The world was swimming and so was Squall, his mind somewhere between waking and dreaming. His conscious self tried desperately to rouse him but wakefulness seemed beyond his grasp, as if he'd been caught on rip tide flushing him further and further from shore.  Nothing but the lapping of the waves, desperately struggling for land, nothing but unending torment, darkness, that was his world...an empty sea of sorrow...From this darkness, a voice called faintly to him….it seemed like an ocean away, from someplace he'd never known, whispering to him like the tide, and he could barely decipher the words…I'll be waitingI'll be waiting, so if you look for me...it trailed off, words garbled by the constant lapping of the waves. What...do you mean? Squall was at a loss, desperate to understand, he groped for meaning… Who are you?? What do you want?? I don't... Where are you??  He mumbled groggily.  The voice, melodious and sweet, answered, here… The darkness was suddenly flooded with light, and it blinded him and he loved it.  A field appeared in front of him, its rolling hills covered in a thick carpet of flowers…He gasped, feeling his dream self opening his mouth in surprise......A sudden breeze rustled through the field,  stirring up a shower of petals and…feathers....which playfully danced in the wind.  Through this curious curtain of feathers and petals, he could make out the form of a girl…a dark haired girl. She called softly to him, her form barely visible through a filmy white curtain …The wind stirred again, and just as the curtain shifted so he could view her, his vision became blurred. Reality flooding the dream, his new found paradise becoming more fuzzy and indistinct as he awoke slowly. Once again, he was kicking against the tide....No!....As quickly as it had appeared, it all began to unmake itself. The mystery woman disappearing in a glorious shower of petals and feathers. Wait! WHO ARE YOU!!??   Squall cried…

"I'm your doctor", a voice flatly replied.

Squall opened his eyes …the field was gone, the girl was gone….it was a dream. He was in the infirmary at Balamb Garden.   Doctor Kadowaki leaned over him, peering down at him with a sardonic look on her face. Squall sat up slowly and even as he did so he regretted it.  His head throbbed, intense pain stabbing him in the forehead so badly small black dots danced in front of his eyes.

"How are you feeling?", she asked, rustling a bunch of papers on her clipboard.

"My forehead hurts…", Squall answered, as he raised a hand to touch the newly healed scar across his forehead.

"Do you have any idea why?", she asked with pursed lips.

He winced… "Training" with Seifer.  He hadn't wanted to go, but Seifer had ordered him to. Seifer Almasy was an upperclassman and a first class jerk, who had it out for Squall. Being an upperclassman meant he could order younger, lower class students around. The frosting on the cake was, Seifer was also the head of the displinary committee, along with his lackies, Fujin and Raijin. Meaning if you screwed up or disobeyed an order that Seifer would oversee your punishment. Seifer considered Squall his ultimate rival. As light has darkness, Seifer had Squall. For his part, Squall thought very little of him. Squall wasn't a man of passion and he rarely lost his temper, but he did think often of beating Seifer's ass and teaching that SOB a lesson he'd never forget.  Apparently, that almost happened today and Squall would've won, if Seifer hadn't played dirty.

The "training" had been going well for Squall.  He'd pretty much beaten Seifer down and had the technical advantage. Squall had gotten a little cocky and hadn't noticed that Seifer was building up for something. Then, Seifer suddenly hit him with a blinding flash of fire, knocking him to the ground. Bastard, drawn magic wasn't allowed when training in hand to hand combat.  Disoriented, Squall struggled to get up and find his weapon, which he'd dropped when he fell. Seifer took the opportunity and swiped at him with his gunblade. The blade, sparkling in the morning sun, sliced a jagged scar across Squall's naked forehead.  Blinking through the gouts of blood running from the wound across his face, Squall scrambled to his feet with the quickness of a cat. It wasn't enough for him to just knock me down…no...he had to mark me...to humiliate me...so that everyone could see who won.. He quickly dove for his own gunblade and rushed Seifer.  Seifer didn't notice this turn of events or he didn't care, as he was too busy gloating and had left himself open for attack.  Enraged Squall swung his gunblade and gave Seifer his own mark. That was all he remembered, shortly after striking Seifer, he passed out.

"SQUALL? Are you paying attention?", Dr. Kadowaki said, snapping her fingers in front of his face.

"Yeah…"

"I asked you how you got that wound on your forehead." she stopped as if waiting for an answer, "Don't be afraid to tell me either…I'd like to know what happened please."

"Seifer and I were training…it was an accident. That's all." He said, hating himself for covering Seifer's ass but he had no choice. The Doctor's eyes narrowed, obviously displeased with his answer.

"Yeah, Listen Squall, Do me a favor and cut the crap. Don't cover for Almasy...he's on thin ice as it is. This is the fifth time he's brought in another student that was wounded during training. He's in Headmaster Cid's office right now. Upperclassmen are NOT to harm or otherwise cause injury to underclassmen during training. Is that clear…you did nothing wrong....Squall, you could've been killed today…head injuries are very serious, especially deep cuts like yours. It took almost a half hour to stop the bleeding. You're very lucky to be alive." she stopped and waited for him to respond. A microsecond of silence followed, she knew better than to wait for this one. Squall had never been one to chat about his problems. Sighing heavily, she continued, " It healed pretty well but there will be a scar. I suppose I should contact your advisor and have her escort you to your room…ummm that'd be…Professor Trepe. I'll call her. Rest some more…"

Doctor Kadowaki left the room and Squall, who was quietly contemplating what she had said. He knew what she said was true… but that bastard would make life hell for him if he told the complete truth. I'm sure he's up there, blowing it off....saying it was just an accident. And if Seifer didn't get him…Fujin and Raijin would, they were dumb as a bag of hammers but hopelessly devoted to Seifer. Of course, it didn't look like it matter if he covered or not, Seifer must be in real hot water if the Headmaster was intervening. Not that any of that mattered anyway, it was his business, not hers. He lay back to rest a little, his forehead ached with pain. Squall started to close his eyes, but something caught his attention in his peripheral vision. There was someone watching him from the observation booth next to his cubicle. It was a young girl with short brown hair. She was watching him with a wistful smile on her face. A wave of nausea hit Squall suddenly, he closed his eyes to beat it back. When he opened them again, she was gone.  Weird.

The doors to the infirmary suddenly whooshed open and in walked Quistis Trepe, his advisor and the youngest instructor in the Garden. She was a genius, at fifteen she had become a SeeD and three short years later she became an instructor.

Quistis strode in, a look of exasperation on her normally placid face. She was a tall woman, with long blonde hair that was always tied up behind her head. She looked down at Squall beneath the glassy surface of her bespectacled blue eyes. Clicking her tongue and with her hands on her slim hips, she shook her head. Why'd she always get the problem students.

"How did I know it'd be either you or Seifer. Oh wait, I know...because its ALWAYS you or Seifer."

Squall stared at her uncompromising face, the look she was giving him...it begged answers from him.  Sooner or later it would start, her endless steady stream of nagging. If he remembered his mother, he supposed she'd be much like Quistis.

"Squall, you're an excellent student....why do you let him rile you?  Seriously, you ARE the top of your class. You don't need to prove anything to that idiot. Do you honestly think he's gonna pass this semester, much less graduate? He's a fool...you aren't. Sincerely, I'm concerned...I'm afraid one of these times...well...one of you might really hurt the other or even worse...I don't want it to come to that." She sighed deeply, waiting for answers she knew very well would never come.  He just grunted and got up off the bed slowly, "Fine, Let's go back to class."

As they walked out of the infirmary and onto the lovely outdoor walkway, one of many that littered the campus, she tried desperately to rope him into conversation.

"You know, we're all concerned for you." She said, trying to sound casual, "Dr. Kadowaki told me everything. Would you like to talk about it?"

"No, not really." He said stiffly, staring straight ahead.

"And why exactly is that? And before you answer...you know as your instructor I have the right to order you to answer...I'd rather not though", hoping the tough approach would work.

"It's none of your...." Squall began.

"....business" Quistis finished.

He stopped and stared at her icily. I hate it when she finishes my sentences.

"Whatever..."

"Whatever..."

She giggled, cupping her hand over her mouth as she did so. Why did she do this to him? Trying not to look annoyed, he started walking again.  Against all that was sane and good in the world, she followed.... and she was staring at him.

"What?!" he barked, horrified at the school boy squeak in his voice that always seemed to come out when she was around.

"Nothing, Just getting to know my student a little better...that's all.", still giggling.

He closed his eyes, and pushed away the urge to blow up and really lay into her...it'd been a rough morning, like he needed Quistis' teasing!  A war of words was the last thing he wanted. The only thing Squall wanted right now was for Quistis, and for that matter everyone else, to leave him alone. Perhaps he had come close to death today. Maybe he was on some suicide mission, where it'd be either him or Seifer left standing. Who's business was it but his own.

At seventeen, Squall Leonhart was an unusually mature but antisocial young man. He was of average height with a slender, athletic build. His light brown hair hung floppily over a pair of cold, ice blue eyes. He was handsome and a few girls had a crush on him, not that they'd ever tell him. Squall had cultivated a reputation for being indifferent and sometimes downright coldhearted.  Very few people dared to speak with him.  It was just as well, Squall had a philosophy that he'd applied to his entire life. Having others care for you only let them and most of all, yourself, down. People were never meant to be with each other forever. What was the point in carrying on a relationship when they'd just end up leaving anyway.  He built a wall around his heart, barring anyone from getting to know him. In his eyes, this prevented it from getting hurt. He'd had enough people leave him in his short life, it wasn't going to happen again.

He sat at his desk and stared pensively into space waiting for class to begin. Quistis took up her mantle as teacher and began the day's lecture. Most of the lesson had to do with the SeeD exam that was to take place that very afternoon. The field exam was taken by most students who wished to become SeeDs, the Garden's elite mercenary force,  when they graduated. Students at the Garden ranged from five, the minimum age to enter, to age 20, when most students left.  All children who came to Balamb Garden were given a basic education with the chance to take extra classes suited for a military school. Those who took the extra combat and tactics classes could go on and take the field exam and eventually become a member of SeeD. Squall had finally become eligible and all that stood between him and his goal was the exam.

Squall shook himself awake, he'd been daydreaming....thinking about that weird dream he had in the infirmary. It seemed so strange, the girl in his dream and the girl he saw in the observation booth...were they the same. He didn't think so...The girl in his dream had much longer hair and it was black, besides the obvious fact that she was a character in a dream. The girl in the infirmary was more than likely real....it's either that or I'm crazy....he'd have to ask Quistis about it later. Turning his attention back to class, Prof Trepe was droning on about tactics and basic strategy.  How many times did the basics have to be reiterated before they figured out we know it already!...Squall grumbled to himself. Finally she came to the point and began to explain the details of the field exam.

"Today our field exam will take place in Dollet. The local government has hired our Garden to fight the invading West Galbadian forces. Please refer to your handout from last week if you have any questions about what is to happen at today's exam, you may also stop after class and ask me.  I'd also like to remind all of  you that you should have completed the test at the fire cavern before you leave for the field exam. If you haven't completed this last requirement you will not be eligible for the field exam.  So find yourself an upperclassman or an instructor and complete this test today before fourteen hundred."

Crap, he'd forgotten all about the fire cavern....he was going to do that when Seifer had stopped him. The fire cavern was some sort of local tradition from the nearby town of Balamb that had wormed its way into the Garden. Fight the beast in the cavern, prove your manhood....blah blah blah....It was first class bull shit, but it was required. After class ended he stopped and asked Quistis to go with him.

Of all the people he knew here, Quistis was the closest thing to a friend he had. Yeah, they fought quite often and she sometimes annoyed him, but deep down he valued her. He admired her intelligence even though he detested how clingy and unsure of herself she could be. At only 18 she was a professor and a SeeD, what in the hell did she have to be unsure of? Despite all her triumphs she still let herself fall apart when the slightest problem got in her way. Quistis babbled incessantly the entire way to the fire cavern. Nervously tittering information any first year cadet would know.  Patience wasn't always his strong point but when the mood struck him he could tolerate a lot. They approached the entrance to the cavern and formally saluted the mechanical "faculty" members, a gift from the Garden's anonymous benefactor.  The most annoying thing about this particular test was the stupid time limit, the less time left on the clock, the better the grade. Squall had been practicing quite a bit and choose the shortest time limit. Quistis was a bit shocked, no one dared to pick the shortest limit, it was almost impossible to finish the test in such a small amount of time. She half thought about questioning his decision but decided not to at the last minute.  Hopefully, he knew what he was doing.

The path to the test itself was straight forward enough. It was warm in the cavern, though that wasn't much of a surprise. The cavern itself was apart of a large chain of hot springs and volcanic hot spots that were sprinkled all over the island.  In the very middle of the cavern was a large crater, which contained the local guardian force, a fire demon named Ifrit. Initially, the crater looked innocent enough, until a huge blast of fire and rocks erupted from it's maw.  A large creature, at least three stories high, burst forth from the wreckage. It was the demon Ifrit in the flesh, fire belching from his nostrils. It had the face of a lion, a wild mane of coarse red hair growing around it's head and neck. In the middle of its mane were a pair of knobby horns, that protruded from it's skull and swept back from it's head gracefully. It glowered at Squall, incensed that such a boy would dare trifle with a beast god like himself.

The demon/beast's voice rumbled with contempt, "WHO DARES DISTURB MY REST!"

 "I do."

"SO BE IT, FOOLISH CREATURE."

The eyes of the beast flared with an eternal, unquenchable fire. It roared and charged Squall, coming at him like a large, flaming freight train. Squall rolled and ducked out of the way, taking time to summon Shiva, the ice spirit he'd been given his first year. Shiva burst from the ground, encased in a glassy coffin of ice. Breaking her prison she blasted Ifrit with a gust of arctic wind The fire beast fell back, visibly hurt by the attack. Squall followed up with striking while the beast was distracted. Mustering all his strength he blasted Ifrit with his gunblade, knocking it into the rocky wall of the cave.  Stalactites and rubble rained down from the roof of the cave from the impact.  The beast staggered to its feet and roared in rage.

The only time Squall showed visible emotion was during the heat of battle. He was at his best now, grinning devilishly as he prepared for another attack . The beast swiped at him again, however this time he failed to dodge. Taking the brunt of the blow, he was knocked backward several feet.  Controlling the fall, Squall tumbled to the ground, rolling over and over until he stopped and quickly hopped to his feet.  The beast roared and swiped again, Squall countered and hit it with the heavy edge of his gunblade. It recoiled with pain, and slipping on the loose ground beneath its feet, the creature fell.  The mighty demon struggled to get up, staggering to its feet with a blaze of fire, black smoke issuing from it's nostrils.  Dragging his gunblade over the rocky floor of the cavern, sparks flying as he went, Squall slashed upward at the beast.  The blade caught the monster square on it's chin, the force so hard that it fell, crashing to the ground. While it was weak, Squall hit it again and again, blasting it with heavy blows from his gunblade. He beat the demon back until it crumpled to the ground. The beast shuddered and with great pain lifted itself to look at the young man who had bested it. Weakly, the fire spirit supported itself with one large arm.  It was badly wounded, lava-like blood dripping from its sinewy body. Of all the years that Ifrit had traveled the earth, none was like this boy....this boy has the fire of Ifrit already within him, he is truly worthy of my power.  The beast paused, and bowed his horned head, a gesture of respect the demon gave almost no one.

" I RESPECTFULLY SURRENDER AND GIVE YOU USE OF MY POWER, MORTAL. I AM YOURS."  The beast said, with a low rumble.

Lava surrounded the creature, erupting in a sparkling current of flames and brimstone.  In a flash the beast disappeared, a wave of whitish orange flame consumed Squall's vision. The Ifrit entered him, and he could feel its fire burning from within. The flames subsided, Squall stood there for a moment, breathing in and out in ragged gasps. Quistis stared at Squall with a look of complete surprise. The object of the fire cavern was to finish with as little time as possible. She'd been timing the fight, Squall had one second left on the timer. It was a perfect score...she hadn't even finished this test with a perfect score and she had been the top of her class.  Walking over to Squall, she gazed in wonder....he might be a handful sometimes, but he was her best student.

"No one ever finished this test as easily as you did....much less ever gotten that beast to agree to be their Guardian Force...", showing him her stop watch. " You got a perfect score, NO ONE has gotten a perfect score in the twenty year history of Balamb Garden...no one. Congratulations, you just made a new school record."

 "Thanks.."

They were both quiet on the way back to the Garden.  Her compliment had caught him off-guard. He wasn't ungrateful, but that kind of admiration made him uneasy. He wasn't some god or even a genius, like she was. Compliments and thank yous were merely little lies people told each other to make themselves feel better. There was little point to them.... those kind of things made emotional attachments. He didn't need it nor want it. He wasn't a leader, he wasn't a genius and he didn't need people depending on him that was for sure. Squall knew she'd probably tell everybody and they'd all make some big deal about it. I could care less if I made some stupid record, Squall thought sullenly. I do what has to be done, that's all. I'm no hero...Why can't she understand that?? Returning to the Garden they both stopped at the front gate. She was still awed by his performance and could hardly wait to report it to the Headmaster.

"You have a couple hours free before we leave for Dollet. Rest up and change into your uniform. I'll give these results to the headmaster and sign all the paperwork....make sure you're ready and waiting in front the front foyer at thirteen hundred. You're dismissed." She said, saluting quickly and then leaving.

Maybe he had read too much into her reaction at the cavern. He'd rather not think about it anyway. It was her business and he'd rather not pry into her affairs. Squall entered the gates that lead into Balamb Garden slowly, thinking about nothing in particular. 

Squall walked silently through the main entrance of Balamb Garden, nodding briefly to the officer inside the small guard station.  Pushing through the large turnstiles near the station and formally entering the Garden's large foyer. 

The building itself was designed circularly, the elevators being in the middle of the building and the various classrooms and other functionaries spiraling around this central core.  The first floor held the infirmary, cafeteria, and the parking garage on the left,  the library, the practice room, and the parking garage on the right, and finally the large dormitories were directly across from the main entryway. The second floor held all the various classrooms. The older students went to the classrooms in the west wing and the younger students in the east wing. There were also a couple of small gyms and weight rooms. The third floor was restricted and only those with special passes or permission could go up, as this was the Headmaster's quarters and office.

The cavernous building was imposing, yet ethereally beautiful, filled with ivory walkways, open air gardens, and courtyards. Trees and plant life of all kinds were abundant on the grounds, and tended to with care. Fountains and large decorative pools were place almost anywhere there was room, spreading shimmering light on the blue and white interior.  All in all, Squall was quite happy he got to go here. There were two other Gardens that he could've been sent to, he'd never been to either one, but had seen pictures. They'd been built after Balamb, ugly hulking buildings that lacked the charm and grace of this first Garden.

Galbadia was the largest Garden, as well as the newest, lots of cadets at Balamb talked of transferring. It had newer equipment and improved facilities that appealed to some students. As well as a burgeoning sports program, which included a championship Sharp Shooting team, as well as a top notch Hockey league. Sports held little interest for Squall and he was also of the opinion that newer wasn't always better. Trabia was the second Garden built, and it had the distinction of being the smallest Garden built. It was a technical school, for engineers and computer nuts who didn't mind that it was built in the middle of the artic. Balamb, of the three, was the best all around school, focusing on producing the future leaders of the world.

Squall wasn't really thinking about being a leader at that moment, his scar was still hurting and he was tired, wanting nothing more than to get back to his room to rest a little. He walked distractedly in front of the info kiosk in front of the elevators, not paying too much attention to where he was going. In a flash of books and paper, he collided with another student running at breakneck speed. She was short and petite, a fragile looking girl that looked like she didn't belong in a military academy. Squall helped her up, he couldn't help feeling partly responsible; he hadn't been paying anymore attention to his surroundings than her. 

" I am soooooooooooo sorry!" she exclaimed, as she dusted herself off.

"No problem. Are you okay?" he bent down and helped pick up her books.

"YAH!" she smiled, rubbing a small hand on the back of her neck, "It's  my first day here! I'm a transfer from Trabia Garden. Hey, have you been around here a long time?  I'm kinda, sorta lost."

"Need directions?"

She nodded, a look of grateful relief flooding her cherubic face, "This place is waaaaaay bigger than Trabia. I can't make sense of all the numbers for the different rooms and stuff....I'm supposed to report to 110-1F but I'm not sure where that is... It's real confusing!!"

"It seems that way at first, but you get used to it.  Here, this is the info kiosk, if you ever get lost again, look here."  He pointed to a small blue square on the left of the map, "that's 110-1f, room 110 first floor......and if you look to your right, see that blue sign...that's the sign for the infirmary wing. Pass all the other offices down that way and go straight...it's the last office."

"WOW! Thank you soooooooooo much!!" she said, bowing politely several times, then she turned and waved, "See ya!!"

"Yea...Whatever...", Squall nodded and continued on his way, more than eager to get back to his own room.