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

Stealth

Chapter XXII

By Yuri Nigasa

[Squall] 

Pain.

It's dark, like an inkwell or the sky of a new moon.  Stench of death emanating from everywhere.  A hand reaches out to probe an open wound.  Standing but how?  The dead do not stand.  Shadows crawl around, thick like bonfire smoke tinged with brimstone.  Torches throw lecherous forms against a rough- hewn wall.  A path runs to an altar and at the head sits a figure, drawing nourishment from the darkness.

...Gasp...

'Come.'

Approaching, the power of such a creature radiates from the body, a twisted source of magic unlike any known.  Hideous monsters that stand as high as a man, with warped features and unintelligent eyes, flank the beingNo hands, only claws, razor tipped and designed for maiming.  Their flesh is pale gray, taut against thin, knotted muscle, rangy arms and legs that bent at off angles.  Faces seem like melted wax echoing a twisted human expression.

I know these beings.  From Catania.

'Where am I?'  From Catania?  What the hell is a Catania?

Not what the hell, where the hell...

'I am called Immamiel; I have found you, and have use for you.  It is I who brought you here, in spirit.' 

The figure lifts a hand and warmth spreads through the air, invisible threads of magic beginning to weave together the destroyed body.

A sharp gasp as the muscles, flesh, and bone reform from nothing more than harnessed energy.

'I have for you a proposition, an exchange, nothing more.'

Fuck you.

Fuck you is obviously not an option.  Don't think he'd take it well.  Seems reasonable minded.  I don't know.  Hand unwillingly raised to probe the wound that no longer exists.

'I take your silence as willingness to listen.  Very well.  I can offer you safety, security for his life, and your own.  The being you trifle with, this sorceress, is no match for me.  I will aid you in exchange for your help at a later time.  I do not think this is unreasonable.  As we speak he is distraught with grief over your death.'

Bastard.  Shove your slimy agreement up your...

A sick ache spreads up from the stomach.  Twinges in the back of the mind screaming not to agree to anything.

'No.'

'I don't believe you quite understand your predicament.  Let me clarify.'

A hand lifts and the wound begins to open, flesh tearing, muscle decaying.  Stone floor hard on the knees as the body falls, unable to support itself against the sheer pain of being ripped open from the inside out.

Fuck you.

Fuck you.

'Fuck you.'

At least we agree on something.

We?  Oh no, no we, just one, I.  Me.

'Heed me.  Heed my words.  The time draweth nigh.  The weak shall fall; the strong prevail.  I am Strong.  I shall prevail.  Aid me, and you shall live.  Deny me, and he will die.'

Blood everywhere.  My blood?  It must be.  Seifer, I'm sorry.  I can't let you die for me.  Not now, not ever.

'Your answer, Catalyst.'

I'm not a Catalyst.  I'm SeeD.  I may not know much, but I know that.

'Answer.'

No, dammit Squall, NO!

The past cannot be changed...

'Whatever.'

'Then we are agreed.'

Flesh re-knits... blood ceases running out onto the ground.  A feeling of being ripped backwards...

- flash -

Squall?  I'm breaking contact.  I can't hold it any longer.

[Seifer]

Disorientation.  I blink several times, trying to shake the feeling of being inside Squall's head.  All these years I've wanted it, and now that I had it, I discovered I really didn't care for the experience.  I look to the side, concerned.  I meet Squall's gaze, his eyes burning into mine.  Elle sits behind him, slumped back in the chair.  She looks drained, her pale features lighter than I thought possible.  She needs to rest.

"Elle," I say softly as I sit up.  "Come lay down."

She doesn't argue with me, not that I really expected her to.  I'm just used to dealing with Squall's ways, I suppose.  She lies down beside Squall, who looks over at her and gives her one of his half-smiles, and squeezes her hand reassuringly.  Slowly, he sits up and looks back down at her.

"Thank you," he whispers.

"Squall, what's going on?Ē  Elle asks.

"Rest now, I'll tell you later," he says reassuringly.  Huh, didn't know he could sincerely pull that one off.  He's been taking lessons.  He motions me outside and the door closes quietly behind us.

I pull him into my arms, afraid of letting him go.  His arms wrap around my neck and he indulges me in this moment of intimacy.  All too soon, the moment is gone and he's pulling back, all business again.

"Will she be alright?" I ask.  I walk over to the couch and sit, stretching my legs out.  Squall follows and takes a seat on the chair, propping his feet up on the coffee table.

"She'll be fine.  It just makes her tired.  I don't know how I'm going to explain this to her.  I don't want to, but," he sighed, "I feel I owe her an explanation now."

"You're not the one who called her here, Squall.  I'll deal with it, okay?"  I didn't want him feeling pressured over this.

He shot me a look, challenging my ability to handle the situation.  I watched as he argued with himself before his expression lightened and he acquiesced.  "Alright.  But I want to know just exactly what you're going to tell her."

I waved a hand dismissively.  "As soon as I figure it out, you'll be second to know."  Squall's face virtually screamed his lack of amusement.  "Would you stop it?  I'll tell you before I tell her."

He exhaled audibly and started staring at his boots.  "I fucked up," he said quietly.  Huh, I guess he's decided it's time to talk about the experience.

"No, you didn't.  You didn't know."  Time to play diffuse the situation.  I'm getting good at this, for all the wrong reasons.

"Doesn't change the outcome, Seifer.  How could I forget something like that?  I bound myself to that thing..." his voice trailed off.

"Over me," I said.  "If not for me, you wouldn't have done it."

"I just..."  He looked up at me, pain lining his features, drawing them tight.

"I won't leave you.  We'll do this, together," I gave my voice more authority in the matter than I felt.  I wanted to take off, run away, and take him with me.  Screw the sorceresses and freaky guys and the end of the world.  I just wanted him with me safe and sound.

"What would I do without you?" he asked quietly.  "I don't deserve this," he said.

"And I do?  I happen to believe we both deserve a little happiness, Squall.  If it happens that we get that from each other, then to me that's all the better.  I don't love you for what you are to everyone else.  Don't love you for being some great Commander, or everyone's hero, or a fearless fighter.  I love you for what you are to me."  I curse inwardly, knowing that professions of love probably aren't what he wants to hear right now.  He's so damned practical he's probably thinking that I'm just restating the obvious.

I feel a hand on my shoulder and look up.  When did Squall stand up, much less walk over to me?  He sits down in my lap and rests his head against my chest.  I put my arms around him and try to mask the surprise that I'm quite sure shows in my expression.  It's a surprising action from him, playing into that vulnerability he tries so hard to hide.  I kiss his silky hair, breathing in the scent of his shampoo.

Soon, I feel sleep tugging at my eyes and I notice that Squall's breathing has already slowed to the regular pace that signals he's already asleep.  Content with his arms around me and weight on my chest, I settle down on the couch and surrender to unconsciousness.

[Squall

Elle was still sleeping when we woke up.  I can't believe I just fell asleep like that, like some kid on his lap.  Begrudgingly, I admit to myself that I really did enjoy it, but there isn't much time for enjoyment right now.  Seifer and I are heading first to the Infirmary, then, to the guest rooms, the rooms that, theoretically, don't exist in Garden.  The first time Alisa case visited, the rooms didnít exist.  Since being released from the Infirmary, Alisaís recuperated in one for the past several weeks.  Knowledge of the rooms isnít a Garden secret, but keeping it unpublicized ensures the rooms kept for true necessity, like now.  Otherwise, Garden would face requests to house every petitioner and every accompanying entourage, creating a strain on finances that Garden canít recoup from the contracts that don't receive approval.

The door slid open quietly and Dr. Kadowaki looked up, surprised.  "Squall, Seifer, good to see you."  She nodded her head slightly and reached across the desk for a file.  "I assume you're here for an update on Alisa?"  I murmured something affirmative and she continued.  "She didn't have an easy time of it when Terpischore got her back here.  Poor thing, I haven't seen anything like that in years, and I've seen my share of accidents around here.  That anything would do that to her," she sighed, "is a shame.  Such a pretty one, too, and very bright.  We've worked out a communication system with her, partially utilizing hand signals and a portable terminal with a program that emulates voice when she can't convey things through gesture.  Alisa's ability to touch-type made using a portable terminal possible.  Eventually, she will learn to 'speak' with her hands.  She still has her hearing, which will undoubtedly make things much easier on her in the end.  Unfortunately, there's not much we can do for her, medically speaking, here at Garden.  Perhaps in Galbadia, and definitely in Esthar, they'd have better luck.  I'm just not equipped for such major surgery here."

"She's been understandably frustrated, and terrified as well.  She's been meeting with a psychological specialist three days a week, and I'm finally weaning her off the sleeping pills.  For the longest time she simply couldn't sleep.  Her hours have, understandably, wavered from the norm.  Light enables the body's internal clock to keep correct time.  She tends to sleep more, and at odd hours, but at least she sleeps.  I have transcripts here of the sessions, and highlighted what I believed to be relevant.  I'm assuming there are things here that will make more sense to you than to me.  It seems that she's suffering from mild disassociation, almost a form of schizophrenia, which isn't uncommon when someone's been through such massive trauma.  The mind naturally tries to isolate itself from disturbing thoughts, and disassociation is one way it accomplishes that.  She seems to be unaware of the periods, which we're calling 'blackout.'  She should be awake now, although I honestly wish you'd given me more notice," she said in a slightly scolding tone.  Kadowaki must use the same tone on everyone when she disapproves.  I'd wager she probably used the same damned tone on Cid.

Gently clearing her throat, she looked up at Seifer and I.  "That's about it for Alisa.  Now then, I trust you two are taking it easy, right?"  She peered over the rims of her glasses.  "I know you're old enough to take the proper precautions."  I noticeably blanched and I heard Seifer stifle a choke.  "Honestly, boys, don't seem all that shocked.  You're smart enough to know to that you're setting an example for the students, so just be responsible is all I ask."  I don't know why I was so shocked.  Not much got past her, in all honesty.  Kadowaki is a good doctor, a very practical woman, and intelligent.  She is an invaluable asset to Garden.

Seifer and I muttered something along the lines of a highly embarrassed stereo "yes, ma'am" and I took the files in hand.  Turning quickly, we made our way out the door and into the hallway.  "I'll let them know you're on the way," Dr. Kadowaki called behind us.  I breathed a deep sigh of relief and caught Seifer's look.

"Called to the carpet by the good doctor," he smirked.  "Damn, everyone must know."

"Everyone's known since about twelve hours after the fact.  Or at least, suspected.  Quistis almost asked me that first morning, but didn't," I said dryly.

Seifer whistled under his breath.  "That's fast.  Wonder what the good doc would say if she knew what a little kink you are."  He grinned down at me and I had the intense desire to duct tape his mouth shut.  Having nothing handy, I settled for a glare.  He laughed and made a swipe to ruffle my hair, which I deftly sidestepped.  "Aww, come on, only kidding," he said.  I rolled my eyes and didn't dignify him with a response.

The door to Alisa's room intimidated me.  I felt a mix of apprehension and guilt.  One more innocent bystander in the way, one more casualty of inhuman forces.  Perhaps if I more about her, about how she was involved in this, I could rationalize it away.  Something in the pit of my stomach told me that regardless of how; this tragedy would never sit right with me.  She probably hated us both for this, and with full rights to do so.  Seifer stood patiently, waiting for me to make the first move.  Armed with a little more knowledge, I should feel more secure, right?  Wrong.  The longer I stood here and attempted to rationalize things, the more difficult a time I would have going in.  Reaching to the side, I keyed the override code and the door slid open.

The room was rearranged, and many of the unnecessary tables, chairs, and miscellaneous objects were removed.  The overall space was open and presented much less of a potential hazard for someone who faced the daunting task of learning how to live without sight.  Terpischore sat at the small dining area table beside Alisa, who was warming her hands on a cup of coffee.  Terpischore nodded and said "Commander."  Alisa turned her head, pinpointing the direction we were approaching from.  She waved hello, an easy enough gesture to understand.  I felt uncomfortable, but shoved the feeling to the side and said hello with more authority in my voice than I felt.

I noticed at that moment that Alisa's eyes were bandaged.  The bandages gave her a disturbing look, and I had to fight looking away.  Something inside me said she'd know if I turned in shock or horror.  Seifer walked closer to the table.  She followed him with her sightless gaze and when he stopped, her face flickered in recognition, even though he hadn't said a word.  I nodded to Terpischore, dismissing her momentarily.  I knew she'd go stand in the hallway, but I didn't care.  Silently, I wished that Seifer and I had stopped to take a look at the files we received from Dr. Kadowaki.  The door closed softly and Alisa turned to the keyboard of the terminal.  The soft click of fingers on keys weighed heavy in the silence.

"Commander Leonhart and Mr. Almasy, yes?" said a soft voice.  It was strange, hearing that disembodied voice speaking for her.

"Yes, Ms. Case," I said.  "I deeply regret what occurred in Galbadia."  She seemed to be back to herself, exhibiting no signs of odd behavior like she had the last night I saw her in Catania.

More gentle clicks, then, "I survived, when many did not.  I only wish I could remember what happened to me.  I count myself lucky that I lived."

"There have been no more incursions recently.  Regretfully, it seems the attack on you was the last," I said.

"I will learn to adapt.  I have been grateful for the doctor's assistance.  She said that there is a possibility they can do more for me in Esthar, should I wish to seek medical advice there.  I am thinking about it."

"If you do, I can make arrangements for you, if you wish.  Mr. Almasy and I will be staying here at Garden for a couple days, and then we have a mission to return to.  Should you need to contact me, please feel free to do so."  I was reaching that point of pure professionalism.  All in the job and damn if it affects you in any way, no matter the human cost.  I was at a loss for pleasantries and reassurances and wanted nothing more than to leave the room.

"I will do so," she said.  "Thank you for stopping by."

"You're welcome," I said, my voice flat.

"Ms. Case," Seifer said politely.

Together we walked out, and I nodded at Terpischore as we left.

[Seifer]

"She seemed to recognize you," Squall said.

I looked over at him, meeting his gaze before shrugging noncommittally.  "I'm sure that Kadowaki told her we were going to visit.  Nothing strange in that."

"We need to go over these files tonight.  There might be something here we can use, something else we don't know about yet."  Squall hefted the file to his other arm, bracing it against his hip.

"You know, last time we saved the world, I don't remember there being this much paperwork involved,Ē I snorted.

"Don't start," Squall said, his voice dripping in condescension.

Squall and I reached the doorway to the Senior Staff quarters and I punched in the code, leading the way to our rooms, and opened the door, gesturing gallantly to him to enter first. 

"Who said chivalry is dead?" Squall said sarcastically.

"Now who's starting?" I retorted.

Elle looked up from her place on the chair, placing the book she was reading face down to hold her place.  She smiled at us quickly.  "I hope you don't mind.  I just decided to hang out here instead of going back to my room."

"Of course not, beautiful," I said.  "You improve the look of the place just by being here."

"Flatterer!" she exclaimed, rolling her eyes.

"How was your nap?" I asked.

"I'm feeling much better now, really I am.  I feel bad about taking your bed though," she said, tilting her head to the side in what I thought of as a very Quistis-like gesture.

"Don't be.  You needed the sleep and it wouldn't be right to put you on the couch," I said, barely catching Squall's look that said if I elaborated on the statement any more, I'd be sleeping on the couch.  Wisely, I let it drop.

"Elle," Squall interrupted, "I just wanted to say that I know we really need to talk, but right now there are still some things that Seifer and I need to get done beforehand.  How about after dinner tonight?  Would that be okay with you?"

Elle nodded, knowing Squall and forgiving the bluntness of his statement all in one simple shake of her head.  "I think I'll go out to the Quad for a bit.  The weather's been lovely for the time of year, and I want to take advantage of it."  She gathered her book up and stood, walking across the room.  I smiled at her and she smiled back before passing us and heading out the door.

Squall walked over to the coffee table and tossed the stack of files down, kicking off his boots before taking a seat on a floor cushion.  Expectantly, he looked up at me for a moment before I, too, took off my shoes, and sat down across from him.

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