This goes out to you, the reader, for humouring me throughout my brainless bouts of craziness. There is no meaning to this piece. Bless all those who've realized that but read on anyway. You're a special lot. Take pride!
"Ahoy the Ragnarok!"
Nineteen-year-old Quistis glanced up from the fashion magazine she had been perusing to catch sight of a trio of males standing below the large crimson ship. Bored of feigning interest in an article entitled, "Relationships and the Art of Juggling," she closed the glossy publication and waved back. Selphie's idea they all get to know each other better by trading reading material had seemed like a good one at the beginning. She had been taught her lesson.
"Ahoy the grass!"
"Whatcha doin' up there?" The shortest of the three, Zell had to crane his neck to get a glimpse of the roof.
"Sunbathing." Selphie allowed her own reading material to slide into her lap. How Quistis got through such drivel she would never know. The plot was beyond predictable. Even for a romantic mystery it was bad.
The males exchanged glances.
"Sunbathing." Unimpressed, Squall repeated her flippant remark. "I thought the point of flying all the way out here was to train."
"It was Quistis' idea." Flicking her sunglasses to the top of her head, Rinoa Heartilly smiled. Like the others, she too welcomed the distraction. Glancing down at the graphic horror novel in her lap she gave a little shudder. She couldn't believe Selphie read that kind of stuff for fun.
"In my defence, my magic was full before we came. I looked at it more as a mini-vacation." Tossing the magazine in Rinoa's direction, Quistis stood and walked to the edge of the Ragnarok's hood. She held up a hand, shrugged one indifferent shoulder. "Besides, we couldn't stand to let such a gorgeous afternoon go to waste."
"Sunbathing, on the Island Closest to Hell. Now I've heard it all." With a shake of his head, Irvine grinned up at the females and winked.
"When you're good, you're good." Quistis replied with a smirk of her own and hopped, more like took a massive bound, off the ship onto firm ground. Her point was proven when she landed perfectly on two feet.
"Whatever." Rolling his eyes, Squall turned to board the craft.
"We did train a little, Squall," Rinoa said as she hurried across reinforced metallic alloy. "Honest. But we got so hot and you know how I tire easily. Quistis was just being sweet and giving me a chance to rest."
Large pleading brown eyes and a soft, beckoning smile went far in removing the irritation from the stoic young man's expression. He relented almost instantly and offered her a light "lip twitch", as the girls referred to what could otherwise be known as Squall's smile. This reference was only made out of his hearing, of course.
"It's all right."
"Help me down?" Raising her dark brows and lifting her arms, Rinoa prepared to jump.
When Squall caught her securely and held on for a few moments longer than necessary, Quistis sniggered from behind her hand. Did the girl know how to play him or what?
"Whee!" Selphie took a dashing leap onto the green lawn of the western island. Her exuberance was greater than what was required and as a result she wobbled on the landing, ending up on her butt.
"Hee hee, guess I went a little too fast there. So," she faced the group, hands on hips. "What's next?"
"We're all done." Catching himself from running over to make sure she was uninjured, Irvine flipped back his long ponytail and adjusted his cowboy hat. "Guess the only thing left to do is pack her in."
"With the time change, if we want to make Balamb before midnight, we'd best head out right away." Quistis squinted to the west where the sun had begun to drift toward the horizon.
Scampering up the loading bay, Selphie laid claim to her favourite position of all and the central reason she'd agreed to attend the training excursion. The chance to fly the Estharian ship came only rarely. The commander seldom gave authorization for the vessel to be moved out of storage beyond routine system checks. Voyages like this were unexpected and a real delight.
"Hey, Selphie! Wait up! I'm coming." Four sets of eyes watched, unsurprisingly, as Irvine followed her on, long legs closing the distance without delay.
"Why does she always get to fly? It's not fair." Zell pouted over it as he boarded next to Rinoa. "I'm just as good."
"Of course you are." She gave his shoulder a brief pat. "But we all know it means a lot to her."
"That and none of us is willing to put up with her whining all the way home," added Quistis, coming up behind them with Squall. Stopping just inside, she reached up a hand to brush off the insect that had chosen to light on her shoulder. She scrunched her nose and shivered. Vile things, they were. "Cheer up, Zell. Instead we can sit on the passenger deck and I'll show you how to double junction your magic."
Knowing any sort of grumbling would get him nowhere, he acquiesced and followed the others past the lift to the passenger seating. From inside, he could hear the whirr of the computer system and the hum of the mechanical structure as the loading doors closed shut. Four hours and five time zones later they would be home, he counted in his head. Estharian technology was a boon for SeeD.
The four moved to their seats, plonking down in relief. Zell propped a leg onto the opposite knee and sat back against the swishy cushion. At ease with himself he watched Squall and Rinoa as they conversed in quiet tones across the aisle from him. He could not decipher what they were saying but judging by Rinoa's affectionate swat all was well.
It was nice. This inner harmony that rose in his chest as he relaxed around his friends. Their busy schedules rarely gave them the opportunity to hang out like this. To just be comrades. Here on the Ragnarok they did not have to put on a show for the ever-watching public. They did not have to be heroes or master role models for the youth of tomorrow. They could just be what they were. Teenagers. At the most basic of levels.
Closing his eyes, he rested his head against the back of the chair and prepared to take a hard-earned doze. Beneath him the engines roared to life as the ship geared up for the flight. Almost straight away, the purring of the engines faded and once again the cabin was filled with silence. Zell opened his eyes and lifted his head. Squall was frowning from his seat, exchanging glances with Quistis who had seated herself next to Zell.
"I wonder what could be--." Rinoa began, interrupted by the whirr of the electronic door. Her brows crumpled in bafflement when Selphie and Irvine crowded the doorway.
"Um. Problem!" Selphie chirruped, fiddling with a strand of hair. "We're kinda out of fuel."
"Not enough left to get us 'cross the ocean," said Irvine as he braced an arm against the wall. His expression was rueful.
After shutting his eyes, Squall reopened them and set his unwavering gaze on Selphie. "Didn't Nida tell you to re-fill before we took off?"
"Well, technically, he did."
"And did you?"
"Selphie." It was a warning. Squall blew out an impatient puff of air.
"I didn't." Selphie said with a sheepish grin. "I would have! Honest. But Irvy distracted me and then everyone was all on board and I just, erm, forgot?"
Irvine looked affronted. "Hey! You never said--."
"It doesn't matter now," Quistis cut in with a shake of her head. She turned to Squall. "I guess the only thing we can do is contact Garden via satellite. They'll have to send another ship out."
"Man! This bites." Dropping his foot to the floor, Zell slumped in his chair. "What're we gonna do while we wait? It'll take forever!"
"Talk?" Rinoa lifted a shoulder and looked at all of her friends uncertainly. "Play cards?" These suggestions only caused the forlorn male to sag further.
"I'll go make the call." With a sigh, Squall stood and ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Be prepared for a long delay."
Selphie and Irvine shifted aside to let him pass, stepping closer into the room. Once the door was closed, the former bent back her leg and captured her ankle with one hand.
Quistis smiled and folded her hands behind her head, tipping her chair back. "Well, now that Squall's gone we finally have the chance to make fun of him."
"Okay! Me first!" Zell leapt to a standing position, eyes lighting up.
"I was joking, Zell." Amused, she tilted her head, arched a brow. "But by all means, entertain us."
"That's so mean!" protested Rinoa. "Don't you think?"
"Probably." Plopping down in the seat her commander had vacated, Selphie raised her eyebrows at her friend. "But he'll never know. C'mon, Rinny. I know you've got some secrets you're dying to spill!"
"Go ahead, Zell." From his spot against the wall Irvine encouraged the other male. It was all out of affection, he knew. In jest. They'd all spent so much time together in the past year and a half. Each had gotten to know the others in the manner of family. As someone from a past without kin, he was grateful to find the siblings he'd always wanted here. In the eye of a military force.
"Okay." Pleased to be the centre of attention, Zell hammed up the role to the hilt. While he considered Squall Leonhart to be the best thing since the invention of the T-board, he could not resist the opportunity to show off and earn himself a little approval from his friends.
Hunching his shoulders and elongating his neck so that his head was parallel to the floor, he shoved his hands in his pockets. He walked a few steps, scuffing his feet and mumbling. In a voice so low, they had to strain to pick it up, Zell uttered one of their leader's trademark phrases. "Leave me alone."
Squealing, Selphie collapsed back against her chair in delight. Next to her, Rinoa put a hand to her forehead and sunk lower, cheeks a rosy pink. Slightly embarrassed, she glanced at Quistis, who was rising from her seat across the aisle. Irvine merely snorted and languidly folded his arms over his chest.
"No, no, no." Waving a hand in the air, Quistis dismissed Zell's impersonation. "You've got it all wrong." She stood next to him and smiled. "This is Squall."
Once everyone's eyes were on her, she jutted out a hip. Placing one hand on the protruding bone and letting the other arm dangle, she looked to her left and then to the right. She repeated the action, switching hips and arms. Glancing down, then up, she lowered her brows and winced.
"Don't call me Commander."
This time even Rinoa couldn't resist a few giggles. She tucked her legs beneath her in the chair and wrinkled her nose. "I've always wondered about that posing thing."
Merrily, all five shared a joke at their comrade's expense. It felt so good to laugh, to be silly. None present saw any reason to end.
"Have any of y'all noticed the way he walks?" Irvine lugged himself from the wall, and stepped forward. Willing to continue the game, Quistis and Zell sat back down to give him room. "It's like he's modelling for one o' them Dolletian designers."
"How about the way Zell walks!" Selphie contributed, quick to jump to her feet.
Ignoring the offended male's dropped jaw, she proceeded with her impersonation. With bowed knees and bent arms she swaggered around the small area, bobbing her head to some foreign, off-kilter beat. She ate up the resulting laughter with relish and took her exaggeration further. Adding her small shoulders into the groove with a few air swipes for good measure. She opened her mouth to imitate his speech but before she got very far, she erupted into giggles and lost her pose completely.
Gobsmacked and utterly humiliated Zell took the opportunity to enact his revenge. "Oh yeah? Well, this is Selphie!" Flailing his arms madly about in the manner he perceived Selphie handled her nunchaku, Zell kicked up his feet and grinned stupidly. "Tee hee! You're grat juice!"
"Okay, I've never said that." Selphie crossed her arms and looked at her friend like he had lost his mind. "Besides, that's totally not my victory dance. If you can't do it right, don't do it at all."
"Maybe we should stop, you guys." Though, like the others, she had found their actions to be funny, Rinoa did not want to let things get out of hand. And when Zell and Selphie were involved, she knew that would be difficult to avoid.
"Yeah, Rin's got a point." Rolling his shoulders, Irvine did his best to ease wounded prides. "We're all friends here, right?"
"Sure, Irvine." Quistis smiled pleasantly. Exchanging a puckish glance with Selphie, she turned to the taller male and winked. Flicking back an imaginary ponytail, she rolled her shoulders and lifted her arms in an exaggerated move. She dipped her head and looked up at him flirtatiously beneath her lashes. "Say, is that a twinkle in your eye or did someone pull the stars from the sky?" Her words were drawled in an uncanny similarity to someone else in the room.
"That's it!" Selphie shrieked and fell onto the nearest chair. "You got 'im, Quisty!"
"I'm wounded." A hand to his heart, he shook his head with sadness. "I would never use such a clichéd line. You gals deserve much more respect than that."
"I don't know, man." Zell said doubtfully and then grinned. He was glad to once again be on the other side. "Seems like you been had."
"You may be right, may be right." A slow grin made it's way across Irvine's face and Quistis prepared herself for sudden retaliation. His vengeance came swift. Arms crossed over his chest tightly, he looked down his nose at the amused female. After giving her the once-over he suddenly lifted a hand above his head and snapped his fingers. Going on to wave the same hand through the air in front of his face. He shifted his weight onto one foot, extending his opposite hip. "How do you like them apples?"
Knocked for six, Quistis' eyes flashed. Snapping her fingers she directed her glare at the man now guffawing in front of her. "I so do not do that!" This only made the others laugh harder and she closed her eyes in mortification, realizing she had just proven his point. "Okay, so who's up for some triple triad?"
"Irvy wins!" said Selphie. She clapped her hands. "Do your Squall impression!"
"Yeah, we wanna see it." Zell urged.
Well, now, all right. As long as I ain't offendin' Rinoa."
The girl in question nodded her assent, she was having too much fun. She felt like one of the gang. Teasing and laughing. It was terrific.
His back to the door, Irvine began to stroll down the aisle like it was a catwalk. One foot directly in front of the other. The others jeered, egging him on. He executed a few perfect turns then posed, model-style with cheeks sucked in. By this point he was too caught up to notice the expressions on the others' faces. Or the hum of the sliding door.
"I'm Leonheart. Squall Leonhart." He swivelled on one heel. "Aren't I beautiful?" His eyes widened and his cavalier visage dropped to his toes. "Oh, hey buddy. 'Sup?"
For a moment, Squall merely stood there, staring at the male with one eyebrow raised and his arms folded. The cabin fell silent and everyone became fascinated with the tiling. Unexpectedly, a new light glinted in the depths of his darkened irises and he took a step into the room.
"Actually, Kinneas, it's more like this." Walking further onto the passenger deck, arms swinging at his sides, Squall amazed them all by carrying on with the joke. He completed a sharp turn, without moving his head and seated himself next to Selphie. Slid his elbows onto his knees and hunched over, now staring at the floor. At his next words, the Ragnarok filled with a cacophony of teenage hilarity. Dry and humourless, they fit the stereotype of their commander with brilliance.
A short while later, Selphie steered the ship toward their destination. They had enough fuel in the hold to get them to Centra so Squall had arranged for a Garden vessel to meet them on the Cape of Good Hope the following day. No one was too terribly upset with the unexpected delay. The location was more than ideal. Although anything would be better than camping out on the Island Closest to Hell. The very name did not inspire summer home fantasies.
As they neared the coast, Selphie felt an unusual prick of homesickness. Sighing, she adjusted her speed and prepared for landing. The tiny stone house just down the hill from a shining lighthouse came into view on the windshield.
"It's been so long since I've been here." She thought out loud. "Not since the war."
"Edea sure has fixed things up." Leaning over her shoulder, Irvine checked out the view. "The gardens are just as gorgeous as when we were kids."
"So is the beach." On Selphie's other side Quistis stood gazing out the window. "I can only remember bits and pieces but one thing I'll never forget is the feel of the sand and the sun. Makes me want to pick up a shovel and build a castle."
"Or dig for treasure." Over the other female's head, Irvine met Quistis's gaze, eyes twinkling.
Circling around the peninsula, Selphie searched for a good spot to set down. Now that they were flying closer, they had an excellent view of the cottage. Coming up behind Quistis, Zell peered out the glass. His heart beat with an unknown excitement. Although he loved his adoptive mother with the utmost devotion, there was still something magical about this place that held a fragment of his soul.
"Hey! Isn't that Matron?" His eyes lit up when a slender woman appeared on the porch below. Lifted his hand to wave in turn.
"She can't see you, silly." Selphie rolled her eyes. "We're too far up still."
"So? Hey, who's that?"
The door of the cottage reopened and the woman was joined by a taller frame.
"I don't know I can't tell." Quistis leaned forward and squinted. The light of the sun shone into her eyes making it difficult to distinguish anything.
On the ship's second trip around, they were noticeably closer and Irvine's brows raised in recognition. "It's Seifer."
"What's he doin' here?" Enraged, Zell scowled at the pane, as if he could somehow make the offending male vanish by sheer will.
"This is his home, too," reminded Selphie.
Quistis tilted her head and examined the stance of their former classmate and friend. Despite all that had happened over the years. All the changes that had occurred inside and out, there was one thing that could never alter. Their past. She realized she never wanted it to. For the most part, there was no record of their lives before they had come to the little house. The first war had taken care of that. All they had was this plot of land by the sea. And that was enough.
"It's kind of apt, that he's here." Quistis said quietly. "It's more than a home, it's a refuge. No matter what happens, this place will always be here. It's the only thing we can count on. All of us."
When the landing gear was down and the Ragnarok had touched ground – not a moment too soon Selphie noticed with a slight gulp – they all stretched and headed for the elevator. Irvine was prevented from following Selphie onto the lift by Zell's light touch on his coat sleeve.
"I don't trust him, Irvine."
He shrugged and smiled. "You didn't once trust me very much, either."
"Yeah, but he's different. He's…he's evil." The look on his face was so serious, Irvine had to bite his cheek in order to check the instantaneous laughter.
"Naw, he's just confused, is all."
Zell snorted. "My ass."
"You're just sore he messed up your sand castle!" Selphie called over, taunting. "Now hurry up! I betcha Matron's got those yummy cookies waiting!"
Unhappy but knowing he was outnumbered, Zell did as he was told. If he grumbled louder than usual no one mentioned anything.
"Cheer up." Quistis nudged him with her side then reached over to pat him on the back. "It could be worse." The lift lowered to the bottom floor where Squall and Rinoa stood in wait, loading bay doors flung open to the strand. Her lips quivered. "He could have rigged your T-board so that the brakes failed and you end up crashing into the woman's washroom to stop." Laughing gaily, she dodged out of his reach, skirted around his next lunge and ran toward the sand and their memories.
The rest of her siblings were right behind.