Routine Set to Flame

Chapter 2 - Inside an Acceptance

By Deena

The first time I heard it call...Trauma it was...I was lying in the darkness. The foamy summer waves crashed outside my windowpane. The night was a typical Balamb speciality, warm and quiet and calm; the sort of night that made you reflect. Well Iíd been reflecting alright...had been reflecting for better then a month. What else did I have to do? When you fucked up as royally as I did, there was nothing to do but reflect. There were a hundred what-ifs and if-onlys and whys that plagued my thoughts that night; there always was. So I stared up at the shadows on the ceiling, listened to the sounds of the Balamb sea and thought about how I was a screwed-up nothing, night after night, week after week.

I also thought a lot about my childhood, in those long, silent nights. She had unlocked a lot of things forgotten and had shown me all of it, selfishly, but I held those memories close all the same. I remembered Matron and how soft her smile had been. I remembered Ellone...Sis and Squall. I saw Selphie and Irvine playing cops and robbers by the oceanís shore; I saw myself pulling Quistisí hair and throwing rocks at Zell. I saw an endless reel of memories. I came to remember a lot of things.

Afterall, even a man with nothing left still has memories by the plenty. And that was the trouble, wasnít it?

Iíd been thinking about Squall, the night I heard it for the first time. I was aboard Lunatic Pandora, pain wracking my entire body. Lion Hearts, Shockwave Pulsars, Armageddon Fists...all of it blended into such a rush of overwhelming agony that there was no way I couldíve won. I could see that now, saw shitall then. I was on my knees with the awareness that Leonhart had beaten me for the third time. His eyes had been as cold as that ice GF of his and all the fury within me couldnít keep me upright. I couldnít fight for another second longer...maybe never.

I remember hating Squall and hating myself a thousand times more. I lay alone with that hatred...until a blaring, static-like noise dissolved everything else. The image of my pathetic defeat cracked like shard of Water Crystal; the black thoughts Iíd been festering in were forcibly ripped from the membrane of my skull. Something that was both horrible and urgent warbled deep inside my head. A crackling reverberation like I hadnít heard since her, screeched within me so hard that my balls actually shrank and a sweat colder then Winter Island covered my entire body.

And then there was the sheer illness of it. Every fibre of every nerve inside my body felt physically sick...as in the vomiting up blood, stomach cramping, shit turned to black liquid kind of sick. In other words, the most disgusting kind of sick there is. I donít know how I kept all my liquids inside me, other then an irrational fear of messing up the sheets Fujin had bought me. For a few gut-shucking instants, I seriously believed that sheíd come back and lemme tell you, that idea was enough to turn anyoneís balls to shit.

I huddled there on my side, frozen in a painful, sweating mass of fear, so thick it was clotting...until the word 'Mistress' registered. That was the only word my mind had been able to filter and hearing it, I calmed down a bit. It was engraved on every fold of pink tissue, the ways of her personality. She would never address another as 'Mistress'. No one was her equal. She wouldnít ever lower herself by using the title reserved for herself only, on another.

So I listened, stomach still cramping, hurl pooling in the back of my throat.

~Mistress...summon us. We await, ever obedient, scattered throughout this world. Seek us, we await, ever obedient, hidden from prying eyes.~

Those words and words like it, came to run in my head intermittently. There were also high keening calls that scraped against my brainflesh like Sharp Spikes. They appeared so suddenly, those calls and left me weak. There was relief; it wasnít her but there were also questions. I knew about those eight monsters. She had told me about them one cold night and how they guarded her castle in a shadowed future far off. They were the strongest known monsters in her world. She had captured and tamed and given each further powers.

I knew all that but what I didnít know was how theyíd come to exist here, desperately seeking their dead Mistress. How was it that I could hear them? Could Matron or Rinoa hear them also? Theyíd both been possessed by her while only slivers of her had been able to thrive inside of me.

As the calls inside my mind grew, so did the questions. None of them were answered. I came to think that whatever was shrieking didnít realize I could hear it. Didnít it know that it had reached someoneís mind, other then hers? I figured it didnít. It didnít take too long for all the endless calling to get really old. The breaking point came soon after...Iíd had more then enough of all that sporadic pleading shit. Standing alone on the end of pier, fishing pole in my hand, Iíd finally shouted at the stupid creature to shut the fuck up.

There were a few blessed moments of silence. I figured that had done the trick...before the Guardian started talking to me. It seemed to scan my mind and recognized me as her Knight, which was a real laugh. It saw that she was gone and instead insisted that I find it. What choice did I have? Its cries were driving me crazy. The creature was close, incredibly close and I found it easily enough.

High in the mountains of the Alcauld Plains, just behind the Fire Cave it lurked. It was surprising no SeeD had run into it while training or that its presence hadnít been detected by the Garden but the Garden was still being repaired and modified by mechanics from Fishermanís Horizon. And of course the Guardian had an instinctive impulse to keep itself hidden, as it had informed me later on.

Floating high amid crests of towering stonewall was a yellow monster whose very power actually rippled over me. The thing spoke to me with a respect no one else on earth would have bothered with. It made the option for me and since I didnít have any other choice, wasnít like I could hide the thing in my bedroom afterall, I junctioned it. It wasnít strong enough to make me pass out but it was a damn near thing. The last GF Iíd had junctioned had been Pandemona, lent to me by Fujin for a brief spell. Pandemona was a GF nothing like Trauma, wasnít even in the same category. Junctioning Trauma originally was like a rush of pure magic whirling between my ears. It was like getting totally high or having some chick give you a blow-job or scratching Leonhartís pansy-ass face. Just one fuck of a thrill, you know? It was almost too much to stand. I thought Iíd have to un-junction Trauma but I got used to it. The initial buzz dissipated after a couple of hours. I didnít need to un-junction Trauma and havenít since. It may have been a fucking beast from the future but it liked me well enough, respected me a crapload and talked to me without hatred or fear or anything else people in Balamb used on me. Trauma was more powerful then anything Iíd ever junctioned before and it had all these crazy abilities, including one that would let me turn monsters into Cards and another that would let me call up Junk Shops at will.

It didnít take too long for another Guardian to take up the cries. This new one was a Red Giant, similar in appearance to those Giants that lived in the Esthar Plains but twice as strong. It didnít seem like anyone but me could hear these Guardians. The choice was obvious to make. Her once-monsters would now be mine. I had something now, something that didnít scorn me. Iím not gonna lie and say that the thought didnít half freak me out and half excite me. I mean shit, this was decent, if my mind could handle eight equipped junctions. I could at least take on any Galbadian Soldiers or SeeDs who wanted revenge on me.

So I left Fujin and Raijin, which wasnít exactly easy since they both wanted to come with me but I figured Iíd already gotten them into enough shit. I headed to Galbadia where I found the enormous creature patiently waiting for me atop the high cliffs of the Monterosa Plateau. Again I was surprised that no one had spotted the Giant before Iíd arrived. I was glad enough for that...I wouldíve been in shit cakes galore if the Galbadian Army had word that I was sneaking around with mighty monsters from the future junctioned. As it was they were looking for any excuse to hang me for a Blitz; I had the serious suspicion that Matron had stepped in on my behalf and told the world to fuck it. Canít think of any other person whoíd protect me, except for her.

After finding Red Giant, I made camp in the Roshfall Forest and trained up my two new GFs. The beasts in the forest were on the lame side but I had more then an excess of energy and fighting again felt good, even if the enemies were mostly Fungaurs and Cockatrices. I spent almost two weeks there, training and waiting. Then one cool evening, as I was battling a pair of annoying Wendigos, a new calling came to me. This one had the strength of the other two combined and then some. I could feel its power scouring through my mind; a hundred times more powerful then Trauma or Red Giant had ever been. I actually did pass out after a couple of moments, right in the middle of the battle but Trauma came before I did and finished those ape-ish fuckers off in a fury of Mega-Pulse Cannon.

I woke up to hear Tiamat calling for me, telling me that I would be able to find him in the red sands of an endless desert. So I journeyed to that once-closed land, past a city that Iíd destroyed and found a third GF...along with the most annoying chicken shit of a SeeD this side of Trabia. In the back of my mind Iíd worried about being caught junctioning her Guardians and I didnít know whether I was relieved or pissed to the nines that chicken wuss of all people had caught me.

What I did know was that I wanted to total the little shit something rough with a few Ultima spells...of which I had none and he had a load, or so he claimed. Fucks above, life was so damn unfair.

Currently the punk was driving like the spazz he was, head-banging to some Sorceress-awful underground punk crap that was blaring into my eardrums like a high-level Quake. If I ever found out who 'Inhaling Chemical Fumes' were, Iíd tear those noise-making fuckers into thirty-nine bloody pieces. I mean shits, was it too much for a guy to ask for a little peace on his way to meet the President of the country heíd basically ruined?

Hell was this ever gonna suck. At best Iíd be allowed to find the other five Guardians under the supervision of chicken wuss or some equally dumbass SeeD. At worst Iíd be contained in Esthar, imprisoned for war crimes or something. I couldnít actually see Squallís dad going easy on me.

I scowled. Damn Squall and his glacial ways. Like it wasnít enough that he got to save the world and be the hero and have everyone love him...now he even had the coolest actor ever and President of the strongest world nation to boot, as his biological father. I could handle seeing Leonhartís nancy-boy face all over the place but knowing that his dad was Laguna Loire was just absolutely NO FAIR. Hell, Iíd been the biggest Laguna fan when weíd been kids, why wasnít he my father? I could really use a dad or a mom right about now. Even crybaby Zelly had parents while I, as usual, had a big fat Jack Shit.

I surreptitiously rubbed at my head. Fucks, I must have been loosing it. My mind still felt on the overcrowded side. There was a pounding behind my eyes like a migraine. I glanced at the screaming loser next to me. Heíd done something to me back on the plains, something to wake me and ease the shock of junctioning Tiamat. What had he done and why?

I reached over and yanked down the volume.

Zellís face instantly turned the colour of a pissed T-Rex. "Hey buddy, whaícho do that for? Fucker, donít you go touching my beats when-"

Well if I was on my way to some trial or something then at least I had the distinct pleasure of pestering the hell outta Zell while doing so. Had to take my amusement where I could find it, afterall. "Whatíd you do back there?"

"Huh?"

How this brainac became SeeD while I ended up in a shit heap didnít still remained a mystery to me. Unbiased my ass. "You know, when I first equipped Tiamat." I looked out the passenger window and studied the passing desert scenery with feigned interest. I was curious, yeah who wouldnít be if the likes of Zell had helped me, but at the same time I was aware of how much more weak I was going to appear in front of a tool like Zell. Squall I couldíve handled...Squall mayíve dressed like a fag but the guy was one tough SOB and he was my equal...and more. Zell was just a hyper little fucktard and to faint and be all girlie in front of him...it was one fuck of a blow to my ego, Iíll tell you that. Which was goddamn dumb, that I still had an ego but to be such a pussy that Zell had to possibly save my ass...seriously why didnít I just blade my balls off? I mean not only had I passed out in front of Zell but Iíd also told him that I owed him for saving my life...like what the fuck made me say that...and now I was under his precious SeeD authority. Under the authority of chicken wuss. Goddammit was karma ever a bitch.

I had to force the words out. "You did something to calm Tiamat down. My congruency rose with him, I could feel it. Whatíd you use, some kinda med. level-up ability?"

"Nuh uh man, no meds can smooth out a super-strong GF, not even altered meds. I hadda use a battle item. Works with most GFs, sílong as you find the right item."

I was surprised. I hadnít know items could raise GF compatibility. As far as I knew, summoning a GF as frequently as possible was the only way to max up to one thousand. "Whatíd you use?"

"Inferno Fangs. It was a sorta gamble but I figured since Inferno Fangs can be refined into Flares and Tiamat had that killer Flare attack..." Zell shrugged. "I just tried it out and it worked. Lucky for you, dude Ďcause you were outta it, for real."

That was hard to digest. "Whyíd you bother?" Even I could hear the fruity ring of vulnerability in my voice. Hastily I added, "Not as fun if Iím zoned out, is it? Couldnít wait to haul me up to Leonhartís dad, could you?"

"I already told you," Zell huffed. "Iím just doing my job. Iím not out to get you or all determined to have you charged or somethin'. I gotta make my report and youíre part of it so just shut it, for fuck sakes."

I could easily understand his pissy attitude. Hell Iíd been putting up with it for the better part of my life. His taking the time to ease Tiamat into my head, that was a bitch to understand. Why? Why me? Why him? "People 'voluntarily placed under your authority' arenít allowed to talk, s'that it?"

"Youíre such a shithead!" Zell burst out, enraged. I felt a great burst of satisfaction at the contorted expression on his face. "You never change, no matter what! You think I wanna have you under my authority? Iíd rather have Ultimecia!"

It was lame but even now the sound of her name sent my heart scalding. "No you donít," I said in as casual a voice as I could force out. "Believe me, you really donít."

Zell blinked in surprise. He looked more like a chicken than ever. "Yeah, I guess not. That Hellís Judgement of hers was pretty brutal. I never felt pain like that ever."

"What was battling her like?" I blurted out before I could stop myself.

Great, Iíd just pulled a chicken wuss, stuffing cock into my fat mouth a la dipshit Zell. I cursed. I may have been under chicken wingís beloved authority but I wasnít pansy enough to want to admit to him that I wanted to know how theyíd beaten her. I couldnít even disobey her and theyíd destroyed her. How goddamn pathetic was I? How could the likes of chicken wuss and ditzy Selphie and tight-ass Quistis be stronger then I was?

"It was fucking whacked." Zell didnít seem to think anything of my question...but then again it wasnít like he was notorious for his involved thought processes. "She chose three of us at random...turned out to be me, Irvine an' Squall for the first go and then she laid it to us. First we fought just her, which wasnít too bad...kinda like fightin' Matron I guess. She also hadda Maelstorm attack but she was weak against Bio and Demi spells and against Doomtrain too so that part was easy. After that she summoned her GF Griever, who turned out to be a big bastard. Heíd cast Triple on himself, use all these bitchy Gravity-based spells, killed a bunch of our GFs off and had a really messed version of Quistis' Shockwave Pulsar that totally shot us to shit. After Irvine empted a big load of Hyper Shot into the thing, Ultimecia decided to junction herself to Griever. That was pretty shitty too but we were using Meltdown-Aura combos like crazy and we beat that weirdness and figured we were done...like hell. Ultimecia came back hanging upside down and like had no head and stuff...I canít even describe how fucked she looked...we knew that creeped form as Ultimecia True. She was fucking deadly. I never felt any pain like her Hellís Judgement...it lowered everyoneís HP to one. She also had this spell stocked that was even stronger then Ultima, called Apocalypse. That was some nasty magic. We were limit breaking like soldiers in Centra and that was one helluva long fight. Finally, as she began weakening, she started rambling on about how we should reflect on our childhoods and all this crap. Like I could take all that in while she was stealing entire stocks of magic and nearly killing us all. It was nuts man. I never wanna go through anything like that ever again." He sucked in a deep gulp of air...like heíd been so enthused that he forgot to breath...and then gave me a look that was about as obvious as Blobra jizz. "I never wanna go through...or have anyone else go through that messed up shit ever again. So if we find out that youíre starting up something again then I will personally make sure youíve got your own room, curtsey of D-District Prison. Got it hotshot?"

"Shut your ass punk," I snapped, thoroughly irritated. Fucks was this guy ever dense. Did he think I had a stock of Apocalypse spells ready to use on him? Him and Leonhart had been the heroes to defeat Ultimecia while I was nothing more then a behemoth-sized fuck up. I hadnít even been able to beat Squall once, let alone survive attacks from her and her GF. And now I was nothing more then a delinquent civilian under the presence of a SeeD...a hyped-up shrimp-shit of a SeeD. It was fucking humiliating, lemme tell you that.

Under the guise of blocking the sun from my eyes, I pressed at my throbbing forehead. Zell was yipping at me, his face tomato-red. I couldnít even see Esthar city in the distance.

It was going to be one helluva long car ride.

While I did oversee much of the, uh destruction of Esthar proper, Iíd been aboard Lunatic Pandora the entire time. Didnít have much time for sight-seeing, if any and basically I couldnít tell the city sights from a four-way inside the Kingís Tomb. All I knew about Esthar, other than the fact that it was a well-isolated state, was that it was the most scientifically-advanced region in the world.

Boy goddamn was that ever the truth.

I forced myself from showing any enthusiasm or gawk-eyed wonder around Zelly...but that didnít mean I didnít want to. Esthar was fucking awesome. The elevator tunnel-thing we used to enter the city in gave me enough of a rush to make my head spin but God did I ever have the urge to go back down on it just so I could come up again. It was kinda like the escalators at the mall when you were a kid...you just wanted to ride them up and down all day.

Entering the city was like entering into a whole other world. It didnít feel real at all. If anything, I felt like Iíd just stepped onto some kind of sci-fi fantasy movie set. Everything looked imposing and so glossy. The multi-hued, cylindrical highways were tiered, rising and crossing like an orderly jumble of neon wires. Shining, coffered structures towered far above and below us, reaching like coloured glass fingers from between intersecting road grids. It was surreal, standing there at the glowing, elevated entrance with the whole city spread out before us in a mesh of translucent, glittering technology.

Trying hard not to gape, I followed Zell over an endless maze of sloping, lengthy roadways. As we walked, a damn big-ass clutch of guilt starting ripping against my guts. Great, like I hadnít felt that before. Every now and then I saw signs of the damage Iíd brought about. A couple of those cup-like elevator things were still broken and some of the tunnels remained blocked off. In one section, there was a temporary roadway in place while the actual highway was still being repaired.

I felt like such a shit-heel and it wasnít a feeling I liked at all.

The only bit of luck Iíd managed so far was that it was nightfall as we walked the main roads. The drive into the city had taken a few hours and while Zell had been at his most pesky, listening to him get a wrath on was a much more favourable option then being lynched by an angry mob. Had it been a few hours back, I wouldíve been recognized in seconds and a public beheading in the city square probably wouldíve followed.

Which, even I had to admit, was no less then what I deserved.

Zell kept shooting suspicious glances at me as we trekked along; probably figured I was gonna make a bolt for it. Yeah, there was a grand idea, what with all those extraterrestrial soldiers running about. Those guys made me nervous, though Iídíve shit blood before admitting it. Seifer Almasy wasnít afraid of anything...even if he was. I had a great fear of being recognized; it may have been nightfall but there were still plenty of street and building lights. Lucky for me most of the soldiers seemed occupied and the few civilians that did pass by were in cars. Zell informed me that hardly no one ever came around the city outskirts at night; downtown, or the bottom streets of Esthar was the happening night scene. Then he quickly added that there were loads of soldiers patrolling and it I tried to make a run for it, Iíd be caught quicker than a Haste spell.

Thanks for the info dipshit, I only hadnít noticed scores of guards gallivanting around.

The Presidential Palace, an enormous gem-like monument that could be seen from most areas of the city, was beautiful. I knew shitall about architecture but even I could tell that it was a real piece of work. It almost felt sacrilegious, that a loser like me should be allowed to even look at it.

I sighed as we approached the lane leading into the Palace. The uncertainty of my future was making me gay.

There were six soldiers milling about the entry but they didnít spare me much more than a passing glance. They greeted Zell enthusiastically and offered to play cards with him later on. Apparently Zell was holding a Mobile Type 8 card that one of the guys was desperate to get back.

I didnít snort...but hell did I ever want to. Figured that even these fucking soldiers loved scribble-cheeks. Probably loved Squall twice as much. None of those Galbadian jackasses loved me. They all thought I was a conceited bastard, the lazy fuckers.

We got to take one of those strange teacup numbers into the palace. That was some weird shit, going that fast backwards while sitting down. I thought I was gonna hurl for a few seconds there but I managed to quell the urge...Iíd already passed out in front of Zell and I was not gonna add tossing my cookies into the foray. Zell was bouncing off after the teacup stopped; he didnít see me waver where I stood, blinking hard. It seemed as through great, leather-like wings were brushing against my brain. I shook my head to clear it and started down the long, elegant hallway after Zell.

The corridor walls were all transparent and afforded a view of the entire city. Thousands of lights and neon windowpanes shimmered at us from beyond the glass. I walked slowly, acting like I was just taking the magnificent view...which I was kinda...but really I was trying not to fall. Bitch-ass teacup left me dizzy too.

Shit, I really was gay.

Zell didnít notice a thing; some SeeD he was. The first turn in the lengthy passageway and I felt okay. By the second I was striding alongside twerp-o, towering over him, much to my gloating pleasure. Sometimes, when you assisted a Sorceress from the future to try and destroy the world, you had to take your hoots where you could find them. Certainly nothing in my immediate future suggested times chuckles-worth.

We walked up a few lavish, carpeted flights of stairs and entered a huge three-way landing. In the very centre of the enormous space, upon a dais of pink-veined Centra marble, stood a beautiful fountain. Its focus was a lady, a Sorceress maybe, and sparkling water, which I recognized as a huge flow of Water Magic, was pouring from the stone palms of her hands.

I stopped to stare at the fountain. It amazed me. How could a spell go on like that, without anyone casting it? Who made this? I looked around for Zell, contemplating whether I should ask him how this magical fountain worked. Either heíd look extremely stupid or I would. No draws on which I was banking on.

He was at the north hallwayís entrance, talking to one of the soldiers that stood guard. Fantastic. While Iíd been ogling a fucking cascade, he was off making plans for my detainment. I stalked over, trying not to run because I didnít wanna look desperate but I didnít wanna be dragged around in handcuffs either.

"My roomís down this way," Zell told me, gesturing down the corridor. "Címon."

The soldiers didnít say anything but their alien eye-gear studied me suspiciously. I acted nonchalant, like I traipsed around the Presidential Palace all the time. We passed up more stairs and down a short stretch of walkway before Zell stopped in front of a massive set of double doors that looked more like an elaborate ice sculpture than a door. Zell punched in a security code on the side panel and then cast a Dispel spell. The spellís junction pattern and magical frequency appeared on the screen, followed by a list of Zellís stats. A couple of instants to process the information and then a crisp ladyís voice invited Zell Dincht to enter his room.

I followed Zell, secretly very impressed. That was pretty fucking cool, though youíd never hear it from me. Paramagical security features? Only in Esthar. Even Garden didnít do shit like that. Probably didnít have the technology for it, actually.

Zellís room was absolutely enormous. Looked bigger then classrooms in the Garden, if you asked me. The place looked made, all elegant and glass paned and gold-embossed papered. The only thing that didnít look good in the room was Zell. The stupid punk looked like a Snow Lion in the desert.

"I gotta make my report to Laguna," Zell announced strutting around the living room. He stopped before a formidable looking marble and silver wrought coffee table and began empting out his shorts pockets of battle items. "Aní youíre gonna be staying here pal."

I leaned against the wall and adopted a well-practiced 'nothing bothers me' stance. "Oh yeah, pal? All alone? Whereís the fucking cage?" I couldnít quite keep out the bitterness from my voice; okay it wasnít exactly cool but come on...detained by a dumb fuck like Dincht was beyond humiliating. It wasnít like I was a guy known for patience or 'stoicism of spirit' or whatever. It was getting to the point where I almost wouldíve preferred to be incarcerated, instead of having to follow in Dinchtís stupid wake.

Almost.

Zell shook a Star Fragment at me and looked a helluva lot like Dr. Kadowaki for it. "Donít you think about starting trouble or youíll totally end up in a cage, asshole. No one around here hasta put up with your crap."

"Yeah, thatís really interesting." It took a lot of restraint on my part not to grab that Star Fragment and jam it down his throat. I had to remind myself that Zell had eased my junctioning with Tiamat, in spite of everything else. And really, not too far down truth be told, I knew that if I were him, Iíd definitely wanna shove me into a cage. Hell that was probably too good for me.

I knew it and I could accept it...it was just a lot harder when some crybaby from your past was passing sentence.

Zell glared at me, his face red. He put down his Star Fragment and inhaled deeply. He hadnít been forced into attending the Docís Anger Management classes, had he? I was about to rail him some more but he beat me to the words.

"Do whatever the hell you wanna." He shrugged and began his stupid process of swatting flies. "Your sentence, man."

Which made me pause. His words, Iím ashamed to admit, caused my stomach to coil. Tightly. It was that same sinking feeling Iíd experienced after Squall had defeated me for the first time and I was left alone with Edea. Not a pretty deal, not at all.

My sentence.

As in, it didnít matter what I did because in the end, I would be left to my own devices. I would stand alone and await judgment. Thatís how sure Zell was that I was planning something smart. He didnít give a shit. And who could blame him? Iíd been pitted against him all because I came to help Rinoa.

To help her.

And she didnít give a shit either, now that she was flouncing around after Puberty Boy.

Well, it wasnít exactly ground-breaking news, that I was alone. With the exception of my three GFs, it was me against SeeDs, against my actions, against the fucking world.

Goddamit was my stomach ever clenching. And my head was still throbbing insistently.

As I debated whether to show weakness and press at my temples or not, Zellís vast glass doors opened with a strident metallic swishing and in walked Quistis, of all people.

"Zell whatís-" She stopped abruptly as she caught sight of me. "Seifer?"

"The very same, Instructor." I didnít quite mean for that mocking tone to come through but in this place of elaborate unfamiliarity, it was all I had. I slipped back into routine with an ease that was so familiar.

She blinked a couple of times, watching me with enlarged eyes.

"Kíyou just watch over him for a few?" Zell was zipping around the room, collecting up folders and discs. "I gotta go give Laguna a report and stuff."

Quistis looked like she was biting back about a hundred questions but sheíd always been a true professional. "Take your time."

Zell narrowed his eyes at me on his way to the door. "Donít try nothing funny jerkass or Quistyíll Ray Bomb ya."

"Iíll keep that in mind, chicken shit." I smirked at him, knowing how much it pissed him off.

He grit his teeth and stomped out of the room, muttering 'goddamn asshole' under his breath.

Subtle the guy was not.

"What on earth are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same of you." I poked around at chickenís pile of magazines, which were resting on a nearby table. The dork had brought his entire collection of Combat King mags with him. I was impressed, he had some of the more rare issues, including issue 005, which was supposedly 'damn near impossible' to find, according to one of the workers down the Balamb docks.

"Weíve accompanied Matron here, not that itís any of your business." Her eyes narrowed. "Whatever youíre up to Seifer, itís not going to work."

"Who says Iím up to anything?" I chucked down Zellís mags, feeling a bit of my load ease. I wasnít so alone then, not if Matron was here. "I thought good SeeDs were taught never to assume, Instructor?" Which was why I wasnít a SeeD. Bunch of uptight pricks.

She flushed, her cheeks the same colour as her coral-coloured tank top. Iíd never seen her without her SeeD uniform or that pink dress thing she always wore. She actually looked kinda okay, with her hair down like that. More like a normal, approachable person I guess, instead of a tightass, by-the-book only teacher.

"I wouldnít need to be here if you hadnít done anything," she snapped, crossing her arms across her chest in that all-too familiar pose. "Are you responsible for the excess flow of magical energy within the Esthar Plains?"

"No." Which was the truth. I hadnít been the one swooping around.

"Well then do you know what is responsible?"

The hint of impatience in her condescending tone told me that she was only just holding her temper. I casually picked up one of the Zombie Powders Zell had left behind. I concentrated and found Red Giant. He used his ST Med-RF ability and in a flash of light, the Zombie Powder was gone, leaving behind three Holy Waters.

"Hereís your answer," I said and tossed one of the newly-refined item to her.

She caught it automatically. I figured it was only pure professionalism that kept her from gaping with her mouth wide open. "You have a GF?!!"

"Excellent powers of deduction, Instructor."

She ignored my sarcasm. "It is illegal for civilians to junction GFs. You know that as well as I do." She gave me a hard look, like I was some dumb fuck student of hers. Yeah, not anymore lady, those days were long gone. "And considering your previous actions, there isnít a single state on earth that wouldnít incarcerate you for it. Theyíre looking for just one reason Seifer. You give it to them and youíll be imprisoned. No trial, no breaks. None of us will be able to help you then."

How fucking self-righteous. 'None of us' my ass. More like just Matron. Sheís the only one who ever gave a damn. "Iím quite aware of current political consensus towards me," I replied coolly. I didnít have to take Quistisí superior shit. She held no authority over me. "And Iíd rather not spend the rest of my life inside D-District, if it makes any difference to you. Iím not here to fight or break laws or whatever else you and chicken wuss are thinking. Sheís gone. I just wanna be left alone."

She scrutinized me. "And the GF?"

I shrugged and responded evasively just to piss her off. "I had to no choice but to junction it...them. Whatever."

"You have more then one?!"

"Three, yeah." I was enjoying the poleaxed expression on her face. "Zell even saw me junction one."

"But why didnít he-" She floundered, trying to rationalize Zellís behaviour in her head. She was so damn obvious, just like one of those Garden-issued textbooks she used to teach from. She dismissed Zell after a few seconds and raised her chin to look me in the eye.

"Iím afraid Iím going to have to confiscate your GF," I proclaimed in a rather remarkable impression of Quistis, if I do say so myself. "Thatís what you wanna say, Instructor?"

Quistis didnít seem to be amused. Her lips were pressed so tightly together, they looked like long stretch of a Bloba arm. "Cut the comedy, Seifer. I canít allow you to go around with even one GF, let alone three."

"Donít think youíd be able to handle them, even if they did come to you." I grinned at her and went for the kill. "Had enough of a time trying to take Tiamat into my mind. Doubt it you could-"

"Tiamat?" This time she did gape and oddly enough, she looked a lot like Zell when heíd been gaping. "You have that...monster junctioned?"

"Yeah I do, actually." Baiting her was just as good as baiting Zell, I realized. It felt good to know stuff that she didnít. Hell she looked all about ready to shit bricks, as far as I could tell. "And Trauma and Red Giant. I donít think theyíd take too kindly to having you junction them. You did try to kill them, didnít you?"

"But we did. We destroyed all of them, I remember." She pressed at her temples like she had the centuryís biggest headache...like how I wanted to press at mine.

"You defeated them, not destroyed them."

"But how? How could that be? I used a Shockwave Pulsar on Tiamat. Zell used all his limit breaks and even Selphie was using Ultima and Meteor spells. Thatís impossible..."

"Hey donít look at me," I quickly inserted since she was looking at me with heightened suspicion. "I just woke up one night with Trauma calling for her to find them."

"You can hear them?"

"Yeah, inside my mind. Just one at a time though."

Quistis stared at me incredulously.

There was a silence. A long silence. I started to get edgy. Quistis wasnít one for the silent approach; she was all about stern lectures. Fuck she really mustíve been shocked.

"Look, I didnít do anything," I hastily defended myself. Anything to break the silence. "They were looking for her and found me instead, probably because I was her Knight or whatever. I didnít summon them or any shit like that. Theyíre from her future so why would I? Iíve never even seen any of them before, other than on cards. Theyíre junctioned to me by fluke."

She didnít reply. Instead, she marched over to the wall and pressed a button on the steel panel there. Almost immediately an armed soldier burst into the room.

"I want you to send word to Edea Cramer immediately." Quistis was in her element. "Tell her I need to speak with her right away and that itís urgent."

"Yes Miss."

I watched the soldier depart. That outfit really did look alien-ish. "What do you think Matron can do?" I couldnít help myself, I had to ask.

She blinked at me. "Well surely she must know something. How could those monsters come into our time when we defeated them? And if youíve junctioned three of them already, the other five must be around somewhere, right? They must be waiting for you."

"Thatís what I was thinking." I looked her straight in the eye and spoke seriously. "Iíll have to junction them all Quistis. As far as I know no one else can hear them except me. Not even Matron or Rinoa can hear them, otherwise they wouldíve said something. I know you guys donít like it but you donít really have much of a choice. Iím almost certain that her monsters wonít allow anyone else to junction them but me. I only came here to find Tiamat. Iím not here to cause trouble. Hell Iíve never even been to Esthar City before today." Suddenly and I couldnít tell you why, it seemed important that Quistis believe me. "You know I didnít go to Timber that day to end up Knight to a whacked Sorceress."

"I know that," Quistis conceded, sighing. "I mean we all know that she had you...under her influence."

"Thatís one way of putting it," I muttered blackly. "Possessionís what Iíd call it."

"Possession? A Sorceress can only possess another Sorceress, Seifer."

"Yeah well it felt like a fucking possession to-"

The door jarred open once again, interrupting me.

Matronís inky eyes found me at once, spearing into me like a flame in the dark. Her gaze spoke of comfort, warm and gentle. I realized, as I looked onto her fragile beauty, that I wasnít alone. Not precisely. She wouldnít abandon me, this woman.

This mother, if I could think of her as such.

To have her look at me with such soft eyes...I think I would have done it all over again, in exactly the same way.

A traitor who was loved. Yeah, I could handle that.

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