Chapter 20 - N.p.s.N.g.s., Part III

<battle plans>

By YuriNigasa

Time was irrelevant. No longer flowing like a river, it had begun to settle around Seifer like a stagnant, infested, pool. He had begun to think that if he raised his hand just so, it would send the eddies of time spinning off in a myriad of potential outcomes, all of them futile. Somehow Ultimecia had survived. Her consciousness somehow transferred into that area of his mind that he had sealed off, and there waited, biding her time. Seifer wouldn't allow himself to think that Squall and the others had failed. Allowing all that had come to pass to simply be some errant, delusional, fragmentation of his mind was unacceptable. Picking up a fragile flower and crushing it between his fingers, he set about the task of regaining his mind.

It had actually been Ultimecia herself who had shown Seifer the way to seal these thoughts away. She had only been gloating when she had told him that there was no difference between was, is, and could. Seifer had seized upon that and constructed this place, the only place that had ever been home. It was as it had stood when he was a boy, long before it had been abandoned and they, as children, had left to their respective destinies. The low wall that had once run beside the field, the perfect height for forts and sieges, had been restored. The columns that had hidden hide-and-seekers stood tall and gleaming. The stairs that had provided rest on a hot afternoon were solid and secure. But, for all that it was a perfect replica of memory, there was one thing Seifer could not change. It stood silent and he was alone.

Stunned beyond comprehension, Squall simply looked at Elle with a blank look in his eyes. Seifer. Gone. His mind reeled with the complications such an idea necessitated. Everyone had a past. There was no way to avoid it. As humans they lived in linear time. Linear time demanded a past. But Time Compression had altered the concept of a purely linear existence. Eight years ago he had stood in the epicenter of the Compression, and hadn't been able to find the way out on his own. Had nobody come for him there was no way to tell what might have happened. Squall was far from an expert on these things. He hadn't given the particulars of exactly how Compression manifested much thought. Squall had been there to fight, not to think. A concept began to coalesce in his mind, but it remained elusive. Seifer's life was at stake. Squall had to focus.

Seifer stood to his feet and walked up the stairs. The door that once led inside the orphanage now led out, to the place where Ultimecia now held dominion. He couldn't let himself stay away for long. If she grew suspect of him, he held no qualms that she could utterly decimate his mind, or rather, what had once been his mind. His hand upon the doorknob, Seifer prepared himself for the start of battle. Where once he had run to battle primed on pure emotion, Seifer now regarded this battlefield like chess - a series of tactical maneuvers designed to bring the enemy to chaos and utter ruin. He called on all the skills he had put away. Contempt, pride, flattery, condescension, and coercion, once his shield against others, now forged into a weapon to be wielded with precision against a monster who had the misfortune of trying to fuck with Seifer Almasy one too many times.

They sat assembled in the living room, a study in frustration. Arrayed in a crude circle they held council - Ellone, Squall, Laguna, Edea, and Zell.

"What do you mean Squall?" asked Zell.

"Let me see if I can explain it," Elle interrupted. "We all came out of Time Compression relatively unaltered. However, Seifer had prolonged exposure to Ultimecia. We don't know the extent to which she may have used Seifer as an experimental subject."

"I don't want to break confidence, but under the circumstances I don't feel that I have much choice." Squall's face was haunted, but his eyes reflected a steely reserve. "Seifer told me about much of what went on throughout our battle against Ultimecia. I've already shared that I believe that Seifer only went with her to protect those of us who were present at the Timber mission," his eyes darted to Zell, who nodded affirmatively. "Unlike the rest of us, Seifer had the misfortune of only dealing with Ultimecia. To him there was no Matron, no Rinoa - only one sorceress in three guises. I have no way of knowing what he experienced short of the description he gave me, which I'm sure in no way can ever begin to touch the reality of what he went through. When we hit Compression, I was lost. What I experienced in those brief moments seems to touch on what Seifer relayed to me. When he failed Ultimecia, she somehow sent him out of time to a place where time wasn't just suspended - it didn't even exist. Coupled with... " Squall reached a hand to his eyes to wipe away tears he hadn't even felt come. "... what he only described to me as complete and total possession. He didn't even have the words for it. He said that when we as a group defeated Ultimecia that she sought to find him, to call him to her. Seifer believed that somehow our defeat of Ultimecia released him from the place she had held him. Now, I'm not so sure I believe that to be true anymore."

"You mean he's... stuck... somewhere out of time?" Laguna wore an expression of heavy concentration.

"It would be the only thing that could conceivably explain why I can't find him," Elle said.

"Um... if that's true, how can we find him?" Zell frowned.

"I don't know that we can. When I called Ellone earlier today, I had hopes that we could at least discover why Seifer had fallen into shock. I'm afraid we may have to face the realization that we may not be able to do anything." Edea looked troubled. Seifer meant as much to her as any of the other children had, if not more. Somehow she had always held a special place for him, even after anyone had long since been unable to reason with him.

"I know one thing. We aren't going to do anyone good if we wear ourselves into exhaustion," Elle looked pointedly at Squall. "We need to retire for tonight. Maybe a night of letting our subconscious work things out will give us a fresh outlook on things."

"I'm staying here," Squall said stubbornly. "Elle, Dad, I want you to take the rooms booked at the hotel. There's no use in letting them go to waste."

"Fine," said Laguna as he checked his watch. It read oh-one-thirty, local time. "When should we meet back here?"

Zell piped up, "Quistis is supposed to be coming in on the oh-nine-hundred train. Give her a bit to get settled and up to speed on what's going on, so say... ten-hundred hours?"

"We'll meet here tomorrow morning then. Edea, I assume you're staying at the hotel as well?" Laguna asked.

Edea nodded her assent.

"Tomorrow morning then."

The group dispersed amid hugs and hopeful reassurances, but it did little to calm Squall's mind. Seifer lay on the bed looking like some statue carved from breathing wax. Kneeling beside the bed, Squall placed his hand on Seifer's and twined his fingers with Seifer's, hoping in some way to feel them curl reassuringly around his own. He hadn't felt so hopeless in years, not even when he had forced himself to believe that all Seifer could ever be to him was a friend. Tears welled in Squall's eyes, marring their ethereal beauty with angry redness. He tasted the salty tang against his lips as he leaned forward to place a chaste kiss on the unresponsive mouth of the man he, however unadmittedly, loved.

In the doorway, feeling like a voyeur, Zell quietly backed away.

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