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– Esthar City –

In a bar somewhere. . .

“Hit me with another Soul Crush.”

The bartender raised his eyebrow, but stopped whatever he was doing and poured another shot of Esthar’s most famous whisky inside the extended glass.  This particular customer  had been coming in here quite often.  In the beginning he remembered him coming with a stunning looking brunette who was always all over him, but of late, he’d been arriving here solo… Which made him a target for those on the prowl for a one night’s stand. He’d lost count of the times the tall blonde had rebuffed attempts to engage him in conversation.  It made him wonder why the hell would a guy like that even bother coming to a bar like this one, notorious around the sector as a prime pick-up place.  It struck him that a guy with that kind of presence only needed to lift his finger to get someone… Oh, well… not his job to know.

Seifer drank his shot in one gulp, and  tossed some gils onto the counter.  He was ready to leave. Trepe should be asleep by now.  Good. All this fucking time he’d been thinking her engaged to that shithead Zone!  He smiled wryly, not feeling amused at all. When did he become so fucking considerate?  Pride.  Pride was a fucking nuisance!  He’d thought Trepe had chosen Zone over him. ‘So what the hell was I watching all those months before?’ He’d been enraged, so jealous that the first thing he’d wanted to do was to got directly to Timber, and cut Zone down; but he’d learned his lessons too well with Ultimecia.  To allow anger to control him was to fucking court disaster…

He left the bar, and stepped onto the street outside.  The bar was located at ground level.  It’s bright neon lights competing with other similar places all alongside the bright strip which was jam packed by people, who liked himself, sought oblivion inside a bottle… He felt Tiamat stir, ‘I know… I sense it too…’  He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned inside a dark and narrow alleyway, his figure merging with the shadows.

timbersm.jpg

The city says everything you must think,
makes you repeat her discourse, and
while you believe you are visiting,
you are only recording the names with which
she defines herself and all her parts.

– Italo Calvino –

GIRL NEXT DOOR
We shall be taking a peeping trip
into the home of our gorgeous

Superheroine Morgana Laffite!!!

 

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CARPE DIEM WATCHES
No Time Like Present Time!
21.12.01 AU
The time is [21:47:08,59]

Zone tried not to sigh too audibly as he made a valiant attempt to ignore the intrusive presence of all these in-your-face signs. Timber Maniacs Conglomerate, and its various subsidiaries were a major sponsor in this fundraising charity reception for post-war orphans; hence the proliferation of flashy billboards at the event. He was a war orphan himself, and this charity had been created at his own instigation. The least he could do was to suck it up and smile. His being there, gave the inauguration of the Children of Timber Foundation a kick start.

The present economy of the Free Republic of Timber (FRT) relied heavily on revenues generated by its telecommunications industry, as well as by its broadcasting and publishing conglomerates . It was feat of poetic justice that the underground efforts at covert communications of so many resistance groups, had paid off in such a big way. Zone smiled. His people sucked at guerrilla warfare. They sucked in real melee fighting. Period. However, they were damned good at getting the message across, at clanking out communiqués, clandestine wireless broadcasting, sneak digitalized newsflashes, etc. In truth, had the Sorceress not meddled with Galbadian politics, had not Seifer Almasy appeared onscreen brandishing his gunblade against that bastard Vinzer Deling… They would still be a subjugated people. There would be NO Free Republic, just the occupied country of Timber. Ironic how the two people who managed to wreak so much havoc in Galbadia, had actually galvanized and united all the various factions at Timber into real action!

They had been shamed by the fact that an unknown outsider had done what everyone had been “thinking” of doing, but actually never did. Their own rebellion had become a “comfortable” one. Everyone belonged to some “underground” resistance group, but all they did was talk, talk, talk… Nothing ever came out of it. Then it would be time to go home, have dinner, go to bed. With hindsight, Zone understood that the militaristic Galbadians must’ve viewed with contempt the so called “underground” activities of the various rebel factions, because they knew that nothing would come out of them. From time to time, in a show of muscle-flexing, someone would be taken away for “questioning”, and never to be seen again. His own faction had been the most troublesome of the lot, but ever since Rinoa joined their group, the occupying army stopped harassing them. It was only after Rinoa –codenamed the “princess”– had confessed to him WHO she really was, that he finally understood the reason for the Galbadian’s army sudden laxity towards his group, the Forest Owls.

Zone’s gaze strayed in the direction of the ex-sorceress knight, now turned SeeD Leader, Seifer Almasy. With great reluctance he admitted that the man had the self-assured presence of a natural born leader. He snorted when he saw the actress Morgana Laffite gravitate towards his tall figure. No luck. After a brief perfunctory greeting, it was obvious that Almasy was not interested, but Ms. Laffite was not the kind of person who would admit defeat easily. The President of FRT sighed, yet again. –Fate– that strange, often annoying force which seemed to rule everything, had once again played him for a fool. Never in a million years would he have thought that a man he resented so much, would become one of his main political assets!

In spite of the very successful monster-elimination run provided by B-Garden back in the summertime, some very powerful members of Timber’s Lower House had objected quite vocally to an extended contract with Garden, arguing that it was too expensive. They wanted to create their own Lunar Cry Response team. Zone could see the merits of such a motion, but he knew better than anyone how much time and effort was needed to gather and to train the necessary people. Time was something they could not afford. The death of almost an entire convoy of engineers and construction workers, at the hands of Wendigo monsters in the vicinity of Odel Lake, had created a national furore. The media had reported the incident with all it’s gory details… specially now that there was no censorship.

In order to save face, the people blocking passage of the contract through FRT’s Lower House had suddenly “agreed” to pass the necessary bill subject to “re-negotiation”. After much deliberation, Zone decided that he would not be taking any chances, and had requested the presence of Garden’s two most popular figures in Timber: Quistis Trepe and Seifer Almasy. The beautiful instructor was popular for the obvious reasons. The larger-than-life image of her calling out to her teammates onscreen had inscribed itself into the psyche of most Timberites: beautiful and heroic … As for Seifer… Headmaster Cid had not been surprised when he’d requested Almasy’s presence for the re-negotiations. In Timber, he was considered quite a hero, ‘Humph, being good-looking doesn´t hurt…’ Zone thought sourly. The arrogant bastard had gotten enough “get-well” messages, and care packages sent to him from Timber! His people had even gone so far as to copy whatever the bastard wore. There was a proliferation of grey trench-coats everywhere!

The only thing that had made him pause for a second, had been consideration of Almasy’s explosive temper, but decided to brush that concern aside. In his mind, he’d figured Quistis would be the one handling the negotiations, and that firecracker would be kept firmly in the background, more for “ornamentation” purposes than anything else. That’s why he’d been quite taken aback when Quistis and Seifer, both, gave their input during the important talks. He’d been even more amazed when the ex-knight not only did not threaten anyone, but had actually something intelligent to contribute! In fact, he had been articulate enough that the others had actually paid close attention to what he had to say! He’d always figured that those B-Garden pretty boys, were just for show, all looks and muscles, but no brains, preferring to solve everything by hacking at it… ‘That should put me in my place!…’

The President of the FRT smiled wryly as he looked in Almasy’s direction again. There was mixture of resentment, envy and resignation in that regard. Even though Seifer had never done anything to him; even when he’d given some of the people in his rebel faction lessons in attack and self-defence, he couldn’t help himself. Every time he stared into that face, it was like rubbing salt into a live wound! It reminded him of how Seifer had just casually strolled into their lives a few summers ago, and stolen Rinoa from right under his nose! Not that Rinoa had ever encouraged him in any way, or anything. She had always looked upon him as a sort of older brother. Still, he had his hopes. Only to have them crushed into bits by Almasy’s cocky appearance…

“Zone! Zone!”

As he looked into Rinoa’s glowing face, he felt his heart sink like a stone in water.

“I just met the coolest guy!”

She clasped both hands over her breast, a wide smile on her pretty face.

“He’s a SeeD cadet from Balamb Garden! I think he can be a great asset to our cause!”

“Bu-But Rinoa! Have you thought things through?… I mean, we don’t know this guy…!”

“Zone! You worry waaay too much!”

“But…”

It didn’t matter what he said or how he objected, once Rinoa’s mind was fixed on something it was impossible to change! So for the rest of that summer she’d walked around with a dazzled look on her face…

As usual, nothing had really changed. Even with that scar now marring his face, the ex-sorceress knight was the centre of attention, a lot of it the admiring female kind. ‘But he doesn’t look very happy… I wonder what got him so ticked off?’ He seemed to be only half-listening to something Morgana Laffite was saying to him. It was amazing how much that actress looked like Rinoa! ‘Well, maybe a bit better endowed…’ She was clinging to Seifer now, while those media hounds were taking pictures of them like crazy. The bastard should look happy, instead of frowning. Miss Laffite was an extremely popular and well sought-after actress!

Suddenly Seifer’s sea-green eyes locked with his. The animosity in that gaze made Zone gulp nervously. It reminded him forcibly of yesterday, when Seifer had deliberately cornered him after a meeting to demand in a cold voice, that he be given a detailed account of the security measures taken for today’s reception. In spite of himself, the intimidating scowl on Seifer’s face had made him blurt out that Watts was the one in charge of security. Grimacing at the memory, Zone wondered why Seifer needed to go over the safety measures taken for today’s reception.

From Watts’s report, Almasy had made him go over the plans in detail, and had actually suggested a few improvements to tighten security. ‘Hmn…now that I think about it, he also made a big fuss about security during the talks.’ Zone looked in Quistis direction. He’d asked her earlier on if she’d known why Seifer wanted the floor plans for the reception, but she’d surprised him by giving him a very vague answer about making sure as SeeD that everyone always be in the highest state of alert, just in case. If he didn’t know any better, he would’ve sworn that she was deftly evading his question, as well as alerting him about something… Now that he had time to assess the situation, it looked as if those two were watching each other’s back… ‘Now, why? Why is that?’

Earlier on, Seifer had stood looming over Quistis looking like a hound from hell. Only the bravest of her large group of admirers, had dared approach her in greeting –himself included– The rest had contented themselves in admiring from afar. Not a good thing. The main idea for the reception was to socialize and to rally for a good cause. Was it only his imagination, or did Almasy’s eyes become downright feral when looking at him? In any case, he didn’t stick around long enough to find out. Not healthy…

At least Quistis decided to take charge of the situation, because after the last person left their presence with a red face, she pulled Seifer to a secluded corner… As they were hidden from view, he didn’t see nor hear what Quistis said to her recalcitrant ex-student; but as a result, when they emerged, they each went into different directions. Quistis to speak with Representative Esmond Jones, and Seifer straight for the bar.

Zone understood why the Headmaster often used Quistis as B-Garden’s spokesperson and chief negotiator. No matter how uncomfortable she truly felt, ‘she’s very good at presenting a cool and collected exterior…’ not to mention the fact that she was frightfully intelligent. She had that old curmudgeon Jones eating out of her hand. Garden’s most vocal opponent, was now its most visible supporter. ‘Well, at least she’s clever on some things…’

More resigned than surprised he’d noticed the furtive looks Quistis gave the ex–knight. Not that it was obvious or anything, but after years of subterfuge, he was an expert in reading people’s expressions. Zone shook his head, ‘How does he do it?’ First Rinoa, and now Quistis has fallen too? What truly surprised him was the fact that they were not together! Given Seifer’s earlier stance, he’d bet his entire prized collection of Girl Next Door that he was more than a little interested in his hot ex-instructor! ‘Of course, knowing how regimented Quistis can be… I can see why she would be troubled at being attracted to such a badass character!. . . Good! Good! At least Quistis will make him work for it! The lucky bastard!’

Zone prided himself on the fact that he knew Quistis better now. It seems that she had never forgotten his gesture when he’d given her his own train ticket out of Timber so she could escape the Galbadian forces with the rest of her team. Then, he’d only caught glimpses of her during the Sorceress Trials, but had no real direct contact with her. He’d only gotten to know her better, when B-Garden was hired to help FRT control the alarming proliferation of monsters that had exploded all over the place! She’d commandeered the SeeD team, and had personally delivered a hand-written message to him from Rinoa…

The current President of FRT blushed slightly when he remembered how he’d broken down, and cried like a baby upon receiving the letter. He was a few years older than the instructor, but when she’d comforted him, she’s acted so big sister like! Zone cracked his first genuine smile of the evening. Quistis Trepe was a nice person through and through. Unfortunately, people found it hard to see her in that light, because she was so beautiful, and so stand-offish at first.

He himself had had trouble in the beginning. Beautiful as she was onscreen, in flesh and blood she was even more impacting. The first he’d met her, his brain had shutdown temporarily, and the engine below his waist had gone on overdrive! Of course, he was an expert in camouflage, so he’d only needed one look into those inquisitive blue eyes to regain his equilibrium…

He wondered idly if he should alert Quistis of the fact that they’d been talks of creating a Trepe club outside the Garden system… ‘Nah… She’d only get upset.’
She was the kind of person who took her duties very seriously, much more so than someone twice her age! Such frivolities would probably distress her… ‘Hyne knows everyone else would be flattered as hell, but not so Quistis…’ Zone thought, and not for the first time, if Quistis wouldn’t have been happier had be been born with much plainer looks… ‘Humph, if she were uglier I wonder if…’ Unwittingly, Zone looked again in Seifer’s direction and was met by the ex-knight’s unabated green stare. Cold and deadly.

Zone smiled nervously, glad that Almasy was unable to read minds, and unconsciously placed his middle finger inside necktie that suddenly felt like a hangman’s noose.

“Zone, my boy!”

The Duke of Dollet, arriving fashionably late to the reception, made his way in his usual forceful manner to the President’s side, waving aside with his hands a group of people who obviously wanted to give His Excellency a proper greeting. Normally, his lordship was the kind of person that would make Zone feel inadequate, but right now he welcomed the Duke’s interruption.

“Your Excellency! Welcome! I’m extremely grateful that you took time away from your busy schedule to come and show your support to our worthy cause…”

“Yes, yes… Glad to be of service. Now, that we have dispensed with the formalities, kindly introduce me to that beautiful young lady.”

Zone didn’t bother to ask Lord Dollet which one he meant, in spite of there being quite a few present at the reception tonight. All he needed to do was follow the direction of the Duke’s gaze.

“Uh, certainly Your Excellency!”

They both approached Quistis who was for once sporting a more natural smile as she conversed, feeling quite at ease, with Watts, Timber’s Presidential Chief of Staff. Zone threw a nervous glance to where Seifer was standing, not too far away from Quistis but far enough to give her some breathing space. He exhaled a sigh of relief, Almasy was temporarily distracted by Ms. Laffite and another beautifully turned lady. A new arrival, no doubt. She was quite a grand dame, and looked vaguely familiar.

Refocusing his attention on Quistis, Zone wondered idly at the back of his mind, if Quistis wore the SeeD dress uniform and those wire rimmed glasses as some sort of unconscious protection. Before he could make the proper introductions, the Duke had suavely taken hold of Quistis hand, and placed a very gallant kiss on it. After His Excellency straightened, he smiled straight into the lovely azure eyes of the surprised young lady that stared at him through the clear lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses.

“Miss Trepe, allow me the liberty of introducing myself. Alistair Sandro Dolletia at your service!”

After executing a perfect bow, the Duke gallantly held out his forearm. Recovering quickly, Quistis smiled shyly, and placed her hand on the proffered arm. After the initial shock, she had recognized him immediately, if not from the news –in which the Duke and the various sundry members of his family were subject to constant scrutiny…and gossip– at least from the days of Seifer’s trial, when His Excellency sat as a member of the World Court Panel of 7 Judges.

“Your Excellency! It’s an honour to meet you in person.”

“Ah, Miss Trepe, the honour is all mine. I finally have the pleasure of meeting face to face, Counsel Seagill’s most diligent assistant…”

Poor Zone was not as quick to recover as Quistis. After casting her an apologetic glance at the unexpectedness of the introduction, he realized that the wily old aristocrat already knew Quistis’ name… Feeling slightly annoyed –something which seemed to happen quite a lot tonight– Zone wondered why the Duke even bothered asking him for an introduction. ‘Wow, if Quistis ever wanted to become a movie star, she would have an already built-in fan base!… Then thinking about it, quickly discarded the idea, ‘Nah! She’s way too self-effacing. That prospect probably hasn’t even crossed her mind!’

Zone watched Quistis exchange polite conversation with the Duke. She listened attentively, without fidgeting or gushing, to the discourse of one of the planet’s most influential, not to mention most difficult, persons. ‘She’s wasted as an instructor! She would make a great diplomat… Hey! Maybe she can get His Excellency to donate more money to the Children of Timber Foundation!’ Cheered by these random thoughts, he decided to leave Quistis to handle the Duke, while he and Watts made the usual smooching rounds in the huge reception area. He opened his mouth excuse himself and his aide, but before he could utter a sound, he was cut by a new voice –a husky feminine voice with a very dry tone.

“Alistair, as usual, monopolizing the pretty ones.”

Zone eyes widened when he watched the petite lady he had sighted before with Seifer make her way to them, her left hand firmly clutching the ex-knight’s right forearm. Miss Laffite was nowhere to be seen. Of course she had looked familiar! Zone felt like an idiot for not recognizing the Ganryu right away! In spite of her very petite and feminine form, only the extremely dimwitted would fail to recognize the air of authority and power she exuded, like some sort of enveloping perfume around her person!

“Tahera! Always a pleasure.” After bowing low and kissing the lady’s imperiously held-out hand, the Duke straightened. Then, he cast Seifer a measuring look and said with a charming smile,

“It seems I’m not the only one with such propensities…”

“–Humph!– This dear boy here is my niece’s best friend, Seifer Almasy, and as you well know, ex-sorceress knight.”

Tahera Ganryu patted Seifer’s arm and smiled up at him. Then she turned to fix the Duke with an almost challenging glance,

“I believe you two have not been properly introduced yet… Your Excellency, may I present Seifer Almasy…”

The Duke took another measuring look at Seifer, who returned his stare unabashedly, even to the point of raising one blonde eyebrow slightly. The Duke more used to people sucking up to him all his life, was rather intrigued by the arrogant impertinence of the young man who stood before him. To the surprise of the many watching the exchange avidly, His Excellency tended his hand out, and exchanged a firm handshake with the young ex-knight. Something he rarely ever did, as the powerful Duke of Dollet would usually just acknowledge people by a slight inclination of his head. Or not at all.

“Ah, Mr. Almasy, I see that you have recovered quite well from your brush with the Sorceress…”

“And I see that Dollet has emerged unscathed from its little “brush” with Galbadia, Your Excellency.”

Silence.

“Hahaha!…” The silence was broken by Tahera’s delighted laughter. “Ah, Alistair! You’ll have to concede he got you there!”

The Duke smiled wryly, and started to laugh as well. It had been a very long time since someone, let alone a mere whippersnapper had put him so firmly in his place.

“My dear Tahera, I concede to your superior judging skills.”

Looking straight at Seifer, the Duke said.

“Let’s exchange partners, you young rapscallion! –Harrumph!– You were coming to retrieve her anyway.”

Smiling down at Quistis as he handed her over, His Excellency continued.

“Perhaps some other time, my dear young lady,” and then in a lower tone of voice that only a surprised Quistis could hear, “I’ll be watching with great interest how you deal with this young scamp of a knight.” Quistis blushed to the roots of her hair, unable to correct the Duke’s erroneous assessment of the situation. Alarmed, she saw Seifer narrow his eyes dangerously. Responding instinctively to the alarm in Quistis’ blue eyes, Zone barged in abruptly.

“Madame Ganryu! Allow me to welcome you! It’s a great pleasure to have you attend this reception!”

Tahera smiled at Zone knowingly and answered with a twinkle in her grey eyes.

“I’m pleased to be here, President Alloutte, in support of such a worthy cause.”

“Please allow me to present you my aide, Watts Electro…”

Quistis exhaled the breath she had been holding, and flashed Zone a very grateful smile. She tightened the hand she had on Seifer’s forearm to signal him to keep his opinions to himself! She knew he was about to say something! Probably something unforgivable… Even if he had the Ganryu’s favour, antagonizing the powerful Duke of Dollet was just not done! The Headmaster would be getting heart palpitations were he to be present at such an event!

Following the Duke’s example, he bowed low (albeit a bit clumsily) to kiss the grand lady’s imperiously proffered hand. Tahera Ganryu was no slouch, she had caught onto his stratagem in a flash. Zone was very relieved that she had decided to play along… If memory served him correctly from the old resistance days, Seifer had a wicked, not to mention, foul tongue!

Imitating his boss’s gesture (but with a bit more grace), Watts did the same when that regally held hand went in his direction. Seifer watched the entire proceedings with a slight smirk on his handsome face. He waited until the toadying was over, and surprised everyone by gently bringing Quistis forth to the center of their little group.

“Tahera, I would like you to meet my ex-SeeD Instructor, Quistis Trepe.”

It was Quistis’ turn to be subjected to a measuring look from very wise feminine eyes, before a fragrantly perfumed cheek was lifted her way. A bit awkwardly, Quistis returned the gesture by grazing the proffered cheek with her lips, and saying.

“It’s an honour to meet you Madame Ganryu.”

Tahera smiled. Her niece Fujin was an excellent judge of character. Her description of the lovely SeeD instructor had been flawless. She looked calm and composed on the outside, but those blue eyes gave away the inner turmoil felt by their owner whenever they alighted on a certain someone… Hmmn…Young people nowadays were so complicated! Biting her tongue, Tahera decided to mind her own business; still, she could put the girl at ease.

“Oh, please call me Tahera! I have a niece who’s also a SeeD at Balamb Garden.”

“Your niece is a SeeD?”

“Yes, Fujin has told me quite a lot about you.”

“Fujin is your niece?”

Quistis felt really stupid repeating what she was told like a parrot. Unconsciously, her eyes rose accusingly to meet Seifer’s. Just like him to keep important information like that to himself! Unrepentant, all he did was merely raise an eyebrow as if saying, “So what’s the big fucking deal?”

The Duke interrupted their silent exchange.

“Pardon us, but Tahera and I have quite a lot of catching up to do.” Then added almost as an afterthought to Zone, “Until later.”

Tahera waved everyone a cheerful farewell with the beautifully hand-painted fan she held in a perfectly manicured hand. Of the young people left behind, only Quistis was surprised at the rather abrupt manner of their departure, having met the Duke and the Ganryu only for the first time. Zone and Watts were used to the Duke’s imperious ways, and Seifer, although quite fond of Tahera, couldn’t care less if he never were to set eyes on that annoying old fart again…

§

“Well, Tahera, what brings you out of that jungle you Trabians call Grandidi City?”

“Really, Alistair, you of all people should refrain from calling our beautiful green haven a jungle! After all Dollet is built on an arid piece of rock, open to all sorts of incursions.”

“Ah, it’s been too long since you and I exchanged words! You broke my heart when you accepted Ganryu’s suit over my own!”

“–Humph!– I didn’t want to leave Trabia, and it didn’t take you long to replace me.”

“You should know all about political alliances; however, poor Sofia proved to be a weakling, and therefore easy prey for my political opponents.”

“What will you do if Roberto ever finds out the truth about his mother’s ‘accidental’ death?”

The Duke raised an eyebrow and inclined his head briefly in Tahera’s direction, as if in homage, “Thanks to you, he will never find out. You sent Jomei, did you not?”

“Indeed. Jomei handled the task.”

“As I was saying, Roberto has no reason to believe his mother’s death to be anything but accidental.”

“Your Roberto is a sweet boy.”

“I thought Quistis Trepe would make him an excellent wife. That boy is too much of a pansy to make it on his own, he needs a strong skilful woman to back him up!”

“I don’t think you should set your sights on that particular young lady…”

“–Harrumph!– I’m surprised that young hoodlum didn’t attack me right away!… He’s quite a formidable warrior when roused.”

“Alistair, I believe that young man has grown quite a bit since his brush with the sorceress…”

“ –Humph!– Once a hoodlum, always a hoodlum!”

“Why! You like him, don’t you, Alistair?”

“You think he would agree to leave Garden if I offer him enough incentive?”

“If he could be swayed, he would be working for me now…but that is one stubborn young man!”

“It doesn’t surprise me that young thug is best friends with your niece. It takes one to know one!”

“You’re such a sore loser! Really! You should be happy that Fujin refused to marry your Roberto. He’s too sweet a boy to be married off to someone like my niece. She would make mincemeat out of him!”

“He needs someone strong by his side!”

“You mean, he needs a wife that can double as bodyguard. How many attempts were made against his life this week?”

“Three.”

“I see…”

“That beautiful young SeeD would have Roberto eating out of her hands in no time whatsoever! But its also very evident where her interest lies! I would want my Roberto’s life to be different from mine. A sense of duty will only breed an heir to the dukedom, but a strong bond can create a real ducal family.”

Tahera turned to stare at the man she had known for so many years. After a peculiar silence she finally said, “You really mean it.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, in any case, even if you tried, I don’t think he would allow her to go to another without putting up a fierce fight. Sooner or later your poor Roberto might have end up facing Hyperion…”

“I have to concede that young rascal has a perverse sense of humour by naming that pitch-black blade Hyperion!”

“Oh, it wasn’t really him who named it. It was Cid Kramer who gave Hyperion to Seifer.”

“–Humph!– Hard to believe such a weakling would such a blade in his possession.”

“Indeed, Alistair, I’m surprised to hear you say that. You of all people should know better…”

“Indeed, my dear… Indeed.”

§ ~ § ~ §

ECBI – 9th Division
Esthar City’s Bureau of Investigation
D-Files: 569 cases unresolved

…Begin scrolling…

File: EZTH345-xt789.d
-Surname: Torgus
-Name: Adama
-Eye colour: dk brown
-Hair: black w/red streaks
-Distinctive feature: eyebrow ring and various body tattoos of white snakes
-Cmmt: last seen by witnesses at entrance to S-107

File: EZTH897-ds094.d
-Surname: Calligostro
-Name: Todorov
-Eye colour: black
-Hair: dk brown
-Distinctive feature: none
-Cmmt: found broken parole-tracking device in S-107 near the border to S-108

File: FGXP003-ds116.d
-Surname: Karamazov
-Name: Jasper
-Eye colour: blue
-Hair: blond
-Distinctive feature: wire rimless glasses.
-Cmmt: found broken parole-tracking device in S-107, near the border with S-108

…Scrolling…

“Holy shit! 569 unresolved disappearances! What the hell is goin’ on?”

“You’re new here, ain’t ya, rookie? –Stop scroll.”

…Scrolling stopped…

“Uh, yeah…This is my first assignment! These numbers gotta be staggering even for you, ma’am!”

“–Smirk– You got that right, rookie! An’ don’t ‘ma’am’ me! It really pisses me off!”

“Yes, ma’am…er…sir!”

“Good, you’re learning! …Unless you like gettin’ your ass whipped!”

“No, sir!”

“Hmn…C’mon, junior, we’re gonna have us a little field trip. –Grimace– And those numbers only apply to Esthar City alone…”

“What?! I thought they were Esthar wide!”

“How d’ya think you got yourself such a cool assignment, rookie? We’re seriously understaffed aroun’ here!”

Gape– (Mouth wide open)

“Yeah…Better close it, junior! Here! –Toss– Don’t let it slip pass your fingers. It contains real sensitive information you don’t wanna get scrambled just ‘cuz you were too clumsy with yer hands! C’mon, let’s go!”

“Where are we heading, sir?”

“Temple of Zarûthra in S-107… I gotta bunch of questions I need to ask some of the ‘enlightened ones’…”

SLAM!

“To prevent future system malfunction,
please refrain from slamming the door
Detective Elektra Desu…”

“Yo, Desu! Are you abusin’ yer door again?”

“Kiss my ass, Kinoseki!”

“Awww, Desu! What else is there left fer me here?! You refuse to introduce me to that hot cuz of yours, Kiara!”

“Yeah, Desu! Kinoseki here’s a loser, but c’mon, I am definitely a great catch for that cousin of yours!”

“Shuddup, Bouretti! You’re a sleaze-ball As if someone as classy as Miss Kiara would fall for the likes of you!”

“Boys, boys! Down! You, Rookie! Stop gaping at those two losers an’ follow me!”

“Awww, Desu! You’re one cruel woman…”

“Uh… Yessir!”

“Yo, Bouretti! You think this rookie will fare better than the others?”

“Huh? Who knows? This one looks smarter than the rest…”

“Yeah…”

§ ~ § ~ §

CARPE DIEM WATCHES
No Time Like Present Time!
21.12.01 AU
The time is [23:32:11,44]

From: <coolsniper.ikinneas@b-garden.net>
Date: 21.12.01AU 22:10:28
To: <badassknight.almasy@lunaticpandora.org>
Subject: hey!

hey, man! like it sucks to work on your birthday, eh? found like a cool bar in B-city with real cute waitresses! we gotta go there when you return, cuz you gotta help me drag Commander SERIOUS there for a couple of drinks! Mebbe he´ll relax some!

Oh, yeah…Ma Dincht is like preparing a huge meal to celebrate! man, my stomach’s like groaning already! that’s gonna be some huge feast! haven’t heard from zell yet…

See ya in like a couple of days.

btw, quisty’s coming back with ya, right?

ps:
don’t tell my selph about the cuties in the bar, ok? she’s been feeling a bit insecure about me lately as she’s all over me, acting kinda jealous-clingy! man, like what a pain! and oh yeah… sasha came over the other day looking for you! that’s one determined chick! of course, no one told her your whereabouts, but man she was like so pushy! when she couldn’t find you, she latched onto me! I mean, she’s like cute an’ everything, but not worth making selph angry at me! in any case, i think selph gotta trust me more! i love her and stuff, why would i want to hitch up with someone else?

pss:
man! what is it with chicks nowadays?

‘Man! Irv’s just asking to get whipped! …But I kinda like his idea of gettin’ Squally totally plastered… Hehehe!’

– next –

From: <cutechick.tilmitt@b-garden.net>
Date: 21.12.01AU 19:29:01
To: <badassknight.almasy@lunaticpandora.org>
Subject: SEIFY, HB!!!! :wuv: :wuv: :wuv:

–Image of a very large pink cake that looks about to explode–

I wish you a very, very, very, very, mega-super HAAAPPPYY BIIIIRTHDAAAY! With tons and tons of hugs and kisses!!!! It’s a huge mega-bummer that you’re not here today! Everyone’s waiting for your return so we can celebrate your birthday properly! Mrs. Dincht said she’s gonna bake you this humongous cake! She says you’re probably not eating properly in Timber! lol (yeah…as if!) Oh, yeah, and Matron’s gonna help her cook your birthday feast! …But…does Matron know how to cook?

‘I guess Selph wasn’t kidding with the pink cake shit! –Snort– MG…like you shouldn’t have…all these pink blinkers are making me go fucking blind!’

Btw, do you know that Sasha Tavares came for a visit with her dad a couple of days ago? Apparently, Mr. Tavares had some business to conduct with Headmaster Cid, but Sasha was let loose over the place. Rina and I had to “show” her around, but she wasn’t interested in anything “we girls” had to tell her! She only perked up when my Irvy showed up! I gotta say she’s got some nerve! Hanging onto my Irvy, and right in front of me! I got mad at him too! He didn’t have to look like he was liking it!

Oh, well, to cut a long story short: we had a fight, but made up since…

‘Yeah…this Sasha chick is a gettin’ to be a real pain in the ass!…’

Come back soon! Miss ya and Quisty! Zell too! (We haven’t heard from him since that off-the-scale sandstorm in kk desert!)…

‘Meh, Chicken-wuss can take care of himself… Wasn’t that library chick, Susana somethin’ also part of his team? She’s almost as annoyingly smart as the instructor so at least there’s gonna be some serious brains in that expedition…’

MG.

ps:
Could you have a man to man talk with my Irvy when you get here? I’ve been sooo busy with Festival committee stuff, that I haven’t had the time to pay much attention to him, so he was sulking. But when I do pay him attention, he acts weird-like! What’s with him? I hope he doesn’t think that I’m still mad at him over that girl, Sasha Tavares… Humph! Even thinking about her gets on my nerves, coming on to my Irvy!!!!

‘Man, this is becoming some sorta he-said, she-said shit!’

pss: btw, has Quisty come over to see you yet?

‘–Frown– What the fuck is Selphie jabberin’ about?! Does she even know that Quis an’ I are in Timber? –Snort– What the fuck can I be thinking? Of course she would… –Sigh– Whatever… I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough… … Fuck! I’m beginning to sound like puberty boy…something’s gotta be wrong with me! … Anyway, lemme read her highness…

– next –

From: <galbadian.princess@b-garden.net>
CC: <squall.leonhart@b-garden.net>
Date: 21.12.01AU 12:17:49
To: <badassknight.almasy@lunaticpandora.org>
Subject: Happy Birthday, Seifer!

Hi, Seifer!

A big HAPPY BIRTHDAY hug for you from Squall and me! (–humph– Squall’s looking over my shoulder as I write this and snorted when I wrote the word “hug”…)

How’s everyone? Tell Zone and Watts and the rest of the gang of “Forest Owls” that I say “hi!”. Can’t wait till you’re back, birthday-boy! Mrs. Dincht and Matron are cooking up a storm!

Poor Mrs. Dincht, she really misses both “her boys” as she usually calls Zell and you! Personally, I think she’s also a bit worried about Zell. He hasn’t reported back yet, as he should have, but then there has been some huge sandstorms happening over the Kashkabald Desert, no doubt interfering with their communications equipment, so we have reassured her that Zell will be getting back at us as soon as he gets the chance!

‘Hehehe! Chickenwuss gonna howl when he finds out we had a feast without him!”

Will reserve you a big hug when I see you.
(Squall’s mumbling something about not to expect him to do the same. Really!)

‘Yeah, Princess, like a hug from Squally’s really gonna make my day!’

See you in a bit!

Rinoa (A BIG HUG from me! lol) and Squall

PS: I almost forgot to mention it, but Sasha came by looking for you. Selphie and I got charged to keep her company, but I have to say she was not very nice to us! The worst happened when she spotted Irvy… I guess she couldn’t see you, so Irvine kinda took your place! Selphie got sooo mad! I was so surprised with Sasha’s behaviour! I don’t remember her being ever so mean!

– next –

From: <raijin.cutegiant.kumo@b-garden.net>
Date: 21.12.01AU 08:36:05
To: <badassknight.almasy@lunaticpandora.org>
Subject: HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Seif, happy birthday, man, ya know? Fu didn’t want me writing on hers, so here’s mine! She can be so mean sometimes, ya know?

Nothing much happening around here. Yesterday I was on patrol and had to crack some heads, but nothing too exciting, ya know? Bwaah! Disciplinary committee work’s not the same without you and Fu! (you know, I almost wrote down “ya know?” again, but Fu’s been telling me that it’s bad enough I use it so much when I speak, so she wants me not to use it when I write…but it feels kinda funny not adding the “ya know?”, you know?)

The headmaster has assigned a couple of assistants to help me patrol the hallways, but it’s not the same… I kinda get frustrated when they ‘sir’ me too much…and man, do they like to follow ALL the rules! We had some real fun times together Seif!

Can’t wait for you to come back! Ma Dincht is gonna make one of her famous meals!

OUCH!

Fu just came in and read what I wrote…

See you back, Seif!

PS:
Does Fu still contact you at your official acct? Man, she can be so picky-strict sometimes! Me, I kinda like the name Selphie gave me, ya know? I dunno why she dislikes hers so much, ya know? What’s wrong with posse.girl-fu? I think its kinda cute, ya know?

‘ –Chuckle– …Heh! Raij just asking for his ass to get kicked! Man, will he ever fucking learn?! … Nah… I think that big ox likes it when Fu kicks him. Go figure…’

– next –

From: <fujin.naosu@b-garden.net>
Date: 21.12.01AU 07:58:30
To: <seifer.almasy@lunaticpandora.org>
Subject: HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Seifer.
Happy Birthday!
Sorry, I can’t really bring myself to write a profuse greeting, although I’m sure others will already have done so. Did you meet Tahera? She mentioned to me that she might be attending the CTF’s fundraising gala, so I told her you would be there. I don’t know why I bothered, as she seems to know these things before anyone else does…

Raijin and I are due for a visit to my parents next month (you know why), and it’s nice to have Tahera’s support. However, in spite of everything Raijin is still extremely nervous about it, but I told that fool not to worry. The only consent he really needs is mine! And I have already agreed! He makes me so mad sometimes! It’s not like this is the first time he’s met them! He should know by now what a bunch of phoney snobs the rest of my family happens to be!

Councilman Tavares was here a few days ago to negotiate some kind of protection arrangement with us, but unfortunately he also brought his daughter, Sasha, who as usual made a big nuisance of herself. I’m sure Selphie already told you everything, so I won’t bother.

‘That’s Fu for ya! Straight an’ to the point… Just like Tahera. Hmmn, she seemed kinda cosy-like with that old man… ’

See you home.

FUJIN

– next –

‘Wow, an email from Matron! ’S up? She usually calls me…’

From: <matron@b-garden.net>
Date: 21.12.01AU 06:23:44
To: <seifer.almasy@lunaticpandora.org>
Subject: Best Wishes

My child, just wanted to drop a quick line to tell you that the Headmaster and I wish you a very, very, very Happy Birthday!

Weren’t you surprised to receive a message from me this way?

‘Hell, yeah!’

Well, Selphie very patiently sat down with me, and taught me all the basics! I know you would be extremely busy today, so I refrained from calling your unit. I tried to get Hazel to learn with me as well, but she refused by saying that calling was more than enough for her! Oh, by the way, she sends her love…

‘Hah! Ma Dincht hates anything related to machines… Maybe that’s why Chicken-wuss is quite good with… Fuck! I can’t believe I’m thinking what I’m thinking! I am becoming a sissy!’

…and says to tell you she’s making all your favourite dishes! Why is it that you never told me you liked grilled Balamb fish?…

‘Matron you gotta be kiddin’ me? You are, right? Remember the sorceress, knight thing?…’

…Anyways, I told Hazel I would be also making some of your other favourite dishes…

–Groan–‘ Ah, shit! I’m so fuckin’ dead! I hope they’re not gonna ask me to judge…’

…that I remembered you liked as a child.

I’m sure everyone told you that we’re planning something very nice for you, so please come home as soon you are both finished there! Send Quistis my love.

A big hug,

Matron and Cid

“Save messages and Logoff”

…Saving…
…Logging off…

The people that didn’t know Seifer Almasy well would’ve been shocked to catch an almost boyish smile hovering over his lips. Silently shaking his head as he recalled some of the messages, he concluded that they were actually using his birthday as an excuse to pig out and party. He felt a bit uneasy about the cookout between Matron and Ma, but decided not to worry about it… ‘Raij’s gonna be there, so I’m sure the food won’t get wasted…’ It would be good to see everyone. The few hours they spent at Nida’s wedding didn’t count. This time around they had real holidays, and would be spending some quality time in Balamb. Even that ass Laguna had invited himself to spend New Year over, as Ma Dincht’s guest…

‘After all the shit I’d had to put up with these past few days, I fucking deserve a trophy!’ Trepe was a little slave driver, but he didn’t mind the hard work. No. What he hated was all the fucking schmoozing! He refused to have any part in it. He also hated watching Quistis at it. It pissed him off big time, and she knew it. From time to time, she would flash him one of her little challenging looks, as if daring him to explode, but he never did. No matter the provocation, he always managed to keep his temper under control. Humph! One point in his favour.

Moreover, observing Quistis in action had proven to be a very interesting exercise. Oh, he’d seen her interact enough in Esthar, but most of the personnel there were either military or used to the military. In other words, the people at Lunatic Pandora or the Esthar Garden Project were used to authority and hierarchy. No matter how complex or difficult the problem, or large in scope, these people understood military code. And Quistis occupied one of the top commands, which meant that in the worse case scenario, she could just make it an order, and it would get done anyway.

On the other hand, the sort of discussion ongoing in Timber was outside the strictures of the military, and a completely new territory to him. Here, everyone was on an equal footing, and the only way to get any results was in negotiation. His appreciation of Trepe’s abilities went up several notches, as he observed her parley her way through with a bunch of wily old politicians. She even had that old fart Esmond Jones, the head honcho of the anti-garden faction, eating right out of her hand.

Him? He’d lost count of the times he’d wanted to slice someone through with Hyperion, but had somehow contained himself (he’d figured that Quistis would not be very happy with him if he chose that route to get his point across…). Maybe he should’ve paid more attention to what she was saying in class back in the old days, but he’d been more interested in staring at that nicely rounded ass of hers as it swayed around the classroom. In any case, it was never too late to learn. Watching Trepe in action these past few days had been more productive for him than any amount spent inside a stuffy classroom!

The way he figured it, Timber stood more to lose if they did not sign up with B-Garden. Their own forces were in terrible shape, and they not only lacked suitable training facilities, they lacked qualified trainers! On top of everything, they were also in dire need of some kind of security measure to protect the population in case of a sudden monster influx. The Pandora Lunatic Project was progressing very nicely, but from that to its completion… Timber might be overrun by monsters before any of the planned controls were in place! After assessing the situation, he concluded that they were like sitting ducks. That Wendigo attack at Odel Lake was just the tip of the iceberg!

Seifer frowned. After Ultimecia’s defeat, the monsters had been multiplying like crazy, and the worst part of it all was that they were also getting stronger! Did that bitch act as some sort monster growth inhibitor? The idea got discarded as quickly as it came under the label of “too-nuts-to-be-even-considered.” At least that little moron Zone, as much as he disliked to admit it, realized that FRT was going to be facing a huge crisis if they didn’t do something about it, and soon. Both Quis and himself had been working their ass off to convince both Upper and Lower Houses to back the agreement Zone had drafted with B-Garden. Commander Puberty was probably rolling on the floor now, laughing his head off! Man, how he hated all the fucking paperwork! How did Squall put up with all this shit day-in day-out?

The only good thing resulting from their punishing schedule, was that there had been no free time for anything! Not for him, and specially not for the instructor, being the sort of dedicated person that she was… Early to rise, late to bed as she made him and herself go through endless dossiers over and over again. He didn’t it mind at all. The more he had her to himself, the less time she got to spend with that moronic boyfriend of hers. As it was, the only time those two got to see each other was during the endless rounds of meetings –Smirk– with him present…

True. He’d decided to “tolerate” the present situation (He had no fucking choice – It was Quistis’ decision…). But… he’d be damned if he was going to make things easy for them! Besides, he needed to stay close to Trepe, and keep all those dogs sniffing after her away. They still had not been able to determine the identity of their shadowy attackers, nor of the hooded figure who seemed to be in control of them. He’d been torn between wanting to be on the team the Headmaster had sent to Centra upon their return of the mission and guarding a comatose Quistis. In the end, it was no choice at all. ‘At least they sent Priya Dephta, she’s pretty good in this sort of reconnaissance missions.’ But they had returned empty handed. The bastards had completely cleared the area.

He knew Squall and the Headmaster were doing their best… but he had a very bad feeling about the whole thing. Hopefully, Zell’s venture into Kashkabald Desert might throw some light into the whole mess, ‘Humph! Who’d think that I’d end up relying on Chickenwuss of all people!’ He knew for sure that it would’ve never crossed the mind of his younger self two years ago… ‘Dammit! I have a very bad feeling ‘bout this whole fucking business…’ He felt Tiamat’s faint stirring, ‘Yeah… I don’t like it either. They were not random attacks.’

It was the main reason why he’d insisted they both be allowed to carry their weapons. He knew Quistis could probably get away with concealing hers, but there was no way he could camouflage Hyperion, specially after it was remodified by Johan…

“That’s a very interesting blade you’ve got there, Seifer… Mind if I take a look?”

“I thought your specialty was aeronautics.”

“Yeah, but from time to time I like to tinker with gunblades.”

“You’re fucking kiddin’!”

“No, as a matter of fact, I’m not. I’m even quite adept with one. –Smirk– Of course, not up to your standards, Almasy.”

“Heh, shall we put your skill to the test?”

“With pleasure.”

In the end, Johan proved to be exactly as he claimed. His skill with the gunblade was quite good, but where he proved to be unparalleled was in his knowledge of this weapon class. He even admitted to being a contributor to Weapon’s Monthly Gunblade section!

“Seifer, did you know that the kurogane which makes up Hyperion’s blade is extremely rare?”

“Huh? Kurogane?”

“That’s the name of the black alloy from which your blade has been forged. It’s partly Adamantine and partly some other very strange substance…”

“Fuck if I do! All I need to know is that I can slice through tough Ruby Dragon skin!”

“Hmmn…after examining your weapon, I think I can improve it… specially now that you are in synch with Tiamat…”

“Explain.”

“Because of the nature of the strange alloy that makes up your blade, and in part the gun as well… I think I can modify your weapon in such a way that when you junction Tiamat, Hyperion will also benefit from it.”

“…”

“Well? What do you say? It’s all in theory, however…”

“Hell, Tiamat approves! Let’s go for it!”

“ –Snort– No one can say you’re fainthearted, Seifer.”

“Fuck, I’ll agree to anything that can increase my power.”

“There are some risks involved…”

“So be it. –Smirk– Where would the fun be otherwise?”

“You’ve been warned, Almasy.”

In the end, Johan’s tinkering had paid off big time. The enhanced weapon had allowed him to fence off the attacks of those shadow warriors. All those long hours of hard training to get used to Hyperion’s new weight, had been worth the trouble. However, he was realistic enough to know that had the fight continued, no amount of enhancement would’ve been enough. It was two against an enemy that could not be stricken down… It made him very uneasy to think that they were being toyed with. And Quistis. After every confrontation she would end up being strangely drained. Not battle tired, not hurt, just seriously drained. ‘I don’t fucking like it!’ But they would be ready for the next attack.

He’d been surprised at how easy it’d been to secure Zone’s approval for keeping their weapons. ‘I guess people expect SeeD members to be always armed…’ He didn’t give a shit about the reason, as long as he was able to keep Hyperion. He’d even gone over all the security arrangements with Watts, not only for the talks but also for the reception tonight. ‘Fuck, these people have shitty security!’ After looking at the plans, he’d made Watts re-deploy everything. It would not be the first time he’d wished to have some of his own people here…

GONG! GONG!

‘The time now is 00:00:00,01
22.12.01 AU
Remember: No Time Like Present Time!
Get a CARPE DIEM WATCH!’

Humph…He looked at the huge clock with its annoyingly flashy display, and realized that he was officially as of now, 20 years old. No wiser. No better. Just fucking older. Big Deal. Today was just the fucking same as yesterday. With his back against the balcony rail, Seifer leaned against it using his elbows as props, and stared up into the starry sky. He was twenty now and finally a SeeD, but he was nowhere near his real heart’s desire…

Frowning slightly, he wondered what kind of relationship would Quistis be getting with a major wuss like Zone. He hadn’t really expected a lovey-dovey kind of relationship, as this was Trepe after all… He wondered if that little shit had to ask Trepe for permission before kissing her, then scowled ferociously at an innocent shooting star streaking across the night sky. Thinking about that moron’s lips on Quis’ really pissed him off!

Swearing profusely under his breath, but unable to stop the train of his thoughts, Seifer wondered if Quistis would respond to that little shithead’s kiss in the same way she did to his… ‘What the FUCK am I doing? I don’t wanna know!’ Angry at himself, he left the balcony and plonked down on his bed with a heavy thud. However, he was not able to block the images that came to his mind… ‘Fucking great! It’s my birthday and the only thing that’ll make me happy is the idea of hurting that pansy-pants Zone!’ …In spite of himself he almost laughed out loud. At least he hadn’t lost his sense of humour…

He’d expected Zone to try and spend some quality time with Trepe during the reception tonight, he’d been the one to score. Seifer stared up into the ceiling fan, and smirked at the memory. Another point for him…

Quistis had plastered a very false smile on her face as she made up an excuse, and forcibly dragged him into a secluded corner, away from prying eyes and ears. He allowed himself to be pulled, unsurprised to see her place her fisted hands akimbo on her hips while glaring furiously at him. He kept the smirk on his face, knowing very well that it would made her even more mad at him…

“Seifer! Why are you being so difficult tonight?!”

“Why, Instructor! I’m hurt! I’ve been at my best behaviour!”

“Oooh! You…you dumbass!”

He’d raised an eyebrow at her choice of words. He hadn’t been able to resist.

“Tsk, tsk, Instructor! Such language!”

“Don’t you dare give me that! Do you know who it was that you were so rude to a few minutes ago?”

He knew. But he had still wanted to knock the teeth off that dweeb’s leering face.

“No. And I don’t give a fuck either, Instructor.”

“You were rude to Minister Stanley Cole! Garden’s ally and leader of the Upper House!”

“That sleazebag just wanted to get into your pants, Trepe.”

The little bastard was lucky he had contained himself from running him though with Hyperion. Of course the Instructor would not see it his way. When did she ever?

“Do I need to pull rank on you here, Squad Leader?!”

Seifer stared into those flashing blue eyes, and refrained himself from acting on his first impulse. Instead, he deliberately shrugged his shoulders with nonchalance and said.

“Meh, he’ll get over it after a minor confrontation with another Wendigo…”

knock! KNOCK!

“Seifer, it’s me.”

He recognized the voice immediately. Getting up, he went to get the door. After he swung it open, he was unsurprised to see Quistis standing outside.

“Uh, may I come in?”

He raised an eyebrow, but silently stepped aside to allow enough space for her to enter. She hesitated briefly at the doorway, as she stared up into his face, before entering his room. She held a rather large squarish box in her hands, with the words “CyGaramond” etched in very fancy silver lettering on the cover. Holding it out to him, she smiled shyly and said.

“This is from all of us. Happy Birthday, Seifer!”

This time, he was surprised. Very surprised. His hands came out automatically to receive the gift, but his eyes were on Quistis’ face. She blushed slightly, flustered by his perusal, before saying.

“Open it.”

He placed the box on a table.

“I-I hope you like it. Sorry it’s not wrapped, but it’s been really crazy…”

“Quistis.”

“Selph recommended a store, and Sis helped me choo…”

“Quistis.”

She finally realized he was calling her by her name. It was a rare incident, rare enough to make her stare at him.

“Aren’t you forgetting something, Instructor?”

Frowning blue eyes stared into inscrutable green ones. Somehow relieved and annoyed at the same time that he’d reverted to his usual…

“What did I forget?”

“This.”

Swiftly closing the distance between them, Seifer lifted her chin and without allowing her any time to think, seized her lips rather roughly. Lips that were both forceful and cajoling at the same time. Lips that burned their way through days, weeks and months of self-control and denial.

§ ~ § ~ §

I am the most grotesque
I am the most beautiful
The transience of mortality is meaningless to one such as myself. Even those who follow and serve me are subject to laws forged by other gods. As their followers will be subject to mine. It is befitting.

(Master, the initiates are ready for the ceremony)

(Very well, take them to the Chamber of Subjugation)

(We have four Candidates…)

(But?)

(Only one is gifted in the Arts)

My existence is all encompassing
My being is unfathomable


Mortals will do anything to avoid that which they fear the most. For many, this means death. Such a triviality. It is easy to prey upon their terror in order to gain their compliance…

(Dispose of the weaker three, and only have the one Candidate before the Chalice)

(Master, the experience might prove to be too much for the Candidate)

(So be it. Let that be a true measure of the Candidate’s ability)

I am the most loathed
I am the most beloved


Those who fear the unknown stand to lose the most, for they will desperately seek the counsel of false gods who care nothing for them. And yet every act they do to avoid me only serves to bring them closer to me. Mortals are such fools.

(I object!)

(Master?)

(Ignore the objections of Master Ji, Caster, and proceed as ordered)

(Yes, Master)

(The others should be tested as well!)

(Master Ji, you are as well acquainted with the covenant as I am. No exceptions were made with my own child when her candidacy was submitted, therefore no exceptions can be made for yours)

(You bastard! I suppose you feel very smug with yourself when Sasha became an Initiate with flying colours!)

(I am a top level Master Caster, and presently the Overseer of Candidates. Something you should take care to consider before uttering such nonsense)

(Your own daughter was presented alongside three other Candidates!)

(All of whom were gifted in the Arts, unlike this present batch)

(Why is it that only she managed to pull through, while the other three became drained?)

(You were the Overseer at the time, Master Ji. Surely you can answer that question better than I can)

(I wouldn’t put it past you to cheat!)

(I am not the one who failed. You should have known that drafting the children of four prominent families, all from the same place would draw attention)

(Fool! They were all gifted!)

(I had to personally go and retrieve the Initiate due to your own ineptitude…)

(There shall be no bickering among Masters)

(My apologies, Great Doma)

(Pardon me, Great One)

(Very well, Master Ai, please go and insure that Candidate is ready for the rite of passage, should he survive the rite of passage)

(As you wish, Great One)

(Master Ji, come with me)

(Y-yes, Great Doma)

(It displeases me that you seek to bicker with Master Xi)

(Great Doma, I-I was the one prov…)

(You have already been forgiven once, since your mistake gave us a blue witch. However, do not slip again)

(Y-yes, Great Doma)

Darkness and light
They all become I

(What is it, my disciple)

(Please forgive my daring, Great One, but…)

(Yes?)

(Thanks to Master Ji’s fumbling we have found two, why are we holding off?)

(We need all Seven)

(Why not secure the two we know?)

(All in due time, my loyal assistant… All in due time… Our ancestors failed in the first awakening, because they were impatient. Did not read the signs correctly. We shall not fail, because we are patient. We know how to lie in wait)

The wheels of fate are in motion. I will be free. As I should be. As I have to be.

I am Everything
Everything is I

§ ~ § ~ §

To be continued…

congestion.jpg

Cities, like dreams,
are made of desires and fears,
even if the thread of their discourse is secret,
their rules are absurd,
their perspectives deceitful,
and everything conceals something else.

–Italo Calvino–

–Flash of blue light–

“You may not pass!”

Without warning the Umbrae ceased their unrelenting attack, pausing in their effort to penetrate the barrier she had erected. The wraithlike creatures stood completely still. As if inwaiting. Suddenly, a fell voice slithered into her mind, trying to wrestle with her control… Tired. Yes. She was tired. But not helpless. Summoning all the power in her command, she slammed the doors of her consciousness close to the insidious whisperings of the voice.

(Lady Kiestus Xioma do not make it harder for thyself…)

A Master Caster. She should feel insulted at the slight. Even if Master Casters were at the very top of the hierarchy. But all she felt was relief. In her present condition, the Doma would have broken through her barriers like a sharp blade through paper. However, she could still deal with the likes of a mere minion, even one as powerful as she sensed this one to be. The caster’s foul aura was somewhere nearby… heavily cloaked by a shield of
invisibility.

She was having none of this subterfuge. Lifting her staff high she rammed it down hard against the ground shooting small reverberations of power through the vast room.

Reveal yourself!”

A small shriek, and the figure of the caster was revealed. It was unmistakable. This one belonged in the rarefied upper echelons of the hierarchy: crimson mask, black cloak trimmed with the symbols of power, and protected by the fearsome army of unliving warriors it had
learned to control.

(I finally understand the reason they want thee alive, my lady. Thou art indeed powerful, and as such, useful to our cause. )

Some of the Umbrae surged forth, only to be dispersed by another powerful flash of blue magic.

I repeat. You cannot pass.”

(Now, now, Lady Xioma, what be the use of thy defiance? The Seal of Aleph shall soon be no more, dispersed to oblivion by the very power it sought to contain. With the One gone, ‘tis only a matter of time ere Beth, Gimel and all the rest succumb. One by one all the Seals
of Seven will crumble to dust, and Truth shall finally be revealed!)

She ignored the taunting voice in her mind, and concentrated on keeping the Umbrae away from the Chamber of Rituals. Soon. She could sense its gathering energy –a most wholesome energy– coalesce and consolidate. Soon the ritual would be complete, and the Aleph would regain some of its strength. This, the foul creature did not know.

Time. Time was of the essence. Time to heal. Time to rebuild. To regenerate. It was their sacred duty to ensure this. Odin and herself, as true descendents of the lineage of Seven, were the upholders of the trust. She would allow nothing to stand in the way of its fulfilment. Her own children’s chances of survival depended on this outcome. That knowledge alone gave her strength. She drew up her last dregs of her reserves…

(Thou art becoming weaker, my lady… Please allow me to expedite thy demise!)

Suddenly her eyes flared open. A tremendous force was trying to break through her barrier. Pain. Intense pain. Concentrate! She needed to concentrate. She tasted the saltiness of her own blood as it trickled from her lips to her chin trailing a thin path down her neck. Her aching body had already sustained much damage. It was standing by the strength of her will alone.

The path is sealed to you.”

(Why art thou so stubborn, Lady Xioma? Surely thou canst last much longer… We are offering thee the choice to live. Serve us and thou shalt regain thy full strength!)

More Umbrae and their casters entered the chamber. Soon she would be surrounded, but she stood her ground.

(What is thy verdict, lady?)

She smiled. She knew their foul leader was perplexed by the aura of calmness she exuded. She also heard echoes of a voice begging her to desist, but there was no time to trace it back to source. The room was almost full with the Umbrae, and their Casters. Good. The Umbrae could not be destroyed, but it took time and energy to train Casters. And talent. Only those with talent could be used. It pained her to see that they had been able to seduce so many… They were getting ready to attack her again.

Goodbye, beloved.” She whispered.

Raising her voice to its full power, she uttered the forbidden words that blue mages had been taught for centuries to respect and to fear.

Specus Ater.”

As the sound of the words resonated in the room, a powerful flash of blue light engulfed everything…

“AAAaaargh!”

“NOoo!”

“Quistis!”

Strong hands seized her shoulders, and shook her.

“AAAaaargh!”

“Quistis! Dammit!” –Shake– “Wake up!”

“DON’T!”

“Wake the fuck up!”

“NO!”

“Dammit!”

Slap!

Pain. But not that pain…

“Quistis! –Shake– Snap out of it!”

Suddenly, Seifer felt her arms grab his shoulders while she stared at him blindly, tears running unchecked down her cheeks… She had never looked so afraid nor so vulnerable to him as in that particular moment. He tightened his arms around her.

“Dammit! What…”

Deep blue eyes full of shadows, stared up into his but they were eerily unfocused. The voice coming out of her lips sounded odd as well. It was her voice, but not hers.

“I didn’t die?… Why?”

“ –Shake– Quistis! What the hell are you babblin’ about?”

She heard a familiar voice call out a name as if from a very long distance… ‘Quistis…Th-that’s a familiar name…’ She tasted the saltiness of…tears? Tears, not blood. Again she heard that familiar masculine voice.

“Dammit! –Shake– Fucking snap out of it!”

I-I’m me…’

That masculine voice was calling her most insistently.

“Quistis! Wake up!”

That’s right…. That’s…me.’

With great effort she resurfaced. She opened her eyes, and stared into a very familiar face. A very familiar frowning face.

“Se-Seifer?”

Her throat felt raw. His grip on her shoulders was like a manacle.

“Who the fuck d’you think it was at this time of night?!”

His voice sounded rough, but the arms around her were gentle. She was still trying to distinguish between dream and reality, but somehow his presence reassured her… She took a deep breath, and pressed her head against his chest. The steady sound of his strong heartbeat made her feel better. A hand lifted her chin and made her stare into his eyes, eerily illuminated by the strange mixture of city lights and moonlight filtering through the wide windows of her bedroom.

“What the hell was that all about?”

“I’m sorry.”

She didn’t know what else to say. All she could remember was a vast sense of emptiness.

“Bad dream?”

She nodded, still trying to shake off the vestiges of a remembered pain, both remote and vague. Now that she felt more like herself, she should really get off his arms, but his closeness calmed her.

“I’m sorry I hit you.”

She moved her head which was tucked under his chin, “No, it’s alright…”

The soothing strokes of his hand across her back made her feel better, more secure. He smelled nice too. His skin felt smooth and so warm… Unconsciously cuddling closer to him, she slipped one hand around his neck and the other across his waist. Her eyes flew wide open.
She drew in a sharp intake of breath.

“OUCH! Fuck! Watch it, Trepe!”

In her rush to place a distance between herself and his nude body, she’d hit her head against his chin!

“SEIFER! You’re naked!”

“What the hell did you expect? … Oh! That’s Trepe screamin’ her head off, but let me see what I’ll wear first…”

“You could’ve at least worn pants or something!”

“No can do, Instructor… I ain’t changin’ my sleepin’ habits just ‘cause you’re such a prude… ‘sides I have all that’s necessary here.”

He got up and grabbed Hyperion to show her what he meant. He smirked when he noticed that her eyes widened before swiftly looking away. The moonlight filtering through the huge windows illuminated the lovely curve of her shoulders and the thin straps of the white camisole she wore to sleep. One of them had fallen off her shoulder. Unable to resist the temptation, he went to her and planted a butterfly soft kiss on her left shoulder, even as he pushed the strap back in place. He not only heard her swift intake of breath, but also felt the slight tremor coursing down her body. Good. In spite of everything, in spite of that little fucker Zone, he still had the power to affect her. He turned to leave before she could recover sufficiently to berate him for the little liberty he took.

“Better get some shut-eye, Trepe. Tomorrow we leave early for Timber.”

The door to her room slid silently close behind him. He hadn’t been able to help himself. He’d spat out the name of where that little shit Zone lived. Maybe in this trip he would find some answers as to why she chose that loser over him. She was certainly not indifferent to him. He frowned, replaying in his mind –and not for the first time– the televised scene of her kissing Zone as that little diptshit let her hotel room late at night. Had it been any other person, that light peck on the lips would’ve just been interpreted as a ‘friendly’ salute, even a comforting one. But this was Trepe, the ‘Ice Maiden’. She’d been the one to grab Zone’s shoulder, and she’d been the one to kiss the little ass… ‘What the fuck does she see in that loser?’

Short of forcing himself on her –and on a purely physical level they were more than compatible– her mind, however, was something else. He knew that to only have one aspect of her would not be enough. Not even close. He’d known a long time ago that with the likes of Quistis Trepe, he wanted the whole package or nothing. He’d forced himself to be patient, when he was truly not that kind of a person. He’d forced himself to wait for her to come to him.

Changing direction during mid stride, Seifer made his way to the kitchen. He needed a drink. He didn’t bother with lights. The illumination from outside was more than enough, besides his night vision was acute.

During their Centra mission, allowing her to go by herself to scout the area had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. After closing the door on her, he has to suppress the urge to rip it open and go after her…if only to cover her back. The only thing stopping him had been Irvine’s warning look. It said, ‘she’ll never forgive you if you do.’ He understood the meaning of pride. ‘The other me would’ve rushed the moment, ready to play hero. I wouldn’t have taken her pride nor her self-worth into consideration…’ But he’d been cured of that, and it was a bitter pill to take. But that was before, when he’d do anything to fulfil his so called ‘romantic dream’ of being a sorceress knight, not caring in his self-righteousness on who he trampled, just so he could believe in the fallacy of having saved the day.

Strange how the fulfilment of his childhood dream made everything fall to tiny pieces, too small for even the smallest of hands to pick up. That bitch Ultimecia had done a good job of impersonating Matron…but not good enough. Had he not rushed so eagerly to become her knight, he would’ve noticed the discrepancies instead of overlooking them…

Nice going, Chicken-wuss! You and your stupid big mouth! Take care of this mess! Instructor and Mr. Leader!”

He’s been real pissed at Zell for shooting off his mouth, and furious that once again she’d chosen Squally over him! He would just have to show them! It would be up to him to clean up the mess! With his gunblade on Deling he’d stepped into the other room. Of course, miss Goody-Goody Trepe would follow him along with the rest of the losers. That’s when he noticed the flash of light…

…Poor, poor boy…”

Stay away from me!”

It was the mysterious sorceress. She ignored everyone present and spoke to him only in a very taunting voice.

Such a confused little boy. Are you going to step forward? Retreat? You have to decide.”

He saw Quistis rushing to him. Dammit! Did Trepe think herself fucking indestructible?! He yelled at her.

Stay back!”

But the sorceress had cast something on Quistis which had paralysed her. The others went to her aid. He refocused his attention on the witch. It was him she wanted.

The boy in you is telling you to come. The adult in you is telling you to back off. You can’t make up your mind. You don’t know the right answer. You want help, don’t you? You want to be saved from this predicament.”

He was already pissed at seeing Trepe go down, and what she’d said pissed him some more!

Shut up!”

Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Besides, you’re only a little boy.”

That did it! And in front of Puberty-boy too! The bitch was coming down!

I’m not… Stop calling me a boy.”

You don’t want to be a boy anymore?”

He needed to get her out of the way soon. Trepe needed help. But he could not leave her taunts unanswered…

I am not a BOY!”

A strange force compelled him to let go of President Deling. The fucking coward ran away.

Come with me to a place of no return. Bid farewell to your childhood.”

Good. She was leaving and taking him with her. Once they were away from the others, he would cut her down and he’d be hailed as a great hero! He brandished his gunblade in the air for the others to see he was going willingly. In a flash of light they were gone.

Sorceress Edea had magically teleported them to her rooms at the Presidential Palace in Deling City. Once there, she sat down on a very grandiose and ornate chair that was located in the center of the large room. More than a chair, it looked like a throne. Not knowing what to expect, he gauged his surroundings looking for a possible exit, and tightened his grip on Hyperion. Large amber eyes watched him expectantly.

You don’t remember me, do you?”

Huh?!” He was thoroughly confused by the unexpected question.

Come, child, and kneel before me!”

I told you…”

Again, that same strange force compelled him forward and made him kneel before her! Against his will, his head bowed down. Scowling at his predicament, but unable to move, he heard her voice… It was an eerily familiar one…

It saddens me that you cannot remember me, child.”

He felt the palm of her hand cradle his face, and lift it up to hers. The contact made his skin tingle uncomfortably…

I see you wear the fire-crosses I have drawn for you so long ago…and yet have forgotten all about me…”

It was his fatal mistake to look into her eyes. Her amber eyes, so sad, looked familiar to him. She smelled of the sea and of deep affection. Something he had sorely missed, sorely longed for, but had not known it. Suddenly, memories and sensations long suppressed by the forceful junctioning of GFs rushed back into his consciousness. It was like waking up from a long dream…

Matron…” He’s said that forgotten name in deep wonder.

Do you remember me now?”

Yes. Yes, I do.”

I’m a sorceress now. Cid Kramer has forsaken me. I have no one, but you, my child. Will you become my knight?”

Her eyes had been so full of sadness when she’d asked him. That was when he decided in the utter arrogance of his youth to stand for her and defend her against everything and everyone that tried to harm her.

Matron! It will be the greatest of honours to become your knight!”

She withdrew the hand from his face.

Very well, my knight, this shall be your first task…”

Seifer took a swig of Krakka ale, and let the bitter dark taste of the drink settle in his palate. That was the only time that Matron as the Sorceress had touched him or shown him any sign of affection. At the very edge of his psyche, he felt Tiamat stir… ‘So these memories make you uncomfortable too?’ They have allowed themselves to be corrupted by that witch. All the signs had been there for him to see, had he wanted to see them, but in his blind rush for his own selfish fulfilment he’d left everything behind… ‘I wanted recognition…’ Tiamat stirred again,‘You wanted power…’ He took another long swig of the bitter brew, and looked pensively at Quistis’s closed door, ‘Now we both pay for our selfish desires…’

He looked down at himself and sighed ruefully. Cold shower, then sleep. Like it or not, Timber would be their next destination. Watching Quistis interact with Zone, would definitely be a good test for his newly acquired self-control.

§ § §

Swoosh

Quistis watched the doors slide close, effectively blocking Seifer’s tall powerful figure from sight. Did the man know no shame, parading around in the nude? She snorted, of course not, he was Seifer Almasy, as arrogant and self assured now as the day he was born! And dangerous. She sighed and slid back into the warm covers. Too warm. Her body felt overheated as it was… She squirmed trying to find a more comfortable position. Exasperated at herself and at her own inability to control her emotions, she threw the covers off. It was
too hot anyway… Giving up on any attempt at sleeping, she sat up and drew her arms around her legs, resting her head on her knees, ‘So many lights… Esthar City is beautiful at night…’

It was frustrating, not being able to remember the disturbing dream. At least if she could recall parts of it, she could make some sense out of this irrational fear she felt sometimes. In the back of her mind she could feel Shiva trying to soothe her frayed nerves… Like most
people, she had her fair share of nightmares. Thinking on those recurring dreams she had of Matron, she took a deep breath and decided, ‘Some nightmares are worse than others…’, but they had never made her scream…or if she did, at least no one heard them. At B-Garden all SeeD quarters were sealed to afford its denizens some measure of privacy. Although she was quite sure she those horrible dreams did not make her scream… When she woke from those dreams she was drenched up in a cold sweat, but her throat never felt raw, like it did now.

Those horrifying dreams of mutilating Matron had not returned, but they had been replaced by something else… Something she couldn’t remember at all. Whatever it was had made her scream loud enough to draw Seifer into her room. She swallowed again. Her throat felt sore and her body heavy. She had the strangest of sensations, as if she’d learned something… She felt Shiva’s restlessness, ‘I guess it makes you uneasy too…’ Sometimes she wished she could actually communicate with her GF, but the most she’d ever got was the imprint of an emotion or a strong urge…

She stared at the incredible view of Esthar City at night with Lunatic Pandora’s huge superstructure serving as backdrop, like some bizarre squarish mountain. It was strange how used she’d gotten to a view that used to awe her so much only a few months ago. She thought about the architects of Lunatic Pandora. They had created a monster. Unlike the simplicity of its plain outer rectangular shape, the interior was a extremely complex maze of interconnected corridors going up, down and in all sorts of impossible directions. It had no concept of floors. Still, the various experts working on the LP project had managed to map out the structure’s hermetic interior, and they had facetiously named the areas after the strength of the area’s guardian so that ‘Level 20 Crystal Hall 16J’ actually meant monster level ‘20’, on the y-z axis grid where y was 16 and z was J. Crystal Hall was just a name they used to dub the central x-axis…

Feeling restless, Quistis got off the bed and went to the bathroom. Sensors were activated and the room lit up making her squint at the brightness.

“Dim.”

Automatically, the system recognized her voice command and the lights went dimmer. Her own bleary eyes stared back at her from the mirror. Unable to help herself, her eyes strayed to the place where Seifer had placed his lips ever so slightly. Unconsciously, she raised her hand to touch it with trembling fingers, feeling the goosebumps coursing over her skin all over again… She thought about the times he’d kissed her senseless… ‘But that was before I came to Esthar…’ She didn’t want to admit it, but she’d come here with a certain sense of expectation, only to have it suffer a great tumble when she found out about Kiara. ‘I knew he was fooling with me… but I thought… –Sigh– Does it really matter now what I thought?’ She knew she was not his type. She’d known it for a while, but still she’d hang on to her foolish hopes… ‘Quistis Trepe, let that be your reality check… Seifer just likes messing with you.’ There was no way she could compete with the Kiaras of this world…

She needed to go out more… ‘Maybe I’ll accept Fred’s invitation after all…’ When she went shopping with Ellone for Nida’s wedding, she’d literally stumbled upon Frederic Jenssen…

I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to bump into you!”

Miss Trepe?!”

Quistis are you okay?!”

Both Fred and Ellone had spoken at the same time. She had blushed a bright red at her clumsiness, feeling annoyed at Seifer for refusing to come himself to buy the shoes he needed to attend the ceremony…

Fred? Frederic Jenssen?”

The same, miss Trepe! From Jenssen’s Café in B-City.”

She’d felt such a huge wave of homesickness to hear Fred refer to Balamb that way! She introduced him to Ellone, who promptly suggested they grab a bite to eat together. She had thought that Fred would decline, after all the last time they’ve seen each other had been highly embarrassing thanks to Seifer’s rudeness, but to her surprise he had accepted Sis’s invitation with alacrity and had even suggested a place!

That’s when she found out that Fred, as he’d asked them to call him, had won a very prestigious scholarship to study International Relations at Esthar Memorial University…

Quistis smiled recalling that meeting. It had been nice to see such a friendly and familiar face from back home! ‘Maybe after I return from Timber I’ll take up Fred’s invitation to go out…’ She wasn’t sure how she’d make it time wise , but she would definitely keep this in mind. Feeling better, she went back to bed.

This time she had a peaceful dreamless sleep.

§ § §

Grandidi City, Trabia
(Hideyoshi Family Crest: A chrysanthemum sliced by a katana)

Daughter:

I’m writing this letter to remind you of the sacred duty entrusted to you since birth.
It has been many years now since we last spoke to each other. I hope you are keeping well in that organization you have chosen over the wishes of your own family. The only satisfaction I draw is that a member of the Naosu clan, and the only niece of Mistress Tahera Ganryu is also part of this Garden organization.

As the last surviving female of our line, the time might come for you to fulfil your duty and pay the debt of honour that has weighted down the Hideyoshi clan for many decades now. The holders of the debt might finally come to claim what belongs to them. If that time comes, you already know what to do. It has been taught to you from the cradle, and in turn you are to teach it to your own daughter if
the debt remains unclaimed.

Xu crumbled the note, handwritten in her mother’s own hand, and hurled it viciously against one of the walls in her room. Even a top notched SeeD could not escape her family history. She sighed uncharacteristically, and stood up to retrieve the crumpled parchment. The letter was short of an order to go home and visit. It could only mean one thing: her mother was seriously ill. Of course, centuries of Hideyoshi pride forbade her to mention it. To acknowledge one’s own mortality and frailty was taboo in her clan. It was part of their coda and stamped on their psyche from birth.

Watching Zell’s casual affection for Mrs. Dincht, or the others interact with the Kramers made her wish for a more normal relationship with her own mother. She sighed again. Did she ask to be born into the
Hideyoshi clan? Did she ask to be the last scion of the freaking line? She would have to get permission from the Headmaster before embarking on her ‘pilgrimage’ home, but she knew already that permission would be granted.

Xu smiled for the first time, ‘The headmaster will probably take advantage of this summons, and ask me to visit Trabia Garden to play politics.’ It was still unofficial, but the rumours had been circulating for months in the upper echelons of Garden organization: Fabiani, T-Garden’s top dog, wanted to retire. She knew that everyone, Cid included, was scrambling to present a suitable candidate for the soon-to-be heavily contested post. She knew who the headmaster thought suitable, and this person had her full approval. She still remembered the little ‘chat’ she had with the headmaster…

Err…Xu… I was thinking to…”

I decline, sir!”

But, Xu! You don’t even know what I was going to ask you!”

With all due respect, sir, the rumours surrounding Headmaster Fabiani’s retirement have been circulating for quite a while amongst the officers, sir!”

Oh! May I inquire as to why you decline the nomination? Isn’t your family seat in Trabia?”

It’s precisely because of it, Headmaster. I think it could generate too much conflict of interest…”

Xu tried not to flinch when the headmaster lowered his glasses to look at her over the thin wire frames. She knew Cid Kramer always gave people the impression of being a very fusty though kindly sort of fuddy-duddy, but she knew better. Behind those gentle eyes and mild demeanour lay one of the sharpest minds in all Garden.

I see…”

Xu breathed again when the headmaster returned his glasses to their usual perch atop his nose. She was certain he ‘saw’ far more than what she’d wanted him to see. After all, some members of her clan were members of the Trabian Senate… But to be so close to her family, when she’d gone through all that trouble and effort to get away from them as far as she could… It was unbearable to think about going back!

“…Very well. Then what do you think of…”

I’m sure Selph will make a great T-Garden Commander…’ She wasn’t too sure about the Headmaster part, but from the rumours she’d heard, there’d been talks of following B-Garden’s example. Just thinking of Selph in T-Garden’s supreme post made her smile evilly, ‘Hah! Those jerks won’t know what hit them! She looks so sweet and gullible! As if she was a pushover… Heh, heh!’ Appearances were always so deceptive. SighAnyways, I better go ask the Headmaster now, before I make up an excuse not to go…’

With that last thought in mind, Xu left her quarters to head for the Headmaster’s office.

§ § §

Voice identification required”
Please state your name and rank”

“SeeD André Legrand, Rank ‘A’.”

A moment please…”

André waited patiently for the system to verify his information. After G-Garden had been so easily taken over by dissenters, Martine had become paranoid. Even when summoned to the Headmaster’s office, everyone had to undergo the screening process.

Blip!Green

Voice print confirmed”

The doors to the elevator slid open.

Please step into the lift, Instructor André Legrand, Rank ‘A’”

After he did just that, the system began to finalize its security check.

Height and weight… Confirmed with in-file data”
You may proceed to the top floor, Instructor 0178”

André smiled ever so slightly. The scan also checked for weapons, but he was one of the scant few that the Headmaster and Commander of G-Garden trusted to be armed in his presence. He knew that the system would recognize the magic signature of his twin masamune blades, and not raise the alarm flags as it normally would if anyone were to visit the Headmaster with their weapons. It was a rule that Martine had instituted in G-Garden almost two years ago: No one visiting the Headmaster’s office can do so armed.

André stepped out of the lift. He was greeted by a silver haired lady with very straight posture and a startling set of blue eyes. There was a large screen embedded on her desk, with data flashing down constantly.

“Good morning, Instructor Legrand, the Headmaster is waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Zucchero.”

She nodded and continued with her work. Mrs. Zucchero had been in this office forever. Even when G-Garden had been commandeered by Sorceress Edea, she’s coolly performed her duties as usual. As if nothing had happened, all the while plotting with a few people loyal to Martine to have him reinstated at the helm. They, the Martine Loyalists, should consider themselves lucky that at the time, the Sorceress had only thought about the military hierarchy and had ignored the civilian admins. She’d also placed her lapdog, Almasy as Commander. That punk had cared nothing about paperwork. It was an opening. Much as it went against the grain, they had aided Leonhart and the others to infiltrate G-Garden.

The doors to the Headmaster’s office slid noiselessly open. Stepping in, André saluted the man behind the desk smartly. Martine was of middle-height and build, but the power and authority he exuded made him seem much larger. He had all the bearing of a man whose whole life had been and was the military. Unlike the incredible laxity he’d observed in B-Garden, here at G-Garden everyone wore a uniform that clearly identified their status and rank, with any violations severely punished.

“Sir!”

“At ease.”

Martine gestured toward a chair, “Please sit.”

“Thank you , sir!”

As usual, the Headmaster wasted no time.

“I just got off the phone with Fabiani. He will be resigning his post at year’s end as Trabia Garden’s Commander and Headmaster. This is our opportunity to act.”

“Sir, I heard rumours that the Council wanted to split the post…”

“Nonsense! That’s just mere rumour! It’s not in the best interests of Garden organization to break up such an important position.”

André waited for his superior to continue. He knew he’d hit a very sensitive spot with the Headmaster. Contrary to what anyone might think, Robert Jasper Martine was not a cold man, but he believed in the value of discipline. In the Galbadian Headmaster’s eyes, discipline was sadly lacking in Balamb Garden now and in the past. That flaw had allowed its students to run amuck, and created monsters such as Seifer Almasy. In Martine’s eyes, that punk Irvine Kinneas had been corrupted by too much contact with B-Garden’s denizens. Too bad about that, they lost a superb marksman. It was Balamb’s gain and Galbadia’s loss…

“André, I want you to pick an elite group of SeeD, and lead them in Lunatic Pandora. This should boost-up your profile before Garden Council, and improve our chances of controlling Trabia Garden. We cannot allow it to go the same route as Balamb!”

“Yes, sir!”

“While you’re at it, keep an eye on that punk Almasy. It’s unfortunate, but you will have to report to him…”

Martine looked at the serious young man seated before him in the eye. He was not very happy when André reported that Balamb had complied with all Garden regulations to the letter, and that both that upstart Almasy and Kinneas as well had passed the written portion of their exams with near perfect scores. He’d also looked for any misdemeanour or lack of professionalism during the various reports regarding their Field Exam performance so he could fail their SeeD Exam, but that glowing letter by Councilman Tavares had soured his
efforts. It had been a very bitter pill to swallow, having to sign his name on the approval form.

“I don’t know yet what Kramer, and that idiotic president of Esthar were planning when they named Almasy to lead the security side of the Lunatic Pandora Project, but Quistis Trepe has been assigned to him as aide… Maybe if we play our cards right, she might be persuaded to join our side. She cannot be very happy now that such a top-notch SeeD as she is has been overlooked for the post and made to play nanny to that low ranking punk!”

“Sir, as I’ve stated in my report, the Kramers seem to have a very special relationship with Almasy, as well as with Trepe.”

“You can also add Leonhart, Kinneas, Dincht and Tilmitt to the mix, André.” The headmaster began to sound exasperated, “I know all about that! Don’t forget who else is residing in Balamb Garden.”

“Rinoa Heartilly Caraway, the general’s daughter…”

“Exactly. He’s been keeping tabs on her as much as he can. I have to admit that for all their laxity inside, it’s been impossible for him to penetrate their security. In any case, you can rest assured that when the time comes, we have Caraway’s full support.”

“That’s good to know, sir!”

Martine seemed to ponder something before saying slowly, “You might have a point there, André. From my dealings with Instructor Trepe she’s not the kind that can be persuaded to switch sides for anything. I’m also more interested in gathering intelligence than in adding an extra instructor to our roster. There has also been rumours of a huge construction site in the vicinity of Lunar Gate. I find the lack of information regarding such a large site disturbing, as well the level of sophistication used in blocking any incursions from our spy-bots…”

The headmaster looked a his subordinate with a critical eye. André Legrand was quite a handsome young man, and very popular with Garden’s opposite sex or so the gossip that filtered to his office stated. For all her intelligence, Trepe had always struck him as a naïve girl… He couldn’t help but suspect that Trepe’s post was only a decoy for a much larger project. One in which he had not been invited to participate. He didn’t like that.

“See what information you can get from Trepe, André.”

Martine looked at his top SeeD in the eye so that his meaning was clear. The young man being no slouch understood exactly what the Headmaster meant.

“Understood, sir. I’ll do whatever I can to extract as much information as I can.”

“Dismissed. Mrs. Zucchero will fill you in with the details.”

“Yes, sir!”

André stood up and saluted his commander smartly. It’s only when his back was to Martine that he allowed himself a wide smile. It would be his pleasure to persuade the beautiful Quistis.

§ § §

To be continued…

sanddunes1.jpg

He who seeks does not find,
but he who does not seek will be found.

– Kafka –

“… A terrible battle ensued! Those who sought to break the Seal of Aleph wanted Lady Dohletia and Lord Ishtarius at all costs! Surely they cannot have a clear understanding of What it is exactly they are trying to release, for if they did… I truly believe that other would be their desire. To blindly awaken these terrible beings from their deep slumber, and yet they are only mere servants… Alas! I thought such dark forbidden knowledge was destroyed, but instead it was merely hidden.

Even the wise are not immune to foolishness when the matter at hand concerns the destruction of that which they most value. The Order of Zarûthra failed in their endeavour. Had they done the task that was entrusted to them properly, Lord Odin’s incredible sacrifice would be unnecessary, but now the completion of the ritual is the only hope we have of strengthening the Aleph. Once the Seal is tightened, these terrible beings will become dormant again…”

After Selph dropped us on the north side of the Talle Mountain Range, we mounted our Chocobos and rode to the Kashkabald Desert. Whoa! This place is massive big! It kinda took me by surprise how huge the place is! Definitely, flying over the desert in the Ragnarok is not the same as us being down here mounted on a Chocobo, an’ being cooked alive in this friggin’ heat! All we get to see for miles and miles with no end is sand, sand and then… more sand!

Talk ‘bout lookin’ for the impossible! How the Headmaster thinks we’ll be able to find some weird soundin’ GF in this humongous pile of dust is beyond me! Man! How the hell d’you start the search aroun’ here? I don’t even know what it looks like! I keep on playin’ that little track Squall gave me over an’ over again an’ it just makes no friggin’ sense!

“…Seek ye the Guardian Force Djinn.
Seek ye Ormus Descendants.
They who dwell in the city
that hath never known light,
beneath the Sea of Gold…”

Yeah…so I get the ‘Sea-of-Gold’ part… Like we’re standing here in the middle of the friggin’ ‘Sea’, staring at all this ‘gold’ stuff! But does it tell you where you’re supposed to be heading?… C’mon, like a ‘head North, dudes’ or ‘walk towards the palm tree’ or somethin’! Anything! Even after I read over all the notes Quisty left behind, I’m still not sure how we’re gonna go ‘bout this! An’ city… What friggin’ city?

We were supposed to have left a couple of days earlier, but the Headmaster postponed it so we could all attend Nida’s wedding. Man! That was some serious awesome partying! Heh-heh! Quisty showed up with Mr. Ego himself… No surprises there! Told that asshole when I flew him over to Esthar, I’d kick his ass if he ever made her cry! Man! He made it sooo obvious at the graduation party! He hasn’t changed at all! Wouldn’t allow any outsider to dance with Quisty at the wedding! The Trepies were fuming ‘cuz Seif wouldn’t even let them near her! Too bad for ‘em… Quisty looked hot! Meh! She always does anyway…

Heck! I’m so glad Quisty’s okay! From what Seif told us, they were waitin’ for her… Had he not shown up to pick ‘er up, maybe… Aw, shit! I don’t wanna think ‘bout it cuz it really messes me up! Quisty’s real important to me, to all of us in the orphanage gang! I gotta admit I was glad Seif was with her that night! Asshole or not, he’s one mean sonofabitch fighter! Heh! She thinks she’s indestructible! We all did… Until we saw her lying there on that infirmary bed… Man! That sucked big time! She looked so helpless! I never realized how fragile she truly is! I’ve always looked up to her. I guess I’m kinda glad she’d got that arrogant asshole to watch over her…

I can’t believe Ma has taken such a shine to him! Heh! It’s alright… If Ma and Matron like him so much, he’s gotta be an okay guy… ‘Sides, the pounding we gave each other that first time we met in MY friggin’ room kinda cleared it outta our system! It was real bad! Ma had to douse us with pail of cold water before we destroyed MY room! …I gotta give it to that asshole! His fists are friggin’ made of Adamantine! Damn! He whacked me real good! ‘Course, I did my own damage! Heh! He was definitely no chick magnet for at least a whole week! What do they see in him anyway? …I still can’t believe Ma let him stay in MY ROOM!…

“Zell!”

“Huh? S’up, Su?”

“I’m not sure… but I think that whirlwind over there…”

Su’s looking okay. Not too bad for someone who spends most of her time in the library… She seems to be holding up pretty good! But…why did she volunteer to come? …I was kinda embarrassed when she told me she liked me at the graduation party. I was sort of flattered too, but she’s not really my type or anything… I mean, she’s cute an’ all… Ah, shit! It’s too complicated! I hope she didn’t come with the idea that she and I…

“Zell! Man! That’s a huge sandstorm!”

“Yo! Ren! Calm down, ‘kay? I know all ‘bout these suckers!”

I dunno ‘bout Ren… For a guy who used to go under the tough name of ‘Club’ an’ calling himself a ‘CC Knight’… –Humph– He sure looks like he’s gonna pass out any time now! What a misnomer! He hangs aroun’ the cafeteria most of the time… Heey! Mebbe he’s the dumbass responsible for eatin’ all the friggin’ hot-dogs! Now that I look at him, he sorta looks like he should be spendin’ more time in the gym…

“Er… Squad Leader! Our Chocobos are gettin’ kinda restless…”

“Shouldn’t we look for some sorta shelter?”

“ –Sigh– Oh, hell! Everyone FRIGGIN’ CALM DOWN! We’re heading North. That storm’s blowin’ to the West! ‘Sides, it only looks close but it’s way off!”

I’m so glad I took the time to read stuff ‘bout the Kashkabald Desert! The way these people whine… Hell, are we SeeD or what? Heh! If that asshole were here he would be whipping their asses! Me? I’m way too nice! …

“…I’m afraid I was exhausted by the ordeal. It took almost all of my power to undermine the will of the Master Caster who had awakened the ‘Army of Bloodless Warriors’… We have only been able to make it this far by suffering great losses. Only in the Great Beyond which awaits us all, shall I be meeting my sons Armitage and Zemus again, but I do not have the luxury to mourn them now. Soon I will be losing my beloved daughter Onna as well, the eldest and wisest of all my children. She’s the only one I can entrust to deliver Lady Dohletia to her destination in the North. I shall deliver Lord Ishtarius personally.

I am so very proud of these young children! To suffer such a great loss as they have at such a young age, and still be so very valiant! The lineage of Odin and Xioma is a very strong one! I know that as they grow, these children will only become stronger and more stalwart. They don’t know it yet, but more sacrifice will be demanded of them… I haven’t told them that they are to be separated…”

We’ve been at it for days now! Travelling aroun’ this friggin’ place. It’s boiling hot during the day, but once the sun sets… It becomes a damned iceberg! Man! What I wouldn’t do for some delicious hot-dogs right now! I’m tired of eatin’ SeeD Standard Rations… Yech! Also had to fight a bunch of Cactuars. They’re such a nuisance! An’ fucking quick! Heh! If you try to hit ‘em but miss, those suckers shower you with their 1000 needles attack! Man! Does it ever hurt! Poor Ren, he’s like the slowest one here, an’ got hit a couple of times … Heh-heh! I shouldn’t laugh, but dammit you ‘Don’t-Turn-Your-Back to those things! Aw! His butt must’ve really hurt… An’ yeah…Su was not very happy with me for laughing my ass off! No pun intended… But hey! I wasn’t the only one…

“Squad Leader! I scanned the horizon with the zoomscope an’ nothin’! Everywhere I checked looks the same as the last place I checked!”

“Zell… Can I have a look with those?”

“Err…Sure Su! Hey, Kessler! Giv’em over to Su here!… She might spot somethin’ you missed…”

I should’ve done that before. Su’s now head of the library committee. She’d be more into looking at small details… –Sigh– I just wish she’d stayed home. For starters, she’d be safer! But after she volunteered, the Headmaster insisted she come with us. Squall as usual, when I looked at him to say somethin’ just shrugged his shoulders an’ said, ‘Whatever. She wants to go, let her…’ What kinda friggin’ comment is that? How does Rina put up with that guy?! I mean, Su made SeeD ‘cuz she’s real smart, but she’s not fighter material… I guess her smarts will come in handy when we find our GF… If we ever find it at this rate… After several days of travelling, all we’ve been able to find are friggin’ sand dunes, and more friggin’ sand dunes… They all look the same! Damn! It pisses me off to think that we might have to return to Garden empty-handed!

“I think I see something…”

“Huh? Where, Su?”

“Towards the East, a couple of degrees North…Almost like following the wake of the last sandstorm…”

“Uh, explanation, please!”

“Oh, sorry, Zell… I was speaking to myself. Quistis and I talked ‘bout it when I was helping her assemble together those notes she left for you.”

“Wow! You’re so lucky you got to speak with Instructor Trepe, Susana… That Almasy guy’s sooo mean! An’ sooo scary!”

“Well…”

Ah, shit! We have a friggin’ Trepie in our squad… These people are like everywhere! This is the middle of the dammed desert for Hyne’s sake! I can see how Seif might get upset ‘bout it! Hell! I think I’m gettin’ a bit upset too! Quisty’s one of us! Somehow, it’s just wrong for an outsider to have the hots for her! Kessler’s real lucky I’m not Seifer…

“…Zell!”

“Huh? Oh, yeah sorry Su. What d’you have?”

“Well, as you know Quistis and I found a very ancient record in the Shumi database… Because it was a protected one, we had to ask the Headmaster himself to request permission from the Shumi Elder to allow us access…”

“Yeah… I was kinda surprised that the Elder said yes!”

“I agree! The Shumi’s are known for being very tight-lipped about their sealed knowledge, but…yeah…the Elder was very forthcoming with the information! We got the material very quickly, but to our dismay, great chunks of it were written in a language we’ve never seen before!”

“Yeah… I got ya! Quistis did mention that in her notes, but she couldn’t do anything ‘bout it ‘cuz she got sent to Esthar… so she asked me to continue with the research…”

That’s good ol’ Quisty for ya! Always thinking of ways to help her friends! She left me some real good notes too!… Seifer’s one lucky asshole to have her helpin’ him!

“Didn’t she mention it to you?”

“Err… Mention what?”

“That I would be taking over her research…”

Oh-oh… I think Su looks kinda hurt… Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Quis did mention somethin’ like Su would tell me more… But hell, thanks to Nida I’ve been running aroun’ all dammed week doin’ littl’ errands for that tyrant Selphie! It completely slipped my mind!

“Uh, yeah… She did mention it somewhere, but…”

“It’s okay, Zell…”

Aw, shit! I think she looks even more down now… And what’s wrong with that littl’ ass Ren? Why the hell is he glarin’ at me for?

“…As I was saying, we both examined closely the ideograms used in the old records. It occurred to us that some symbols resembled old Centran… So upon Quistis’s advise, I got Instructor Aki to help me decipher some …”

“ –Phew!– Whoa! You got ol’ Aki to help ya?”

I could see Su was real confused by my question… Earth to Susana Mendoza! Aki is like the-most-feared instructor in ALL Gardens…!

“Yeah… Anyway, Instructor Aki is very knowledgeable of ancient scripts because of their magic incantations… I think at one point, the Instructor even served as advisor to Odine when Master Norg brought the doctor over to discuss the possibilities of GF junctions…”

“…So?”

“Zell! The records mentioned that at some point in history there was a large migration of people from the surface to the underground…”

Man! This chick gotta think I’m real dumb… Heh! I’m gonna show ‘er! I crossed my arms over my chest and adopted a more brainiac pose… I’ve seen Quisty do this a lot when she was my instructor…

“I know, Su, we’re supposed to be lookin’ for an underground city… ‘cuz that would explain the part ‘bout ‘the city that hath never known light’…”

“That’s right! Instructor Aki and I also found out from these old records that the Northeastern tip of Kashkabald desert used to be connected to the Southern part of the Esthar Continent…”

“You mean, like Abadan Plains?”

“Yes! The records indicate that a large migration of people left an area that we call nowadays Abadan Plains due to unspecified reasons to go south towards the desert…”

“Huh? What was it called before if not Abadan… an’ how d’you know?”

“The Shumi records contained an ancient map!”

“What?”

“Well… It’s not something we can use to help us now, Zell… I mean, this map looks nothing like today! Apparently the instance of Lunar Cry that changed the landmass of Centra Continent some eighty-odd years ago was not the first one to happen, nor the most devastating…”

“Su, you mean there was a worse one!”

“Yes, it seems that something similar but more devastating happened in Esthar Continent maybe… a thousand years ago? Even with Instructor Aki’s expert linguistic help, the sealed records were hard to figure out! We could only decipher bits and pieces here and there…”

Wow! Su’s really bright! Man! She sounds like… like Quisty! ‘cept no fanclub! Though I think she’s pretty popular… I wonder why she wants to be a librarian? I know she likes books. Heh! So do I, but I’m sure as hell ain’t gonna be spendin’ my whole day with ‘em! With her smarts she could easily apply for an instructor’s license, but she wants to spend the whole day with books…

“… so that Pupurun Sea in Southern Esthar was a result of that; nevertheless…”

Oh, shit! I wasn’t listening, but I better nod at whatever it is she’s sayin’…

“Huh? Are you saying that you agree with that? There’s no scientific evidence to support that!”

Hell! I better cover up!

“No… I was thinkin’ that you and Aki are really good, Su!”

“ –Blush!– Actually… we couldn’t make sense of the map, so Instructor Aki’s good friend Professor Thiong’o from Balamb University was drafted-in to help us.”

“Whoa! Aki has… friends?”

“–Glare!– Zell! Prof. Thiong’o is a world renowned historical cartographer! We were lucky to secure his help! All thanks to Instructor Aki!”

Geez! It just blows my mind how anyone could dedicate their whole life lookin’ at a bunch of old maps?

“Uh, sure, Su! So… the Shumi’s were okay with that?”

“The Elder agreed to give permission only if Prof. Thiong’o were to take the Oath of Secrecy.”

“…The Prof. agreed?”

“Well, yeah! To have access to such a rare and ancient artefact, let alone being able to touch it… was like a dream come true for the professor.”

Man! I’ve heard ‘bout the Oath of Secrecy, but I’ve never met anyone who’s actually taken it! It’s supposed to make you forget completely everything you’ve seen an’ heard except with the people included in the… Hey! Wait a minute…!

“Su, did you have to take it too?”

“Of course! Both Instructor Aki and myself were asked to do so…”

“How come you’re talkin’ to me?”

“The Shumi Elder included you in the pledge… In fact, the Elder included all of Mrs. Kramer’s children…”

I know I gotta look as confused as Su does! What the hell does all this mean? Was it because we defeated Ultimecia? But wait a minute… How ‘bout Seifer?

“… But I’m pretty sure the Elder said seven children, but there’s only six of you in Garden, Zell… Who’s the seventh?”

“Huh? Oh, that must be Ellone…”

“As in Ellone Loire?”

“Yup!”

“I thought she was only a good friend of Mrs. Kramer’s!”

“Well… that too!”

“Oh! … In any case, going back to the map… It was Professor Thiong’o who determined that the second migration wave started somewhere on present day Abadan Plains and moved slowly Southwest towards the Talle mountain range.”

“…An’ that’s important because?…”

“…Professor Thiong’o knows a bit more of the old languages given his line of work and says those people called themselves ‘Kaskabad’…”

“Huh? What does it mean?”

“Oops! Sorry, Zell. It means ‘Kaskabad’ or really ‘Kashkabald’ to give it a more modern sound…”

“NO way!”

“Yep!”

“ –Humph– Even if we have a better idea of which direction to take… D’you know how friggin’ huge the area is? I just wished they’d left us like a big sized ‘x’ that would say somethin’ like, ‘Yo! We’re here!’…”

“Well… They did! Maybe I wasn’t very clear on that… The records say that large groups of people suddenly disappeared ‘as if swallowed by an immense whirlwind of sand’… ”

“Damn! That’s why Selph gave me all those sandstorm scans!”

“Oh, yeah! I asked Selphie to give us the most recent meteorological readings of sandstorms in the area… Sorry I didn’t tell you ‘bout them before…”

“Meh! It’s okay, Su. You’re tellin’ me now, so that’s what matters. Anyway, good job!

“Err… –Blush– Thanks Zell! It means a lot to me!”

“YO! Zell!… Over here! I looked in the direction that Susana indicated, an’ I see another sandstorm brewing in that area!”

“Let’s head there, people!”

“Huh?”

“You heard me! Let’s go!”

“–Mutter– He hasn’t had any hotdogs for a week…”

“–Grumble– Yeah… finally lost it!”

“YOU! I heard that!… Double food rations for you!”

“–Groan– Nooo!”

“Bunch of losers, that’ll teach ya to piss me off!… LET’S GO!”

…These ‘Legio Bellatoris Exsanguis’, commonly known as the ‘Umbrae’ are to be feared, because they cannot be defeated by ordinary means. They are impervious to most magical and physical attacks, except for the strongest. And these will only serve as a temporary deterrent before they recompose again. If you ever have to face them, your only hope is to break the mind-hold of the magic caster who controls them… However, be warned! This course of action only serves to disperse them. It will not destroy them. Even if the caster where to die, this person would simply be replaced by another…

My child, if the Umbrae were to be given a choice, it is my greatest belief that they would choose to quit their painful existence. You should fear them, for they are a formidable adversary, but you can also pity them, for they have been robbed of their free-will. They are the unliving: Not dead, yet not alive. Every moment for them is a torment beyond anything you or I can ever hope to comprehend… Neither light nor darkness affects them. It is in their nature to diminish everything that surrounds them. They are the captive souls of warriors who sought to prove their prowess in the battlefield, but only met with treachery and deceit from those they purported to serve… Unfortunately, they cannot be released from their neverending torment. The fate of the Umbrae is inextricably linked to the destiny of the one who has been sealed under the seven signs of power…

What the hell! Just when I friggin’ thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did! For starters, we lost our Chocobos! How the heck were we supposed to know that sandstorms would scare the shit outta ‘em! Not to mention we were attacked by a trio of Abyss Worms! Since when do those suckers travel in groups? And how did they EVER get so friggin’ strong? I don’t remember them being so difficult to beat! For all their whining, the team’s pretty good at kicking ass…

We had just set out camp when outta nowhere we were hit by a huge whirlwind of dust that spooked our Chocobos loose! We had not time to run after ‘em, cuz suddenly we were surrounded by three very ugly and humongous sandworms! Dammit! I hate this friggin’ desert! Everything has become way harder! We will have to do our trek on foot… It’s only thanks to Su’s quick thinking that we still have some supplies! While the rest of us were fightin’ those huge fuckers, Su ran after the Chocobo that was carrying our stuff… It was loaded up so it couldn’t ran as fast as the others! Man! It’s a good thing she’s quite handy with those daggers of hers or we’d have nothing! A quick flick of her wrists and she managed to release the packages from the running Chococo…

…Man! Have I mentioned before how friggin’ hot this damn desert happens to be? We’re low on food! We’re low on supplies! An’ what’s worse: We’re real low in morale! I hate this fucking place!

If you are reading this now, my child, it can only mean one thing: The Seal of Aleph has finally been broken. Nevertheless, I shall place all of my hopes with you, because in you our blood has renewed itself. Mine and that of my beloved Erythraea. As the blood of Lord Odin and Lady Xioma has also been renewed. And the blood of the rest of the Seven who created the Seals of Goetia. It will not be coincidence that you are to meet with them, or perhaps have already done so, but do not know. Remember Onna’s descendent, Child of my Flesh, nekromantia is in your blood. I know, because you are reading this book. My book. The Book of Ormus can only be read by the one who is most like him…

Pensive eyes lifted from the book to stare out of delicate lattice windows. Beyond was a magnificent vista of the City of Baal. A city illuminated in its entirety by the huge glow flowers that hung from the stalactites above. The sleep gong had already resonated some time ago… ‘I wonder how surface people measure time… I know it cannot be determined by gauging the pulse emitted by glow flowers like we do here. These crystals only occur naturally in this cavern’s stalactites. What was it that the Matriarch said…? Ah, yes, they are the cumulative result of millennia of Lunar Cry…’ Snorting at her attempt to avoid thinking about what she’d just read, Zuleima placed her ancestor’s writings on a nearby table. Lifting her hands high above her head she indulged in a nice stretch, deliberately turning her back on the book and therefore missing the fact that it had started to glow ever so slightly…

Knock! Knock!

Zuleima arched an eyebrow exasperated, ‘What can it be during the city’s slumber time that requires my particular attention?’ She went to open the door. She could sense no urgency whatsoever… so whatever it was, she would be saying no.

“Yes?”

It was her birth-mother’s closest retainer, “Zuleima, the Matriarch requires your presence in her chambers…”

She suppressed a sigh before replying, “Thank you, Saedi, please tell her I’ll be there shortly…”

§ § §

“Greetings, Zuleima Alkhash-ka! Please be welcome to this humble Healing Aedis.”

Zuleima smiled at the Assistant to the Doyenne of Baal’s most important healing house, and returned the formality.

“Greetings, Oneida Baharaj. The Matriarch sends you and yours her regards.”

“We are very honoured to have you here, Zuleima Alkhash-ka. It isn’t an everyday occurrence that the Matriarch sends her only Birth-Child to check on the welfare of the people we have under our care… Although it is true that our humble establishment has admitted recently some very extraordinary patients. It is an honour for us to be able to tend the first surface dwellers to ever enter the fair City of Baal in more than a millennia!”

In normal circumstances, Zuleima did not object to Oneida’s pompous and incessant chatter. She was a very kind person, but at times her obsequious demeanour and gossipy nature was vastly annoying. This was one of those times… ‘Where is Doyenne Ayashashi when she’s needed?’ The question was purely rhetorical as she already knew the answer. Ayashashi Centzontotochtin was in Valefor tending her kinsman, the Kazar. –Humph‘ I knew that unctuous toad would find ways to irritate me!’ She refused to acknowledge the fact that she was being very unfair to the poor ailing Kazar.

“The surface dwellers are very young! It’s to be expected. Only the young, either surface or here in Baal, can act so foolishly! They were very lucky to be in the route of your Cousin, that nice young man, Omar Roshd. Although I don’t understand why he brought them here?… Usually, stray surface dwellers would’ve been taken directly to the Trading Post, but these were brought here to us! One of them in particular caught my eye!…”

“…Oneida Baharaj …”

Zuleima tried valiantly to put a halt to Oneida’s gossipy streak, but it was a known fact that once started it was almost close to impossible to make her stop without being extremely rude!

“…He’s a very handsome young man with hair the colour of bright gold, and the most intricate patterns etched on a side of his … Zuleima Alkhash-ka! Let go, child!”

Upon hearing the description, she had seized Oneida’s arm in a dead grip! She ignored Oneida’s scandalized expression, knowing very well that come the wake-up gong it would be all over Baal that the Matriarch’s Birth-Daughter had reacted very strongly to the surface dwellers’ presence.

“Oneida! Where are they!”

“Child! …”

“Please, answer!”

“I’ve placed them in the Esuna Chambers…”

“Take me there!”

“But they…”

“Please!”

“Very well. Follow me…”

§ § §

To be continued…

a/n:

Some cultural practices of the Kashkabald People:

They do not use honorifics nor do they use titles to address each other.

To be called by one’s full name is a sign of respect and courtesy.

Only intimates or close family friends may call one by their first name.

People in public office may addressed by their designated rank or task:
Such as Matriarch, Kazar, etc…

People can also address each other by their relationship:
Chosen One
Cousin
Birth-Mother
Birth-Child

People can also be addressed by designations they have earned or is proper of them:
Child of Sand

It is considered to be extremely rude to shorten people’s names or to call them by their first or last names if permission has not been granted to do so. In the more remote satellites of Baal, such an infraction can result in a heavy fine.

sanddunes2.jpg

untitled-1.jpg

When the child was a child,
It didn’t know that it was a child,
Everything was soulful,
And all souls were one.

–Peter Handke–


“Matwyn! Matwyn!”

“We wanna hear a stowry!”

“Stowry! Yaay!”

“I wanna hear the stowry ‘bout the dragon-n’-the-lady–n’–the–knight!”

“No! The stowry of the ginger-bwread-houthe!”

“Children! Children! Alright, if you want to hear a story everybody must be in bed…”

“Matwyn! I wanna sleep with Sis too!”

“Nooo!”

“Squall, –Whisper– It’s okay, we’ll make cookies together tomorrow –Whisper– Go to your bed… Come Sefy!”

“ –Sniff– …”

“Yaay!”

“No fair! Me too!”

“Me too!”

“No! Me!”

“EVERYONE should be in bed by the time I count to ten… … One…”

“Eeek! Hurry!”

“I tol’ yooo!”

“…Two…”

“SHUT-UP! CRY-BABY!”

“…Seifer! Zell! –Sigh – …Three…”

“Don’t tease him! He’s little!”

“Yoooo! Quisty! I’m not!”

“… FOUR…”

“MATWYN! Seify’s makin’ faces at me!”

“Zell-Tattle-Tale!”

“… FIVE… SIX…”

“EEeek! C’mon! Hurry up!”

“I’m already in bed, Sefy!”

“… … Seven… Irvine, under the covers, please… …”

“Eeek! Hurry, Irvy! Hurry!”

“… Eight… … Seifer!… Irvine! No peeking!”

“Awww!… But Matwyn!”

“… NINE… … Squall, don’t place the covers over your head, dear, you’ll suffocate… …Ten! Good! Now close your eyes, and I will begin the story…”

“We’re all sleeping now, Matwyn!”

“Thank you, Quistis… Alright, my darlings!… … … Once upon a time, in a very faraway country, there was a garden that had no flowers, only grass and one small fruit tree. People did not want to visit such a tiny garden with no flowers. The garden did not understand why people would not want to sit under the cool shade of it tree, or eat the sweet ripe fruit that fell to the ground, or lay on its green grass to gaze at the blue sky. It made the garden feel sad and lonely…”

“Matwyn… I’d go…”

“Yaay! Me too!”

“Me!”

“–SHSSSS– SHUUUUSSH! You guys! I wanna hear the stowry!”

“… … ‘I wish I could even have one flower!’ The garden said sighing to itself, ‘This way people from all over would come visit to see the flower!… Then they would also notice the beauty of the fruit tree, taste the sweetness of its fruit, and enjoy the greenness of my grass…’ The East Wind heard the garden’s wish, and decided to ask all the tiny flowers seeds it carried for one to volunteer to land in that garden. But they said no…”

“–Sniff– Sniff–”

“–Whisper– It’s okay Sefy… –Whisper–I’m sure Matron won’t allow anything bad…”

“… The North Wind heard the same wish, and felt pity for the small garden. It also asked the flower seeds it carried in its airstream, the same question, but it got the same reply, ‘No’. And so did the West Wind. And so did the South Wind. Every seed they asked, said ‘No’, until one very tiny flower seed out of all seeds asked, volunteered to go. It said, ‘It pains me to leave my siblings, but for the sake of the lonely garden I will go…’ Ah! There was such joy in that tiny garden when the flower seed landed!”

“Matwyn, can we go there? Pleathe?”

“Maybe someday, Selphie… The fruit tree extended its branches to shelter the small flower seed from the strong rays of the sun, the grass made a space for it to root. Everyone was very happy. For this one unselfish act of kindness, the little seed grew, and grew. Soon it became a beautiful flower. The only flower in the little garden. But it was more beautiful and more fragrant than any other flower…”

“Awww! Flowers are for girls, Matwyn!”

“Shut-up, Seify! I thaw you pickin’ some yethterday!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“ –Sigh– Flowers are for everyone my darlings …As I was saying, this one singular flower was so beautiful that people came to visit the garden from everywhere…”

“Matwyn! Matwyn!”

“Yes, Irvine?”

“May I go to the bathroom?”

“I’ll take him Matron.”

“Thank you, Ellone…”

“Matwyn…”

“Hmm, Quistis?”

“I’d like to be in that Garden too… D’you…d’you think I’d be allowed to touch the pretty flower?”

“What kind of sissy question is that? You’re such a girl”

“I am a girl! –Giggle– Silly!”

“Quistis, Seifer… Such language!”

“Sorry, Matwyn! … … … Psst! Seify! Is your turn!”

“For what?”

“To say you’re sorry!”

“Why?”

“’Cause you’re supposed to!”

“But I’m not sorry!”

“ …Oh, Ellone and Irvine are back! So I’ll continue with the story… To the people’s surprise they found out indeed, that the fruit from the one fruit tree was sweeter and juicier than any other fruit they had ever tasted, and that the grass in that garden was so green even the blue sky was envious of its greenness…

§ § §

To be continued…

a/n:
Original photograph by Tony King (1934) from the Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Reworked in photoshop.

bg_2.jpg

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

–Abdul Alhazred–

“Welcome, Believers, to the Temple of Zarûthra!”
“The God of Benevolence and Fortitude greets you!”
“Enter and be blessed!”

“Are you sure, Petra, that this is the place?”

“You are such a wuss! Would I have instructed Decker to bring us here had I not been sure?”

“Well, he didn’t want to drive us here, remember? It was only when you threatened to fire him that he finally agreed!”

The ‘here’ was said with absolute disdain and abhorrence. One of the girls seated inside the luxurious chauffeur-driven vehicle, looked dubiously out the rolled up window. They were parked in front of a rather gaudy building that boasted a set of very imposing double doors ornamented with very strange symbols. They seemed to glow eerily, even on broad daylight. The vehicle looked completely out of place in the run down neighbourhood, one of many so characteristic of Sectors 102 to 109. Located on the northernmost part of the City, they conform the forgotten tentacle of the Estharian spider like city-grid.

During Adel’s reign, this particular section of Esthar City had somehow managed to keep its dilapidated physiognomy. It remains a mystery why Adel, an infamous aesthete, ignored the ugly decay of this ramshackle area. Even the staunchest apologists of Adel’s era have acknowledged –albeit grudgingly– that the sorceress would think nothing of razing to the ground, with the people living there included, any sector she considered to be ‘ugly’ or ‘poor’ looking; hence, Esthar’s overly sanitized appearance.

However, everyone is in tacit agreement that Sector107 is the largest, and by far, the worst of the lot. After it, and separate from Sector107 by a barrier, 108 and 109 are just a pile of waste and rubble. In fact, Sector109 almost touches the southern part of the Salts Flats Lake. According to urban legend, the last two are a monster breeding ground. No one seen entering is ever seen leaving…

Poverty, indigence, destitution are the three words that best characterize Sector 107, more commonly known as S-107. There are malicious rumours circulating around that this sector was spared from annihilation due to Dr. Odine’s efforts in that respect. Why he should go through all the trouble of protecting an area inhabited by a group of people he himself has dubbed as ‘ze failures’, is anyone’s guess. It’s totally unreachable by public transport. The only feasible access to it, is through a very old skyway that traverses the length of Sectors 102 to 105, or the wasteland they have become, that is. These four were not so lucky.

The Abadon Skyway, as the road to S-107 has been dubbed, is in such a state of disrepair that it has been known to cause aircars to malfunction, therefore stranding hapless passengers in the middle of some very unsavoury territory. It takes major effort to get there. It takes major effort to leave. No sane person is willing to trudge into this territory voluntarily. For the most part, most Estharians are happy to either forget or ignore the existence of Sector107.

Presently, Sorceress Adel has finally been put to rest. It will soon be twenty years since the institution of President Loire’s mandate. Nevertheless, this forgotten zone of Esthar’s spider-like map remains unchanged. That is, despite the efforts on the part of the present government to implement various social programs designed –in theory– to help people in the sector improve their lives. Gradual changes can be glimpsed in Sector106. Raine’s Place, a community centre, just opened its doors last year. It’s rumoured that Ellone Loire, the President’s daughter herself, chairs the committee that oversees the centre.

Nevertheless, irrespective of the improvements in Sector106, as one gets closer to S-107 the landscape changes and becomes worsened. It’s almost like it’s resistant to change, even if it means an improvement in living conditions. Ever since the ‘opening’ of Esthar, experts from various parts of the world in the areas of urban planning and community development have been brought in for consultation. None of them, either as individuals or as a collective have come up with a viable solution.

In truth, ever since Time Compression, the problems in that area of Esthar have worsened. S-107 has become the epicentre of a very lucrative drug trade which started in Centra, but has been moved –again, reasons unexplained– to this particular area in the world. As a result, Sector107 has become the worst of the worst to be found anywhere in the world. It offers a stark contrast to the rest of Esthar City which is clean, beautiful and orderly. Most of the time, S-107 is only conveniently remembered by Laguna Loire’s enemies come election time. It would be most interesting to see how President Loire’s enemies would deal with the problem… If they ever were to win.

It is said that only the extremely poor and destitute live in S-107, for they have no choice. And that the very rich and powerful visit there, for it’s the only place in Esthar that has an unending supply of BLISS, and its cheaper more lethal counterpart, BLAST. But Petra and her friend are no drug addicts. They have ‘travelled’ all the way to this area, because they’ve been lured by the Temple of Zarûthra. Suddenly, although the Temple predates even the crashing of Lunatic Pandora into the Centra continent, it has become a very hip and trendy location for young and rich Estharians to see and be seen…

“Look!” One of the girls grabbed the arm of the other. “Isn’t that Isil-Dhu, the lead singer from the Heideggerians? Wow! I just bought ‘Alter States’ his latest holodisk!”

“He looks more amazing in person!”

“Oh My Hyne!… That guy just leaving… He-he’s Kain Baron!! He’s so hot!”

“Isn’t he one of the leads in that new show ‘Superheroes’?

“Okay! What are we waiting for? Let’s go inside!”

“Who was having doubts?”

“Oh, shush, Petra!”

§ ~ § ~ §

“Arriving at sublevel 128, Crystal Hall 08J”
“Please be careful with your step…

Pete Tarkin lifted his eyes, curious to see who the new arrivals would be. According to his own calibrations, they should be getting closer to the core. The monsters had also become increasingly more powerful. The engineering teams were given even more protection now than before. ‘…Well, well, well… If it isn’t the lovely Quistis… Heh! Almasy must be close-by…’ Sure enough, Seifer stepped out of the lift following ‘Instructor Trepe’, as she was called by everyone. ‘Except for Kia who calls her MSB, short for Man-Stealing-Bitch…’ He shook his head in unconscious disapproval. To be fair, he didn’t think the Instructor deserved such an appellative. ‘Ah, shit! Kia has noticed them!’

Pete watched Kia plaster a false smile on her face as she greeted the Instructor, while she gave Seifer a very ‘friendly’ kiss on the lips. They exchanged some pleasantries before Kiara left them so they could speak with Dr. Preston. Pete sighed. It was just as well that Kia had her back on them as she came towards where he was standing, or the scowl she sported now on her face would get worse… Almasy was standing protectively close to the Instructor, or he was no judge of body language…!

“I don’t see what’s so special about her!” Kiara hissed once she came within his hearing, “She’s just some blonde with an okay complexion.”

Pete decided that it was wiser not to say anything. Kia had called him crying the night Seifer had broken up with her, and had kept him on the comm for hours! He hadn’t had the heart to tell her at the time, a much needed, ‘I told you so.’ He didn’t have the heart now to correct her either. It would not go down well if he were to tell Kia that quite a few people, himself included, thought Quistis Trepe real hot-looking, especially when she was clad in her Gesperthane bodysuit! However, everyone knew that the lovely Instructor was also extremely off-limits, unless one disregarded personal safety… Instead, he said very carefully.

“I thought you said you were over him.”

Of course, he hadn’t believed that, not even for a nanosecond! After all, the relationship had only ended a few weeks ago. It was not enough time, no matter what Kia said.

“I am! But it doesn’t make me blind!” And in the same peevish mood, Kiara continued, “Look at her! …She’s just an insipid blonde!”

“Kia… It’s not her fault. You shouldn’t take it out on her.”

“Oh! And now you take her side!”

“Kia, I’m not taking any sides. If anything, you should blame Almasy. Didn’t you tell me he kept leading you on?”

Suddenly, to his surprise, Kiara blushed and said, “I don’t wanna talk about it!”

§

Quistis was only half listening as Seifer conferred with Dr. Preston –again– over the security measures they’ve implemented to ensure the safety of the non-fighting personnel. As they got closer to Lunatic Pandora’s core, the monsters prowling the new areas were stronger, faster, meaner. She tried not to grimace at the doctor’s blatant come-on look in Seifer’s direction, before throwing a surreptitious glance Kiara’s way. When Kiara ‘greeted’ Seifer, she’d deviated her gaze from them. For reasons she refused to acknowledge, she didn’t want to watch as Seifer’s ex-girlfriend blatantly fused her lips with his …‘I didn’t think she would be working on this run…’ She’d only found out recently that Seifer and the beautiful engineer were no longer together…

She was seated at one of the many tables in the compound’s cafeteria sharing her lunch with Lukka, a member of the LP SeeD team, and some of the engineering staff. Natasha, one of the technicians suddenly turned to Lukka to ask her a very pointed question.

“Hey, Luk! You’re in Seifer’s team! What’s the story?”

“Huh? Whadd’ya mean?” Lukka was truly perplexed.

“Luk! We thought that you knew everything ‘bout that hot leader of yours!”

Their attention shifted to Quistis.

“Hey, Instructor Trepe! Give us the insider’s scoop! What happened to make that hot roomie of yours break-up with sex-goddess Kiara?”

“She’s circulating the rumour that she’s the one who broke it off, but c’mon…! Like we’re really gonna believe that!

“Yeah! We kinda find it hard to believe… Look at him!”

In spite of herself and her extreme annoyance at his latest high handed action, Quistis turned her head with the rest to look at Seifer. He was talking with someone while waiting in line to get their meal, after he’d ‘ordered’ her to ‘save’ him a place. She was glad for the momentary distraction, even if it was by him. She wasn’t sure if she’d managed to hide her surprise at such unexpected news. ‘Oh, well! This would explain why she’s been calling him at home so often…’ She stared ruefully at the two girls seated in front of her, and tried very hard not to be cynical about the whole thing, ‘It also explains why I’ve become suddenly so popular…’

“As if anyone would willingly break off with him…”

“So, Instructor Trepe… Are you gonna have a go at it?”

Lukka’s seemingly innocent question threw her off, but this time she was prepared and managed to mask her reaction. Being an instructor did have its perks. Forcing herself to smile, Quistis replied.

“He and I don’t have that sort of relationship…”

“What kinda relationship, Instructor?… And who with?”

Seifer had appeared out of nowhere, and plunked a tray filled to the brim in front of her.

“Seifer! I can’t eat all this!”

“Meh! Just eat what you can, and I’ll finish the rest…” Sea green eyes travelled down her figure, “But… I’ll say you need to pack in some extra weight, Instructor.”

Glad that she’d managed to evade answering his question, and annoyed that he knew by the glint in his eyes, she shoved a fork of food inside her mouth to stop herself from making a retort she knew she would regret later…

“So Seifer, what are your plans for the weekend?”

Quistis took a look at the girl’s eager face as she asked the question, thinking to herself, ‘She certainly doesn’t believe in wasting time…’

It so happened that Natasha was wasting her time, because Seifer declined her invitation to go out. But his break-up with Kiara had truly caught her by surprise… ‘I thought he was staying away from her as a precaution… To protect her… But those attackers have not returned…’ Quistis shuddered every time she recalled their close shave with the shadow fighters, as she’d come to name them. It wasn’t the case that she’d never battled undead creatures before… That huge Abadon monster they’d fought at the entrance of the then hidden City of Esthar, had been pretty bad! Or more recently, the skirmish against a small army of Forbidden during the Centra mission. But nothing in her previous experience, absolutely nothing, would’ve prepared her for the deep sensation of dread these strange undead fighters awoke in her!

Also, the way that masked leader kept on addressing Seifer as ‘knight’ bothered her the most! Judging from his reaction in the parking lot, and following Irvine’s account of their escape in Centra, Seifer had fought a similar enemy. She’d asked him about that in the aftermath of the fight…

“What the fuck!”

“Hah! Hah! Hah! Until the next encounter, Knight!”

After those parting words, the strangely masked figured vanished into the thin air along with the rest of their attackers! She could’ve sworn she’d seen the symbols tattooed on their hands somewhere before, but her curiosity was more focused on how the leader had addressed Seifer. That was the third time!

“Seifer…Why did he call you ‘knight’?”

He clamped Hyperion back into one, and strolled to that monstrous looking vehicle he called ‘bike’. Frustrated by his lack of response, she followed him and prompted him again.

“Well?”

Seifer re-sheathed his gunblade before answering, “What’s the big deal, Trepe? It’s not exactly a secret I was a sorceress’s knight. Those trials were broadcast worldwide, remember?”

There was a slight tinge of bitterness in his tone, but she ignored it. She wouldn’t have believed this of him, but… was he avoiding giving her a direct answer?

“The masked leader… You recogni…?”

He interrupted her to say abruptly, “At Centra.”

“And…?”

She said that a little testily…but really, of all the times to imitate Squall!

“The mask is the same, but I’m pretty sure this is a different fucker.”

“Could you tell?”

“Different voice.”

“Did the first one address you the same way?” She’d wanted to add ‘Just like Sasha Tavares did’, but refrained from doing so.

He wasn’t going to answer her! Glaring at the rigid cast of his broad back, she decided on another tackle.

“You know, I got Irvine’s account of the escape, but I haven’t heard your take on… …Seifer! You’re not listening!”

Completely ignoring her, Seifer mounted the bike and tossed her a helmet, which she caught out of pure reflex. She noticed that he’d even strapped her poor dilapidated shopping bags to it as well!

“Get on, Trepe!”

He fired up the bike’s powerful motor, before looking at her, more specifically at the ripped shirtsleeve where she’d been slashed by one of the shadow fighters. Her curative spell had stemmed the flow of blood, but it was still soaked. And she was feeling a bit light-headed… Not that she would ever admit it to him!

“Don’t make me do it for you. You wouldn’t like it.”

She scowled, remembering a similar confrontation. With an incredible lack of grace, she did as instructed. And not a moment too soon. Her legs felt a bit wobbly…

“Seifer…Why can’t you give me a straight answer?”

“Put the fucking helmet on, Instructor.”

Silently, she complied. For some reason, now that the flow of adrenaline had receded, the light wound she’d sustained drained her of energy… It was so weird. She did feel a tad weak… She wrapped her arms around his waist, and sighing rested her suddenly heavy head on his back. She closed her eyes. The world seemed to be spinning around, and around…

“Dammit! Hang-on!”

When she came into being, she found to her utter surprise that she was lying on bed. But not her bed. Not her room… She got up with a sudden move that left her feeling slightly dizzy.

“Seifer!”

“Quisty, please! You have to take it easy…”

“Sis?”

She allowed herself to be pulled back onto the pillows, and gazed into Ellone’s kind brown eyes, full of unasked questions. Sis fluffed up her pillows before answering.

“You’re in the hospital. Seifer brought you.”

Quistis’s eyes went involuntarily around the pristine hospital room… There was a huge vase of flowers resting on a table by the window. Bright sunlight streamed into the room.

“He’s outside with Johan. Want me to get him?”

“N-no! I mean… It’s not necessary.”

“Don’t worry, Seify already got in touch with the Headmaster and with Squall. He also notified Uncle Laguna of the situation…”

“Hmn…”

“Imagine getting a call in the middle of the night! Not only from Matron, but from Uncle Laguna as well! We rushed over here!”

Quistis realized that Sis was only wearing a very light coat over what looked like… a pink nightie? She blushed profusely.

“Sis! I’m so sorry for causing so much trou…”

Ellone interrupted her. “Oh, nonsense! We’re just glad that you’re alright!”

Blinking, Quistis looked around again. This time searching for her clothes. When her eyes landed on a pair of rather decrepit looking bags, she had the grace to blush…

“Sis, I’m so sorry about your…”

It seemed that Ellone had followed the path of Quistis’s gaze because she said good-humouredly.

“Will you stop apologizing already? My dress was absolutely intact!”

Quistis smiled for the first time, at least that was something. She was feeling like such a wimp!

“I’m so glad!… You have no idea how they got that way…!”

“I know. Seifer told us! He used the bags like a weapon! I’ll have to remember that one, next time Johan complains that I like shopping too much!”

The door swung open and two tall figures strolled inside.

“I see you’re awake, Trepe.”

“Hi, Quisty. How’re you feeling?”

Johan Piet’s usually serious face was completely transformed by his charming smile.

“I’m feeling fine, thank you… When do you think I’ll be discharged?”

She’d directed her question at Seifer who was eyeing her closely, but it was Ellone who replied.

“Soon! I’ve brought you some of my clothes…”

She sighed silently at the memory… That was the second time in a row she ended up in a hospital bed from sustaining an extremely minor wound! What was it about those masked figures? Every confrontation with them seemed to have such a draining effect on her…

“Let’s go, Instructor.”

The way Seifer said ‘instructor’ always had a grating effect on her nerves! He knew it too, that’s why he did it! Quistis nodded briefly at Dr. Preston, and made to follow Seifer to the lift. Once the doors slid shut, Seifer keyed in the sequence that would take them back to where their shuttle was parked in Lunatic Pandora’s docking bay. After three gruelling days spent inside the huge complex, she was more than ready to go home!

‘I don’t understand why he had to drag me here. I really should be with the E-Garden team… It’s true that the monsters around here have become increasingly more difficult… But surely one of us, is more than enough to deal with the situation… So, why are we –both– here? Is this really necessary?’ Not that she really minded… She suppressed the desire to snort at herself. ‘I’m being contradictory!’ Ever since she spotted Sasha Tavares at the airtram stop, her sense of unease had grown steadily. She darted a fleeting look at Seifer’s impatient figure, and gulped. He was looking straight at her in that smirky way of his! She absolutely refused to analyse her feelings for this… this arrogant jerk!

“So, Instructor… I’m amazed you haven’t asked for leave to visit Timber.”

Quistis could only stare at him, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’, but chose to ignore it by replying with a question.

“Seifer, why am I here? You know very well that poor Stevenson has absolutely no protection against a Malboro’s bad breath attack… ”

She asked this question in a neutral tone, without any heat. No matter what, she was worried, and was actually glad for any excuse that would allow her to keep an eye on him. But acting as his aide, Quistis felt it incumbent to her position to remind him of the poor choice he made by sending someone less experienced to lead the E-Garden team.

At the clipped tones in her oh-so-proper voice, Seifer ruthlessly suppressed a strong desire to do something…provoking. Sea-green eyes ran slowly over her body, every curve lovingly revealed by the charcoal grey Gesperthane suit she was wearing, courtesy of that interfering ass, Laguna Loire. He knew the garment provided her with greater protection than any other fighting gear, but… He wished they’d designed it to be less clingy! It was fucking distracting! It also pissed him majorly to think that others might be distracted by it too!

“You’re needed here, Trepe. And besides, it’ll be a good experience for that jackass… He wanted to be team leader. I gave him the opportunity to be one.”

Azure eyes stared at his stubborn profile incredulously, “So you sent him to fight Malboros? Don’t you think that I would be more suitable for the job?”

“All in due time, Instructor. All in due time.”

The construction of E-Garden had yet to begin, because the site’s perimeter was not deemed safe enough from the usual crop of lunar cry monsters. In Quistis’s estimate, her presence in Lunatic Pandora, from an administrative point of view, was a sheer waste of resources. But for purely personal reasons, she didn’t insist too much on it… She was just feeling a bit sorry for poor Darryl Stevenson.

Not that Stevenson was a bad fighter or anything… Indeed, Darryl had more than redeemed himself these past few months, but still, he had very limited experience fighting Malboros and the like. Also, he didn’t have the protection of a GF as she did, since Shiva would not allow Stevenson to draw her out! What she found even more incredible, was the fact that the finicky GF had no trouble going to Seifer! She’d asked him to do it, as a sort of test… Then she tried to draw Tiamat from him, but she was not even able to sense that particular GF at all! It was as if Tiamat was… ignoring her? Could that be possible? The whole experience had left her feeling extremely baffled! She would have to ask Dr. Odine about it, if she ever could find the time.

In the past, it was not easy to pass GFs around from person to person, but even if affinity was as low as zero, it could still be done… However, since Time Compression all GFs were behaving in incredibly unexpected and erratic ways! On a more positive front, she had suffered no more memory loss… ‘Apart from the rare entry, I’ve stopped writing my journal… I know I cannot recover what I’ve already lost…but at least… at least I can look forward!’ For example, she knew Hephaestus had taken up residence somewhere in her psyche, but he was so unobtrusive as to be almost imperceptible. Except for the extremely rare occasion in which she could sense his faint presence. As if he was waiting… waiting… Waiting for what?

So unlike Shiva! Not only could she sense her, but she had also developed quite a distinct personality! It was so hard to explain. For some reason, her affinity with this particular GF had grown to the point that to junction her was almost done as an automatic reflex, something completely seamless… For all that, it freaked her out sometimes how she could sense Shiva’s predilection for Seifer! ‘Wait…wait a minute! Shiva, are you laughing at me!?’

“What’s the matter, Trepe? All of a sudden you look like you swallowed somethin’ real acid?”

“Arriving at level 0, Crystal Hall A”
“SeeD Leader Almasy, SeeD Trepe”
“Your shuttle, Aegis1, is waiting at Docking Bay 8”

Seifer smirked when he saw her exit the elevator with alacrity. His question unanswered. He followed her closely behind. He was actually surprised that she’d not insisted on swapping places with Stevenson! But left it at that. She wasn’t going anywhere without him. Not to fucking Timber, not to E-Garden’s site! The events in that parking lot a few weeks ago were still etched freshly in his mind. That was the second time those fuckers had referred to Quistis as ‘blue witch’. They’ve also called him ‘knight’, but that little fact was pretty well known.

He’d be willing to bet his entire yearly SeeD stipend on the fact that only a very, very select few, knew that Quistis was a blue magic user. If nothing else, being a Sorceress Knight had taught him that her branch of magic was quite unique in today’s world, because blue mages have been extinct for a long time. Although from what he knew, blue mages were supposed to be able to summon those powers at will, but Quistis’s only came during her limit break, when she was under extreme duress…

He watched as Quistis made her way to their sleek little shuttle, the Aegis1. It bothered him a great deal that at Centra, that first masked fucker had called Quistis ‘blue witch’ before she ever got to cast Mighty Guard. There was something very funny going on! And that night, when they were attacked at the mall’s parking lot, he’d felt like they were under observation… Quistis pressed her palm against a sensor plate, and enter her code on the touch pad. The hatched door glided open. Sea green eyes watched until she disappeared inside. ‘Until I get to the bottom of this, my dear Instructor… I’m gonna be sticking real close…’ Somehow this decision put him into a better mindset!

Busy as she performed her pre-flight prep work as co-pilot, Quistis felt more than saw, Seifer sit next to her in the narrow confines of the aircraft. It never ceased to amaze her at how quickly he’d learnt to fly this thing.

“So… You wanna attend Nida’s wedding?”

She was caught completely off guard by his question! That invitation had been sitting in their inbox for over a week now… She stared at his handsome profile, and tried not to blink. He knew she was very disappointed at having missed Irvine’s birthday! Being inside Lunatic Pandora she hadn’t been able to reach their sniper friend to even wish him a simple ‘Happy Birthday’. Sometimes Seifer would completely disarmed her with these sudden bouts of niceness from his part…

“Uh, I… Of course I want to be there! But…can we get the time off?”

She completed her own tasks. She watched him key in their flight sequence back to Esthar Airstation.

“We can if we fly in and out the same day.”

“We can do that?”

He turned to her, and flashed her cocky smile.

“Watch this, Trepe!”

The shuttle lifted and in a burst of forward thrusters, shot out of Lunatic Pandora…

“Eeek!… Seifer! Why are you so reckless?”

“I’ll take that to mean yes…”

§ ~ § ~ §

Blip!
Begin sequence…

The body is but a vessel for the soul

Humans are such fragile creatures…

(Bring the chalice for the initiate)

A puppet which bends to the soul’s tyranny

(All is ready, Doma)

Humans are easy to seduce, and very easy to corrupt…

(Proceed)

(As you wish, Great One)

And lo, the body is not eternal

Their lifespan is but a mere breath. A mere blink. Perhaps because of it, they are eager to betray one another…

“Surge”

“Agh…”

Their life-force is so easily snuffed…

For it must feed on the flesh of others

“Aaagh…”

“Desiste”

(It is done, Doma)

(Let the Chalice have its way…)

Lest it return to the dust whence it came

Humans… Why do they exist?

(It shall be as you say, Doma)

That one such as I… To be confined in a prison of the ages… It cannot have been the work of mere mortals. No. This must be the work of other gods. They, too, shall pay for this outrage…

(It is done)

(Very well)

(Doma… Why did we let the Blue Witch and her Knight go?)

(Are you questioning my orders?)

(No!… Of course not, Great One!)

(They are not needed… Not yet)

(Doma. Please forgive my temerity!)

Gods no longer mingle with mortals. They have become oblivious to each other’s existence… This will be to my advantage.

(Doma. Could it be that this Ultimecia creature has done us a great favour?)

(She was merely another tool. Just like you and I)

Therefore must the soul
Deceive, despise, and murder men

I have waited for almost an eternity to escape my prison. Soon, I will be free. Soon I will reclaim what belongs to me.

§ ~ § ~ §

To be continued…

Eve drawn by Nomura, here as Quistis

Nobody says it’s pretty here,
nobody says it’s easy either.
What it is is decisive,
and if you pay attention to the street plans,
all laid out, the City can’t hurt you.

–Toni Morrison–

“Dear Passengers, your attention please!”
“Our next stop will be: …”
“Shopping Concourse B–Eastern Mall–Sector 07”
“Have a nice day!”

A tall and slender blonde woman, indifferent or most likely unaware of her fellow passenger’s admiring stares, steps out of the public airtram. She looks preoccupied, but her walk is brisk, and she seems to know where she’s going. She’s not dressed in a flashy or provocative fashion, rather her attire is a serviceable one. Although on a body such as hers, even a plain shirt worn over a pair of faded jeans have the power to draw a lot of appreciative stares, and unfortunately quite a few leering ones too. Her hair is simply pulled back from her face into a pony tail, but again, the simplicity of the hairstyle only serves to emphasize the stark beauty of her features. She stops in front of one the many informational holographic displays available in the mall, and reaches inside her slouch bag in search of something.

§

Quistis finally found her new Portable Device… It was so tiny! She wanted to check again the instructions Ellone had given her, just to make sure that she was in the right place! Used to Balamb City’s more humane proportions, she was trying real hard not to feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the huge shopping concourse; indeed, by the very vastness of the city itself. The last time she was here, almost two years ago, she’d been too busy feeling sorry for Squall, and too worried about Rinoa being unconscious to actually notice the immensity that was Esthar City… ‘In any case, I was only here for a very short period… I went with Squall and Rinoa to the Lunar Base. Now, that was a breathtaking experience!’ She gazed enviously at the people going about their business in the huge mall. They seemed so self-assured of where they were, and where they were going…

Ever since her arrival here… Was it almost two months ago? She felt like such a country bumpkin, desperately trying to fit in, trying to get used to the sheer size of Esthar City. Its sheer verticality… Had it not been for the fact that she was kept so busy at work, she would be feeling quite lonely and homesick. ‘Poor Sis tries her best to cheer me up, but she has so many social obligations!’ Her thoughts strayed automatically to her difficult roommate, ‘And Seifer… I truly don’t understand him at all!’

She knew that the last time they’ve seen each other had been less than propitious, but their meeting in Esthar couldn’t have been worse!… She had only just arrived a few hours ago, and had been rather tired… not to mention feeling a bit apprehensive when she’d been literally deposited at Seifer’s doorstep by Laguna. She knew that Seifer hadn’t been expecting her, because of the short notice…

She hadn’t been expecting this particular post when she had gone to the Headmaster’s office in answer to his summons. She’d just returned to B-Garden after procuring some very lucrative contracts with FRT on Garden’s behalf. She’d even gotten used to all the media attention whenever she was spotted with Zone, although she was far from liking it. As far as she’d been concerned, the paparazzi in Timber were an inescapable evil. Zone was after all, their President and he was unattached… ‘I hope he took my advice and moved on. Even if Rinoa were to leave Squall, she would not go to Zone. For her, he’s like the big brother she never had…’

Her initial assumption on being summoned to Cid’s office, had been that the Headmaster needed some clarification on the contracts she’d brokered at Timber on their behalf. Of course, upon spotting Laguna seated next to a very tense looking Squall, that supposition flew out the window… She should’ve suspected something when she noticed Matron’s presence there as well. That should’ve alerted her of what was to come! If not that, the fact that Matron had been the first one in that silent group to speak up…

“Quistis, child, we have a very great favour to ask of you…” Edea’s gaze, full of entreaty, stared directly into Quistis’s eyes.

“Uh, yeah, well…” Laguna was fumbling as usual for words. Hard to believe in such a man who had penned some of the best articles ever published by Timber Maniacs. It was obvious he was feeling supremely uncomfortable, in a typical Laguna gesture, he scratched the back of his neck before mumbling, “I’d like to invite you to Esthar…”

Quistis just stared at everyone feeling thoroughly confused. Squall, nearing the end of his patience, interjected in his usual succinct way.

“Quistis, you’re needed to act as Seifer’s aid in Esthar. They want to make him E-Garden’s Commander, but he needs your guidance.”

Soon after that, she found herself quickly packing a suitcase, and being flown back to Esthar on the Ragnarok with Laguna! The President of Esthar himself, had escorted her to the very door of the apartment she would be sharing with Seifer. However, once there he’d only stayed long enough to wish her good luck, and to give her a quick peck on the cheek before taking a swift leave. She even remembered thinking at the time, ‘Laguna Loire! You big coward!’ She was left standing there, in front of Seifer’s doorstep next to her suitcase, hesitant herself to ring the bell…

Impatient with her own cowardice, she’d taken a deep breath, and had finally pressed the ringer. She could hear it resounding inside, but there was no answer. Frowning, she’d pressed it one more time. Again, no answer. Worried in spite of herself, she’d entered the apartment using the code Laguna had given her, and rushed inside, Save the Queen on the ready… Only to find the apartment empty of its occupant. Exhaling a suppressed breath, she’d been surprised to find the place in such a pristine condition. Somehow she’d expected it to look like a pigsty, and then had berated herself for falling victim to stereotypes, while remembering at the same time what Laguna told her, that the apartment came conveniently with housekeeping services…

Feeling more curious than exhausted, she’d explored the apartment. It was huge! It consisted of four large bedrooms, a living area and a completely separate dining room! The kitchen was immense, and it was extremely well-stocked. The large living area served to divide the bedrooms nicely. One set of two bedrooms were located on the corridor to the left of the living area, separated from it by a wall. The second set of rooms echoed that arrangement on the right side.

She quickly noticed that Seifer had appropriated the two rooms to the left, sleeping in one, and using the other to serve as office space by the amount of plans, and blueprints that were strewn all over. Making a quick decision, she’d chosen the larger of the two bedrooms on the right, not because of its size, but because it had a balcony, and the most spectacular view of Esthar City with the hovering Lunatic Pandora as backdrop…

Ring! Ring!

Brought back to the present by the sound of her communicator, Quistis scrambled to answer it.

“Quistis Trepe, here.”

“Quisty! Where are you?”

“Sis, I’m so glad you called! I couldn’t figure out the store location! There are so many choices here!”

“Oh, Quisty! Why didn’t you use the convenience vehicle Uncle Laguna left for you!?”

She was rather thankful that Sis couldn’t see the expression on her face. For the sake of expediency, she hadn’t minded taking the pre-programmed car to and from the various work sites, but to have it cart her around the city like some helpless invalid?… No, thank you!

“It’s alright, Sis. The city’s public transport system is very good, and not really that hard to use. I’m at the Shopping Concourse in Sector Oh-Seven…”

“Good! Did you get off in Platform B?”

“…Yes… Let me verify my location… Yes, I did…”

“Good! Now you will see five areas marked each with a different colour, take the red…”

§

Inside Cheryl’s Style Emporium…

“Here’s the dress, my dear! All packaged and ready to go! It was very nice for you to pick it up on Miss Loire’s behalf!”

Quistis smiled a the kindly sales assistant, and took the fancy bag she was given before replying.

“It was no trouble. Ellone is extremely busy these days, and I had the day off!”

“If you don’t mind me saying so, young lady, you should come when Mme. Cheryl is in! I’m sure she would love to create a dress for you!”

“Oh, thank you, but I’m okay for the moment!”

Smiling again, she left the exclusive boutique where Sis got most of her dresses made. As she made her way to the nearest airtram stop, Quistis was thinking to herself, ‘There’s no way I’m paying that kind of money for a dress!’ There really was no occasion for her to wear anything as fancy as what she’d just picked up for Sis. She was kept too busy doing the run around from the Presidential Palace to E-Garden’s construction site! She understood now why they had asked her to come. Seifer couldn’t be in two places at once. Sometimes he could be away for more than a week when leading the teams around Lunatic Pandora, and the E-Garden Development needed constant attention as well!

It wasn’t that she had no social life whatsoever. To be quite fair, in spite of his busy schedule, Laguna would sometimes take time off to show her around the various different Sectors that conformed the City. Kiros and Ward had taken her out to dinner on various occasions, plus Sis would always make it a point to do something with her at least once a week!… Quistis stopped her musings to look around, just to make sure that she was going in the correct direction… Suddenly, she caught the glimpse of a very pretty face dominated by large blue eyes, and framed by long dark hair. The unmistakeable face of Sasha Tavares. Unfortunately, some passer-bys stepped right in front of her, and the face was gone. Vanished into the crowd.

Almost by reflex Quistis junctioned Shiva, and with her senses thus enhanced, she turned in the direction where she last saw Sasha. She searched for the familiar face in the sea of people around her, but Sasha was gone. ‘Maybe I’m just imagining things…’ The logical part of her mind told her that Sasha Tavares was in Centra under the careful scrutiny of her parents, and not here in the bustling city of Esthar, located on the other side of the world. But she still felt uneasy, ‘Maybe I ought to mention this to Seifer…’ She discarded the idea immediately. Their first meeting here had more or less defined their relationship in Esthar …

After exploring the apartment thoroughly, she foolishly decided to unpack. She knew it had been a bad decision when after a while she was ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion! She was about to rest on one of the sofas, when she heard someone slam something real hard outside, followed by some muted swearing. Knowing without looking who it was, she went to the door and unlocked it for him…

“Hyne, Seifer! Why do you always have to be so impatient!?”

To say that he was surprised would be an understatement.

“Trepe! What the fuck are you doin’ here!”

She hadn’t answered immediately… Maybe because he’d been close enough for her to catch a very feminine scent emanating from him. Maybe because she’d spotted a hickey or two on the side of his neck, as his jumpsuit had been partially unzipped…

“Uh… … … I was sent here by the Headmaster to act as your aide in E-Garden Development …”

Being neither slow-witted nor blind, he had immediately noticed the direction of her gaze, and arrived at the right conclusions. In typical Seifer style, he looked at her straight in the eye before saying with a slight smirk on his face.

“As you can see, I’ve kept myself very busy.”

She didn’t know why, what he did was none of her business, but she wanted to smack that taunting face of his. Badly. He’d known it too. It was in his gaze. He was daring her to do it. The challenge was there, written all over him, but she’d contained herself. The flicker of something smouldering in the back of those deep sea green eyes had stopped her. But as he raked those mocking eyes over her body, she’d wanted to slap that smirk off his face so badly. Unaware of what she was doing, her hands had been tightly balled into fists… But he –the arrogant jerk– had noticed… Determined to keep her cool, with iron resolve she turned around, and went into the room she’d chosen for herself.

“Goodnight, Seifer.”

He never asked her why she was sharing an apartment with him, and she never bothered telling him the reason.

After the initial awkwardness, mostly from her part, they’d settled into a routine of sorts. Quistis stirred her coffee and took a sip of her favourite brew, her eyes watching the hustle and bustle of the busy shopping concourse. Her foolish search for Sasha had made her miss the airtram, but it was her day off. She didn’t have to rush anywhere… The first day she’d had off ever, since her arrival here!

She decided to explore the area, and to try and familiarize herself with the city. Perhaps she could have dinner later in one of the many restaurants around here. Sector 07 was one of the busiest commercial districts in Esthar’s Capital. One good thing she did like about being here, was that people might stare at her sometimes, but she was mostly left alone. In that respect, being here was like being at home in Balamb. Estharians were a very polite and civilized people!

As she sipped her coffee, azure eyes unconsciously searched the crowd for another glimpse of Sasha Tavares. Seifer acted like a stranger these days… Still, part of her couldn’t help but worry about him anyway. She remembered Sasha’s strange obsession with him. Was it so farfetched an idea that she could’ve found out where Seifer was stationed, and made a move to stalk him? She snorted, ‘Quistis, just listen to yourself!… I must suffer from some sort of big-sister complex!’ In any case, none of it made any sense! If she were to go to Seifer with her rather crazy theory, he would jeer at her!

Quistis made a face, ‘No, the old Seifer would’ve jeered at me… This new one, this polite stranger she lived with…’ He would simply look at her with a blank face, and dismiss her concerns. She barely recognized this facet of him…

At work he was a slave driver, always watching her coldly like a hawk, making her report to him every single minute detail of any meeting he might have missed. As if she would make any important decisions without consulting him! When he was around, whether in the Presidential Palace or at E-Garden’s site he demanded she give him all of her attention. At least this Seifer she could understand, arrogant and annoyingly controlling. Whenever he was around, the others kept their distance for fear of being barked at… Or just out of sheer fear.

At home, however, they both went to incredible lengths to keep things civil. If, for example, they were to meet in the kitchen, they acted with an almost unnatural politeness toward each other. Had someone told her, they would end up like this two years ago, she would’ve laughed at the notion. And yet, she sensed somehow that the surface tranquillity of their home life was just a veneer, a thin cover over something that was simmering underneath… A something just waiting to be unleashed.

For the most part, they avoided each other. It wasn’t really very hard as he was rarely home at night when she was, choosing to spend his nights –at least partially– with his girlfriend. She knew. No matter how quiet he would be when returning home, she always knew he was back. And he always returned. Then, the strangest thing would happen, once she knew he was home, she would sleep like the dead until morning…

As to commuting together to work… She’d been going to work by herself, using the pre-programmed transport Laguna had provided for her. She’d been horrified that first morning, when Seifer had taken her to the Presidential Palace in his bike…

“I’m not riding on that thing with you!”

He’d tossed her a helmet and said (ordered), “Get on.”

“No!” She’d caught the helmet by pure reflex, and clutching the thing to her breast she’d stubbornly repeated, “I’m not getting on that thing!”

He hadn’t bothered replying. He just walked to where she was standing on the curb, scooped her up ignoring her surprised cry, and placed her roughly on the bike.

“We’re going to be fucking late! Either you ride in the back, or I fucking scoop you up again and you ride seated on my lap!” He smirked evilly at her, “And believe me, Trepe, I’ll enjoy it much more than you.”

After giving him a killing glare, she adjusted the helmet on her head, and waited for him to mount the bike. After placing Hyperion securely in the holster specially designed for it, he mounted the bike. Awkwardly, she placed her arms around his lean waist, trying stiffly to avoid having as much contact as possible with the taut muscles of his back.

“Where’s your helmet, Seifer?”

Briefly looking back at her, he’d smiled wickedly, “You’re wearing it. Hang on tight… Instructor!”

After saying that he powered-up the bike, and they were on their way to work.

She remembered tossing propriety to the wind, and trying to hang on to him for dear life! He was a damned speed maniac! After that little incident, she’d demanded to have her own transport! At first, Laguna had kindly provided her with her own vehicle, but after getting hopelessly lost in Esthar’s vast network of skyways, he’s offered her the pre-programmed vehicle… Quistis grimaced, it was ironic that she could face the largest Behemoth unfazed, but the very thought of driving through Esthar’s early morning traffic scared the hell out of her…

Her first few weeks in the job had been pretty eventful, but nothing she hadn’t been able to handle. She’d been pleasantly surprised at how well the nine SeeDs that formed Seifer’s squad were doing. They had learned to work in synch with the Estharian forces assigned to the two projects. Even Darryl Stevenson who had always though too much of himself, behaved like he was part of a well-oiled machine… They had all become very effective and proficient in what they were doing. Of course, with Seifer as their leader, they really had no choice… He himself thought nothing about breaking rules, but if anyone dared to deviate even slightly from his directive… She felt very sorry for that poor person!

Even though she was not assigned to work on the Lunatic Pandora Project, but she still got to know the group of scientists and engineers involved in the Project, simply because the personnel from that project shared the same facilities with the E-Garden Development team. They were all a very nice lot, but she truly wished they’d called her Quistis, and not ‘Instructor Trepe’! Hyne, a lot of them were top rank professionals! Unfortunately, they had all taken their cue from Seifer…

On Quistis’s second day in Esthar, Seifer assembled everyone present at the Tears’ Point Compound, and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder announced.

“Listen up, everyone! This is Instructor Trepe, she’s been assigned by Garden to act as my aide.”

Quistis smiled, all the time wishing she could shake that controlling hand from her shoulder, and said, “Hi, everyone! Please, call me Quistis.” She tried to bow, but that hand on her shoulder was like a manacle.

If she felt his hand tighten it’s grip on her, she didn’t show it, but she did frown slightly when he continued glibly, “Instructor Trepe is to work mainly in the development of Esthar Garden, but she will also be acting as my second-in-command…”

In spite of all her overtures to be addressed as simply ‘Quistis’, she’d remained ‘Instructor Trepe’ forever in everyone’s mind. Whether she liked it or not. In any case, everyone was pretty nice and friendly in a very polite way. A few days after she’d been introduced to the group, she was having lunch with some of them when their conversation was interrupted by the intrusion of a gorgeous dark haired girl who introduced herself as Kiara Dessu, one of the engineers in the LP project…

“Hi! Someone here pointed out to me that you’re Seifer’s instructor!?” She’d stared at Quistis dubiously, “You don’t look much like an instructor to me…”

“Hey, Kiara! That’s so rude!”

“Well, I was Seifer’s instructor,” Quistis smiled ruefully at the girl, ignoring her rather hostile stare, “But as you can see, he has more than graduated.” She shrugged her shoulders, “So I’m really his ex-instructor…”

“Oh, I see! So why does he still call you ‘instructor’ then? You cannot be that much older than he is…!”

“Instructor Trepe, you don’t have to answer Kia’s questions!”

“It’s okay… Some relationships are hard to shake off, and I am older than Seifer…” She tried to speak reassuringly at an sceptical looking Kiara, “He and I grew up together, you see… We were raised together…”

Kiara’s brow cleared, “Oh, I see, so you’re sort of like an older sister to him?”

Quistis hesitated slightly before nodding, “Yeah, you could call our relationship that…” Inside she thought to herself, ‘Just don’t mention it to Seifer…’

With hindsight, Quistis smiled wryly to herself, ‘Of course she would be curious about me… It’s her perfume I smelled on Seifer the night of my arrival…’. She sighed, all things being considered, Kiara Dessu was not such a bad person after all, but somehow she was finding it very hard to relate to her. There was nothing to dislike about Kiara, but she couldn’t bring herself to like her either… ‘Oh, well… In the long run it doesn’t matter if we cannot like each other. We don’t have to work together anyways…’ Seifer never brought Kiara home, and she had never asked…

Even after Kiara found out that she was Seifer’s roommate, and ‘offered’ to trade places with her, Seifer never invited her to their apartment. He had also vetoed Kiara’s suggestion of trading places. In his typical arrogant style, he just issued a categorical, “No” to Kiara’s idea. To Quistis’s utter surprise, Kiara did not bother to argue with him. Perhaps because he spent most of his free time with her. It also helped that Kiara believed her relationship with Seifer to be that of siblings…

After those initial weeks … Their life settled into some sort of pattern. He spent a lot of time inside Lunatic Pandora clearing up a path to the core –sometimes he would be gone for an entire week– and she would spend most of hers conferring with E-Garden’s design team. She always made sure Seifer was present when the most crucial aspects of the design were being decided. She had been pleasantly surprised at some of his suggestions, like for example the creation of a Field Exam Holographic Simulation, but they only served to confirm something she’d known all along. He was extremely intelligent. If only he hadn’t been such an unmanageable firebrand, he would’ve made SeeD long time ago, and perhaps changed history…

Nautilus Weapon’s Parts

She stopped in front of the store. Irvine’s birthday would be soon, and she still hadn’t found anything appropriate for him…

§

An few hours later…

She’d added an extra bag to her load, and her purse was much lighter, but she was sure Irv would love her present. He was forever tweaking and remodelling his Exeter. Quistis was sure he would like the special set of Pulse Ammo she’d just bought him… ‘He better! I didn’t know the ammo he uses is sooo heavy!’ Thinking about her sniper friend made her homesick. With a pang she realized that she and Seifer would be missing Irv’s birthday party… ‘I wonder how everyone is doing?’ She knew they would be busy, if not with their own thing, for sure with Selphie’s! Hyne! How could someone so small be such a tyrant!?

The last time she spoke with her, Selph had told her cheerfully that she was in charge of organizing the various Festival of Lights celebrations, as well as New Year’s Eve! ‘As if she would allow anyone else to be in charge!… I can’t wait to see everyone! We’ve been so busy around here that we’re not due back until close to the Festival of Lights, and then we’ll only be home for a couple of weeks…’

She darted a glance at her new chrono, a surprising present from Seifer on the occasion of birthday. She hadn’t expected him to remember her birthday, let alone get her a present…

It was a rare occasion… Seifer was home at dinnertime, and not over at Kiara’s. She was about to sit down, and have her usual solitary dinner at the kitchen table, when he sauntered in and tossed her a small package. Out of pure reflex her hands came out, and caught the flying object.

“For you.”

She just stood there in the middle of the kitchen, staring at him in utter surprise, with her mouth hanging open. She heard the impatience in his voice.

“Open it, Trepe! It doesn’t bite.”

Obediently, as if she had no will of her own, she ripped the wrapping and lifted the small box’s lid. Inside was nestled a very delicate, and feminine looking chrono-watch. Confused, she lifted uncomprehending eyes to stare into his rather enigmatic face.

“Well, Trepe? What d’you think? Like it?”

“This… This is for me?”

“Yeah, I remembered yours got trashed at Centra. Happy birthday, Trepe.”

She was left completely speechless and confused. Ever since her arrival he’d been acting like such a stranger and now suddenly this…

“Seifer… I don’t know what to say…”

“How ‘bout a ‘thank you very much, Seifer’… For starters.”

“Th-thank you! It’s a lovely present…”

But his attention was no longer on her; his gaze had settled on a extravagant vase of freshly cut blooms sitting on the kitchen table. At his questioning gaze, Quistis smiled and said,

“Aren’t they beautiful? They are a gift from Zone, you know we got to…”

She never finished what she was going to say. He had turned on his heel and left.

Quistis frowned when she recalled Seifer’s odd behaviour that day. ‘I wonder what got into him!?’ She stared at her chrono again, and realized that it was quite late, ‘Wait a minute, Quistis! What’s your rush? This is your day off, remember?’ In any case, there would be no one at home to share dinner with, anyway. Seifer was still in Lunatic Pandora, ‘Even if he were home, I can probably count with my hand the times we’ve had dinner together…’ And in any case, after the day of his surprise birthday present, he never returned home during dinnertime again. With that in mind, she went to one of the mall’s holo-directories and searched for the nearest restaurant that served her favourite: spicy food Roshfall style…

§ ~ § ~ §

“Welcome, home!”
“There are seven messages for Seifer from Kiara!”
“There are no messages for Quistis!”

Seifer ignored the cheerful prompts, and went directly to the shower. This particular little clean up session in Lunatic Pandora had been specially difficult and gruesome… He flexed tired muscles, and ignored the various abrasions and lacerations he’d sustained. It was all part of the job. Besides the compound medics had just finished patching him up. They were definitely not Dr. Kadowaki, but they were efficient enough.

He could’ve used Trepe’s help during this round of fighting, her whip was really good at striking down those annoying little Imps before they could cast their Confusion attack. He’d objected at first when she had asked to accompany him on the shorter excursions to LP, but she had made a very valid point when she’d complained that her whip was getting rusty as there were no training facilities around here like at B-Garden. He had grudgingly agreed to have her on some of the shorter LP runs… ‘Who am I kiddin’? Littl’ Miss Prim is a fucking good fighter! What she lacks in brawn, she more than makes up in skill…’ Which was more than could be said of Stevenson!

He’d had to knock the jackass down, because he had started attacking everyone! He had no resistance whatsoever when it came to status attacks! But that had not been the worse… They’d walked into an entire row of Iron Giants embedded into the walls of the Crystal Halls which Lukka, one of the other SeeDs, had thought out-of-service. He’d barely managed to grab her in the nick of time, to save her from being decapitated by a massive sword. To save time and energy, he’d been forced to summon Tiamat, who as usual had scared the shit out of everyone…

He really missed his posse sometimes! From his last chat with Raij, both him and Fuj were being kept quite busy… But if not them, he should send for more experienced SeeD support. On the other hand, the rookies were shaping up pretty well… They had become a good team. Seifer smirked, even that jackass Stevenson –apart from today’s performance– was showing signs of improvement!

He scowled, of course his hellish session in Lunatic Pandora had been nothing in comparison to the one he’d just endured with Kiara when he had told her that he would not be seeing her again. After he’d been released by the Compound medics, Kiara had been there waiting for him. No being the kind of person to postpone things, even unpleasant ones, he’d offered to take her home so he could tell her of his decision…

To say the least, she had not taken his announcement too well… She was just getting too demanding. Where the fuck did she get the idea that he was ready to commit to her? Sure, he took her out from time to time, because he enjoyed her company, and sex with her was pretty good… But from that to a fucking commitment!? Also, he didn’t like ultimatums. What was it about women!?…

“Seifer… Aren’t you coming up with me?” She gave him a very sultry look, but it was obvious his mind was miles away, “Seifer!… I asked you a question!”

“Uh, nah… Kiara… I think we should cool it off between us.”

“Huh?!?… What?”

“I think we should stop seeing each other…”

“But… Why, Seifer? Why?”

He looked her in the eye, and answered simply. “You need more than I can give you.”

She shook her head, and latched herself onto him, “Sex is good between us! Admit it!”

To prove her point, she drew his head down and kissed him deeply. Unwilling to let himself be distracted, he grabbed her arms, and gently untangled himself from her arms.

“Kia… I enjoyed what we had, but I think is better for both of us to move on.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit! It’s her, isn’t it?” There was no hiding the jealous undertones in her voice, “Ever since she arrived you’ve become more and more distant with me!”

“Kiara… It’s not about her.” He hadn’t even bothered pretending not to know who ‘her’ was, “It’s about us. It’s not working out…”

“You bastard! You were just using me for sex!”

She made to strike him, but he stopped her easily.

“It wasn’t only about sex! I did… I do care for you, but I can’t give you what you’re asking. Why can’t you understand that!?”

“Fine! Go to that bitch! See if I care!”

She turned her back to him, and started walking towards the entrance of her apartment complex. With regret, Seifer waited until she was safely inside before he jumped back into his vehicle… Suddenly, Kiara turned midway, and ran back to hurl herself at him. Startled, he could only stare down into her face which had buried itself in his chest.

“Seifer…” She whispered, “I could make you happy…”

“I know, Kia, but you’re right. I’m a selfish bastard, I would make you miserable…”

“Come up for one last time…”

He gave her a brief peck on the forehead, and said gently, “The temptation is great, but no. It would only make it worse in the end for the both of us.”

He hated tears, and he’d had to stand there, in the middle of the street wiping Kiara’s, feeling a vague sense of regret… ‘She’s better off without me…’ He got out of his room, and went to the kitchen in search of something to drink. Apart from the soft light emanating from his room, the apartment was shrouded in darkness. Silent. It usually was. After living with her for two months, he’d come to realize that Trepe was a pretty quiet person, but for some reason the place felt empty…

When he’d come home, he’d assumed Trepe was in her room. She always was. No matter how late he’d get home, he always knew she was there, sleeping in her room… Changing direction midway, he went to her door, and knocked loudly.

“Trepe!”

No answer. Frowning, he knocked again, this time more forcefully.

“TREPE!”

Again, no answer. Suppressing an oath, he tried her door expecting resistance. But no, the door slid open easily. Her bed was neatly made. Everything was in its proper place, ‘Fuck if the room is not like the owner!’ Except the owner was nowhere to be found. Scowling ferociously now, he went to get his comm unit and keyed in some numbers…

§

… At Yum! Yum! Restaurant

Quistis was feeling a bit disappointed with the meal she’d just had. Of course, service had been excellent, her waiter couldn’t do enough for her, constantly coming back to check on her (to the point that he was starting to seriously annoy her!), but the food had been rather bland. In any case, her hunger was satisfied. She signalled her ever attentive waiter for the bill, and to ask him for the nearest airtram stop. She still had to make it back to Sector 37…

Ring! Ring!

Startled, she searched her purse for her comm unit, ‘Who can it possibly be at this hour?’

“Quistis Trepe, here”

“Trepe! Where the hell are you!?”

She held the unit away from her ear, then tried desperately not to blush when she saw the look on the faces of the people seated next to her table.

“Seifer!” She hissed into the unit, “Can you pipe it down?”

“Fuck no. Where are you?”

“If you must know, I was having a very nice dinner in a restaurant on my day off, before you so rudely interrupted!”

“Who’s with you!?”

She was sorely tempted to name someone, anyone, but instead answered, “No one, though it’s really none of your bus…”

He interrupted her reply with a curt, “Stay there! I’m coming over to pick you up.”

“Now, wait a minute! It’s not nece…”

In typical Seifer fashion, he’d cut her off. Her comm unit was outfitted with a tracker, so of course he already knew where she was, but… Oooh! He was so irritating! ‘I wonder what’s got into him!?… Must’ve had a fight with his girlfriend!’ She thought sourly.

§ ~ § ~ §

“Welcome to Parking Lot B, Level 56”
“Please watch your step!”

The turbo lift doors slid open, and a young couple walked out of it. They seem to be in the midst of an argument. Apart from them, the lot appears to be deserted. The young man grabs one of the girl’s upper arms, and propels her in the direction of his waiting vehicle, a very sleek looking propulsion bike. She tries to resist. He bends down, and whispers something in her ear. She stiffens and allows herself to be led, but not before casting her tall escort a killing glance. In his other hand he’s holding two large bags.

“Hyne, Seifer! What’s got into you? Why were you so rude to that poor waiter?”

“I didn’t like his face.”

He said that because he knew it would annoy her. He was pissed enough himself. That asshole waiter should consider himself lucky. What he’d really wanted to do was to smash his fist into that fucker’s leering face. He looked down at Trepe. She was staring straight ahead, trying her best to ignore him. Except, he didn’t feel like being ignored this time.

“It’s all your fault, Trepe.”

That got a rise out of her, as he knew it would. He stared down into her lovely face, and wondered if she knew the ferocious temptation she presented to him by being so fucking prim and proper.

“How is it my fault that you behaved like a barbarian!?”

“Tch, tch… Knight, you should not make the Blue Witch angry…”

A new voice entered their conversation. Suddenly Quistis and Seifer found themselves surrounded by strange shadowy figures led by a masked person.

“How many badly dressed fuckers like you are out there, pops?”

Seifer recognized the mask, but not the voice behind the mask. He assumed it was the same kind of people that had accosted them in Centra, although this was a different masked guy. Sheer reflex made him push Quistis protectively behind him, but of course she was not the kind to cower behind anyone. She surged to the front with a flourish, whisking her utility whip off her pants, where she’d been wearing it like a belt. Poised to strike, she demanded.

“Who are you, and what do you want?”

Seifer shot Quistis an extremely irritated glance before he hurled the two bags he was holding straight into the masked figure’s face.

“RUN FOR IT!”

Grabbing one of her upper-arms, Seifer rushed with her through the opening he’d created, dashing straight to his waiting bike. Quistis had not been idle either, even as Seifer hurled the bags, she’d cracked her whip disabling one of the shadowy figures who were standing next to the fallen masked man.

“Fira!”

Still running, Quistis held out her free hand, and managed to cast a volley of fire spells in an attempt to slow the shadowy figures down.

“Ouch! Seifer, be careful!”

Seifer had unceremoniously dumped her on his bike, while he swiftly withdrew Hyperion from its special sheath in the bike. With his trusted weapon in hand, he looked back at Quistis, and flashed her a cocky grin.

“Stand back and watch the Master, Trepe!”

She gasped when with an evil smile Seifer split Hyperion into two blades! And not a nano second too soon! The shadowy figures were moving with a dizzying speed toward them. One made a lunge at her which she evaded quickly enough. She cracked her whip down at two of the figures hoping to take them both down at the same time, but to her utter surprise and dismay, they jumped out of her weapon’s way! Not to be deterred, she attacked them with a volley of fire spells, and watched with satisfaction as they dissolved before her very eyes… Those same eyes widened again when they witnessed the figures recomposing themselves… Even as they coalesced, one of them lunged and tried to slice her into two, but her training kicked in, and not a moment too soon! However, the surprise had managed to slow down her timing a tad so that one of attackers managed to slip by her guard, and slash her upper arm, albeit superficially…

Recovering quickly, Quistis ignored the pain and swiftly cracked her whip at the strange shadow fighter, knowing this time that it would recompose…

“Trepe! DUCK!”

A blade swooshed over her head cutting down another shadowy figure which had crept up behind her back. With his other blade, Seifer parried the downward swing of another sword, muscles straining with the effort, and knocked it off the attacker’s grasp. With a dangerous smile, he swung the other blade in a circular motion cutting down two more of the shadowy figures…

§

Another masked figure had been watching the fight with avid curiosity. After a while, it detached itself from the shadows, and left the scene.

(Withdraw)

(Doma?!?)

(I have seen enough)

(As you wish, Doma)

§

With a practiced flick of her wrist, Quistis whipped Titania’s Wisp in a circular motion. The shadowy figures disassembled at the touch of her weapon, only to reassemble again. They seemed so immaterial, almost incorporeal, yet she knew their weapons to be sharp enough. She was sweating profusely, and her right upper arm was throbbing from the gash it had sustained. She dared not look at it, but knew she was quickly losing stamina… She would not allow herself to be defeated this way, especially in front of him! He would never let her live it down! With her back firmly pressed against Seifer’s, she muttered a quick incantation.

“White wind…”

Seifer, who was wielding the split Hyperion with one hand parrying attacks and the other lunging at the enemy, felt the soothing aura of the healing magic…and frowned. ‘Why?’ He dared not deviate his gaze from the figures before him. They were fucking fast, and almost damned indestructible… However, the masked fucker standing behind the barrier formed by the almost shadowy like fighters, appeared to be human enough… ‘That’s it! The fucker is controlling them! I cut him down… end of story!’ He calculated his move…

“Trepe! Cover me!”

“Will do!”

Seifer crossed Hyperion’s blades to parry another lunge from the enemy, and with all the strength he could muster he uncrossed his blades hurling one of their attackers against the wall and slashing the other apart, without stopping he made a lunge at the hooded figure…

“Firaga!”

Even as she yelled out the spell, Quistis evaded another attack; with her whip whirling in Seifer’s direction, she swiftly aimed a strike at another shadowy figure, who easily got out of her whip’s way. That had been her intention. Now, Seifer had a clear path to his intended target …

“WHAT THE FUCK?!?”

As Hyperion’s blades slashed at the leader, the figure had lost its solidity…

“Hah! Hah! Hah! Until the next encounter, Knight!”

With this parting words, the masked figured teleported itself out of sight. Once it was gone, the rest of the shadows dissolved completely.

§ ~ § ~ §

Chapter 3

Quistis and Seifer