Grazhir :: Crossover :: Convergence :: 05 :: Incurso

05 • Incurso

He felt almost strange bringing Griever to his room, even though his friend knew it as well as he did. At least now he had a room to himself, not one shared with another student. “Well, this is it,” he said rather lamely, taking the time to put his gunblade in its case and remove his jacket.

Griever smiled and sat on the edge of the bed, the only available surface aside from a desk. “So, I guess it’s time for a story?”

“Yeah.” He sat down as well, then leaned over to begin removing his boots. “I really would like to know.”

Griever sighed. “Remember, keep an open mind. Way open. This isn’t so hard to explain, but it is difficult to believe.”

Squall set his boots off to the side and sat up, then scooted back so he could use the wall for support. “You might as well get comfortable.”

Griever nodded and toed off his shoes, and scooted back as well. “This story starts a very long time ago.”

“In a galaxy far, far away?” he quipped.

“You slay me with your humor,” Griever said dryly. “It was a very long time ago, so far back that I have no real idea of how many years. Thousands, certainly. The year I was born in would have no meaning to you. But I like to think I’ve aged well, and I was asleep for a lot of those years. I was born in a time when there were two kinds of people. Those with inherent magic, and those without. The ones without vastly outnumbered us that did, and at some point, maybe a thousand years before I was born, the magical people withdrew and hid, forming their own society, mainly due to fear of persecution or death.

“Anyway, a prophecy was made before I was even born, speaking of the one who would be destined to defeat a great evil. Unfortunately, I fit that, but so did another boy. The evil—a rather psychotic man—was told part of that prophecy by one of his people, and set out, once he had an idea of who it might refer to, to eliminate them.”

“Is that how you lost your parents?”

“Yes, exactly. They died trying to protect me, and with my mother’s death, her willing sacrifice, something strange and amazing happened. When the guy attempted to kill me as well, his magic backfired and ripped him from his body, leaving him . . . a spirit, I guess. After that I was known for being the only person to ever have survived that particular curse, and for having ‘defeated’ the man. He had been terrorizing people, you see, he and his minions. A kind of war.”

“Who was he?”

“He called himself Voldemort. One of the things that most frightened him was the idea of dying, so he took steps to protect himself against it, which is why he wasn’t killed when his spell backfired. So, fast forward nearly ten years. I had been placed with my aunt, a woman who hated magic. It was a very lonely childhood. But when I turned eleven I received a letter from the same school my parents had gone to, a school for magic. For the next six years I went there, learning how to properly use and control my magic, and along the way fighting that same spirit, Voldemort.

“He was able to regain a body when I was nearly fifteen, due to a ritual. I found out when I was sixteen how he had managed to protect himself against death, and it was horrifying, a way to split one’s soul and bind those pieces to objects. So long as they existed he could never truly die, and the sundering of his soul made him something less than human. But I and my friends hunted those objects down and destroyed them during what would have been my seventh and final year, including one which wasn’t an object at all, but a creature. And I thought, we can finally end this. . . .”

“I take it it wasn’t so simple?”

“Not hardly. All through that time, until the end of my sixth year of school, I had the headmaster. A great wizard, though as you know, someone who regularly made me want to tear out my hair in frustration. He was killed at the end of the year, something I was forced to witness. But he left behind a portrait of himself, a magical portrait. That meant I could still speak to him, as it retained his personality and memories. And he told me something that caused me despair. When Voldemort tried to kill me, and the spell backfired, it lodged a piece of his soul in me.”

“So you had to die,” Squall stated.

“Yes, when I was just shy of eighteen. We had a huge battle. I knew I had to die, but I wasn’t going to make it easy. I made him work for it, damn it. So, he managed to hit me with that spell again, and that time. . . .”

“So how is that you’re actually alive?”

Griever shrugged. “I’m not sure even I quite understand that part. I ended up in a train station of all places, but I suppose it makes sense in a metaphorical way. The headmaster was there, and he told me it was up to me if I stayed dead or not, that my willing sacrifice was a means to destroy the soul shard, to open the way for Voldemort’s defeat. Well, I’ll admit, I was terrified of the idea of being dead, even though I thought, maybe, I could finally see my parents, but . . . I wanted to live.

“So I was sent back. But while I was having that thrilling little interlude in limbo, Voldemort banished my body to an area on the planet that had some seriously peculiar properties. In the ocean. Ships would lose their way around there, radar wouldn’t work properly, people would disappear and never be seen again, stuff like that. I found myself encased in some kind of crystal. And a voice spoke to me, to explain, and told me it liked me and had decided to keep me for a while.”

“A while?” Squall asked incredulously.

“I think of that voice, that entity, as being the planet itself, like a deity.”

“Like Hyne?”

Griever laughed at that, shaking his head. “No. Hyne is nothing like what you’ve been led to believe. That’s what I meant by victory being written by the winners, and how truth gets blurred with time. Anyway, are you still with me, or have you decided I’m a complete nutcase with a fantastic imagination?”

Squall shifted at a right angle and propped the pillow up behind him, his new position giving him a proper view of Griever’s face. He tucked one leg beneath him and let the other dangle over the edge. “You’re right, of course, it’s all very like some faery tale, but I can’t bring myself to disbelieve you. I’m sure you’ll be able to provide some kind of proof, in any case. And even if you are a nutcase, you’re my nutcase.”

Griever smiled softly. “Okay. And I will show you, in a bit. My concept of magic overlaps yours, but it’s not the same. Anyway, Hyne. Fast forward I don’t know how many years. I slept a lot, like I said, sort of passively absorbing information. Somewhere along the way problems started up again between mages and non-mages. People, scientists, started experimenting with mages they had captured, or even on ones who agreed to be studied.

“Hyne was instrumental in a breakthrough to give the power of magic to non-mages. He created the sorceress phenomenon. For some reason that method only worked on females. In any case, it produced women who could command magic, but it wasn’t actually theirs, and could be passed on to another. In fact, those powers were forcibly passed on at death. As far as I can tell there was a war over it.

“A lot of mages were killed during that time, and those who were left tended to be the weak ones. I think over time what happened is that they continued to live their lives, under the radar, and had children, who had children . . . and they all had some ability, but the strongest lines had been wiped out. Which brings us to what you call para-magic.”

Squall furrowed his brow and considered. The shattering of legend was difficult to accept, but it sort of made sense how it was possible for many people to wield at least some magic, without ever having a GF. He already knew it was possible, and had certainly witnessed it many times. Seifer was particularly good with fire-based magic, for example. Then he remembered something. “Absorbed? Your sources?”

Griever nodded. “Think of the absorbing as kind of like using Scan, but it’s passive and ongoing. Something about my situation allowed me to learn things about the world without really trying, but it was never necessarily sharp details. As for my sources, well. . . . I could request information from anyone who had died. But now that I’m . . . here . . . I can’t do so anymore.”

He gave that a lot of consideration, as well, then said, “Which would explain why you’re so vague at times. It’s not just because you want to be.”

“Yeah. For instance, I can tell you that the war between Esthar and Galbadia ended because Adel was subdued somehow. But the person who was able to tell me that wasn’t aware of the details. I was limited by the limitations of my sources. It’s why I can say I’m pretty sure that Laguna is your father, because I’ve spoken, so to speak, to Raine, who I’m pretty sure is your mother. I am certain they were in love.”

“But you can’t know what happened, because she doesn’t either, is that right?”

Griever nodded. “I know it’s unfair of me, but I still hope you’ll give the man a chance, should you meet him. I never really knew my parents. The only memories I have of them are . . . sadly unpleasant.”

He blinked in confusion, certain he was missing something. “But you could speak with the dead.”

“Ah, well, people don’t stay dead. After a time, and how long that is varies greatly, every living thing that has died is reborn. And once that happens, they retain nothing of their previous life. By the time I was in any position to understand what I could do, it was far too late for myself. Raine had not moved on by the time I came to know you and sent out a request for information.”

He nodded slowly, then decided to backtrack. “Can you show me? Your magic, I mean.”

“Sure. Um. . . .” Griever looked around the room, for what Squall wasn’t sure, then arched a brow and rummaged in a pouch attached to his belt. Impossibly, he pulled from it a page-sized box. “Some of the stuff I can do mimics what you can do now, so I won’t really bother with that. You know, like being able to silence someone.”

Griever reached into the box and removed a piece of paper, then set the box aside and slid off the bed, moving over to the desk. He spent a few minutes folding the paper, eventually ending up with what looked like a bird of sorts. “Origami,” he said, then set the bird down and made a slight gesture.

Before Squall’s eyes the construct fluttered its wings and took off, to fly in circles around the room before coming to a landing again. Another gesture transformed it into an actual bird, which did the exact same thing, though it warbled out a song, too. A third gesture returned it to the paper version.

“That’s . . . amazing. What else can you do?”

Griever came to sit on the bed again and shrugged. “It’s all second nature to me. It’s easier if you suggest something.”

For the life of him, he couldn’t think what.

Griever shrugged again. “I can banish things so long as I can visualize where I want them to go, or summon them if I know where they are. I can become invisible, temporarily change my features, animate things, use magic offensively and defensively, some healing. . . . Essentially, I’m a sorcerer in your terms, but with fewer limitations, and my magic is wholly my own. The only way I could hope to pass it on would be the old fashioned way, by having children, and even then it’s not guaranteed. And, I would still retain mine.” He closed the box and tucked it back into his pouch.

“Ah, I know!” Griever said and slid off the bed again. He aimed a wicked smile at Squall and gestured. The room doubled in size in that second. Another gesture doubled the size of the bed. “Convenient, huh?”

Squall latched onto the only thing he could handle at that moment, and said, “Is that a hint?”

“Maybe? I admit, I am kind of tired. That sounds strange considering where I’ve been, but. . . .”

“It’s been a tiring day,” Squall said agreeably, suddenly rather uncertain of how to go about things. “You want the bathroom first?”

“Okay.” Griever disappeared into the tiny bathroom.

Squall fetched out his sleepwear and quickly changed, dumping that day’s clothes in the pull-out hamper on one wall. He glanced at the bed, belatedly realizing that it was far too large for the coverings on it.

Griever emerged, dressed almost identically to him, with just a pair of loose sleep pants on, and furrowed his brow. “Oh, I should fix that. Or, would you prefer I put it back and make a second bed?”

“I think we just need another pillow and bigger coverings,” he said softly, then retreated to the bathroom and quickly went through his usual evening routine. Back in the room he nodded at the changes, trying not to spend too much time staring at the half naked man in his room.

“Kind of awkward, huh? “ Griever said. “It’s not like I’ve ever shared a bed with anyone before. Inside or outside?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Griever pulled back the covers and slipped underneath, shifting until he was closest to the wall, then eyed him.

Squall flipped off the light and got into bed, then turned on his side, to face his dearest friend. “Do you snore?” he asked curiously, and was rewarded with an amused snort. “Can I . . . kiss you?”

“Yes,” Griever said a bit breathlessly. “I’ll warn you, though. I’m not exactly experienced.”

“And I am?” he whispered, then shifted closer, slowly moving to brush his lips to his friend’s. When he met no resistance he shifted again, this time to lie back and pull Griever half on top of him. His hands reached up to cradle his friend’s head and pull him closer so they could kiss again.

Griever parted his lips, warm breath washing over his own, and Squall did the same so he could do something he had seen before but never tried, having had no one he wished to ever experiment with. He slid his tongue out and ran it along his friend’s lower lip, then dipped into his mouth, somewhat surprised at the velvety sensation he encountered.

Griever groaned softly and angled his head a bit to the side, then began moving his tongue as well, with just as much uncertainty. Perversely, it gave him confidence; if he was going to make mistakes, Griever probably would as well, out of the same ignorance. He felt a brief sense of agreement in his head, but let the thought slip away, disdaining the abstract for the concrete reality of them exploring each other’s mouths.

His friend—his lover?—pulled away after a while, breathing heavily, and flopped onto his back, so Squall rolled onto his side to look at him, the moonlight streaming in the window gilding Griever’s dark hair with silver. Griever blinked a few times and laughed quietly, then said, “Now I understand why I kept catching people making out in the common room, oblivious to the world around them.”

He was moved to smile. “I do . . . love you,” he whispered, and leaned in for a brief, chaste kiss. “Was it you that day? In the prison?”

It took a few seconds for Griever to respond; he seemed to be lost in a moment. “Er. . . . Oh, you mean when you were being tortured? Yes. And that’s why I disappeared for a while. I rather overreached myself and had to recover.”

“Thank you. We should probably sleep, huh? You’re tired.”

Griever nodded agreeably and turned away, then pressed back against him. Squall slowly slid his arms around his friend and closed his eyes, a faint smile stubbornly refusing to leave his lips as he molded himself to Griever and attempted to quiet his mind enough for sleep. It was some time before Squall actually drifted off.

The next morning he was awoken to the sound of someone squawking over the PA system. “Squall! Squall! Please report to the bridge immediately.”

‘What now? Every time I turn around someone is yelling my name.’

‘Commander stuff, I expect,’ Griever said sleepily.

“If I have to get up, so do you. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

“Okay,” Griever whispered, “but it’s under protest. I am very comfortable right now.”

Squall grinned and detached himself, rolling out of bed and heading for the bathroom. By the time he emerged Griever was ready for his turn. Ten minutes later they were on their way, and arrived to find Quistis, Xu, and Nida there.

“Greetings, commander!”

He shot a slightly sullen look at Quistis.

“Sorry to carry things out on our own, but Xu and I assigned some duties.”

“I’ll take care of all the supplies needed in Garden,” Xu said.

Squall looked back at Quistis. “Ah, is that in regard to what I mentioned last night?”

Quistis nodded. “And I’ll take care of the students with Dr Kadowaki. You can just focus on our destination and battle plans. And, ah. . . . Will you let Selphie rest a while? I think she’s exhausted from the missile base mission. How does that sound to you?”

“It’s fine. Oh, sorry. Xu, Nida, this is Griever. He’ll be going with us,” he said, his expression daring anyone to object.

Quistis adopted a look of intense concentration, not unlike Xu, while Nida simply smiled and said, “Nice to meet you, Griever. By the way, Squall, the FH technicians have finished the repairs. They’ve also installed a new piloting system, and they taught me everything about it, so unless you’ve an objection, I can take care of that aspect of things. You just need to let me know when and where we need to go.”

Quistis snapped out of her reverie and said, “Any thoughts on where we should go?”

“Hey,” Xu said, “why don’t we go back to Balamb? We don’t know what’s happened since we left, and besides, Balamb may be a target. It’s a harbor town, just like FH.”

“Good point,” he said. “Xu, do you know if anyone else was given permission to enter FH, that might be in town right now?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head. “Only your team was given blanket permission. Others were allowed on scheduled visits in groups, but no one’s been authorized yet for today. We have had people stationed at the second floor deck to keep an eye on things, as well.”

“Then it’s just the team in question. Xu, our supplies are fine?” When he got a nod he said, “Nida, prepare for departure, destination Balamb. Go ahead and announce it, but we won’t leave until I’ve had a chance to check at the deck. I’ll either return personally or send a messenger.”

“Yes, sir!”

He and Griever had just exited the lift when he heard Nida on the PA, saying, “May I have your attention, please. This is the bridge. Garden will be leaving FH soon. Please prepare for departure. I repeat. . . .”

The people on deck duty informed Squall that no one had left Garden that morning, and no one had stayed out overnight, so they were clear to depart. He gave them leave to quit the deck as soon as they were underway, then headed back to the lift with Griever.

‘What I wouldn’t give for a few dozen mobile phones.’

‘It would just make things easier if all SeeDs had one. I’ll have to look into the cost.’ He glanced over. “Interested in taking a stroll through the training center?”

“Can we eat first?”

He nodded, and not seeing anyone he could use as a messenger, he detoured back up to the bridge long enough to tell Nida to depart in ten minutes, then went with Griever to the cafeteria. They were seated when he asked quietly, “What you did last night, to the room. That didn’t affect anything else, I take it?”

“No,” Griever said, then added, ‘It’s called wizard space, or mage space. It’s all very complicated, but it has no appreciable effect on surrounding, unaltered space. The trunks we used for school are an example. The internal volume was twice or more that of the external dimensions. More advanced trunks actually had multiple, overlapping compartments, some of which were room sized. And, mage tents tend to be massively larger on the inside than out, frequently resembling a small apartment.’

Squall blinked. Para-magic was infantile in comparison, but he was still grateful for it.

‘I hadn’t considered it before, but I wonder now if Hyne had anything to do with the existence of Guardian Forces. Ah, well, what would life be without some mystery involved?’

“Hm.”

Zell wandered over with a tray in his hand and sat down. “Mornin’! So where we headed?”

“Balamb. If that’s a bust, we’ll just try elsewhere. However, it’s a harbor town, and it’s practically next door to Galbadian-occupied territory.” He glanced at Zell’s tray and snorted. “How did you manage to score hot dogs at this hour?”

“Give it up, man, it’s sausage!”

“We’re going to the training center shortly. You want to come?”

“Nah, I, ah”—Zell got a bit shifty-looking around the eyes—“got something to do in the library.”

“Oookay. I’m not actually sure how fast Garden can move, but be prepared for when we do arrive at Balamb.”

“You betcha! Gotta see ma, anyway. She worries, you know?”

They were joined by Selphie and Irvine, and then a minute later by Rinoa, all of them bearing trays of their own. Squall noticed that Rinoa was very quiet, but declined to press for reasons, instead finishing up his breakfast and occasionally adding a comment of his own to the conversation.

Griever was ready by the time he was done, so he prepared to leave, but remembered Quistis’s request. For the life of him he could not think of a way to phrase things just then, so he deferred the talk, intending to make it clear to her when they arrived that she was on optional duty for a while.

He waved an absent goodbye and dropped off his tray, then followed his friend out. ‘I guess I don’t have to tell you to play normal with the magic, huh?’

Griever snorted in amusement. ‘I can behave myself. Besides, I’m not fond of the idea of scaring people. Just be ready to save my ass if I make a fool of myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve actually used my daggers combatively.’

‘Well, as a reminder, grats can put you to sleep,’ he said as they turned down the hallway to the training center.

‘Not an issue. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say the entity was fond of me and gave me some gifts before she shunted me to Fishermans Horizon.’

As they passed through the gate he shot back, ‘I can hope at least one of those gifts was money for the hotel room?’

Griever laughed and nodded. “Okay. Let’s see how rusty I am.”

He wasn’t so bad, but it was obvious to Squall that Griever was a bit stiff at first, frequently resorting to magic until he became more comfortable. Griever was correct, though, when he said he could deal more damage with his spells.

“I need to get some boots,” Griever complained at one point, gazing mournfully at his shoes, which had suffered quite a lot from grat vine-tentacles.

“I’ll requisition some from supply,” Squall promised, then frowned when the roar of a T-Rexuar came from nearby. “You up for that?”

“Uh. . . . I know you can handle one on your own, so sure.”

Quite a while later they were out on the second floor deck; land could be seen in the distance, letting Squall know they were nearly there. What they would find, however. . . . “It’s up to you if you want to help fight or if you’d rather play a support role. You can obviously handle yourself, even without showing all your cards.”

Griever nodded. “I’ll play it by ear.”

“Well, I need to talk to Selphie. I wonder where she is.” Squall turned and headed back to the hallway.

“The quad, or a classroom?” Griever suggested. “She might be working on that diary thing Cid mentioned.”

They located her seated at a console in one of the classrooms. “Hey.”

“Hi, guys! I was inputting some of those articles Sir Laguna wrote into the computer.”

‘Lovely.’ “Selphie, listen. I know that the missile base mission might have been hard on you, so I wanted to let you know that you’re on optional duty when we arrive at Balamb. Shortly, actually. It’s not that I think you need a break, just that you might want one.”

She gave him a funny look. “I think I’ll pass on going into town. Working on these entries is helping me to keep my mind off things.”

Squall nodded. “Then I’ll leave you to it,” he said and went to join his friend, who had tactfully waited by the door.

*

Garden, it seemed, could travel just as well on land as water, though it was hindered by forested areas. Nida guided it in obliquely, hitting land well away from the town so as to lessen the chances of being spotted should anything nefarious be afoot, which only made sense.

Squall and the team (minus Quistis and Selphie) followed the beach until town came into view, then angled up to meet the road so they could enter Balamb. Galbadian occupation was immediately evident; not only were there soldiers on guard, but the road was blockaded as well, frustrating a number of denizens who had been prevented from entering.

On approaching one of the soldiers the man said in almost a bored tone, “This town is under the control of Sorceress Edea, and is off-limits while we conduct our investigation, which will last for several days.”

When they failed to leave the soldier eyed them and declared, “You guys look suspicious. What are you doing here? What do you want? Are you residents here?”

“Yeah, that’s right!” said Zell. “At least residents should be allowed in!”

“It’s off-limits. You cannot enter or leave,” the soldier insisted, then added in a patronizing tone, “Do you understand?”

“Hah! Who do you think you’re talkin’ to?”

“What? What is it now?” He seemed irritated, probably because others who had tried were too intimidated to persist.

“Does that mean we can’t deliver a message, either?” Squall asked. “That’s too bad. We have some information on Ellone. . . .”

“W-what? Elle—wait a minute! Tell me everything you know about her! Do you actually know who she is?”

“Kind of,” he replied, “but we need to get inside to confirm something.”

The soldier seemed torn, but finally said, “If you find out any information at all, go talk to the commander. She’s staying at the hotel. You’ll be rewarded.”

He stepped aside and allowed them entrance, so they surged by before he could change his mind. Zell led them at a trot down the street and turned into one of the homes. “Ma, I’m home!” he called, then looked around in confusion. “Huh?” He glanced into a kitchen nook, then dashed through an archway into another room. “Ma, you’re safe!”

“Zell!” An older woman stepped forward and eyed Zell up and down. “How on earth did you get into town?”

“It’s all in the brains, ma. We just said we had some info on Ellone. Simple!”

“What a relief. I was worried you might have beaten up one of the guards. The soldiers have threatened that the sorceress will burn the town to the ground should there be any disturbance.”

“Sorceress Edea?” Squall said. “Is she here?”

Mrs Dincht shrugged. “I noticed a woman with the Galbadian army. Grey hair, patch over one eye. . . .”

“Sounds like Fujin,” Squall said. “If she’s here. . . .”

“Leave it to me!” Zell declared. “I’ll get rid of those jokers!”

“The guard said the hotel, so we’ll begin there,” Squall ordered.

Two Galbadian soldiers were on guard at the hotel entrance, and did not seem pleased to see them. “What do you want? If it’s the commander you’re looking for, we have strict orders not to let anyone through.”

“We have information about Ellone.”

“What? Ellone? Hmm, more rumors?”

“You know that we’ll get a salary cut if we let ‘em through without confirmation,” the second soldier warned.

“Yeah, I know. In this army your salary gets cut based on how the boss is feeling. I guess it goes with the territory when you can’t choose your own boss.”

An impatient Zell said, “Yo, listen! We have top secret info! Bring the commander out here!”

“These guys are kinda . . . suspicious, eh?” The solider shook his head. “No entry! You’d need to speak with the captain first. He’s currently on patrol.”

‘It’s not a big town, but. . . . Wait, this is Raijin and Fujin we’re talking about. If Fujin’s the commander, then Raijin is the captain, and he always wastes time fishing if he can get away with it.’ He motioned to his team and took the path around the hotel, heading for the docks. Querying the soldiers there revealed that the captain had been by recently and had caught several fish.

They backtracked, trailed by a dog that had been hanging around, and then followed it (as it seemed to be trying to lead them somewhere) into the train station. The dog bypassed the soldiers and scampered into the train, barking loudly the whole time, and very quickly Raijin emerged from a door further up, cursing, and then ran off.

Squall sighed as they exited the station and considered.

“The hotel again?” Rinoa suggested. “He might be reporting in.”

“Mm. Let’s.”

When they arrived the two soldiers were eavesdropping at the entrance, and quickly shushed them. “Hey, stand back,” one hissed. “This could be dangerous. The commander’s just about to—whoa!” He and his companion dove to either side as the doors burst open and Raijin tumbled out.

“Yeow! Ouch. . . . Fujin, control your temper, you know? I was patrollin’, just like you told me. I even woke up that search dog, sleepin’ on the job, you know? You guys help me out here! We’ve gotta calm Fujin down, you know?”

“Raijin,” Zell bellowed.

“Wooooow! What are you guys doin’ here!?”

“We’re here to liberate Balamb, you know?” Zell said. “I mean, uh. . . . We’re here to liberate Balamb!”

“Seifer told us to give you a whoopin’ if we saw you, you know! You soldiers help me out, too!”

“You’ll pay for this,” Zell shouted and danced into position. The fight was over fairly quickly, so they dashed through the then unguarded entrance and confronted Fujin. “Pack your bags and get the hell out of Balamb!”

“Raijin, defeated?”

“That’s right, baby! Now, where’s Seifer and the sorceress!? You’re all goin’ down!”

“Zell, calm down,” Squall ordered. “Fujin, looks like you’re on your own. Are you still willing to fight?”

“Rage!”

Loud laughter came from outside. “She’s not alone!” Raijin rushed in and took position next to his fellow posse member. “Major comeback, you know! Actually, I feel a lot better. I feel invincible, you know!”

“So be it,” Squall said and lifted his gunblade. Fujin had some nasty attacks, and together they were more of a threat, but the duo was still taken down, ending up looking exhausted.

“Are the two of you taking orders from the sorceress?” Squall inquired.

“Negative!”

“The sorceress has nothin’ to do with us, you know? We’re actin’ on our own! We’re on Seifer’s side, you know!”

“That’s up to you, but, enough is enough. This isn’t an internal Garden conflict. It’s not a game.”

“We can’t back out, you know. . . .”

“Negative.”

“Seifer has a lot of followers, but we’re his only friends,” Raijin explained. “We’re a posse, you know? The Galbadian soldiers are only listenin’ to Seifer ‘cause they fear the sorceress. Without us, Seifer wouldn’t have a posse, you know. . . ?”

“If you guys stand behind him that much,” Zell said, “then tell frickin’ Seifer to stop this nonsense!”

“Affirmative!”

“We ain’t no sell-outs! We’re behind Seifer all the way, you know!?”

‘That girl gives me such a headache.’ Squall heaved a quiet sigh. “Okay. Understood. So you want nothing to do with Garden now? Look, I admire your loyalty to Seifer, but from now on we won’t hold back. Prepare yourselves for that eventuality.”

“You’re just going to let them go?” Rinoa asked incredulously.

“Don’t wanna . . . talk anymore, you know. Kinda painful . . . you know.”

“Wimp!” Fujin kicked Raijin in the shin and barked, “Run!” And they did, out of the hotel.

The team stuck around town, spending the night at the hotel, and saw the next morning that Galbadian forces were retreating, which may or may not have had something to do with the commander and captain. That assured, Squall ordered a retreat of their own, back to Garden.

They were walking toward the turnstiles when Quistis and Selphie appeared, so Squall briefly filled them in.

“Where are we going next?” Quistis asked as they paused at the directory.

“S’cuse me!” Selphie said. “Um, can we maybe go to Trabia Garden? It’s like . . . in the mountains, so maybe the sorceress will leave it alone. But maybe. . . . You know?”

‘Is she forgetting that. . . ? Oh, right. Of course she’d want to go.’ “I don’t think we’ll find the sorceress there, but. . . . yes, we can make a brief stop at Trabia Garden.”

“Thanks, Squall,” Selphie said and dashed off to points unknown.

“Quistis, please let Nida know our destination and authorize an immediate departure. On arrival he can have the team assemble at the gate. Uh, call it the core team, all right? It’s easier than constantly calling out a series of names. Aside from that, nobody leaves Garden without express permission.”

“I’m on it.”

“We’re on standby until we arrive. Dismissed.” He felt Griever take his hand and pull him away, obediently following as they went to the dorms and the privacy of his room. After dropping onto the bed he said, “We could check out Dollet and Timber, but. . . .”

Griever chose to lean against the desk. “If you can’t think of anything else by the time we reach Trabia, then I don’t see why not. Dollet might be tempting because Galbadian forces pulled out, and Timber is tempting simply because they haven’t. The sorceress obviously doesn’t remember her white SeeDs, so she’d be trying to figure out the logic behind where Ellone might be hiding based on what she does know.”

“Hn. I wonder if I should ask Xu if the headmaster’s all right. Haven’t seen him in a while. But I guess . . . he’s off somewhere coping, or administrating. Something.”

“I wonder. . . .”

“Hm?”

“Cid said that Balamb Garden used to be a shelter. Of what sort, who knows, though I think they might be related to the old Centra civilization. But it’s rather similar to Galbadia Garden, so I imagine Trabia would be also. I just wonder if there are other shelters like these out there. If Trabia has been demolished, well. . . . But I know it’s more about the people, not the structure.”

“I guess we’ll see when we get there. Maybe after all of this is over we could look into it.” He laid flat and stared at the ceiling. “Come here?”

Griever pushed away from the desk and took a seat on the bed. “What is it?”

“I just prefer you to be near, that’s all.”

“Hm.” Griever reached down to remove his boots, then removed Squall’s. “Sit up, back against the wall.”

When he had Griever sat in between his legs and rested against him. Squall smiled and wrapped his arms around him, then allowed his eyes to close, simply enjoying the warmth of Griever’s body against his. They were both dragged to attention some time later by chimes sounding over the PA, then, “This is the bridge. We have arrived at our destination. Core team assemble at the main gate. All other personnel are reminded that they may not leave Garden without permission. I repeat. . . .”

“I guess relaxation time is over,” Griever said sleepily, then gently unwrapped Squall’s arms and slid off the bed. He took a seat to the side and began to pull his boots back on.

Squall quickly followed suit despite his lethargy, and soon they were on their way to meet the others. He could not quite decide if he was surprised that Rinoa had decided to include herself. Either she thought she ought to be included, or simply assumed she would be, rather like she had with Balamb.

“Be prepared,” was all he said before he led them out. As they approached Trabia Garden it was clear the missiles had not missed.

Selphie took the lead, coming to a stop at a set of locked gates. “A direct . . . hit?”

“Man, this really pisses me off,” Zell growled.

Selphie looked over her shoulder at Squall. “I’m going in.”

He nodded. “Be careful.”

She made her way over to a section off to the side and began climbing up some netting that had blown over the outer wall, quickly disappearing over the top. They followed one at a time, mindful that the netting might not be able to bear too much weight at one time, and headed down a cracked walkway on the other side.

It was a dismal sight all told, the destruction that had been wrought, but there were people who had survived. Some were injured, with others taking care of them. Some students were attempting to get the computer system back online. Others were keeping an eye on the younger students and keeping them distracted.

They eventually found their way to a ruined basketball court, where Selphie had asked them to wait, at which point Squall said, “It doesn’t seem like Galbadia has come here. I’m not sure they will. They might be trusting that the missiles made that a moot point.”

“A tough call,” said Irvine. “They might, but people might be sent to make sure, or at least to see if there’s anything left to take over.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t stay here to protect them. They seem to be getting back on their feet, though.”

A half-deflated basketball bounced sadly across the ground and Selphie appeared, moving carefully so as not to trip over the shattered terrain. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Thanks so much for coming all the way out here, everyone.”

“Cheer up, eh?” Irvine said.

“Thanks. I want to get even with the sorceress. I want my revenge!”

“Um, do we . . . have to fight?” Rinoa asked. “Isn’t there another way? Y’know, to avoid any bloodshed?”

“What the—?” Zell stared at her as though she was crazy. “What are you sayin’ all of a sudden!?”

“Maybe someone really smart can come up with a way, so we wouldn’t have to fight anymore. . . .”

“Hn. That would be nice, I admit,” Squall said, ignoring when most everyone looked at him strangely. “You were a part of a resistance movement. Unlike others who were all talk, you took to your weapons and fought. But you don’t have to fight. It’s true that Garden’s present mission and the one you contracted for currently amount to almost the same thing, but you as the client do not have to fight. We of Garden, however, do and will. The only other option is to quit Garden and let those who remain handle things. That’s the primary reason why Garden exists, to fight the sorceress. To deny that is to deny our purpose.”

Rinoa looked dejected. “I guess . . . I’m just scared. Sometimes, when I’m with all of you, I feel like we’re all on the same wavelength, you know? But when the battles start happening, it’s different. Everyone’s tempo seems to pick up and . . . I get left behind. I try to catch up, but it feels futile. And I wonder, is everyone safe? Will they be all right? Will we all make it back together? When I start thinking like that. . . .”

Irvine tipped his hat back and crouched to pick up the basketball. “Rinoa, I understand. Someone might not be there. Someone you love may disappear before your very eyes. It’s tough when you live your life thinking that way. But that’s why I fight. When I was a little kid, about four or so, I was in an orphanage.”

He aimed and took a shot, planting the ball through the hoop. “Plenty of kids, all with no parents. . . . It was around the end of the Sorceress War, so I guess it couldn’t be helped. Anyway, out of all the kids there, one was very special to me, someone that I’d fight to protect, especially if they couldn’t protect themselves, you know?”

Selphie adopted a thoughtful look, tapping a finger to her lips. “Was that orphanage . . . a stone house?”

Irvine nodded, a slight smile on his face.

“By the ocean?” Quistis asked quickly.

“Yep. I knew right away when we first met.”

“Heeeey, why didn’t you tell us!?”

“Yes, why didn’t you?” Quistis said.

“‘Cause you seemed to have forgotten,” Irvine said with a sidelong glance at Squall. “It just kinda sucked that I was the only one who seemed to remember. Spunky little Sefie and bossy little Quisty . . . among others.”

“This is just soooo weird,” Selphie murmured.

“Others?” said Zell.

Squall shifted and planted a hand on his hip. “Yeah, others. Irvine, Selphie, Quistis. And . . . Zell, myself, and Seifer. You were all taken away, adopted probably, all of you except Seifer and me. We went straight to Garden.”

Zell gawked at him and Selphie opened her mouth to speak, but Quistis beat her to it. “You knew!? All this time you knew this? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Squall shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I told Irvine, once I realized he did remember. By the time you came to Garden you’d already forgotten, you and Zell. I was a stranger to you, focused on my studies, and just as quiet and introspective as I had been at the orphanage. It was easier to just let it go.”

“What about Seifer?”

“I don’t really know. Sometimes I think he remembers, but other times. . . . I just don’t know.”

Irvine said, “You forgot to mention Sis.”

He nodded. “Ellone. She was a bit older than us, and we all used to call her ‘Sis’.”

“She’s the one that takes us back to Laguna’s period, right, Irvine?” Selphie said.

“She told Squall she wanted to change the past, but we don’t know why,” Irvine responded.

“There can be only one reason for that,” Quistis mused. “She must not be happy with the present.”

“If that’s the case, I’m definitely up for helpin’ her!” Zell declared. “She’s part of our orphanage gang!”

“You didn’t even remember who she was,” Selphie replied.

Irvine chuckled. “Maybe because Squall kept hogging her attention.”

“But how come none of us remembered?” Zell asked. “Is it the GFs? What those people say about them?”

“No,” Squall said sharply. “I don’t believe that for a second. They might have some effect on our memories, but not like that. Quistis, you were ten when you came to Garden. You didn’t remember any of us.”

“I. . . . Yes, I remember now. Things didn’t work out too well at my new home, so I came to Garden at the age of ten.” Quistis seemed to have an epiphany about something and walked away a short distance, lost in thought.

“I think in my case it was because I had loads and loads of fun after going to Trabia. Everything was so new and there was so much going—” Selphie looked thoughtful, then said, “Actually, when I was twelve, I went on an outdoor training session. I found a GF inside one of the monsters I defeated. I junctioned that GF for a while, so I had experience with one before going to Balamb. But . . . I can’t remember the name of the GF.”

“I really think it’s a non-issue,” Squall said. “You had all, with the exception of Irvine, already forgotten. It’s possible that Selphie’s experience might have affected her memory, but we can’t blame GF usage for taking memories that had already been forgotten. Either way, it’s obvious those memories are still there, because you’re all remembering now.”

“Heeeey, I know! Let’s all keep a diary? That way even if they do affect us, we’ll have something to remind us.”

Quistis walked back and said, “Do you all remember matron?”

Squall exchanged a look with Irvine, then said, “I guess I’ll just be blunt. Matron’s name is Edea Kramer, she’s Headmaster Cid’s wife. Matron is Sorceress Edea.”

Rinoa gasped and looked at Irvine, “Is that why. . . ?”

Irvine nodded. “The question is . . . why would matron take over a country, or fire missiles, or work toward world domination? At this point, we probably wouldn’t comprehend even if we tried. As we learned from Cid, SeeD and Garden were matron’s idea, even if she doesn’t seem to remember that anymore. I’m not a SeeD, but I share the same feeling with all of you, and SeeDs are supposed to fight the sorceress.

“So like . . . this is what I wanted to say before. I understand what Rinoa’s saying. I understand, but I’m still going to fight. I want to stay true to everything I’ve stood for, and I’m sure it’s the same for everyone. I know our opponent is matron, whom we all love very much. But like Squall said to me as I was there in the clock tower, confessing that I couldn’t take that shot and hurt matron, we know her, we care about her, and if she’s gone bad, it’s almost like it’s our right to take care of the problem. Yeah, we could run away. We could let someone else handle this, someone who doesn’t understand. But that’s like . . . I don’t know. It’s not right.”

Everyone was quiet for a while after Irvine’s passionate speech, lost in thought. Zell eventually said, “Yeah. Let’s do it. We can’t run from her for the rest of our lives.”

“It’s just such a bummer,” Selphie muttered. “I can’t believe we have to fight matron.”

“I know,” said Quistis, “but Zell’s right. We can run from her forever.”

Squall nodded and turned to face Rinoa. “We’re going to fight. I think it’s the only way we can move on with our lives, if that makes any sense. It’s up to you if you want to fight with us. Nobody would think less of you if you chose to return to Timber and check on the other Forest Owls, or chose to help in other ways than fighting. But if you want to fight with us, you’re welcome to.”

Rinoa nodded, a peculiar, almost lost expression on her face.

Squall was mildly startled when Griever nudged him and pointed upward. “Look.”

“It’s snowing!” Selphie said happily. “A gift from the faeries!”

‘A nice way to brighten the mood,’ Griever said. ‘Sorry I’ve been so quiet, but, it’d be too hard to explain why I. . . .’

‘I know. And frankly, I don’t want to share that with anyone. It’s special, what we have.’

Griever smiled softly, then murmured, “Maybe we should check out the orphanage?”

Squall tilted his head in consideration. “Guys, opinions on checking out the orphanage?”

“We might find clues,” Irvine said slowly.

“You mean as to why matron turned out like this?” Quistis asked.

“Clues in the past won’t change the present,” Squall said, “but I’m curious myself. We’ll head there next. And after that, it’s possible that Edea might think Ellone would be hiding in either Dollet or Timber. Let’s go.”

*

“Squall, take a look.” Nida handed over a spare set of binoculars. “What do you think?”

A quick scan with them to magnify his vision revealed Galbadia Garden near the orphanage. “They probably know we’re here, too. If not, we’ll make the first move. The battle is inevitable.”

“The sorceress is with them, you think? Is this going to be the final battle?”

“I hope so.” He set the binoculars down and stepped over to the microphone on the console, contemplating exactly how to deploy their forces, then clicked it on. After the chimes sounded he said, “This is Squall speaking. This is an emergency so listen carefully. We’re going into battle against Galbadia Garden. The enemy will probably attempt to board, so we must concentrate our forces at the most probable points of entry.

“Core team report to the office. Those with MG rank three or above, assemble as follows, according to the last digit of your student ID. Zero through three to the front gate. Four through seven to the quad. Eight and nine to the second floor. First and second class Sabers, assemble in the parking lot and ready your vehicles for an assault.

“Junior classmen are to report to their dorms immediately and lock themselves in. Upperclassmen with a student ID ending in zero will provide defense for the dorms in case the enemy penetrates that far. Everyone else, assemble as follows, according to the last digit of your student ID. One through three to the front gate. Four through six to the quad, seven through nine to the second floor, classrooms and deck. You have ten minutes to get into position. Make sure you’re prepared and good luck. That is all.”

He clicked off the microphone and checked his watch, then said to Nida, “We’ll start our advance shortly.”

“Understood.”

As he was fiddling with the controls to turn off the damn PA system chimes, noise made him glance down into the office proper to see members of the core team arriving, where Griever was already waiting. He stepped onto the lift and rode it down.

“What do you want us to do?” Quistis asked.

“You’re going to help lead the others. Irvine, Selphie, you’ll lead at the front gate.”

‘You know I can handle myself. You can send me wherever.’

‘If you’re sure.’ “Zell, Griever, you’ll lead at the quad.” Squall paused with a frown. “Where’s Rinoa? Ah, whatever. Quistis, take lead on the second floor. If you run into Rinoa, drag her along.” He checked his watch. “Less than ten minutes until we advance, so get going.” As he stepped onto the lift up to the controls he thought, ‘Please be careful.’

‘I promise you I will. Trust in your people, and keep a clear head.’

Several minutes later Galbadia Garden began to move, to approach them, so he lowered the binoculars and clicked on the microphone long enough to announce, “All personnel, prepare yourselves. Galbadia Garden approaches. If you are not in your assigned area, go there now.”

‘Rinoa just showed up at the quad. . . . Zell just told her that you assigned her with Quistis. . . . And she’s agreed to go help with that lead. She’s leaving now.’

‘All right, thanks.’

“Squall, Seifer’s on that Garden, and they’re headed straight for us!”

He hauled his binoculars up and checked; Seifer was presiding over a team of motorcyclists, hand raised to give the signal to take off.

“We’re gonna crash!”

“Go right!” he ordered, then grabbed the microphone. “Brace for impact! Quad team, prepare for incoming.” He staggered when the other Garden rammed into them, very nearly losing his grip on the railing. He fretted as the minutes rolled by, and as Galbadia Garden moved away, wishing he was doing something more than standing there, but knowing that he couldn’t lead everyone if he was anywhere but on the bridge.

A light on the console came on and a voice issued from a speaker. “Quad reporting. Damage sustained to the outer edge and hull, but no casualties. Attack has been thwarted. Some motorcycles may have made it to the core.”

“Dorm defense team, on guard! Enemy may have penetrated to the core.” He swore when the enemy Garden looked likely to ram them again, this time at their rear. Nida was already on it, trying to keep them from colliding. “Brace for impact! Gate team, prepare for incoming.”

It was another tense wait until a report came in. “Gate reporting! We thrashed ’em! No casualties, but we did suffer injuries. Working on treating those now. It’s been pretty rough, though, and a lot of the people here are really tired.”

Something caught his eye; a closer look revealed them to be soldiers using those flight devices, but he could not be sure where they were headed as he lost sight of them quickly. “All teams, on guard. Flight-capable enemy approaching.”

Quistis reported in next. “Second floor attacked, enemies destroyed.”

“They’re moving away,” Nida reported. “Do you think they’re regrouping for another attack?”

‘Hell if I know. Maybe?’ He turned as the lift engaged and Xu arrived.

“What’s the situation?” she asked.

He decided to wonder later where she had been up ‘til then and said, “So far, so good, but the gate team seems to have been hit the worst. Another attack there might see us overrun.”

“They’re got Galbadian soldiers in addition to the Garden fighters,” Xu said. “They can afford to throw more people at us who have greater experience.”

“Then we need to concentrate them differently, and go on the offensive. Seifer is over there, which means there’s a good chance the sorceress is, too. They rammed us to board, so—”

“We ram them back?”

Squall nodded. “Nida, you know how these things are piloted. Do you think you can hit them to disable their mobility? Ground them?”

“I’ll do my best!” Nida tossed over his shoulder. “Just give the order.”

“Squall, I think you need to talk to everyone first,” Xu said. “Encourage them. As their leader it’s your duty.”

Nida looked over his shoulder and added, “You probably don’t know, but everybody in this Garden looks up to you. They like you.”

‘The hell? How did I manage that? Hey, you’re okay down there, right?’

‘Yes, we’re fine. I had a lot of fun using very sneaky magic to screw over those motorcycles.’

‘Okay, time for that speech.’ He nodded at Xu and readied the microphone. “Everyone, this is Squall. I know you’ve all done an excellent job so far. You’re all probably too tired to even stand up after all the fighting. But I want everyone to listen to me. We still have a chance to win, and I need your help. We’re going to attack them before they come in again. To do that, we’re going to head straight into their Garden, so I want everyone to prepare for a major collision.

“Sabers, you know what to do. Core team, we’ll be leading the attack into their Garden, so assemble at the gate. As for everyone else, please support them if you can. SeeD was formed to fight the sorceress, and that’s what we’re going to do. Garden was created to train SeeDs, so this battle is Garden’s destiny, and also our destiny. It’s a grueling battle, and I’m sure you guys are exhausted, but I don’t want to have any regrets. I don’t want anyone to look back and regret this day. So just this once, I want you guys to give everything you have, for yourselves and for me!”

Xu nodded several times and said, “You did great. That was wonderful.”

“Nida, proceed. Xu, you’re in charge while I’m gone.” He set the microphone down, then pulled the binoculars up over his head and set them aside. After a nod he headed down the lift and out of the office, then down the elevator to the first floor. A minute later he had met up with the others, and was incredibly embarrassed when the gate team cheered his arrival.

Xu’s voice came over the PA. “All hands, brace for impact!”

The crash was spectacular. The second they were steady again Squall said, “Core team, let’s go! Irvine, Quistis, in the lead!”

They made it inside the enemy Garden after a hard run, getting to a junction of two hallways, where Irvine stopped for a breather. “The sorceress should be here somewhere.”

“Remember, she’s our enemy now,” Squall said. “Don’t think about it in any other way. There’s no way we could fight her like that. She chose to fight and became our enemy. We choose to fight back. Irvine, Quistis, you know this place best, so take point.”

After a very long journey through the confusing layout of Galbadia Garden, not to mention having to track down some of the very few students left to obtain card keys to bypass security in places, they were able to make their way to the restricted elevator just near the second floor reception room. The student who had given them the card key for it let them know the sorceress’s room was on the top floor. They had also run into Raijin and Fujin, both of whom seemed rather confused and conflicted about Seifer.

When they reached the top Seifer was waiting, standing a short distance in front of Edea. “Oh, you guys shouldn’t have. I was gonna come visit you at my old home.”

Squall made a slashing gesture with one hand. “Shut up.”

“Did you guys come to fight matron? After all she’s done for us?” Seifer passed his eyes over the team and paused at Rinoa. “Rinoa, what are you doing here? You’re gonna fight me, too? Come on, remember a year ago we—”

“Stop it!”

Seifer then turned to Quistis. “Instructor Trepe, I’m still one of your dearest students, aren’t I?”

“Not anymore.”

Squall snorted softly and said, “It’s too late, Seifer. You can’t mess with our minds. To us, you’re just another enemy, like one of those monsters.”

Seifer whipped his blade around angrily. “You’re comparing me to one of them? I ain’t no monster. I’m the sorceress’s knight. And look at you. Attacking like a swarm. You guys are the monsters.” He brought Hyperion around to readiness and said, “Show me what you got. I’ll show you who’s the better man!”

He was, of course, defeated. And he, again, seemed surprised by that fact, just before he collapsed. Edea rose up from her reclining position in a unearthly sinuous fashion and said, “Worthless child.” She then sank through the floor.

“The auditorium is right below,” Irvine said helpfully. “We go back down and past the reception room.”

They arrived below the seating, at the center of the room. Ahead and above them was a podium flanked by four large screens. As they were looking around trying to see if the sorceress was there, the peace was shattered when Edea smashed through the glass overhead and landed gracefully on the podium.

“So, the time has come. You’re the legendary SeeD destined to face me?”

‘Legendary SeeD? She talks like she’s not from this time. That’s not matron.’

“I must say that I am impressed. An impressive nuisance. Your life ends here, SeeD.” But before she had moved to do so Seifer appeared again. “Worthless fool.”

‘It’s like she’s possessed,’ Griever commented.

“All SeeDs must perish!”

They were thrown into another fight for their lives, with an injured but determined Seifer standing before her again, saying, “You’ll never . . . get past me.”

Which was an easily proven lie, as he went down quickly. Edea showed further disgust, saying, “Defeated. . . . Useless fool. Enough play. SeeDs must die!” And she herself took on the task, but was, eventually, defeated.

As she collapsed to the ground a multi-coloured cloud erupted around her, and Squall’s vision went white, almost like someone had turned up the lights to an extreme. ‘What’s happening?’ He squinted and was able to see Rinoa walking toward Seifer’s body, but her movements were jerky and uncoordinated, and she seemed to be in a trance.

‘I think. . . .’

Rinoa crouched down to cradle Seifer in her arms and give him a kiss. She slumped over as Seifer pulled himself up, the light level in the room starting to die down, finally returning to normal. And by then Seifer was gone.

“Rinoa?” Quistis asked. “Are you all right?”

Edea spoke then, in a vastly different tone. “You’ve all grown so much . . . and become so strong. I have waited for this day to come. And also feared this day would come. Is today a joyous day? Or an odious day? Where is Ellone!? Have I protected Ellone!?”

‘Is she . . . back to normal?’

“Squall!” Quistis called. “It’s Rinoa. . . .”