The word came from outside, and with its coming it created a vessel, and within that vessel it reverberated.
A body, lean and strong and unblemished, newborn muscles flexing against a skeleton only seconds old, lungs filling with their first delicious gasp of air, fingers and toes twitching like polyps of Balamb fire coral.
A mind, a consciousness. The grueling work of millennia compressed into an instant, thoughts springing forth full-formed from the ether, dancing like jolts of electricity across the surface of a still-forming brain.
A man. Young, long-limbed, curled on his side in the tall grass, his dark hair swirling to the middle of his bare back. Naked to the world for but a moment as dark fiber-blossoms erupted across his form, extending threads, intertwining, forming a layer of clothing as muscles and skin had woven together only moments before. The uniform that crept across his skin was immaculate, unwrinkled. On his back, an oblong leather sheath took shape, rising from between his shoulder blades like a strange growth. Metal formed like flowing quicksilver in its core, hardened into a razor-edged blade, a long, wickedly-curved handle.
A peal of thunder split the silence of a breathless summer afternoon. Eyelashes the color of a raven's wing parted, and a pair of irises like silver coins stared into the slate-gray skies above the Alcauld Plains. The young man rose as the rain began to fall, standing with face upturned, arms spread, breathing in air that tasted of wet dust and fresh grass and life, the kind of life he had never known, had never even been capable of dreaming of. The kind of life, once tasted, he would never let go.
The rain barely seemed to touch him, leaving his clothes neat and dry, collecting on his face only in aesthetically pleasing drops.
"I am," he said, in a voice both deep and melodious, perfectly masculine, undeniably refined. The novelty of the sound pleased him, and he repeated himself.
He knew then who he was, his purpose. The kind of thing, he sensed, that people spent their whole lives wondering about, chasing, grasping after with useless fingers. He had snared his purpose only seconds after his birth, pounced upon it with predatory intensity beneath the weeping sky. He had been cast like a perfect diamond and perfection was his purpose, the reason for his existence. He had only to display it to the right people.
He began to walk, heedless of the driving rain or the calls of the plains-beasts around him or the lightning that forked from the sky. He moved with even strides through the high grass, and it seemed to bend aside momentarily in deference, parting for his feet as he walked on through the sweltering afternoon. He did not sweat.
The plains were deserted. Garden students might venture into them for training or trysts or hot, fevered combinations of the two, but even they shied away from the torrential early summer downpours. Any ambience that might be gained by the spatter of rain on naked bodies could not ameliorate the hassle of walking back to the Garden with drenched clothing and sheepish expressions. The young man did not question how he should know this fact despite being only minutes old, just as he did not question the insignia that adorned the lapel of his perfect uniform or the gracefully curved weapon on his back. He only regretted that none of the students were here to see him, for they would certainly have found him glorious.
A dazzling smile formed on his face. His teeth were the color of fresh snow, of the blazing sun over the Dingo Desert, of hospital walls - a vision of antiseptic, sterile beauty.
They would see soon enough.
/ / /
Squall Leonhart opened his eyes too quickly, squinting in the glare of the infirmary's harsh fluorescent lighting. He could see nothing but a blank wall of brightness. His head throbbed with triphammer blows. The inside of his mouth tasted like burned copper. He heard a faint ringing in his left ear, and a hard crust of blood clung to his upper lip. Despite all these things, he felt better than he had in a long time. Indeed, almost because of these things, for they were the signs that Eden had finally departed him.
He spoke slowly, his tongue mired in spittle and mucus, his throat raw. "...gone?"
Dr. Kadowaki's voice seemed to come from very far away, but he could tell she was close because the light dimmed. She loomed above him, an amorphous, shadowy shape. "Yes. The procedure was a success. She has been contained." Her voice carried the flat, professional tone that any doctor, especially one who regularly saw T-Rexaur and gunblade injuries on the bodies of children, had to adopt. There was something else there, though, something moving beneath the surface-
"He's hurt," Rinoa said. He blinked, and her form came into view on the other side of the bed. Her long, graceful fingers twined with his own, and then he felt her touch on his face. As she gently swabbed with a wet cloth, wiping away the blood, he smelled the ghost of the perfume she had placed on her wrist hours ago. He loved her then, an eager, clumsy love that he never would have allowed himself to feel fully awake, and he was struck by the sudden urge to kiss her hand, her wrist, her shoulders-
"...fine, Rinoa," he croaked instead. The room began to come back into focus, colors and shapes resolving themselves out of the brightness. He caught Kadowaki's concerned frown, Rinoa's thin, anxious smile, and said the first thing that came to mind.
"...throat hurts. Never had that before."
"You screamed," Kadowaki spoke as if she were talking about the score of the last intramural basketball game, "for some time."
"You should have let me do it," Rinoa said. Her brow was furrowed over her dark eyes. For the first time, Squall realized that she was furious beneath her obvious relief. "I'm a sorceress, I told you I could-"
"Garden's de-junctioning procedure has been used since the inception of the Guardian Forces themselves." Kadowaki's tone brooked no argument.
"This was different," Rinoa insisted. "Eden's different, he could have died-"
Later that night, Squall would find the bruise marks on his wrists from the restraints, the crescent cuts his fingernails had bitten into Rinoa's palm, and wonder if he actually might have died there, bitten off his own tongue, perished of a stroke. At the moment, lying on the hospital bed, he could feel nothing but relief and crushing fatigue.
"I didn't." He swung his legs off the bed and stood, shakily. The entire room yawed sideways for a moment, and the lights were too bright, and his head still throbbed like a rotten tooth, but the voice no longer hammered at the back of his mind. "And now it's over."
He'd never imagined junctioning a Guardian Force could be like that. Quezacotl had been with the Garden for a decade, and served with the weary, reluctant obedience of a tired old dog. Shiva could be petulant, but she was little more than a difficult housecat, and her claws were short and blunt. The wild Guardian Forces had been like lions or tigers, capable of hurting badly, needing constant management with lashes of the mental whip, morsels of memory. But in the end, even they could be tamed.
Eden was like none of those things. When he had first junctioned her, he had felt his ears pop as she moved into his mind. Other GFs settled in smoothly, or at worst dug claws like tiny fishhooks. Eden had pressed into the entire surface of his brain like a scorching monolith, and he had heard a noise that was something like bacon sizzling on a griddle and something like cats screaming. A shudder had raced through him, and then she had begun to speak, in a voice that was half plump aristocrat and half screaming madwoman, and she had said-
Enough. Just be glad she's gone.
Dr. Kadowaki was still speaking.
"...some headaches, loss of concentration, dreams, slight visual or auditory hallucinations," she continued, crossing her arms before her stout frame. "Shouldn't last longer than a few days, and there are meds for the worst of it, if you-"
"No," he said, slowly. After having Eden in his head, he wanted all his faculties about him, painful as that might prove. "I'll be fine."
"If you say so." Kadowaki's heavy eyebrows nestled together, her mouth set in a hard line. He might be Garden Commander, but she ruled all in this room, and she obviously didn't appreciate her suggestions being tossed aside.
"I do," he croaked, taking an experimental step. The world lurched again, but he kept his footing this time without Rinoa's help. "Can we go now?"
"Yes." Kadowaki moved over to a desk and scribbled something on a piece of paper for her records. "You need rest, though. Take at least a couple of days off." She smiled then, her earlier annoyance vanishing. "I'm sure Xu won't mind being in charge for that long."
"I'm sure." He was too exhausted to share her levity, but his mouth curled up in a weak smile anyway. Rinoa would like that, and he would do anything right now to take that look off her face, that expression of watery happiness covering pale worry.
She didn't speak up again until they'd left the infirmary and made their way to the open-air colonnade that led to the dormitory, and when she did, her voice was quiet.
"That was scary."
Around them Garden lay quiescent in the warm summer night. The thunderstorms that had lashed Balamb all afternoon had cleared off, and the moon painted the world in pale hues, lending even the concrete of the nearby tennis courts a mother-of-pearl gleam. This late after curfew, the students were mostly asleep. Even the holdouts in the Training Center's secret area tended to either give up and go home or bed down on one of the room's old mattresses at this hour. For now, the world was theirs and theirs alone, and that was the way Squall preferred it.
He opened his mouth to tell her he was fine, then hesitated. She could see that well enough. Instead, he asked, "Was it?"
Her nod was almost imperceptible. She didn't look at him. "Yeah. You screamed a lot... thrashed around. I thought you were dying." Her voice hitched a little, and he realized she was on the verge of tears. Why couldn't he tell before it happened, even now? "I- I thought-"
Squall drew her to him. She felt light and soft and as warm as sun-warmed stone, but she shivered against him anyway, pressing her wet face into his shoulder. He had seen this kind of thing in the movies a million times. He still could not bring himself to make the soothing noises those actors did. Instead, he held her tightly, and said, "I'm sorry I scared you, Rinoa," and hoped it would be enough.
Part of him, the sullen resentful part that still resisted almost all the changes he had made to his life after Rinoa, spoke up. She's scared? She would have been really scared if she knew the things Eden was doing to your mind. The things she was saying, the headaches- He had junctioned the GF to save the world only to find he didn't dare to summon her, not even once. Her requests to be unleashed had grown ever more forceful, and with them came the nosebleeds and the headaches and the urges, and-
"It's not your fault," she mumbled into his shoulder. Her crying had wound down to the odd sniffle. He guessed it had been enough. "I'm sorry too. Sorry for acting like this. I just- I love you, Squall."
"Rinoa, I-" He had said it before, of course, behind closed doors, in their bed in the darkness of night. He had even managed to write it once, in a note that had been so painful to construct it might as well have been written in his blood. He struggled to say it now, but something about the very public nature of the setting, even with no one else around, slowed him. Then he was saved, for Rinoa suddenly gave a startled gasp. Squall released her, turning, his SeeD instincts leaping from dormancy to electric-charged tension in a split second - and found himself looking at what had to be the most beautiful young man he'd ever seen.
He stood at least six inches taller than Squall, and his raven-dark hair cascaded down past his shoulders to the middle of his back. He was lean and muscular and perfectly proportioned; he wore a simple cadet's uniform, but Squall's trained eye picked out his stance as utterly deadly. His face was a vision of tanned, masculine beauty, and the teeth that formed his dazzling smile were even and perfect. Most striking were his eyes - wide, elegantly traced by long, dark lashes, with irises that gleamed silver like moonlight on water. He was a vision out of the kind of foolish fairytale stories Quistis had always begged matron to tell them, handsome Prince Charming made flesh, and yet something about him sent the vaguest rill of unease through Squall's mind. He seemed somehow too perfect, too-
"Hello," Rinoa breathed, no doubt embarrassed at the position she had been caught in.
"Hello, Ms. Heartilly, Commander Leonhart," the young man said with a slight bow, and Squall realized his voice was beautiful too. It was deep, masculine, energetic - the kind of voice that played on the radio dramas out of Deling City, of which his old roommate had been quite the fan. Rinoa had confided to Squall once that as a general's daughter she had met many of those actors and found their looks to be pedestrian in comparison to their voices. No one could levy that complaint against this man.
"It's rather late, Mr. ..." Squall let the silence stretch out, suddenly and acutely aware of how high and strained his voice sounded when compared to the other's, even when he tried to use his stern, commanding tone.
"Talon," the young man supplied. His grin slipped not a fraction at the rebuke. "Talon Quahlorelas. I apologize for being out after curfew, sir. I only just arrived on transfer from G-Garden an hour ago. I'm going to get the paperwork completed right now."
Squall nodded, too tired to pursue the matter further. The young man seemed nice enough, and the earlier specter of unease that had passed over Squall was fading. Maybe, he thought, Talon's presence would give some of the younger female students who followed their commander's every movement with huge, enraptured eyes someone else to look at. With that thought in his mind, he was even able to smile.
"Go on then," Squall said, waving the other off. "Welcome to Balamb Garden." Rinoa only gave a shy wave, staring after Talon until he rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.
"I'm sure he won't tell anyone about what he saw," Squall said as they resumed walking, certain that Talon would. Even though he had held himself aloof from others for so long, he still understood how the social machinery worked. A juicy rumor was just the sort of thing a new student could use to gain attention and favor quickly. Of course, if most new students looked like Talon, they wouldn't have to resort to rumors to get attention.
"Yes," Rinoa agreed absently. She walked faster than him, now, eager to put the embarrassment behind them, virtually pulling him after her. He followed, putting the young man out of his mind, thinking only of sinking into bed and sleep.
He was already dozing beneath the sheets when Rinoa stepped into the doorway of the bedroom, hip cocked saucily to one side against the doorframe in a show of calculated sexuality so blatant it might have been lifted from the pages of one of Irvine's magazines. He gasped despite his exhaustion as he looked at her - black lace over porcelain skin. The lingerie dipped low to cup her breasts, arched between her hips in a tiny, filmy triangle, hid nothing at all. He had bought her that outfit from a Galbadian boutique, ordering it over the WorldWire because he was far too embarrassed to buy it in person, and it was -
"Your favorite," Rinoa supplied. Her dark eyes twinkled merrily, and the smile she flashed him was sweet, shy, and predatory with hunger.
Suddenly he discovered he wasn't so tired after all.
The Headmaster's Office was too full. Not with furniture, for Squall had changed little since taking over Cid's role as Garden Commander and only a pair of sparse desks and a handful of chairs dotted the office. Nor with people, for it was just the two of them. It was full of the insubstantial and annoying; morning light that streamed in through the open window and shone searing from desktop and laminate floors, the shrill sound of Xu's angry voice, and a stifling, oppressive heat.
Squall sighed and shoved the sheaves of paper on his desk aside, free hand rubbing at his left temple. The week since he had de-junctioned Eden had passed uneventfully - no nightmares, no strange voices, no hallucinations - and he was grateful for such a kindness, especially considering what a burden she had been on his mind. The source of this headache was far more mundane, but no less irritating for that fact.
"-ing entirely unreasonable, Squall," Xu said, finishing up another segment of her tirade. She leaned heavily against his desk, palms spread on its surface, shoulders braced and lowered like a bull about to charge. He bit back his anger and pointedly studied the desk's surface, knowing making eye contact would only enrage her further. He was just noticing that every one of her fingernails was precisely cut to an eighth of an inch when she snapped, "At least look at me!"
He did so. Sweat plastered her dark hair to her forehead and stained the underarms of her uniform in a most unladylike way. He probably didn't look any better himself - the air conditioning had been on the fritz for the better part of the week, and Balamb summers were as merciless as ever. The heat was no excuse for her attitude, though, and he wondered if she'd ever dared to speak to Cid that way. Xu showed Squall the deference his rank demanded - when he shared her opinion. The rest of the time, she seemed to remember her stint as his dorm monitor a little too well.
They hadn't agreed on much lately.
"It's reasonable," he said quietly, hoping to quell a further rise from her, "to carefully pick and choose the assignments we send our newest SeeDs on. We've recruited heavily in the past year, and there aren't that many Guardian Forces to go around. We're going to spread ourselves too thin."
Xu tapped a finger precisely on the pile of papers. "These are simple assignments, Squall, something a rank amateur could handle. If it takes a GF to rout out Snowfield rabble, we seriously need to reconsider our training regimen. And this Galbadian anarchist openly attends raves, for God's sake, I teach first years who could neutralize him." Her finger darted to a seperate pile. "These, you approve. Training the Timber special forces, monster-hunting in Dollet, bodyguard duty... all of them extended contracts. All with inferior pay."
He shrugged, trying not to let anything show in his face. He still wasn't good at dealing with people, but that tactic, at least, he had mastered years before. "You've always said that Garden protocol dictates we should maintain a good relationship with past clients." If Garden hadn't been willing to take jobs that were less than profitable, Squall, Zell, and Selphie might never have been sent to Timber in the first place. He never would've met Rinoa, and his life - and the world - would be very different.
Xu's brows knotted together as if they were doing battle. "Not to the exclusion of all else. You think I don't see what you're doing, Squall? You're skipping the difficult jobs, the nasty jobs, the mean jobs, and signing the Garden up for everything that's left. Your conscience," and she spit out the word as if it were some vile part of his anatomy, "has no place governing your judgment with regards to these assignments."
Squall tried his best to look righteously angry rather than simply annoyed and weary. He was just opening his mouth to try some sort of admonishment, something as simple as reminding her of their respective ranks, when he heard the shout from the atrium below.
"TALON! YOU DIRTY SON OF A BITCH! COME OUT HERE AND GET WHAT'S COMING TO YOU!"
"Trouble." The anger slipped from Xu's face like a sheen of water, revealing a backdrop of razor focus. Her hand trailed up her leg with practiced ease, dipping under the hem of her skirt and emerging with a snub-nosed pistol.
Talon. Something in that name jogged the back of Squall's brain, but it was smothered by a sudden burst of recognition at the voice. Loud, haughty, demanding-
It can't be.
He was up and moving before he even realized it, snatching up the sheathed Lionheart from its hook by the door. Xu followed at his elbow, their argument forgotten for the moment. Once they were in the elevator, Squall slammed a fist against the EMER. DESCEND button and they shot downward like a bullet. As the cabin lurched to a stop, Squall felt the cafeteria food in his stomach lurch upward in a desperate escape attempt, and the sight that greeted him when the elevator doors parted nearly finished the job.
Seifer Almasy stood in front of Garden's turnstiles, leaning against the entry booth casually, gunblade resting on his shoulder. He didn't look as he had when Squall had last faced him in the Lunatic Pandora - face twisted in a corpselike approximation of his old grin, eyes hollow and black-rimmed, shoulders slouching, reeking with sweat and madness. He looked as he always had, striding the corridors of Balamb with his posse in tow, tossing out demerits and insults with equal aplomb. He looked the quintessential Seifer, trim and fit and irreverent and absolutely deadly. Even his coat looked new - maybe Fujin had mended it. The thought almost made Squall smile despite the situation when Xu shouted from behind him.
"Seifer Almasy! You are a wanted criminal and Garden has an outstanding warrant for your arrest." She stepped in front of Squall, her gun leveled before her in a two-handed grip. "That's if we can get you before the governments of Galbadia, Esthar, and Dollet, who have all sentenced you to death in absentia. So please, tell me why you've suddenly become suicidal, because that's the only reason I can see for you to dare to walk in here."
"Wasn't to get squealed at by you," Seifer said, nodding almost affectionately in their direction. "Or by Puberty Boy."
A crowd had begun to gather, mostly composed of underclassmen with a smattering of SeeDs and instructors. They clustered in a knot behind and around the elevator, waiting for Squall and Xu to respond. Whispers darted brushfire-quick through their ranks, then turned to shouts and jostling as the students shifted to see or to flee. Some few went pattering off towards the Quad, but most remained riveted to the scene before them. Most of them were young or fresh transfers, and seeing Seifer -the legendary turncoat, the demon, the sorceress's butcher - lounging at the entrance to the Garden presented a spectacle that could scarcely be as enthrallingly horrifying if bloody old Hyne himself stood there.
"Seifer-" Squall began uncertainly. Something did seem strange about him now, something in his eyes, an eager gleam that Squall had last seen when he'd shouted, Someday I'll tell you about my romantic dream!
"Did Rinoa put out yet?" Seifer asked, twirling Hyperion on his ring finger. Despite himself, Squall felt heat rise in his cheeks, and he found himself absurdly grateful that Rinoa was on a day trip to Balamb.
"Hands up, Seifer," Xu barked, flicking the safety off her weapon audibly. "I've been looking for the excuse to put one in you for years."
He made no move to drop his weapon. "Sure it isn't the other way around?" His voice held the same familiar jeer it used to when he smashed hot dogs in Zell's hair... and led Galbadian forces against the Garden. "When's the last time you got laid?"
There was a brief, strangled sound from the crowd behind them, a sudden conspiratorial giggle that transformed into a gasp of horror, and Seifer only smiled wider, taking a few steps away from the turnstiles. "See? I've still got fans in the audience-"
"Seifer!" Xu shouted again, and Squall never did figure out if she would have shot him or not, because that was when the disturbance rose from the crowd behind him.
The crowd of students did not consciously part in a coordinated move, but the effect was the same. A figure moved through the ranks with seamless grace, brushing students aside without ever seeming to touch them, the sound of his footsteps on the floor loud and impossibly precise. Murmurs trickled through the crowd again, but now they spoke a single word, a name like a mantra.
He stepped smoothly from the crowd, the image of casual grace and utter disdain, every line of his blue cadet's uniform razor precise. Paying no attention to either the authority figures or the buzzing crowd behind him, he rolled his shoulders back in a movement that looked no more strenuous than a shrug. A gunblade rose from the sheath on his back as if pulled on a string, tumbling in the air, its edge winking golden in the streamers of sunlight that shone through the Garden's skylights. Talon extended an arm, opened his hand, and the hilt of the falling weapon fell into his grip as if summoned. Silver eyes flashed in merriment as he turned to face Seifer.
"I hear you want to speak to me," Talon said, his voice carrying just the hint of a laugh.
Squall opened his mouth to speak, to call a halt to the proceedings before Talon got himself killed. Seifer's howl of inarticulate rage smothered his words. The blond man's face contorted into a hideous mask of red cheeks and bulging eyes and gnashing teeth, a mask of startling rage Seifer could be cocky, cruel, vengeful, and seemed to stay annoyed - but even Squall had never seen him enraged. Seifer leaned forward in a half crouch, the harsh angle of his shoulders simultaneously mirroring Xu's earlier stance and revealing her anger in Squall's office for the mild annoyance it was. The position of Seifer's body, the crazed look in his eyes, and the razor edge of his gunblade promised only death.
Squall had been Seifer's greatest rival. He and his friends had shattered Seifer's romantic dream, transformed him from a knight of legend reborn to an outcast, a fugitive from every country in the world and humanity itself. All these things had bred only contempt and resolve. For a moment, Squall wondered if the emotion he was feeling could possibly be some sort of warped jealousy, then realized it was only incredulity. What could Talon, a trainee, a man Squall had only known existed for a week, have possibly done to put Seifer in this condition? He had only a moment to ponder this question before everything spiraled out of control.
Seifer's sense of tactics was generally poor, his brute strength impressive but not insurmountable. The factor that had always determined victory or defeat, whether Squall was facing him in a training match or a fight to the death, was speed. Seifer attacked relentlessly, instinctively, and most of all rapidly. Squall had seen him kill men in the razor thin gap between seconds, blinks, heartbeats.
The months he had spent as a fugitive hadn't slowed him at all. He darted forward in an oily, eel-like movement, Hyperion held low and parallel to the floor in his typical one-handed grip, its tip shrieking against the marble. He crossed the distance between himself and Talon in less than a second, before the other man even had time to drop into a guard stance. Squall had barely registered this first movement when Hyperion roared and spat a brief, bright tongue of orange flame, leaping up like a lunging T-Rexaur to open Talon from crotch to throat. Seifer spun slightly away from the strike, expanding its curve, and the crowd of onlookers shouted as a rain of marble splinters pelted their faces. Seifer skidded to a stop at last at the end of a six foot long trench in the floor, his eyes alight with a savage triumph that only died when he saw that he had missed.
The toes of Talon's immaculately polished boots rested to one side of the trench Seifer had carved in the floor. He had slipped aside as smoothly as a man taking a turn in a waltz. Any illusion that Seifer was his partner in this dance vanished as his elegantly-curved gunblade stirred to life, seeming like nothing so much as an extension of his arm. Seifer had only begun to turn back to face his opponent when Talon's first strikes began to rain down, and Hyperion darted into its path with the closest thing to desperation Squall had ever seen Seifer display. Gunblades blurred into invisibility, the striking sparks of their collision flaring to life like will-o-wisps between the two men. Seifer was faster than he had ever been, yet beside Talon he looked positively clumsy. Seifer retreated before the relentless onslaught; his every parry seemed a little too slow, and soon tiny gashes appeared on his arms, his chest, his thigh. Crimson spattered the arms and hem of his white coat, fell in gleaming drops to the marble below. None of it touched Talon.
Together, the two drifted closer to the crowd. The gathered students watched their swordplay with the fascinated, frozen terror of a cornered rabbit. The bright beams of sunlight seemed to catch the men, crystallize them in time like flies in amber: Seifer, face contorted in rage, hair slicked down with sweat, wounded and hard-pressed. Talon, at ease, coral lips stretched in a tight smile, eyes dancing merrily. He seemed to be the only one in the room not sweating.
Seifer lunged, screaming a curse, and Talon flickered effortlessly aside, escaping being spitted on Hyperion's tip by fractions of an inch. Spinning on his heel, Seifer drove forward again, and again Talon moved aside at the last moment. Squall felt his mouth go dry as he realized that Talon was toying with Seifer, showing off for the crowd like the matador of a Deling City bullfight.
Who the hell is he? And why wasn't anyone stopping this- the faculty, Xu- me-
Before he could complete the thought, Talon dodged another of Seifer's strikes and spun, slamming the heel of his hand into Seifer's face in a roundhouse blow. Seifer's nose broke with a greenwood crack, and the formerly silent crowd gave a low, communal gasp. Seifer stumbled, nose fountaining blood, then staggered backwards into a sea of pale faces, transforming gasps to screams. Several students went down as Seifer crashed into them, and more fell as those left standing turned to flee, pushing the smaller aside, trampling them. For a moment, Seifer vanished in the sprawl. One girl, a first year who couldn't have been older than twelve, curled on the floor and cradled a broken wrist, sobbing shrilly. Talon watched it all, implacable smile still scored across his face, waiting.
Seifer exploded from the tangle of bodies, shedding screaming students, and charged. Hyperion roared again, trailing a thin tail of flame as it sped towards Talon's face. The student's own gunblade moved to intercept. The screech of metal on metal cut through the clamor of the crowd - and then was swallowed in turn as a staccato series of explosions tore from Hyperion. Fireflowers and smoke enveloped the two men as Seifer released bullet after bullet, hyperaccelerating his blade in a series of vicious slashes. Talon stepped from the acrid cloud, batting aside Seifer's full force backslash contemptuously and hammering the other's guard wide open. His gunblade flashed down only once, scribing a brief golden line through the air as it caught and scattered the sunlight.
Hyperion's expended clip slipped from the butt of the weapon and clattered against the floor. Silently, slowly, Seifer reached up to touch his face, his fingertips coming away wet and webbed with crimson. An X was carved between his eyes, one half old and discolored, the other red and weeping. Blood sheeted down his face; his eyes bulged madly from a sticky red mask. He opened his mouth, to curse or scream or weep.
Talon dropped into a crouch, one long, lean leg hooking around to hammer into the back of his opponent's knees. Seifer toppled, the back of his head slamming against the floor with a hollow, melonlike sound. His thrashing stopped immediately; he stared up at the ceiling with such blank finality that Squall knew he was dead... until he noticed the slight rise and fall of his chest. Considering the humiliation he had just suffered, perhaps Seifer would have preferred dying to waking up.
The beautiful young man walked in a circle around his fallen foe, and Squall wondered for a moment if he was going to kill him after all. Instead, he raised one arm above his head, twirled the gunblade around a finger, and sheathed it. The crowd, confidence restored, gave an appreciative murmur that turned into outright applause when Talon actually bowed. He moved among them, shaking hands, touching shoulders, soaking up their sudden, fierce affection. He crouched next to the girl with the shattered, wrist, patting her shoulder, lips curling up as he whispered a joke in her ear. Her screams became tear-strewn giggles, and when her friends helped her up and lead her off towards the infirmiry, her young face burned with the kind of naked, ridiculous love Squall wouldn't be able to show if he lived to be a hundred.
"What... happened?" Xu said. Her voice sounded thick, drugged, and she had lowered her pistol since the last time he had looked at her. He was wondering the same thing himself. The fight between Seifer and Talon couldn't have lasted longer than a minute, but that was an eternity for a SeeD. And yet no one in the hall had moved to stop it, to intervene - not even the Garden's most strict disciplinarian or its commander. Why?
"I'm not sure..." Because I felt... compelled? Fascinated? None of the answers seemed to make sense, and they didn't matter at the moment. What mattered was - "Seifer. He's likely to bleed to death if someone doesn't get him to the infirmary."
"Right," Xu said. If the irony of saving a man she'd been about to kill not five minutes ago occurred to her, she didn't show it. Maybe, as discomfited by what had happened as Squall, she was just glad to have an order to follow. "Right," she repeated, steadying herself, "And I'll have someone bring in Talon for questioning."
The young man was already long gone, though the crowd was still buzzing about him. As Xu slipped away, calling for a pair of SeeDs to help her with Seifer, Squall was struck by a sudden premonition. Xu could talk about ordering someone to bring Talon in all she wanted - she might even do it. The person she had assigned to the task might even seek him out. But then the boy would smile, and talk, and maybe make a joke or two or maybe be deadly, earnestly serious, and that searcher would suddenly and deliberately forget that they'd ever been looking for Talon at all.
"That was unbelievable," a familiar voice said at his elbow. He turned and Quistis was there, hair disheveled, cheeks flushed. She looked as if she' d just finished up a mile run, but her classroom was just across the quad.
"Yeah." He watched Xu and the others roll Seifer's unconscious and blood-splattered body onto a stretcher. The pair of infirmary aides that accompanied it looked down at their patient with expressions of reverent terror. "I've never seen Seifer fight like that, even up against a wall. And three or four of us together couldn't give him a beating like the one he took just now."
"Talon's incredible," Quistis blurted in a rush. It was the same tone, Squall realized with a mixture of amusement and horror, that she had used on him the night she had taken him to the secret area to confess her feelings and burden him with her problems. Rinoa had taught him to recognize that kind of tone, that kind of need, and part of him wished now that she hadn't. Quistis's crush on anyone was the last thing he wanted to know about, and if the man was as strange as Talon-
"He cut Seifer to pieces," Squall said, bluntly and simply. It was the first thing that came to mind, but for once he didn't curse his awkwardness. It was also true. "He scarred him on purpose."
"You're one to talk about that." Her tone was suddenly icy, hard. "Jealous?"
Any reply Squall might have marshaled was scattered by the anger in her voice and his shock at its presence. Quistis had never spoken to him like that in all the time he had known her - all the time he could remember knowing her, anyway. Not when he had refused to answer her questions in class, not when he had broken her favorite toy, not when he had rebuffed her advance in the Training Center with what he now knew to be the needlessly cruel suggestion to talk to a wall. Quistis was given to withdrawal, to hurt feelings, but seldom to anger. He had only heard her approach such fury when she was scolding Seifer after another of their unofficial duels. She had shown such anger for him, never to him.
That must be why, he told himself, her words hurt. More than that, they confused him, almost frightened him. Something about her sudden outburst reminded him of the crazed look in Seifer's eyes, of the way he had thrown himself at Talon so recklessly. Maybe Quistis was preparing to do the same thing, armed with a cocktail dress and a new hairdo. He couldn't very well ask her now. Even if he had wanted any more of that anger, she was already walking away, probably to look for Talon.
Later, much later, he would realize that he should have seen the signs. In her voice and her eyes and her anger, in Seifer's boundless rage. By then, it was far too late, and he was viewing the world through the bars of a prison cell.
Squall never knew how long he spent in that cell. When the pair of SeeDs brought him down to the dark, dank detention area that had previously been below NORG's chambers, whispering amongst themselves, he had still been suffused with white-hot anger, lurching against his restraints, bloodying his wrists in his raw animal fury. Neither of them had looked at him as they unlocked his handcuffs, shoved him into the cell, closed and locked the door. He vaguely remembered throwing himself against the bars, raging, his mind humming like a tangle of wires charged with electricity. His jailors looked at him with an expression of muted pity and turned to go without another word.
He had never known such anger, such overwhelming rage, in all his life. The cowardly yet warmongering Galbadians he despised. Seifer he resented. Ultimecia he could even hate, in the abstract way that an animal hates its natural enemy, its competition for survival. None of them had ever hurt him as deeply and as fundamentally as he had been hurt now, and his muscles throbbed with a need for vengeance that shattered all decorum he had previously known. He was insane with anger, and in that moment some small, still-rational part of him whispered that this must have been what Seifer felt, that day in the Garden lobby that was barely a month ago.
He could scarcely have been in that rage for an hour before despair struck him with a force so crushing it was almost physical, driving him to the floor and pinning him there. He did not know how long he lay there, cheek pressed against cool concrete, eyes staring blankly into space, seeing nothing. They didn't need to see; the set of eyes inside his mind saw enough - brief, sparkling bursts of recollection, diamond-bright images of naked flesh and grinning lips and black lace that had been seared across the surface of his memory, that still sizzled and smoked and burned. Dimly, he was aware of the passage of time, of minor, unimportant activities: changing into a prisoner's uniform, eating, drinking, using the cell's small toilet, and watching several shifts in the light that slanted through the cell's small, high window in tones of silver and gold.
Many times, Seifer called to him from down the hall, derisively, curiously. Squall did not answer him. Once, Xu came to the bars, speaking slowly, asking questions he didn't care to answer. He couldn't remember what he told her. Her questions didn't seem to matter, not anymore. They were about things from before, when his life had been his own.
It's still your own, Squall, something inside him insisted. You're breathing, your heart is beating. You're alive. But what was life alone, when everything of worth in it was gone?
He had no other visitors.
After some time, the numbness faded, bringing with it a return to rationality. Squall lay on the cell's narrow bunk, staring upward at the mildewy ceiling tiles, thinking. Not haphazardly, blindly, helplessly as he had in that moment since Lionheart had last whispered from its sheath, but deliberately. A puzzled frown replaced his earlier expression of blank acceptance, and he began weighing his situation and his chances with the cold, operational clarity his SeeD training had drilled into him. The pain was still too fresh for him to do anything else.
He had survived alone before. It wasn't an experience he was eager to repeat, but it could be done. Back then, in that era of crying into his pillow for Ellone, in withdrawing from the world, he had learned to watch people, to study them, and to understand them, like a biologist observing some strange species. Rinoa and the others - and oh, how it hurt to think of them now, even Sis, especially Sis - had helped change that, had helped bring him into the babble and bustle of people around him, but they had not erased the earlier lessons he had learned.
Squall never forgot how to watch. Without even trying, he could pick out a couple's argument from across a crowded and noisy restaurant, or tell when a man on a Deling City corner was holding illegal drugs, when Rinoa told him little, harmless white lies. But this last one wasn't very harmless, was it, Squall? Not at all-
That doesn't matter.
What mattered was that there had to be some kind of pattern of behavior. Something he could trace. Something that had begun that day Seifer had stormed into the Garden lobby - or maybe - maybe even earlier, when he and Rinoa had taken that slow moonlit walk home from the infirmary. But what? What?
He knew one part, at least. Everything of significance that had happened over the past month, every small but vital clue, every twist of the knife, every impossibility, lead back to one source, one man.
Staring at the dim and dripping ceiling of his dank cell, Squall Leonhart cast his mind back to relive the tumultuous last month. The recollections, when they came, were a jumbled mishmash of moments, fragments of memory arranged almost haphazardly into a collage that a pretentious artist might have labeled Scenes from the Life of Squall Leonhart.
/ / /
Standing not twenty feet from where he now lay, in the hallway on the other side of the bars, looking in at Seifer. Despite looking horrible and bleeding copiously, Seifer's injuries had been relatively minor, requiring only a few days of recovery in the infirmary. After he had hurled himself from his bed, tearing an IV loose in the process and screaming for Talon to come down there and fight him, he had been moved to the prison level in B-Garden's basement to complete his recovery... and await his trial.
Seifer sat on his bunk, forehead slumped against the opposite wall of his cell, staring at the floor, looking strangely crumpled and shrunken in his bright green prisoner's uniform. To Squall, he resembled a wild animal caged for years, reduced to a ragged lump of bones and loose skin, vaguely hating its condition but possessing no idea of how to end it. For a moment, a burst of satisfaction raced through Squall at the sight. He could not help recalling the last time he had been imprisoned, Seifer laughing gleefully as he flipped the switch. Seifer deserved this. He deserved much worse. He-
This isn't about him. All that's over. It's about-
"Talon," Squall said evenly. Seifer didn't look at him. "Why? How do you know him?"
Seifer's shoulders hitched in a brief, cawing laugh. He mumbled against the wall, "Don't."
"You're lying. I've never seen you as mad as you were in there."
Seifer laughed again, but the sound was flat, lifeless. An act played out for the enjoyment of an audience that wasn't even around to see it.
"You weren't there the day Fujin burned all my Girl Next Door books."
"I'm serious, Seifer."
"When the fuck are you ever anything else?" Seifer raised his head to look at him. Dark, bruised half-moons nestled under his eyes. "It's a shame, too, because this whole thing is a fucking joke. I told you, I don't know that guy. Never laid eyes on him before a couple days ago."
"So you expect me to believe that show up there was for a complete stranger?" Squall raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't say it was a good joke." Seifer looked down again, shoulders sagging. The silence stretched out, and Squall began to think he had best just leave, when Seifer began to speak again. His voice had the slow, halting quality of someone reluctantly giving up secrets in the midst of grueling torture.
Too bad you're not returning the favor he paid you, Squall, his mind cackled, but Squall pushed that thought aside. He wasn't a sadist like Seifer. He had never been in the position to be one. Besides, the humiliation and the wound Seifer had suffered at Talon's hands were certainly enough punishment for now. Even in the darkness of the prison Squall could see it, a raw, ugly red counterpoint to Seifer's old scar. He would bear it for the rest of his days.
"Raijin and Fuu and me had something going," Seifer was saying, "I ain't telling you what it was or where." Noting Squall's expression, he smiled nastily. "Nothing very illegal, Puberty Boy, I've seen where that gets me and I'm done with it. We were comfortable enough, though. No one on to us, lived decent. I expected I'd rust out that way and I was startin' to get a little pissed about it. Maybe that's why I didn't hesitate when I felt the urge to come back here."
"An urge?" Squall asked, incredulity creeping into his voice. "You call coming back here an urge?"
"Urge isn't strong enough for it. I knew I didn't know him, but at the same time I knew I hated him more than anybody I'd ever met, more than I'd ever even hated you." He stated the last with a flat, passionless certainty. "Wasn't like I wanted to come kick his ass. It was like I couldn't stand to do anything but come kick his ass. I woke up in bed like I'd had a damned stroke, just knowing his name, his face. Knowing I had to do it. I left in the middle of the night. Raijin and Fujin are probably tearin' up every stone they can find trying to find me. They're probably goin' nuts." His sarcastic grin widened, looking even more plastic. "Maybe I am instead. Never felt anything like that. Not even when Ultimecia was..." Another man might have looked uncomfortable. Seifer just waved a hand dismissively. "You know."
Trying to kill us and rule the world with your help, Squall thought, but he tried not to let his bitterness show.
"You're talking a lot," he observed.
Seifer shrugged. "You're asking a lot of questions."
"That's not what I meant."
Seifer set his mouth in a firm line, lowering his brow, distorting the twin scars that crisscrossed between his eyes. "I don't like having my head messed with. Wonder why?"
When Squall didn't respond to his barb, he continued: "Whatever made me come here was messing with my head. Hell, it still is. Just knowing he's here is enough to make me want to bite my way through these damn bars." He sighed like a man signing away an organ. "You... are socially and probably mentally retarded, not to mention my inferior in combat, conversation, sex appeal, and probably fucking juggling for all I know. You're also my best hope for figuring this shit out right now, and may God help me with that... if he's not pissed off I killed so many people."
"Thanks." Squall wasn't sure if his reply was sarcastic or not. Just what did Seifer expect him to do?
"Watch that guy," Seifer said, as if reading his mind. "You want to watch that guy close." He rested his forehead back against the wall and waved again, terminating the conversation.
For the next month, Squall resolved to do exactly that. What he should have been watching, he realized now, was everyone else.
/ / /
Emerging from his office on an early lunch and bumping into Selphie in the halls. Every time Squall had begun to think that their quest to destroy Ultimecia and save the world had made them old before their time, Selphie arrived to destroy that illusion. Now, she bounced from one foot to the other like a ten-year-old on G-Stims, her pixie face alive with excitement, a thick stack of flyers gripped in her arms.
"Hi Squall!" She shrieked merrily, shoving one of the flyers into his hands with all the fervor of the religious zealots that wandered downtown Balamb.
"Hi, Selphie." He looked down at the sheet of paper in his hand; a snarl of blue triangles and screaming electric yellow font. He didn't even need to read it. "Garden Festival time again?"
"Yep!" Selphie nodded furiously, the ducktail ends of her hair bobbing. "End of this month, it's gonna be great. They're always great since we beat Ultimecia, we get the best acts." She ticked them off on her fingers: "We've got The Merriments, and Screaming Owl, and Monofi-"
"Sounds great," Squall said quickly, knowing she'd run on all day if he let her.
"Great?" Selphie spun in a tight circle, hugging herself and her flyers. "More like fahnn-tahs-tique!"
"Yeah. Need any help?" He would never admit it, not to Selphie, not to Rinoa, and scarcely even to himself, but he had enjoyed helping out last time. For one thing, it had been good for taking his mind off all the other problems they had been dealing with. Now, he wouldn't mind a vacation from Xu's demands, and from the background sense of tension that pervaded him when he thought of- of what? He couldn't quite recall-
Selphie stopped spinning, and gazed at him for a moment with an expression of cold honesty. "No. Talon's doing it."
"Talon?" A chill shot through him, as if speaking the source of tension had empowered it. He had asked Xu to follow up on Talon after his conversation with Seifer, and meant to do it himself behind her. Somehow, it had never quite happened. And now... Shocked as much at his own inattention as Selphie's mention of the boy's name, Squall asked the first question that came to mind. "Did you see what he did to Seifer?"
"Yepyepyep." She nodded again, energy restored, hopping from foot to foot. "Wasn't it awesome?"
Has she lost her mind? Some people questioned whether Selphie had ever been playing with a full Triple Triad deck, but she had always seemed canny and cautious under her sunny exterior. Now, though-
"Selphie, are you sure you want to work with that guy? He seems..." Squall trailed off, feeling as clumsy as always. "...dangerous."
Selphie ceased her excited hopping, staring at him again with that same coldness, now tinged with anger. "He's doing a great job. You don't have to be such a dick, Squall."
"Selphie- I didn't mean-" The words staggered from his mouth, slow and blind and crippled. "I-"
"Forget it." She turned and stalked away, leaving him staring at a back he refused to shout after. He seemed to have stepped into a world completely different from the one he had inhabited two minutes before.
Later that night, in the darkness of their room, he had told Rinoa of the incident, and about what Quistis and Seifer had said. There were no secrets between them, not now and not ever. She had listened for some time before rolling over on her side and facing away from him.
"We talked to him," she mumbled sleepily, "he seems like a nice boy. Seifer's crazy. Ultimecia prob'ly... scrambled his brains... or.... some... thing..." Her words trailed off into deep, even breathing as sleep took her.
Squall listened to that comforting sound for a long time, staring at the ceiling. Maybe she was right. He had never trusted Seifer before... why start now, when the man was talking about compulsions and voices in his head and a madness even he couldn't explain? But there was something there, something- Words, phrases, memories chased themselves around relentlessly in his head.
Seems like a nice boy.
Best we've ever had.
Seems like a nice boy.
Squall had slept in the bottom of a waterlogged ditch during a live-fire artillery bombardment as a field exercise. He had camped outside the haunted Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He had even snatched a few quick moments of slumber in one of the corners of Ultimecia's castle while the others stood watch and the hallways rang with the screeches of damned things. Even so, he had never had more trouble falling asleep than he did that night, safe in his own room, inches from the person he loved most in the world.
/ / /
He remembered other things, too. A series of events that followed the conversation with Selphie and Rinoa's dismissal of his concern. Then, they had seemed small, scattered, insignificant, nothing to worry about. He remembered:
A surprise call to his office in the middle of the day, Sis's voice excited and lively on the other end of the line: "I've decided it's past time I visited you again, Squall."
He had been shocked, but pleasantly so, and when he asked Ellone why she was coming, he hadn't seen anything ominous in her claim that she "just felt like it." Not then. Not until-
He didn't want to remember that yet.
Irvine leaning casually against the headmaster's desk on one of his rare visits, mentioning his training sessions with Talon in the Center. "...almost as good a shot as me, and he's a demon with that sword. I saw him hack a T-Rexaur's head half-off with one hit. He keeps that up, you're gonna have to capture some more..."
Stepping out into the quad, ducking as a pair of T-Boards whizzed over his head, watching Talon take a corner as gracefully as Zell before drawing ahead of him in a burst of speed. Zell had made a squawking sound of indignation as Talon crossed the imaginary finish line before him, but it turned into a huge grin as the other slapped him five and threw an arm around his shoulders. "Hey, aren't you the guy that likes gunblades?" Talon asked as they walked off. "Wanna try using one?"
Paperwork, mountains of it, lasting deep into the night, wear him to the bone. Staggering back at the end of it all and finding notes pinned to his pillow, their pillows, bearing the same tired litany of phrases. Out with the girls. Out Shopping! Out to Eat! Out to Balamb. Out. Out. Out. Most evenings he fell asleep before Rinoa returned, and he often woke to find her curled up beside him in bed, still in her evening clothes.
Students babbling to each other in the hallways, in the Quad, in the cafeteria, in their classes, in the dorms after light's out. Hot, urgent secrets worthless to anyone but teenagers, to which they were unsurpassable treasures. Whispers were nothing new, but these were different, focused -
-beat ten men in combat AT ONCE-
-tore the hell out of Seifer, I know, I was there and I saw and he talked to me-
-best scores in a decade, Instructor Trepe said, better than the Commander's even-
-gunblade made of adamant, he forged it from one of the tortoises himself-
-hell of a Triple Triad player, almost made the Queen cry today, till he made a joke, then she kissed him-
-think Instructor Trepe wants to, I mean you can't blame her, he's so-
-beautiful, those eyes-
-awesome, he made the best mean joke about Laguna Loire, even Selphie laughed-
-vine isn't jealous, they're friends-
-got Zell hot dogs every day this week-
-incredible, he's just-
-fantastic and I think I love-
-the way he walks have you looked at his butt-
-his hair, it's so black and-
-his eyes they're gorgeous I just want to-
-his lips are like a girl's does that make me a lez-
-honey even a lez would let him-
-strong as a motherfucker-
-kicks ass, smuggled me a pack of smokes-
-taught me this awesome feint-
-showed me how to find the secret area-
-got my library book from the top shelf-
-unbelievable, he really-
-seems like a nice boy-
-seems like a nice boy-
And at last there was nothing for him to do but remember:
Desk lamps casting puddles of light in his dark office, a pounding headache nestling behind his eyes, another pile of paperwork. The previous week had brought sheaves of requisition forms, diplomatic envoys, transfer requests, disciplinary reports; that morning had brought a veritable avalanche. Xu had spent much of the afternoon chewing out the various subordinates who should have been handling these requests, but that didn't stop them coming in. That was why the Garden Commander and his second-in-command found themselves slaving away with pen and paper long after the final bell, extracurriculars, and even most curfew-breaking had ended.
Squall sighed and ground the heels of his palms into his eyes as if he were trying to squeeze the fatigue out. Blinking away the glittery flecks that danced across his vision, he applied a seal and a signature to an envelope and set it carefully aside.
"These terms should satisfy the Timber envoy. I hope." These days, the Owls were embroiled in some nasty internal conflicts, and clients on every side seemed to expect that Garden would provide SeeDs at the rock-bottom rates Cid had given Rinoa. Like most childish illusions, these expectations died messily.
"You look beat," Xu remarked. Her slim wrists seemed to hang suspended and disembodied in the light cast by her desk lamp, curving down and away into the darkness that hid the rest of her body. She dropped a pile of stamped requisition forms in her outbox and started on the next stack. "Ellone coming tonight?"
"Her train probably pulled into Balamb an hour or so ago. She said she wouldn't be out to the Garden until tomorrow." Squall frowned at his own stack of paperwork, which was nearly twice the size of Xu's. "You're faster than me."
"Not faster, just smarter." She looked up from her work, leaning forward slightly. Most of her face was still hidden in shadow, but the arc of light that cupped the lower part of her face revealed a smile. Xu wasn't so bad when she was pleased with herself and the world, and she was most often in that condition when both of them were working their asses off. They had been doing plenty of that over the past month, and as a result their relations were more cordial than ever before. Still, the comment rankled, and he was pretty sure she really believed it.
Squall angrily scribbled his signature on a form for a student who wanted a medical transfer from close combat to intel ops.
"Maybe you should ask Talon to do it."
Xu fell silent for a moment, vanishing back into the darkness as she set her work aside. Only the scuffle of her chair let him know that she had risen; by the time he realized her rapid footfalls were approaching his desk, she was there, palms spread widely, and leaning forward just as she had the day they had both watched Talon tear Seifer to pieces. Squall closed his eyes, expecting shouting, ranting, the same impassioned condemnation of his opinion toward Talon Quahlorelas he had heard from virtually everyone around him.
Xu did not shout, her voice low and insistent. "I am sick," she said, "Of hearing about Talon Quahlorelas. I hear it from Quistis, from my students, from the card club, from everyone, and Squall, if you start I- I-" Her voice began to shake, as if she were on the verge of tears or all-encompassing rage. "I will have to take drastic measures."
Squall opened his eyes. Xu hadn't budged an inch, her hands still spread white-knuckled on his desktop, her shoulders quivering slightly, her dark, elegantly tilted eyes narrowed in anger. She was the same as always. She was the same as always. In that moment, if not for Rinoa and his own crippling sense of awkwardness, Squall would have stood up, taken her in his arms, and kissed her in pure, relieved delight. Just hearing her voice the same sentiment that had been gnawing at him for weeks chased his weariness away, filled him with the closest thing resembling purpose he had felt in a month.
"I'm surprised you haven't already." She had spoken of her desire to follow up on Talon after his scuffle with Seifer, and he had agreed. Since then, though, they hadn't spoken about the boy, too busy in the rush of Garden business that had followed.
He saw something flicker across Xu's face and made himself reach out, placing his hand over hers. She didn't seem the type to respond well to comfort, and he sure as hell wasn't the type who was good at giving it, but considering the situation, he thought they would both settle. Her fingers slipped through his own, and her grip was not comforting but painful. Xu bore down almost as if she were deliberately trying to hurt him, her long, slender fingers like bands of steel, and he realized that she was not annoyed but terrified. He had never seen Xu afraid. Concerned, alert, alarmed, but never afraid. The emotion that drove that grip, that had danced across her face, was more suited to a child screaming in the dark than a battle-hardened SeeD.
That seems to be a talent of Talon's - making people feel things they never have before.
"He- I finally looked him up, like we decided," Xu began hesitantly, "It took forever - I kept getting sidetracked- distracted, by aides, paperwork, disciplinary problems, almost- almost like-"
"Like someone didn't want you to go looking," Squall supplied. He had felt the same thing, he saw now, never realizing it until confronted by its presence in another.
Xu nodded, her grip loosening somewhat. "It sounds crazy, I know. I finally managed to get the files from G-Garden and look through all the records this afternoon. He's not there. No transfer request, no student number, no room assignment, not even a file in the Black Box. As far as Garden's concerned... he doesn't even exist."
For a second, Squall felt as if his chair had been violently jerked out from under him; the world pitched and yawed dangerously, and Xu's grip seemed to be the only thing that kept him from falling. Then, in the next instant, he realized that the fact wasn't surprising at all. Somehow he knew, instinctively, that Talon could not be captured by numbers or files. He wasn't the kind of person to leave a paper trail. He was a creature of the present, of action, and he transcended all the pasts one could imagine.
Don't be ridiculous, he's only a boy-
(-a nice boy).
"So..." Squall said slowly, his mind working. "What do you think? Galbadian? Esthar spec op?"
Xu shook her head. "I don't know. Whoever he is, he's being awfully damn obvious for a plant." The tension had gone out of her grip, but for the moment she left her hand where it was. Squall didn't complain.
"Should make it easier to bring him in for questioning." The comment might have been a rebuke; his tone said it wasn't.
Xu gave a grunt of exasperation, a rueful half-smile. He had never seen her smile like that before, and wondered if it was caused by their shared obsession, their shared exhaustion, or both. "You'd think, wouldn't you? Good luck tracking him down. He always seems to be a step ahead of me, and anyone I send after him reports that they can't find him. I think they're lying."
"He does seem... popular..." Squall said. He thought of Irvine's careless praise, Zell's casual friendship, Selphie's angry defense. And he thought of Quistis, her eyes shining, chest heaving, eagerness wafting from her like a palpable odor. He seems like a nice boy. "The students love him. Maybe they don't want to turn him in."
"We're not going to give them a choice," Xu said, straightening. Her voice sounded stronger now, more certain, and the squeeze she gave his hand was now one of comfort. "But we're not going to do it tonight."
He sighed, gesturing with his free hand to the pile of paperwork on his desk. "Yeah, better pull out the other thorn in our side first. Not that it won't be right back tomorrow."
The thought might have occurred to him then, briefly, subconsciously. A vision of Talon strolling through the administrative offices while the two of them were teaching classes or meeting with clients or disciplining particularly unruly students. Talon's silver eyes shining, dark hair falling to frame a face that smiled beautifully. Talon bending over a desk, giving a rose to a sallow young woman with a pile of paperwork, whispering slyly in her ear. Talon, slapping a young requisitions officer on the back, joking that the two of them could really use a drink and the bigwigs upstairs could use a little extra work to keep them honest. Talon, making sure that Squall and Xu stayed focused on a torrent of low-intensity but essential tasks, making sure their eyes stayed away from him, so he could, so he could- what?
Steal my life, Squall thought now, trapped in his dank cell, but he hadn't thought that then. He hadn't thought anything about Talon just then, because just then Xu seemed to realize that her hand was in his and she pulled it away as if scalded. She turned quickly, but too slowly for him to miss the flush that colored her high cheekbones.
Women were harder to read than men, and Xu was more difficult than most. "Xu?"
She walked over to her desk and began fussing absently and uselessly with the papers there, her shoulders sagging slightly. It was as calculated a gesture to avoid looking at him as he could have imagined. "There's no need for us both to be here all night, Squall. Go back to your room. I'm sure Rinoa's waiting."
"I told her I would be here for another couple hours," Squall said uncertainly, rising from his chair. "You don't have to do all this work alone-"
The lines of Xu's body were rigid in the half-darkness now, her limbs splayed in effigy-stiffness. "I'd really rather be alone right now." Even her voice sounded tight and strained, more like the normal Xu, less like a normal person.
"Okay," Squall said, pushing in his chair and moving toward the door. He wasn't Rinoa, who would have badgered her with questions, or Quistis, who would have let her talk about it over tea, or Irvine, who would've clumsily hit on her in an attempt to turn sorrow into anger. He was willing to let things lie. "Tomorrow."
She didn't reply.
Embarrassed, he thought, gathering up Lionheart from its peg by the door and pulling on his coat. Xu walked over to his desk and began to gather up the papers there, studying the oaken surface with obsessive intensity. Ashamed that she showed me she was afraid. He knew how that felt. He could have told her as much, if she had let him. But she wanted to be alone, and he knew how that felt too. He tried to ignore the relief that bubbled up in him at the fact that she didn't want to talk about it.
Despite Xu's strange behavior, their back-breaking workload, the shrill complaints of their clients in Timber, and Talon himself, Squall felt his spirits begin to rise as he made his way out of the Garden proper and toward the dorms. It might have been something as simple as the cool freshness of a summer night's breeze, or the way the moon hung full and bright in the sky. Mostly, it was pleasure at having his work done for the night, and the hope that Rinoa would be there, waiting for him. She had told him she planned to spend the night at home, and he thought of her dozing in bed with one of those horrible romances she liked so much. He thought of bursting in, surprising her, smothering her protests with a kiss, the book sliding from her limp fingers, and then-
He ran his key card through the narrow slot on the door, and it hissed silently open.
The interior of the room was nearly dark, only the diffuse moonlight from the window lending illumination. When Squall opened the door, light stabbed in from the hallway, casting his shadow against the far wall, dropping illumination upon the scene before him with such precision that it seemed staged. All the old familiar things were there - the small little couch Rinoa had made him lug out of a secondhand store in Dollet and put on a train, the giant poster from Julia Heartilly's first concert tour where dark, painted lashes shrouded the eyes Laguna had fallen for, the shelf of Rinoa's little knick-knacks and photos, and -
Talon reclined casually on their small couch, his blue uniform impeccable despite the late hour and his relaxed position. His long, dark lashes shrouded silver eyes narrowed in merriment. A dazzling smile covered his face. His legs were crossed casually before him, his right arm draped with careless grace across the arm of the couch. His left extended before him to stroke Rinoa's bare back.
She knelt beside him on the couch, gloriously beautiful and stripped to the waist. Even now, Squall's eyes lingered upon the smooth ivory slope of her shoulders, her long, delicate neck, her pink lips and her long, dark hair. She had not seen or heard Squall; her head was tilted back, her eyes closed, her lips parted as she made small cooing sounds of pleasure. Absurdly, what hurt him the most in that instant was the sight of the garment that hugged her hips - black lace over white porcelain, filmy triangle that covered nothing at all - his favorite, and of course she would wear his favorite for Talon, and of course she would let him touch her, and of course she would throw back her head and moan for him because he seemed like a nice boy.
Talon had heard the door, of course - he probably had the hearing of a bat. And the tool of a bull moose, Seifer's voice crowed in the back of Squall's mind, and he wondered if he would be sick. He stood dumbstruck, no longer feeling the floor beneath him, or the doorframe in his hand, or his tongue in his mouth. He felt deaf and dumb and mute, and wondered if time had frozen entirely when at last Talon turned to him and spoke
"Rinoa," the young man said, the model of politeness and restraint. "We have a guest."
Rinoa's eyes fluttered open then froze that way, mouth yawning wide in a way that had nothing to do with pleasure. She raised her hands to cover her breasts, as if Squall were the one who shouldn't see them, and scooted back slightly away from Talon. "Squall," she gasped, and then began to babble. "Squall I didn't think you'd see- I didn't know- I thought- I thought you- I- I'm- s-"
"Don't say it," and that was his own voice, raw and unexpected. All the energy he had felt walking back from the office was gone, blasted away in this moment of utter, horrified disbelief. He sagged against the doorframe as if he had been shot, his heart thundering, his face burning with sickly heat. He felt feverish, hallucinatory, but he knew what he saw was all too real.
She fell silent, tears trembling unshed in her eyes, and he loved her more than he had ever loved anyone, hated her so much he wanted to scream.
"Rinoa..." He had to stop for a moment, his guts churning like something alive, but dying. "How... why..."
Rinoa had turned away from him to bury her face in the arm of the chair. She wept now, her entire body shaking with loud, violent sobs. Part of him wanted to go to her, to shove Talon out of the way, to hold her and comfort her and tell her everything was going to be alright no matter what she had done to him, because she was his, his sweet Rinoa, now and forever. Part of him wanted to weep himself. Part of him, burning with mad, insane vengeance, wanted to tear the place up and storm out. None of those parts could move the whole. He stood, and stared, and said nothing, and he was still standing there like that when the bathroom door opened.
"Allll ready!" The woman who stepped from the bathroom was young and beautiful and even smaller than Rinoa, her pale form slender and slight in the dim light. Thick, dark hair hung in short strands around her heart-shaped face, accenting her elegant eyebrows, her deep brown eyes, her small, pouting mouth. Her breasts were restrained by the black lace top Rinoa was missing, but she was otherwise uncovered. She cocked her bare hip to one side in a dramatic display of sexuality, her small hands pulling at her top. "Too bad we have to share," she said in a calculated, petulant, pouting voice. It was that, more than anything, that caused Squall's lungs to contract, that slipped a knife of ice between his ribs.
He must have made some sound; she saw him before she could finish her ridiculous, contrived little act. Her hip suddenly straightened, and she stood almost at attention in a grotesque, unintentional parody of SeeD discipline that might have been funny in other circumstances. She seemed even more stunned than Rinoa - too shocked to cover herself, to move, to speak. Soundless tears spilled from her eyes, trailed down her cheeks. She always used to cry like that, he remembered now. Silent, strong, nothing like how he used to cry for her.
"Squalls," she said, her whisper thin and reedy. He hadn't heard that nickname in fourteen years. "D-don't look at me, don't-"
Don't say it don't say it, don't you dare say it- not here, not now-
But he did say it. "Sis," he moaned, his voice thick with horror. He tried to tear his eyes away, but even they refused to move. Her nudity was somehow repellant and attractive at the same time. Looking at her was like picking at a scab.
Ellone did begin to sob then, face buried in her hands. He thought then of the orphanage, of the smell of her, dirt and grass and strawberry jam from breakfast, as he buried his face in her chest and told her how mean Seifer was, and how scared he had been, and she held him and sang to him and said All right, Squalls, everything is going to be all right.
You lied, some childish part of his mind wailed, woken from its deep sleep one moment only to be murdered violently in the next. You lied, everything's not all right, everything's all wrong Sis, it's all wrong and you- you- you let him-
Only years of SeeD conditioning kept Squall's knees from buckling. The dying thing in his stomach writhed in its last, violent throes. He tried to move his mouth and no sound at all emerged. He had seen so many things: the curve of the planet from outer space, the thousands of beasts that jetted from space to earth during the Lunar Cry, the blood-streaked halls of Ultimecia, and bodies, hundreds and thousands of corpses splattered with blood and bone and brain, many by his own hand. Never had anything robbed him of his direction, his wits, his sanity like this.
That's Talon for you... and he seemed like such a nice boy. Seifer's voice again, mocking: He must be really nice, for your girlfriend and your sister to double up on him. Really, REALLY-
Squall might have stood that way, suspended in the web of madness that lurks beneath all rational thought, until the sun burned to a cinder and the world stopped spinning. He might have, but then Talon spoke, easily, lightly.
"You've upset the girls, Squall." He reached out to touch Rinoa's arm, drawing her to him. She buried her face against his chest and wept anew, as if she didn't know that gesture would tear Squall's heart out and grind it into the carpet. Talon's eyes gleamed silver over her shoulder, and that same sly, implacable, untouchable smile curled across his face. He did not speak, but Squall seemed to hear the words anyway, delivered in a tone that carried no malice, only cold truth.
Mine. She's mine. It's all mine. Your friends like me better than you and your girlfriend likes me better than you, and your sister likes me better than you, they all like me better than you, and I want them and I have them and there's not a damn thing you can do about it but walk away. Walk away and find a new life, and hope I don't like it enough to come take it too.
He remembered, then, what had made him uneasy the night that he and Rinoa had first met Talon. Squall had broken his embrace with her and looked at the other, and for an instant before the young man smiled, the expression on his face had betrayed deep, seething rage. Even then, he had wanted her. Even then- and Squall remembered Rinoa's breathless greeting, her lingering gaze, her rush back to their room, her desperate, furious intensity as they made love. She wanted him too.
Something deep in his mind seemed to snap audibly, filling his skull with boiling mercury. He thought for a moment that some vessel in his brain had burst, but it was only anger flaring through him - sudden, hot, undeniable. He took a step forward, and then another, and then another. By the time his third step ended he realized he was drawing Lionheart, and by the time he had raised it over his head he realized he was screaming and had been ever since he started moving.
Talon slipped from Rinoa's grasp as effortlessly as Squall had expected, letting her fall against the plush couch as he rose to meet the attack. Squall rushed him with the raw, red instincts of a hunting cat, putting all his strength in a fast, brutal horizontal cut that he hoped would kill the other before he had a chance to draw his weapon. A squeeze of the trigger, an almost pained scream from the gunblade's firing mechanism, a burst of brimstone light, the familiar tug as the hyperaccelerated blade pulled his arms after it. Julia Heartilly died again as the gunblade's tip gouged a jagged gash in the wall, shearing her paper head off, lighting the poster aflame with the backblast. The wave of concussive force struck a shelf full of Rinoa's curios, shattering the porcelain chocobo he'd won her at the Balamb fair and spilling dozens of framed photographs to the floor like cards from a dropped Triple Triad deck.
"Missed," Talon said from his position by the door. Squall hadn't even seen him move. He turned to face the other as flaming fragments of Julia's face crisped to ash in the air around him. Glass crunched under his boots as he trod on the fragments of his former life with Rinoa. That was okay. Talon seemed like just the type who would love to pose for new photographs.
Kill him, the animal denning at the base of his brain screamed. Kill him kill him KILL HIM. Behind him, Ellone and Rinoa were screaming too, their cries blending into one long, oscillating wail like a siren. He ignored it, holding Lionheart before him warily, searching for the first opening Talon could give him. He hoped it would silence the voices within and without.
Talon never gave him that chance. He lunged toward Squall, gunblade still sheathed. Lionheart darted at his neck almost with a life of its own, but he dodged aside just enough that the cut passed over his shoulder. Talon slammed the knife edge of his hand down into his opponent's forearm, and a groping tendril of pain shot all the way up to Squall's shoulder, robbing him of his breath. Lionheart tumbled from fingers suddenly rendered numb and useless, landing on the plush carpet with a sound so slight it was anticlimactic. Squall took a drunken sidestep, trying to put distance between himself and his opponent, and then Talon's elbow smashed into his temple, sending his body slewing sideways in a jumble of limbs. Glittery flecks danced in front of his eyes.
Squall pressed his lips together hard enough to draw blood, coming up and around with a vicious haymaker that missed Talon's chin by an inch that might as well have been a mile. Then Talon's knee slammed upward into his crotch and the pain took him, crippling, all encompassing. The other man stepped aside and Squall tumbled forward like a felled tree. Desperately, he reached out, fingertips just catching the edge of the curio shelf and tearing it free from the wall. He landed face down in a sea of shattered glass and cracked porcelain, breath rasping in his throat like a dead man, and the first thing he saw was the disembodied head of that damn chocobo. It broke his heart as nothing else had.
Promise me, she had said. Promise...
He reached a hand out toward the shattered fragment, not knowing if he intended to crush it or clutch it protectively. The pain was all around and inside him, blinding him, maybe killing him. Right now, that didn't seem so bad, not at all, not after what she had done to him. What they had all done to him. It was like a perverse, backwards religious parable from some deranged version of the Holy Book. Teach a man to walk again then cut off his legs. Teach a man to read, gouge out his eyes. Reunite a man with a lost friend who has always secretly hated him.
His fingers brushed the chocobo's tiny porcelain head. Rinoa had picked the gaudiest of prizes in the little carnival booth even before he tried the ring toss, as if daring him not to win on purpose. He had won anyway, and given it to her despite any reservations, simply because she had chosen it. Maybe that was why she, who had grown up surrounded by wealth and luxury he never would have dreamed of, had almost cried when he handed her the stupid thing. She was even beautiful when she wept, tears clinging to her dark lashes, her face growing flushed, and she had said We'll make that the first thing on our mantel in a tear-choked voice and he had realized, maybe for the first time, that this was forever.
He thought of Sis in her bib overalls reading to them all about Prince Charming and he remembered how he'd asked her later, very quietly even though it was just the two of them up in the old barn loft, if he could ever be a Prince Charming for her and she had said You already are, and tickled him until he nearly wet himself, and he had loved her so much, with the raw, pure love of a child, and-
-he thought of her in his room, sly and pale and seductive, naked for a man she barely knew. Disgust and jealousy and a horrible breed of arousal dug into his guts like barbed wire and he knew he would never think of her the same way again, not ever.
He could hear Talon comforting Rinoa with low, soothing sounds, hear her screams tapering off into sobs, into silence. He knew what he would see if he looked up: Rinoa on one arm, Ellone on the other, their faces buried in Talon's chest... and his slow, sly smile.
The head of the chocobo was in his palm and he suddenly realized that it was an ugly thing, and small, and always had been, even before it was broken. As darkness rose up to swallow him, he hoped it would take him forever, grind him up and digest him like Eden had threatened to do, leaving nothing but a memory soon forgotten in the face of undeniable beauty.
/ / /
But he did not die.
He came back to his senses, if one could call his current outlook that, as he was being dragged in handcuffs through the halls of the dorm by a pair of young, determined SeeDs whose names he did not know. Pain still coursed through him, nearly crippling in its intensity, and his two captors held him up as much as they restrained him, one at each elbow. As he returned blearily to consciousness, he realized that students in various states of dress lined the halls, staring at him with gaping, pale faces. The noise of their little scuffle must have woken the entire floor at least.
"What... happened...?" His tongue felt swollen, thick. The pain throbbed through him so intensely that he could barely hear himself speak, or the clipped answer given by the SeeD on his left.
"You're under arrest."
The SeeD on his left, a young woman with a pixie face and short brown hair, answered: "Isn't. I don't know why you couldn't leave him alone." With a start, he realized it was Selphie. Neither the uniform or the expression of angry disgust looked familiar; she could have been any of a hundred female SeeDs, and he wished she were. Not that it made a difference to either of them anymore.
Some sense of shame and decorum kept him relatively compliant until Selphie - no, the female SeeD - and her companion took him down the stairs into the detention area. Then, the image of Ellone and Rinoa weeping in Talon's arms flared in his mind, along with the assurance that by now they must be crying in a different way, and he had surged against his bonds fiercely, actually breaking their hold for a moment. He was still almost too weak to stand - he managed to shakily mount a single stair before Selphie hooked a foot around his shin and sent him sprawling forward. He could not brace himself with his hands, and his face struck the steps hard enough to mash his lips against his gums and bloody his teeth.
"Don't make this any worse than it has to be, Squall," Selphie said, and it was her old voice, the one she used when asking him to please help with the Garden Committee, the one she had used when they were children hunting ladybugs. She was still her old self, and that made her rejection of him even more puzzling and painful. And it meant that Rinoa and Ellone...
As Selphie hauled him up to his feet again, he thrashed, throwing her against the wall and taking another grueling step upward. "Oh come on," she said, annoyed, and tripped him again.
After that, his consciousness faded out again, and he remembered very little. The journey to his cell blended into one confused jumble of shouts and scuffles from which only a few crystal fragments - the male SeeD cursing as Squall stomped his foot, the headbutt that bloodied Selphie's chin, Seifer's uproarious laughter - emerged. In the end they had released him from the cuffs and hurled him into the cell, and he had smashed his bleeding hands against the bars and actually rattled them like an actor in some ridiculously melodramatic prison movie. At length he had grown tired and sagged to the floor, and shut himself to the world, and so he found himself here, staring up at the ceiling and wondering just when and why almost everyone he knew had decided to abandon him for a stranger.
...such a nice boy...
Who the hell is he?
WHAT the hell is he?
"Squall," a voice, low and urgent, on the other side of the bars. "Wake up."
He blinked eyes heavy with sleep, pulling himself upright with great effort. The light that slanted in through the high, barred window was weak, diffuse. The detention wing was silent save for Seifer's loud, steady breathing. It was early evening. Some part of him, polished and sharpened by the Garden's training regimen, felt shame about dozing at this time of day, but he quickly shunted aside the errant emotion. There was nothing to do in these cells but contemplate what his life had become or sleep, and he much preferred the latter.
For once, Seifer and I agree on something.
A fragment of that former life stood shrouded in shadow on the other side of the bars, presenting a dark outline as stiff and unyielding as a beam of iron. With posture like that, there could be no doubt that it was-
"Xu," Squall croaked. His own voice sounded strange to his ears, rusty from disuse. For all he knew, he could have been down here for years. "How long?"
"A little over a week," Xu said. She stepped closer, pressing right up against the bars, and he could see that it had been a long week for her, too. Her hair was plastered against her pale forehead with sweat, and her eyes were hollow and rimmed with dark circles. "Talon has assumed command of the Garden. I am no longer his assistant - he appointed Quistis to that position."
"And?" He managed at last. Xu's tone betrayed nothing, but her duty had been everything to her. In her own way, maybe she had been hurt as badly as Squall had. He wished he could find pity in his heart for her, but his was gone, as if someone had stolen it from his unconscious body after Talon knocked him senseless. He had none even for himself, only a horrible numbness that was somehow worse.
"I found out what he is," Xu said. She gripped the bars and pressed her face against them, speaking in a low voice. She needn't have bothered - only he and Seifer were in these cells, and the former knight seemed to sleep like the dead.
"I checked his profile against all known operatives in all military and paramilitary organizations in the world, and I turned up nothing. Then, I realized that I had been going about it the wrong way... if I couldn't figure out where he had come from, I had to figure out what he was trying to do. He could have had half a hundred military secrets that he never bothered to touch. If he wanted intelligence, he was awfully shy about digging through files. He did eventually assume command, but seemingly for his and its own sake, not to change Garden's policy. More and more, it seemed like all Talon wanted to do was -"
"Steal my life," Squall mumbled wearily, leaning his forehead against the wall. Speaking the words aloud, he heard how insane they sounded. He knew now how Seifer must have felt, telling Squall how he had flown into a murderous rage over a man he didn't even know.
But Xu did not skip a beat. "Close enough," she said, and he felt relief and some sickly cousin of optimism stir inside him. "Talon took great pains to ingratiate himself to those who were closest to you. Almost everyone seemed to adore him, but he took special time to lavish attention specifically on your friends, and on Rinoa. Even Ellone seemed-"
"I know," he cut her off, voice tight with pain. He hadn't told anyone what he had walked in on, but rumors as juicy as that flew almost faster than the words that carried them. "I know."
Her face remained as stony as ever, but after a moment she awkwardly reached a hand through the bars to lightly touch his arm. "I'm sorry, Squall. You didn't deserve this. It's not your fault."
Squall had plenty of enemies, but he could think of none who would pull a stunt like this, subtle and perversely over the top all at once. Even if he had such an opponent, it still didn't explain why everyone he cared about had gone along with it. "Whose fault is it, then?"
Xu was silent for a long, pregnant moment, and when she went on, it was as if she hadn't even heard the question. "My only other lead was something you told me - that the first night you saw him, he said he had just transferred in and was going to get the paperwork pushed through. We know that's a lie, but I also asked through Quistis, and she's never one to stop gushing about her latest crush. No one else saw him before that night. I pulled everything: call logs, flight plans, SeeD car schedules and... infirmary reports."
There was another long silence, as if she were thinking how best to proceed. "Do you know why the Garden works mainly with D and C class Guardian Forces, Squall?"
The question annoyed him. It was like something from those pop quizzes she used to give out when the students in her Study Hall got too loud. Squall was never one of the ones making noise, but he had to take the test along with all the rest of them.
"I don't know." He waved a hand in irritation. "Lots of reasons. The bigger ones are too hard for new students to handle, not subtle enough for most operations, probably cause more memory damage..."
"Right." Xu sounded pleased, reinforcing the irritating illusion that he was her pupil. "There's also another reason. It's called the Mery Effect, and I doubt you've ever heard of it."
"No." He had heard of the Eternal Rest and the Screaming Madness and the Breaking, all equally vile outcomes of a poorly-managed junctioning, but never this. Compared to the other GF complications, it sounded rather tame.
Xu continued. "The first controlled experiments regarding the junctioning of Guardian Forces were performed by the Centra government before the Collapse, and much of what was learned was lost. Garden has the original copies of some of the only surviving files from those experiments. The information is classified Top Secret. Only the head of Garden and his or her second-in-command even have access to them. I'm very glad Talon forgot to change the password."
Squall shook her hand off his arm, his patience gone. "That's the first thing you've mentioned in this conversation that applies to our situation."
She ignored the barb, continuing to speak in the rising and falling cadence of a lecturer. Yeah, teach, Squall thought, sick with bitterness, whatever you say. But that wasn't fair. Xu had never been his favorite person, but right now she was his only ally, and she was trying to help him.
"-multiple test subjects, with all varieties of GFs," Xu was saying. "Gauging their power level was more difficult in those days, and all sorts of complications arose when the more unruly Guardian forces didn't want to release their hold on the patients' minds. Memory loss, permanent brain damage, many of our modern Guardian Force-related syndromes. There were several deaths... but one of those deaths was the most interesting. A young man who had previously made a pass at another test subject was murdered in his bed, on film, by a beautiful young girl that no one in the facility had ever seen before, and who vanished within the hour."
Squall felt a chill run through him. "And?"
"The tape logs traced the girl's movement to a locked supply closet, out of which she had emerged as if from nowhere. Suspecting complicity with one of the other test subjects, they looked for motive... and found the girl that the young man had made a pass at. She claimed it was more like attempted rape, but insisted that she couldn't have killed the boy - she hated him, but was far too scared to do anything about it." Xu paused again, letting this sink in. "And she had an airtight alibi. The night before, she had been undergoing a very difficult medical procedure to remove what we would now call a Class B Guardian Force. This is the first recorded instance of a Self-summoned Unconscious Entity, but the experiment had half a dozen more of these S. U. E.s before it was terminated."
"Ess You Ees?" He had never heard the term.
"When any Guardian Force inhabits the mind, it radically alters neural pathways and brain chemistry to facilitate its existence. It fills a part of the cortex used for long term memory storage, and actually seems to catabolize those memories to sustain itself. It also creates neural pathways that allow its host to communicate with it and to summon it forth. Typically these pathways are restored when a Guardian Force leaves the mind, but if they do not go willingly, the brain may be left with... a void, something like a phantom limb. And if it should unconsciously try to flex those missing fingers..."
Some people claimed that the Guardian Forces had once been gods. Some - the backward nomads of the Snowfields, the Shumi, the mystery cults on the Western Continent, the Brotherhood of Ixion - still worshiped them. Even those who didn't feared them and their powers. Serving as a SeeD required one to leave mysteries and worship and fear behind, and understand the mechanics of the strange beasts in a scientific capacity. Squall had always tried to do that... but it seemed that even well-known scientific facts contained a little mystery.
"Then an S. U. E. is created?
Xu nodded. "The mind, having no external entity to send forth, must create one from its own resources. The entire process is done unconsciously, and somewhere near the original subject, an S.U.E. emerges. Most are summoned already dead, often with deformed features - wings, or strangely colored eyes, or vestigial tails - like the mind has tried to assemble something from its memories of the GF and failed. Those that survive are typically manifestations of unconscious, idealized versions of the summoner. The mind draws upon itself, and creates that which it would ideally like to be. Once this process has taken place, the summoned entities move, act, and seemingly think on their own, just as all summoned Guardian Forces do. Most of these creations, as I said, simply don't function. Even those that do rarely last longer than a few minutes, and these records contain no cases that persisted for longer than an hour."
She shook her head. "But none of the subjects had junctioned a GF anywhere close to as strong as Eden."
"You mean..." At last, the enormity of what Xu was saying struck him. Talon truly did have no past. Talon truly was as strange and threatening as he had believed. Most of all, he was a hell of a lot more than just a nice boy. "Talon is me?" If it were true, then maybe- Rinoa... Sis...
"Not exactly. Talon is the existence your mind subconsciously desires. Talon is taller than you, faster than you, smarter than you. He is more you than you could ever hope to be. He wants the same things as you, likes the same people, and has exponentially more ability to get both of them." Xu stated the facts with cold clarity rather than malice.
"It's more than just charisma." The hope inside him grew strong enough to beat against the inside of his chest, and he dared to think of the shattered chocobo, of Ellone's voice rising and falling in song. "It has to be."
"He is a magical entity. Most of the underclassmen like you, and thus they all but worship him. I should have recognized that mooning crush Quistis has on him from a mile away. I saw enough of it in the past two years, though it was never as intense as this. Your friends love you, and thus they adore him. Rinoa, Ellone-"
"I know," he cut her off again, but his words couldn't stop that night from coming back. Black lace on porcelain skin, Ellone naked and wanting- wanting- If Talon only wanted the things he did, then did that mean he wanted - not now. Don't think about that, now or ever. Instead, he said, "It's no secret that Seifer doesn't like me... and he said he felt compelled to come fight Talon, even though he didn't know him."
"Yes," Xu nodded. "It makes sense. Talon is more than you by definition, but he is you, and he magnifies feelings accordingly. Those who care about you will love him more, those who don't will hate him more. It's in his nature to move others... and considering the power that summoned him, I doubt anyone can actually be ambivalent."
Hope sang and shouted now, and relief echoed it. At last, after all the pained questioning of the past few weeks, he had an answer. Selphie, Zell, Rinoa - even Sis- had done what they had done for the sake of their feelings for Squall. They must have felt a milder version of the compulsion that drove Seifer. They probably didn't even understand why they were doing what they were doing, just that they had to do it. If they found Talon irresistible, it was only because they cared so much for Squall in the first place, and after this was settled-
Too easy, Squall thought. Even if everything he had just thought was completely true, there were things he couldn't forget - Selphie tripping him so his face smashed against the steps, Rinoa sheltering her face in Talon's chest, and Ellone... that note of twisted lust in her voice, the way she had moved...
I don't know if I can forgive them, even so. I don't know if I can forgive myself for somehow wanting them to be like this. And there was something else...
"Xu..." Squall wondered if she realized all the implications of what she had just said. "If you've been able to resist him, doesn't that mean that you don't-"
"I didn't, not very much," Xu blurted quietly, a sinner eagerly confessing. "I thought you were undisciplined, and sloppy, and unfit to command, but- Squall-" and here her confession slowed, as if she were trying to deny her wrongs, "-I don't feel like that any longer, I've seen-"
"It doesn't matter." It did. It hurt in places still raw and bleeding, places which should have been numb by now. It was like the last piece of a perversely ironic puzzle sliding into place. The love of his life and his oldest, closest friends were now his enemies; his only ally could barely stomach him. "What are we going to do?"
"He isn't human, but he looks like one, acts like one, probably bleeds like one." He thought Xu sounded a lot more certain than she felt. She sounded a hell of a lot more certain than he felt. "We're going to corner him, alone, so no one else gets hurt, and we're going to kill him."
"Can he die?"
"Even Guardian Forces can die," Xu answered. "You of all people should know that."
He thought then of Seifer, twisting smoothly and extending an arm, eyes alight with mocking laughter. Hyperion had sheared the mythical Odin himself in half. But Talon is better than Seifer, and Seifer was always better than me. On the heels of that thought, an even more agonizing realization occurred. Talon could have killed Squall a hundred times over while he rotted in his cell, but he had kept him alive.
"Would killing me get rid of him?"
He almost wished it would. He almost wanted to give up, because even if they managed to stop Talon somehow, that would only mean that Squall had to somehow fix all the things the young man - me, somehow he's me - had broken. He wasn't sure he could. If he even wanted to try. Maybe that was for the best. Maybe Talon would be a better friend, a better lover, a better commander than he ever could be.
But he's not me. This life isn't his. And even if I can't have it, he's going to be sorry he stole it.
"I don't know," Xu said at last. "It's possible. But he's existed on his own for a month, and he's beginning to exhibit behavior that's... unlike you." She cast her eyes toward the floor, as if ashamed to reveal this latest tidbit. "He's sleeping with Quistis. With Selphie. With half the administrative staff. With first and second years. With anyone that will have him, and that's most people. For all I know, I'm the only woman here he hasn't had a go with."
She paused for a moment.
"He has bouts of violence - he-" She looked away. "He beat Zell nearly to death. He's ambitious and opportunistic - keeps cozying up to President Loire. That's not you." She said the last with a kind of reluctant admiration. "If he's acting on his own, that means he can probably exist on his own. If that's true and I kill you, I lose my only... ally, and gain nothing."
As she laid out the facts of the situation, Squall realized with a slight chill that she had already contemplated killing him before she ever came to speak with him, weighing the pros and cons. What an ally you've won, Squall. He wouldn't complain. Xu wasn't perfect, and she didn't like him, and she was all he had. He hoped she would be enough.
Worse was his the rising horror at the actions of this man - this thing - because they so resembled his own. Talon unearthed things that Squall wished would stay buried, turned passing thoughts quickly dismissed into lingering reality. Xu said that Talon acted in ways unlike Squall, but she didn't know about the times he'd wanted nothing more than to punch Zell until he shut up, or the times he'd wished the smiling, lighthearted man who had abandoned him would find the time to care, or the times he had masturbated to the thought of Quistis's breasts, Selphie's slim white thighs. Talon was more like him than Xu knew. Maybe he just lacked Squall's restraint and isolation, because Squall wished he didn't have those qualities himself.
They'll all know, he thought. They'll all know what you are now, and they'll never forgive you.
"So..." he said, "when do we do this?"
Xu had fished a card key from somewhere; she slipped it into the slot beside his door and the bars retracted smoothly into the ceiling. "Now. Talon likes to fight alone in the Training Center at a specific time each evening. I think he's killed a dozen T-Rexaurs by himself. Needless to say, everyone else knows his wishes and stays away. Tonight, no one should be around to stop us from getting there. The rest is just killing him."
She said the last as if it would be easy, and Squall had no doubt that killing was easy for Xu. She had been a SeeD when he had still been weeping into his pillow over Sis every night, and she must have killed many men by now. Talon was not a man, and killing him not only wouldn't be easy, it might not even be possible. Try to stab the wind, shoot a mocking laugh, murder the sunrise.
Xu must know these things as well, but there was no other option but utter surrender, and he'd had more than his fill of that. Squall stood uncertainly, looking down at himself. He still wore the bright green outfit they had forced on him early in his imprisonment, and his shoes were little more than simple canvas slippers. He had no weapons.
"I can't go like this."
"I know." Xu nudged a bag sitting near her across the threshold with her foot. "I couldn't take the risk of going into the apartments you shared with Rinoa, but there were still some things that you hadn't moved from your old dorm room yet."
"Great," he said, kneeling to examine the contents. Maybe I'll get to fight Talon wearing an unwashed T-shirt and a pair of boxers. The sarcasm leeched out of his voice as he pulled the clothes forth: boots, gloves, black pants, a white shirt... and a black leather jacket, its collar rimmed with white fur. "I was saving these. The Balamb Museum said they wanted them."
"They still fit?"
They did; he dressed hurriedly with little concern for Xu's presence. As he struggled into his jacket, just the tiniest bit tight across the shoulders, Xu said, "T-talon took Lionheart, but you left this in the office."
The sheath she pressed into his hands was scuffed and battered, well-worn. The grip of the blade in his hand, the slithering sound it made as he drew it forth, and the way even the cell's dim light danced along its polished edge were as familiar as the sound of his own voice. "Revolver."
"Seifer's blade is in the storage locker down the hall, if you would rather-"
"No," he said, giving an experimental slash. The cut was as smooth and lethal as he remembered. Here, at least, was one old friend who had not deserted him. "I know this one the best." Besides, Hyperion was a temperamental and blood-stained weapon, and the thought of wielding it in battle did not appeal. Perhaps Talon had shunned it for the same reason.
"You look ready," Xu said when he stepped from the cell, buckling on his gunbelt.
"Yeah." Maybe it was the clothes. A tired half-smile formed across his face. "Too bad we don't have an army of people who hate me to bring along."
"You don't need an army," Seifer said. He sat on his bunk, eyes burning with angry, watchful intensity. Shadows crisscrossed his face; in the wan light the fresh red channel Talon had carved between his eyes looked almost black, the old scar shining silver beneath. "You just need one."
/ / /
When they emerged from the Detention Center, Xu had briefly taken the lead, casting suspicious looks around before gesturing for the others to follow. As soon as the two men exited the darkness of the stairwell, such caution proved to be misplaced. The Central Court brooded empty and still all around them, its silence disturbed only by the soft bubbling of the fountains. There was none of the usual babble and laughter, the scuffling footfalls, the clatter of weapons and bookbags. Distantly, Squall could hear the faint strains of music.
Squall looked around. The Garden seemed a different place now - sterile, haunted, the music nothing but an errant ghost-sound. "Where is everyone?"
"Don't you remember?" Xu asked. She gestured toward a bulletin board covered with flyers. "The Garden Festival is tonight."
The flyers looked like the artifacts of some long-dead civilization. The day Selphie skipped up with the stack of them in her arms was scarcely a month and an eternity ago. Already it felt like a story that had happened to some other person.
"Had a lot on my mind," Squall replied. He was beginning to remember why Xu annoyed him so much. "Can we even be sure Talon is in the Training Center at a time like this?"
"Oh yeah." Seifer hadn't shaved properly in weeks, and a pathetic, straggling blonde beard covered his cheeks and neck, but it didn't completely obscure his usual sarcastic smirk. He tapped a finger against his temple. "He's there, trust me. And the sooner we gut the bastard, the better." He wheeled, the hem of his coat brushing along the floor, and began to stalk across the empty court towards the door to the Training Center.
"Not yet." Squall seized the collar of Seifer's trenchcoat and yanked him back, drawing a curse of indignation. "We need GF support."
"I already have one junctioned," Xu said. Her almond-shaped eyes slid sideways to regard Seifer's ragged form. "And if you think I'm trusting Seifer with one, even now, you're out of your mind."
Seifer smiled his insolent smile. "Were you born with that stick up your ass, or did Cid pay for the implant?"
Xu glared murder back at him, but remained silent. Squall knew he probably should've been grateful for that much, but he could only feel horribly weary and annoyed with both of them.
"Great," he said, moving over to the elevator. "The GF is for me. Wait here. Xu, if Seifer tries anything, shoot him in the leg."
"Hey," Seifer shouted, swinging his gunblade through the air as Squall made his way into the elevator. "After we're done with the uber-Puberty Boy, maybe I should tear your head off and sh-" The silver doors slid closed, cutting off the rest of his insult, and the elevator shot upward.
Even during the Garden Festival, there should have been personnel stationed in critical areas, the kind of jaded SeeDs who eagerly took such assignments for the overtime pay and the unfortunate underclassmen who found themselves scheduled to work with them. Squall encountered no one of either persuasion as he made his way through the Garden's winding halls. Doubtless, Talon in his generosity had wanted them all to attend the Garden Festival and have a wonderful time. Most would have gone gladly, never suspecting they were being manipulated. Some few might have felt reservations, but gone anyway. Squall was sure there were some who had not gone - the surly boys with crushes on Rinoa, the students whose idolization of Squall had been destroyed by a few bad marks in his class, the young female students in love with Seifer and his romantic dream. He imagined them, furious in their hatred of Talon, surrounded by those who adored him. Perhaps they had gone into Balamb to sneak into clubs and drink. Perhaps they huddled alone in their rooms, terrified for some reason they could not explain. Either way, he did not know them, and they could not help him.
Talon had still not changed the computer passwords, and Squall passed effortlessly through the three security doors that led to the GF Storage Facility. For a place designed to store the essences of godhood itself, the Storage Facility was surprisingly drab: a long rectangular room, its walls completely lined with small steel drawers, illuminated by sterile Galbadian-surplus fluorescent lighting. Squall lingered over the drawers, running his fingers over the placards emblazoned with the names of GFs that he knew, and those he didn't but could tame. He was wasting time they didn't have, and there was only one GF that would serve, and it was the last one he wanted to use.
It took him only seconds to find her. EDEN, the placard read. CLASS A ACCESS DENIED. The master-access password worked on the drawer's lock too, though part of him hoped it wouldn't. He pulled the drawer open slowly, half expecting something to dart out at him, but there was only a pad of white gauze and atop it a small, pearly bauble the size of an apple. Eden's prison.
Before he could stop himself, Squall reached into the drawer, curling his hands around the bauble. He forced the doors of his mind to open and held them that way, sent his thoughts running to the exits, and called-
I AM. It was the voice of a child, a mother, a madwoman, and it bludgeoned his body and mind with sledgehammer force
Every muscle in Squall's body seized up at once, his eyes rolling back in his head, his legs spasming fiercely and folding up beneath him. His arms beat a senseless tattoo against the steel drawers, his shoulders jerking upwards as if he were trying to fly without wings. Blood spurted from his nose in an explosive jet that splattered Rorschach-blots across the tile floor. His tongue seemed to be trying to burrow through the roof of his mouth. He smelled burning copper, and his ears filled with a crackling, popping sound that he knew was his own brain cells dying.
I am. Eden's voice was softer now, a thousand women screaming in childbirth. I am.
I am That Which Devours.
She stretched her razor wings across his mind, cutting ragged channels in its surface. He saw her then, a great, arabesque thing, part god and part woman and part Garden, and describing her beggared the imagination. Streams of gauze trailed from her massive yet somehow sleek form in a thousand multicolored pennants. Structures like barnacles of gold sprouted from her, their centers burning with emerald light. He saw drifts of feathers, spurs of armor, dangling strands of jewels. The otherworldly silvery sheen of her armor was the same color as Talon's eyes.
She was impossible to describe, and she was more than her image, infinitely more. She was the spirit of aggression itself, of power, of murder. She-
I am rape. I am war. I am need. I am hunger. I am That Which Devours.
Squall staggered to his feet, his muscles returning grudgingly to his control. The inside of his head hummed like a transformer, but his nose had finally stopped bleeding. He mopped away the old blood, blinking to clear his head, trying to steady himself against the steady shrieking scream of Eden's voice.
I will consume you. I will obliterate you. I will smash your mind, burn myself irrevocably into its fragile surface. I will rape you. I will destroy you. I will devour you.
Long time no see, Squall thought with a burst of bitter humor that scarcely cloaked the raw terror beneath. The terror was good, for if he feared Eden....
Long time, Eden purred in agreement. When she moved in his mind, a thousand razor claws scraped his thoughts. He felt the memory of the first time he and Rinoa made love loosen and melt at the GF's touch. The memory flared once more in his mind, searingly bright, and he remembered her soft sighs and the neon lights of the Balamb Hotel and the salt on her skin and then it all slipped from him like quicksilver. Once it was gone, he would barely have known it was missing but for the eager gnashing of Eden's razor-teeth.
I am That Which Devours.
I have missed you.
"Took long enough," Seifer complained when Squall returned. "What, were you rubbing one out?"
"Yeah, for a second I forgot who I was talking to," Seifer grumbled. "Might improve your attitude." Xu seemed to have mollified him slightly; he leaned against a marble column with his arms crossed, wearing the same surly expression as he had when Squall and the others had exited the SeeD exam so long ago
He had clapped then, Squall remembered, and he had felt absurdly touched by the man's sense of honor. Maybe that was why Talon had settled for beating and humiliating Seifer instead of killing him. Squall hoped that would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Giving a wordless grunt of annoyance, Xu led the way to the Training Center. There should have been no fewer than three SeeDs on duty outside its broad door, ready to respond to any emergencies within, but the service desk and its nearby weapons locker stood as utterly abandoned as the rest of the Garden. Xu leaned all the way across the desk, her bottom arching up, her feet almost leaving the ground.
"I've taken the alarms offline," she said as she began to tap at the keypad set into its surface. A tone of acute physical pain filled her voice at the thought. "It'll leave the Garden vulnerable, but right now it couldn't get much worse, and it should keep the rest of the students off our backs for a few more minutes, at least."
"I could get to like this side of you," Seifer commented with a leer that said he wasn't talking about her code-breaking skills. Squall hadn't even noticed, any more than he'd hesitated to change his clothes in front of Xu. She'd been his superior and then his assistant for so long that thinking about her in any sexual way seemed like thinking of his grandmother - not that he knew who the hell she was. That was probably part of why Talon left her alone.
"If you live through this, you're going straight back to prison." As comebacks went, it was pretty uninspired, but Xu was never one to mince words. She dropped back to the floor with a clatter and led the way into the Training Center without further comment.
After they made their way through the doors, Xu stopped and opened a panel on a wall, reaching in to pull the switch there. A series of thick metal doors ground into place across the mouth of the Training Center. A T-Rexaur could pound against them for a hundred years and never break through, but Talon-
"You think those are gonna keep him in?" Seifer asked. He was wired, jumpy, his eyes roaming eagerly as they searched for any sign of the man he was compelled to destroy.
"I'm not worried about that," Xu replied. "I'm worried about keeping the others out. If they knew we were trying to harm Talon..."
She didn't need to finish. Squall tried to imagine what it would be like to face nearly the entire Garden at once, and then he realized Rinoa alone would be enough. With a wave of her hand, she could tear those doors apart. With a stray thought, she could splatter the three of them across the greenery. And if it came to it, she would, without a moment's hesitation.
She loves me enough to kill me, Squall thought, and what was left of his withdrawn, secretive side trembled in terrified, malicious vindication. I told you love wasn't worth it. I told you.
Xu led them down a winding path through the greenery. They hadn't gone fifty feet before Squall's shirt started sticking to his back. It was always summer in the Training Center, an artificial landscape of trees and hills and plain, a macabre glass-domed greenhouse full of jungle flowers and temperate forests and carefully-maintained monster populations. First years were not allowed in at all, and second years had to be escorted by older students. Most of them, the mystique of the secret area aside, did not truly want to go. The Training Center was loud and cramped and stifling, and it stank with the corruption of monsters living and dead. Once a month, a special janitorial squad did a sweep, but between those times the bodies of the creatures lay where the students slew them, rotting, their strangely-colored blood drying in mottled specks on the soil and the pale trunks of the trees. It was a place that only a SeeD could truly love.
Squall had loved it once, before Rinoa and the others. Here, he could be alone for hours at a time, tramping off the paths and into the deep green maze of the trees where others would never find him. Here, his enemies made themselves evident, emerging from the jungle around him with cries of warning and animal anger. If they were more deadly than the opponents he faced without, at least they were honest about their desire to hurt him. Like so many others, they wanted his flesh, his blood, his life - only they sought it with tooth and claw rather than kind words, feigned offers of friendship, naive flirtation. Silencing them had been as easy as a bright slash of his gunblade, and he was always better at killing than he was at talking. He was, after all, a SeeD.
And then Rinoa and the others and his duties as Garden Commander had come, and there had been little time to spend training alone in the jungle, and less desire. Part of him feared that one night he would go out into the green and have nothing to fight but his old self, a slavering thing of hungry instinct and wrath and loss. But part of him must have still loved the Training Center, or Talon would not have visited it so frequently.
They stayed as quiet as possible as they moved down the path. Bright orange flowers hung against the dark backdrop of the trees, neon screams frozen in time, and from deeper in the undergrowth came the grunting of Wendigos and the warbling of Grats. Nothing emerged to challenge them. Eventually, the path began to climb and the trees to thin, and at last they emerged at the top of a grassy slope dotted with clumps of white flowers. The entire Training Center stretched out below them, a dense tangle of trees and pathways and streamlets spanned by small metal bridges. Night had fallen; the glass dome overhead was dark, and now only the banks of floodlights that studded the dome's perimeter illuminated the vast space below, casting harsh, artificial patterns of light and shadow across the jungle. Talon was nowhere to be seen.
"This is the place," Xu said. She rubbed her palms on her skirt to clear away the sweat before turning to the others. "Are you ready?"
"He's down there." Seifer's voice was tight, strained. He stared across the Training Center for a moment, his gunblade resting on his shoulder, and when he spoke again, Squall had never heard him sound more obedient. "I'm ready."
"You're sure we'll be safe up here?" Squall asked. His hands seemed to move on their own. Revolver whispered from its sheath, rose before him in a bright line.
"No," Xu admitted. "I'm almost sure, and that's as close as we're going to get."
Summon me, Eden suggested. Her voice vibrated in his mind like a tuning fork, bringing tears to his eyes. Summon me as you've never dared, little thing, and let me show you what I can do. I will rend the flesh from his bones I will melt him like candle wax I will shatter the Garden like a soap bubble I will carve a bleeding gash in the world and I will feast for I am That Which Devours I am war and I am rape and I am glorious and I-
Squall visualized himself forcing the lurching thing in his mind back down into its rancid hole, throwing his entire body against Eden's massive, baroque form. She was beautiful but sharp, and touching her shredded his fingers to ribbons. His mind crackled and popped and he felt his nose start to bleed again, but Eden retreated, laughing, promising that she would return soon. He found himself suddenly thinking of the time he had given Selphie a tour of the Garden and then it was gone, forever.
Take a bad memory for a change, he all but pleaded as he locked her away, I have plenty of those.
The entire exchange had taken less than a second. Xu was still waiting for an answer.
"Do it," he said, before Eden could reassert herself.
Xu closed her eyes and extended her arms before her, raising the first two fingers of each hand. "I call you," she said, her voice flat and dull as if filtered through some strange membrane. "Indust. I call you. The Artificial Flame. I call you. The King in Red."
A disc of light flared across the ground below her, throwing off sparks. The illumination slid up Xu's form with the casual slowness of a lover's hand, surrounding her in a crackling green nimbus. Sparks flared into existence and died in the air around her.
And Xu was gone.
Indust rose above the space where she had been, a thing of steel and corded red sinew that looked something like a man and something like a bull and something like a factory made flesh. A line of steam-whistles studded his steel spine, jutting up like knobby vertebrae, and as the great spirit flexed in the air, they screamed shrilly, setting flocks of birds darting out of the trees. Indust's eyes glowed the dull red of burning coal above a vicious steel maw of twirling gear-teeth. He roared a challenge, and his voice was the honking of automobiles and the grinding of rusty gears and the screaming hiss of steam under pressure.
The Training Center exploded.
A delta of flame spilled from the Guardian Force's mouth in a single convulsive spurt, a napalm purging. The blast seemed to roll forward almost languidly from the slope where they stood, breaking up like an amoeba, extending tentative feelers into the foliage to ignite isolated trees. There was enough time for one of the Training Center's Grats to give a high, piping warning cry, and then the blast wave hit with a roar.
The first ranks of trees in its path simply exploded, transformed in an instant into geysers of ash and flaming leaves. The next few fragmented like shattered porcelain, spewing backwards in a deadly rain of makeshift javelins, and the rest snapped twiglike at their bases. The flames danced merrily, leaping from fragment to fragment, writhing in sinuous lines along fallen trunks and dry, dead fronds. The screaming of the Training Center's creatures spiked into hellish cacophony. Tendrils of fire probed at the entrance to the secret area as shyly as a first year student before darting within. The old mattresses piled within guttered up in an ugly puff of black smoke that was soon lost in the overall conflagration. Inch by inch, a rolling carpet of flames swallowed the Training Center, sparing nothing.
The floodlights exploded in showers of sparks. Cracks spiderwebbed the glass dome overhead, and then it shattered in the heat with a tinkling shriek, falling in a thousand razor shards. Squall resisted the urge to run for cover, hoping Xu's best guess would be enough. Glass rained across the interior of the Training Center in ragged chunks - some only a finger's width, some far larger. A wounded T-Rexaur, skin crisped to black ash, staggered free from the flaming undergrowth only to be decapitated by a falling shard the size of a house.
The blast wave burned itself out against the far wall, leaving a charred smear several hundred yards wide. The King in Red went with it, one last basso growl rumbling out as he collapsed into wisps of flame and disappeared. At Squall's side, Xu began to breathe again in deep, pained gasps. Together, the three of them looked over the devastation Indust had caused.
"Hoooooly shit," Seifer supplied.
Virtually the entire Training Center had been reduced to flaming ruin. The grass under their feet was still lush and green and sprinkled with knots of wildflowers, but beyond the ridge they stood upon stretched a landscape of utter desolation. Scarcely a single tree remained upright. Fires burned everywhere, filling the air with dark, choking smoke. Ash covered the ground, fell from the sky in dark flakes. Other things fell too. Something landed with a wet plop to Squall's left, smoking and sizzling. A stink like rotting cabbage and cardamon assailed his nostrils, proving the old joke true: Grat did smell even worse cooked. In the distance, he saw a few more of the creatures burning on a riverbank, their fronds wilting and blackening as they twitched their last. A juvenile T-Rexaur lay in the middle of an ash-blasted clearing, left leg shattered, its body impaled by glass and wood, screeching in a thin, wailing tone that reminded Squall of the girl who had been injured in Talon and Seifer's first fight.
Aside from the trio, there was no living thing in the Training Center that wasn't dead or dying. Squall didn't amend this assessment when Talon stepped out from the smoldering undergrowth. Talon wasn't alive, and never had been. He wasn't a person. He was a dream made flesh, and all the more terrible for it. If Squall had ever doubted that, seeing the man now would have decided him. Despite the fire, the ash, the shrapnel and blood, Talon stood utterly untouched. Ash sloughed like water from his boots as he advanced towards them. When he stopped to put the screeching T-Rexaur out of its misery, its jet of blood arched perfectly over his left shoulder.
Our child, Eden crooned in Squall's mind. He shall taste all the sweeter.
Talon came on through a hail of burning embers, silver eyes shining from the shadowed mass of his body. His right hand gripped his own gunblade, his left Lionheart. A lively flush bloomed on his porcelain cheeks; he walked through ankle-high flames like a man strolling on a beach. His raven locks trailed around his waist, and a tight, dazzling smile scored his face. The smile seemed to speak, rows of perfect teeth displaying utter derision. You fools. You thought a Guardian Force would hurt me? You can't burn an idea. You can't even touch one.
"I was waiting for you," Talon said when he reached the bottom of the slope. "I knew you would come. I wanted the others far away, so they wouldn't be hurt."
Xu's pistol barked. Talon's parry was almost lazy. Lionheart drifted up, there was a single spark, and Xu's bullet tore into the undergrowth to his left. Xu planted her legs, squared off, fired again, and again, and again. Talon deflected the shots with the arrogant grace of a child smashing beetles, his forward progress slow and steady, his gunblades moving so quickly that they were invisible save for the sparks where Xu's bullets struck them.
"There's still a chance for you to leave." Talon continued to advance through the hellish landscape. "If I was as bad as you all seem to think, you'd all be dead already. Seifer, I only wanted to humiliate you. Xu... if Squall realized you were unaffected, I couldn't fail to do the same. And Squall... I may be better than you, but you're still a part of me, and I'm afraid I don't have your sense of self-loathing. A word to anyone and you all would have been murdered in your beds, dead before you knew it." He nodded at them. "And yet, here you all stand. Why? What do you want?"
"It's my life," Squall said, red mist swimming before his vision as Eden encouraged his rage. At the end, that was the answer, and if the only ones who would help him get it back hated him little less than the man in front of them, so be it.
"And I'm living it the way you always wanted to," Talon answered, still deflecting Xu's stream of shots. "I'm every desire you ever wanted fulfilled, every dream you wanted to come true, and every guilty fantasy you thought never would. I'm living your life better than you ever could, and you want to change it back to the pathetic shadow it was."
Xu swore softly as her pistol clicked empty. Ejecting the clip, she fumbled for another and slammed it into the weapon.
"You can't kill me, Squall. Even if you could, I'd still be there, inside. And do you think your friends will forget? Do you think Rinoa will forget? She's happier than she's ever been, and she'll resent you for taking it away from her." Talon's smile widened. "The connection between us is severed, Squall. It was the instant you summoned me, and you've changed a lot over this past month. Go find another life. I won't come looking. This one's enough."
"It's mine," Squall said again. Talon's words tore at him, and the hope that had flourished again when Xu came to rescue him from his cell died anew, but fresh anger burned in its place. It was a childish thing, primitive, brutal, an artifact from the time when humans fought wars with ragged hunks of rock over muddy watering holes in the desert, but it was enough. "And if I can't have it, neither can you."
Talon opened his mouth to reply, and that was when Seifer's tenuous resolve finally snapped and he charged down the hill through the falling ash, screaming. Squall hesitated for only a second before following. Side by side, the two rivals ran down the devastated slope toward the only man they hated more than each other, their movements synchronizing unconsciously as raw instinct took control. White and black raced together through gray ash and hard-baked mud. Talon waited, silhouetted against a burning hell-forest, embers dancing in the air around him.
Revolver and Hyperion roared in unison, and Squall and Seifer pivoted in opposite directions. Squall went low and left, his blade hooking towards Talon's legs in a brimstone-chased burst of flame while Seifer spun to his right, letting the momentum of his gunblade's charge pull him off the ground and around in an overhand slash at his opponent's neck. Black and white came together with a scream of steel, forming a brutal facsimilie of SeeD's logo. Talon stood between the two men, one arm extended smoothly to each side, his twin gunblades having perfectly parried both blows. For a few desperate heartbeats, there was only the sound of Squall and Seifer's labored breathing and the grating of gunblade on gunblade, and then the two men leapt back and charged in anew, barraging Talon with an onslaught of slashes from two directions at once.
Squall's universe narrowed down to a few feet, a few seconds, and suddenly a strange, savage joy filled him. He was back in the Training Center, where problems were honest enough about trying to kill you, where everything could be solved with a single bright slash. His world was a place of flaking, falling ash and crackling wood, ruled by the flames and the fierce, pleasant shock that ran up his arms each time gunblade met gunblade. He pulled the trigger again and again, and the blade seemed to pull his body after it like a living thing. Quarters were so close that Revolver's backblasts seared off his eyebrows and set his head to ringing. A thin coating of black gunpowder caked his face and he breathed sulphur and cordite and his breath rasped in his throat like a fistful of nails and he had never felt more alive. Seifer battled with equal ferocity at his side.
Eden seethed inside Squall's mind, but the bonds he had thrown against her held tight for the moment. It was a good thing - he didn't have a chance of controlling her in this state.
Together, they drove Talon back down the flash-fried mud of the slope, across a shallow black stream boiling with bloated corpses, down a flame-shrouded path into a clearing strewn with burning logs and tongues of flame and dead things. They had not wounded the man, not yet, but he had been forced entirely on the defensive, and - Talon's foot suddenly lashed out, hammering Seifer in the gut. As he reeled back, Talon spun tightly, slamming his heel into the side of Squall's knee. It gave with the explosive crack of a wood knot popping in a fire and suddenly Squall's left leg folded in on itself, pitching him sideways to the ground. Worse and more sudden than the stab of blinding pain that danced up his shattered leg was the realization that Talon had been toying with them, that he had let them have their best shot just to show them he could take it.
"This is ridiculous," Talon said, silver eyes flickering in the flame that surrounded them. Behind him reared a massive tree, its crown shattered, its pale bark burning. "Seifer, you're better than Squall. That's why I'm better than you. It doesn't matter how much you train, how hard you try. I'm made to be better than you. It's conceptually impossible for you to win. Don't you know when to quit?"
"...got... bad... grades," Seifer managed, bent almost double with pain. "Don't... know... much of... anything. But I do know... if Puberty Boy down there thought you up, you're not worth the shit on the bottom of my shoe." He lunged.
"Fool," Talon said with regret. His gunblade whispered through the air. Hyperion spiraled lazily into the flaming undergrowth, Seifer's hand and most of his arm still attached.
Seifer, formerly of Garden, formerly of the Galbadian army, formerly a Knight, formerly a man with four whole limbs, sank to his knees in the ashes, staring at the spurting stump of his arm in silent horror. Talon took a single step forward, and Lionheart darted before him, taking Seifer in the right side of the chest, exploding from his back in a font of blood.
"Here's a little somethin' for ya," Talon growled. Mercy had fled before his bright, livid eyes, his manic grin, and Squall realized that Talon had hoped that Seifer would push things this far. "How do I look in my moment of triumph?" He twisted his wrist, and Lionheart's razor edge carved a wider tunnel in Seifer's chest. "The fun's just started, Seifer. This is the scene where you swear your undying hatred for me. Don't disappoint me."
Squall thought that he'd forgotten those words, the dance of electricity through his limbs, the smell of his own hair burning. Some part of him had remembered. Some part had wanted this all along.
Seifer's remaining hand curled uselessly around Lionheart's razor edge, blood from his shredded fingers flowing down the blade in bright strands to join the gouts spurting from his chest. "You..." he gurgled. "You-" A froth of red bubbles spewed from his mouth, sluicing down his chin, and then those eyes, always full of anger and cruelty, went vacant. Seifer's corpse slumped back, and a combination of gravity and Lionheart's sharpness caused the blade to slide free, its blue length splattered with crimson.
Talon stared down at the corpse, wide-eyed. "He had it coming, Squall," he said as if reassuring himself, giving Seifer's corpse a solid kick. "He earned all of this and more, and some part of you wanted to give it to him. Don't deny that."
Squall wasn't in the position to say much of anything. As Talon moved toward him, he tried to rise, using Revolver as a crude crutch, but as a fresh jolt of pain shot through him, he was forced back to the ground. Talon sneered at the gunblade for a second before kicking it aside.
"You, Squall... well, you I tried to save, but you just wouldn't listen." Suddenly Lionheart's edge rested against Squall's throat, cold steel sticky with warm blood. "You summoned me, Squall. You made me to be greater than yourself. You could no more beat me than you could flap your arms and fly."
Xu stepped from the woods behind him, her face red and sweaty from the heat, her uniform scorched. Ash dotted her burned face, gathered in her dark hair, fell from her shoulders like dandruff. The entire time the other two had been fighting Talon, she had been circling around to flank him, and she could not have executed the maneuver more perfectly. She made no sound, and Squall let his eyes betray nothing of her approach. The first Talon knew of her was the cool touch of her pistol's barrel on the back of his neck.
"Squall made you better than Seifer," Xu said. "Better than himself. Better than he thought I would be. But Squall only ever knew me as an instructor and an assistant, and I'm a lot more than either of you know." Her voice was flat, cold, murderous. "I was the first SeeD, and I've killed more men than even Squall can imagine, and I don't care how fast you think you are, if you don't drop that gunblade, I'm going to blow your goddamn head off."
Talon did as she asked, tossing the two gunblades away and raising his hands to chest level. His eyes flashed with rage, and Squall knew that for the first time things had not gone as the young man had intended. He felt a swell of gratitude and affection for Xu that he only wished she would return. He had been wrong about her. He-
And then Talon started to smile.
"You won't shoot me, Xu," he said. "If you had the guts or the inclination, you would have done it already. And if there's one thing you're not, it's a coward. You don't want to shoot me." And he began to laugh, a high, melodious sound that Squall's own rare, dry chuckle could never hope to live up to. "Oh, this is too good."
"Shut up," Xu hissed, and Squall saw her wrists quiver, heard something in her voice.
"Someone's got a crush on you, Squall," Talon said, smiling. "Someone's got a crush on you and she doesn't even want to admit it to herself. She must have really hated you once, or she would have been mine, but maybe all this skulking around to visit you in prison and plot behind my back has warmed her feelings. I think she admires you now. I think she might even want you to touch her in places strictly forbidden by proper regulations."
"Stop it." Tears cut clean channels down Xu's burned cheeks, and it seemed to take all of her concentration to hold the gun in place. "Just stop it-"
Squall had never seen her so shaken. It would have been almost funny, that a thing so small could rattle someone like her so much, if they hadn't been a situation where it was going to kill them both. He almost wished that he did care for her, if nothing else for someone to turn to when all this was over. He opened his mouth to tell her that, to tell her something, to beg her to shoot Talon if nothing else, but the other man was already speaking.
"You might be able to plot against me. You might have even been able to kill him, for duty's sake. But I'm more than he'll ever be, Xu, and there's just enough of him in me that we could stand here till the sun burned out and you'd never find the guts to pull that trigger." He lowered his hands to his sides, and she made no move to stop him, her body shaking with shameful sobs. "But I didn't spend a month doing paperwork and playing prison-footsie with you, and Squall never wanted to. I'm flattered that you can't bring yourself to hurt me, but the feeling isn't mutual."
Talon drove his elbow into Xu's gut, twisting away like an eel as she staggered backwards. She fired, an action that was probably nothing more than an involuntary muscle contraction, and a bullet whined over Talon's shoulder. Then his hands slammed into opposite sides of her arm, pulverizing her wrist with a horrible wet snap, and the gun went spinning away. Xu screamed, a high and terrible and mad thing that was suddenly choked off as Talon's fingers tightened around her throat, lifting her off the ground. He tossed her aside with a gesture of careless brutality, sending her flying across the clearing to crash against the broken, burning tree that loomed behind them. A shattered spar of branch burst from Xu's chest in a spray of dark, sticky blood, leaving her pinned like a butterfly in a display box. Then the flames found her, darting down the trunk to caress her the way she must have wished Squall would, crisping away her uniform, setting her dark hair ablaze, causing her elegant face to melt off her skull like candle wax. Her screams were loud and horrible and animal, like the cries some strange, honking bird, and Squall knew he would never forget them.
I killed her, he thought, sprawled on the ground, sick with pain and horror. I didn't like her enough. Or she liked me too much, and either way, I killed her. He wished he could take it back. He wished he could take this whole stupid plan back, this plan that had gotten her and Seifer killed, that had failed so horribly for the sake of a life too shattered to ever be put back together.
"I'll make it quick, Squall," Talon said, taking a step towards his fallen weapons, and it was the sense of casual entitlement in his voice that finally caused the door Squall had locked Eden behind to fly open with a steel scream. She raced to the forefront of his mind, dragging murder and rape and genocide in her wake, tearing his thoughts asunder in her mad charge. This time, he didn't try to fight her; this time, he let her have her way, bearing him forward on a wave of red wrath.
I am That Which Devours.
Eden tickled his nerves, focusing her stock of Cure spells, and his leg mended itself with a series of painful snaps, shattered bones jigsawing back together beneath the skin. For a moment, the pain was worse than ever, but by the time Eden yanked him to his feet like child jerking a puppet's strings, it was gone. He took a single, shuddering breath, and the air, heavy with the stink of ash and death and blood, tasted delicious. The expression of shock on Talon's face was even sweeter.
I am That Which Devours.
The world slowed as Eden junctioned haste spells directly into his muscles, driving him forward with the speed of a bullet, churning up flakes of ash in his wake. Talon's face had only begun to shift from surprise to fear when Squall's left fist slammed into his chest, forcing the air from his lungs in a grunt more graceless than any other sound he'd ever made in his life. He was still rocking back on his heels from the first blow when Squall's right hook exploded against the side of his face. His jaw caved inward as a spray of teeth, perfectly white and perfectly proportioned, spilled from his shattered mouth like the fragments of a broken pearl necklace.
Talon reeled back, shrieking like an infant through the ruins of his teeth, clawing at his once-perfect profile like a madman. He had never felt pain before, Squall realized, never so much as a stubbed toe or a paper cut, and now-
He CAN hurt. He can die.
We will devour him my dear we will rend the flesh from his bones we will obliterate him we will-
"You can't..." Talon's broken face reduced his words to mush, but his eyes still glared defiantly. "You... you... you cheated, you bastard, you summoned her."
Talon had been created to be better than Squall, than Seifer, than anyone in the Garden. He could, in time, smash the resolve of the strongest man, win over the most reluctant woman, draw nations to his cause. He could stand against the fury of Indust, catch a sniper's bullet, drink poison with every meal and live. But there had been one power that Squall had felt firsthand, a power so great he had known he could never even hope to approach it, a power so strange and hideous that to create an ideal capable of transcending it beggared his imagination. Against the fury of Eden, the mother of rape, the brood-mare of war, That Which Devours, Talon was as helpless as Squall or any other mortal.
I am That Which Devours.
Talon was still brave, and he was still fast. He shifted forward so quickly that he almost seemed to flicker, his hands and feet blurring into a brutal onslaught of strikes. Any one of them would have killed Squall, if they had actually hit him. Eden slowed them, dodged them, and took Talon apart piece by piece. Talon went for a blow to the solar plexus; Eden twisted his wrist into a ghastly pretzel shape and left his fingers jutting in half a dozen directions. Talon went for a high crescent roundhouse; Eden slammed Squall's fists into his torso in a barrage of punches that shattered his ribs and drove splinters of bone deep into his lungs. Talon staggered to his knees, and Squall's fingers found his face, gouging his beautiful silver eyes into jelly. Talon screamed, and Squall's fist torpedoed through his stomach, bursting from his back just as Lionheart had impaled Seifer. Talon screamed, and Squall pulled his fist free, glistening ropes of Talon's guts tangled in his fingers. Talon screamed, and Squall smashed his face into a crater. Talon screamed and screamed, falling backwards, and Squall climbed atop him, ripping, tearing.
"You can't," Talon shrieked. His once-beautiful face was a splintered landscape of blood and bone as devastated as the Training Center around them. His body looked like a complicated model put together by a stupid, impatient child, broken limbs flopping uselessly, shredded flesh leaking blood. "I'm a part of you, I'm a part of you and I can't die, I can't die, I can't DIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE."
Maybe he couldn't. He had taken half a hundred killing wounds. His windpipe was collapsed and his heart was pierced. His bowels had been pounded into soup and his lungs were a morass of blood. He was broken, inside and out, but he was alive. Maybe he couldn't die. But there were other ways.
"You say you're a part of me." Crimson cascaded from Squall's nose and ears, lost in the quantity of Talon's blood that splattered his face and neck. His eyes bulged, and he could feel the thundering of war-drums in his temples, taste copper in his mouth. His arms were sopping red all the way to the elbow, and he found that this pleased him, that he was an ugly, violent thing, made to kill, to rend, to destroy. "Then get back inside."
Talon was still screaming when Squall raised a bloody piece of gristle to his mouth and began to chew.
We are That Which Devours.
Five minutes couldn't have passed between the moment when everyone in the SeeD ballroom heard the first explosion and the moment Rinoa arrived in the Training Center, but she was both too late and right on time.
A single meltdown spell was enough to get her through the steel security doors, but no spell could have prepared her for what she found within - a charred, reeking landscape of death and flame. The first time she had seen the Training Center, she had loved it, and she had been joking with Squall that he would have to take her to the secret area when the smell had hit her, and she had noticed how thick the undergrowth was, and she had heard the piping shrieks of the things inside. She had turned to Squall and asked him to leave, masking it with one of her bizarre spur-of-the-moment date suggestions, and he hadn't noticed just how scared she was. She had dreamed of this place since then, bad dreams where things and people chased her through the thick trees, but in even the worst of her nightmares had never been this bad.
Something seemed to pull at her, drawing her down shattered, tree-strewn paths, through infernos and nests of reeking, burning Grats. Flames licked around her, ash gathered in her hair, but the cool blue nimbus that surrounded her kept the heat and the pain far away. She walked through the fire, untouched, searching. For-
It was concern for him that had drawn her here when she had first heard the explosion. She loved him, more than she had ever loved anyone, more than she ever wanted to love anyone but Squall. It had been as easy as breathing, as turning around, and though some part of her had known she was hurting Squall terribly, she had felt strangely as if she had no choice. It had felt, somehow, as if being with Talon was being with Squall, as if only by risking hurting Squall could she truly make him happy. The emotion had made no sense, but she had known that it was right, and she had tried her hardest to protect Squall from the infidelities that were really nothing of the sort, but he had found out, and he had been hurt, and why was she thinking of him now, when she hadn't thought of him once since his imprisonment, when her thoughts had been only of-
She could no longer remember his face. The sense of urgency that had compelled her to come running to his rescue had slipped away since she entered the burning jungle, as if he no longer existed. As if he never had. He might have been nothing at all, if not for the memories. She could not forget the way he had brought her little gifts the way she always wished Squall would, the way he had let her hold him, the way his lovemaking had all of Squall's passion and ten times the skill, the way she and Ellone had locked eyes over his sleeping form, blushing in intermingled shame and delight. Once, she had felt only joy at those recollections. Now, a creeping sense of-
Squall. Oh Squall, what did I do to you, and why did I do it? And could you... should you, ever forgive me? She remembered other things then: the way she found herself suddenly tearing up when Talon was away, the way Zell used to kick around looking for no one in particular when Talon was busy on a mission, the way Ellone had hopped into the shower the morning after, the sound of her retching, the raw red tone of over-scrubbed skin on her arms and legs when she dressed and left without another word. What did we all do to you?
She half-turned, meaning to go back to the prison and free him, but as she moved, she saw something through a gap in the trees that drove the breath from her and sent her racing headlong toward it, breaking branches in her haste.
Seifer's corpse sprawled in the ash to her left. To her right, a slow-melting piece of tallow in a SeeD uniform burned against a tree. Before her, Squall lay face down in a pile of gore and shredded clothing that she recognized as Talon's. She gave a little cry, running towards him, bending down to turn him over and praying to whatever god would listen to a blasphemous sorceress that she wasn't too late, that she could still tell him she was sorry.
His eyes stared blankly up at the sky, and for a moment her heart froze in a painful spasm before she felt the shallow, steady tempo of his breathing. She took his head in her lap, heedless of the blood. It caked his mouth and chin red, coated his hands and arms, stained the front of his shirt in a vulgar red snail-trail. For a moment she was reminded absurdly of an old baby photo her father had been overly fond of showing her boyfriends, a picture of her in her high chair, smiling, fists and face and jumper covered in spaghetti sauce, and the laugh that had started curdled so quickly in her tummy she wondered if she might throw up.
"Squall," she whispered, tears pricking at her eyes. She brought water to her palms and wiped gently at his face, trying to clear away the blood. There was so much - thick, clotted. All she was doing was smearing her own hands, hands that were already too stained to hold him. "Squall, please wake up, please, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry-" Little words. Stupid words.
Then, as her fingertips brushed across his temples, she felt the heaving of some great, buried power, heard brittle, booming laughter in the back of her mind, and understood. Her. It. Eden. Squall had needed her to stop Talon, and he had succeeded, but the GF was still holding him, feasting. Her stomach jumped again as she remembered the other time Eden had taken control of Squall, the animal screams of the Vysage as he had fallen upon it, rending, tearing, eating. She knew where Talon had gone, why Eden purred like a kitten with a belly full of cream.
Nasty thing, she formed the thought, her anger driving away her tears, and sent it down her fingertips and into Squall's brain. You're a nasty thing, and I told them we should get rid of you. I guess I have to do it myself.
Eden's answer was the snap of a breaking leg, a screaming steam whistle, bacon fat sizzling on a child's face. You dare not. His mind is mine. Your last attempt to remove me resulted in the creation of the thing you called Talon. My power was needed to contain it. Touch me, and I rend his thoughts asunder.
She did not know how the last attempt to remove Eden had created Talon, but she knew that it had been performed incorrectly. Kadowaki should have listened to her, and none of this would have happened. Talon and Squall's pain and her own guilt, so sharp and cruel she didn't know if she ever wanted to be forgiven. She would make up for it. She would draw the GF from Squall's mind in her own way, and then she would put an end to it forever.
Rinoa said nothing more to the GF; she simply relaxed the barriers around her thoughts, letting the tiniest taste of her power slip down through her fingers into Squall's mind. Eden, fat and greedy and eternally hungry, pounced. Rinoa felt the nerves in her arm contract in a sudden convulsion, and then there was pain like her bones were shattering, as if something far too big to nest in her flesh were attempting to crawl up the inside of her arm. A flashbulb burst of agony strobed through her brain, sending a tremor through every nerve in her body. She heard her teeth click together, felt a gout of blood spray from her nose. The voice in her mind was bigger than the universe.
I am That Which Devours. I will rape you. I will obliterate you. I will remake you.
Not today. Not ever. She might look like the same old Rinoa who had spent her days sleeping in train cars and her nights dreaming up rebel fantasies, and most of the time she still felt like her, but she also knew now that she was something more. She was a sorceress, inheritor of a power as old as the universe itself, greater than Eden's dumb, blundering hunger. She was a sorceress, and they could defy the laws of reality, melt stone and freeze fire and step outside time itself. Next to her, Eden was nothing but a screaming, gluttonous beast.
Eden smashed deep into the surface of her mind like a clenched fist, then unfurled, scraping taloned fingers across her consciousness, digging in with a million fishhook-suckers. Eden bore Rinoa up in a wave of agony, dashing her upon razored rocks again and again before pulling her out in a savage riptide, sucking her into black depths. The pain was like nothing she had ever known, and she fought against it, thrashing. Eden tried every trick she knew, sending out feelers to probe at Rinoa's pleasure centers, stabbing a silvery spike again and again into the balance center of the cerebellum, poking and prodding nodules to send a slurry of contrasting chemicals surging through the woman's brain. Rinoa's body was lost to her; she collapsed across Squall, muscles jumping spasmodically.
But her mind
mine, she thought, and she focused her magic within. A bright line of searing light tore across Eden's probing tendrils, severing them, bringing her body back under her control. Rinoa lashed out again, and another beam of white light appeared, impaling the Guardian Force directly through its weird heart, bearing it back and away.
You cannot. I am That Which Devours.
The beam of white light, entirely in her imagination, entirely real, grew stronger, burning a widening hole in Eden's clanking patchwork body. The monster clung to her tighter than ever, mental talons tearing deep rifts in Rinoa's brain. Memories spilled from them and burned away in the blast of light: her father rocking her on his knee, Seifer's hand working under her blouse, her mother standing at the kitchen sink and singing her sad, sweet song. Then they were gone, and she could feel nothing of them but the loss, and tears pricked her staring eyes. My God, it's like this for Squall and the others every time. How much have they lost? How much-
All, Eden boomed, but her screaming was softer now, weaker. She had been charred black by Rinoa's attack, and as she spoke, pieces of her sloughed away in the beam of light, crumbling to nothing. All. I shall not be destroyed. I am WAR I am RAPE I am HUNGER I AM THAT WHICH DEvours i ammmm-
Dead, Rinoa thought. Gone. Eden's words became a long, unformed shriek, the wailing of a dying world.
The Guardian Force - such an inappropriate name for a creature like Eden - made one last attempt to hold on, slamming into her with enough force to turn her into a vegetable if she hadn't thrown up her defenses in time. As it was, Eden slammed into and shattered her barrier of white light, breaking into fragments that exploded across the surface of her consciousness. Bursts of starry light exploded in Rinoa's head, and two thoughts tore through her mind in that instant.
The first, frantic, unformed, animal: oh god oh god it wasn't enough it wasn't you killed her but you're going to die anyway-
The second, calm, collected, alien. Be.
Rinoa opened her eyes, blinked, pulled herself upright. Her mouth tasted like blood, and her head was pounding, but she was alive, and that voice, that voice was -
"Squall?" She lay with her back against a shattered, smoldering tree. His head was in her lap. His eyes were open, and he was looking at her with a concern that broke her heart. I don't deserve it, not after all this. "I'm... I'm okay. Are you-"
"Alive," he said. He blinked slowly, as if that action alone drained him. His face, his beautiful face, the one she used to love to hold between her hands, was still caked with ash and blood despite her best efforts. "I'm alive. Seifer and Xu are dead. What about- Eden?" He paused for a moment. "Talon?"
"Gone... both gone." His hesitation slid a knife into her heart. She wanted to hold him, to kiss him, to love him, but- my hands. Too stained. She could not take it back. She would have given anything, but she could not. She could apologize, though, however empty such words might be. The tears that ran down her face seemed another betrayal - how dare she cry, after what she had done to him?
"Squall... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I hurt you, I know I hurt you, and I don't know why-"
She stopped speaking as his hand, still sticky with Talon's blood, slid into her own. He squeezed her fingers as he had a thousand times before, while they waited in line outside clubs or sat in a dark movie theater or walked the streets of Balamb. Here, in the middle of this carnage, it was only a painful reminder of something that she was afraid she could never have again.
"It's not your fault," He said, closing his eyes as if he couldn't bear to look at her. "Not entirely your fault. Maybe not your fault at all. I don't know. I just don't know. The things he did... were things I must have wanted at one time or another. Some I didn't even know about myself."
"What was he?" It was the right question, she realized. More important than who. What.
"Do you miss him?" Squall asked instead, opening his eyes again to stare into her own. It was not the question she had expected, and-
I do. I do, a little. But Talon wasn't here, and looking down at Squall, battered and bloody, she was glad. She didn't want him, not now. Not again.
But you would if he showed back up, wouldn't you? a nasty little voice suggested. Enjoy your consolation prize.
"No," she said at once, and when he looked skeptical - and who could blame him - "I- I don't think so. What was he?"
Squall sighed. "He was me. He was more than me. I summoned him without realizing it, and everyone that liked me..." He trailed off, unable to finish.
It explained so much. The way she had felt about the other man, the idea that she could only please Squall by hurting him - the way he did just the things she wanted, just the way she wanted, things she had never told anyone, things that would make her flesh creep every time she thought of them now. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know if there was anything to say. She sat there, and held Squall's hand, and waited until he spoke again.
"People will find out what he was. They'll find out I wanted the things that he did. Things will never be the same."
"No," she agreed. There was no point in lying to him. Zell would know part of Squall had always been annoyed by him. Quistis and Selphie would recall the way he used them. The students would remember Talon's fits of violence and lust and... Ellone. She didn't think Ellone would ever want to see Squall again. She didn't even know if she could feel the same way about Squall as she had, now that she knew the things he wanted. She thought of herself and Ellone, of flesh sliding on flesh in the dark, and shivered.
Things would never be the same.
Her fingers tightened around his own, and she found herself touching his face softly with her other hand. He let her.
"No," she said again. "But I'll still be here."
I still love him. I can still try to love him. We can do this.
It would not be easy. It might not even be possible. The things that had happened might prove too much for either of them, but she would try. She had to try.
Is that your love speaking, or your guilt, Rinoa? Did it matter?
"So will he," Squall said. "He's still inside me. He's what I always wanted to be."
Rinoa looked down at him, and thought of the first time that she had seen him, leaning against the wall as cute and beautiful as anything, but aloof, distant. She had known then that she had her work cut out for her, but she had also known that she had to have him. It had been a battle, their love, and it had taken her a long time to accept his flaws - his withdrawn nature, his general lack of romance, his clumsiness when he had to be gentle.
She thought of the way he stammered when she tried to kiss him in public, the way he could not stand her mother's music but always tried to hide it, the way he stumbled through public speeches. She thought of all these things, and the way that they were a part of him as much as the things she loved - his strength, his skill in combat, his honesty, his kisses, his sweet, vulnerable shyness - and she said:
"He's not what I want you to be."
The word came from outside reality and time itself, and with its coming it created a vessel, and within that vessel it reverberated.
A body, lean and strong and unblemished, newborn muscles flexing against a skeleton only seconds old, lungs filling with their first delicious gasp of air, fingers and toes twitching like polyps of Balamb fire coral.
A mind, a consciousness. The grueling work of millennia compressed into an instant, thoughts springing forth full-formed from the ether, dancing like jolts of electricity across the surface of a still-forming brain.
A woman. A sorceress. Beautiful, eternal, a tall lean shadow walking between the hours, her pale skin scribed with glowing glyphs, her eyes burning amber-bright. A sorceress to trump all sorceresses, confident, powerful, assertive. A sorceress who would not be denied, threatened, caged. A sorceress with the power to change the world. Standing on a spur of jagged rock in some distant tomorrow, a millennium or a century or a week, smiling, the strands of fate and time itself slipping through her fingers in perfect silvery strands.
Author's Note: I guess you could say Talon was a bit of Mery S.U.E. ;)
All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition
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