Setting 19: 0744 DAY 16, Trabia Coastline
We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dream.
Wandering by lone sea breakers, and sitting by desolate streams.
World losers and world forsakers, for whom the pale moon gleams.
Yet we are movers and the shakers of the world forever it seems."
- O'Shaunessey, Arthur
It seemed like he had been waiting forever. Forever being four minutes and twenty seconds.
Squall checked his pocket watch again and then scratched his head. Afterwards, he looked up.
It did not look any different. The door to the women's room had not opened and the girl in the white dress had not stepped out.
Why am I waiting here anyway? he wondered.
Squall replayed the events in his head. First the travesty of an attempt to befriend him by the really impulsive SeeD Zell Dincht. Maybe he should have high-fived the poor guy when it had been so earnestly solicited.
What came after that? he continued.
Squall thought hard.
The really animated SeeD Selphie Tilmitt had then confronted him and tried to rope him into some lost cause. He had never seen so much energy directed to such pointless ends. Whatever it was that she was trying to set up was, in his opinion, a serious misallocation of resources.
And what then? he pushed himself.
A cute face that he thought he should recognize had scuttled over to him. The tight-fitting white skirt she came with was already making him uncomfortable, but the overbearing manner with which she carried herself downright unnerved him. This stranger was like Quistis with no inhibitions. All he was trying to enjoy a moment of solitude; watching the uncultured swine in dress uniforms try to do the two-step was entertainment enough for him.
After some lackluster wizardry- he was not yet ready to call it enchantment- she dragged him onto the ballroom floor. The song they danced to ended with a fireworks and she left him to socialize with her own entourage, or so he thought. Before he could make it back to his home base by the corner column, she had once again emerged, taken his arm, and led him to the restrooms.
"I'll be right out," she, motioning for him to wait by the benches just outside.
It had been four minutes and twenty seconds since she disappeared into the ladies' room. In Squall-time, this translated into forever. Possibly more.
Time waits for no one, he reasoned, so why should I?
The bench was becoming too friendly with his pants.
Squall took his chin off of his palm where he had been propping it, and then got up from the bench. Sensing that some intolerable amount of dust had settled on him during his hiatus from movement, he spared a moment to vigorously dust off his uniform.
What are you doing here? he brooded, shaking his head.
He had to get away.
Squall left the restrooms, the girl, and the noise of the party behind, seeking instead the serenity of the balcony. Under the blue moonlight, he realized how tranquil the Balamb night was.
Someone came up from behind him. Her high heels clicked against the marble tiles. He debated briefly whether or not to turn around since he already guessed who it could be; the scent of rose, vanilla, and something he couldn't quite put his finger on filled his nostrils. Only one person in Balamb Garden wore that kind of perfume.
He had to admit she actually had on a pretty nice jupe that night. Maybe one of the guys in the ballroom would notice. For an instructor, she looked too alluring and too needy. Neither aspect was very professional. If things did not change soon, she was sure to lose her instructor's license. It would be a cruel irony indeed should that happen, she being the prodigy and all.
It seemed like he had been waiting forever. Forever being four minutes and twenty seconds.
Squall checked the clock hanging on the wall again and then scratched his head. Afterwards, he looked up.
It did not look any different. She was still lying there, motionless. She had not moved since he last remembered to check the time. Perhaps he had fallen asleep and just woken up?
He buried his face in his hands. It was driving him insane.
Dr. Kadowaki had not told the nurses to change her out of her blue and black outfit until they could diagnose her for something. To Squall that meant that the infirmary staff had no idea what was wrong with her. It was a glaring failure in the system, and he hated failures.
Why can't she just wake up? he wanted to shout.
But then he was familiar enough with himself to know that he was not really annoyed with her; he was annoyed with the fact that nothing was going right. How the second to best medicine and technology in the world could not revive one little girl from a coma was a situation that vexed him greatly. It made him wonder to where and for what good all the Gil from his universal welfare pay cut was going.
No, that's not it, he corrected himself angrily.
He felt responsible for everything- that was it. He was, after all, the head of the team that she had paid for, the leader of their ambiguous mission to free Timber and to assist her in all ways possible before its completion.
Is she merely a client then, or more than that? he questioned. When did she become a friend?
Since when did I begin to consider her a friend? he pondered with a tinge of alarm.
Evidently somewhere along the way she had come to mean more to him than just a pushy, spoiled brat with some serious paternal issues that she was intent on dispelling in some deranged fashion that involved her father's credit card. Now, as her friend, he felt responsible- responsible, and very, very guilty- as if he owed her something.
It was not that he was adverse to responsibility; rather he just did not like being responsible.
No, that isn't it either, he reassessed.
He did not like being responsible for anything negative.
Squall grabbed his hair and contemplated tearing it furiously.
There had to have been something he could have done. And it was obvious that whatever it was, he had not done it. He held back when he shouldn't have. He had failed as a leader.
He gazed at the casualty that lied lifelessly before him. With such a cost, was it even truthful for them to say that they won the battle? Seifer would pay dearly. He would see to that.
Suddenly he felt something. This feeling he felt, was it ineffable or just not yet able to be articulated? There was a subtle difference. He was scared of one and scared to do the other. Slowly though, it came to him what to call the feeling.
It was the irresistible urge to kiss her.
He had not planned for this. He felt fear grip his heart, among other things.
Yes, it was fear. Fear of what it all meant or fear that she would never be the same, it was fear all the same. Squall was afraid. One would think that he would be used to it by now, but fear comes in many forms and many definitions.
She is really lovely when she is asleep, he observed, flopping back in his seat with a sigh.
But she had not moved the entire time.
It seemed like he had been waiting forever. Forever being four minutes and twenty seconds.
Squall checked the alarm clock by his bed and then scratched his head. Afterwards, he looked up.
It did not look any different. The door to his personal bathroom was still shut and the faucet running. He honestly had no idea why she insisted on showering in his room.
Squall made a face.
Better my room than someone else's, he supposed.
He flopped onto his bed and looked up at the formal SeeD uniform hanging on the wall over his head. He debated whether or not to change into it before they went over to the ballroom. The surprise celebration of the defeat of Ultimecia was Cid's idea of fun.
Squall hated surprises, truly.
His thoughts were interrupted by her complaints about feeling so grungy after Time Decompression and not having her white dance skirt into which to change. According to her, it was stooping to a subhuman standard to go about feeling that grungy. Her griping was loud enough to penetrate the bathroom door, and even his head.
We're going to be late if she carries on like this, he realized.
He checked the clock again and estimated how much time they would have to make up on the way. He tried to visualize the route to the Garden's ballroom and every possible place to shave off some time in order to optimize the trip.
At least she doesn't wear heels, he comforted himself.
I guess there is nothing to do but wait, he concluded.
With that, he tucked his hands behind his head and stared blankly at the little indentations in the ceiling.
It seemed like he had been waiting forever. He did not know exactly how long it had been, and at the present there was no feasible way of uncovering the answer.
Where am I now? he wondered.
He was shrouded in darkness. He knew this first of all because he could not see anything, and secondly because some luminous body was appearing some distance in front of face. The amorphous object brightened in intensity, which he took to mean that it was drawing nearer to him, taking a haphazard path as it advanced.
It glowed so brilliantly that he might have mistaken it for a comet had it taken a straighter course and vanished before he could draw his breath. Instead, it stuck around long enough for him to discern its identity based on its telltale movement and a little guesswork.
It was a golden feather.
How eerie, he remembered thinking.
He was naturally drawn to it for some reason. He even reached out to catch it. It landed right in the middle of his palm and the world suddenly exploded into being around him.
Squall looked down at his outstretched hand.
In place of the feather he found two feminine, ivory-colored fingers.
He could smell the beach and feel the sand on his arm and skin. His back ached profusely. He must have slept on top of something as innocuous as a rock or seashell, though it felt like a continuous overnight dragon noogie. The rising sun and reflective ocean surface had entered into a joint marriage for the sole purpose of blinding him.
Squall reached up with his free hand to cover his eyes.
To his surprise, he did not have to. A warm body had curled over him and cast a shade over his face. With fingers softer than he could have imagined, his companion brushed his hair out of his eyes and proceeded to lean down and settle over his lips.
Before theirs met, Squall caught a glimpse of a cascade of long, blue hair.
Rinoa? he desired to ask. Is that you?
Her lips felt like cotton but even softer. Perhaps it would do her more justice to say that they exhibited the perfect balance between suppleness and gentleness that could only be reproduced by either swan down or flower petals.
They also felt moist, as if there had been fresh dew on the petals. He could feel the morning setting upon his mouth. It was as sublime a taste as it was a feeling. He would have to classify her as watermelon candy. A night spent soaked in ocean water had not been able to mask the sweet fragrance in which she now drowned him.
It had ended. She lifted her head up and set it against his shoulder.
It was then that Squall realized that the girl of perhaps eighteen years was lying on top of him.
What a light little thing! he marveled. Given her stature and the feel, she would have to try very hard to fool him into thinking she weighed even 45 kilos.
What was more to his surprise was that she was whimpering the whimper that one whimpers before one breaks down into tears, a sort of transition between a sniffle and a sob.
Squall began to sweat.
Had she been hurt? he wondered.
His eyes widened.
Had he hurt her?
He shook his head and dismissed the idea. After all, he had saved her from the pack of Fastilochon-Fs.
He sighed. So at least she was alive; he hadn't failed.
The thought echoed in his head. I did not fail. She was not my failure. I am not that.
After relaxing for a bit to the rhythm of her quiet sobs, he realized that he still hadn't seen her clearly since he had woken up. He initially wanted to roll over but thought the better of it. Next he tried to maneuver out from under her. The jostling did not go unnoticed because she hushed herself and looked up at him.
He found himself staring into a pair of large, aquamarine eyes. It was mesmerizing.
Squall's mouth was dry, a condition which, for the moment, he ascribed to natural dehydration instead of what he was gawking at.
Grow up, you sissy, he reproved himself. This is so unlike you.
Indeed, to be staring at anything was uncharacteristic of Squall Leonhart. He could not remember the last time he stared at a girl. Had he ever done it before? Maybe once, many moons ago.
She had held his gaze firmly until now when she finally caved in first. She averted her eyes with a deep blush. In that moment though, he had learned all she had wanted him to know. She seemed to say, "Thank you."
Not really knowing why, Squall brought his index finger up to her chin, then brushed it gently over her cheek and moved aside a strand of strikingly turquoise hair. At first she shied away, not modesty, but eventually she yielded. Argue as she might with herself, in the end, it came down to one simple fact: He was her savior. He had leapt off a cliff for her. He had committed himself to a silent promise to protect her with his life.
Though she had already balked, Squall was long from tearing his eyes away from so beautiful a sight. His lips trembled at the thought of marring it by his smallest influence. She was so innocent, and that innocence was integral in the untouchable beauty about her. The operative word there was "untouchable." One could not very well put the petals back onto the flower once it had been plucked. In fact, he was almost afraid to clasp her against him now, dreading how she might vanish like a mirage, or he might wake up from this second dream.
Yet, when, in the face of discouraging, self-imposed ethics, Squall tried to sit up, she clung to him, harder than before. She was not ready to let him go.
It must be the trauma, he guessed.
The scene unfolding before him seemed too familiar, virtually reminiscent of something just beyond his memory.
Squall shook his head. He was drawing a blank.
Getting back to business, he asked her what her name was.
"Do you have a name?" he reiterated when she stayed silent. That was dumb. Of course she has a name.
Other questions of the same nature garnered no different results.
Perhaps she speaks a foreign tongue, he theorized at last. I mean, so far she has been relatively unresponsive to any of my prompts.
Her dress resembled Ellone's in color and simplicity. She had the complete wardrobe set, white sash included. From neck down they could be the same person for all practical purposes. It was probably impolite to stare at her for as long as he had been, but the uncanny resemblance, on top of other things, would not release him.
The girl was not blind to this fact, and being prompted by either inherent shyness or imaginative playfulness, she covered her face with her hands and peeked at him slyly through her fingers. Whether or not it was her intention to do so, she passed herself off as being extraordinarily cute, which had the ancillary benefit of putting Squall at ease, thus breaking her spell and his gaze.
Thus freed, Squall quickly looked away and made a mental note to check up on Ellone. It had been so long since he had last seen her. Instinctively he reached over to his opposite hand to feel his ring. When he did not find it on his finger, his hand moved up to his throat, expecting to find it dangling on his chain necklace. When both attempts were frustrated, Squall looked down and realized what he had been doing subconsciously.
Of course I don't have Griever on me, he remembered. It is still with Rinoa.
Even after Zell made her a replica of the ring in her size, she had refused to give the original back to him.
Wait, he stopped himself.
The memory of dashing across the main courtyard of Galbadia Garden while dodging bullets and fire spells with her so close behind him that he could smell her strawberry bubblegum breath settled upon him. He had told her to keep it. The next time he saw it after that was through his space outfit visor, hanging around her neck, strung neatly against her own small-sized duplicate.
When did Ellone give it to me? Squall tried to recall. It was so long ago.
He saw himself in the same style, orange t-shirt except he was pint-sized. He had been noticing for some time that Matron and Mr. Kramer had been acting strangely. Their entire attitude towards the children had changed, as if they suddenly had a reason to be detached. It might have started after the day when the man dressed in black came to visit Matron. He had run past them, gone into the house, and the next time he stepped out, it was a man dressed in white who was talking to Matron. The bully Seifer had been spying on them too.
Matron smiled less after her encounter with those two men. Now she mostly kept to herself. As for Mr. Kramer, he left the orphanage a lot to visit the Balamb shipyards, or so he claimed. On occasion, his clothes would be ridden with sawdust or paint smudges. Sometimes people with egg-shaped heads would come by and discuss Gil-related matters. Squall even had to open the door or Mr. Norg a few times and pretend to be hospitable. Even Irvy, who was always in his own little world with Sephy, was beginning to catch on. An eerie atmosphere settled over the orphanage, a sort of indescribable gloom that Seifer thought it best not to inquire about.
As Matron became more distant, Ellone had to step up and fill the void of responsibility. Squall did not care what sort of evil spell was taking over the orphanage as long as he was with Ellone because it was their own little universe that no one else could touch. Limitless security and warmth flowed from her smiling face. It was as if she had never been taught to put on any other countenance. Squall spent the majority of the blissful part of his childhood in her glorious world bereft of frowns and sorrows. Only on two memorable occasions did he see his Sis affected by fear or grief. Looking back now, she seemed like the bravest creature on the planet, to have shouldered so much on her own and hid so much from him because she did not want to hurt him.
She had tried to deceive them with a casual laugh when Sephy blurted out to the group how she overheard from the grown-ups that they would have a flowerbed soon, but Squall was the only one who caught the nervousness that had crept into her voice. How her eyes darted to the side for a split-second also belied her cheery demeanor that promised how "all would be well." It was the one lie perpetuated through history. From then on, each time the subject was mentioned, Ellone would try to deceive them in the same manner.
Squall picked up a small rock and threw it into the sea. Apparently Ellone had reason to dread the idea of planting seeds in a garden, and now Squall understood her concern. After all these years, he had finally pasted together the pieces of her life that the GFs had returned to him. Guardian Forces could not steal one's memories forever. They gave them back in fragments, usually in the form of dreams. Of course, one could always order the GF to relate all the critical events that had happened in one's youth, but Squall had never relied much on his hears. Hearing was a liability because of all the necessary and unnecessary lies that pervaded their civilization's communication. If one was there, he should remember best what he witnessed, without need of anyone to narrate it to him.
The second time Squall saw her sister in a moment of weakness was by the coast. He had been chucking stones into the ocean behind the orphanage by himself all afternoon when she came out and found him.
"Still trying to build a bridge, Squall?" Ellone asked him.
Little Squall nodded and hurled his handful of pebbles as far as he could- about four meters.
"You told me that if I filled up the ocean and walked across it, my mother would be on the other side," he huffed confidently.
He then stared at Ellone intensely as if to daunt her from challenging her previous promise to him.
It was her turn to nod.
"There's always hope," she commented.
Within those words Squall found a renewed vigor that prompted him to run around and gather rocks twice as fast as before. He was not ready for what was to happen next.
Ellone threw her arms around him and broke down into tears. He was more startled than distressed at first, but he soon melted and tried comfort her. She was holding on to him so tightly that it was becoming hard to breathe, and no matter what he said, she just seemed to cry harder. She was not cheering up, not even when he patted her on the back, and that worried him a great deal.
"I'm right here, Sis," he reassured her over and over again. "I'm not going anywhere."
There was nothing else he could do but clasp her just as tightly and wait for her to stop sobbing. It was quite a wait, enough for half of his youth to fly by, but he stuck with her, and in the final sniffles, she wiped away her last tear with her sash and whispered in his ear, "Have you ever considered looking for your father?"
Squall recoiled with a puzzled look on his face and replied, "I don't have a father."
Ellone looked right into his eyes and told him the contrary.
"I thought only Seifer had a father," Squall insisted skeptically. Ellone was the notorious prankster of the orphanage, and he was wary of becoming another Zell whom she had tricked for two whole weeks into thinking that he had descended from a long line of glorious Wendigos who did not believe in bathing. Ellone was a wily one.
Ellone nodded, having seen the tall man that came to pick Seifer up once a week and brought him back late in the evening. She had not successfully wheedled out of the Kramers any actual confirmation that the man was Seifer's legitimate father, but the implication was definitely there.
"But you also are your father's son," Ellone informed Squall.
"Why are you telling me this all of the sudden?" little Squall asked suspiciously as soon as he perceived that she was being serious.
"Because if you ever want to find him, sweetheart, I want you to know that he is on the other side of the ocean in that direction," she replied, pointing beyond the orphanage to the far side of the island.
"You may need to build another bridge, Squall," she murmured.
"But you told me I could find my mother over there," Squall argued, pointing to the sea in front of them. He stuck his lower lip out in defiance.
Ellone sighed and decided she had been keeping the truth from him for so long.
"She was, but I don't know if she is still there, dear," Ellone told him.
For a moment, Squall just stood there, silently looking at the waves and trying to sort out the emotions of anger, betrayal, disappointment, loss, and inadequacy that were wrestling with his soul. He looked back at her suddenly and said with the smile that one gets when he has thought of something clever, "I'll always have you, Sis, right?"
"You'll find some nice girl to take care of you, I'm sure," she diverted.
"But I don't need anyone else! Just you!" Squall cried covetously.
Ellone did not respond immediately, which made him take a step back. She saw this and moved forward to take him back into her arms.
"Oh, Squall," she wept, "yes, you always will. I'll be here always. I promise."
Squall smiled cheerfully and hugged her back.
"Promise me one thing in return, though," she demanded.
Squall squinted in curiosity.
"Promise me that you'll take care of yourself," she continued. "You have to be strong for the both of us."
"Of course I will," Squall beamed over her shoulder. "I knew that already, even without you telling me."
Ellone smiled wistfully, knowing her face was out of view from him. She then released him but looked on with a guilty expression as he continued to pile up all the nearby rocks on the beach, hurling them some of them out to sea every few minutes.
"I can't just leave you like this," she cried finally and began to look around for a keepsake to give to him.
"You're leaving me?" Squall asked, dropping all of his rocks.
Ellone searched her person but could not come up with anything except what she knew she should not give. She still remembered the warning of the errant fortune teller who was present when Raine Loire passed it to her on her deathbed in Winhill.
"Don't let it fall into the wrong hands," the hooded figure had cautioned them.
That was a rather vague warning, Ellone reflected.
She had had no idea to whom the "wrong" or "right" hands belonged, but against every instinct in her body, she unlatched her necklace and slipped a silver ring off the chain. This she handed to Squall who received it with both hands.
"What is it?" the little boy asked curiously.
"It's a ring," she replied.
"You wear it on your finger," she clarified in jest when he didn't move.
He gave her a wry smile and then tried to put it on his finger. It was clearly too big for him.
Ellone handed him the rest of the necklace.
"Keep it around your neck until you can put it on your finger, then," she suggested.
"Does it have a name?" Squall questioned.
Ellone thought for a minute before shaking her head.
"That is up to you, whatever you think it symbolizes," she answered. "It could be the best in you, or the worst in you. Just remember, though, it won't have a name until you give it one."
The best things about us can also be the best things, but usually it is the other way around, she reflected dolefully.
"And if someone should ask you where you got it, just tell them that you bought it from a pawn shop," she added in afterthought.
"Where did you get it?" the boy inquired.
"It belonged to your grandfather," Ellone responded. "If you ever see your mother again, she will be able to recognize you by that ring."
Young Squall brightened up at the thought and nodded fervently.
"Now listen to me carefully, dear," she told him with unmistakable urgency In her voice. "There is something about that ring. You may only have one heart to lose, but you would rather lose that than this. Keep it safe."
For a moment she wondered if she was going into too much detail for him to handle. He was so young, after all. Whether he fully understood her or not, the boy nodded and strung the necklace around his neck.
Ellone looked up into the evening sky. Dark clouds were approaching from the horizon.
"I need to leave now, Squall," she said quietly.
"So you're really leaving?" Squall repeated.
From her countenance, Ellone clearly did not want to do so. It simply was not her decision to make.
"Let's play a game of hide-and-go-seek," she suggested, "starting tomorrow."
"Really?" Squall replied in relief. "So long as you aren't leaving. I'll find you!"
"Now come on inside with me," Ellone implored. "There is a storm coming."
And that was it. The next morning she was gone.
The day came when Squall was adopted by Balamb Garden and placed on a ship against his will. He remembered the horrid experience vividly.
"You are going the wrong way!" he kept on shouting to the sailors who could not have cared less.
"I don't want to go this way!" Squall hollered. "My mother is in the opposite direction!"
He tried to jump over the side but one of the buffer sailors restrained him. Squall would remember the face of the man who stepped between him and freedom that day. He vowed to take vengeance on him for separating him from his mother. One day, when he had honed the skills that this Garden of theirs was going to teach him, he would hunt that man down.
"Just let me go!" he shouted without the use of any of his limbs to back it up.
As they left the orphanage further and further behind, Squall felt his heart being wrenched from his chest and tossed into the ocean. He did not speak another word on the black ship. He did not speak another word even after he arrived at Balamb unless he had to. And he did not cry. They could snatch his dreams from him, but tears were worth their weight in gold, so those he kept to himself. Once enrolled in Garden, he frequented the beach and tossed pebbles in the direction of the orphanage during seventh period break each day, but he never cried.
Squall let loose another zinger and watched it whistle though the air.
Diablos coughed on purpose to get his attention before it packed into the deep.
"Nice throw," the demon rasped.
His mind still on the past, Squall did not bother to answer. He never did carry out his vow to kill the sailor. As it turned out, Squall recognized him years later as a friend of his father. Squall could assume now, looking back, that Laguna had wanted Ward to go to the orphanage and personally guarantee the safety of his son to Balamb Garden prior to giving him the post of his presidential aide. Ward had not changed much except for the scar on his face, which was how Squall could pick him out of the crowd after he graduated.
His thoughts were broken by the girl's pulling at something he was lying on. He moved aside just as she put her weight behind one great tug, inevitably resulting in her falling back with a surprised cry. When she sat back up, he saw that she was clutching onto a small purse. From the way they glimmered under the sun, Squall guessed that the prime composition material was dragon scale.
The girl rubbed the parts of her body that she had bumped from her flop crossly and then turned her attention to her purse. At first she was just fingering with articles inside but soon she turned to fumbling around in alarm.
"What are you looking for?" he inquired with concern in his voice. "Have you lost something?"
She did not answer but he noticed that her sounds of anxiety intensified.
"You don't even know how to communicate with me," he muttered, unable to conceal his disappointment, "much less talk and tell me who you are or what you've lost."
There has to be other ways to ascertain her identity, Squall assured himself. She must have something on her of some indicative value.
In a last ditch attempt to find whatever item had seized her, she dumped the entire content of her bag onto the sand. Squall found himself looking at a nice array of fish fins, water crystals, orihalcons, and turtle shells, beyond the given female necessities. At least that is what he assumed all the mystifying things were if he had not seen them in Trepe's Monogram of Items Dropped By Monsters, which he had memorized as a prerequisite back in his days as a SeeD trainee.
Her cache of items gave him no clearer picture of who she was or what she did for a living, but the common nature of the items led him to believe that she was not hydrophobic.
Or maybe she just likes the color blue? he considered alternately.
He heard the sound of clapping from behind him and spun around.
"Excellent deduction, my lord," Diablos applauded in a way that could have passed as brownnosing except his nose was black and he was way too sarcastic.
"Hide yourself before she sees you and has a heart attack!" Squall hissed, trying to glare at the GF and look back at her with deep concern at the same time.
She was still flipping through her things with the same amount of agitation.
"So pushy," Diablos huffed, steadily fading into transparency as if thin layers of paint of the surroundings were being coated over him one at a time.
"And I was just about to congratulate you on discovering that she is rabies-free," the Guardian Force continued to sneer in his invisibility.
"Leviathan," Squall called out, deciding to ignore the comment.
The serpentine GF materialized from a mist.
"Yessss, master?" it responded with a lazy yawn.
"Humor her for a while," he commanded. "If she really has a penchant for the water then she has probably heard of you."
"What a lofty purpose I have today," Leviathan murmured dryly.
Squall's expression settled somewhere between a frown and a scowl.
After grumbling about being crossed with his being forced to skip his ritual sun-basking exercises and about his master's total lack of sensitivity to a cold-blooded creature's needs, all of which he did just below Squall's range of hearing, Leviathan slithered over to his fretting assignment and introduced himself.
There was some initial panic but a few reassuring gestures from Squall quickly assuaged the problem. Squall sighed in relief and then got to his feet.
He had to get away for a few minutes. He had to collect his thoughts. He had to check his bike. He had to get back to Garden.
He had to take her with him.
I can't just leave her here, he told himself.
Why not? he argued in the negative just for the sake of fairness. After all, this is where I found her. She can walk back to wherever she came from.
Well, genius, the affirmative side defended, she obviously can't be from anywhere in the locality if she can't even speak the language.
Then taking her back to Nova Trabia won't help her either because we are short-staffed in the translating department, was the rebuttal from the negative.
"I hear you, boss," Diablos hissed suddenly.
Squall lifted an eyebrow.
"Actually, I don't, so stop looking so worried," the GF pacified him, "but by all means, think aloud."
"I'm wondering what to do with her," Squall informed him.
Diablos looked over to the object of his master's dilemma and devoured her with his eyes, an action which would have communicated to any onlooker that he found her good enough to eat.
"Oh yeah, boss," he running his tongue over his lips, "she certainly looks ripe to me."
Squall ran his fist into the demonic Guardian Force's stomach.
After a muffled cough, Diablos emended, "I meant she looks riparian."
Ingenious save, Squall thought.
It was all happening so fast that it was making his head spin. He could hardly believe it himself.
Sensing the trouble, Diablos grinned and asked in mock disbelief, "Don't you believe in love at first sight?"
"No," Squall replied flatly, "I prefer not to put too much stock in clichés."
"You have to believe in something, master," the dark speculated.
"Misconceptions," answered Squall, "followed by deception and betrayal in one direction or another, and oftentimes both."
Diablos whistled, or attempted to. Because of his fangs, the noise he ended up making sounded more like a sickly rasp.
"I think you two are a perfect pair, master," the GF ventured to say.
"I do not pay you to think," commented Squall.
"You don't pay me at all, sir," Diablos pointed out.
"Then what is this free assessment you are giving me?" Squall asked, settling back to receive the GF's newest keen observation.
"It is the perfect romance," explained Diablos. "In the only place where words speak louder than actions, neither one of you speaks, and so you can never do each other harm."
"He has a point there," Leviathan hissed.
The girl looked up from Leviathan to Squall and blinked in confusion.
"That's your definition of romance?" Squall repeated. "Where words hurt more than actions?"
"You're right on the Gil," affirmed the other.
"What would you know about romance?" Squall posed caustically and resumed his observation of the mystery woman. She was patting Leviathan on the head.
The memory of Lunar* flashed before Diablos' eyes. The elfin queen bedizened in a gown of the purest platinum. He had not seen her since Hyne stripped her of her and banished her to forever walk in the mortal realm at some undetectable frequency. Over the epochs he had tried to find her, wandering around without a destination and randomly switching to different frequencies, but he never succeeded. He might have even walked right by her or through her without either one the wiser. Eternal life without interaction with either man or GF was virtually a punishment worse than death.
But it was not worse than his guilt. Diablos would have chuckled sinisterly here if the joke weren't on him. For duty, he had informed the Great Hyne of Lunar's seditious motives, but instead of a reward, Diablos only garnered the addendum of another curse- the curse of a conscience. This gift he won for betrayal, and guilt was one cruel master who collected triple of what debt was owed to romance. Thus, in a single breath, he not only lost the one being who cared about him, but his self-respect as well.
Hyne was truly devious. Morality was the worst thing that could have happened to him. A broken heart was the second. Now he possessed both.
A single tear rolled down his cracked face and dropped to the sand with an acidic sizzle.
*Barrett Machain (b_machain @ hotmail.com) gives the full account of Lunar's exile in "The Exiled Guardian."
"Diablos?" Squall checked when there was no answer. I can smell the sulfur so he has to be lurking around here still.
"Yeah, I wouldn't know anything about it," Diablos replied clumsily.
Squall checked the position of the sun in relation to the horizon and quickly estimated the time. It looked to him like it was the right time to leave. He left Diablos and walked back to where the young sat, still amusing herself with Leviathan.
It took some persuasion to get her to leave without whatever it was that she had lost, but in the end, she let it go. The SeeD commander helped her gather up her scattered belongings from the sand and led her back to his motorbike.
It met them halfway, he having activated the auto-ignition, autopilot, and key-holder auto-find with the radio remote on his keychain. Wordlessly she took the spare helmet that he produced from the glove compartment and offered to her. She then copied his movements and climbed onto the bike behind him.
"Did you want to stay out here and finish sun-bathing, Leviathan?" Squall asked while he flipped his visor down over his eyes.
The armless serpent tried to make a thumbs-up gesture.
Squall understood just the same. He revved the bike, checked to see if his passenger was safely aboard, and then took off.
He couldn't very well talk to her through his helmet, and even if he could, the wind would have drowned out what promised to be a lively conversation. In all probably, though, it would be a monologue because he doubted that she would say even one word. On the other hand, given that he was not to prone to long speeches or any speech at all, it could just as well turn out to be an embarrassing silence.
Perhaps Diablos actually had a point, Squall reconsidered.
Even though he had already accelerated to a dangers 210 kilometers per hour, Squall felt compelled to check the digital clock on the A09's dashboard. Quistis was sure to have another class lined up for him.
Differential mathematics, sociology with eigenvectors, logistics, war stratagems, or physics with applications most likely, he listed in his head.
He remembered that the deadline to declare which weapon skill one wanted to "major" in was today by 1700. Declaring majors was always a mystery to him because it only applied to those pursuing a weapon's major whose prerequisites were so many in number that unless the student committed himself entirely to those courses, he would not be able to graduate. For all other majors, no declaration was needed because there was still time to take the courses needed to meet to the requirements. To him, the entire process was a moot, but SeeD was all about being systematic. Without the system, you would turn out like Seifer, the classic cautionary tale against having dreams and chasing them blindly. Hold fast to dreams before they get a hold over you.
Squall's eyes narrowed at the thought. He chose to focus harder on navigating the road.
If his information was right, Seifer, Raijin, and Fuujin were participants in a missionary expedition to uncover some religious artifacts right on the outskirts of Nova Trabia.
He was made aware of how much harder he was squeezing the throttle because the girl suddenly tightened the ring her hands made around his waist.
Squall still did not know what to make of Seifer Almasy after all these years. Idealists and hopeless romantics were so much easier to exploit, and Squall was sure Ultimecia knew that. He tried not to have dreams anymore, seeing how well his own fared in his childhood and further confirmed by the nightmare that Seifer's turned out to be for everyone. If there were to be any more dreams for Squall, he would not be foolish enough to put his faith in them, much less be foolhardy enough to chase after them.
The last time he and Seifer was fighting on the same side was back during the SeeD entrance exam- the Dollet run. Since then he had crossed swords with the deluded ex-Disciplinary Committee head three times and tasted the old-fashioned goodness of Seifer's generosity in a torture chamber. Seifer was not on Squall's list of favorite persons. Being Seifer's counterpart, foil, and doppelganger was to be the bane of his life, but despite this fact, to add insult to injury, fate had perversely assigned him the role of being Seifer's playmate. And having anything to do with Seifer Almasy was like playing Russian roulette with all six chambers loaded.
The only thing they had in common, literally, and that would probably also be a significant burden in his life, was Rinoa. Perhaps his life would be easier if these two great antagonisms of his ran off with each other without either one plotting to kill the other.
When Diablos was sure that they were out of distance, he readjusted his frequency so as to partially restore the visibility of his body. From there, it took some work, but he managed at length to rip off his mask. He then leaned over a puddle left by the receding tide and checked his face. A handsome face bedizened with golden curls but with a pair of blue eyes that spoke of the deepest woe stared back at him*.
With an angry cry the Guardian Force flung the ghastly mask in the air and blasted it into immateriality with a Demi spell. Afterwards, he waited dejectedly in front of the pool for the accursed lock to reappear over his face as it always did since the days of Hyne.
"Yeah," Diablos repeated to himself emptily when it did, "I wouldn't know anything about it."
The demon fell to his knees and raised his arms. When he felt the charcoal-textured face that was not his own with his claws, the ageless Guardian Force began to sob.
The curse had not yet been lifted.
*DemonQueen19 (demonqueen19 @ yahoo.com) gives the full account of the Diablos' face in "The Face Behind The Mask."
The resonating chamber on the custom exhaust pipe thundered all the way to Nova Trabia Garden as the pair raced back. Squall knew from the few silent lessons in aerodynamics from Ward that the rumbling was even louder for bystanders that he sped by because the A09 motorcycle actually created and carried with it a widening, low-pressure wind tunnel in the volume of fluid it moved through. The original reasoning behind getting it custom fitted was because the dealer at the shop promised that it would strike fear into the hearts of those who heard it. So far, though, it seemed to only inspire looks of annoyance. Squall was sure that had he been someone like Zell instead of the Commander of SeeD, Sergeant Jay would have slapped him with a 40-Gil boom ticket for unruly noise pollution long ago.
The A09's console had issued a blinking warning light when Squall topped 250 kilometers per hour, but he had ignored it, knowing full well that the vehicle's top speed was in the range of 320. He was also aware of the tremendous compromise the speed was to directional maneuvering and horizontal translation- as in he would have less than a second to dodge obstacles 70 meters away- but for the price he paid for the bike, it would most certainly come equipped with various safeguards against otherwise unavoidable collisions.
Such an emergency situation was unfolding before his eyes. Because Nova Trabia Commission of Wildlife Safety had been marginalized in the previous year's municipal funding distribution process, they were not able to post as many "Chocobo Crossing" signs as they would have liked so far away from the city. As a result, Squall did not catch sight the tawny mother chocobo and her line of chicobos against the withering saw grass until he was nearly on top of them.
Let's test the hydraulics on her, shall we? he thought as he reflexively punched one of the red buttons on his left handle. If he had estimated the mother chocobo's height correctly, they would clear her scruffy head by five centimeters and coast sixty meters in the air before landing.
The bike quickly reacted and the anti-gravity propulsion boosters fired up with a loud roar. The girl yelped at the sudden jerk and tightened her hold yet again. Squall took the time to check his rearview mirror as they left the ground and sailed over the biped birds. After they landed with a soft bump, he congratulated himself at having avoided making a bloody mess on the prairie.
As they drew closer to the Garden, Squall tried to ease up on the throttle and maneuver as quietly as possible around to the back. There he pulled into the Garden's garage and zipped past the automated security checks. After a few more turns, he pitted the bike in his privilege parking space on the first floor.
"Okay," Squall told his companion while setting the bike up on its prop, "we're here."
She seemed to understand the gist of what he was saying because she steadied herself with his arm and hopped off obediently.
He had to change out of his grungy, orange t-shirt, rolled up jeans, and sandals before he could walk around the Garden as the authority figure Cid was paying him to be. As much as he did not want to make condoning his being squalid a part of his being Squall, the shower would have to wait; he was late enough as it was.
As his foresight had dictated for him to do, he kept one of his regular outfits in the lockers in the garage. Squall headed in that direction, handing off his new companion to one of the garage attendants with the explicit instructions to escort her to the cafeteria and find a public relations representative to find out who she was and where she needed to go to get home.
Just as he was done changing, he spotted a pack of Malboro cigarettes lying at the bottom of his locker. Squall paused for a second and remembered that on Selphie's schedule, the smoke detectors in this locker room would not be installed for another three days.
Squall estimated how much more time he could allocate for a little break that he was confidant he could make up for during the rest of the day. Finally he decided that he could afford to burn five minutes, and so he sat down, opened the pack, and carefully drew out a Malboro roll. He nearly dropped it as he was lighting it because Quistis' authoritative voice boomed over the Garden intercom:
"Commander, please report to the front gate."
Though she did not say how urgent the situation was, Squall could sift it from her words. He rolled his eyes, pocketed the cigarette, and threw the rest of his articles back into his locker. After giving the locker door one final slam, he hurried out towards the quad. He spotted the signature pink skirt and velvet vest pacing back and forth across the bridge from across the courtyard.
He waited until she had her back turned towards him and was heading back over the bridge for the umpteenth time before he went over and caught up with her just so he could have the initiative and first say.
"What situation are we looking at?" he spoke even before he tapped her on the shoulder to turn her around.
"Oh! There you are!" Quistis exclaimed, her face flushing.
"What is the situation?" he repeated.
"How like you," she remarked resentfully "Not even a hello."
He did not say anything. Instead, he just waited for the answer to his question.
"The Shumi sent us a video message earlier this morning," she then informed him. "Something of theirs was stolen."
"How long ago?" Squall questioned.
"They aren't sure," she replied.
Squall turned to get off the bridge and headed for the corridor to the officer's lounge. Quistis ran after him with a frown on her face.
"Irvine and Zell?" Squall guessed at whom the Shumi were targeting their grievances.
"At last look at me when you talk to me," Quistis chided.
She sounded hurt so Squall slowed his steps. The few Garden students that had risen early for a morning job around the quad looked over in the their direction with curious eyes.
He turned and looked at her. She was trembling slightly like one who had accidentally said what she hadn't meant to say aloud.
"I just wanted to know why you didn't log back in last night," she finally found the courage to add. Was it because of me? Please don't let it be because of what passed between us last evening.
"Why?" Squall countered. "Did you miss me?"
She did not answer, not that he expected her to. In fact, he knew she would not verbally confirm what they both already knew to be true. Yet, the question, once voiced, had sounded more rhetorical than he had intended, and after seeing the helplessness on her face, he regretted his choice of words.
I should apologize, he thought.
She did not give him the chance.
"I don't know what to make of you," Quistis confessed in frustration. "You change your attitudes so quickly that I can't even follow. Who were you yesterday? What were you trying to tell me?"
He was not sure how to proceed so he took her hand in his. She started, not anticipating his touch.
"Look," Squall started over less formally while drawing her closer to him, "you shouldn't take anything I do or say to heart or we will both end up regretting it."
"What are we, then, Squall?" Quistis wondered sadly and softly.
This discussion was making him feel uncomfortable. He was never comfortable when he did not know the answer to a question, and Quistis was one SeeD test that he could not study for.
Dropping her hand, he concluded, "Some things are better left ambiguous."
For a moment she produced no visible reaction, but had he placed his ear against her chest, he might have heard something breaking on the inside. At length, she nodded.
Squall could not think of anything else to say to her, but the air between them was awkward, as if the conversation had not yet ended. He desperately needed an out.
A girl with pink eyes and silver hair had been staring at him over Quistis' back through the glass windows in the Garden Noodle diner. Having never seen her before, Squall took the opportunity to nab one of the passerby students who looked like he was in need of something to do and told him to ascertain the identity of the girl and to then take care of her accordingly. In the process, he conspicuously dropped Quistis' hand.
"Uh, how do I do that, sir?" the student asked nervously, immediately recognizing who Squall was. Quistis almost felt sorry for the kid.
Squall hated when the trainees acted like it was their first day at the Garden. The SeeD commander took out a note from his jacket pocket and scribbled on it while laying out his directions to the student:
"If she is a transfer student, check her ID and transcript, or, if she claims to be enrolled here, quiz her on something she would only know if she was an actual student, like rooming assignments, names of teachers, class times, the lunch menu, and whatnot. If she is an imposter, detain her without revealing your intention to do so, and call for the Disciplinary Committee before she has a chance to sabotage our facilities or engage in espionage. Sergeant Jay will handle it from there. If she is a client, however, call the PR reps, get her some meal tickets, arrange for a personal tour guide to escort her around for the entire day, and then reserve a room for her in the guest suite sectors until one of the officers can debrief her. Here is your tardy excuse slip because you're going to be late for your first class. This ought to get you out of trouble. Now go."
The student took the slip and hustled into the Garden Noodle and Squall continued on his way to the officer's lounge to view the Shumi transmission that was growing older by the minute. He just hoped the series of delays so far had not exacerbated the situation or escalated the conflict.
The moment of tension between them having passed, Quistis watched as Squall disappeared into the corridor. With the air of hopelessness and defeat, she parked her forehead in her palm and whimpered.
"Oh, Shiva," she moaned sadly. "What do I do now?"
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