*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*

Stealth

Chapter XIV

By Yuri Nigasa

[Squall

I rolled out of bed the next morning like a recalcitrant seven year old.  And like most seven year olds, it was for no good reason.  Seifer caught my glare, reached out his arms, and pulled me back into him, nuzzling his lips against my neck.  I didn't quit scowling.  I wasn't going to let him ruin my perfectly bad mood.

"Ahh, come on," he chided.

I rolled my eyes, determined to glower at everything.  I was lucky he knew me well enough to know it was just one of those days.  He didn't get upset, didn't try to pry me out of it like some people had.  Just placed a quick kiss on my cheek and sat up.

"I've got a lot to do today before Doctor Uzuki comes in," he said.  "Do you think those tests will be back?"

I nodded, standing and grabbing a clean shirt from the closet.  I spared a quick glance in the mirror and sighed.  I'd cut my hair if I had any idea what to do with it.  Why was I worrying about something so trivial in light of all that was going on?  I hated this feeling.  I didn't even have the luxury of being surprised, of being thrown headfirst into it like I had the last time.  This time I was being tormented by slow uncertainty.  I wondered if those memories I had suppressed were gone forever, or just compressed back into the far depths of my subconscious.

"I won't object if you go out like that, but I don't think it will be very popular with anyone else," Seifer's voice startled me and I looked down.  Shirt, pendant, boxers, boots, oh...  I reached into the closet for a pair of pants.  I growled softly.  I had too damned much on my mind.

[Seifer]

It was cute, seeing him standing there completely vacant-eyed and pantless.  I knew I had two options.  Either he'd kill me for pointing it out, or kill me for failing to.  Still, it took all my effort not to laugh.  He never would have forgiven me for it.

I slipped on my jeans and then reached for my black zip-up vest.  I zipped it a little more than halfway, showing what I thought was an impressive amount of what I thought were very sculptured pecs.  I pulled on my shoes and socks and headed downstairs, trusting that Squall would make it down intact now.  I ran into Selphie and Irvine as they were finishing up breakfast.  Nodding, I headed outside and made my way to the Command Center.  Damned if Quistis hadn't beat me there.  She was already at the computer, leaning over to closely examine some of the images Uzuki had sent.

"Find anything?" I asked, startling her.

Quistis put a hand to her chest and exhaled slowly.  She turned in mock anger.  "Do not do that again!"

"Heh, admit it, you're awake now."

"Yes, but how many years did a shock like that take off my life?"  She raised an eyebrow questioningly.

I laughed and sat down beside her.  "So, did you find anything?"

"A couple things that look like they might be of interest.  Let me pull them up."  She accessed a separate file folder and displayed the contents.

"These are examples of the text Uzuki found."  She displayed a picture of a badly frayed manuscript.  "This thing that almost looks like a flowing, curling design is actually the Centran language."

It was fairly ornate looking script. If I had drawn leaves on it, it would have made a lovely vine.

"The fact that it's like that is one of the greatest problems they're facing when it comes to deciphering the texts.  Syntax, word order, even phonetic sounds are impossible to determine."

"Then how do they even know it's actually the language?  Maybe they had a thing for designs?"

"Because portions are repetitive.  It's something that's common to written language.  Certain patterns emerge over time.  Like finding the word 'the' in a manuscript.  It's too consistent to be random."

I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and swiveled around in the chair, expecting to see one of the others poking into the room to see what was up.  To my surprise I saw Elijah.

"Hey," I called.  "They let you out this early?"

"Finally.  I can't take that again.  Just though I'd stop by and see what you were up to before I get my assignment."

He peered over my shoulder at the image file.  "What is this?" he asked.  "Some sort of storybook?"

"What gave you an idea like that?" I said.

"Well," he pointed to the curled text, "That says that it's the tale of the Sundering."

I had no doubts the look on Quistis' face was echoed on my own.

"You can read that?" she asked pointedly.

"Looks perfectly normal to me," he replied.

"What else does it say?" I demanded.

"Time of Great Calamity...  I can't make out the next portion.  Guardians of mankind sacrificed... more I can't read.  Left behind a gift... legacy?  That's all I can make out from the picture."

"Where did you learn to read this?" demanded Quistis.

"You can't read it?" he asked, perplexed.

"Elijah," I interrupted.  "That text is Centran.  Nobody's read it for over seven hundred years."

He began to look a little shaken, so I pushed a chair in his direction.  He sat down with an audible flop

"Well, looks like we're on the right track," I said to Quistis.  "Can we reach Doctor Uzuki before he leaves Trabia?"

Quistis looked down at her watch.  "No, too late.  He's already left."

I cursed quietly.  I hoped he would bring that manuscript.

Elijah looked over at me with a peculiar expression on his face.  "Seifer?  Do you mind telling me what all this is about?"

[Squall]

I had gotten a shock from Seifer not too much after I'd left the room to scrounge breakfast.  It seemed the sole survivor of the attack, Elijah - I corrected myself - had come back with a little something extra from the other side.

I had called everyone together to speak about this latest wrinkle.  Alisa Case disappears with no real trace and Eckner nearly dies but comes back sporting some new mental toys.

"I think he deserves to know what's going on," Seifer said.

Of course Seifer would think that.  I can't fault him for liking the guy, even if Eckner liked to be a tad too close in terms of personal space to Seifer, setting off that little twinge that I suppressed for Seifer's sake.

"The guy's reading Centran like it's last week's Balamb Herald.  We can't quantify what kinds of things he may have running around in his head.  That makes him a natural security risk," Zell said.

"If what he told Seifer is right, then it's not his fault this happened.  It seems to correlate with the appearance of the apparition that calls itself Hyne."  Selphie leaned against the table, glancing down at me. 

Quistis weighed in with her opinion.  "Whatever we decide, we need to have a plan before Uzuki arrives.  Eckner could prove to be unbelievably valuable in our search for answers.  Given our options, I say we use what we've been given."

"Yes, but we don't know if we can trust 'Hyne', or Eckner, or Uzuki," Said Irvine.

Seems like everything eventually comes down to trust these days.  I pressed my lips together in a thin line.  Talk about being stretched outside your comfort zone.  If I stretched anymore they could throw me over a gourd and use me for a tom-tom.

I sighed heavily and looked around the table.  This was going nowhere fast.

[Seifer]

I stood at the train platform and waited, tapping my foot impatiently against the weathered wood.  After a moment a very unassuming Citan Uzuki stepped off the train.  He adjusted his small gold spectacles and turned to face me.  He put his hand out and I grasped it firmly.  Constantly used to gazing down at people, I was amazed that he was my height, if not quite as built. 

"Doctor," I said, "I hope the trip went well?"

"Oh, yes, it did, thank you for enquiring.  I must say, this is all highly unusual, being brought to Galbadia,Ē he tilted his head to the side and gave a little shrug. 

You have no idea, I wanted to say.  "I'm sure it will all be quite clear soon, Doctor.  We made arrangements for your belongings to be transported to the hotel, if that's alright?"  I asked.

"Certainly," he said, nodding.

"We'll be heading to the Command Center once you have a chance to settle in.  If there's anything that can go there, please feel free to let someone know and we'll make sure it gets there."

"Yes, I did bring some things that should prove useful."

"You didn't happen to bring the manuscript that you sent some images of in the file, did you?"

He nodded, "It was the last thing I packed, actually."

"Excellent, I'm looking forward to seeing it in greater detail."  Or rather in finding out what exactly this 'Sundering' is.

I left Doctor Uzuki at the hotel and went to join Squall and the others.  I opened the door a bit too swiftly and it rebounded from the wall with a loud smack.  "Sorry," I said, walking into the room.  "So, any closer to a decision?  He did arrive as scheduled, so now would be a good time to figure something out."

Squall looked up at me.  "For the present time we're going to keep Uzuki unaware of Eckner.  Did you find out if he brought the book?"

"He brought it, damned lucky for us.  We need some good breaks," I said.

"Excellent," said Quistis.  "Now all we need to do is to get Eckner access to it."

"You do realize that's going to involve him in this?" I asked.  The guy didn't deserve this; he was a nice guy.  The rest of us, sure, no problem.  We could risk our necks in this, fine, but I hated bringing in anyone else.

"Can't be helped," Squall said.

Quistis frowned slightly.  "From what you've told us, he doesn't seem to have the option of being uninvolved."

It was decided, then.  "I want to be the one to tell him.  He deserves that much."

Squall nodded.  I headed out of the room to speak with Elijah.  I found him sitting in a chair, feet propped up on a nearby desk, the end of his braid flipped over one shoulder.  He looked rather unsurprised to see me.  "Hey," I said sheepishly.

"So, you finally get clearance to be honest with me?" he asked, in good humor.

I rubbed one hand through my hair, to my neck, and exhaled sharply.  "Yes.  Not that it's going to be easy to hear or explain."  I pulled up a chair and sat down beside him, fidgeting with the hem of my shirt.  How best to tell the guy that all hope for a normal life any time soon are down to about nil?  So I opened my mouth and out came the bulk of the scenario, what he was experiencing, how I had been dealing with things, how there had been others, including the now-missing Alisa Case.

"You mean, when I heard things, you were talking to Hyne?"

I nodded.  "At least I think that's who it is.  I can't say for sure.  I can't and won't force you to help out.  I think that she's given you a gift, though.  For some reason when you were close to death, she was able to reach out and affect you, at least that's what I think."

"Hey, this is probably my chance to make up for my mistakes.  I don't know.  How can anyone be presented with something like this and walk away from it?  If you did you'd probably be second-guessing it your entire life.  I'll do what I can."

"Not that it needs to be said but you know this doesn't go out of this room, right?" I asked.

Elijah laughed, tossing his head back.  "The only person I'd tell already knows."

I shrugged and smiled in his direction.  "Well, shall we?  I have a feeling this is going to prove interesting."

[Squall]

I heard them laughing as they came out of the room.  That was a good sign.  Doctor Uzukiís things had arrived and we had begun setting them up in a corner of the room.  It wasn't great, but it would have to do.  Beggars, choosers, and all that.

Seifer walked over to me, Elijah trailing behind.  "I'd like you to meet my assistant, Mister Eckner," he said with a grin.

"Excellent work, Mister Almasy.  Mister Eckner, I look forward to your invaluable assistance."  Eckner practically beamed under the words of praise.

"This is defiantly going to be the most unique experience of my life, Sir," he said.

"Hey, why don't you head over and help them with Uzukiís stuff," Seifer suggested.  "That way you'll be more familiar with anything.  If you see anything useful you can give us an advance heads-up."

"Sure thing," Eckner agreed and headed over to where they were unpacking the research materials.

I looked at Seifer.  "He took that well."

"Better than others," he retorted, winking at me.

I rolled my eyes.  "I'm just hoping we're finally going to get a break on this."

"It's about time to be due one," he said.

I looked him over, letting my gaze linger.  He noticed and smiled a little, his green eyes shining with something I couldn't identify.  Whatever it was, it made me blush a little.  He leaned closer to me, arms folded across his chest.  "It's a shame," he whispered, "having to be responsible all the time."

I groaned internally.  Why he had to be so desirable at that moment... the desperation of our situation just made me want him all the more.  Things were changing so rapidly from instant to instant, he had become my one constant, the one thing I depended on for stability.  It was a dangerous feeling for me.  Being so wrapped up in him made me feel so vulnerable, which only made me want to bury my face in his neck and wrap my arms around him and feel his arms around me, which only perpetuated the feeling of vulnerability.  Talk about a vicious circle.

Fate chose that moment to send Doctor Uzuki through the door, distracting us both.

"Doctor," Seifer called.  "Over here."

Uzuki made his way to us.  I noticed he was tall, like Seifer.  He was dressed a bit oddly, but then again, compared to the outfits I'd seen on a variety of Sorceress... it actually wasn't that bad.  It was on the archaic side, much like Alisa's had been.  That parallel sent a pang through my chest.  We were still awaiting the results of the tests.  Somehow I already knew in my gut they were only going to confirm what I already suspected.

"Doctor Uzuki, may I present Commander Squall Leonhart of Balamb Garden."

"Doctor." I nodded cordially.  "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.  I've heard nothing but good things about you from Mister Almasy.  I hope you will be able to shed some light on the puzzle we're dealing with here."

"I'll endeavor to do my best, Commander Leonhart.  I must say it is an honor to make your acquaintance.  Then again, I'm sure you're quite used to such sentiment," he said politely.

If I had been the chuckling type, I would have done so to fulfill expectations at that moment.  Thank goodness I'm not.  Instead I just nodded 'yes.'  "We've endeavored to set your things up over here," I said, leading him to the far corner where Eckner and a couple other members were still unloading items.  "This is Mister Eckner, Doctor Uzuki.  He'll be assisting Mister Almasy while you work together."  Eckner extended his hand and Uzuki took it, shaking warmly.  "If you will excuse me, I will leave you in their capable hands, Doctor.  I've got some other things that need my attention."

[Seifer]

I resisted the urge to watch Squall walk away.  The suggestive curve of his ass was just too much for me to stare at and remain a sane man for long.  I noticed Elijah glancing my way with an amused look on his face.  Oh well.  So much for maintaining a professional facade.  I shrugged and gave him a look of mock helplessness.  Doctor Uzuki hadn't noticed, or at least seemed not to.  I was eager to start working on this, wanting further confirmation on what I already knew.

"So, Seifer, may I call you that?  You can call me Citan.  I hate formality."

"Certainly."  I cringed a little.  Maybe all that interaction with Laguna Loire's dishonesty had made me naturally suspicious of unassuming people.

"I'm horribly curious as to why a project in Galbadia needs a, well to be frank, an expert on Centra whose theories haven't exactly garnered the praises of the intelligentsia."

"We were here doing some research in the area of Guardian Forces."  Not entirely a lie.  We were here and well now we were researching Guardian Forces.  "And we think we may have found evidence that indicates that there may have been something akin to that in the mythology of other cultures.  Centra is a prime place to start searching for such untapped resources.  We'd just like to get some more information before we attempt to head to Centra."  I glanced over and noticed Elijah taking in various artifacts voraciously.  He was going to have some good information to share, I could tell.

"Ahh, yes.  Most of what we know is conjecture from various pieces of recovered Centran artwork.  As I'm sure you saw, the script is indecipherable.  There is nothing like it in use anywhere in the world.  Nothing even seems derivative of it.  That's partially why I feel that the civilization is so much older than current thought ascribes.  If Centra's destruction had occurred a mere seven hundred years prior, there would doubtless be record of their interaction with other known civilizations, who were able to record the occurrence of the Lunar Cry but who make no mention of the destruction of a formidably advanced people like the Centra."

He continued.  "Since you've mentioned an interest in Guardian Forces, I'm sure you'd like to take a further look at the manuscript I brought.  There are some rather interesting illustrations in it, in that highly stylized way they had.  We believe there are images of Shiva, Diablos, and Leviathan in it.  There are some others, but those are what I can remember offhand."

"If that's true," I interrupted, seeing an excellent opening, "Would it be possible for us to make high-resolution scans of the actual manuscript?  I promise we'll exercise the utmost care in doing so."

"Certainly.  I'm just glad that I might be useful.  Proving my theories would just be an added bonus."  He began to rummage around in a crate, and withdrew a carefully sealed box with an encoded lock.  "Ahh, here it is," he said.  It was much larger than I would have expected such a thing to be.  He opened the box and carefully withdrew the manuscript.  It was on some substance that looked like paper, but with the resiliency of a far heavier material.  The colors and script had been somewhat aged by time and elements, but not overly so.  I edged closer to peer at the pages as he turned the thick cover over to reveal more of the ornate script work and decorations so entwined that in areas it was difficult to tell script from illustration.

As if drawn by an invisible wire, I leaned forward, taking in every detail.  Behind me I heard a small gasp from Elijah.  I hoped Uzuki took it as a gasp of Elijah's impression with the artifact, not, as I suspected, impression by what he was most likely reading.

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