Setting 18: 0716 DAY 16, Trabia Coast-bordering Forests
"All human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey."
- Dryden, John
"Arrrgh," Zell croaked weakly as he slowly came back to life.
He felt as if his vertebrae had doubled in number overnight. He was also having trouble turning his head from side to side on account of how he must have strained his neck muscles by resting his head at an unnatural angle during his sleep. The ground had not been the most hospitable surface on which to rest, and his bones did not try to conceal how sore they felt from having stayed there against their will. Had it been possible, his skeleton would have just walked back to the Garden and left Zell lying there, itself emotionally detached from any sense of loss or remorse.
Zell took a rare minute to wonder how he usually woke up. To the best of his foggy recollection, before his egression from Balamb to fight Ultimecia, Mina usually provided the reminder and exigency for him to wake up in her own pleasant, if sadistic, way. It had only taken him a handful of mornings to figure out that she would climb on top of his chest to impede his breathing, pinch his nostrils shut, and then clamp her lips over his own in a truly suffocating kiss. When he was out of oxygen, he would stir himself up. She was light to be enough to be thrown off the bed once he sat up, and proceed to chew him out if he did not realize what he was doing and catch her in time before she ended up on the floor. Personally he believed that Mina liked being roughed up because she repeated the procedure every morning, but it took a sturdy heart on his part to live with this organic alarm clock that doubled as a murder device each night.
Once he discovered what she was up to, he flipped out and reprimanded her for taking such a dangerous and unnecessary gamble with his life- not that she took any of it to heart. In the end, Zell found himself bereft of grounds on which to argue as she did not buy his claim to have not enjoyed it. At the suggestion of using one or both of his ears alternative airways for her to block, she only jeered that she would wind up with a candle when she pulled out her tongue, which made him even more self-conscious.
It took an enormous amount of labor for him to sit up, a task that his waist, receiving no cooperation from his brick-heavy upper torso, had to stomach alone. It felt as if he had to rise with Mina straddling him, the catch being that she had gained enough weight to make Ward balk. Towards the end of this traumatic episode, it occurred to him how it would be so much easier on him to execute the basic maneuver if he had a fresh supply of energy, an actual incentive to get up, an arrangement of pulleys latched to a team of oxen, his wits about him, motors skills that were not impaired, all the time in the world, and a brand new back- spinal cord included, eighty-year guarantee, and no assembly required. It took less time than it took to him to force himself to his feet for him to realize that none of these desired conditions were fulfilled.
Why in the world did I get up then? Zell asked himself.
I dunno, replied his mind.
Should I just flop back down again then? he wondered.
Um… his brain paused to think. I defer my decision-making authority to-
"Come on," he interrupted the thought by rapping his head with his knuckle, "Wake up, Zell."
Yeah, his left-brain teased the right and administered a mental kick, snap to it!
Zell quickly switched to another line of thinking and focused on getting back home before he was made an unwilling spectator to the internecine fistfight between the two sides of his brain. Had he remained tuned in to their frequency and suffered witnessing the entire brawl, he would have inevitably relapsed into a vegetative coma until the end of his days.
What is the point of having a healthy, young body if I cannot move around in it? he asked himself rhetorically.
His legs felt very weak. It would take an estimated three hours of additional training to get him back in top shape. A personal fitness schedule laxer by any degree would surely jeopardize his chances at beating Squall in the break-dancing battle at the upcoming Nova Trabia masked ball. Even though he hardly ever revealed it, the commander was holding a pair of aces over kings between the ballroom dance steps that Quistis had taught him and his own street hop. It vexed Zell to have to acknowledge even one event in which Squall proved to be more athletic than he.
Zell landed a punch in his free palm and cracked his knuckles in good humor. It was going to be one hell of a match, and he could hardly stand the suspense. The whole notion of the contest even taking place, though, was held in the good faith that Rinoa's auspices would be smiling upon Squall that night and that she would allow him to participate. Rinoa's caprice and spasmodic mood swings made her mandatory blessing of the event a very precarious proviso to ensure was met; quite frankly it was just madness to keep the anticipation of a great break-dancing battle around in one's head. The first defect of optimism was its prematurity. The second was its inadequacy to deliver.
He never could figure out how Rinoa's mind worked. The complexity of her language vied with that of a Linear C yet to be discovered by man and for whose jargon no single Rosetta Stone could illuminate by itself. Her native tongue knew only idioms, colloquialisms, abbreviations, antiquated conventions, and bastardizations.
Deep within Zell, a faint feeling stirred. He decided that it had to be his pity for Squall. Zell could hardly claim that he was jealous of the commander's predicament; in some ways he was grateful that Mina was not as troublesome as Rinoa. In other ways she was, though.
At least Rinoa doesn't just run off without telling anyone where she is headed, he conceded.
It was then that Zell realized that the gnawing sentiment he felt was not just pity for Squall, but for himself as well. He too had his share of girl trouble, worries, and headaches. It made him mad to realize that he was worrying about her because it recalled to mind the frustrating adage of Ma Dincht about how one could not be worried by other things; rather one willfully rendered himself the worrywart. Indeed, it did not make much sense to him how deep down, he actually wanted to worry about her, but it was clear that his life would not be the same without the call for concern to his object of affection. Was she really so heartless as to deprive him of his dream to care for her and condemn him to his pitiable station as the derelict darling?
Who knew what is racing through their heads anyway? Zell pondered. What could possibly explain the way they act sometimes?
As the years passed, humanity had taken to calling their irrationality their ‘mystique.' To be enigmatic had become attractive; to be impossible was now arousing. All the while, it was unfeasible to comprehend their motives well enough to fit them into a model with which to predict their next move. Any signals they emanated were unreadable or too badly distorted to be broken down and deciphered correctly by logicians, mathematicians, or psychological slicers. Every woman spoke and thought in a dialect different from her male counterpart. It was one of Hyne's biggest jokes. Zell would not be surprised if their brains ran along diametrically opposite paths, their minds revolving around perpendicular axes, their reasoning traveling along separate, skewed lines. Maybe it was finally time for Zell to admit to himself what the locked door Mina posed really stood for- a dead end. He had no magical key into her world on his pathetic key ring. It was probably best for him to stop lying to himself.
Yet it seemed so unfair that she held his key and exercised no moderation in flashing it in front of his face all the time. Somehow she seemed to know exactly how and when to sneak up on him. He figured it was not that hard of a task considering that her timing and manner were not as important so long as her presence was there. That last aspect alone was probably more than enough to stimulate the internal flutters he felt. She truly was a walking bundle of love and joy that induced the good kind of heart attacks in him. He found himself longing for it, making it more a psychological request than a cardiovascular arrest.
But she was gone now, and her absence tore his heart to pieces. It would be difficult to concentrate on his daily duties bereft of his emotional essential. He also had to deal with the vexation of knowing that she was probably having the time of her life with the other guy.
Zell's jaw tensed and the hair on the back of his neck bristled at the mere thought. He relaxed one of his reflexively-clenched fists, uncurling it so as to reach down into his pocket and draw out the portentous photograph. From the way it was crumpled, Zell guessed that he had turned over more than once during the night. He tried to straighten out all of the folds.
The trivial task proved to be a challenge for the stiff-fingered fighter because he went out of his way to avoid smearing any part of Mina in the photograph; he loved her too much to touch her. Just the opposite, he loathed the other man so much that he struggled to not to get his fingers anywhere near the bastard. Even if he could forgive himself for dirtying his fingers on that man's image, his spirit would not. He could conceivably cleanse his hands with soap, but his soul would feel forever sullied and he would know the difference. Frankly Zell had no interest in playing around in a self-destructive, guilt-trip whirlpool. Thus, with the mentality to avoid this fashion of eternal self-condemnation, Zell drudged through an excessively long period of awkwardness but finally managed with the help of his chin and elbows to smooth out the photo, on which there were only a few spots not occupied by either Mina or her new lover.
Having seen to its being relatively flattened out, Zell took a figurative step back to gawk at the couple. He bemoaned the fact that it would have looked so much better if he had been in the stranger's place. Perhaps he could convince Selphie to scan the picture and digitally alter it so as to insert his own image beside Mina, but that that would require him to show her the photo and incite a bombardment of questioning looks and source next month's richest topic of gossip. It was in his best interests to wait patiently until the stranger stumbled into his hands, after which he could sort out this affair internally by pounding the living daylights out of the home-wrecker.
You lucked out this time, thief, Zell contemplated.
He picked up his feet and began his long walk home. The morning air had yet to grow tepid, but the midnight mustiness still lingered in the wake. Albeit it would be no big problem to get back to the Garden before noon, at which point the temperature in the humid jungle would pick up some intolerable thirty degrees as was accustomed this time of year, but he did not want to take any chances; it was perfectly possible to run into another Blue Dragon, and, in the light, he would not be able to resort to his tactics of stealth as he had done the previous evening.
The muck that Zell had run through then was more waterlogged than he had guessed. Instead of leaving a trail of footprints for him to retrace, the impressions were obscured by the displaced mud the moment he lifted his foot each step of the way. As the black sky no longer loomed overhead, the Garden's beacon was virtually invisible, meaning that he could not check his direction. Realizing that it was impossible to detect the light against the blue and white horizon, Zell changed his course and began to head for the beach, the only destination that could guarantee his way out of the forest and into a clearing. From the Trabia shore he could, going along the forest perimeter, work his way back to Nova Trabia.
The rumble of waves was faint but discernible. As easy a task as it was to follow his ears, Zell's heart leapt when the washing sound against the sand intensified, meaning that he was on the right track. His trekking grew brisker the closer he felt he was to breaching the remains of the verdant expanse and gaining the fresh shore. The imperative variation of scenery was long overdue, and this SeeD had no intention of prolonging the translation of landscapes with his sluggishness. He pushed on with added vigor and the self-confidence of one who had not any mud stains still garnishing his pants. After another few minutes, he reached the threshold.
Nature seemed to halt in her steps and grow quiet for a second before Zell burst through the last row of bark and squinted under the sun's sudden flood of brilliance. When he could fully open his eyes again, he saw that he had successfully traded off the green for the white-decked blue. The crags rested to his right, and the beach water snored invitingly in front of him. Zell let loose a wild, war hoot and charged the coast, shedding the last of the pine forest scent and leaving it for future transcendentalists, naturalists, or recluses more appreciative of the environs than he was, to grapple with.
The sea air blasting against his face was refreshing for about as long as he could ignore the sand that had happily found a home in his sneakers. How those insidious little specks of annoyance managed to creep into his footwear, he had no idea, but to deter any more of their friends from moving in and having a party under his heel, Zell forced himself to penguin-waddle through the rest of the sand bunker until he was standing beside the shallow tide.
The crisp, cool water promised to provide a light-feeling lather on his neck, an activity that for the time being would be able to get his mind off of the silicon shards slipping between his toes and frustrating his attempts to get comfortable. What Zell really wanted to do was tear off his shoes and fling them into the sea where they would do well to flounder and sink, bereft of any internal air pockets that might buoy them up to where they could bob on the surface in defiance of his greatness. If, however, they recalcitrantly refused to sink to the bottom of the ocean and take the nettling grains with them, he would be justified to Dolphin Blow the targets to shreds.
The soothing temperature of the water doused the anger steaming from his head and stayed his hand, which in retrospect he realized was a good thing because his sneakers were technically still brand new. The silky film left by the retreating waves did not provide the static, reflective surface he sought, so Zell walked along the shore until he came across a puddle of seawater deposited in a serration on the banks. He bent down and stared intently at his mirror image.
"Whoa," Zell marveled apprehensively.
The night in the forest had taken more than just a toll on his back- it had also severely punished his hairdo. The top of his head looked as grizzled as if it had gnawed on by a pack of starving wombats. As much as he hated to admit it, for once the hairstyle in which he prided himself for sporting was dragging him down. The sight was truly that embarrassing. There was nothing of the majestic, cock-like plume, the mere sight of which could trumpet his entrance and buy him the right to parade his influence, prestige, and masculinity before the world. The best he could hope for now was that the people could be convinced that some crazed topiarist went through his hair with a weed-whacker. With those odds, he wondered if it was propitious for him and his public image to return to Garden without some fixing up first. Maybe no one would be so judgmental as to shackle him down to the floor of disrepute and unfashionableness based on first impressions.
"Fat chance," he grumbled, guessing that in all likelihood his frazzled face would end up on the front page of the faculty newspaper.
He sighed and looked mournfully at his reflection again. He checked his gnarled crown from each viable angle before recoiling in abhorrence. It was all so emasculating. The dereliction of a feature so rudimentarily integral to his identity would cripple his status and stigmatize his person as if he had fallen from grace through an ejection by divinity. He wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
If he had been serious, he would have started digging. Luckily for Zell, he had spotted the silver lining and realized that the temporary defect on his head could still be emended.
"Better mousse it down before anyone recognizes me," he said aloud and began splashing water over the warring streaks of blonde and brown.
He figured that if the pretense of grooming could preclude any criticism that might undermine his reputation, then it was well worth the time he would have to spend in the shower scrubbing out the thick smell of brine and fish from his hair. In the meantime the stench would tolerable until he could make it back to his room and shower. The officers' quarters in Nova Trabia Garden had been pre-selected for construction close to the main entrance on the first floor, opposite of the Garden Noodle and the corridor that led to their lounge. As early as it seemed in the day, he could probably gain the solace of his private chambers without having to the wade through the usual first period traffic of students. The fact that most of the Garden's classrooms were built on the second floor would minimize the number of trainees whose eyebrows would be raised after getting a whiff of him while he dodged past them in the hallway. Of course, he would have to wallop them in afternoon gym class if any of them brought it up then.
It took Zell a few tries and frequent checks in the puddle's reflection before he recaptured the look that he wanted. Afterwards, he ran his fingers along his cheeks and chin to feel the stubble of a beard already besieging his boyish countenance. He shrugged off the distaste, judging that another hour of not shaving would not kill him.
"Am I sexy or what?" he gloated instead, grinning exaggeratedly to check his teeth.
‘Or what' is right, his inner voice piped in.
"Who asked you?" Zell challenged indignantly, evidently upset by the unsolicited intrusion.
Well, someone has to say something meaningful once in a while, was the retort. It's not like I like this job any more than you like listening to me. Sometimes I just wish you would act smart on your own for like twelve hours so I could take a day off, but I don't see that happening anytime soon because your IQ is as inert as a brick in the side of a building. You are unbelievable, you know that? I have to freaking supervise you even while you sleep because your closing your eyes does not render you any less of a danger to yourself. How in the world did I get stuck with an assignment like this? Did I wrong you in my past life? I doubt it, so forgive me when I seem a little cranky because I work both day and night shifts with no bathroom breaks! Chump.
"Okay, okay," Zell reacted defensively, "I get the picture, but when are you going to get off my back about that?"
The day you stop acting like you have a bad case of the stupids, was the retort.
"Oh great," Zell muttered. "Now my own head is treating me for stupidity as if it were a disease."
If it were up to me, I would have had you locked up long ago, his mind pronounced callously.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Zell remarked sourly. "It sure is nice to know that someone out there believes in me."
The neat idea of escaping this conversation with himself by deserting the pool and leaving his thoughts with his mirror image occurred to him. He took one last look at his reflection before getting to his feet and recommencing his journey along the beach.
This isn't exactly the best job in the world. In fact, it doesn't even come close, his inner thoughts rang. What are the perks of this job? A shabby health care package that barely covers the family of mine that I have not seen in seventeen years. No vacation, no sick leave, no accommodations, no chance for promotion, and no Christmas bonus. Oh, and how could I forget- the pure joy and gratefulness I feel to work with you 24-7. Most employees would count the fact that there is no competition on the job market for this station as a good thing, but for me that is the bane of my life. Heck, I don't even get an attractive secretary. And what have I to look forward to? Sixty more years before your senility comes to relieve me, and the miserable pension won't get me by half of the year with the expenses my luxurious lifestyle necessitates. And all the while, I am worried to death that the board in their renowned judiciousness will give me tenure to this Godforsaken position!
"I heard your grievances the first time," stressed Zell as he broke into a run. His ploy to desert the wise-ass voice was not working, and every new word spoken added a brick weight to his stomach.
Just my luck! the voice continued. My mother warned me about getting a job in consulting because she was certain that it would never amount to anything more than pain and anguish. I have applied for transfers to all of the major cities but they never answer. Why couldn't the board have stuck me with Quistis, Selphie, or Rinoa? I could be sunbathing on the beach and advising any one of them on which part of their nubile bodies and luscious skin to rub the lotion-
"Hey!" Zell interjected. "We love Mina, remember?"
Oh yeah, it recalled without the slightest trace of excitement in its tone, her. Psssh.
"Well," Zell replied, "she is kind of important to me so I would appreciate it if you did you best to remain civil when you mention her."
His mind ignored him and pressed, What is so good about her? From what I have seen so far, the only thing noteworthy is how adept she is at getting your hopes up.
"You know," Zell commented, stepping over a conch shell, "I read that you only exist to help me become aware of what I want."
What is your point? replied his consciousness impatiently.
"Get with the program," Zell stated simply. "If you are going to channel my desires, you should know that Mina would keep me happy for the rest of my life."
Where did you read all of that? it asked skeptically.
"Sartre," Zell replied, "and it would not hurt you to look it over yourself."
Well, , you are just going to have to accept the sad fact that Sartre was confused. I act in my own best interests. I look out for number one, and I do what I do to get what I want.
"No," corrected Zell, "you mean what I want."
No, it repeated with a tone reeking of pretentiousness, I meant what I want.
"You have it all wrong," Zell scoffed, shaking his head and dismissing the line of thought all together.
Well then, maybe I'll just decide to forgot that I am conscious of you and you'll cease to exist, the voice threatened. I really would have no problem with an early retirement.
"Ha!" Zell countered sharply. "You are part of my For-Itself, so if I die, you disappear too!"
Are you one hundred percent sure about that? his mind checked him. Who says that consciousness has to be finite? If I asked you to guess how many lifetimes I have lived and who I had to possess the last time around, what would you say to that?
"Some kind of activist, lobbyist or union demagogue," guessed Zell. "I mean, you complain more than anyone I know. More than me, even."
Was that an attempt to be clever? the voice prodded condescendingly. Because if it was, you had better get your facts straight, buster. The ‘I' and ‘me' you used to refer to yourself are technically just modes through which I can obtain what I desire on your materialistic, perceived world. I am not your anything, not your conscience, because there is no "you." I am merely a consciousness of you.
Zell did not answer, figuring that it would leave him alone if he just concentrated on his running and ignored it. He focused instead on the ringing of his monotonous steps and the feeling derived from the slight skidding against the wet grit, the occasional lapping of the waves against the side of his sneakers, and the dirt thrown up by the soles of the shoes as he pushed off, head in the wind.
The pink horizon was brightening nicely into a fulsome yellow. Having lost its shyness long ago, the sun threw off the veil of the ocean and began flaunting itself in all of its splendor. Zell mushed on, proud that his heart was strong enough to regulate his pulse to a rate slower than his strides'. His trusted shadow raced along beside him, bobbin up and down, as protean as the texture of undulating topography he left behind.
"You know," he finally remarked, "if we are both parts of the For-Itself, don't you think it is about time we began acting in some mutually beneficial interests?"
What for? the other asked suspiciously. And cui bono?
"To add new meaning in this life," Zell clarified, "and to instill it where there was none before."
Add new meaning to your life? the voice scoffed in feigned humor. Now is that my function? What have I been doing all these years? So that's the missing part of me! That's why I feel I have been feeling so incomplete lately.
There no was mistaking the sarcasm and contempt in the voice. For a minute Zell felt devoid of its presence and rationalized dejectedly that it had gone off somewhere to roll around and laugh its ass off. Still, it was a refreshing hiatus between insults. Realizing this, Zell dropped his guise of glumness and settled down to take advantage of the reprieve from being the shooting gallery of his own consciousness.
Hey, how about this for meaning? it broke back into his head and suggested. You're a chump. Digest that!
"Yeah, that was what I was talking about," Zell commented dryly.
You're confused, his consciousness summed up.
"Like Sartre?" sneered Zell.
Like Sartre, it concurred.
"Then you're obviously not doing a very good job," Zell analyzed.
Be still my beating heart, his inner voice bemoaned exaggeratedly.
More realistically it added, I can sleep at night because I know that no one else would fight me for this position, no matter how badly I manage it.
Up to his throat in resentment, it was an understatement to say that Zell was getting fed up with the mock sarcasm.
He lashed out, "What I don't get is that you are supposed to be a non-personal and non-reflective consciousness, but it don't act like it at all!"
Yeah, so? his mind countered mockingly.
"Non-reflective means that you cannot take yourself as an object!" Zell conjectured, voice rising with his excitement; it was all coming together now. "You are not supposed to be conscious that you are conscious! That is your pre-reflective ego's job."
His consciousness grew silent and seemed to consider the argument laid before its feet.
Ack! it suddenly choked, realizing that it had been defeated.
"I hereby banish you!" Zell cried triumphantly with a clap of his hands to mark the end of the hard-won philosophical debate.
A curse on both your houses! the little voice screamed and vanished with a blip.
Zell smirked and walked with a new bounce in his step. He replayed each line from memory and beamed with pride at the revisitation of the denouement where he had laid down the sinker.
"That ought to hold him at bay for another day or two before he finds a loophole in the wording of the phenomenology," he told himself.
Zell slowed to a stop and turned for a second to admire the surreal view, all the while continuing to run in place so as not to lose his rhythm or elevated heartbeat. How the water naturally took turns flowing both ways seemed so organized, and yet so organic. It made him feel like the child he wanted to be again who could waddle through the water with no repercussions and not the man with rounds to make and a class to head in the afternoon. It was best that he get going again.
He caught the glint of something reflective of the sun's rays at the corner of his left eye, tucked a small distance from the edge of the overhanging promontory. There was no way that any individual speck of silicon on the beach could give off so lustrous a sparkle, a fact that urged him to check out the anomaly. The twinkle could have been sourced from an enemy soldier's armor, the lens of a sniper rifle, or even worse, the canines of a wandering dragon. Or it could just be a glass bottle carelessly littered on the otherwise immaculate landscape. Before he had visual confirmation though, from this point on, it was best to proceed with the acme of caution.
Zell quickly threw himself down in the lee of a nearby sand dune. If the danger from above was a shooter, it was best that he remain out of his line of sight. In all probability, Zell had been spotted already. The only reason no shot had been fired was that he was out of range. Lying flat against the white mound, Zell looked to his left and right and tried to find a route he could take that would offer him full cover as he circled back around in a wide arc. That way he could conceal his position from further monitoring, and, hopefully, gain a sneak attack on the rival scout if he was cautious enough to prevent his own discovery along the way.
The combination of initial fear and corollary curiosity was inductive of a keen sense of excitement, and so, without further persuasion, Zell ducked down low and ran from the base of one white hill to the next, beginning his long journey to circle around his adversary's possession. "Outflank for the Preemptive Attack" was one of the rules he recalled from Trepe's Handbook of Military Tactics. He would have to remember to thank Quistis for finally coming up with something that was actually applicable to real life situations.
Now that he actually thought about it, Zell frowned at how little sense it still made to him that Headmaster would have demoted Quistis from SeeD instructor status at Balamb all those weeks back. He never got the whole story because it inappropriate to solicit her side of it and risk reopening a wound that must have been a hell to heal thus far. Zell had always prided himself in being competent with counting numbers, but this just did not add up. It seemed unlikely that Quistis would take the fall for Seifer voluntarily, and knowing his errant and erratic behavior, Cid could hardly have coerced her into doing so. If the Balamb Garden Department of Student Insurance was unwilling to cover Seifer's health and well being, then it was unreasonable to make Quistis responsible for his actions.
Zell wondered briefly how Seifer and Raijin had formerly landed positions on the Disciplinary Committee in Balamb. Was it an artful attempt by the Headmaster to curb Seifer's mischief-making by artificially instilling a sense of work ethic in his already overflowing ego, or just another endeavor, seasoned with a zest of craziness customary of all of Cid's crooked antics, to incorporate the age-old aphorism of "fighting fire with fire"?
Zell shook his head. The Headmaster was as insane as he was complicated. Cid Kramer thought in circles; with him, it was never a direct, linear neural pathway that connected a point of intention to a point of action. Rather it was only through a roundabout road of reasoning comprised of multiple twists and discoveries that one could trace his orders back to his motives. With that in mind, it must have been irksome for Edea to hand herself over to him at the altar when she probably did not know any of the real reasons why he wanted to take her as his bride. Like all women, Edea probably spoke her own dialect based on the mystifying Linear C and to put her in the same home with the cryptic Cid was to warrant for years a noteworthy debacle and basic breakdown of functional communication in the history of human language. One had to stop and think what sort of divinity would purposely build so volatile a time bomb and humor in its inevitable, internecine outcome.
One day, when he was the Headmaster, Zell was going to marry a pretty girl far too good for him too, and then lounge around, reveling in his girth, dispensing antiquated aphorisms and enigmatic orders at random, and have them be falsely mistaken as words far superior and ingenious for comprehension by any mere subordinate, as he was rightly entitled to. Misplaced reverence for a façade of sagacity was the privilege of senility, after all.
Zell sighed. The thought of marriage had revived the ache in his heart for the long overdue and whom he felt was at current the largely displaced Mina of the pigtails. He almost did not care about the other man in the picture, the fling in which she had broken from him, her boyfriend, to indulge. Now, staring straight into the eyes of death, his own life hanging in the balance, all he could do was worry about her and wonder helplessly if she shared his fate. He had not heard from her since she just parted from him over two weeks ago, and he needed more than that to know that she was at least okay. Silence would not do, but just a few words from her rosy lips would let him rest worlds easier. If she was happy with her new lover, that was fine; if she was not, so much the better.
But he was digressing from where he should be appropriating his attention- trying to keep his head from getting shot off. Zell loved every part of head and he loved where it sat on his neck just as much. It was be a damned shame if he would let some rookie shooter get lucky and pop it off, especially after he spent so much time in front of his reflection in the puddle to smooth each delinquent hair back into its set position so as to optimize his visual charm. If the gunner was going to blow Zell's head off, he could at least have had the decency to do it before the intricate art, and it was an art, had been performed to completion. It would be an insult if one's motherland spent millions of Gil on negotiators and airlifts to reconcile with and return all of her defectors, only so they could be taken down by another country's anti-aircraft missiles on the way back. Zell was not about to lose face to an Irvine wannabe who wanted to score big with a cheap shot.
The edge of the beach was drawing to a close with the beginnings of the grass plain peeping out from under its sandy blanket. Zell crept to the peak of the last mound and peered over it. There was no visible movement from the cliff, no sign of activity that would have been noticeable had they been able to follow and detect his movements. He had successfully navigated around behind their keep and the path looked clear. He methodically surveyed the target area and searched for men, vehicles, and other machinery, as well as telltale signs and markings that could give away the enemy's identity.
To his surprise, the land seemed amazingly flat and devoid of life all the way up to the cliff edge. In all probability though, if there had been a sniper, he would have been lying flat on the ground with his rifle in hand. Zell knew there was something metallic or crystalline in the vicinity, which would attest for the flash of light he had gotten a glimmer of.
"Where are you?" Zell whispered under his breath with impatience.
Just then, in the process of visually scrolling from left to right, his eyes caught something out of the ordinary. A stationary object standing in a lopsided position about thirty meters out and four degrees off to the left. He was too far away to discern exactly what it was, but at length he decided that it was immobile. All he had to decide now was whether or not identifying the anomaly was worth the risk of getting shot by any motion sensors during his approach. Zell was ambivalent about both scenarios. If he had a coin handy, he would have flipped it to see what he should do. The smartest thing, of course, would be to fling the coin at the target and see if it got fried before it hit the ground. It was either that or Zell charge at the contraption and play chicken with the defense laser beams.
It did not appear to be attended, and Zell saw no place on the cliff for a person to hide. It was time for him to take a look at what he had found. He stepped out from behind his hiding place and advanced with caution towards the machine. It was unmistakably metallic, just as he had guessed it would be initially. After another few steps though, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped at the realization of what he was walking towards.
It was a blue A09-series Garden motorbike, even better than the jet-propulsion A08 motorbikes that the Galbadian soldiers had used to jump from the Seifer's Garden to Balamb's during the battle by Edea's Orphanage. Zell had seen advertisements for one of these demons of speed in the ‘Combat King' magazines, but he had no idea that they were out on the market yet. He was probably looking at a prototype or limited edition, promotional, collector's item. Zell licked his lips, unable to contain the excitement he felt. He would have to tell Squall about this when he got back to Garden; it would be of definite interest to him because he made mention of it when he saw the same advertisement in the ‘Weapons Monthly' catalog. Of course, it would be difficult to convince Squall that there was actually one already out of production and on the streets.
Zell wiped the dribble that clung tenaciously to his chin, but never once did he take his eyes off of the dream ride. It was the paradigm of beauty and technology. The chassis was waxed and glazed, the tires still slick, and the pipes spotless. Judging from how juiced up the motorbike was, he would have to guess that the owner treated her like the love of his life. Some of the alterations and upgrades looked costly. The improvements on the peripherals that had no effect on the performance of the vehicle were made in accordance to the owner's tastes despite its neglect of frugality. The chic, chrome rims had obviously been custom-fitted, the tires mounted were of the wider, low profile, professional sporting kind, the exhaust pipe had been changed to an excessively large one that promised a loud hum, the handle bars painted and shined, water-filled seat cushions with plush covering, the factory lights had been replaced with xenon ones, and a nitrous canister hooked up to the engine, which from the looks of it had been tweaked and tuned to maximal efficiency. It would have no problem netting a big-time, auspicious sponsor like GM, Garden Motors, for any additional funds. Overall, it was a very pricey job that few people had the luxury to afford. Luxury did not begin to describe the pretty Gil it must have cost, but he had to admit the owner knew how to have fun.
"What a babe," Zell whispered in awe. His lips trembled slightly in mid-sentence because of how hard the sleek exterior of the A09 was getting to handle.
All he wanted to do now was to squeeze the throttle, rev the engine, and hear the sexy beast roar. All he needed now was a leather jacket and some shades, and he could hop on and ride all the way to Galbadia in a second to pick up Mina, after which he would spirit her away to a paradise in the highway wind. Whoever owned this baby and got to ride her till his ass ached was one lucky prick. Zell contemplated whether the jealousy he was feeling was merited and decided that it was. He wondered who the owner could be. Whoever he was, he had become Zell's new best friend.
While scoping out the luscious lift again, his eyes wandered over the stolid, black carrying case of the Lionheart, hanging on the far side of the bike off its handle.
Zell did a double take but caught himself before he fell over.
"No way!" he hollered in a half-ecstatic, half-chaffed fashion.
He was overjoyed because he would surely get to feast his eyes on the beautiful brute again, but it pained him just as much because he knew that Squall would never let him touch it as long as he lived. It also hurt Zell's feelings that Squall had not informed him about his new purchase. They were buddies and old roommates, and so it seemed selfish that Squall had not brought himself to share the news about his wealth, if he was not even going to share his wealth. Being that the ride was Squall's, though, Zell decided against hotwiring it, mainly because Squall would have the foresight to rig an alarm and possibly a self-destruct mechanism on the ignition system. If the A09 had been Irvine's, Zell would have cashed in his technical engineering skills and been flying down the freeway five minutes ago.
Zell was still puzzled about where Squall struck the gold to lavish on a state-of-the-art motorbike that was supposedly still in its development phase. With his responsibilities and time-commitment to Balamb Garden as its SeeD Commander and his supervising role and instructing positions that they all shared in Nova Trabia, it was impossible for him to have taken enough money jobs in secret between shifts to cover for the exorbitantly high figure needed to cover even the basic expenses, not to take into account the cost of all the extravagances. Meanwhile, the level A SeeD salary was just a drop of water in the bucket relative to the Gil in question.
Zell rubbed his forehead.
"I'm thinking either he borrowed Rinoa's credit card or Laguna was behind this," Zell concluded at length. With her father's name, Heartilly could have coerced a team of Galbadian engineers to soup up Squall's ride. Likewise, Laguna was a viable contributor; Esthar's electricians were very knowledgeable about beefing up vehicles and a word from the President could have set them working on the A09 and pre-releasing it faster than the parole board did to Seifer. If it was Laguna's way of apologizing for being an absentee parent for seventeen years, what a gift it was! Zell wished his biological father would follow in suit if he ever came forward and formally recognized him.
Where is Squall, anyway? Zell wondered, finally tearing his eyes away from the gorgeous sight. It was a painful experience to look up from the bike, but he was able to brave it like a man. Still, it felt as though he had left a part of his heart with the A09, a quality that affected a numbness over his entire body as he walked away, each step feeling heavier than before because of the added weight of incompleteness saddled on his shoulders.
Beginning with the area around the motorbike, Zell circled outwards and inspected the ground for any traces of his friend. In particular he was searching for signs of a struggle because it was impossible for Squall to leave his A09 unattended unless some sort of emergency came up. The carrying case for the gun-blade was locked so he could not check to see if Squall had taken it with him, wherever he had gone. It was unlikely that Squall would have been victorious without his weapon if he had been assaulted without warning.
Zell shook the idea of a sneak attack out of his head. If treachery was involved, the vandals would have also made away with the bike. The only other two possibilities were that he walked away by himself or something popped out of the forest and surprised him. The cold bike's engine and dewy seat were indicative of Squall's absence through the duration of the night. If he had not returned to reclaim it after all this time, chances were that he would never come back. This was not the conclusion that Zell wanted to envision. He had to have missed something, some crucial piece of the puzzle.
As he drew near the edge of the promontory, things began to look more hopeful. Zell noticed telltale signs of activity from the night before. There were a number of cigarette butts littered about, one lying three to four feet apart from the next. Zell chose a point that rested roughly in the middle of the imaginary polygon formed by each of the cigarette butts as vertices. This was where Squall had been for the longest time, or at least as long as he took to smoke six Malboro tentacle rolls. Of course, there would have been no way of knowing if someone else had smoked them in Squall's stead, but Zell never objected to going on hunches. Smoking, after all, was a bad habit that Squall picked up ever since they met the Malboros on the Island closest to Heaven. The racketeering business for joints could very well have exceeded their pay as SeeDs, but Squall did not see much potential in himself as an entrepreneur. Thus, he settled with the addiction and missed out on the investment of a lifetime when the Malboro industry burgeoned globally just weeks later.
Zell studied the area further for more information. His eyes set on a wide set of prints that looked largely unfamiliar, from which he deduced that Squall had treated himself to a pair of brand new sandals. They looked comfortable, if the prints were of any indication.
"He must have been really proud of himself too," Zell muttered grimly before going back to sweeping the scene for clues. He could not fully dismiss the pang of envy nicking in his chest from knowing that he too had had nice, comfy, new shoes not too long ago.
Zell looked down despondently at his weathered sneakers, having been ruined by fire, mud, saltwater, and sand. It took some amount of skill- a skill that Zell wanted to lose- to retire the latest, most advanced and presumably the most durable specimen in modern footwear technology in less than a day. The next time he was foolish enough to dress in his best for battle, he would be sure to cast Life3 on his shoes first.
Deeply annoyed, Zell roughed up his hair and slammed his fist into the ground. He could not believe it. They had been signed by Mr. Jammy himself!
The natural, mature thing for him to do in the next minute would be to kick up a dust cloud and holler profanities at it, but as he lifted his palm, he noticed a less conspicuous indentation in the dirt beside his own. It looked like the heel of a size six.
Having read every issue of all the top women's fashion magazines in Balamb since his initiation into Garden, supplemented by extensive, indefatigable online research about the latest designs and social trends, and having allocated countless hours to window-shopping whenever and wherever there was a clearance notice, Zell was able to draw from his vast sea of firsthand knowledge the identity of the shoe that had left the mark. The precise naming of the brand, make, and model were payoffs that were now his in which to revel. For him, the connoisseur of high heels, the day had finally come to lift his head proudly and cavort around the arena of the eclectic with the attitude that his hard work had not been for naught and that the corollary prize was worth every second of it.
If the mark did not lie and his memory did not mislead him, the second person on the scene had a great if expensive taste in fashion. She had chosen to wear an extraordinarily stylish set of heels that far exceeded the occasion, seeing how Squall had surprised her with some sandals. Nevertheless, Zell could see that the virgin shoes whose prints bore clear definition had returned to Nova Trabia Garden with far more fervor than they had embarked.
Zell ruminated quietly over who would be inspired enough to trek all the way out to the cliffs in high-heeled boots just to confront Squall. Quistis was the only woman who fit the profile. If Seifer had discovered a new calling to transvestitism, surely Zell would have found some teeth on the ground instead of just footprints. But with the terrain pretty much barren of any derelict teeth, Zell methodically ruled out the latter possibility.
What did not make any sense to him was that none of Squall's prints indicated that he had gone back to the Garden. Albeit his parked motorbike was testimony enough to that fact, neither set of clues could offer a satisfactory explanation as to where the commander might have disappeared.
Perplexed, Zell flopped down and dangled his legs over the cliff, alternating between scratching his head with his left hand and smoothing his hair back in place with his right. It was his way of advertising his sagacious side without compromising his suave mien.
The wind had picked up slightly since he last made note of it, perhaps thirty seconds ago. Blowing up against the soles of his feet, Zell felt like levitating. Sheets of waves were now racing across the ocean surface like peels of apple skin sheered by an invisible knife. Wisps of wind tugged perseveringly at his hair, and he wondered briefly how exhilarating it would feel to accept their invitation and jump. It really was an amazing if frightening place to perch. In that fright, though, there was a sense of peace to be grasped.
Thank Eden I'm not as dumb as Laguna, he reflected, feeling the rationality creeping back into his head. Short of thirty Tiamats, there is nothing that could possibly make me want to throw myself off of this cliff.
The image of a flying, vampire Mina in pursuit of him flashed through his mind.
"Well…" he began to reconsider his original estimation of the sufficient drive to jump.
Zell peered over the edge to check his altitude again and decided that perhaps it wasn't too high to chance.
Mina with wings and armed weapon was multiple times scarier than thirty Tiamats any day of the week. But he was used to that. He could tolerate the eccentricities as part of the ritual male accommodation for his lady, but her silence or disdain were separate matters. No mercenary prep course could offer him the emotional buffer and psychological integrity he needed to fend off her crippling, disappointed gaze, her soul-piercing scoff. Even the deepfreeze, ice-elemental-resistant nano-suits were sure to crumble like sugar cubes if she gave him the cold shoulder.
Zell shuddered at the frostbitten memory. That night, right before she impressed upon him her nonsensical riddle, she had first broken from his embrace, crossed her arms, and bit out coldly, "You can't kiss me."
The words made him feel like he was hollow inside because they sounded like forever. It was awfully hard to fight against eternity, and even harder to endure on the receiving end of deprivation for just as long.
Zell covered his face with both his hands and tried not to cry.
Something was up.
Zell shook himself out of his dejected, self-pitying trance and focused on the problem.
The air was not right. It was not exactly wrong, either, but an eerie, claustrophobic, sixth sense-type feeling had settled over him as if to catch his attention and push him to be more alert.
Zell paused, unsure exactly what excited a premonition that caused his stomach to tighten. He looked about the horizon, anticipating…well, he did not know what to anticipate, so he just kept on looking. The waves were still crashing below, the ocean surface shimmering as it churned under the sun's blistering brilliance.
"Maybe I'm just out of it," he murmured aloud as he tried to shrug off the willies.
This time he sensed something for sure. It was a delicate but clear call towards his right. He searched in that direction and saw, eight degrees behind the protruding shoreline, a person stretched out motionlessly on the beach. Closer inspection revealed a barefooted, brunette male with an orange shirt and jean shorts. Interestingly enough, Zell almost mistook him for being just a pile of rags until he realized that the man's face shared the same color as the sand.
Zell raced over to Squall's A09 and tried to break open the storage compartment. Knowing Squall, there had to be binoculars packed in with the rest of the ultimate loner's survival kit. The safeguard on the locking mechanism turned out to be state of the art though, and Zell, bereft of any tools, was powerless to do anything about it. With a sigh, then, he settled down to guess Squall's password by punching in random buttons on the keypad like an experimental money searching for a treat. There was a certain heaviness that hit him square in the chest as he clumsily downshifted from overdrive to first gear on the adrenaline highway. The metaphorical traffic behind him could not decelerate in time to prevent the seven-car pileup. In short, it was both a major letdown and a humiliating situation in which to be.
"LEONHART," he keyed in.
"RINOA," he tried again.
"SEED," he guessed.
"LOIRE." Fat chance.
Processing…Negative…Not a winner…Sorry, chump…Try again.
Zell rubbed his left eye with his palm and tried to determine if he had been seeing things. Did the computer console just insult him?
"SIS," he typed.
"ELLONE"? he tested.
Negative…Give it up, space ranger.
Zell rubbed his bottom teeth against his top set. It did no credit to his masculinity to crouch beside the bike and watch as a bunch of intrepid red pixels impugned his capacity without a fitting retaliatory response. He needed to at least issue a statement to vindicate himself from these deprecations. Too much of this was unhealthy for one's self-esteem and likely to stunt character development.
Zell huffed and conceded that it was hopeless. He might as well work his way down the precarious slopes and investigate the body. He spared one last abysmal glance over the bike and the silver lion emblem-studded sword case before turning to quit its company.
The Griever icon.
Zell spun on his heels. Of course!
He reached down excitedly towards the keypad, mistyped the GF's name three times before finally entering "GRIEVER," and then tapped the enter key with a triumphant look on his face.
"Welcome to the penthouse," Zell congratulated himself.
The lid of the glove compartment popped open with a complimentary hydraulic hiss, revealing every item of the bare necessities of survival in the field that Zell had predicted and nothing more- alas surely nothing as scandalous as to carry any utility value or promise should he choose to implement it by blackmailing his compatriot. Tucked away neatly to the side were a pair of helmets and an anticipated set of binoculars. It was unthinkable that a person like Squall could travel without the latter; it was the most logical avenue through which an introvert as critical of society as Squall was to collect the minimally sufficient behavioral data on which to base a defensible criterion so as to improve his own introspective outlook.
Zell seized the binoculars and rushed back to the cliff edge. He estimated the distance between himself and the target, and then set the specs accordingly. His digits were unusually tense.
Why are my fingers shaking? the SeeD noticed uneasily.
Even before he brought the binoculars to bear, there hung a strange sense of static in the air, a screaming alarm amidst the silence that boded ill for the discovery to come. Accidents wait to happen, but few are the intrepid who push on with redoubled resolve to seek them out. Counter-intuitively did Zell so conduct himself and ever did he lament his conscious choice.
They dropped before he realized that they had even parted from hands. Instinctively he bent to pick up and wipe off the smudge on the lens with his shirt, but neither his eyes nor thoughts had left the residual images of the offenders still turning in his mind. Within the circular scope the telltale walnut streaks and orange shirt had announced the obvious culprit, dallying on a delicate flower with a blue-rimmed crown. Her oceanic lips settled upon his and the tips of each melted together like running waves against the shore. Zell never saw it coming, but he was seeing it now, as much as he would have liked to deny what seemed to be staring him straight in the face more than he was at it.
Who is that girl? Zell turned in his mind. What is she doing with…is it him- yes, it is.
It was unmistakable to the point that had Zell even the stomach for it, he would not have double-checked. Not really knowing why, Zell began to back away slowly. Quite randomly his reflex prudence kicked in and he was inspired to look around and make sure that no one else had chanced upon the delicate scene as had he.
Without further scrutinizing, Zell meandered back to the bike, more or less oblivious to what he was doing. Even so, before he was back on his way, trying to pretend that nothing had been spied, the shameless stool pigeon of a binoculars was set back into its compartment and the gate closed, vainly attempting to lock away in its depths the secret that Zell now bore away. The yoke of unwanted intelligence and the curse of enlightenment were his only companions, commiserating him on his journey home, filling in each empty step where the confident spring should have been. Mr. Jammy would have cried.
The trudge was fairly uneventful. Some grass. In the distance, trees. Timber. The good old days. The dirt was interesting.
Okay, he admitted, it's really not.
He felt no need to justify why he did not wish to lift his eyes. He was also resentful that anyone might expect him to otherwise hold his head up and authoritatively impress upon him some self-important platitude instructing him to drag his feet in a manner that exuded pride in the Garden if he was indeed intent on doing it so depressingly. Once again the ambient social conditions had thrust upon him some outrageous responsibility- outrageous in both its content and its unwarrantedness- and left him to deal with it. For this charitable and laborious deed he would derive neither pleasure nor ulterior benefit. It was crap if he ever had to take it.
Thus nailed to a chore of humanity, Zell was little aware of the passage of time and the progress of his own passage from the beachside cliff to the front steps of Nova Trabia Garden. It half-surprised the part of him that was actually awake enough to care once he actually got there. His trusty legs had navigated their way home and dragged him, the lost and unwitting horseman back to their origin. From the front, the Garden looked deserted. Behind the opaque gates, he would not find many students cavorting at this hour.
His feet felt foreign as he ascended the marble stairs. In his opinion, Selphie had chosen the material well- a strategic upgrade from basic granite. It would not surprise him if to turn a profit Selphie had just installed hollow steps. They sure felt like it. Or was that just him?
After climbing twenty-four steps, he became aware that there was someone tugging at his sleeve. It also occurred to him that she was the same person he had brushed off four steps earlier. Three steps before that he had presumably ran into her and knocked her down on accident. In the step after that one he had not turned to help her up. It was all so foggy because he hadn't actually looked up while any of this was happening.
His gaze followed his hands, up his arm, to the little fingers now wrapped around his elbow, up the white wrist, over a soft shoulder, up a silky neck, and finally settled on a lovely face. His focused on a set of curiously pink pupils.
Who are you? the wide-eyed Zell thought to ask.
The girl you met in the forest.
Do I know you? he wondered again.
Moron, of course you do. She's the girl you met in the forest.
Have we met? he wanted to ask her.
Yes, you dip. You met in the forest.
You look awfully familiar, Zell noted.
That's because you met in the forest!
Wait! You must be the girl I met in the forest! Zell recognized.
I give up.
"Hey," her voice rose gradually as he took the entire world off the mute key. Suddenly everything jumped back into the range of audibility- the birds chirping, the whistling wind, and the cascades of water hiding behind the gates. It fell on him like a caffeine rush.
"Hello?" she accosted him again, this time with a more insistent tug.
Judging from how much longer his sleeve looked, Zell estimated that she had been pulling on it for over a minute. How woeful it seemed that it would not matter how many times he washed it now, no amount of shrinking would be able to restore it.
She punched him in his gut softly.
""Are you even listening to me?" she pouted.
"Huh, what?" he stuttered.
"That dumb lizard must have knocked you up really hard, you poor thing," the girl cooed. She ran her fingers through his hair and patted his head softly.
Zell decided that it would be too emasculating to have her check his head for injuries so he straightened up and smoothed out his hair. She smiled, let her arms slip back down to her sides, and put her hands back in her pockets. Zell found that action particularly attractive because ever since Quistis and Selphie's make-shift skirts had taken over the latest fashion trends in Trabia, there had been a real dearth of pockets in the indigenous female arena.
"Naw," he denied in the best ingenuous-farm-boy accent he could feign, "I showed him."
The silver-haired girl squinted in curious disbelief and scrutinized Zell for a second.
Zell broke out a smile that stretched from ear to ear. It looked extremely suspicious.
Her features softened and she brought her fingers to her mouth to cover a giggle.
"Okay," she conceded reluctantly, "but don't let me catch you lying or I'll show you."
She hit his arm playfully to cap off her ultimatum, as if by that act Zell would have found her words any more ominous.
Zell scratched the back of his head and searched vainly for the next insightful thing that would cross his mind to blurt out.
She entertained herself by staring at his smudged face for a second before extending her hand to him.
"Please, call me Pearl," she introduced herself.
Zell's lower jaw dropped a little as tried to determine if she was expecting him to shake her hand or to kiss it. Chivalry being dead, he figured a casual handshake was wanting. However, the fact that his hands might be dirtier than his lips stayed him. Should he take the hand or kiss it? They could very well possess the same degree of filthiness-
"Do you have a name?" she questioned, letting her hand drop.
Oh no! Is she hurt that I didn't even reach out to take her hand? he thought frantically.
When he did not answer, she added, "Something your friends and family call you?"
"I'm Zell," he answered hurriedly. His hand shot out and grabbed hers before she had a chance to put it back in her pocket.
Pearl seemed surprised but not offended by the brusque maneuver, possibly because she saw how genuinely flustered he was.
Is that good or bad? he wondered.
His new acquaintance began to braid her hair coyly as if to offer him the next move.
"Can you let me in?" Pearl pleaded suddenly. "The gatekeeper is being very anal today."
Offhandedly Zell wondered why she didn't just use her bodily charm to wheedle her way in. He also remembered how the Balamb Garden gate guard had been similarly anal retentive in restricting the passage to the outside after hours or while the Garden was in motion, though. It would not be a shocker if he now denied passage into the Garden because it was too early in the morning.
"It's not really a day by day thing," Zell explained to her. "It's in his job description. Either that or the Garden employment office is doing a hell of a job with personality profiling."
When she laughed under her breath, he felt pleased with himself at having finally put forth a comment that had actually been his intention to be funny.
"So you're not a SeeD then?" he deduced.
She bit her bottom lip and shook her head. Then she motioned for him to move closer as if she wanted to convey some great secret to him.
He played along and leaned down.
"I was hoping that you would be my escort," she whispered in his ear. Then she wrapped her arm around his and pointed up the steps at the gate.
"Come on, let's go!" she urged, giving him a little push.
"What's so exciting about the Garden that you'd want to go in?" Zell asked.
"I'm looking for some friends," she replied as they marched up the steps. "Maybe you know them?"
After they had gone up a decent number of steps, when Zell realized that she was not going to expound on the subject, he pressed her for more information.
"Maybe I know them?" he echoed her. "Do they have names? Something their friends and family call them?"
She pulled him to a halt and scowled at his patronizing remark. He lifted his eyebrows in a challenge and she had to resign to a frustrated pout.
"That wasn't funny," she whined and hit his arm lightly with her freehand.
"Out with it," Zell, pretending to be stern, told her.
She fiddled with her silky hair some more but said nothing, seeing how he was doing a miserable job of it. When it was clear that he would not relent, she sighed and turned to go back down the steps and look for some other way in.
Suddenly Zell became pliable and it was now his turn to drag his partner up the last few steps.
"Come on," he entreated, pulling her in the direction of the gates, "just tell me."
Pearl shook her head and tried to walk away, but found herself moving backwards. Before she could protest, he hoisted her up on his shoulders and ran with her to the entrance. She initially frowned, but her subsequent squeals of delight belied any earlier sentiments of annoyance.
"You're going to have to tell me eventually," he pointed out good-naturedly.
Realizing that there was no way of fighting him off, she conceded and answered him, "I was going to file a missing persons statement for my girl friend Merali."
Cute name, Zell contemplated. Hey, wait a second-
"Girlfriend?" he repeated.
Pearl blinked, unsure what Zell wanted her to say next.
Zell blushed, realizing he was reading too much into her words. He waved the topic away and motioned for her to continue. It was a motion she could not have picked up on, being that she was slung over his shoulder and facing backwards.
"We got separated on the beach last night," she went on, "and I was hoping someone might have found her and brought her back here."
"The beach is blue at night because the ocean reflects the moonlight and casts it onto the sand. It's so beautiful." Mina told me that once.
"Don't you think she can find her way back alone?" Zell asked, coming out of his trance.
Pearl shook her head, forgetting that Zell could not exactly see her body language.
"Merali is a mute," she explained in a low voice.
Zell blushed again as the feeling of ignorance of the patently obvious washed over him. Actually he could not have known that, but that did not save him from being embarrassed.
"Well," he struggled to recover some dignity, "what does she look like?"
Discomfited by his sudden inquisitiveness, Pearl turned around and look at the back of his head skeptically. You can't be serious. Are you going to help me?
"For the file," he made out as casually as possible.
Guess he can't do that much harm interfering, she considered. After all, he looks innocuous enough.
Zell had been trying very hard in the meantime not to look too interested, deciding that whistling "Dance of the Balamb Fish" was the best mode through which to mask his curiosity. After factoring in the nervousness, though, the tune sounded more like the jarring theme of the presidential sorceress parade in Deling City.
Pearl giggled and finally shrugged.
"Merali has decent height, long, blue hair, and pale skin," she described her friend in a voice lined with a tinge of envy.
The image of the girl he saw on the beach flashed through his mind like a changing slide in a projector, and the world seemed to darken by a few shades right before it exploded in his face. The effect was comparable to the projector, screen, or film catching on fire.
"Zell," Pearl cried, tapping his back, "are you okay?"
When her solicitation obtained no response, she resorted to hitting his back and shoulders with increasing increments of force.
I hope he doesn't bruise easily, she thought to herself.
"Huh, what?" Zell stammered, his grip on reality slowly returning.
You were on the subject of her girl friend, moron, his subconsciousness sneered.
"Oh, yeah," Zell replied, recovering, "I wouldn't worry about her."
"Why not?" she inquired.
"She's in good hands," he told her tersely.
Pearl paused to think about his odd assurance. The gate window was just one corner away.
"You were beginning to worry me there," Pearl informed him when she felt them moving again. "What was up with you being so silent and stopping to a dead halt like that? Did you see a ghost or something awful?"
"No, I was just-"
Zell pitted to a hard stop for the second time.
A slim man in a blue uniform had taken his place by the gate guard. His ostentatious insignia markings were only too familiar.
"Speaking of something awful," Zell muttered as he bent down to let Pearl off his shoulder.
"What is it?" she asked, still holding onto his arm. "Did- oh, I see."
At the sight of them, the gatekeeper motioned to his companion. That man, the apparent superior, looked up.
"That's her," the guard identified Pearl, "the one who tried to get through earlier."
Zell straightened his shirt to brush up his appearance as if it was not speckled with mud stains.
"Good morning, sunshine," he greeted the serious-looking man in the blue suit.
The addressee frowned but otherwise ignored the comment.
"Zell Dincht," he said, "it is five demerits and two service shifts for an unauthorized after-hours stay outside Garden. I'll decide later how much to penalize you for what looks like inappropriate fraternization."
As if he could draw the lines for appropriate fraternization, Zell reflected sourly.
"Come on, Sergeant Jay," Zell whined in perfect infantile form, "my excuse this time is so good, you have to hear it! I spent a while thinking it up just for you."
"Rules are rules, Zell," Jay dismissed the rambling and handed Zell a sheet of official-looking paper. "I can't have troublemakers like you and Kinneas running rampant without any semblance of order."
"You can take your executive Disciplinary Committee note and stuff it," Zell retorted, shoving the form back into Jay's chest. "Those student regulations don't apply to a Headmaster-appointed supervisor of activities."
When no one reacted, he had to point at him chest with his thumb and add, "That would be me."
Pearl calmly brushed a stray strand of silver hair out of her face to back behind her ear, but he could tell she was impressed.
Please be impressed, Zell prayed in one of his spare seconds.
Sergeant Jay's fists were tightly clenched and trembling in anger. Had the air been colder and more humid, the steam spouting from his ears would have been visible vapor.
"Don't think I'm going to let you off so easily, Dincht," Jay grunted with dire malice in his voice. "I intend to take these charges all the way up to the top-"
"Yeah, yeah," Zell interposed quickly, "go write a memo about it."
"Come on," he whispered to Pearl, "let's get out of here before he thinks of a reply."
As he turned from the gate window, she caught his hand. It threw him off for a half-second, but the momentary delay was soon replaced by a blood rush unparalleled since Rinoa had dared him to stomach thirty chocobolate bars in five minutes. Thirty Garden hotdogs had not been a problem for him, so of course he took Rinoa's bet and won with no problem. Their wager had been the newest issue of the Galbadia Gal fashion magazine, an item that he was glad to have acquired from her without fostering a spirit of vindictiveness.
By the time Jay lifted his hand and shouted his order for them to stop, the couple had already hopped over the railing and disappeared into the Garden quad.
"Aren't you going to do anything about them, sir?" the gate guard asked him.
The sergeant looked down at him long and hard.
"Mind your own business, soldier," he bit out fiercely.
His eyes narrowed. We're far from finished, Dincht.
As far as Zell was concerned, though, their conversation had ended the minute Jay refused to hear his excuse. He had been really proud of that excuse too. While Quistis had always maintained that excuses never solved anything, they did make him feel better and exculpate him for any shortcomings for which he would otherwise have to unjustly assume the blame by default.
By now, he and Pearl had reached the limestone bridge set in the middle of the quad over an artificial stream. Selphie had fought hard with the architects of the original Nova Trabia Garden floor plans to have them re-space everything to make room for her trench that would split the quad in half. The deposit from the indoor waterfall would feed into the trench and fill it for a moat-like appearance. Squall's exact words to him about what happened in the boardroom were, "I don't think construction foremen would have approved of including that waterfall if Selphie hadn't threatened their lives."
Pearl pulled Zell to the side of the bridge and leaned over the railing to gape at the empty riverbed. Deciding that the plain, white mass of concrete would look different from another angle, she sat up onto the bar and then swung her legs over the side. He steadied her but nevertheless did not share her fascination with what hadn't been completed yet. The cascade would not be ready for pumping out water for another few days. And so, while she was admiring the foundations, he took the time to look up and admire the buttresses that the team was busy erecting. It complemented the whole waterfall setup surprisingly well. If Selphie failed the mechanics portion of the construction profession miserably, she was a prodigy of interior design.
"It would probably pay better," he muttered cynically.
"What was that?" Pearl asked him, having missed most of internal conversation.
"Ah, nothing," he dismissed quickly. "I was just being stupid."
And we know what a rarity THAT is…
"No, come on," she insisted, "explain."
She was giving no sign of dropping the subject. In that respect, she might have vied Rinoa's tenacity and woebegone obstinacy.
"Then tell me about your other friend," Zell diverted. "You said you were looking for ‘some friends'. ‘Some' means more than one."
How very clever of you to notice, Zell, his subconsciousness scoffed. We might as well commemorate this moment with a holiday.
Pearl scowled but gave him the answer, ever so grudgingly, "I'm looking for Seifer."
The breakfast that he didn't have was doing wheelies in his stomach.
Maybe she means a different Seifer, he comforted himself.
"Seifer," she repeated as if he was hard of hearing or absolutely in love with that name. "Seifer Almasy."
The mere mention of the name made his blood boil, evoking images of what he thought could most aptly be characterized as evil with gelled hair and a laugh. If Zell kept a list of things that he wanted to burn, Seifer would be on it. Even if Seifer was not immediately on it, he was sure that someday Seifer would indeed burn.
His pink-eyed companion must have felt him tense up at her response, either by her keen powers of detection, or because his hand around her wrist was cutting off her circulation, because she rapped him on the chest lightly to recapture his attention.
"What's wrong?" Pearl asked. "What is it?"
Then, eyes shining brightly, she added, "Do you know him?"
"I don't think you'll find him in here," Zell uttered slowly, still taken back. "In fact, Garden is probably the last place that you-"
She interrupted his excruciating attempt to be polite with the announcement that Seifer was in Nova Trabia excavating religious artifacts. Evidently she had tracked down his whereabouts through his church group news bulletin.
The gears in Zell's mind were turning fast enough to produce some four-digit horsepower.
If Seifer really is in Nova Trabia, there's no way he could be inside Nova Trabia Garden, could he? No way! No way. Yet, the ruling out the impossible is the last thing I should do when dealing with Seifer. Underestimating him is like shortchanging Rinoa's credit card on a shopping spree-
"Zell!" a high-pitched, not too happy voice sounded from behind them.
Both he and Pearl spun around, putting their backs to the railing, to meet the incumbent distraction. They were met by a short, dark-haired girl in Garden uniform with one hand placed ominously on her hip and the other clenched tightly around a crushed plastic cup and straw that was screaming for her mercy and to just end its miserable Raspberry Arctic Latte life.
She did not extend her hand.
"Rishi!" Zell gasped. For a second he felt as if he should be embarrassed, but for the life of him he could not figure out what for.
Her stare was making him feel guilty. That was a definite sign that he saw way too much of Mina in her. And he was as surprised as she was displeased, to say the least.
Without waiting for him to answer whatever it was that he could not answer, Rishi stepped between him and Pearl, snatched up his hand, and bumped the other girl out of the way. This extra jostling had the unfortunate effect of tipping Pearl, already seated in a precarious position, off her balance and nearly over the rail. Zell had to make an effort with his free hand to grab her and keep her from falling backwards and headfirst onto the bedrock.
Either unfazed, unaware, or unsympathetic, Rishi marched Zell past the Garden Noodle restaurant and into the adjacent corridor. She got as far down the hall as the door to the officer's lounge before he found the inner strength to free himself of her covetous custody.
"What?" he demanded.
"What do you mean what?" she deflected.
"You do realize that we just left her out there all by herself?" Zell checked.
"The thought had crossed my mind," Rishi replied sourly.
"Geez, Rishi," he griped, "the way you patrol me! It's like you're a regular correspondent with Mina or something."
You imbecile! she wanted to scream*.
*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17 @ hotmail.com) gives the full account of the Rishi's letter to Mina in "Letter To A Friend."
Zell must have seen the fire in her eyes and registered in that little Zell head of his the foreshadowed onslaught because his knees nearly buckled.
Luckily though, at the sight of him trembling, her features softened and she almost began to look sympathetic. Slowly the menacing eyebrows reassumed a more natural, homely slope, and at last Zell was able to breathe easy.
"I really don't know why you're so worked up," Zell informed her.
"Have you completely forgotten about her?" Rishi questioned.
"I think about Mina whenever I'm not about to get killed, and sometimes even then," he answered honestly.
"Then what are we?" the other demanded to know.
In afterthought, an incensed look of fury flashed over her face.
"And what," she added then, pointing out to the quad where they had forsaken Pearl, "is that?"
A dark cloud thundered over her remark.
"Some things are better left ambiguous," Zell replied gravely.
After a while his companion nodded solemnly in agreement.
There was a brief moment of awkward silence before she looked him over curiously before pointing at his head and asking, "Did you lose a bet?"
Before he could answer, she followed up her question with a corollary musing, "The winner must have had a keen sense of humor."
He wanted to tell her that things like that tended to happen when one conferred the duties of his barber to a Blue Dragon, but in a combination of jadedness and fatigue, he neglected to mention it. He would have even left it at that had Rishi not donned the demeanor of one who was willing and persistent enough to force it out of him. Her crossed arms and tapping foot were just too formidable. Either element individually he could have handled, but before both he would surely succumb.
He would not have been spared from telling the embarrassing tale but for a semi-offensive slap on his rear. The guilty hand had come from behind.
Rishi got up on the tip of her toes to look over Zell's shoulder. Her eyes widened and her face flushed. Zell followed her gaze.
Irvine Kinneas stood there, oiling the handle of his Exeter. In hot pursuit behind him was a throng a Garden freshwomen.
Irvine elbowed Zell and whispered, "You got to check this out."
Zell decided that if his partner was referring to the Garden frosh, he would have to remain unimpressed.
Upon seeing how apathetic Zell was, Irvine pushed him lightly and chided, "Will you relax?"
Then, moving his gaze from Zell to Rishi, he systematically produced what he knew was universally considered a dreamy smile by their gender.
"Hello there, little lady," the cowboy said, taking off his hat and taking her hand.
Rishi giggled as he moved in closer.
Zell shoved Irvine off of her before he could lean down and kiss it.
"Relax, dung heap," he told Irvine. "She's only fifteen."
"Time waits for no one," Irvine remarked, "so why should I?"
"Because cradle-robbing is unethical and in some cases illegal," Zell quipped back.
Irvine flagged him off and looked him up and down.
"Tsk, tsk," he reproached Zell. "You look like crap."
"Finally," he crowed, "some truth in this world."
He was so relieved that he went over to Irvine and embraced him.
"Get the Ifrit off of me," Irvine cried in shock.
Before the two could engage in any further altercation, the door to the officer's lounge slid open and Quistis walked out into the hall.
"There you are," she exclaimed when she saw Zell standing there.
Zell's eyes lit up and switched from hugging Irvine to falling on Quistis. One did not need any excuse or truth to cuddle with her.
"The log has you going off the perimeters last night but not re-entering," Quistis said, shaking him off. "I was worried. Squall is also registered as missing."
"He's in good hands," he told her tersely.
"So Squall is still out on the beach?" Quistis sought confirmation.
Zell answered in the affirmative.
Hoping to put Quistis through a guilt trip, Irvine faked a pout and inquired, "How come you never let on that you miss me, Quisty? Should I leave for a night and not come back?"
Quistis smiled more sweetly than either of them had thought was possible and then replied flatly, "Actually, you two are precisely the gentlemen whom I wanted to see."
Irvine and Zell exchanged looks.
It must be my lucky day, Irvine thought, licking his lips.
It must be my lucky day, Zell copied, rubbing his hands together.
"We received a high-priority video message from the Shumi early this morning," she elaborated, her voice suddenly sounding very stern.
Irvine and Zell exchanged looks again.
Is it too late for me to retract my statement and walk away? Irvine wondered.
Is it too late for me to go back outside? Zell followed in suit.
"You two had best go in and replay the transmission for yourselves," Quistis suggested.
"He's responsible," they said simultaneously, each pointing an accusing finger at the other.
Quistis gave them both an exasperated look and ushered them through the door. It closed behind them.
The small gathering of female Garden students cried in disbelief and began to disperse.
When Quistis was sure that they had gone, she came back out to check if there was anything else in the corridor she missed.
There was something about a wide-eyed girl leaning against the opposite wall with her hands behind her back that begged her attention.
"What's your name, darling?" Quistis asked, stooping down.
Rishi told her.
"Rishi, dear," Quistis continued, "could you be a good girl and go call Instructor Tilmitt from the construction zone back here?"
The petite Garden student bit her lower lip but nodded.
Quistis was not convinced, so she asked further, "Do you know what she looks like?"
Rishi shook her head.
"Just keep your eye out for the one construction worker who looks the most uncomfortable in her suit," Quistis advised. I'd tell her to look for the shortest one there except I know Dante is sure to be with her.
Not needing to be told twice, Rishi nodded and whisked herself away.
Left to herself, Quistis leaned against the wall that Rishi had just quit and crossed her arms. She waited as the clattering of footsteps faded into nothingness. She waited until hers was the only breath to be taken, waiting until no living ear could hear her.
"Squall," she whispered, hugging herself tightly, "where are you?"
Her fingers felt a nuance of warmth against the velvet on her vest. She lowered her head furtively and tried to stifle a sniffle. She really did not want to do what she could feel herself about to do. She wanted to say anything except what came out next. Maybe no one would find out.
"If you come, I'll be here," she sighed, "waiting."
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