*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*
By Yuri Nigasa
I caught Squall staring at me. That was a first. Normally he was the early riser, gone from bed most mornings when I was still trying to drag myself out. I opened my eyes and found myself staring into that steady, calming, blue gaze. I wrapped my arms around him and he put his head under my chin. I could feel his warm breath against my neck, as his hand lay flat against my chest.
"So what's this all about?" I asked gently.
He grunted in reply, as if insulted I asked. As well as I could read him and he still got me with stuff like this. I sighed and rolled over onto my back, bringing him with me. His legs tangled in mine as his body pressed against me. I could feel the shallow rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Running my hand up and down his back, feeling the smoothness of his skin, I felt tranquility unlike any I had known. Perfection? Quite possibly. Or as close to it as I had ever had the luxury of being.
We lay like that for a while, not speaking, just in this little world outside all the chaos and turmoil we seemed to thrive in. Things hadn't been easy and they were only going to get worse, so I forced myself to stay in the moment. I wanted to know that no matter what I faced, that I had been a part of this instant in time, just Squall and myself.
Squall put his arms to the side and pushed himself up to look down at me. I could see the barest hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Leaning down, he kissed me gently before rolling off me. Reaching out, I grabbed him around the waist and pulled him back against me, refusing to let him go. For once he didn't fight it, didn't talk about everything he had to do, why he couldn't stay in bed, or any of the other excuses I'd heard from him when things got too close between us. He just settled back against me, resigned. I pressed my lips to the back of his neck, feeling stray locks of hair tickling my nose. Why did I need him so much? I relinquished my hold on him and he sat up. I stared at the straight line of his back as he went through who knew what kind of internal monologue. I couldn't always read what he was thinking, but I could always tell if he was. There was just this sort of vibe he gave off in those silences. Sometimes he'd tell me afterwards what he'd been thinking, other times, most other times, it was a mystery.
"We've been holding for the past six hours," he said. "We need to set down and get things in place."
"Do you think we'll have it done quick?" I asked.
"The six of us plus Elijah, and if Uzuki stays out of the way, yeah, we should have it set up by fourteen hundred hours, theoretically." He stood up and walked to his duffel bag while I unabashedly stared at his body. He was so indifferent about his nudity. Or, quite possibly, he was deliberately tormenting me. I thought about it a moment and decided to go with the latter. He turned around and caught me staring. Reading farther into it than I had intended he gave me a glance that said in no uncertain terms he thought he was dealing with a sex fiend. "Seifer..." he said in that disapproving tone of voice of his.
"What?" I asked naïvely, shrugging my shoulders a little. "Just looking, I swear." I tried to look as innocent as possible and probably came off appearing more like a kid caught with a dirty magazine. He arched an eyebrow questioningly and rolled his eyes, this strange look of bemusement playing across his features. It was cute, although I didn't dare say so.
"Sure," he said, smirking. "Then why don't you get dressed and we'll go get something to eat?" I silently cursed his practicality and reluctantly stood up, stretching. For the sake of peace I pretended not to notice when he ogled me. It was better to let him think he got away with some things.
I hated Centra. I'm sure it had been beautiful over fifteen hundred years ago, but now it was nothing but harsh and barren desert. It was as if I could feel the specters of death and destruction climb their way up my spine. I didn't like the sensation. We had set up lighting inside the mouth of the cave, the pitch black, solid rock interior providing a degree of coolness that we would have otherwise lacked. I was sure that further in it would feel even better, possibly even mimic climate control. That was a while off, however. Right now we were concerned with unpacking and setting up and attempting not to break anything because we were a seriously long distance from the nearest shop and doubly so from anything that carried the highly specialized equipment we would be using.
I heard footsteps and turned to see Irvine walking in. He must be back from the monster rounds. We had all been taking turns since we began setting up. I allowed him to take my place at the box I was unloading and reached for Lionheart, shouldering it, and heading out of the cave. Almost immediately I could feel the beads of sweat forming at the base of my neck. Sand and leather weren't exactly compatible substances, but there was no way I was heading out in some flimsy cotton shirt.
I heard a rustle behind me and turned in time to see a skittish Cacuatar fleeing in the opposite direction. I was glad it had chosen to run. The last time I had encountered one I had been picking needles out of my jacket for a week. I heard another rustle and shrugged it off. More Cacuatars, I figured. Sometimes they traveled in packs of three or more. It was then that I saw the shadow fall in front of me.
"Irvine, where's Squall?" I asked.
"Huh? Oh, he took his turn out on watch. You just missed him, been gone about," he paused to look at his watch, "seven minutes?" He shrugged apologetically.
"It's okay, it can wait until he comes back. It's nothing that important," I said.
"Do me a favor, will you? Hand me that box over there. I think the power cord I need is in it."
I tossed Irvine the box and walked out. Squall was an exceptional fighter. He could handle anything Centra could dish out. So why did I have this sickening pit in the middle of my gut?
As if from some sixth sense I wasn't even aware of, I grabbed Hyperion and headed out. The route for cleanup had been established with the first round that morning. I headed backwards along it at a jog, knowing that if he were on the route, I'd find him this way. In the distance I could make out the dirt mound of an Abyss Worm. Giving it a wide berth, I continued, forcing myself to pick up speed.
When I saw the speck of black in the distance, I ran full-tilt, unheeding of the heat around me and the sun beating down on my back. Was he okay? My heart pounded with exertion and concern.
"Squall!" I yelled repeatedly.
Imagine my chagrin when all I found was Squall, looking at me like I'd lost my mind. "What is it?" he asked, brow knit in a deep scowl. "Is something wrong at Base?"
I felt a flush building up behind my already red face. "No, nothing," I muttered. "I just..."
"Just what?" If we had been in the halls of Garden, I would have been hearing the tap tap tap of his toe against the marble floor.
"Nothing," I said harshly, upset with myself for being so concerned over nothing.
"Hey," he said, his tone softening, "you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, wanting to bury myself in the sand to avoid further humiliation. "You okay?"
He shrugged a little. "Got surprised by a an Abyss Worm a bit ago, but nothing other than that."
Surprised... by an Abyss Worm? That didn't seem right. They were easy to avoid. Once again I found myself wrestling with the thought that Squall wasn't being completely honest with me. I hated the feeling the thought gave me, but I hated myself for suspecting it of him even more.
I didn't like the look on Seifer's face. The one that said 'I'm only believing you because I love you.' How could I tell him though? How could I let him know that I had let not only him, but everyone else, down? How is it possible to look into the eyes of the one you love and lie? I wanted to be sick. I wanted to fall to the ground and feel his arms around me. I wanted to sob out the truth and have him kiss me and wipe the tears and make it all better. I hated that feeling. I was so vulnerable to him, something I swore I'd never be for anyone.
This was one problem I was going to have to take care of on my own. I didn't want to tell Seifer, or anyone for that matter. I didn't want to get them involved in a problem I had created for myself. I didn't want them in any more danger than they already were. If they knew, they'd insist on helping and I couldn't guarantee that they'd survive it. I had enough blood on my hands without adding the blood of the only family I'd ever known.
To reassure Seifer, I put my arms around him and stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his nearly scowling mouth. "It's alright," I said softly. "I understand." His look softened and he smiled a little. I saw that look of absolute unconditional acceptance and total love. I didn't deserve that look from him.
Unable to look him in the face, I started walking the perimeter again.
"Seifer! Take it down a notch!" Elijah called out.
I lowered the rope in my hands slowly until I heard the clink of the tooth slipping into the cog.
"Alright! Looks good," he said. "Tie it off!"
I knotted the line securely and moved to stand under the shelter. The shade did little to appease the sheer heat radiating off the sand, but at least it kept the sun out of my eyes. Turning to Elijah I asked, "Did they head in yet?"
He turned and shrugged. "I think Citan may have gone in and I think Quistis was with him." I quirked an eyebrow. "I know," he said, "I think it's a mutual thing." Go figure. Never knew Quistis had it in for the older guy, although he did seem nice enough, if one were into the scholarly types.
"Want to head back and see how they're doing?" I asked.
"Sure, just let me grab my pack and a light."
I strapped Hyperion to my back and picked up one of the spare flashlights. Never can be too careful in dark caves. Following the emergency lighting beacons made it easy to figure out which direction they had gone. I heard the soft click as Elijah engaged the safety of his machine gun. I wondered if machine gunners named their weapons like the rest of us. Somehow I just didn't see a machine gun as being as personal as my gunblade, or Quistis' whip, or Irvine's shotgun. "Hey," I began, "This sounds strange, but did you name your weapon?"
"You mean like 'Hyperion' or 'Exeter' or something along those lines?"
"Yeah, don't worry, you don't have to answer, it was a silly question."
He laughed, "Well, I did actually name her. ‘Unmei'," he spoke the word almost reverently. "It's Shumi, means destiny or fate. At the time I just though it sounded nice, now, it's taken on a whole new meaning."
"You could say that." We walked along in silence. In the distance I could hear voices. "That must be them," I said.
"Probably. Hey! You guys hear us?" he called out.
"Over here!" Quistis called out. "You really need to see this, it's amazing!"
I looked at Elijah and shrugged. We reached a sort of doorway hewn from the rock and I led the way through. As soon as I saw the room I hand entered, I stopped. I heard an 'oof' from Elijah as I felt him run into me. "Sorry," I murmured on reflex. Then I heard him gasp. I guess he noticed it, too.
To say the room was in need of repair was an understatement, but that in no way diminished the effect of the ancient ruin. The ceiling had to be over twenty meters high. I could barely make out the lights reflecting off the polished stone above. The area was easily thirty meters across, and a good fifteen meters deep. It almost looked natural, except for the fact that I'd never seen a cave with straight walls and ninety-degree corners. The statues, which I had only seen images of, were astounding. There were seven of them, and I could tell immediately that we were standing in a memorial to the fallen Guardians.
To my left was a statue that was shorter than the others, but broader by half than any of the other two put together. He had bulging arm and chest muscles that looked like mountain crags, a face that could have been, and actually was, I noted wryly, carved from stone, squat, powerful legs that instead of tapering down, as most did, actually got wider at the base. He clothing seemed to be hides, and slung across his chest was a string of polished gems, each bigger than both my fists pressed together. It must be Taethen, the Mountain Guardian.
Next was a lithe form, lightly muscled, but with the face resembling a hawk. His arms were crossed in front of his chest, and he didn't seem to have hands, but rather talons, each tipped with an edge that could rend most anything. A loincloth draped down from the slender hips and was being pushed to the right by the raised left leg. The feet, much like the hands, appeared to be talons, although about twice as large. Sprouting from the back were huge wings, not like a dragon's, but extending from the back exactly like a bird's. Each feather glinted in the light, and seemed to be threaded throughout with the finest gold. Vach.
Third was a being that didn't seem human at all. Instead it appeared to be nothing more than tightly constricted vines wrapped over the shape of a man. At the feet lounged the largest wolf I had ever laid eyes on, even if I reduced the statue to human proportions. On the shoulder perched a raven, and around the arm wound a snake, its head raised, as if peering at those of us who dared to intrude on this sacred place. Flowers of every imaginable type bloomed across the body, and leaves from all sorts of plants sprouted from the vines. A wild guess, but I was guessing it was Zacheu.
To my far right I saw the form of a mermaid. Her hair draped down her body in gently cascading waves. The scales of her tail seemed to have been inlaid with mother-of-pearl, giving it an iridescent sheen. In her right hand she held a trident, and in her left, a conch shell, poised to be raised to her lips. At her neck the barest hint of gills could be seen, and hanging between her breasts was a flute carved from coral. Merhanna, Guardian of the Oceans.
The branches of a tree arched upward in the next statue. From the trunk emerged the nubile form of a dryad, with skin like bark and hair like moss. The tree itself looked as if it was constantly changing from season to season. The bare branches of winter were on the far left, then the new buds of spring, the full bloom of summer, and the falling leaves of autumn. Around the trunk were gathered the small creatures of the forest, finding protection and shade in the arms of Enania.
Next was the form of a woman wrapped in a cloak, leaning forward as if facing into a strong wind. No face was visible. I could only tell the form was female by the telltale curve of the body. Long, shaggy, hair trailed down from under the hood. One hand was raised, upholding a globe. No, not a globe, a full moon. On the other forearm was perched an owl. Within the folds of the cloak sparkled crystals, reflecting the light like stars. The domain of the night, Haiea's realm.
My eyes then drifted to the center. A figure that was stooped like an elder, but with the face of a child, stood looking outward, as if absorbing the goings-on of our expedition. It was wearing robes that completely concealed any gender identification. In the crook of the left arm was a huge tome. I couldn't tell what, if anything, was carved into it. In the left hand was a lantern, and in the right hand, a staff. It must be Heroth, the Guardian of Knowledge.
I was suddenly daunted by the absolute truth portrayed before me in solid stone. More and more I was finding myself with fewer and fewer reasons to doubt what I had been told.
I walked up the Ragnarok's ramp and into the bunkroom. As the door closed behind me I shivered. It was almost as if something was in the room with me. Something foul that made my skin crawl. I shook my head to clear the feeling from my mind. I was being ridiculous.
"Catalyst," a voice hissed.
I whipped around, scanning the room. Nothing. "Come on, Squall," I chided myself mentally. "Pull it together, you're being paranoid."
"You may run, but it is futile. You gave your bond, Catalyst. You are sworn to me, your life and his in the balance."
An insubstantial form hovered in the center of the room. I felt nauseated. This wasn't the woman I had seen before, yet somehow I could tell this was something I was familiar with.
A hideous laugh came from the unformed mouth, "You are bonded, and will remain so despite your best efforts to ensure otherwise. Memory or no, you are still the Catalyst and your time will come."
I felt a massive pain in my chest where I had been hit with the ice shard in Deling City. The figure dissipated and I found myself leaning on the bunk for support. I though that I had gotten rid of that thing that had followed me this morning, that creature. I shuddered as I thought back.
I had just started clearing the perimeter of monsters. That Cacuatar had run off and I had turned back to continue on my way, then I had felt that shadow cross my path. Something called my name in that same voice and I ran, terror transforming to adrenaline in my veins. It hadn't been the first time I had heard that low, hissing voice. I had heard before... in my nightmares.
I pressed my hand to my still aching chest, nearly vomiting with shock, when my hand came away from my shirt sticky with blood. I tore my jacket off and ripped my shirt in half, buttons scattering like a rain of pebbles to the floor. There was no gaping wound in my chest. The skin was as smooth and pale as it had ever been. Yet there was blood on the shirt, on my hand. I felt like I was losing my mind as I collapsed soundlessly to my knees.
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