The New Flesh

Chapter Thirteen

By Scarlet Fever

Two weeks. Two weeks of fighting battles against the Galbadian Army, two weeks of mending injuries, of soreness and fatigue. Two weeks of getting used to his new glasses and/or contact lenses. Two weeks without Nida. Two weeks of Hell.

Squall's whole body felt weak, tired. He was laying on his bed at Garden. It had been a while since he'd slept in it, and it felt so empty. He slowly blinked his eyes behind his glasses, small, rectangular in shape, with thin bronze frames. He didn't like contact lenses, because they hurt his eyes. But, they were better in battle.

The only light in the small room was a flickering trio of candles, making the shadows dance on the wall, as if Gietzen was controlling them. One of Squall's hands rested on his stomach, which felt more concave than usual. That was because his depression over Nida's disappearance was making Squall lose his appetite. He was also busy with tactical meetings, and battling Galbadian soldiers, so didn't have much time to eat. His other hand was aimlessly patting Vivi's downy yellow feathers. They had brought a group of Chocobos along from Esthar, and Squall had smuggled his small pet along with them. Vivi's cute curiosity and gentle warks were the only thing keeping Squall sane.

They had no idea where Nida was. Edea had tried to use her sorcery to locate him, but had failed. Even Ellone's machines couldn't find him, which induced worry in Squall. Those Esthar machines could pick up a Sorcerer or Sorceress across the globe. If they couldn't find Nida, what did that mean? Was he dead? Did Tevedes and the others catch him as soon as he'd left the borders of Esthar? Squall's mind was working overtime, causing his fear to rise. What had they done to him? Or, was Nida purposely hiding so Squall wouldn't know where he was? Did Nida hate him?

He sighed deeply, feeling tired, but not falling asleep. He wondered how things were going in Esthar. He was sure that Laguna, Edea, Raijin and Seifer had things under control. Squall rolled over on his side, looking at Vivi through his corrective lenses. Part of him actually wanted to bite into Vivi's throat and tear him apart. It was Griever's way of reminding Squall that she was still there.

There was also the bigger mystery of when Tevedes or the rest of the Inaudax were going to strike next. They'd been completely silent, and the surveillance that the Esthar Army had set up over the Trabian Continent showed nothing. It was like they'd vanished. But, everyone knew they were still there. It was just a matter of time....

"Nida...." Squall whispered. "I'm so sorry."

Squall gasped when a knock on his door echoed through the quiet room. He leapt off the bed, dashing to the door. He swung it open. "Nida!" He exclaimed. But, the smile that had worked onto his lips, the first in two weeks, vanished when he saw that it wasn't Nida. It was Quistis.

"Squall...." Quistis greeted, her voice sad, pitying. She couldn't help but gape at Squall. She knew he wasn't sleeping, but he didn't show any of it. He looked more beautiful than he ever had. Quistis knew she was correct with the educated guess that Squall was purposely making himself more attractive in case Nida showed up, a subconscious way to entice him. Maybe he was also trying to hide the fact that he wasn't getting any sleep, and that he was losing weight.

"What is it?" He asked, his voice tired, clipped.

"We just got word from our Galbadian sources that they Army is going to make a last ditch attempt to cement their hold on Balamb tonight. Because they aren't expecting us to know about their move, they'll be vulnerable. And, they're also decimated because of all the fighting we've been doing against them." Quistis folded her arms across her chest, looking at Squall over the rim of her glasses. She could smell something nice in the air. A distant smell of exotic shampoo that Squall had used. It smelled nice. "Xu and myself also decided to do a dual raid. Xu will take Zell and Rinoa to Timber, and along with the resistance groups, as well as the Timber Dukedom, they'll gear for a simultaneous attack while you, me and Fujin take the SeeD forces and quash what is left of their troops in Balamb."

"When does the attack start?" Squall asked, all seriousness now. He pushed his misery, his loneliness aside, focusing entirely on the mission.

"We're moving in at 0200 hours."

Squall looked at his watch. "An hour from now."

"Hurry with preparations, then meet me in my office before we set off to Balamb. We'll be taking a civilian car to the outskirts of town, then proceeding in on foot. You, me and Fujin will be the lead team."

"Well, what about Zell and the others? Won't the Galbadian Forces notice them departing from Balamb Harbour?"

"No. Fujin already contacted Raijin in Esthar, and they sent an Admiral in one of their submarines to the beach. They won't have to go through Balamb, and since it's a new model, Esthar's tech department made it state of the art. The Galbadian Army won't be able to pick up on it, especially since they don't expect a nautical attack."

"Sounds like you thought of everything..." Squall trailed off, already beginning to put his contact lenses in.

"You sound disappointed in that."

Squall shrugged. "All I have left now is SeeD and Garden..."

"Edea and Ellone are still working on searching for Nida."

"Maybe he doesn't want to be found," Squall muttered.

Quistis cocked her head, hesitating before she put her hand on Squall's shoulder. He didn't immediately shrug it off, which Quistis took as a good sign. "Look... We don't know what Nida is thinking... But, as long as I've known him, and as long as Xu's known him, he wouldn't just... leave things unsettled." She sighed. "But, I guess he isn't totally the same person anymore."

Squall slumped, finally shrugging Quistis's hand off his shoulder. "He was angry. And now... It's not just his temper that flares...."

"Everything will work out," Quistis said, her voice quiet.

"Don't try to placate me."

"Sorry," the blonde muttered. "Well, get ready." She took a few steps towards the door. "Oh, Squall?"

"What?" He asked, beginning to unbutton his shirt so he could change into clothes more suited for combat. His fingers hovered over the buttons, one of his eyebrows raised in an annoyed look, waiting for her to continue.

"Nida loves you. Really loves you." She opened the door. "And, you look good in your glasses. Very studious. And, I'm not just saying that because I wear glasses, too..." She touched the frames. "Get ready."

Squall watched the door for a few moments after she'd closed it, thinking about Quistis's words about Nida. "Nida loves me, and I give him nothing but pain...." He muttered to himself, changing his clothes. He shrugged into a holster that had a magnet on it, where the shoulder straps met between his shoulder blades. He'd recently rigged it up so he could carry his gunblade easier. As he tied his boots, he thought of all the times he'd acted like a jealous asshole, and Nida had been nothing but patient with him. "And, how do I repay him?" Squall pulled on his black leather gloves, and put the gunblade to his back. The magnet held it in place. "I tell him this is all his fault, and probably make him feel even more guilty than he already does."

Squall checked his watch, then caught his reflection in the mirror. He could see Vividarium curled up in the bed, among the rumpled sheets, which were ice cold against Squall's flesh whenever he tried, and failed, to get some sleep. Squall silently regarded himself for a few moments, as if he'd never seen his own face before. He thought of all the times that Nida had told him he was beautiful, or sexy, but now all he could see was ugliness. "If Tevedes killed him, you have nobody to blame but yourself." He clenched his jaw, his reflection offering no solace. He knew that he had to meet Quistis and Fujin, but just couldn't stop glaring at himself, couldn't stop wallowing in his self-pity.

His hand quickly reacted, and his fist came into rapid contact with the mirror, shattering it. The noise caused Vivi to start, warking. The yellow bird cocked his head, and just went back to sleep. The shards fell to the carpet with a faint clattering noise. A slight numbness worked through his knuckles after the burst of pent-up anger. Squall sighed, grumbling. He waved his hands at the mess, and left to join Quistis.

"I hope Squall and the others do okay," Zell commented, looking across the room at Rinoa. He, Xu and Rinoa were in a barracks, sitting on small, cramped cots, resting up for when they would meet up with the Timber Dukedom, as well as the heads of the city's resistance factions.

"Hmph," Rinoa muttered, fiddling with the seals on her Shooting Star weapon. She'd found black feathers in the Palace, feathers that she knew had come from Nida, and was putting them in her weapon, making it a circle of black and white feathers. She muttered something incoherent under her breath.

"Are you still mad at Squall?" Xu asked, tying her hair back into a short ponytail.

Rinoa bit the inside of her cheek. "Why should I be mad at Squall? He only drove Nida away. Nida, who is your best friend, my best friend. Nida could be dead for all we know. Edea can't find him, neither can Ellone."

"Rinoa...." Zell whispered. "Nida chose to leave. Squall...."

"Fuck Squall!" She cried angrily. "Part of me hopes that Nida won't come back."

"Rinoa!" Xu exclaimed.

"Don't get me wrong..." Her voice became quiet. "I want Nida to be safe... More than anything. But... it would serve Squall right if his misery was prolonged, if Nida didn't open his arms and forgive him."

Xu pursed her lips. "That's a little vindictive...."

"Maybe so."

Zell leaned back on his cramped cot, having to cock his head so it wouldn't hit the bunk above him. "They're in love, though. People say hurtful things to each other sometimes... It happens." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe you want Nida to punish Squall a little for you, too, because you didn't get your pound of flesh from him after your break-up."

Rinoa remained silent on this fact. "He just... Nida shouldn't have to put up with Squall always acting like a jealous bastard..."

"Does he have a reason to?" Xu asked, waxing her bow.

Rinoa raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

"You and Nida have been spending a lot of time together lately. Does Squall have a reason to be so jealous? Look...." She tugged on her ponytail, making it tighter. "I'm not saying that Squall is justified for being so callow to Nida, but does he have a reason to think that you could pose a threat....?"

"No," Rinoa interrupted. "I've been very forthright to Nida about how I feel about him. True, feelings were growing.... I was starting to fall for him, but I talked to him about it, and he told me the truth. Squall was even in the room at the time. I may want Nida a little bit, but I would never do anything to come between him and Squall." She breathed out. "Nida is in love with Squall, although I think Nida can do better, and I don't want to come between them, because Squall makes Nida happy..." She frowned. "Which Squall just throws away, blaming everything on Nida."

"Can't you just be happy for them?" Xu asked.

They remained silent for a few moments. The admiral of the Sub came into their quarters. "We're going to be landing at the beach outside Timber in fifteen minutes."

"Thanks," Zell called as the admiral went back down the small hallway. "Well, ready to kick some Galbadian ass out of Timber?"

Rinoa smirked. "This is old hat for me. Feels like I'm part of the Forest Owls again."

"Quistis will give me a radio signal when she, Fujin and Squall begin their attack on the troops stationed in Balamb. We'll move in at the same time that they do, and raise hell."

"Got it," Rinoa and Zell answered in unison.

Xu opened her mouth, letting her ears pop. "Look, just... be careful. We have to live long enough to fight the rest of the Inaudax."

Zell nodded, getting up. "Let's do it."

Squall pressed his back to a wall. It was raining in Balamb, no doubt because of Tempest. His clothes were already plastered to him, and Fujin, pressed up against the wall beside him, was equally soaked. She was pressing her earpiece further into her ear so she could hear Quistis over the sound of the rain and wind. Quistis had gone up ahead to see how many troops were hanging around the central political buildings of Balamb. They'd already cleared out the residential and commercial areas. They were saving Balamb Harbour until last, because the troops had entered the port town by ship, so their stronghold would be by the water.

"Right," Fujin muttered under her breath. She then tapped Squall on the chest, and cocked her head in the direction that Quistis had travelled in. As they moved along the wall, the water falling from the awnings and rain gutters of the buildings dripping on their heads with pregnant drops, Fujin leaned in, whispering in Squall's ear as he slicked back his shaggy bangs, which were sopping wet.

"Quistis said there are maybe fifty guards hanging around. She saw in one of the windows that there are people in the Prime Minister's office. There's a guard by the door, so they might be hostages."

"Think that the Army wanted to use them as a bargaining chip against Garden?" Squall whispered back, turning his head so his face was pressed into Fujin's wet silver hair.

"No doubt."

"How do you want to do this? Putting the Prime Minister in danger isn't an option. If we go in, weapons blazing, they'll probably shoot the hostages."

"Quistis is going to break in. She's got some sleep spells junctioned, but also has some tranquilizer stars that I gave her earlier, so if she runs into trouble, she can knock them out. She'll flash the light in the window as a signal."

Squall nodded, and he and Fujin got into a position, the shadows hiding them from view. They watched the window. Quistis was nowhere to be seen. In the rainwater, the blood that had built up on Squall and Fujin's weapons was washing off. Their hands were also slipping on the grips.

"We might have to rely on magic," Squall pointed out. "The rain is making it harder for gripping weaponry."

"Damn Tempest...." Fujin frowned. "Esthar's probably flooding right now."

Squall elbowed her when the light flickered in one of the east windows.

"Don't do anything foolish," Squall muttered. "We can't afford to die."

"Right," Fujin whispered, sizing up their chances. "There appears to be a hole in their guard over on the West side of the building. We could move around from there....?"

"I'll throw a flash grenade in," Squall grimaced, his fingers slipping as he fumbled on his belt for the grenade. "It'll distract them, and we can move in."

"If either of us gets in trouble, we'll pull out, agreed?" Fujin's good claret eye narrowed. "I can't leave Almasy without a mother. And, you have to see Nida again." She nodded, and moved away from the building, heading towards the West side.

"Right..." Squall whispered. He thought of Nida's doe brown eyes as he lobbed the grenade in among the Galbadian soldiers. It flashed, and he heard a bunch of them yelp and yell, and heard footsteps. He closed his eyes, and breathed a few times, calming his nerves, and then dashed into the fray, his gunblade out.

Even before Squall could really react, the blade of his weapon was running through a Galbadian Soldier's chest. He tried to pull it out cleanly, but ended up having to yank it upwards and outwards, which caused half the soldier's torso and arm to fall to the ground, his body crumpling after it. Squall heard gunfire around him, and hit the ground, doing a shoulder roll towards the guard closest to him. He arced his blade up, and cut the guy's arms off at the elbows. He felt the vibration of bullets hitting the blade of his weapon running through the metal into his arms. He rolled over so he was on his stomach in a large pool of bloody water, and used the revolver mechanism of the gunblade to fire at one of the soldiers, who was trying to snipe at him. Squall winced as he felt a bullet enter the outer haunch of his thigh. It hurt like Hell, but Squall didn't let it break his concentration. He heard screaming behind him, as well as the whizzing sound of something cutting the air. Fujin's shuriken.

Squall tried to get to his feet, but it was difficult, and his leg kept giving out on him. It also hurt enough for him to gasp. But, the guards, though getting fewer in number, were still around, so Squall grimaced through the hot pain. A sword-wielding guard dashed towards Squall, and the auburn haired SeeD slashed his own blade out, causing it to clang against the other man's blade. It knocked both weapons onto the floor. Squall was quick, and pulled a dagger off his belt. He slashed out, and it cut through the soldier's throat like butter, the poor bastard actually running into it himself.

Squall rose to his feet again, and had to support himself on the wall, because he couldn't feel his injured leg anymore. Half a dozen guards rushed at him, seeing that Squall was faltering. He cast Triple on himself, then cast Ultima three times. His foot slid in the small pool of blood that was forming under his leg. He slumped to the ground, panting, holding the wound on the outer side of his right thigh. His hair fell in his eyes, rain and the injury making him feel heavy. If any Galbadian guards were going to attack him, it would have been the right time.

"Squall....?" He saw the shadow of Fujin crouching beside him. He raised his head, water from his hair running down his cheeks. "How bad is it?"

"I'll live. It just hurts."

She helped him to his feet, casting a Curaga on him. The pain disappeared enough for Squall to feel his leg. "We should get inside before the forces from the Harbour come."

"No," Squall grunted, limping beside her. "We should attack them now, while they're distracted."

"But, what about what Quistis had planned....?" Fujin began to ask. She reared her head backwards in surprise when Squall snapped, interrupting her.

"Fuck what Quistis has planned. Let's just kill them all."

Fujin's one eye was wide. "Squall....!"

He heaved his breath out. "I.... Let's just finish this."

"NO," Fujin said strongly. "You're too hurt." She slung her arm around his shoulders, and led him into the house. "Quistis!" She called.

The blonde came out of the room that the hostages had been in. "Good! You're okay...." She regarded Squall. "What happened?"

"He got shot," Fujin said, sitting Squall down on some stairs.

"I'm fine. We have to wipe the rest of the troops out, or they can just call in reinforcements from Deling City."

"But, you've been shot!" Quistis exclaimed. "Fujin and I can go, and you can stay here."

"Out of the question," he muttered. "Just bandage it up, and after the forces have been eradicated, I can worry about it, okay?"

Quistis pursed her lips, and she exchanged a hesitant glance with Fujin. "You're sure?"

He just glared at the two women, not saying a word.

"ALRIGHT," Fujin conceded, and pulled a medical kit from a pocket in her gear. "Well, we can only patch it up and give you Cure spells now... When we get back to Garden, a doctor can pull the bullet out."

Squall just nodded, cursing under his breath when Fujin tightened the tensor bandage around his thigh.

"Well," Quistis muttered, looking out the window. "The hostages are safe and unharmed, at least. And, I guess Tempest did one thing right. This storm won't work to Galbadia's advantage. I just hope that Xu and the others didn't run into any problems." She sighed. "We'll go in, and Squall, you and Fujin take care of the guards milling around. I'll use my Blue Magic to take out their ships and vehicles. Squall, I would suggest that you use magic, because you're injured."

He just nodded, biting his lip in discomfort, which began to lessen when Fujin cast another Curaga on him.

Quistis changed the channel on her earpiece. "Unit C, can you hear me? This is Unit A."

"Un... er.... istis.... you.... me...?"

"Unit C, you're breaking up. This is Quistis Trepe. Come in."

"The.....orm... ces..... less.... tter... move..... hit...." Then, nothing.

Quistis hit the wall with her open palm. "Fuck. The storm is cutting into the radio frequencies."

"Well, this is what we became SeeD for," Squall hissed, standing up. He tested his weight, and was moderately satisfied. "They won't be able to kill us so easily."

They all shared a look, and went back out into the storm. They ran among the shadows, finding a spot where they could watch the Galbadian troops on the docks without being seen.

Fujin silently cast Aura on all three of them, and Quistis began casting a mixture of Ray Bomb and Shockwave Pulsar on the transportation. Squall, not caring about his game leg, and Fujin jumped into the fray when the guards began to run around, confused as to what was going on around them. Quistis vaulted herself onto some large crates, standing high above the battles below. Fujin did her Zan attack on the guards that moved close to them, and as her shuriken was coming back to her, threw poisoned throwing stars, her aim very accurate. Quistis finished destroying all the vehicles as Squall attacked a small group of guards with Lionheart.

Quistis began to cast Degenerator on the soldiers that Squall and Fujin wouldn't have been able to handle, but the spell failed when she felt herself being grabbed from behind. A soldier pulled her off her perch on the crates, and began pummelling her. Quistis rolled away from the attacker, and cracked her whip. As it wrapped around his neck, he pulled a sword out of his sheath, and placed it at her throat. She felt its razor edge cutting into her flesh, and she pulled the whip as hard as she could, grunting with exertion. The soldier, actually a young woman, was grunting too, trying not to pass out. Quistis could feel warm trickles of blood running over the lump of her collarbone, and reared her head backwards as she did a back flip, her free hand supporting the wrist of the hand that was keeping an iron grip on the handle of her whip. As she flipped backwards, Quistis kicked her legs out, and pressed her heels into the soldier's chest. When she felt the resistance of the ribcage, the blonde kept her body in the awkward crab-like position, and used her feet to pin the other woman against the heavy crates, all the while pulling as hard as she could on her whip.

When Quistis heard the sword clatter out of the soldier's grip, she completed her back flip, and pulled the soldier's weight as she finished the rotation, so the Galbadian woman flipped over, too. Quistis heard the other woman's neck crack, so she did a shoulder roll, rising to her feet to face her victim. Quistis cracked her whip, and the soldier's body rolled over until Quistis had her whip freed from the dead woman's neck. She brought her hand up to her neck, and pulled it back, seeing the brown leather, which was already near black from the rain, stained with red. She cast Curaga on herself, hoping that the cut hadn't been that deep. She wouldn't know for sure until they got back to Garden. She paused, catching her breath in the shadows for a few moments, but gasped in shock when she heard a huge explosion.

Flipping her wet hair out of her eyes, Quistis once more vaulted herself onto the crates. Her cobalt eyes widened when she saw flames engulfing a lot of the machinery. Was this from her casting Ray Bomb? Had the gas tanks exploded? Quistis closed her eyes, and summoned Shiva, who put out the fire with her cold spells.

Fujin grunted as a soldier stabbed through her shoulder, and she arced her shuriken, slicing his head off with force. As his head bounced along the ground, leaving a dabbled blood trail in the water, which was now icing up from Shiva, she pulled the rapier out of her shoulder, chucking it into the swelling Balamb Ocean. "Squall?!" Fujin cried, stepping over bodies, casting Flare on guards who tried to advance on her.

"Here," Squall answered, his gunblade knocked out of his hand by an opponent. Squall's fist connected heavily with the soldier's face, and he picked up the guard's Grenade Launcher. The explosion had been because one of the grenades had been launched into a pile of crates, which had been filled with something explosive. Squall took a few steps back, dragging his useless leg as he moved. It was starting to hurt again, and some debris had hit it in the explosion, aggravating the pain. Squall heard running on the wet docks, and saw a group of guards rushing him. He also heard gunfire, and dove behind some crates. He quickly poked his head out from behind the wooden crate, and fired the grenade launcher. It hit the front guard square in the chest, and caused him to stagger backwards against two other guards just as the grenade exploded. Squall fired another grenade into the screaming group of Galbadian soldiers, and blood, body parts, and bits of flesh rained down on the ground, as if the sky were pouring gore.

Squall closed his eyes, pain overcoming him. He heard footsteps, and opened his eyes just as a soldier was pouncing on him. But, the air cracked with the sound of Quistis's whip, which wrapped around the attacker's neck, and flung him against the smouldering wreckage of one of the Galbadian Jeeps. His body then went up in flames from a Firaga spell.

"Thanks," Squall whispered as Quistis crouched on the crate he was sitting behind. Squall pressed his forehead to the wet wood, and panted, waiting for the pain in his leg to subside.

"ALL DEAD," Fujin said, coming to Quistis and Squall's position.

"Good job everyone," Quistis said with pride. "I'm going to go see if I can find Unit C."

Squall just nodded, groaning when the pain became too much.

Fujin crouched beside him, her clothes sloshing because they were so wet. "Come on... We'll go back to Garden so you can get your leg taken care of."

"No, I'm fine...." Squall whispered, which actually sounded more like a wheeze.

"NOW," Fujin demanded, her voice like iron.

Squall didn't argue with the silver-haired woman any further as she helped him to his feet. He could barely form conscious thought as he used everything he had to stay away, but even then, he wished that Nida were there.

"Fuck!" Zell cursed, slamming his already sore fists against the brick wall that loomed before himself and Rinoa. They'd lost Xu about an hour ago, and didn't know where she was. He yanked the earpiece out of his ear. "Piece of shit." He tossed it to the ground, for it had broken a while ago.

"We're trapped," Rinoa whispered, looking all around. "The soldiers are going to come any second."

Zell turned around, getting in a fighting stance. "Well, we'll just kill them all, or die trying."

"That's your plan?!" Rinoa demanded. The feathers in her Shooting Star were falling apart. She tried to adjust it, and some of the feathers fell out around her feet. She noticed they were the black ones. Nida's feathers. "There are too many of them!"

Xu, Zell and Rinoa had been greatly shocked when they'd began attacking the Galbadian Forces in Timber, because there were more than they could have ever expected. Galbadia had obviously expected an attack, so had secret reserves in Timber.

"I'll summon Adel," Zell ground out. "She should be able to kill quite a few of them before they decimate her HP."

"And, after that?" Rinoa asked, panting. Her arms had cuts all over them, and the shirt she'd been wearing over her olive green tank top and army pants was already shredded because she kept making makeshift bandages out of it.

"Come on, Rinoa.... We can do this."

She nodded, blowing up into her sweaty bangs. She could feel raindrops beginning to fall. "Great, it's going to start storming."

Zell tensed his body when he heard footsteps. "Okay, stand back, Rinoa." He closed his icy blue eyes, and began to summon his mother.

Rinoa took a few steps back, and used the opportunity to try and fix her weapon. She wished that she had Angelo to help her at a time like this, but she was dead. Rinoa crouched down, feeling the air become heavy. The Soldiers came running around the corner just as Zell summoned Adel. She heard the soldiers yelling in confusion as Adel transformed from her natural state to the tyrannical monster she'd become later in her life. The Asian woman picked up the black feathers, wincing when she felt one cut her.

"What the....?" She held up her finger, looking at the cut on the pad of her index finger, which was already welling with drops of ruby red. She blinked in confusion, looking down at the feather, which had a smear of her blood on it. As she picked it up, the alleyway that she and Zell were trapped in was filled with the exploding sounds of Adel's Dark Flare attack. When Rinoa picked up the feather, she saw the edge glimmering, metallic. A drop of her blood was clinging to its edge. She peered at it, the noises of Adel laughing and the soldiers screaming distant, far away. Rinoa picked up a scrap of fabric that had fallen off her torn shirt, and she cut through the heavy material with the feather, like the shirt was made of butter. She picked up the black feathers carefully, by their quills, not wanting to cut herself. One dropped from her hands, and cut straight through a rock on the ground. Rinoa's eyebrows shot up. "Wow....."

Zell grunted as Adel was defeated by the onslaught of Galbadian soldiers. "God, where are they all coming from?!"

"Like you said," Rinoa said with conviction. "We can do this." She held the quills of the feathers between her fingers, looking at the soldiers. "I'll give magic support."

Zell nodded at Rinoa, giving her a wink and a gentle punch in the shoulder. "Right on." He dashed into the oncoming sea of opponents.

Rinoa brought the flat edge of the feathers up to her lips. "Nida... I could really use your help." She closed her eyes, and cast Triple and Haste on herself, then began casting support magic on Zell before she went to work in thinning the ranks of the Galbadian Army with offensive magic. She cast spell after spell on the seemingly endless supply of soldiers that were coming around the corner. Rinoa began to wonder if Xu was running into the same problem, or if she was even still alive.

The claws on Zell's glove jammed through the face of a guard who had knocked him onto his back. He kicked the body upwards with a strong motion, and used it to momentarily halt another guard. He could hear gunfire around him, and just prayed that he didn't get shot, or that Rinoa didn't get shot. He punched another soldier in the face, and as he did, one grabbed him from behind. He tried to struggle, but they got him in their grip. "Fuck!" He cried. "Rinoa!!"

Suddenly, Zell felt heat all around him. It was because the soldiers that were holding him had caught on fire. He yelped, and finally wrenched himself out of their grip, scuttling away from the searing flames.

"Sorry!" Rinoa cried, and cast Haste on herself once more. She began casting multiple Firaga spells, and in the middle of one, she felt something hot, like a bee had stung her. She instinctively slapped at her shoulder, and when she pulled her hand back, her fingers were coated with blood, and a sharp pain was moving down her arm. She yelped when something pinged off the garbage can near her. Bullets. She dove behind the can, looking up to the roof. Snipers. She whimpered as her shoulder hit the ground. She tried to cast Firaga against them, but nothing happened. "No, no, no, no...." She panted. She was out of spells. Rinoa wiped sweat off her face, which felt dirty, and looked at the feathers she was still holding. Rinoa screamed as a bullet went into the garbage can, making a horrible, loud noise. In desperation, she flung the feathers upwards, knowing it wouldn't work, but becoming desperate. She cast Triple on herself again, and tried to cast Blizzaga, but failed.

Zell grunted, snapping the neck of one of the soldiers. His gloves were slippery with blood, and his skin was dappled with it. He looked over to Rinoa when he heard her scream. Zell saw her throw something. Feathers. The blonde's fist went out instinctively, smashing the face in of a soldier that had rushed out of nowhere. He wondered what she thought, throwing feathers. But, shortly after, he heard screaming, and from the rooftops of the buildings, bodies toppled downwards like dolls, splattering all over the ground on impact. Zell began to run towards Rinoa, wondering why she'd stopped casting magic. Suddenly, he heard a high-pitched noise, and looked up to the sky to see a plane of some sort. Very sleek, very fast. Then, the scream of a missile filled the air.

"Zell!!" Rinoa cried, seeing the plane shooting the missile. "That's an Esthar plane!"

"Hit the deck!" Zell screamed, leaping towards Rinoa and pushing her down to the ground. The sound of machine gun fire seemed to come from the rooftops, then the loud wail of the missile making impact filled the air.

Rinoa's hands went up to her face, covering it as the air got hot, and an explosion rocked the land. It flung her backwards, and she groaned as she was slammed into the wall heavily. She heard Zell also grunt as he was flung against her, slamming her into the wall again. They toppled to the ground, and covered themselves as debris rained down on them. The skies also opened, and it started pouring. Even under the debris, Zell and Rinoa could feel the heat of fire washing over them. Then, something ice cold. A blizzard spell, then water.

When silence had filled the air for a good minute or two, Zell finally tested moving. The debris that had covered himself and Rinoa was nothing major, and he began to move it. "Rinoa, you okay?" He asked.

"...Yeah..." She muttered, pushing the debris off her. "I'll live. I was shot in the shoulder by those snipers, though."

Zell kneeled beside the Asian woman, inspecting her shoulder. "Does it hurt?"

"Yeah, a little," she answered, wincing as Zell touched it. "It hurts more when you do that!"

"Sorry...." He helped her up. "What happened?" He looked to the end of the alley, and saw a building completely decimated by the missile.

"Zell!! Rinoa!!"

They both looked up as they heard their names being called from above. Xu was standing on the rooftop, a large machine gun in her arms.

"Xu!" Rinoa cried. "You're okay?!"

Xu began to drop down towards them, climbing down a pipe. "Thank God you guys were okay. I didn't know you guys were in this alley, or I never would have commanded the plane to fire."

"You commanded them?" Zell asked, brushing dirt off of him.

"Yeah, I finally got a hold of Esthar, and they found out that that building..." She pointed to the debris. "... was where they Galbadian forces were holed up, so they bombed it. Again... I'm really sorry."

Rinoa stood, brushing her clothes off. "Well, at least they're gone."

Xu nodded. "Oh, Rinoa, you're bleeding..."

"It's okay...." Rinoa touched the bloody spot, wincing. She then noticed the black feathers at her feet. She picked them up, and noticed they weren't razor-edged anymore.

"Why did you throw feathers...?" Zell asked. "Seems kind of silly."

"They were Nida's feathers..... They were like knives, but are normal now.... I don't understand."

Xu cocked her head, patting Rinoa's shoulder, then smiling. "I guess it was Nida's way of being with us in battle." She wiped some dried blood off her face. "We should get in contact with Esthar. I'm sure they're wondering if we're okay."

Zell smiled distantly. "I could have been killed.... Haven't had to think like that in a while...." He undid his gloves, and took them off for a few moments, flexing his fingers. "I'll be glad to talk to Seifer."

"I also need to talk to Quistis... I hope that she had luck in Balamb."

Rinoa smiled sadly, knowing that she didn't have anyone to call, anyone that she shared her bed, her life with, that would care if she was alive. Squall would have been that someone, but now, he was with Nida, he was in love with Nida, desperately in love with Nida. Who did Rinoa have?

Zell noticed the sad look on Rinoa's face, and gently put his arm around her shoulder, careful of her injury. "We made it."

She nodded, smiling wearily. "Yeah. We're alive. That's all that matters."


Laguna looked up when he heard his name. Seifer was standing in the door of his office. "Oh, Seifer... Have you heard from anyone?" A worried look came into his eyes. "Is Squall okay?"

"Squall's fine," Seifer answered. "Raijin just got a report from Fujin. Squall got shot in the leg..."

"Oh God!" Laguna exclaimed, interrupting. "Is he okay?!"

"...but, he's fine, and it's nothing serious," Seifer continued. "Both Balamb and Timber are free. And, Zell and the others are okay, too."

"You must be glad," Laguna murmured, his smile tight. "That Zell's all right, I mean."

"You're thinking about Kiros, aren't you?" Seifer asked, lowering his body into the chair across from Laguna.

The President rested his elbows on his large desk. "Yeah...." He slumped into silence for a few moments, a silence that Seifer didn't break. "So, what else did they say?"

"Well, the plane got to Timber in time, but Zell and Rinoa were accidentally caught in the blast." Seifer saw Laguna's eyes widen, and he held up his hands. "Don't worry, they aren't hurt in the least. Rinoa was shot in the shoulder, but that's it."

"Damn Tevedes...." Laguna hissed, anger rising in his eyes. "We haven't heard from her in a while... What do you think she's doing?"

"Planning," Seifer answered. "Tevedes, before coming to the Inaudax, was apparently a General in the Centra Army."

Laguna whistled. "I keep forgetting how old they actually are."

Seifer nodded. "Yeah... 4,000 years old. And, she apparently worked for one of my relatives. Back then, a Zohra Almasy was Queen of Centra, and Tevedes was the main woman of the Army. It's probably why Ultimecia liked her so much."

"The Centra Army wasn't known for its kindness... not as long as it existed."

"I know," Seifer answered dully. "Well, I guess having Xerampelinae as a mother, I have to expect other relatives to be less than saintly."

"This just makes me more nervous," Laguna admitted. "The longer Tevedes has to plan..."

"The better her plan will be," Seifer finished.

"Exactly...." Laguna grumbled under his breath, running his hands through his hair. "God.... When did everything get so fucked up?" He sighed. "And, now... we have to worry about Nida getting killed, too. If Tevedes gets his power...."

"Yeah, we'll be seriously fucked," Seifer muttered. "But, we haven't been able to find Nida... I'm hopeful because of it. Maybe he's learning to conceal himself, and that's why he isn't making an appearance."

Laguna shrugged. "That sounds like a reasonable guess. I just hope he comes back soon for Squall's sake."

"In all the years I've known Squall, I've never seen him like this," Seifer murmured, tenting his fingers. "Not even over Rinoa."

"It's sort of a good news, bad news sort of thing. I mean, I'm really happy for Squall," Laguna explained. "But, I can also see him destroying himself. He thinks Nida is... well, perfect, and Nida's only human, so when he does things that are only human, like get angry when Squall says something stupid and hurtful, it rips Squall apart."

"I understand how he feels," Seifer said. "Love's like that. I think when things become less... epic around us, then Squall will settle down, too." He smirked. "I mean, I went through the same thing with Zell."

Laguna cocked a wry grin, and opened his mouth to say something, but the phone rang. He held up a finger. "Excuse me. President Loire." There was a pause, and the comfortable look on Laguna's face deteriorated. "What?"

Seifer's peridot green eyes narrowed when he noticed the seriousness of Laguna's countenance. "What's going on?" The blonde mouthed.

Laguna just waved his hand. "When did it start? Uh huh..... How bad? Shit... Okay, I'll get there as soon as I.... Yep. Okay, I'll call Xu and Quistis.... Right, we'll be there as quick as possible. Right. Uh huh.... Be careful." Laguna slowly hung up the phone, gnawing at his lower lip.

"What happened?" Seifer asked, leaning forward in his chair.

"Come on," Laguna commanded, getting up. "We have to contact the others, and tell them to meet us in Winhill."

"Why?" Seifer asked, confused. He followed Laguna as the other man left the office. "Laguna, wait!" He reached out, wrapping his hand around Laguna's arm. "Stop. Tell me what's going on."

Laguna covered his mouth with his hand as Seifer released his arm. "It's Winhill. Something... bad is happening."

"What bad? What does that mean?"

"People are dying.... A disease or something. They're just dropping dead... Bloated, bleeding."

Seifer's eyes widened, and his scar crinkled as he furrowed his brow. "Disease....?" He cocked his head. "Wait, do you think it's such a good idea to go running in there if it is a disease? What if it's contagious, and airborne? I mean, I studied this kind of thing...."

"No, no...... They say it might be... water contamination." Laguna's eyes darkened. "Tevedes probably has something to do with it."

"Okay, I'll call Timber, you call Balamb," Seifer said, pulling out a cellular phone.

"You call both... I have to get some transport and troops together." Laguna sighed, and gave a small, curt nod to Seifer before jogging down the hallway.

Seifer slowly breathed out, and dialled the number for Zell's phone.

"Hi Seifer," was the casual greeting.

Seifer blinked a few times, then realized Zell had caller ID. "Are you okay?"

"Great! I'm glad you called. I miss you...."

"No time for that," Seifer answered, his voice hurried as he ran up the hallway. He went into the library, and searched the spines of the books. "We've got a problem."

"What is it?" Zell asked, his voice all seriousness.

"Laguna and I are coming to Winhill, and we need your help. Leave some SeeD behind in Timber, though."

"Did Tevedes attack?!"

"Don't really know.... There's some sort of epidemic going on..." Seifer pulled down a thick volume on poisons, and sneezed when he unearthed some dust. "A bunch of people have died, and it might have something to do with Tevedes."

"Died of what...?" Zell asked, his voice a mere whisper.

"Laguna said something like an epidemic, a disease or something...."

"Then, is it safe to even go there?" Zell asked.

"Apparently it's not contagious, and they think it's water contamination."

"Water contamination?"

Seifer flipped through the book with one hand. "I'm betting that it's not a disease at all, but from Laguna's description...."

"You sound like you did when you were in college," Zell mused.

"Thanks," Seifer whispered. "Anyway, the symptoms sounded familiar to me. It could be...." He scanned the pages. "Xiphias poisoning."

"Then, it really would be Tevedes...."

"Xiphias, more precisely. I'm going to call Squall in Balamb after I'm done with you, and get him, Quistis and Fujin to come, too. If Xiphias really is there...."

"I understand," the voice on the other end conceded. "I'll relay the message to Xu and Rinoa as soon as possible."

"Right," Seifer responded. "I'll see you soon."

"Love you," Zell said quickly, then hung up.

"Love you, too..." Seifer whispered to the dead air. He found the information on Xiphias poison that he wanted, and put a cloth bookmark in the pages before slamming the book shut, causing more dust to rise in the air. He sneezed again, and put the book under his arm. "I just hope we can prevent a catastrophe..." Seifer muttered, dialling Squall's number in Balamb.

Squall groaned as his leg throbbed. Quistis had helped him to his room, because he couldn't walk unaided. Dr. Kadawaki had removed the bullet, but now he was in pain.

"Okay," Quistis said, sort of dumping Squall on the bed. He cried out in pain. "Sorry. I'm sure you can.... undress yourself...." She turned her head away, blushing slightly. "Anyway, I'm going to cast a sleep spell on you..."

"No!" Squall exclaimed. "What if something happens... No sleep spells."

"Squall," Quistis said sternly, looking at him over the rim of her glasses. "You haven't been sleeping since Nida left...."

Squall opened his mouth to protest, and say something nasty to her, but she continued.

"Let me finish. And, you can say you're fine, and hide the circles under your eyes with make-up or whatever you're doing, but I know you. You need to rest." She closed her eyes and cast it. "Okay, it'll give you fifteen minutes before it works."

"I've been sleeping fine," Squall muttered childishly, knowing very well that it was a bald-faced lie, and knowing that Quistis knew it was a lie.

"Goodnight, Squall," she said, closing the door.

He began undoing his boots, wincing as his leg gave him trouble. He knew, deep down, that Quistis had been right. He was hiding the circles under his eyes with make-up, because he knew that Quistis and the others would have prevented him from helping them fight Tevedes. He couldn't let that happen. His boots hit the floor heavily, and he already felt Quistis's spell working through his body. He turned off the light to the room, engulfing himself in darkness. He took out his contact lenses, and slowly stepped out of his pants. The fabric aggravated his wound when he took them off, and it caused him to crumple onto the bed. He lay on his side so his wounded leg was facing the ceiling, and started to try and pull his shirt off, which seemed too much of a chore. He didn't even get it over his head before he fell asleep.

Squall knew he was dreaming, and didn't know why. Maybe it was because of the unnatural sleep that Quistis had given him. The dream didn't seem very exciting. Maybe he'd just fallen asleep with his eyes open or something, because he was in his Garden room, sprawled in the position he'd fallen asleep in, his hips turned so they were on their side, his chest and head facing the ceiling, his shirt half off. He was sure he looked like he'd passed out, drunk or high, but couldn't move to fix his position. He felt cold, and couldn't even move to pull the blankets over his slender body. The room was pitch black, and Squall might as well have had his eyes closed, because now he couldn't see anything.

But, he felt like there was someone in the room with him. Was it Quistis, coming to check up on him, to see if her sleep spell had worked? He felt movement rather than heard it. Then, he felt a touch on his leg, at his ankle. It made Squall confused. The touch moved up his leg, along the curve of his calf, past his knee, to the wounded spot on his thigh. If it was Quistis, she was touching him rather inappropriately. It was a little erotic. But, the funniest thing about the touch was that it didn't feel concrete. It felt more like a wind against his bare legs, more like a whisper, a breath, a sigh. It remained on his thigh, and he felt it move across his collarbones, up his throat, and over his lips, hovering over Squall's mouth, which was set in sleep in a pouty little parting of his lips.

It felt like a kiss. It felt like a kiss from Nida. Warm, gentle, familiar. It was a feeling that Squall sorely missed, even if it had only been two weeks. Internally, Squall wanted to return the kiss, wanted to feel Nida's lips moving against his, wanted to work his mouth against Nida's. But, he couldn't. He couldn't move. And, the kiss didn't feel real. It was more like someone had left the window open, and a warm breeze from the ocean, and the feeling of Nida was something that Squall was only superimposing, because he wanted it so desperately. He wanted to feel Nida touching him, kissing him so badly that it was affecting his ability to sleep and eat.

The finger-like touch felt so warm against the wounded spot on Squall's thigh. The breeze felt so beautiful against his lips, lips that felt neglected, lonely. Squall's breathing became more laboured, panting. He wanted his body to react so desperately. What if this wasn't a dream, and Nida was actually there? Squall's whole body screamed for Nida, but he couldn't will it to move. Squall furrowed his brown when he heard a distant noise, a telephone. It kept ringing and ringing, and Squall felt himself being able to move his body. As this happened, the breeze on his leg and lips faded away to nothingness....

Squall opened his eyes, slowly sitting up. The phone was ringing still. "Nida?" He called, looking around the darkened room. He instinctively reached for the light, pulling the cord. The lamp's gentle light filled Squall's room. "Nida?" He called again. But, the room was empty.

Squall groaned, putting his hand to his scarred brow. The phone was still ringing. He reached for it, putting it to his ear. "Nida?"

"Squall, it's Seifer."

"Oh...." Squall trailed off.

"Did I wake you?"

"I'm fine. What's going on?" Squall asked, trying to push the feeling of Nida's lips against his out of his mind.

"We need you, Quistis and Fujin to come to Winhill. Laguna and I are already on our way there, and I already called Zell, Xu and Rinoa. They're also on their way."

"Why?" Squall's voice deepened with seriousness. "What happened? Is it Tevedes?"

"Xiphias.... I think. Laguna got a call about a mysterious epidemic in Winhill."

"Epidemic?" Squall echoed, pulling off his shirt in favour of a cleaner one, a tight, grey T-shirt with the Wonder Woman logo on it. He put his glasses on, and things became a little clearer. "What do you mean?"

"When Laguna described the symptoms to me, it sounded like Xiphias poisoning, so that only means that it has to be Xiphias, because nobody else could get enough poison to contaminate the whole town's water supply, not even with black market connections."

"You really should have been a doctor," Squall muttered, pulling on a pair of baggy black slacks. He held the cell phone between his shoulder and cheek as he put on a spiked belt, looping it through the pants. "What about Timber and Balamb?"

"Just leave some SeeD there to look after things. That's the same thing I told Zell. The SeeD can handle any troops that might show up. Zell just called me back, and they'll be delayed a little, so that means I need you, Quistis and Fujin as soon as possible. If it is Xiphias...."

"You'll need all the help you can get," Squall finished. Suddenly, his heart lurched, skipping a beat. "If it is Xiphias, does that mean that Nida will come back?"

"I don't know," Seifer answered, his voice calm. "Maybe."

"He's staying away because of me...." Squall whispered sadly, sitting down. That's when he noticed that his leg didn't hurt anymore. He touched his thigh in confusion.

"Stop whining, Squall. It doesn't become you," Seifer warned, his voice stern. "Nida is probably staying away because he's trying to conceal himself from Tevedes and the other Oracles. Edea and Ellone have scoured the earth for him, but can't find him. He's probably staying away because he doesn't want to put Esthar, or anyone he loves, in danger."

"But...." Squall began, putting his boots on.

"Forget it," Seifer snapped. "Sorry. Look, just get to Winhill as fast as you can." He hung up.

Squall's eyes narrowed angrily behind his glasses. Winhill held a special place in his heart, because it was the place where his mother lived, the place where he'd been born. He touched the spot that had been so painful only a couple of hours ago, but there was no discomfort at all. He then touched his lips, which were shaking.

A knock on his door snapped him out of his funk. "SQUALL?" Fujin's voice came through the door.

"Squall, it's Fujin and Quistis. We saw the light on. Are you okay?"

He got up and opened the door. "We have to get to Winhill as soon as possible. I'll explain on the way to the Harbour." He ushered Fujin and Quistis down the hall, both of whom were just looking at the scarred man in confusion. As Squall began to explain what was happening, he hoped that Nida would come to Winhill, too, and help them kill Xiphias.

Laguna covered his nose and mouth with a palm. "God, what happened...?" He asked, his voice muffled from behind his hand.

Seifer closed his peridot eyes for a second, nausea rising in him. "It's Xiphias poisoning... I'm pretty sure."

"Xiphias?!" The Mortician of Winhill asked, his eyes wide. "But...."

"Trust me," Seifer said lowly. "I would like to test the water."

"Of course.... The water has already been tested, but we didn't test for anything like Xiphias poison.... Why would you assume that?"

"That's Official Esthar business," Laguna said slowly, afraid that if he kept talking, he was going to throw up. He didn't want to alarm the people of Winhill, who were already terrified, by saying that Tevedes had something to do with it.

"Is there a cure for Xiphias poisoning?" Laguna asked.

"Yeah, if we give it to people in time. Do you have a botanist in this town?"

The Mortician nodded. "We're known for our plants and flowers."

"I'd like to speak to him," Seifer said slowly. He then turned to Laguna, murmuring under his breath. "Is it okay with you that I'm kind of.... stealing your thunder?"

Laguna nodded, turning away from the bodies, laid out on their slabs. "You know more about this than I do. I'm going to go wait for Squall and the others...." He stopped talking when the door to the Morgue opened and Squall came in. "Speak of the devil...."

"And, he will come," Squall finished. He stared blankly at the bloated bodies. "Oh my God...."

"You don't look well, Squall." Laguna put a hand on his son's shoulder. "You look tired."

"I'm fine," Squall waved a hand. "Is it Xiphias....?"

Seifer nodded. "We'll talk about this outside." They stepped out into the hallway.

"We aren't going to mention anything about Tevedes or any of that to the townspeople," Laguna instructed. "It would just frighten them more."

"I'm going to talk to the Botanist in town about the cure."

"Seifer!" Zell called, coming down the hallway with Rinoa and Xu. He stopped in front of Seifer, and hugged him soundly.

Seifer kissed the top of Zell's head. "Glad you got here. Well, I should go find the botanist as soon as I can." He nodded, squeezing Zell's shoulder as he passed. He then patted Squall on the back, leaving.

"I set up a Headquarters of sorts at the hotel. Let's go there and discuss things for now," Laguna suggested. He gave Squall another concerned look. "I'm worried about you."

"You don't need to be," Squall said lowly, his tone almost warning, as they walked to the Hotel. The town smelled like a mixture of ugly death and beautiful flowers. "I'm fine."

"And, you suck at lying," Laguna whispered, tucking some of his hair behind his ears. Squall noticed that the laugh lines around Laguna's eyes were looking more prominent, making him look weary, older. It was hard to think that Laguna was actually 50.

"Dad, please....." Squall muttered, crossing his arms over his chest, which was becoming skinnier.

"I know that you're hoping Nida will come here if Xiphias is here, too, aren't you?"

The auburn-haired man remained silent.

"Come on.... We have to hurry... More people could die," Xu said quietly, touching Laguna on the shoulder. "We also have to think of a way to destroy Xiphias."

"Who's going to take her powers if Nida doesn't come?" Rinoa asked quietly, playing with the strap of her watch.

They all remained silent; Squall touching his lips, thinking about the breeze that had been against them in his dream, Zell and Laguna exchanging sad looks, Quistis shuffling her feet.

"Let's hurry," Fujin said.

They nodded, and went to the Hotel in silence, passing by a small group of people at an outdoor cafe. They were crying amongst each other over the loss of illness of loved ones. As the group passed, they didn't notice one out of the group watching them, her eyes the only dry ones at the cafe, her aquatic eyes watching them until she couldn't see them anymore.

"Oh, doctor!" One of them exclaimed, seeing the blonde woman, sipping a coffee, her lab coat a pristine snow colour. "Have you heard anything new? Is my son going to be okay? His name is Christian Kohler."

A smile spread across the doctor's lips, her almost greenish blonde hair glimmering in the sun. "Don't worry. Everything will work out just fine." She looked towards the Hotel again, the smile on her 4,000 year old mouth widening. "Just fine."

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