Sins of the Living
Chapter 7 - soul train
It was only as the train began to pull away from the station that it occurred to him. He was nearly there. He was almost home.
It still seemed so damned unreal, like some kind of daydream he was having with his eyes wide open. Safe in his backwater, he'd half convinced himself that this was something he ought to do. After all, things had changed - he had changed - and when Fujin had said go... he'd said yes. He'd allowed himself to be moved along like some sort of automaton, not really questioning what he was doing. It was like a part of his mind had shut down and refused to think about consequences.
But now... now it was suddenly real. The shuddering of the train, the wash of people talking, the moving buildings outside all conspired to plug him back into this slice of reality.
The insulating feeling of disconnection that he'd carried with him was receding, anxiety rising inexorably to take its place. It drifted across his skin like fingers of ice, leaving chilled and rigid flesh in its wake. Grimly, he ignored the sensation and his growing feeling of dislocation as best he could, slouching farther into his seat like a sulking child.
Maybe this hadn't been such a great idea. A knowing voice in his mind mocked him for that and he scowled, hard brows pulling together in a fierce expression. He knew that voice. Hated the sound of his own fear rating his actions like some kind of deranged scorecard.
Of course it was only now, nearly at the end of this journey, that he finally decided to wonder what the hell he was doing. That was so damn typical it wasn’t funny.
Too late now, much too late for second thoughts. He really should have had this conversation with himself a week ago. Hell, even yesterday would have worked. The old and quaint buildings of Timber were slipping away, beginning to unfold with the rolling countryside that surrounded the sleepy town. Short of standing up, strolling casually to the compartment door and throwing himself from the moving train, he was now committed to arriving in Balamb.
Assuming, of course, that the posse would even let him near the door in the first place.
He glanced across the aisle involuntarily. His friends spoke in low voices that didn't intrude on his silence, deep in a conversation that carefully didn't demand any of his attention. Raijin was talking in his low, garrulous way, something about his recent fishing trip and the one that got away. Fujin's replies were brief and succinct, hardly more than the occasional interruption in Raijin's basso rumble. Lack of input from Fu wasn't slowing Raijin down any though. Even as he watched, the man's arms came up as if to measure the monster he'd nearly hooked.
From his angle it was hard to say, but Fu seemed unimpressed. He knew just where she was coming from, having listened to enough to these stories to quote the chapter and verse himself. Raijin's fishing expeditions usually bore only a passing resemblance to truth, any truth at all.
The jolting of the train as it made the switch to the Balamb track rocked him in his seat, pulling his attention back to the window. Timber had almost entirely fallen away while he'd been distracted. The train gave a last shudder and then almost seemed to hurtle forward, picking up serious speed as it began to travel along its predetermined track. He was sure there had to be a moral there somewhere.
In an effort to shake off his mood he tried to focus on the passing view. The gentle hills nearly glowed in the falling afternoon light, burned the faint colors of summer and sun. He hadn't been to this part of the world in ... well, longer than he wanted to think about. Pretty much the same as he remembered actually, and idyllic enough if pastoral settings were your thing. Wasn't doing a lot for him personally though. He’d walked over enough landscape to know the only real difference was whether it was mud or dust that you kicked up with each step. And how it tasted when you finally fell down in it.
If he tried, he could just make out his own pale reflection in the window. His eyes, ghost-like in the trembling glass were glaring back at him as if in accusation. He could only agree silently with his doppelganger; what the hell had he been thinking?
It was funny, it really was. The infamous, the notorious Seifer Almasy finally returning to the scene of the crime. Maybe he should have made this trip in the dead of night, just for the verisimilitude. It would have better suited his sense of the dramatic at least. Or perhaps what he needed was a jester's hat and newspaper coverage of the event. It had all the trappings of comedy after all. Or tragedy.
Now that was an uncomfortable thought.
He crossed and re-crossed his boots on the seat opposite, frowning at the scuffed black leather. No answers there but no questions either at least. He'd had too much of the one and precious little of the other lately. His boots were unconcerned with his temper, staring back at him mutely with every mark and stain testament to the miles he'd walked in them. Crawled in them. Damn near died in them.
Perhaps that was his answer after all. Although it seemed a bit obscure, even for him.
What the hell had he been thinking?
It had to be Fujin's fault. For a woman who never talked, she was surprisingly persuasive. Seifer glanced again at her, and this time his motion caught her eye. Her single ruby eye stabbed at him and flashed its coded message, shorthand communication at its finest. He grimaced but waved her off with a twitch of his fingers, dismissing her concern.
She cocked an eyebrow at him but turned back to Raijin without comment, leaving him to his unsettled mood. Trust Fujin to know what he needed better than he knew himself. Was why he'd agreed to this return to his uneasy past? That Fujin, who never demanded anything of him, had asked?
The sound of voices in the background rose in pitch, intruding on his thoughts before dropping back again into a hushed buzz. He scowled as he turned once more to the window, determinedly not listening to any of the conversations that teased at his ears. By choice he sat in a bubble of silence, comprised of his presence and his reputation. When they'd boarded this train they'd taken the rearmost seats, with himself sitting on one side closest to the window while Fu and Raijin had automatically taken the seats immediately across the aisle.
He wasn't sure whether they were protecting him from random intrusion by the other passengers, or guarding everyone else from his legendary temper. Didn't much matter really for it worked out to the same thing. They hadn't been disturbed at all since they'd sat down and it was unlikely in the extreme that anyone would dare. As if by unspoken agreement, there was a dead zone around them as the other travelers had unanimously congregated at the other end of the car, packed in like sardines. It was grimly amusing to stretch his legs out to the opposite side, taking up four seats all to himself.
There had to be some perks to being the Sorceress' Knight. Even if it was sans Sorceress now.
For a moment he intensely regretted having never passed the SeeD test. That single lowly rank would have earned them a private room on the car reserved for the elite mercenary force. They could have made this trip in style, instead of being forced to travel second class with the unwashed masses. He'd never much cared for crowds, but now being surrounded by strangers was a tortuous exercise in self-control. The posse had taken it all in stride, but he was about ready to chew the seat covers for relief.
On cue his stomach growled, expressing its displeasure with the neglect he'd shown it today. He hadn't been able to choke down more than a handful of stale crackers at midday and the half a soda he'd snagged out of Fujin's hand. When the stewardess appeared, he was definitely going to send one of the posse after her. Maybe Raijin could liberate a sandwich for him before he died of starvation. Wouldn't do, after all, to get to Balamb and faint on the boarding platform from hunger. That would certainly be damaging to his reputation as a complete badass, not to mention the mortal embarrassment factor.
His stomach growled again and he rubbed a hand over it, promising it the biggest sandwich he could find as soon as the lady with the food appeared. Worst case scenario, he'd eat when he got to Balamb, which was only a couple of hours away. His stomach settled down a little as if appeased, and he straightened in his seat, trying not to think about food.
As he changed position, his gaze fell on the gleaming length of Hyperion where it was nestled in the leather strapping over his head. Raijin had rigged it so that it would only take a moment to pull the weapon free. It definitely made him more comfortable to have the gunblade within reach even if it probably made the other passengers twitchy as hell. Maybe the buffer zone between him and everyone else had a more prosaic reason than he'd previously assumed.
For no apparent reason, he suddenly felt better. A wicked smile teased at his lips, and his eyes lit with mocking amusement. The poor girl at the Timber customs desk had had no idea what she'd been trying to confiscate almost literally out of his hands.
She'd been so damned young, with a smart little uniform that showed off all her assets to advantage. He'd admired her while he'd been waiting in line to get his boarding pass. Brown hair cut in swinging bob, a cheerful, professional smile... she had been very easy on the eye while he'd been stuck in that queue and he'd taken unashamed advantage of the view. It was only when he'd finally gotten through to her desk that the cheerful smile had turned chilly.
She'd been very calm, very conscientious and very determined that no one board her train with an unchecked weapon. That had startled him; he didn't remember there being weapon restrictions on the trains before. Obviously one more thing that had changed since the War. He must have looked belligerent for she'd explained frostily that loaded weapons were not permitted in the common areas, and that if he would please check his weapon he would be issued a claim ticket whereupon he could obtain it again when the train was unloaded in Balamb.
Still easy on the eye though, even if she had been doing her best to stare him down. He hadn't had the heart to tell her that she was out of her league. Such a sweet young thing and so terribly committed to preserving the rules.
He'd never been any good at rules. Couldn't have honestly said he was about to start trying now.
Hyperion... was as much a part of him as the color of his eyes after all. He'd never lost track of it, even in the chaos of Ultimecia's death when insanity had pulled everything apart around him. He'd walked out of that chaos barely remembering his own name, but Hyperion had still been in his hand. Surrender it, on the say so of a slip of girl barely old enough to understand that there had been a War?
He didn't think so.
Out of the corner of his eye though, he'd seen the guarded look cross Raijin's face, had felt Fujin's stillness crystallize at his shoulder. He couldn’t forget that they were always ready to back him, always ready to commit mayhem on his behalf and at his word. That alone had made him choke his temper back down to tolerable levels. Wouldn't have been good, would it, to have wrecked the place before they'd even made it onto the damn train.
He'd settled for lounging casually on the counter, a deceptive smile on his face. The girl had blinked at the heat of that expression. He wasn't adverse to using his looks to get what he wanted and the pretty clerk had been hopelessly outclassed from the start. She probably just hadn't known it until then.
Since serious wreckage had been regretfully out of the question, he'd decided to play to his other strength - condescension. When he wanted he could take up a lot of space just by virtue of standing still and he'd done his best to be the immoveable object. He'd no doubt really annoyed all the people waiting impatiently in line behind him but that had been their tough luck. They should have known better than to travel on the same train as the one he was technically scheduled to catch.
The girl had still been staring up at him with a bemused expression as he'd started to explain, in what he still felt was a very gentle voice, that Hyperion was an honest-to-god relic of the Sorceress War and worth an absolute bundle on the black weapons market. He'd let that sink in for a moment, before shrugging his shoulders. Surely, he'd explained, she could understand why he couldn't let it out of his sight, not for a moment, and especially not for a two hour trip.
It had taken a second or two, but you could have almost traced the dawning realization as it traveled across her face. There weren't that many gunblades in the world after all, and Hyperion's name was as recognizable as his own. Her eyes had gotten so wide at that point that it was still amusing, even in retrospect.
She'd stared over his shoulder at the weapon casually strapped to his back, returned to his face, flickered over to the pair standing behind him, back to his face again and this time registered the scar between his eyes. There probably wasn't a soul alive who wouldn't recognize it, stamped as it was in reverse on the Balamb Commander's face. Surprising that she hadn't picked up on it before but maybe she'd been so busy being professional she hadn't really looked at what she was seeing.
The poor thing's complexion had paled down to milk in an instant and all her official stonewalling had disappeared in a fit of stuttering. She'd stamped his travel pass so fast his hair was probably still disarranged from the wind. The look of relief on her face when he'd turned away peacefully had almost hurt, but he'd become pretty inured to it over the months. He saw it all the time now, when people figured out who he was.
But there'd been no chance at that point of remaining incognito. While not loud, his conversation with the clerk had been in the middle of a crowded room and he'd almost seen his name flying through the boarding area like a leaf in a whirlwind. Arrogant superiority was the mask of choice in a case like that, so he'd put it on and swaggered through the terminal as if daring anyone to get in his way. True to expectation, people had melted away as if whatever had made him the Sorceress' Knight might be catching. People could be such sheep.
In that spreading circle of silence the posse had stuck to his side, their solid presence a tacit acknowledgement that he wasn't alone. Hell, they'd probably been happy they hadn't had to fight this time.
Although if he had to bet, he'd have said that Raijin wouldn't have minded a brawl. Hell, he wouldn't have minded wreaking a little havoc himself to relieve a little tension, but it was a given that Fujin would've disapproved. She never said much but you sure as hell knew when you'd screwed up. A single word from her was as sharp as a scalpel and twice as deadly. He was grateful she was on his side, even if that over-eager train attendant was the worst thing they'd faced lately.
So here he was, carefully alone on this crowded train and idly wondering if insanity was hereditary in his unknown parentage.
Fujin had said ... had said go. That he was needed. And like a sucker he'd fallen for that excuse. Hook, line and sinker just like one of Raijin's legendary fish. He didn’t want to know what that said about him and about what he was willing to believe.
He hadn't asked, to be brutally honest. Hadn't really wanted to know if it was just a way to get his compliance. Fujin was not above manipulating him to get what she wanted, gods above knew. She was his second in command, smart and efficient in a way that Raijin could never hope to match. They made a good pair, their weaknesses and strengths uniquely balanced between them. With himself as the acknowledged leader of their little world, the one that gave them the focus they otherwise lacked.
If Fujin had lied...
Gods, he didn't want to think about it.
He lifted a hand to run agitated fingers through his short hair, messing up the blonde strands a little more. His hair had probably suffered the worst on this trip, with his uneasy stomach the next victim. By the time he got to Balamb, he'd probably look like Zell. Minus that weird tattoo of course.
Would anyone meet them at the station? If he had to guess, he'd pick Instructor Trepe as the likely greeting party. It would suit the Instructor's personality to meet them in Balamb, all ice and prim formality. Swear to god, if she tried to pull that holier-than-thou attitude on him, he'd sic Fujin on her, damned if he wouldn't. His silver haired lieutenant would drive the Instructor up the wall within minutes. He couldn't remember off-hand if the two women had ever spent any time together, but it was bound to be an interesting confrontation. Fujin was like a time-delay bomb, silent and unobtrusive until she took you apart.
Almost against his will, a grin crooked his lips. Quistis Trepe would be lucky to lose only figurative skin if she got on the wrong side of Fujin's sense of loyalty. When he had been just another student in her classes, he'd seen it as his civic duty to get under her skin any way possible. That woman needed to learn to loosen up, or she was going to break something someday.
His thoughts dwelt on the Instructor for a moment longer, before almost inevitably slipping away. Fragments of images and feelings began to flicker through his mind like light on water. Balamb had been his home after all, more so than any vague memories of the orphanage.
There had been the hours and days he'd spent sleeping in classes, listening to fighting theory and droning political commentary. The bone deep ache of muscle and sinew as he'd fought to understand Hyperion, until the gunblade became more than a weapon and became instead a piece of his soul. The ever-constant training in the Center, honing reaction and skill until he could be worthy of both fear and respect. Meeting Raijin. Meeting Fu. Learning that he was meant to lead, meant to be the one that others looked to. Learning that he could win.
Learning that he could lose.
Damn it. Damn it, he did not want to think about that.
But he couldn't help himself as a single finger rose to trace the line of rigid scar that ran between his eyes. That had been the moment, the single instant when he'd realized that he could die. It had been exhilarating. It had freaked the hell out of him. He wanted to be there again, in that moment with blood washing over his vision like his own personal apocalypse.
The silver glory flaring in Squall's eyes.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, earning him a frown from Fujin that he didn't see, lost in his own soundtrack.
When the dust had settled, it had been Leonhart who'd ended up the hero of the Sorceress War. Now SeeD Commander of Balamb Garden and he'd rumors that Headmaster wasn't far behind. Everyone's favorite topic, the most revered, the most admired man on this pitiful excuse for a planet.
But he'd swear to god, any god you wanted to name that it didn't matter. He'd done what he'd set out to do after all, even if he hadn't turned out to be on the winning side after the final fallout. He would be remembered. Not for him a fall into obscurity, another face among so many, indistinguishable and unknown.
It was a point of private, secret pride. You couldn't think about the so-named Lion of Balamb after all, without thinking about him in the same instant.
The raging violence of his eyes.
God fucking damn it. Just once, he'd seen it rise for him. Only once, but the memory still burned in his veins like a drug he just couldn't shake.
At the last, with Ultimecia clawing at his mind like a cancer, he'd thought he'd have it again. Just once more before he died. Leonhart had finally come to him, faced him just as he'd planned with all of that incandescent rage and hatred. It had almost been enough, almost exactly what he wanted. But not quite. Not quite what he'd thought he needed.
At the end, Leonhart had walked away without looking back.
And there was no forgiveness for that.
In his seat, Seifer shivered with unwitting reaction, his eyes narrowed and suddenly cold enough to freeze air. If anyone had in fact been sitting across from him, they would have moved out of sheer self-preservation. He wasn't aware of it, but he killed with that expression on his face, that look of disdain and utter emptiness. Part of it had been Ultimecia, but part of it was him, just as he had always been. Fujin caught it for she was watching him, and her blood chilled as that lethal light spread across her leader's face. She lost track of Raijin for a moment, her breath unconsciously held as Seifer grabbed her complete attention.
It was only a moment, and then that terrible look left his face, leaving only Seifer behind. She breathed softly, not sure what had caused that look in his eyes but very grateful that it had been fleeting. True to form, Raijin had only just grasped that something was wrong. His narrative stumbled and he looked at her with a questioning expression. She closed her eye and determinedly looked away, leaving Seifer to his thoughts. It really wasn't her business unless he grabbed Hyperion and started swinging.
Pray to god that she knew what she was doing by all but forcing him to Balamb. Pray to god that Selphie had been right. Because if either of them had misjudged, there would be rivers of blood before it was over. And her beloved Seifer would suffer more, instead of being made whole again.
Fujin's thoughts were diamond hard. That scenario was unacceptable. Therefore, she would not accept it.
"Continue," she said imperiously to Raijin, gesturing impatiently. This journey could not end fast enough.
Return to Archive | next | previous