Author's Note:

Written for The Successor challenge: thesuccessorchallenge[dot]tumblr[dot]com. The challenge revolves around the theme of: 'What comes after?'

My submission, Aftermath, explores Seifer's attempts at picking up the pieces of his broken life, from immediately after time compression is lifted, to years ahead. Technically, as Emerald-Latias has informed me, my story does not follow the prompt of the challenge, as it fills in the gap between the playable game and the scene in the end credits of the trio in Balamb. It was supposed to have begun after that scene. Just keep that in mind as you read. Sorry about that!

The story is essentially a long one-shot, but is split into four separate parts: the first part is the shortest and works as more of a prologue. The second focuses solely on the trial and is the longest part. The third and fourth parts are all post-trial.

Many thanks to Arenoptara, my good friend, for beta-reading this in its entirety. She challenges me to push myself to new heights and achieve new writing goals. Without her, I wouldn't be where I'm at now. My writing wouldn't be where it's at now.

Final Fantasy VIII does not belong to me, Square has that right. Anything you recognize, I do not own.


After.

He ached.

His bones ached, his mind ached, his heart ached. It was an uncomfortable and entirely unfamiliar feeling, and as he shifted on the hard, sun-baked desert floor, he found that he ached for something that he now knew was impossible to achieve.

His dream.

He'd had a plan and everything was supposed to work out perfectly. Like the teenager that he was, he had been filled with naivety and believed that he had all of the trump cards in his hand. How wrong he'd been.

Edea...No, Ultimecia.

He would have followed her anywhere, done anything that she had asked. The fact of the matter was that he did exactly that. Willingly or not, it didn't matter in the end. Because of that decision, he'd lost his entire life. The only home he'd ever known would never allow him back into their walls. The only friends he'd ever had would all stare at him with distrust and hatred. To be honest, he couldn't blame them. After all, he'd tried to kill each and every one of them on more than one occasion.

What did he have left now? He was stuck in the middle of the desert, with nothing but his tattered grey trenchcoat and Hyperion. That was it.

Centra. What an appropriate place to spit him back out into reality.

With a grunt, Seifer Almasy sat up and raised his right leg, bracing his arm on his knee. His shrewd, vivid turquoise eyes scanned the barren wasteland that surrounded him—a mirror image of the way he now felt inside. He could see the waves of stifling, oppressive heat hovering above the ground. Part of him wanted to remove his coat because he was practically drowning in his own sweat. However, a massive sunburn wasn't something he wanted to experience, so for now, he figured he'd just suffer through it. He'd suffered through a lot of things so far, after all.

He stood and his stiff joints groaned in protest. How long had he been lying there, on the desert floor, in the middle of nowhere? Speaking of the middle of nowhere...where exactly in the desert was he?

Thank Hyne that Garden required every cadet to attend survival training. As much as he didn't want to think about the place right now, he begrudgingly admitted that some of their lessons came in handy from time to time.

Or all of the time. Not that he was about to admit that.

Placing a hand on his brow to block out the sun's blinding rays, he swept his gaze from left to right, trying to find a landmark that would allow him to pinpoint his location. Off in the far, far distance, he could see the edge of the beach, where the ground transitioned from rocky desert to the soft, fine grains of sand. Question was, which beach? The entire continent was peppered with small beaches and it wouldn't do him any good to get to one if there was nothing nearby.

Then again, Centra's a fuckin' wasteland. I might as well give it a shot. Maybe I'll get lucky and the orphanage will be there.

With newfound determination, he placed one foot in front of the other, and started walking.

Minutes passed, and then hours, and Seifer found himself questioning whether this was really the best idea. For the first time in a long time, he was left with no one else's company but his own, and he found his thoughts wandering. Inevitably, they landed on the events of the past few months.

Did he regret the choices that he'd made? If he had to be perfectly honest, there were some that were absolutely idiotic decisions—that he could admit. But the driving force behind those decisions were not. If he went back to the start of it all, would he still do the same things? In exactly the same way? He found that...he didn't know the answers to those questions, and he wasn't sure that he wanted to find them either.

After trying to ignore the heat for hours, he licked his dry, chapped lips and finally shrugged out of his coat. He was starting to feel lightheaded and a headache was forming, which was a sure sign of the beginnings of heat stroke. With his rapid panting, he thought he sounded a bit like a dog.

What a sight. Fallen ex-Sorceress's Knight, panting like the lap dog that Squall had said he was.

It was disgusting.

When Seifer felt like he was ready to give up and turn around, thinking that he'd have better luck in the other direction, he saw the tip of the orphanage's roof in the far distance. A wave of relief swept over him and he wanted to kneel and kiss the ground, praising Hyne until the end of his days. Instead, with a sudden burst of energy, he sprinted the rest of the way over the hill and to the Cape of Good Hope.

Again, what an appropriate name.

The cracked desert floor gave way to broken flagstones and he stepped onto the orphanage's overgrown front "porch". Frankly, he'd seen more welcoming sights. Weeds had overtaken the walkway, and the once-grand columns that had lined the path had since toppled over, leaving crumbled piles of debris in their wake. Granted, his memories of the place were pretty distorted: one, because of the use of guardian forces, and two, because of the absolute shit storm his mind had become after Ultimecia had probed around in it.

Trying to ignore that line of thought, he continued walking up the path to the front door that hung askew on its hinges. He'd been incredibly lucky he'd been dropped so close to shelter. At this point, he'd take whatever he could get without complaint.

The wooden door creaked when he pushed it open, much like his joints had earlier, and he stepped over the threshold into the main room. Ruined wooden crates lay throughout the space, broken and destroyed. There was trash strewn about, lining the stone floors. The once-identical door against the far wall that led to the beach had since fallen apart, and the exit now gaped wide open. A slight breeze flowed into the room and he glanced to his left, noticing that the door that led to the bedroom was still intact.

With quiet footsteps, he made his way over to it, lifting his tired feet to climb the two steps that preceded the door. The sight that greeted him past the threshold surprised him, for the bedroom was in nearly pristine condition. There was a fine layer of dust that had settled over all of the surfaces, but the bed was still in one piece, the quilt atop it in decent condition. The wooden desk that Edea had always sat at still remained in the far corner, against the window that overlooked the beach. She had liked to supervise them when they frolicked on the sand, and she'd sat in that very chair when the heat had been too much for her to stand outside with them.

Seifer trailed over to the desk, running his fingers along the back of the chair, only to end up grasping the backrest so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Aimlessly, he stared out the window at the rolling ocean waves, his expression blank.

When he'd had enough of the view, he turned back around and gazed longingly at the bed. Exhaustion overtook him then, and he trudged back over to the inviting piece of furniture, kicking off his shoes along the way. He collapsed onto it, bouncing slightly as the mattress adjusted to the sudden weight that it hadn't needed to support in years. After all, a five-year-old weighed considerably less than a muscular eighteen-year-old, and it hadn't been used in nearly a decade, if not more.

As his eyes slowly shut, he found that his mind refused to be at ease.

What am I even doing here? It's not like the orphanage was ever really 'home' anyway. Why the hell did I even get sent back? What the hell is the point of all this?!

An irritated grunt left his lips as he rolled over to face the other side, and the dust rising from the pillow tickled his nose. For the next half hour, he tossed and turned in discomfort, before the dark embrace of sleep finally claimed him.


Day two.

He sank down onto the beach and the fine grains of sand shifted to accommodate his weight. The orphanage was abandoned, much like he'd expected it would be. That hope was also part of the reason he'd been so glad to see it in the distance, when he'd been trekking through the desert. He needed time to process, to think, to learn how to feel again.

For the past few months of his life, he'd been on auto-pilot. He hadn't needed to consider the consequences of his actions, because frankly, he hadn't cared. She'd removed the part of him that would've felt guilt at the lives he'd destroyed, at the lives he'd ended. Now...now that she was gone...what was left? What was left of his mind? Of his self? Was there anything left?

He stretched his legs out and the edge of the waves lapped at his heels—almost as if the ocean was calling for him to let go, to just let the water carry him away where no one would ever find him. After all, she was gone. Why did he need to stay?

As he sat there, he stared at the foam-tipped, cerulean waves in abject interest. They ebbed and flowed, following the never-ending call of nature. In fact, they reminded him of himself. The waves had no mind of their own, no direction of their own. They had no say in their movements; they simply followed what the moon's gravitational pull dictated they do. The push and pull, the back and forth motion...it would repeat until the end of the time.

He envied them, and was the first to admit how pathetic that envy was. He was jealous of something that was inanimate, that had no brain of its own. Maybe...it wasn't that he was envious of the waves themselves. More so the fact that they had a clear agenda, a clear purpose for being on this planet. Regardless of how many years passed by, how many dictators rose to power and subsequently fell...Regardless of what sorceress was in power or not in power, the waves would continue to exist.

He couldn't say the same for himself.

The waves needed the moon. Needed it for their movement, their existence...needed it to create the beautiful image that nature provided in the middle of the night, when the sky was as black as the void, and the only reflection came from the pale, waxen glow up above.

He needed his sorceress like the waves needed the moon. And now...now he had no sorceress. He had no purpose, no one to guide him. He was just a lost little boy all over again, with more failures under his belt than he could count, and a cowardly excuse for still existing. Ultimecia was gone and thus, so too should he be wiped from the face of the planet. Yet somehow, he still lingered.

His gaze fell to the ocean again and he contemplated laying down in the shallow waves, allowing them to carry him away as he'd fleetingly thought only moments before.

But he couldn't do it. He was a coward. He knew that he had nothing left to live for and as a result, should get just it over with. Just leave this fucked up and broken world behind.

But he...he wanted to live. He, Seifer Almasy, was a survivor. He always had been. He wouldn't—couldn't—just lay down and accept his fate, just let it all go. He couldn't.

That is why you have always been weak, my knight . . .

At the sound of her voice, he squeezed his eyes shut and ground his palm into his eye socket; the harsh granules that had stuck into his skin now scratched against his closed eyelid and he welcomed the pain. He embraced the emptiness in his mind, while at the same time, hating the agonizing sense of abandonment that it also left. He mourned the absence of the very being that he had lived for the past six months. The being, the woman, that had embodied all of his childhood dreams and desires. He clung to the fading echoes of her voice and toppled over onto the sand, curling up on his side.

His chest ached and he marveled at the feeling. He'd almost forgotten what emotion felt like. He let it wash over him, take him away from the inside out, since he couldn't bring himself to let the ocean do that.

Where the fuck do I go now?


Day three.

He'd transitioned from crippling misery to feeling the acute sting of sheer fury and hatred. He'd never been one to do things half-assed, so apparently, having his emotions rush back to him, making him human and whole again, also fell into that category.

He paced back and forth on the beach, nearly pulling all of his hair out as he fought to contain the roiling rage within him. Shrugging out of his frayed trench coat, he tossed it aside. With irate, jerky movements, he unzipped his vest and threw that over his shoulder as well. After attempting to stalk through the viscous sand in his boots, frustrated, he reached down and yanked them off. Shirtless and barefoot, he continued to trek from one side to the other, muttering to himself.

When Ultimecia didn't answer him, even in his mind, he threw his hands up into the air and faced the ocean. In a hoarse voice, he shouted, "WHAT NOW, HUH?!"

Angry, rapid footsteps carried him to the other side of the beach once more. Again, he faced the waves. "What the hell am I supposed to do now?! You just...go off and fuckin' die, and I'm still here, damn it!"

He fell to his knees in the sand, his hands pounding against his bare chest. "Where the hell do I go without you?! What the hell do I do now?!"

"Fuck you, you crazy whore! Don't leave me here!"

. . .

"Hyne-damn it! Have the fuckin' decency to come back for me! I'm your fuckin' knight—you can't just leave me!"

. . .

"ARGH!"

. . .

After nearly two hours of shouting at nothing and no one in particular, Seifer collapsed onto his back in the sand, drained. Because of his outburst, his blood was pounding through his veins with every thundering heartbeat.

When he'd opened his eyes at sunrise, nearly four hours before, he'd realized that he was well and truly alone. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been alone. When he was a kid, he'd had everyone at the orphanage. When he'd arrived at Garden, he'd met Fujin and Raijin shortly after and they'd been inseparable since. Then, he'd had Edea, whose presence in his mind had transitioned into Ultimecia.

Ultimecia had ensured that he would never be without her. She'd forced him to rely on her existence, her presence, her aura. Without her, he was like a drug addict going through severe withdrawals.

And that pissed him off. If he'd wanted to go through withdrawals, he would've at least picked a drug worth doing. A sorceress mind-fuck hadn't been at the top of his list.

The scars she'd left him with, both mental and physical, ached and throbbed. He couldn't escape the pain. She could, and she'd done exactly that by ceasing to exist. It was almost as if she was punishing him for his failure to stop Squall, and would remain in this world by living on as his torture. Only for his torture.

At that thought, his anger surged up again and he shot to his feet, his normally handsome face twisted and marred by the force of his rage.

Until the sun began to sink below the horizon, he shouted and roared at anything and everything.

No one responded.


Two weeks later.

Seifer was sick and tired of fishing. He was absolutely horrible at it and every time he waded into the shallow depths of the ocean, the rolled-up cuffs of his pants still got soaked and it annoyed him to no end. Still, fish tasted significantly better than the wildlife on Centra, so suffer through it he would. When an hour had gone by and he still hadn't had any luck, he threw the rod down in frustration and hiked back up the beach to the orphanage.

Two weeks had passed and he hadn't seen a single soul. After he'd gone through the various stages of grief, he'd settled on an eerily empty state of mind. He tried to think of nothing, focus on nothing, except surviving. He'd started talking to himself just to fill the endless silence. It was either that, or he heard the long lost echoes of Ultimecia's whispers on the edges of his mind. Most of the time, he did it to remind himself that he wasn't crazy.

"Hyne-damned fish. Why do they have to be stubborn as fuck, huh?" he muttered to himself as he slammed the door of the makeshift cabinet shut.

You were rather stubborn as well, my errant knight . . .

Her voice floated across his mind and he smacked the side of his head with his palm. I'm not crazy.

A few days after he'd arrived, he built the cabinet to store all of the fish he'd caught—though there hadn't been many—or cooked meat from game that he'd hunted down. Grabbing a steel pot he'd found tossed in the corner of the main room, he trekked back outside onto the orphanage's patio, to the pile of logs in the center.

With one of his few remaining fire spells, he sparked the logs and stomped down to the water's edge, filling the pot nearly to the brim. When he returned, he placed the pot on the wire rack that rested above the flames. Plopping down onto the stone patio's sand-covered surface, he fell backwards and laid against the hard ground, staring up at the sky.

After watching a few of the wispy clouds float by, he mumbled to himself, "What if no one even tries to find you? You just gonna live your whole worthless life here, in the ruins of this fuckin' place?"

Worthless . . . yes. Because you failed me, this is what you've become . . .

Ignoring the voice in his head, he scoffed at himself before continuing, "I mean, it's not like anyone gives a shit about you anyway. Especially not now. Who the fuck is gonna come lookin' for you?"

Out of nowhere, a deep, rumbling voice that was most definitely not his own, piped up. "How about your posse, ya know?"

Seifer shot upright and scrambled to his feet, nearly tripping over himself a couple of times as he fought to stand up. He whirled around to face the orphanage, his eyes frantic as he yelled, "What the fuck?!"

Raijin stood in the open doorway, casually waving at Seifer with a grin on his face. All of a sudden, his smile faltered as his knees buckled and he fell onto the patio, revealing an annoyed Fujin who was standing behind him.

"IN THE WAY."

"Sorry, ya know?! I was just gettin' his attention!" Raijin cried out as he crawled to the side, over to a small patch of grass beside the doorway.

At that, Fujin glanced up and when she saw Seifer, her mouth fell open. Her single, crimson eye widened as she walked toward him, her steps hesitant.

"SEIFER?" she whispered.

"This...no. This is not real. It's not really happening. I'm finally going fucking crazy. Oh Hyne…" Seifer muttered to himself as he started pacing in circles around the fire.

"NO. NOT CRAZY. ALIVE!" Fujin said as a smile spread across her face. She tried to reach out to him, only to have Seifer back away.

"Don't touch me! Don't you fuckin' touch me! You're not real, you're not real...shit," he trailed off and started mumbling under his breath, too quiet for Fujin to hear. His pacing continued and he periodically ran his hands through his blond hair, which was now grungy and caked through with dust and dirt.

"SEIFER…" Fujin started to say as Raijin returned to his feet and interrupted her.

"Seifer, it's really us, ya know? We came to find ya," the darker male tried to explain, his hands open as he pleaded with his friend.

They are but a figment of your imagination . . . an illusion that is a reflection of your hopes . . .

"How the hell do I know you two are real? And why would you bother to come and find me anyway? Pretty sure everyone hates me by now," Seifer spat.

"NEVER."

"Yeah, we could never hate you. You just...you weren't yourself, ya know? We couldn't see you that way," Raijin said quietly as he rubbed the back of his neck.

Fujin took a hesitant step forward again and this time, Seifer didn't back away. He just stood there, watching her approach with his eyebrows low over his bright eyes.

"REAL," she tried to reassure him as she got closer.

With every step Fujin took that lessened the space between them, the more tense Seifer got. By the time she stood in front of him, his shoulders were hunched and he was clenching his fists so tightly that his fingernails were leaving bright red crescent marks in his palms. Slowly, Fujin reached out and lightly brushed her fingers along his forearm to gauge his reaction. When he still didn't move, she encircled him with her arms, wrapping them around his back as she laid her head on his chest. Her familiar scent of the salty ocean, mixed with the sharp smell of metal and a hint of lavender tickled his nose, and the realization that he wasn't hallucinating slammed into him.

"Holy shit," he mumbled as he lifted his arms and enveloped Fujin in a hug: the first that he'd given her since they were kids.

Moisture pooled in her eye and she squeezed it shut as she simultaneously tightened her arms around him. Raijin tsked at them and ran over, draping his long arms around them both. When he too squeezed as tightly as he could, Fujin laughed softly, and Seifer chuckled at his friend's never-ending enthusiasm.

"ALIVE," Fujin repeated in a quiet voice that was filled with relief.

"Yeah, I'm alive. Gonna take more than a crazy bitch sorceress and a mind fuck to take me down," Seifer joked.

"Damn straight, ya know?!" Raijin yelled as he let his friends go and pumped his fist into the air.

Seifer's expression sobered and he looked up at Raijin. "How did you guys...how did you know I'd be here?"

His friend shrugged and nonchalantly responded, "We didn't. Been lookin' for ya for nearly two weeks now. We started in Balamb, headed over to Deling...we even checked FH, ya know?"

Fujin nodded firmly and stated, "HERE."

Raijin elaborated on her thought and explained, "After FH, we went down to Winhill thinkin', it'd be some shitty luck if you got thrown out around there! But you weren't there either. Squall and them returned to Garden and said that Ultimecia's Castle had been right above the old orphanage you all were at. Fuj figured it wouldn't hurt to try here."

A smile teased at the corners of Fujin's lips and she echoed her sentiment from earlier, holding Seifer's gaze. "HERE."

They'd come for him. He knew they'd always come for him.


A/N: The second part will go live Saturday, August 8th.