By Scarlet Fever
"I don't see why you have to side with them at all. They are not our kind."
"They are the same as you or I," said a bored, commanding voice, multi-layered and reverberating through walls and matter.
"They may be classed as Summons like we are." The speaker snorted angrily, his voice also multi-layered and commanding, though with a far different timbre. Both voices were deep, and obviously male, but spoken with different contexts. "Summons...." He hissed. "What a word. A filthy word from filthy humans."
"We've all let humans control us at one time or another. Its part of our nature."
"You are our Lord, and you weaken yourself with them. You're no better than Tiamat... A low class Aeon. You've let yourself become nothing more than a 'Guardian Force', a toy for them."
The great dragon snarled, baring fangs at his companion, wings flapping once in anger. "You dare to speak to me like this, Diablos?!" A wave of energy passed through the room, sending Diablos's scaled black and red body backwards. The demon had to use his own wings to stop from hitting a far wall of the chamber. "I may give you more leave with me than I do some of the others of my court, but that doesn't mean you can speak to me however you wish."
"Of course not," Diablos smoothly answered, sounding both sincere and insincere. "But, I do disagree with you. The human world does not hold friends. Though, I do apologize for mentioning Tiamat's name."
Bahamut just hmph-ed and curled up on the lovely tiled floor, resembling a throne room from lifetimes and millennia long forgotten even by records, a floor covered with expensive silk rugs and throw pillows. The replica of a throne room once in a city ruled by a strong, fighting king of men. A king that wore a crown of dragon's horns and fought against the barbarians from the south with his lance, a king both cruel and just who ruled with an iron fist. "We gave ourselves to the same master," the King murmured, yawning. "So, your high-and-mighty routine lacks credence, Berith."
Diablos knelt among the pillows of royal blue and black and red, long tail swishing across the gleaming floor, wings lightly brushing the blue scales of Bahamut's wings. "A mistake I wish to rectify."
"Keep out of their world," Bahamut said with finality. His dragon body started to shrink, and became that of a handsome, regal man with cropped brown hair and intense onyx eyes. The eyes of a nearly tyrannical king, a king that existed fathomless ages ago. His eyes held warning to the great demon knelt beside him, though Bahamut's human body was dwarfed. The smaller, frailer appearance did nothing to sway the power exuded from the Summon King, Lord of Aeons, Eidolon, Espers, names long forgotten, even by their own kind.
Diablos's black, scaled wings draped over Bahamut's reclining body, and his long, deadly fangs were bared in a snarl as his red, jewelled eyes glowed. "And, if I don't?" The black wings created a canopy around the human body.
"Another thousand years in that lamp wouldn't be pleasant, hmm?"
The demon snarled, wings flapping away. Bahamut's expression never changed, though his back did curl a little, as if he were going to transform. But, he just lay back, calm as only a true king can be. Diablos also shrunk down to a human form, though the expression on his human face showed complete displeasure, as if it were not his choice to revert to a form he'd once possessed before becoming the Dark Messenger. The form of a man with a pretty face that told of faerie or sylph blood mingling with human. A man that had once been a necromancer, an oracle for a king obsessed with the land of the dead, a king that had died at the hands of his beloved necromancer Berith. A man with long, thick and straight hair as black as ink, down past his waist like a curtain of night, with eyes that were black with a ring of blue near the pupil. A man that had once been both oracle and soldier, riding a proud horse with red garb.
Diablos snarled and tried to angrily storm out, but Bahamut caught a pale wrist in one strong hand, a hand that showed a man who'd worked his entire human life. "My warnings are not idle."
"Of course not," was the clipped reply. "My Lord...."
Bahamut ran a hand through the long, luxurious black hair that was cascading down Diablos's shoulder, his fingers lengthening and turning into scaled claws a colour between grey and blue. "I'll be watching you."
"I would hope so." Diablos's black and blue eyes flared as he stood, leaving in a huff. Once out of Bahamut's chambers, he had the power to return to his own realm, which felt a bit like a prison to him. A realm that was like the realm he'd resided in as a human. A flat in a mechanical city all lit up like a star at night, now crumbled into nothing and out of any conceivable memory.
Diablos flopped in a large armchair, looking into runes that he'd used as a human, runes that had been for show. His clairvoyance had all been in his mind, and had nothing to do with runes or stones or crystal balls, though they were amusing bobbles. Black and red wings sprouted from his back, and his eyes turned a gleaming, garnet red. "My dear King, you have no sense of fun." He sneered, hand waving. Some bottles from a shelf floated across the room and sat gently on the table before the former necromancer, now Dark Guardian Force. "Or, no sense of pride." He smiled, teeth lengthening to fangs. "But, I have plenty of both."
"That movie sucked."
"What are you talking about? I liked it!"
He snorted. "You just have no taste."
"Yeah, that must be why I hang out with you."
He shoved her lightly, playfully. "Come on. Feels like it's going to rain."
Xera wrapped her coat tighter around herself. "Brrr... that wind is cold."
"Let's walk this way," Gietzen suggested, pulling on some gloves as he and his friend started to walk. "It's more covered. The wind won't be so bad."
Xera made a hesitant noise, her eyes shrewd behind her glasses. "I don't know, Gietz.... That's headed a little too close to Bridgeport Square...." Bridgeport Square was one of the nastiest neighbourhoods in Timber, and had an infamous reputation, as well as the highest crime rate in the city. Now that it was dark out, it was a place sane people didn't wish to go. Especially with all the talk lately of gang activity and drug use.
"We'll skirt right by it if we go past South Passage station. The night train to Winhill will be running, so it will be crowded."
Xera nodded slowly. "Yeah... right, that sounds okay." She smiled then. "Let's go."
"How could you have liked that movie?!" Gietzen asked her as they walked down the sidewalk, some of the movie theatre crowd still around them, but starting to thin out.
"Because it was cool!" She exclaimed. They'd gone to see a movie out of Galbadia called The Sand Ruby. It had been about two small armies from non-existent countries searching for something called the Sand Ruby, and getting into a battle for it. "The costumes and cinematography were amazing!"
"But, it was so implausible."
She rolled her eyes. "It was a fantasy movie. It wasn't supposed to be a documentary on the breeding of Abyss Worms in the Galbadian Desert."
He just shook his head. "We should have just went to see Prognosis: Negative."
Xera groaned, for Gietzen kept bringing up that movie, even though she thought it looked like the worst piece of crap ever made. She was about to say something catty to him, but stopped when she saw someone familiar. "Hey, Gietzen." She pointed her finger out from the long sleeves of her coat, shivering because of the cold, blustery wind. "Isn't that....?" She was pointing to a man who was coming out of a hole-in-the-wall shop up the street. She called "Hey, Mr. Emaissyl!"
The man who she was calling to was Mr. Raef Emaissyl, her and Gietzen's boss. He was a tall and extremely quiet, guarded man who owned a weapons shop and smithy in downtown Timber called Archimedes. Xera and Gietzen were cashiers there and dealt with the weapon orders, but Mr. Emaissyl was the blacksmith and forged each weapon by hand.
Raef turned to face them, slow recognition thawing the gaze behind his eyeglasses. He had on a heavy dark blue wool coat lined with Behemoth fur, the hood up over his dark brown hair. "Xera, Gietzen. Nice to see you."
"You, too!" Xera smiled at her handsome boss, though he wasn't biting. Mr. Emaissyl wasn't exactly the most social of men. "A little cold for a walk, though." She looked at the buildings that they were standing in front of, and then noticed they weren't in the nicest of neighbourhoods. "What are you doing out here?"
Raef raised an eyebrow, not really enjoying being questioned. He jerked his head back towards the shop behind him. "They sell some rare items here that I can use at the store."
"Ah." Gietzen smiled pleasantly, but he'd also noticed that they were starting to get into Bridgeport Square. He and Xera had been too wrapped up in their friendly argument to notice.
"There's a trolley stop up there," Raef pointed, his pale eyes starting to water because of the strong, biting winter wind. "It's safer than walking through." Raef went on ahead of them, crossing his arms over his chest, the bag of items hanging at his hip. Xera and Gietzen followed him, but he didn't pay them much attention. Though Raef was in Timber every day for work, he would rather be out in the woods. He lived in Beech River, which wasn't actually a town. It was just what they called the area around the Beech River that drained into Mandy Bay. It was a peaceful area, nestled deep into the woods outside the city. And, Raef liked it. It was far away from... everything. From all the machinery of Timber, and the claustrophobic throngs of people. His employees continued to talk about The Sand Ruby as they waited for the trolley.
Xera and Gietzen's conversation trailed off when they noticed some mean looking people milling around. Their hackles started to rise, especially when five or six of them started to meander towards the trolley stop. "Blackballers," Xera muttered under her breath, moving a little closer to Gietzen. Blackballers was a term used to describe a disturbing trend that was sweeping Timber, and even moving into Galbadia Garden and towards Deling City. It was a term that described users of a new drug called Blackball. It came in a small pill that looked like a black orb, and it was highly addictive. The poorer and more industrial areas of the city, which were many, were becoming infested with the crazy addicts of the drug. It was said that the drug gave the feeling of ultimate power, but it was also said that one hallucinated and heard voices when taking it, and that the desire for more was stronger than anyone could handle, thus making an addict very dangerous. They would do anything for the money to get more.
Xera wasn't sure if the people heading towards the trolley stop were indeed Blackballers, but in this neighbourhood, it was a safe bet. They all stood under the trolley shelter; Xera, Gietzen and Raef shoulder to shoulder with this small group of three men and one woman. Even though it was very cold, they looked sweaty. A sure sign of a Blackballer. The drug used up so much energy that it made one sweat as if they were exercising.
"Hey," the woman said to Xera, standing directly in front of her, too close for comfort. The woman was taller than Xera, but she hunched over, so tired and weary looking. It was hard to place her age. "Do... do you have any change? Just for a warm cup of coffee?"
"No," she said stiffly. And, under her breath, she muttered "you wouldn't use it for coffee, anyway."
"Come on, man!" The woman exclaimed, starting to get a little angry. "Just one gil?"
"No," Xera repeated firmly.
The woman, with a desperate look in her eyes, reached out a quick hand, grabbing Xera by the wrist. "Just one gil... I want to hear him again. I want to hear him again. I want to hear him again." She started babbling over and over. Xera tried to wrestle her wrist out of the woman's grip, but Blackballing must have given her more strength than usual. Though Xera wasn't the 'damsel in distress' type, Gietzen tried to intervene, since Xera really was being overpowered, and she was starting to look a little scared. But, two of the woman's friends stepped forward, one of them pulling out a knife.
"Just give us some gil!" One of the men whined, the whites of his eyes plainly visible. He was panting loudly, and the hand holding the knife was shaking. He stepped towards Gietzen, slicing at the air. "Give it to us!!" He moved to jump Gietzen and just physically take the money from him, both the frightened people trying to back up, but finding two more of the crazed gang behind them. Gietzen slammed his eyes shut, waiting to be stabbed to death, but he didn't feel it come. The one with the knife yelled "Hey!", and Gietzen opened his eyes, seeing Raef holding the man's wrist.
"Let me go!" The Blackballer shouted, though it sounded like Raef was hurting him. Raef, without a word, twisted the man's arm back. The night was filled with the shouts of the Blackballers and the crack of bone. Raef took the knife, his hand far steadier with the blade. He sliced out when one of the gang tried to jump him, cutting across the man's jacket. His hand came out, catching the man under the chin, sending him sprawling on his back. Another man, a tall and gangly man who looked too pale and unhealthy, tried to jump on Raef's back, but the tall brunette reached back, using the momentum of the attacker's weight, throwing him to the ground in a shoulder toss.
Xera was still struggling with the woman, but the two of them and Gietzen were all watching Raef take on five Blackballers by himself. He did it with grace, like he'd done this sort of thing before. He also never looked out of control, never looked worried. He thrust a long arm out with grace, slamming one of them against a telephone pole, knocking him out. The fourth tried to jump him, but Raef tackled him to the ground, deftly stabbing the knife through the Blackballer's hand, down into the pavement. The woman that was still trying to search Xera for her wallet stood up, starting to run away. But, Raef roundhoused her, and she wasn't fast enough to get out of the reach of his long leg. She went flying down the sidewalk, landing in a crumpled pile a few meters away. No police came to check on all the noise, because police never showed up in Bridgeport Square, unless it was to cart off bodies in the safety of daylight.
Xera and Gietzen huddled together, looking at their employer with shock. He was normally so quiet and rather serene; they hadn't known he had that sort of fight in him. And, it wasn't that he just kicked those guys' asses. He did it with the hand of a trained professional. Mr. Emaissyl looked down at them, cocking his head. For a second, Xera and Gietzen were a little afraid of him. Raef straightened his eyeglasses on his face, nodding at them. "See you at work tomorrow." He turned on his heel and started walking up the sidewalk, away from Bridgeport Square, not bothering to wait for the trolley. He cast a long shadow on the buildings he passed, the billowing of his coat making his shadow appear to have large wings. The two friends looked at each other, not sure what to say, not sure what to feel. The trolley came only a few minutes later, and Xera and Gietzen both got on quickly, both their bodies shaking from more than just the cold. Nobody paid much attention to the bodies on the ground. None were dead, but they weren't going anywhere for a while, either.
As the trolley moved towards the safer, nicer parts of town, Xera looked over at Gietzen, keeping her gloved hands balled into fists so they wouldn't start shaking. She opened her mouth to say something, but just couldn't find the words. Gietzen looked back at her with shock as well, both just glad to be going home.
"See ya later, Instructor!" called Ryu as he started to duck out of class.
"Hold it, Cadet!" Instructor Dincht called, catching Ryu by the back of his cadet jacket. Zell went over to the door and closed it, leaving just him and the student in the sparring room alone. "I saw you use that cheap shot, Ryu."
Zell cocked his head. "But, what?"
"Come on, you know what it's like in the heat of battle....!" Ryu lamely said, trying to make excuses for attacking a much weaker and younger opponent from behind.
"I also know what it's like to be young and stupid."
Ryu looked at his feet, shuffling them. It was true that Zell knew what it was like to be in the heat of battle, though it felt like his last real battle had happened too long ago. He felt rusted, his body not like the well-oiled machine it had been before all his duties seemed to revolve around his martial arts class at Balamb Garden. He didn't only teach hand-to-hand combat, but also taught more practical angles like anatomy of the human body, to make better use of your own muscles, and to know the muscles of your opponent. He often worked with the Curative Studies Instructor because the practical side of his course often overlapped with Instructor Sobek's classes.
"You'll have detention with the Disciplinary Committee, but you'll also be docked 10 points on next week's physical exam."
"Instructor...!" Ryu exclaimed. "That's unfair!"
"Unfair?" Zell echoed. He'd always hated being the hand of discipline. It didn't come easily to him, but it was something he'd had to work on over the years. Ryu was only a year away from taking his SeeD exams, and it made Zell think of when he'd been that young, that brash. But, that had been long ago. It had been 10 years since he'd started teaching this class, and he was now 27, so much older in so many ways. "Maybe Junior Cadet Asha will think you were unfair to her?"
Ryu was shamed into silence, and dismissed when Zell moved away from the closed door. When he was alone, Zell sighed, looking around at the mess his students had left behind. He started straightening things out, feeling bored. He loved teaching Martial Arts, but he wanted more. He wanted to adventure again. He couldn't remember the last time he'd gone on a mission. Cid, Squall and Quistis always seemed to send others. Cid was still Headmaster, but Squall and Quistis helped out. A lot. After straightening up, Zell started to shadowbox, stretching out his muscles, wishing he was fighting something more than air.
After he'd worked out for an hour, his body covered in sweat, Zell sat on the floor, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. He was too old now to wear them spiked up.
"You still got it there, bud."
Zell looked up, smiling as Selphie chucked a towel at him. He caught it mid-air, mopping at the sweat on his face and muscular shoulders. "What's up?" He asked, standing up. Selphie was wearing her SeeD uniform. Selphie often left Garden on official visits, which meant official dress. But, her tie was undone, and her jacket was unbuttoned, showing a white tank top underneath. She still had her youthful, flipped-out hairdo. She was also 27, but was still so full of life, so bouncy and bubbly, but without being a total ditz and spaz.
"Quistis is looking for you, so I offered to find you." She came in the room, doing a playful karate kick and chop, flashing a little bit of underwear. It was only Zell in the room, so she didn't care about modesty. He'd probably seen brief flashes of her underwear the hundreds of times she'd worn the short skirt of her uniform, or one of the million short skirts she owned.
"Why?" He asked her, pushing some floor mats back into place.
Selphie shrugged her slight shoulders. "Dunno. But, I do know that the White SeeD ship docked at Balamb Harbour, so Edea might be here."
"How do you always know this stuff?" Zell asked her as she continued to make up martial arts moves, saying things like 'advance upon me... if you dare', but then moving her mouth, mocking all the badly dubbed kung-fu movies that had come out of Deling City years before either of them were born.
"It's my job, stupid!" She gave him a wink. "Maybe Matron just came to see Cid, but it might be serious, especially if she took the ship instead of just waiting for the train that connects from Timber." While Cid still worked and lived at Garden, Edea was back in Centra, still running her orphanage. In the past ten years since Time Compression, a small township had been formed on the Centra continent around Edea's house, and it had slowly grown. It was still small, not quite as big as Winhill, but it was growing. Just like every town and city was growing. Timber'd had the biggest boom in population, since Esthar and Centra both had trains going in and out of there now. It was probably as big as Deling City now, and in a few more years, would rival Esthar in size. "So, make yourself presentable, and let's shake it."
Zell took off his sweaty shirt and put on a fresh black one with long sleeves. He then started to put back on his SeeD uniform, shooing Selphie out of the room so he could change his pants. He came out, and Selphie was pacing up and down the hall. "Finally!" She exclaimed, melodramatic. They walked through Garden, heading to the central elevator.
"Hopefully it's something interesting," Zell murmured, crossing his arms, still as fidgety as he'd always been.
"Yeah, this place needs some excitement." They rode to the second floor. Cid's office had moved to this floor after the bridge of Garden had destroyed his old one. Squall and Quistis had offices up here too, while Zell, Selphie, Irvine and Rinoa's offices were all in the basement. While Rinoa wasn't SeeD, she did have a job in Garden. Squall had wanted his now wife nearby, but the jobs she could do at Garden were limited, since most required a SeeD rank, or were given to Junior Cadets or SeeD in training to boost their transcripts. But, she'd become Garden's archivist and cultural historian. She transcribed historical documents, as well as looked at modern trends of the peoples of the world as well as the geography around them. It had a little to do with the Intelligence Bureau, but more just about the world, and less about intel for missions. It fit her well because she found it interesting and easy, and it was also stuff that the SeeDs were too busy to do.
Selphie and Zell walked right past Quistis's secretary, not bothering to wait to be ushered in. Quistis was expecting them, and even if she wasn't, it was Selphie and Zell, so it was okay.
"Hey, babe!" Selphie exclaimed, sailing into the room. "Oh..." She immediately sobered up when she saw there was an audience, and everyone looked so serious. "Sorry."
"Not a problem." Quistis smiled diplomatically, waving her hand to usher Selphie and Zell to sit. They did. Cid, Xu, Squall and Edea were all in the room with Quistis, and there was also a video feed set up. Laguna was shown on one block, and a man unfamiliar to them on the other one.
"What's going on?" Zell asked, folding his hands on the table.
"SeeD Captains Dincht and Tilmitt, you are acquainted with President Loire of Esthar. This gentleman is Chief Jerome Ammatt of the Timber Police Force."
Zell nodded silently. Being called SeeD Captains meant this was serious.
Quistis flicked on an LED screen, where everyone in the room could see it, as well as Laguna and Chief Ammatt on the conference call. "This is a map of Timber in full." Quistis looked to Edea. "I've just gotten some information from Edea Kramer about some sort of magical disturbance in Timber."
"It's hard to explain," Edea said nervously. "I just feel that someone is doing something powerful there, but secretly."
"This itself wouldn't be evidence enough to get SeeD involved, but Captain Ammatt has informed us about a disturbing new trend in the city that could have something to do with this magical disturbance. I've also contacted President Loire because of the sorcery research that Esthar can do." Quistis nodded to Laguna, who nodded back, smiling at everyone in the room, as jovial as usual. Quistis hit a button on her prompter, and another screen came up beside the map of Timber. "This is a product called Tricyclademi-phenyl. The street name is Blackball. It's a new drug that is creeping up in the lower class areas of Timber. It has been sold in small pockets in other cities, but Timber is where it's most prominent, especially the area known as Bridgeport Square." An area of Industrial Timber on the map turned red to draw attention to it. "This doesn't necessarily indicate that the product is being manufactured there. It's just where the most users seem to be based."
Zell looked around the room briefly as Quistis explained everything. Squall was as silent as usual, but he was paying attention. Xu was looking at some papers, for she'd already heard this information.
"Because Timber is the hub city of the world, Tricyclademi-phenyl could be manufactured anywhere, and being brought in by train or boat. With the population boom, it's hard to track any nefarious agents that may have set up camp there. But, because of Mrs. Kramer's sense of magical presence there, we can assume that the drug's production is someway steeped with magic, thus making tracking a little easier, since not everyone in the world knows real magic."
"It may not be real magic," Laguna pointed out on the screen. "People can use items all the time to get the same effect as magical properties, and we all know that items can be found everywhere, and can be used by everyone."
Quistis nodded. "That's correct. Now, Chief Ammatt had contacted SeeD a month prior to today about the Blackball issue, and we've been working on some sort of agreement. We will be drawing up a contract with the Timber Police Squad, sending SeeD in to examine this problem before it grows to a global problem." The blonde SeeD hit a button and a contract came up on the screen, the words big enough that everyone could read it. "This is the contract that has been drawn up. Chief Ammatt has already signed it, and now we just need SeeD to sign and go." Quistis then looked at Zell and Selphie. "We have nominated Captains Dincht and Tilmitt for immediate placement."
Zell furrowed his brow. "That's all fine and good, but we have jobs...." He trailed off. Going on a mission would be wonderful, but he did have duties here.
"Substitutes will be issued for that." Quistis looked to Xu. "Xu?"
Xu rose to her feet, looking at Zell and Selphie. She handed them both packets, which they ripped open. "Inside are your copies of the contract, which you may read before signing. Also, there is information about where you'll be staying in the city. We don't want this to be a grandiose affair, so you'll be renting apartments in downtown Timber. We don't want to draw attention to the fact that you're SeeD. You'll be leaving seizure and arrest to the Timber Police, but since they do have other duties, this will be a recon mission in conjunction with what they've done already. Crime rate in Bridgeport Square, the hardest hit area of the city, is rampant, so your SeeD skills will come in handy. We decided to send top ranking, because this sort of danger level would be too high for a SeeD fresh off graduation." Xu stopped to bring up more information on the drug. "You also have information on the side effects of taking the drug, as well as what we know about its makeup, which isn't much. Selphie, this is where your skills for Intelligence will come in handy. Zell, you will be..."
"Hired muscle," he finished, already signing his contract. Anticipation was rising in Zell. He couldn't wait to feel useful again.
"Exactly." Xu touched her nose with her index finger. "You will brief yourselves on all this information before shipping out for Timber tomorrow. SeeD Rank 4 Kinneas will also be joining you in Timber on a later date, for he is already out on assignment."
Zell could see that this news made Selphie's day even better. Irvine had been sent away to Trabia for some fact-finding mission about some new breeds of monsters, as well as a gang of nomads that were blocking trade routs to Trabia Garden.
"And, before leaving, you will also have a meeting with Agent Heartilly-Leonhart, which is scheduled for as soon as we break here. She will give you information on the population of Timber over the past few years, as well as business trends and trade routes. It will give you insight to people you may want to pay special attention to."
Selphie nodded, also signing her contract. "I notice that it's open-ended. Are we to be in Timber until this Blackball thing is resolved?"
"That's the plan," Quistis interjected.
"Now," Cid said, standing up. "We will send you constant briefings through conference calls. All the equipment will be set up for you at your residences by a Garden tech team. President Loire and my wife will continue to brief us on happenings."
Chief Ammatt then spoke. "I would just like to thank Garden for their help on this growing problem. I have duties to attend to, so I will look forward to seeing both Captains Dincht and Tilmitt at Timber Police Headquarters when they arrive in the city." He smiled, and severed his connection.
"I should go, too." Laguna winked at everyone. "Don't be a stranger, son. And, I'll get that dumbass Odine to look into magical item properties."
"Prezident Loire... I am in ze room!" A squeaky voice cried from the background. Laguna rolled his eyes and cut off his connection.
Squall's cheeks coloured slightly with embarrassment. He was the one who spoke next. "These are just release forms to say that you're taking a Junctioned GF away from Garden property. Standard."
Zell looked at his form, and saw that they were releasing Ifrit to him. It was a good choice, since out of all the 'gang', he had the highest compatibility with the Summon of Fire. Selphie was sort of a Jill-of-all-Trades when it came to GF use, so her assigned Summon would be more random. Selphie held up her sheet to show Zell. She would be taking Cactuar, which wasn't as impressive a GF as Ifrit, but still a competent and strong one. Selphie seemed pleased with the choice.
"Upon release," Squall continued, sounding like his speech had been rehearsed for hours. "You may change GF abilities to what you think will suit you best. We have all the items necessary in store." He nodded a couple times, as if satisfied with his blurb.
"Okay. Good luck guys." Quistis then smiled, some of her cold and professional veneer fading, becoming more friendly.
"Matron!" Selphie called as the group broke apart. "What sort of magical power are you feeling?"
"I wish I could be more specific, dear. I've left one of my nurses in charge at the orphanage, and I'm going to head to Esthar and work with Laguna and Odine. Perhaps things will become clearer with some meditation and research."
"I will also be going to Esthar," Cid pointed out. "It will be good to set up some sort of SeeD influence there since we'll be doing some research. Squall and Quistis can handle things here."
Selphie then started talking to Matron about the orphanage, so Zell went across the room to where Squall was looking through some documents, typically anti-social. "Squall?"
"Hmm?" He didn't bother looking up, but Zell didn't take it personally. He supposed he could consider himself Squall's best friend. "I just want to say... um, goodbye you know? We might be in Timber for a long time."
Squall looked up, his scarred brow creasing a little. "It won't be forever," he said blandly, without emotion. "You and Selphie should get down to see Rinoa."
"Right." Zell clapped Squall on the shoulder, turning to leave, all his documents in his hand.
"Oh...!" Squall called out, handing Zell a card. "You and Selphie can get weapon upgrades before leaving. Whatever you need."
"Thanks," Zell said. That was Squall's way of saying goodbye. Zell waved his arm to get Selphie's attention. They both hugged Matron and went down to the basement.
"I guess we got our excitement," Selphie said gleefully as they went across the painted floor that had once led to NORG.
"I can't wait to leave," Zell murmured. "To just travel again...."
"You going to say goodbye to Ma first?"
"Of course." Zell winked at her as they stepped into Rinoa's office. She'd made the windowless room cheery with lots of plants and a fountain in the corner. The shelves were exploding with scrolls, books and documents.
"Hey!" Rinoa exclaimed, standing up from behind her desk, tucking some black hair behind her ear. "Did the meeting go well?"
"Very." Zell and Selphie sat down in the chairs across from Rinoa. She had a bunch of books and stuff on her desk, all open.
"I'm gonna miss you guys, you know?" She sniffed playfully, then smiled brightly. "It kind of reminds me of the contract that you two and Squall signed for the Timber Owls. That you didn't know when you were going to go home."
"Hopefully this one doesn't turn into fighting an evil sorceress," Selphie pointed out. "Though, I'd like to give that lady a zap or two." She balled her small hands into fists and then popped Zell in the shoulder.
"Ow," Zell exclaimed. "Your ring in sharp."
Rinoa laughed, turning to a book. "Okay, Timber... Timber. It's changed a lot since I've last been there."
"It's gotten a lot bigger," Selphie pointed out.
"The population has more than doubled. In size because of the industrial warehouses and all the train related infrastructure, it's larger than Deling, though Deling still has a little more in terms of population, because of the congestion of downtown there, and the fact that they have many more skyscraper apartment buildings." Rinoa cocked her head, her hair falling over her shoulder again. She tucked it behind her ears once more. "The population..." She scanned the page with her finger. "Well, it's a lot of blue collar, which is probably why Blackball is so successful there. But, lately there have been a lot of rich businessmen coming in, taking advantage of the boom. Companies from Deling, Esthar and Dollet have set up offices there because of the ease of travel. Esthar and Galbadia have put a lot of money into maintaining the rails." She unfurled a map of the city. "Okay, I'll make some copies of this for you guys." She jabbed the paper. "Bridgeport Square is the place you'll be most interested in. Crime there is brutal. Hell, it was brutal when I lived there years ago, so I can only imagine how scary it is now. The problem is that Bridgeport is kind of central to a lot of different areas." She stuck her tongue out and smiled. "I'm not used to talking this much at work."
"Squall's rubbing off on you," Zell teased, though there was truth in the barb.
"He is." She rolled her almond-shaped eyes, turning back to the map. "See, Bridgeport Square isn't the heart of the city, but it borders all the major centres. Downtown is still rather untouched, but all the expansion has been around the outer edges. Westphal goes around the back end of Bridgeport, along the waterfront. Westphal is where all the new money is, where all the big mansions and richy rich people live. You two will be set up in...." She scanned the map. "South Timber, I believe."
Selphie looked at her sheet. "Yeah."
"It's a nice area, bordering Westphal. So, you'll get some rich people there who aren't rich enough to live in the mansions. But, it also borders Bridgeport, so when you get closer, you'll notice that the houses get a little scummier looking. Not all Bridgeport is poor drug dealers. It's also a big industrial area, so Blackball creates a big problem with the work-force. In South Timber, you'll kind of be close to everything, including Timber Police Headquarters."
"You know a lot about this," Selphie said with wonder.
Rinoa smiled. "Thanks. I really like this job. It's better than just sitting at home, barefoot in the kitchen waiting for Squall to come home every day." She finished explaining about Timber, pointing out some places of interest to them. "Oh, I know that Squall probably mentioned that you can upgrade weapons before leaving. Well, you might want to, but wanna suggestion?"
"Sure....?" Zell cocked his head.
"Well, because of the machinists in Timber, they also have good weapons shops. The old one from when I lived there before, by the Hotel, consolidated with a larger firm. They're the ones that outfit Garden Cadets with all their weapons, and have a contract with us. You could just do it there, since it's the same people."
"Thanks." Zell stood up. "Can you make those copies and send them to our rooms. We should probably get to briefing ourselves, and we still have to pick up our Summons."
Rinoa nodded. "Sure thing!"
Selphie quickly hugged Rinoa. "Don't let Squall get too serious." She skipped out of the room, Zell following behind.
"Zell!" Rinoa called. "Hang on a second." She walked towards him, standing close. Her voice lowered. "I know Squall doesn't show it, but he'll miss you. I mean, you are his best friend, after all."
Zell put a friendly hand on Rinoa's shoulder. "Yeah, I know. But, thanks anyway." Zell left Rinoa's office and went to his own, which was just down the hall, shutting the door behind him. He sat behind his desk. Zell didn't use his office all that often. Only when he had to make up tests and then grade them. He put his feet up on the desk and started to read about Blackball, but he got bored quickly. His pale eyes wandered to an older issue of Combat King that he'd left on the desk. His hand went for it, and he started flipping through the pages. He knew this specific issue inside and out. It was the one that showed a new move called Lucky Slots, developed by a female martial artist out of Dollet named Lockheart. But, it was also the issue where it showed the magazine's models showing off the new move. Combat King had hired martial artists to do pictorial spreads on each of the moves given, to protect themselves from some dumb kid doing the move wrong, and thus getting sued when said dumb kid injured themself. Zell knew the move off by heart, but he still looked at the pictures, at the shirtless models, muscles glistening with sweat and looking so masculine....
Zell put a hand to his forehead, his office suddenly feeling very warm. Zell's eyes travelled over the way the model's small shorts accentuated the lines of his groin, how the sweat made the fabric cling, showing which way he'd dressed that day. Zell turned the magazine upside down on the desk, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes. Nobody in Garden knew that Zell liked men. No, not just liked them. Loved them. Garden and SeeD didn't always look favourably on that sort of thing, so Zell had kept quiet. He'd also dated a few girls to keep up the charade, but it just made him tired, so for the past 8 or so years, he'd been celibate in the eyes of his friends and comrades. Of course, they didn't know about the few one night stands he'd had while in Balamb Town for the evening. But, one night stands weren't what Zell wanted. He wanted a boyfriend, a lover. Someone who would be around for a long time. He wanted to be with someone who loved him, like how Squall had Rinoa, and how Selphie had Irvine. Even if Garden turned into a floating gay bar, Zell just.... wasn't ready to come out. It was one of those things where he needed something to give him that push, that strength to do it. He hadn't told anyone, not Selphie, not his mother.... He just didn't have the words yet. Zell wondered if he ever would. He was getting near 30. He had to stop being such a coward about it. But, then there was that whole problem of SeeD's 'anti-promiscuity' laws, and through some loopholes, homosexuality fell into that rule.
Zell shook his head. He needed to concentrate on something besides the defined abs of page 139. He started to read up on Blackball again. It sounded like a very nefarious drug. He was just getting into the heart of reading when the Garden's mail girl came in, delivering his letters. She quickly left, a shy girl, but also a busy one.
Zell chucked some unimportant notices to the side, stopping when he saw the new issue of Combat King. Well, crap. Just when he was getting immersed in work. But, of course Zell opened the magazine. There were a few hot guys showing new stretching exercises that Zell read about, finding interesting for more reasons than ripped male bodies. But, this issue wasn't as hot as some of the other ones, because there were also moves geared more for female martial artists, and thus had the female models. He flipped through the thing, noticing a one-page ad spread that caught his attention. It was a simple ad, but it was the address that made him notice. It was in Timber. An independent weapon's shop called Archimedes Weaponry and Smithy. There were some testimonials from some famous people in the weapons industry, even one from Martine of Galbadia Garden. Zell wrote down the address: 2843 Lord Chadwick Avenue, Timber- Alraune. TI-08725. Alraune was a section of downtown Timber. There was also a telephone number. Zell liked to keep on top of weaponry issues, so maybe this was something to look into, especially because Vidilic Arms had fallen in Zell's opinion of late. They liked to cut corners to save money, and while their weapons were useable, they were impersonal, not customized for the user.
"Hey, Zell!" called Rinoa's voice from the other side of the door. Zell snapped the Combat King shut, as if he were looking at porn. Because he got so aroused by it, he often forgot that it was a perfectly innocent magazine, especially for a martial artist like himself.
"I just heard some news you might be interested in!"
"The day after you and Selphie get to Timber, there's going to be a charity fundraiser that's open to the public. It's at an art gallery in Westphal, hosted by some guy who owns a fabric warehouse. Count Aka-Manah, or something. I already told Selphie about it. You two should go. It would give you some good insight to the social....err, fabric." She laughed with a wink.
"Count Aka-Manah? Oooh, la-di-dah."
"He's apparently very wealthy, and handsome from what I've heard......" Rinoa had her hands clasped in front of her chest.
Zell cleared his throat. "You are a married woman, remember?"
"I'm sure Squall thinks about pretty girls that aren't me."
Zell snorted. "I'm sure he doesn't."
"Eh, you're probably right." She waved a hand. "Anyway.... he's done a lot to build up Westphal and the other areas of Timber. He's even tried to clean up Bridgeport Square, which is a daunting task. A real pillar of the community."
Zell nodded. "We'll check it out."
Rinoa smiled her charming smile. "Great. Don't forget to pick up Ifrit."
"Shit." Zell watched as Rinoa left. He'd been so wrapped up in his sexual fantasies that he had forgotten. He got up, trying to shake the image of sweaty, beautiful and masculine men from his head, and focus on the mission that was before him.
Edea stared out at the ocean as it whizzed by. They were riding the Rainbow Bridge train to Esthar. Cid was seated beside her, reading over some documents while his wife was a million miles away.
"Dear?" Cid asked gently, putting a hand over one of her own. "Thinking about the orphanage?"
She smiled sadly, looking at her husband. "No. I know the children will be okay."
"Have you felt anything new?" He asked quietly, love and concern filling his blue eyes, flecked with peridot green.
Edea shook her head. "No, love. I wish I could be more specific. What if I've sent everyone on a wild goose chase?"
"I doubt it," Cid replied. "You're always right about these sort of things."
"It just feels.... like a very powerful magician, with magic that.... it feels very old and powerful. And dark. This is a black magician, through and through. And, a dangerous one. This power feels even darker than.... hers did."
"It must be bad, because you seem very worried." Cid stroked the side of his wife's face. "But, I have a feeling that it isn't only that."
Edea pursed her darkly painted lips. "You do know me well, don't you?" She looked out at the ocean again, feeling sadness in her heart, an emptiness. "It's been 10 years."
"Since we saw him, Cid."
Cid's face clouded, and he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I don't think Seifer wants to be found, Edea."
"We should have told him the truth."
"I know, but.... how could we have so soon after Ultimecia possessed him through you? He couldn't stand the sight of you because of it."
"It isn't me he hates. It's Ultimecia. And, she'll never go away. I have her power, but.... she stains everyone she touches. Her resonance will never leave him, and it must be killing him."
Cid's eyes narrowed, and he looked at his wife's profile. "You don't think....?"
"What?" She asked, slowly cocking her head, black hair cascading down her shoulder. "That he is what I'm feeling? No, I don't believe that for a second. What I'm feeling is old. Very old."
"What could possibly be that old, though? If it was a Sorceress, we would have known about her. That much power can't hide forever."
"No, it can't. That's what's so vexing." Edea looked out the window again, and the endless ocean became the rocky coast of the Esthar continent, and then into the buildings of the technological and futuristic city. At the train station, Laguna was there to meet them personally. He greeted the couple with his usual big smile and endearing charm. He gave Cid a firm handshake and hug, and kissed both Edea's cheeks.
"Thanks for coming so fast," Laguna said as they got in a car. "I've got that little troll working on research, so hopefully he'll have something within the next day or two."
"I feel like I've created a big fuss over nothing, Laguna."
He snorted ungracefully. "You're always right about these things, Edea."
"That's what I said." Cid playfully tapped the Sorceress's shoulder.
"Besides," Laguna said as Esthar whizzed by them en route to the Presidential Palace. "Everyone was already aware of the growing problems in Timber. This just sort of gave everyone that kick in the ass we needed to really pay attention to it."
Edea just murmured under her breath, looking at the city as Laguna and Cid started discussing how they would set up base of operations. She started thinking about Seifer again, like she did often. She knew where all here other 'children' were, under Cid's care at Garden, but Seifer... he'd vanished after Time Compression. Edea had tried to find him, to make some sort of peace with him, but it had been fruitless. She wanted to apologize for ever letting Ultimecia touch him in any way, and she just wanted to see him again. Also, she and Cid wanted to tell him the truth.... the truth that they should have told him years ago, but didn't to protect him. Adel may have been restrained in Space by Laguna, but that didn't mean she was gone forever, and Edea hadn't wanted to take that chance.
"We're here..." Laguna said quietly, tapping Edea's knee to get her attention.
"Oh." She laughed in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I went off somewhere else."
"Faeries can do that..." Laguna mused happily.
"Faeries?" Edea echoed as Cid went on ahead of them, speaking to a few SeeD who had been stationed in the city for a few months already.
"Oh, that's just what I called it when I got a strange feeling. Like when Elle was using her powers. Ah, she'll be helping you, if that's okay."
"I don't think you could say no to her anyway. She's a stubborn little brat sometimes." He winked, and it made Edea laugh.
"I'm guessing she picked none of that up from you?"
"No, no... of course not." He put his hands in his pockets, smiling. "She's.... great. I just wish Squall and I could get that close."
"Give him time," the dark-haired woman mused, her mind drifting off again.
"You're thinking about Seifer, aren't you?" Laguna asked, the playfulness gone out of his voice.
"How did you know?"
"Because I know." He put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. "I've been in your place, Edea. You know that. That's why you confided in me."
Edea nodded sadly, covering Laguna's hand with her own, feeling close to him. It was true. Laguna did indeed know how Edea, and also Cid, felt. He'd gone through it with Squall, and that's why Edea had gone to him for advice. Advice about the son that she'd lied to her entire life. Edea and Cid hadn't told anyone about it other than Laguna. That Seifer was their son. Edea had done it to protect him from Adel. Even back then, Edea had been a powerful witch, and Adel would have loved to have gotten her hand on the great Sorceress Edea's child, even if he weren't a girl. And, even with Adel gone, she wasn't dead, so Edea had still kept quiet. At least when Seifer had gone to Garden, he'd been under Cid's care, so she'd always known how he was doing, if he was okay.... And, it had worked out well that Seifer more resembled Edea's mother with his pale hair and green eyes, so it wasn't obvious that he was Cid and Edea's child.
She had wanted to tell him the truth during Time Compression, but she'd hurt him so much that it didn't seem the time. And, then he'd disappeared. Edea's heart ached with worry and concern for him, the only child she could ever have. It had been a difficult pregnancy, so after Seifer was born, Edea hadn't been able to bear any more children. She wanted to see Seifer so badly, and yet... part of her worry was that it was best that she never saw him again, because of how Ultimecia had touched all their lives. Whenever Edea was around Rinoa, she felt a humming in the core of her, where all her power was. It tingled her limbs and made her body feel warm. It was because of Ultimecia's hand, of the stain it had left on Rinoa's soul. Edea wondered if the same would be true for Seifer.
"Yes," Edea said lowly. "And, you've been wonderful to help."
"I hate to see such a pretty lady in pain." Laguna comically puffed out his chest.
She shook her head, crossing her arms over her stomach. "Well, I should be concentrating on tasks at hand." She bit her lip, and resolved to keep her mind in the present.
"Zell and Selphie are both tenacious. Watch them solve this problem by tomorrow morning." Laguna flipped some of his greying hair over his shoulder.
Edea frowned. "I wish it were that simple, Laguna. If what I'm feeling is correct, than there's more going on in Timber than just a few poor souls taking drugs."
"I hope you're wrong," he whispered as they walked into the grand Presidential Palace.
"I hope I am, too."
"This place isn't so bad," Selphie mused, flopping down on a couch. "At least it's furnished."
Zell looked around. Selphie had her own apartment, and Zell had one next door in the large, old abandoned warehouse that had been furnished into living quarters. There would be a door connecting them, good for when they had to contact Garden.
"It's okay," Zell said. He did appreciate that it was furnished, but a lot of the furniture didn't match. "I'm not to wild about the bed, though."
"Why?" Selphie asked, winking. "It's not like it's too small for you, shorty."
Zell put his hands on his hips. "The mattress is too hard, and I like a lot of room, okay?"
She laughed, jumping up. "I can't wait until Irvine sees it."
"What, my bed?" Zell asked.
"No, stupid!" She swatted him, looking out the window. "This place. We've got a nice view... kind of like an ant farm." They both looked out the window to see downtown in the distance, the people moving with purpose, trains coming and going. "Oh!" Selphie exclaimed, going to her fridge. She pulled out a bottle of grape juice. "I thought up a new name for my band!"
Zell rolled his eyes, going towards the door that connected Selphie's apartment to his. "A: you change the name of your band almost every day, and B: you don't have a band!"
"Well, I don't see how that's relevant."
Zell opened the door and started to leave.
"Don't you want to know what the name is?" Selphie asked, mock-pleading.
"Okay, okay. What?"
"It sucks. Though, it's better than Selphie and the Selphiecats."
She stuck out her tongue. "Don't forget about that thing this evening with the Count." She made a hissing noise, baring her teeth and raising her arms up. "Tonight I suck your blood!"
Zell just closed the door, going into his apartment. They had leave to paint and redecorate if they wished, and Zell really thought he would do that. The pattern of the wallpaper was something that an old lady would like, and the couch was all lumpy. And, the carpet was threadbare in places. When Zell had stopped by his mother's house to say goodbye, he'd picked up a few mail-order catalogues for Timber. His mother loved mail-order, and had catalogues from all over the world. He started looking through it, seeing a bed that he really liked. He called and placed an order, as well as for some sheets and drapes. Zell's home decorating skills were something that only a few people knew about. His mother, and unfortunately Squall and Selphie because of when they'd been in his room when a possessed Edea along with Seifer, Fujin and Raijin had commandeered Balamb Town.
By the time he'd done this, it was time to start to get ready. It wasn't a black tie affair, but still a nice one. So, Zell would be stuck wearing a suit. Zell's taste in clothes had mellowed as he'd aged, but he still didn't like wearing a suit and tie. He took a shower and got dressed, wrestling with his tie for ten minutes. He also put on his fighting gloves. He never left the house without them. Part habit, part paranoia.
"You clean up nice!" Selphie exclaimed. She said that every time she saw Zell dressed up.
"You should have knocked," he muttered, straightening the navy silk tie. "I could have been undressed in here."
"I know." She waggled her eyebrows, standing in his line of view. "Well?"
"How do I look?" She posed on the spot.
"Okay, I guess." She looked rather lovely, wearing a pale blue dress with an old fashioned, strapless bodice. The skirt billowed out in pale layers of chiffon and silk, and she wore strappy powder blue shoes to match.
She smacked him with her purse. "You wouldn't know a sexy lady if she bit you on the ass."
Zell just smirked, Selphie's words hitting closer to the truth than she was aware.
They took a trolley into Westphal, towards the Forest Tear Art Museum. As they got closer, more expensive cars started to appear, as well as people dressed in expensive clothing. Selphie looped her arm through Zell's as they climbed the steps to the front doors. There were men in tuxedos handing out leaflets and further in, handing out flutes of champagne. "Pretend you're my date, Zell."
He just grunted, taking a glass of champagne. He already felt uncomfortable and wanted to go back to his new apartment and make it his own. He wanted to unpack the few belongings he'd brought with him. He wanted to put up new wallpaper, go food shopping, and do all those things that could make just a place to sleep an actual home. In typical Selphie fashion, she started conversing with strangers as if she'd known them for years. Zell just wandered away, looking at the art and sculpture. There were some really nice works from all over the world, and Zell appreciated them enough that it didn't make the entire night a bust. He paid careful attention to a portrait of some man on a huge horse in a battlefield. He was holding a large lance, looking regal and victorious. He was exceedingly handsome, wearing a crown of horns. There was something hypnotic about it.
"Do you enjoy this painting?" A man asked over Zell's shoulder, his voice carrying an accent that Zell couldn't place. "I'm rather fond of it myself."
Zell turned to face the man who was speaking to him. A tall man with long black hair and a very attractive face. Not just attractive. Beautiful. Pretty, even. His hair wasn't just black. It was the purest colour of night, and his body was long and lean, full of grace. Though he was exceedingly attractive, he didn't arouse Zell. This pretty man just wasn't Zell's type, but there was something about him that Zell found... strange. Almost like they'd met before. It wasn't an entirely pleasant feeling.
"Who is the man?" Zell asked, keeping his eyes shrewdly on the pretty man's face.
He shrugged, his eyes black as his hair, but there was a shockingly icy ring of blue around the pupil. But, Zell got the impression that he knew. "Who can say? A King of old, perhaps." He smiled, baring straight white teeth. "Do you like the gallery?"
"I guess." Zell wasn't sure if he was being hit on, for this man's voice sounded flirty, and yet... menacing at the same time.
"I'm glad. I'm Daeva Aka-Manah."
"Oh, the Count."
His grin widened, showing amusement. "Yes. Do I... know you from somewhere?" He seemed amused by his own question. "I get this... feeling from you."
"No...." Zell trailed off. "We've never met."
Daeva cocked a dark eyebrow. "Well, we've met now." His black and blue eyes moved across the room, to where Selphie was approaching. Her purposeful stride faltered a little under the Count's gaze. "You have a lovely date."
"Oh, thank you...." Selphie murmured, taking the compliment gracefully, almost shyly. He wondered if she felt that same strangeness about Count Aka-Manah.
Daeva introduced himself to her, and he kissed the back of her hand. Selphie smiled, her eyes never leaving Daeva's face.
"I feel the same..." He elegantly waved his hand. "Lovely familiarity with you. Do you feel it to?"
"No," Selphie said, blushing a little. "I think I'd remember someone like you."
Zell couldn't help but roll his eyes a little. Selphie wasn't the sort of woman to get this flustered around a man, so the blonde couldn't understand why she was acting so... girlish.
"Have you ever been to one of my functions before?"
"We're new in town," Zell murmured. He kind of had a familiar feeling about the King in the painting, too. It was almost like he would jump alive, and his horse would gallop right into the room.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to mingle with the other guests." Daeva bowed to them, the crowd of well-dressed people enveloping him.
Selphie cocked her head, standing beside Zell in front of the painting of the King on the horse. "He's very handsome."
"Yeah," Zell echoed, though it was without feeling.
Selphie looked at him. "You aren't socializing you know? You're acting like Squall."
"I hate these kind of things."
"Well, while you're off by yourself talking to sexy rich men, I've been getting a feel for things here. It's interesting to hear people talk about Bridgeport Square."
Zell snorted. "These people, Selphie? Please... they're all rich snobs." He put his empty champagne flute on a tray. "I'm leaving."
"What?" She asked, blinking at him. "We just got here, Zell." Her voice lowered. "And, it's part of our mission..."
"I know." He started walking to the door. "I'm going to go wander around the city for a while. Why don't you stay here and make chit-chat?"
"Zell!" She huffed. But, he just kept leaving, wanting to be out of that stuffy place with its stuffy people and the almost creepy feeling he got from Daeva Aka-Manah. There was something familiar about him, and a little unsettling. It had seemed on one hand that Daeva had been flirting with him, but on the other hand, that he was being predatory, like a cat playing with a mouse. Or, maybe Zell was just so removed from men flirting with each other that he didn't even react properly to it anymore. He rubbed his forehead, huffing. Zell removed his tie and loosened his shirt, untucking it from his pants. He walked along the streets of the Westphal district of Timber, hedging towards where it bordered the infamous Bridgeport Square. It was still daytime, but Zell could see why people found it a little foreboding. The buildings were all tall and stout, like hulking creatures on the skyline. Everything also had an industrial feel. The housing looked okay, though. But, perhaps that was because of its nearness to this more wealthy area of the city.
The blonde martial artist wasn't particularly afraid, and knew he could take care of himself, so he started to walk along the streets of Bridgeport Square. Getting more towards the heart of it, the buildings started to get shabbier, and Zell felt the dead eyes of homeless watching him from the dark crevices of alleys. It was really quite unfortunate, that some people in the city, like Aka-Manah, could be so rich, and yet there was all this depression and poverty here. Zell kept walking, moving away from the center of the Square, finding himself in a more commercial area. There were a few taller buildings, but most of the cafes, shops and various other businesses like lawyers and insurance people all had their offices running out of modified old houses. Zell scratched the tattooed side of his face as he found himself not sure where he was. He looked up at the street names, just continuing to walk. Wandering through Timber like this was really giving him a feel for the city. When he found himself at a trolley stop, he looked at the map on the side of the shelter. He was in the Alraune section of town. That jogged his memory. "Alraune.... Alraune," he mused to himself. "Ah, that weapon's place." As he'd walked, the sky had started to cloud over. It looked like rain. He'd probably have to pick up a trolley to South Timber.
A girl who was waiting for a streetcar looked at him as if he were crazy for talking to himself. Zell smiled sheepishly and looked at the map again. The smithy had been on... Lord something street. He found it on the map. Lord Chadwick Street. So, Zell started off again, stopping at an item store on the way. He decided to look to see what they had. Since in their briefing, it had been mentioned that someone could have used the magical properties of items to synthesize Blackball, maybe this was a good place to start.
"Is there anything I can help you with?" A pleasant clerk asked, hands folded at the small of his back.
"Just looking right now, thanks."
The clerk nodded and went behind the desk again. Zell looked at some Dragon Skins, remembering a time when any clerk in the world, or most people for that matter, would have recognized his face as one of the SeeD who helped right Time Compression. They had been celebrities, famous. But, people had short memories, and now Zell never got recognized for much. Maybe that's why Daeva had wondered if they'd met before. Maybe he'd remembered Zell from all those years ago. It felt like a lifetime to him. He'd just been a child then.
Zell's attention was caught by some Steel Orbs for sale. He bought a small case of 5. He was sure that these were just plain items, but because of what form Blackball was in, this was a good start, though he was sure everyone had already immediately gone that route. But, they hadn't had SeeD training in items and alchemy. Zell decided that looking at these would do until he was settled in enough to actually delve into the world of Bridgeport Square, and find out everything about Blackballing. He bought the items and continued to walk, stopping again when he saw a place that sold lamps. One in the window caught his eye, a minimalist metal one, so he purchased it. It would look nice with his new bed. It was small, so he could easily carry it in the bag they gave him. Zell chucked the Steel Orbs in with the lamp and kept walking, finally finding Archimedes Weapon and Smithy. It had a nice wooden door that actually had a bell on it, pleasantly chiming when Zell went in. Along with the sign telling the hours, there was also a small yet prominent warning on the door. "Warning: Will Not Sell To Customers Without A Valid Weapons Permit And ID." Zell smiled at the bell on the door and the way it creaked. It felt like a shop that would be in Balamb Town. Inside, the shop was two levels, the second level being basically a border around the top one, so the clerk could see up there, too. Shelves lined the wall, a catwalk winding around the outer perimeter of the store, making the ceiling very high. There were many swords, guns and other such weapons on display on both floors, but there were also shelves of neatly displayed items, as well as shelves and racks of magazines and books, all relating to weapons, items or martial arts studies. Though, Zell also noticed a common interest rack. There were accessories that had to do with weapons like cases and gun oils and metal polish for swords.
"Good afternoon!" The clerk behind the desk called pleasantly. She wore spectacles, and had been straightening bullets which were in a glass case behind the register. Her nametag said Xera. "How's it going?"
"Fine," Zell answered. He noticed that there were a few items on the shelves that he was unfamiliar with. He went over to the cash, where the young woman was looking at him with curiosity. "I was looking to get my weapon upgraded."
"Okay. What sort of weapon?"
Zell held out his hands.
Xera the clerk eyed his gloves. "Nice." She looked at him seriously for a moment. "I'll need to see your weapons permit and a valid ID."
"Sure." Zell dug around for his wallet, showing his permit and his SeeD Identification.
Xera looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Wow, a SeeD? Are you sure you aren't looking for Vidilic Arms? I know that they have a contract with the Gardens."
"I know," Zell answered, casually leaning on the counter. There was an orange tree in the corner near the window that gave off a pleasant smell. "I wanted to come here instead."
"We don't really deal with SeeD contract, though. It's more one-on-one weapon development."
"That's perfect." Zell waved his hand. "Do you do the alterations?"
"No," she said with a snort. "Unless you want me to screw it up. I just run the register. Our boss does all that stuff. Because it's all done by hand instead of the way Vidilic does it, you might have to wait until morning to get them back."
Zell shrugged. "I have extras. I've heard good things about this place."
Xera smiled. "Okay, I'll just need some information from you...." She started to type some things into the computer register. "Oh, since you're a martial artist, do you want some Xiphias Balm? Mr. Emaissyl swears by it."
"That your boss?" Zell asked.
"Yeah. You get a free one with your weapon upgrade. You know about it?"
"Yeah, and that would be nice." Xiphias Balm was a cream that warmed up on contact with the skin, made from the glands of the Xiphias swordfish, as well as ground up fire crystals. It worked wonders on sore and pulled muscles.
"Okay..." She took Zell's ID and started to type some stuff in. "What sort do you do?"
"What style do you fight in?" Xera asked.
"Kickboxing mostly. Though I've picked up a few techniques from other styles."
Xera typed it in, drumming her fingers against her hip as she waited for the screen to finish loading. She then started examining Zell's gloves, typing in the ingredients that were used to make it.
"What type does your boss do?" Zell asked, interested. "You said he used Xiphias Balm?"
Xera smiled sheepishly. "I don't really know. He's never brought it up. He's kind of quiet."
Zell cocked his head as she continued to look at his gloves.
"Are these veins in the Dragon Skin... energy crystals?"
"Yeah," Zell answered. "Say, can I ask you something?"
"Uh, okay?" Xera looked away from the screen.
"What do you know about Bridgeport Square?"
Xera's face darkened. "Oh. I thought you were going to ask me for a date or something." She laughed, but it was a bark. "I know that I almost got mugged there last week."
"Because it's a shit-hole. Some Blackballer wanted money."
"Blackballing..." Zell trailed off. "What do you know about it?"
"What, is this for a mission or something?"
"Just curious," he answered.
"It's not like I know a bunch about it. But, it's been in all the papers recently. Super addictive. The people go crazy for it, you know? I think they hear voices or something."
"And, da-da.... da-da," Xera muttered under her breath, typing in more stuff. "Okay, what we can do is add some stretched crystal fangs into the knuckles for some more hardness."
"Crystal fang?" Zell echoed. "I've never heard of it."
Xera smiled sheepishly. "It's exclusive to us, at least for now. It comes from a rock toad that lives in deep caves around Northern Galbadia. Very rare."
"What are the properties?"
Xera came out from behind the counter, going down one of the item aisles. She pulled out a small case, opening it. "Touch."
Zell picked up one of the fangs, which seemed strange to be in a toad. It was diamond hard.
"When it's melted, it retains a lot of flexibility. We can put some fresh Dragon Skin, too. How would you feel about uncleaned skin? The other day, Mr. Emaissyl came back with some Ruby Dragon skins."
"Actually, that would be great. And, go with the Crystal Fangs."
"And, to vein the skin, you can either have Energy Crystals, or Star Fragments."
"Energy Crystals. I've had good luck with them."
Xera nodded, going back to the computer. She entered some more stuff. The bell rang on the door as another customer came in. He was wearing a hooded black jacket hiding most of his face. It was dripping with water. Zell looked out the window, seeing that it had indeed started raining.
"Oh, Mr. Emaissyl. Good timing!"
Raef Emaissyl took his hood off, shaking some water out of his chocolate brown hair. He also took off his glasses, which were spotted with water. "Oh?" He asked blandly. He'd just gotten back from the Winhill area, getting some more items for weapon forging. He wiped his glasses, putting them back on, looking at the customer with Xera.
Zell's eyes widened, and his lips parted. He wondered if he'd stepped off the streets of Timber and into a parallel universe. Zell wasn't seeing brown hair and glasses. He was seeing blonde hair and a cruel smirk from years ago.
"This is my boss," Xera said. "Raef Emaissyl."
Raef felt like he'd taken a blow to the solar plexus, seeing a face that was familiar to him, a face from a past he'd been trying to forget about. "Zell...." He trailed off, caught completely off-guard. The store started to feel hot, and Raef had to breathe heavier to bring oxygen into his lungs.
Zell just shook his head, looking at his old classmate and bully, Seifer Almasy. "What are you doing here...?" He asked, voice choked out.
"I could ask you the same thing."
"It seems that you two know each other," Xera said, either not noticing the tension in the air, or not caring. "I'd always wondered if you'd gone to Garden, Mr. Emaissyl. Especially after last week."
Seifer, now known as Raef, jerked his head quickly, looking at Xera. "Why don't you take a lunch break?" He asked in a way that was anything but a question.
"Ummmm, okay. What about his order....?" Xera looked over to Zell.
"I'll deal with it."
Zell looked at Seifer, completely nailed to the ground. Neither man said anything, nor moved as Xera collected her coat and umbrella and went out into the town.
"What are you doing here?" Seifer demanded, finding some composure, his voice coming out calmer than he was feeling.
"I came to get my weapon upgraded," Zell muttered, completely shocked. "You own this place?" He asked, a little suspicious.
"W-what's with the name change?"
Seifer sneered a little. "What do you think?" He went behind the counter, opening a door there. Zell could see a large office. Seifer hung his coat up, back very straight.
Zell watched Seifer's movements, how this was the same man that he'd hated and been picked on by all those years ago. Seifer did look older in the decade since then, but his face... nothing had changed about it, though the hair and glasses did make him look a little different. His hair was still closely cropped to his head, and he still had his typical frown. "Everyone thought you died."
Seifer laughed, but it wasn't a happy sound. "Well, sorry to disappoint you, Chicken-Wuss."
Zell frowned at his old, hated nickname. "I guess you haven't changed."
Seifer's expression changed a little, showing something that Zell couldn't read. That expression was regret. Zell couldn't have been further from the truth. So much had changed in Seifer's life that he resented Zell coming into the store and causing his old and new lives to collide. He'd changed his name, changed his appearance just to escape what he'd made of his past life. He'd changed his name just to survive, and now he didn't know if he could face Seifer Almasy again. The public hatred of that name had died off years ago, but the memory of death threats and hot spit landing on his cheek still seared Seifer's memories. He may have been Raef now, but he still knew he was Seifer, and he would never forget.
"I suppose you're here for a mission of some sort?" Seifer asked coldly, leaning against the door, looking acutely at the shorter blonde. "Squall sending you out for a few errands?" Seifer said Squall's name with distant scorn.
Zell shrugged. "Something like that." He stared at Seifer as Seifer stared back at him. Zell felt sudden shame growing in him, because though this was someone who'd caused him so much pain in the past, Zell found himself staring at the way Seifer's shirt, which was damp from the rain, plastered itself to his chest. His muscular and masculine chest. He shook his head, concentrating on Seifer's familiar face. "Last week...." The tattooed blonde mused.
Seifer just raised his eyebrows.
"Last week, your clerk said she was almost mugged in Bridgeport Square, and that she thought you were in SeeD. Why?"
"What, do you think that I'm callous enough to let one of my employees be killed by some fucking drug addicts?"
Zell caught the deep anger and bitterness in Seifer's voice. "Why, you know something about Blackballing?"
Seifer's peridot eyes flared. "Oh, what? Is that what Squall the Great sent you to do? To find out about Timber's little drug problem?"
"I guess you have all the answers."
The tall brunette, formerly blonde, crossed his arms over his chest. "So, you still want your weapon upgraded or not?"
Zell hesitated, which made Seifer's annoyance deepen. "It's not like I'll give you germs or something."
"Fine," Zell said quietly. "I mean, you do have items that even I've never seen."
Seifer made a sarcastic face. "You can pick them up in the morning."
Zell just started to leave, but he stopped when Seifer called his name. "Zell, wait."
He frowned. "What?"
"You, um...." Seifer suddenly looked a little nervous. "You don't need to tell anyone you saw me, right?"
The tattooed martial artist's pale eyebrows shot up. "What?"
"Please," Seifer said quietly, his nervousness turning into desperation. "Please don't tell anyone. Don't tell anyone from Garden you saw me here." His eyes pleaded with Zell. "I'll even work on your gloves for free. Just.... forget you saw me."
Zell opened his mouth to ask why, but he thought of the facts. Seifer had disappeared for a decade, nowhere to be found. Seifer now was known by the name of Raef Emaissyl. Seifer had dyed his hair and gotten glasses, and.... Zell just finally noticed that the scar was gone from his face, the scar that perpendicularly matched Squall's. But, no more. His brow was smooth and clear.
"Okay," Zell muttered. "But, you better do a good job on my gloves." Zell opened the door, the happy bell chiming as he walked out of the store into the rain. Zell made a run for the closest trolley shelter, his emotions conflicted. He knew he should probably say something about seeing Seifer, at least to Selphie. But, how could he when the fright and desperation in Seifer's eyes had been so genuine? And, it definitely wasn't like Seifer to beg Zell for a favour. And, it wasn't even Seifer's request that had the short blonde so conflicted. It was that he'd met with his former enemy, the man who'd made his childhood so rough, and yet... Zell felt more ill about his meeting with Daeva Aka-Manah.
When Zell finally got back to his new apartment, he was dripping from the rain, and Selphie had returned from Daeva's little party.
"Where were you?" She asked, coming through the connector door when she heard him come in.
Zell pulled off his jacket and tie, tossing them on a chair, already wanting to straighten them out. Mess... it made him shudder. "Just exploring." He held up his bag. "I got a new lamp. And, some Steel Orbs."
"Oh, because they could be what the manufacturers are using?"
"Yeah," he answered distantly, thinking of the look on Seifer's face when they'd seen each other again for the first time in 10 years.
"Hey!" Selphie exclaimed, noticing Zell's bare hands. "What happened to your gloves?"
"I'm getting them upgraded," he answered, not looking Selphie in the eyes. She'd be able to see a lie there. "So, how did the rest of the party go?"
"Meh." She shrugged. Selphie had changed from her pretty powder blue dress into some pink flannel pyjamas with yellow stars on them. Each star had a cute face. "Didn't really learn all that much. But, I did get some names as to owners of warehouses and companies that are in our target area, so we can do background checks on them."
"Including the Count?" Zell asked darkly, opening the fridge and pulling out a beer. "Want one?"
"No thanks." Selphie frowned a little. "He seems nice. He wouldn't have anything to do with Blackball."
"Nice?" Zell snorted. "This isn't like you."
"What do you mean?" Selphie asked defensively.
"Didn't he seem... strange to you?"
Selphie shrugged. "Not really. I felt like I knew him from somewhere, though."
"Hmmm." Zell took a long drink of beer. Don't tell anyone from Garden you saw me here.
"Zell?" Selphie asked. "Something wrong?"
"Nah," he answered, picking up his wet tie and shirt. "Just a little tired. Having to get used to the time zone, I guess."
"Yeah." She yawned. "I'm kind of tired, too. What do you want to do tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow night, I'm thinking we should go to Bridgeport Square. Maybe spend all day there."
"Okay." She mockingly saluted him. "Night."
He just watched her leave, wondering if he was doing the right thing about keeping Seifer's whereabouts a secret.
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