Pupu's Saga Setting 32

1846 DAY 23, Nova Trabia Garden Basketball Courts

By Jeremy Chapter

"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."

-Fitzgerald, Francis Scott Key

"Anything going on lately?"

"Nothing much," the other replied. "What about you?"

The first trainee rubbed the back of his neck sorely.

"Naw," he replied disappointedly. "It's been pretty quiet since Dawes, Edgar, and Fedder got sent to the infirmary. I think after fifth period I'm going to see if they'll be released soon."

His companion nodded sympathetically and motioned for the ball to be passed to him.

"It's a bit ridiculous that they got hospitalized just for trying to get a gal's phone number."

"Not just them," the first answered and bounce-passed the basketball to his teammate, "but half of the team and thirty from the gym class that period."

The second trainee dribbled around in a circle and then remarked that hitting on the Headmistress came at a high cost.

"It just goes to show that if you don't have the deep pockets for the medicinal fees, don't play with that kind of fire," the other summarized with a sigh.

Neither said anything for a minute.

"Make it-take it, then?" his friend suggested after some more warm-up exercises.

The suggestion came with the offer of the ball, as if in challenge.

"Sure. Hoop it up," came the at last cheerful reply, along with the return of the check, and so their game began.

On the adjoining basketball court, Irvine Kinneas listened with great interest. He was surprised that there was almost no mention of the marauder who had posed as Squall and took a bullet for Quistis. It was as if the students had targeted Quistis alone for the injuries inflicted on their fellows because the parties responsible were either disciplined too heavily and had been lying immobile on stretchers for the past eight days, or had escaped and were not disciplined at all. Former Sergeant and now Lieutenant Jay, Head of the Disciplinary Committee, had not been able to apprehend the thief who had come out of nowhere and rescued their Quisty.

Irvine himself had played a critical part in aiding the culprit's escape. His whereabouts thereafter were unknown. This left Quistis as the most convenient and visible person to blame for the incident because she was directly linked in the affair. The mixed feelings that the Garden classes would experience upon hearing the announcement of her promotion to Headmistress of Nova Trabia Garden just a quarter of an hour ago was natural, then.

He paused to inspect three female Garden trainees in sportswear as they walked by under his hoop towards the girl's locker room. The two prettier ones each had a towel slung over both shoulders from behind the neck, and one was tugging at it playfully back and forth as the group passed. The moisture on their skin at the nape of their necks and along their shoulders glistened under the Nova Trabia Garden outdoor court-lights whose being switched on signaled the arrival of the evening star.

They in turn looked back at him in his formal SeeD uniform and giggled excitedly. It made him look gallant but awkward nevertheless on the basketball courts. The leader of the pack then raised her head and pretended not to take any notice. Her two companions followed in suit, putting on similarly serious faces.

"Let's take a break," the SeeD suggested to his opponent in the impromptu pick-up game that he had engaged in upon arriving. It was a moogle with scant pieces of leopard-patterned clothing and for the past five minutes it had been totally dominating him on the court.

The moogle nodded in comprehension, slung its bag back over its shoulder and tottered off.

Kinneas scratched his head and wondered where the creature's owner was. Even though the basketball court rules strictly forbade the participation of Guardian Forces, it had not yet excluded the mogli and other biped critters that might be kept around as pets by the Garden students.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Irvine bounced the ball over and over at the free-throw line, feeling the vibrations that each collision against the waxed surface of the court produced ripple from the floorboards to his shoes. The rhythm of the pounding reminded him of drumming as he had not heard since his childhood years. It was reminiscent of the stomping of the Galbadian soldiers in unison along the aging planks that comprised the floor of the Podunk pub owned by his foster family in Timber.

Bong. Bong. Bong. He was only ten at the time, but he remembered it as if it had happened ten minutes before. The troops rushed in through the door and flooded the lounge before anyone could react. At least one of the employees or customers was shot, whether or not they had retaliated, and panic had broken out. Stella* had pushed him under the bar counter by the cash register and loaded her gun at waist-level, right in front of his face. She began exchanging a few words with the enemy leader to buy time. But buying more time to live and load her gun was not as easy as buying her cowboy hat at the market. That hat would be his older foster sister's last gift to him before her chest exploded from a shotgun shell.

Bang. He didn't even get to hold her hand one final time before her entire body was limp on the floor. While the initial spurt of blood had gushed onto the cash register, the splash would eventually collect at the edge of the bar and drip onto the rim of his hat. For each drop it caught, he replaced with one of his own. When he grabbed her hand again and cried into it after the military had left, it had long grown cold and limp.

Everything had happened so fast, and the noises so frightening that he had forgotten the name of the General she had cursed as she had tried to raise her weapon. From what she had showed him from the shooting the bottles in the back alley for practice, she was a quick shot, and it was hard to believe that any of the infantry could have countered her movement so impeccably.

Bong. Irvine had caught the ball in both hands and flung in against the backboard in rage. It rebounded over his head and bounced to the far end of the court like a wounded animal limping away from its aggressor. When he looked down, his hands were shaking uncontrollably. His arm muscles were tensed and the veins seemed to spring right out of the skin.

This was a regular malady of the nerves that plagued him ever since Stella had been wrenched from him, and that thereafter occurred every time he recalled the incident. Out of terror he had trembled from head to toe, his little hands hardly able to steady the hat on his head. Much older now, he was no longer afraid, but only angry. Over the years, his hatred for those responsible for taking his second family had simmered to its boiling point, ready to tip at any moment. They had taken more than his foster family members' lives; they had taken his only chance to lead a normal life, a life of the people, free from vengeance, mercenary missions, and constant threat of never returning home. To be adopted by Garden meant forfeiting the right to wish your loved ones good-bye when it was most needed.

It was natural for him to enroll in Galbadia Garden to undergo sniper training after he had lost all else. The character that his past dictated fit the profile of a sniper perfectly. He was meant to hide, not shout out, and lie in wait for the right moment to reveal not himself, but the death he would one day be capable of dealing without fail. One shot was all he would get in each case, and one shot was all he ever desired to have against Stella's murderer. If only he could have one chance, he would deliver the perfect blow and complete the eight-year-long cat-and-mouse game. Lest he do this, her memory and the significance of her ever having existed would be lost forever.

Irvine leaned against the post of backboard and knocked his head gently against it. After I was adopted, I began believing again. Idealism and optimism are suddenly available when one has the warm arms of a sister wrapped around him. I learned eventually to cultivate this romantic idea that life would always look out for its children. The warm, paternal sky held its arms out to me as if it were inviting me warmly into its house of lanterns and promising that I would have an equally scintillating stay as did all its kin.

But I was horribly mistaken.

Irvine closed his eyes and sighed. When I look at the stars now, I can only feel a nauseating contempt swelling within my chest. That is because it took my best friend from me, and worst of all, it didn't even have the common decency to either take me too, or as a surrogate. Yes, I was quixotic to think that dreams could be materialized as reality. You could almost say that I deserved it, being foolish enough to even contemplate how everything was under control and followed some just pattern, some uncorrupted lottery. But I have learned my lesson, and I ascribe all my naïveté, errors, and regrets to that visionary personage who is no more.

Barely able to suppress the unwished for emotions and locked memories that were threatening to burst from the floodgate of his mind, he struggled to keep his facial expression even so as to mask his suffering from any passers-by. But it was useless, and his thoughts broke free.

The price for this metamorphosis is the basic forfeiture of all those rudimentary elements of humanity that make him weak against life's contrived banes. One cannot pierce an opponent's resolve if he has no fear to exploit, and so the heavens have no advantage against an emotionless adversary like myself. What is humanity but an experiment of nature's casino, where misinformed, wide-eyed children are toyed with and robbed of their assets by taut, immutable house rules? I have since become the perfect embodiment of the modern-day avenging angel, a cool, calculating automaton who fights the evil of the systems with the unrelenting vigor of each tissue in its body.

I was there, right next to her, but I didn't have the power to save her. I have to live with that one lingering, ironic thought everyday, every passing second of my life, thinking about what he did to deserve that, because people with such promising, radiant futures shouldn't have to exhaust their flames so quickly. But I will fight this injustice which life has done me, my sister, and anyone else with whom it has felt and will feel like tampering. I will vindicate my friend by giving everyone else a fighting chance. I am unafraid of the hardships that lie before me, for I have nothing to fear. Nothing can deter me from what I wish to accomplish. As a willing slave to my own burning determination, I am bound by nothing. I swore that night by all that was holy in Hyne, looking at the heavens, that it would never lure me into its lair from which so many once brilliant but now treacherously extinguished celestial candles, having entered, will never look out and smile to us again.

Vengeance and patience were more than compatible; they were necessary. It took years of training and months of research, but finally he met with success. The summer before last, from Galbadian Garden's Garden-Net, he had been able to dig up the military commander responsible for the pub raid in Timber. Yet, he was shocked to find out that someone had beaten him to the race for the man's dog-tag. It seemed that the General had been assassinated in an ambush just three years after Stella's death.

Irvine pounded his fist against pole. His fingerless gloves were only for show and utterly useless in protecting his knuckles, but even if he had broken something he wouldn't have cried out.

He was too late. As such, he wasn't satisfied. The conclusion of his story had been written without consulting him first. The debt owed to him had not been repaid to him directly but through someone else's hands. General Shojora's death was thus only fraudulent reparation. He had not yet extracted his due.

But there was still one alternative open to him. The decrypted files included a copy of birth certificate whose owner's name had been x-ed out, and the financial reports accumulated over the years which revealed a regular payment to a small institution out in southern Centra that had terminated after the General's death. From there it would be channeled and redirected to other accounts on other continents, but there was where it was siphoned. On a hunch, he checked out the address to find that it was an abandoned lighthouse turned orphanage whose owners were unknown.

Eyes closed and shoulder against metal post, Irvine shook his head. He had no idea at the time he explored the desolate domicile that year that it had been his ersatz home before Stella's family had adopted him as their own. The Guardian Forces he had junctioned during his training at Galbadia Garden had taken that from him. It was a curious quirk of fate to have ransacked his own home for office files that might reveal the identity of Shojora's heir.

What he had found there was more of a shock in the present than it was in the past. The recipient of Shojora's patronage was a Seifer Almasy, one-time resident of the orphanage but whose current whereabouts were unknown. Having no other record, presumably because of his youth, Seifer's location was untraceable. Irvine had returned to Galbadia Garden somewhat disappointed because he had run into a dead end.

That was, until the newspapers in Galbadia announced that Seifer Almasy had become Sorceress Edea's guardian knight. Whether it was dumb luck or Hyne's hand, the opportunity he had sought for revenge was materializing. Having aced his preliminary SeeD tests and field exams, he felt confident that if he marched to Headmaster Martine's office and requested to be assigned to the Sorceress assassination mission, even though he wasn't yet a SeeD, it would be granted. His reputation as the best sharpshooter in the Garden preceded him, and the Headmaster had indeed granted the precocious mercenary his request.

The momentous night came when he had his one shot at Seifer. On the rooftop with Squall Leonhart, he felt the nervous attack coming on and hastily hid his hands in his yellow duster's pockets. The moment he had been waiting for for eight years had finally come, and he was on the verge of blowing it. Taking a moment to shake it off required a hastily-invented excuse to Leonhart, for which he was thereafter inaccurately labeled a ninny in the other man's eyes. The truth was that he was not one to grow soft before the climax of duty, but that he had to make the choice between completing his professional agenda and his private one. He would only have one shot, but to which target was he to lay low - the sorceress or the knight?

Irvine shifted his weight to the other side of his body and moved off from the support of the post and headed in the direction to reclaim his basketball. The rest of the night was history. For all the times he had aimed at Seifer's heart, he never pulled the trigger at the target. Perhaps he had intended to reload right after taking out the sorceress and fire a second shot at Seifer, but after he saw how ineffectual his initial firing had been, he had given up the hope.

His arms were shaking again. His heart had picked up a little speed, and his eyes darted about the court, searching for an answer. It was more of a cause, and not the answer, that he was looking for, though. What was the cause of the eerie feeling was getting? It was unmistakably familiar, but he had not felt it so vividly ever since he had left his foster family. In the years that followed his enrollment in Galbadia Garden, he had only gone back for personal reasons once to visit his legal guardian, his foster uncle, once. But the air seemed to pulsate with the intensity of his former home. The familiar faces that all proved false upon further investigation skirted in and out of his line of sight, disconcerting him as one such instance had in the main lobby no too longer ago.


He dismissed the possibility.

I don't know why I always miss you so much. It's the one thing that time can't fix. I haven't seen you in so long that it's almost hard to remember how exactly your signature smile-nod goes. I'm afraid that some day I might not be able to see it again. The progress of knowing people is entropic, meaning that all lines move towards divergence and separation. People only grow farther apart with time. If I just step aside and let you go by without stopping you, the instant will have been lost but perhaps a longer span of hurt avoided. One can't miss what isn't first tasted until it has been tasted. The best way to love you is to be a coward.

"What were you thinking just now?" a high-pitched voice broke into his thoughts.

He recognized the owner instantly and forced a smile over his face.

"Who are you kidding?" he said, turning around and embracing her, "I'm not deep like Squall; I almost never think, not about anything." But not about anyone, either. No, not just anyone. Someone.

Selphie seemed surprised by the sudden display of affection and actually broke out of it.

"Don't do that if you don't mean it," she told him, stepping back. Did I just say that?

Irvine blinked. Whoa, what just happened?

He wanted to ask her if she was being serious, but uncomfortable with the possibility that she might actually answer, he refrained and inquired instead, "Hey, just wanted to express how much I missed you, honey."

"Yeah, right," Selphie rebuked. Then why haven't you visited me in ages?

Irvine looked at her with a merry but empty look. It was the same one that he had used so skillfully in all his years of informal courtship, the polish of frivolity over the hardened, saddened shell beneath. The truth was that he couldn't formally date anyone without lying to either himself or his partner. The mourning period for Stella was still not over, and he had not yet let go. Time had not amputated his arms nor removed his heart.

"No, really. You're incredibly special, you know that?" he tried to convince her.

Selphie looked up at him suspiciously.

"Hmm," Irvine added, as if considering it more thoroughly, "it's rare to be incredibly special. You see, some people are special, but to earn that extra amount, to qualify for that supererogatory distinction, one has to be really, really, really special, someone like you."

She was finally smiling at the corners of her mouth.

"Liar," she muttered and hit his arm. I know you're lying to be sweet, and it's working. I can't stay mad at you!

Irvine smiled again and then looked away. The color of the flames of love is always blue. In the end, the tears it provokes drowns the very embers that fed its flames, and so only pain remains, replacing the joy. There is no reason to light another match.

Selphie could sense the uneasiness between them, but she wasn't sure if he was exuding it or if it was coming from her. It hadn't happened before they would feel awkward around each other, being childhood friends reunited, but she guessed that there had to be some reason behind his imposing this new buffer between them, this gray, foreign area.

I only have the power to take care of your health, but not your heart unless you let me. Selphie told herself. Being with you means waiting for some girl who can do the opposite to come and steal you away in the future. Why won't you open your heart more and open your mouth less? Why can't I take care of all of you and not just one part?

Her stare told him that she was trying to figure him out, trying to understand him.

It was rare that they would have more than ten seconds of silence between line exchanges. But for some reason he could only return her gaze and look back at her sadly behind a shielded, unreadable countenance. Don't you know, Selphie, that the only romance worth remembering was that which has been lost, and the only love that warranted forgetting was that which has been lost twice.

"So, little lady," he finally remarked, "did you have something to tell me?"

Selphie took a pair of furry yellow earmuffs out of her concealed skirt pockets and showed it to him.

"What do you think about my spiffy new earmuffs?" she asked.

Irvine shifted his gaze from her to the earmuffs and then back to her eyes. He had his reservations.

"What's the real reason you're here?" he asked again, a bit more sincerity in his tone than before.

Unsure of how direct of a response was called for, Selphie decided to stall by straightening out the microscopic wrinkles in her skirt.

"I guess I just wanted to know where we are," she admitted earnestly. You and me. And I don't mean Nova Trabia Garden.

"We're SeeDs," Irvine replied, purposely unromantic. "What else could we be?" What more could we be?

"I don't care about all the other girls," she murmured softly. The sound of defeated pride was sandy, a push against infinite friction.

"Who does?" he replied with a wink.

She took a step closer to him.

"Can you just drop by tonight after dinner?" she begged, lowering her head. Please say yes.

Irvine was stunned.

"We can find a way to toast marshmallows," she added as an incentive and turned her back on him so that he wouldn't see her blush in embarrassment from abandoning all sense of shame.

Irvine sighed, a million and one things blazing through his brain, his mind trying to focus only on one. In the end, he considered that she was asking for just one gentlemanly call, and that it wasn't anything serious. No dinner, no movie, no expectation of commitment..

A quick run-through down his mental checklist verified that he was in the clear. At that point he nodded and then tapped her on the head.

"I'll drop by tonight then," the quick-draw confirmed and then bent down to pick up his ball.

Selphie smiled and chirped, "Great!"

"Which room is yours, again?" he checked before she got ahead of herself.

"Right next door to your room, silly," she told him in a quasi-patronizing voice. "Block 435, Dorm A8. We were all assigned rooms at the same time back at Balamb." How long have we been living here and how could you not have noticed!?

"Sorry," he replied sheepishly. "I've been a bit out of sorts lately."

As opposed to being out of shorts lately? she considered the edited version of his statement to herself bitterly.

"Well, see you then," Selphie announced suddenly. "When you come, we can watch the new J-drama that I ordered!"

With that, she scampered off before he could protest. She knew him only too well.

Not another J-drama, he reacted miserably.

Irvine stood back up with a frown and watched as the skimpy yellow silhouette disappeared back into the main building. The corridor she took seemed to lead down to the community bulletin board where he had noticed a curious advertisement poster from before. The graphic design had been minimalist, which was a bit too avant-garde for his tastes. Clearing the visual terrain and hunting for objects to focus on was an art he reserved for aiming, not for admiring.

Eyes still set on the doorway, they presently caught what emerged - a character struggling with the collar of his Garden uniform. It was a very tight-fitting outfit, the neck portion of which might obstruct circulation if the wearer was determined to button it all the way to the top.

Irvine watched the boy fight with the fastening mechanism for a bit longer before walking up to him and asking him if he was new to the Garden. The newness of the outfit whose pressed folds belied regular wear, was patent.

After cursory courtesy introductions, Irvine pried two primary pieces of information from the Nova Trabia Garden employee. First, he was their new librarian, and second, he was looking for a moogle.

"Oh," Irvine exclaimed, "so it belonged to you!"

"What? You've seen him?" the newcomer asked, his eyes lighting up.

"Yeah," the sharpshooter replied. "It was just here a minute ago, but I'm not sure where it wandered off to."

The librarian looked a tad bit disappointed.

Trying to hearten him, Irvine quickly interjected, "So what do you do besides organize the library? Do you have to chronicle events like a historian?"

The addressee nodded.

"Does anyone ever read it?" Irvine asked in curiosity. "I mean, is it worth writing at all?"

The boy shrugged and eventually answered, "I guess if there's even one person who will read it, no matter how far into the future from now, then it will have been worth writing."

Irvine seemed to ponder the point for a moment.

"Why do you ask?" the librarian wondered.

"I was thinking about writing a book too," Irvine confessed, "based on my experiences."

"We should definitely exchange notes and tips then," the other suggested.

Kinneas nodded wholeheartedly. But what might have subsequently developed into a great dialogue between was forever cut short by the entry of another personage from the far end of the courtyard.

Irvine squinted to make out the slouching, downcast figure whose brilliant hair and tattooed face undermined all the formality that his SeeD uniform was intended to convey.

The most curious thing about Zell's entrance was that he was coming out of the locker room by the Garden garage. That meant he must have treaded at least halfway around the interior hallways.

What was Zell doing in the garage? Irvine ruminated.

But whatever the reason, as Zell drew closer, the look on his face and the lackluster way he was dragging his feet revealed his thoughts, not requiring any translation. I haven't heard from you for the longest time. Normally this would be a cause for concern, I guess. Maybe I am a bit curious, but mostly I'm just downright worried. I hope you're doing okay.

He's probably thinking about the Balamb Garden library girl with the pig-tailed hairdo, Irvine speculated. For a moment he felt like he ought to do something or at least offer to help. Reaching out wasn't the easiest thing to do, though, especially if the person on the other end was liable to brush him off.

He was beginning to see Zell as a friend. It was a logical development from being merely contractually bound together by the same employer, having endured a trip through Time Compression to save the world and weeks of environmental surveying. Zell was noticeably just as glum when they had reached Mandy Beach, but at the time Irvine had just assumed that it was because of the protracted job and the jetlag that accompanied flying all over the world.

"We've also got the sworn duty to make you laugh and to keep you from wanting to cry," he could say, but Zell would probably have snickered and pretended like nothing was bothering him. And then he would have to put up with another annoying episode of Zell's shadowboxing put on display just to prove that he was alright.

"Seifer's back," Zell announced absent-mindedly, which was far less emotional delivery than Irvine had anticipated for news of such caliber.

"What!?" Irvine cried, dropping the ball. Seifer!


The librarian looked puzzled and picked up the ball before it could bounce out of reach.

"Who's Seifer?" he inquired with a frown. Something doesn't seem right.

"Where is he?" Irvine demanded. "How long ago was this?"

Zell blinked.

"Didn't you hear - oh, right," the blonde SeeD recalled, "you wouldn't have heard the general alarm out here in the basketball courts. Only the emergency alarms were installed on the outdoor facilities."

"Who is Seifer?" the librarian repeated.

"Oh," Irvine exclaimed, recovering somewhat from his shock and remembering that there was a third party present, "have you two met, or should I make introductions?"

Zell nodded but didn't really register what was being asked of him.

"Back to your question though," Kinneas continued, "Seifer is - umph!"

He was nearly bowled over by a half-pint filly.

"Hey!" the girl protested angrily. "Watch where you're going!"

Clearly not the ones at fault for the moving violation, the three men looked at her inquisitively.

The petite brunette blushed when she recognized the faces of the two senior officers.

"Oops. Sorry, Zell, Irvine," she cooed in the cutest voice she could put on. Syrup was a great way to douse a pancake caught on fire. She did a little wave of greeting with her finger small fingertips.

Zell looked at Irvine.

"Wait," he said, "you know Rishi?"

Irvine rapped his fellow SeeD on the head.

"Yeah, met her last week when we walked by each other in the hallway," Irvine reminded him. Rishi shut her round eyes and nodded fervently in agreement. And then she opened them back up and smiled.

"Oh, I remember now," Zell muttered. "It was right before Quistis nabbed us and made us sit through that Shumi transmission replay."

Those liars! How dare they accuse of us stealing! Zell and Irvine thought simultaneously.

As if there was anything there of value to rip off, Irvine disgustedly added.

Yeah, Zell complemented the thought, the Artisan can't sculpt worth Elnoyle dung.

Finally finding a chance to cut in, the librarian extended his hand to Rishi and began introducing himself.

"Hi, I'm -"

"Urgent message for Senior Instructor Kinneas," a runner announced, cutting into the huddle, and into the sentence in progress. In his hand was a postcard.

Oh, it's addressed to me! Irvine noticed. He was pleasantly surprised.

Duh, Tonberry King communicated from the back of his head. It was more of a throaty sound.

Quiet, you, Irvine lashed back mentally at the junctioned GF.

Taking up the message and making sure to hide it from the view of his companions as he read it, his smile transformed by degrees into a dark scowl.

At its conclusion, he muttered aloud, "It can't be a coincidence."

None of the others found any suitable words to ask what the postcard said, and Irvine didn't seem to be in mood to communicatively interact any further with them, so after the courier excused himself, it was Rishi who finally broke the ice.

"Is that a love note from the new trainee who just transferred from Galbadia Garden this morning?" she joked nervously. "Wow, Instructor Kinneas, I didn't know you moved that fast!"

Abruptly Irvine fixed his eyes on her as if what she had said was of immense interest to him. The intensity of his stare caused her to shrink back.

"Are you talking about Pearl or a different girl?" he asked her.

"What?" Zell asked in disbelief. "You know Pearl too?" What a womanizer!

"I met Pearl last week on the bridge in the lobby right before I ran into you two," he explained, indicating Zell and Rishi. "She was lost and complaining about some irresponsible guy who just deserted her without even giving her a map."

Seeing Zell's face redden, Rishi scowled. That conniving home-wrecker.

"No, it wasn't her," Rishi told Irvine. "That happened last week, and this new trainee only arrived today."

"What color was her hair? What does she look like? Did she give you a name?" Irvine assailed her with questions.

"Why don't you just cut to the chase and ask Rishi if she could give you that girl's number too?" Zell mouthed sarcastically.

Irvine shot him a look that silenced him and then turned back to Rishi.

Under the heavy gaze, Rishi searched frantically through her memory banks for the name that the girl had given her.

Her face lit up.

"She said her name was -"

The ear-splitting Garden emergency alarms sounded, ringing out like a sonic boom and nearly knocking Rishi's small frame off her feet. When she caught herself, she looked back nervously to Irvine who seemed totally unconcerned by their circumstances. The SeeD was calmly loading his much coveted Pulse Ammo into the barrel of his Exeter rifle. That meant that while she was still flinching in reflex to the sound of battle, he had automatically reached for his weapon.

Wow, Rishi thought, her amazement and admiration flaring up emotions within her. He's so cool!

Zell cracked his knuckles and pointed to the doorway that led back into main building.

"You two," he ordered, "get back indoors and find cover."

Irvine nodded at the two Garden employees for whom the order was intended. They obliged.

Just as they got to the doorway, Quistis and Selphie, each flanked by three armed lower level SeeDs appeared through it. After waiting for the small squadron to pass, Rishi and the librarian continued into the Garden.

"We're under attack," Quistis updated them by shouting across the courtyard. "Expected time of enemy arrival is forty seconds."

In one sharp motion, Irvine cocked his rifle with one hand. He nodded to the Headmistress, signaling that his GFs were all properly junctioned and that he was ready for battle. He didn't need to be told which direction the enemies would be arriving from since the greeting party had assembled here.

The remaining basketball players had run back to the locker rooms, leaving a clear courtyard. Standing beneath the roofless perimeter of Nova Trabia Garden, Irvine noted the incoming dark clouds, approaching at an ominous speed.

"Those aren't clouds," Quistis shouted above the roar of the wind, picking up. "That's the enemy pack."

Zell frowned.

"It take it it's not a swarm of Gratts," he yelled back to his former instructor.

"No," Quistis responded wearily. "They're Blue Dragons. The scanning radar indicates at least forty-five of them, all level 80 or above." ETA is fifteen seconds.

Zell swallowed hard but knew that he had heard her correctly.

Irvine too was taken aback. No party of three SeeDs had ever handled more than one Blue Dragon at a time. If they would have to handle forty-five at once, they would need reinforcements.

He took a look back at their formation. Six level 10 SeeDs, eight level 12 SeeDs, and one level 20 SeeD had joined the initial party of ten. They were still heavily outnumbered.

"Where are the juniors?" Zell asked, referring to all the students that they had of sub-10 level.

"I had them stand down," Quistis replied, "because we couldn't gain access to the armory and there were only weapons enough for those you see present."

Irvine looked at her. You can't be serious. How did we lock ourselves out of there?

Selphie read his expression.

"The corridor leading to the armory was locked down during the first general emergency alarm because of Seifer's unauthorized entry as programmed by our anti-theft protocol," she explained. "The resulting lock requires two keys and both need to inserted at the same time. We didn't count on needing to access the armory in response to a priority emergency alarm so soon after a general alarm."

"So who has the two keys?" Zell yelled, uneasily eying the leaders of the pack of flying beasts that were drawing close enough to recognize as distinct entities.

"Selphie has one, but Squall has the other," Quistis answered. ETA is five seconds.

Zell went pale. He's not in the Garden. He rode out on his own. Maybe they've intercepted him.

"So have you to tried contact Squall?" Irvine yelled.

The pause in Quistis' voice right before the first of the Blue Dragons rammed through the outer gate of the courtyard induced a chill to run down Irvine's spine. Immediately thereafter they seemed to be landing everywhere around them.

"We tried," the Headmistress told the sharpshooter, "but all we got from the other end were sounds of a fight already in progress." And the screams. I can't tell them about the screams.

She had no way of knowing that his pulse was racing every bit as fast as hers, and that his opinion on their outlook was just as bleak. So it begins. Engage!

*Kate Lorraine (lorraine_kate@hotmail.com) gives the full account of Stella and Shojora's significance in her death in "The Orphan."

Setting 33

Jeremy Chapter's Fanfiction