaced with xenon
ones, and a nitrous canister hooked up to the engine, which from the looks of
it had been tweaked and tuned to maximal efficiency. It would have no problem netting a big-time, auspicious sponsor
like GM, Garden Motors, for any additional funds. Overall, it was a very pricey job that few people had the luxury
to afford. Luxury did not begin to
describe the pretty Gil it must have cost, but he had to admit the owner knew
how to have fun.
“What a babe,” Zell whispered in
awe. His lips trembled slightly in
mid-sentence because of how hard the sleek exterior of the A09 was getting to
All he wanted to do now was to squeeze
the throttle, rev the engine, and hear the sexy beast roar. All he needed now was a leather jacket and
some shades, and he could hop on and ride all the way to Galbadia in a second
to pick up Mina, after which he would spirit her away to a paradise in the
highway wind. Whoever owned this baby
and got to ride her till his ass ached was one lucky prick. Zell contemplated whether the jealousy he
was feeling was merited and decided that it was. He wondered who the owner could be. Whoever he was, he had become Zell’s new best friend.
While scoping out the luscious lift
again, his eyes wandered over the stolid, black carrying case of the Lionheart,
hanging on the far side of the bike off its handle.
Zell did a double take but caught himself
before he fell over.
“No way!” he hollered in a half-ecstatic,
He was overjoyed because he would surely
get to feast his eyes on the beautiful brute again, but it pained him just as
much because he knew that Squall would never let him touch it as long as he
lived. It also hurt Zell’s feelings
that Squall had not informed him about his new purchase. They were buddies and old roommates, and so
it seemed selfish that Squall had not brought himself to share the news about
his wealth, if he was not even going to share his wealth. Being that the ride was Squall’s, though,
Zell decided against hotwiring it, mainly because Squall would have the
foresight to rig an alarm and possibly a self-destruct mechanism on the
ignition system. If the A09 had been
Irvine’s, Zell would have cashed in his technical engineering skills and been
flying down the freeway five minutes ago.
Zell was still puzzled about where Squall
struck the gold to lavish on a state-of-the-art motorbike that was supposedly
still in its development phase. With
his responsibilities and time-commitment to Balamb Garden as its SeeD Commander
and his supervising role and instructing positions that they all shared in Nova
Trabia, it was impossible for him to have taken enough money jobs in secret
between shifts to cover for the exorbitantly high figure needed to cover even
the basic expenses, not to take into account the cost of all the
extravagances. Meanwhile, the level A
SeeD salary was just a drop of water in the bucket relative to the Gil in
Zell rubbed his forehead.
“I’m thinking either he borrowed Rinoa’s
credit card or Laguna was behind this,” Zell concluded at length. With her father’s name, Heartilly could have
coerced a team of Galbadian engineers to soup up Squall’s ride. Likewise, Laguna was a viable contributor;
Esthar’s electricians were very knowledgeable about beefing up vehicles and a
word from the President could have set them working on the A09 and
pre-releasing it faster than the parole board did to Seifer. If it was Laguna’s way of apologizing for
being an absentee parent for seventeen years, what a gift it was! Zell wished his biological father would
follow in suit if he ever came forward and formally recognized him.
Where is Squall, anyway? Zell
wondered, finally tearing his eyes away from the gorgeous sight. It was a painful experience to look up from
the bike, but he was able to brave it like a man. Still, it felt as though he had left a part of his heart with the
A09, a quality that affected a numbness over his entire body as he walked away,
each step feeling heavier than before because of the added weight of
incompleteness saddled on his shoulders.
Beginning with the area around the
motorbike, Zell circled outwards and inspected the ground for any traces of his
friend. In particular he was searching
for signs of a struggle because it was impossible for Squall to leave his A09
unattended unless some sort of emergency came up. The carrying case for the gun-blade was locked so he could not
check to see if Squall had taken it with him, wherever he had gone. It was unlikely that Squall would have been
victorious without his weapon if he had been assaulted without warning.
Zell shook the idea of a sneak attack out
of his head. If treachery was involved,
the vandals would have also made away with the bike. The only other two possibilities were that he walked away by
himself or something popped out of the forest and surprised him. The cold bike’s engine and dewy seat were
indicative of Squall’s absence through the duration of the night. If he had not returned to reclaim it after
all this time, chances were that he would never come back. This was not the conclusion that Zell wanted
to envision. He had to have missed
something, some crucial piece of the puzzle.
As he drew near the edge of the
promontory, things began to look more hopeful.
Zell noticed telltale signs of activity from the night before. There were a number of cigarette butts
littered about, one lying three to four feet apart from the next. Zell chose a point that rested roughly in
the middle of the imaginary polygon formed by each of the cigarette butts as
vertices. This was where Squall had
been for the longest time, or at least as long as he took to smoke six Malboro
tentacle rolls. Of course, there would
have been no way of knowing if someone else had smoked them in Squall’s stead,
but Zell never objected to going on hunches.
Smoking, after all, was a bad habit that Squall picked up ever since
they met the Malboros on the Island closest to Heaven. The racketeering business for joints could
very well have exceeded their pay as SeeDs, but Squall did not see much
potential in himself as an entrepreneur.
Thus, he settled with the addiction and missed out on the investment of
a lifetime when the Malboro industry burgeoned globally just weeks later.
Zell studied the area further for more
information. His eyes set on a wide set
of prints that looked largely unfamiliar, from which he deduced that Squall had
treated himself to a pair of brand new sandals. They looked comfortable, if the prints were of any indication.
“He must have been really proud of
himself too,” Zell muttered grimly before going back to sweeping the scene for
clues. He could not fully dismiss the
pang of envy nicking in his chest from knowing that he too had had nice, comfy,
new shoes not too long ago.
Zell looked down despondently at his
weathered sneakers, having been ruined by fire, mud, saltwater, and sand. It took some amount of skill- a skill that
Zell wanted to lose- to retire the latest, most advanced and presumably the
most durable specimen in modern footwear technology in less than a day. The next time he was foolish enough to dress
in his best for battle, he would be sure to cast Life3 on his shoes first.
Deeply annoyed, Zell roughed up his hair
and slammed his fist into the ground.
He could not believe it. They
had been signed by Mr. Jammy himself!
The natural, mature thing for him to do
in the next minute would be to kick up a dust cloud and holler profanities at
it, but as he lifted his palm, he noticed a less conspicuous indentation in the
dirt beside his own. It looked like the
heel of a size six.
Having read every issue of all the top
women’s fashion magazines in Balamb since his initiation into Garden,
supplemented by extensive, indefatigable online research about the latest
designs and social trends, and having allocated countless hours to
window-shopping whenever and wherever there was a clearance notice, Zell was
able to draw from his vast sea of firsthand knowledge the identity of the shoe
that had left the mark. The precise
naming of the brand, make, and model were payoffs that were now his in which to
revel. For him, the connoisseur of high
heels, the day had finally come to lift his head proudly and cavort around the
arena of the eclectic with the attitude that his hard work had not been for
naught and that the corollary prize was worth every second of it.
If the mark did not lie and his memory
did not mislead him, the second person on the scene had a great if expensive
taste in fashion. She had chosen to
wear an extraordinarily stylish set of heels that far exceeded the occasion,
seeing how Squall had surprised her with some sandals. Nevertheless, Zell could see that the virgin
shoes whose prints bore clear definition had returned to Nova Trabia Garden
with far more fervor than they had embarked.
Zell ruminated quietly over who would be
inspired enough to trek all the way out to the cliffs in high-heeled boots just
to confront Squall. Quistis was the
only woman who fit the profile. If
Seifer had discovered a new calling to transvestitism, surely Zell would have
found some teeth on the ground instead of just footprints. But with the terrain pretty much barren of
any derelict teeth, Zell methodically ruled out the latter possibility.
What did not make any sense to him was
that none of Squall’s prints indicated that he had gone back to the
Garden. Albeit his parked motorbike was
testimony enough to that fact, neither set of clues could offer a satisfactory
explanation as to where the commander might have disappeared.
Perplexed, Zell flopped down and dangled
his legs over the cliff, alternating between scratching his head with his left
hand and smoothing his hair back in place with his right. It was his way of advertising his sagacious
side without compromising his suave mien.
The wind had picked up slightly since he
last made note of it, perhaps thirty seconds ago. Blowing up against the soles of his feet, Zell felt like
levitating. Sheets of waves were now
racing across the ocean surface like peels of apple skin sheered by an
invisible knife. Wisps of wind tugged
perseveringly at his hair, and he wondered briefly how exhilarating it would
feel to accept their invitation and jump.
It really was an amazing if frightening place to perch. In that fright, though, there was a sense of
peace to be grasped.
Eden I’m not as dumb as Laguna, he reflected, feeling the rationality
creeping back into his head. Short of thirty Tiamats, there is nothing
that could possibly make me want to throw myself off of this cliff.
The image of a flying, vampire Mina in
pursuit of him flashed through his mind.
“Well…” he began to reconsider his
original estimation of the sufficient drive to jump.
Zell peered over the edge to check his
altitude again and decided that perhaps it wasn’t too high to chance.
Mina with wings and armed weapon was
multiple times scarier than thirty Tiamats any day of the week. But he was used to that. He could tolerate the eccentricities as part
of the ritual male accommodation for his lady, but her silence or disdain were
separate matters. No mercenary prep
course could offer him the emotional buffer and psychological integrity he
needed to fend off her crippling, disappointed gaze, her soul-piercing
scoff. Even the deepfreeze,
ice-elemental-resistant nano-suits were sure to crumble like sugar cubes if she
gave him the cold shoulder.
Zell shuddered at the frostbitten memory. That night, right before she impressed upon
him her nonsensical riddle, she had first broken from his embrace, crossed her
arms, and bit out coldly, “You can’t kiss me.”
The words made him feel like he was
hollow inside because they sounded like forever. It was awfully hard to fight against eternity, and even harder to
endure on the receiving end of deprivation for just as long.
Zell covered his face with both his hands
and tried not to cry.
Something was up.
Zell shook himself out of his dejected,
self-pitying trance and focused on the problem.
The air was not right. It was not exactly wrong, either, but an
eerie, claustrophobic, sixth sense-type feeling had settled over him as if to
catch his attention and push him to be more alert.
Zell paused, unsure exactly what excited
a premonition that caused his stomach to tighten. He looked about the horizon, anticipating…well, he did not know
what to anticipate, so he just kept on looking. The waves were still crashing below, the ocean surface shimmering
as it churned under the sun’s blistering brilliance.
I’m just out of it,” he murmured aloud as he tried to shrug off the
This time he sensed something for
sure. It was a delicate but clear call
towards his right. He searched in that
direction and saw, eight degrees behind the protruding shoreline, a person
stretched out motionlessly on the beach.
Closer inspection revealed a barefooted, brunette male with an orange
shirt and jean shorts. Interestingly
enough, Zell almost mistook him for being just a pile of rags until he realized
that the man’s face shared the same color as the sand.
Zell raced over to Squall’s A09 and tried
to break open the storage compartment.
Knowing Squall, there had to be binoculars packed in with the rest of
the ultimate loner’s survival kit. The
safeguard on the locking mechanism turned out to be state of the art though,
and Zell, bereft of any tools, was powerless to do anything about it. With a sigh, then, he settled down to guess
Squall’s password by punching in random buttons on the keypad like an
experimental money searching for a treat.
There was a certain heaviness that hit him square in the chest as he
clumsily downshifted from overdrive to first gear on the adrenaline
highway. The metaphorical traffic
behind him could not decelerate in time to prevent the seven-car pileup. In short, it was both a major letdown and a
humiliating situation in which to be.
“LEONHART,” he keyed in.
“RINOA,” he tried again.
“SEED,” he guessed.
Processing…Negative…Not a winner…Sorry,
Zell rubbed his left eye with his palm
and tried to determine if he had been seeing things. Did the computer console just insult him?
“SIS,” he typed.
“ELLONE”? he tested.
Negative…Give it up, space ranger.
Zell rubbed his bottom teeth against his
top set. It did no credit to his
masculinity to crouch beside the bike and watch as a bunch of intrepid red
pixels impugned his capacity without a fitting retaliatory response. He needed to at least issue a statement to
vindicate himself from these deprecations.
Too much of this was unhealthy for one’s self-esteem and likely to stunt
Zell huffed and conceded that it was
hopeless. He might as well work his way
down the precarious slopes and investigate the body. He spared one last abysmal glance over the bike and the silver lion emblem-studded sword
case before turning to quit its company.
The Griever icon.
Zell spun on his heels. Of course!
He reached down excitedly towards the
keypad, mistyped the GF’s name three times before finally entering “GRIEVER,”
and then tapped the enter key with a triumphant look on his face.
“Welcome to the penthouse,” Zell congratulated
The lid of the glove compartment popped
open with a complimentary hydraulic hiss, revealing every item of the bare
necessities of survival in the field that Zell had predicted and nothing more-
alas surely nothing as scandalous as to carry any utility value or promise
should he choose to implement it by blackmailing his compatriot. Tucked away neatly to the side were a pair
of helmets and an anticipated set of binoculars. It was unthinkable that a person like Squall could travel without
the latter; it was the most logical avenue through which an introvert as
critical of society as Squall was to collect the minimally sufficient
behavioral data on which to base a defensible criterion so as to improve his
own introspective outlook.
Zell seized the binoculars and rushed
back to the cliff edge. He estimated
the distance between himself and the target, and then set the specs
accordingly. His digits were unusually
Why are my fingers shaking? the
SeeD noticed uneasily.
Even before he brought the binoculars to
bear, there hung a strange sense of static in the air, a screaming alarm amidst
the silence that boded ill for the discovery to come. Accidents wait to happen, but few are the intrepid who push on
with redoubled resolve to seek them out.
Counter-intuitively did Zell so conduct himself and ever did he lament
his conscious choice.
They dropped before he realized that they
had even parted from hands.
Instinctively he bent to pick up and wipe off the smudge on the lens
with his shirt, but neither his eyes nor thoughts had left the residual images
of the offenders still turning in his mind.
Within the circular scope the telltale walnut streaks and orange shirt
had announced the obvious culprit, dallying on a delicate flower with a blue-rimmed
crown. Her oceanic lips settled upon
his and the tips of each melted together like running waves against the
shore. Zell never saw it coming, but he
was seeing it now, as much as he would have liked to deny what seemed to be
staring him straight in the face more than he was at it.
Who is that girl? Zell turned in
his mind. What is she doing with…is
it him- yes, it is.
It was unmistakable to the point that had
Zell even the stomach for it, he would not have double-checked. Not really knowing why, Zell began to back
away slowly. Quite randomly his reflex
prudence kicked in and he was inspired to look around and make sure that no one
else had chanced upon the delicate scene as had he.
Without further scrutinizing, Zell
meandered back to the bike, more or less oblivious to what he was doing. Even so, before he was back on his way,
trying to pretend that nothing had been spied, the shameless stool pigeon of a
binoculars was set back into its compartment and the gate closed, vainly
attempting to lock away in its depths the secret that Zell now bore away. The yoke of unwanted intelligence and the
curse of enlightenment were his only companions, commiserating him on his
journey home, filling in each empty step where the confident spring should have
been. Mr. Jammy would have cried.
The trudge was fairly uneventful. Some grass.
In the distance, trees.
Timber. The good old days. The dirt was interesting.
Okay, he admitted, it’s really
He felt no need to justify why he did not
wish to lift his eyes. He was also
resentful that anyone might expect him to otherwise hold his head up and
authoritatively impress upon him some self-important platitude instructing him
to drag his feet in a manner that exuded pride in the Garden if he was indeed intent
on doing it so depressingly. Once again
the ambient social conditions had thrust upon him some outrageous
responsibility- outrageous in both its content and its unwarrantedness- and
left him to deal with it. For this
charitable and laborious deed he would derive neither pleasure nor ulterior
benefit. It was crap if he ever had to
Thus nailed to a chore of humanity, Zell
was little aware of the passage of time and the progress of his own passage
from the beachside cliff to the front steps of Nova Trabia Garden. It half-surprised the part of him that was
actually awake enough to care once he actually got there. His trusty legs had navigated their way home
and dragged him, the lost and unwitting horseman back to their origin. From the front, the Garden looked
deserted. Behind the opaque gates, he
would not find many students cavorting at this hour.
His feet felt foreign as he ascended the
marble stairs. In his opinion, Selphie
had chosen the material well- a strategic upgrade from basic granite. It would not surprise him if to turn a
profit Selphie had just installed hollow steps. They sure felt like it.
Or was that just him?
After climbing twenty-four steps, he
became aware that there was someone tugging at his sleeve. It also occurred to him that she was the
same person he had brushed off four steps earlier. Three steps before that he had presumably ran into her and
knocked her down on accident. In the
step after that one he had not turned to help her up. It was all so foggy because he hadn’t actually looked up while
any of this was happening.
His gaze followed his hands, up his arm,
to the little fingers now wrapped around his elbow, up the white wrist, over a
soft shoulder, up a silky neck, and finally settled on a lovely face. His focused on a set of curiously pink
Who are you? the wide-eyed Zell
thought to ask.
The girl you met in the forest.
Do I know you? he wondered again.
of course you do. She’s the girl you
met in the forest.
Have we met? he wanted to ask her.
Yes, you dip. You met in the forest.
You look awfully familiar, Zell noted.
That’s because you met in the forest!
You must be the girl I met in the forest! Zell recognized.
I give up.
“Hey,” her voice rose gradually as he
took the entire world off the mute key.
Suddenly everything jumped back into the range of audibility- the birds
chirping, the whistling wind, and the cascades of water hiding behind the
gates. It fell on him like a caffeine
“Hello?” she accosted him again, this
time with a more insistent tug.
Judging from how much longer his sleeve
looked, Zell estimated that she had been pulling on it for over a minute. How woeful it seemed that it would not
matter how many times he washed it now, no amount of shrinking would be able to
She punched him in his gut softly.
“”Are you even listening to me?” she
“Huh, what?” he stuttered.
“That dumb lizard must have knocked you
up really hard, you poor thing,” the girl cooed. She ran her fingers through his hair and patted his head softly.
Zell decided that it would be too
emasculating to have her check his head for injuries so he straightened up and
smoothed out his hair. She smiled, let
her arms slip back down to her sides, and put her hands back in her
pockets. Zell found that action
particularly attractive because ever since Quistis and Selphie’s make-shift
skirts had taken over the latest fashion trends in Trabia, there had been a
real dearth of pockets in the indigenous female arena.
“Naw,” he denied in the best
ingenuous-farm-boy accent he could feign, “I showed him.”
The silver-haired girl squinted in
curious disbelief and scrutinized Zell for a second.
Zell broke out a smile that stretched
from ear to ear. It looked extremely
Her features softened and she brought her
fingers to her mouth to cover a giggle.
“Okay,” she conceded reluctantly, “but
don’t let me catch you lying or I’ll show you.”
She hit his arm playfully to cap off her
ultimatum, as if by that act Zell would have found her words any more ominous.
Zell scratched the back of his head and
searched vainly for the next insightful thing that would cross his mind to
She entertained herself by staring at his
smudged face for a second before extending her hand to him.
“Please, call me Pearl,” she introduced
Zell’s lower jaw dropped a little as
tried to determine if she was expecting him to shake her hand or to kiss
it. Chivalry being dead, he figured a
casual handshake was wanting. However,
the fact that his hands might be dirtier than his lips stayed him. Should he take the hand or kiss it? They could very well possess the same degree
“Do you have a name?” she questioned,
letting her hand drop.
Oh no! Is she hurt that I didn’t even reach out to take her hand? he
When he did not answer, she added,
“Something your friends and family call you?”
“I’m Zell,” he answered hurriedly. His hand shot out and grabbed hers before
she had a chance to put it back in her pocket.
Pearl seemed surprised but not offended
by the brusque maneuver, possibly because she saw how genuinely flustered he
Is that good or bad? he wondered.
His new acquaintance began to braid her
hair coyly as if to offer him the next move.
“Can you let me in?” Pearl pleaded
suddenly. “The gatekeeper is being very
Offhandedly Zell wondered why she didn’t
just use her bodily charm to wheedle her way in. He also remembered how the Balamb Garden gate guard had been
similarly anal retentive in restricting the passage to the outside after hours
or while the Garden was in motion, though.
It would not be a shocker if he now denied passage into the Garden
because it was too early in the morning.
“It’s not really a day by day thing,” Zell
explained to her. “It’s in his job
description. Either that or the Garden
employment office is doing a hell of a job with personality profiling.”
When she laughed under her breath, he
felt pleased with himself at having finally put forth a comment that had
actually been his intention to be funny.
“So you’re not a SeeD then?” he deduced.
She bit her bottom lip and shook her
head. Then she motioned for him to move
closer as if she wanted to convey some great secret to him.
He played along and leaned down.
“I was hoping that you would be my
escort,” she whispered in his ear. Then
she wrapped her arm around his and pointed up the steps at the gate.
“Come on, let’s go!” she urged, giving
him a little push.
“What’s so exciting about the Garden that
you’d want to go in?” Zell asked.
“I’m looking for some friends,” she
replied as they marched up the steps.
“Maybe you know them?”
After they had gone up a decent number of
steps, when Zell realized that she was not going to expound on the subject, he pressed
her for more information.
“Maybe I know them?” he echoed her. “Do they have names? Something their friends and family call
She pulled him to a halt and scowled at
his patronizing remark. He lifted his
eyebrows in a challenge and she had to resign to a frustrated pout.
“That wasn’t funny,” she whined and hit
his arm lightly with her freehand.
“Out with it,” Zell, pretending to be
stern, told her.
She fiddled with her silky hair some more
but said nothing, seeing how he was doing a miserable job of it. When it was clear that he would not relent,
she sighed and turned to go back down the steps and look for some other way in.
Suddenly Zell became pliable and it was
now his turn to drag his partner up the last few steps.
“Come on,” he entreated, pulling her in
the direction of the gates, “just tell me.”
Pearl shook her head and tried to walk
away, but found herself moving backwards.
Before she could protest, he hoisted her up on his shoulders and ran
with her to the entrance. She initially
frowned, but her subsequent squeals of delight belied any earlier sentiments of
“You’re going to have to tell me
eventually,” he pointed out good-naturedly.
Realizing that there was no way of
fighting him off, she conceded and answered him, “I was going to file a missing
persons statement for my girl friend Merali.”
Cute name, Zell contemplated. Hey, wait a second-
Pearl blinked, unsure what Zell wanted
her to say next.
Zell blushed, realizing he was reading
too much into her words. He waved the
topic away and motioned for her to continue.
It was a motion she could not have picked up on, being that she was
slung over his shoulder and facing backwards.
“We got separated on the beach last
night,” she went on, “and I was hoping someone might have found her and brought
her back here.”
“The beach is blue at night because
the ocean reflects the moonlight and casts it onto the sand. It’s so beautiful.” Mina told me that once.
“Don’t you think she can find her way
back alone?” Zell asked, coming out of his trance.
Pearl shook her head, forgetting that
Zell could not exactly see her body language.
“Merali is a mute,” she explained in a
Zell blushed again as the feeling of
ignorance of the patently obvious washed over him. Actually he could not have known that, but that did not save him
from being embarrassed.
“Well,” he struggled to recover some
dignity, “what does she look like?”
Discomfited by his sudden
inquisitiveness, Pearl turned around and look at the back of his head
skeptically. You can’t be
serious. Are you going to help
“For the file,” he made out as casually
Guess he can’t do that much
harm interfering, she considered. After
all, he looks innocuous enough.
Zell had been trying very hard in the
meantime not to look too interested, deciding that whistling “Dance of the
Balamb Fish” was the best mode through which to mask his curiosity. After factoring in the nervousness, though,
the tune sounded more like the jarring theme of the presidential sorceress
parade in Deling City.
Pearl giggled and finally shrugged.
“Merali has decent height, long, blue
hair, and pale skin,” she described her friend in a voice lined with a tinge of
The image of the girl he saw on the beach
flashed through his mind like a changing slide in a projector, and the world
seemed to darken by a few shades right before it exploded in his face. The effect was comparable to the projector,
screen, or film catching on fire.
“Zell,” Pearl cried, tapping his back,
“are you okay?”
When her solicitation obtained no
response, she resorted to hitting his back and shoulders with increasing
increments of force.
I hope he doesn’t bruise easily,
she thought to herself.
“Huh, what?” Zell stammered, his grip on
reality slowly returning.
You were on the subject of her girl
friend, moron, his subconsciousness sneered.
“Oh, yeah,” Zell replied, recovering, “I
wouldn’t worry about her.”
“Why not?” she inquired.
“She’s in good hands,” he told her tersely.
Pearl paused to think about his odd
assurance. The gate window was just one
“You were beginning to worry me there,”
Pearl informed him when she felt them moving again. “What was up with you being so silent and stopping to a dead halt
like that? Did you see a ghost or
“No, I was just-“
Zell pitted to a hard stop for the second
A slim man in a blue uniform had taken
his place by the gate guard. His
ostentatious insignia markings were only too familiar.
“Speaking of something awful,” Zell
muttered as he bent down to let Pearl off his shoulder.
“What is it?” she asked, still holding
onto his arm. “Did- oh, I see.”
At the sight of them, the gatekeeper
motioned to his companion. That man,
the apparent superior, looked up.
“That’s her,” the guard identified Pearl,
“the one who tried to get through earlier.”
Zell straightened his shirt to brush up
his appearance as if it was not speckled with mud stains.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he greeted the
serious-looking man in the blue suit.
The addressee frowned but otherwise
ignored the comment.
“Zell Dincht,” he said, “it is five
demerits and two service shifts for an unauthorized after-hours stay outside
Garden. I’ll decide later how much to
penalize you for what looks like inappropriate fraternization.”
As if he could draw the lines for
appropriate fraternization, Zell reflected sourly.
“Come on, Sergeant Jay,” Zell whined in
perfect infantile form, “my excuse this time is so good, you have to hear
it! I spent a while thinking it up just
“Rules are rules, Zell,” Jay dismissed
the rambling and handed Zell a sheet of official-looking paper. “I can’t have troublemakers like you and
Kinneas running rampant without any semblance of order.”
“You can take your executive Disciplinary
Committee note and stuff it,” Zell retorted, shoving the form back into Jay’s
chest. “Those student regulations don’t
apply to a Headmaster-appointed supervisor of activities.”
When no one reacted, he had to point at
him chest with his thumb and add, “That would be me.”
Pearl calmly brushed a stray strand of
silver hair out of her face to back behind her ear, but he could tell she was
Please be impressed, Zell prayed
in one of his spare seconds.
Sergeant Jay’s fists were tightly
clenched and trembling in anger. Had
the air been colder and more humid, the steam spouting from his ears would have
been visible vapor.
“Don’t think I’m going to let you off so
easily, Dincht,” Jay grunted with dire malice in his voice. “I intend to take these charges all the way
up to the top-“
“Yeah, yeah,” Zell interposed quickly,
“go write a memo about it.”
“Come on,” he whispered to Pearl, “let’s
get out of here before he thinks of a reply.”
As he turned from the gate window, she
caught his hand. It threw him off for a
half-second, but the momentary delay was soon replaced by a blood rush
unparalleled since Rinoa had dared him to stomach thirty chocobolate bars in
five minutes. Thirty Garden hotdogs had
not been a problem for him, so of course he took Rinoa’s bet and won with no
problem. Their wager had been the
newest issue of the Galbadia Gal fashion magazine, an item that he was
glad to have acquired from her without fostering a spirit of vindictiveness.
By the time Jay lifted his hand and
shouted his order for them to stop, the couple had already hopped over the
railing and disappeared into the Garden quad.
“Aren’t you going to do anything about
them, sir?” the gate guard asked him.
The sergeant looked down at him long and
“Mind your own business, soldier,” he bit
His eyes narrowed. We’re far from finished, Dincht.
As far as Zell was concerned, though,
their conversation had ended the minute Jay refused to hear his excuse. He had been really proud of that excuse
too. While Quistis had always
maintained that excuses never solved anything, they did make him feel better
and exculpate him for any shortcomings for which he would otherwise have to
unjustly assume the blame by default.
By now, he and Pearl had reached the
limestone bridge set in the middle of the quad over an artificial stream. Selphie had fought hard with the architects
of the original Nova Trabia Garden floor plans to have them re-space everything
to make room for her trench that would split the quad in half. The deposit from the indoor waterfall would
feed into the trench and fill it for a moat-like appearance. Squall’s exact words to him about what happened
in the boardroom were, “I don’t think construction foremen would have approved
of including that waterfall if Selphie hadn’t threatened their lives.”
Pearl pulled Zell to the side of the
bridge and leaned over the railing to gape at the empty riverbed. Deciding that the plain, white mass of
concrete would look different from another angle, she sat up onto the bar and
then swung her legs over the side. He
steadied her but nevertheless did not share her fascination with what hadn’t
been completed yet. The cascade would
not be ready for pumping out water for another few days. And so, while she was admiring the
foundations, he took the time to look up and admire the buttresses that the
team was busy erecting. It complemented
the whole waterfall setup surprisingly well.
If Selphie failed the mechanics portion of the construction profession
miserably, she was a prodigy of interior design.
“It would probably pay better,” he
“What was that?” Pearl asked him, having
missed most of internal conversation.
“Ah, nothing,” he dismissed quickly. “I was just being stupid.”
And we know what a rarity THAT is…
“No, come on,” she insisted, “explain.”
She was giving no sign of dropping the
subject. In that respect, she might
have vied Rinoa’s tenacity and woebegone obstinacy.
“Then tell me about your other friend,“
Zell diverted. “You said you were
looking for ‘some friends’. ‘Some’
means more than one.”
How very clever of you to notice, Zell,
his subconsciousness scoffed. We
might as well commemorate this moment with a holiday.
Pearl scowled but gave him the answer,
ever so grudgingly, “I’m looking for Seifer.”
The breakfast that he didn’t have was
doing wheelies in his stomach.
Maybe she means a different Seifer,
he comforted himself.
“Seifer,” she repeated as if he was hard
of hearing or absolutely in love with that name. “Seifer Almasy.”
The mere mention of the name made his
blood boil, evoking images of what he thought could most aptly be characterized
as evil with gelled hair and a laugh.
If Zell kept a list of things that he wanted to burn, Seifer would be on
it. Even if Seifer was not immediately
on it, he was sure that someday Seifer would indeed burn.
His pink-eyed companion must have felt
him tense up at her response, either by her keen powers of detection, or
because his hand around her wrist was cutting off her circulation, because she
rapped him on the chest lightly to recapture his attention.
“What’s wrong?” Pearl asked. “What is it?”
Then, eyes shining brightly, she added,
“Do you know him?”
“I don’t think you’ll find him in here,”
Zell uttered slowly, still taken back.
“In fact, Garden is probably the last place that you-“
She interrupted his excruciating attempt
to be polite with the announcement that Seifer was in Nova Trabia excavating
religious artifacts. Evidently she had
tracked down his whereabouts through his church group news bulletin.
The gears in Zell’s mind were turning
fast enough to produce some four-digit horsepower.
If Seifer really is in Nova Trabia,
there’s no way he could be inside Nova Trabia Garden, could he? No way!
No way. Yet, the ruling out the
impossible is the last thing I should do when dealing with Seifer. Underestimating him is like shortchanging
Rinoa’s credit card on a shopping spree-
“Zell!” a high-pitched, not too happy
voice sounded from behind them.
Both he and Pearl spun around, putting
their backs to the railing, to meet the incumbent distraction. They were met by a short, dark-haired girl
in Garden uniform with one hand placed ominously on her hip and the other
clenched tightly around a crushed plastic cup and straw that was screaming for
her mercy and to just end its miserable Raspberry Arctic Latte life.
She did not extend her hand.
“Rishi!” Zell gasped. For a second he felt as if he should be
embarrassed, but for the life of him he could not figure out what for.
Her stare was making him feel
guilty. That was a definite sign that
he saw way too much of Mina in her. And
he was as surprised as she was displeased, to say the least.
Without waiting for him to answer
whatever it was that he could not answer, Rishi stepped between him and Pearl,
snatched up his hand, and bumped the other girl out of the way. This extra jostling had the unfortunate
effect of tipping Pearl, already seated in a precarious position, off her
balance and nearly over the rail. Zell
had to make an effort with his free hand to grab her and keep her from falling
backwards and headfirst onto the bedrock.
Either unfazed, unaware, or
unsympathetic, Rishi marched Zell past the Garden Noodle restaurant and into
the adjacent corridor. She got as far
down the hall as the door to the officer’s lounge before he found the inner
strength to free himself of her covetous custody.
“What?” he demanded.
“What do you mean what?” she deflected.
“You do realize that we just left her out
there all by herself?” Zell checked.
“The thought had crossed my mind,”
Rishi replied sourly.
“Geez, Rishi,” he griped, “the way you
patrol me! It’s like you’re a regular
correspondent with Mina or something.”
You imbecile! she wanted to
gives the full account of the Rishi’s
letter to Mina in "Letter To A
Zell must have seen the fire in her eyes
and registered in that little Zell head of his the foreshadowed onslaught
because his knees nearly buckled.
Luckily though, at the sight of him
trembling, her features softened and she almost began to look sympathetic. Slowly the menacing eyebrows reassumed a
more natural, homely slope, and at last
Zell was able to breathe easy.
“I really don’t know why you’re so worked
up,” Zell informed her.
“Have you completely forgotten about
her?” Rishi questioned.
“I think about Mina whenever I’m not
about to get killed, and sometimes even then,” he answered honestly.
“Then what are we?” the other demanded to
In afterthought, an incensed look of fury
flashed over her face.
“And what,” she added then,
pointing out to the quad where they had forsaken Pearl, “is that?”
A dark cloud thundered over her remark.
“Some things are better left ambiguous,”
Zell replied gravely.
After a while his companion nodded
solemnly in agreement.
There was a brief moment of awkward
silence before she looked him over curiously before pointing at his head and
asking, “Did you lose a bet?”
Before he could answer, she followed up
her question with a corollary musing, “The winner must have had a keen sense of
He wanted to tell her that things like
that tended to happen when one conferred the duties of his barber to a Blue
Dragon, but in a combination of jadedness and fatigue, he neglected to mention
it. He would have even left it at that
had Rishi not donned the demeanor of one who was willing and persistent enough
to force it out of him. Her crossed
arms and tapping foot were just too formidable. Either element individually he could have handled, but before
both he would surely succumb.
He would not have been spared from
telling the embarrassing tale but for a semi-offensive slap on his rear. The guilty hand had come from behind.
Rishi got up on the tip of her toes to
look over Zell’s shoulder. Her eyes
widened and her face flushed. Zell
followed her gaze.
Irvine Kinneas stood there, oiling the
handle of his Exeter. In hot pursuit
behind him was a throng a Garden freshwomen.
Irvine elbowed Zell and whispered, “You
got to check this out.”
Zell decided that if his partner was
referring to the Garden frosh, he would have to remain unimpressed.
Upon seeing how apathetic Zell was,
Irvine pushed him lightly and chided, “Will you relax?”
Then, moving his gaze from Zell to Rishi,
he systematically produced what he knew was universally considered a dreamy
smile by their gender.
“Hello there, little lady,” the cowboy
said, taking off his hat and taking her hand.
Rishi giggled as he moved in closer.
Zell shoved Irvine off of her before he
could lean down and kiss it.
“Relax, dung heap,” he told Irvine. “She’s only fifteen.”
“Time waits for no one,” Irvine remarked,
“so why should I?”
“Because cradle-robbing is unethical and
in some cases illegal,” Zell quipped back.
Irvine flagged him off and looked him up
“Tsk, tsk,” he reproached Zell. “You look like crap.”
“Finally,” he crowed, “some truth in this
He was so relieved that he went over to
Irvine and embraced him.
“Get the Ifrit off of me,” Irvine cried
Before the two could engage in any
further altercation, the door to the officer’s lounge slid open and Quistis
walked out into the hall.
“There you are,” she exclaimed when she
saw Zell standing there.
Zell’s eyes lit up and switched from
hugging Irvine to falling on Quistis.
One did not need any excuse or truth to cuddle with her.
“The log has you going off the perimeters
last night but not re-entering,” Quistis said, shaking him off. “I was worried. Squall is also registered as missing.”
“He’s in good hands,” he told her tersely.
“So Squall is still out on the beach?”
Quistis sought confirmation.
Zell answered in the affirmative.
Hoping to put Quistis through a guilt
trip, Irvine faked a pout and inquired, ”How come you never let on that you
miss me, Quisty? Should I leave for a
night and not come back?”
Quistis smiled more sweetly than either
of them had thought was possible and then replied flatly, “Actually, you two
are precisely the gentlemen whom I wanted to see.”
Irvine and Zell exchanged looks.
It must be my lucky day, Irvine
thought, licking his lips.
It must be my lucky day, Zell
copied, rubbing his hands together.
“We received a high-priority video
message from the Shumi early this morning,” she elaborated, her voice suddenly
sounding very stern.
Irvine and Zell exchanged looks again.
Is it too late for me to retract my
statement and walk away? Irvine wondered.
Is it too late for me to go back outside?
Zell followed in suit.
“You two had best go in and replay the
transmission for yourselves,” Quistis suggested.
“He’s responsible,” they said
simultaneously, each pointing an accusing finger at the other.
Quistis gave them both an exasperated
look and ushered them through the door.
It closed behind them.
The small gathering of female Garden
students cried in disbelief and began to disperse.
When Quistis was sure that they had gone,
she came back out to check if there was anything else in the corridor she
There was something about a wide-eyed
girl leaning against the opposite wall with her hands behind her back that
begged her attention.
“What’s your name, darling?” Quistis
asked, stooping down.
Rishi told her.
“Rishi, dear,” Quistis continued, “could
you be a good girl and go call Instructor Tilmitt from the construction zone
The petite Garden student bit her lower
lip but nodded.
Quistis was not convinced, so she asked
further, “Do you know what she looks like?”
Rishi shook her head.
“Just keep your eye out for the one
construction worker who looks the most uncomfortable in her suit,” Quistis
advised. I’d tell her to look for
the shortest one there except I know Dante is sure to be with her.
Not needing to be told twice, Rishi
nodded and whisked herself away.
Left to herself, Quistis leaned against
the wall that Rishi had just quit and crossed her arms. She waited as the clattering of footsteps
faded into nothingness. She waited
until hers was the only breath to be taken, waiting until no living ear could
“Squall,” she whispered, hugging herself
tightly, “where are you?”
Her fingers felt a nuance of warmth
against the velvet on her vest. She
lowered her head furtively and tried to stifle a sniffle. She really did not want to do what she could
feel herself about to do. She wanted to
say anything except what came out next.
Maybe no one would find out.
“If you come, I’ll be here,” she sighed,