Chapter Six: Helped and Helpless
Squall did not sleep much anymore. It was soldier’s habit; rise with the sun, dream lightly, always be prepared to run and fight. There was too much in his head, too much push and pull. He was fighting a battle with his emotions rather than with enemy forces, but the result was the same: he spent every moment tensed for battle.
He stared at the uninterestingly monochromatic ceiling of his apartment’s bedroom for a long, stretching minute that turned into sleepless hours. He stared at the glowing digital clock on his bedside table and watched with growing despair as the numbers progressed in their inevitable cycle. Finally—quietly so as not to disturb Rinoa, who slept the sleep of the guiltless—he sat up and dropped his feet to the floor. He tossed aside the twisted sheets and staggered into the living room of his spacious Headmaster’s quarters.
He did not turn on the lights as he moved across the room. He leaned against the huge bay windows that looked out onto the ocean and stared at the moon—so bright right now that it seemed to fill the entire sky.
Squall scraped his nails over his face as if to scour away his misery. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass and put his palms flat on his bare chest. He fingered a large patch of skin that felt different from the rest of his smooth flesh; a scar left by the tentacle of the monster from the beach.
Images flashed over his eyes as the morning regurgitated itself with dark-edged nightmarish quality. He watched again as the monster advanced, swinging its hundred arms with wild anger, reaching for him with mindless hunger—watched the amorphous pink blob of organ tissue that was the creature’s body and gouged his fingernails desperately into the slimy flesh.
Breaking from the hold of the relentless replay, he shook and sighed with a deep growl. He pushed himself away from the window, turning his back on the moon. The moon was a traitor, distorting life and coating it in silvery-blue…making everything he dreamed look so real.
Squall turned, picking nervously at the waist of his gray flannel pajama bottoms and started towards the bedroom. He froze with one foot in the air and felt it coming a moment before the sharp ring broke the peace of the apartment.
"Squall!" Quistis’s voice cut out from the communications panel installed in the wall of the living room.
Squall strode to the panel and keyed it on. "Leonhart here. What is it, Quistis?"
"Squall, get up here. There’s been an attack on a village nearby—the same monster—and it’s still there."
The truck pitched and shook as it raced over the rocky terrain of the plains between Balamb Garden and the besieged village of Meta. Squall could see the second truck coming up on their right and he turned in his seat on the passenger side to peer back.
Two trucks filled with two teams each. Twenty SeeD soldiers, not including Quistis, Seifer, Rinoa, Captain Caret, Dr. Kencie and himself. Twenty-six men and women, more than he had with him when he turned the tide of battle when Galbadia attacked Balamb; when he went against Ultimecia. All for one monster.
Squall was afraid it might not be enough.
"Sir!" Captain Caret barked at him from the driver’s seat and the truck came to an abrupt stop. Squall peered out the windshield and wondered for a moment where they were. Then a scream hit him and the glow of fire in the village threw him into action.
He turned to the nervous men and women seated in the back of the truck and snapped, "Fall out!"
Squall jumped out and strode to the other truck. Quistis was roaring at the SeeDs under her command as they rushed out the back. Squall nodded at Seifer and Rinoa as the two met him and they turned to the village. Squall left it to Quistis to deploy and organize the SeeDs and led his two lovers into the screaming, burning village.
In the village center of Meta they found the monster hovering over a pair of victims, one tentacle piercing the chests of its prey. Squall could not make out whether they were men or women; the two had their faces pressed against each other’s shoulders and they were shielded by a mess of clutching arms.
"Commander Leonhart!" Dr. Kencie was shouting as he ran to their side. He stared at the monster in fascination for a long moment, then frowned at Seifer as the tall blond took aim at the monster with his gunblade. "Commander, use your Guardian Forces!" he shouted to Squall, then whirled and clenched his fists at Rinoa and Seifer. "Regular battle magic and attacks do not affect this monster! You have to use your Guardian Forces!"
Squall wasted no time in calling Shiva, using all of his magical bond with the Guardian Force to ensure she would aim for the monster and avoid the pair impaled on its arm.
Squall’s own scream was engulfed by the painful cry of the monster. He clapped his hands over his ears and felt wetness under his fingers. He took his hands away and stared at the blood on his skin.
Squall looked up and for a moment his vision was filled with the bodies that fell from the monster’s writhing arm. They dropped to the ground just as the creature turned to the source of its pain—the one that had sent the icicles that gouged its pink flesh—and flew with deadly speed towards Squall. It reached for him with 99 arms—Squall spotted the stump amongst the stretching limbs where there had been one hundred—and hovered over the grass in front of Squall.
The acrid scent of smoke filled Squall’s nostrils and fire flickered on the edge of his vision and reflected on the sword of his gunblade as he lifted it hopelessly against the 99 arms shooting towards him.
99 arms wrapped around him and tightened until he lost his grip on his gun. He saw Seifer and Rinoa running towards him, saw their mouths open and shut as they screamed to each other, but he could not hear them. He felt his eyes bulge as the creature’s 99 arms wrapped around and around him.
The arms lifted Squall up in the air and one claw rested against his cheek, stroking gently. He gagged as one tentacle circled his neck. Another claw pressed its hard bone on his skin, tracing the scar that ran across the bridge of his nose. A third claw was sharp and painful on his lips as it forced its way into his mouth. He choked and groaned around the large bone claw that scraped the roof of his mouth and flattened his tongue. The blood that ran from his ears joined the growing red stain on his white shirt and met the blood that fell from his nose and trickled out of his mouth.
From far away, someone called his name, but he could not turn towards the speaker. 99 arms pushed his arms against his body, twined about his legs, strangled and suffocated him. The painful point of a claw pressed against his breastbone and slowly pierced the skin.
Famished… A whisper inside his mind, a sound that did not pass his ears.
Hunger…fammmmisssshhhed… The monster? It was—speaking to him, but it had no mouth, it could not speak…
We’ve had this one before…
We have, we have…
The claws grazed his skin but he felt only the touch of the creature on his thoughts.
"Squall!" Rinoa’s voice reached him suddenly and he started, forgetting about the cool, slimy thing about his throat and trying to turn towards her. He still could not move, and he groaned around the claw.
"Seifer, wait!" Rinoa cried and then silver flashed in front of Squall’s eyes. The vice grip of the 99 arms around him loosened and then his right side flashed with pain as he fell to the ground. He lay, stunned, on the dirt as 99 arms—severed from the monster but still alive and wanting Squall’s blood—writhed over and around him. He felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull and heard the high, burning screaming of the creature again—stabbing into his brain as a knife of thought. The creature was in his mind.
Someone lifted his head and rested it on his or her legs while Seifer scooped thrashing tentacles off of Squall’s body. Squall focused his gaze on the monster as the amorphous thing, blind without its feelers and bleeding from 99 wounds, whirled in the air and then relentlessly flew towards Squall again. It yearned towards him with rippling pink flesh.
Squall grunted and Seifer turned to face the creature. He stood and leapt towards it. Squall lifted his arms and scraped his beaten body for energy, then once again summoned Shiva.
The calling of a Guardian Force required a certain cognizance, focus, the power to direct and channel. Squall had barely the strength to draw a breath and he released Shiva without control. He collapsed back, recognizing Rinoa’s nervous caresses on his hair, and stared straight into the light that swirled around Shiva as the coldly beautiful spirit appeared.
Seifer whipped his head back and his eyes widened. "Squall, no!" he screamed, but his voice was swallowed in the sudden icy wind.
Shiva lifted into the air and spun as the cold of a million winters filled the air and ice veiled the village. The earth shook beneath Squall and he felt Shiva pulling from his remaining hit points even as she grew larger. She lifted one arm above her and the light of the sun burst from her fingertips before solidifying into ice. Shiva pointed at the creature and released.
The monster was engulfed in blue ice and dropped to the ground. Squall stared in amazement as Shiva looked down at him and smiled. She disappeared.
"It’s frozen," Rinoa breathed against Squall’s ear.
The monster was encased in a block of ice and unmoving. The sudden silence—broken only by Seifer’s heaving breath and the crackle of nearby flames—was eerie in the aftermath.
"No, don ‘t!" Dr. Kencie cried as Seifer lifted his gunblade, but the blond ignored the command. He brought the blade down hard on the ice and split the block with a loud crack. His sword sliced through the ice and the monster’s body, sending shards of ice as large as himself flying through the air. Rinoa leaned down over Squall, shielding him from the dangerous projectiles. When she straightened again, Squall stared at the two halves of the monster, still and dripping with melting ice.
Seifer walked forward slowly, with well-deserved caution and kicked one of the halves with a booted foot. He turned back to Squall and breathed out hard, stirring a lock of yellow hair.
"Well," he panted, wiping the back of a hand over his sweaty forehead. "I think it’s dead."
Squall leaned heavily on Rinoa as she helped him walk slowly through Meta. They spotted Quistis outside the village’s medical clinic and started towards her. She saw them, though, and strode over to them.
"Squall! Over the comm unit, you said that you had been attacked, but that you were ‘okay’!"
Squall shrugged and gently shrugged Rinoa’s supporting arm from his shoulder. "I am."
Quistis stared at him and did not speak, and he thought of how he must look: blood drying in his ears, smeared across his lips and chin, his body weak and wilting, his clothes torn. Thinking about it, he realized that he did not feel fine, either, but he did his best to ignore his pain and shot a question at Quistis to distract everyone.
"Is the village secure?"
Quistis was startled, then she nodded curtly and her face tightened. "Yes, sir. The perimeter has been locked down, the fires are under control, the casualties tallied and all villagers accounted for."
"How many deaths?" Rinoa asked softly, and Quistis’s face softened as she looked at the brunette.
"Is that including the pair that the monster was attacking when we came upon it?"
Quistis nodded again. "Seifer called and filled me in after he killed the monster. He told me that there were two bodies out your way."
"They were already dead when we got there," Squall said quietly. Rinoa and Quistis seemed not to hear him.
"I have two troops working on the fire. I called in some Garden medics and they came in a couple of jeeps with supplies. I’ve got one troop on them, gathering the dead and helping the village care for the wounded."
"Are there many wounded?" Squall asked, lifting his head. "Did the monster leave anyone alive?"
Quistis’s features pinched together and she shook her head. "No. All the injuries are from the fire that started when one of the villagers tried to use Fire magic on the creature. The thing deflected the magic attack and ignited a home."
Squall sighed and nodded. "Where’s Seifer?" he asked, suddenly noticing that the blond was missing.
"Arguing with Captain Caret, last time I looked," Quistis said wryly. "Our fair knight overstepped his authority again and pulled imaginary rank on the Captain. Apparently, from what Caret was blathering about, Seifer ordered him not to follow you when you went after the creature, telling him to take his troops to the edge of the city and guard against any monsters that might be attracted by the fire and the scent of carnage on the wind. Seifer’s reasoning was, as Caret told me, that the Captain would only ‘come bumbling in and fuck things up,’ getting you and everyone else killed in the process. Caret was quite obviously not amused."
Rinoa sighed and reached out with a strong, catching hand as Squall slumped with sudden weakness, sensing his abrupt exhaustion without even turning to look at him. He sighed and accepted her support, gratefully.
"The man complains often about Seifer pulling nonexistent rank on him," Rinoa said in exasperation even as she wrapped an arm around Squall so that he could subtly lean against her in an embrace that appeared more romantic than necessary. "He does obey Seifer’s orders, though, so what the hell does he want?"
Quistis shrugged and eyed Squall. "He’s going to come crying to you about it later, just a warning."
Squall shrugged, too, not even the least bit interested in the trials and tribulations of Captain Caret. Not even interested in Seifer’s whereabouts or Rinoa’s loving caresses on the nape of his neck. His universe was suddenly narrowed as a couple of SeeDs walked by carrying a makeshift stretcher of poles tied together and covered with a blanket. Two bodies lay on the blanket, dead but not at rest. The pair of victims that he had been too late to save were still clutching each other. The ripped, blood-ringed holes through their torsos lined up perfectly where the monster had speared them both at once.
Their muscles still strained to hold to each other even in death, frozen in place as they were when the monster attacked. Though they had tried, the SeeDs and village medics had been unable to pull the pair apart and Squall, wearily watching from the ground too soon after the creature’s death to stand and move, had finally ordered them to stop trying and leave the pair as they were.
They had been able to see the faces of the creature’s last prey; had been able to move their petrified bodies that much; had been able to see the exaggerated dread and pain captured by death in their stiff features like macabre grotesques. They had been able to see the protective terror and sorrow in the face of the father as he clutched his young son to his body and begged for him to be saved; had been able to see the horror and agony on the face of the son as he clung to his father and sobbed his fear.
Squall looked up and tried to ignore the SeeDs that carried away the stretcher, though he could still see them out of the corner of his eye. He focused on Dr. Kencie as the scientist hurried towards him and finally gave into his weariness enough to sit on a low brick wall surrounding the medical clinic.
"Commander Leonhart, would you please tell Lieutenant Almasy that I would like to preserve the creature and bring it back to Garden to dissect and study?"
"You mean bring back its pieces," Rinoa muttered with a baleful glare at Kencie. Squall knew that she resented the man for trying to stop Seifer killing the monster during the battle with it, though her boyfriend’s life was in danger. Squall, however, could not muster the energy or concern for his own well-being to be offended and merely sighed as the fuming scientist came to a sputtering halt before him.
"Why don’t you tell him yourself, Doctor?" Squall asked tiredly.
Dr. Kencie opened his mouth wide as if to shout, then seemed to think better of it and took a calming breath. He went on in a more easy tone. "I did, sir, but the Lieutenant insists on destroying the creature’s remains out of some obviously paranoid belief that it will somehow rejoin its halves and resurrect itself."
Squall sighed heavily, not bothering to mask his frustration and turned towards the clinic to see if the father and son were still in view. He could not find them, and reluctantly looked back at the scientist.
"All right, Doctor, I will talk to the Lieutenant and tell him not to destroy the creature’s remains."
Kencie was anxious. "Sir, if you could—that is, when I left him he was building a fire to—" The doctor trailed off and wrung his hands.
Squall sighed again, feeling light-headed. He lifted his wrist to his lips and flipped on the comm switch, dialing it to the frequency he knew Seifer was using.
A pause, then, "Reading you loud and clear, Commander. Tell that windbag, Kencie, that I’m fricasseeing his precious monster pieces as we speak."
"Oh no!" Dr. Kencie cried and ran off in the direction of a large billowing cloud of smoke.
Squall did not have the energy to find the man’s panic amusing. He merely shook his head and said, "Seifer, don’t destroy the monster’s remains. If they’re already in the fire, get them out and hose them off."
Seifer cursed. "You’ve got to be kidding me."
"Seifer," Squall said impatiently, "if they’re already destroyed—"
"No, no," Seifer interrupted. "I haven’t put them in the fire yet, though I was about to. Tell the doctor that his beloved remains are intact."
"You can tell him yourself, he’ll be there in a few seconds."
"Ah, shit, here he comes." Seifer’s voice was muffled for a moment, then it burst through clearly again. "Uh, Squall—How—how are you?"
Squall looked up at Rinoa, who was nodding with Quistis, taking over for him and assuming his obligation to get all the information and organize their operation for efficiency. He had not even needed to ask her to affect this role, she had done it without pause or question. Seifer hated the details and the responsibilities. If he were here, he would try to persuade Squall to blow off the task and let Quistis shoulder it, and when Squall persisted, Seifer would have gone off on his own and left Squall to it.
The observation came with no prompting and no obvious reason or relevancy. Squall shook it off quickly, but his voice was still curt as he answered, "Fine. Put out the fire, help Kencie prepare the creature for transportation, then round up your troops and return to Garden."
A startled silence, then Seifer barked, "Affirmative, sir!" with uncharacteristic obedience. Squall ignored him.
"Leonhart out." He turned off his communicator before Seifer could respond.
Squall thought suddenly of how helpless he had been in the monster’s grip, and how Rinoa had cried out for him while Seifer had severed the 99 writhing tentacles—How Seifer had saved him and then sliced the thing in half while Rinoa held him and shielded his body with her own.
Helpless, defenseless. So sick of allowing himself to be vulnerable and depending on others for protection and salvation.
"Squall?" Rinoa asked, turning to him and tightening her arm around him. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he said, distracted as he stared at the wall of the medical clinic and imagined that he could see through it to the father and son inside. The boy couldn’t have been much older than five; the father, in his twenties. He thought of how they had been still and unmoving when he had arrived in the center of the village; already drained of life and dead in each other’s arms. The father and son had obviously loved each other, the way their hands clutched at clothing and flesh and their faces pressed into throat and shoulder—but Squall had been too late to save them.
He frowned and lifted a hand to his forehead, fingering the scar and reliving the sensation of the bone claw of the monster laying shivering caresses on his flesh. Unable to keep from remembering the invasive, slick feel of the monster’s thought/feelings on his brain.
"Fine," he echoed himself in a hollow voice. Then, he looked into Rinoa’s warm, brown eyes and moved the fingers from his scar to trace the pink bow of her upper lip. "Rinoa, I want to go back to Garden, now. Quistis has things under control here, she doesn't need me."
"Okay," she said softly, nodding. "We’ll take one of the jeeps that the Garden medics Quistis called came in. I’ll drive, you can lay out in the back seat. Come on," she urged gently, helping him to stand. "I’ll take you home."
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