Grazhir :: Crossover :: Tempest :: 01 :: It Begins

01 • It Begins

Pain

Squall groaned and buried his face in his hands.

It shouldn’t be this hard. Sure, they all looked up to me as their leader during the crisis. Someone had to take charge. Not that I was ever asked. I’m still not sure why Cid decided I was the guy. And now I’m still in charge of Balamb Garden? When do I get to make a choice? When do I have time to make a choice for myself?

I feel like I’m drowning in paperwork—stupid requisitions, disciplinary actions, SeeD assignments, blah blah blah. Since when does helping to save the world qualify me for a desk job? All I ever wanted to do was pass the exam, get sent out on assignments. . . .

If Cid wants to retire he’s got the right, I just don’t think I’m the right person to replace him. There’s got to be someone better at handling this stuff. Someone who’d want to handle this stuff, because I sure as hell don’t. I don’t want this kind of responsibility.

I feel so guilty, but I can’t help it. Here I am, moaning and wailing over how horrible my life is, when people obviously think I’m amazing and can handle anything. I can’t even go into town without people squealing and asking for autographs. They never bother the others like that. Why just me? It’s not like I did it alone. Why can’t they see that?

And then there’s Rinoa. What god came down and decided she was perfect for me? Is the girl blind? I’m not sorry that I’m the way I am. I didn’t ask to be like this, I just am. She clings to me like I’m the second coming of Hyne, for crying out loud. I feel like I’m being slowly suffocated in neediness, smothered in fluff.

And she never shuts up! I don’t want to talk about my feelings, damn it. See if I make the mistake of saving another girl. As much as it pains me to even think it, I’m starting to believe I should have let her be sealed. It’s not like she was much use in the final battle, Angel Winging it like that, casting totally useless spells. I almost whacked her myself.

Why does everyone still think she’s my girlfriend? Do they think that’s the only reason I had for the things I did? Like I wouldn’t have tried to save their lives if they needed help? She’s always poking at me, prying, trying to get me to open up. I care, I do, but not like that. All right, so I thought I might have fallen for her at one point, but that sure as hell died a quick death once everything was dealt with.

I’m starting to feel pleasure everytime she gets upset when I say, “Whatever. . . .” But then I feel guilty, like I’m kicking a defenseless kitten or something. I can’t take much more of this. The harder I try to pull away, the harder she tries to break in and fix my so-called personality issues.

And then there’s Quistis, always the little mother. Scolding me like a child. And if I see one more look of hero worship in Zell’s eyes I may scream. If Selphie bounces in front of me one more time I may snap. I’m going to have to see if she’s addicted to sweets and order them banned. At least Irvine is calm, thank Hyne.

Seifer. Oh man. As much as I hate my life right now, I can’t even begin to imagine what he suffered through. I never wanted to hurt him, I don’t care what he did. It wasn’t him. He talked about his dreams, but the lapdog of an evil bitch? That is so not him.

Used and abused, like me. Except, he was forced into torture, so I know he had it far worse. I don’t care how intense the rivalry was between us. We made each other stronger. It just wasn’t him. He wasn’t responsible for his actions. Temporarily insane. I don’t think paperwork will drive me over the edge. . . . Then again, who knows.

I’m glad though, to have seen him with his posse, laughing like that. He must be mostly okay, I hope. Drowning and suffocating, that’s how I feel, not that I’ll ever tell people that. They’d try to help if I said anything. I don’t want help, I want to be left the hell alone.

No stares, no calf-eyes or looks of wonder, admiration and awe. Even if I moved across the world they’d still recognize me, hound me. Maybe I wouldn’t care if I’d done something to deserve it, all by myself. Maybe then I could accept it.

I can’t stand this. I don’t know what to do. So used to following orders that I’m not sure I can break free. I couldn’t even come into the world clean, I had to kill to do it.

The door opened, making him look up wearily. Quistis glided in with another stack of paperwork and placed it in his already overflowing inbox.

“Squall, are you all right? Do you need to talk?”

“Whatever. . . . ”

Maybe I’d be better off dead.

*

Cloud cupped his chin in his hand and sighed, gazing forward without really seeing anything.

I thought I’d got past this. They thought so, too, but I don’t think I can tell them this. So much of my life was a lie. Crazy experiments, a fractured consciousness—I’m still not sure who I really am. I know, I know—all that time with Tifa helping me, trying to put the pieces of my mind back into some kind of coherent order, trying to expose the fallacies constructed inside my head.

How much more is hiding inside me, waiting to come out, waiting to make me lose my grip on reality? Was it enough to see Sephiroth one last time? To watch my blade slice through him? Did he really have to die? I guess so. He was wrong, he did horrible things. How can a dream become so twisted?

As much as I’d cry for myself, what did they do to him to make this happen? Am I really just a warped reflection of him? What did I strike down in those last moments—him, or myself? It didn’t used to be like that. I had my own dreams, my own goals, and they all shattered like glass. Sometimes I feel like all the life in me is just draining away. Murky water from a badly fired clay cup.

I loved him once, or was it just admiration? The lure of the unattainable? I’m not sure anymore. Not sure of much of anything. Will I end up like that man in the sewer . . . drifting in an insane haze, dredging for scraps of food and spouting gibberish in the depths of a slum?

Why can’t I put it all behind me and just move on? Am I so afraid for the marionette to move without the strings? Or am I just too weak? I feel like a substitute for Tifa, a poor second in place of a dead man. I care about them, I do, but I can’t seem to fit into the mold they assume I broke from.

Maybe I should just go, far away. But there isn’t any place. They’d come looking for me, to see if I’m all right, to try and get me to talk and explain and empty my head for them to analyze. I think the mako poisoning destroyed parts of me, something essential. How could I have been so weak? How could I have let things get to the point they did?

I betrayed people. I don’t care what they say, that they think it was all Jenova or Sephiroth. I should have been stronger. I should have resisted. I tried to kill Aeris and then just stood there and watched him do it for me. I’m such a failure.

“Cloud!? Dinner is ready!”

I should have been the one to die.

Glittering Blade

Squall walked through Garden, the heels of his boots clicking on the polished stone of the floors, trying to get to the training area without too many people annoying him. Already he’d run into several of the younger students and had to suffer their awe-struck gazes and soulful sighs. It made him want to abandon all dignity and run, or be sick.

He’d spent the entire morning slogging through more paperwork even though it was technically his day off. It seemed like every time he stepped out of the office the stuff bred and multiplied like rabbits. It was a good thing he habitually wore gloves else his hands would be laced with fine scars from papercuts alone, far outnumbering those honorably gained in battle. Death by papercut, what a laugh.

What a waste of time. He could be out helping to deal with the consequences of the Lunar Cry, but nooooo, he was stuck in Garden, shuffling stacks of paper around on a desk. What a drag. At least monsters didn’t try and chat him up. A couple of giggling girls came toward him, silenced momentarily by his icy glare, but bursting out into excited whispers the moment they’d got past him.

He heaved a sigh when he made it to the training grounds without further incident and jogged through the barrier doors into the live area. Slicing through grats wasn’t his idea of a good workout, but at least there was the occasional T-Rex to take his aggressions out on. And finally, one arrived.

His sleep junction quickly incapacitated it, so he toyed with the massive creature, lashing out at it with delicate point-work and swift slices until it was oozing blood. Tired of the game, he unleashed his strongest attacks and decimated the beast, watching in satisfaction as it toppled to the ground with a thundering crash.

He felt a little better for his efforts, but not much, so he continued to stalk through the area, alert for any roaming creatures. He rampaged through several more T-Rexes before he started to get tired and considered going back to his quarters. Another night of restless dreams that would bleed into another day of pulp.

As luck would have it, he was in the middle of a fight with a grat when he was hit with sleep and began to doze off. Already being so tired made him more susceptible. He was just coming out of it, basically unharmed, when a T-Rexaur crashed in from behind and let out a horrific roar.

Squall twisted and stepped back, trying to keep both creatures in sight, raising Lionheart to a guard position. As he moved to block the stinging tentacles of the grat the T-Rex attacked, sweeping its tail in a swift arc and catching him off guard. The last thing Squall thought as it sent him flying through the air to land impaled on his own gunblade was, ‘Maybe this was for the best.’

*

He was running, Ultima Weapon sweeping through a series of spinning arcs, swift blocking movements, and thrusts. His foe was unseen, because it didn’t exist. With nothing better to do, and an inborn desire to improve himself that would not be denied, Cloud continued to train and work out, even if that meant taking any opportunity to do so.

It was one of the few times when he could let his mind rest and let his body and senses take over. But he was still running, even as he trained, just like his mind usually ran when he tried to sort things out. The river beside him ran swiftly, but not so fast as he, streaking past in a blur of flesh and metal. At least the river had a purpose, the water a cycle to filter through, and life to give to the inhabitants of the planet.

Dusk was falling, making the light uncertain and deceptive. All the better for training. One couldn’t always have perfect conditions, if such a thing existed when it came to killing blows. Life was sacred, right? So caught up was Cloud in his mostly mindless flight that he didn’t hear the rumble of thunder parade across the darkening sky.

So engrossed was Cloud that the flash of lightning caught him completely off guard as it crashed with a tortured shriek into a tree just ahead. His stride faltered, but it was not enough. The sickening crack of the heavy branch as it parted from the trunk was all he heard as it slammed into him and flung him like a rag doll to be impaled on his own sword. His mind was saying quite calmly, ‘This is an ignoble way to go.’

Beach of Nothingness

Running through the darkness, he desperately looked for anything, anyone. Had it all just been a dream? Where was everyone!? He stumbled and fell to his knees, breaking his fall with both hands. A sparkle caught his eye, causing him to look up in time see the sharp edge of Hyperion fill his sight, and feel the wicked blade slash across his face.

“How. . . ?”

Running for his life, he raced across the shifting sands and cursed the drag on his speed, the hundred little shifts that threatened to throw him off balance. The ship was just ahead, the only thing visible down the tunnel of his vision’s focus, its gaping mouth open to succor him, if he could make it in time. So close—he lunged forward in a dive and slid into the darkness.

“What. . . ?”

A sorceress wafted by, a malicious smile lighting her face as she raised her hand and let loose a bolt of crimson death from her palm. It struck him full in the chest, knocking him into a world of light. Squall cautiously rose and looked around.

“Where. . . ?”

The beach was pleasant, just like it always was, but Balamb was missing. He gazed off to the west, letting his eyes follow the familar curve of the land, but there was no town tucked into the harbor, no docks reaching out over the clear water.

“Why. . . ?”

He crumpled to the ground in a tangle of limbs and stared morosely at the open sea, watching the white-capped waves crash against the shore, only to recede again in an endless dance. It soothed him, calmed his racing heart, and slowly his expression cleared.

“Is this what it’s like being dead? Just beauty before me. No need to worry, no room for fears or regrets?”

“No,” came a melodic voice from behind him. “Not exactly.”

He didn’t bother to turn his head on hearing soft steps moving to his side. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the figure gracefully sink to the ground and turn to face him.

“When am I?” he asked placidly.

“You’re not lost in time compression, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Then where? What is this place?”

“This is the place between life and death. Where you decide.”

He couldn’t muster any feelings of rage or bitterness, so he replied calmly, “Decide if I want to live or die, you mean?”

“Yes. You have all the time in the world, here and now. It’s your choice alone.”

“Who are you?”

“You have only to turn your head to see. But to put another face on things, I am your guide.”

“What happens if I choose to die?”

“You’ll move on and start again in a new life. Perhaps a better one, perhaps not. The fates decide, should you choose that route.”

“And if I live?”

“If you live? That is up to you. You can stay, and try to cope within the framework that’s been imposed on you against your will, or you can move on in another way, choosing to take charge of your life and try to become the person you really want to be, or make a difference that matters to you. Your choice is all that matters in this place, and no one can take it from you.”

He stared at the restless sea for an eternity, obscurely comforted by the nameless figure at his side, and drank in the sight of an element so powerful, yet pliant. He’d like to be that way. Able to break free his bonds when cold, slip through the fingers of circumstance when warm, or rise into the sky when heated.

It made his thoughts turn to Shiva—so cold, yet so loving, a massive contradiction he admired without question. They were perfectly suited, or would be, if he could find the same strength, the same ease she wore draped around her like a cloak in the acceptance and expression of her conflicting nature.

“Do you think I’m strong enough?”

“You are if you choose to be, Squall. For anything.”

He glanced down at his hands, for once gloveless, and studied the slim, tapering digits, their appearance belying the strength he knew resided there. He knew if he were to look in a mirror he’d see the same. Only the occasional flashes of fire in his eyes had betrayed his habitual shield of indifference.

What did he want? Not Garden, no. Was he ready to die, to give up, to choose not to choose?

“Thank you,” he said as he turned his head to gaze into the eyes of his guide, “Mother.”

She smiled at him, like the sun breaking through the clouds, and nodded.

“I choose to live, and start over in my own way.”

“Then you shall have it. I must tell you, Squall, that you should leave Garden quickly, for your choice will manifest itself within weeks, though I cannot tell you exactly what that means. You will see, and understand, when the time comes.”

She rose to her feet fluidly and extended her hand, which he took, and allowed her to pull him to his feet. He embraced her gently and pressed a soft kiss to her smooth cheek, before stepping back to look at her.

“Be well, my son.” Then she and everything else slipped away into a haze of grey nothingness.

*

Cloud tried to frown and rise from his wheelchair, but all he could do was suffer in silence, listening to the quixotic melody of the lifestream taking seductive little strolls through the ruin of his mind. His head lolled around, making it difficult to see, and blurring his vision. He tried again to break free, struggling against the invisible bonds of Gaia’s will.

His chest heaved with effort and suppressed emotion as he stared at the dim figure shadowed by the blinding light, trying to make out the features, straining to reach toward it. A hand clasped his, strong and sure, and the light began to fade. Falling, upward, he was pulled into darkness.

He watched through the eyes of a small girl, staring out the window while standing on a stepstool, as sparkling streams of Holy spread in a massive buffering effort against that of meteor’s power, aided and abetted by incandescent tendriling streams of Life, the glowing green of the planet’s power. He felt his borrowed eyes widen as he fell backward, never hitting the floor.

His eyes opened when he felt solidity beneath him, but no pain, no crash of impact. Shaking his head he sat up and let his gaze wander across the landscape. No people, no buildings, no signs of life, just the gentle lapping of waves upon the shore at what should have been Costa del Sol.

They transfixed him, like an intoxicating addiction, and swept his mind clear for the first time in as long as he could remember. No pain, no uncertainty, no insecurity, just an abiding sense of peace that coaxed and tempted. He’d heard of a ritual once, the Cleansing of the Stone.

Cast all your problems and worries at it, then clear them away. It felt like that now with each wave that advanced then retreated, back to the restless sea. The niggling doubts, the agony of guilt, each softly stolen from him as he stared with wide, untroubled eyes.

Seconds ticked by, and minutes, perhaps even days or weeks. Cloud found he didn’t care. The sense of timelessness was like the arms of a mother wrapping him in a soft blanket of love and acceptance.

“Is this death?” he asked himself.

“No,” came a mellifluous voice from behind him. “Not precisely.”

He didn’t bother to turn his head on hearing soft steps moving to his side. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the figure gracefully sink to the ground and turn to face him.

“Then where am I? Why do I feel like this?”

“This is a place of waiting, neither life nor death. It is a place of choice, and you cannot choose with the turmoil of your life drowning you.”

“Am I in the lifestream again?”

“Not exactly.” The voice was curiously androgynous.

“There are some things you can’t answer.”

“Correct.”

“You said this is a place of choice. What choice is there, waiting in this. . . .” He trailed off, not quite sure what words would suit.

“This surreal landscape? The choice to live or die, one that is yours alone.”

“You’ll help me?”

“Only in a certain sense. I cannot make it for you, but I can help you to manifest the results.”

Cloud attempted to frown, but his face remained stubbornly relaxed. He realized it didn’t bother him. “If I die?”

“The lifestream will take you, and you will be reborn to a new existence.”

“And if I live?”

“Then Gaia will release you back into the world.”

“Just the same?”

“Only if you wish it. It’s up to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You can return, to the world and your current life, if you choose. Or you can return with the determination for change, and wait for your choice to manifest itself, based on the wishes and desires locked deep in your subconscious.”

“There is no universal truth.”

“No, there is not.”

“Then this is entirely for me.”

“Correct.”

He stared at the restless sea for an eternity, obscurely comforted by the nameless figure at his side. He didn’t think he wanted to die anymore, not really. Life was precious, at least to those who had the ability to appreciate it. He couldn’t imagine going back, though, not to the way it was. This place, this peace—was he strong enough to start over?

“Am I strong enough?” he whispered.

“I know you are, Cloud. It’s a matter of choice, one made with clarity of mind, which here you have.”

He ran a hand through his spiky hair and considered his thoughts of not so long ago, able now to view them objectively, like the journal entries of a stranger. He saw the self-doubt, the self-pity, the fractured pieces of a once whole man, and decided.

“I don’t want to die,” said Cloud quietly as he turned his head to the figure. “I want to start over, Sephiroth.”

“Then you shall have it,” said Sephiroth, after pressing a soft kiss on the blond’s mouth. “When you return, take a trip. You’ll figure out a reason. When your choice manifests itself, you’ll want to be alone, Cloud. Gaia knows your heart and mind, and we will watch over you in your travels.”

He closed his eyes as he was pulled into a gentle embrace and heard, “Be well, my dearest friend,” before everything slipped away into a haze of grey nothingness.