Disclaimer: All the characters, places etc., are the property of Square, not me (::sniffs::). I'm just borrowing them for my own nefarious purposes. I promise they'll be tidied up, and sent home all clean an' sparkling.
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WARNING: Mild language, and shounen-ai for this chapter. Future chapters however, WILL contain yaoi, violence, character death (oooh, the power!!), questionable humour, OC's, pointless smut, and any other torture I can dream up.
When Quistis told him Timber had all but been destroyed, it had sounded as distant and unreal as the old stories of long-forgotten wars they'd been forced to read in History class. Standing amid the crumbled, charred ruins, however, was nothing for which a textbook could have prepared him.
In retrospect, it had been a quiet five years. As Garden's Commander, the most action he'd ever seen was a short-lived, if bloody civil conflict in Galbadia, and a pathetic rebel uprising in Esthar. It was nothing compared to the sheer annihilation of a Sorceress-led conflict, he of all people knew that.
He was still in a dazed state of disbelief that scattered where they stood, was what remained of the Timber Hotel. Littered, bent, amongst the splintered wood, and broken glass were the elaborate cogs and gears that once whirred proudly behind the front desk. While it was hardly peak tourist season in the town, the hotel was always busy, and from the wreckage it didn't seem likely that many had managed to escape.
It was vaguely disturbing, watching Zell and Quistis casually stepping over ravaged bodies - and worse, the unidentifiable, bloody pieces - calmly discussing the utter carnage around them. Harsh as it may seem, this was nothing new to them. They had seen the consequences of battles, of wars countless times before. Seen injuries not even the strongest magic could cure, seen the brutal devastation left behind by an unforeseen, anonymous enemy attack.
A missile struck Trabia Garden.
An invasion of Balamb Garden
Until today, Seifer had been on the other side of those battles. On the other side, and usually a hell of a long way away.
But was he on the other side this time, really? How could he claim that, when
Seifer shook his head, as though he could shake away the creeping doubt. Of course he was. He hadn't devoted the last six years to becoming the best damned SeeD any Garden had ever known, just to forsake it all on the basis of a couple of stupid nightmares. And that's all they were. Only nightmares, a product of his warped imagination. And it wasn't as if there had been anything in them that could have predicted this
He tried to focus on the conversation around him, before the urge to run away screaming like a girl overtook him.
"Any leads on where they went?" Quistis asked.
"Nothing. Granted, these people are hardly in a fit state for a major interrogation, but " Zell shrugged. "Man Come back, Ultimecia, all is forgiven " he muttered under his breath.
"Zell!" Quistis hissed.
"Oh " he glanced at Seifer. "Yeah, sorry 'bout that, man but you know what I mean. At least with her it was simple, you had an enemy, and you fought. Sorry, but I for one find the idea of fighting Squall and Rinoa wrong, y'know? Doesn't make sense that they're our enemy " he sighed loudly, shoulders slumped defeatedly. "They are sure, right? That they're the ones that did all this?"
"I don't think there's any doubt. There's still plenty of people in Timber who would have been able to identify Rinoa." Quistis shrugged. "And the hero that saved the world, for that matter. But I still don't understand why the darker nature of her gift surfaced now "
"Maybe to drown out the whiny, pissy little princess nature of her gift?" Zell suggested.
"Fuck, even pure evil isn't that powerful." Seifer snorted.
"I'm serious. If she's been this strong for the past five years, then why hasn't "
They were interrupted by a young SeeD, who looked as though he was vehemently regretting the day he walked through Garden doors. To think, he could have had a nice, ordinary, safe job. One that didn't involve smoke, dust, rubble, and body parts.
Since the assault appeared to be over, they had assigned the rest of the inexperienced SeeD party to aid in the rescue effort. The new batch of cadets could cope with it, for now, but there was no-one at Garden these days who were adequately equipped to fight a Sorceress. They had all become woefully complacent since the last war, and the Gardens went back to simply training mercenaries. To Seifer's knowledge, there were only four people he knew that could stand a chance. Two of them were with him, surveying the desolation that remained of Timber. Another had `borrowed` the Ragnarok, and was merrily zipping her way down from Esthar at that very moment.
The last, Seifer hadn't heard from in over two years.
"What?" He hadn't meant to snap, quite so impatiently. Hell, today hadn't been the fault of this terrified kid, who now looked as though he regretted not only ever walking through Garden doors, but ever being born.
Ah well, good to know he could still intimidate the shit out of people, should he deem it necessary.
"Commander, one of the survivors is asking for you, sir. They may have information regarding the Sorceress' motive for the attack."
"Fine." He turned back to Quistis and Zell. "You two stay here, in case they bring any more survivors out. Anyone who's conscious doesn't get out of this town without telling us what they know, got it?"
If either of the Dinchts' voiced an objection, Seifer wasn't paying attention, as he disappeared after the cadet in a imposing whirl of trenchcoat.
"Y'know, for a guy who usually blows his fuse if anyone so much as mentions Squall's name ." Zell watched Seifer stride away, "he's taking this pretty well."
"Yeah " Quistis frowned. "Too well. He might think he's prepared, that he's coping with it, but if it came down to us actually having to " she shook her head. "I wouldn't pin my hopes on Seifer being anything apart from an useless wreck."
I don't think any of us would be, he thought, deciding it was probably best to keep that opinion to himself. He'd learnt long ago that undermining either Seifer's authority, or Quistis' confidence wasn't a smart idea. Both acts led to confrontations they simply didn't have time for now.
"D'you really think it's gonna come down to that?" he said instead, absently picking through the remnants of the junk shop, in case there was something of importance the attackers had left behind tch, look at that, some fool's gone and left a good piece of adamantine just lying around! Wonder if my gloves need a little maintenance work
"I don't see how it can be avoided she's a Sorceress, he's her Knight." Quistis glared at the blatant display of looting - by a top-ranking SeeD Captain no less, shame on you! - but didn't comment. "Seifer's right, it's our duty to stop them. Besides, how different is it, really? Fighting against Matron was just as hard on our consciences but "
"I knew there was gonna be a `but` in there, someplace." Zell grinned, recognising the troubled look in her eyes. Usually, he would have cracked a joke, made her smile, anything to snap her out of it. This time, he knew it wouldn't work, even if he had the heart to try. "'kay, I give. `But` what?"
"I don't know maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I get the feeling there's something he's not telling us "
"That's Seifer you're talking 'bout baby. He doesn't tell us anything."
"Maybe not .but you remember how he was when Squall left "
Truthfully, at the time Zell had been more concerned with the absence of his best friend, rather than whatever turmoil Seifer might have been going through. Yet none of Garden's SeeDs could easily forget the endless denial, the pointless missions, the pathetic midnight strategy meetings, the ridiculous theories about where Squall went, and who took him there. He knew he'd never be able to erase the look on the then cadet's face when they were finally forced to tell him to let it go. Squall was gone, threw everyone a curve when he ran off with Rinoa, but that's all it was.
"You still think he "
"For his sake, I hope not. He's changed so much since he's not going to let his emotions take control this time. He's not like that anymore." she sighed. "On the other hand, this involves Squall, and a Sorceress. Seifer does have firsthand experience on both counts "
"And maybe that's why he isn't telling us anything " Zell nodded. "Man talk 'bout a total one eighty "
The difference had never seemed so pronounced until today. Six years on, and the two people he would have swore blind were incapable of change had undergone a role reversal of T-Rexaur proportions. The famed Sorceress' Knight, hunting down the best Commander Balamb Garden had ever known.
Or maybe it's the other way 'round
"What about you?" he asked softly. "Are you okay, baby?"
"Me?" she sent him a weak smile. "Yeah, I guess I haven't really thought about it."
"You never do." He chided gently, as she leaned into his embrace. He kissed her hair, tasting smoke. "Y'know, you've got as much right to lose your mind as Seifer does. Damn it, so do I, for that matter. The guy's my best friend, after all, and your "
"Don't " she whispered, burying her face against his shoulder to hide the blush. "Squall was never `my` anything, apart from a stupid childish crush, and a damn good comrade. Speaking of which, I've warned Selphie to go easy on Seifer when we get back."
"Right " he sighed at her glaring attempt to change the subject. One of these days, he was going to get it through to her that she was allowed to have feelings and opinions, just like the rest of them. Of course, some people took up well over their opinion quota, but still "She probably doesn't see why she should, baby. After all, he was responsible for killing a bunch of her closest friends."
He felt her shudder, and wrap her arms around his waist just a fraction tighter.
"He was under Edea's control," she mumbled. "Just like Squall's under Rinoa's control right now. Seifer is no more responsible for what happened at Trabia than Squall is for what's happened here "
Tell that to him.
The remaining scraps of Timber, were ominously still, and surreally quiet, as Zell wondered if seeing all this had violently brought home to their Commander the things he'd done. Maybe Quistis believed Seifer had changed, but he wasn't so sure. It was easy to imagine things were different until the past was thrown this cruelly in your face. He watched a lone carrion crow pecking through the rubble, flying away with a loud squawk as one of the rescue teams brought out another sheet covered body from a nearby building. His head still couldn't quite make the connection between this devastation, and Squall. He hated admitting that he could see Seifer's point, but Zell seriously doubted that this had been the ultimate reason for his best friend's absence.
Why destroy a world you risked everything to save? And if they were lucky enough again, to defeat the Sorceress without serious harm to her Knight, then how the hell were they meant to cope with two guilty consciences? As it was, Seifer was barely dealing, and if he couldn't, then
Tell that to both of them
The makeshift shelter had been set up in one of the remaining railway tunnels that still seemed stable. Most of Timber's bridges had been destroyed, oddly noticeable in a town where most of the time you were almost walking in the air. The railway lines themselves were nothing but a tangled mass of twisted metal, poignantly graceful echoes of the way the town used to be.
They'd alerted the train from Dollet just in time, narrowly averting a derailment.
Damn, as if he didn't already have enough lives on his conscience, now he was tidying up after Leonhart
He fumbled in his coat pocket for his lighter, bringing it up to ignite the cigarette dangling from his lips. The SeeD sent him a worried stare.
"Sir, should you be doing that in here? There could be gas leaks, or "
"I'll take my chances." He glared, watching the cadet flinch in fear as the flame sprang to life. Hyne, if there was a gas leak, then no-one would have set up in here what the hell were they teaching these cadets these days anyway? The kid looked ashen, and Seifer fully expected to see his letter of resignation in the following day's mail.
The sickly scent of blood was more pronounced in the confines of the shelter. At least outside it was blended in with the dust, and the acrid smoke, and that odd pine air freshener smell that Timber always had. He grimaced at the hushed, frightened glances that the terrified survivors sent his way. It didn't matter how hard he tried, some people were never going to forget. Even now, he realised he was going to be the Sorceress Knight forever, however many impostors tried to take his place. Hell, how many of these people would have liked nothing better than to find a way of blaming him for this too? They still remembered the last war, and
Wait, a second
" The hell's going on? These are all the survivors?"
"Um yes, sir " the SeeD nodded.
"But they're all kids!"
Seifer's gaze swept wildly around the dimly lit arch, took in the wide, scared eyes, the soft plaintive cries. The oldest ones couldn't have been more than eleven, twelve. Hell, yes they were frightened, but not necessarily of him. Berating himself for jumping to conclusions, he turned back to the SeeD.
"We didn't find any adults left in the town, sir. Some did escape before the attack began, but this is what's left of Timber's population."
"And you want me to listen to some scared shitless kid's version of what happened? Gods, this is a waste of time "
"It sounds genuine enough, sir and we have no other information."
Seifer sighed loudly, running a gloved hand through his hair. As if they could put any weight on anything these children told them? It was bewildering enough that Rinoa had seemingly spared everything pre-pubescent.
Wanted someone around that Squall could relate to, Rinny?
"Did you say they'd actually asked for me? By name?"
"Yes you really should hear all this from her, sir." The SeeD gestured to a sectioned off part of the tunnel, hurriedly curtained with torn, mismatched blankets. "She was hysterical, understandably. Poor kid was hiding in a cellar while the Sorceress and her Knight tore her home, her parents apart "
Orphans. Wonder who's idea of a sick joke that was
"Is she gonna be okay to talk?" he asked softly, one hesitant hand on the edge of the makeshift curtain. Dealing with monsters was one thing, dealing with bratty little kids was quite another. Zell was living testimony of Seifer's limited patience with them.
"One of the medics have sedated her, but she was adamant that she wanted to speak to Seifer Almasy."
Hyne as if the past few hours weren't insane enough, now he had to put on his best Uncle Seifer face, and get some useful details from some traumatised kid. A kid who was currently staring warily at him, big brown eyes blinking behind a mop of dirty blonde hair. She clutched a battered teddy bear a little closer, and frowned at the young female cadet who sat beside her. She looked to be about nine.
"Thea " the cadet pointed towards the Commander. "Thea, that's Mister Almasy. You remember, you wanted to tell him something?"
"Mister Almasy?" Thea blinked again, cocking her head. "You made the lady angry."
"Is that the lady who came to your house today?" he knelt awkwardly beside her. "Is she the one who hurt you?"
"Uh-huh " Thea nodded, now devoting her undivided attention to the teddy-bear. "She hurt Mr. Bear too, see?" she pointed to the scrap of bandage someone had wrapped around the stuffed toy's paw. "She wasn't nice she was real cross."
"Did the lady say why she was cross? Did she tell you why she was angry with me?"
"Dunno Mama used ta get cross with me sometimes. She used to yell at me if I didn't eat all my tea, when I wouldn't clean up my room "
Damn it, he really should have brought Quistis along. At least she knew how to speak to kids Hyne, even Zell could get better results than this.
"Did the lady yell at you, Thea?"
"What did she yell about?"
"She was lookin' for something." The little girl frowned. "An' I remember cause it sounded real important She was cross with you, she kept saying your name over and over, she kept telling the man who was with her that it was your fault. That you'd taken it from her." Thea giggled. "Didja steal something from the mean lady?"
Well, yes, but surely she didn't destroy Timber because of that
"What was she looking for Thea? You're right, it is really important."
"Sounded weird " Thea stared at him, "But she kept sayin' she had to find the vessel."
"The vessel?" Okay, this was probably turning out to be the most bizarre day in history. "She was looking for a vessel?"
"No, the vessel." Thea frowned, disapprovingly. "She wanted to know where it was. I don't think it was in our house. Mama would have told me if we had something that important. D'you have it?"
"I don't think so did she say anything else about it? What it looks like "
"Nope. Just that she was looking for the vessel of " Thea looked at him, puzzled, before a little look of delight crossed her face. "The vessel of Adrasteia. That's it, that's what she said!" the girl smiled, proudly. "See, I remembered cause it sounds real pretty ."
Why did that sound familiar, when he was almost positive he'd never heard the word before? Anyway, he was listening to a child's story, she could easily have misheard, or even be making the whole thing up, some side effect of the trauma. Yet, why make up something that sounded so authentic?
Either way, it was a clue as to the Sorceress' motive. If Rinoa was looking for something, then there had to be a plan, a grand scheme. All they had to do was find out what it was, and how to stop it. Find out what this vessel was, what it did where it was. Not in Timber, apparently, and somehow connected to him.
"Thanks Thea, you've been a big help." He stood to leave. "These people are going to look after you, okay? If you remember anything else, you can tell them." He paused. "Thea the man who was with the mean lady did he say anything?"
"The man? No, he didn't say anything. I don't think he was as cross as she was " Thea stared at him, thoughtfully. "He wasn't mean. He just looked kinda sad."
All he could manage was a brief nod, before hurrying out of the shelter. Leaning against the rough brick wall, he lit up another cigarette, wholly unable to shake the odd sense of deja vu he felt at the little girl's words. The Vessel of Adrasteia no, he couldn't consciously confess to having ever heard of the damned thing. It wasn't anything either Edea or Ultimecia had ever mentioned, he was sure of that. He didn't even know if it referred to a place, a person
So why was the word sending little shudders of dread along his spine?
The smoke had thinned, and a hazy blue sky could be seen through the grey dust. A crow suddenly swept across his field of vision, swooping a couple of times through the clearing air, before flying out of sight. He crushed the cigarette under his boot, and headed back towards Zell and Quistis. Maybe they'd come across this vessel whilst looking into Ultimecia's plans. And if they hadn't well, at least they knew where to start.
Yet, all the way back, only one thing kept ringing in his mind.
He just looked kinda sad
Authors Notes: Yay! I'm multi-chaptered baby! Thanks to everyone who reviewed, and as always **PLEASE R+R!!** Comments, suggestions, criticism, ALWAYS welcome. Let me know if I'm headed in the right direction with this.
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