-Final Fantasy VIII
Hey, Teacher, leave us kids alone
Subject, one Squall Leonhart. 17 years of age. Brown hair, blue eyes. A quiet soul, not fond of loud parties or crowds. Has trouble expressing himself. Occasionally tries to draw, but is not too good at it. Commander of Balamb Garden. World-renowned hero.
He has killed forty-three people.
It was a week old when he found it.
Squall Leonhart was working late again, poring through stacks of paperwork in his office with resigned determination. He had turned the office's lights off to avoid unwelcome visitors at this hour, but fortunately the arc-sodium lamps studding Balamb Garden shone through the high window almost directly onto his desk, providing plenty of illumination.
Well, to speak more precisely, the light shone onto the spot where the surface of his desk should be. The pile of paperwork before him reminded him of a housecat; it fattened up or lost a few pounds, occasionally shifted positions, but always remained in the most obtrusive place possible. He could not remember the last time he had seen more than a few square inches of oak surface at once.
Distantly, he could catch the strains of music drifting from the ballroom. There was a combination dance/concert going on downstairs that nearly everyone at the Garden was attending. The Garden had been grounded outside Balamb for three weeks undergoing an overhaul and repairs and everyone was getting bored and testy. A grand bash, with music provided by student bands and food catered from Balamb, had seemed just the thing to blow off some steam to the entertainment coordinators. However, despite Rinoa's best attempts, the Garden Commander could not be persuaded to make an appearance; dances and parties were hardly his scene.
Besides, he had work to do.
Squall sighed and went back to looking through mission report forms. He had had reservations when Cid retired and suggested that he continue with the position of Garden Commander he had adopted during the war with Ultimecia, and it seemed now that they had been well founded. While he was a fair battle commander and a genius at leading small units, the intricacies of managing the entire Garden were somewhat beyond him. He felt utterly lost, and he had pondered flying the Garden to Centra and forcing Cid and Matron to take charge again more times than he could count. Even with Xu helping to run things, Squall was left with an overwhelming feeling that he didn't belong in this office, at this desk, in front of these papers.
More than that, he wasn't comfortable with giving mission assignments, with choosing what SeeDs to send into dangerous situations. He had certainly faced enough danger himself, but that only meant he knew what it felt like. It was not an experience he wished to inflict upon anyone else.
SeeD missions were becoming more and more frequent. The uproar in many nations following the war had caused unrest and economic turmoil; the Gil was at its lowest point in years, anarchist and rebellion movements were springing up everywhere, and governments all over the world were poised to topple. Added to these problems were the expansion costs for rebuilding Trabia Garden and establishing the new Esthar Garden. Costs were accumulating and Garden was feeling the pinch. The answer seemed to be to find more clients, and the unstable world provided plenty of opportunity. As a result, more SeeDs were being hired out than ever before. And his desk was swamped with paperwork. And-
He could not believe what he was reading:
SEED MISSION REPORT #54322
Client: Dollet Dukedom
Mission Profile: Suppression of Rebel Elements
Mission Profile: Failed.
Kinneas, Irvine - KIA
Tilmitt, Selphie - KIA
Funds Received: 0.00 Gil
The words pounded up at him from the page, their straight, dark lines proclaiming the truth with bleak finality. The date on this report was a week old. The grim tidings had been so mired in red tape that no one had discovered them, and they made his way to his desk, and-
And Irvine and Selphie were dead.
Sweeping aside the mission reports with an angry slash of his arm, Squall leaned heavily against the desk, glaring into the oaken surface. His mind was a maelstrom of emotions which he couldn't begin to understand. And still the words on the paper remained in his mind like the blackened scars of a brand.
Kinneas, Irvine - KIA. Funds Received: 0.00 Gil. Tilmitt, Selphie - KIA. Funds Received: 0.00 Gil. Mission Profile: Failed. Kinneas, Irvine - KIA. Tilmitt, Selphie -KIA. Funds Received: 0.00 Gil. Funds Received: 0.00 Gil. Funds Received: 0.00 Gil. Fu-
-ck the Garden fuck everything Squall you numb fuck don't you get it Irvine and Selphie are dead and IT'S YOUR FAULT. You killed them. You KILLED them!
Squall felt a sudden twist in his gut, hot bile scorching his throat. He lurched forward in his chair, retching, spewing all over the desk and all over the papers. It didn't matter. Not really. Not at all. Not even when the chair toppled and he crashed to the marble floor.
Pain only told you that you were alive. He was lucky to still be feeling it. Irvine and Selphie couldn't because
you killed them
they were dead. Had been dead for a week, while the rest of the world carried on, while he carried on. While he ate and slept and drank and held Rinoa in the night, they had rotted somewhere. Somewhere. He didn't even know where their bodies were.
They were gone. His friends. Strange that he of all people should call them that, but they were. They had stuck with him over the course of the long battle against Ultimecia, braved the danger of Galbadian soldiers, monsters, Time Compression. Through it all, they had never left his side when he needed them.
And you threw them to the wolves the first chance you got, you bastard. The Garden's hurting for money and someone has to die. Are you sure you don't want to yell at them for not managing to succeed in the mission on their way out?
Seconds stretched out as he lay there, the cool floor pressing into his face. He did not want to get up. Once he got up, he would have to stand and walk out of here, have to tell the others. He did not relish the prospect; they would almost surely blame him, as he blamed himself. Or, even worse, they might try to absolve him of guilt. They might try to convince him that it wasn't his fault after all.
They might succeed. The strength of his private opinions wasn't so strong these days.
He couldn't allow that to happen. He had to accept the blame for this, remember the horror, make sure that it never happened again.
Accepting the truth was not pleasant. He was nothing but a butcher, feeding his own friends into the meat grinder. Why? For the good of the Garden? There was no danger, no Galbadian horde thundering over the horizon. The only foe was debt, eternal crusher of hope and dreams.
Bloody dress, yellow and torn. Cowboy hat, blowing in the breeze....
Selphie and Irvine were simply victims of economics; Gil was the bullet, Garden the gun...
I pulled the trigger.
I pulled the trigger.
But I had to. I had to. I had to.
Love me, Kill me.
I did it out of love, I swear, I did it out of love. She was hurting so much. I had to take it away.
I promised her I wouldn't let it happen again and I won't break that promise. I'll stop them. I'll stop it.
This place looks creepy as hell in the dark, but that doesn't matter. I'm not afraid. I've shaken death's hand, you see. I became his best friend. I lay beside him in a cold hole while the rats made their music. I learned a lot of things in that hole. I forgot some, too, but I don't miss them. They might have distracted me.
The crazy poem runs through my head over and over as I slide down the hallways. I wish I could make it go away but maybe it belongs. It reminds me of what I have to do here.
With this bullet I thee wed...
Garden will pay.
I will wither the SeeDs in the ground before they can sprout, blight the Garden with killing frost. I will stop them all. I will.
One foot in front of the other, Squall. One foot in front of the other.
He could do this. He had fought a Galbadian soldier hand-to-hand hundreds of feet above the ground. He had endured time compression. He had helped put Ultimecia away for good. He had survived alone for years. He could do this. He could- could- could-
Tell the entire Garden I murdered Irvine and Selphie.
The dance in the Balamb Ballroom was in full swing, massive speakers throwing out a pounding techno beat that shook the very walls. Colored lights strobed throughout the room, illuminating scores of swaying bodies. The students at Balamb Garden did not celebrate often, but that only meant that the partying was more intense when it did happen. In fact, judging by the proximity between the dancing students, many of them would probably not be returning to their own bed tonight.
That made him wonder if somewhere Irvine and Selphie were lying together, their cold bodies wrapped in the grave's embrace. The thought shook him, and he tried to stifle it, but it would not stay dead. Squall gritted his teeth and stepped forward into the throng of bodies, hoping that the noise and bustle of the crowd would derail his morbid thoughts for at least a few moments.
He walked in a straight line towards the stage at the front of the room, shouldering aside anyone that got in his way. It didn't take long for the crowd to detect his ire and give him a wide berth. Wherever he stepped, the dancers seemed to draw away from him until he was like an island in the sea.
"Hey! Squall, my man! What's up?" He would recognize that voice anywhere. Zell. The last person he needed to talk to right now. Squall kept walking.
"Squall? Hey, Squall, what's wrong?" Zell emerged from the crowd at his elbow, dragging the pigtailed girl - whatever her name was - along with him. "Squall?"
Squall kept walking. Not now. He had to get this over fast, rip the arrow free from the wound in one swift motion. The stage drew closer.
The band continued playing even as he set foot on the first step and began to climb. They only began to falter as he mounted the stage and walked towards the lead singer. The singer backed up as Squall neared her, cradling her electric guitar protectively like a child. The rest of the band trailed off until there was nothing but deep, ugly silence.
Squall took the microphone stand and hefted it, clearing his throat. He hated speaking in front of crowds under any circumstances, and he could not think of a worse message to deliver. Best to be as quick as possible about it, then.
"Attention.... I have... an announcement to make." The movements of the crowd had begin to slacken off, and there were a number of jeers. He felt rage beginning to form in his body, centering its pulsating form behind his eyes so that he thought they would burst. He was angry; angry at the crowd for acting this way, angry at himself for letting them, but most of all, angry at Irvine and Selphie for being dead. He took that anger, focused it, and yelled as loud as he could. "Attention, damn it! That's an order!"
Reflexes honed through hours of training sprang to the fore and every cadet in the room suddenly stood at attention, their bodies locked, their eyes on him. Strobes and colored spotlights still danced over their rigid forms, giving the scene a surreal, dreamlike appearance. If only it were a dream, some insubstantial nightmare he would wake up from at any moment... but that way was weakness, useless. Countless cold, lonely nights dreaming into a tear-drenched pillow had taught him that. Denying reality hadn't brought Sis back. It wouldn't bring Selphie and Irvine back, either.
"Casualty reports are in," Squall said, trying to control his voice. A leader couldn't fall apart in front of his troops, after all. "Irvine Kinneas and Selphie Tilmitt have been killed in action in Dollet. Services will commence at a later time. That is all." He released the microphone stand and it toppled, sending an angry clash through the room as it struck and rebounded on the hardwood stage.
His tidings had disemboweled the good mood that had permeated the room, and it was dying messily. All throughout the crowd, people were crying and shouting, some demanding an explanation, some venting pure, unshaped grief, others screaming that this was supposed to be a party, dammit, and who cared if a couple of feebs most of them didn't even know had died?
Squall walked off the stage and moved toward the exits at the back of the room. This place was turning into a disaster area, and he wanted nothing more than to get out before he was swept up the tornado of emotion. He was afraid that his anger might get the best of him, that he might...
"Squall! Squall!" He felt a hand on his shoulder, and he was yanked roughly around.
Zell stood there, his body quivering with repressed anger. His face was flushed a deep red, his tattoo standing out like some dark, malignant cancer. Teeth gritted, eyes compressed to slits, fists clenching and unclenching, he was the very picture of rage. The library girl was beside him, looking very timid and frightened. Tears were running down her pale face, partially because of the news, and partially, Squall thought, because she was seeing a side of Zell that she never had before. A side that was scaring her to death.
"What the fuck is wrong with you, man?" Zell was practically screaming now. "They were your friends, and you just gave that report like you were talking about the weather! Why the hell did you have to tell everyone that way? Don't you owe them more than that? What kind of bastard are-"
Squall hit him in the face. Hard.
He didn't mean to do it, wasn't even aware he was about to until the felt his anger focus itself in his clenched fist. Suddenly, his arm was flying up, smashing against the bridge of Zell's nose with a low crunch. The martial artist's head snapped back in a spray of blood, and Squall was filled with a sudden dark, savage joy. Zell was his friend, but it felt good for once to lash out, to give someone else a bit of the pain the world was heaping on him.
Zell fell to the floor, landing ungraciously on his ass. He clamped one hand to his now spurting nose, glaring up at Squall. He was still furious, and Squall knew that Zell could demolish him if he wished; he did not have his gunblade, and the other was a master at hand-to-hand fighting. But Zell did not move to get up. He simply sat there, glaring his hate at the Garden Commander. Squall wondered if he'd killed another friendship.
The tension was broken by the library girl, who knelt beside Zell and probed gently at his face. "H-here, Zell," she said, pressing a handkerchief against the blood flow. "It'll be alright." Then, she looked up at Squall, fresh tears of frustration and anger brimming in her eyes.
"Just get out of here and leave us alone, you big jerk!" She began to sob.
Squall turned to go, to get out away from the crowd and to be alone, where he could think. Facing anyone else would be a nightmare. He wasn't sure what he might do, as the encounter with Zell had proven.
Almost before he was aware of it, his feet had carried him to the doors of the Training Center. As he approached, they hissed open with a pneumatic sigh and he was within. There were a number of places one could go to be alone here, and he had ferreted out every one of them in his early teenage years, when he was still alone. Before he had
Kinneas, Irvine - KIA. Tilmitt, Selphie - KIA
He began to make his way down the overgrown paths, wary of any creatures that might attack. Because he was unarmed, he might be in some danger, but most of the creatures in the Training Center had learned to fear his scent. Hopefully that would keep them away from him, at least for a while.
Already he could hear the chattering of the small waterfall that spilled from a cliff nearby. There was a small place up there, an alcove of rock with flowering bushes where he went to be alone. He would wait there, and think about what he had done, and what he was going to do.
Maybe if he thought about it long enough, it would all make sense.
It really doesn't make sense, you know. Life, I mean. Nothing makes sense, no matter what anyone might try to tell you. It's all one big joke, one big nasty joke with death as the punchline.
The poem's back, rattling around in my skull like a rat in a bone cage. It won't stop.
With this bullet I thee wed / I then blew off her fucking head.
Of course I'm crazy, you bastard. I'll tell you why.
We slept together the night before, and that made it worse. Because when I had to do it, I kept thinking back to the soft body and smooth sheets, to her hungry little mouth and the words of love it spoke. It was bad. It was all so bad and it was like some grotesque parody in every way and I'll never forget it.
Yesss.... oh yesss...
Nononononono please, I can't I can't nononono...
Her mouth, warm and alive. Kissing, sucking, loving.
Her mouth, warm with the blood spilling down her chin. Gasping, wheezing, screaming.
Her eyes, glazed with pleasure. Pleading softly, "Love me."
Her eyes, glazed with pain. Pleading urgently, "Kill me."
Her skin, slick with sweat, sticky with sweet silk-friction. So much, so good.
Her skin slick with blood, sticky between my fingers, neverending flow. So much, so red.
Soft hands, gentle and warm, clasping mine, running over my body.
Hands clasping her wound, trying to hold her own entrails within her ravaged abdomen.
Heady smell of soft perfume and sex in the dark.
Smell of her own piss and feces burning my nostrils. She has voided herself; death be not proud.
So warm.... so warm... yessss I want to stay like this forever and ever and ev
Blood so warm, drenching two sets of hands. Let it end let it all just be over let her stop hurting.
Oh! Uh! Almost there... almost... don't stop don't stop
I have to baby I promise it won't hurt long I promise I'll make it stop I promise.
Sliding between her legs into a home warm and wet. Shaking, quivering. Oh yes.
Sliding the gun barrel into her mouth, warm and wet with crimson. Shaking, metal barrel clanking against her teeth. No, oh God, no.
Oh yes do it let it all go sweetie
Yes that's right love me
Let it go
Pull the trigger.
Nonononononono oh God I can't do it I can't oh I love you so much.
Here it comes oh
Pull the trigger.
Feel the gun jump in my hand, offering sweet release from pain. Her hot blood splatters my face.
...coming down... easing down...
Oh God her head... everything growing dim, falling.
The secluded alcove was cool and quiet save for the gentle sound of the small waterfall as it whispered down the face of the cliff. Squall sat in a small patch of grass encircled by mossy stones and flowering bushes that shocked the eye with their red blossoms. In his typical black attire, he thought he must look out of place, a figure of darkness and death in a green landscape.
He found himself missing his GFs. Shiva would perhaps be able to offer some sort of advice in those icy tones of hers. Quez wasn't one for talk, but at least he would listen, stretching parchment-like wings and tickling Squall's memories.
Guardian Forces had been banned shortly after the end of the last war, when studies on the "heroes" had finally proven definitively that they caused serious memory damage, damage that might be genetic. It would do no good, it was decided, to have an army of nothing but brain-damaged troops in the battle against the sorceresses. There was talk about some sort of solution in the work at Odine labs, but any successes in that field most assuredly lay far in the future. Therefore, the GF program was finished. Not that that would necessarily help Squall and the others; near the end of the conflict, they had been junctioning two or three GFs at once, and the scientists still weren't sure how that might affect them. They told him he could very well be a raving lunatic or a vegetable by age 60.
If he lived that long. Dropping the GF program had greatly increased SeeD casualty rates, and Irvine and Selphie were dying proof of that. Perhaps it would only be so long until his time was up, as well. Maybe that would be for the best. Then he couldn't assign any more SeeDs. Then he wouldn't have to endure this pain any more.
The bushes behind him parted in a crackle of leaves. He didn't have to turn and look to know who it was. She knew almost all the places where he used to go to be alone. He had shown them to her to prove to himself that he was changing, that he realized he needed other people and that he could trust her. He did not resent her intrusion; he was even vaguely thankful for it, in the hope that she could help him understand.
"There you are," Rinoa said, trying to keep her voice even. Still, he could tell she had been crying. "You broke Zell's nose, you know."
"Sorry." He was, even if he thought Zell had been asking for it.
"He'll be okay," Rinoa said as she stepped beside Squall and lowered herself to the grass. She pulled her knees up to her face and rested her chin on them, then turned to him. "Are you?"
"I guess." He clenched his hand against the ground, digging furrows in the soil. "I'm alive, aren't I?"
"Squall...." Rinoa reached out, touching him on the arm, and he tried not to flinch. "Talk to me, okay?"
For a moment, there was silence between them. Squall simply sat there, his brow furrowed as he tried to speak, to make the words come that would explain everything; how he was feeling and why and what he thought he might do about it. It was a strange feeling for him, actually wanting to talk. Only months earlier, before the Second Sorceress War, he would never have considered sharing his feelings with anyone. But somewhere in that whole confused, hellish conflict, he'd come to the realization that perhaps he could rely on others, perhaps needed to. More than that, he loved Rinoa, as hard as that was for him to accept and understand after all his time alone. If there was anyone he could talk about his feelings with, it was her.
"Look at me," she said, beginning to sound worried. "Squall, look, I know this is hard for you but I really think you need to talk-"
"It's my fault," he said, "I assigned them to that mission, and they died, and it's my fault."
He couldn't even look at her. Her face was like something out of a dream: rosebud mouth, finely shaped nose, pair of chocolate brown eyes that always seemed surprised. He never thought he'd get tired of gazing into that face. But he was afraid that if he looked at her now, she in turn would read his own face and see something there, something dark and terrible. Something that she couldn't love in return.
"If I'd never given that assignment, they'd still be alive."
"You don't know that!" Her fingers tightened around his elbow, wrinkling his jacket and boring insistently into the flesh beneath. "I know you're sad they're gone... I-I'm sad, too. But blaming yourself isn't going to do any good, Squall. They chose to take the mission. You didn't make them..."
"Didn't I? They did it because of our friendship, Rinoa. You know, that thing we always said would be forever? I guess forever only lasted till the Garden ran into financial trouble."
"Squall.... don't. Please, don't talk that way. You didn't know what was going to happen or you wouldn't have sent them. Stop making it sound like you killed them on purpose!" She was glaring at him now, somehow appearing sad and angry at the same time.
"The end result is the same either way. I sent them out on a mission and they died. Whether I intended it or not doesn't matter. They're dead because of me." He wished what he was saying was a lie, but there could be no denial. Irvine and Selphie were victims of economics, yes, but he was an accomplice.
I pulled the trigger.
"This is what Headmaster Cid said he wanted to avoid back when we were having trouble with NORG," Squall continued, stumbling over the words, "and now it's happening again. And ...I'm helping."
Rinoa bit her lip and shifted her gaze, focusing intently on a number of small white flowers sprouting from the grass at her feet. Squall could tell she was thinking, trying to find the right words. Rinoa wasn't a SeeD. Concepts intrinsic to life as a student at Garden - living for combat, training to give your life up for the mission, thinking any day could be your last - were foreign and difficult for her to understand.
"I won't say I like the idea of fighting for money..." She trailed off for a moment, hugging her knees tightly, and he wondered if she were thinking of her father, the esteemed General Caraway. The man some said would carry Galbadia to new heights and fulfill Deling's dream. "I don't like the idea of fighting, period. But at least if you fight for something worth believing in, it serves a purpose. The world needs Garden, you know that. We all saw the future SeeDs fighting Ultimecia. Somehow, Garden has to be there. The sorceresses..."
"Aren't all bad. You're proof of that. But... even if some of them are trouble, I wonder if Garden is any better."
So that was it. He hadn't known he was thinking that himself until he said it. He was nearly as surprised as Rinoa, if her sudden intake of breath was any indication.
"What are you...? I... can't believe you're talking like this, Squall. Garden helped to save the world. Balamb Garden is your home, your life..."
His laugh was so short and harsh it could've been a strangled sob. "Isn't that obvious? Look at me, Rinoa. I don't... I can't... I can barely even talk to you now, after everything we've been through. But, if someone asked me to, I could kill a man in a heartbeat. I have. I even killed my friends." She tried to protest, but he pushed on:
"That's what Garden gave me. Killer instinct."
"Don't you see something wrong with that?"
"Don't you see something wrong with all of this?"
"We grew up together. We made promises. Love, courage, hope. I thought it was all corny and stupid then, but I started to believe in it. In the end, though, all I did was kill them. That's all SeeDs are good for, killing things. That's all we were ever meant to do."
"Squall! Listen to me!" Rinoa reached over and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Stop- blaming- yourself!" She punctuated each word with as fierce a shake as she could muster. Then, she looked away almost as if she were embarrassed and said in a softer voice:
"Please don't say those things about yourself. You're not a bad person, Squall. I love you, and I don't love bad people."
What about Seifer? The thought ran through his mind, but he didn't speak it aloud. Seifer was gone now, probably never to show his face around Garden again. It was a pity he never achieved his dream of becoming a SeeD. It now seemed to be a position perfectly suited to his cruelty.
"This can't go on. I can't keep assigning these missions... Garden can't... I..."
"I don't know what to do," he said as Rinoa buried her face in the hollow between his shoulder and neck. "I d-d-d-" The tears came, spiteful and hot, burning twin furrows down his cheeks. He had not cried like this since he had lost Sis, and he never thought he would again.
His world was shattering, breaking apart. His faith in Garden and in himself was gone. He was, more than anything, simply tired. Tired of fighting, tired of killing, tired of death. Tired of being a SeeD. Tired of being a murderer.
Rinoa was crying again too, her tears dampening his neck. She held him close, trying to comfort him. "It's late... let's just go to bed and everything'll look better in the morning." She gave a short sob and held him tighter. "We'll think of s-something, Squall. I p-puh-promise."
Let's talk about promises.
I don't know how much time passed between that moment and the one where I woke up in an open grave, buried in a heap of corpses. I don't know why I had to survive.
I'm just unlucky, I guess.
It stank in there, the air pregnant with the coppery smell of blood and death. Rats crawled over me, squeaking, their small forms burrowing into the warmth of my armpits and crotch. There were bodies everywhere. On top of me, beneath me, on either side. It took me a minute to take stock of my situation; I was still alive in a place of death, trapped in a mass of torn flesh and bone, awash in a sea of corpses and writhing, furry creatures.
She was nearby, a ghost of her perfume still clinging to her shattered form. I could recognize her by the bright colors she wore, and I crawled to her over the mass of bodies, sliding across a carpet of crusty bloodstains, sharp elbows, and torn clothing. I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe I just wanted to see her one last time. Maybe I wanted to assure myself that I'd spared her from this. Whatever my reasons, it was a mistake.
I can't stand to think of it. I can't. What was there... it wasn't her, not anymore. It was a thing. The fact that it resembled her only made it more horrifying, with its stiff rigor mortis limbs thrown out, its hair matted and tangled with blood and gore, its skin pasty and cold and crawling with furred vermin. They were eating its eyes, feasting on cold meat. One was out of the socket, dangling halfway down the ruin of its face.
I think that's when I lost what was left of my mind.
It wasn't supposed to happen. We weren't supposed to end like this. What we had was pure and hot, burning with the raw energy of youth. It was supposed to be forever. And now it was dead, rotting in a hole in the earth, rats chewing on its face.
I screamed. I cried. I broke apart, and when I finally pulled myself together hours later and crawled from that pit, I wasn't the man used to be. A lot of me died in that hole with her, my personality, goals, ambition, inhibition. I was a new man, with one goal in mind.
This is where we get to the promises.
I promised her, then, that I wouldn't let it happen any more. That I'd stop it.
And I will.
The armory is well-stocked, as I knew it would be.
SDR-71. SeeD Rifle, design seventy-one. The best sniper rifle in the world, better even than Esthar models. Lightweight, little recoil, lethal accuracy. It's mine. Mine all mine.
Can't forget the bullets. Grab them from their boxes, cram them in handfuls into my bloody coat. Armor-piercing ammunition. More than enough for the job I have in mind, but it pays to be prepared. I'm going to need a lot of them.
Do you know the kind of power a bullet has? Do you want me to tell you? I can. I can tell you all you ever want to know and more besides.
You can hold a bullet in your hand. It's not even that heavy, relatively speaking. Line a row of them up, and they don't look like much of anything. Toy rockets, maybe, or if you're a pervert, a group of little metal phalluses.
Do you want to know what a bullet really is? It's not casing or gunpowder or slug or any of those things, not really. A bullet is all of those things and more besides.
A bullet is self-contained destruction. A bullet is death in a convenient package.
We can talk about dreams, too, I guess. She was mine. I had never lived the kind of life where I could depend on anyone or anything being around for long, and I guess I was stupid to change. But I loved her, I really did. I loved her in spite of her flaws, or maybe even because of them, as crazy as that sounds. I loved her.
One bullet was all it took to take away everything she ever was. One bullet, fired from a gun, held by me. It went through the roof of her mouth and into her brain and then tore out the back of her skull. It's hard to believe that the gray stuff that splattered from the wound was her, was responsible for her liking thick ice cream shakes and walks on the beach and sappy romance movies. But it was. That was her, and all it took was one bullet to blast it all away. To reduce her from the woman I loved, the woman I wanted to marry, to an empty shell devoid of life and love and spirit and voice...
That's the power of a bullet.
I fainted dead on the spot. I don't know, maybe there's just something about seeing the person you love die ungraciously in a puddle of her own bodily fluids that does things to you.
It was so appalling, so savage, so damned absurd. It didn't happen the way they always show in the movies, where people declare their love for each other in their dying breath. It didn't happen that way at all. There wasn't even the dignity of one last kiss, one final whispered declaration of our feelings. She just gurgled, she just fucking gurgled, and she couldn't answer me.
I told her I loved her. I told her I'd protect her. I couldn't do that.
I could only kill her.
I still dream about it when I drop into fitful sleep, still see it every time I close my eyes. I don't know if she even heard me say "I love you" as the tears rolled down my face and I stuck the barrel of the rifle into her mouth. I don't know if she understood.
When I can make myself pray, that's what I ask for. Not for her to be brought back, because I know that's impossible, but just that she understood. Please, God, let her have understood.
Fire rained from the gunmetal sky and landed on the beach, sending geysers of sand into the air. Explosions tore forth, cracking like thunder, shaking the ground and stabbing into his head like razor sharp knives. The periodic detonations were overlaid with neverending chattering of gunfire, hellish melody to deadly percussion. And providing vocals, the dying, the wounded, the broken.
Hear the musical stylings of Death on his hit album, War.
Above, Dollet was in flames, smoke curling up from burning streets in ashy columns. Below, more boats were landing, disgorging the SeeD operatives that the Dukedom had requested. In between, on a beach littered with corpses and spent ammunition cases and a few lonely, forgotten seashells, Squall Leonhart fought on.
The Galbadians were all about him now, seeking to do with sheer numbers what they could not with skill. They were the same as always; faceless behind insect-like helmets, clad in blue uniforms, wielding their swords with competent but predictable talent. They surrounded him, swung at him, tried their best to spill his guts and stain the white sand red.
His gunblade jumped in his hands like a living thing, a tiny razor-dragon with a taste for blood. Smoothly he caught and deflected an incoming blow on the flat of the blade, then ducked, pivoted, and slashed, opening his attacker's stomach as neatly as a surgeon. The man stumbled back as his entrails leapt from the wound, looking down at himself with only a dumb sort of surprise.
It was a shocking death, and even Squall might have been temporarily distracted if he hadn't begun to sink, to immerse his consciousness in the raw red pool of instinct that the Garden had constructed for him. He fought now with mechanical ferocity, unthinking, unknowing, focusing solely on the battle at hand.
Pivot again, diagonal slash to the jugular. Kill. Parry, dodge to the side, stab to the heart. Kill. Turn, parry, parry, horizontal slash to the neck. Kill. Dodge, strike to the thigh, strike to the arm, strike to the head. Kill.
Kill, kill, kill.
The battle wore on until the blade and handle of the gunblade were slick with the blood of the dead and his arms were burning from exhaustion. Yet still they came at him and together SeeD and Galbadian danced a dance of destruction down the beach. The sand was red now, soaked with an impossible amount of blood. Corpses were strewn on the ground like fallen leaves and he could scarcely move without stumbling over one. Yet still they came, and still he killed them.
After what seemed an eternity of carnage, a hush fell over the battlefield and Squall looked up to see hundreds of bodies lying in every direction, covering the beach like so many grotesque lice. He stood ankle deep in corpses, breathing heavily, blood dripping from him in a crimson rain.
He had killed them all.
That was when he saw her.
She walked through the chaos with even steps, a slim figure in an indigo dress. She was seemingly unconcerned about staining her garments on the dead, but that did not seem to be a problem; some invisible force cleared the bodies out of her way as she passed so that she always had a clear place to step. Her face was covered with mask shaped like a grotesque bird, and as Squall gazed into that twisted visage he felt his blood run cold.
She was a sorceress, his enemy. Garden's enemy. Come to kill him where her minions had failed.
Before the thought even had time to register, he was running, crossing the distance between them with sharp strides. He had to strike fast, before she could summon her magic and cut him down. He knew it would be close. Already she was raising her arms in his direction, surely gathering energy for the spell that would finish him. He couldn't die now, not after all this, not after-
Her thigh spurted crimson as the sharp tip of his blade tore through the rich fabric and into the skin beneath. If the amount of blood that geysered out was any indication, he had struck an artery. Good.
The sorceress screamed, her arms now flailing wildly, her concentration broken. Squall pressed the attack, shoving his weapon towards her even as she stumbled forward in her anguish. The steel tore through her abdomen like a scalpel through tissue paper, the gunblade embedding itself to the hilt with scarcely any resistance. Her screaming trailed off, replaced by a long, low groan.
She fell, her dead weight forcing him to the ground. He landed on his back, her body pressing up against his, the wooden beak of her mask only inches from his face. They were so close they could've been lovers, if not for her horrible wounds and their mutual hatred.
"......S...quall..." she said in a final puff of air that emptied her lungs. His name? How did she know his name?
He fumbled with the straps at the back of the mask like a man gone mad, knowing what he would find and dreading it.
...they could've been...
The mask fell into his hands, and he tossed it aside, and he screamed.
Dead, glassy eyes stared at down at him from a face he knew. A face he loved.
Oh God.... what have I done?
He reached up to touch her face, his bloody gloves leaving streaks like warpaint on her pale skin. She made no response.
"Rinoa! Say something! Don't do this! Don't leave me!" He tightened his hand around her face to the point that it would have been painful, if she had still been capable of feeling pain.
Now that he knew who the sorceress was, he viewed her actions in a new light. She had thrown up her arms not to cast a spell at him, but as a protective gesture against a madman with a blade. A madman she could apparently not bring herself to attack or kill, because she loved him.
He was shaking now, shivering, and some distant corner of his mind registered that he was in shock. That was all that was holding back the raw scream of horror and self-hatred that resided in his gut, a scream that would shake the mountains and part the seas and carry every last shred of his sanity with it.
Squall sat up as best he could, cradling her broken body in his arms. The gunblade still penetrated her, a gruesome silver pinion piercing a butterfly. Her head lolled to the side in a way that was so completely and utterly dead that no words could fully describe it. Her grace, her beauty, were gone, replaced only with the marks of death.
He tried to turn away from her in an attempt to deny what he had done, only to be met with more horror. The bodies still carpeted the beach, stretching so far into the distance that he could not see an end to them. But now he saw that they all wore uniforms of red, gold, and ash gray. SeeDs.
He had killed them all.
killed them all
The scream would be restrained no longer. It shook him to the core of his very being, broke him and remade him and went on so long that he wondered if it would ever stop.
"Squall!" A soft hand on his shoulder, shaking him. "Squall! What's wrong?"
"Wha...?" His voice was thick, slurred. The entire world seemed to swim blearily before his eyes.
"I- I couldn't sleep," the voice said. "And then you just started tossing and turning and screaming like you were having another nightm- oof!"
Squall could not remember the last time he had hugged anyone so hard. He pulled Rinoa to him tightly, pressing his face into her hair. It was an instinctive gesture, a childish reaction to hold a treasured possession in a deathgrip, and he did not fight it. He had to feel her against him, assure himself that she was real.
"What's this about?" Rinoa gasped out, returning his embrace with a little uncertainty.
"I thought I lost you." He released his grip and leaned back in the bed, embarrassed now at his violent display of affection.
"Squall...." Rinoa laid down beside him and snuggled close. "Don't worry. I won't leave you alone. I'm not going anywhere..."
But wasn't that the problem?
She shouldn't be near him. She couldn't understand, shouldn't understand. She should stay like she was, innocent of such facts as how to kill a man with your bare hands, how to swallow your own tongue, mental techniques for resisting torture... He had grown up in the Garden, become twisted and hardened so that he didn't even realize it. She had had at least a reasonably normal life before SeeD had pulled her in, taken her from her position playing soldier and thrown her into real combat. If she stayed long enough, she'd be like him.
If she stayed long enough, he might kill her, too.
He knew he should hurt her, anger her, drive her away any way he could. He knew, but he wasn't strong enough to do it anymore. Once, forcing her out of his life would've been natural, but she and the others had brought down the barriers he had thrown up long ago, crumbled the stone of his mental walls, and he was helpless. Driving her away could only save her life, but he couldn't do it. Because he was weak.
Weak enough to sacrifice Irvine and Selphie because the Garden was low on funds. Weak enough to fear loneliness. Weak enough to allow Rinoa the rest of his friends to remain in danger to protect him from that loneliness.
As he held her warm body against his, Squall was struck again by how much she meant to him. He loved her so much, so deeply that he could never put it into words. She had helped give his life guidance and meaning beyond completing the next mission. She had helped to restore his faith in feelings, in love, in people. He would do anything to keep her safe. Anything.
But the insistent voice at the back of his mind, the one with the flat tone and bleak tidings, the one that told him what to do in battle, spoke differently. Threw his own words back at him, filled him with doubt and fear.
That's all SeeDs are good for, killing things.</i>
I won't! He thought back fiercely, ashamed at the fact that he was arguing with himself. Not her. Never her.
The voice would not be silenced. It grated on, tearing at his mind, telling him that even as he held Rinoa close, she would one day be torn from him.
Yes you will. One way or another, you will.
Give it time, Squall.
Give it time.
It's almost time.
Dawn is extending rosy fingers over the horizon and before me stretches marble and majesty, the facade that is Garden. Beneath its tranquil surface lurk demons and fiends. They try to hide them behind their crusades, their attempts to keep the world safe and stop the threat of the sorceresses. They say the sorceresses have the power to enslave countries, but they don't realize that they are worse. They have the power to enslave imagination and childhood, turn it into a thing of blood and nightmares. They are the great killer factory. They are the slayers of innocence. They are the butchers of purity. They are the most evil force the world has ever known, and I will kill them all or die trying.
Maybe Cid really was sincere when he founded the Gardens. Maybe he didn't want them to descend this far. Maybe he intended them to be havens for young children to learn and grow, not breeding grounds for mercenaries.
But what he wanted, what he intended, doesn't matter anymore. There is only what is, and I have to destroy it. I promised her that I wouldn't let it happen again.
A soft wind blows across the balcony and caresses my face, stirs my hair. I picked this spot because of its vantage point and shielding - high railing, overhang, clear view of the ground below. It will be perfect for what I need.
At my back is a metal door, welded shut to prevent any intrusions. Below me is the quad, full of rare plants, elegant marble planters, and soon, Garden students. In my hand is the rifle that will dispense justice. Now, there's nothing to do but wait.
I don't like to wait. When I wait, the memories return unbidden and I can't force them away. Memories of what I did on that day, of course, and the rats and their feast. But worse even than that, memories of our life before.
The times we made love, too many to count, each one like a knife in my heart now. More painful than those, though, are the simple things. Little flashes of recollection that form a mosaic of what she meant to me.
Sitting on the train to Balamb, her head pillowed in my lap, her eyes closed, her chest rising and falling as she sleeps. I stroked her hair absently and wondered how I could've ever wanted another woman.
The Timber Fair. I won her a stupid moogle doll at a shooting booth and she acted like it was the best thing in the world. She hugged it to her chest and kept it on her dresser and I bet that damn thing is still there. I never thought it would outlive her.
Lying on the beach, her hand in mine, the stars sweeping out above us. My mind railing at me: Ask her! Ask her to marry you, you fool! Ask her now! I didn't. Considering what happened, I don't know if that's a good thing or not.
Her lithe body perched on my lap, holding the guitar awkwardly. My arms around her, my hands guiding hers on the strings. Both of us laughing when she made a mistake.
The time she got sick and I was worried about her. I brought her books and food and medicine and anything she needed. When she felt bad, I felt bad. Maybe that's when I realized that all I ever wanted to do for the rest of my life was keep her safe and happy. That I never wanted anything or anyone to hurt her in any way. That I always wanted to be there for her if she fell.
She fell. On a grenade.
And then I blew her fucking brains out.
Oh God, how could I have failed her so badly? How could I have let it happen? All I wanted to do was keep her safe from pain, love her forever. How.... oh god what have I done what am I what have I done what am I what have I out of her fucking head I blew her brains out of her fucking he-
Enough! Can't go to pieces now, dammit, just can't! There will be time for all of this later.. have to focus focus focus
I had to kill her.
In the end, that's all I could do to save her from pain. That's all my training had prepared me to do. And that's all I can do now. I can't make it all better. I can't bring peace to the world or bring her back to life or turn back time and stop all of this. I can't do any of those things.
But I can still kill.
The SeeD doesn't fall far from the Garden? A bit of a strain on the old cliche, I guess, but true enough. They trained me to be a killer.
Today they'll see what a good job they did.
"Parry!" The voice rang out over the quad and was echoed by two dozen throats.
"Parry!" A forest of silver blades flashed in the early morning sun as the assembled ranks Garden cadets swept their swords up into defensive positions.
"Slash left!" The cadets crouched, lunged, and slashed to the side almost in unison, their movements sure and deadly. They might be among the youngest students here at the Garden, but they learned quickly.
"Parry! Slash right!" The instructor shouted, even as he performed the moves himself. His students followed suit.
Squall turned away from the window, suddenly no longer able to watch the cadets at their training. He wondered how many of them would be dead inside of five years, and what scars the survivors would bear.
He walked over to his desk and looked down at the papers there. Fresh assignment requests. SeeDs needed for assassination work in Timber. SeeDs needed for guerilla warfare on the Centra continent. SeeDs needed for help quelling the riots in Deling. Every request was different, and yet they were all the same, really:
SeeDs needed to die for various causes. Personal feelings need not apply. Participants will be well-compensated.
He still didn't know what he was going to do. Rinoa, for all her good intentions, could give him no answer either. He wondered how Garden and SeeD could be changed and yet still remain effective. He wondered if such a thing was even possible. He wondered if he should stay and try to take charge of those changes or simply turn and run as fast and as far as he could.
Still fresh before his mind was the image of the SeeDs on the beach, hundreds upon hundreds, dead by his hand. Rinoa, the most important thing in the world to him, bleeding out in his arms. Was that to be his future?
The door hissed open, and he knew who it was without even looking up.
"Xu," he said in a voice that was anything but cordial.
"Squall," she returned in an equally friendly tone. "We need to talk."
"Listen, if this is going to be some pep-up speech about how important the Garden is, you can save it. I've been trying to sell it to myself for hours, and it's not working."
"No, it's not about that, though we need to have that talk, too." She reached back and pressed a button on the door's keypad, locking it. "We've had a security breach. A serious one."
His hand went to the hilt of his gunblade. "How serious?"
Xu bit her lip, an uncharacteristically nervous gesture. "Three students have been found dead so far this morning, one hidden at the security perimeter and two more in a storage locker on the second floor. The armory's missing a sniper rifle and several boxes of ammunition."
"Shit." More deaths. Always more deaths. "Why hasn't the general alert been sounded?"
"I didn't want to spread alarm. Confusion and chaos will make finding the culprit even more difficult. This looks like an inside job, done by someone that knew their way around Garden. They could be blending in with the student body right now." She paused, then looked at the floor. "They could even be part of it."
"If it was done by someone that knew Garden, someone from the inside... why the need to kill the perimeter guard...." The thought struck him with the force of a hammerblow: Seifer! It had to be Seifer.
"I don't know," said Xu, reading his thoughts. "I hope not... he was never a good person, but at least at times he was an honorable one. He's no longer under Ultimecia's control... and I hope he hasn't fallen this far on his own."
But who else could it be? Who else was skilled enough to evade all of Garden's security measures? There seemed to be only one answer. After months away from the Garden, Seifer had finally snapped and come back to take revenge. Revenge on those that had wronged him, revenge on....
Rinoa! Images of her impaled on a gunblade once again swam before his eyes, but this time Seifer stood over her and laughed. Where was she? He had to find her quickly, before- before-
"I've assembled two squads of volunteers under Nida and Quistis," Xu continued, seemingly unaware of his distress. "They're scouring the upper floors as we speak. I'm about to take another and sweep the ground floor. We'll need you here to help coordinate our efforts..."
Nothing in the world could keep him behind this desk while Rinoa was in danger, but even as he opened his mouth to tell Xu that, he heard the first rifle shots. And the scream.
"That came from the quad!" Xu shouted, her head whipping around so fast that her dark hair went flying. "The underclassmen-"
Squall was already running, his feet pounding against the marble floor as he bolted from the office and towards the elevator. Xu was right behind him.
Please.... he thought. Please let her be all right.
He hoped the powers that be answered the prayers of killers.
Killers. They will all become killers. I just have to keep telling myself that, keep remembering that I'm sparing them. They're dying as innocents, not as monsters. All I can do is try to make it easy on them.
First, the instructor. Two bullets in the back. They punch holes the size of grapefruits in his chest and he falls forward almost comically, thrashing on the ground and screaming like an insane marionette.
The cadets have not received full SeeD conditioning. Instead of running, taking cover, looking for positions to return fire from, they simply stand there, staring at what's left of the instructor with mute horror. This will be even easier, then.
I move my rifle until the sights are settled over one of the cadet's faces, the twin lines of the scope meeting right between her eyes.
I look in those eyes and see the same innocence that once lived in mine. The same innocence that was subverted, twisted, broken, into the thing behind the scope. I cannot take her out of this hell and give her a loving family. I cannot restart her life. Once more, I can only kill. Fortunately, that's enough to spare her from becoming me. One's life is a small price to pay to keep one's soul.
I pull the trigger.
Her head shears away in a red ruin. Her body falls, jerking spasmodically. Quietly, I whisper an apology. To her, to myself, to the world.
After the first, it comes easier. Shot to the neck. Kill. Pair of shots to the chest. Kill. Another to the head. Kill. Two more in the chest. Kill.
Kill, kill, kill.
Try to make it clean. Try to make it quick. It's one of the few comforts a killer can offer.
The quad is swarming soon enough, full of opportune targets. Instructors, students, SeeD specialists, they're all here to find out what the commotion is. They're about to find out.
Then I see them run out into the open, trying to herd the cadets into cover. Squall and Xu. Two big cogs in the hell-machine that is Garden. And the more important pieces I can take out, the better.
Shift my aim, get them in my sights. Have to let my mind sink down, let instinct be my guide. In that hole, I forgot friends and acquaintances. The figures running below are no one I know, have to remember that. No one I know. Just two more targets.
Just two more things to kill.
The quad was like a scene from hell. Bodies sprawled on the ground in tangled wrecks, blood splattered across fine marble and elegant plants. Shots continued to ring out, and now they were joined by the screams of the wounded and the frightened. Students and instructors were swarming about the quad now, some of them in the throes of panic, others trying to calm them, still others trying to locate the sniper. And with every passing moment, another bullet found its mark.
"Get under cover, everyone!" Xu shouted, shoving a pair of underclassmen towards the building. "Wherever you can!"
Squall moved numbly through the chaos. It was so like his dream. Once more, he was killing the SeeDs. Killing them with his ineffectual leadership, his indecision.
Snap out of it, Squall, snap out of it!
Xu had grabbed a stricken cadet of thirteen or so by the elbow and was turning to Squall to yell something at him when her head, for lack of a better word, exploded. The armor-piercing bullet tore the top three-fourths of her face away in one violent second, one blur of blood and bone and brain. Her body stumbled away and fell down a flight of steps, tumbling over and over in a series of bone-snapping cracks. The cadet, now splattered with Xu's blood, simply sank to her knees, gibbering.
Move! His mind shrilled at him. Movemovemovemove or you're dead too move!
He bounded forward just as a bullet ripped into the ground where he had been standing only a moment before. Breaking into a run, he forcefully yanked the young girl off the ground and hefted her over his shoulder as he ran. The bullets were chipping the stone all around him, nipping at his heels, smashing flakes from the planter at his elbow.
The planter! Cover!
Squall grabbed the marble edge of the planter and vaulted over, rustling the plants inside and sending up a shower of leaves. He landed and immediately flattened his back against its cool surface, pressing himself as low he could, trying desperately to keep out of the way of the bullets seeking his head.
The girl had begun to thrash, and he released his grip. The second he let her go, however, she slumped to the ground in a boneless lump. A hole was drilled through her chest, red and ragged. Her struggles did not last long; within seconds, her head flopped to the side, her mouth sagging open, her eyes staring blankly up at the sky. With shaking fingers, he closed her eyelids.
Bullets whined and spanged off the surface of the planter, but fortunately none penetrated. After a few seconds, they stopped chipping away at his cover and fresh screams bloomed elsewhere. Squall flinched.
Do something! His mind screamed at him. You're their leader! They're dying. Don't cower here like this! Do something! Do something! Do something!
In the end, it was his dream that made him move. His memory of countless bodies strewn on the sand, victims of his killer instinct. Rinoa's body, cooling in his arms, victim of his gunblade and their love. He was unable to stop those dream-things. Here, in the real world, control was his, if only he dared to wrest it. Seifer would pay for this, and he would be the one to collect.
Squall reached into the interior pocket of his jacket and pulled forth the slim, black case concealed within. According to regulations, this was supposed to be in the Garden vault right now. But he had always known, somehow, that there would be another time and reason to call upon the power of the GFs, and so, even when they were banned, he had kept insurance.
He slid the case open and revealed its contents: one brown and white feather, curved and delicate, pulsating with hidden power. To merely touch it and concentrate was to summon an old brother-in-arms, and as he made contact, he felt the power surge up from his fingertips, dance along his nerves, and settle in his brain with a rustle of wings and a crackle of electricity.
(Sqqualllll....) That dry voice, tickling every inch of his brain and reverberating in his skull.
As the GF settled itself, a few minor memories dissolved like old photographs dipped in acid, fading slowly away to nothing. That was all right. Memories were only useful as long as you were alive, and without Quezacotl's help, he might not be that way much longer.
(IIIIII thoooought youuuu haaaad forgottttten meeeeee)
We've got a job to do. Magic reserves?
It'll have to be enough. Now, focus... focus....
He felt the sharp tingle of energy that was para-magic charging up throughout his body, filling each and every nerve ending with the sweet feel of power held at bay. Gathering his concentration, he collected that energy, shaped and focused it, twisted it in ways dimly remembered. For a moment, there was nothing, and he thought I've forgotten it - I've forgotten how to cast spells. Then, there was a sudden flash of light and he felt the energy spike in and around him, wrapping him up in a cocoon of protective magic. The light faded, but the barrier remained, shimmering in an elongated oval about him, hovering just on the edge of visibility.
This was it. Now or never. Kill or be killed.
Almost before he realized it, he was hurtling over the planter once more, jumping back into the face of death. The quad was strewn with bodies now, scarcely anything moving in the open. It had turned from a place of peace and tranquility into a battlefield. No, not a battlefield. During the fight with Galbadia Garden, it had been a battlefield - a place where death came with equal fury upon both sides. Now, it was worse - a killing field. A slaughterhouse full of human cattle and one very deadly butcher.
Squall walked forward through that horror slowly, his head swiveling back and forth as he scoured the upper regions of the Garden for the sniper. Under his foot, what felt like a wrist rolled and gave a feeble crack. He didn't look.
There was a flash of light from one of the highest balconies that perched on the side of the Garden, and a roar reverberated throughout the quad. Squall suddenly found himself looking head-on at a metal slug. It hung two feet in front of his face for a moment as if suspended by an invisible wire, then shuddered and fell to the ground. Two more flashes - muzzle flashes, he belatedly realized - and two more bullets struck his magical barrier, stopped, and fell harmlessly to the ground.
There! He could see the sniper now, at this distance nothing more than a dark, indistinct figure. He appeared to be getting ready to fire again. Fire. Well, two could play at that game. He raised his arm, pointing his palm at the shooter.
The magic came easier this time, formed itself up in his core and slithered to his fingertips in a million thrumming tendrils, collecting, coalescing. He shaped it with his mind, fueled it with his anger, and forged it with his spirit. The energy burst forth in a flash of brimstone, and a fireball hurtled from his fingertips towards the balcony above.
But even magic had its limits; a little over halfway there, the fireball slowed, shuddered, and then broke apart, the gathered energy dissapating back into the atmosphere. Damn, he was out of range, which meant options were limited...
(Perrrrrhapssss IIIIII cannnnnnn helllllpppppp?)
No. One blast from you might bring down the entire ceiling.
He'd have to go in and face the sniper on the balcony, take him down in close quarters. Knowing Seifer, that's exactly what he'd want.
More shots. The sniper had apparently been reloading, but now he was opening up again. Four more bullets ripped into Squall's shield, stopping barely six inches away from him now; his defensive wards were weakening. Even less time to waste, then.
He broke into a run, bullets still smashing against the magic barrier and ripping holes in the marble around him like ballistic hailstones. He wondered if this was the end, if his magic would give out and the bullets would tear into him and he would be suddenly, blessedly free- and then the doors of the Garden opened at his approach and he was safely within.
The interior of the Garden was packed with people, rushing from place to place or standing and urgently discussing plans. They seemed to draw back from him with a concerted gasp as he stumbled through the door.
"Squall!" He heard her voice and almost collapsed right there, but forced his knees to stay tense.
"Rinoa..." She was all right. She was, in fact, more than all right, if the way she ran to him out of the crowd and threw her arms around him were any indication. She leaned close, her breath tickling his ear.
"Squall, they said there's a sniper outside shooting people, and I thought- I thought after your dream and I said I wasn't going anywhere, that maybe something might happen to you..."
"I'm fine," he said, freeing himself. This wasn't the time. "But I have to get up to the upper floors now and take that sniper out."
"It's no use," Quistis said, her face pale and drawn, her normally neat blonde hair hanging crazily. "That door is welded shut so tight nothing short of a shaped charge will punch through it. And that could collapse the entire floor if we're not careful." Her hands twisted nervously on the handle of her whip, and she looked like hell. He hated to deliver even worse news to her, especially considering how he blundered over feelings.
"Listen...." he began uncertainly. "Xu...."
"I saw it," Quistis said. "I saw it through the window. Just please, don't say anything about it. There's not - not time right now. I can't afford... to..." She turned away, burying her face in her hands.
Rinoa moved to her side, and he walked away, not for the first time since he had opened up to others wishing he were better with words, and yet strangely grateful that he was not; he would not be a good place for someone to unload their burdens in either case.
Nida came running up, looking about as bad as Quistis. "We have a pair of sharpshooters en route from Balamb. They should be here soon, and hopefully they'll be able to stop this madman."
Squall wished Irvine were here. Kinneas was the best sharpshooter he had ever seen. He could've stopped Seifer cold. But Irvine was dead now, dead because of him, and now that death was leading to more and more, an ever-expanding mound of corpses spreading across the beach of his life.
There was one answer, and only one. He had to stop it himself. He had to stop it immediately.
"There's not time," Squall said. Every second could mean another death. "I'm going in now."
There was an uproar in the crowd. At the same time Rinoa gasped and whispered, "Squall, no!", Nida stepped forward and shouted:
"Are you out of your mind? There's no way up there! It's completely sealed off and there are no floors above or below it close enough to move anyone into position!"
Squall smiled, a rare gesture for him, but it held no humor. "Then I guess I'll just have to go down from the roof, won't I?" He turned to Quistis, who stood nearby, her eyes now dry and her face more determined than ever. "I'll need climbing equipment."
"Squall," she said, "You don't have to do this. You're not thinking clearly."
"Whatever," he was surprised that the old word could slide back into place so easily. "It has to be done."
"Squall!" Quistis was almost pleading now. "Throwing your life away won't accomplish anything."
The smile was still on his face, a thin, mirthless razor crescent.
"You'd be surprised, Quistis. You'd be surprised."
It would, at least, end his guilt. And perhaps save a few lives, perhaps give him some excuse to look upon himself as something other than a monster.
He turned away, heedless of the cries of protests, even of Rinoa's screams. He was doing them all a favor, why couldn't they just shut up and accept it? He threw the words back over his shoulder:
"I'm going. Discussion over."
It's almost over. I can feel that more surely than anything. I have done a fair enough job here. I have killed a lot of potential monsters, trimmed a number of branches before they could sprout their SeeDs, but I have not done enough. I have not stopped the infernal machine. I have not even come close.
I'm tired. Been running on fumes, pure rage and insanity and instinct, for days on end. Blistered, burned out, passing blood and losing teeth, living in a nightmare sea and staying under longer and longer without a breath. I want rest. I want it to be over. I want to curl up in a ball and die.
But I can't.
I have promises to keep, and men to kill before I sleep.
Another good poem... add it to the first, make it into a wedding dirge and sing it to your eyeless bride as the rats play along on tiny orchestra instruments and the guests just lie there like they're dead and maybe they are but that means you don't have to pay much for meals and ehehehehe eheheh oh god im losing it again
I can't kill them all, there's no way. Sooner or later, I'll die. But I think I knew that all along. Maybe I really don't care somewhere inside, maybe the promise is just something I made the fuck up, something to justify my death wish, something to reunite me with her. Maybe I always knew I'd die here and all I wanted to do was hurt the bastards responsible on the way out.
I can do that. I can still do that.
I can't sleep. I can't think. Can't focus. Can't live.
I can still kill.
All I need is steady hands, not a steady mind. Oh yeah. I'm still good. I don't break under pressure.
I'm a SeeD.
I pull the trigger.
He knew she would try to stop him.
He was standing in the quarters he shared with Rinoa, looking at himself in the floor length mirror and checking his equipment for the third time. Everything appeared to be in order: climbing rope coiled in one hand, belt shining with spare grapnels on one side and his gunblade on the other. Spiked shoes and gloves for added traction.
Sweat was pouring down his armpits and groin, not from the heat, for it was cool in the Garden, but from pure fear. The shell-like exterior of the Garden was treacherous, smooth and slippery as a soap bubble. One misstep, one slip of his hand on the rope, and he could very well fall to his death.
And, if he were to survive that experience, he would get to face down a man with a gun. A gun that, at close range, could probably blow him in half.
A lot of people said you had to fight your fear. They were wrong. You could not deny your fear and survive any more than if you denied what your eyes and ears told you. You had to reach down and grab your fear, slippery and icy cold like an eel. You had to take it and trap it, put it in a cage to sing for you like a parrot. Then, instead of being mastered by it, you would be the master. You could make it tell you things, use it as your watchdog, know when to fight and when to run, know your limitations.
Know your fear, love your fear, harness your fear, but never let it rule you.
Squall knew his fear. He feared that he would die. But he knew as well that he feared failure even more. If he did not wish to live the rest of his life as even more of a broken, twisted wreck than he already was, he had to stop this maniac
now. There was nothing to lose by moving forward but his life. If he waited, others would die, more blood on his hands. He could not allow that to happen.
"Squall, please..... don't do this." From behind, her arms encircled his waist. Her face pressed into his back. "Please don't kill yourself because you feel guilty."
"This has to be stopped, Rinoa, you know that."
"Why does it have to be you?" She was starting to cry again, her body shaking with the force of her sobs. "Please... we've already lost so many people. Don't make us... don't make me lose you, too."
He said nothing. Rinoa kept crying, and he could feel her tears dampening his jacket. He hated himself for hurting her this way. But he would hate himself more if he stayed.
"I have to go. People are dying." He tried to shrug himself out of her grip, but she held on tight.
"I don't want you to be one of them! Just wait and let the snipers get him!"
"Rinoa, let me go." He felt his anger flare, and he tore free of her grip. "This isn't the time for you to be acting like a child!"
Rinoa stumbled back a few steps, and he could see her reflection in the mirror glaring fiercely at his back. Tears were still flowing from her slitted eyes, and when she spoke her voice blended fear, anger, and sorrow into one hysterical shout.
"I'm not a child!" Suddenly, the air about him stirred and he was lifted off the ground, his feet dangling inches above the carpet. It was as if he were being held tight in the grip of an invisible fist. "I'm a sorceress, and if you won't listen to reason, I can keep you here by force!"
(IIIIII caannnn tryyyyyy to breeeeeak uuuuuss freeeeeeeee)
No! Let me handle this.
"Rinoa..." he tried to control the frustration and anger he was feeling. "I can't risk anyone else, don't you see that? I have to stop this myself."
She was quiet, but he thought he might have felt the grip around him relax a bit. Finally, after a moment, she spoke. "I can't risk you. What if you die, Squall? What will I do without you?"
He closed his eyes. "If you don't let me stop this, I might as well be dead anyway."
The fist relaxed, and his feet touched the carpet gently once more.
"Fine," she said, looking at the floor. "Go kill yourself. I guess love makes me stupid enough to help."
He walked over to her, placing his hands on her shoulders and turning her body to face him.
"I'll come back."
He hoped it was a promise he could keep, but he found himself wondering if it might not be better for her if he didn't.
"You better, if you know what's good for you." She managed a weak smile. "It's not good to make a sorceress angry."
Then she was kissing him, pressing her lips against his, circling her arms around his neck and pulling his face into hers. Her mouth and skin were warm, soft things in a world that seemed so cold and hard. He wanted to lose himself in her, sink deep and forget pain and death and killing....
But there wasn't time.
Five minutes later, with the wind whipping around his body and stirring his hair, he tried to think of those lips to warm him. The climb down from the roof was going to be even more treacherous than he thought.
The surface of the Garden was slippery beneath his boots and the rope bit into his hands as he slowly lowered himself down its glossy facade. Up above, his grapnel was anchored securely -he hoped - about the rail of the top observation deck. As he made his way down, step by step, he carefully fed more and more of the climbing rope through the clamp on his belt. The spiked shoes and gloves were useless for traction against the durable surface of the building. He would just have to hope the rope held and he kept his footing.
(Squalll!) Quezacotl sensed the motor nerve blunder before he did, but it was too late.
His foot slipped on a particularly treacherous spot of the Garden's surface and he fell onto his stomach, scrabbling fiercely for a secure grip. He began to slide down feet-first, his face rubbed raw against glossy metal, the rope spooling out from his belt in crazy loops.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, his fingers caught on the grille of one of Garden's ventilation shafts and his downward motion was arrested. He pulled himself up slightly, praying that the grating would hold instead of popping free and sending him into another plunge.
Taking a moment to catch his breath, he turned to look down. He had stopped himself just in time; there were only a few more feet to go before he would be perched on the overhang directly above the sniper's balcony. He shuddered to think what could have happened to him if he had not stopped, how he would have dangled before the sniper like a fish on a line.
No, what was needed was a controlled descent. Just a few moments to gather his wits. Then, he would drop, swing down, and cut the rope.
Let this be the last... his mind said wearily. Let this be the last death at my hands.
(A waaaariiiior cannooooooooottt dennnnnny hisssssss roooooooooots)
I liked you better when you didn't talk.
He steadied himself and began to descend again. Two steps brought him to the edge, and he steeled himself for only a moment before bracing his legs against the surface of the Garden and pushing out and down. He swung out from the Garden almost leisurely and hung in the midair for a moment like a human pendulum before momentum carried him back towards the building.
The balcony was below, the sniper pressed up against the railing and searching the quad for more targets. His back was to Squall, but even so the SeeD saw right away that it was not Seifer, unless he had dyed his hair darker. There seemed to be something familiar about him just the same, but there was scarcely time to notice while he was dangling in midair.
The gunblade whispered from its sheath and sliced through the rope just above his head, sending him into a freefall. He landed solidly on the balcony, his booted feet making a loud smack as he touched down.
He had his attack plan formulated to the smallest detail. Quick feint to the left to draw fire, then a leaping slash to the sniper's gun arm to disarm him. Finally, he'd finish up the fight however he had to.
That all fell apart when the sniper turned around.
The instant he saw the man's face, he felt like a choco under a spotlight. He should have been moving already, his instincts told him, should've already been dodging and preparing to strike. Yet every nerve ending seemed frozen, as if they had perished in a sudden blizzard. Perished. His mind was like a candle that had been blown out. Extinguished. He felt as if his entire body had gone numb. Dead.
He's dead. He's dead. It can't be.... he's dead.
The man behind the rifle smiled as he pointed the barrel of his weapon at the young Garden Commander's chest.
"Hi, Squall. Don't move."
Dimly, as if from the bottom of a deep, empty well, Squall heard his own voice.
The look of sheer surprise on his face is almost comical; eyes crossed as if he's staring down that scar of his, brows knitted in confusion, mouth hanging open. He looks like an idiot. I never thought I'd see Squall wearing an expression of pure-fuck surprise like that, not in a million years.
Of course, I never thought I'd do a lot of things. Kill dozens of Garden students. Wake up in a mass grave. Stick a gun in Selphie's mouth and blow her head off.
Garden- expanding your horizons. Opening up endless possibilities.
Squall still hasn't moved. Lucky for him. The first time he twitches, he's dead. He's still standing there, trying to come to terms with the impossibility he sees before him. I wonder how long he mourned us. I wonder if he even bothered.
".....how?" he finally manages, so I decide to tell him. Enliven his last moments. Give him an interesting story to toss around in hell.
Even with minimal divergences, the story still takes a while. I sound crazy, of course, because I am, but I think I still make my point. He doesn't move the entire time, and by now he's wiped that expression of surprise off his face. Squall always keeps his cool. Sometimes, before, I wished I could be like that during a mission, not fumble and fuck up and hesitate all the time. Now, I'm glad. It saved me from a living death. It saved me from a lack of purpose.
When I'm done, he just stands there for a moment, trying to process the pure horror of it all, I guess. Maybe he's not so cool inside, not really. When he finally does speak, his words make me want to laugh my ass off.
"....why... are you doing this? What do you want?"
Have all the time in the world, Squall? There's a lot of things I want.
I want to hold her face in hands that have never touched a gun.
I want to go to her with a mind and spirit that do not know what it means to kill a man.
I want to write the Great Galbadian Novel.
I want to play make-believe.
I want to grow turnips.
I want to bake a fucking cake.
I want Selphie back.
I want my innocence back.
I want my childhood back.
Can you give me those things, Squall? Can Garden? No, I didn't think so. Then I guess I just want to deal death and receive it. I want the SeeDs to drown in their own blood, and then I want to jump in after them.
Squall says I'm insane, and I laugh, because it's true. But listen to this Squall, just tune the fuck in and listen to <i>this</i>, because we've both grown up in the same machine, my friend. I lost my mind, and you're still sane. Which of us is worse? Which of us is less human?
He says killing isn't the answer and even if it was there's no way I can kill them all it's impossible and it solves nothing.
Maybe he's right, I can't really say. I've lost my sense of perspective. I've forgotten a lot and I want to forget even more, forget the sight of the gray stuff in her head splattering all over the place and the way her legs kicked, scissored like she was treading water as she died. I want to forget that the woman I loved is a rotting piece of meat in the ground. But really, forgetting solves nothing - the problem is still there, you just deny it, refuse to confront it.
These things are painful, I say, but necessary. Like pulling an abscessed tooth. And no, I can't kill everyone, but maybe I don't have to. Maybe I just need to kill the important ones.
Maybe I just need to kill you, Squall.
I pull the trigger.
Squall was dying inside, his soul shredding itself to pieces as he looked upon the ruin that was once his friend. The ruin that had killed Selphie and countless others, the ruin that was about to kill him.
Garden was responsible. No, even worse, he was responsible.
Which was why, when he first heard Irvine say "Maybe I just need to kill you, Squall", saw his finger tighten on the trigger, he almost didn't move. He had seen before him the worst Garden could deal out, not the destruction of the body but destruction of the soul, a twisting and maiming of the spirit. He had seen what he was responsible for, what he might become. Surely, death would be a blessed alternative than more guilt and fear.
But some part of him, a part honed and hardened through countless hours of training, raged to live, and before he knew it, he had given the quick mental command to the GF that perched in his brain:
Quez Haste full junction nownownow!
There was the harsh pain-pleasure stab of magic across his mind, a dagger of ice stabbing into his cortex, and then two things happened at once.
His body sped up - heart beating dozens of times per second, lungs pumping like a pair of supercharged airbags, every synapse alive with speeding neurotransmitters. His brain hummed and buzzed with massive sensory input, working at quadruple speed.
At the same time, the world slowed, as if everything were underwater. Irvine's finger tightened on the trigger in slow-motion, advancing frame by frame like a slide-show of impending doom. A muzzle flash bloomed lazily at the end of the rifle and a bullet crawled from its center, fighting its way through the air with difficulty.
Squall dodged to the side as the bullet ambled by only to see two more making their hesitant way towards him. Even as he ducked and rolled forward, three more passed overhead. Irvine was firing frantically now, trying to hit what must appear as only a blur to him. Squall wasn't going to give him any more chances.
His arm snapped forward and the gunblade sliced through the air like a javelin. His ears picked up a long, distorted scream as the weapon buried itself in Irvine's chest. There was a moment of stillness in which Irvine's eyes reflected only surprise, and then he toppled backwards in a series of stop-motion jerks that reminded Squall of the dancers under the strobe lights last night. The rifle tumbled from his hands, made one long bounce against the railing, and then fell slowly out of sight.
The magic faded from him, replaced by sudden, white-hot pain. He spasmed in the throes of a violent, body-consuming seizure. The agony was nearly unbearable, like being torn apart by an army of tiny, sadistic imps. It felt as if he were being shredded at a cellular level. His heart jerked painfully, his muscles suddenly cramped, his mind went totally blank and then, blessedly, he lost all feeling. The painful pause as his organs reestablished their normal rhythm lasted less than five seconds, but it seemed an eternity.
Squall took a deep, shuddery breath. He had heard somewhere that every minute you spend under a Haste spell shaved a month off your life, and he believed it. That was the way of things. All power had costs.
Spells shortened your life. GFs erased your memories. Gardens erased your dreams.
Irvine moaned, thick and syrupy and choked with blood, then tried to sit up. He was still alive, somehow, despite the sixteen or so inches of steel buried in his chest.
Squall walked over to him, stood over the thing that was once his friend. He was shaking, and he wanted nothing more than to scream and cry at the heavens in pure rage, sorrow, and frustration. It was as much his fault as anyone's what Irvine had become, and there had been nothing he could do to stop it. Once more, he had been unable to save someone he cared about. His dream once more danced before his eyes, and he remembered that he could save no one then, either.
He was no savior.
He was a SeeD. A killer.
There was only one thing left to do for Irvine. Fortunately, it lay in an area where SeeDs excelled.
It was time to finish this.
He placed a shaking hand on the handle of the gunblade, tightened his finger on the trigger. He wanted to say something, anything, to convince Irvine and himself that the Garden was not a breeding ground for monsters. That the positives did outweigh the negatives. That he was still a human being.
Such words did not exist. There was only one thing to say, and even to himself it sounded horribly, horribly empty.
"I'm sorry, Irvine."
I'm sorry Selphie but it hurts....
GF. He had a damn GF even after they were taken away. If I'd still had one, maybe I could've done something for you.
I can't feel my legs I can't feel... was it like this for you? I hope so, I hope I didn't hurt you... you know the last thing I'd ever want to do is hurt you and if I did I'm
I failed, it's too much for one man to stop and I'm not even a man anymore. I'm a machine, a monster, an artist dealing in death. Maybe that's all I ever was but when you were around it didn't feel that way then I felt like a human because I loved you and you loved me and then I killed you.
He's standing over me now, his hand around the hilt of the gunblade, his eyes gazing into mine. I manage to nod.
I want to rest I want it to end I don't want to do anything anymore I hope you're waiting for me Selphie I miss you and I want to see you but I guess that's asking too much because you're much too nice to go where I'm going and I wouldn't want you to suffer so I guess this is goodbye forever and ever and ever and ever and
he pulls the trigger
Subject, one Squall Leonhart. 17 years of age. Brown hair, blue eyes. A quiet soul, not fond of loud parties or crowds. Has trouble expressing himself. Occasionally tries to draw, but is not too good at it. Commander of Balamb Garden. World-renowned hero.
He has killed forty-four people.
Afterwards, he stands down in the quad, gazing around at the destruction, trying to make himself understand it. Perhaps there can be no understanding, only a bleak, cold acceptance. Irvine's words are heavy in his mind and in his heart.
I want my childhood back.
He sees the bodies lying around him in tangles and pools of blood, sees vacant eyes and yawning mouths and stiffened limbs. They are the children of Garden. They are the offal, the sacrificial lambs that keep the world safe.
This is the death of dreams. This is the fertilizer with which Garden grows its SeeDs. This is me.
He tries not to count them, but he cannot stop. Everywhere he looks, there is another blank stare or shattered form, as if death is suddenly in vogue. Tumblers turn in his head. He keeps a tally.
He has killed forty-five people.
He has killed forty-six people.
He has killed forty-seven people.
He has killed forty-eight people.
He has killed forty-nine people.
He has killed fifty people.
He has killed fifty-one people.
He has killed fifty-two people....
He thought he could control things, try to stop the deaths, try to stop the Garden. He was wrong. It is an elemental force, a vast titan that even he cannot hope to stop alone. It will endure, sterile and cold and harsh, for hundreds of years. He has already seen proof of that.
In retrospect, his ideas of reform seem utterly foolish. How could he have ever hoped to change Garden, when he cannot even change himself?
He could walk away today and nothing would be different. A retired killer is still a killer, after all. Nightmares and guilt care not for retirement, or distance, or passage of time. He is what he is.
A shell, a husk. A hulking pile of instincts that once played at being a person. Nothing more.
When the gunblade jumped and split Irvine nearly in half, when the blood splattered all over him, he imagined for a moment that he saw Rinoa's face. She wore an expression of mingled disgust, fear, and hatred as she looked upon him. She saw the raw, naked center of a killer-soul and found something she could not love.
She is here now, at his side, but it hardly seems to matter. He knows what he is already, others will know too. She'll find out soon enough.
She says something and grabs his hand, but he scarcely notices. Her touch seems a million miles away, the brush of a cobweb, the touch of a butterfly's wing. No, even less than that. Nothing.
He hears nothing, feels nothing, like the dead.
For he is one of them now. He has done what he must to survive, because SeeDs always survive. He is dead inside.
He has killed himself.
That's what SeeDs do best.
Can we talk about reviews really quick? Leave one if you want, don't if you don't (feedback is always appreciated, however). Feel free to tell me this sucked or rocked or sucked rocks or whatever you wish, but can I ask you one favor, writer to reader? Please, if you do review, try not to spoil any plot points (i.e. Irvine as the sniper). Granted, I doubt I did as good a job disguising them as I wanted, but I'd like everyone to come to the story NOT knowing what's going to happen, if possible.
Following are a few author's notes, on the offhand possibility that you would be interested in how and why this story came to be. If you're not, well, you're done, go read something else. See you next fic.
This fic actually began as three separate ideas that all suddenly fused into one in some sort of pseudo-miracle. I found myself wanting to write a variety of FF8 fics: one dealing with Irvine and Selphie's relationship in some way, one action piece involving a sniper atop the Garden, and one that addressed the dark side of an organization that basically spends its time raising children to be killers, however noble the crusade they're serving is supposed to be. Then, all in one moment and immediately after I woke up one morning, the ideas gelled together and you have the fic you just read.
Suddenly Irvine was the sniper; he did, after all, have experience at the job. But why, I asked myself, would Irvine want to kill his friends? Maybe something happened to someone he cared about, like Selphie, and he was seeking revenge. This would have to be a particularly graphic and disturbing something, something he felt Garden was responsible for. And so, the three ideas had become one, with the rather far-out plot synopsis of: "Irvine blew Selphie's head off, and the Garden's going to pay. Also, Squall feels bad."
I knew it wouldn't be an easy story to write, but I'm always up for a challenge. And make no mistake, this was a challenge (Squall and Rinoa scenes.... *shudder*). For better or for worse, and as pathetic as it sounds, I've worked on this on and off for a month ("That's what's keeping him!", the poor fans of my FFVI fanfic cry). That being said, my perspective on this is a little skewed by now. All I can tell you is, I couldn't have tried any harder to bring it to you. I hope you enjoyed it, or, failing that, were at least provoked to think by it.
Till next time, and thanks for reading,