On Earth as it is in Hell Part 4
"Being with her was the most wonderful thing ever. It was.... Strawberries and cinnamon, sunshine and butterflies."
What divides legend and history? Are the previous Final Fantasies a prelude to the years that followed? Did Avalanche beget SeeD? Is Magicite is nothing more than a form of proto-Materia? Or are these universes separated by eternity's of nothing, each world spinning in it's own womb of dimensional fabric? And if so, how could one breach that nothingness, and bring what was not meant to be together? These questions are perhaps, doors that should never be opened.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
They had all taken shelter a little ways from the road and given in to exhaustion, each slumped wherever they could find minimal comfort. Zell felt this would be short lived since the storm was getting close to breaking. He was disappointed for two reasons.
The first was obviously the fact that he was very tired and had hoped to rest for awhile longer. The second was that during their respite, Selphie's lithe form had somehow become wedged up against his back, a position more titillating than usual since Selphie was in a definite lack of uniform. And thus two parts of him exulted- the part that loved Selphie and was giddy to be this close to her, and the part that wanted Selphie and was excited by the contact. The latter part was ordering him to innocently shift in his 'sleep' to an even more pleasing position against her, but somewhere deep in his conscious common sense told him that wouldn't look good to the others. If she shifted any closer though, he wouldn't care.
He was spared the decision when Rinoa sent a resounding call to wake up reverberating through his brain, and from the sudden start everyone else gave, he wasn't the only one. Sitting up, he was pleased to see that Quistis was awake, albeit still a bit dazed, and Squall was filling her in. Selphie was still unconscious, but her breathing seemed regular and she wasn't too pale, so there was no immediate danger. Irvine was shaking Scott awake, who of course couldn't hear Rinoa.
He figured he would carry Selphie, since Irvine was limping, the Scott guy was sick or something, and Squall was too busy....... Well, he would be doing something else. He was just being helpful, right? At least as far as anyone else knew, and he intended to keep it that way.
Scott still felt like crap. It was just like a hangover but worse, since at least if he had a hangover he knew what caused it and that it would eventually go away. He was also sorely missing his only personal possessions, a camera, a manual and a glass tube. It wasn't much but the camera would be most useful, so that if he ever went back he could prove he wasn't crazy.
He had a suspicion though. In the end, it might not even be worth it to go back. There had been a certain amount of speculation about time, and how it flowed in different universes. Speculation, and not much fact. His transition from Earth to Galbadia had seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, but if such theories were true, it may have been days, even years. Thus, every one day here could equal a hundred in Earth space, or on the other side of the coin, every day here might be worth only a second elsewhere. If the former was true, the Earth he would return to, if he returned, would not be the one he left. It was something best not to think about.
Squall called for a quick meeting to decide their next destination. While heading for Dollet would be the fastest way, it was also the most dangerous. Instead, their options were to go for Timber or attempt to contact SeeD for an amphibious pickup. The decision was made when Rinoa informed them she had already talked to the Headmaster, and an amphibious craft was on it's way to a beach several miles east of their position. Scott waited uncomfortably as they all stared into nothingness, absorbing the news flash. Again, they all forgot he couldn't hear.
Scott cleared his throat to get their attention. "So, what's the good news? It is good, right?"
Squall, true to character, ignored him and Zell was already lugging Selphie up to the road. Quistis was still a little dazed so it fell to Irvine to respond.
"Yeah, there's a boat heading for us," He said, wincing as he stood. "Just a few miles. So cheer up! A few hours and we'll get you a hot shower and some clean clothes."
That sounded pretty good to Scott. He could worry about what happened after later. He and Irvine turned to go up the road and saw the other three already on their way. They hurried to catch up.
On the way, Scott wanted to clear some things up. So far the person he knew best was Irvine, so he turned to him for some answers. Ducking under Irvine's arm, he shifted some of the wounded cowboy's weight onto himself, easing off his wounded leg.
"Thanks," Irvine grunted, hobbling over towards Scott to balance. "The spells kill the pain but I still need to see a doctor when we get back."
"Right, right," Scott said. "The cure spell things."
"About that... how does it work?"
Irvine smiled. "You want the short or long of it?"
"Somewhere in between."
"Well then, lets see.. Quistis would probably be better at this, but I can give you the general idea. Many of the creatures around here, which we call monsters, are from the moon. And these monsters have magical powers. We don't know why or how these powers work, but they do. Humans like us cannot use that power. You with me?"
"Okay, we can't use spells like the animals. But you guys cast spells."
"Some scientist guys, like Odine, he's a scientist in Esthar, a country across the sea, figured out a way for people like us to junction GFs, or Guardian Forces, to ourselves to imitate this magic. It's not real magic, but something called proto-magic. It's adapted for our use."
Scott still really didn't understand what a GF was or how the whole thing worked, but he had a vague idea. It was enough for him. It didn't matter all that much anyway.
So Scott nodded like it was all clear to him. "All right, I get it. I think the real question is, can you magically get me back home?"
Irvine glanced over at him. "Don't ask me, I'm just a sniper. I'm sure Squall will find the right people for you to talk to when we get back to Garden."
He could see Scott was still less than convinced. Irvine laughed, punching him in the arm.
"Relax, man. We have plenty of time to figure it out. We'll do whatever it takes to get you back home."
"Sure," Scott said, keeping his doubts to himself.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Odine found himself in front of a desk, behind which sat a man he had never seen before and knew nothing of. His new boss. He could not help but be somewhat nervous as this man put away the files he had been looking at.
Julian leaned slightly back in his chair assuming a relaxed attitude. It was an attitude he had to work at to pull off.
"Doctor, Odine, is it?" Julian began. "I see here from these files you have done extensive work for Galbadia in the past. Good work, of course."
"Yes, zis is true," Odine said, desperately trying to get the measure of the man in front of him. Julian remained an enigma, his eyes giving away nothing. Odine thought it was very odd he had never seen this man before. He had thought he knew of all the major power players in Galbadia.
"According to these, sources, I have, you have done some work on Project Spreading Sun."
Officially, Odine's agreement with Poleground called for complete silence about the project. But since it was apparent Poleground was no longer part of the picture he had nothing to gain by not talking.
"Zis is also true."
"Good. Then you will be of some use to me. You lead the project to success in the past, and now we must finish it. We have other plans that depend on it's completion. You will help us do this."
It wasn't a question.
"First, we need to know how to use it, and who to use it on."
Odine cleared his throat. "I imagine zat you already know ze basics. It is a wind carried virus with a limited range, easily curable by those zat know how. Ze former leaders used zis to eliminate various rebels, destroying their respective revolutionary cells. Ze preferable method of use is by some equipment I created, an airborne distributor zat is programmable to seek out ze target. If you wish to complete ze planned project, you would kill ze remaining three leaders of ze largest rebels factions in Galbadia."
"How long would this take?"
"Ze virus is quickly lethal, and has a short life span. No longer zan two days."
Julian nodded and gestured over towards Hendrow, who had been standing by the door. "Michael here will take you to the area were you will work with my scientists to do this. You will be blindfolded during the trip. You will address Michael as Mr. Hendrow."
Odine said nothing, and followed Hendrow out the door, pondering this odd turn of fate.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Thanks to his work, little by little the power that be knew about what went on down in the facility, and with every passing day they knew more. The Agent had insinuated himself into the normal working patterns of Julian's employees, posing as a low-level scientist assigned to studying the energy emissions from the portal. He was educated enough to do this, but he would have a hard time making his way among the higher ups.
It still seemed to him like some fantastic movie set, complete with a glowing sci-fi portal and faceless men running about in white suits. Like everyone else in the facility, the Agent quickly learned to wear goggles when in the portal room, where the strange light could cause pain in the eyes. This was actually a good thing since the goggles made everyone look alike, a fortuitous circumstance for a spy.
The first real breakthrough had occurred when someone mentioned GPSS. Some scientist, probably in the rec room. Of all the things he heard, it was lucky he did a little research on this one. He hit pay dirt, and was amazed to read the file on the whole affair. He was aware the thing was already on file at some government facility somewhere, but the information tied everything together for the first time. He wondered if they already knew this was related to what happened at GPSS, but asking questions like that was very stupid. He reported it as new findings.
He spent most of his time now trying to find out where this portal went. The GPSS papers didn't say, and the way they read he suspected someone had removed quite a bit of information from them. And between the omnipresent security and closemouthed technicians, just finding out where the bathroom was became a struggle.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It took only two hours for the boats to arrive, the plume of water just visible on the horizon and growing closer every minute. Scott would just be glad to get off his feet and out of danger. Maybe he would be excited about going to Balamb Garden when he was there.
When the boat touched shore Squall was the first one on, followed by Quistis. Both went up into the drivers compartment, probably to get on whatever form of communication the boat used to call the Garden. Zell lay Selphie down on one of the seats. Scott noticed he started to sit next to her, but then moved over to sit across when Irvine limped on board. There was obviously something going on with Zell and Selphie, but from what he had heard, Irvine was her boyfriend. Or maybe he wasn't. Scott didn't know, and the love triangle or whatever it was wasn't any of his business. What he didn't realize was that nobody else knew either. As the outsider, he had seen it first.
The interior of the ship was fairly bland, although it looked like there was a way up to some sort of deck above, which he thought he might check out later. Other than that there was some sort of screen on the far wall and that was it. Irvine sat across from Scott, leaning over towards him, apparently to brief him some more.
"We use these ships all over the world," Irvine said, patting one of the bulkheads. "They are extremely fast and pack a fair amount of fire power too. Top of line in amphibious landings, so it's a pretty sweet ride. We're lucky Cid diverted one to pick us up."
Scott figured he had to at least pretend to be impressed or have some sort of reaction. So far Irvine was his only friend here, and he didn't want to lose that. Unfortunately being friendly was becoming more and more of an effort. "They keep pretty busy, huh?"
"Oh yeah. Beach landings are the most common method of getting where we want to go, or at least most of the way there. You have amphibious assaults where you come from?"
Scott smiled at the question. "June 6, 1944."
"Very famous date in my country, and not a few others. Biggest amphibious assault in history. Or my history at least."
"Really? Tell me about it. There's nothing else to do."
So Scott did. He was past the invasion and talking about Cherbourg when Quistis came back down. She took a seat next to Zell, since Selphie took up all the rest of the other seat.
"So, what happened to you?" Zell asked.
Quistis leaned forward wearily. "I took a blow to the head when Rinoa's dad's house nearly collapsed on me and Squall."
"Oh. Does it still hurt?"
"What do you think Zell?"
"Oh, well, I was just thinking that maybe you were still hurt or something, so... Uh... I don't know."
Irvine laughed, leaning back into his seat. He looked at Quistis. "Don't confuse the poor boy Quistis. You know he has a limited capacity for sarcasm. Don't worry Zell, it's not your fault. You can't help being handicapped."
Zell frowned. Quistis just closed her eyes.
"What are you talking about?" Zell said, eyes narrowing. "I'm not handicapped."
Irvine started laughing again, and Quistis sighed, eyes still closed.
"Nothing, Zell," Quistis said, resting her head on the seat back. "Don't worry about it."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Nightfall was nearing by the time Balamb Island was in site. Scott was standing up on the deck, enjoying the sensation of the craft speeding across the water top. Getting closer every second, he could see the sparkling lights of a town he assumed to be Balamb. He was surprised at the size- towns that small were rare back in his world.
They passed several other boats coming in, fisherman returning home for the night. Scott dutifully waved back at them. Then, as they turned into the docks, he caught a glimpse of the Garden, or what he thought was the Garden, shining just above the treetops to the northwest. The lights glowed bright yellow and blue. He immediately revised what he pictured as the Garden in his head. He had figured it to be like any other military academy. Bright lights didn't fit into that.
As they docked, he went back downstairs to see if he had to wake anyone up. It wasn't necessary. Squall and Quistis were already at the door with Irvine. Zell was still trying to wrestle Selphie into a comfortable carrying position. The craft shook slightly, then came to a bobbing rest. Hydraulics hummed and the door opened with a woosh, it's three prongs coming apart like a peeled orange.
The streets were mostly empty. Everybody was in for the night and most stores were closed. The street appeared empty of vehicles except for one, idling at the entrance. Scott figured it was a SeeD vehicle when everybody else lit up at the sight of it. This was confirmed when the driver waved at them, opening the side sliding doors. When he was closer, Scott saw it was also armored.
Zell was the first one in, leveling Selphie into the back seat. The driver look at her in concern.
"Is she okay?"
Squall nodded, sliding into the front passenger seat. "She's healing."
"Does she need to go to the infirmary?"
Squall nodded again, already staring out the window. Once everybody else was in, the driver shifted gears and started the trip to Garden. On the road, he tried to start up conversation again.
"So, who's the new guy?"
Quistis was looking drowsy, Irvine was already asleep, Squall was unlikely to talk so Zell fielded the question.
"It's a long story," He said, trying to put a seat belt around the limp form of Selphie. "But he'll be at Garden for awhile."
"Long story huh?" The driver laughed, looking at Squall next to him. "Looks like it. What happened to your clothes?"
Zell grunted in exasperation. Selphie had almost fallen off the seat. He struggled with the seatbelt without answering. Scott reached over the seat back to help him.
"What, not going to tell me?"
"Huh?" Zell asked, not paying attention. With the combined strength of Scott, the seatbelt finally snapped together. "Oh, look Nida, we're saving it for debriefing. I'll tell you all about it later, okay?"
"Fine," Nida said, applying the brake to avoid hitting a large pothole at high speed. "But I want all the details."
Garden came into view about fifteen minutes later. Scott was surprised, and not a bit awed, at the huge structure. It didn't look anything like any school he had ever seen. The picture in his head had been of a standard military installation of boring concrete gray and monochrome tiled halls. What stood before him had more in common with some massive dance hall, complete with bright lights and terraces.
Nida pulled the car into the Garden garage. After it was parked and turned off, he hopped out and he and Squall helped Zell pull Selphie out. Squall lifted Selphie up with Zell and turned to Nida.
"I want you to find Scott a room for the night. We'll sort all this out with the headmaster tomorrow."
"Yes sir," Nida said, saluting. He motion at Scott. "He's Scott, I gather."
Squall didn't bothering answering such an inane question. He looked at Irvine questioningly. Irvine was hobbling to catch up. He nodded to the unspoken query.
"I can walk."
The three went off to the infirmary, leaving Scott and Nida standing just outside the car. Quistis slid out the door a bit unsteadily and went off after the others.
Nida looked over at Scott. He thought about asking a few questions, but held back. His curiosity could wait until tomorrow.
He motioned towards the dormitories with his head. "Let's go, I guess."
Scott followed him out of the garage into the commons area. As soon as Scott stepped out into that vast space, he froze, taking it all in.
It was a huge room, a dome shaped structure with branching hallways leading off into the outer rings of the Garden. It was apparent the entire place was concentric rings leading out from each other, the hallways neatly stacking to make a narrowing circle. Nida explained that the large square shaped protrusion on the other side of the Garden was a large auditorium and ball room. Surrounding the central walkway were fountains, which were also spaced in a smaller circle around an elevator shaft which was directly centered in the Garden, looking for all the world like a hollow glass support beam. Halfway to the ceiling was the first stop of the elevator, with branching suspended walkways leading off both sides into the upper portions of the Garden. At the very top built into the roof itself was a large circular space that the elevator shaft ended in, which Nida told him was the headmasters office and quarters and the control station for when the Garden was in motion.
"This thing moves?" Scott asked incredulously, eyeing the sheer size of the place.
Nida smiled, secretly proud to be showing off the Garden. "Indeed it does, thanks to the antigravity ring the can rotate around the bottom. The Garden is actually partially buried in the ground at the moment. There are a lot of passageways and rooms filled with machinery and stuff below us right now."
"But you guys have a ton of water in here. Wouldn't that mess the place up?"
Nida nodded, remembering. "It did when we first moved it. Damn near flooded the lower sections of the Garden, although thank Hyne the library was spared. Now we drain it all before we move."
"Where do we move or where does the water go?"
"Where does the water go?"
"Holding tanks at the bottom of the Garden. There was a bunch of space there that wasn't being used. If we need more speed we can just dump it out while moving."
Scott felt the strong need to explore, but it would have to wait. He followed Nida around the ring and down the hallway into the dormitories. The hallway ended in two stairwells to the left and right. Nida lead him up the right stairwell into the second floor men's dormitories. There wasn't anyone down here either, and Nida explained it was after curfew. After going up one more flight into the third floor they went down about twenty doors when Nida stopped at one.
"This is yours," He said, handed Scott a keycard. "It's a single room for higher rank SeeDs. Most rooms on this floor are doubles and the second floor is all triple bunks."
"What's on the first floor?"
"Like you saw, the first floor doesn't have that many rooms except that few along the entrance hallway, and there are about ten more behind the stairwells. Those are for teachers."
"How many floors are there?"
"Six. They get progressively smaller the higher you go up. The central elevator goes only to floors three and the headmasters office, where Squall has his own freaking penthouse. Not that I'm bitter or anything. Between you and me, it also goes all the way down, but most students don't know that. There are a few other elevators. One in the cafeteria that goes to the classrooms above, one in the library, and a maintenance elevator in the Training Center. No one is allowed to use the maintenance elevator and the library elevator only goes to some conference rooms over head. And only teachers use the one in the cafeteria, to get to their rooms from their breakfast before class. With all the kids here everybody just has to use the stairwells, and the one place we could really use an elevator or two is here in the dormitories, which we don't have."
Scott looked incredulous. Nida laughed at him.
"I know, it's not a very convenient system at all. Especially for such a large structure. But this place was converted into a school. It wasn't even it's original purpose. This whole thing was a mobile shelter built by the Centra."
"I should probably let Quistis or someone handle that question, I'd probably be talking a bunch of crap. Well, have a good night. I'll probably be the one they send to wake you up tomorrow."
With that, he left Scott standing in the dimly lit hallway. Scott realized Nida hadn't told him how to use the keycard. Well, there was only one pad on the door, and said pad had only one slot. There was only so many ways you could stick a rectangular card in a slot. After a few tries, he did it right and the door slid open.
The room was fairly bare. There was a dresser against the wall to his right, a small bathroom to his immediate left, a closet next to that a bit farther down, and against the far wall directly across from him an already made up bed. The bathroom had a shower that couldn't be more than three by three feet square, and a toilet and a sink with a mirrored medicine cabinet over it.
He looked down at himself, still wearing nothing but boxers. He sure was glad that nobody had been out and about in the halls. He opened the dresser. Unfortunately, it was empty. He was about to accept the prospect of spending the next day in his briefs when there was a quiet knock on the door. He fumbled with the pad, before deciding he should probably press the green button that said 'open' beneath it. Good thinking. The door slid aside to reveal Irvine, now clad in his usual gear. He tossed a bundle of clothes to Scott.
"Here," He said, turning to go. "Put those on tomorrow. Considering what those boxers have been through, I suggest you sleep naked if you want to sleep at all."
Scott looked down at the uniform his was now holding. "Right. What time are we getting up tomorrow?"
Irvine shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about it. We've all been through a lot and the debrief can wait. Get up whenever."
He started to leave, then turned back around and smiled at Scott. "Unless, of course, your not planning to sleep. I happen to know several ladies who might be interested in the company of a fine young man like yourself...."
Scott blinked. Was Irvine trying to pimp him out? Maybe he was just joking. Scott was too tired to tell.
Irvine just laughed at his lack of response. "Kidding, man. Just kidding. Your probably wiped anyhow. See you tomorrow."
With that, Irvine walked off down the hallway. Scott did nothing more than key his door shut before he collapsed into bed, and promptly fell asleep. But for others in the Garden, sleep was far from reach.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Selphie found herself wandering the Quad. It was past midnight now, 1:23 by her watch, and the Garden was silent but for the soft background noise of the fountains, and the faint hum of ancient machinery deep beneath her feet.
They had released her from the infirmary half an hour ago. She felt kind of bad that they had to run a late shift just for her. They had been nice about it though, and Quistis had went and picked up some clothes from her dorm. Now she was struggling to see if she could remember any of the mission after she had been shot. She thought she vaguely remembered another tunnel, with that man Scott sitting with Irvine across from her. But besides that, nothing.
Her footfalls echoed softly in the cavernous space of the central dome when she walked up the stairs. She wasn't sure why she was still up, especially after just fully recovering from a gunshot wound. She had just been sitting on the stage, thinking. About things she hadn't had time to think about before. About Irvine. And maybe.. A little about Zell.
She decided she should go back to the dormitories. She wasn't sure if she could sleep, but she should at least give it a try.
She was walking down the hallway to the stairwells when she saw Irvine coming down. He had one of his many guns with him, and all of his gear. Training at this time of night? Apparently she wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep. He stopped when he saw her. A smile spread across his face.
"Look who's up," He said, running over to give her a careful hug, since he knew she was probably still sore. "They give you a clean bill of health?"
"Yeah," She said, not looking at him. He slowly let go, unsure of what to do next. Her attitude puzzled him.
"Irvine," She said, now looking up at him. "We need to talk."
A dreaded sentence. He was about to reply when one of the teacher's dorm doors slid open, revealing one irritated geography professor.
"If you don't mind," He hissed, glaring at the two of them. "Some of us have to teach a class tomorrow."
They just walked away without answering, neither wanting to get into a loud argument and wake up anyone else. Automatically, without talking, they went to the Training Center. They stopped just in front of the double doors. There was an uncomfortably silence before Irvine broke it., fidgeting nervously with his gun.
"I... Guess we haven't talked much lately," He said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Selphie said nothing, waiting for him to continue. What was there to say? Their relationship was like a bridge that had collapsed in the night. There was no sabotage here. Just a lack of maintenance. Irvine opened his mouth, then stopped. Suddenly he grunted in anger and stomped one foot on the ground.
"Hyne, why does this have to be so hard?" He burst out, looking at her. "Selphie, it's obvious we're not.... Together, anymore. I just want to know. Was it my fault?"
"No, Irvine," She said, shaking her head. "No, it's not. It just happened. Don't blame yourself. I don't."
He nodded, not knowing what to say next. This wasn't it, right? If it was, he wasn't going to be the first to walk away. He didn't think it was anyone's fault. They had never really been that serious. She had been his casual girl, it was all fun. So really, it shouldn't be this hard. But it was, because it had always been there in the back of their minds that they would always be together. It was expected. But it didn't happen that way, and now it might destroy the friendship they had too. He couldn't think of a way to tell her this without hurting her. She stepped in closer to him.
"Irvine. We may not be a couple, but I don't want this to break up our friendship. Can we put all this past us? It won't be easy, but maybe if we just tried...."
He smiled in great relief. Of course he could, he still wanted to be friends with her. He had just been worried she couldn't put it behind her.
He laughed, pulling her in for a hug. "Come here you!"
They shared a hug for a few seconds. Irvine broke it off. He sighed, still smiling.
"Well, as far as breakups go, that went well. No slapping, screaming, or kicking."
She giggled, walking back towards the dorms. "See you tomorrow, Irvy!"
"Bye," He said, turning to go into the Training Center, whistling a cheery tune.
Selphie practically skipped back to the commons. She was so happy that she and Irvine had managed to be mature enough not to tear apart their friendship over a relationship that had died peacefully. It wasn't really a breakup at all. Just a mutual realization that they hadn't had anything together but what they had created through expectations. And being with someone just because you always thought you should be wouldn't work. It was good that they had diffused this proverbial bomb before it blew up. With a little time, they would be back to best friends again.
She was circling towards the dormitory hallway when she spotted something extremely odd. There was somebody sitting on a chair on the third floor walkway off the elevator. It looked like... Zell? What in the world was he doing up there?
Having nothing else to do except go to bed, she decided to find out. Traversing the tiled floor and up the stairs, she entered the central elevator and rode it up to the walkway. The doors slid open, and sure enough, there was Zell. He was sitting on a folding chair, leaning halfway back, dressed again in his usual attire. He was holding several packs of Triple Triad cards in his hands, shuffling them. He looked over at her and smiled.
"Sweet, your back up! Feel okay?"
She opened her mouth to reply but was suddenly cut off by a strange moaning noise that seemed to come from nowhere. She started in surprise and looked around, but it was only her and Zell on the balcony. She was even more confused when Zell snorted in laughter, chuckling as he leaned farther back in his chair.
She looked at him, eyes wide. "Two things Zell- What are you doing up here, and what was that?"
Zell shrugged, sinking lower in his chair. "Sometimes I sit up here at night to think. It's a great view, and there's no one around to bother me."
Selphie bit one of her fingernails. Was he mad at her for bothering him? He didn't sound like it. It wasn't really fair of him to think she came up here to bother him, how was she supposed to know? She leaned against the rail across from him.
"Yeah, it's nice up here. What about the noise?"
"Shhh," Zell shushed her, lips spreading in his trademark grin. "Listen for a second and you might be able to tell."
They waited for a few seconds and it came again. Definitely a human moan. Female. But what was.... Ohhhh. Her cheeks reddened in a widening blush as she realized Squall's room was directly above them. She looked up and sure enough, there was a vent. Then Squall and Rinoa were...
Zell started quietly laughing at her, leaning his chair back even farther. She frowned, half in embarrassment and half for Rinoa's sake.
"You shouldn't be up here listening to them!"
Zell contorted his face into a expression that said 'So?'. "I was here first. I didn't come up here just to listen. But it helps pass the time. I'm playing a little game with myself- every time I hear Rinoa, I lean my chair back a little further. I'm trying to see how long it takes before I fall."
He had no sooner finished speaking when a particularly loud moan came drifting down the vent and, sure enough, Zell tipped over with a crash that seemed incredibly loud in the silence. Selphie grabbed his hand, pulling him up and dragging him down the hallway towards the classrooms.
"You are not going to stay there and listen," She scolded, walking quickly. "And what if you woke somebody up with that crash?"
"Oh, come on Selph. Where's your sense of humor, man? 'Sides, we saved the freaking world, I think they can cut us a little slack for being out past curfew."
Out past curfew with Selphie Tilmitt. Out past curfew with Selphie Tilmitt who was holding his hand. Out past curfew with Selphie Tilmitt who was holding his hand and was already taken by one of his best friends.
Play it cool, Dincht. Don't do anything stupid.
"Besides, it's not like anyone's going to think we're making out or something."
My brain doesn't listen to me.
"Unless of course, you want to."
My brain wants me dead.
Selphie was a bit confused. That was a very Irvine flavored line Zell had just delivered. Zell Dincht, who, last time she had checked, blushed when a girl looked at him. Did he go through some type of rapid change in maturity, or was he high? Before she could ask him, he was already apologizing.
"Oh, sorry Selph, I'm just kidding. I don't know where the hell that came from, I'll... Just shut up now."
Selphie said nothing. What was wrong with Zell tonight? This just wasn't like him at all. Staying up late, listening to Squall and Rinoa? The Zell she knew went to bed after exhausting himself in the Training Center, and would have been far too embarrassed to stay on the walkway. Now that she thought about, he had been acting strange for awhile now. Well, he was her friend, and she was going to get to the bottom of it. She knew just where to do it too.
There was a room she had found once, a small one, that was not part of the known Garden structure. She had seen it on some defense plan blueprints of Garden, which she had found on the computer system in the basement. It had been after they had discovered the Garden could move, and Squall had requested that they be printed in case there was anything else important they needed to know.
It was apparently the remnants of some stairwell construction that was never completed, a room built into the ceiling over the third floor classroom hallway. It wasn't anything important that she needed to tell anyone else about, it was empty. The only way to get to it was by releasing one of the light fixtures underneath it and crawling up inside the framework that held the Garden together. If you carefully crossed a series of beams, you could climb up and over into the room which was about ten by seven feet rectangular, with walls about four feet high. Just a small drywall box with no top, sitting there in the beams.
She had only been in it once, right after she had found it in the blueprints. Late at night she had made her way into the ceiling just to see if it was still there. And now it was the perfect place to talk to Zell without getting caught out after curfew.
"Hey," she said, tugging on his arm. "I want to show you something."
Zell's mind jumped to all the obvious male conclusions on what exactly she wanted to show. But figuring there was no way in hell he could be that lucky, he settled on being clueless.
"Come on," Selphie urged, not answering. She led him a bit further down the hallway until they had completely circled the third floor by walking, and back to the place where the walkway met the hallway. She remembered the exact spot well, since it was where she had first met Squall.
Zell was confused further when she stopped and started jumping up towards one of the lights. She stopped and looked at him, judging his height. Zell had hit his growth spurt after fighting Ultimecia and had gained quite a few inches.
"Here," She said, putting her hands on his shoulders. "Give me a boost."
Zell complied, easily hefting her up towards the ceiling. While she fiddled with the light, he spent the time studying her well rounded posterior, which happened to be right by his face.
With clank, the fixture came free, and she pushed it up into the hole it had come from, sliding it back out of the way. She looked down at Zell to tell him to let her down, and saw him doing what could only be described as staring at her rear end. He gave a start when he realized she was looking at him, eyes wide. Unable to quickly think of a way to cover, he just lowered her back down to the floor, averting his gaze.
Selphie wasn't really sure what to think. Was Zell just checking out my ass? Sure, she was attracted to him, but it was hard to think of Zell thinking that way. It just didn't seem like him. Still, did this mean that he liked her that way too? Immediately she tried to push that thought to the back of her mind. Jumping to conclusions wasn't the good thing to do here. He was a guy after all, so in the end it was probably just the natural instinct. She knew he probably hadn't even been thinking about it. One ass checking out does not a love make.
She jumped up again, pulling her self up and over into the ceiling. Zell just followed without asking questions. Going up into the ceiling in the middle of the night was weird, but it was with Selphie, so he wasn't complaining. Once he was in, Selphie slid the light back into place.
Zell had figured it would be pitch black, but instead he could see just fine. The lights in the lengths of the hallway gave off their dim glow up here too. The fixtures weren't covered on the top. During the day, they would be even brighter.
He followed her along the beam, one foot in front of the other. He wondered, if he fell, would he fall through the ceiling back into the hall? Best not to find out.
It was only a few yards before Selphie lowered herself down into something he couldn't see yet, since it was below his line of sight. When he came closer, he found himself looking down into the box, surprise stamped across his features. What the hell is this?
He hopped down into the box, his impact making a louder noise than he expected, echoing through the rafters and sending vibrations through the floor. He winced, looking apologetically over at Selphie. She just sat down, patting the floor indicating that he should too. Warily, he complied, not at all sure what was happening.
"Zell, we've all been a little worried about you," Selphie began, figuring 'we' would be safer than 'I'. "You just haven't been yourself lately."
Oh, so that was it. This was a therapy session for Zell, the only one in the group who just couldn't be normal, just couldn't get a girlfriend or be happy all the time. Well, who was she to talk?
"Me?" Zell demanded. "What about you? What's been up with you?"
"This isn't about me," She stammered.
Oh, yes it is. "I don't see how it's any of your business."
"Zell, why won't you let me help you? You should have asked me, or any of us for help if you need it."
Because asking you for help would be asking you out. "Maybe I don't need help."
"And maybe you do Zell!" She said, anger coming through for the first time.
Zell jumped to his feet, pacing back and forth. He couldn't sit still when he was like this. Should he just tell her? Why even bother, when she was with Irvine. Selphie watched him in silence, waiting for him to say something or sit down. He sat down.
Zell was not the kind of guy who could really hide his feelings, it was obvious that something was eating at him. She repressed a sigh of exasperation. They had always been close, and if he couldn't talk to her, she didn't know who he could talk to.
"Zell, please," She pleaded. "I just want to help."
He looked up in anger, but when his eyes met her crystal green ones, he just couldn't say no any longer. He knew there was no way he could get up the self-confidence to tell her that he wanted to be with her, but he could try to explain that it was his love life, or lack of it, that was getting him down. No doubt this would only result in her fixing him up with some of her unattached friends or whoever else she could lampoon into going out with him. Here goes nothing...
"It's just," He tried to start, struggling with the words.
"You know, it's... Well, Squall is with Rinoa, obviously...."
'Your in love with Rinoa?"
"No! Hyne, it's just you have Irvine and I have no-"
"Me and Irvine broke up."
"You see? That's exactly what I'm- What?"
"Me and Irvine broke up."
Zell felt something that could only be likened to a brick impacting somewhere in his mid torso. Selphie and Irvine.. Broke up? When? How? Why? Who cares Dincht, this is your chance, before some other guy snags her! As if. Ironically, now that she actually was free, he was even more nervous. Before when she was with Irvine at least he couldn't tell her because Irvine was his friend. Now, she was unattached, and sitting up in the ceiling alone with him in the middle of the night. Be careful what you wish for. Zell might have been comforted if he had known that during his entire train of thought, his face, for once in his life, actually betrayed nothing.
Selphie, for her part, was trying to read into Zell's reaction, with no success. Rather shocking, since usually Zell was an open book to the world. He was thinking hard about something. Well, so was she. She had come up here to help Zell with his problems. Alone with him, she had made a realization. She wanted to be with Zell Dincht. She loved his hair, his eyes, the way he moved, his strange obsession with hotdogs, the way he smiled, his exuberance, his firmly muscled body....... Which brought up another question- did he feel the same way? At all? Was he even attracted to her?
Selphie had never been much of a tease, but she was definitely a woman, and there was only one way to find out. Keeping silent under the pretense of not wanting to disturb his thinking, she innocently shifted her position on the floor, allowing her dress to ride up to expose few more good inches of thigh. She was immediately rewarded with a slight blush suffusing Zell's cheeks. That was the Zell she knew. But it still didn't answer her question. So he was embarrassed. But did he want more? Again, there was only one way to find out.
She suddenly stood up and walked the few feet between them, slumping down next to him. She felt him stiffen at the closeness. So far, so good.
"What are you thinking?" She asked him, looking down at the floor. She rubbed her hand across the floor as if idly feeling the texture, her hand 'accidentally' brushing his several times.
Zell figured now was not a time for honesty, since if he voiced his thoughts at this particular moment it would result in a restraining order. "Nothing."
"Mm." She hummed noncommittally. Then she took the big jump. She leaned her head back as if staring at the ceiling, resting it against the wall, looking straight up. Giving Zell a clear line of sight down her shirt front. Booby trap.
For Zell, it proved to be too much to resist. She let about two seconds pass before she jerked her head up and found him rapturously taking in the view. He gave a sudden start when he realized she was looking right at his face. His eyes met hers, filled with guilt and apprehension at the immediate backlash he knew was coming.
Instead, she took the final plunge. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him.
The second her soft lips touched his Zell lost all orientation. He wasn't sure who he was, where he was, or why he was there, but he knew one thing- Selphie Tilmitt was kissing him, and unless he was mistaken, he had just felt a bit of tongue.
Selphie broke the kiss, looking at him, gauging his reaction. She had felt it, that magnetism, that spark between him. She could see it in his eyes now, and knew without a doubt that he felt the same way. She also knew what would come next.
Zell immediately tried to apologize, even though she had clearly initiated the kiss. "Selph, I'm-"
She silenced him again.
When they pulled back for the second time, Zell shook his head a little and took a deep breath.
"Uh, I guess then... Want to be my girlfriend, Sephie?"
She giggled at him, the sweet sound suffusing his senses, and answered him the best way possible.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"We would all find out later that Seifer was under the Sorceress's control during the thing. I can't imagine what he went through, remembering doing all those terrible things and not being able to stop. While eventually we all forgave him, I don' t think Quistis ever needed to."
-Irvine Kinneas, The SeeD and the Sorceress
Rinoa rolled over in the bed, squinting as the bright sunlight streaming through the blinds hit her still closed eyes. She yawned, stretching her arms out as far to the sides as they would go. Squall was gone, as she had known he would be. Probably just over in his office, taking care of morning business as usual. Through the walls she could hear a humming reverberation as Xu made some early announcement, most likely something concerning the cafeteria, and the faint chatter of students early to rise. Just another day in Balamb Garden. With Ultimecia defeated, the purpose for which the Gardens had been created had become obsolete, and slowly but surely the Gardens were shifting more and more towards becoming nothing more than advanced private schools. It was expected that in a matter of years Garden would no longer train new SeeDs, and the number of mercenary contracts that were accepted would dwindle off into nothing, no doubt causing the creation of a hefty tuition fee. For the moment however, a generation of fighting SeeDs was still housed in the Garden, and the art of combat was still taught in it's gilded halls.
Rinoa showered and dressed, brushing her hair to until it held it's usual silky sheen. Today was a day off for her, so she didn't have to worry about classes. Crossing the carpet she slid open the door that led directly into the adjacent commanders office. Squall was intent upon something or the other, alternating between scribbling furiously and peering into the glowing screen before him. She smiled. He looked so cute when he was concentrating. Coming up behind him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on the top of his head.
"Good morning," She said, leaning against him.
Yes. Only Squall Leonhart could respond to a cheerful 'good morning' with a yes. Still, at least he had said something.
"Whatcha working on?"
He absently scratched at his scar. "Deling. Can't find out who's in control."
He shook his head, scrolling more text down the screen. With a little quick skimming Rinoa could see that it was a report from Galbadia Garden. Apparently they had yet to receive any word from the recent conquerors. It had been a smart move for Squall to contact them immediately. In the advent of hostility from the new rulers of Galbadia, it was important to remind Galbadia Garden exactly where it's loyalties lay. It may have been built in Galbadia, but it was first and foremost a Garden.
Rinoa knew he would be behind the desk for at least another hour. She however, was hungry.
"I'm going down to the cafeteria," She said, walking towards the door. "Do you want anything?"
"Ate already," Squall mumbled, still staring at the screen. He gave a slight start when he realized he should probably be a little more polite to his love. "Thanks."
Rinoa smiled to herself on the way out. He was improving.
The cafeteria was half full when she reached it. For a school cafeteria, it actually wasn't that loud. Breakfast was usually fairly subdued as the students tried to wake up, it wasn't until lunch that things became raucous. She ordered a bagel and cream cheese, opting to take it back upstairs rather than eat at one of the tables.
On her way back to the elevator, she noticed Quistis taking roll call outside the Training Center. Another 'field trip' for the younger students to train up on Grats. Other than a small bandage adorning the side of her head, Quistis looked fine. Rinoa waved, walking up the stairs and Quistis smiled and nodded back. After all Quistis had been through over the last couple days Rinoa had thought Cid would have offered her the day off to rest and recuperate. Of course, knowing Cid, he had, and knowing Quistis, she declined.
When she returned to the office Squall was still behind the desk, but instead of studying the screen he was shuffling papers, digging around in the contents of one of his many filing cabinets. Someday he would take the time to get it all computerized, but for now he was forced to flip through a filing system that became more random with each passing day. His frustration was apparent.
Rinoa sat on the edge of his desk, munching on her bagel while he continued to dig through files, his motions becoming increasingly fierce. He was about five seconds away from putting his boot through the cabinet when he found what he was looking for, a manila folder containing reports on known Galbadian revolutionaries. Rinoa finished her bagel and cleared her throat. Squall looked up at her.
"What did you say that man's name was again? Scott?"
"I think," She said, hesitating. "That me and him should talk. Where is he?"
Squall paused, sliding his chair over to the computer screen and keying in a query. The information scrolled onto the screen. "Room 63." He looked at her, concern apparent in his eyes. "Will you be okay?"
She nodded, twisting a strand of ebony hair in her fingers. "I can't sense him unless I'm trying. I just want to get the story straight from him, and maybe I can understand what's happening."
Squall doubted anyone could ever completely understand the present circumstances, but it was worth a try to see if Rinoa and Scott could fix whatever was causing her mental blackout. In regards to sending Scott home, he had already sent an inquiry to Esthar concerning Odine. He expected a call from Laguna within the next few days, a prospect he was not looking forward to. He never knew what to say to the man. How do you talk to the father who never knew you?
Rinoa left the office, crossing the commons and climbing the stairs to the men's dormitories. 45, 59, 61, and 63. She looked behind her at the digital wall clock that was omnipresent in all the dorms. 8:46. Worth a shot. She keyed the doorcom buzzer.
Scott was woken by a harsh buzzing noise that emanated from the wall somewhere to his left. What the hell was that? It took him a moment to remember where he was, gazing blearily at the unfamiliar room. The loud buzzing permeated the room again, and he pushed himself up to his feet. Stumbling over to the doorcom, he stared at it for a second before remembering which button to press, the door slid open to reveal... Nobody I recognize.
Rinoa studied the stranger's face. Shaggy dark blond hair hung in his eyes, stubble adorned his chin and there were several large bruises on his body. He didn't look like he was in good shape at the moment, but Rinoa could see that cleaned up he would cut a swathe through the Garden's female population. In fact, what struck her the most was the passing resemblance to Seifer. Nobody would mistake him for the Knight, but it was there.
Scott crossed his arms over his chest uncomfortably, suddenly aware of his state of undress. The women before him was examining him, making him feel more uncomfortable. He cleared his throat. "Uh yes.... ma'am?"
"Your Scott Keyor?"
"Yeah, that's me."
Not much like Seifer at all. This guy actually seemed a little reserved.
This cleared a few things up for him. She was the only one who didn't know everything about his situation. She was a sorceress. She didn't look any different than anybody else. Well there you go. You met a Sorceress, something to talk about at the bar.
"I see. Nice to meet you."
He almost winced. Good job. You met a Sorceress and came off as an asshole.
Rinoa almost smiled. He seemed nervous. One of the others must of had told him about her. There were a few experiments she wanted to do, but she wanted everybody else to be there in case something went wrong. At the moment, she had just wanted to meet him face to face and see if there was some sort of reaction. He shifted on his feet, speaking again.
"I suppose you want me to tell a little about myself...."
Rinoa did smile this time. "Okay. Do you want to get dressed first?"
Scott gave a little jump when he once again realized he was still in his boxers. "Right, right. Um, you can come in. Well, I mean of course you can, it's your Garden or whatever.... I'll go change."
He went into the bathroom, leaving the room door open so she could come in. There was some rustling from behind the door to the bathroom before it slid open and Scott stepped out, now attired in casual SeeD uniform. It was a bit tight around the collar, but it fit well enough. Rinoa sat on the edge of his bed, it being the only seat the room had to offer. Scott leaned against the wall. He blew out a breath, running a hand through his hair.
"Well, it all starts a couple years back."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Nida was first and foremost the Garden's pilot, more qualified than anyone else who lived under it's roof to steer the ponderous vessel when in motion. At the moment however, the Garden was dry docked, so he was relegated to what he felt were lesser tasks. Sometimes these involved things like filing papers or the occasional mission, or maybe even library duty, which he didn't mind much anymore since he could hit on the attractive female staff. More often, they involved things like starting up the coffee machine on the command bridge. This particular morning, he had the chore of finding Zell Dincht and Selphie Tilmitt, who were missing. Squall wanted to put together a meeting of some sort that required their presence, so he had called upon the closest available SeeD to do the job. Nida, filling the coffee machine.
So far he had stopped by their respective dorms, the Training Center, the secret area in the Training Center, the Cafeteria, the Library, the Quad, the Garage, and even the Infirmary. Now he was roaming the upper level classroom halls for some sign of them, with absolutely no success. Please Hyne, don't let them be in the MD Level.
He was strolling down some random hall when a light fixture above him popped loose, dangling slightly out of it's position. He frowned. Some days it seemed like this place was coming apart. He jumped up, trying to push it back into place, but couldn't reach. Well, he didn't have the rank of Level 28 SeeD for nothing. Backing up slightly, he went into a running start, jumped off of the wall and with a tremendous 'Hi-ya!', took out his frustrations on the fixture by kicking it back into place.
"AAAAGH! FUCK! MY FUCKING FINGERS!"
The ceiling shook as more violent cursing echoed down, immediately following which a steaming mad Zell Dincht jumped through the hole where the light used to be, cradling his battered hand to his chest and threatening Nida with the other.
"Oh Hyne! What the hell man, you 'bout took my fucking fingers off!"
Nida held out his hands, trying to placate him. "Now, lets not be hasty here. How was I supposed to know you'd be up in the ceiling?"
Zell's glare softened somewhat as the logic of this sunk in. He snorted, backing off a little. "Yeah whatever. Just next time, don't be kicking no more lights until your sure somebody's not holding it, alright?"
Nida was pretty sure he wouldn't be in another situation like this. "Right, right. It's cool."
By this time Selphie had lowered herself down too, coming up behind Zell. "Let me see those fingers."
Zell them out towards her, the ring of skin around his knuckles already turning a dark purple.
"Cura!" Selphie said, the magic sending glowing sparks around Zell's hand. The purple receded, leaving only a faint yellow tinge to the skin. "There we go, all better!"
Zell smiled and kissed her, and they went off down the hallway hand in hand. Nida stood there, now by himself. Zell and Selphie, kissing? Up in the ceiling all night? Holding hands? What the hell? He was sure nobody would bother to explain anything to him. He sighed, looking up at the light fixture, still swinging free. He might as well put it back into place before someone told him to.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
They were all gathered in Squall's office, sitting on various chairs and couches. Zell and Selphie sat together on a couch by the door. Everyone was looking at them askance, not quite sure what to make of it. Irvine was fairly uncomfortable. Sure, she wasn't his girlfriend anymore, but it would take some getting used to seeing her with someone else, especially Zell. Squall surprised himself by not being surprised. His only thought upon seeing the two together was, It's about time. Rinoa was rubbing off on him more than he had thought. Quistis didn't know what to make of it, and Scott never knew anything anymore.
Squall kicked it off by nodding to Quistis, letting her do the talking as per usual.
"Scott," She began. "Why don't you go over your story again, just so everything is fresh in our minds."
So, taking a deep breath and thinking about how much he was sick of telling his story, he launched into it again. It was a rather long story, and this time he added even more detail, in case there was an important piece he had missed telling the previous times. It was almost noon by the time he had finished and everyone had asked whatever questions were on their minds. Again, he omitted the part about Final Fantasy 8.
Quistis had one more question. "So nobody else came through the portal? There weren't any other experiments?"
Scott shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know. The portal collapsed behind me, and I used to think that was the only one, but now... I realize there could have been more. I don't know though, the whole operation seemed like a first time thing to me, they were winging a lot of it."
"And you still went through the portal?" Irvine asked incredulously.
"They paid me a lot of money."
"Must have been."
Zell raised his hand. Everyone looked at him, and he put it down sheepishly. "Uh, do you have hotdogs where you come from?"
Squall put a hand to his forehead, Selphie and Rinoa giggled, Irvine laughed and Quistis rolled her eyes. Scott didn't get the joke any further than that it was a strange thing to ask about.
"Yeah, we've got those." Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener....
Quistis looked to the clock on Squall's wall. "Speaking of which, I think we should adjourn for now and go to lunch."
"Right on!" Zell exclaimed, jumping to his feet. He was out the door with Selphie before Squall actually said it was okay. Squall shook his head, getting up.
"Adjourned for now."
Rinoa and Squall were the last to leave the office, tagging along behind Irvine and Quistis who were discussing something or the other. Scott was already out of sight, probably trying to catch up to Zell and Selphie so he could find the cafeteria. Rinoa slipped her hand into his, giving it a squeeze. Squall still felt a little uncomfortable with public displays of affection, but it wasn't worth it to remove his hand. Anyway, he figured he better get used to it.
The cafeteria was becoming crowded by the time they reached it, but their usual table was empty. Officially speaking it wasn't actually reserved, but nobody was going to steal the table of those particular SeeDs. It might be unhealthy.
By the time Squall and Rinoa sat down, Zell and Selphie already had their food and had made room for Scott on the end. Irvine was just sitting down and Quistis was at the front of the line after several of the Trepies had let her cut. As Commander, Squall probably didn't have to bother waiting in line, but he did anyway. Rinoa turned to him.
"You can go sit down," She said, smiling brightly. "I'll get our food today. I think it's my turn anyway."
Squall's eyes narrowed, attempting to detect subterfuge. Usually she would dodge her line-standing turn. Detecting none, he shrugged and sat down. Rinoa smiled to herself. She was buttering him up so he'd be more amenable to getting of work earlier to spend the evening with her.
Slowly but surely, the line moved forward and she soon found herself at the front ordering the usual. While waiting for her order to be processed, she moved to the side of the line and bumped into a friend she had made in one of her classes, Michelle Tranell. She was obviously excited about something.
"Rinoa!" She squealed, waving her hands around. "Why haven't you introduced me to the hottie?"
"Tall blonde and handsome, over at your table. Who is he?"
"Oh, you mean Scott. He's.... From Galbadia Garden, a transfer."
Oops. Scott probably didn't know enough about the Gardens to accurately fake being a transfer student. But the way Michelle was checking him out, asking questions was the last thing on her mind.
"Well, aren't you going to introduce me? Oh my Hyne, I bet he has a girlfriend doesn't he?"
She didn't know enough about Scott to know whether or not he would want the attention. Did he have a girlfriend?
"Hold on," Rinoa said. "Let me see if I can set you up."
She walked over to the table, sitting down and pretending to wait for her order. She turned to Scott.
"Scott," She started. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
He frowned at her. The way she said it it was clear she wasn't hitting on him, and with Squall right there he didn't want her to. "Uh, no."
"Oh. Just trying to get to know you better."
She stood up again, walking back over to the counter. "He doesn't have a girlfriend."
"He's married isn't he?"
"Oh Hyne. He's gay, right?"
"What in the world makes you think that?" Rinoa said, staring at Michelle.
"Oh come on Rinoa. He's gorgeous. And he's not married or taken, so he must be gay."
"Your just making that up."
Rinoa sighed. "No, I don't want to bet. If you want to talk to him, just do it."
"I can't just go up to him! Introduce me."
"I need to wait for my food, hold on."
Her food arrived shortly, and she carried the steaming tray back over to the table with Michelle in tow. She took her seat next to Squall, and Michelle sat next to her, facing Scott. Rinoa put Squall's food in front of him, then leaned over the table so Scott could hear her.
"This is a friend of mine, Michelle." Rinoa said, trying to modulate her voice enough to be heard over the dull roar of the cafeteria. "Michelle, this is Scott Keyor, from Galbadia Garden." Scott shot her a look which she apologetically returned.
Michelle turned on the charm, flashing him her best smile, pleased to notice that it had an effect on Scott after all. He hesitantly smiled back, averting his eyes. He had never been good with women. The military didn't leave much time for personal life.
Rinoa spent most of the rest of lunch focused on Squall, occasionally turning her attention to Michelle's shameless flirting. She plied Scott with all the usual questions about age and whether or not he liked it at Balamb Garden. So far there hadn't been any questions about Galbadia Garden, and Scott steered the conversation from such subjects by asking questions about her. Really, he just wanted her to go away. She was trying really hard to get him to like her, and she seemed nice enough, but the joke was on her- he wasn't going to be around long enough to get into any sort of relationship. Or is that joke on me?
After about ten minutes, Rinoa took pity on him. She leaned over to Squall and whispered something in his ear. He looked at her quizzically, one eyebrow raised.
Please, She mouthed.
He rolled his eyes and set his fork down. Clearing his throat, he turned to Michelle and Scott.
"Keyor," He said, getting Scott's attention. "We have some matters to discuss." He looked pointedly at Michelle. She took the hint, and left with a small smile and a 'See you later.'. Scott breathed a sigh of relief, giving Squall a look of thanks. He shrugged and indicated Rinoa with his head, going back to eating. Rinoa grinned at him, cocking her head to the side.
"Well," She asked impishly. "What do you think of her?"
Scott put his head on his arms, already full. "She's nice enough I guess, but I don't think a long distance relationship would be possible over dimensions."
Zell stopped stuffing his face with hotdogs long enough to break into the conversation. "Hey, that's too bad man, since half the chicks in here are checking you out."
Scott raised his head to verify this. Sure enough, wherever his gaze traversed female heads quickly swiveled away, while the braver ones stared back at him, giggling amongst themselves. He sighed. If only this was happening back at home. Then he could... Could what? He knew he was fooling himself if he thought he would take advantage of their attraction to him even if he was in familiar settings. There was no way he could ever work up the self-confidence to ask any of them out. Lousy brain. Cramping my style.
Well, at least the food had been pretty good. By this time, everyone had finished but Zell, and were talking about whatever. He just listened since he didn't know enough about anything to converse. Rinoa was talking to Selphie about her sudden relationship with Zell.
"So when did this happen?" Rinoa asked, eyeing the couple. "It's only been a few days since I last saw you, and Zell was just your friend."
Selphie giggled, giving Zell's hand a squeeze. "Just last night, but it's been a long time in coming. We just didn't realize it sooner."
Rinoa leaned in conspiratorially. "So what, you guys were in the secret area?"
Selphie put on an arch expression, leaning back. "Oh, I have my own secret area. And I'm not telling!"
"You guys were alone all night?"
"Oh, it wasn't like that! We didn't... You know..."
Rinoa's smile widened, and Selphie became more flustered. "Oh really? You didn't, huh?"
Selphie narrowed her eyes. "No, but I know a certain Sorceress who was with a certain Commander last night, and I could hear you downstairs doing a certain-"
"Okay! Okay!" Rinoa gasped, putting her hand over Selphie's mouth. "Let's talk about something else."
Scott didn't want to know. Zell was too full to talk, and from the look Squall was giving a grinning Irvine, their conversation had run along the same lines as Rinoa and Selphie's. This was very nice of them and all to include him, but he was more interested in knowing exactly how he could go home, and socializing at lunch wasn't getting him any closer to his goal. Putting his head back down on his arms, he closed his eyes and tried to doze away the remaining time.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The man had been found in during a bit of browsing Hendrow had been doing through some random government files, trying to familiarize himself with the state of the country. The name had jumped out at him from the paper, instantly recognizable. He had brought it to Julian's attention immediately.
The files eventually led them to his present whereabouts, a prisoner in the D-District facility. Besides his name and location, nothing else had been found. Everything about the man in the public databases had been erased at some point. There was no doubt in Hendrow's mind that this man had been left to rot. But he was useful to them for what he might know, and Julian had plans that required that knowledge. It was in this fashion, handcuffed and chained, that Seifer Almasy was brought before the desk of Julian Foss.
The man before Julian was not the arrogant young SeeD trainee that the game and book had portrayed. The man before him was a broken man, dressed in the pitiful remains of a trenchcoat, unshaven, undernourished, with only a faint spark in his eye to show that he had any spirit left in him. This was a man who might be desperate enough for freedom to give Julian what he wanted.
Seifer was unsure what to make of his situation. He had fully expected to die in the prison, killed in some minor riot or executed at some officer's whim. Now he was brought before a man he had never seen before sitting in what had been the office of the former ruler of Galbadia. Seifer glared at him, hoping to take some pleasure in intimidating another weak-chinned politician. To his surprise, the man stared fearlessly back with a quiet yet cold gaze of his own. Fire and ice.
"Seifer Almasy," Julian began. "Former resident of Balamb Garden, SeeD in training.... Sorceress Knight..."
"Oh, thanks," Seifer snarled. "'Cause, see, I had forgotten who I was for some reason and I needed you to tell me. Who the fuck are you and what the fuck do you want?"
"Temper, Mr. Almasy, will get you nowhere. I brought you here because I wanted to meet you, to make the acquaintance of a man who has affected the course of this world so much. And because I would like to ask a favor of you. A favor that I could return....."
Seifer was becoming angrier. This soft-spoken fat bastard dragged him out here in chains, and then expected a favor from him? "Listen you fat fuck, I can't imagine why the hell you think I owe you anything since you bastards threw me into jail without a trial. 'Oh, thanks so much for the prison term, I love getting butt-fucked in the shower while the warden takes pictures.' Who the hell do you think you are?!"
"Mr. Almasy, I had nothing to do with your incarceration. I think you misunderstand my intentions. I am trying to help you."
"Because you can help me."
"And what do I get out of it?"
As Julian had suspected, Seifer calmed down, now assessing his opponent with more intelligence. He wanted to be free, and badly.
"What do you want?"
Julian smiled, motioning for Hendrow to pull up a chair. Seifer sat down, the guards coming in further to stand behind it. Julian leaned forward slightly, tenting his hands. "I am... New, to this area. There are many things I would like to know, and especially would like to know about the Gardens. I'll cut to the point. You tell me about Balamb Garden, and I let you walk."
Seifer laughed incredulously. "What, that's it? The terms of service? Let's assume I actually tell you shit. Why do you want to know about Balamb?"
"Firstly, what I will do with the information is my business. Secondly, perhaps I was not entirely forthcoming about your, 'terms of service'. After I let you go, you will deliver something to Balamb Garden for me."
"After I'm free, what the hell makes you think I'll go where you want me to?"
"You will go to Balamb Garden whether I told you to or not, because you have no place else to go."
Seifer was silent as the truth of this hit him. Julian continued.
"After you leave the country, you will not be welcome back here. Right now, only I know of your presence. If the Galbadian people find out, they will want you dead."
"Your not Galbadian." It wasn't a question.
Julian did not reply. "What will it be?"
"Why do you want me to go to Balamb Garden after I'm free? What am I going to deliver, a fucking box of chocolates?"
Julian bent down and with both hands lifted an object up onto the desk. It took Seifer a minute to realize what it was. Lionheart. Squall's ultimate gunblade. The implication of this struck him like a hammer. He could feel his mouth drop open, but he didn't care. Squall was dead. He didn't know how to deal with the emotions that surged through him. Shouldn't he be happy? He had never liked Squall. But... They had grown up together. He had been a rival, worthy competition. He could have been a friend. Julian gestured for Hendrow to move aside, revealing the assortment of items that were lying on the floor behind him. Selphie's nunchukas, Zell's gloves, Irvine's shotgun, and Quistis's whip. It hit him harder than he could ever have imagined. They had been enemies, but before that they had been comrades and family, they had been something more. He didn't know, but whatever it was, it sent a crippling sadness through him, quickly followed by his body's only defense against such emotion- white-hot rage.
"YOU SON OF A BITCH! I'll kill you, I'LL KILL YOU!" Seifer screamed, leaping forward out of the chair, hands outstretched to throttle the life out of the focus of his anger. The guards quickly pulled the chains taught, yanking him back into the chair and sending it falling over backwards. One of the guards kicked him in the ribs, forcing the breath out of his lungs as the other pointed a gun at his head, foot on his throat. Hendrow had jumped back in alarm, but Julian hadn't flinched.
"Please Mr. Almasy. Calm yourself."
The guards flipped the chair back up and forced him to sit in it, gun still to his head. He was shaking with rage, his eyes full of seething hate, glaring at Julian. Julian was not perturbed. He gazed calmly back, waiting for Seifer to settle.
"Mr. Almasy, I had nothing to do with whatever fate befell the SeeDs. Now, your freedom is at stake here. Control your outbursts and make yourself useful, and you will be in Balamb by tomorrow. I'll even throw in your weapon as a bonus. You'll need to do a little cleanup I'm afraid, it's been sitting in a rather damp basement."
Seifer wanted to spit in his face. But he also didn't want to go back and die in prison.
I'll give him his plans.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Three hours later, Seifer found himself on the outskirts of Deling, the assorted weapons and clothing in a sack over his shoulder. He threw back his head and laughed, picking up the pace to get away. He had given Julian a detailed and complete idea of the floor by floor structure... Of Trabia Garden. Now he just had to leave in case anyone found out. And then... He would go to Balamb. Because they would have wanted it this way.
Julian and Hendrow watched the figure recede out into the plains from the top of the wall. Hendrow frowned. Julian was usually a master tactician, but his reasoning escaped him this time.
"Julian... I don't quite understand. Why did we let him go? We're not really going to trust his information?"
Julian narrowed his eyes in the glare of the setting sun. "No... No of course not. This is simply the opening move in our game, my introduction if you will. They know nothing of me, and I send them their weapons and Almasy. Let us see what they make of this. After all, we are not yet at war with Garden. We have more important things to worry about on the home front at the moment. And a little kindness in the beginning will throw off your enemy when it's time to strike. Don't attack before you've reason to."
Julian turned to go back down, stopping to survey the city. Hendrow took the moment to also enjoy the view.
"Now come Michael. I would like to see what sort of television they watch in Deling."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"Whenever I think about Garden, it always strikes me as odd that such an installation could be accepted at face value. But we did. A gigantic school founded for the single purpose of molding young children into mercenaries. It turned out to be a facade, but what does it say about a world that never questioned such a thing?"
-Quistis Trepe, What's Hyne Got To Do With It?
Like the night that had come before, Balamb Garden was sleeping, the faint gurgle and deep hum always present in the great structure the only noise. But unlike the previous night, Scott Keyor was the one who roamed about the tiled floors like a ghost, a sleepless soul in search of nothing.
He had been unable to sleep. The meeting that evening had not given him much to hope for. It had been made apparent that no one present could help him achieve his goal of returning back to his native dimension. The others repeatedly referred to a 'Odine' who was the most likely person to be able to help him, but he resided in another country and they had yet to reach him.
He wasn't sure what time it was. He hadn't looked at a clock since he had left his room what felt like hours before. He sighed. There was no point in wearing down his shoes for no reason, he should at least try to sleep again. Still, he had to admit that there was something strangely comforting about the Garden at night, a sense of security that felt strange in a large dimly light room that should have been creepy.
He slowly made his way back to the staircases, pausing by one of the fountains to look down into it, watching the bubbles rise to the surface. He couldn't get over how fancy this place was for a military academy. When he reached the stairs, he stopped, hidden in the shadows when he saw someone else coming down the girls dormitory steps. His nerves kicked in. What if it was a teacher? Would they bust his ass for being out past curfew, or would it not matter since he wasn't a student?
It all became a moot point when the shadowy figure in question turned out to be Selphie. She moved quietly and with extreme stealth, obviously utilizing her training. She disappeared up the staircase into the men's dormitories. Scott figured he knew exactly where she was going, and it wasn't any of his business. He was relaxing a little bit when yet another unknown came out of the shadows to his right. He gave a tremendous start, barely stifling a yelp. He saw the other person do the same. It was Nida.
"Holy shit," Nida gasped, leaning against the wall. "You just about killed me. What the hell are you doing up?"
"I could ask you the same."
Nida shrugged, pushing himself back up. "Hey, I'm legit. I was over fixing one of the Training Center doors. Some wise ass stuck a bunch of sticky tack in the lock."
Scott decided he knew Nida enough by now not to be tactful. "I thought you were a SeeD. What's with the janitorial work?"
Nida shrugged again. "I have no idea. This stuff just always seems to fall to me. Squall hands off these odd jobs, usually while staring at some stack of papers, and of course I'm the only guy near by not conspicuously doing something important." He sighed. "If I'm not piloting, I'm being ignored. I've learned to live with it."
Scott knew the feeling. He had been a late bloomer in High School, one of the scrawny little kids who always ended getting seated next to the teachers desk and was told to run papers to the office. He had graduated in three years, all of them spent in obscurity. He hadn't been picked on, but he hadn't made any friends either.
"Hey, that sucks man."
"It's not so bad. I still get sent on missions sometimes, and I'm lucky to count Squall and the rest of them as my friends. Between you and me, it really helps my status with the ladies. Before I really was totally ignored, now at least I can bask in their reflected glory."
Scott laughed, cutting it off when he realized where he was, sending a darting glance towards the closed dorm doors closest to them. Nothing moved. He sighed in relief, turning back to Nida.
"That's cool. I suppose being the friend of heroes would get you some female attention."
"Your not so bad yourself, I saw all the looks you were getting in the Cafeteria today."
"Well, I can't really get involved."
Nida looked at him thoughtfully, reminded that he had never heard the full story on Scott. He filed it away once more for another time. "That's too bad, since this is the place to get involved in."
Scott nodded in complete agreement. "No kidding man. I haven't seen an unattractive girl here yet. It's amazing."
Nida smiled, raising his eyebrows. "That's what's great about living in a school that emphasizes on combat. No fat chicks."
Scott snorted, covering his mouth with his arm to keep from making noise. "Amen."
With that, they went upstairs together, quietly cracking jokes. They split up on the second floor, Nida's dorm being on the fourth. Scott keyed open his door and lay down in bed, finally succumbing to sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Morning dawned on the Garden, the sun dispelling the shadows of the night before. It seeped through the blinds of Quistis's room, falling softly on her luminous features. The Garden had once housed morning bells, now a thing of the past after it's sudden transformation. They had been broken in the collision with Fisherman's Horizon, and now lay gathering dust in some storage room deep in the MD level. As such, she could no longer rely on the bells to wake her and had to resort to the crude screech of a digital alarm clock. It emitted said screech at precisely 6:15, which was fast approaching.
The alarm was superfluous since she was already awake, having been so for several minutes.
Another day at Garden. Another class to teach. More tests to grade, more students to send to detention. Another meaningless day at Garden.
This was why she wanted to go on missions, because it was so much easier to believe her life meant something when she was doing something important. When she was making a difference. When she was too concentrated on completing the objective at hand to think about her life. She hated being alone like this in her room, hated the self-pitying thoughts that sprang unbidden in her mind. Get up and do something Quistis. People will be counting on you today.
She needed a vacation, she needed a different job, a different existence, a different life. She didn't know what she needed. Well, whatever it was, she wasn't going to find it laying in bed.
While Quistis prepared for the morning ahead, someone else not too far away did the same under very different circumstances. Seifer had been on the boat most of the previous day, and now he faced the task of lugging his load the rest of the way on foot. He could see the Garden in the distance, the just risen sun giving the dome a glittery sheen. There was no way he could just walk in the front entrance, too many people would know who he was. In fact, now that he was almost near his destination, he realized he had no idea how to go about doing what he was about to do. It would be of the utmost idiocy to waltz in carrying the weapons of the dead commander and his friends. They could and probably would blame him anyway, the last thing he needed to do was to provide evidence. The only people who wouldn't attempt to kill him on sight were Cid and Edea. Top floor, the three windows near the peak if he remembered correctly. He would have to wait for nightfall. But then again, if he broke into their room in the dark, it would look even worse. He would have to somehow scale the side of the Garden unseen in the middle of the day, carrying several hundred pounds in equipment up the almost sheer walls, and then break through the bulletproof windows into Cid's office without making too much noise. Seifer looked at the Garden, looked at the bag he was carrying, and looked back at the Garden.
Ten minutes later, Seifer walked in through the front entrance. The SeeD manning the gate gazed up from his magazine and did a double take.
The SeeD dived back down behind the counter and slammed on the alarm.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The alarm jolted Squall out of his paper work stupor, sudden adrenaline coursing through his veins. He knew it wasn't a drill, he had not planned a drill. He quickly moved from his chair to the row of security monitors that lined one of the walls. The monitors had little LED lights on their sides to indicate which camera was closest to the alarm that had been trigger. The only monitor flashing was the one overlooking the entryway, and via it's colorless lens he could see a lone figure attempting to fend off several students with a gunblade. Like lighting, recognition shot through him. Seifer.
He assumed the worst. If Seifer was indeed attacking the Garden, there was no guarantee he would be by himself. Squall pulled his gunblade from his sheath and ran for the elevator. Another thought made his blood run cold. Rinoa had gone down to the cafeteria as per her usual schedule. Rinoa was down there with him. Fear gripping his heart, Squall ran faster.
Seifer knew he had overestimated his own stamina. He was quickly tiring, trying to fend off several trainees while protecting his precious luggage, now stashed behind the counter of the stall, and more students were gathering every second. The instructors had evacuated the younger kids from the area, and everybody else seemed to be waiting for something. Fools. If they all attacked at once they could take him down, but they hesitated, waiting for someone to take charge. What if he had been at full strength with the actual intent to cause some damage? They would not have stood a chance, not with their best fighters and leaders dead. Well, not if he had been at full strength anyway.
"Back off!" He snarled at the nearest SeeD, clumsily swinging his gunblade to ward her off. He looked straight into her eyes and tried to reason through the fear he saw there. "I need to see Cid, I don't want to hurt you!"
A javelin was thrown from somewhere in the back and he barely dodged it, sweeping his blade up to cut it in half. It would only be a matter of minutes until someone scored a hit, possibly a fatal one. It was at that moment that Seifer was distracted by a ghost.
Squall Leonhart came barreling out of the elevator with a gunblade in hand and murder in his eyes. Seifer froze, utterly confused at the scene before him. The students surrounding him melted away, and then before he could even draw breath, Squall was on him.
He barely blocked the first blow, sparks igniting at the contact, both blades sliding away to bite into the floor. He tried to back away but was too slow, and before he could raise Hyperion again Squall had kicked him in the gut, sending him sprawling backwards. The kicked was followed by a lethal downward swing. He could feel the metal brush the top of his hair as he pulled himself towards Squall with his feet, just removing his head from the impact. Squall jumped to one side and used Seifer's position under his legs to deliver another kick to the former Knight's side, sending him crashing into the counter.
In desperation, Seifer used most of his strength in a leap over the counter, Squall's gunblade carving a deep slice were his legs had been. He was out of shape and taken by surprise, dragged down by fatigue and atrophied skills. He didn't stand a chance and he knew it. He painfully crashed to the floor on the other side of the stall and rolled over, one hand grasping into the bag. His hand found the hilt of the Lionheart just as Squall was halfway over the counter. Out of time, Seifer held the Lionheart at his chest, waiting for the end he knew was coming. There was the sound of Squall's feet hitting the floor, the all to familiar swish of a gunblade, and then.... Nothing.
Seifer lay perfectly still, the point of Squall's blade tickling his throat, length of the sword resting on the Lionheart. Squall's gaze was fixed on it, confusion plainly stamped across his features. A voice broke the standstill. A familiar voice.
Rinoa came running, Zell, Selphie, Quistis and Irvine in tow. The sea of students parted to allow them through. Slowly, Squall backed away from Seifer, business end of the gunblade still pointed carefully at his enemy's head.
The group reached the stall and froze in disbelief at the scene before them, at someone they had never expected to see again. Everyone but Zell. Rage lit up his features, and it was almost as if he had expected something like this to happen.
"SEIFER!" He roared, clearing the counter in a single jump. Quick as lighting, he brought up his fist to strike a blow to Seifer's head.
"Zell, no!" Rinoa cried out, stopping the martial artist from carrying out his intentions. Zell slowly backed away, sliding back over the counter, still fuming. Selphie tentatively gripped his hand soothingly, trying to calm him down.
Seifer sat up and everyone jumped, leveling their weapons at him. He held up his hands, wiggling his fingers in a mocking fashion to show he wasn't armed. He looked at Squall, who was still fixated on the Lionheart, unable to understand it's presence. Scott stood in the back, wondering what was going on.
"That's gratitude," Seifer grunted, trying to ignore the pain that was just now beginning to register in his system. A few cracked ribs, at least. "I bring you back your shit and you kick the crap out of me. Yeah, go ahead and let Dincht hit me, I'll just keep these."
Seifer reached back and opened the bag, spilling it's contents on the floor. The SeeDs' eyes widened at the rest of their weapons. Even the present situation couldn't stop Selphie from letting loose a squeal at the sight of her Strange Vision. Zell only turned redder.
"Where the fuck did you get those?!"
"If you answer, 'Why the fuck aren't you dead', I might know why the fuck I have these."
Zell opened his mouth for what was sure to be some angry retort but Quistis held him back, placing a hand on his arm. She looked around at all the gathered students, staring at the confrontation, whispering amongst themselves. She motioned to Squall. "Your office would be a better place, I think."
He nodded. Nudging Hyperion out of Seifer's reach, he bent down and warily helped him to his feet, eyes carefully gauging the blond man's state. He let go of his arm as soon as Seifer was standing, backing away with Lionheart now in hand. The rest of the SeeDs quickly recovered their weapons and surrounded the two. Squall opened the gate leading out of the stall. Forming a circle around the battered Seifer, they walked to the elevator, parting the students again. While the others escorted their somewhat willing prisoner to the top floor, Quistis dropped behind to send all of the students back to their classes, trying to restore some order. Reluctantly, the crowd dispersed, leaving Scott standing with Nida at the foot of the stairs. Quistis smiled apologetically at Scott.
"I'm sorry, this is SeeD business, so...."
"Oh, no, it's cool," Scott said, passing it off with a wave of his hand. "Nida was going to show me the MD level anyway."
"All right then. Be careful though, and stay away from the turbines."
With that, she too went up the elevator. Scott turned to Nida, noting the fading anger in his eyes. Apparently he had some beef with whoever that had been too. Although the blond guy had looked familiar... He was distracted from this line of thought when Nida seemed to shrug off whatever was bothering him, leaving it to Squall to handle things. He smiled at Scott.
"It's pretty cool down there man, you can go swimming in the tanks since there's always some water in them. The tanks are freaking huge."
Scott raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't that be a little dangerous if they happen to dump the fountains? I think having several tons of water fall on top of you might be a little damaging."
"Don't worry about it, we only do that while airborne, and besides, an alarm goes off first. Come on, lets go."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Seifer was careful not to let his feelings show on his face. He was surrounded by people he had assumed to be dead. Obviously, this assumption had been false. He looked at all of them, the tension clearly affecting each. Zell was being held back by Selphie who was trying to soothe him. The chicken-wuss and Selphie? Pointedly, he sent a glance at both of them, looking back and forth between them before letting out a low chuckle. Zell tensed up, face coloring, but Selphie only gave his hand a squeeze, sticking her tongue out at Seifer. Over in the other corner Rinoa was doing the same thing for Squall, albeit much less noticeably. Squall had always had much more self-control than Zell. Irvine was the most relaxed of all of them, hat drooping halfway over his eyes. He met Seifer's gaze with a steady one of his own, nodding his head slightly as if in recognition.
The elevator doors slid open, and Seifer was walked into Squall's office and seated in a chair across from the desk. Zell and Selphie sat to his right, Irvine to his left. Squall sat behind his desk with Rinoa standing behind him. Seifer hid a smile. The evil Overlord with his right-hand babe, a movie cliché come to life. Fucking pathetic.
There was silence until Quistis arrived moments later, standing to the other side of Squall, completing the picture. He was unable to read the look in her eyes, so he winked at her, noting with pleasure the total lack of response. Cold as ever.
Squall started the dialogue with his usual manner. "Where did you get the weapons?"
Seifer leaned back, faking a thoughtful look. "Well you know Squall, I'm not quite sure. Maybe five bucks would refresh my memory....."
No reaction. Seifer sighed, shaking his head at Squall. "All this time and still no sense of humor. Rinoa, I'm disappointed in you. I figured if anything some hot sex would-"
"Shut up!" Zell snarled, half out of his chair. "He asked you a fucking question!"
Seifer frowned, studying him not with contempt, but with genuine curiosity. Had chicken-wuss grown a spine? He tried staring Zell down, but Zell stared back with even more fury. Interesting. He decided to dispense with the mocking attitude... For now. He shrugged.
"The new rulers of Deling. They wanted me to bring them back."
Squall frowned. "Why?"
"How the hell should I know? You think they told me all their top secret plans so I could relate them back to you verbatim? I figured you guys had bit it anyway, I never would've thought you could drag yourself more than ten feet away from your sword, Leonhart."
"Oh, I see, those two words just explain everything. Will somebody who can actually talk do so?"
Rinoa had always been insightful, and her new powers only enhanced the natural cognitive abilities she had. Seifer might be acting like his old self, but looking into his eyes she could tell it was all show. He was worn, inside and out. Just a shadow of the arrogant young man he had been. She opened her mouth and cut into the conversation.
"Where were you?"
"Where were you when they asked for your help?"
Seifer leaned forward. "They didn't ask for my help, they demanded it. And of course I was in Deling, you think they'd let me into Trabia or Esthar?"
Zell snorted. "In Deling doing what, sleeping in dumpsters? You look like shit Almasy."
"So do you, and you've been showering every morning. Probably with Squa-"
"Stop it, both of you," Quistis broke in, walking over to stand between them. "It's not important where he was, but what he knows."
Seifer raised an eyebrow. Quistis, defending him? Some sort of residual teacher instinct kicking in no doubt. "Hey, I brought back your stuff, and I know things about Deling. You don't get something for nothing."
"Then what do you want?" Squall asked quietly.
What did he want? What did he want? I want to change the last few years, I want a rewind on all the shit that went wrong, I want to go away and hide for the rest of my life. I want, I want.... Oh hell, I want-
"A second chance."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Several days had passed, and the Agent still wasn't getting any closer to the truth. He was wandering the deserted halls late at night under the pretense of searching for the bathroom, who's location he was well aware of, but it was hard enough to find that he wouldn't draw any undue suspicion.
He needed papers. He needed video, computer files, anything. He needed evidence. And that was in short supply. The GPSS files had told him all they could and were now useless unless he could find the unedited version. When he had first arrived it had seemed like the clock was ticking, they had been gearing up towards something, men and machinery coming and going, research moving at a frantic pace. Then one day the crowds had disappeared and things had gone quiet around the base. Whatever had been going to happen had, and he had been too late to stop it.
He might not have a second chance.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The six had gathered in Squall and Rinoa's room adjoining his office, sitting on various chairs or the bed. Only Zell stood, pacing back and forth in front of the window. Seifer was under guard in the Headmaster's office, awaiting the decision. Squall knew that technically the choice was his and Cid's to make, but he felt the others deserved some say after all that had happened. Zell was the first to speak.
"No," He said, arms crossing across his chest. "No."
"Zell-" Rinoa started.
"No goddamn way. Not after what he did. Not anymore. No."
"Give us the chance to talk this out before you-"
"How can you even think it Rinoa? Remember Adel? Remember that shit he tried to do to you? And now you want to let him the fuck back in?!"
"I didn't say that Zell."
"Yeah, well, I did. And the answer is no, and if your smart that's what you'll say too."
Squall sighed. He didn't know what to think. Most of him agreed with Zell, but he could tell at least Selphie and Rinoa and probably Irvine too were willing to at least give him a chance. Quistis seemed impassive, but he knew her well enough to see that the wheels were turning. Her decision would be a mystery to him. Seifer did not seem all that repentant though, and it wasn't weighing in his favor.
It was then that Edea walked into the room, her presence a breath of fresh air, a comforting feeling of security. She was their mother, and they all loved her. Even with Rinoa she had filled the hole left by Rinoa's mother. Whatever she had to say would be listened to well.
Edea delicately sat in a chair by Zell, placing a calming hand on his arm. The effect was immediate, and Zell stopped pacing, sitting on the floor next to her. Edea was still beautiful, face only barely lined from the passing of years.
She looked at all of them. How far they had all come, how much they had grown.
Squall, always the silent one, so bitter so young. But even now he was changing for the better. Just the day before she had seen him smile at something Zell had said, and she rejoiced that at last he could be happy.
Irvine, more complicated than most gave him credit for. Ladies man, sharpshooter, philosopher. He had brought the group back together when they had all forgotten, himself once more an integral part of the tight knit friends. They were all held together by bonds more profound than they could imagine, and he was one of them.
Selphie, the sunshine and laughter. They could count on her during their darkest hour to be the light that led the way, no matter what it cost herself. Edea wished that she could forever be so bright without faking it.
Zell, such a firebrand, always so loud and outspoken. But Edea had seen the loneliness that had been hidden behind the facade, and she was glad to see Selphie by his side, to be a calming Yin to his raging Yang.
Quistis, still the leader even when she didn't realize it. Squall had been forced to lead by circumstance, Quistis took responsibility without thought to protect her family. Now she hid behind that responsibility from a life that held no meaning besides her friends, and Edea hoped that she found someone to share happiness with soon.
Rinoa had not been in the Orphanage, but Edea felt that she knew her as well as the others. She had become one of them, and despite her pampered childhood events of the recent past had left her as much of a hardened warrior as any in the room. She was the supports that held up Squall, the other half of him. It was good she was here now, for he would need her to make the right choice.
And they were all here to decide the fate of her last child, Seifer. She had come to tell them what they needed to hear to make the right decision, before they condemned him without knowing enough.
She sighed, ready to defend him just as she would the rest of them. "I came here to ask you to give Seifer a second chance."
Nobody was surprised, but Zell clenched his fists, willing himself to be impervious to whatever she had to say.
"You hate Seifer because you believe he betrayed you all," Edea said, making eye contact with all of them. "You all suffered at his hands, but no one suffered more than him."
"So he spent a few bad months in Deling," Zell grunted, not looking up. "And that just makes it all better?"
"Seifer betrayed himself and was unable to stop. He was controlled Zell, every step of the way. I....." She stopped, blinking for a minute. Only the passage of time would cleanse the burning memories. "Ultimecia, twisted his sense of valor, his desire to protect, to be a Knight to her own purposes. He does not remember much of what has occurred, he.... Does not know of Trabia or what happened between Rinoa and Adel."
Nobody questioned Edea's knowledge of this, even without powers she could see things others could not. What Edea said only confirmed what Rinoa had suspected all along. Seifer had always been too ambitious for his own good, but never evil. She and everyone else also understood the unspoken request not to tell him, at least not yet.
Zell put his face in his hands, knowing what was coming. Seifer may have been controlled, but that didn't change his feelings one iota. Seifer had been his enemy before anyone had ever heard of Ultimecia.
Squall sighed, nodding his acquiescence. "He can recuperate and take the SeeD exam. If he passes, he will be reinstated. If he should cause problems, he's out."
Edea smiled. "That is all I can ask."
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