Grazhir :: Crossover :: Tempest :: 02 :: Choices

02 • Choices

You’re Not Alone!

Squall groaned softly and tried to move, but his limbs felt like lead and his head throbbed in vicious protest at the attempt. Footsteps sounded, a quiet clatter against what must be the tiles of the infirmary floor. A gentle hand brushed the hair from his brow with soothing movements, helping to quiet the pain.

“Squall,” a voice whispered, “you’re all right. We found you in time. Just rest. The medicine should kick in soon and let you sleep normally.” The gentle hand continued to stroke through his hair and across his brow, seducing him into dreamless sleep as the pain, and consciousness, slowly receded.

When he awoke again he cautiously opened his eyes, glad for the dim lighting and the soft breeze that flirted with the sheer curtains and wafted the scent of spring past his nose and across his body. He fumbled at the side of the bed and found the controls, thumbing the button to raise the upper half of the bed so he could rise to a sitting position without undue effort.

The purring hum of the machinery alerted others to his wakefullness and the door slid open to reveal Irvine, who quickly crossed the room to sit at his side, smiling at him with relief.

“You gave us a bit of a scare.”

Squall nodded, his brow furrowed in an effort to remember.

“Don’t worry ‘bout talking,” said Irvine with a shrug. “We’re just glad you’re all right. You’ll be up and kicking in a couple of days.”

Squall almost smiled, but instead fastened his gaze on sparkling violet eyes, allowing the corner of his mouth to twitch.

“I got delegated for bedside duty. I hope you don’t mind. The others are all still a bit frantic, so Doc suggested me.” Irvine shot him a mirth-filled look and chuckled.

Squall parted his lips to speak, but subsided and closed them in favor of looking around the room thoughtfully. He wouldn’t miss this place, not much. He couldn’t say anything yet, not until he’d been released. Maybe they’d understand, maybe not.

He gave Irvine a sidelong glance.

“Hungry?”

Squall nodded slightly and wondered where Lionheart was, turning curious eyes toward his companion.

“It’s in your quarters, don’t worry,” he replied to the unspoken question and stood. “I’ll go rustle up some food for you.” He turned and walked back out, returning a few minutes later with a tray.

“There’s a call button in here, too, if you need anything. Just press it—Doc or I will come, okay?”

He picked up his fork as a whistling Irvine strolled out of the room.

Several days later he was dressed and walking steadily toward his quarters. He’d been released, deemed fit enough for light duty. He wanted to snort at the potential insult, but somehow it didn’t feel right to do so. He’d realized over the past couple of days that there was a tenuous presence in his mind, not unlike that of Shiva or his other GFs, but not quite the same either.

He mulled over it as he swiped his keycard to open the lock and stepped inside. Same old quarters, lacking in personality, presenting the same face as its owner. Alone, he allowed himself to smile, and pulled Lionheart from its case, getting cleaning materials to begin a soothing ritual.

So what was it? The more he mused over the feeling, the more his thoughts kept wandering to the beach and the sense of peace it had provided. Maybe that was it. Maybe it was part of what Raine had meant. If that was the case, he needed to wrap up his affairs quickly and slip away. She’d said weeks, so there was little time left given that he’d spent several in the infirmary already.

He stared with satisfaction and pride at his gunblade before gently returning it to its case and putting his supplies away. Tomorrow then, he would start the paperwork privately, filled out in regulation triplicate and properly filed. For the moment he would pack up his things and leave them unobtrusively ready for his departure.

*

Cloud opened his eyes to darkness and wondered where he was. The surface beneath him was yielding, so it wasn’t the ground. He was covered, so, it was probably a bed of some kind, or at least a couch. He fumbled around with one hand trying to discern his surroundings, pausing when his fingers brushed against what felt like wood.

Cautious exploration revealed it to be a table, so he inched his hand across the top to see if there was a lamp. Finding one, he switched it on and winced against the sudden light that threatened to blind him. He waited for his eyes to adjust, then sat up and looked around the room. ‘Tifa’s,’ he thought.

He mentally assessed his condition as he gingerly tested each limb. Aside from a very stiff spot near his hip, he felt all right. Even with the lamp on the room was dim. He turned it off and rolled onto his side and slept.

On awaking again he slid out of bed and wobbled around for a minute before getting his balance back, then glanced down to see a jagged scar starting near his hip and reaching part way across his abdomen. He frowned and grabbed a shirt and pulled it on, then left the room and headed into the kitchen.

Tifa looked up in surprise as he walked in, then smiled. “Cloud! How’re you feeling?”

“Fine. Just a little sore.”

“We were so worried! But you’re all right, and that’s what matters.” She bounced over and enveloped him in a hug before stepping back to smile at him. “Hungry?”

Cloud nodded and sat down at the table. “A bit.” He watched in silence as she worked on a simple meal for him, chattering away like a magpie. He accepted the resulting food and sat eating, letting her words wash over him, nodding or saying, “Mm,” occasionally, whenever she paused to take a breath.

He needed to get away. Soon. “Where’s my sword?”

She blinked. “In the closet of the room you woke up in. Where else would it be?”

He nodded and stood, stopping to drop a kiss on the top of her head, then went to collect Ultima Weapon.

Several days later found him in the courtyard behind Tifa’s house, working with his blade, but not running. He didn’t need to. He’d walk this time, but away, though he had no particular destination in mind as of yet. Tifa had not stopped her usual treatment of him, and while it was wearing, he found he could easily brush away the feelings it had engendered previously.

It seemed like every time he felt himself becoming angry or bitter, confused or lost, an image of the beach drifted through his mind and left behind a sense of peace and calm. He needed to leave soon. Before he was bound with ties of misunderstood friendship and love. Before they could unwittingly draw him back down into the depths of despair.

Ship of Regret and Sleep

He’d done it, he’d got away. He’d left the paperwork and Garden behind him, and purchased a small ship with his overflowing funds. He’d never had much to spend it on before. Squall had taken the precaution of transferring the bulk of his money into a numbered account so that he could access it at any time, regardless of circumstance.

He stared out over the ocean, eyes squinted against the bright sunlight, and sighed with contentment. They’d probably come looking for him, he knew that, but perhaps the letter he’d left behind along with his formal resignation would delay the inevitable, and by then he might not be recognized.

He had ideas on how to hide himself, though they would require assistance. If he were being honest with himself, and he was, he knew there was only one person likely to render it. The question was . . . would it be rendered in secrecy? He thought now that he could face up to that part of his past, but he wasn’t sure how his father would react.

“I’ll just have to think about it some more,” he said. The ocean didn’t answer back, but he could feel Shiva’s silvery laugh in a corner of his mind. There were plenty of places he could go now, and without regrets for doing so. He laughed, an echo of his Guardian’s, and slipped under a tarp stretched above a section of the deck, flopping down on his back.

The piloting system was set for a random course and knew to avoid settlements, so he folded his arms back behind his head and closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep.

*

Cloud rolled over onto his stomach and laid his head against the shelter of his arms. Even in his limited view he could see the stars twinkling innocently in the blessedly clear sky. He felt free, unrepressed, and amazingly happy. They’d bought his reasoning, so they wouldn’t come looking for some time, though they’d threatened to if he was away for too long.

Just a vacation, an aimless trip with no particular goal, to see the world again now that it had begun to blossom with life in the aftermath of the horror. They believed what had happened to him was an accident, and in truth it was, though he had welcomed it then. His tentative show of feeling had surprised and pleased them, making them believe he was well on the way to a new beginning.

“If only they knew,” he murmured to the silent stars. “Then again, a little misdirection won’t hurt them. I’m not quite sure what will happen from here on out, but I know I’ll have the strength to manage.”

He imagined for a moment that the stars twinkled a bit more brightly at his pronouncement, then laughed softly to himself at his whimsy. The scent of the sea was soothing, despite the sometimes excessive salt overtones. It was mysterious, seductive and coy, speaking in whispering tones of hidden depths and secrets, lying in wait beneath the currently placid surface.

“If I have any regrets left, it’s over the deception. I showed them how I felt, but the underlying motivation was false.” Cloud turned on his side to better see his accepting audience. “Maybe that will change, maybe not. Spending so many years lying to yourself makes it hard sometimes to understand, you know?”

A bright speck caught his attention, and his eyes followed its movement across the heavens, realizing it for the shooting star it was.

“Was that for me?” he asked. “It doesn’t matter. I can believe it was, if I want. Right?”

He swept his gaze across the quiet sky, looking for familiar constellations to tell him where he was. Seeing that he was in no danger of sighting land for some time, he rolled onto his back and drifted off to sleep.

Bonds of Sea and Fire

He stood on the dock, flanked by his friends. ‘They are, aren’t they?’ he thought with a purely mental sigh. ‘Then why am I so restless, when just a few days ago I was happy here, fishing for no reason, laughing at their antics.’ He shot swift glances at them before turning his gaze back to the sea, which sparkled like diamonds in the light of the sun.

It gave him no answers, but then, it never had. It was simply there, ever changing, yet static. ‘Rather like being stuck in a loop with no idea of how to break free,’ he thought morosely. He looked over his shoulder at the hotel and frowned; this wasn’t getting him anywhere. A nudge at his side made his head snap back and look into the single eye of Fujin.

“EXPLAIN.”

He winced and shook his head. “Not here. It’s too exposed.”

“MOVE.”

He wished she didn’t still speak that way. It had never mattered in the past, but these days it made his head hurt. He nodded and turned toward the town, then began the long walk to the mountain cave they’d converted into living quarters, his faithful posse trailing along behind him.

Seated gracelessly in a chair they’d liberated from a garbage heap, he looked up into that gleaming eye, sparing a quick glance toward Raijin’s puzzled face, and then began.

“I feel . . . lost,” he admitted, ignoring the startled gasp from Raijin. “It’s like we’re walking around in circles, with nowhere to go, nothing to do, no purpose to wake up for.”

Fujin narrowed her eye at him.

“No, not like that. I keep thinking. . . . ”

“MORE.”

“You know, I wish you’d speak normally,” he snapped, feeling at that moment every bit like his old self.

“Fine. If that’s what it takes to get you to talk, then fine. Now out with it, before I have to get physical.” She had an oddly musical voice when she wasn’t barking out her words.

Seifer blinked at her in surprise, vaguely registering the spluttering noises from Raijin. “Okay. If you laugh, though, I won’t be nice about it.”

She made a curt gesture with one hand.

“I keep thinking we should try to go back. I . . . miss it. Them . . . too.”

Fujin gazed at Raijin for several seconds, then focused on Seifer again. “Do you think they’d allow it?”

Seifer shrugged and rubbed his chin. “I have no idea. I don’t think strolling up to the Garden like nothing’s happened is exactly the wisest idea.”

“Contact Irvine.”

“Huh?” he asked.

“Contact Irvine. Out of all of them, he’s most likely to be receptive. They have email, so use one of the public terminals. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

“What about you? Or Raijin?”

“What about us? Where you go, we go. We have each other, and we have you. The balance may have changed, but we are your friends, your supporters, and your posse. That’s all there is to it. So are you going to do it or not?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and leveling an icy glare at him.

“Friends?”

“Of course. What did you take us for—mindless idiots in need of a leash-holder?”

He laughed and felt himself relax a little, shaking his head a bit. “All right. But . . . do you want to go back?”

Fujin shrugged and replied, “I kind of miss the place, too, if you want the truth.”

That settled things immediately for him and he was up and on his feet without pause. “Then I’m going into town to send off a little letter.”

*

Irvine was, to put it mildly, shocked when he checked his email that next morning, but he was also intrigued. Out of all of them he had the best memory, or rather, the best recollection of life at the orphanage, but he didn’t think that was what could have prompted Seifer to contact him personally. After all, he’d known little to nothing about the Seifer of Balamb Garden.

He mulled over that puzzle as his eyes flicked back and forth across the screen, taking in the words the former Sorceress’ Knight had sent. As the content became clear, his eyes widened. ‘He wants to come back? Sweet Hyne.’

He sat back in his chair and considered the potential repercussions of showing this to the others. On the one hand, they could explode in a welter of emotions, anger being the most likely. On the other hand, they might surprise him, as they had when they realized what Squall had done. No fits, no screaming tantrums, just silence. Maybe it was just that the shock hadn’t worn off yet, or maybe it was that they accepted his decision.

Too many masks were firmly in place—or were they? He leaned forward and punched the button to print the letter, then hit it again enough times to make a copy for everyone. When the hum of the printer finally ceased back to its nearly imperceptible purr he stood and gathered up the sheaf of paper and left his room. He eventually found them in the Quad, arguing over arrangements for the next Garden Festival, with Selphie leading the tumult of rising voices.

He waited for a while, hat tipped back so he could see better, then finally chambered a round and fired one shot into the air. Every head snapped around to stare at him.

“Now that I have your attention, there’s something we need to discuss, folks.” He guided Exeter into its specially-made holster and strode forward, pausing before each person to hand out one of the copies, then sat down on the edge of the reconstructed stage.

“Read it. Discuss.”

Shortly thereafter, voices rose in an agitated chorus of babbling. Irvine just sat there and let the words flow over him. Had he made a bet with himself, he’d have lost; they’d chosen the former of the two predicted reactions. So far he’d caught snatches of verbal abuse of the writer along with cries of disbelief that he’d ask such a thing, but he noticed that two people were relatively quiet through all of it.

One voice rose above the others with a command for silence, causing the air around them to crackle with energy. Surprisingly, it was Rinoa who spoke.

“No. He shouldn’t be turned away. I know some of what he’s had to deal with, and however misguided his original intent was, and how twisted his dream became through manipulation and deceit, he deserves a second chance. If you can and do still trust me, despite what I’ve become, then I ask that you extend him the same courtesy. It’s only right, and it’s only fair.”

Mouths gaped open one by one as her voice rang out into the Quad, then snapped shut when she finished. ‘She made some valid points,’ he mused. ‘If anyone would have an idea of what Seifer had suffered, she would.’

Rinoa placed her hands on her hips and demanded, “Well?”

He noticed that they had the grace to flush under her hard gaze, though one looked wistful as well. ‘How curious.’

“Fine. Think about what I’ve said. We’ll talk about this again later,” she said with an icy edge. “Then, we’ll compose a reply.” With a toss of her dark hair, Rinoa turned around and flounced off.

Irvine got the message, the words she hadn’t stated explicitly. ‘If you don’t do this, then I’ll know that every moment of the past few months has been a lie, and you’ll see my back as I walk out of your lives.’ When she latched onto an idea, she was merciless.

*

Seifer strode over to an empty terminal to check his mail, just as he’d done every day for the past week. Each time he’d come up empty, but he continued to hope. His fingers hit the keys automatically, logging him into the account he’d created, and brought up the email screen for him to view.

He blinked. Irvine had responded. Tentatively, as though the letter might leap off the screen to savage him, he opened it and began to read.

A short time later he burst into the cave, waving a sheet of paper around. Fujin and Raijin looked up at the distraction, following him with their eyes as Seifer all but bounced over to an armchair and dropped into it.

“Would it be safe to assume you received a favorable response?” she asked dryly.

Seifer smirked and handed her the page.

After a few moments she lifted her head. “Looks like we should start packing,” she said with a faint smile.

Awakening

The surface of the sea was choppy as the wind stroked it to rise and fall. The roar and whistle of the air was an alien counterpoint to the pseudo-cymbals of crashing waves. He thought it sounded like that night in Fishermans Horizon when his team had surprised him with music, all jangling sounds and crosswise themes. He chuckled at the memory; they’d tried so hard only to play so badly.

He was sure even he could do better. He could at least sing, though he’d hidden the fact from his friends. It would have completely destroyed his public image for one thing. He shook his head; the discordant sounds were starting to give him a headache. Maybe the storm would blow itself out soon, or settle into something more like music.

Regardless of the pain it was beginning to cause, it made him think. Sailing the seas endlessly was no way to live his life. If he did, he’d be just like the storm, all bluster and fury, only to disappear when the strength wound down, and that wasn’t at all what he wanted. He shivered, though not from cold.

“So, what to do?” he asked, listening to the wind rage incoherently. “You’re not very helpful you know,” he said accusingly. “Here I am trying to decide what direction to take and you’re screaming loud enough to wake the dead.”

He wrapped his arms around himself, placing his hands on his shoulders, and dropping his chin so that it rested against his forearm. “Well, I guess . . . no matter what, I need a new name.” His eyes flicked back up to see the foamy waves rise only to shatter, then crest again, and blinked away the water that ran down his face and into his lashes.

“Squall. A kind of storm. . . . “ he mumbled. “Raine. . . . I may as well stay in line. So, Storm? Close enough, I suppose. But what to do, what am I good at?”

He swayed back and forth, considering his options and what he enjoyed doing besides being a simple mercenary.

“The only other things I can do are sing and repair weapons, and I can’t see myself locked in a dingy shop for the rest of my life. Am I alive enough . . . am I strong enough to. . . . ”

Unbidden, his mother’s words came back to him.

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

He smiled and ducked down the steps that led to the shelter of the main cabin.

*

Cloud finished his meal and tucked the remains into a stout basket. The wind was picking up and clouds were rolling in across the sky with alarming speed, cutting off the sun’s warmth and replacing it with chilling grey light. He picked up the basket and launched it across the deck, watching as it slid through the swinging door leading into the front cabin, and mentally awarded himself five points for a perfectly placed shot.

Then he looked back at the sky, a thoughtful frown on his face. A storm didn’t bother him, though it was inconvenient and would make the ship roll in a way that made him excessively glad he didn’t suffer from motion sickness.

“I need to find my place now, one that’s mine alone,” he murmured into the rising wind, feeling it flirt with his hair. It wouldn’t be so coy soon. It would turn demanding and harsh if those cloudbanks were anything to judge by.

“What did he say?”

“Gaia knows your heart and mind, and we will watch over you in your travels.”

“If that’s the case, then I’m not exactly talking to myself, am I. I just need to be patient, then. Still, it would be a little . . . hmm . . . lazy to just sit back and take no interest.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he stared unseeing at the water.

“What do I do well besides wave this monster of a sword around? Does singing in the shower count? Maybe it’s just the acoustic peculiarities of a bathroom.” He laughed at himself, eyes finally focusing on what was before him. He lowered his hand and looked up, a frown twisting his features, before following the basket to the interior of the ship.