*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*
By Yuri Nigasa
The past two days had been unbelievably hectic. Appointments, reviews, and meetings punctuated by the occasional visit to my quarters to grab a late dinner and fall asleep with Seifer. I had finally let the guards return to normal duty last night. I figured that twenty-four hours give or take had been enough time to teach them that a Commander's business was just that.
Laguna Loire was due to arrive at Garden at eleven-hundred hours. Upon arrival, President Loire and his group would be taken on a tour of Garden by Xu, afterward we would all meet for brunch, and then we would get down to business. I had asked for Quistis' and Irvine's help with a little presentation for the President. Seifer was going to be escorted in handcuffed and under guard. It had been his idea. In preparation for his little role, he hadn't shaved since Wednesday, and had dug up some of his clothes that had what he called "character." It was entirely over-the-top in my opinion, but even Quisty had laughed at how he looked this morning. The hard part wasn't going to be convincing the President I was serious, but keeping a straight face when they all walked in.
I sat in the dining room with Quistis, Irvine, and Selphie. Everything had been laid out for the brunch. There were seven place settings, four for us, and three for Loire and his two aides. I felt the beginning twinge of a stress headache behind my eyes, and put my head down between my knees. Maybe I should have felt guilty about pulling Loire's strings, but I was more than a little pissed at the fact that he had manipulated us all. Maybe I wasn't all that close to Cid, maybe I didn't spend as much time with Matron as I should, but they were the closest things to parents we had. We were a dysfunctional family, to abuse the term, but a family nonetheless, and I wasn't about to let some guy who thought we were expendable tools get away with using us.
"Squall?" I heard Quistis' voice through the haze of my thoughts.
"Xu said they're on the way back."
I nodded and collected my thoughts, composing myself. The door opened and in walked the President, Kiros Seagill, and Ward Zybeck. I shook hands with the three of them, giving a polite but cordial greeting. I gave Selphie respect for keeping her composure. She was still as infatuated with him as she had been before this all started and it was a wonder she hadn't tackled him when he walked in the room. I nodded to Xu, who exited surreptitiously.
"I trust the trip was uneventful, Mr. President?" I asked.
"I really wish you'd just call me Laguna. All that formality makes me uncomfortable, you know. I'm sure you remember Kiros and Ward."
His demeanor was completely unassuming. His methods deserved study. My attitude generally made people reticent from the start, but his, it was designed to get you relaxed and unsuspecting. I may have been the more dangerous on a battlefield, but he was more dangerous across a table.
"Of course. You remember Selphie Tilmett, Quistis Trepe, and Irvine Kinneas."
Another short round of pleasantries ensued before I invited everyone to the table. Idle conversation ran rampant. I stayed mostly silent, studying Loire. He was completely at ease around a group of people close to half his age. A lot of people made the mistake of thinking Seifer my opposite, but in reality, a man like this was better suited to that description. I didn't eat much, the food distasteful in my present state of mind. Instead, I shuffled it around my plate, nibbling occasionally.
The momentum around the table slowed eventually, and I sensed it was time to convene in the Tactical Room. I stood up.
"If we are all ready, I'd like to move to somewhere a bit more private to discuss the matters at hand. Quistis, Irvine, if you would please take care of business and meet us there." I nearly missed Quisty's sly wink as she turned on her heel and left, Irvine dogging after her.
Selphie was playing the dutiful assistant to the hilt. She ran ahead and opened the doors. By the time we walked in she was already serving coffee up. I thanked her and took a seat on the far side of the table, facing the door. I assumed Loire and his aides would position themselves across from me, and wasn't disappointed. This put their backs to the door for the greatest surprise effect.
"If you don't mind waiting a moment gentlemen, I'd like to hold off until Quistis and Irvine return."
"No problem," said Loire.
I saw the door open and in they came. Quistis had Save the Queen strapped to her side and Irvine was shouldering Exeter. Between them was Seifer, looking like he'd seen better days. His face was shadowed with stubble, his shirt stained and threadbare, his pants worn out at the knees and frayed at the bottoms. I made a mental note that when this was done he was shaving and I was going to burn, cut up, or otherwise destroy those clothes. They were atrocious.
"I hope you don't mind, Sir, but I've decided to have the Sorceress' Knight present at this meeting, since it does concern him. Due to his unpredictable nature, I felt it necessary to include armed guards." I felt like a cat eyeing a mouse when Loire blanched and swallowed hard as his eyes met Seifer's. The expression on Seifer's face was pure dread. "Now then," I continued, my voice just a shade above deadpan, "you asked to come to Balamb to discuss this situation, so why don't you start?"
Immediately he began to fidget. Kiros shot him a glance that had 'get to the point' written all over it. He cleared his throat repeatedly and sipped at the coffee before speaking. "You are seriously considering convening a Tribunal for this, Commander?"
"I don't see why not, President Loire. The nature and extent of his crimes are well documented."
"I see." More fidgeting, another glance - this one from Ward. "Has anyone spoken with Mr. Almasy about his involvement with the Sorceress?"
"Sir, we're under no guarantee that anything he tells us is the truth. His reputation here at Garden was in serious jeopardy before the start of the incident, and quite frankly, the entire situation did nothing to endear Mr. Almasy to anyone." As much as I wanted to see Loire squirm, I was distinctly uncomfortable talking about Seifer like this. Even pretending was a bit more than I had been prepared to handle. Gratefully, Seifer was keeping his eyes down on the carpet.
"So, you know nothing then? I realize that Esthar hasn't really objected to this, but it was only because we trusted the impartial nature of Garden to be the voice of reason."
I stared him straight in the eye, giving my best look of total apathy to his plight. Let him think I didn't care.
"Laguna," prompted the light tenor of Kiros' voice, "I think it's time to be honest about this. It's gone far enough."
"Honest?” I affected my best tone of surprise. "What does he mean, Sir?"
"He means," said Laguna haltingly, "that you can in no way support a death sentence for Mr. Almasy. You see, he was, and technically still is, in the employ of Esthar."
I suppose our response was made all the greater by the fact that not one of us reacted to a word he said. For all we showed, he could have just made a comment on the weather.
"How am I supposed to believe that, President Loire? When I was made Commander of Garden, I assumed responsibility for all maneuvers and activities relating to the deployment of our forces. I was never informed by former Headmaster Kramer of such a thing."
"He never knew. It began when Esthar noticed that Edea Kramer had begun using her influence to amass power in Galbadia. Contrary to what you may know, I was quite aware of Ellone's whereabouts and we used her as a go-between with Garden. What Mr. Kramer knew was that someone needed the services of a person with the ability to go undercover. It had been Ellone who had suggested Seifer, knowing that if given incentive, he would be the proper person for such a thing. His maverick tendencies were well suited to independent work. Mr. Kramer tentatively approved, but when Seifer failed the exam under the direction of Esthar he decided to hold Seifer responsible for his actions instead. With the help of Ellone and Mr. Almasy's two associates, it was seen to that he escaped in time to rendezvous with the Sorceress Edea."
"While it hadn't been planned, that incident was enough to portray Mr. Almasy as a rogue operative, giving him an obvious excuse to want to combat a system he had felt wronged by. Add to it the promise of power and fame, and you have the making of a Sorceress' Knight. It had to be done. The last time anyone had experienced the rise of a Sorceress, it led to war. Adel was defeated by a little ingenuity and a lot of luck. She had been complacent, but Edea showed no such signs. We had to know what she was planning, and what we were up against, how best to formulate a strategy that wasn't based on blind chance and circumstance."
The intellect that Laguna Loire so obviously hid beneath the façade of inanity was amazing. Gone was the hesitancy, the stutters, the unassuming posture. Somehow, in the last two decades, he had changed from a man who had been brought along on little more than the wheel of fate to a man of decisive action.
"Yet you were more than willing to deceive everyone to accomplish your goals. You could have used Esthar's troops."
"As much as Esthar specializes in magical knowledge, combat isn't our specialty. Cid Kramer created Garden for the eventuality of another Sorceress uprising. He just didn't know what was happening until it was too late."
"So why not be honest with him, with us? Let me be candid, Sir. I was raised to be a killer. I have no vain notions about what I do, no romantic impressions. People hire SeeD to do what they can't stomach to accomplish on their own, and they use children who would otherwise be useless in this world to do it. We were born the world's throwaways, and despite our power, that is, to a large degree, all we will ever be. Disposable." I had never felt such ire in my life. I felt my normally reserved demeanor slipping away in a release of years of built-up self-doubt and second-guessing.
"You may have accomplished what you set out to do, but your lack of candor and underhanded methods may have unnecessarily placed a great many lives at risk. It is a testament to the strength of Mr. Almasy that he's not dead. I don't think you realize the deadly force or magical potency of a group of trained mercenaries armed with the magical equivalent of an elite brute squad. You forced sacrifices from a group of people that, had you been honest, might have made them willingly."
The tension in the room was palpable. I didn't dare break eye contact with Loire for fear of what I would see if I looked into the eyes of my friends. What I saw in his eyes, however, scared me. Laguna Loire looked broken and haunted. He looked as if he might collapse at the slightest provocation. Normally youthful in appearance, his face looked infinitely older in that instant. When he opened his mouth to speak, the voice that came out wasn't the voice of the man who had spoken a brief time ago, but the voice of a man haunted by regrets.
"I had already sacrificed my son. What else did I have to lose?"
I don't know why I hadn't ever recognized it. Give or take eye and hair color they were essentially carbon copies made twenty or so years apart. Squall was sitting across the table, hands resting on the polished wood surface. He looked perplexed, as if what he was hearing and what was being said were two different things.
"Pardon me?" he whispered.
"My son, I said. I gave up my son for this. Don't think I don't know about making sacrifices." There was a bitter, caustic edge to his speech. It just made him seem all the more like Squall's father.
"Are you telling me that, that... you? You're my...?"
"Father, biologically. I'm sorry but I never had much of a chance to be a father of any other kind."
Despite the chafing of my wrists in the too-tight handcuffs, I wouldn't want to trade places with Squall for anything right now. In a way I was a little pissed at Laguna Loire. There was no telling if something like this was going to throw Squall back into that damned shell I'd been prying at for years.
When Squall spoke again it was as if I could feel Shiva breathing down my neck. I looked up to see his eyes had become cold, glittering, diamonds. "You're worse than I thought. What kind of father does this to a child? Do you know I've got dozens of parents just like you clamoring to let their kids be a part of the great Balamb Garden? They don't care that we're going to train these little girls and boys to kill for the highest bidder. They just want to atone for their own shortcomings and failings by forcing their children into a path of potential glory. I'm sorry, President Loire, but I don't see how that's your sacrifice at all."
Squall stood up and I could tell he was going to leave. I couldn't believe this. The entire room was as silent, as if some sort of implosion had sucked all the air out. He walked for the door and all I could do was turn and watch it open as he walked out.
"Quistis," I snapped, "get me out of these fucking cuffs. Now."
She opened them and I shook my hands to get the circulation going. I only hoped that I'd be able to find Squall. I turned to face the President of Esthar, who suddenly looked very scared of what I might do. It took every bit of restraint I'd ever possessed to not kill him.
"All the shit we went through as kids, and you could have spared him that. You're a bastard." I turned and headed out of the room, looking to see if I could tell where Squall might have gone. I hoped he would head for his rooms. Otherwise I'd be searching Garden for a long time to come.
I made my way through the halls, the look on my face convincing anyone that even if I were unarmed, it would be entirely unwise to get in my path. I jogged to the living quarters and reached the door to the Senior Staff area. I hadn't thought far enough ahead to realize it would be locked and I didn't have the code. The area was deserted because of the time of day. I pounded on the door, calling out for Squall. A hand touched my shoulder, startling me.
"Try this." The door opened.
"Don't mention it. I just hope he's in there. You know, I didn't ask him that day in his office... because I already knew. His code should be oh-four-two-one-seven-six. If he's not there, we'll help you find him."
On impulse I pulled her close in a hug. She blushed a little and stared at her feet.
"Go on," she prompted.
I raced down the hall and entered the code at his door. The lights were out but I could hear something in the bedroom.
"Squall?" I called out softly as I headed through the room.
I stood in the doorway to the bedroom, not believing my eyes. He was in the corner, crouching with his back against the wall, his hands over his head. He was crying but the sound was more than that. He was breaking. The impact of that sound was so intense it nearly took my breath away. I knelt beside him, reaching out to pull him close to me. He latched his arms around me and buried his head in my chest. I silently cursed the existence of Laguna Loire and swore that once he left Garden, if I ever saw him again, he'd be a dead man. I stroked Squall's hair and back, murmuring senseless words of comfort in the dark.
Squall was trying to talk, but it was unintelligible. I took my shirt off and handed it to him, then wrapped my arms around him again. He wiped his face and blew his nose loudly, setting the shirt on the ground. That was one piece of clothing I was never wearing again.
"Can't believe it," he said. "'S'worse than finding out you have a... a father. Learning h-he's a total bastard."
"No, that's not your father. He didn't raise you, didn't give a damn about what he was putting you through. He used you, used me, used all of us. All our lives, we've been puppets and we never realized we were dancing on the strings."
"What's worse is I know why, why he did it. I know why he did it because I've done it too. I can't hate him when I know exactly why he did it."
"You don't have to hate him, but I can't say the same. You aren't like him, Squall. You just aren't."
"I am. I've treated people with the same detachment."
"Maybe you don't get very close to people, but you're honest about it. I've never known you to lie, ever. Squall, he acts unassuming and friendly, gains someone's trust. You've never been anything other than what you are. You aren't like him."
"You think so?"
"I know so." I kissed him gently and felt him lean into me, seeking comfort in physical contact. His hands roamed my back, his body language urging me to take it further. I broke the kiss and cradled him, resting his head in the crook of my neck. "Not right now. Just let me be here for you. Let me comfort you."
I stood up, picking him up with me, and moved to the bed. I set him down and lay down beside him on my back, pulling him over to lay half on top of me. I wrapped my arms around him and felt him relax. Eventually I could hear his breathing slow to the steady rhythm of sleep. I disentangled myself and quietly got up. I walked to the study, hoping to reach Quistis. After a few minutes I heard the soft noise of a connection being made.
"Yes?" her voice was clear.
"It's me. How many people are with you?"
"Selphie and Irvine. President Loire and his aides have been moved to another area."
"How is he?"
"Asleep, finally. I'm worried. This did a number on him. I've never seen him this way in my life."
"Selphie says it was interesting after you left. I was out the door not long after you were, so I missed the reaction."
"I'll bet. He's lucky I didn't stay."
"I think he knows that. I just can't believe that he'd do this to his own son."
"Squall's got more sympathy for him than I do. The way Squall sees it; he can't or maybe won't allow himself to hate Loire. I on the other hand... Quisty, can you get him out of Garden?"
"Who? The President?"
"Yes. You know I can't do anything short of chase him out with a gunblade."
"I'll see what I can do. I don't know which would be better for Squall, though. If Loire leaves Squall won't have the opportunity to work it out."
"Which would put Squall in the position of seeking him out if he ever wanted to resolve anything. You're right. We'll just hold tight and see what Squall wants to do when he wakes up. Listen, I'm going to go lay back down with him. I don't want him waking up and finding me gone." I could hear a voice in the background saying 'I knew it!' "Tell Selphie that just because she's right this isn't the time to gloat, and that if she mentions knowing anything about that before Squall opens his mouth, I'll cast Silence with a roll of duct tape."
"She wants you to know that she's offended that you'd think she'd do that."
"I'm sure she is. Listen, I'll talk to you guys soon, unless Squall's up for it tomorrow."
"Understood. Get some rest."
"You guys too."
I cut the connection and made my way back into the bedroom. I peeled out of the ratty pants I'd been wearing and down to my boxers. I tried to remove Squall's clothes, but he stirred when I tried to take off his shirt. I settled for getting off his shoes, pants, and socks. Turning down half the bed, I rolled him over and covered him up, sliding in the other side and pressing my body against his. Unconsciously he pressed closer, and I wrapped my arms around him. I fell asleep listening to the steady sounds of his breathing.
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