The Gunblade Saga Chapter 5

The Exam

By Peptuck3

We get a bit of an insight into Squall's opinion on killing and his job in this chapter.

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        The return to Garden was uneventful, save for another couple of Bite Bug attacks. A few spells and some gunblade blasts from Squall had solved that problem in short order.

        "Well done," Quistis said as they passed through the front gate. "We still have about an hour before the exam. Change into your uniform and meet in the first floor lobby, at the directory. And be prepared." With that, Quistis left, heading inside. Squall followed suit.

        The atmosphere inside Garden seemed different than when he had last left. There were fewer students in the halls, and those that were moved quickly, with purpose. The whole building seemed to be enshrouded in hushed anticipation, a tenseness that would only be brought on by the knowledge of a coming battle. Squall made his way quickly to his dorm and into his room.

        There, he changed into his cadet's uniform, the familiar blue jacket with its silver shoulders and collar comfortable. He hadn't worn the jacket too often, preffering his own black leather one, but he was familiar with this outfit. He left his jacket open, exposing his muscle shirt, reloaded and checked his gunblade, checked his knives and equipment, and then reinspected the Revolver again. Squall had to be thorough now; he couldn't afford not to be.

        The coming battle . . . he'd heard rumors that this was an actual combat exam against real human targets. Squall wondered who their opponent was. Likely the army of the Republic of Galbadia; SeeD was constantly hired to stop their assaults on neighboring nations.

        The triggering mechanism was in working order, and so were the rotation mechanism, the compensators, and the actual gun mechanism that channeled the energy of the gublade's shots.

        That mechanism would blast the armored hides of monsters apart, and it would do the same to a human foe's armor. Squall looked into the etched lion on the blade's sides, and considered the coming engagement. It was very likely that this would be a human opponent they were up against, and that meant he was almost certianly going to take a human's life today.

        So be it.

        The inspection complete, he sheathed his gunblade and made his way back out to the front directory.

        * * * * *

        "Squall, over here!" Quistis called, waving as soon as she had spotted him. She was once again clad in her SeeD uniform, and was holding a clipboard, looking over about ten or so cadets assembled around the directory, some chatting with their instructors or one another. He made his way over to Quistis, who continued as he came closer. "I'll be announcing the squad assignments for the exam now. Let's see . . . you'll be with . . ." She looked over her clipboard. "Zell Dincht. Quite a lively fellow."

        'Zell?' Squall thought, slightly unhappy. He recalled the muscular cadet from earlier that morning, desperate for hot dogs. Zell had been in Garden for a long time, and though he was an excellent, in not outright amazing, hand-to-hand fighter, Squall knew him well and didn't like the idea of being stuck with someone as aggressive and hot-tempered as Zell Dincht.

        "Lively?" Squall muttered. "He's just loud. Can't I switch members?"

        "I'm afraid that's not possible," Quistis replied with a shake of her head. "Random selection put you two together."

        Squall glanced over there to see the hyperactive Zell practicing his martial arts, as usual. Zell loosed right and left roundhouse punches at an imaginary foe, then spun on one behind him, loosing a powerful spinning kick, before planting a pair of left jabs.

        "Over here, Zell!" Quistis called to him, and he glanced up from his practice, stopped, and then did a perfect double backflip across the distance, standing up smiling. He looked at Quistis, then to Squall standing next to her, and his eyes widened.

        "Whoa, I'm with you?!" he said excitedly, which was his usual tone for any situation. Zell Dincht quickly wiped off his gloved right hand on his uniform and held it out to Squall. The taciturn cadet didn't move, except to glance at Zell's hand, then he looked away, a clear indication he wasn't going to shake the offered hand. Zell slumped, realizing that one couldn't expect anything else out of Squall. He quickly changed the subject to something that would get a reaction out of the stone student.

        "You don't get along with Seifer, do you?" the martial artist asked. At that, Squall did look up. "Heard he whooped you pretty bad this morning. Infirmiry, scars, gunblades, y'know."

        "We weren't fighting," Squall clarified quickly. "We were training."

        "Bet you he doesn't think so," Zell responded, knowing Seifer almost as well as Squall himself did. "Look," Zell began, "Seifer's just being a pain in the ass. Why don't you ignore him?" Squall's eyes hardened. No one got it. He couldn't ignore Seifer.

        Quistis knew Squall's response to that bit of advice before he even said it.

        "That's-" Squall began to say.

        "None of your business," Quistis finished. Her remark caught both cadets' attention, and as they glanced over at her, she decided to deliver the bad news. "Ahem . . . Excuse me, but . . . That Seifer you're talking about . . . he's your squad leader."

        Squall cursed silently, while Zell's response was much more vocal.

        "SAY WHAT?!" he shouted, taken aback by the news.

        "It can't be changed," Quistis said apologetically. "Seifer! Are you here?" she called. As if on cue, Seifer appeared among the assembled students, Fujin and Raijin following him.

        'Guess that makes up the whole Disciplinary Committee,' Squall thought to himself. 'Did he convieniently forget that he was supposed to wear his uniform too?'

        Seifer apparently had; he was the only cadet, in fact the only person present, not wearing his uniform. He was still bedecked in his white coat, vest, and pants. Apparently, Garden's style wasn't good enough for him.

        "You're the squad leader," Quistis informed Seifer, although Squall could tell she didn't enjoy the prospect. Well, good. Neither did he. "Good luck to you," Quistis added.

        "Instructor," Seifer replied, in an almost condescending tone, much to Quistis's ire. "I hate it when people wish me luck." Both Fujin and Raijin nodded. "Save those words for a bad student that needs them," he advised.

        "Okay then," Quistis responded, smiling sweetly. She'd had enough of this pompous attitude. " . . . Good luck, Seifer."

        It was satisfying to see Seifer's response. His eyes widened, and then narrowed dangerously.

        "Add Instructor Trepe to the list," he muttered quietly.

        "Well then," Quistis said, satisfed that Seifer was in his place. "You'll all be assigned to Squad B. I'll be the instructor in charge. Remember, teamwork is of the utmost importance. Let's get through this exam people!"

        "Listen up!" Seifer said to Zell and Squall, grinning. He glanced back over at Quistis. "Teamwork means staying out of my way! Its a Squad B rule! Don't you forget it!"

        Quistis shook her head at Seifer's declaration, while Zell veritably trembled in anger at his arrogance. Squall was more ambivilant.

        ' . . . Whatever.' he thought.

        "Everyone here?" came a call from the stairs. The assembled group turned to see Headmaster Cid Kramer himself descending the stairs leading to the elevators.

        Cid was a short, slightly overweight man in his early fifties, with brown, slightly graying hair, gray eyes, and large glasses. He had something resembling a beard on his chin. The Headmaster wore a reddish vest, white business shirt, a green tie, and some old brown pants. He smiled as he approached his cadets, and there was something in his eyes, pride perhaps, in his cadets. The Headmaster was prone to gesturing theatrically as well.

        Quistis made room for him in front of the directory, and Cid stood there for a moment, surveying his students, hands clasped behind his back.

        "Its been a while, everyone," he began, still smiling. "How's everyone doing? This exam will involve twelve members from Squads A through D." Apparently, that was as far into small talk as Cid was going to go. "You will be proceeding to a real battlefield. Obviously, the battles are for real." One of Cid's hands came out from behind his back, waving in the air as he spoke, as if he were holding something.

        "Life and death," Cid said solemnly, his smile fading. "Victory and defeat, honor . . . and disgrace. Each of these go hand in hand. There's only one way, or the other."

        Cid brought his hand back behind his back, and bent over, looking each and every cadet in the eye.

        "How 'bout it?" Cid challenged. "Are you still up for it?"

        The Headmaster straightened.

        "You will be accompanied by nine SeeD members," he informed the cadets. "Should you fail, they will get the job done. They always do." Cid then smiled again, holding his hands out wide. "Well, that's one less worry on your mind."

        Cid gestured to a group of calm, uniformed individuals, bedecked in battle dress and gear, standing at attention at the top of the stairway behind him. "The pride of Balamb Garden! The elite mercanary force, SeeD! Learn from them, obey their commands, and accomplish the mission." Cid bent over once more, again giving each of the cadets a look in the eye.

        "Prove yourself worthy of becoming a member of SeeD." Cid stood straight once again, and nodded at the cadets.

        "Best of luck."

        Quistis turned to the assembled cadets.

        "Let's get a move-on!" she shouted, and the students began to file out, some running, others moving at a steady pace. Seifer joined them at a regal pace, as would be expected from him. Cid stepped forward and tapped Squall on the shoulder as he too, turned to move out.

        "We've yet to have a gunblade specialist in SeeD," Cid said quietly. "That's why I hope you and Seifer will be joining us."

        "I'll do my best, sir," Squall responded, saluting.

        "Good. Now, get moving." Squall nodded and hurried to join the other cadets. Quistis began to move out too, but Cid stopped her as well.

        "How was his Fire Cavern test?" he asked. "How did Ifrit treat him?" Quistis shook her head. Ifrit always judged a cadet who challenged him, using his ages-old wisdom to determine how powerful the student was. Thus, Ifrit knew to never throw something at a cadet that could potentially be lethal. Conversely, if Ifrit felt an opponent was strong, he would use much more powerful and aggressive attacks on them, and would not surrender until he had taken much more damage.

        "He threw stuff at Squall that I never saw at my test," she admitted. "And Ifrit didn't give in until he'd taken at least twice the punishment most cadets have handed out. He must have judged Squall to be tremendously strong."

        "I see," Cid said, nodding. "Only Seifer has ever challenged Ifrit that ferociously. Squall will definately be part of SeeD then."

        "That's what you also said about Seifer," Quistis reminded.

        "I know. Maybe he'll do better on this exam than the last two." That could have been called wishful thinking on Cid's part. Seifer seemed to have a chronic disrespect for authority, which was combined with an overblown ego and excessive pride. His first exam had been failed because he had indiscriminately used GF summons, nearly killing civilians multiple times. His second mission had been a failure due to disrespect for his squad captian, insubordination, and general unruliness, not to mention open insults towards their client, who was to be escorted through hostile territory.

        "Command might teach him responsibility," Cid finished hopefully.

        "We can only hope," Quistis replied with a nod, and with that, she headed off to join the assembling cadets in the garage.

        * * * * *

        Garden had been tense, and so was the atmosphere inside the armored car as it drove towards the docks in Balamb. Zell sat beside Squall in the rear passenger compartment, obviously both nervous and psyched as well. Quistis sat quietly across from Zell, watching her students. Seifer leaned back calmly, inspecting his gunblade and the handgun clips loaded with ammunition inside his coat pockets. Squall sat across from Seifer, not looking at anyone, but bent over with his arms on his knees, staring at the floor.

        Squall knew Seifer was switching his gaze alternately from Hyperion's mechanisms to the top of his head, but again, Seifer said nothing. He finished loading and checking his weapon, and then slid it into his sheath. That done, Seifer switched to full time glaring at Squall's head.

        Zell had been watching Seifer and his gunblade, and though he preffered fists and hand-to-hand, he couldn't help but be intrigued by other's weapons. The martial artist glanced at Squall and the weapon in his scabbard beside him.

        "Yo, Squall, show me your gunblade, will ya?" he asked like a little kid.

        'I don't think so,' Squall thought, and instead considered the coming engagement. Definately human opponents. Which meant they were certian to kill people today. Humans were smarter than monsters, making them more dangerous . . .

        "Come on, man," Zell pleaded, and Squall ignored. Zell would get the idea, eventually.

        "Just a peek!" Zell pleaded again, using his hands to indicate how much he wanted to see. When Squall still didn't reply, Zell did finally get it. "Tch, fine," Zell muttered, sounding dejected. "Yeah, yeah . . . Why you bein' so selfish?! Scroooge!"

        'Shut up, Zell,' Squall thought. 'You sound like a junior classman.' Zell apparently was getting frustrated at Squall's continued silence.

        "Why don't you say something?" he asked, intent on getting Squall to talk about something, anything. "W-What's on your mind?"

        "Nothing," both Squall and Quistis said at the same time. He looked up at Quistis, who was stifling laughter, and gave her an icy look. She finally managed to stop, and he returned to his study of the vehicle's floor.

        Actual battle . . . something he'd been training for for years. He'd fought humans, had taken down most, if not all, of the other cadets during nonlethal matches in the Training Room, but actual fighting against real, human foes, where you could be truly hurt or killed by your foes . . .

        Squall wasn't new to it. He'd stared death in the eyes before, be it a T-rexaur, or a school of Fasticolans, or an enormous number of Grats, or even in Seifer's at times insane face. He'd broken an arm, had taken a bullet in the back from friendly fire in the Training Center, had even been caught in the jaws of a T-Rexaur, nearly killed if it weren't for a backup knife in the monster's eye.

        And he'd killed before. And today, he'd kill again. If an enemy threatened his life, that of his comrades, or any innocents, Squall's gunblade would strike with no remorse. Such was what he had been trained for all his life; such was his job.

        The long silence seemed to have gotten to Zell. Bored, he hopped to his feet, tossing punches at an unseen opponent. He bounced around, fists pumping, striking rapidly. Squall didn't mind, as long as Zell didn't bother him anymore.

        "Stop that," Seifer said after a a couple of minutes of Zell's shadow- boxing. "Its annoying." Zell did stop, to glare at Seifer, who put on a wide, diabolic smile, and leaned forward in his seat.

        "Chicken-wuss," he taunted.

        "WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!" Zell shouted back, and from the furious look on his face and the way Zell's muscles trembled, Squall expected him to beat Seifer to a pulp right there.

        'Well, he would deserve it,' Squall thought. He edged away, giving Zell a clear path to Seifer if he actually did choose to attack him.

        While Zell was enraged, Seifer just seemed amused, leaning back and laughing quietly to himself at Zell's response. Of course, this just got Zell angrier.

        "I'm gonna beat your ass, you pompous-" Zell threatened.

        "Knock it off!" Quistis shouted, standing up. Both Seifer and Zell glanced her way, and reluctantly, Zell sat down, though Seifer still wore a smirk.

        The vehicle drove on for some time, and silence once again reigned in the passenger compartment. Squall thought about his encounter with Seifer inside the Training Center, and his words about cheating in combat. Something he'd remember. That, in turn, made Squall remember their duel that morning, and his self-styled rival's own dirty tactics. And that, in its own right, led Squall to remember when he woke up in the Infirmiry.

        And the infirmiry reminded Squall of something else that had been nagging in the back of his mind. That girl . . . who was she? Where did she come from? 'Squall, so we meet again'? What had that meant? Did he know her? He wondered if someone else had seen her. Dr. Kadowaki had left, but Quistis had come in moments later . . .

        ". . . Instructor . . ." Squall asked, looking up at Quistis. his use of words without prompting by others was quite unusual for everyone gathered in the vehicle, so his question attracted the curious stares of both Seifer and Zell, as well as Quistis. "Who was that girl in the Infirmiry this morning?"

        Quistis leaned back, a thoughtful expression on her face.

        "Was there someone there? I don't remember," she answered. "Is there a problem?"

        "No . . ." Squall said immediately, wondering if he'd hallucinated the whole incident. He looked back down at the floor. "Not really . . ."

        Apparently, his quick response had been misunderstood by Seifer, who began laughing quietly to himself.

        'Squall, interested in a girl?' he thought, the idea absurd. 'Took you long enough!'

        "This is great . . ." he muttered. "I have Chicken-wuss and a guy who just reached puberty in my squad . . ."

        * * * * *

        The streets of the seaside town of Balamb were clear, meaning that the Garden vehicle moved quickly through the streets, past the large, beautiful hotel that overlooked the docks, and down to the harbor. There, a number of Garden vessels waited to send the SeeDs and cadets to war.

        The vehicle pulled to a stop, the door slid open, and the trio of cadets piled out. Squall paused to look at the assembled SeeDs on the docks and at the small fleet of vessels floating out at sea.

        "So that's the vessel?" Squall asked, looking over Balamb Garden's naval troop transports. They were long, and sleek, painted blue, with armored plating and sliding doors on the front for deploying infantry forces. On top, there was a hatch leading to an upper observation post, complete with a high-caliber machinegun.

        "Ain't no turning back now," Seifer said to Squall as he came up behind him. The larger cadet glanced at Squall, and he could see a mixture of determination, tenseness, and a bit of anxiety on his face. "Huh?" Seifer said, noticing Squall looking at him. "You scared too?"

        Squall never got a chance to respond before a SeeD ran over to the group.

        "Hey! You guys are the last! Hurry up and get in!"

        Seifer turned back to Squall, and then looked away, towards the vessel.

        "Don't disappoint me now," he ordered, and then ran towards the vessel.

        'What?' Squall wondered. '"Disappoint?"'

        "Come on, move it!" Quistis shouted as she climbed out after them, interrupting Squall's wondering. He quickly nodded at her order and scrambled for the vessel. He ducked his head as he went through the side entrance, and descended into the vessel's cramped interior. He took the seat nearest to the entrance.

        The room was a combination armory, passenger compartment, and briefing room, all compacted down into the small vessel, which necassarily economized on space. On the far wall was a large screen, obviously for the briefing purposes. One either side of the compartment were the seats, and a low table seperated them. On this table, Squall noted, were a number of stones, similar to the magic stone fragments he had harvested earlier, but more . . . complete.

        Seifer and Zell plopped themselves down on seats, Zell still looking nervous and psyched up, while Seifer just seemed bored. He leaned back in his spot, watching the wall blankly and propping his feet up on the table, scattering a few of the magic stones. Quistis remained standing.

        Squall heard the hatch close, and the engines fired up. Within moments the vessel was in motion, flying across the ocean towards their destination, wherever that was.

        Squall thought he heard someone talking to the pilot, then the hatch leading to the cockpit swung open and into the room stepped an attractive woman clad in a SeeD uniform. Her name was Xu, and she was a familiar enough sight to anyone who worked at or attended Garden.

        Cid's second in command and personal assistant, Xu was a cool, confident brunette in her mid-twenties who worked hard at her job. She'd been with Garden for a while, and was a close friend of Quistis's. Rumor had it Xu wasn't from around the Balamb region, neither was she from any of the western nations or the reclusive country of Esthar, to the east. She certianly didn't look native; her face was slender and gently angled, her eyes were very dark, and her whole general appearance hinted at being foreign.

        "Hi, Quistis," Xu said with a smile as she stepped into the briefing room. The SeeD turned to face Squad B.

        "These are the members of Squad B," Quistis said, gesturing to the group. Zell hopped up onto his feet, while Squall rose more slowly. Seifer remained seated.

        "Nice to meet ya!" Zell said eagerly, saluting.

        "Pleased to meet you," Squall added with his own salute, getting the formalities out of the way. Xu nodded at both of them, then looked over at Seifer, who had turned his head to face her.

        "Seifer," Xu began with a smile, her tone sounding somewhat sarcastic and amused. "How many times has it been now?"

        "Oh, I just love these exams," Seifer responded, both his voice and his grin dripping with sarcasm. Introductions out of the way, Xu stepped past Zell in the cramped compartment and stood by the screen.

        "Be seated," she ordered, tapping a button by the screen. "I'll explain the current situation and the mission."

        Squall settled back in his chair and listened intently. If there was one thing that had been drilled into him during his years at Garden, it was that one had to listen when a lecture or briefing was given. The instructors had been very, very firm about that; not paying attention was severely punished.

        "Our client for this mission is the Dollet Dukedom Parliament," Xu began.

        Dollet. One of the western nations, a relatively minor coastal nation, specialized in shipping and transportation. Dollet's capital, bearing the same name, was the largest coastal city in the west, and was home to a large navy that matched the naval corps of the Dukedom's much larger neigbor, the Republic of Galbadia. Dollet was relatively peaceful, though it had been rocked by war over the years. The nation had once been a vast empire, dominating the entire eastern and northern regions of the western continent, until war with Galbadia had reduced it to barely a quarter of its original size.

        "A request for SeeD was made 18 hours ago," Xu continued to explain. On the screen, a map of Dollet's capital appeared. "Dollet has been under attack by the Galbadian Army since approximately 72 hours ago. Galbadian units advanced through the mountians west of the capital and assaulted the city." The map showed a collection of dots, indicating Dollet's units. The Dollet troops were shown falling back, mostly moving north towards the mountians, with a few moving south towards the beaches.

        "49 hours into the battle, Dollet abandoned the majority of their positions in the inner city," Xu said. "Currently they have retreated into the mountians and are reorganizing their troops, preparing for a counter- offensive. Scattered units are still holding out inside the city itself, and a moderately-sized force is still fighting on the beaches, cut off from the mountians. That's the current status. Now, onto the mission objective." Xu tapped a button, and the map zoomed into the mountians west of the city. A large blue arrow, indicating the Galbadian forces, was shown moving through the mountians. "According to our reports, the Galbadian army is mopping up the Dollet troops in the mountian region. The majority of their troops are in the west, leaving the city open to counterattack." The map then zoomed out to show a red line leading from Balamb to Dollet; the path Squall knew the SeeDs and candidates were taking.

        "We are to make a landing at Lapin Beach, and to link up with Dollet forces on the beaches and still inside the city. We will then eliminate the Galbadian army remaining inside the city and liberate it A.S.A.P." The map switched to show the mountian region again, with red semicircles indicating projected SeeD forces, right in the path of Galbadian blue arrows. "Afterwards, SeeD members and Dollet troops from within the city and the beaches will intercept any Galbadian forces attempting to make their way into the city from the mountian region. Hopefully, we will be able to destabilize the Galbadian forces long enough to allow the Dollet forces to counterattack from the mountians and inside the city, forcing the Galbadian army to withdraw." With that, the map vanished and the screen switched off.

        "So," Seifer asked, still seeming uncertian about his coming role. "What are WE supposed to do?"

        "After linking up with Dollet's troops, SeeD cadets are to liberate the city from the Galbadian army and to hold it in case of assault," Xu explained.

        "Sounds important!" Zell said, excited.

        "Sounds boring," Seifer shot back, more to deflate Zell than due to any actual boredom involved with the job. Liberating the city meant lots of combat, something Seifer would certianly relish.

        "So, what you're saying," Seifer continued, smiling, "is that we do all the little, dirty work. Urban warfare, assaults, face-to-face combat? No silly escort mission like my last exam?" Xu didn't respond directly to Seifer's question, instead continuing with the briefing.

        "It hardly needs to be said," she continued. "But the order to withdraw takes priority. Do not forget. Also, you will be assigned higher level magic than normal for this mission." Xu gestured to the stones on the table. "Refine those stones into whatever magic you think you will need. But remember, this test will focus also on your judgement and weapons skills. Only use magic-"

        "-when we need to, yeah, yeah," Seifer responded, snatching up a handful of the stones. "Magic is limited and necassary for junctioning, we all know, its not like we haven't been listening to the instructors for the last few years. I've done this exam twice already, I don't need the lecture a third time."

        "I thought you would, Seifer," Xu responded, smiling. "You do seem to forget other important things concerning missions. Which is, of course, why this is your third exam." Seifer scowled at Xu's remark but said nothing. She stepped past them and walked into the cockpit, checked with the pilot, and then came back a second later.

        "We're almost there," Xu said. "We anticipate a battle as soon as we disembark. Just be prepared." With that, Xu left the room, headed up the ladder leading to the topside machinegun post.

        So, Squall considered, Galbadia was the enemy. Galbadia was a powerful country, armed with high technology and weaponry, along with an almost limitless number of troops. Although these troops were definately no match for SeeDs; what the intervening SeeD force lacked in numbers they would more than make up for in power and training.

        While Squall had been musing over the mission, Quistis was passing out to each member of Squad B pictures and maps of Dollet, along with clear transparencies that showed the details of the areas and objectives. Squall made note of Dollet's streets, buildings, and docks, as well as the central plaza, strategic bridges crossing ravines, important mountian trails, even a disused tower of some kind up on the cliffs overlooking the city.

        "My first real battle," Zell said, sounding excited, eager, and slightly anxious. "I'm getting pretty nervous . . ."

        "Better not piss in your pants," Seifer shot at him.

        "You talking to me?" Zell responded. Seifer just laughed at him. "Bastard," the martial artist muttered under his breath.

        "Okay, enough talk," Quistis said, tired of their typical butting of heads. "We'll be landing pretty soon. Get ready."

        "Roger," Zell said, still glaring at Seifer.

        "Alright," Squall said blankly, pocketing several of the magic stones, and begining to refine a few more. He focused the refining on powerful Thundara spells. Galbadia liked to use mechanized weaponry; lightning was best against machines.

        "Yeah, yeah," Seifer muttered. He glanced over at Squall. "Squall, go see what's going on outside. Besides, we need someone manning the gun turret."

        For an instant, Squall considered refusing his rival's order, but pride didn't win out over pragmatism. Disobeying his captian's order would be very bad for this exam.

        " . . . Okay," Squall said after a moment.

        "Good," Seifer replied, sounding triumpant as Squall stood and walked out of the compartment. "Because its MY order."

        * * * * *

        Xu was still up in the topside machinegun post when Squall went up there. She stepped aside and gave the taciturn cadet some room, and he leaned against the guardrail, watching the ocean fly past. The salty air whipped past both cadet and SeeD, and sent both of their hair fluttering in the wind. The ocean looked like a sea of gold, the colors cast by the dipping sun to the west. To either side of the vessel were the remaining nine SeeD transports, cutting through the waters effortlessly.

        "Seifer send you up?" Xu asked, to which Squall nodded. "Figures. He likes flexing his muscles." Squall remained silent. They stood there for a while, neither speaking.

        Finally, Xu broke the silence again.

        "You ready for this?" she asked, and Squall nodded once more. "Real battle . . . I remember my exam . . ." she glanced over at Squall, who stood quietly, not even seeming to pay attention to her.

        "You ready to kill again?" Xu asked.

        "Its my job," Squall responded cooly. "Been practicing to kill for twelve years. You know the saying. Drills are just bloodless combat . . ."

        " . . . and combat is just a bloody drill," Xu finished. "I suppose that explained your first kill." Squall nodded. "You still remember it?"

        "Hard to forget," Squall replied. "The blood on your hands never washes away. Not completely, at least. But I'm not sorry for it."

        "It was you or them," Xu responded, nodding. "At least you and Seifer experienced it early, as opposed to most cadets . . ." Xu trailed off as a dark line appeared on the horizon.

        "Dollet's ahead," she said. "Better head down below." With that, Xu clambered down the ladder, leaving Squall alone, manning the gun turret.

        Reaching down to his hip, Squall drew the Revolver and reinspected it one last time, then checked over his backup weapons and other equipment. With that done, he glanced back up to see Dollet much larger in the distance. Squall quickly dug out one of the pictures, one of Dollet's coast, and overlaid the transparency, checking to see how they would approach. The vessel was right on target, judging by the red line.

        Looking up from the paper, Squall saw flashes of artillery shells and explosions, and distant figures on the beach, scurrying and fighting, Dollet's soldiers. If the vessels kept their course, they'd be ending up right in the middle of that warzone.

        But, Squall reminded himself, that was their job. Fierce resolve stamped itself on his face, and he grasped the handle of his gunblade. The moment was at hand, the exam, the true test of his mettle and worth as a SeeD. The culmination of all his training and studies. The moment of judgement.

        It was time for war.

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Btw, if anyone's wondering, I changed the briefing around a bit. After all, there was no explanation as to why there were still Dollet troops on the beaches when they're supposed to be in the mountians...

Also, I have added a bit more to Squall's backstory. Later chapters may cover things I hinted at earlier, especially Squall's first human kill.

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