Chapter Four: A Debriefing
Squall hurried out of his office with Seifer close behind. He tugged on a lock of hair, then shoved it behind an ear. He really should just shave it all off, it was so damn annoying.
"Don't even think about it."
Squall shot an amused glance at Seifer. "What's that?"
"I know what you're thinking. You always get that look on your face when you're messing with your hair. Don't even think of shaving it off, doll, I like it the way it is: sloppy and gorgeous."
Squall narrowed his eyes; his equivalent of blushing. "Whatever."
Seifer laughed and lay a hand on Squall's shoulder. "I always know I've gotten to you when you suddenly revert to single-word sentences on me, babe."
Squall said nothing, which was an answer in itself.
There were two lifts in the hallway outside the Headmaster's Office. One was for the normal elevator that was accessible by all SeeDs and opened up on the main Hall on the first floor. The other was a special one that could only be called using a key. It led directly to the lower levels of Balamb and had to remain locked as only staff and graduated SeeDs were allowed in the basement area of the Garden.
Squall patted the pockets of his pants but he did not feel the key.
"It's not there."
Squall looked up at Seifer absently as his hands scoured his pockets. "How do you know?"
"Squall, hon, you wear your leather so tight, I can pretty much give you a prostate exam from here--and I can see the outline of everything in your pockets. It's not there. Must've fallen out in your office while we were tumbling around on the shag carpet." He wiggled his eyebrows at the word 'shag' and grinned cockily.
Squall smiled and held out his hand. "Gimme yours then, or use it and quit talking about it."
"Aw Squall," Seifer said coyly, stepping forward to key the lift. "The ever-blushing bride. You big man, you."
Squall ignored Seifer and stepped into the elevator as the doors opened. Seifer followed, spouting innuendoes and generally amusing himself. Squall was used to every aspect of Seifer's behavior. They both had to do something to adjust after each time they spent time together. For Squall it was easier to shift his emotions, hide what he could not afford to show around others; perhaps because he had more at stake.
Seifer, on the other hand, needed a longer ritual to move from 'lover' to 'friend' and he always used the same devices. First it was the sweet talk: 'baby', 'honey', 'doll'. Then he switched to humor and sly come-ons, sometimes only just brushing the edge of good taste and relying heavily on vulgarity. Finally something seemed to click and that pale, thin mask settled over his face, keeping anyone from guessing how he felt, keeping anyone from knowing that the mask was even there.
Squall tolerated Seifer's harmless tirade as the elevator dropped through the bowels of the Garden. Through the glass walls he saw the light marble of the upper levels give way to black machinery and concrete walls. Then the area outside the lift opened up and they reached the sections that Quistis and Squall had had expanded when they took over at Garden.
Seifer was still rambling on even as the lift settled onto the ground. Squall looked out to see if anyone was around, noted that they were--for the moment--alone, and quickly stepped across the elevator and crushed his lips against Seifer's. He pushed hard, felt Seifer freeze and then respond with a surprised moan, before he pulled away. His lips hovered an inch from Seifer's.
"Seifer," Squall hissed, feeling his breath bounce off of Seifer's face, "stop talking."
He turned away and saw Dr. Zhabedy and Captain Caret striding towards the elevator. Squall keyed the doors open and stepped out.
"Headmaster!" Dr. Zhabedy cried, spotting Squall. "We were just about to send someone after you. We called your office over ten minutes ago..."
Squall's eyes narrowed. "Yes, well, I had some--important business to finish up. I came as soon as I could."
Seifer snorted loudly behind him but Squall did not look back.
"Captain Caret," Squall said, acknowledging the thin man standing behind Zhabedy's impressive bulk. "Did any of the teams find anything?"
"Well, er, sir, that's kind of why we called you down--"
Just then Squall entered the Briefing Room and froze on the threshold. The occupants of the room all looked up as he came in and he vaguely noted Quistis's pinched expression, the SeeDs wearing bandages and slings hunched in seats around the briefing table, and the holo-screen in the corner of the room playing looped footage, but the thing that had made him stop in his tracks was the sight of the Garden's scientist, Dr. Kencie, bent eagerly over the table, and the thing that he was studying.
It was one of the red tentacles of the monster.
"You saw it?" he asked immediately, forcing his legs to move him into the room.
Captain Caret winced and nodded, then gestured to the injured SeeDs. "And fought it."
Squall finally focused on the young men and women sitting on the far side of the table. There were eight of them, three women and five men. They were all smudged, bruised and, in some cases, bleeding. Dr. Kadowaki hovered behind them, leaning against the wall but not even pretending to be relaxed.
"Have you been to the infirmary yet?" he asked them.
One of the women spoke up, glancing apprehensively at Caret. "No, sir."
"I told them to wait," Captain Caret said. "I called Dr. Kadowaki down here to look after them as best she could, but we have important information that we need to divulge, sir, and we couldn't lose the time it would take to visit the hospital ward."
Squall frowned and stared again at the tentacle lying coiled on the table. Dr. Kencie was poking it with a pen.
"Surely it could have waited?"
"No, Squall, it couldn't."
Squall looked at Quistis, met her cool eyes and raised his eyebrows.
"What is it, then?"
"This," Quistis said, pointing to the holo-screen in the corner. "One of the members of the team managed to take a recording of part of the battle. It's brief and poor quality as the recording device was part of his wrist communicator, but what it shows us is very important."
Squall noted Seifer taking a seat at the table as the others all swiveled in their chairs to face the screen. Squall remained standing, however, and watched the screen while keeping the severed tentacle in the corner of his vision.
The picture on the screen was blurry, then suddenly the images popped out in 3-D. A scream pierced the quiet and then they all heard the noises of blasts, cursing and the occasional cry of pain. The picture swam as if the person doing the recording was swinging his wrist, then it arced quickly and the view included part of the ground and a hand. The SeeD doing the recording had fallen to the ground and was still.
The images running around in the holo-space were of SeeD soldiers running towards the camera, then suddenly something inhuman came into the scene. Squall tensed slightly as he saw the monster that had attacked him, its amorphous pink body hovering in the air above the beach and its hundred red tentacles reaching hungrily towards the camera. He frowned, tilted his head, stared. Something about the monster bothered him, and it was more than the memory of its sharp claws piercing his body. It nagged at his brain, but he could not think what it was. He shook his head and paid attention to the video, vowing to work it out later.
On the screen, one soldier, a young woman, ran into view and tossed a Fire spell at it. It ignored the light around it and reached out, spearing the woman with its tentacles. It lifted her body in the air and wrapped its arms around her in a murderous embrace. She twitched and flung her arms out and Squall knew that the monster was draining her energy just as it had his.
Another SeeD ran up to the monster and began shooting at its soft, pink body. The monster almost negligently sent a tentacle flying at the soldier, but he aimed and shot it off. The monster shrieked, its cry so high and piercing that Squall winced. Then the monster threw the woman to the ground and raced towards the recorder, growing larger and larger on the holo-screen. Squall heard someone in the Briefing Room draw a noisy breath, then the screen went black.
"That was Sergeant Rawl that managed to take the recording. He's in the infirmary now," Quistis said. "His condition is critical."
"And the SeeD that was attacked?" Squall asked quietly. Heads turned in his direction.
"Um, Private Bal, sir," Caret answered. "Her condition is critical as well."
Squall nodded, the turned to fully face the tentacle on the table. He walked around until he was standing near it, gently pushing Dr. Kencie aside so he could lean over it. He peered at it suspiciously; it was still.
"Has it moved at all since you retrieved it?"
"No, sir," one of the injured SeeDs said. "After I cut it off it just fell to the sand and lay perfectly still, dead. It hasn't moved at all, not one bit on its own since I picked it up. The monster screamed when I shot it off and flew away, and we didn't see it again."
Squall grunted and leaned closer to the tentacle. He reached up tentatively towards it and touched it with one finger. Immediately it reared up like a snake and turned its claw towards him. Squall swore and jumped away, but before he was clear it speared towards his hand, still sliding off of the tabletop. It shot directly towards the pink scar that another tentacle had left that morning. Just as it was going to make contact with his skin, a hand reached out and grabbed it just behind the claw.
Squall looked up as Seifer grabbed the severed arm. He bashed it against the table, then lifted it as if to slam it down again. Dr. Kencie leapt up and, rather foolishly, got between Seifer and the table.
"No, look, see! It's still again!"
They all looked up at Seifer's still upraised arm. The tentacle hung from his hand, still and lifeless like a length of rope.
"Lieutenant," Dr. Kencie said thoughtfully. "Put the tentacle back on the table, but hold it tightly, right behind the claw."
Seifer narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"It's an experiment," the doctor said in exasperation. "I promise you, no one will be hurt."
Seifer did as he was asked, though he scowled unhappily as he complied.
"Now, Sir," Dr. Kencie said, nodding at Squall. "Could you please, very gently, touch the tentacle again?"
"What?" Seifer cried. "Are you crazy?"
"I promise you," Dr. Kencie urged, "he won't be injured. Just keep your grip on that tentacle."
Grumbling, Seifer squeezed the tentacle until it bulged on either side of his fist.
"Master Leonhart, when you are ready," the doctor said.
Squall reached out cautiously and very lightly brushed his finger against the tentacle. The claw lifted itself off the table and the other end of it whipped uselessly against the wood, but Seifer held tight. Squall jerked his hand away and the thing fell still again.
"Interesting," Dr. Kencie said. "Indeed. Hmm."
Seifer pushed Squall away from the table before letting go of the tentacle again.
"Go over there," he said, pointing to the opposite side of the room. Squall suppressed a smile and went to take a seat near Quistis. Seifer started to walk away from the tentacle, but then he gave a distrusting look at Dr. Kencie, lifted the tentacle and smashed it against the table once more, just to be sure.
Squall snorted softly as he settled into his chair.
Quistis jerked suddenly beside him and she looked over his shoulder. "Oh, Rinoa. Good, you're here."
Squall froze and then slowly turned his chair around to face the door. Rinoa was standing just inside the room, her small, heart-shaped face pinched and pale with exhaustion. Her skin was made even paler by the dark brown of her pants and sweater. She walked towards Squall and wearily slumped into the chair beside him. Squall saw Seifer out of the corner of his eye, backing away. Seifer had been coming over to occupy the chair beside Squall but had backed off when Rinoa entered.
"How are they doing?" Quistis asked intently.
Rinoa sighed heavily and reached out. Squall instinctively took her hand and rested their entwined hands on his leg. She squeezed his fingers gratefully.
"Not good. Dr. Grayne said that even with all the Curagas we poured on them, he doesn't think that they're going to make it."
Captain Caret grimaced. "Not either of them?"
Rinoa shook her head, her brow creased in sorrow and sympathy.
"All right," Quistis said brusquely, turning to the injured SeeDs and Captain Caret. "Why don't you give us a full briefing of your mission so we can get you all to the infirmary."
"Yes," Dr. Kadowaki agreed huffily and Quistis smiled.
Captain Caret cleared his throat. "My team," he gestured to the wounded soldiers, "can fill in anything I forget. I took two teams of five soldiers down to the beach with me on Lieutenant Almasy's orders."
Squall wondered if anyone found it odd that a Level 23 Lieutenant would be giving orders to a Level 26 Captain, but no one so much as twitched; they all knew what Seifer was like.
"I told you to take ten," Seifer muttered.
Caret blinked. "Uh, Lieutenant, I thought that ten teams of five were a bit much. I felt quite certain that ten SeeD soldiers would be competent to handle whatever monster we met."
"And you were wrong, weren't you?" Seifer bit out.
"Now, Lieutenant," Dr. Kencie started but Seifer silenced him with a glare.
"I mean, if this monster tackled Headmaster Leonhart all by itself, what made you think that even a hundred soldiers led by you would be match enough for it?"
"Now, Lieutenant," Caret seethed.
Squall saw Quistis open her mouth to reprimand Seifer, but Squall cut her off.
"Seifer," Squall said coolly. Seifer let out a breath and glared, but remained silent. "Continue, Captain," Squall prompted.
Caret proceeded, though his eyes were narrow and his jaw was clenched tight. "We reached the area on the beach where the Lieutenant said he found the Headmaster this morning. We then searched the entire sector and found nothing. We were going to head back to the Garden when Private Bal tripped on a rock and accidentally fell into the surf that broke near the shore. Private Fry," he gestured to one of the injured soldiers, "helped her out and then we all started back for the Garden. That was when the creature attacked."
"Did you see where it came from?" Dr. Zhabedy asked, speaking for the first time since Squall and he had talked in the corridor.
"No, sir. It just appeared. We were all concentrating on Private Bal at that moment, and so were not looking when--"
"You mean you all had your heads up your asses," Seifer said, not taking care to be quiet.
Quistis did not even bother to scold Seifer. She looked equally upset. "So after the monster attacked, what happened?"
"Well, sir, we threw everything we had at it. I've got to say we used Fire Magic, Thunder Magic, Ice Magic...sir, we used everything."
"But none of it worked," put in the previously mentioned Private Fry.
Captain Caret nodded confirmation. "But none of it worked. We threw every bit of magic we had at the thing, but it didn't even falter. I kept checking it for damage, but there wasn't any! Not even a small drain on its hit points! No matter what we tried!"
"Did any of you use a Guardian Force?" Squall asked.
Everyone turned to look at him.
"Uh, no, sir," Caret said, stumbling slightly on his words. "I--that is you--I thought that we were no longer required to use GF's, due to the effect they have on the user's memory."
Squall responded calmly. "I did not say you should have used a GF, Captain, I merely asked if anyone did."
"Oh. No. But--that is, if none of our magic worked on the creature, would a GF really have any effect?"
"When I used Shiva on it this morning, it did some obvious damage," Squall said.
Caret fidgeted and Squall noted the same awkwardness on other faces around the table. Not too many people used Guardian Forces these days, not since they had discovered the terrible side effects of calling one.
"If none of the spells you used on the creature worked," Rinoa said softly, "then is it possible that the creature is...immune to magic?"
The room was absolutely silent.
"That--that's not possible," Caret gasped.
"Not true, Captain," Dr. Zhabedy said, shaking his head. "I seem to remember--yes, I seem to remember coming across, in my studies, some descriptions of monsters in the past that were immune to most magic."
"Most, but surely not all, Doctor," Quistis said.
"I--" Zhabedy frowned, his small, bald head wrinkling in thought. "I can't be sure. I will need to consult my research on monsters, but I wouldn't rule it out. The number of new monsters we received in this last Lunar Cry was staggering."
Squall frowned. "But it's been almost two years since the Lunar Cry and more than a year since any reports of a new monster. If this creature did come down from the moon, wouldn't we have already discovered it by now?"
"Not necessarily," the doctor disagreed. "If the monster has been sleeping, dormant until now, or perhaps came down in a smaller, unevolved form, then no, we would not have."
Seifer snorted. "I heard 'if' and 'perhaps' in there but no 'certain' or 'sure'."
Dr. Zhabedy sniffed. "In history there is very little certainty, young Mister Almasy, as I recall telling you repeatedly in Sorceress Wars Seminar, but you were not keen on accepting that then, nor are you now."
Seifer glared and the doctor met and held the cold gaze. Squall sighed, tired of breaking up Seifer's fights.
"But this is not history, Doctor," Squall put in. "This is now, and this is real, and we need to know what we're up against, here. If there is a monster out there that is invulnerable to most magic then we have to find out what magic does work on it. And if that monster is, in fact, invincible against all magic then we have to find what weapons cause it the most damage."
Seifer chimed in. "And if weapons don't cause it damage, then we have to find a really big bomb."
Dr. Zhabedy bustled off to his research in the staff library and Dr. Kencie went to his laboratory, eagerly clutching the lifeless tentacle. Dr. Kadowaki marched the injured soldiers and Caret out of the Briefing Room and straight to the lift that would take them to the first floor. She was muttering about 'foolish endangerment' when she left and throwing dirty looks at Squall and Quistis.
Squall leaned back in his chair. The room was empty except for he, Seifer, Rinoa and Quistis, and he could finally relax. He was still holding Rinoa's hand with his right hand, and he covered both their hands with his left. He squeezed her tight and tried to concentrate as Quistis called up the footage of the attack again, but his mind was buzzing with confusion and a familiar panic.
He turned to his right and saw a pale face framed by dark hair. Beside her, profile overlapped by the first, was another pale face, this one topped with light hair. Two pairs of eyes looked beyond him to the holo-screen, one brown, one blue.
He tried to focus on the film, but he looked away again quickly. He had experienced the same thing that morning and had no desire to see it happening to someone else. It was so hard to gather his thoughts, anyway, around that horrid buzzing in his mind.
It was always the same when Seifer and Rinoa were together, when Squall was confronted with the both of them at the same time. When he was with one or the other he focused on them completely, tuning his thoughts only on the one that he was with, but when they were both there his mind flipped channels. His thoughts were flapping in the wind. He hated--hated--having to face both of them at once. He couldn't stand the guilt, the lies were like sharp knives lodged in his back. He felt a desperate kind of panic, as if at any moment, Rinoa would turn to him and say, 'Squall, you've been lying to me, haven't you?'
He blinked and realized that Rinoa had called his name a few times.
Rinoa sighed and smiled at him.
Quistis cleared her throat. "I was asking you if--"
There came a beep and Squall looked up for a moment before registering the familiar noise. He tapped the communication button on his wristband.
"Leonhart," he said shortly.
"Headmaster, it's Dr. Kadowaki."
Squall nodded. "Yes, Doctor?"
"Squall, Private Bal just died."
Squall frowned. "Was she the one that was attacked on the film?"
"All right, thank you, Doctor Kadowaki."
He closed the line and looked down, fighting the surge of guilt and horror that came every time a SeeD was injured or died in the course of a mission. Despair threatened--he was in charge, he should not have sent these people out to die, it should have been his job, it should have been him.
"Squall," Rinoa said, reaching up to caress his face. He looked down into her brown eyes and fought to erase the pain from his expression. Her hand tightened around his and she stroked his cheek again. "You can't blame yourself every time."
Squall shook his head. "Yes, I can," he contradicted. Then he gently took her hand off his face and looked at Quistis. (He couldn't look at Seifer--he couldn't--because he knew what he would see in those blue eyes...concern, care, sadness, sympathy, the desire to comfort him and envy that he could not.)
"All right, I want you to issue a general order to everyone at Garden. I do not, repeat not, want any hot shots running off down the beach, half-cocked and unprepared, just because they want to bag themselves a difficult kill. Anyone caught wandering the beach had better have a damn good reason for being out there and will be severely reprimanded if they do not. Also. Alert the surrounding towns and call the President's office at Esthar to let them know about this monster. Make sure people know that this creature is unusual and not susceptible to magic. Got that?"
Quistis nodded tersely and stood. "Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?"
Squall sighed. Quistis knew that he had to give these orders, knew that he meant nothing by his cool demeanor, also knew that she took every order personally as a reminder that he held a higher rank than she. He shook his head. "No."
Quistis nodded again and left.
And then Squall was left alone with Rinoa and Seifer. Not for long, though, as Seifer suddenly stood and headed for the door.
"I'm going to run after her and catch a ride up with her in the lift. You can use my key to get back up to your office."
"But--" Squall started.
"It's okay. I'll just come by to pick it up later." And with a nod at Rinoa, Seifer turned and left.
Immediately the confused buzzing in his head lessened and Squall took a deep, clear breath, relaxing though he hadn't known that he was tense.
"Come on," Rinoa said softly. She stood and tugged gently on his hand. "Let's go get some dinner. I hear the hot dogs are good tonight."
Squall groaned. "What are you, Zell, now? Are you a hot dog connoisseur?"
Rinoa smiled and tilted her head, still trying to pull him to his feet. "Come on, quit griping and get to your feet, Leonhart."
Squall sighed and stood and they walked out of the Briefing Room without letting each other go.
"I'm glad you're back," Squall said tentatively as they reached the elevator. He looked down, feeling suddenly shy. "I mean, it's not like I planned this to get you back, but... I miss you when you're gone. And. I'm glad. That you're back."
Rinoa smiled and tugged him into the elevator with him. "Was that so hard to say?" she chided as the doors closed behind them and the lift rose up.
Squall scowled. "Yes."
Rinoa laughed. "Whatever."
Squall smiled and leaned down to drop a kiss on her lips. He inhaled deeply as he touched her, drawing in the sweet scent of her shampoo. He kissed her again, making this one longer, deeper, pouring his heart into it.
I'm so sorry, he thought as he kissed her. I'm so sorry.
Rinoa cupped his face in her hands and pulled back. She frowned at the sight of the tears in his eyes.
"Squall, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," Squall said, leaning back and breaking the embrace. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. "Just--I guess just still thinking about that SeeD. Bal."
"Did you know her?" she asked sympathetically.
"No," he answered. "But still--"
"Of course," Rinoa said, knowing just what he meant before he said it.
They rode in silence for a while before Rinoa spoke again.
"Squall, why are we going up to the third floor? Have you moved the cafeteria without telling me?"
Squall shook his head. "No, I just wanted to go to my office so I can be there when he calls."
"When who calls?"
"Oh, Laguna. Quistis is on the phone with someone in his office right now. As soon as she hangs up that someone will run all aflutter to tell him. Laguna will then run all aflutter to the phone. And call me."
"All aflutter," Rinoa said wryly.
"Exactly. I just want to be there when he calls so I don't have to call him back."
"All right. Squall, try being nice to him. Please?"
Squall lifted one eyebrow skeptically. "We'll see."
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