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Final Fantasy VIII: Unfolding Fates (the end game)
Ambitious but rubbish
I'm picking up from where we left off prior to the demise of the old FFO forum, the latest two chapter following the battle with Citadel.
It has been a week since the tragic battle that raged over what normally was a serene a peaceful Alcauld Plains of central Balamb, home of SeeD and its equally fabled academy, Balamb Garden. In what political analysts termed as a bloody confrontation just waiting to happen – and that finally happened – between SeeD and the fledgling army from Citadel formed by the late Winhill governor Zeilgr Markkon, close to a thousand lives were lost, with a great majority of them students from both schools.
Distraught parents of deceased cadets from the Citadel had clamored for justice for what they described as the reckless exploitation of their children by an ambitious and corrupt small-town governor. The unexpected death of Governor Markkon has left their grievances with no ear to fall on. Though the campaign did lead to popular backlashes against prominent Galbadian corporate sponsors and media groups who previously supported the governor’s cause but now rushed to discredit or altogether disavow the disgraced governor.
Meanwhile, some groups have chosen to vent their ire on Balamb Garden, in particular minority yet militant pockets of demonstrators in Esthar who demanded for the military academy’s closure, claiming that the existence of a nest of prestigious teenagers trained and licensed to kill will always inspire the formation of equally violent ‘gangs’ for the purpose of challenging its superiority. President Laguna Loire refused to comment on such allegations or his well-known support for Garden, but luminaries from his inner circle suggest that though dismantling Balamb Garden remains far from its sponsors’ plans, certain changes will have to be implemented.
We’ve also received word that a memorial for those who lost their lives in the conflict is being held right now, though we regret to say that we couldn’t deliver onsite coverage for the event. Please tune in for more updates in our evening edition.
Doctor Kadowaki had warned him of his condition, that his injuries were too serious for him to be up and about like this. The good doctor may have had a point, Irvine thought. With his normal gun-arm in a sling that covered the entirety of his chest, he wondered how long it would take for the two fractures that had broken through the flesh on his forearm to heal. Not that it hindered his trade much; all of the greatest gunfighters had trained to utilize both arms with near-identical efficiency, and Irvine was no different. He could shoot just as well regardless which side held his rifle. Still, seven cracked ribs and one nearly shattered ankle didn't offer much confidence to his battle-worthiness. Standing up like this, propped by two steel crutches, Irvine couldn't remember the last time he was incapacitated to this degree. Maybe this was the first time.
Still, he felt lucky to be alive, and even more grateful to say the same about Selphie. Irvine was also relieved that her injuries were not as bad as his. She stood beside him, her arms wrapped around his so that he didn't have to put his entire weight on the uncomfortable crutches. Selphie suffered from a broken left wrist and multiple bruises on her back and legs. But nothing more. He did the right thing, Irvine thought, of putting himself between her and the water at the last minute. It was probably the closest shave they’d ever had.
The last thing he remembered was blacking out from the lack of air. Next minute, gale-force winds rushed over his face and body viciously, shaking him back to consciousness. The winds were so strong that he hardly opened his eyes for fear that his eyeballs might get torn off their sockets.
An initial panic washed over Irvine as he remembered Selphie. His first instinct was to grope for her, but as soon as he became mindful of his hands, he realized they were clasped around another. Finally braving the slapping wind, he opened his eyes to the sight of Selphie, whose hand somehow gripped his even though she was unconscious.
With eyes watery from the assault of raging winds, Irvine struggled to look around and beheld the dawn sun emerging from the horizon that, strangely, appeared too low than what he had been accustomed to. He then saw that their feet were planted on nothing, and that the ground appeared to be over two miles below them.
Fully regaining his wits, the truth of their predicament slammed him like a locomotive. He woke up feeling like he was standing in the middle of a hurricane. But he wasn't standing on anything at all. They were falling from the sky.
Being in a state of freefall brought with it a sensation of strange and almost bewildering calm, and he would have welcomed it if he didn't know they were about to slam to the ground at terminal velocity. Irvine tried to gather himself despite the fear engulfing him, groping his back to check for a life-saving parachute that he knew in hindsight wasn't there. How did they come to this? One minute he held an unconscious Selphie in his arms, himself on the verge of blacking out, staring at the misty gray nothingness from inside the Ragnarok that had begun to approach the outer atmosphere. And next thing he knew, they were hurtling back to earth, as though their trusted dragon ship had spit them out.
It was tempting to let the exhilarating sensation of freefall get the better of him. Irvine would have resigned to his fate while enjoying these last moments of feeling like a bird in flight if it had only been him. Letting Selphie die was a different story altogether.
"Float!" he desperately called out. But nothing happened, he was out of Float spells in his magic arsenal. They continued to plummet like rocks while Irvine desperately searched for a way to save them. But the more altitude they lost, the more his despair overtook him. Maybe there was no getting out of this one, after all.
Distraught, Irvine wished he could see Selphie's smile and hear her voice one more time, but he decided against trying to wake her up. If they were to die, at least she wouldn’t feel any pain.
Passing into the last mile, the embattled gunslinger then saw it: a solitary Thrusteavis cruising below them. Acting swiftly, Irvine stole Float spells from the beast and casted them on him and Selphie. Almost instantly, he felt the pull of gravity magically negated.
But the maneuver did little to slow them down. Though gravity no longer dragged them, the tremendous momentum that had built up from hurtling from the heavens continued to propel their speeding fall.
Irvine resorted to one final and desperate gambit. Holding the unconscious Selphie close with one arm, he deftly maneuvered the Exeter with the other and fired sideways. As the staggering force of the Hyper Shot achieved the effect he hoped for, he fired one more round. Then another, and another, with every blast generating a recoil action that pushed them to the opposite direction.
At the right moment, he aimed the Exeter straight down and fired endlessly until all his Pulse Ammo had run out. The earth still sped toward them, and all Irvine could do was utter a silent prayer that his gambit had worked. Moments later, Obel Lake erupted in a violent splash.
Falling out of the Ragnarok had saved their lives. But for the life of him, Irvine couldn’t recall how they were able to exit the doomed space shuttle to begin with. He had turned to Selphie for answers, but all he got was a mysterious expression of mixed joy and melancholy from her face. And words spoken in bittersweet yearning.
“I wish I’d known them...”
He recalled having decided against pressing Selphie to explain what she meant. This wasn’t the time for trivial pursuits. Training his attention back to the present, Irvine scowled uncomfortably. The air was becoming oppressive, and it wasn't only because of the muggy weather. He wasn't sure if the bothersome heat was coming from the sun or from the hilly ground they stood on, which was located a little over two miles north of Balamb Garden. This specific location was chosen because it wasn't as badly battered by the battle with the Citadelians as the miles-wide expanses south and east of Garden had been. But fallout from that great conflict were still evident in the form of scattered patches of bare and blackened earth where grass and assorted plants that used to grow there had been incinerated.
The oppression was becoming a bit unbearable. Irvine tried to divert his attention by talking to Selphie. "How's Heidi doing."
The Trabian lass pouted gloomily. "Still in a coma. They were already transported to Esthar." By 'they' she meant all of the most seriously injured who fought in the battle, which included dozens of Balamb and Trabia students as well as a handful of Estharian and Galbadian pilots. "I don't want to talk about it."
Irvine sighed deeply, knowing what it was that Selphie didn't want to talk about. Being the number-cruncher that she was, he guessed a conversation about the wounded in battle reminded Selphie of the counts. It was a grisly business, but statistics had to be taken. A total of 167 Balamb Garden cadets and SeeDs, 83 Trabian students, 9 Estharian troopers and 5 Galbadian fighter drone pilots lost their lives. Not to mention each and every Citadelian cadet.
For that matter, it was strange counting over a thousand Citadelian casualties when only over 400 staged the attack. Sage Gordo, a surviving SeeD, explained that most of the dead had been clones spawned by the Citadelian Seplicate magic.
Irvine bristled, the concept of magic so potent it could artificially create life troubling him. People as young and inexperienced as the Citadelians should never have wielded powers of that level. But that was exactly what happened, tragically resulting in the worst carnage the world had seen since the first Sorceress Wars.
Irvine felt his jaws tighten while recalling the series of events that led to this tragedy, and in doing so he couldn’t avoid arriving at one conclusion: Markkon, the one who exploited their innocense and naivete to accomplish his vile designs. He could only content himself with one thought.
Zeilgr Markkon. I'm glad you're dead.
"But... I guess I should be thankful," Selphie spoke out, breaking his reverie. "Jerico said he thought Heidi died. And maybe she would have if it hadn't been for the medics managing to revive her."
He knew what was coming next.
"Too many of our friends died."
It was true, and the utterance felt like a punch in the chest for Irvine. He remembered Conner, Duanne and Clayton, the guys who tricked him into breaking his rule of playing cards only with girls by disguising themselves as Dollet starlets to lure him to a game. Irvine remembered how annoyed he was when they sprang the surprise on him, and how he'd been playing cards with them ever since.
Memories of three real girls also came to mind - KC, Tawnya and Mikka, those cute ladies whom he used the camcorder to flirt with during the victory party after Ultimecia's defeat. Casey, that conceited SeeD who dared to bet against him in a shooting game; Sheril, who he had tutored on how to shoot a rifle with only one hand; Tammy, Colleen and Jace, the girls in trig class who always sided with Selphie whenever they had a quarrel; Athena and Rifty, members of the Silver Star Elite who never let him hear the end of it after one time he tried to shoot another SSE, Sindai, with a guitar; Misa, the cute junior classman who always wore pink and kept saying that someday she'd become a famous SeeD; that perennially inquisitive 3rd class MG, Kierin...
All of them, gone forever.
And then there was that one loss. The greatest Balamb Garden had ever suffered.
Irvine felt a knot in his throat. He'd say
I still can't believe she's gone
if he didn't know taking this direction would open the flood gates.
At the podium, Ellone was concluding her eulogy.
"And to think that when we were in the orphanage, I was the one who took care of them when Matron wasn't available. Now..." the flood gates had opened for her, "she took care of me. I owe my life to Quisty. I'd be dead now if she hadn't insisted for Laguna to attack Garden. Quistis knew it will buy more time for Uncle Kiros and Uncle Ward to rescue me. I don’t know if she thought she could handle defending Garden by herself. But if I knew Quisty, I'm sure she simply swore that she'd get it done, whatever it takes. And she did." Ellone's sobs had joined those coming from the students. "She did."
The funeral service honoring those that fell in battle had been going on for a little over an hour now. A few had already stepped forward and spoken about the horrific battle and how each of them survived one way or another by a friend's selfless sacrifice. Irvine imagined maybe each one of them also wanted to offer some words to honor their beloved instructor. But maybe, like him, it still hurt them too much to express their feelings.
For a moment, Irvine was distracted when Iris Deen walked up to the makeshift stage. He tried to trace where she had come from. Zell stood at the corner of the assemblage, beside his grandfather’s grave.
Ever since hearing about Claude, Irvine had wanted to approach his estranged friend to express his condolence. He hadn't forgotten their issues, and the fact that he and Selphie had finally gotten back together didn't mean all was well between him and Zell. A heart-to-heart talk was forthcoming, and whether it will end with a friendship restored or completely destroyed remained to be seen. Now, though, it all just seemed so inconsequential.
Iris began to speak. "T-this won't take long," she opened unsteadily. Tears already flowed down her face. "I'm no different from Ellone; if it hadn't been for Instructor... Quistis... I'd have died, too."
Seifer had never taken well to formal ceremonies. Especially memorial services like this that made too much fanfare about people who were already dead. His sentiment about funerals had always been that of hypocrisy; what was the point of heaping praises at someone after she'd already died?
Seifer stayed at his lonely spot under the shade of trees, noting from his perch the multitude that had gathered. There were several world leaders and delegates that attended, something that he didn't find surprising owing to SeeD's renown as saviors-of-humanity-slash-pop-idols. The statesmen, led by Laguna, didn't occupy esteemed positions and instead simply stood behind the row of students occupying the west side of the memorial place. Reporters were in the scene, of course, but they surprised Seifer by acting like actual humans, instead of behaving their usual, like rabid orangutans fighting each other for food. No, the reporters did nothing but shoot pictures from behind the cordon set by the Estharian Presidential Guard.
An assemblage of people wearing black joined SeeD and other Garden students within the memorial grounds. These were the parents who chose not to take the remains of their kids, who believed in the cause their children fought for enough to take part in this burial ceremony for heroes. Maybe they were proud of their kids, but Seifer could hardly tell. Especially with the way some came close to hysterics that no less than Laguna, Cid, and Edea themselves went over to comfort them.
It was a heartbreaking sight. But Seifer wasn’t one to be affected as though there was actually one in the lot of the fallen that he actually cared about. He came here not to mourn, but to simply pay his respects for those who died in battle. Even if he had made it his life’s crusade to smirk when everyone else almost tore their clothes in anguish, Seifer still recognized the value of a warrior’s death. In this one single occasion, he allowed the sappy proceedings to carry on absent his perennial scowl of displeasure.
What he did mind, however, was Iris stepping up the podium to speak. Seifer didn't want to hear what she had to say, but not because it wouldn't have been any different from the others who swore undying gratitude for someone or another who was the reason they were still alive.
Seifer didn't need this, being spurred to recall what happened...
Having witnessed Balamb Garden’s majestic central edifice sinking into the ground, a group of battle-worn SeeDs quickly made their way inside the listing structure after Zell told them that Quistis pursued two Citadelians inside. It was fortunate that the blast produced powerful gusts that blew out the fires raging within the building and made it easy for them to make their way in. Once inside, Squall quickly scanned the surroundings and noticed how most of Garden’s first floor level remained practically intact. Which meant the explosion happened underground. He ordered everyone down Garden’s subterranean area.
Penetrating through unstable levels obstructed by tons of fallen concrete and deformed metal girders didn’t come easy, and it took the party over an hour to descend the chaotic depths. Not once did scores of agitated Oil Boyles blocked their path, and they had no choice but to fight off the slimy monsters despite their severely exhausted states. Seemingly endless moments of negotiating the dark and dangerous subterranean levels passed in painfully slow fashion as the SeeDs stubbornly pushed their way down.
Finally, they spotted a figure sprawled along a nearly shredded metal escarpment. It was Iris. Zell immediately ran over to her side. “She’s still breathing!” he announced frenziedly, tears of relief mixing with the sweat soaking his face. “Find Quistis!”
That they did after another half-hour of desperate searching. None jumped in jubilation upon seeing Quistis lying face-down over a pile of metal beams. A halogen lamp held tightly in one hand, Squall slowly approached. “Quisty...”
The dull pain of freezing blood shot through his chest, seeing Quistis covered only in tattered clothes smeared with black burn marks. Most of the skin showing through her torn clothing bore ghastly third-degree burns, with raw flesh exposed along parts of her arms.
Squall touched her right arm. It was cold.
Turning her over, Squall began desperately pumping her chest. “Quisty, come on...” his muffled voice resonated. The others could only watch in distress as he continued applying CPR without getting any response.
After what seemed like eternity, Squall paused. Quistis’ face, covered in dried blood and strands of her disheveled golden hair, with her eyes still closed and mouth only slightly open, showed no sign of life.
“DAMMIT, QUISTIS!” The commander’s fist struck his deputy’s chest sharply. “IT’S NOT OVER YET!” It was followed by another. And another. “DON’T YOU DARE DO THIS!” Each strike reverberated harrowingly in everyone’s ears. “NO!!!”
He only abated when a pair of strong arms restrained him from behind. “Squall, she’s gone,” Seifer bellowed hoarsely. “She’s gone, Squall. Let her be.”
Let her go...
Seifer heard himself muttering under his breath. “Damn you, instructor.” His glossy eyes squinted. “You refuse to leave when I tell you to scram. But now...”
As Iris finished her short tribute and knelt beside Quistis’ grave to lay flowers, Seifer found himself wondering if he should have taken the flowers out of her hands and done that himself.
Hearing that thought in his own mind, Seifer knew that he’d gone way past the limit of what his ‘usual self’ otherwise wouldn’t have allowed if he was still the same self-respecting great man he had always seen himself as. Tonight, he could give no room to hubris. He had no choice. The hollow pang in his heart was too stubborn to be silenced.
Gritting teeth hid behind crimped lips. “Quistis... you’ve always known how to piss me off...”
The technicians from FH really were very good at what they did. It took only a day for them to restore power to most of the sections of Balamb Garden, though it helped that by pure luck, the generator room located near the garage was spared from major damage. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the rest of Garden. Makeshift wooden walls and baffles studded the main building, covering areas that were blown open or burned. The campus itself was an expansive ground zero of holes, fissures, black scorch marks, trees and plant hedges burned to the ground, and gutted remains of what used to be statues, fountains, benches and other decimated landmarks and adornment. Most of the debris – some rocks and slabs of concrete the size of cars – had yet to be cleared out. Rinoa looked around and noticed that none of the FH technicians working on Garden’s restoration was in sight. But she didn't wonder why, knowing they were concentrating their efforts to clearing out and repairing the extensive damages in the MD level in preparation for the complex and Herculean process of propping the edifice back to normal level using huge and powerful screw lifters. Fortunately, the sinking action didn’t leave as much damage as first thought. With the exception of the Quad section, which was tipped almost vertically in a crevice, most of the area around the building merely descended to a slope. With just a bit of caution, people could still walk in and out of the front gate and other access channels quite easily.
Thinking about what happened made Rinoa's thoughts drift back to the time when she, along with Squall and Irvine, almost died when some lunatic maniac from Dollet orchestrated what would have been the destruction of Esthar City by having a bomb planted in an experimental aircraft Selphie and Zell recovered from terrorists. Having been knocked out by the toxic leak from the bomb, it was already in the hospital when she learned how Nida himself was almost killed in his effort to neutralize the bomb. Assisted by the explosives expert Iris Deen, Nida performed a delicate procedure that rendered the main payload inert. The bomb's primer, though, could not be neutralized, and it was up to Nida to get as far away as possible to escape the weaker explosion from the primer. Rinoa allowed an amused smile while imagining a cartoon version of Nida scampering away like crazy.
Above events happened in
Tour de Force
Her smile then disappearered, having known that it was the primer explosion that killed Quistis. Though she was successful in isolating the core, Quistis wasn't able to put enough distance between her and the bomb, which would have constituted going back to the surface. She was simply too weak from the extensive wounds and damages she suffered fighting the Citadelians. Wounds that compounded the injuries from giving birth to Kayla and defending Garden all by herself during the Galbadian invasion that she never got to recover from.
Earlier during the service, Iris mentioned she would have died too, if it hadn't been for Quistis. Zell had told her previously that the pouch he gave Quistis contained the last of the few Hero items they had. A close examination by the medics who attended to Iris revealed that she survived the primer explosion because of that item. Tearfully, after cussing at himself for having used one of the Heroes in a past mission, Zell remarked
"I'm sure Quisty didn't think twice..."
In the distance, the sorceress made out Selphie and Irvine by the front gate, Irvine clutching a small traveling bag. Selphie appeared to be seeing him off. Rinoa knew what this was about; Irvine had told her earlier of his plan of going to FH to see Flo Dobe.
Both had fallen silent, each knowing why Irvine wanted to see Flo, and each fully knowledgeable of the grisly affair that surrounded it. With this in mind, Rinoa spoke.
“We need to talk. When you get back.”
“Yeah, when I get back.”
The irony of having discovered that Irvine was his half-brother amused Rinoa. She quivered a bit from recalling the times they had jokingly flirted with each other. It was a good thing he knew his proper place, she thought while feeling as though they both had dodged a bullet without knowing it.
On the other hand, them being siblings presented some nice prospects, foremost of which was that of having Selphie as a sister-in-law. At the very least, they were already past the brutally nerve-wracking phase of getting along with the in-laws. That was, provided they ever got back together.
The sight of Selphie and Irvine kissing the way they used to, like lovers, uplifted Rinoa’s spirit. The reason for the break-up wasn’t by any means conceivable something to be taken lightly. She should know. But that certainly didn’t mean sins could not be forgiven.
Rinoa could hardly believe she just thought that.
But then, maybe, in all the past months of enduring head-splitting confusion and heart-shattering loneliness, this was the answer she had been searching for. Maybe that was why while in the battlefield, facing death in the hands of sorcery-powered monsters and protected only by her white wings, Rinoa and Squall kissed, in what felt like the first time ever.
She may still choose to deny it. She may stubbornly insist that the kiss – despite it transforming the dark and infernal battlefield into a sun-bathed flower field – as nothing more than the shove of misled emotions on beleaguered people standing by death’s doorstep. But right now, regardless whether the entire planet fell into the sun or not...
... All she wanted was to see Squall.
Rinoa suddenly realized that she was already in the dorm area reserved for SeeD, which, like the generator room, had remained mostly intact despite a few quarters that were nearly destroyed by the fires. Most of the rooms were empty, and she guessed these belonged to the SeeDs that died in battle. Rinoa felt her chest tighten from the sadness.
Turning a corner, she skidded to a stop outside a room that had the name plate ‘Trepe, Q.’ mounted on its open door.
Bewilderment washed over Rinoa, feeling an unexpected urge to walk into Quistis’ room. She didn’t understand what made her feel this. She didn’t even know what she’d find in there, save maybe the ghost of a friend who she never gave a chance to say Sorry.
Morbid curiosity got the better of her.
Before she could alight by the door, she heard a hushed voice coming from inside the room.
It was Squall.
Carefully, Rinoa peered inside and saw Squall in the darkness, visible only via the thin rays of sunlight trickling through the half-closed blinds. He sat facing away from the door. But even though she could only see his back, the flailing bundle resting on his arms was evident.
“I’m... sorry about your mom. I’m sorry you will never get the chance to see her again...
“She was a good person... one of the best I’ve known. And she was very brave. If not for her... we’d all be in heaven now... She would have taken good care of you, and protected you, and made you feel safe...”
To Rinoa’s consternation, her confusion intensified. She searched her heart, and couldn’t understand why there was no hate in there. Squall was inside the room of the woman who had been her best friend and also her worst betrayer. The man she loved held the fruit of that betrayal close to his heart. And yet, she could feel no hate.
“I’m still here though. And I promise I’ll take care of you. A long time ago, I lost my mother too before I got the chance to know her. My father... well, he was busy. Too busy to watch over me. So I had no choice but to take care of myself, and...
“It doesn’t matter. What’s important now is you’re not going through the same thing I went through. I promise.”
All she wanted now, more than ever, was to hold him in her arms. Tight as she possibly can.
But Rinoa was afraid. Quistis was gone and had left Kayla behind; that little, fragile soul whose life now depended entirely on Squall.
Would she ever have the same place in his heart again?
She gazed at the bundle of squirming, giggling innocence in his arms, and felt herself troubled.
This time though, it was different.
Closing her eyes, Rinoa found herself muttering a strange, yet comforting word.
Getting right back down to business seemed at the least, imprudent, especially after having just buried a third of his students. It only had been a day, and Cid was thinking maybe he should give the kids more time to mourn. But somehow he knew that another empty day prior to work resumption would only be spent languishing more in grief. Better to get busy as soon as possible.
He waited at the Strategy Room pondering this. Inadvertently, his attention wandered to the chair at the southeast section of the table that had seen too many SeeD meetings. That chair held the singular honor of being chosen by Quistis whenever she was in one of those meetings. Quistis almost always arrived first, which afforded her the luxury of choosing where she sat every time. She had always chosen that chair. Cid had never learned why.
A thumb and an index finger dug underneath his spectacles and pressed against his old, nearsighted eyes, as though coddling a sudden bout of eye strain. He was in truth, fighting back tears.
No parent should ever have to bury their child
He stood up, clearing his throat. Steeling his heart. This wasn't over yet.
The rap on the door was uncharacteristically faint. Cid didn't feel the necessity to wonder why. "Come in."
Squall came through first, as if for the very first time walking before everyone else in his capacity as SeeD commander. He saluted Cid before stepping aside from the doorway to give way to those who came after him. One by one, Selphie, Rinoa, Seifer, Zell and Edea trooped in. Quietly they all picked their places around the table, with none affording even a brief glance at the late instructor's chair.
It was a heartbreaking sight. Cid continued to fight his storm back.
Before taking her seat, Selphie addressed the Headmaster. "Sir, Irvine had to leave..."
"I know," interrupted Cid. "FH, to see Mrs. Dobe. He told me."
"Zell, how are you doing?"
"I could use a hot dog," the martial artist retorted. The jest had no zest, spoken merely as a polite show of appreciation for Cid's concern.
"I take it this is the part when you reveal all the secret plot elements," Seifer let out with marginal disdain. "All right, let us have it."
"Claude," Cid followed without batting an eyelash.
Zell seemed to have expected this. "Why did he have to die?"
And in one of the rare instances he did this, Cid pulled out a chair for himself and joined them around the table. "It would be inane to just say that he died to put an end to our problems. So let me tell you a story." He cleared his throat one more time before continuing. "Claude had been a subject of experimentations for the purpose of perfecting a drug designed to provide ordinary people superhuman powers."
"What the Citadelians used."
"The same. Somewhere along the way..."
"Things went wrong."
"Things like this always do, Seifer.”
“Claude had not been a willing subject and in the end, managed to escape his captors. But not without dire consequences. You need to understand that he was a warrior renowned in the underworld for being nigh-undefeatable, and much of this is due to his genetics."
Seifer felt the urge to blurt out
"So what the hell happened to chicken-wuss?"
But even someone like him exercised a modicum of prudence at a time like this. He kept quiet as Cid continued.
"Claude, and another, were ideal subjects for this experiment because of a genetic makeup that granted him superior physical prowess and resiliency. They did all kinds of trials and injected an alarming number of forbidden substances in his body. He was in this state when he broke out of his prison. However, during the escape, there was an accident that resulted in the alteration of Claude's blood chemistry itself."
Understandably, Zell showed the most interest in listening to Cid's tale. But the weight of mourning made it difficult for him to quickly grasp the story. "Wait, slow down. He was experimented on, his blood was affected by the experiments, and then was altered again during his escape..."
"Yes," Cid answered. Zell, his difficulty in keeping up with the jarring discussion failing to hamper his characteristic impatience, ached to get to the story's conclusion. The Headmaster sensed this. "We're getting there, Zell. You see, even scientists who performed unethical experiments adhered to meticulous procedures for recording their methods and findings. For this lot, their notes somehow ended up in Battleship Island. Which isn't really surprising considering its reputation for unethical scientific experiments.
"Piet, working for Markkon, recovered the notes during an expedition he joined under false pretenses. To cover his tracks, Piet murdered the entire team of scientists."
Zell nodded. Iris was with the SeeD field exam at Battleship Island that discovered the dead bodies of those scientists.
As seen way back in Chapter 2.
"However, the notes he brought back to Markkon were incomplete. It only mentioned Claude's role in the experiments without mentioning the final outcome, including Claude's managing to escape. Markkon had to make do with what he had, which probably didn't bother him much because he thought he could break Claude into revealing the rest."
Cracking noises echoed as Zell clenched his fists, his fury over the thought of his grandfather being tortured almost overwhelming him.
"Zell, are you still..."
"How did you know all this?"
"Claude told me."
"He was here in Garden. He worked here as your weapons trainer." Everyone was visibly surprised. "But you didn't remember him, the same way you didn't remember each other when you first reunited. Even you, Zell."
The martial artist bowed his head and let out a groan, his heart breaking anew upon learning he’d lived close to the grandfather he had thought lost all this time without even having a clue. Another harrowing trade-off of the power he supposedly used to protect the people he loved. What irony...
"In fairness to myself, I also didn't know about his identity until the Garden mutiny broke out two years ago." Everyone around the table had knowledge of that episode, of course. But Squall and Rinoa had been there in the thick of it. Both inadvertently looked at each other, and then at the empty chair used to be occupied by the one who was with them then. "After I had that infuriating meeting with Norg,” Cid eyed Rinoa and Squall, "without knowledge of what you did to him, I had a talk with Claude, who was alarmed after I told him about Norg's real plans for Garden. As a result, Claude decided to leave, saying he'd just endanger his family if he stayed."
"Wait, Headmaster," Selphie quickly interrupted, holding a hand up. "Now I'm confused. You said Claude left Garden after you told him about Norg's real plans for SeeD. What's Norg got to do with any of this?"
End of Chapter 67
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Ambitious but rubbish
In all of Balamb Garden’s twelve years, he could count with the fingers of one hand the times he went down here. He hated being here. He despised how his hair always stood on ends under the palpable darkness, lit only by the pale yellow light from an overhead chandelier that appeared more like a cluster of spikes waiting to fall and split his head open. Portions of the wall sank deeply away from the light, enshrouded in shadows within where he imagined slithering, slender assassins clutching razor-sharp blades hid, ready at any moment to pounce if he so much as twitched a finger.
Cid had always thought his ‘business partner’ capable of such treachery. It was the same impression he had the first time they met, which made him question the wisdom of his decision to seek financial aid from this grotesque outcast of a supposedly peaceful and benign tribe of non-human origins. Would he have turned back then? Probably, if he hadn’t been so desperate to secure the financial assistance he needed. Unfolding events had revealed a future so catastrophic that he couldn’t have possibly turned his back to the one presented possibility of sparing the world from such a cruel Fate.
The seed of salvation must be planted. And what better place to do it in than a garden? So he made a deal with this moneyed monstrosity, a promise of hefty profit in exchange for the facility to train his future world savers. Cid knew that doing so was no different from clutching a blade. Now that blade had begun to cut him. But he must not let himself be cowed. If the future was to have any hope of surviving, he needed to keep this treacherous cur in line.
The Headmaster sensed a dull throb in his head. The Thirteen stirred once more.
‘You need our aid.’
‘Show him who is master.’
‘There are other ways.’
‘Force begat force.’
‘Not in this case.’
‘He tried to run you to the ground.’
‘This is not about revenge. This is about saving the future. You are not needed... yet.’
‘... On your head be it. Call if you need us.’
His feet felt leadened as he proceeded.
”Norg, I’m here.”
The slurred bellow that curdled his blood the first time he heard it echoed in the darkness.
There was reckoning to be done.
“You made one hell of a mess trying to order the students to hunt me down. Look what happened.”
“Damn you, Norg. What do you want from me?”
Standing before the unsightly structure that appeared like a humongous soldier’s helmet,with shimmering pods on both sides glinting at him like feral eyes, Cid nearly jumped back when metal hatches at the top of the structure suddenly blew open with a deafening bang.
“APPEASE-THE-SORCERESS,” the furious Shumi outcast thundered. “SHE-RAGES-BECAUSE-WE-TRIED-TO-KILL-HER. ALREADY-TRABIA-GARDEN-HAS-FALLEN. THE-SORCERESS-NEEDS-TO-BE-APPEASED. I-WILL-BRING-YOU-TO-HER-TO-SHOW-I-HAVE-NOTHING-TO-DO-WITH-THE-PLOT.”
“What in Hyne’s name are you blabbering about? Have you forgotten why we formed Garden? Have you forgotten our ultimate mission?”
“ASSASSINATION-FAILED. WE-HAVE-COME-AS-FAR-AS-WE-CAN. I-REFUSE-TO-ENDANGER-SEED-ANY-FURTHER.”
“Endanger? It is SeeD’s primary purpose to fight the sorceress. That’s what we agreed on when we built this place. I thought you understood. The time to act is now!”
“NO. SEED-FAR-TOO-VALUABLE-RESOURCES. SEED-NEEDS-TO-BE-STRONGER. I-NEED-TO-SUBJECT-SEED-TO-THE-EXPERIMENT-TO-MAKE-THEM-STRONGER.”
“Experiment? What are you talking about, Norg?”
“EXPERIMENTS-PERFORMED-DECADES-AGO-TO-CREATE-SUPERWARRIORS. WITH-DRUGS-TO-ENHANCE-THEIR-ABILITIES. TO-GRANT-THEM-SORCERESS-POWERS.”
Norg’s pronouncement surprised Cid; it was the first time he’d heard of anything like this. But hearing this now, it didn’t take him long to finally discern that Norg had always had an agenda in giving his nod to finance Garden.
“Why do we have to do that? SeeD is already utilizing the most advanced paramagic technique. They are already more than capable enough to hold their own against the world’s strongest armies. They’re ready to face the Sorceress, to fulfill the destiny written to them.”
“YOU-DON’T-UNDERSTAND-WHELP. THE-DRUG-WILL-MAKE-THEM-AS-POWERFUL-AS-SORCERESSES. AN UNSTOPPABLE-ARMY-AT-THE-DISPOSAL-OF-ANYONE-WHO-CAN-AFFORD-THEIR-SERVICES.”
“What? You’re making this all now for money? And what about their destiny? What about SeeD’s primary mission?”
“NO-MORE-MISSIONS. SEED-WILL-NO-LONGER-BE-FOR-HIRE. UNTIL-THE-EXPERIMENT-IS-SUCCESSFUL-SEED-IS-NOT-TO-BE-DISPATCHED. I-MUST-NOW-BEGIN-WORK-TO-MAKE-THEM-STRONGER.”
And all of the sudden, Cid realized he had made a terrible mistake. “This is an outrage, Norg. This is not what we agreed on!”
“No! We’re not done yet!”
At the Shumi’s word, faculty members who had always hidden their faces under salakot hats clamped powerful hands over Cid’s arms and began to drag him away.
“Please listen to me!”
Irvine had noticed before how the humble house built in the middle of the gigantic dish antenna had changed the last time he was here, but the rigors of being a fugitive prevented him from paying too much attention. Now he marveled at the place and how the stage they had used in that concert two years ago had disappeared, its area entirely swallowed by the expansion of the Dobe residence.
Observing the house, the gunslinger noted an irony. This house, and this town as a whole, carried too much notoriety despite its renown as a bastion of pacifism that Aaron Dobe and his wife, Flo, had built it as. Siegfried Waller, who had been its defender until Arturo Hagel murdered him, was a crack black ops agent who had wielded one of the most powerful elemental weapons that ever existed. Also, for a town of pacifists, it had seen its share of invasions by Galbadian forces: first two years ago when they came searching for Ellone on orders by Ultimecia, and second when Moyet led the force that captured him after a near-catastrophic skirmish with Selphie and the SeeDs who came to his rescue.
But those had been minor annoyances compared to the atrocity that took place when he was but a child in diapers. A man with a gun fired a shot that ended the life of a woman whose knowledge of a secret military conspiracy literally became the death of her. The crime itself happened elsewhere, but the one lone witness, spared for reasons he still had trouble believing, sought refuge here. For some time she had thought herself safe, until that same man who deprived him of a mother walked in to, of all things, thank the witness for her hospitality and silence.
Irvine paused. General Richard Caraway, his biological father, had spared Flo’s life, and later expressed gratitude for the charity she extended, of making sure he was safely entrusted in the care of the Kramers. Still, Caraway had killed Carina Menken. He had murdered his mother to protect a secret meant to pave the way for a nation’s salvation. And however noble the intention was, Irvine still felt it had never been and will never be enough to justify the appalling crime.
But he had looked into his father’s eyes and saw a soul who wished there could have been some other way, but the fact that there wasn’t gave him no choice but to be cold and impenetrable. Though it meant nothing to him at the time, he had seen those same eyes two years ago while they planned the assassination of Sorceress Edea. When General Caraway appeared to them not as a man, but a piece of iron…
… Whose sole purpose was to make the future safe for his daughter.
It required iron will for ordinary people to die as heroes, in protection of the ones they loved. Quistis’ grave and those of their other friends’ stood as a grim reminder of this truth.
He could find no hate for that.
And neither could he find hate for the one who knew the secret of his life and withheld it from him. Like Quistis, and General Caraway, Flo Dobe had to temper her heart to protect the lives of the people she loved. Her family’s safety had been at stake.
And the fact that she had extended herself, and in the process became entangled in the web of atrocities that added more to Fisherman’s Horizon’s ironic notoriety, just to protect a helpless woman and her newborn son, proved she was not entirely given to indifference for those in need. Despite being aware of the danger, she tried to keep Carina Menken safe for as long as she could. He could do nothing less than show his gratitude.
“Hello?” Irvine called out while knocking at the stately mahogany door. “Mrs. Dobe? It’s me, Irvine.”
The door creaked open.
Edea lowered her head, sadly recalling one of the bitterest episodes in her life. Cid, seeing his wife, could only mouth the words
for inevitably having to go that direction.
“When Ultimecia took over your Matron, she grew aware of a lot of things. The most crucial of which was, of course, Ellone’s existence and capabilities, which would have allowed her to achieve Time Compression had you not thwarted her.
“But another important thing that Ultimecia became aware of was Edea’s role in the founding of Garden, and thus of Garden’s existence as well. She was in the process of making a move to take over Garden when Norg got wind of this. Of course, being Garden’s benefactor, Norg would have none of these. Pretending to adhere to the position of being aligned with SeeD’s primary mission, he convinced me to allow Edea, my own wife, to be assassinated.”
At that point, tears rolled down Edea’s face. And for the first time in two years, even though the couple had already come to terms with this bitter episode, Cid again felt the guilt. “I... went along with that plan because at the time, I thought my wife was completely gone, forever buried and lost inside Ultimecia’s powerful consciousness. And...” His pause was that of one who was ashamed for having to hide behind an excuse. “... Edea and I have discussed it, that whatever happens, for the salvation of the future, SeeD must fulfill its destiny.
“It was the toughest decision I ever had to make, but instead of having to witness the sorceress from the future use my wife’s body to spread terror, I agreed with Norg’s plan.”
Despite her tears, Edea reached for her husband’s hand. Cid allowed a fond smile before continuing.
“Norg wanted the assassination carried out by Martine Dodona, his subordinate and Garden Master of Galbadia Garden. So the original plan was to use Galbadia Garden resources. But Martine was no fool, and he knew Norg wanted this arrangement so that he could easily wash his hands of the entire scheme should it fail. After all, once the top brass had secured plausible deniability, it was simplicity in itself to just blame a disgruntled employee while sparing his assets from the brunt of repercussions.
“Martine, aware that he was being set up as a scapegoat, tried to find a way to follow Norg’s order without having himself implicated in the scheme, and got a stroke of luck in the form of you guys suddenly showing up at G-Garden after the botched Forest Owls’ operation to kidnap Vinzer Deling. He sent you off to assassinate Edea, it failed, and Edea – or rather Ultimecia – after learning that you were from Balamb Garden, demanded retribution.”
“So Norg decided to hand us over to Mat...” Squall paused, “Sorry. Ultimecia.”
“Together with me,” added Cid. “Through the faculty, Norg ordered Garden students to bring me to him. This resulted in a clash between students who wanted to score points with the Garden Master and those loyal to me, thus the Garden mutiny.”
“So what happened after that?” asked Rinoa. “We were able to help stop the mutiny, but next thing we know you were down there with the Garden Master.”
“Let go of me! I’m not finished!” The faculty member continued to push him back. “Greedy son-of-a-bitch! Why did I even bother talking to you? SeeD was brought up for the future, and that future is now! Why can’t you understand?”
Cid was determined in his defiance. But the faculty member loyal to Norg wouldn’t have it and grabbed him by his shirt collar. Cid felt his blood freeze upon gazing for the first time into a faculty member’s eyes, glowing orange fire as though a furnace burned inside his head. Remorseless, the faculty member almost tore Cid’s shirt collar as he pulled him close, giving him a whiff of breath that reeked of sulfur.
For a spell, Cid thought he was about to be killed. But the faculty member simply shoved him to the floor before walking away, leaving him wheezing in despair.
It felt so tempting to unleash The Thirteen. But Cid’s prudence won out. ‘No.’
‘So be it.’
Gathering himself, the embattled Headmaster could only banter in regret. “Dammit! I should never have trusted you. I wish I could go back ten or so years. To tell myself that you’re a money-grubbing son-of-a-bitch! Then I would’ve never built this place!”
Squall and Rinoa bristled from the recollection. Zell, on the other hand, became more edgy.
“Headmaster, if you’d known about my grandpa all along, why tell me only now?”
Seifer quickly followed. “And don’t tell me Norg’s rambling about that experiment didn’t raise a red flag. Turns out this Factor shit’s been an issue that far back, but you chose to ignore it?”
“Forgive me,” was Cid’s repentant reply. “With everything that’s been happening: my wife, the scores of students injured in the mutiny, and Balamb Garden at that time floating aimlessly at sea, my head was literally in shambles. That talk with Claude? I was merely venting, having no idea how intricately his involvement actually was.”
Zell, exasperated, heaved a deep breath.
“Maybe I planned to address the Norg issue at a later time, I couldn’t remember. But after learning how you dealt with Norg, and after the Shumis took him, I thought Norg was no longer a problem. And I eventually dismissed the things he said about the experiment as nothing more than the mad ramblings of a greedy money-grubber itching to cash in on the next lucrative venture.”
Cid looked at the people around him, wary that they might have been laying blame for that oversight. But other than Seifer’s derisive ogle that he had learned to ignore, there was no accusing hue in their eyes. It had never been fair to blame a person for ignoring a mouse that eventually spooked the elephant whose rampage killed the general and lost the war.
Rinoa raised a hand. “So… what happened to Norg?”
“Kinneas…” It was easy to tell that the man behind the door was none too pleased. “What do you… How can I help you?”
Pacifists have always been a pain, Irvine thought. Their principles may have been noble, but the approaches of the extreme have never been inviting to sensible discussion. Squall tried it to this man before, to tell him that the common ground between pacifists and soldiers weren’t as narrow as either one thought. It was just so difficult to deliver that message to one who didn’t know the reason why shields had to hurt just as badly as clubs.
Coming here, he expected to encounter the pacifist’s paradox. Or should that have been hypocrisy?
“I’m here to see…”
"The woman isn't here."
"She's what you came for, yes? To thank her, for the hospitality she displayed long ago.”
"You knew about that?" Irvine thought that he probably shouldn’t have been surprised, as it was more expected of a wife to share secrets to her husband than not. Still, it wasn’t just one’s run-of-the-mill secret. "Did Flo tell you?"
"Yes... in a manner..." Dobe retreated. “She was... after all... my wife.”
An agitated Zell interrupted before Cid could answer Rinoa’s question. “This still doesn’t answer my question. Why did my grandpa have to die?”
Cid prioritized Zell. “Because he literally had the answer in his blood. The accident that happened during Claude’s escape altered his blood chemistry in such a way that it became the anti-agent for the Factor the Citadelians ended up using.”
“You mean his blood canceled the Factor effect.”
“I don’t know exactly how it worked.”
Seifer jumped in again. “Headmaster, assuming none of what you’re saying is bullshit, why didn’t Claude just allow Markkon to use his blood with the Factor. It figures that Markkon thought the key to making the Factor effect permanent is by treating it with Claude’s blood. He could have just let Markkon do this to give that fool a Factor that doesn’t do squat. All this could have been avoided.”
Cid shook his head. “He couldn’t do that, not in the way you’re suggesting.”
“Why not? All of this would’ve been avoided if he did.”
Zell hated Seifer’s implication that Claude could have done something that might have prevented all the tragedies that happened, including Quistis’ death. But he had to admit that Seifer had a point.
“First of all, after being captured, Claude was powerless to prevent Markkon from getting samples of his blood. Second, it hadn’t been that simple. Mixing Claude’s blood with the Factor doesn’t neutralize it. It turns the Factor into a poison. That’s how Iris got sick.”
“What?” exclaimed Selphie. “You mean Iris volunteered?”
“No, Iris didn’t become Markkon’s test subject, at least not voluntarily. In fact, Iris had no inkling of the whole thing. There could have been a lot of ways Markkon was able to introduce the agent to her body without her knowledge.”
“Tough luck for Iris, huh.”
“Markkon went after Iris specifically,” Zell grimly stated, his jaw muscles tensing. “It’s part of the blackmail plan on me. Attacking Iris… and my Ma… I’m glad he’s dead.”
Rinoa nodded. “So am I.”
“Iris got better, the same way the people in Trabia Garden who fell sick did. Cid,” Seifer’s impolite demeanor began to surface as the question marks in his head annoyed him, “what exactly was that medicine we used to treat the Trabians?”
“It was synthesized from Claude’s blood.”
“Okay, now I’m officially confused. How did you come up with that? What made you think it will work?”
“To understand how that treatment worked, you need to understand first how they got sick. Iris and the Trabians were poisoned.”
“By the Factor mixed with Claude’s blood. You said that already. But what…”
“Markkon captured Claude because he believed Claude’s blood was the component needed to eliminate the Factor’s 20-minute time limit. But that wasn’t really the case. As I said, Claude’s blood actually had the opposite effect of completely canceling the Factor.”
“That’s why he’d been hiding out,” stated Zell. “He didn’t want those people who experimented with the Factor to know that his blood neutralized it.”
“That’s right. Claude had an agenda of his own in case somebody began using Factor for whatever purpose. Unfortunately, Markkon captured him and was able to apply his blood to the formula, which, in turn, resulted to the poisonous substance that felled Iris and the Trabians.
“The derivative I gave you cured them. I determined – with someone’s help – that while Claude’s blood, when added to the Factor makes it poisonous, the cure is almost simplicity in itself: it’s also Claude’s blood, or a derivative.”
“Because…” Selphie said while in deep thought, “it neutralizes the Factor component of the poison.”
“Correct. As a rule, Claude’s blood neutralizes the Factor already in a subject’s body. If the Factor is pre-mixed with the blood, it cures the poisoning. If it’s Factor in its pure form – which is what the Citadelians used – it cancels out the powers granted by the Factor.”
Zell finally understood. “So what grandpa actually did was release the energy in his blood, which was what depowered the Citadelians.”
“Yes. It was just tragic that Claude’s blood couldn’t also cure the withdrawal that resulted from suddenly removing the Factor effect. The Factor produced a devastating addiction that caused death to its users if they didn’t inject themselves with another dose after the drug’s effect wore off. Canceling the Factor with Cid’s blood was just the same as having it expire after 20 minutes.”
“Which is why instead of they-have-come-to-see-the-light Citadelians, we have dead Citadelians.”
Cid didn’t appreciate Seifer’s crass insensitivity, but he couldn’t blame him either. “Yes.”
“But… Markkon would have learned the real effect of Claude’s blood.”
“Yes. The information was already at his fingertips. This was the only ‘good’ outcome of Claude’s blood turning the Factor into poison when pre-mixed – Markkon simply thought he didn’t get the mix right.”
“But Markkon could only think that way for so long. He’d have eventually come to the conclusion that Claude’s blood actually neutralizes the Factor.”
“Which would have led to Markkon simply murdering him. Claude cannot let this happen, he needed to live to have the opportunity to neutralize the Citadelians’ powers on his own terms. So he resorted to playing mind games with Markkon, making him believe he knew how to do the right mix while acting defiant because he didn’t want to give the secret away. Claude endured countless tortures to accomplish this.”
“He’s a hero…” Rinoa muttered.
“That he is.”
Seifer wasn’t satisfied. “Let’s swing back to that thing – the blood derivative or whatever – that we used to cure the Trabians. I’m assuming you first used it on Iris, that’s why you think it might work on the Trabians. But what in the world made you think it would work on Iris’ symptoms to begin with?”
And for the first in what seemed like a long time, Cid allowed a wry smile. “Blame Piet.”
“I mentioned earlier that the notes from Battleship Island that Piet gave Markkon were incomplete. The missing part of the notes contained the information hypothesizing that Claude’s blood was the Factor neutralizer. It was Piet himself who withheld this from Markkon.”
Seifer face-palmed. “I’m feeling a headache coming.”
“Why would he do that? Wasn’t Piet totally complicit with Markkon?”
“He was, but he decided he couldn’t let Markkon know about that part.”
“Not exactly. You see, Piet threw in with Markkon so he could have revenge on Laguna for sacking him after the Lunarside Base fiasco two years ago.”
Everyone recalled the event and the subsequent press releases that came out of it. After the inquiry to determine accountability of the accident that saw Lunarside Base being destroyed by the Lunar Cry, it was discovered that Piet intentionally did not take the standard precautionary measures for such an event, motivated by vain ambition of being the first scientist to have observed and taken vital readings from a Lunar Cry at such close range.
“Piet lost his job and was disgraced in the scientific community as a result,” recalled Squall. “So… he blamed Laguna for that? And he joined Markkon for the opportunity to get revenge.”
Cid continued. “Piet probably was afraid that if Markkon learned the truth about Claude, he’d change what Piet thought was already a flawless plan, and lose his chance to get back at Laguna. It was Markkon – or at least he thought – who provided him the means to commandeer a cruise missile and the help he needed to steal the Doomsday bomb and take over the abandoned Lunar Gate facility.”
“This is enlightening and all, but everything you say only leads to more questions. How did you know Piet had the missing notes?”
“Because they were recovered from his house. I now have them. How do you think I learned that the vial I gave you was the blood derivative from Claude and that it might probably be able to treat Iris and the Trabians?”
“Headmaster,” said Squall, “we appreciate you finally sharing all this information with us. But Seifer is right, each revelation you unveil just spawns more questions in its place. How did you get your hands on the derivative and the missing notes?”
Cid breathed heavily. He was still of two minds about divulging what he thought as the most crucial piece of information in the puzzle. But he also knew that at this point, they were already at the end game. It was time to flip all his cards open.
“Okay. It’s through the secret operatives I have in the field.”
Everyone sat up.
“Xu Kirishima and Marcus Derlini.”
Irvine knew that he shouldn't, but he started to feel annoyed that Flo had told her husband about his secret. He tried to dismiss the feeling.
“Of course.” But he couldn’t. Confusion began to beset him. “May I come in?”
Dobe continued to ogle Irvine as though he didn’t hear his request.
“I said may I come...”
You failed to listen to your real soul.
“What...?” Irvine stared back at Dobe, whose old man’s mouth was crimped shut. “Did you just...”
You failed to listen to me, when you let that insecure and incompetent whelp pull the trigger for you. You could have satisfied the revenge we both thirsted for.
“Xu and Marcus?” Selphie reflected the surprise everyone felt. “That’s why they’ve been missing all this time?”
“Yes.” Cid looked each of them in the eye. “At first I merely asked Xu to discreetly monitor Zeilgr Markkon when I received reports of him checking in the hotel in Balamb. It was through her recommendations to continue her covert surveillance work that I decided to let her stay in the field. Gradually, events unfolded that made it obvious Xu needed help, and so I sent Marcus who, you all probably know, is one of Garden’s best information ferrets. For one thing, he accomplished what none of us was able to do, discover Quistis’ whereabouts after she resigned and disappeared.”
“Only because he was so obsessed with her.”
“That’s beside the point, Seifer.”
“Whatever. So Xu and Marcus… what have they been doing all this time? Getting a tan?”
“Who do you think gathered the dossier on the Citadelians that we were able to analyze?” No one answered. “It was Marcus. He also helped rescue Ellone by infiltrating Corneo’s hold and disabling his getaway underground train. And while he continued to monitor Citadel activities, Xu kept an eye on everything that had been happening elsewhere, particularly conducting investigations on General Caraway’s assassination. Selphie, you received several messages that helped you locate Arturo Hagel, right?”
“It was Xu?”
“Yes. Additionally, she also investigated Piet’s complicity with Markkon and discovered the information he withheld as well as Claude’s blood derivative.”
It was perhaps one of the biggest revelations in this day of mind-shattering revelations. For a spell, everyone couldn’t utter a single word as they attempted to let this stunning discovery sink in.
Cid broke the ice once more. “When I ordered you to confront Markkon in his fortress, it was with hope that you could bring an end to this conflict without bloodshed. But I’m not that naïve, of course. You coming in through the front entrance was also meant to divert the attention of everyone in Citadel while Xu and Marcus infiltrated the place to find a way to rescue Claude.”
Zell felt a knot in his throat. In this entire conflict, none had faced a dilemma more dreadful than his. Using threats on the lives of Ma Dincht and Iris Deen, Markkon blackmailed him into surrendering the schematics of Balamb Garden’s Psion Matrix. Zell was at first defiant, but Markkon demonstrated how easily he could have gotten to the people he loved, first by proving that he was behind the sickness that almost killed Iris, second by ordering a Citadelian agent to attack Ma Dincht to a point just short of killing her during the Galbadian invasion of Balamb, and third by informing him that his long-lost grandfather was in his clutches.
The beleaguered martial artist came to a blood-chilling conclusion that there was no way he could win, and inevitably he fell back to the helpless child that he once had been, bullied by people bigger than him. Crying like a toddler, he was found in this state by Edea, whose motherly love had never once failed to soothe their troubled hearts. Zell poured everything out like a boy to his mother.
He recalled her gentle words.
“T-That’s why Markkon’s contraption didn’t work when he tried to electrocute grandpa.”
“Yes. It was them who disabled it.”
Zell was still heartbroken over losing his beloved grandfather, but it helped to salve his pain by understanding the reason. And even though Claude was no longer with him, he still felt gratitude oozing like a geyser for his two colleagues who made it possible for him to be with Claude in what turned out to be his final moments. He’d give Xu and Marcus a hug at this instant if he could. “So… where are they now…?”
“Searching for the last piece of the puzzle. Markkon is dead. Laguna and I stayed with his remains to ascertain the answer to the most important question. Markkon stayed dead, and he stayed as Markkon.”
“You thought the Markkon we fought might have been an impostor?”
“Part of me hoped he was. Zeilgr Markkon had been one of Garden’s staunchest allies, and it still pains me to have seen him betray us like this. But Markkon was Markkon.”
“And the puppet master is still at large,” Edea finally spoke out.
Sephie was still puzzled. “How sure are you that it wasn’t Markkon who’d been pulling the strings all along?”
Edea followed up. “You should know, Selphie. He was already dead before the missile that Piet launched to Esthar changed course for the Shumi village. And Nida attested that the course change wasn’t preprogrammed.”
“Somebody changed its course to hit the… Shumi…” Squall trailed off. “You think it’s Norg.”
One of the worst experiences a man could ever have was a cognizance of his slow but sure march to insanity. It had not been that long when Irvine first heard the voice in his head. At first he thought it was just the natural consequence of fatigue, the same when one who was sleep-deprived would suddenly hear his own name whispered to his ears by a voice of a departed loved one.
But the voices kept coming, most of the times when Irvine was beset with both exhaustion and bitter feelings of anger, regret or loss. Despising the prospect of having to seek professional help, he tried to dismiss it altogether, despite the fact that its words became more and more uncannily relevant to whatever distasteful trappings he may have been encountering.
It spoke of nothing else but the need for him to lash out, to get back at those who wronged him.
It was the voice he thought had triumphed when General Caraway met his end with a bullet through his brain. And it was the same voice that he thought – to his unutterable relief – was silenced when Arturo Hagel died from a bullet through his brain.
But it wasn’t.
How many times do I have to drive it into your thick skull? I am you and you are me. We are one and the same, and the evil I exude is nothing more than the darkness you hide with your hypocrisy.
Flo Dobe has betrayed you. She has betrayed your mother's trust.
And so have your friends in Garden, who now leave you to fend on your own.
“Laguna told me of his recent meeting with the Shumi Elder. After your battle with Norg two years ago, the Shumis came to take him back to their village. Norg seemed dead, or was in suspended animation. We’re not sure, having no concrete knowledge on how the Shumi anatomy works. But he was definitely inert when they took him back. Then the other week, Shumi Elder told Laguna to warn me that Norg’s body had disappeared months ago.”
“Months ago?” Seifer blurted out. “And it took them this long to get around to warning you?”
“The same reason it took me this long to share all this information with you. Remember, somehow Zeilgr Markkon gained possession of vast historical information about all of you, some of them unknown to even myself and Edea. Either Markkon was aided by an insanely competent intelligence network… or he might have been allied with a powerful telepath. Remember how we thought before that he might be working with a sorceress?”
“Yeah…” Rinoa muttered.
“But that’s not likely, owing to the fact that before we could stop him, Usaro Deregan was successful in assassinating all remaining sorceresses save one. However, I do know that back in the day, Norg had been manifesting formidable psycho-kinetic powers of his own, and I’m guessing he got that from dabbling with the Factor that he intended to experiment on SeeD. But even knowing that, I didn’t actually consider the possibility that Norg might have been involved.
“That is, until I saw the dossier on Citadel Marcus sent us. The data made me think back to Norg, and I just couldn’t bring myself to dismiss the possibility that he might have come back. And if there’s any chance at all that he was involved and continued to muck with the Factor, we might be facing an enemy who wielded vast mind-based powers. In order to fight back, I needed to play things close to the chest.”
“You’re afraid Norg – or whoever it is – would be able to telepath information from us,” Squall returned. “But aren’t we protected from that sort of thing by Junctioning? In fact, if there’s even any risk of that, you’re much more vulnerable than us.”
“I’m also shielded, Squall. And GFs may be able to protect us from mind reading to a point, but the protection only works for information we already have. Information in the process of being conveyed is another story. Besides, it’s not like you’re Junctioned 24/7. That’s why I can’t risk disclosing any of this to you until now.”
“So why now?” asked Seifer.
“Thanks to Shumi Elder’s tip, we’re now certain it’s Norg we face. But we don’t know where he is.” Cid looked at his watch. “That’s about to change, though. Anytime now…”
"That's... not true...” Irvine felt his teeth gnashing, horrified of the voice. “That's not..."
But in truth, he was more horrified of the fact that he wanted to believe the voice's claims.
You delude yourself. You know in your heart that if Selphie truly loved you, she would have come with you now.
"No... I told her to stay... that this was something I need to do on my own."
And she should have insisted.
But she didn’t. Because Zell is there.
Because I speak the truth. And you know this, because I am you.
They didn’t wait long before Cid’s communicator chimed to life.
”Is this a good time?”
“You know you never have to ask me that. But just so you’re aware, I’m in a meeting with everyone.”
Cid heard telltale sounds of stifled sobs from the other end.
”No, not everyone.”
”I’m sorry, sir, but she was my best friend…”
“I know. Where’s Marcus?”
”He’s still with me. But like me, he wants to go home. He wants to pay his last respects…”
“How are you two doing?”
”Barely holding together.”
Irvine was in the brink of tears. He couldn’t possibly believe this. It took so much of him to tear down the wall of doubt just so he could believe in his heart again. Selphie loved him. She made a mistake, but she was only human. Like him, who also made mistakes, more than anyone could count.
The time for mistakes had ended. Forgiveness had to reign if love was to prevail. In order to have a chance at the elusive happiness he sought with the one girl he ever truly loved, Irvine struggled mightily to let love win over crippling doubt. He had won. They had won.
He couldn’t possibly have done all that only to fall again because of this inner voice...
... Who might have been speaking the truth?
Did he make a mistake again?
Why the doubt? Why this voice? Why can't he...
“I understand. I’m putting you on speaker.”
”They know already?”
“Yes.” The Headmaster pressed a button in his communicator, activating a program that directed the call to a conference phone in a hidden panel in the room. The surround speakers clicked to life. “Xu, the table’s all yours.”
“Xu,” Selphie came back. “We missed you…”
Irvine doubled up while clutching his head hard, tormented by a sudden impact of disorientation accompanied by dull hammer strikes inside his skull.
“Xu, what do you have?”
”I’m here with Marcus at the Island Closest to Heaven. We discovered the remains of someone who’d been buried here. Forensic analysis reveals he’s been dead for months.”
The gunslinger discerned the pain’s root as a disturbance in the area in his brain where his ethereal helpers connected. A hissing Water Guardian thrashed about in fury.
In an instant, the air in the Strategy Room turned to iron. Not one person was able to move amidst the palpable anxiety at the advent of the ultimate revelation.
The enemy is near.
At that warning, as if for the first time ever, Irvine beheld the dagger in the eyes of his unwilling host. Eyes that projected a dark and hate-filled voice in his mind.
Cid prepared himself. “Were you able to identify the body?”
HE IS NOT AS HE APPEARS!
”Mayor Dobe of FH.”
‘Dobe’ gurgled. “FUSHURURURU…”
End of Chapter 68
The end-game begins...
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still known as TacomaSquall
More endgame please old friend!
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Ambitious but rubbish
Bro, you're back!
Yes, soon. I'm halfway through the next chapter, just have to apologize for how painfully slow I progress.
Jump to Post
Ambitious but rubbish
Mayor Aaron Dobe sighed while wiping off the dust accumulating along the elegant furniture belonging among a dainty collection that had passed down along his family’s line for generations. He would have asked his son to do this chore had the boy been around. But he wasn’t, same as the other members of the household.
Dobe exhaled another exasperated groan. Being alone in a big house wasn’t all that it was cut out to be, he realized, especially after all that excitement they had gone through for undergoing the renovations. It had only been two days since his wife and kids left for their annual vacation with his in-laws. He would have wanted to join his family if not for some pressing domestic concerns that required his attention. And that was probably why he never noticed the otherwise arduous ascent along the refurbished stairway en route to his bedroom. Unwittingly, he turned the gold-brass knob of the stately, mahogany-constructed door.
“Huh?” Darkness welcomed his entry to the chamber. “I don’t remember turning off the lights,” Dobe said, unwittingly sniffing in a whiff of stale air. The fresh scent he had grown accustomed to during the last few days had mysteriously disappeared, and in its place reeked something putrid.
His attention was drawn to the fluttering drapes adorning the big picture window along the east side of the bedroom. Somebody opened the window, the mayor thought as he quickly groped for the light switch.
A low, growling sound almost made him leap from the floor. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
The pounding in his chest intensified when the incognito presence didn’t respond, continuing instead to bellow low-pitched moans.
“Whoever you are, d-don’t mess with me. I have a gun!” He didn’t; someone of his renown as a pacifist would have been discredited in a flash if he did. But Dobe was now frightened, that last threat having shot out in an effort to feign a brave front. He turned abruptly when the moans were followed by a deep and beastly voice, so menacing it curdled his blood.
“I… WANT… YOUR… LIFE. GIVE ME YOUR LIFE.”
“The hell…!” The panicky mayor frantically scampered for the door. But he failed to reach it when a searing sensation suddenly took hold of his head. “Arghhh… what are you doing…?” groaned he as the throbbing pain engulfed his entire being. Realizing that the intruder intended to murder him, the terror-stricken man hollered desperately for mercy. “N-no… please don’t kill me… pl… ease….!!!”
Mayor Dobe of FH didn’t even hear the last utterance of his mouth as thick, rich blood exploded from his ears. It was quickly followed by the same dark-crimson fluid freely gushing out of his nose, eyes and mouth. Convulsing violently, the doomed mayor of Fisherman’s Horizon could do nothing but plead for death, if only to end the excruciating pain that felt as though black ravens feasted on his brain.
A plea that didn’t take long to be granted, as darkness devoured what remained of his life. A soft thud followed when Dobe’s corpse fell limply on the carpeted floor.
“YOUR… PAIN… HAS… ENDED. MINE…STAYS-FOR-ETERNITY. I-SHALL-SHARE-MY-PAIN-TO-THOSE-I-FEAR…”
Selphie could still see the damage beneath the metal ramparts holding up the eastern section of the town. The damage was the result of indiscriminate fire when the insane General Moyet led an entire Galbadian naval contingent to apprehend her lover, Irvine, then a fugitive accused of murdering General Richard Caraway.
She was, however, thankful for the skill the FH technicians wielded. Since after the war against Ultimecia, they'd had plenty to be grateful for FH workmanship, the most notable of which was Balamb Garden's restoration to its original spot at AlCauld Plains. And if it hadn't been for that same peerless workmanship, a sizeable section of the town would have fallen into the sea as a result of General Moyet's attack.
She then wondered, would FH's expertise in building things prevent their town from being consumed by the fires about to blaze?
They were five, about to face the final enemy. Squall, Rinoa, Zell, Selphie and Seifer. No one spoke. Not to quip, not to banter uselessly, not even to remark on the swirling dark clouds hovering over FH Central, where a majestic structure now stood in the place of the much humbler abode that first welcomed them two years ago. That it appeared as the same swirling black masses that cast its shadow over Citadel was no more than mere confirmation of the enemy who sought to destroy them then and failed. Here, at the center of a peace-loving town, the Fated Children had come to wage war against their bitterest adversary one last time.
They had faced a host of final enemies before. But to say this one was different was a disparity akin to saying a forest fire and the sun were different. The conflagration in their hearts burned now not for justice or the warrior's way. Where Seifer stood was once occupied by the team's brilliant tactician... a beloved friend and confidante.
The fire in their souls burned. Avenge Quistis.
Seifer had had enough of waiting. Ascending the marble steps, he unleashed a sharp blow from his right foot to kick the door open explosively.
AT-FIRST-CAME-PAIN. UNBEARABLE-PAIN. FEAR-CAUSED-ME-PAIN, LIKE-FLAMING-KNIVES-SLOWLY-PLUNGING-INTO-MY-BRAIN.
CAME-THEN-DARKNESS. THICK-LIKE-MUD-ALIVE-COLD-BITING-TINY-JAWS-MILLIONS-GNAWING-MY-FLESH-EYES-TONGUE. LIKE-DEATH-WITH-NO-PEACE. YESSS-I-MIGHT-HAVE-DIED.
HELL-ICE-FOR-ETERNITY. BEFORE-I-WOKE-UP. STIRRED-BY-FRAGRANT-AROMA. DIMENSIONAL-MAGIC. SCENT-SO-SWEET-IT-BROUGHT-MY-SENSES-BACK-TO-LIFE.
SCENT-OF-FROTHING-MAGIC-REVIVIFIED-MY-STRENGTH. BUT-ONLY-LITTLE. JUST-ENOUGH-TO-ENDURE-PAIN-WITHOUT-SCREAMING. IF-I-CAN-SCREAM. I-CAN. BECAUSE-DIMENSIONAL-MAGIC-BROUGHT-ME-BACK.
MORE-OF-MAGIC-GUSHING-FROM-WHAT-HIDEOUS-MEN-CALL-THE-ONE-GREAT-SOURCE. WHERE-SEED-DRAW-MAGIC. ONE-GREAT-SOURCE-JEALOUSLY-GUARDED-BY-ONE-GREAT-ENEMY. HATED-ENEMY-THAT-I-CREATED-MYSELF-WITH-MY-MONEY. FILTHY-BARTERING-HEAP-I-BESTOWED-ON-TRAITOR-CID-TO-ERECT-THE-CONCEALMENT-FOR-HIS-COWARDICE.
BECAUSE-I-CREATED-THEM. I-CREATED-THEM-WITH-MONEY-AT-TIME-WHEN-I-REEKED-OF-GREED. AT-TIME-WHEN-I-FELT-NOT-PAIN.
Betrayal is to turn away from one’s inner creed. I have never professed allegiance to yours.
Delusional oaf. You dared invade the sanctity of the Guardian realm to serve your unholy science. And for what? The desire to amass riches? You desecrate the holiest of kingdoms with your filthy hands, wielded the power of empathy and deception and disturbed my reverie...
For the purpose of perfecting the travesty of my origin, the black power that you intended to use to serve your greed. HOW DARE YOU SULLY MY LORD’S LEGACY WITH YOUR FALSE DREAMS!
Not if they hurl you into the darkest pit first.
We shall see who has more.
They were welcomed by the half-hunched figure of a man whose frail form screamed weakness. Which would have been deceiving, as they were all too aware of the Mayor Dobe who, despite his short stature and aged knees, lacked no fortitude in championing his unbending belief in pacifism even at gun point. They never respected his views, but his resolve was something they all wished they had.
Only, in this case, Mayor Dobe’s weak body and strong resolve hardly proved any relevance. Neither did the frail figure who stood before them.
“What brings the mighty SeeD in my humble abode?”
Who they knew to be anything but he appeared.
Squall stepped forward. “To end this.”
The old man squinted, as though laboring for vision. But he was hardly convincing, or maybe they were just in no mood to be deceived.
Zell balled his fists.
Rinoa felt her weapon’s trigger.
Seifer’s blade gleamed.
Selphie let one end of her nunchaku thud on the marble floor.
“Is truth the way to victory?” ‘Dobe’ forced out, like an old man, unreliquishing his old man’s eyes. “You call me by a name no one’s addressed me with since the day I died. And it seems you have finally discovered the truth. That I am he.”
“Yes, the one to whom you all owe your stupid lives, for it was through my resources that your acquired your great powers.”
“And yet you betrayed us.”
“Betrayed? I was merely trying to discard useless effects.”
Selphie could no longer wait. “Where’s Irvine?”
“The gunslinger from Galbadia.” ‘Dobe’ squawked amusedly. “The hapless youth Martine employed to complete his cowardice.”
“I don’t care what you think of him, or all of us. You were the one who established Garden, and we may owe you our abilities. But this doesn’t mean you get to play with our lives. And once and for all we want to be free of you!”
“By... killing me, perhaps?”
Selphie was taken aback by the helplessness in ‘Dobe’s’ voice. “N-no... if there’s another way...”
“Don’t be fooled, Selphie,” Seifer interjected while turning to the impostor. “I’ve never met you, but I’ve heard quite a lot about the asshole Gardenmaster that provoked the mutiny against Cid. I would have applauded you back then.”
Norg eyed Seifer sharply.
“But you just had to make too damn many people suffer.”
“And pray tell me,” Norg shot back, “who didn’t suffer?”
“Pray tell who didn’t die?”
Squall felt his hair bristle. “What... you died?” his voice rang out, not so much out of bewilderment from the enemy’s voice as it did of the sudden cold that pierced into his skin like an ice needle.
Evil confronted him face-to-face.
“I died...” the old man suddenly hissed like a snake, “out of fear... of bitter terror and gripping dread. I... fear you, for making me feel pain in my head, for having defeated me in a battle I should never have fought.”
Rinoa gasped, her heart and spine suddenly slapped with a chill so hateful it felt as though it came straight from hell. The essence of sorceress inside her rebelled, as though offended by a noxious smell. She fought to keep herself from throwing up from the rancid reek permeating through her soul.
“I... was a Shumi...” From serpentine to guttural the old man’s voice transformed. “I was... of a race... whose legacy is to change from our natural state... of hideous, loose-skinned and slit-eyed monstrosities... into obnoxious little creatures that befriend strangers by licking their blood... if we ever made the mistake of... being good...”
“What... what’s happening to him?” Zell paled, as cold bites likewise offended his senses. “He’s...”
“If we...” Norg’s toad-like croaks now rumbled, “were bad, we turn, into even more hideous loose-skinned monstrosities with magic in our heads... making us feel the thoughts and pains of others... while being able to share our own pains... magic in my head that I used to fight you... magic that was too weak to defeat you and therefore... made you objects of my terror and fright...”
Selphie’s eyes widened in terror. “Oh... my...”
“But... what... happens... to... bad... ShuMi... transformed already... bY GreeD... like me... when... made... fearFUl... by FeAr and pAIn...? WhAT happeNS to terror-KILL of ShuMi-bAD when Terror-PaiN is too mUch to enduRe and bad hsuMi succuMbs to-TERROr-PAIN-DEATH...”
“Holy shit...” Seifer, tightening the grip on the Hyperion, prepared himself for battle, aware in his frigid soul that he was about to enter the fight of his life...
As the man who once assumed a half-hunched form fully bowed beneath his cracking back, the air was suddenly filled with the stench of dried blood and rotting corpse, which assaulted everyone’s senses like a knife that plunged into the nose and stabbed directly inside the head. Suddenly dizzy with nausea, the SeeDs staggered back, overwhelmed by head-splitting confusion. Each of them groped as though all light in the world was extinguished.
"I can't see!" hollered Selphie.
"Me too, dammit!" followed Zell, his gloved hands extended in front of him. "What the hell was th... YEEAGGHHH!" An explosion of pain in his stomach brought him to his knees. And almost at the same time, all of them started coughing out blood.
Squall battled through the agony, recognizing it as the disorienting and harrowing effect of a Pain attack. Acting on instinct, his shaking hands felt for the pouch strapped to his belt and fished out a vial of Megalixir, which he crushed in his hand to release its potent healing energies.
Quistis loved tulips. Xu had always known that about her best friend.
Kneeling down to the grass-covered ground, the veteran SeeD laid the bouquet before her friend’s final resting place.
Xu read the inscription on the marble slab. Tears almost welled from her tired eyes.
“You should never have to, Quisty.” She crimped her lips. “If I’d been a good friend to you, you should never have to.”
Observing her, his eyes equally somber, Marcus Derlini shook his head.
“Quistis would have hated to learn of you blaming yourself, Xu. Stop it.”
was all the thought that crossed her mind. Quistis, on whose case Xu had always been for being hopelessly forgiving, would have been scolding her by now. “
We can’t always feel responsible for the mistakes of others, and none of us can save the world on our own”
, the instructor had always told her then. Those were the first words of counsel that she heard from Quistis, a long time ago, when a training mission almost failed because of a miscalculation a rookie teammate of hers committed. “
It was his call all the way, so don’t be too hard on yourself.”
That was the day their friendship started.
And now it had ended, because Quistis was gone.
“Don’t blame yourself, it’s not your fault.”
, she resolved silently. It may not have been her fault Quistis died in battle, but it sure as hell was someone’s.
Lifting her head up, Xu trained her gaze toward the young man standing not too far away, beside the marker of another friend who had fallen. Jerico was being imprudent and reckless, she thought while observing that his arms had lost the bandages he wore the day before.
But by no means could she blame him. They shared the same pain.
“It’s not over yet,” she declared. “And I take it you’re not going to let us leave without you.”
Jerico knelt briefly to place a blossom on the marker where his best friend, Luna Arcadis, was laid to rest. And with a face as dark as this heavily overcast day, he turned to the veteran SeeD.
“Doctor Kadowaki couldn’t stop me from ditching the infirmary. You think you can do better?”
“I don’t plan to.” Xu stood up. “Let’s go.”
The bond between him and I was, at best, precarious.
The white wave of healing washed over them, removing the darkness on their eyes and the pain in their mouths and bodies. Squall, Rinoa, Zell, Selphie and Seifer readied for battle and turned their full attention to Gardenmaster Norg.
I was ecstatic when the children freed me. Even I, a servitor spirit of the mighty Hyne, could not bear looking into that acrid soul for much longer.
Together, they had been the single mightiest fighting force the world had ever seen. Dubbed as The Fated Children by the people who owed them their lives a dozen times over, they had faced a plethora of foes, from the deadliest in cunning and intelligence to the most powerful, whose single flick of a finger could split this planet in half. They had battled the most terrible threats, and together they had always prevailed.
Hate filled my being from the first moment I sensed his return. When his lifeless husk absorbed a portion of the energies that escaped the Dimensional Interval that fateful day when the Children battled the scourge of Hyne's descendants.
None could have prepared them for the sight that met them. A sight that made them wish their visions had not been restored.
From the depths of a hell that would not suffer the stink of a fearful Shumi, he returned. His soul distorted beyond recognition, his body shaped in the most grotesque fashion by the fear that first expunged his life.
Gardenmaster Norg, the greedy Shumi, was no more.
The Shumi were blessed and cursed with a unique anatomy that unwittingly followed the shape of its heart. For ages, the race of ground dwellers had known nothing but gentleness.
Instead, they were faced by a being that not even their worst nightmares can spawn.
However, that was not of free choice, but a necessary resort. The reason they are such gentle creatures is a culture based on this fact, that anyone who does not tread the narrow path will literally turn as hideous as his heart.
At first glance they thought it was a Hexadragon, except that it seemed to have nothing underneath its scaled skin save for bones that protruded in several points on its body. Its six massive appendages hung loosely under its jagged form without touching the ground, with the chore of supporting its ghastly figure assumed by the seven spider-like legs that shot out from its back, as though the legs were an extention of its spine. Hair whose every strand seemed to have a life of its own covered its entirety like flesh-eating worms that had sucked it dry.
I, Leviathan, Guardian of the Water realm, was most unfortunate for having been linked to a Shumi whose gluttonous heart had already deformed his body.
From the creature's face that were studded with six crimson eyes jutted a dozen massive tentacles, each one appended with what looked like human hands. And so enormous were its legs that its joints required oval-shaped hinges the size of human beings.
The children freed me. Although in the process, they also introduced the concept of fear-pain into the Shumi. They paved the way for that one subterranean dweller to have his heart – already distorted by greed - twisted beyond recognition by fear-pain, with his physical form following suit.
In fact, one of them was human.
"Oh no...” an aghast Rinoa exclaimed, “Is that Irvine I see buried in one of its legs?"
Selphie's breath almost broke. "Oh... IRVINE!!!"
A Shumi infected with fear-pain... transforming him into a Fear-Demon, is something the human world should never suffer with.
Squall could not hide his terror. "What are you?"
The Fear-Demon stood before them, six eyes of hate blazing fire and brimstone at his enemies.
End of Chapter 69
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Winter Knight of the Unseelie Court
This time, make sure the bastard stays dead!
Oh, and don't forget Irvine. He's pretty important and shouldn't remain stuck to NORG.
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Ambitious but rubbish
I'm putting this out now. The end game continues.
I am of no use here
, hissed the Guardian.
Depart I must.
"Where... am I?"
Irvine felt his head throb. The pain was dull, and felt as though he was looking straight into a source of light so intense it could fry someone's brain. Which didn't make sense, because all he could see was gray.
He was unsure whether his eyes were wide open or tightly shut. All he could see was a wall of gray, with a few scattered puddles of black here and there.
The gray seemed to undulate.
Then there were flashes, sporadic and in varying intensity. To him they flickered like bursts of gunfire from a distant battlefield. They probably would have colors, too, if he didn't see them through the gray wall than undulated.
Then came the sounds. At first they were faint thuds that echoed in unison with the dull flashes.
The thuds were then joined by hissing and the disorienting din of a freight train.
Irvine felt weak, drained and limp, as though his bones had melted like plastic. He felt his energy abandoning him. Siphoned, one heart-seizing pound at a time.
The flashes seemed to grow dimmer. The wall of gray gradually darkened, even more than it already was. The black on its face appeared to grow and engulf the gray, just as cold bites began to munch on his soul. The sounds began to die down as well.
Except for the thuds.
If he were to be allowed a second, Squall would look back and recall Omega Weapon. They remembered it as the most lethal enemy they had ever faced. The most savage, most brutal, most ferocious, and easily the most powerful. As a long-time member of SeeD, Squall's prowess in the arena of combat knew little peer, and his advancement since the day they first tasted genuine take-no-prisoners battle had been towering and unprecedented. All this he can proudly boast. And yet the very recollection of Omega's devastating Light Pillar was enough to make his hair stand on ends. The most savage, most brutal, most ferocious, and easily the most powerful, Omega Weapon simply was the deadliest enemy, period.
And fastest. Did he leave out fastest?
Withstanding Omega's attacks were one thing, especially considering how they resorted to sacrificing some of their GFs to absorb the monster's cataclysmic blows. But enduring catastrophic assaults in quick succession were a totally different story, underlining the little-known truth that most of the effort they exerted in fighting Omega were directed to deal with its speed. They had never faced a quicker enemy.
The Fated Children relied on combat power and experience to overcome their enemies. But combat power and experience could only go so far against a foe so fast he could preempt any and all kinds of attacks and counterattacks, allowing them no moment to strike back, let alone breathe. All the evasion skills and abilities they had mastered in all the years they fought had been totally reduced to naught. No matter how quickly they moved to avoid NORG's attacks, the transformed Shumi's powerful magic and psycho-blasts still found its targets with sheer impunity. Within the vast chamber of what used to be a humble small town mayor's abode, the SeeDs had nowhere to run to escape the fear-demon's wrath.
Helped in no small way by her own gruesome experience with the so-called Quagmire magic, Rinoa quickly realized where NORG drew his advantage. .
Irvine. Norg is using his speed the same way Adel used my life force...
It didn't take long before the thuds, too, began to fade.
And then, as his consciousness waned, Irvine realized what those weakening thuds were.
They were his heartbeat.
"Squall..." Rinoa gripped his arm. "Norg is killing Irvine!"
Without hesitation, the SeeD commander bolted headlong toward the Fear-demon. But even before he could raise his gunblade, NORG had already made his move, unleashing a bone-jarring Psycho blast that smashed into Squall with the force of a missile. The resulting explosion almost collapsed the entire house.
Without missing a beat, NORG then turned to Rinoa and made quick work of her with an eruption of half a dozen Ultimas. The sorceress could only scream in mind-numbing pain as the infernal conflagrations seemed to incinerate her very soul.
"IT'S-TRAGIC-HOW-FEAR-PAIN-BESIEGED-ME-STILL-KNOWING-I-CAN-KILL-YOU-EASILY." NORG'S demon form crackled with power - both his own and Irvine's. Deadly, infernal magic meshed with Speed and Accuracy that the former Garden Master had optimized to his advantage. He now knew he finally had these accursed SeeDs at his mercy.
The Fear-demon's black eyes glazed, seeing something that pleased him.
One of his carbuncled legs moved, pointing its tendril-tipped claw toward Selphie. In a whip-cracking instant, the Trabian lass was similarly imprisoned inside his ghastly, hair-covered appendage. NORG at once knew what he can use in her.
Ribbons of black began to flow out from all of his six eyes. Selphie's ultimate power: Anti-Life magic. NORG trained his shadowy sights around the sprawling chamber's area in preparation for casting the life-expunging spell on the three helpless enemies that lay before him.
Wait a minute. Three? Previously he counted fou...
A light-speed blow nearly split the back of NORG head. He wailed in pain. "WHO-DARES!!!"
Scorching like a meteor, Zell expended a second for a wry smirk. "Like hell we're making it easy for you!" Disappearing in a cloud of phosphor smoke, he came rampaging back seconds later with a massive blow that visibly stunned the fear-demon.
But it wasn’t enough. His entire form smoldering, Zell watched grimly as the gruesome foe writhed in excruciating fury. His attention focused on his friends held captive by the hated enemy, with his heart torn on who he should attempt to rescue first. Irvine must have been suffering gravely from being trapped inside the fear-demon’s legs for that long. But also knowing how NORG used Irvine’s abilities made him realize the deathly peril of giving the demon the opportunity to use Selphie’s powers. The greater evil was obvious.
Another thunderclap as the mighty SeeD launched once more and then tore back with a wake of lightning bolts. Still reeling from the last blow, the fear-demon wasn’t prepared for the burning fist that piledrove into the swollen leg joint that imprisoned Selphie. NORG'S cries were horrendous, tearing out like the wail of a million Thrusteavises as his appendage flew apart, liberating the Trabian lass from her shackles and consequently robbing him of the ability to cast Anti-life.
Fighting for consciousness, Selphie yelled after Zell as he again sped off. "Free Irvine!"
But one look on Zell's face told the story that Selphie's cry was not needed.
Hold on, bud. I'm coming.
Only in the direst of battle circumstances could Zell execute a maneuver this extreme: propelled by a typhoon of desperation magic, entire dimensions opened up for him one by one, each portal driving him forward in mind-staggering bursts of relativistic acceleration. Scientists who specialized in paramagic once tried to determine whether Zell's ultimate last resort attack was indeed a superluminal trek that shot him around the world in an instant or merely a supernatural simulation of the phenomenon. But real or simulation, the result was the same: his fists harvesting power enough to tear down a mountain.
Right now, those same fists seethed with enough energy to split a continent in two, and they were aimed directly at the part of NORG where Zell's best friend, Irvine, was imprisoned.
But NORG was ready this time. "SANCTIMONIOUS-WHELP!" Using his own speed, he unleashed a well-timed blast from one of his Cimmerian eyes.
Zell was moving too fast to react. "Oh no..." The energy grenade merely grazed his left leg, but that was enough to throw him off-balance.
NORG wasn't finished. Just as the SeeD spun out of control, the former Garden Master unloaded with a blow from one of his legs that smashed harrowingly against Zell's lower back, bending and nearly splitting his rag doll body in two. NORG then delivered a perfectly timed strike with another leg that connected hard against Zell's pelvis. He screamed in mind-bending agony as the fear-demon's hideous leg shattered something in his back.
"YOU'RE-NOT-DEAD-YET." His fanged mouth oozing a thick and milky substance, the monster who used to be a Shumi stood tall on seven pilous pillars over the fallen SeeD. "I-AM-PLEASED-FOR-MY-FEAR-WANES-WITH-YOUR-PAIN-I-HAVE-WAITED-INSIDE-THAT-FRAIL-FORM-TOO-LONG-FOR-THIS-MOMENT-OF-PEACE."
Zell was indeed alive, suffering pain that would have made any hardened soldier wish for death. But his mind was far from his agonies, or NORG's sibilant voice, or the blood that dripped from his mouth. His thoughts did not dwell on how his wounds were severe enough to end his life.
His eyes fixed on one thing: the swell in one of the monster's legs that imprisoned his best friend.
The thuds were now no louder than faint knocks. Taps. Of the last moments of his existence. The temptation to sleep was overwhelming. And it felt good. Irvine’s eyes began to close.
He didn't know how, but in his fading consciousness, Zell felt his best friend's waning life. Irvine will die if he stayed one minute longer inside NORG's leg.
Teeth gnashing from the pain, the desperate martial artist gathered all his strength for one mighty push, resulting in one head-blasting wave of pain that nearly split his entire being apart. "RRRRGGGHHH!!!" But he refused to surrender. Despite the unimaginable agony of a broken backbone twisting and bending violently, he pushed on. Tears and sweat soaking his face, Zell unleashed everything he had left.
Driven by a deafening explosion, Zell launched toward the fear-demon like a missile and shattered its ghastly limb from the base, ending the gun-slinger's enslavement. The entire house trembled from NORG's otherworldly wail.
The ear-splitting scream also shocked the fallen SeeDs back to consciousness. Selphie was the first to struggle back to her feet, beholding in horror the two sprawled perilously close to the thrashing fear-demon. "Irvine! Zell!" With no second thought, she dashed toward them. But her actions attracted NORG’s attention. And in one quick instant, the hideous monstrosity was on top of her.
"Move!" a voice rang out as a pair of Flare explosions pushed the fear-demon back. Another Flare blast, many times stronger than the first two, hurled the monster against a far wall and consequently opened the way for Selphie to come to the aid of Zell and Irvine. Squall, Rinoa and Seifer quickly scampered after her.
"How are they doing?" the SeeD commander shot out, observing how Irvine coughed incessantly in an effort to catch his breath. Selphie was trying to prop him up, leaving Rinoa to attend to Zell. Squall knelt beside her. "Zell?"
"He's unconscious," the sorceress said, trepidation on her face. "He's hurt bad."
“Dammit, we got our asses handed to us.” Seifer was alert to the fear-demon, which had begun to pull himself up. “Get them out of here. I’ll handle this ugly bastard.”
“You can’t take him on by yourself.”
“It’s called stalling the enemy while you get chicken-wuss and ladies man to safety. You’re SeeD commander so you should at least be familiar with that strategy.”
Squall stood up. “Fine. Rinoa, Selphie, get Irvine and Zell back to the shuttle,” he said before facing Seifer. “We’ll try to buy you some time.”
Seifer eyed Squall like a hawk. Maybe he thought the two of them had too much history to let this moment slide without at least a deriding remark, but even he knew they had no time for this right now. Seifer expended a moment for a smirk before cocking his gunblade for the next round.
That was when they felt it.
Like a cinderblock in the gut. Fire in their legs. A hole in the chest. Frost bite on bare skin .
Like talons of black ice clamped tight around their hearts.
Fear. Despair. Unimaginable terror.
Above them, NORG loomed.
They saw the abomination’s fang-studded maw moving, but whatever words it churned out were lost to the young warriors who suddenly saw themselves planted in place. No semblance of magic or science that had the power to immobilize them manifested, and yet they could not move. Pure essence of fear riveted them to a deeply horrific sensation that moving one inch would result to the world’s destruction.
And neither could they talk. Not one squeak. Cavernous horror hollowed out their hearts to an emptiness born of losing everything. Despair and hopelessness, smearing bitterness they actually tasted at the base of their tongues. They wanted to scream and cry. But they instead froze, unable to unload the terror that ravaged their hearts like slow-acting acid.
Being a sorceress, Rinoa knew what NORG was doing to them. But the awareness didn’t help her fend off the petrifying effect of fear. Much as her sorceress powers were rooted in her mind, the mind powers of a fear-demon was simply more potent.
“AND-NOW-YOUR-HEARTS-ARE-LIQUID-AND-MINDS-SURRENDERED-YOU-SHALL-HAVE-PEACE,” were Norg’s last words that they failed to hear. And then darkness engulfed everything.
End of Chapter 70
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Ambitious but rubbish
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Ambitious but rubbish
Rinoa smiled upon opening her eyes to the soft rays of sunlight slipping through the slightly open drapes across her bedroom. A morning like this was fast becoming a rarity, she thought, as her slender arms inadvertently stretched out to welcome the subtle warmth of those gentle beams of yellow light. The lazy pleasure made leaving her bed a chore, but she resolved to pull herself up anyway as the day's itinerary came to mind.
“Big day today!”
she recalled giddily. Frantically groping for her fur-covered slippers, the raven-haired sorceress slipped her robe on with equal urgency. One glimpse at the desk clock told her that she should have been moving much faster.
But she didn't. In spite of the urge to rush, Rinoa couldn't help looking back at the night before, and the moments of intense bliss she shared with her lover. It felt a touch peculiar. It certainly wasn't the first time she shared moments like that with him. So how come last night felt so fresh and new? As though it was their first night all over again. A radiant smile glowing from her face, Rinoa gathered her clothes while taking note of the gushing noise coming from the bathroom.
“He’s in the shower…” she muttered prior to knocking on the door. “Hey! Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Hold on a sec…” a male voice emanated, followed by a soft click of the doorknob. He peered through the opening. “I just thought you needed more sleep… from last night… you know…”
Rinoa couldn’t help giggling. Inching seductively close, she landed a tender kiss on the bridge of her husband's nose, gently scoping the faint scar mark with her lips.
He took this as a cue. “Wanna join me in here?”
Rinoa bit her lips, wanting so badly to accept the invite. But all she ended up with was a soft whine. “Aw… so much to do, so little time…"
“So?” he retorted while brushing the water off his auburn-brown hair. “We’re the godparents, they wouldn’t dare start without us.”
“Tempting. But Fujin can’t finish the party favors without me. She doesn’t have the steadiest hands in the world, you know.”
“Haha, it’s not her hands you should worry about,” he said while reaching inside her robe.
“Huh? What? Not like it’s the first time I touched you there.”
“I know…” Rinoa blushed. “But… well, since last night… I don’t know… but for some reason all of this feels like the first time…”
Squall smiled. “Yeah, I felt that way too. Same way I felt when we first kissed…”
“At the balcony?”
And with that, Rinoa no longer resisted when Squall pulled her into the shower, from where more soft giggles emanated for a spell before they were all drowned by the music of pouring rain.
"Um... actually, no, we decided not to."
"Really?" he said, scratching his blonde hair. "That's kinda... cool. No, I take that back."
"What? You mean I'm uncool?"
"No, it's not that," Zell quickly retorted, wary as though he had said something offensive. "I mean, it's better than that. Most couples I know couldn't wait for nine months. I certainly couldn't. First moment Iris told me she was pregnant, we were off to Dr. Kadowaki in a flash."
"Haha!" Selphie laughed crisply. "Patience has never been your virtue, Zell."
"And it's yours?"
"No, of course not." The Trabian lass grinned, inadvertently recalling the moniker the media had given the two of them in particular back when they still walked the halls of Balamb Garden as SeeDs. "I'm one-half of the much ballyhooed Tour de Force, remember?"
"Oh please, don't remind me," Zell snapped back with a grimace. Said alias that the media had branded the two of them with after they singlehandedly defeated an army of Trabian terrorists didn't really sit well with him. "I hated that nickname, it's so nerdy."
"I know, right. But it sure was fun back in the day."
It had been six years since the last of their class bid farewell to Garden to venture into the world as civilians. They all had started various careers as adults, with most taking jobs related to their trade as combat specialist. Some, on the other hand, found themselves settling into more benign preoccupations, and both Zell and Selphie fell in with that crowd. Zell partnered with wife Iris and his mother, Ma Dincht, into putting up a restaurant in Balamb that specialized in fish and seafood, while Selphie took up a course in urban development and had since been helping overhaul Trabia's railway transport system.
"Reminiscing again," he told her, as he had several times before. "Maybe being a civilian contractor isn't working out for you. Why didn't you apply for that job at Dollet like I told you?"
"What? The bouncer gig at the pub?"
"It's not that. I love my job. You know how much I love trains."
"But you miss fighting, right?"
"Not like you do." Selphie snickered. "But yeah, I do miss it. But I don't wanna end up throwing cross-dressers out the window for the rest of my life. I have a baby on the way."
"Speaking of which..." Zell began to look frantic again. "Come on, tell me already. Is it a boy or a girl?"
"I told you, we decided not to learn about the baby's gender. Irvine wants it to be a surprise."
"GRRR! I thought you called us up for that."
"No. I called you up to give me a baby shower, silly!" Selphie then looked at her watch. "Which reminds me, the others sure are taking their time."
"Fujin will be late," a voice from the front entrance sounded. "Her hands are bandaged like a freaking mummy from all the paper cuts she got putting together these damn party favors."
"Poor Fujin," Selphie sighed. "Hello, Seifer"
"Hello yourself, messenger girl," Seifer returned while turning to hand Zell the box of party playthings he’d been lugging. "Here you go, chicken..."
"I thought you stopped calling me that."
"Sorry, old habits die hard. Where's Irvine?"
"Here!" They all turned toward the kitchen, from where Irvine peered out. "I have a bit of a problem." He waved what appeared to be a bloody knife with his left hand and then raised his right to show a thumb that was only half its normal length. Dark, red liquid dripped from it. "Mistook my thumb for a spring roll."
Irvine fully extended his thumb while licking the ketchup off it. "Kidding. Please don't hurt me."
"Aw..." Selphie swooned as she strode toward Irvine with small, fast steps. "You know I'd rather blow a koala to smithereens than hurt my adorable Irvy Kinnepoo!"
"PDA alert..." Zell looked away, same as Seifer did, not willing to watch as their Trabian colleague pinched her husband's cheeks while pressing her lips against his.
"I must say, I like what you did to the place," another voice rang out from the door. They all turned to see Laguna, Kiros and Ward making their entrance. The newcomers all noted how the sprawling living room area was decorated with all sorts of crepe paper flowers, balloons, glittering confetti taped on the walls, and wispy window curtains. All were colored either pink or light blue, something that the usually insight-impaired Laguna picked up on quite quickly. "You didn't bother to know if it's a boy or a girl, did you?"
Ward waved his hands. "..... .....!"
"Ward's right, they don't have to," Kiros followed. "It's obvious the baby's a girl."
Laguna reverted to character, scratching his head and looking clueless as a school boy. "How'd you know that?"
"Look at her! There's not a single change on her face, she's still as pretty as ever."
"Aw," Selphie gushed, repeating her rapid small step strut while approaching Kiros. "Thank you so much, Kiros." She landed a peck on his cheek.
"Laguna, Kiros, Ward." It was Cid and Edea's turn to make an entrance, joining the group from the back entrance of the living room. "I'm glad you guys made it. You too, Seifer."
"Wouldn't miss this for the world, Cid my friend," Laguna enthused. "Especially after I missed baby Claude's party last year." He turned to Zell. "I still owe you for that one, buddy."
"Yeah! And I'm still waiting for that vintage gunblade you promised you'd give me."
"Pfft. That's no vintage gunblade," said Kiros. "That's just some ridiculous props for the idiotic movie we signed up for years ago."
"The one you said you had to do to earn money while looking for Ellone?"
"Heh, one of many, Edea. One of msny." Laguna went back to accosting Kiros. "And you may mock..."
"Thank you. It's ridiculous."
"You may mock that piece of work all you want, but you can't deny how gallantly I challenged the dragon with it."
"Only because you thought it was Ward and I in costume."
"Oh yeah, Ward. Like you didn't try to pummel all the fish in Lake Obel with that huge harpoon of yours because you can't get anything to bite whenever we went fishing," Laguna barked, oblivious to the fact that the others had begun to laugh at their juvenile bickering. Especially Selphie, who was always the most ebullient in watching the trio whenever they bantered at each other like this. To her, seeing the three middle-aged men arguing like school boys was one of the funniest things in the world.
"I knew the three of them are here already," someone chimed in. They all turned to Ellone, who made her entrance with Raijin, Fujin and Iris in tow. "I can hear Laguna and Kiros from a mile away."
"There they are." The former president of Esthar beamed as he welcomed the four, naturally paying special attention to the girl with the familiar green shoal hanging down loosely in an arch from her arms. In turn, Ellone singled him out from the group, reciprocating his warm greeting with a hug and a peck on the cheek. Fujin did the same to Seifer while Iris displayed the same gesture of affection to her husband, Zell. The others were smiling from ear to ear at the scene, genuine happiness welling from their hearts as the gathering of family and friends unfolded.
Outside, Squall and Rinoa also couldn't help smiling as they heard the joyous din coming out from the orphanage. "Looks like they're all here," she said.
Squall was mulling. Beholding the old orphanage restored to same state when he lived here as a child brought conflicting emotions of nostalgia and sadness. He remembered almost nothing of his life here but profound and aching loneliness, the kind that only abandonment could have brought. But for some reason, he still treasured the place. In his eyes, the orphanage was still an important part of a past that he could never have done away it even if he was given the chance.
In the deepest corners of his soul, Squall knew that he owed the part of him that cherished this place to those people whose laughter uplifted his spirit.
And also, of course, to the girl whose arm was inside his.
"What?" Rinoa said when she noticed him looking at her. "There's that look on your face again."
"Nothing," he said curtly while smiling at her. "I'm just happy to be here." His reason to be happy stood right beside him. But aside from this one girl he loved, they were also the ones whose jubilant laughter resonated from inside the old orphanage. He had family and friends now. He will never be alone again. "I'm excited to see everyone."
"I know." Rinoa reciprocated her husband's smile with her own. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she cooed lovingly into his ears. "Let's go inside."
“Wheeee! You’re here!” squealed Selphie, eagerly hugging Rinoa and Squall as they alighted from the door. Everyone else followed, peppering the pair with hugs, kisses or firm handshakes.
Perhaps it was true that a day like this was fast becoming a rarity, now that each of them lived separate lives. It wasn't everyday that they found good reason to break from their busy schedules - as Balamb restaurateurs for Zell and Iris, Trabia civilian contractor and Chocobo rancher for Selphie and Irvine, Galbadia gym instructor for Raijin, Galbadia weapons shop chain owners for Seifer and Fujin, Winhill governor and police chief for Kiros and Ward, Winhill flower exporters for Laguna and Ellone, headmasters for a school for special children in Timber for Cid and Edea, and Dollet driving school owners for Squall and Rinoa - to get together in a festive gathering to recount stories of old and exploits they reveled in during the 'good old days.'
Trooping outside where the orphanage grounds overlapped a vast flower field, they gathered around a majestic round table, where all sorts of food and wine fit for a gathering that happened only once a year were laid out. The last time they all got together like this, it was for the birth of Zell and Iris' first child, Claude. And not all of them had made it to the party, with Laguna missing the event because it coincided with the day he stepped down as president of Esthar in a simple hand-over ceremony.
Seifer also wasn't there, but that had been the norm rather than the exception, at least at the time. That had stopped being the case for this occasion at least, thanks to Edea, who convinced him to attend this event. For almost the entire time since all of them graduated from Garden, Seifer had been that one alumnus who was hardly heard from again. Maybe it was expected for most, but not for the woman who raised them as her own. Like any loving mother, Edea didn't allow his distance to keep her from quietly checking into him from time to time to time. But that was all she did. Like any loving and understanding mother, she respected his silence and his privacy. But like any loving, proud and excited mother, Edea just had to make this exception upon hearing the news of Seifer's betrothal with his best friend, Fujin.
Which was one of the things Selphie had been waiting to focus the spotlight on for this occasion, never mind that this day was supposed to be her baby shower. In a gathering of friends who nearly all had been given away to marriage, the spunky lass from Trabia could never let this moment pass for the only unwed couple in the 'family.' With her unchanging exuberance, she raised her glass high up in the air and exclaimed "Who's getting married next?"
Fujin blushed. Seifer facepalmed. And everyone else raised their crystal wine glasses in a rousing toast, followed by the girls going over to Fujin for hugs and kisses and the guys pelting Seifer with grapes and other manners of fruits while hooting like college boys.
Cid interrupted the jubilant mayhem. "Listen up, kids," he started, raising his glass once more. "To Seifer and Fujin. Not a single day passed when I didn't dread the kind of fate anyone would suffer when they ran into the two of you..."
"Three, ya know!"
"Of course, the three of you - though you stay out of the bedroom, Raijin." They all laughed fondly. "But seriously, seeing how each and every one of you had grown up and made wonderful lives for yourselves, no matter how the past may have treated you, Edea and I couldn't be more proud if we were your real parents. And we could only see a bright future ahead for you. Furthermore..." Cid reached out to his wife and held her hand, "though Edea and I never had kids of our own, we still have all of you. And you don't know how happy each one of you makes us."
"Aw..." Rinoa, Selphie and Ellone swooned in unison as the rest applauded.
"My point is, Seifer, Fujin, make lots of babies!"
"Like the one we're having! WHOO-HOO!" Today, Selphie's energy and cheer was utterly contagious. Unlike before when mixed reactions of amusement and annoyance most often met her whenever she waved her arms in the air while cutting loose with her patented cheer, everybody seemed to genuinely share her high spirits. Even Seifer, who unwittingly dispensed with the usual response of rolling his eyes. He sat there shaking his head, fascinated by how this bubbly girl's sheer perkiness stayed with her over the years. Some things never change, he pondered.
Seifer's gaze then wandered toward Rinoa. "
But then, some things do
," he consequently thought next before effortlessly swinging his attention to Fujin. Getting up on his feet, he approached his fiancé and gallantly offered to assist her to the living room, where an enormous pile of gift-wrapped presents waited. "I thought we're having a baby shower for little miss sunshine. Let's go."
"Seifer's right." Irvine stood up, followed by a squealing Selphie. "Let's get inside before my wife explodes from all the excitement."
Selphie didn't explode, at least not literally. But her face glowed with all the merriment and joy of an expecting mother surrounded by the people she loved most. Which everyone all-too obviously shared, as they all trooped back inside the orphanage laughing, playfully nudging the people closest to them, unceasingly teasing Seifer and Fujin about their engagement, and making bets on whose baby present would make Selphie break into tears. To say that everyone was having a magnificent day was an injustice to the meaning of 'understatement.' It was more like they had all discovered the true meaning of life, and delighted to the fact that it surrounded them on all sides.
Maybe that was the case all along.
And maybe Squall couldn't be happier.
But he wasn't.
Rinoa noticed the sudden clouding on his face. “Squall? Is there anything wrong?”
Instead of answering, Squall turned his gaze toward the empty sea, anxiety written all over his face. This wasn't the first time Rinoa had seen her husband's temperament suddenly nosedive like this. All too aware that he wasn't the most responsive person in the world whenever his mood darkened, she tugged gently on his arm, the same way she had done countless times in the past when her apprehension made her unwilling to wait for him to break his silence.
“Moments like this scare me,” Squall finally answered. “Being happy like this."
"This only happens when something is about to be taken away from me.”
Rinoa wanted to playfully tell her husband that he was being ridiculous. She recalled how he confessed to having been stricken by this same dread on the day they were married. Nothing happened then, and nothing was going to happen now, she wanted to tell him.
At least that was what she believed one second ago, before her husband's trepidation seemed to have infected her as well. And it surprised Rinoa for apparently realizing exactly what he was talking about. She couldn't explain it. On seasons when everything stubbornly refused to go their way, Rinoa had always been the one with the penchant to see the silver lining. She had always been the one who readily lightened whatever heavy burden they carried at the time with her indefatigable
This, too, shall pass
And if there was any day in their entire lives, aside from their wedding day, that left no room for grim tidings, it was this day. Today, the proverbial silver layer reigned on the surface, together with gold, summer blue, and pink roses. There was simply nothing whatsoever to be afraid of.
So where was this dread slowly tainting her heart coming from? What was she about to lose? What were they about to lose?
"Squall, Rinoa, come on inside," Zell called out after noticing the two falling behind. Looking at him, Rinoa tried to force a smile, but the bewilderment in her face didn't escape his scrutiny. "Hey, is there a problem? What's wrong with you guys?"
Squall ignored him and continued to gaze at the sea, giving Zell that familiar sensation he used to feel years ago when he used to deal with a brooding and morose SeeD commander. He would have easily ignored it, but the old sullen vibes were also coming from Rinoa.
"Um, I'm not sure," she replied, just as Selphie and Irvine approached them.
Having led Fujin inside the house, Seifer looked back and noticed the five congregating, and by no means in the same jolly mood that was prevalent earlier. Six years ago, he would have dismissed the moment with a scoff. "Do we have a problem?"
But before anyone could manage a response, another voice emanated from the front entrance.
“Hi guys! Sorry I’m late.”
End of Chapter 71
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