ENTRANCE DIVISION 2: BREAK-IN
"Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value."
He saw spots. He saw spots run. Maybe his vision flickering was a telltale sign that the oxygen-to-carbon dioxide ratio in the tunnel was dropping dangerously low.
Seifer checked his watch for the time, which turned out to be a pain because he hadn't the foresight to buy one with organic, electro-luminescent cells. The damn thing didn't glow, which meant he would have to angle it with respect to the inadequate lighting provided by the rotten Tonberry lamp. The odor of kerosene was simply foul.
Doubts about the mission began to enter his mind. What if their obscure patron had set up a trap for him? What if operation turned out to be more onerous than he had bargained for?
I can't go back now, he reminded himself glumly. I can't go anywhere. Probably best get my act together and my head in the right place.
For once he was more tired than bored. He decided to crack his knuckles to pass the time. It had been almost twelve minutes since he last beat Raijin or had the desire to do so.
Hmm, better call him up on something then, he reasoned. The last time the little freak got off easy. I should have gone ahead and socked him.
"Raijin!" he snapped. "How much further we do have to go?"
A lethargic pair of eyes looked up in his direction and then veered down some forty degrees to scan the soot-covered map.
"Never mind," Seifer dismissed in disgust before Raijin could shrug.
You had the map upside down anyway, nitwit, he contemplated bitterly.
He could have chosen to rail on Raijin vociferously, but one quick look over at Fuujin rubbing her wrists told him that everyone was so exhausted that it was no surprise that the big oaf could not think straight.
"If your mother could only see what a spelunker I've made of you," Seifer commented instead. He'll probably ask me in a few minutes what 'spelunker' means.
The mordant sting that habitually accompanied his snide remarks was notably absent in his remark. Catching the peculiarity, Fuujin set down her pickaxe and gazed at him for a second.
"I don't think hauling bits of rock for two weeks qualifies as cave exploration per se," Titanus growled from farther down in the pit.
"That's enough out of you, Mister Second-Tier-Guardian-Force," Seifer snapped.
Though the illuminative range of the gas lantern did not extend far enough to show him what Titanus was doing, he was pretty sure the GF was retaliating to Seifer's scorn with some lewd gesture below the waist...
...that was until he picked up a shovel and sent it whistling through the air towards Seifer's head.
It would have been messy had it actually connected, but Seifer ducked the projectile with professional ease.
"Don't worry," Seifer shouted at his assailant, "because in a few weeks, I'll be out of your life forever." Everyone's usefulness has an expiry date. Your time is almost up.
"Are you going to fire me?" the GF replied immediately in an affected, hopeful tone. "Because if you are, that would be super."
The subordinate clause ended in a caustically humorless pitch.
"SERIOUS," Fuujin quickly interjected amidst their testosterone-pissing bout.
Seifer ignored her, focusing intensely on the witch's spy. In due time my skills will have surpassed yours.
Aloud, he advised the demon knight with a grin, "If I were you I would learn to appreciate me while you can since now is the only time we'll ever have with each other."
Departing from her accustomed single-word utterances, Fuujin whispered in her corner, "Now is our eternity."
The other three attendants stopped to a dead halt and looked at her in stunned amazement. In Seifer's opinion, Raijin could have tried to hide his oafish look of incredulity a bit more.
"What's a spelunker?" Raijin ventured to ask, revealing once again that he had been autistically oblivious to the drama that had taken place around him.
Yet his words had been enough to break the ice.
"All right, everyone," Almasy eventually said, shaking off his goose bumps and reanimating the cavern, "back to work." That sounds so familiar. Where have I heard that before?
But around the corners of his mind he found no answers forthcoming, only more corners that led to an endless maze of veiled dissimulations and confusion. It was as if his uncooperative memory was eating away his history.
Seifer gave up at length and tried again to focus on the immediate situation.
Father, wait for me, he repeated in his mind, sobering. I am coming. I am coming.
His eyelids narrowed over a pair of eyes lit with passion. I have the witch's weapon and I am coming to take back what is ours.
At that minute, just six meters above their heads, a serious-looking man with a conspicuous blue suit was herding loitering Garden interns out of the main corridor and bidding them to return to their posts.
"Back to work, everyone!" Sergeant Jay barked the order. "Do not continue lingering in the hall after the false theft alarm!"
The honorary medals pinned on the breast pocket of his Garden uniform rattled cacophonously. He had polished badges so meticulously that no passerby could have missed his new designation as the head of the Disciplinary Committee. And he had been bossing everyone around so relentlessly since lunch hour that there was no one in the entire Garden who did not know about the promotion Commander Leonhart had given him.
"To Diablos with him!" a second-year trainee cursed as she and her colleague walked away towards the main lobby elevator.
"Can he get any more annoying?" the other whispered back.
While they waited for the elevator, the two exchanged with expert efficiency a fair portion of gossip and giggles. They conversed about the intercom broadcast from Headmaster Cid of Balamb Garden about the appointment of Quistis Trepe as the new Headmistress of Nova Trabia Garden and the possible political implications of such a promotion, as well as how unfortunate it was that the announcement had been followed by the theft alarm, which was probably a drill. They made mutual exclamations over the latest dating habits of the lone wolf SeeD Commander and how someone had gotten tips about the specific hours that he would be in the weight room this week. They chatted giddily about the new Mogberry Arctic Latte sensation at the 'Garden Ricebox' eatery.
Seeing the door opening, they quieted down and tried to conceal their smiles. A man in the standard dark SeeD uniform walked out of the elevator with a similarly outfitted blonde woman carrying a folder close on his heels. There was a discernible air of tension between them as if some strong words had recently been exchanged.
As they walked past the two female trainees, the first grabbed the latter's arm excitedly.
"Isn't that Commander Leonhart?" she squealed.
Her back turned to the two girls, Quistis rolled her eyes. First-years.
"And our new Headmistress," the other intern added dully.
"I liked her pink skirt better," her friend remarked as they stepped into the elevator.
"Yeah, she looks so old in that," came the agreement almost too quickly.
"Definitely too old for him," they giggled in unison as the doors closed behind them.
By then, Quistis had caught up with Squall on the limestone bridge. One part of her wanted to turn around and wring their slender little necks, but the more professional side of her compelled her swallow her slighted pride. Shrugging off slander was part of the responsibility that came with a public image that she had long come to accept.
"Squall, you haven't heard a word I've said!" she cried, focusing back on the original issue.
Maybe because I've gone deaf from your shouting at me in the elevator, he conjectured crossly.
"Huh, what?" he verbalized, voice completely devoid of any humor.
"Will you slow down?" she asked, grabbing his coat sleeve and pulling him to a stop.
The commander turned and looked at her silently.
"These thefts are an ever-growing concern, especially now when they've hit home," the Headmistress told him.
So this is home now? he wondered, resisting the urge to lift a questioning eyebrow. Are you sure you aren't taking this Headmistress position too personally?
"I heard the alarm five minutes ago too," he reminded her.
Had Quistis been a mere modicum more exasperated, she would have broken protocol and slapped him for so infuriatingly stating the obvious.
"What do you want me to do?" Squall inquired. "I've already heightened security."
Quistis cocked her head at an angle in disbelief.
"You assigned Sergeant Jay the head position on the Disciplinary Committee!" she argued.
"Yes," Squall muttered in the most uninterested tone, "and I thank you for reporting to me my own executive decisions."
"What was your rationale behind that promotion?" she prodded further.
"I think he is an assiduous worker," he answered, though he felt the need to explain himself was definitely lacking. "He is fully capable of handling this escalating situation."
"Did you even read my officer's report?" she countered angrily.
Yes, I always read everything, he wanted to scream in her ear.
"It was my call," Squall declared flatly. "That's the end of it."
"No," Quistis retorted, "I outrank you as of seven minutes ago and I am rescinding your order."
Squall could have frowned if he actually took her seriously for even a second. Propitiously for him he was well versed enough in technical details and regulations that he would not have to resort to ever taking her seriously.
He meticulously explained to her how her new administrative status did not give her jurisdiction over decisions regarding the executive branch of the Garden, which were still at the complete discretion of the superior SeeD officer, citing three similar cases of chain-of-command discrepancies from previous years.
"That would be me," Squall concluded, thrusting his thumb into his chest to point at himself in case the Headmistress missed the underlying theme of the explanation. I am that superior SeeD officer.
I'm familiar with the cases, Quistis thought to herself. You don't need to lecture me like that, Squall. I'm a senior officer, not a senior citizen.
"I don't think Jay is competent," she voiced through clamped teeth instead.
"On what grounds?" Squall questioned, scowling.
"The shot was aimed at me!" she protested in reference to misfire made by the trigger-happy sergeant. Please don't look at me like that. It's frightening.
After glaring at her for a while longer, Squall finally decided to roll his eyes. Now really...
"It was!" she repeated weakly. She wanted to stamp her feet.
"Then how did the bullet hit the burglar?" Squall asked skeptically. Why am even I talking to you?
Quistis bit her bottom lip. It was impossible to depict the full account to Squall so that he would understand her frustration without betraying the intrigue between her and the man who had saved her life. Still, she had to room to maneuver.
"Your report said that Sergeant Jay chased down the culprit and managed to score a direct hit on the man, isn't that right?" he cross-examined her before she could put up a rebuttal.
"Yes," she argued, "it happened that way, but-"
Selphie, with Irvine and Zell in hot pursuit, ran full tilt into the two commanding officers and nearly bowled them over. When they had all recovered their footing, she looked up at Squall sheepishly like a melting lemon gumdrop.
"He started it!" she said quickly, pointing at Irvine, and then ran behind Quistis using her as a shield.
Irvine and Zell, smartly dressed in their dark SeeD uniforms, pretended to discuss something acutely interesting over the side of the bridge and acted as if they had no part in the unpleasantry. Their guise of sudden sophistication didn't fool anyone.
"Aren't you a bit old for a game of tag?" Quistis reproached Selphie, noticeably irritated at the younger girl for interrupting the rare opportunity for a private moment with Squall.
Selphie seemed to understand the odd moment at which she had arrived on the scene and did her best to look apologetic.
"Sorry, Quisty," she whispered and squeezed Quistis' arm for reassurance.
Quistis didn't mean to do so, but on reflex she rudely shook Selphie's hand off. The latter pulled back as if she had been stung. The better half of Quistis got the best of her, and she instantly regretted her action. It was unbearable to see a darling like Selphie cringe.
"Why aren't you in uniform?" Squall questioned abruptly, pointing at her yellow mini-skirt.
"I'm boycotting it because it's two-percent leather!" Selphie exclaimed idealistically. "Creatures have a right to life too!"
Quistis just stared at her former student.
"I'll have to file a SeeD salary demotion of two levels against you if you don't change before your next shift starts," the commander warned Selphie.
"But I like my outfit!" Selphie pouted obstinately.
Squall glared at her, and she scowled right back at his intense eyes. For a split-second Quistis thought he might actually drop his undeviating aplomb, pick Selphie up and shake her in the air. Even though he didn't move a muscle, it seemed as though he wanted to holler in her ear, "You are supposed to be a construction worker!"
Irvine scratched the back of his neck nervously. The rest of the spectators held their breaths.
But Selphie eventually sniffled and was the first to look away from the tenuous stalemate. She sniffled, rubbed her eyes melodramatically, and scampered off to find Dante for some commiseration. For some reason she felt that her subordinate always understood what she was feeling.
The corridor she was heading towards suddenly produced a familiar face that drove her to widen her eyes in fear. It was that pesky student, Lily Furgle. She remembered the rash promise she made and looked back nervously at Squall, the unwitting beneficiary and victim. Given the circumstances, Selphie opted to avoid eye contact with Furgle and to try to evade her completely. She ducked behind the nearest column and, scampering from pillar to pillar with successive rests in the lee of each, took the long way around the voluminous lobby to her exit.
Having won his point against Selphie, Squall resumed his brisk but stately walk to the officer's lounge. Zell elbowed Irvine knowingly and ran over to Squall with a ploy to put him into better spirits.
Quistis shook her head. Absent-mindedly she turned her head to watch Selphie leave. Her movements were curiously awkward. She squinted and scrutinized the girl more carefully. Why is Selphie slinking away like that?
Quistis furrowed her brow but emitted a half-chuckle. Then she noticed that the men had gained quite a distance from her. She hurried to catch up to them, though it was a feat even then to just keep up with their peripatetic pace. She had gotten the impression that as of late they were walking faster or taking longer strides when she was around.
"Where are you headed?" she asked Irvine in passing.
"Basketball courts," he replied as he headed in the direction for the gymnasium.
"Be careful not to incur any more fines," she told him.
Irvine gave her the thumbs-up without turning back to look at her.
"And Irvine -" she called out before he had taken more than four steps.
Irvine's back visibly stiffened at the addition, and jerkily arresting his pace, he looked back hesitantly.
"-it's good that you finally ironed your uniform," she finished with an approving nod.
The sharpshooter grinned in relief and headed into a perpendicular corridor before Quistis remembered to ask about whether or not his restriction from the basketball courts had been lifted. For a moment, just before he disappeared from view completely, she thought he had paused for the briefest of moments in mid-stride, as though he had caught a glimpse of a familiar face out of the corner of his eye, but had found only phantoms of the mind upon a second look. Gradually her thoughts drifted back to the business at hand.
"You really got to hand it to Selphie," Zell chirped, hanging awkwardly over Squall's shoulder. "Is this lobby a visual stunner or what?"
Squall slowed his steps and scanned the atrium as if it had been his first time to set foot in Nova Trabia. The water for the artificial river that ran under the white cobblestone bridge had been pumped in, and the indoor waterfall was functioning beautifully. Bits of Dragon Fin and Orihalcon had been deliberated poured into the riverbed to make the bottom shimmer under the organic, electro-luminescent chandeliers hanging from the altitudinous ceiling. Water Crystals were homogenously embedded on the squares of cobblestone, and she had also taken meticulous care to have Moon Stone embossing the corbels of each of the twelve semi-circularly pillars stationed around the perimeter of the grand chamber. Each corridor entrance was surmounted by tri-lobed archways and a corresponding triangular gable with Coral Fragment filigree micro-architecture interspersed along the polished walls. He didn't know why he hadn't been up to his usual, impeccable circumspection to notice it.
Squall mentally whistled.
Maybe it's because she hasn't blown anything up yet today, he tried to make an excuse for himself in order to assuage the sting of self-reproach. She ought to be less extravagant with the materials budget.
The more he got to thinking about it, the more he thought Headmaster Cid's assignment of construction detail to Selphie when her natural talent clearly lied with deconstruction was as ill-advised and unqualified as his order for Irvine and Zell to handle negotiations with their Shumi patrons.
Seeing that the aesthetic ambience had put him into a more pensive mood, Zell took the chance to ask Squall about his new blue-haired belle.
"I see you hanging out with her all the time," Zell commented in a half-accusatory tone. "Even saw you take her to McChocobo's for lunch on Wednesday."
As if that were some sacred place, Squall retorted silently.
He took an extra second to decide between denying the allegation and throwing Zell's chummy arm off of his own.
"I bet you don't even know her name," the latter goaded him. I wonder if he even knows Rinoa's name anymore.
Squall glared at Zell but was clearly surprised that his companion knew this fact.
"In case you're wondering, I know her name," he gloated, quite unnecessarily in the shocked SeeD Commander's opinion.
He was meanwhile falling through a cascade of mixed emotions. Zell as a source of intelligence? Do I believe him? How in the name of Odin did he-
"What are you two talking about?" came the voice from behind them.
Quistis broke into the fray, stepping between the two of them before he had the chance to question Zell.
Squall was half-relieved to have been liberated from supporting Zell's body-weight, half-annoyed that he now had Quistis under his own arm. It would evoke a shameful sense of schoolgirl-squeamishness and be egregiously impolite if at this point Commander Leonhart were to struggle like mad to free himself, even if that was what he wanted to do.
Over Quistis' shoulder he looked back at Zell and thought to himself, I guess one needn't be intelligent to report intelligence. But if the principle of Occam's Razor had any merit in it, then in this case like any other the simpler solution would be the correct one. On this more probable interpretation he settled and turned the question of Zell's sudden illumination from his mind; Zell was probably just horsing around. The white lie was a joke meant to goad him on, egging him as childhood chums might.
The party of three turned down the main corridor where former Sergeant Jay was interrogating an unprepossessing vagabond with a huge satchel slung over his shoulder. In his hand was a slip that Jay was trying vigorously to decipher.
Seeing them coming down the hall, the new head of the Disciplinary Committee saluted first the Commander, then the Headmistress, and finally snickered when he saw Zell, whom he greeted with, "Not thinking of causing any trouble today, are you, Dincht?"
Stepping out from under Squall's arm, Quistis moved between Zell and Jay as arbiter and tried to shift their attention back to the newcomer. Save for the boy's torn overcoat, sharp visor, and blue cap, he was dressed inconspicuously as far as vagrants went.
"What is his business here, Sergeant?" Quistis inquired.
"Lieutenant," her addressee corrected her, indiscreetly brushing his fingers over the insignia pinned over his left breast pocket.
Quistis was scowling too hard to blink.
"He claims he is the new head librarian, but he doesn't have any formal identification cards or reference letters to work here," Jay picked up again. "Even his passport is suspect because it was just stamped by Balamb emigration only yesterday."
The senior officers exchanged looks, and Squall looked at Quistis for an explanation.
Quistis turned her gaze to the stranger who was either intimidated by the interrogation or growing tired of it. It was hard to tell with his visor over his eyes.
"You're Jeremy Chapter?" she asked incredulously.
It was against high societal policy for women to snort uncontrollably. As such, Quistis suppressed the impulse and wordlessly opened the folder in her hands without waiting for an answer to verify his identity against the enclosed photograph. She systematically flipped past a half dozen pages listing Nova Trabia Garden SeeD exam scores and names of newly initiated Balamb Garden SeeDs and found his transfer application.
"We were expecting you to arrive yesterday," the Headmistress continued talking just as he was about to give affirmation.
Redundantly she added, "You're late."
Not knowing what to say to that, the newcomer rubbed his shoulder uncomfortably. Whatever he was toting in the bag must have been heavy.
Quistis guessed that it was probably everything he owned. She then motioned to Squall that he could go on ahead and that she would catch up with him later. Squall shrugged and walked into the lounge with Lieutenant Jay and Zell vying for his attention.
"Follow me to the new library facilities where we've been depositing whatever survived the missile attacks from the old Trabia Garden library," Quistis told Jeremy.
As they walked down the hall, she said, "You won't need those in here," and relieved him of his visor. He instinctively began to protest, but she interjected that he would get them back as soon as he had forgotten about them.
Just as they neared the door to the new library, a female Garden student carrying a bulging crate of miscellany came out through it.
"Do you need help?" Chapter offered.
"Nah," the girl said, "but thanks anyway."
"Is there anything I can do to make you stay, Katie?" Quistis asked her, skipping the courtesy introduction. "We'd hate for you to leave."
"Sorry, Headmistress Trepe," the other replied, visibly touched, "but I found another opportunity elsewhere, and I really want to go with it."
Jeremy looked at the two ladies blankly and waited for the Headmistress to give him an introduction that never came.
Katie's eyes drifted to one side as if she were recollecting some moment worth becoming nostalgic over, but then, retracing back to the present, gave a curt smile. She hoisted the already overflowing box to a different position and tried to step around her two interlocutors. In the bustle, a marble fountain pen shifted out of its original position and fell to the floor.
Jeremy bent over and picked it up. The way he was shouldering the bulky bag as if he was afraid to set it down on the floor made the simple retrieval a challenge even for a contortionist.
But he managed and was about to fix it in some place deeper in the carton when Katie shook her head.
"No, you can keep it," she told him. "I still have plenty."
"Oh, thank you," Jeremy said, his countenance betraying his surprise. "My first fountain pen!"
"You're the new librarian, right?" Katie asked with a cursory glance at his outfit.
Chapter nodded with a bright beam.
"You're late," she commented dryly and walked right past him, heading towards the far end of the hall. She had not taken more than a few steps before she nearly collided with Sergeant Jay who was headed in the opposite direction. Quistis breathed sharply but then exhaled easily when she saw that the potential disaster had been averted. Katie gave him a disapproving look and continued on her way towards the Garden Main Gate.
The lieutenant walked over to the entrance of the library and took something out of his pocket. Quistis waited for him to say something.
"Kinneas couldn't find anything on it with preliminary searches," Jay said, showing them a circular piece of jewelry.
"Well, it's more than a bracelet," Quistis reminded him. Why don't you make yourself useful and pick up the paper trail, Sergeant?
"I agree," Jay informed her. "In fact, our research team had something interesting to say about it."
"Well, what?" the Headmistress grumbled, slightly irritated at having to wait again for the man to speak.
"Their scanners indicated that it wasn't artificially produced," the man clarified.
He then handed it to Jeremy. Quistis eyed the bracelet with a frown.
"You're the bookkeeper now," he said. "Here is your first assignment. I want a report telling me exactly what this thing is and how it ended up on my beach by tomorrow morning."
The serious-looking man remained standing there after he was done.
"Don't you have a thief to catch, 'Sergeant'?" Quistis snubbed him bluntly. I hope he kills you.
It occurred to her Jay would have been the perfect, expendable unit that she could send to tail Seifer - the proverbial sacrificial lamb. She had no compunction about signing this virtual death warrant, if she didn't think he was totally incompetent and wouldn't even have the slimmest chance of completing the mission.
Meanwhile, the condescension in her voice had been unmistakable.
Having asserted his authority over the new guy and not particularly keen on seeing it slip away, Lieutenant Jay clicked the heels of his polished shoes together, turned, and departed without further prompting.
Jeremy turned and looked at the Headmistress.
"I read the Garden standard operating procedures manual, ma'am," he spoke with some hesitation, "but I don't remember coming across any salute that matches what he just did."
"I think he just made that up," Quistis shooting a dirty look in Jay's general direction. "At any rate, I want that same report on my desk an hour before he gets it."
"Of course," he replied and excused himself to get a head start on his assignment.
Just after Jeremy disappeared through the door, Quistis caught Squall and Zell exiting the officer's lounge out of the corner of her eye. Turning her head, she called for them to wait and walked over to them.
"Have you managed to locate Seifer?" she posed openly so that either man could answer.
While her gesture effectively doubled the response probability, twice of zero was still zero. They looked between her and each other and conveniently decided that it was the other's turn to deal with her. By all rights she should have beat them both senseless for this demeaning treatment, but there were no mop handles within arm's reach.
Squall looked as antsy as an expressionless person could. She guessed that she was putting him behind in his daily docket with her nagging. He was a fanatic about being punctual, unlike most guys his age. She wondered if he would have spent more time with her if he hadn't decided that she was a colossal waste of time.
It eventually occurred to them that she was not going to let them off the hook until one of them replied to her question. Zell scratched and back of his neck and deferred to his commanding officer.
Squall frowned at him for the briefest of seconds and then explained to Quistis that his statisticians did not think that Seifer posed enough threat to warrant sending an investigator. The fact that he had volunteered for the missionary cause actually reduced the odds of his becoming further involved in criminal activity. Additionally, the Nova Trabia Garden legal advisory committee was unanimous in their review that Seifer had not technically violated his parole. In short, Quistis was being paranoid. Squall would have told her to check out Seifer's whereabouts personally if she was so concerned about him, that is, if he didn't think her responsibilities as the new Headmistress put as massive a restriction as they did on how much she could do in her free time.
"You know as well as I do that normative probability statistics don't apply to Seifer," Quistis refuted his reasoning. "He is an ubiquitous wildcard."
It was Squall's turn to scratch the back of his neck and look bored. This maneuver he and Zell had been switching off in performing for the past five minutes but he had uncharacteristically missed the next beat and ruined the rhythm of the trade-off.
"He has been underground for over a week, Squall," Quistis pressed further, "possibly three!"
Squall stared straight ahead into space, trying to see past her head. Maybe she isn't really talking to me. Maybe she's speaking to someone else.
"Zell himself confirmed the reports of Seifer being in Nova Trabia!" she continued to squawk.
"Second-hand information," Zell piped in order to distance himself from the argument.
Squall decided that it might be more expeditious for his escape to humor Quistis rather than convince her that she was wrong. Prodigy or not, they should have left her at the orphanage.
Thinking quickly and looking her straight in the eyes, he hypothesized, "If Seifer was honestly trying to penetrate Nova Trabia Garden via subterranean route, and if he has had all the time that you say he's had, then he would have broken in already."
At that moment, a large section of the floor beneath them ruptured and gave way. The three officers snapped to attention and instinctively reached for their weapons. Squall felt the rush of air blow across his face and the clutter of sedimentary granules settle over his hair.
"What in Eden-"
Quistis' exclamation trailed off in ambivalent anticipation of what the veil of jetsam might reveal to be its cause once settled. She noted the awkward knot that suddenly took hold of her stomach. Despite the unexpected tumult, she felt a strange sense of familiarity in the tension in the air. Bothered, she tightened her grip around the whip handle.
As the three of them found themselves engulfed more and more in a small penumbra of dust and powder thrown up from the sinkhole, Squall began to feel grungy. He made a note to wash his hair for the third time that day. The cost for the supply of shampoo he planned to extract in full from the offender.
Zell could hear that a crowd of students had begun to pour into the corridor ahead of them, having been stirred by the loud rumble that had accompanied the collapse of the flooring. He could also vaguely discern a peppery Rishi trying to elbow her way to the front past the static clump of bodies that had gathered under the archway. Finding her attempts frustrated, the mass too thick to penetrate, she tried jumping up and down to gain sporadic peeks over the shoulders of impeding classmates. Every now and then he spied her head surface from the uniform line of nameless faces, just as quickly disappearing back into the throng each time. Sergeant Jay had also reappeared among the ranks and did succeed in making his way to the front.
The dust finally cleared and revealed a circular chasm spanning the width of the hall...and a few seconds later, also the silhouettes of the three people inside it.
"Stars of Gilgamesh!" Quistis gasped when she recognized the blonde male at the head of the pack.
Squall recognized him as well, but forced himself to take a second to survey the totality of the scene, in compliance to section 4.2 line 7 of the SeeD manual of operations. He noticed that the hole in the ground was actually closer to the neglected file storage room than to the officer's lounge. It was the same space where the movers had apathetically cached overstock microfilm and texts decades old that no one ever bothered to transfer into the computer network databases.
What in Diablos is he looking for? Squall wondered.
The dust-covered man in his torn white coat was hissing expletives at the taller and more tanned of his two accomplices, though under the powder they appeared equally pale and gray. Had the former been unpinned and had more complete use of his legs, he would undoubtedly have tried to kick the latter.
Upon seeing Leonhart and company, his eyes narrowed and he assumed an expression of unsmirched smugness.
"I think we must have missed a ramp," Seifer Almasy teased the wordless SeeD Commander. "I was supposed to get off at the last exit."
"W-what are you doing here?" Quistis demanded shakily. I hate how my premonitions are always right.
The subsequent sigh that escaped from Seifer's lips was indiscernible as being either real or feigned.
"This is the scene where you declare your undying hatred for me," he added, clearly addressed to Squall.
Quistis paled another two shades. That line had added meaning.
Zell scowled and looked over questioningly at Squall. Give me the signal to sic him.
Nothing from the commander.
Unable to solicit any reaction from Leonhart, Seifer decided to switch tactics and personas.
"Don't just to any conclusions about the storage room, fellas," he lied, deciding the best ruse would be the slight distortion of the truth. "We were just hunting down some antique issues of 'Girl Next Door'."
"Even Fuujin?" Zell scoffed skeptically. "And besides, I already traded them to Zone for Triple Triad Shiva cards, you dip-wad." All the friends and classmates of mine you've killed with Galbadian resources and you're still this cocky?
That was rather quick for Zell, Quistis noted mentally.
Seifer decided to try another play-act.
"I'm...seeking...medical...attention," he appealed to Squall in between histrionically labored breaths. "I'm pretty sure it's covered by the company's health policy."
Gun-blade still clinched in hand, Leonhart crossed his arms and pronounced frigidly, "You forget; you don't work here anymore. Get out."
Quistis and Zell both turned to Squall and stared at him in penultimate disbelief.
"What?" Quistis exclaimed. "Squall, enemy or not, he's wounded and deserves treatment!"
"What?" Zell shouted simultaneously over Quistis' voice. "You're just going to let him go without beating him up!?" After all the times he has tried to kill us?
Behind Seifer, a soot-smudged Fuujin let out a controlled groan and flexed her arm sorely. Besides her, Raijin whimpered and coughed. Two arms' length away from Seifer there lied a flashy Kris-style blade, so broad that Squall doubted if there was even a need to use the trigger part of the multifaceted weapon. Most noticeable were the lavish etchings of dragons on the side of its hilt. He had not seen that style of gun-blade in any of the 'Weapons Monthly' magazines, which obviated the possibility that any blacksmiths in the region would know how to fashion a duplicate.
Squall looked back and forth between Zell and Quistis, unsure of which extreme to pursue. He spared a moment to look at Rishi who was biting on her thumbnail nervously and at the mixed expressions of all the trainees around her. Hardened and soft aspects were pretty much split evenly down the middle. At this point, it was clearly futile to resort to popular opinion. It would all rest on his unilateral executive judgment call.
Seifer smiled innocently at Zell and said of the wreckage, "Don't you worry. I'll clean this up and have it looking spanking new in no time, Chicken-wuss."
Oaf! Quistis winced internally. It was as if Seifer was daring for someone to clobber him.
Both Zell and Squall stared hard, fists clenched and jaws cast in iron.
Between them the air felt like it was going to snap.
To Diablos with it! Zell decided. You're in my playground now.
Without so much as cracking his knuckles to indicate that he was coming, the SeeD boxer lounged at the intruder. His punch was set to land in Seifer's jugular.
"Huh?" Zell exclaimed.
He looked back to see what was stopping his hand and saw Quistis' whip wrapped around his wrist. She met his half-accusing, half-hurt glare with guilt tantamount, but still braced her full weight in opposition to his maneuver. The more Zell struggled against her, the harder she pulled to meet him.
"I always knew you had a soft spot for me, Instructor," Seifer spoke first.
"Shut up, Seifer," she snapped venomously. "And I'm not your instructor anymore." I'm not anyone's instructor anymore.
"You're not anyone's instructor anymore," he reminded her mockingly. Lest you forget I was your last student.
Zell was still trying furiously to pounce on Seifer. As far as she could discern, he was aiming for a killing blow to the neck. Strength nearly spent and realizing that she would not be able to hold him off for much longer, Quistis turned her head towards Squall and searched him desperately for some sign of arbitration. Please, Squall, set a good example for the new wave of cadets.
The SeeD commander's expression read a dark cloud.
Raijin gritted his teeth nervously, only to find the taste of blood in his mouth, and felt a missing space in the top row.
Fuujin was on the verge of relapsing into conniptions from the pain all over her body. There are probably bruises on my teeth.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Zell heard his name from behind him.
"Hold it, Zell."
It was Squall's order.
To everyone's shock, the commander then dusted his SeeD uniform off with a few pats and remarked aloofly to his arch-nemesis, "You're not worth my time."
Zell's mouth hung open in full display of the crass and Quistis' taut whip slackened to a disbelieving droop.
"You're not even worth a Med Kit," Squall added after the briefest of pauses for a verbal sting he knew would survive for a lifetime. Burn in hell, Seifer. Some day, I know you will.
Regaining his usual commander-caliber composure, Squall told Quistis to call staff security down immediately. He made a point not to send for any medical units for on-site emergency inspections. However, the three trespassers were to be referred to the infirmary for Dr. Kadowaki to treat within the next five minutes. Seifer's parole officer informed of the flagrant prima facie violation within two minutes.
At this point Quistis interrupted, pulling him aside where their words would not overheard by the population of students present.
"Squall," she began nervously, "I know I might have undermined the integrity of the chain of command in Garden with that last public display of conflict of authority, but Seifer-"
"Get back in character, 'Quis'," Squall broke her off acerbically with the deliberate choice of the diminutive childhood sobriquet to cast a condescending air over her Headmistress-ship. "I'm the one who runs the missions here; your job is to clean up the playground when recess is over."
He shook her hand off of his arm violently. "Understand!?"
She looked away angrily. No! No! No!
"Take a look at all the students who witnessed this just now. This is Trabia, for Hyne's sake! How many of their friends and families were left homeless or killed because of him?" Squall resisted the urge to shake her by her SeeD uniform collar out of professional courtesy but hissed in her ear. "We let Seifer off light, and when the word gets around, I'm going to get the heat for it, not you, Headmistress Trepe."
No tempered tactic seemed to be working, so Quistis resorted to a more ad hominem approach.
"What would your father think?" she coaxed without meeting his eyes.
"My father wasn't the paradigm voice of conscience, and you don't need to be mine," he replied.
Squall grabbed Sergeant Jay from behind her and directed him to secure the area with what hands they had on site. He then ordered a courier to send word to Instructor Tilmitt about getting a construction crew down to the first floor to repair the damages.
"You all have your orders," the commander huffed and dismissed them hurriedly. Anxiously he took a split-second to check his watch. Diablos take this!
Zell leaned against the cold metal wall and rubbed his right wrist gingerly. Had it not been for his glove, the whip might have torn up multiple epidermal layers.
"Squall," Quistis bravely urged again, "this isn't how we should handle it." Now that I think about it, though, how else could we handle this?
The answer to her plea was only too obvious.
"Whatever," he shot back as if it had were an automated response. Do whatever you want.
Turning on his heel, he stormed off towards the locker room in the adjacent hall.
Zell's blinked twice in rapid succession, having witnessed the flurry of happenings that seemed to have blazed by him. Did that just happen?
Quistis read his look and nodded tentatively, though it could just have easily been read as an answer for the negative, shaking her head at the awful scene before her. She could not have known how high her eyebrows were arching, the entire countenance of shocked incredulity having been provoked by Squall's unanticipated reaction.
After all Seifer put us through, Quistis remonstrated, eyes flashing as a whirlwind of possible explanations raced through her head, I doubt even someone as phlegmatic as Squall could have repressed the desire for a quick and painless reprisal. And yet he chose to walk away from it. It happened! I saw it! What is going on?
He has to be hiding something, Trepe concluded naturally.
Her eyes narrowed. Or someone.
Zell finally picked his jaw off the floor and sped after the commander, calling out to Squall to wait for him. The request was grudgingly granted. Just as Zell sprinted across the intersection between two perpendicular corridors to where his colleague was waiting, a silver-haired girl with pink irises poked her head out from around the corner curiously and surveyed the commotion still going on outside the officer's lounge. Zell squinted at her and tried to recall why she looked so familiar.
Where do I know her from? he wondered.
Squall noticed his peculiar expression and followed his gaze. When he found her, she struck him oddly enough as someone he'd met before as well.
"Pearl?" Zell murmured tentatively. The mental spark plug tried over and over to light itself, refusing to remain an inconsequential fizzle.
Suddenly the mechanism snapped to life: She was the girl who had simply showed up one day looking for her allegedly missing friend!
The two SeeD officers exchanged looks and then turned their glances back to their curious visitor, but by then she had disappeared into the crowd, eager to see what all the stir was about.
Squall shook his head severely and let out a vexed sigh. There was something wrong about the situation, detected facilely enough by the uneasiness he felt within. His gut instincts were seldom wrong.
"Blast it, Pandemona!" the Level A SeeD cursed and then continued on his way to the changing room. Some things were just more important. It wasn't that he was walking away from his responsibilities, but if he'd be damned if he was going to have to personally handle every lost girl scout in Garden and command their highly regimented martial body to boot. A leadership position that he hadn't asked for was punishment enough. He thought humorlessly how the karma from his past life had finally caught up with him.
Jay will handle it, he reassured himself as he found his locker. 999, the highest-numbered compartment they had.
"Leonhart, Squ-" he spoke into the voice-lock-identifer's receiver.
"Hey, Squall," Zell burst in, "can you believe what just hap-"
His voice trailed off punctually when Squall shot him a glare after a little red light on the mini-panel lit up and access was denied to him.
"Leonhart, Squall," he tried again, still eyeing Zell. This time the ungarbled input registered successfully and the locker door popped ajar.
Dry-mouthed, the blonde SeeD tried swallowing and succeeded only with upper-level difficulty.
Squall ignored him and changed out of his black SeeD uniform back into plain dark clothes. He rolled up his orange t-shirt into a bundle and tucked it under his arm.
As Squall slammed his locker door shut, he noticed that Zell was still trying to say something. He hasn't he left yet?
"What?" he demanded. Is it too much to hope that it might actually be something important this time?
"You're not going to press and fold them?" Zell inquired, raising an eyebrow. It's out of character for him to deviate even the slightest bit from his hard-set habits.
Squall shook his head. He didn't have enough time to perform his fastidious, quotidian ritual of ironing his uniform today. Between Quistis' harangue and Seifer's intrusion, he calculated that he had lost about four minutes and twenty seconds. It seemed like forever. She would grow upset soon if he didn't get out to the quad and pick her up. He estimated that it wouldn't take her longer than another two minutes to begin wondering if he had stood her up...for the third time this past week, and have an irate, nameless, beautiful blue-haired menace to answer to.
In a rare moment of weariness, Squall rubbed his temples. It is always something. Something always comes up. I bet she's probably used to it by now.
Zell was flabbergasted, unable to comprehend what that never-before-seen sign of fatigue meant. He was surely the only person in contemporary history to witness the mere suggestion that the first seams of the stonewall had begun to unravel. It was common knowledge in the public domain that Squall's sangfroid was akin to chain-mail armor.
Something about the way Zell was gawking at him reminded him of Ellone. Squall looked to the side for a half-second and made a mental note to check up on her. It had been so long since he had last seen his foster-sister, or god-sister, or whatever relation she was to him. Instinctively he reached over to his opposite hand to feel his ring. When he did not find it on his finger, his hand moved up to his throat, expecting to find it dangling on his chain necklace. When both attempts were frustrated, Squall looked down and realized what he had been doing subconsciously.
Wake up, Squall! he censured himself for silliness. Of course I don't have Griever on me; I told Rinoa to keep it.
In retrospect, he regretted the decision. For so long he hadn't been feeling quite like himself without it ubiquitously at hand to guide him. After Ellone gave it to him she had promptly disappeared. The ring naturally assumed the character of moral authority in the vacuum that she'd left by her pitiless departure. A decade later she would seem innately handicapped by immaturity, but at the time she was everything he wanted to be and be with when he grew up. And he would finally grow up on that day when he suddenly realized that the ring fit him perfectly. Putting it on, he felt as though his entire being had changed, as if he had stepped through the transitional threshold from one life to another.
Something occurred to him.
"Zell," he said, looking back at Zell, "if you still have the mold for my Griever ring from that time when you made Rinoa a copy, could you fashion one that would fit me?"
Zell scowled, thinking hard, and finally shook his head.
"I had to modify the mold to accommodate Rinoa's finger size," he answered. "I can make you a slightly miniaturized copy of it like the one she has if you want, though."
Squall nodded and replied, "That will have to do then. Hope it won't be too much trouble."
"No trouble," Zell chirped back. "I was looking for an excuse to fire up the forge and upgrade these Ehrgeiz gloves anyway. You've seen the 'Weapons Monthly' September issue, right?"
Tasks completed and points made, Squall excused himself without answering the question and hurried to the door with brisk but nonetheless dignified strides.
"Have you heard from Rinoa?" Zell ventured to inquire. He sighed, having finally gotten out of his chest the question he'd been wanting to ask all morning.
Squall shook his head, keeping his stride. It had been over a week since she had last sent him the exhaustive quotidian bundle of eighteen back-to-back mushy voice messages.
"Oh, one more thing," Zell eased in before he reached the door, "her name is Merali."
Squall tensed up and stopped dead in his tracks. Turning back, the Commander shot his fellow SeeD an inquisitive look.
"You think I'm BS-ing, don't you?" Zell prodded, flashing an unguent grin. It was the first smile flashed since the unwelcome appearance of the posse.
Squall thought it better not to question the integrity of the information in light of his current tardiness that was distending with each passing second.
"Okay," he registered with a tentative nod, and then exited the locker room from the side door that led to the parking garage. In the background, Zell interjected a few 'Booya!'s and pumped his fist in the air.
After entering the garage, Squall would take his A09 Galbadian military motorbike to gateway connector ramp that opened out onto the Quad where she'd be leaning on the railing by the steps and expecting him.
As always he had parked it on the far side of the lot towards the exit, but it met him halfway, Squall having activated the auto-ignition, autopilot, and key-holder auto-find with the radio remote on his key chain.
Zell ground his upper and lower teeth together as the SeeD Commander slid smoothly into his bike seat and started the engine. Squall sat back, braced himself for the jerk of precipitous acceleration, and raced up the exit ramp with the authoritative screech of burnt rubber over concrete.
What couldn't distance change? Watching him go was like losing Mina all over again. How he could stand by and watch Squall lose Rinoa reflected and magnified his own glaring error, indelible because it happened the past, and unforgettable because the resulting pain was etched in his heart. How much longer would it be until Rinoa walked out on him just like Mina had done at the post-Time-Compression Balamb Garden ball, if she hadn't made her exit already? They were all fools.
A minute later, Zell snapped out of his daze and stuck his outstretched hand back into his pocket, having meant to keep someone but to no avail. Air was the only thing that one couldn't hold onto for dear life.
Squall found Merali exactly as he had imagined, leaning over the railing by the marble Quad steps with her chin resting on her palm, her angelic head held in a soft caress that matched the gentleness of her white skirt and blue-green blouse. She looked perfectly harmless. Regrettably Squall feared that her imminent ire would soon belie that cherub image and dispel any remnant fantasies he had about heaven.
He sucked in his breath when she caught sound of his stentorian engine and cocked her head ever so slightly as to peer at his arrival.
With a bemused poker-face that was too early to read, the attendee nonchalantly clapped her hands together and shoved at the railing with her wrists so as to push her back upright. The amount of effort it took her suggested to Squall that she had been leaning against the bar for quite some time.
She rubbed her wrists tenderly and strolled over to where he remained mounted with the engine running. Something about her muteness had told him not to shut it off.
Eventually she moved alongside his motorcycle, but instead of hopping on, she studied his face intently. For the millionth time that week, he couldn't look away.
Is it gnawing on you too? Her sad eyes seemed to say.
It could have been interpreted a malevolent rub towards a guilt trip.
I'm sorry, he might have answered.
She climbed into the seat behind him and wrapped her hands around his sides. Safely situated, she squeezed his ribs slightly and he clapped his helmet visor down in acknowledgment. He would have gotten out the matching jet-black passenger helmet from the bike's storage compartment and offered it to her had she not acculturated him to the vanity of the gesture. She had inexplicably developed an acute adversity to wearing helmets after the first ride he had given her back to Garden from the beach on that fateful morning of their meeting. Was it really that hard to breathe with the visor down at 200 kilometers per hour?
He gave the bike some juice, turned the vehicle on a dime, and kicked up a small dust cloud in the process of jetting out of the Quad, out of the Garden, and sooner than soon, out of sight.
A slender silhouette formed presently against the veil of dust, breaking out of which was none other than Quistis, trying intently to wave them down.
"Wait!" she cried, a shout that seemed to reach out a lifetime too late. Come back...
The Headmistress leaned over, resting her hands on either knee, and panted heavily. More blood than oxygen was rushing to her head, the latter of which was what she needed. She put her head between her legs to ease the flow and felt the after-burn sink into her calves.
She had traversed the lobby twice going from the Garage to the Quad in an attempt to catch him. The taxing sprint only took two and a half minutes, which ought to have been a new track record.
But it had not been good enough.
She had not been good enough. She had lost him to Rinoa. She had willingly sacrificed her coveted, prestigious SeeD instructor's position just so she could be with him without transgressing regulation, and still, she had lost him to her.
She had lost him to the enemy, their new enemy. The enemy. To think that the sole purpose of Garden was to defy a single woman! They were only mercenaries for hire on the side to pay the bills; out of expedience they sold out their ethics. It had been in her mind for quite some time that the entire SeeD program had a rather myopic focus.
Infatuation makes for a rather myopic focus as well, Quistis considered morosely. Love would do that to you. Tunnel vision. You can't see anything but the light that you believe is at the end of the tunnel, and there is no turning back.
Was there no turning back from SeeD either? What was SeeD? What was the glamorous aim, the noble purpose, the lofty goal? There had to be at least one redeeming virtue in the institution. Quistis struggled in vain to find one, and had immense difficulty even in falsifying one. She considered everything from the internecine battle of Galbadia and Balamb Gardens, to the redounding travesty of Squall's role in his relationship with Rinoa as either the lover who was supposed to take her home or the SeeD Commander who was supposed to take her life. Quistis even considered the unfinished, derelict contract that obligated them to assist the Forest Owls resistance group in liberating Timber from the oppressive Galbadian government. Even with President Deling dead and the country's administrative powers in disorder, Timber's autonomy was still far from realization and a formidable task certainly too large for Watts and the sex-crazed, stomach-crippled Zone to handle on their own.
The fogginess of her memory she attributed to the interference from her Guardian Forces. It seemed so long ago that it all happened; they had not been more than Level 20 fighters in experience when they were contracted, a great contrast with their present Level 99, demi-god, Hero statuses with the most powerful weapons and magic stock in the world.
But even so, what good are we? Quistis considered ambivalently. A life devoted to repeated assassination attempts - when we fail, we try again, and if we succeed, there will just be another sorceress the next day to fight.
The defeat of one sorceress meant that her powers would be passed to the next lucky beneficiary. It was an endless cycle. Hyne seemed to have designed the timeline of the world so that in every age, at any given time, there would be one and only one sorceress. They would never be free from them.
Maybe SeeDs aren't supposed to ever win, she reflected glumly. Maybe we are just supposed to keep the sorceress in check eternally.
How tedious and pointless it all was! Nothing would ever change, and they were condemned to live in a perpetual state of war. She might as well start her own orphanage like Cid Kramer did and raise orphans to do the fighting for in her stead.
Quistis clenched her fists tightly and shook her head.
There had to be more meaning to life than this.
She had walked herself through the same logic game countless times: If the Great Hyne used to be contained within the world, then She could not have been above and beyond it. Hyne was one of them then, just another snowflake to be shaken up inside the crystal ball. When she couldn't fall asleep, Quistis would stay awake in bed and wonder what was Primal Cause had introduced Hyne into the world, and why It had removed Her.
What is out there? for the longest time she yearned to know. What out is there?
It had taken her months and this moment to figure out that she wanted out.
Quistis stopped trying to look through the trees beyond the Garden gates. Squall was probably miles away by now.
Head drooping, Trepe reached over to the left side of her black SeeD uniform and tore the Headmistress insignia off the breast pocket. Almost lifelessly she let it fall from her hand and settle on the dirt path. She placed her heel over it and felt the colossal difference in the weight she no longer carried. She didn't feel half as tired anymore.
Quistis turned and headed back up the Quad steps with a mind to resign her position as the Nova Trabia Headmistress. It was the only chance she had at ever walking away from this part of her life, to purge herself of this failed experiment known as youth. Her superior, the Balamb Garden Headmaster Cid Kramer, was only a call away.
Half-hidden behind the crocketed pinnacles crowning the altitudinous gable of the gothic archway between the Quad and the atrium, a caped figure watched the blonde beauty's movements with great interest.
Jeremy Chapter's Fanfiction