Grazhir :: Crossover :: Convergence :: 01 :: Ortus

01 • Ortus

Harry was incredibly upset, understandably so, when he learned that his only option toward a resolution of defeating Voldemort involved his own willing death. Having found out that he, essentially, carried a piece of the man’s soul, however small, was enough to make him ill to the point of dry heaving. They had spent so long tracking down the Horcruxes, so long, and had been incredibly lucky to have managed to deal a death blow to the last, most wily of them all.

And then to learn, via that meddling headmaster, that he himself was one? So much for the last laugh.

Then again, he was so very tired, and if his death would allow for the end, he was willing to do his duty, no matter how much the prospect of death scared him. The battle itself was long and drawn out, and despite his youth and energy Harry realized that he could not go on for much longer. It seemed, quite unfairly, that Voldemort’s ritual-realized body had some advantages.

It might be necessary for him to die, but he would not go meekly.

The dark lord eventually won the battle of luck and speared Harry with a killing curse; he went down without a sound. Many people witnessed it, both good and evil, far too many for it ever to be denied. Voldemort gloated for a minute, then gathered up a mass of power, half draining some of his nearest followers, then cast a banishing spell at the body.

The people despaired; their ‘Chosen One’ had been killed. They had invested so much of their hope in a single person, barely more than a boy, so what hope was left for them? And they submitted.

Eventually the people came to realize just how badly they had handled their lives, and how badly they had wronged their once savior. They had, since the temporary defeat of Voldemort, lived their lives essentially carefree, having neither paid for nor fought for that freedom. And now it was gone. Guilt set in.

With guilt came introspection, and with introspection came ideas, and with ideas came rebellion. Voldemort was defeated for good five years later, a combined effort of the remnants of the Order of the Phoenix, resolute British citizens, and help from magical governments in other countries.

Life, as it tends to do, went on.

*

Harry found himself in some sort of overly well-lit train station, which was puzzling in the extreme, but after giving it a few moments of thought made a peculiar sort of sense. Maybe. He was distracted on seeing a man who looked alarmingly like Dumbledore sitting on a bench not far away, and went to see if any answers could be found.

“Ah, Harry, how lovely to see you. Sit, please.”

He did, eyeing the man suspiciously. “What is this? I had expected, if anything, to see my parents again, not you.”

Dumbledore nodded sadly. “Still angry, I see.”

“Look, I understand why I had to die. I don’t understand why I’m stuck here. No offense, but you aren’t exactly my favorite person right now.”

“I realize that. You see, Harry, you’re only as dead as you want to be.”

Harry bit his lip as his hands clenched into fists, trying to control his temper at the old man’s stupid riddles. “And what does that mean?”

“Just what I said,” Dumbledore replied. “You—”

Harry grabbed tightly onto the bench as the whole place began shaking as though at the epicenter of an earthquake, and kept holding until the tremors weakened and finally ceased. “What the bloody hell was that!?”

Dumbledore looked mildly confused as he fiddled with his long beard, gaze aimed somewhere at the sky. “I’m not entirely sure, my boy.”

He flexed his hands to release the tension and pinned the old man with an expectant stare. “You were saying?”

“Ah, yes! You’re only as dead as you want to be. If you so choose, you can move on to the next great adventure, or you can return to life.”

Harry blinked a few times and shook his head. “I was hit by the killing curse,” he said, then added, just to make sure the old man was on the same page, “Without my mother’s sacrifice as a protection.”

“True, true, but that was mainly for the purpose of dealing with the soul shard within you. Consider that dead, certainly, but you are in a state of limbo, neither alive nor dead. Only you can make that choice. Sherbet lemon?”

He rose from the bench and began pacing; anything to stop himself from hexing the man into next week. Even in death Dumbledore was enough to try the patience of a saint, and Harry was no saint. “I can live?”

“Yes,” Dumbledore said as he popped a sweet in his mouth.

He could live. As frightening as that thought was, it was less so than the idea of death. Harry squinted at the old man and asked, “Are you even really here? Do you exist?”

“Does anything?” Dumbledore responded maddeningly.

Harry slapped a hand to his temple where a vein started to throb. “I see. Well, all right. It’s been lovely seeing you again, not, but I choose to live.”

“Splendid, my boy! Off you go, then.” Dumbledore waved a hand in a vague gesture and everything changed.

Harry found himself . . . somewhere. It was not the battlefield. It was nowhere he recognized, in fact, but nothing seemed threatening. Well, aside from the fact that he seemed to be encased in some sort of crystal, felt better than he had his entire life, and was aware of a peculiar tickle at the back of his mind.

‘Hello, child.’

Had he not been trapped as he was he might have fallen over in surprise. “Where am I?”

‘After your defeat your enemy banished your body to the Bermuda Triangle, child. It is not without good reason that almost nothing is known about the place.’

‘That’s halfway around the bloody world,’ he thought.

‘Yes, it is.’

He started again, not having realized the voice was mental.

‘I like you,’ the voice said. ‘I’ve decided to keep you for a while.’

“Oh, Merlin.”

*

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

‘You always say that.’

“Looks like your eyes are focusing properly. Say your name for me.”

He sighed slightly and said, “Squall.”

“Why don’t you take it easy in training? Next time you might not be so lucky.”

“Tell that to Seifer,” he said flatly.

The doctor shot him an exasperated look. “He won’t listen to anyone. Why don’t you just ignore him?”

“That would make it rather difficult to spar,” he explained for what felt like the millionth time. ‘I swear the woman never listens to me.’

Kadowaki shook her head and started for the door. “I’ll go call your instructor. Just wait here a minute.”

‘You remind me so much of myself at times. That’s probably going to scar.’

Squall snorted. ‘Whatever.’

Warm laughter echoed in his mind. ‘Hm, who’s that?’

Squall glanced around casually, spotting a young woman behind the observation window. She said something too softly for him to hear before walking out of sight.

‘Do you recognize her?’ the voice asked curiously.

‘She looks a lot like Sis might,’ he responded thoughtfully. ‘But why would Sis be here?’

Quistis stepped into the room a second later and frowned at him. “I knew it’d either be you or Seifer! Come on, let’s go. Today’s the field exam.”

He slid off the bed and followed her out, mentally cringing against what he expected to be the latest attempt on her part to ‘understand’ him. As they were walking down the hall toward the core she asked, “Is there something on your mind?”

“Not really,” he said, with her saying the same at almost the same time.

‘Aside from throttling her?’

She laughed, prompting him to say, “What’s so funny?”

“Funny? No, I’m just happy. I feel like I’m finally beginning to understand my student a little, that’s all.”

“Suit yourself.”

Quistis hesitated at that, but pressed on, escorting him to the usual classroom on the second floor. He wondered along the way why it always went like this, with him having to wait to be sprung from Kadowaki’s care, like he was incapable of walking that distance on his own, or might get lost heading to a classroom he was depressingly familiar with.

The voice sounded a bit perturbed when it said, ‘I’m starting to think she likes you.’

He nearly grimaced at that, and gladly slung himself into his usual seat, looking up when Quistis cleared her throat in a bid for attention.

“Good morning, class. Let’s start with today’s schedule. There seems to have been some rumors flying around since yesterday. . . . Yes, the field exam for SeeD candidates will begin later this afternoon. Those not participating and those who failed last week’s test are to remain here in study hall. Field exam participants will have free time until the exam. Just be sure you’re in top condition. Meet in the lobby at 1600 hours. I’ll announce the team assignments there. Any questions? Oh, Seifer! Do not injure your partner while training.”

The blond in question glanced over at him and slammed his hand on his desk. Squall thought the scolding was pointless; there was always a danger of injury during a spar, and anyone who thought otherwise was opting for a dance recital, not training.

“Field exam participants, I will see you all later. And, Squall, I need to talk to you.”

‘Why couldn’t she have done so on the way here?’ He waited until everyone cleared out before standing up and approaching her.

“You haven’t been to the Fire Cavern yet, have you? You won’t be able to take part in today’s SeeD exam if you don’t pass this prerequisite. Do you have a good excuse?”

Knowing that nothing he might say would appease her, he simply shook his head.

“Then let’s get going. Take care of any last minute details and meet me at the front gate.” She quit the room briskly, much to his relief.

He spent a few minutes checking over his junctions while chatting. ‘It’s obvious she still doesn’t remember who I am. Maybe you’re right.’

‘Well, I can hope not, but perhaps. And she doesn’t have the advantages you do.’

‘You’re an advantage?’ he deadpanned.

More laughter, followed by, ‘To quote a great man: whatever.’

A quick grin escaped him. ‘There’ll come a day when you can’t hide from me any longer.’

‘Yeah. I’d really like that.’ The voice sounded wistful. ‘Think you could handle me in person?’

‘At the risk of sounding entirely perverse, I’d like to handle you in person.’

A shocked silence spanned several moments. ‘You don’t even know what I look like! I could be. . . .’

‘Female?’

There was an echoing groan. ‘There’s no reason to be rude. Ah, you’d better get going. She’ll probably hunt you down if you take too much longer.’

‘Yes, Griever.’

‘You know that’s not my real name,’ Griever said peevishly.

‘Yeah, but it sounds cool,’ he shot back, then headed off.

The trip to the Fire Cavern was routine in his opinion. Quistis tried to treat him like he was an imbecile, frequently questioning him about the basics, things he had long since learned. She even went so far as to mention that many male SeeD candidates choked up around her during low-level GF runs. It was like. . . .

‘She needs a few dozen less Trepies.’

Squall choked back his reaction and bravely forged on, hoping she would get the idea and stop making suggestive comments. She was supposed to be his support, not an agent for embarrassment. He wondered just how cold he would have to be to get her to back off, and if she did this to other students. Perhaps it was just those she was at the orphanage with, due to some obscure memory of the past?

Ifrit was duly subdued, which gained him its service, and they were shortly back at the main gate of Garden. “All right,” Quistis said, “we’re in good time. Get changed into your uniform and assemble at the main lobby.”

Squall nodded and headed off to the dorms. He hated the uniforms; they could dress in any fashion they wished except for times like these, making them an imposition. By the time he returned there were a number of people milling about, and Quistis had also found time to change.

“Squall! Over here! Let’s see, you’ll be with Zell Dincht. Quite a lively fellow.”

“He’s more loud than lively. This can’t be changed?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said with a shake of her head. “Zell!”

The martial artist bounced his way over, showing off out of sheer exuberance he assumed. When offered a hand to shake he ignored it, fearful in his heart of hearts that something like that was infectious.

Zell pulled his hand back with a brief frown. “Heard Seifer whooped you pretty bad this morning.”

“Even were that true, we were training.”

“Bet he doesn’t think so. He’s just being a pain in the ass. Ignore him.”

‘Why do people fell compelled to give me advice based on rumor and hearsay?’ he complained.

‘I don’t think it ever becomes less annoying,’ Griever commiserated. ‘There’s just something about taciturn people that makes others believe they need to fix them somehow.’

“That’s none of—”

“Your business,” Quistis finished for him with a smirk. “Ah, you two, Seifer is your squad leader.” When Zell went bug-eyed she added, “It can’t be changed. Seifer! Are you here?”

He noticed his sparring partner approach out of the corner of his eye and smirked inwardly. If his injury was likely to scar, so was Seifer’s. And as usual, the man’s posse arrived with him, making up the other two thirds of the disciplinary committee, a bit of a joke in his opinion.

“You’re the squad leader,” Quistis informed Seifer. “Good luck.”

The blond gunblader stared at her. “Instructor. I hate it when people wish me luck. Save it for someone who actually needs it, eh?”

Quistis nodded understandingly. “Okay. Good luck, then.”

Seifer snapped his fingers loudly. “Add Instructor Trepe to the list!”

‘Does he really think that means anything?’

“You three make up Squad B, with me as the instructor in charge. As a reminder, teamwork is of the utmost importance. Let’s get through this exam, everyone!”

Seifer practically posed, gunblade tapping on his shoulder, then barked, “Listen up! Teamwork means staying out of my way, so don’t forget it!”

Squall was saved from further dominance displays when Headmaster Cid arrived.

“It’s been a while, everyone. How’s everyone doing?” Cid paused to gaze around and briefly catch the eye of everyone waiting. “This exam will involve twelve members, squads A through D. You will be proceeding to a real battlefield. Obviously, the battles are for real. Life and death, victory and defeat, honor and disgrace. . . . Each of these go hand in hand. There’s only one way or the other. How ‘bout it? You still up for it?

“You’ll be accompanied by nine SeeD members. Should you fail these members shall get the job done. They always do. Well, that’s one less worry on your mind. The pride of Balamb Garden! The elite mercenary force, SeeD! Learn from them, obey their commands, and accomplish the mission. Prove yourselves worthy of becoming a member of SeeD. Best of luck.”

There was a sigh in the back of his mind. ‘I hate to say it, but that man has no business making motivational speeches. I feel vastly underwhelmed.’

‘You and me both,’ Squall replied, then followed the others to the garage to catch a transport to town.

‘Ah, well. This, too, shall change.’

Squall frowned faintly, ignoring Zell’s request to see his gunblade. ‘What’s that mean?’

‘Nothing, I suppose. It’s just a saying. Sort of like saying birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim. He simply seems unsuited to the role he just played. You are going to be careful, right?’

‘Yes. I hope to acquit myself well, and I can’t do that if I’m being careless.’

‘I wonder where you’re headed,’ Griever mused.

‘We’ll find out soon enough.’

‘I know, I just hate being in the dark.’

Zell’s whining broke through again. “Say somethin’, will ya!? What’s on your mind?”

Squall shot the man a brief glance and went back to his internal conversation. ‘I’d ask about that girl, but I doubt Quistis would know. Not if she doesn’t even remember any of us.’

‘No. Someday, they might. Memories have an odd way of surfacing when you least expect it.’

‘Like your parents?’ He lost the answer as the jolting stop of the transport distracted him. Everyone piled out and looked toward the docks. ‘So that answers one question, not that I expected otherwise.’

A man from the pier shouted, “Hey! You guys are the last! Hurry up and get in!”

“Don’t disappoint me now,” Seifer said cockily as he strolled toward the ship.

“Come on, move it!” Quistis ordered before trotting off as well.

Squall sighed and followed, Zell shadow boxing the air at his side.

“Hurry, Squall!”

‘You know, if she keeps that up she’ll give others a complex. Does she even realize how much she ignores other people in favor of you?’

He stepped onto the ship and ducked inside, then found a seat. ‘Makes me feel like a little kid. I hate it. You’d think she’d pick on Zell rather than me.’

Quistis stood up again almost immediately as a dark-haired woman entered. “Xu, these are the members of Squad B.”

Squall murmured a greeting that was lost in Zell’s more enthusiastic offering.

Xu cast an appraising look at Seifer. “Seifer, how many times has it been now?”

“Oh,” Seifer said blithely, “I just love these exams. . . .”

Xu rolled her eyes and stepped to the front of the room. “I’ll explain the current situation and the mission. Our client for this mission is the Dollet Dukedom Parliament. A request for SeeD was made eighteen hours ago. Dollet has been under attack by the G-Army since about seventy-two hours ago. Forty-nine hours into the battle, Dollet abandoned their position in the inner city. Currently, they have retreated into the nearby mountains and are reorganizing their troops. That’s the current status.

“Now onto the mission objective. According to our reports, the G-Army is mopping up the Dollet troops in the mountain region. We’re to make a landing at Lapin Beach, and will eliminate the remaining G-Army within the city, to liberate it ASAP. Afterward, SeeD members will intercept any G-Army forces trying to make their way into the city from the mountain region.”

Seifer shifted impatiently. “So, what are we supposed to do?”

“SeeD candidates are to eliminate the G-Army inside the city. Oh, it hardly needs to be said, but. . . . The order to withdraw takes priority. Do not forget. We’re almost there, and anticipate a battle as soon as we disembark, so be prepared. Any questions, talk to Quistis.” Xu carefully made her way back out of the room after a nod to the instructor.

‘So the odds of there being many enemies in the city itself is low,’ he mused. ‘Not exactly what I would have expected for an exam.’

‘Perhaps, but you can’t be sure of that. It depends a lot on the size of the army they sent, so they might have enough people to split forces. Galbadia just keeps on, doesn’t it, almost like they’re trying to annex the entire continent.’

‘Maybe it’s some weird response to that last war? Scuttlebutt paints Vinzer Deling as a dictator.’

There was silence in reply to that, and Squall knew from experience that pushing for a response was useless. Griever occasionally gave the impression that he knew a lot more about the world than Squall did, and he wasn’t always willing to be expansive. ‘I don’t know if there’s a connection,’ was all he finally got.

“If we’re landing soon, then go check things out topside,” Seifer told him.

“Acknowledged.”

“Good. Because that’s my order.”

Squall got up and slipped through the door so he could take a look. He felt a strange thrill standing at the bow. The water raced by and he could see Dollet up ahead, the visible areas punctuated by explosions and people littering the beach. Other ships were nearby, some catapulting themselves over the breakwater walls in their haste. It made him wonder who would be covering the damages caused by their forces, or if it would all be written off as a necessary expense of war.

His ship crunched into the beach moments later, the bay door splitting open, prompting his team to emerge and rush down the ramp. He shot around quickly, not wanting to be accused of slowing them down.

“Okay! Squad B, you are to secure the central square.”

Seifer nodded. “Let’s move out,” he said before heading for the stairs up from the beach. They had barely made it to the top when they were attacked, but the enemy was quickly defeated, and Seifer simply snorted before heading deeper into town. Eventually, though not without being attacked again, they arrived at their ordered location. “You two, scout the area for any more enemies.”

Another battle ensued when he and Zell flushed out Galbadian soldiers from behind a blockade formed from cars. “I think that’s all of them.”

“Well, then, we’re on standby ‘til the enemy comes. Standby . . . how boring.”

Squall took the opportunity to engage in his favorite pastime, all while making periodic, careful sweeps of the area with his eyes. ‘Okay, so you were right.’

‘You’ve done well so far,’ Griever responded, making Squall grateful that he wasn’t being teased. ‘All those years of training are paying off handsomely. I’m so very proud of you.’

Squall practically squirmed in response, not having expected such praise. ‘Well, ah, I just need to keep alert. No one said this would be incredibly exciting.’ An explosion not far away gave lie to that thought, and a dog yelped and ran into the area, only to dodge a kick from Seifer.

‘Now that’s just not right. You can tell a lot about people by how they treat animals and subordinates,’ Griever commented.

“Get outta here! Scram!” Seifer growled, chasing the poor thing around the fountain. “Hey! Galbadian soldiers! What are you waiting for!? Come show me what you got! I mean honestly, that was it? What is this, some kind of dog training!?”

‘If this is how he’s always acted on exams, I’m hardly surprised he’s still not a SeeD.’

Griever chuckled. ‘Even Zell has more patience. I can’t help at times but compare these people to those I knew. If they follow, then Seifer is in for a world of hurt someday, whereas Zell just needs to learn a little control over his emotions. And Quistis . . . she needs to realize that her ways are unintentionally alienating the people around her.’

‘I feel like she views us as a collection of flaws to be corrected. She keeps digging to understand us, but only succeeds in pissing people off. I might actually like her if she stopped being so condescending.’

‘Trust me, I know how you feel. I had a friend like that, but. . . .’

‘Did something happen to them?’ he asked slowly.

‘Oh, she lived to a ripe old age. I just wasn’t there to see it, so I’ve no idea if things would have changed, you know? She nagged a lot. What are you thinking? What’s going on in that head of yours? Why won’t you let us in? Stop breaking the rules!’

Squall did another visual sweep, purposely not saying what was on his mind, as Griever was beginning to sound maudlin. A dog howled nearby, catching his attention, bringing to notice a group of Galbadian soldiers sneaking down one of the streets toward the mountains. He yanked Zell down and carefully edged over to Seifer, indicating with a jerk of his head what was going on.

“I wonder what’s up there?” Zell said quietly, staring up the height of the mountain in the distance.

“Our next destination,” Seifer responded confidently.

“But that’s against orders,” Zell objected.

‘And we’re being judged in part on how well we follow orders. Seifer is the squad leader, and he’ll take the heat on this. Besides, I’m curious.’

“Weren’t you just saying how bored you were?” Seifer taunted Zell.

“Squall!”

He looked away from the mountain and nodded. “I stand by the captain’s decision.”

Griever let out a slight sigh and singsonged, ‘Rationalization!’

Seifer gave him a look. “Captain’s decision? You just want to wreak some havoc, too, don’t you,” he drawled accusingly.

“I’m not adverse to it,” he admitted. “And there’s got to be a reason why they’d be sneaking around like that, something they want to hide from our forces in the city.”

“The hell? Since when did you two get along? You’re like, all buddy-buddy now. Listen, this ain’t no ordinary battle. It’s an exam, an important one. I’m tellin’ ya, we have to stick to orders.”

“Then you stay here. I don’t need any boy scouts,” Seifer said mockingly.

“Zell,” Squall said, “he is also the captain and we are to obey his orders. Seifer, if we’re gonna go, let’s hurry.”

Seifer grinned broadly. “The enemy is obviously headed for that facility. We, Squad B, are to secure the summit. Move out!” he ordered, then stalked off down the street.

They crossed the bridge with only minor trouble, clearing out the soldiers left behind to guard the route, and eventually reached the base of the mountain itself. Squall was briefly startled when a soldier crawled out of the bushes, but relaxed when he took in the Dollet uniform.

“W-who are you!?”

“SeeD candidates,” Seifer said shortly. “What’s going on up there?”

“The Galbadian soldiers have entered the communication tower. It’s a nesting ground for monsters! If you guys are goin’ up, be careful.” The soldier collapsed a moment later from his wounds.

Squall tossed a potion on the man and dragged him back off the path as Seifer whipped his gunblade around. “More fun for us. Come on!” He dashed off, making Squall sigh and roll his eyes.

“Let’s go.” They found the captain a bit farther along, flat to the ground and spying on some Galbadian soldiers some distance below them. Dropping into place Squall watched as a soldier emerged from the base of the tower and saluted the one outside.

“The generator is up and running, and no problem with the boosters!” he reported.

“The hell they doing?” Seifer muttered.

“Cable disconnection confirmed! Beginning exchange process!”

“Roger,” responded the guard, then turned to face front as the other one ran back inside.

“Repairs?” Squall murmured.

“Who cares,” Seifer said dismissively. “This must be your first real battle. You scared?”

‘First battle? Does he suffer from severe short term memory loss?’

Squall choked back a snort. “I don’t think of it in those terms.”

“I love battles,” Seifer said almost confidingly. “I fear nothing. The way I look at it, as long as you make it out of a battle alive, you’re one step closer to fulfilling your dream.”

“Your dream?” he asked slowly.

“You have one, too, don’t you?”

“Sorry, but I’m going to pass on the subject.” Like he would discuss that with someone like Seifer!

“Yo! Let me in on it, too!”

“Mind your own business,” Seifer snarled as he stood, then added when Zell started shadow boxing, “Swatting flies again, Zell? Maybe you should bathe more often.” He graced them with a smirk and stalked off down the path, not even bothering to give further orders.

“Damn you!” Zell shouted, completely forgetting they were in enemy territory and in danger of being overheard and discovered.

Squall stood up as well, then touched his forehead reflexively and sighed. ‘Is it any wonder I get headaches?’

“There you are!” a female voice called, the owner quickly coming into view with a spectacular (and obviously unintended) tumble. She bounced to her feet and grinned sheepishly as she gave a little wave. “Are you Squad B? I’m Selphie, from Squad A, here with a message. Your captain is Seifer, right? Where is he?”

Squall pointed.

She skipped to the edge of the promontory in time to see Seifer reach the tower entrance and yell over his shoulder, “One of these days, I’m gonna tell you ‘bout my romantic dream!”

“This sure is tough,” she said with a sigh. “Captain! Wait up!!” Selphie took a few steps back, then launched herself forward, leaping over the edge. Squall was mildly impressed that she landed so well, and blinked when she glanced back up and shouted, “What are you waiting for!? Come on! Come on!”

Squall briefly considered leaping like she had, but chose to take the path instead. The feeling of warmth he got at that decision was pleasant, telling him that Griever approved. Besides, if he landed wrong. . . .

Selphie was waiting impatiently, bouncing up and down. “It would have been so much quicker to jump!”

“Quicker?” Zell said. “People don’t normally go jumping off cliffs, okay!? Ain’t that right, Squall?”

“The possibility of broken bones is not a risk I like to court.”

“Yeah!” Zell crowed and did some fancy footwork.

Squall shook his head and jerked his chin at the tower door. Before they had a chance to head inside two soldiers fled from within, Seifer on their heels, swinging his gunblade.

“Cowards!” he shouted at their retreating backs, then walked back inside.

“Heeey!” Selphie said. “The captain’s getting away!”

‘You make him sound like an enemy.’ Squall shook his head again and followed Seifer, surprised when he saw no sign of the man inside. A whirring sound caused him to look to the side and notice a lift descending.

Selphie dashed over to it and examined the controls. “C’mon!”

At the top Seifer was still nowhere to be seen, but there was someone, a Galbadian soldier who apparently liked to talk to himself.

“Let’s see. . . . Hmm. . . . Put this here, and . . . this goes here, and. . . . There, it’s complete!” The soldier stepped back and looked up in satisfaction as a large piece of the machinery started to shift upward, behaving somewhat like a telescope in how it was constructed. With a final jolt of positioning the topmost section blossomed like a flower to form what Squall recognized as a satellite dish, and quickly began to function. For what purpose, though. . . .

He dropped his gaze to the soldier and inquired coldly, “What do you think you’re doing?”

The Galbadian whipped around with a squeak of shock. “Huh? Likewise, mister! What do you think you’re doing!? H-hey, what happened to all the soldiers down below!? Wedge! Take care of these twerps!” He glanced around as though expecting backup, then paled. “Wedge? I, ah. . . . Well, ah, I seem to be done here, so I’ll just be on my. . . . I’m leaving! Move! Move! Move!”

Seifer appeared (which puzzled Squall, as he arrived via the lift) and smacked the gun out of the soldier’s hand with his gunblade. “Sorry to crash the party.”

“Ah. . . . Ahhh. . . . Ahhhhhh! Prepare for the worst, you brats!” the soldier threatened before attacking.

They were holding their own just fine, though Squall had to wonder why Seifer had bothered to show up if he wanted no part in actually helping them. Another soldier arrived and saluted, seeming to be blind to the ongoing battle, and said, “Major Biggs! Have you finished the repairs, sir? Uh, what . . . what is the enemy doing here!?”

Wedge! Where were you!? No pay this month!”

Wedge groaned and shambled over, moaning, “Should have stayed home.”

‘Are you fighting soldiers or a comedy team?’

‘This is pathetic,’ Squall responded when the two soldiers began to bicker in the midst of battle. On the other hand, their weak and easily avoided attacks gave him plenty of time to draw magic for his stocks. ‘They’re not much of a threat, I suppose, but. . . . And what the hell is Seifer doing—polishing Hyperion?’

They eventually got serious and knocked Wedge out and began to concentrate on Biggs, but were cheated of their victory when a harsh wind picked up and knocked both soldiers away from them. A second later a flying monstrosity dropped down from above and swiped at them with a massive claw.

“The hell? Hold back and study it first so we know what we’re dealing with,” he ordered, then attempted to draw. A faint smile flitted across his face as he extracted a Guardian Force while dodging both claws and spells. “Right! This is an opportunity. Stock up and support each other, then we’ll take it down!”

An easy battle later they relaxed and checked over their equipment, then Selphie remembered her mission. “Squad B Captain? S’cuse me! I have new orders! All SeeD members and SeeD candidates are to withdraw at 1900 hours. Assemble at the shore!”

“Withdraw?” Seifer objected. “There are still enemies around!”

“I’m just the messenger!” Selphie said chirpily.

“An order to withdraw takes priority,” Squall reminded him.

Seifer bashed a nearby strut with the back of his blade and checked his watch. “Damn it! You’ve got thirty minutes to get to the shore,” he said and jumped into the lift. “Better run!” he called as he descended out of sight.

They waited out of necessity for the lift to be available and crowded on, heading down as well, then left the tower at a fast clip, only to jerk to a halt when a huge spider-like machine dropped in front of them and advanced.

“It’s a machine, use lightning! If we can short it out we can leave it behind. We don’t have time for this!” Squall ordered.

However, the damn thing had some kind of self-repair program and followed their retreat, attempting to ambush them at every opportunity. A quick check of his watch made Squall clench his teeth as he kept running, absently pushing curious Dollet citizens back into the buildings as they passed by. Other squads were being ordered to withdraw, as well, but for some reason the spider was fixated on them.

The beach came into view shortly after, the spider clanking menacingly behind them, and he was relieved to see a single ship remaining, the bay doors open. Quistis appeared at the bow and manned the machine gun there, providing them cover as they raced across the shifting sands. He twisted as he dove into the ship, seeing as the doors were closing the spider explode thanks to the instructor’s efforts, then slammed into a wall.

‘You okay?’

‘I’m fine. Just bruises, I think. I’d have preferred to dismantle the damn thing, just for being so stubborn.’

Griever chortled in his mind. ‘Nothing not easily fixed, then. If you want my opinion, I think you did well. When Seifer was being an ass and slacking in his duties, you took command nicely. Hopefully that will count for something when it comes to your performance being graded.’

‘Well, I couldn’t very well let Zell give orders, and from what I recall, Selphie is way too easily distracted given free reign.’

‘That might not be the case still, but yes, I agree with your reasoning. Just relax for now. I’m sure we’ll be there soon enough.’

And they were. Thankfully everyone on the ship left him alone until they arrived, but even then he needed no word as he could feel it when they docked at the pier. He hauled himself up and exited in time to see Seifer’s posse take position by their leader. Before Squall even reached Quistis the three of them took off, disappearing around the side of the inn.

“Good job!” Quistis praised, then glanced around with a puzzled expression. “Where’s Seifer? Well, just be back at Garden by sundown. You’re free ‘til then. Dismissed!”

It was a long walk back, they having discovered that Seifer and his posse had absconded with their transport. Again, Squall sighed almost imperceptibly and sucked it up, following the road so as to avoid any encounters on the way back.

At the main gate Zell stretched like a cat and laughed. “Finally made it back. Well, I guess we just wait for the test results. See ya, Squall,” he said, then jogged through and into Garden proper. Selphie departed a moment later after a similar goodbye.

‘Shall we?’

‘Let’s mosey.’ Squall headed inside, drifting to a stop near the lobby directory, trying to act casual while eavesdropping on a conversation between the headmaster, Quistis, and Xu.

“Mission complete!” Xu reported with a salute. “I think we did a pretty good job. The candidates are back safely, right?”

Quistis nodded. “Although we didn’t realize the Galbadian Army was after the abandoned communication tower. . . .”

“We have received word from the Dollet Dukedom,” Cid informed them. “The Galbadian Army has agreed to withdraw as long as the communication array is repaired and the uplink remains operational.”

Xu blinked and said, “Well, in any case, Galbadia is out of there. We could’ve made more money if they’d stayed and caused more trouble.”

Not expecting to hear anything else of interest, Squall headed toward the dorms, only to be hailed by Seifer.

“Squall! You hear about the communication tower in Dollet? We would’ve been heroes if it weren’t for that withdrawal order.”

“You were only looking for a fight,” accused a newly-arrived Quistis, accompanied by Xu.

“My dear instructor, I’m hurt. Those are cruel words for an aspiring student. A mediocre instructor like you will never understand.”

“Seifer,” Xu chastised, “don’t be so stuck on yourself. You’ll take all the responsibility for leaving the designated area.”

Squall breathed a quiet sigh of relief as Seifer shot back, “Isn’t it the captain’s duty to take the best possible action?”

“You’re the one who doesn’t understand, Seifer. You’ll never be a SeeD with this attitude. Calling yourself a captain is a joke.” Xu shook her head disappointedly and left.

Cid approached in her wake, pausing to speak softly to Quistis, then looked at the blond gunblader. “Seifer. You will be disciplined for your irresponsible behavior. You must follow orders exactly during combat. But I’m not entirely without sympathy for you. I don’t want you all to become machines. I want you all to be able to think and act for yourselves. I am—”

“Headmaster Cid,” a faculty member interrupted. “You have some business in your office.”

“There are so many issues at hand here,” Cid responded.

Squall decided to leave, resuming his trek to the dorms, then halted again and backtracked at an announcement for all candidates to report to the second floor hallway. ‘I don’t get that man sometimes. He says we have to follow orders exactly, but then says he wants us to act and think independently?’

‘Realistically, he’s correct in this matter. You were given clear orders, with very little room for deviation. Thus, Seifer gets penalized despite having been on the right track. If anything, he ought to have sent one of you to alert a SeeD and let them handle it. In another situation, where things might not be so clear cut, the decision he made probably would have been rewarded. It really all depends on your given objective and what actual orders have been laid down.’

‘I guess,’ he responded, then changed the subject to a well-worn complaint. ‘Those faculty members are creepy. Half the time you don’t even know they’re there until one of them says something. Ah, speak of the devil.’

One of the robed figures glided in and brandished a list. “Dincht, Zell,” it announced.

“Oh yeah! See ya!!” Zell punched the air and ran off toward the lift.

“Maller, Nida.” A dark-haired young man took off, followed by, “Tilmitt, Selphie.”

The figure glanced at the list one more time and said, “Leonhart, Squall.”

Squall pushed away from the wall, careful to keep his expression blank, and moved to assemble at the lift with the others. They were joined shortly by the faculty representative and escorted up to the headmaster’s office.

As they lined up in front of Cid the faculty member said, “These are the four who passed today’s exam.”

Cid beamed. “First of all, congratulations. However. . . . From now on, as a member of SeeD, you will be dispatched all over the world. We are proud to introduce SeeD, Balamb Garden’s mercenary soldiers. SeeD soldiers are combat specialists. But . . . that is only one aspect of SeeD. When the time comes—”

“Headmaster. It’s almost time for the meeting. Please make this short.” The figure turned toward them and continued, “SeeD is a valuable asset to Garden. Its reputation is solely dependant on each one of you. Handle your missions with care. Is that what you wanted to say, sir? Here are the SeeD rank reports.”

Cid looked mildly put out, but accepted the papers, and moved to stand in front of Selphie. Handing the topmost sheet over he murmured something to her that Squall couldn’t catch, then repeated those actions with the other two, finally stopping in front of him.

“Finally, a gunblade specialist,” Cid murmured happily as he offered the report.

“This ends the SeeD inauguration. Dismissed!” the faculty member practically barked, and gestured toward the lift.

Squall went willingly, eager to get away, though he had to wonder just exactly how much control the headmaster had over the facility if the faculty could act that way. And finally, he could get to his room and change out of that horrible uniform! Along the way he glanced over the report, scoffing at some of the comments, but overall pleased with the results. How could he not be, having passed on the very first try? Also cause for happiness was knowing that he would be getting a salary from thereon in, based on his rank.

Unfortunately, arrival at his room was not a happy thing; Selphie was there, looking mightily pleased with herself. “Hah! Found you! Well, what do you think?” she asked, twirling around. “My SeeD uniform!”

He ignored her after a brief glance, annoyed that he had forgotten he would have to wear one, too, to attend the SeeD Inauguration Ball. Squall changed quickly and emerged from his tiny sleeping space into the common room, fully disgruntled and expecting a bad time to come.

“Heeey! Lookin’ good! All right, let’s hit that party!” Selphie darted forward and grabbed his arm, then dragged him out.

He found refuge once there in a glass of champagne and a quiet spot at the back. ‘Please be over soon,’ he prayed. ‘Think I can slip out now that the fancy speech is over?’

‘Fat chance,’ Griever scoffed. ‘Don’t look now, but you’ve been spotted.’

‘Ah, hell.’

Zell bounced over in a typical display of energy. “Yo! S’up, Squall? Heh heh, I guess we’re both SeeDs now, huh? Put it there, man.”

Squall had a sip of his champagne.

“Hah, even as a SeeD you’re the same. Well, that’s just you, I guess. See ya.”

The briefly felt relief at Zell’s departure was squashed when Selphie raced over after somehow scaring Zell into a retreat. “Squall, hi! Wanna join the Garden Festival committee? You can help out whenever you have time. Please?”

‘She’s joking, right? I hate social gatherings.’

‘Yes, but she wouldn’t know that. She only just arrived recently, to take the exam.’

Not getting an answer right away, Selphie touched a quick finger to her lips and dashed off after a different victim. “S’cuse me! You, right there!”

‘You know, people would have a heart attack if they ever understood about you and I.’

‘Smiling openly or laughing would do that, I suppose,’ Griever teased.

‘Like I would,’ he objected, scanning the room for any other dangers, his sensors blaring as a dark-haired girl in a white dress abruptly interrupted the conversation she was having to stare at him. She smiled winsomely and said something to her companion, then made a beeline for Squall. ‘Damn it. Bad Squall, eye contact is bad!’

He did his best to emulate Shiva, but it had no appreciable effect, as she stopped in front of him and said, “You’re the best looking guy here. Dance with me?” After a pregnant pause she continued, “Let me guess, you’ll only dance with someone you like? Okay, then, look into my eyes. You’re going to like me. . . . You’re going to like me. . . . Did it work?”

“No.” He looked away and had a sip from his glass.

“Hey, come on, I’m looking for someone. I can’t be on the dance floor alone.” The girl rudely plucked the glass from his hand, placed it on a nearby table, and grabbed his arm, dragging him away.

Unwilling to make a scene and damage the reputation of SeeD, Squall went along with it, though he refused to look at her as he swept her around the floor. The dance ended soon, thankfully, punctuated by fireworks exploding overhead, which were at least interesting to look at. The girl gave him a smile, then widened her eyes. “I see them!” A second later she darted off, abandoning him.

‘Now’s a good time to do a runner,’ Griever advised.

He was found later on by Quistis, shattering the peace of the otherwise empty balcony. “You really are an excellent student. Even that dance was perfect.”

Squall nodded acknowledgement and went back to gazing at the sky. When she failed to leave or say anything else he prompted, “Yes?”

“So you’ll dance with someone you don’t even know, but you can’t stand being around me?”

“Whatever. You’re an instructor and I’m your student. It’s kind of awkward when you don’t say anything.”

“That’s true. I was like that myself,” she murmured. “Oh, I completely forgot. I wonder what’s to become of me? I came to give you an order. You and I are to go to the secret area. It’s where students meet up and talk after curfew, inside the training center.”

“What for?” he asked irritably. “Going to show up to bust people for violating curfew? If that’s the case, forget it. Leave that for the disciplinary committee.”

She ignored that and said before leaving, “Go get changed and meet me at the training center. This will be my last order.”

‘At least it’s a valid excuse to duck out, but what the hell is she on about?’ He left to change, then reported as ordered, meeting up with her in the hallway just outside. And after quizzing him on whether or not he had ever fought a T-Rexuar before, presumably in case they ran into one, she led him around the training center to the supposedly secret area, which happened to be more like a spacious balcony. The people already present scattered as soon as they saw her, leaving the two of them alone.

“I haven’t been here for a while,” she said as she moved to stand at the paling and grip the edge with her hands. “What time is it?”

“After midnight.”

“Oh well. Then I, Quistis Trepe, am no longer an instructor. I’m just a member of SeeD now, like you. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up working together.”

“Ah.”

“Is that all you’re going to say?” She seemed offended for some reason.

“If that’s what was decided, you have to abide by it,” he elaborated.

“They told me,” she said haltingly, “that I failed as an instructor. Basically, that I lacked leadership qualities. I was a SeeD by the age of fifteen, got my instructor license at seventeen. . . . It’s only been a year since I got it. I wonder where I went wrong. I did my best. . . .” She glanced over at him. “Are you listening?”

‘Like I have a choice?’ Squall returned the look and said, “Are you done yet? What am I supposed to say about other people’s problems?”

“I’m not asking you to say anything. I just want you to listen.”

“Then go talk to a wall.”

‘That was a little harsh, but she is horribly tenacious.’

“Aren’t there times when you want to share your feelings with someone?” she asked.

‘Yeah, sure, and I do, frequently.’ But he didn’t say that. “I don’t want to carry anyone else’s burden. I’m surprised you’d think I would.”

Quistis sighed and turned toward the door. “No leadership qualities, failed instructor. . . . Perhaps they’re right. Let’s go. I won’t keep you any longer.”

They had almost made it to the exit when a female voice screamed for help. As one they rushed toward it, Squall recognizing immediately the girl from earlier, the one who resembled Sis, Ellone. She was backing away from a huge insectoid creature, completely defenseless against it. “Squall!? Quisty!?”

Unable to ignore the plea they leapt in to handle it, quickly finishing off the threat. As they did so two white-clad men rushed in and assisted the girl to her feet. “It is not safe here. Please, let’s go.”

The girl nodded, they departed, and Squall and Quistis were left to wonder. It became evident that Quistis’s memory had suffered no breakthroughs when she said, “Who was that?”

Squall shrugged and headed out, thankful that the girl was fine, and too tired to attempt an investigation at that late hour. Quistis jogged out after him and halted his progress with, “Squall. It’s not like everyone can get by on their own, you know?”

He stared as she jogged off down the hall. ‘Who says I do?’

‘That’s right, you have me.’

‘Sadly,’ he said as he dragged his weary self back toward the dorms, ‘I don’t think most people would think that counted.’

‘I’m hardly a figment of your imagination.’

He chuckled quietly. ‘At least if I’m crazy I’m in excellent company.’ Squall refrained from expressing his wish to actually see Griever, to be able to touch him. It was entirely out of his control, and quite possibly, Griever’s as well. Belaboring the point would only serve to depress them both.

Zell caught him before he managed to get to his room, just another obstacle on the way to a night’s rest. “Finally! There you are! Where the hell were you? I was lookin’ all over the place. We’re both members of SeeD now, so we got our own rooms, baby! Your new room’s right across the hall from your old one, okay? That’s what I was asked to tell you. Man, took me forever!”

Squall nodded and continued on, terribly thrilled that he would have to transfer his belongings before he could call it a day and collapse.