-Tennyson, Alfred Lord
Its your turn, Doomtrain.
The locomotive Guardian Force stirred to life after the GF Diablos reminded him whose go it was. Beside him sat the three-headed dog GF Cerberus, each head having demanded to play a different hand. Cerberus A stared curiously at all the rotors chugging sleepily back to life and the smoke puffing out of the engine. Even Cerberus B had to pause and watch the windshield wipers come to life, clearing the ash that had built up and blocked Doomtrains burning eyes. Meanwhile, Cerberus C snuck a quick peek at Cerberus Bs cards.
What? Doomtrain rumbled. My go? What did Ifrit put down?
Were skipping him, Diablos hissed, his wings rustling from his annoyance at Ifrits early leave that had delayed the game. Cerberus A wanted to wait for him, but Cerberus B and C outvoted him.
I didnt call you out to play a game of Bluff, Squall reminded sternly, his irritation brewing.
All the GFs turned to the cliff edge and whined cacophonously to their master, sitting with his relaxed feet hanging over the edge. They could not see anything but the darkened outline of their master because he was resting right in front of them, facing the setting sun.
"I wonder why the richest man in the world has to mope," Diablos muttered under his breath.
"What do you mean?" Cerberus A asked, lifting his head. "I didn't know he was rich."
"That's because your body didn't come with three brains," Diablos sneered.
Cerberus A didn't get the insult, Cerberus C chose to ignore it, while Cerberus B sighed, rolled his eyes, and explained it to his first head, "The need for Gil was so pathetic throughout all the missions from the liberation of Timber through the killing of Ultimecia that he racked up enough to retire early, live to old age in luxury, and even support a hearty family of fourteen."
"Fourteen exactly?" Cerberus A asked incredulously.
Cerberus C whispered over Cerberus B's head to tell Cerberus A that he was drooling.
"You left out the part about our Master's intentional manipulation of the frequency of pay," Diablos commented with an artificial yawn.
Cerberus C was now as lost as Cerberus A and they both looked towards the middle head for an answer other than extortion.
"Master figured out that pay came with the number of steps he took, not by this new time clock system. Cid saw how much money was flowing into Master's account and realized that he was deliberately going out of the way in every mission."
"Did Cid scold him?" Cerberus C questioned.
Cerberus B shook his head, replying, "He just assumed that Master was spending that time chasing after Rinoa as if."
"I was under the impression that there was a flat rate per mission with the hazard pay determined by a linear relationship between level of danger and bonus rewarded," Doomtrain rumbled, cutting into the conversation.
"If that were the case, he never would have gotten his first paycheck since Timber still isn't officially liberated," Diablos scoffed, showing his vicious-looking teeth through a triumphant grin.
"I forgot about that," Cerberus A murmured.
"Don't worry about it," Cerberus B comforted. "We weren't around at the time so you couldn't have known."
"He's never around," Cerberus C criticized Cerberus A disgustedly.
Just meters away, Squall Leonhart found it hard to concentrate on his problems with all the chatter going on behind him. He looked down and stared at his new sandals that didnt quite match the orange t-shirt he was wearing, finally wondering where Ifrit had gone for the past five minutes.
Whatever it is, It had better be important, Squall reflected bitterly.
The GFs convinced Squall to let them have until Ifrits return to play. That way they wouldnt have to catch him up on matters.
Where is he anyway? asked Squall, clearly irritated by having to wait.
GFs have lunch breaks, too, Master, Diablos informed Squall.
Squall pointed at the sun setting in front of their eyes.
Its a bit late for lunch, Leonhart hissed, not having decided between an acerbic tone or a confrontational one.
Some GFs go by Greenwich time, Diablos clarified, warranting a look from Squall so hostile that he decided it would be safe to shut up for awhile.
It seems like hes taking the rest of the day off, their Master grumbled.
Didnt you clock out at noon to take the rest of the day off, Master Squall? Cerberus B asked.
Point taken. You can shut your trap now.
Cerberus B was, in Squalls opinion, the smartest of the three heads.
What did Ifrit do today to deserve a lunch break? At least I put up some signs around the basketball courts before I clocked out, Squall thought spitefully.
Cerberus B was now whining about an itch that no one was willing to scratch for him even if Cerberus A consented to being scratched. Cerberus C could care less. Diablos had considered having Leviathan play in Ifrits place but he realized that Leviathan would ruin the cards with water. It had taken him seven centuries to find a deck of fireproof cards so Ifrit could play, and he would have to damn himself if he wanted to find one that was both fireproof and waterproof. Diablos shuddered at the thought of Cid noticing the deck missing from his bottom drawer.
Hell, he thought, brushing the idea off casually, if that ever happened, we could just blame it on Squall.
Cerberus C noticed that Diablos wasnt paying attention to what Doomtrain was putting down. He must be thinking up something sinister. Sheesh, look at that creepy grin.
Squall reached over his right shoulder to scratch an inch. It turned out to be one of those infernal, internal itches so he just crossed his arms and huffed.
How am I supposed to ponder the matters of state with all this going on? My back is burning, my ears are burning, and now I'm even smelling something burning! he thought furiously.
It suddenly occurred to him that what he was smelling was the part of the suffocating odor that unquestionably emanated from the all too familiar GF, Ifrit. He was about to turn his head and carp at the monster, but caught himself. He was Squall, and Squall turned for no one.
"Where have you been?" he asked aloud, resuming his empty stare at his sandals. These are some really nice sandals.
All the GFs looked up and wondered which of them the Master was addressing, but instantly caught on that their playmate had returned. In the middle of welcoming the fiery GF back, they realized that while his return was synonymous with resuming the card game without skipping anyone, Squall had decided to end the party with Ifrit's arrival. Thus, just by listening to the drop in intensity of the greetings, Squall could tell that the initial unanimous excitement had shriveled into sure disappointment.
"Had to ask Squaresoft, Inc. about a ruling," Ifrit responded with his usual raspy voice.
He shot a knowing look at Diablos and added with emphasis on the third word, "And you don't get to put more than 4 of the same monster in the deck for Bluff just because they are Triple Triad cards."
Diablos cursed and threw down the 19 Elnoyle cards he'd been holding, his ploy having been exposed. He suddenly blushed at the sharp look that each of the players was giving him, demanding that he pay them back all the Gil of which he had cheated them.
"What took you so long?" Squall asked, not distracted by the mess Diablos was in.
"There was a flight delay due to hazardous weather," Ifrit replied calmly.
That's no excuse to abandon our discussion about Rinoa! Squall decided. His eyes narrowed, but he didn't pursue the topic. Ifrit sensed that Squall was letting him off easy, so he considered slipping quietly into the mass of GFs that was beating the Gil out of Diablos. That would have been the smarter thing to do, but seeing how Squall had been a problem-child since he first took him up, Ifrit stayed where he was to endure the grilling that would somehow make Squall feel more secure about himself.
I was never good with human relationships, Squall considered, slipping back into his own world of deep thought. To Diablos with it if I haven't gotten use to getting left behind all the time. My mother left me, Laguna left me, Sis left me, now...
Ifrit was shuffling his feet, at which Squall frowned but continued to ponder.
Is it really just because I'm that kind of person? What do they expect? Someone who won't drive them away?
Squall's mind froze for a second, whether because he just became aware that Ifrit's nail-biting was more annoying that his feet-shuffling, or because he just characterized himself as a love repellent. He scratched his head desperately, looking for an alternative.
This can't be right! Am I that undesirable? Does no one want me? Am I just a piece of property that gets passed around from one passerby to the next unfortunate soul, to someone who blames his luck for getting stuck with me?
Ifrit yawned ostentatiously, but Squall was just barely able to hold himself back from lashing out at him right then.
I must carry no value if no one values my companionship. Shareware gets passed around. I'm a demo, then, a fake. No one wants to end up with me.
He blinked with a start, and when his eyelids lifted, they revealed two eyes wide with fear.
I'm a disease, he concluded sadly.
Ifrit felt that something was wrong but did not venture to ask.
So that's the deal? Squall asked himself, summing it up. I get picked up, used, exploited, and then dropped because I'm not good enough? It was their turn, and now that they're done, they want to get rid of me?
Ifrit was getting really worried now, seeing Squall's fingers curling into a tight fist, the muscles along his arm all bulging from the tension.
I guess they figure they can just toss me back into the gutter like some stray dog. It's of no cost to anyone since I was an orphan anyway. Of course I have no value, then. I was just someone else's leftovers to begin with.
Ifrit did not like the look on Squall's face, wrestling in pain, anger, doubt, and hate. He tried to quiet the fight between the other GFs, but they didn't notice. Ifrit prepped himself to interrupt Squall's thoughts, knowing well the brutal consequences of the offense.
Squall recalled his earlier comparison about his being a disease. I'm more like a poison than an infectious disease. Everyone tries to find a cure from me, and the just leave when they see that it won't work. They think I'm a poison so they want to change me. Do I really want to change for some people that can't see me as something better than that to begin with?
Ifrit coughed purposely and tried to tap his Master on the shoulder.
Squall spun around, eyes flashing so horribly that Ifrit decided wisely to back off.
So Rinoa is just like the rest of them, he thought, resuming right where he left off in his brooding. She'll leave me if she hasn't already left.
"If there isn't anything else, I'll be leaving," Ifrit said finally after working up enough courage. He had no idea that it was the worst thing to say at that instant.
"You're not going anywhere!" Squall shouted, jumping up and taking Ifrit by the horns before giving it an aggressive shake. The squabbling GFs behind the two stopped in surprise. Ifrit was usually Squall's scapegoat, and every time he got told, it was a highly-prized and gratifying experience, envied by every GF not junctioned to Squall.
Hardly noticing how the fire spirits horns had begun to sear the flesh of his palms, but startled by his own uncharacteristic outburst, Squall let go of Ifrit's horns and began pacing. He pulled out a rolled baby Malboro tentacle from the case in the pocket of his jeans.
This is driving me crazy, he thought, shaking his head. I have to calm down. I have to have a cigarette. Have to have one.
Ifrit brushed his hand over the end of the roll and lit it as Squall held it out.
Nobody spoke for awhile. It seemed safer to let him work out his frustration along with the fumes he was exhaling.
Doomtrain finally broke the silence.
"If status defects are what you are looking for, I can speed up the process for you," he rumbled.
"That's not too healthy, Master," Ifrit agreed.
"I suppose you want to tell me that dating a sorceress is healthy," Squall barked at them.
"I was just coming to that," Ifrit said hastily. This was what all the GFs had been waiting for, a perfect opportunity to bring into open discussion what Squall had been wanting to say for the past few hours.
"Do you want me to kill her for you?" Diablos offered, running his tongue over his fangs.
Squall pretended that he hadn't heard that. He reached in his pocket and jingled the keys it carried to the spanking new, blue A09-series Garden motorbike, the next generation of jet-propulsion A08 motorbikes on which the Galbadian soldiers had ridden while attacking Balamb.
"We conferred while you were hanging up your "No GFs on the court" signs and came up with some interesting views about your girlfriend," Cerberus B said, taking Ifrit's place in the conversation after a noticeable pause. Why is he staring at that new bike of his?
"And we did it outside the courts so we wouldn't undermine what you were doing," Cerberus C added quickly. That bike must have cost him at least three quarters of the Gil he had saved since he was inducted into SeeD.
"Even though it was a bit prejudiced against GFs," Diablos contributed with a fake cough. You better watch your keys, buddy, or that cute bike is mine.
Cerberus B scowled at him before nodding at Ifrit to continue. Tear your scum-bag eyes away from the Master's bike, Diablos.
"Well, you know how you can't draw or use any magic unless you have those specific abilities switched on?" Ifrit asked. Tear your scum-bag eyes away from the Master's bike, Diablos.
Squall nodded tentatively. Tear your scum-bag eyes away from my bike, Diablos, or I will tear your eyes from you.
"Well, without junctioning any GFs, no one can cast any spells or use magic of any sort," Cerberus B finished for Ifrit.
"Are you trying to debar Rinoa from being a sorceress?" Squall ventured.
Cerberus B shrugged and answered, "You are no different from her in magic use is all we're saying."
"Without us, you couldn't do anything, basically," Diablos laid out bluntly.
Squall shot him the look that instantly quieted him. He rubbed the back of his head absent-mindedly and tried to come up with a hole in their theory. It didnt take long to find one.
But even when she doesnt have any GFs junctioned to her, she doesnt lose all the spells she drew. All the magic stays locked up inside her, Squall brought to their attention.
Ifrit had seen that petty counter-argument coming and was ready to rebut it.
The spells you draw stay locked up inside you too, Master, the GF pointed out. Hell, you can even switch magic spells that have been drawn or those that have been junctioned from person to person. So if Rinoa is a sorceress, and you two switch junctioned spells, does that make you a warlock?
Squall raised one eyebrow slightly and said, You know you are walking a really fine line on the definition of a sorceress, all based on technicalities in terminology.
Hey, if you want to split hairs on definitions, ask the former President Deling what he thinks constitutes sex, Diablos joked.
No one thought it was a particularly funny crack, even less so because the former President Deling was no longer alive.
"What about her limit break?" Squall questioned, still skeptical.
"You mean that pathetic one where she loses all control of herself and casts spells like crazy?" Diablos popped in. "What's that move called? Angel Wing or something?"
Diablos scoffed and then added, "You should check out Lucifer's wingspan!"
Squall told Diablos that no one really cared for his company and gave him permission to leave. As the other GFs broke out into a standing ovation, Diablos quickly hid himself behind Doomtrain and out of Squall's view.
"What kind of name is 'limit break'?" Cerberus C asked.
"Sounds stupid," Cerberus A agreed.
"Hey," Cerberus B cut in, "it's better than 'Trance' or something dumb like that."
"What would you rather call it, then?" Squall asked Ifrit.
Ifrit thought about it for awhile before answering, "This is off the topic, but I'd call it 'Desperation Maneuver' or 'Geronimo'."
All the GFs except Doomtrain murmured with approval.
"Personally I think that sounds too much like Gerogero," Doomtrain huffed.
Cerberus B turned back to Ifrit to correct his last statement. "It's not that far off the topic. If you consider Rinoa's Angel Wing as mere sorcery, you have to wonder whether or not she could pull off that limit break without being junctioned to any of us."
Squall thought about it. He's right. I've never seen Rinoa do that without any GFs. Hey, wait a second!
What about her casting spells during her limit break that she doesnt even have? Magic doesnt just come out of nowhere, Squall said.
Ifrit looked at Cerberus B for help. The latter GF nodded, saying, Ill take this one.
With Squall listening, he explained, You know how Selphie has her Slot limit break?
Yeah, its completely random, Squall acknowledged.
Yes, Cerberus B agreed, but some of those spells Selphie doesnt have stored either. In fact, half of those spells you cant draw from enemies anywhere. Does that make Selphie a sorceress too?
Squall considered it before grudgingly capitulating. Okay, you have a point.
"Does any of this help?" Doomtrain asked, relieved that Squall had forgotten about the Malboro tentacle, allowing it to burn itself out.
Squall hesitated. Does the possibility of her not being a sorceress cheer me up? Why should it? It was interesting to hear their theory, but that wasn't what was troubling me.
Ifrit knew Squall well enough to figure out that this was the "No, it doesn't help" type of silence. He shifted uncomfortably to another spot of fresh grass, the patch over which he had been standing having been long since reduced to mere cinders.
"What we're trying to say is that she's just a normal girl, Master. There is nothing threatening about her," Ifrit finally spoke. "Don't beat yourself up over it.
Rinoa? A normal girl? Squall frowned at the suggestion. So there is nothing special about her...so what?
Ifrit saw how Squall wasn't cracking, realizing that either that had made the wrong assumption about what was bothering him in the first place, or that this new piece of intelligence had just offered him something else to worry about.
Ifrit tried to salvage the situation with, "At least you won't have to concern yourself with people talking about any hypocrisy in the Garden code with the Commander of SeeD hanging around a sorceress for any reason other than sending her to Diablos."
I didn't know people were talking about it, Squall noted mentally. It took him a bit longer to fully digest the issue that Ifrit had just throw down. Holy Shiva, he's right! It's my duty to kill her.
"But as I said," Ifrit continued after catching Squall's sharp intake of air, "that is something that you don't have to worry about. We already have enough arguments to keep the Esthar investigators from legally taking Rinoa. And she will definitely have her father, the General's protection."
That slipped my mind too. Had it not been for years of training in Balamb Garden, Squall would not have been able to suppress his instinctive urge to slap himself in the head.
A second later he found himself frowning at another point that Ifrit had brought up. The General's daughter, that sounds ominous.
"I just realized that I hardly know anything about her," Squall announced, shaking his head.
"I wonder why that is," Cerberus A scoffed, daring to give Squall an accusing look.
"Don't pretend like you know why that is," Cerberus B chastised his first head.
Why is that? Squall was beginning to wonder.
"You've never given her a chance," Diablos muttered.
Apparently it was still audible, and Squall scowled, trying to discern the fiendish GF who had cowered behind his colleagues.
Cerberus B coughed purposely to break the silence and tried to cool Squall down with, "What he meant was you two were never given the chance. Every single time it mattered, one or both of you were comatose or running for your lives."
Squall nodded. So long as I'm not responsible.
Diablos snickered at a joke he had made up in his head. Adel got closer to Rinoa than our Master has.
Squall began to wonder why he should bother trying if every time he did, some disaster would interrupt them. He was also feeling irked for not having the opportunity to get to know Rinoa; it had nothing to do with whether he chose to go through with it or not, just so he had a choice, that freedom. He realized that maybe it was more her fault than his.
She didn't give me the chance, he thought, not the other way around. She was always knocked out, glued to someone else's body, floating in space, or hanging on for dear life. The moment we do get close at the party, she blew me off. It was her fault, not mine.
Having established that he was not at fault and there was nothing special about Rinoa except for the unfortunate fact that she was the General's daughter, Squall could find no reason why he should like her at all. Her saving him on the return trip from Time Compression in the flower field was the least the could do to compensate for the numerous times he had saved her. He was actually doing her the favor if he just called it even.
Had he been smoking that fast? His cigarette was finished, and he tossed it lazily off the cliff and watched as it haphazardly spiraled down, flitting whichever way it wanted without every really deciding, until it disappeared from view.
Just like that floating golden feather.
Ifrit watched nervously along with Cerberus B as Squall withdrew further into his ruminations, reaching in his pocket for another joint. They did not like the look on his face, guessing where his thoughts were leading him. This was not what they had in mind.
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I would appreciate your reviews for this chapter so I can see what you are thinking or feeling, so as better to go back and make corrections for other readers if I see that everyone is stumbling between the same two chapters. Also, if you catch any spelling or grammar mistakes, would you please notify me via email so that I may correct them as soon as possible? Thanks in advance.
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