*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*
By Yuri Nigasa
"This is it," I said. "It's got to be." We stood outside the Command Center, leaning against the wall.
Squall looked dubious. "You realize that finding that particular area would require bringing Uzuki in? I don't know if that's the wisest choice."
"So we leave out some relevant details. He's a harmless archaeologist. It's not like we've got to go totally in depth with him. We can tell him we're looking for a Guardian Force, which is true. We don't have to tell him why." I put my hand up to the chipping paint and began peeling pieces away.
"I don't like leaving the area unprotected. We've also got Alisa Case to deal with. Given what happened last time, what's to say that they won't make a raid to get her back?" He frowned slightly.
"Simple. Transport her to Galbadia Garden. Or better, Balamb. Galbadia wasn't in great shape last time I saw it. What if we evacuate the town?" I shrugged.
"A bit extreme. The evacuation that is. Once we do that, we've admitted that there's something we can't handle. That will undoubtedly incite panic." He folded his hands across his chest and blew a wayward strand of hair from his eyes. It promptly fell back down.
"And panic is worse than dead citizens how?" I reached out and tucked the strand behind his ear.
"I'd rather avoid both. Of course I don't want to lose any of our people, either." He rolled his eyes at me, his expression amused at my gesture.
"Once we go away the problem probably will. After all, it was Alisa who brought it to our attention. Something tells me the entire thing was a setup to get us all here. Only maybe things haven't gone the way they were supposed to, I don't think. Which reminds me, are you going to attempt to contact Elle?" I felt like kicking myself for bringing it up, but it had been nagging at my mind for a while.
"I'd rather wait until we get some answers, head to Centra first maybe."
"So, who's going to tell Uzuki he's leading an expedition to Centra?" I said, smiling.
"Quistis is doing a remarkable job of handling him. Let her break the news."
Arrangements were made with Balamb to transport Alisa Case. Terpischore would be accompanying her on the trip, which would be made via private rail. Balamb would send out a hydrotransport with another eighteen active SeeD to Galbadia and the boat would simply take the two women back. The doctor seemed to think that Alisa would be acclimated enough for travel within a week. That gave us less than seven days to prepare to head to Centra for what could prove to be a fairly difficult operation.
Uzuki had been brought up to speed on the most basic aspects of the operation, and was now technically in the employ of Garden in an advisory capacity. He was preparing lists of what we would need to have available if we were going to do any heavy excavation work. I made sure that Balamb would have the Ragnarok prepped and ready for use. One useful toy we'd forgotten to return to the rightful Estharian owners. Then again, I suppose I could claim salvage rights. I'd like to see them try and get it back. It would be a short but amusing attempt.
As I closed the com link, I smiled to myself. There had been one more small matter that I had taken care of while I'd had the ear of the Council's leader. I sat down to write out a tentative plan for the next week. I would leave Seifer and Elijah with Uzuki. Anyone else would have gotten in the way, and they had the most experience working with him. I wanted Zell to handle the roster for the incoming SeeD deployment. If the Council had their way I'd be Balamb's new Headmaster within the next six months. Zell needed to learn the ropes fast if he was going to take my place. By the time I told him he was going to be Commander, he should be ready for it. Quistis could replace Terpischore as the active medical tech. Irvine and Selphie would be acting as Squad Leaders for the duration of the week, replacing the three fallen members.
I glanced at my watch when my stomach gave a disgusting rumble. Twenty-one hundred hours. That might explain the hunger pangs. I had forgotten lunch in all the chaos. I paged Seifer and told him to meet me in the hotel's dining area. He said to give him another ten minutes and he'd join me. I didn't know if my body would last that long, or start to devour itself before then. He just laughed when I told him.
I took a table in the far corner with a good view of the double glass doors in front. I ordered our food so it would be ready by the time he arrived. Right on schedule, I saw him. I watched him jog across the street and up to the door. Pulling on the handle, he made his way inside and over to the table I had gotten in the corner. I looked up and he leaned over for a quick kiss before sitting down and taking a menu off the rack.
"I'm starving," he said, "We've been compiling lists for the past couple of hours and it's getting monotonous."
"Somehow I don't think monotony's going to be a problem this week. We don't have a lot of time on our hands."
"I know. I'm just glad that it feels like we're finally getting a break on this. I think I realize how you guys must have felt when everything just fell into place for you. It's freaky."
Our food arrived and we began to dig in voraciously.
"At least last time there was a reason. This time it's just inexplicable coincidence. I don't like it."
"Well it's not inexplicable, it's just not very rational."
"Exactly what worries me. But, enough about that. I want a nice, peaceful dinner." I couldn't help but smirk as my thoughts went to that first dinner we had shared. It seemed like it had been months ago, so much had happened since then.
"What's going on in there?" Seifer asked.
I stared at him, really looking at him for the first time that day. It never failed to strike me how handsome he was, but it was so much more than that. I felt this warm flutter in my chest, not as scary as it had been that first time, but still as strong as ever. "Thoughts," I said.
He chuckled. "Aren't there always?"
I nodded. It seemed my mind rarely quit its chatter. As we finished up our meal and I leaned forward, elbows on the table. "I have something you need to know," I began.
A brief look of worry flickered across Seifer's face. "What is it?"
"Well, I didn't know how you'd take it, so I wanted to discuss it in private with you first."
Now, he definitely looked concerned. He raised a questioning eyebrow.
I put my hand in my pocket, feeling for the small envelope I had put there. I pulled it out and slid it across the table to him. "Open it," I prompted.
He pulled back the fastener and opened the flap. Holding out a hand, he upended the envelope. Two small chevrons fell out, glittering gold against his palm. He looked up at me, eyes wide. "Are you serious?"
"Given exemplary performance during extenuating circumstances, I've been authorized to give you a field promotion, from Cadet to SeeD, starting rank five," I smiled.
"Wow. Really? Wow." He stared down at the pins.
I was more pleased than I thought I would have been. I honestly hadn't had a desire to make SeeD but to look down in my hand and see those tiny emblems was a little intimidating. Squall reached over and took one from my hand, pulling the back off it. He stood up a little and reached for my shirt collar, pressing the pin through the fabric before attaching the back. It was almost like I could feel it go straight through me, not just my shirt. Taking the other pin, he did the same thing to the other side of my collar.
He sat back and smiled at me. I could tell this really made him happy. "Welcome to SeeD, Mr. Almasy," he said.
"Thank you, Commander," I replied.
"Would you like your first official order as a member of SeeD?" he asked, lowering his eyes and smiling at me coyly.
I gazed at him, losing myself in the smoky blue depths of his eyes. He made no effort to disguise the smoldering look of pure lust in them. "I take orders well," I purred.
"Well then," he lowered his voice to a near whisper, "Why don't you accompany your Commander to bed?"
"With pleasure," I said, standing.
I followed him out of the dining area and up the stairs, with little doubt in my mind as to the kinds of orders I'd be taking tonight.
I guess being SeeD does have its privileges, after all.
I stood at the window in the passenger bay, watching the scenery go by in nondescript shades of blue, green, and brown. The week had gone off without a hitch. The previous evening the additional SeeD contingent had come in and following their arrival, we had seen off the field med tech Terpischore and Alisa Case. I felt a little more secure knowing that Alisa was headed for Balamb. No attempt had been made to extract the details of her experience while she had been missing, mainly due to fear of inciting post-traumatic stress. I felt someone behind me and put a hand out to gesture them to come closer.
"Squall, I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" asked Quistis.
I shook my head. "No."
"Good. I wanted to let you know that they finished the manuscript scans. Elijah thinks it will be possible to cover the rest tonight, if we want to."
"Sounds good. We can use the bridge upstairs, since it requires clearance for access."
She nodded. "I'll see that word gets around. We've still got another five hours of flight time."
"We'll stay onboard this evening. I don't want to set up in the dead of night, plus I'd like to hear the rest of that manuscript beforehand. There may be some additional information we could use."
She nodded again and walked out, the door sliding behind her with a barely audible swish.
Later that evening we sat up in the bridge, crowding the seven of us into a space intended for just slightly more than half that. Elijah had loaded up the text and once again we sat, wedged into various places, like children for story time.
"Let's see," he said, scrolling through various pages. "I think this is where we stopped last time. Ahh, yes."
"Come on," said Selphie pleadingly. "Tell, tell!"
"Okay, here goes. Last thing I read was 'It was in this one that the world placed their hopes.' Rising to aid this child of man, all but one of the Guardians submitted to Her and forsook flesh for mind, joining themselves to Her, binding the power of the ageless to her will. Clad in the protection of the Ancients, into the domain of Immamiel She walked."
"Shaeos brought his powers of Destruction to bear. He shook the very Earth where She stood, but the Wings of Wind lifted her above the destruction. Angered at this, he drew the stars from the heavens, heaving them at Her with a force that destroyed mountains. Summoning the Guardian of Rest, Shaeos was lulled into slumber. In his weakness, She withdrew the power of the Meteor, driving Shaeos into the very core of the Earth where he was trapped within."
"Thus destroying Shaeos, Myr turned his fury on Her. The fires of War were at his command, and it was he who cast Her into the heart of battle. He summoned legions to his side, the flaming minions who sought to burn the flesh from her body. Cloaking herself in the power of the Frigid One and Summoning the Power of the Guardian of the Water, she flooded the land and they could not burn her. Devoid of the flames of their power, they were helpless before the onslaught of the flood, and were washed away. Then, drawing the power of the Flare from Myr, she immolated him with his own essence."
"Thus destroying Myr, She walked without fear into the path of Necheta. Thriving on hatred, Necheta's was the power of the Shadow. Powerless to aid against that which They could not sense, She was tormented by the very form of the insubstantial. Alone and despondent, She began to weaken. For days it went thus, and it was feared that all was lost. Then, reaching within Herself and finding untapped strength, She withdrew the pure power of the Holy Light, and with Her own untainted force burned away the shadow, leaving Necheta to cower in terror for eternity."
"Thus destroying Necheta, She was beckoned into the presence of Thanateros, who held at his command the very power of death. Across the void they regarded one another, the towering form of the Harbinger of Death and the seemingly insignificant mortal woman. Unlike the others, Thanateros was patient, and willing to wait, knowing that in time, all living things would fall into his jurisdiction. He was immortal, and She, of living flesh, must fall to him one day. She could not wait, knowing that with each passing moment the powers of Immamiel grew greater, and his influence permeated the world, tainting it. Summoning the Guardian of Life, She granted Thanateros mortality and withdrew from him the power of Death, taking from him the life that had been sustained with the lives of countless others."
"Thus destroying Thanateros, and bringing to end the reign of the Harbingers, She at last faced Immamiel himself. But Immamiel had long since taken the abilities of the Harbingers as his own, and was strong with the tainted essence. He had within him the power to breech the very Gates between worlds. Poised at the portal were his minions, and through Immamiel they brought the destruction, war, hatred, and death once wielded by the defeated Harbingers."
"There was no power She had that could bring him to defeat. Desperate to save Her people at all costs, and with the Wisdom of the Guardians, a reckless idea was brought to fruition. They would Sacrifice themselves, and with Their power, Sunder the very barriers between the realm of man and the realm of the unknown, drawing Immamiel and his minions back through the Gate. Into the unknown She crossed, and taking within Herself the Ultimate power, She Sundered the very time and space of existence, cleaving land and sky that had been tainted by Immamiel's power. The Gate was obliterated."
"The land tainted by Immamiel and his minions was annihilated and flooded with the Tears of the Earth. The power of the Guardians was split, and They were condemned, no longer able to walk the Earth as free beings, but subservient to the will of another. Hyne Herself gave up corporeal form, and a portion of Her power fled, finding refuge in the bodies of others, as if no one body could again contain it."
"It was done. Immamiel was banished, the very land where he once tread now empty. The Sacrifice of Hyne and the Guardians a priceless gift given without thought for the loss of their own existence. Even now, none know what became of Her for Her Sacrifice. None know of Immamiel, save that he is gone. It is at the prompting of the sole remaining Guardian who calls himself the Kursed One, believing that he should have suffered their fate, that I record these events that have transpired before he lays down his body and power to slumber within the Earth. Thus shall he remain, under the Eye of the Sentinel. I am the devoted servant of Hyne, called Oracle, that I may tell of that which none other knows. Thus ends the Book of the Sundering."
I sat, silent, as did everyone else.
So, finally, the Kursed Guardian, but for what? Not one single hint as to what his power was or how it could possibly help us with whatever the hell it is we're supposed to do. I made a mental note that the next time I got myself in over my head like this, I should at least know what I was getting in over my head about. At least I knew what the Sundering was now. I frowned, not liking the conclusions my mind was drawing. Squall glanced over and noticed my scowl.
"What is it, Seifer?" he asked.
I waved a hand, dismissing my thoughts as irrelevant. I was hardly an expert on what was going on. Squall just turned his gaze on me, silently demanding that I say what was on my mind, regardless. I sighed, then inhaled deeply, and spoke. "Gates, portals, Sundering... what if whatever was used to banish Immamiel is deteriorating? What if this heinous thing is on the verge of breaking or has found a way to force open this Gate thing that's mentioned in the manuscript?" I felt a chill run up my spine and I shuddered involuntarily.
"Well, I don't know, but it seems right now that we're not dealing with something on that scale. I mean we've got those incursions up in Catania, and what else? Nothing," said Irvine.
"That we know about," chimed in Quistis. "What if there are things going on that haven't been brought to the attention of SeeD?"
"Don't know." Irvine shrugged. "Doesn't seem likely though."
"Why?" asked Quistis.
"Can't really say exactly why, just that there'd be some towns with an awfully high body count, and something would have to show up somewhere." Irvine folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the wall.
"If there is something at work behind these attacks, and they're related to this whole bizarre Knight, Oracle, Catalyst thing, why didn't anything similar happen near Balamb?" Quistis pressed.
"Maybe Catania was bait, darling. Maybe the force behind these attacks planned to get us all there," Irvine replied.
"It seems to me that if they wanted us there, they would have done something once we got there." Quistis frowned.
"Seems to me like we got a real powerful message while we were there. It told me that we couldn't do shit to protect against whatever was going to happen, no matter what." Irvine frowned a little.
"Or maybe that was just designed to intimidate us, to make us think that way." Quistis was really having at the devil's advocate role.
"Either way, it worked, wouldn't you say? Three dead team members, one very traumatized lady, and we're flying off to Centra on what could be a wild goose chase." He pushed the brim of his hat back a little, gazing across the bridge at Quisty.
"Okay, enough you two," said Squall. "I think we need to give it a rest for this evening. Get some rest and look at it with fresh eyes tomorrow morning. It's late and we're all on edge."
Everyone was feeling the stress as we filed off the bridge. I felt a heaviness settle across my shoulders, stooping my normally self-assured gait. I was off in my own little world when I felt Squall's hand slip into mine as we walked down to one of the bunkrooms. I squeezed his hand gently, drawing unbelievable assurance from that one small gesture. It wasn't until much later that I fell into a fitful sleep, arms wrapped around Squall's sleeping form, my mind full of questions and worries.
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