A Mist Over Winhill Chapter 2
A Test of Heart
By Kate Lorraine
Across the continent, over an ocean, the sun peeked over the horizon of Balamb meadow. The Garden's metallic side erupted in color as the morning light stretched its fingers over flora and fauna alike. The mist of dawn hung over the windows of the dorms of sleeping students. It was the day of the SeeD test and today dreams would be crushed, heroes would be made, and envy given another foothold on the world.
Squall Leonhart walked down the empty hall. He slowly pulled a glove onto his right hand. The soft worn leather became firm and stiff as his fingers filled the familiar holes that knew his hand so well. He flexed his hand and continued to walk, out of the dorms into the long circular hall that connected one section of Garden to another.
It had been a full year since he passed the SeeD exam but it seemed like only the day before yesterday. The days were always the same, one blurring into the next until day and night disappeared and it was all just one long visit to purgatory.
As he neared the directory he saw Xu standing there with her clipboard. He glanced around, looking for anything out of the ordinary that Cid had in store for him. There was nothing, just students like every other day.
"Squall!" Xu said as she took a few steps closer. "Just on time, here let me show you to your squad."
Squall stood there nonchalantly as Xu looked over to the right.
"There, that's Zell Dincht, he's the first member."
Squall looked over to see a young man with hair like a chocobo and an elaborate
vine like tattoo on his cheek. The blond boy did two flashy somersaults and
landed in front of Squall where he posed, sticking his thumb out in a cocky
"Zell Dincht, this is your squad leader, Squall Leonhart." Xu said.
"Whoa! I'm with you?!" Zell lifted his gloved hand for Squall to shake but Squall ignored him. He eyed the young warrior up and down, realizing immediately that Cid had decided against giving him sane companions for this mission. If this was the only unpleasant surprise Cid had in store for him, then he had overestimated the headmaster.
"Are there any more members, Xu?" Zell asked scratching his head. Squall folded his arms over his chest. Xu glanced at her clipboard,
"Yes but I don't see h-," Xu was interrupted then by a voice behind her.
"Look who's here," Seifer Almasy jeered as he caught sight of Squall. "What happened Squall? They're forcing you to take the test again because of your incompetence?"
"And here is the second member of your squad, Seifer Almasy," Xu continued undeterred. "Seifer this is your squad leader, Squall Leonhart."
Squall shook his head in disgust as he realized what Cid's surprise was.
"What?" Seifer asked. "Don't make laugh. I'm going to have nancy boy here lead me through my SeeD test?" Seifer leaned back and laughed.
Squall frowned but said nothing.
"Xu, change me to a squad led by a man please. I don't get along with female leaders."
Xu glared at Seifer. "We're leaving Seifer. If you want to stay here and throw a hissy fit go ahead. But remember Seifer, screw up the SeeD exam once more you and you might as well go find a job as a chocobo boy."
Zell chuckled. Squall turned and began to walk. He kept his hand on the handle of his gunblade. Seifer was just lucky that the squad leader had nothing to do with the score which the SeeD candidate received. Squall remembered a year ago when he and Seifer were on the verge of a violent conflict on the morning of the SeeD test. That duel was delayed forever when it began to rain over Duel Hill and since then, being a SeeD, he had nothing to with Seifer.
"Seifer is real jackass huh?" Zell asked, but was promptly ignored by Squall.
"Come, hurry up or you'll miss the boat," Xu threatened as they boarded the Garden vehicle which would take them to Balamb.
As the vehicle began to move, Squall sat hunched over beside Zell. Across from Zell sat Seifer who leaned back casually. However, Seifer's cool exterior was usually inversely related to his internal state. Today he was bitterly conflicted and humiliated at the prospect of obeying orders from his old rival.
He smirked and stretched his legs. His Garden uniform was uncomfortable and the anonymity which came with it irritated him. Squall on the other hand, had the privilege of wearing whatever he wanted.
"Hey Squall," Zell interrupted suddenly. "Can I see your gunblade?"
"Oh come one. A peek?" Zell asked forming a hole with his index finger and thumb which he placed in front of his right eye in a gesture of peeking.
Misery loves company and in this case Seifer was all too happy to pass his own onto Zell.
"Chicken shit," Seifer said with a happy expression on his face.
Zell turned red and looked like he was about to explode with fury.
"Squall," Xu whispered seeking some form of leadership from him but it was like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip. However, she was lucky, Zell swallowed his anger and looked away in disgust.
"Squall," Xu began again. "Have you spoken to Ellone yet?" Silence. And so nothing more was said until the vehicle made it to Balamb.
* * * *
The assault boat left Balamb at mid day. The assault boat was midway to Dollet after the briefing was done. As Squall stood on deck, the map in his hands, a strange emotion overcame him. His eyes scanned the horizon, watching the waves disappear under the boat and the foaming tail it left behind. Someone approached him. It was a member of his squad, a familiar face.
"Squall," Seifer began, "tell me the real reason we are going to Dollet."
Squall shrugged. "You heard the briefing Xu gave."
"No," Seifer said. "You know what's really behind this. Why is it that Cid choose you to lead us? The last time I checked it was unheard of for an actual SeeD member to lead SeeD candidates."
"Maybe it's just because I'm incompetent," Squall said with a touch of sarcasm referring to Seifer's comment earlier.
Seifer ground his teeth, seething in anger.
"When did you turn into a comedian, Squall?"
Squall turned to him and looked Seifer in the eye for the first time.
"You are taking a important test Seifer, one which I know you want to pass. For one day can we put aside our differences and play our respective roles in this mission?"
Seifer said nothing for a minute taking in Squall's words.
"I will never allow you to play the role of the leader, Squall." Seifer stated, finally. "I will never place my trust in your decision. What you ask of me is the impossible." With those words Seifer turned and left the deck of the boat.
Squall looked down in a gesture of anger and despair. He pulled out the map he was holding and held it up to the fading twilight sky. A sudden emotion filled his heart then when the lights of Dollet appear on the horizon. The sky exploded with unnatural light from the fatal spheres of fire buried under the sandy shore. Bullets whizzed through the sky into oblivion like fireflies. The assault boats crossed the saffron sea drawing parallel streams of foam under the watchful eye of the Dollet moon. Squall stood still, his face betraying no emotion. He had been through missions like this a thousand times before but somehow this one was. . . different. He glanced at his map, placing the transparency over it and studied their mission. Yet his eyes were seduced once more into flirting with Dollet beach.
He was looking forward to destiny.
The thought suddenly entered his mind that nothing would be the same once he set foot on Dollet. This was a prelude to the story that would be his life. From forth the loins of the ruins of an ancient empire he would emerge reborn into a new life. The fetters which chained him into this insipid one would finally be broken. It was quite a hope but suddenly he heard a voice in the recesses of him mind, her voice echoing across time.
Never give in to misgiving . . . promise me . . .
Where had those words come from? He couldn't remember for the life of him.
* * * * * *
The assault boat crawled up Dollet beach and the group walked onto the sandy shore. Squall walked to the front of the group, gunblade out as he gestured to the city. "We are to secure the central square," Squall said reminding them of Xu's mission briefing. And so the group turned and entered into the heart of Dollet. They made it to the central square within in an hour. From there, they took out the two hidden Galbadian soldiers and all was quiet. Squall stood with his arms crossed waiting for something to stir. Seifer was pacing about, occasionally kicking the large dog that was following him.
"Yo, Squall," Zell said. "Is anything going to happen soon?"
"No they sent the incompetent SeeD out for some dog training," Seifer remarked.
Squall did not respond. Seifer walked up to him and looked him in the eye with complete malice. Squall felt the comforting weight of the gunblade at his hip. If Seifer wanted to duel he could not have chosen a worse time.
"You know what's going on don't you?" Seifer asked.
Squall stared back at him, refusing to submit to his sharp eyes.
"You are still under my order, Seifer." Squall reminded him with perfect tranquility in his voice. Seifer ground his teeth in rage. For a moment Squall clenched his hand into a fist waiting for Seifer to throw the first blow. However the tension was shattered when the dog barked and howled at the moon. The group immediately hid in the shadows as they were taught in Garden. A group of Galbadian soldiers crossed the square and went for the communication tower. As soon as they were gone, Seifer was in a new mood.
"I knew something fishy was going on," he remarked.
Squall watched the communication tower in the distance and knew that this was why Cid had sent him on this mission. Out of the corner is his eye he saw Seifer beginning to wander in the direction of where the troops had gone.
"I don't like this," Zell said.
"Come on!" Seifer implored and ran into the direction of the tower.
"That guy is going to fail this test so badly," Zell remarked but was ignored as always.
Squall went after Seifer.
* * * *
At the top of the hill, Squall stood with his two companions as they watched the wreckage of a technological wonder. "Stay here and let me investigate," Squall said to the two members under his care but was stopped by Seifer as he tried to walk towards the tower.
"I'm not going to let you have all the fun," Seifer remarked.
Squall glared at the blond headed imp. He did not want to remind Seifer again that he was the leader of this mission.
"Yo Squall," Zell said, "isn't it common procedure to send a member of your team out to investigate, in case something happens ... you know so there will still be a leader to lead the group?"
Squall stared at Seifer's eyes. A silent conversation went on between them, a quiet struggle for power. Finally, Squall decided not to bicker anymore. He stepped aside to let Seifer go. "Alright, Seifer. Go find out what they are doing." The mocking look Squall saw in Seifer's eye told him that he planned to do nothing of the sort. Yet Squall decided to pretend all was well and he was still the leader. Seifer disappeared into the communication tower.
"I hope something awful kills him," Zell muttered.
They heard footsteps behind them. Squall turned around and saw a brown head of spunky hair pop up from the rocks behind them. The small figure of a girl appeared at the top of the rocks. She lost her balance as she tried to walk over the rough rocks and fell forward. Acting on instinct, Squall reached out and caught her as she fell. He pushed her aside as she found her balance. She scratched her head in a look of gratitude and shame as she stuck out her tongue, trying to look cute. "Hey you're the student who showed me around yesterday!" She said happily.
Squall crossed him arms and did not reply.
"Who are you?' Zell asked.
"I'm a messenger here to find squad B, I'm to speak to the leader." She said.
Zell pointed at Squall. "That's our leader."
"Oh, tee-hee, I didn't realize." The girl said. "We are to meet at the beach at 3000 hours."
Squall frowned. "That's not much time. Zell, go with the girl to the beach, I'll go find Seifer."
"My name is Selphie," she remarked. "Let me go with you, you are going to need help in there." With that she walked towards the cliff preparing to jump off when Squall caught her arm.
"Are you insane?" he asked her. "Did you forget what I told you yesterday about passing this test?"
She looked back at him, confused.
"Selphie," Squall kept his voice level, trying his best not to intimidate her. "If you jump off here they will detract five points from your attitude score."
"Oh," She said quietly at Squall's assertive manner. By the time she recovered Squall had already gone into the tower. Zell tugged at her arm.
"Come on, let the two loonies be together."
* * * *
Squall held his gunblade out as he walked into the communication tower. The elevator was on, clearly having been used a few moments before. He took the elevator to the top of the tower but as soon as it came to a stop the entire tower began to shake uncontrollably. Squall stepped onto the landing to see Seifer grabbing a pole for support as two Galbadian soldiers stood before the open belly of the control panel.
Squall spun around in surprise as a giant radio wave transmitter emerged behind him. It opened its wings and let out a green ray of light.
"What is going on?" Squall asked looking to Seifer for an answer.
"Those bastards," Seifer began and ran forward with his gunblade held high but was stopped dead in his tracks as a giant Elvoret appeared, sweeping the soldiers off their feet. The whirlpool of wind around the Elvoret knocked Seifer back against Squall who narrowly escaped falling backwards from Seifer's weight. Squall ran over to where his gunblade fell when it was knocked out of his hand, but he caught the Elvoret's green eye. With one swoop of his powerful talon, the Elvoret swatted Squall off the side of the communication tower.
Seifer cursed under his breath as he scampered over to where Squall disappeared. Fortunately the Elvoret was still too preoccupied with the two Galbadian soldiers to see the blond boy balanced precariously over the side of the tower searching for his lost comrade.
Seifer felt a measure of relief when he saw Squall dangling off one of the rib shaped support structures of the tower. The wind which came over the sea was trying to drag Squall from his loose grip but he held on for his life, refusing to descend into the embrace of jagged rocks on the shore miles below. Seifer reached down and grabbed Squall's arm firmly and used all his strength to pull Squall away from the mighty fist of the famished wind.
"Damn," Seifer cursed under his breath. "When did you get so fat Squall?"
Squall grabbed the edge of the tower firmly with his other hand. The tug of war had been won. The ravenous wind had lost its prize. Squall pulled himself back to his feet, breathing hard from looking death in the face a few moments before.
"Thank you," he said to Seifer in a moment of awkward silence.
The Elvoret came from behind. Seifer attacked it slashing madly with his gunblade. However, although weakened, the Elvoret only seemed to grow stronger in its fury. Squall grabbed his gunblade. He ran up to the monster and cut its throat with one well aimed slash. The Elvoret came down dead, it's life blood dripping off the edge of the tower in a trickling storm.
"You need to work on your timing." Squall remarked and shrugged. "You learn a few things as a SeeD. Let's go, we need to get to the beach in less than 3000 hours."
As the two gunblade bearing boys stepped out of the tower the earth began to tremble when a monstrous machine jumped down in front of them like a black widow. Realizing that they had no time to fight, the two boys began running. They ran over the cliff, down the steps, over the bridge under the Dollet moon. As they came to the end of the bridge the blond boy was ahead of the other. The distance was small but just large enough so that the X ATMO92 jumped in between them. Seifer looked back to see Squall trapped in back of the monster.
He did not hesitate.
"Sorry Squall," he apologized as he continued running. He was not about to miss the boat. Squall stood there to face the creature alone. Somewhat shocked by the beast's sudden appearance, Squall received a shoulder wound from the sharp razor of the monster's talon. The fight, however, was short, Squall sent his guardian force Quezacotl after the monster. Then after he cast Ultima four times, there was nothing but a pile of rubble at his feet.
He made it to the assault boat just as it was pulling away from the shore. Inside, he found Seifer sitting contentedly in the briefing room. With his eyes on fire, Squall glared at the fiend. "Hey Squall, you made it." Seifer said with a grin. He reached over and patted Squall on the shoulder. "We all thought you decided to stay in Dollet but I guess you missed us after all."
"Be glad, Seifer," Squall whispered under his breath, "that I will not be the one grading you. There is not one rule of SeeD that you have not broken today."
Seifer smiled. "Loose some weight Squall."
* * * *
Rinoa knew she had to go. Pulling her Cardinal to her side she went to her father's bed one last time. She stood there for a moment hating herself. Surely the petty squabbles of the world could not mean more than these precious moments beside her old father. She sat down beside him and took his hand.
"Daddy, I'll be back soon," she told him as she squeezed his hand.
The general studied his daughter.
"I have something to tell you, Rinoa, that you must hear before I go."
Rinoa shook her head feeling the warm tears collect in her eyes.
"No, don't. I won't hear it. You will be here when I got back. You'll get
well and you'll tell me then what you have to say."
The general looked at her with his world weary eyes. Rinoa studied him but still she refused to believe that he would not get better this time. How could she imagine how it would be to live without him? Such a thing wasn't possible.
"I'll be here when you come back," he assured her. "Then, I need to tell you a story about your mother and me." he paused for a moment drawing in a breath. Even the simple act of talking was making him weary.
"I know she would have wanted me to tell you what happened that day in a small town far south from here."
A bittersweet smile found its way to Rinoa's lips. She stood up, knowing that she needed to go.
"Is it a happy story?" She asked him.
"No," he said as he closed his eyes. "But maybe one day it could be."
* * *
Squall concluded his report to Cid on the Galbadian's deeds at the communication tower. Cid was as perplexed as he was.
"It has something to do with the sorceress," Cid said quietly. "I think," Cid began, "I want you to take charge of this mission. Don't ask me why, it will become clear to you in time."
Squall crossed his arms. "What is it exactly that you want me to do?" he asked.
"Nothing, for now," Cid said as he reached over and patted Squall on the shoulder. "Go to the dance tonight, enjoy yourself, you are still young. I heard you had some trouble getting along with one of the SeeD candidates."
Squall shook his head. "No, there was no trouble."
"Good, that's excellent," Cid suddenly exclaimed. "Because something went wrong with the observers grading the candidates. A few of them were attacked and you know, things just went downhill from there. This has never happened before so I want to ask a favor of you."
Cid wandered over to his desk and pulled out two stacks of paper. He walked over to Squall and handed both to him.
"I want you to grade the two candidates,"
"No," Squall said without hesitation. "I can't do it objectively. You should know that. Seifer. . "
"No one, Squall," Cid said "can grade Almasy objectively. That's why he failed two years in a row. Now I am going to ask you to do it. Grade it objectively, subjectively, it does not matter. You know Almasy better than anyone, tell me if he deserves to be a SeeD."
Squall reluctantly took the papers, tasting bitterness at the back of his mouth. He walked out side, found a seat near the elevator and began to read.
Zell Dincht, age 17, blood type B, weapon - glove. A quick glance at judgement told him that Zell had done well at the fire cavern event. Although his test scores had not been wonderful, a quick calculation of his spirit, aptitude and attitude pushed him over the top. Squall didn't even need to loose sleep deciding the subjective conduct portion it. A quick average showed that Zell got over fifty percent of the points overall, just enough to make him a SeeD.
That was the easy one.
Squall turned his attention to the second stack of papers.
Seifer Almasy, age 18, blood type O, weapon - gunblade. Squall glanced at his test scores and the fire cavern pre-requisite praying silently that Seifer had either done so well or so poorly that nothing Squall gave him for the Dollet mission would change the outcome. But it was just his luck that Seifer barely passed the written test and just made it over the fire cavern one. As for Spirit and Attack he passed with flying colors but that was negated when his attitude score fell on its face. Finally it came to conduct. Squall knew that what he gave Seifer here was the deciding factor. A look over the rest of the paper made Squall realize that Seifer needed a 75 here to pass. For a moment Squall closed his eyes and contemplated the matter. Seifer had obviously no regard for the rules however, in terms of being a warrior he was more than qualified. Squall knew that if he made Seifer a SeeD he would have to suffer the man's insults for the rest of his living days. Should he choose to fail him, Seifer would be expelled from Garden never to be seen again. Thinking back to the exam Squall realized that Seifer had followed most of his orders merely by chance. In the end it all came down to perspective and how do you assign a number to that? Opening his eyes Squall glanced down at the paper before him.
Moving his hand, Squall placed in the box for conduct a 76.
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