Part 1 of the Triumvirate Arc
Commander Squall Leonhart sat at his desk in the central office of Balamb Garden, spreading cream cheese on a lightly toasted sesame seed bagel with a plastic knife, staring at the coffee grounds floating idly in his steaming mug of freshly brewed Balamb Cafeteria Roast. Mechanically, Squall ripped open 4 packets of sugar and poured them into the scalding liquid, sighing as the granules sank to the bottom. There was nothing quite like chewing those last few mouthfuls…such a rush. He searched around for a spoon, sighing again when he couldn’t find one.
“Such inefficiency, Mr. Leonhart,” Squall lowered his voice, half mockingly stern, half disgusted. “Really won’t do at all.” That he was unable to find the utensil was not an altogether surprising turn of events, considering the scattered state of his desktop; with papers here, pens there, and folders every which way, he wasn’t even sure he really had a desk under all of it.
Reports. Applications. Maintenance forms.
“Damn it all,” he sighed, spinning in his chair for the umpteenth time that day.
It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy his job. Most of the time, he added mentally, wincing at a particularly daunting report marked over with angry red writing in Quistis’ handwriting. It was just that, dammit, he was just feeling so…so detached lately. Distracted.
Even for me, Squall mused. And that was saying a lot.
He’d already spent a good five minutes spinning experimentally in his desk chair just for the hell of it, and it’d taken a good ten minutes more to get his eyes to relearn to focus. 15 minutes down the drain out of a twenty-four hour day… Now what to do? He simply couldn’t bear the thought of writing more reports. Train? Talk out loud to someone other than himself, to his father perhaps? Squall winced. Gods, there had to be something wrong with him to even suggest that. Think? Thinking was always good, but what to think about?
“How about Rinoa?” he said quietly. “Yes, that Rinoa. Your girlfriend…well, sort of…that you haven’t seen in…well, however many months…” Squall closed his eyes, trailing off.
Rinoa Heartilly had returned to Timber to try and aid in the formation of a stable government there, having decided that her loyalties first and foremost must lie with Zone and the Forest Owls. She’d come to tell him one night with tears clouding her coffee brown eyes. He’d had no choice but to let her go.
Squall opened his eyes, roughly clearing his throat. It still hurt to think about and it had happened months ago. “Well then,” he murmured, “if you can’t manage Rinoa, why don’t you actually leave your office and go get some fresh air? Irvine should be going on break right about now. There’s always him to talk to, walk with…” He trailed off for the second time, more tempted by this latter possibility than he was prepared to admit.
To everyone’s surprise and delight, Irvine had decided to stay on at Balamb Garden and aid in the reconstruction and expansion of the school after Ultimecia had been defeated, something Squall could hardly deny he was pleased about; Irvine had proved to be a valuable fighter during the fight against the Sorceress, and extremely helpful in the confusion that had taken place afterward.
But as of late, Squall had found himself spending more and more of his time with the lanky Galbadian. There was simply something about his easy grin, the lilt in his musical voice when he talked and his slow gait that made Squall, who prided himself on his cool demeanor and his ability to freeze out a Snow Lion, become positively…chatty. It was strange to say the least.
“Positively uncanny,” Squall frowned. He gave up his search for a spoon, stirring his coffee with the other end of his plastic knife.
From that very first time on that carousel in Deling, when Irvine had frozen and Squall had given an impromptu pep talk, he’d found himself engaging in actual conversation with the man. More recently, when they’d been stuck waiting for Laguna to show up to some official Honorary SeeD-Estharian something-or-other, he’d ended up standing next to the Galbadian, talking about his search through a mystifying variety of Balamb boutiques for the perfect birthday present for Ellone. Then there’d been the last SeeD test, when all Garden officials had been waiting for the newest bunch of cadets to return from their SeeD tryouts and they’d ended up reminiscing about their orphanage days. Squall had been able to recall quite a bit with Irvine there to fill in the blanks, and once the new SeeDs had been notified, they’d headed to the Cafeteria to continue the discussion.
And then there’d been the whole Malboro Affair. “Land’s sakes,” Squall chuckled, his lips twitching slightly.
A few months ago, a Malboro had somehow hidden itself in the hold of Estharian ship bound for Timber, and SeeD had been called as soon as a beachcomber had been stricken with a stunning array of status effects while sleeping under a ‘floating green umbrella with rather large teeth’. And despite his disapproval of unprofessional conduct, Squall had to admit with a grin, he’d been hard pressed to keep a straight face taking turns with Irvine making wry commentary. When Irvine had gleefully run away from a beach umbrella screaming, “LANDS SAKES, SAAAAAAAAAVE ME!” at the top of his lungs, he’d almost died laughing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed so hard…
“Irvine,” Squall muttered to himself thoughtfully. “Yes, maybe I’ll just go and-”
Suddenly, a flash of gold from a ruler glinting on the filing cabinet turned his thoughts unbidden to another figure in his mind’s eye…a figure with hair that exact same color of gold.
“Seifer Almasy, get out of my head,” Squall scowled.
The Seifer in his mind’s eye smirked cheekily at him, instead hefting his gunblade and beckoning with his typical arrogance. Since they’d been children, Seifer had taunted, tested and challenged him, pulling every stunt he could think of to get Squall to fight him. They’d fought with fists, magic and blades; they’d scarred each other. Seifer had pushed and pulled Squall so far and so fast that he had never known whether he was coming or going until he found himself throwing punches on the Training Grounds.
Squall shook his head to find his fists clenched around his dripping plastic knife. There was no doubt about it… Seifer still excelled at pissing him off.
So why was it that he was still dwelling on the tall blond? “Seifer… I wonder where you are now.” Squall frowned, unable to control a quick burst of curiosity about his rival. What was he doing, thinking? Although Seifer had been released months ago from the D-District Prison, he had not returned to Garden; he had disappeared without a trace soon after walking out the front door.
“And just why the hell do I want to know anyway?” Squall wondered, glaring defiantly at his coffee mug.
“Commander,” a buzz from his desktop communicator suddenly broke into his thoughts. “Commander, we have the mayor of Dollet on the line. He says it’s urgent.”
Squall sent one last glare at the hapless mug, removing the dripping knife from the coffee and, shaking it once, placed it on a Garden Festival Newsletter. “Put him through.”
The vid-screen on the wall beside his desk flickered a moment before a face appeared on the screen, and Squall quickly swiveled his chair to greet it. “Mayor Dunwitty.”
The face belonged to a short, stout balding little man with beady little eyes, a porcine nose and a greasy smile that made Squall want to wash his hands just looking at it… The officious little fat man’s smile widened as he slid into view, “Commander Leonhart, such a joy, yes, a joy to see you again. And might I once again offer my thanks, yes, and more, anything my humble city and I can do for such a great warrior,” his smile wavered, “within reason, of course.”
Squall resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Unnecessary, Sir.”
“Oh, please. ‘Sir’ sounds so formal, don’t you think? My friends usually just call me Mayor Dunwitty, or Mayor for short…or sometimes, Dunwitty the Witty, but I believe they’re just trying to flatter me, and besides, that’s a bit cumbersome, don’t you think so?” The stout man chortled heartily. “But how are things? How is your dear father?”
“Tolerably well, Sir-”
“Uh-uh-uh,” the man insisted. “Too formal, remember? And I am so glad, yes, glad to hear it. You know, I sent several contribution flyers for my campaign to Esthar, but have yet to hear a response. I don’t suppose-”
Keeping his face expressionless, Squall snuck his left hand under his desk to twist the receiving dial to the vid-screen. “I’m sorry, Sir, I didn’t catch that last. There seems to be a problem with our connection…” The screen immediately filled with static snow. “Perhaps it would be best to save pleasantries for another time, and address the ‘urgent’ matter at hand.”
“Ah, yes! Yes, of course,” the mayor’s face smoothed into a look of solemnity. “Commander Leonhart…Commander Leonhart, what I’m calling to talk to you about is a matter of the utmost importance. It concerns the well-being and safety of the entire city of Dollet, and our future may very well depend on it,” Mayor Dunwitty’s jowls quivered ominously as he spoke. “I, of course, thought it wise to come to you personally about Seifer Almasy.”
Speak of the devil.
Squall lifted an eyebrow, straightening up in his armchair. “Go on.”
The fat man’s chest puffed to twice its natural size. “You are aware that the Sorceress’ Knight is not imprisoned, but free to wreak havoc and wanton destruction at will?”
Not this again… Squall sighed, slouching imperceptibly and sinking back down, “Mayor Dunwitty, a thorough investigation was made into the matter, and it was the decision of the Second Sorceress War Official War Crimes Tribunal that Mr. Almasy was, in fact, under mind control and not responsible for his actions. We could hardly keep him locked up when there was no just cause to imprison him in the first place.”
The Mayor’s voice took on a wheedling tone. “Oh, but considering the magnitude of the crimes committed, surely some loophole could have been found?”
Squall brought his hand to his forehead in a characteristic gesture of irritation. “Sir-”
“After all, the Sorceress’ Knight-”
“Ex-Knight,” Squall corrected.
“Hmm?” Mayor Dunwitty paused with his jowls mid-quiver. “What was that?”
“Ex-Knight,” Squall repeated dryly. “Seifer was Ultimecia’s Knight, and she’s dead.”
(Although technically, Squall thought to himself, that wasn’t strictly true. Ultimecia wasn’t dead in their time because she hadn’t even been born yet, and wouldn’t be for centuries more.)
“Ahem. Yes, yes. Of course, you’re quite right, Commander,” Dunwitty oozed. “And it was you that struck the mortal blow, a noble deed for which we are in your eternal debt. Please forgive me, oh glorious, yes, glorious and great warrior…if my humble city and I can make amends-”
“Yes, whatever,” Squall waved a hand impatiently. “We’ve already been through all of this. Please, continue.” And hopefully get to a point.
The mayor drew himself up with a slightly offended air. “Very well. Perhaps you did not know that Mr. Almasy is currently residing in this very town.”
Seifer was in Dollet? Squall scooted up once again in his seat. “Really?”
“And far from being an ideal and upstanding citizen, Mr. Almasy is constantly getting into fights. When he appears in town he is skirting public decency. He harangues the good people of Dollet, Commander. He swears quite frequently…” Mayor Dunwitty shuddered in distaste, “and fluently I might add. And I do speak from personal experience.”\
So in other words, Squall thought, Seifer is being unruly, obnoxious, and disrespectful… nothing unusual there. And Seifer always did have quite a gift for the creative turn of phrase.
“Is there anything else?” he asked, repressing an odd urge to smile.
“Indeed there is. Mr. Almasy is a disgrace. He dresses in rags,” the Mayor continued. “He is dirty. He is lazy and works only sporadically. He has been cited for vagrancy on numerous occasions. He has also been seen drinking in public.”
Squall stared in disbelief. The proud and arrogant Seifer Almasy, caked with dirt? Drinking? A vagrant?
Seifer, in rags?
At this, all humor quickly faded and disappeared, leaving behind a dull sort of ache. “…That doesn’t sound like him at all,” Squall said slowly.
The fat little man gave a derisive sniff. “Really? I understand he was quite a troublemaker even before he became involved with the Sorceress, yes?”
Squall shook his head. “Nothing like that. His marks weren’t bad, and he actually trained quite hard-”
“Hmm, yes. No doubt he did as well as he did because of Cid’s influence, but the fact remains that he is a serious problem, Commander Leonhart. Only SeeD could hope to handle such a threat. I humbly beg you,” Mayor Dunwitty clasped his hands, “for myself, for the people of Dollet, and for the greater good-”
“That’s not necessary, Sir,” Squall replied decisively. “You may expect agents from SeeD to arrive in Dollet sometime tomorrow afternoon.”
The stout mayor unclasped his hands, giving Squall the greasiest smile he had seen yet from the little man. “Wonderful! Fantastic! Stupendous! Commander, may I extend my most sincere thanks from myself and-”
Squall’s left hand upped the snow on the receiving dial. “It seems I’m losing you after all, Mayor Dunwitty. Goodbye, Sir. Leonhart, out.”
He sat quietly for a moment before reaching for the communicator hanging on his belt and dialing the access code for his second in command.
“Quistis Trepe here,” the communicator crackled. “What can I do for you, Squall?”
Squall sighed in relief. “Quistis, I’ll need you to take command of Balamb Garden for a few days. There’s something I need to take care of. Personally.”
It was always the same…so fleeting and vague that it made him gnash his teeth with frustration, because what little he gleaned from the dream was so damned incredible. For a split second, he floated in the midst of unbelievable warmth and boundless reassurance and support. He wasn’t alone.
He knew this instinctively rather then literally, since every time he tried to open his eyes within the dream, he was blinded by a golden light that stretched completely across his line of vision like a thousand suns shining simultaneously in the sky.
There was no doubt in his mind that it was beautiful, but the fact remained that he still couldn’t see a damn thing.
Irvine Kinneas sighed. “Well, hell.”
“Is something troubling you, dear?”
The dream changed. Opening his eyes, Irvine found himself sitting on a spindly wooden chair in a small hut. Rushes were spread across the floor in lieu of a carpet, scenting the air with the fresh smell of earth, and of growing things. A small old woman squatted in front of a hearth heating a copper kettle. She hummed to herself for a moment until the kettle made a queer little whistle, and then, grabbing two earthenware jugs from hooks over the fire, turned to Irvine and gave him a smile.
Looking into the wizened, wrinkled old face browned by the sun, Irvine couldn’t help but smile back. “Afternoon, Nana.”
Ageless blue eyes twinkled at him almost mischievously. “Afternoon, Irvine,” the woman nodded. She hobbled over and set one of the jugs in front of him. “So nice of you to come and visit me again. Would you care for some tea, dear?”
The cowboy watched as the old woman reached into her apron and came out with a fistful of herbs, inhaling appreciatively when she crushed them and held them under his nose. Fresh mint tickled his nostrils; comfrey soothed his nerves. She sprinkled the herbs into his jug, peering in after a moment with a critical eye. “I think it needs some extra cinnamon, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I believe it does.”
The woman reached once again into her apron and pulled out a cinnamon stick. She promptly plunked it into the cup. “Anything else, dear?”
The old woman poured water from the copper kettle into the jug, clouds of steam billowing up to float idly around the ceiling of the hut. Irvine watched with a grin as the clouds thickened and coalesced into images, now a bear with its paw upraised, now a butterfly fluttering its wings, and after the clouds of steam formed a little dog wagging its tail, he looked back down and blew gently across the surface of his tea.
“Well? How is it?”
He tentatively took a sip, making a small noise of pleasure. “Perfect, Nana. No one makes a cup of tea taste as good as you can.”
“You always say that,” the old woman scoffed, fondly ruffling his hair. “Every time you come and I make tea for you.”
“And it’s always true,” Irvine protested, laughing when she paused in the act of making her own tea and wrinkled her nose at him. But it was perfect. Despite the fact that the water had just been boiling not two minutes ago and the herbs had been floating free in the jug, the tea was just the right temperature, and the ground up bits of herbs and spices had disappeared leaving behind only a rich blend of flavor and fragrance. The old woman beamed at him as he took another sip.
“I’m warning you, young man. If you’re trying to charm this old lady,” she shook a finger, “it’s working.”
“Well, I certainly hope so, ma’ darlin’ lady,” Irvine drawled, shooting the old woman his most winning smile when she pulled up a seat for herself. “I’d hate ta’ think I was losin’ my touch.”
The old woman cackled, drawing deeply from her own mug. “The day you lose ‘your touch’ as you so lovingly call it is the day the world comes to a standstill, Irvine Kinneas, mark my words. It’s in your genes, my boy. Your father was the same way. Same look about him, right down to the swagger, and he was by far and above the biggest charmer to ever walk Terra, but gods,” here the old woman paused, eyes drifting closed in memory, “the man had a heart of gold. And when he met your mother, you couldn’t find a man more loving or devoted than Cyrus Kinneas. A consummate flirt, yes, but he was loyal to her for the rest of their lives.”
Irvine sighed. “I wish I’d known him.”
“I do too, my dear.”
“Do you…” Irvine cleared his throat, staring into the firelight. “Do you think he’d have been proud of me?”
The old woman looked at him. “Irvine, my dearest boy, after all that you’ve done for this world, I know he would have been prouder than a peacock to call you his. But,” her eyes narrowed, “he’d have wanted you settled down by now. When are you going to find a nice young lady? What about that Selphie you’re so fond of?”
Irvine shrugged, laughing. “Nana, first off, you know I’m not ready to settle. There’s still too much life that wants livin’ yet. I want to do some explorin’, sleep under open skies,” he tugged manfully on the lapels of his sheepskin duster, “and that wouldn’t be fair to the one I left behind, now would it? Besides, Selphie is like my sister. She’s my best gal, and my friend, and I wouldn’t have it otherwise.”
The old woman cocked an eyebrow.
“Honest,” Irvine insisted. “I love her, but it could never be like that.”
The old woman tilted her head, considering. “Well then, what about a man?”
“I’m really not picky, dear.”
He had to be an awful interesting shade of red about now, Irvine thought as he gaped at the old woman…from the top of his pony-tailed head to the tip of his booted toes. “Nana?” he gasped.
“How about that SeeD Commander of yours? The one you’ve talked about. What’s his name?”
“Something to do with the weather… Let me see now… Rain? Sleet? Storm?” She smiled suddenly, eyes twinkling. “Ah. Squall, wasn’t it?”
“Nana…he’s…I…but…Squall…he’s…” Irvine sputtered, fully aware he sounded like a complete fool…and not a little like one of the Balamb Garden schoolgirls who chattered nervously and giggled when he struck up a conversation. Reddening, he tried again. “He’s…my Commander,” Irvine finally managed. “I take orders from him!”
“Irvine, you know very well that you’ve never thought much of authority. Don’t you remember when you told that Galbadian Instructor where he could stuff his Garden Rules and Regulation Codebook-?”
“That particular instructor was a pompous fool who couldn’t tell his elbow from his rear end and refused to listen to reason,” Irvine growled. “That girl’s leg was broken! Of course she wasn’t going to get up when he ordered her to, let alone give him 50 push-ups for insubordination. He was too caught up in himself to have any sense and I told him so, and I’m glad that I did.”
“And this Squall would never do something like that?” the old woman asked innocently.
Irvine let himself picture his Commander for a brief moment; a slight but strong presence, his gray eyes serious and focused, mouth set determinedly, speaking in his quiet, subtle way. “Squall letting power go to his head is about as likely as me shooting my own foot,” Irvine said seriously. “He’s a good leader, Nana. He’s a good man.”
“You admire him?”
“Very much so,” Irvine admitted softly. “I’d be long gone if I didn’t. But now with most of the repairs done on the Garden itself and things getting back to normal, I expect I’ll be taking my leave soon.”
“Hmm, perhaps.” Irvine stared into his tea as his Nana spoke again, shifting the jug in his hands. “Perhaps you will, my dear, but then again, who knows? Fate’s a strange thing. All one can do is dream, and then try to live by those dreams.”
“And I’ll try my best to do s’much as I can of both.” He shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts. “But while I’ve got you on the subject of dreams, let me ask you…”
“Do you think a dream can mean something?” Irvine asked slowly. “Dreams of the sleeping variety, I mean?”
“I do think it’s possible, my boy.” The old woman sat forward in her chair. “Why?”
The cowboy sighed. “Because I keep having this dream, and frankly, Nana, it’s starting to drive me up a wall.”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “How often does it come to you?”
“Lately I’m having it every time I go to sleep.”
The old woman listened to Irvine describe his dream in detail, the feelings of warmth, the knowledge that he was not alone and the golden light, and when he finally finished she nodded her head, bright eyes thoughtful on his own. “It seems to me, my dear,” she said slowly, “that this is indeed no ordinary dream. This dream is something, somewhere deep inside of you telling you to search, and I’m afraid it won’t leave you alone until you find whatever it is you’re supposed to search for.”
The cowboy frowned, tugging on the rim of his wide-brimmed hat. “But I don’t know what I’m searching for!”
“Of course you don’t know! That would be far too easy,” the old woman chuckled, “and nothing that easily got is worth getting anyway.”
Irvine sighed and slouched in his chair. “I was afraid it’d be something like that.”
“Don’t dwell on it, Irvine. Just keep your ears and your eyes open. You’ll know it when you find it.” The old woman suddenly tilted her head, listening. “Now, you’d better go, dear. Someone is knocking on your door quite insistently.”
Irvine reluctantly got up, draining the last of his teas from his jug and placing it on the table. “Thank you, Nana.”
“For the tea, or the advice?”
Irvine gave her a lopsided grin. “Both.”
The old woman stood and gave him a gentle pat on the back. “Well, that’s what I’m here for. Goodbye, my dear boy. And,” she gave him a tender smile, “happy birthday.”
Irvine waved a hand. “S’tomorrow, Nana, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just another day.”
“Not to me, dear.”
RAP RAP RAP!
“Go’way. M’tryin’ to sleep,” Irvine muttered drowsily, burying his face into his pillow. Maybe with a little luck, he’d be able to slip right back into the Dreaming and make it back to Nana’s for another cup of tea. His bed was so nice and snug, and he was so close to sleep he could feel his brain shutting down and putting body on autopilot…
RAP RAP RAP!
Irvine groaned, pulling a blanket over his head. So much for luck. “Aw, c’mon, I just got off duty for the first time in 10 hours!”
But someone was launching a full-scale assault on his door, and with the next RAP RAP RAP, Irvine jerked fully awake, sliding off of his Garden-issued standard twin extra long and onto the floor in a tangle of sheets and flailing limbs.
“Irvine?” a cool tenor voice inquired with a touch of impatience from behind the door. “Irvine, are you there?”
The cowboy tugged a swathe of blanket away from his face in disbelief. “Squall, is that you?”
“It is,” the voice replied. “May I come in?”
Squall stood outside in the hall before the door to Irvine’s dorm room, a small frown upon his face and his black booted foot tapping ever so slightly. He nodded at several students who saluted as they passed.
“Yeah, just give me a minute to get to the door…”
“Don’t bother,” Squall immediately replied, hand automatically going to his back pocket. He pulled out a small keycard and slid it through the keypad located on the wall next to Irvine’s door, grunting with satisfaction when the orange light flashed to green and the door slipped open with a hiss. He stepped inside, pausing just past the threshold only long enough to close the door behind him.
“Irvine, I’m leaving tonight for Dollet on a mission,” he began without preamble, turning to look at the cowboy, “and I wanted to… Err…”
Squall trailed off, momentarily forestalled by the realization that Irvine was sprawled on the floor and stark naked save for the blankets wrapped chaotically around his waist. Crystal blue eyes blinked owlishly at him. Irvine’s full mouth was slack with surprise. The cowboy’s long amber hair that he usually bound in a slick ponytail under his hat was instead a wild mess falling free down his back and spilling over his pale, slender shoulders.
His hair is beautiful when it’s not tied back, Squall thought suddenly. I wonder what it would feel like to touch-
Squall flushed slightly. “…Did I catch you at a bad time?”
The cowboy gave one last futile tug on a particularly knotted blanket and shot him a lopsided grin. “A bad time, Squall? For you, there is no such thing as a bad time. What can I do for you?”
The Commander of Balamb Garden cleared his throat.
“This afternoon I received a request for a detachment of SeeD to the city of Dollet, and I’ve accepted the mission. I’m leaving for Galbadia tonight…and I want you to come with me.”
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