Chapter Twenty: Curtain

I dressed myself up in tinplate armour

But you got me in the end.

Yeah, you really sunk your teeth in, spitting all that sweet pretence.

But I'm pretty good at curtain calls,

In fact I've been practising my swansong

And you keep trying to tell me that you'd been trying to tell me all along.

Thea Gilmore: The Things We Never Said.

 "We're heroes of a sort, the ones who crawl off cursing after the curtain falls."- Joanne Harris: The Ugly Sister.

"Seifer!?"

The former Sorceress' Knight gave the world's wildest double take as he slid to a stop.

A group of people blocked the corridor in front of him, just as he'd been expecting from the noise. He hadn't been expecting to recognise most of them. From their regimented discipline and neat uniforms, it was a fair bet they weren't the rebels he'd been searching for.  

Selphie. Irvine. A few other SeeDs whose names and faces he vaguely recalled. A few more that he didn't.

It didn't really surprise him, after the first second. By the time he'd worked out just how much shit he was in, it was already too late. There was a click as the barrel of a gun was instantly aimed at his chest.

"Don't move." Selphie snapped.

Seifer took one look at her face and realised that his luck hadn't so much run out as sprinted.

There was a scream from their left, very close.  Seifer turned his head, trying to place the voice. It had to be the rebels, or what was left of them. He looked round at bare stained walls, trying to work out just how bothered he should be and then decided that there were more important things for him to worry about. Like if he could make it round the nearest corner without being perforated.

The answer, he decided, was no.

A brief burst of gunfire carried down the corridor, followed by a second bloodcurdling scream. Seifer tried misdirection, hoping to divert attention away from himself. "There's people dying there."

"That's strange, what with you being over here and all." Selphie replied.  She had dropped into a fighting pose, bouncing slightly up and down on the balls of her feet with her nunchucks at the ready. They looked absurdly large in her small hands, the warrior equivalent of mittens with strings attached to make sure you didn't lose them. Seifer looked at her and weighed up the chances of him being able to fight his way out.

I reckon I could beat Selphie. Maybe Irvine as well, if I'm really lucky.

It's just a pity about the other fifteen or so heavily armed SeeDs.

Irvine's face was barely visible under the brim of his hat, his rifle raised to his shoulder. "Drop your weapon.  Or have it shot out of your hand."

The cowboy's voice was so edged Seifer could have used it to shave with.  Cursing, he let Hyperion drop to the ground. Somehow the time for fighting back had passed without him even being aware of it.

"Kick it away."

Seifer took a second's fierce pleasure in booting the gunblade behind him, away from the SeeDs. Let them get it.

Selphie's face took on an abstracted expression, her knuckles turning white on the grips of Strange Vision.  "He's junctioned."

"Doesn't matter. I can get him before he summ…." Irvine's brain caught up with his mouth. "Where the hell did you get a GF from, Almasy? Which one?"

"Bahamut." Selphie and Seifer said at the same time. Seifer rolled his eyes. An answering growl reverberated round the inside of his skull.

Irvine's finger twitched on the trigger of his Exeter. "I thought you gave….."

"Quistis.." Selphie agreed, flicking one finger.

The group of SeeDs split cleanly into two halves, faces grim and, Seifer thought, blandly forgettable. The left group raced off in the direction of the earlier shots with commendable military discipline and the speed of racing greyhounds.  The remainder moved down the corridor towards Seifer, circling him warily. Their boots brushed quietly on the scuffed lino floor with ghostlike whispers. Seifer read the signs of combat on their uniforms and near-identical expressions of wary anger on their faces. Selphie's last comment hung in the air.

The gunfire from around the corner resumed, then ceased.

"What did you do with her, Almasy?" Irvine asked.

Seifer, for once, thought very carefully before he opened his mouth. "She's fine. At least she was when I left her. Of course, that might have changed since I last saw her, thanks to you bunch of fuckwits." The swearing was automatic, but he'd be dammed if he was going to watch his language.  Come to think of it, he probably was anyway, so no great loss.

Selphie frowned. "Where?"

Seifer pointed, and then resorted to jerking his head as the ring of cadets surrounding him stepped back a pace and brought their weapons to bear. He didn't bother to look down at his battered jeans and T shirt, knowing that they bore the telltale red dots of several high-powered standard issue rifles. They called it sniper's flu on the training ground.

Selphie relaxed a bit, her automatic antagonism fading slightly. "Rinoa's taken a troop round that way."

"You want to know where Quistis is? She's holed up in a storeroom with thirty-odd civilians."

"Armed?"

Seifer shrugged. "Some. She's got Shiva and Siren"

"Where, exactly?" Irvine asked. He touched a mike on his collar and spoke softly into it, glancing across at Seifer.

"Left, left, fourth right, just follow the screaming. You can't miss it."

Selphie twirled her nunchakus theatrically and tucked them under her arm. "I don't suppose for one minute you're going to surprise me by explaining what you're doing here?"

"It'd take too long." Seifer said. He shook his head, the scar itching fierily between his eyes, and waited for a bullet. Squinting as a cadet's laser sight wandered, tracing gently across his left pupil, he watched the second party of SeeDs begin to reappear from the T-junction further down the corridor. A few helped stumbling people along, others carried ominously still forms between them. It looked like the screams had been the other rebels, after all. Seifer found it hard to be sympathetic.

A cadet appeared abruptly at Selphie's elbow, holding Hyperion gingerly.  He handed it to Selphie, who ran her fingers over the weapon without taking her eyes off Seifer, her nunchakus tucked in her armpit. Finally she frowned and passed the gunblade back to Irvine, muscles standing out on her thin arms from its weight.

The Galbadian levelled his own gun at Seifer and kept it there, cocking the trigger with his right, the buff of the rifle jammed against his body to keep it level. He examined Hyperion with his gloved left hand while the ex-knight fumed. "It's been fired."

"I'm in a fucking hospital full of monsters, what the hell did you think I was doing?"

Seifer snapped.

Selphie cut him off. "Anything else?"

Seifer shook his head. He didn't think one razorblade counted, and all of his other weapons had been handed out to the rebel forces. Besides, the whole point of his emergency razor was that you didn't tell people about it.

Irvine lowered the Exeter. "Scan."

The cadets surrounding Seifer stepped back a tiny bit as a red haze burst from Irvine's fingertips. Seifer shivered as the spell washed over him, feeling far too much like sorceress-magic to his taste. He looked challengingly at Irvine.

"He's telling the truth. And he does have Bahamut." Irvine raised one black-gloved hand to his collar and spoke again into his radio mike.

"I'll get it." Selphie smiled faintly, folding her ludicrously garish nunchucks in half. She shouldered the cadets aside and advanced upon Seifer. Stood right next to him, she reached to his shoulder, but there was very little left of the manically cheery girl Seifer had glimpsed from the depths of Quistis's wardrobe. Confident and calm, junctioned to the teeth, Selphie was all SeeD.

She reached out cool fingers and pressed them to his wrist. "Transfer Junction: Bahamut."

"Hey, hang on a mii.." Seifer's futile protest was cut off as Selphie's magic bored its way into his mind.

When Quistis had given him the GF, it had felt strange, but powerful and he hadn't hated it as much as he thought he would. In fact he hadn't hated it at all and that had been the part he'd liked least.

Bahamut's abrupt removal felt like Selphie had just reached into his skull, ripped out a piece of his brain and stirred the rest round with a stick for good measure. Seifer raised both hands up to push her away, unsheathing long blueish claws with a throaty growl, twisted and fell back against the wall and into swirling storm-grey clouds, the moon full and bright above his head. He surfaced with a gasp, tried to balance himself with his tail and then realised with a shock that he didn't have one. Ducking his head, he raised both hands to his temples as a headache threatened to cleave his skull in half, and then lowered them as he fought to focus. Figures solidified slowly around him, the nearest a bright blob of sunburst yellow.

To his surprise, Selphie looked almost as sick. She was bent over not far away with her hands resting on her knees and a couple of cadets fussing round her.  Irvine dropped Hyperion, slung Exeter over his shoulder and went to her, one arm hooking round her narrow shoulders to pull her up.

"Sefie..what happened, sunshine?"

Selphie gasped as if she'd just run a race. "That is one ….bastard of a GF."

Irvine's eyes were hard. "They should get on fine, then."

Seifer slouched back against the wall and wished he had a cigarette. The ring of cadets watched him nervously with a caution that he found vaguely gratifying. Their laser sights burned on his chest, a figment of his imagination but none the more irritating for that.

His head ached.

Seifer looked curiously over at the other SeeDs. Irvine was slouched against the wall a few metres down the corridor, talking to Selphie in a soft voice. The pair's body language made it blatantly obvious that they were a couple and Seifer wondered for a second how he might use this new knowledge to his advantage.

Hmmm. Wonder if they'd be sympathetic to me and Quistis…ah, hell, no chance. Academic, anyway, after this.

A few minutes later Selphie pushed Irvine away and straightened up. Feet apart and hands on her hips, she rubbed one hand across her forehead. "What have you been doing all this time?"

 "Don't think it paid every well" Irvine muttered.

Seifer looked down at himself, critically. Since leaving Garden he hadn't paid much attention to his clothes, a side effect of not having a free laundry service, but he was prepared to bet that he looked like shit compared to the neat and tidy SeeDs. He scraped a long clot of drying Creep blood of his T shirt with one hand and transferred it to the wall.

Selphie gave him a look of utter distaste. Irvine moved closer to her, an alert and easy don't-even-think-about-it physical presence behind her small frame. His tan duster swirled dramatically behind him. Seifer suddenly missed his own coat, two years rotted in a dump somewhere in Trabia. He gave the Galbadian's Irvine's collar button a nod. "Can you check on Quistis?"

Irvine's hand reached up automatically to touch the miniature microphone. "Why?"

"Because." Seifer said, unhelpfully.

"Do I even want to know?"

 "Just do it."

One of the nearer cadets, less scared or more foolhardy than the rest, nudged him in the ribs with a rifle barrel. "Don't talk to them like that! Don't you know who they are?"

Selphie winced, a tiny movement that she almost immediately stifled. Irvine's expression was unreadable under the wide brim of his worn leather hat.

Seifer smiled nastily, doubting very much that the cadet knew who he was. "I'll talk to them however I fucking want."

"Shut up. We'll have you court-martialled." the SeeD threatened.

 "On top of the death sentence? Be my guest."

Selphie gave the SeeD a sharp look, and snapped "Ignore him. He's just trying to wind you up." She turned to Seifer. "Why?"

"Look, you were going to do it anyway. Just check."

Selphie glared for a second, and finally nodded to the cowboy. Irvine gave her a quizzical look but touched the button on his coat anyway, speaking in a soft South Plains drawl. "Squad B. Come in, I repeat, Squad B. Situation report. Sit-Rep needed."

The reply was inaudible. Irvine flicked his coat collar up, fiddling with the button and brushing back strands of wavy dark red hair. Selphie clasped her hands behind her back and watched him.

Seifer fidgeted while trying to keep very, very still. He would have chewed his nails if he hadn't thought he'd get shot if he so much as twitched a finger.

The SeeDs held their positions until Irvine looked up, his body language subtly relaxing and said "She's fine. Rinoa's squad are with them now." He looked round at the corridors, sharpshooter eyes taking in the bullet holes and trails of blood where the second team had exited. "Do you know if there's anybody else in here?"

Seifer shook his head, feeling laser sights waver and re-aim. "No. Don't think so. Just the two groups."

Irvine looked satisfied. "That's what Rinoa said. They're leaving now, and we're done here."

Thank fuck.

Seifer told himself firmly that he'd known all along that Quistis would be fine, part of him relieved and another part refusing to believe the news was true and wanting desperately to see her. One mental image haunted him, the way she'd looked when he left her, face pale and blue eyes tired, in the company of people who weren't quite enemies. He tried unsuccessfully to replace it with a picture of one of their several happier moments, and then gave up the fight. After all, his subconscious had always been a bitch.

He tried to be grateful that Quistis had survived. It looked like that the only way out for him was through, but Trepe was fine, at least. Seifer didn't hold much hope for himself. After all, the last gift he'd got from Squall had been a permanent facial scar and the news that his side had just come second.

The thought was incredibly depressing.  In some ways it felt like his escape from time compression, likes nothing else mattered apart from him and his black mood.  The adrenaline of the fight had long since guttered out. Seifer leant back against the wall and looked round.

Irvine and Selphie had walked off to one side. By the looks of it they were having a heated discussion, and both were ignoring the ex-knight with such conviction that Seifer reasoned that the argument must be about him. Irvine had one hand on Selphie's shoulder, talking down to her with energetically waving hand gestures. The small Trabian girl had raised herself up on the toes of her boots to hiss into Irvine's face, hands on her hips.  Watching them, Seifer realised two things.

One, that Quistis probably wasn't going to wait for him. Quistis followed the rules, and technically she hadn't broken any. In Trabia she hadn't told Squall that Seifer was still alive because she'd genuinely thought he'd been dead, a fact that had helped his cover story no end. In Hana everybody else had considered him deceased, so there were no rules to break. So, technically she was clean. Morally was another matter, but morals had always confused Seifer slightly so he shelved that issue for later consideration.

Two, that he would be going back one way or another. Somehow, Seifer had never imagined himself not returning. It would have been much better on his own terms:  he'd always imagined himself sauntering into Balamb's reception desk of his own accord. But if you had to face the music, why not try to dance?

Seifer pressed against the walls with his shoulderblades, levering himself up. He gave the nearest cadet a blinding smile. "Leave it. I'll come." He spread out his hands to either side. "SeeD cadet, Almasy, Seifer, 24602."

After all, he'd always wanted to be famous.

Irvine looked round and shrugged, shoulders rising and falling under his tattered duster. Selphie folded her arms across her chest and grinned triumphantly.

After that, it was easy.

Despite himself Seifer was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the SeeDs travelled to the exits. He was even more impressed by the red-hulled leviathan of a craft that was parked firmly on the roof of the building, though he tried not to show it. The plane looked like a giant Ruby Dragon, huge and scarred with anti-aircraft guns in place of fiery breath. Every polished rib and curved porthole was bolted together with a finely honed sense of aesthetics which, Seifer thought, would make it hell to fly. He'd never been interested in mechanics, but the plane looked fucking cool.

"How come hospitals have a landing pad?" one of the SeeDs asked.

Irvine seemed to be slightly more relaxed now that he thought Seifer wasn't about to go postal. This being Irvine, his manner was so laid-back as to be nearly horizontal. "It's for the emergency helicopters."

They waited in the cool evening sky for a final check of the hospital grounds. Seifer said nothing, covetousness fading as a dark cloud of fatalism settled on him like a well-worn coat. 

The silence was broken only by the roars of monsters the SeeDs hadn't annihilated and the roar of engines as three squat Balamb gunships broke out of the shadows of the cliffs and headed due northwest. Their metal armour glinted among the ripple of the ocean, and then disappeared into the night. Seifer watched them go blankly, imagining a slim peach-clothed figure inside. 

Selphie looked satisfied. "That's the other lot gone."

Nobody else said a word. The SeeDs cradled their weapons like lethal babies and watched Seifer like hawks.

Eventually he was ushered into the belly of the beast, up a narrow flight of fold-down stairs. A door hissed open on his left, the entrance light glowing green, and he was escorted through the low opening and into a hangar with glowing false-lights set into the floor. Maroon bulkheads the shade of old blood lined the walls as they entered a smaller hangar with the yellow warning markings of a lift, and then a larger room dotted with seats, aquarium-style glass panels taking up much of the walls. A SeeD he didn't recognise gestured him into a seat.

Seifer sat, leaned his head against the wall and tried to think of nothing. The alternative, he decided, was too depressing.

The landscape distracted him for a minute. It was nearly full-dark and the moon hung large and low in the sky, dappling the clouds around it with light like watered silk. It was a strange livid green hue, in unearthly contrast to the black clouds and sky surrounding it. There was no wind, the sky so still that it almost looked like a painting. It didn't look all that late, which surprised Seifer.  It felt like several millennia had passed since he'd climbed into the hospital.

Irvine watched him from across the narrow aisle, sprawled over two seats in a pose like a giant pixie. His relaxed pose belied the unwavering barrel of Exeter pointed at Seifer. The gun looked pretty deadly for something that Seifer knew for a fact was made out of flensed dino bones, star metal and a few odd screws.

"Why do I have the feeling that my life is approaching some kind of horrible closure?" Seifer muttered to himself.

The Galbadian looked up, lazy brown eyes sharpening. "I think you're getting 'closure' and 'justice' mixed up."

Seifer stretched out, ignoring him. His boots left long smears of dark rubber on the Ragnarok's floors as he stared out of the window at the sparkling ocean skidding along several hundred feet below the plane. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Irvine, still watching him.

Seifer's head ached like fire. The loss of Bahamut burned in his skull, instantly addictive and unsettling. He knew why Quistis had given him the Guardian Force-but that didn't mean he had to like it. It had been a small and jealous thought that he'd hoarded through the long days and longer nights, way back in Marduk and many times over the past few years.

I'll still have all my brain cells-and the Guardian Force addicted SeeDs will be stumbling rapidly into late-teen senility.  

Now he didn't even have that slightly smug comfort, because his brain was going to be wrecked as well.

Maybe it's for the best. Maybe I won't want to remember who I am or what I did after a few years in D -District.

Actually, maybe I should just take a walk over to that window and jump out

But in the end, he didn't, because surviving was a habit that was hard to break. Strangely enough he felt happy, in a weird sort of way. It was partly the fact that he wasn't going to have to fight any monsters in the next five minutes, guaranteed, and mostly, he had to admit, the attention.  The seat was comfortable underneath him, he wasn't too hot or too cold, and all the younger cadets were regarding him with a fearful kind of awe that reminded him badly of the old Disciplinary Committee days.

I shouldn't be feeling like this. In fact, it's probably proof that I really am a complete bastard, but what the hell.

It took thirty minutes of just-under-the-sound-barrier flying to reach Balamb. To Seifer's surprise, the flight was effortlessly smooth, and this changed into disbelief when he worked out by a process of elimination that Selphie was flying the plane. The sea sparkled darkly far below them, netlike glimpses of city lights appearing as they reached Balamb, FH far to the south and visible only as a faint pale line, the lights of the Horizon Bridge. As they flew closer Balamb Garden glowed faintly, like a particularly baroque Christmas-tree ornament.

It looked just the same as Seifer remembered, back when the crystallised confection of steel and masonry had just meant Home. Apparently none of his wartime depredations had caused any lasting damage. Seifer didn't know whether or not to be pleased or disappointed.

Selphie and Irvine talked behind him, Irvine's position taken up by a couple of hard-eyed SeeD cadets. They gave him nasty looks, which Seifer returned, but they couldn't stop him from listening in.

"I couldn't get Balamb on speaker"

"We'll go in by the 2F door then. Less noticeable. Think that'll do?"

"Should be. But, Irvy, he said Quistis…"

"You don't think..."

"Nah. Can't be. There'll be some explanation. There always is, with her."

"Sure to be."

"Right. Let's go."

Selphie turned, skirt swinging. Seifer abstractly noted that she wore cowboy boots, no doubt a present from the Galbadian. She curtly nodded her head and then turned without looking back, heels clicking on the floors, and exited. Irvine lingered, his torn duster swirling round him in the air conditioning's breeze.

The nearest SeeD raised the butt of his gun to his shoulder and opened his mouth. Seifer stood before the man could tell him to and was half way across the floor before the SeeDs had even moved, smirking as they hurried to catch up. One of the SeeDs stretched out a hand as if to block him, but then stopped at a nod from Irvine, letting him go. Nobody blocked his way, he was surrounded but nobody tried to touch him, or cast magic. It was as if an unwritten agreement had passed between the cowboy and Seifer in the hangar.

I'll go of my own accord, just as long as you let me.

The Galbadian hefted his gun, tipped back his hat, and followed. A couple of SeeDs dropped in front and Seifer followed them back into the hangars and out through the main door, down through the cricket-haunted quiet night with his boots banging on the Ragnarok's descending walkway. Sauntering with a trace of his old arrogance, he didn't hesitate.

The 2F backdoor turned out to be a tiny balcony half way up the Garden's main pyramid block that Seifer half-recognised. The building felt at once familiar but very strange as the small group of SeeDs ushered him down a long and narrow flight of stairs that led to the second floor, the one that held the classrooms.

Makes sense, I guess. Less people this way.

Somebody keyed open the heavily armoured door and Seifer got his second surprise of the day. The hallway was filled with children. SeeDs herded them around like harassed sheepdogs, seeming to have more trouble with groups of five-to-twelve-year-olds than trained mercenaries rightfully should.

Irvine muttered something from behind him. It sounded to Seifer's ears like "Change of lessons. Fuck"

At first it seemed like they might get away with it. A few children's faces turned, but nobody seemed to sense anything out of the usual.

Of course, Seifer realised, they're used to having groups of heavily armed people wandering the hallways. And when you're twelve, two years is a long time. All sorts of things can happen in two years.

He didn't know whether to feel reassured that Garden was functioning as usual, or slightly indignant.

The quandary was solved when he looked up just as they passed the first adult SeeD, a man of about twenty-five, who was frantically trying to sort children into groups. He looked up irritably as the party scythed through his huddle of children, met Seifer's eyes, and then dropped the clipboards he was holding with a clang, seemingly rooted to the floor.

It took all of three seconds for the news to spread among the kids that there was something going on. A sea of childish faces turned, first one, then the other, drawing the attention of their guardians like cats to rotten fish.

Seifer mapped the spread of recognition through the adult SeeDs with a chorus of whispered curses, horrified glances and growing hostility. His hand went automatically for Hyperion before he realised that it wasn't there and the consequences of what he'd just walked into dawned in a single nuclear sunrise.

His feet had walked him into the mess. Now his brain had just caught up.

I must be mad.

There was a shout from one of the classrooms. The mass of children turned, parting like the Red Sea to make way for a second party. In the sudden hush, Seifer could hear the pulse of the Ragnarok's engines as the spaceship disconnected its landing gear from the balcony and pulled away into the night sky.

There was a kind of peaceful inevitability as he recognised the faces of the group coming towards him. A single classman in thick robes and distinctive yellow hat glided before them, speaking into a microphone and pausing every so often to translate her speech into Estharian dialect. 

"And here is the second floor. This is where most of the classrooms are. All our teachers are highly accredited by the standards of most education systems and holy fuck just who the hell is that?"

The classman clapped one hand over her invisible mouth and dropped her microphone. Seifer registered her movements out of the corner of his eyes, staring over her padded shoulders.

Squall. It would be. Not looking a day over eighteen, for all that he must be pushing twenty now. Black, as usual. No weapons. Hmm, nice scar, Leonhart.

The faces surrounding Squall were less familiar. They looked vaguely important, most dressed in Estharian robes. Standing at Squall's right shoulder was a slightly taller man in a turquoise blue workshirt, strands of grey in his long dark hair. His rolled-up sleeves seemed slightly out of place, even incongruous, amongst the formal uniforms.  Beside him stood a massive, bald man who seemed to loom even when standing still and , beside him, a slender dark skinned fighter who carried himself on the balls of his feet in a way that reminded him of Zell. Who, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen.

One of the Estharian party tugged at Squall's sleeve, whispering urgently into his ear.  Squall ignored him, but Seifer caught the words 'trial' and 'prisoner of war' and 'Galbadians' before other voices rose round him to block out the sound.

Irvine's voice was even more heavily accented than usual, vowels rolling liquidly off his tongue. "I didn't know he was showin' the Estharians roun' today…"

"Seifer." Squall's voice sounded terminally unenthusiastic, but then it always did.

"Squall."

Quistis leant back into the plush blue seats and let her breath in a sigh. The reinforcements had come just in time to save the day, but all she could feel was depression, pure and simple distilled essence of this-sucks. Two of the tiny fleet had peeled off to take the casualties to the hospital in Deling City and the few unhurt rebels to D-District for debriefing. Quistis couldn't help feeling that she'd have preferred to bring them to Balamb, but the smaller Garden simply didn't have the holding facilities for thirty-odd prisoners who might still be hostile, and in the end she'd had to be satisfied with this temporary measure. She'd declined all questions, stating flatly that she'd tell the Commander when they got back.  Not before.

Ah, well. I've failed in my mission, but Seifer escaped. Again. This is beginning to become a habit.

Despite Quistis' best intentions, she couldn't help feeling disappointed.  

And no matter how much I tell myself I'm angry, I can't pretend it's true….

She steadied herself with a hand on the seat as the craft rocked around her, cresting through the waves with the grace of a charging bull elephant. The compartment was almost empty, most of the accompanying SeeDs having tactfully elected to decamp to the fore compartment so that Quistis could have some time alone. Rinoa occupied the three seats opposite her, curled up with Angelo at her feet and for once in her life saying nothing. As the craft slowed, nearing the shallower waters of Balamb's large harbour, the sorceress lifted her head from her arms and gave Quistis a worried stare. Angelo whined.

"We should get you to Doctor Kadowaki. You look like you need some help."

Quistis pushed her spectacles up her nose, squinting through a cracked lens. "You may be right."

Rinoa yawned, and tried to hide it badly. "Still, it's nice to know that we've finished the mission."

"Yes" Quistis said, unenthusiastically. She wanted, more than anything, to lay her head right down on the temptingly soft blue cushions and go to sleep, but there was still work to be done. She catalogued her 'to do' list in her head as the boat rocked madly around them. They must be coming into land, she thought, hazily.

One: find Squall for debriefing.

Two: go to the doctor

Three: catch up with Selphie and the rest, find if they got everybody else out safely…..

Now that was a thought.

Quistis cupped her chin in one hand and spoke brightly to Rinoa. "So, have you heard from Selphie?" 

Rinoa nodded. "I didn't catch the transmission, but she sounded quite excited. She said they'd caught somebody."

Every cell in Quistis's body instantaneously went on red alert. "Who? Did they say who?"

Rinoa looked surprised. "I can't remember." She bent down to give Angelo a titbit, smiling as the dog nipped it gently from her hand.

Quistis sighed, exasperatedly. "I'm sure you would. Trust me, Rinoa, this is important. Please try!"

The young sorceress brushed dark silky hair from her eyes. "I don't know. All she said was that they were heading straight to Garden in the plane."

Quistis tried another tack. "When?"

The Ragnarok got in five minutes ago…." She gave Quistis's horrified expression a single glance. "What? Did I say something wrong?"

Quistis lunged up from the couch, crossed the compartment in two fast strides and flung open the hatch catches, leaning her weight on the door to force it open. The sea breeze hit her in the face like a slap as the metal creaked and then suddenly gave, putting her face-to-face with a couple of surprised dockhands who were busy fixing the gangplank in place. She jumped onto the jetty, stumbling as her heels sank into the soft wood.

There was a plaintive wail from the open hatch of the transport. "Quisty!"

Quistis ignored Rinoa and hurried on. Hair whipped across her face as she looked around, praying that the Balamb Garden car was waiting. It was, a long-wheelbase model Jeep with fat all-terrain tyres and polished chrome fenders.   

Quistis swiped her ID card across the doorslot, caught the door as it hissed open and climbed in. Swearing viciously under her breath, she clicked the card into the ignition and shifted into first as the car roared to life around her. First to fifth took her two seconds as the car's wide-based wheels skidded for purchase on the tarmac and then took off like a bat out of hell.   

This feels bad.

I really hope I'm wrong…..

She floored the accelerator and kept it down, flying past the blurred faces of pedestrians in a haze of burning rubber and exhaust fumes and out of Balamb township's gates.

The two-mile road to Garden took all of a minute, Quistis's knuckles white on the steering wheel. She gunned the accelerator right up to the automatic garage doors, pulled across two parking spaces with a blatant disregard for any rules, and leapt out, leaving the engine running and her ID still in the ignition, pausing only when she reached the peaceful surroundings of the 1F hall.

Everything was quiet. The water rippled softly in the moat, competing with the hum of heaters and air conditioning. No explosions. No screams. No Seifer.

Quistis shook her head and headed left to the elevator, hands automatically tucking back tangles of blond hair into her bun. Halfway down the courtyard hallway she met her first cadet and grabbed him by the shoulders, ignoring appearances. 

"Has anything strange happened?"

The cadet, eyes wide, shook his head. His chin bobbed from left to right and then paused, his attention drawn away from the dishevelled instructor holding his upper arms in a grip like a vice.  Quistis followed his lines of vision and narrowed her eyes.

The cracked lens of her spectacles shattered half her vision into miniature kaleidoscopes, but despite this, she could see that a crowd had gathered on the second floor of the Garden.  There looked to be about fifty people there, but they were almost eerily silent.  

Quistis let go of the hapless cadet and took off at a dead run for the elevator as he stared after her, a horrible sense of dread rising in her mouth.  

The lift, predictably, took ages to come, and even longer to reach the top as Quistis stabbed at the keypad with fingers suddenly made clumsy. Her reflection stared back at her from the glass doors, pale, drawn and haggard, hair and clothes a mess. Reaching up, she traced the line of dark dried blood on her face.

I don't look like myself any more. I don't know what to do. 

The lift ground to a stop, elevator music fading out.

Quistis was through the doors before they had even opened fully. She ran straight into a crowd of turned backs and pushed through the spectators, using a mixture of determination, elbows and reputation to obtain a good view.

She wound up against one of the pillars that supported the classroom walkway, with a good view of both antagonists.

Seifer. Squall. It didn't surprise her.

Seifer scowled. His jaw was set, arms folded defensively across his chest. Thankfully, he appeared to still be in one piece, though Quistis wasn't sure how long this happy state of affairs would continue.    

Squall faced him, backed by a small group of visiting dignitaries. Quistis recognised most of them with a sinking heart. There was the current President of Esthar, and Squall's father, Laguna Loire, backed by his two best friends and most of his cabinet. There was the Headmistress of Trabia Garden, her long greying hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, with the current President of Dollet, a personal friend of hers.

Quistis named them all automatically, thanking Hyne Martine was absent. Now that would have been a real can of worms.

Squall coughed. "You're back."

Quistis swallowed, wondering whether or not to step forwards.

Seifer scowled harder, if such a thing was possible "Yes."

The Trabian Headmistress glared at Seifer like he was a cockroach.  "Cadet 24602, there is a warrant out for your arrest for crimes committed during the Second Sorceresses Wars against Balamb Garden. Namely, an attack on the then President of Galbadia, Vinzer Deling, numerous assaults on Balamb SeeDs and betraying the cause and order of the Garden organisation to side with Sorceress Edea. How do you plead?"

Quistis guessed that the stern little woman had practised the speech.

Seifer just shrugged. He looked tired and ill-equipped in the midst of so many ramrod-straight SeeDs and agog children.

Squall held up one hand. "No."

"What?" The Trabian woman looked aggrieved.

Squall spoke quietly, but his voice carried effortlessly across the hall. "Vinzer Deling is dead and as such cannot press charges.  As for the Edea question, the sorceress herself was acquitted of all blame. Which leaves the attacks on Balamb SeeDs to be dealt with, and, as the Commander of Balamb, I claim the right to deal justice."

"Hey. You don't have to make excuses for me." Seifer broke in. He was talking to Squall, but his gaze searched the crowd and finally met Quistis' eyes in a glance that was almost gentle. A goodbye, she guessed, of sorts.

"I'm not. We finish this. Now." Squall glanced round at the surrounding faces, then seemed to come to a quick decision. His voice wasn't particularly angry, but it wasn't friendly either. "A duel, Almasy."

"Fine." Seifer's face was unreadable. "Taped gunblades?"

Squall only shook his head. Seifer raised an eyebrow, slouched on the corner of the desk like he hadn't a care in the world. One shoulder moved slightly under his tattered T-shirt in a gesture that might have been a shrug.

Quistis spared a moment of admiration for Squall. Yes, this is clever of him. He knows Seifer will never back down in public, and that this needs to be sorted out as fast and decisively as possible.

Of course, this show of heroic bravery isn't exactly doing his PR any harm, either..

One of the watching cadets stepped forwards, watching Seifer warily, as if he might explode. "Sir, are you sure that's…..

Squall held up one hand. "Leave it."

"I mean.."

"Just leave it, I said." Squall didn't turn to face the crowd. A stray ray of sunlight caught the ring on his upraised hand as he stood there in the midst of his SeeDs, facing Seifer down.  Squall's other hand moved almost unconsciously to the hilt of the Lionheart.

Seifer gave him a mocking glance, but said nothing. The rivals were staring at each other like two angry cats, all hackles raised, claws barely showing. Both dressed in black, this time.

"When?" Seifer spat out the comment as a challenge, a dropped glove

"Now."

"Fine."

There was a collective breath from the crowd, a kind of indrawn frission of excitement that earthed itself through every bystander. The tense silence was broken by a susurrus of racing whispers.

"Now…"

"He's going to do it. He's going to beat the Knight." 

"He's going to execute him."

Oh, Hyne…Quistis thought, and shrank back into the crowd. 

No one'll dare to challenge Squall.. he isn't going to back down, and he won't change his mind. And nobody will dare call him on it because then it'll look like they doubt him. That Seifer might be able to beat him.

But I know he won't. He might be good, but Squall's had all that time to train…

Squall's better.

This is so stupid.

She glanced frantically around for possible allies, catching a glimpse of Rinoa's sleek black hair as the crowds closed around them both.

No.

Anyone else…..somebody, anybody…

Her glance fell on a mismatched pair of figures stood slightly apart from the rest at the edge of the crowd. Sunlight gleamed from the woman's shining silver hair, reflected from the hulking shoulder pads of her taller partner. 

Fuujin. Raijin..

She fought her way to them, through the assembly. Raijin gave her a nod of acknowledgment as she reached them. Fuujin stood like a statue, with her arms folded and her back to a pillar, and said nothing.

Quistis looked from one to the other, suddenly at a loss for words. She cleared her throat "Help me..stop this."

Fuujin gracefully deigned to break the silence. "NO."

"I haven't even asked you yet."

"KNOW. NO."

It should have been impossible to distinguish the two words, but Quistis heard the slight emphasis on the second phrase.   Fuujin didn't talk much, but she never had any problem making herself understood.

"She'd right, you know." Raijin put a protective arm round the silver-haired woman's shoulders. Fuujin shrugged the gesture off automatically, but Raijin didn't seem to mind.

"It's what he wants."

"How can you think that..?"

This is Seifer, she wanted to say. Seifer, who's cheated death so many times the guy'll be coming to ask for his shirt back one of these days and this kind of fatalism just isn't like him… My Seifer, and I haven't even had a chance to talk to him without pretending since we left the hospital….

"KNOW." The small woman stared out at her from her single eye, face hard as adamantine.

"Please."

Fuujin seemed to soften. She gave Quistis a cool look that somehow conveyed that she knew exactly what she'd been doing, and who with and no, she didn't have to like it, but sometimes that was how it was, and if it was okay with Seifer, then it was okay with her.

Raijin shook his head. "We're sorry, ya know…With you guys and all..

"How did you…?" Quistis shut her mouth, quickly. Their conversation was beginning to turn heads, and she had enough problems without standing like a startled goldfish among a crowd of young and highly impressionable cadets.  "Who else?"

Fuujin played with her hair, twirling the silky strands around one finger. She met Quistis' eyes almost shyly. "KNOW SEIFER. LOOKED. AT YOU "

Raijin put an arm round her shoulder and this time the little woman didn't push it away.

"Don't worry. We haven't told anyone. They don't know that the boss and you…"

"RAIJIN, IDIOT!" Fuujin let go of her hair and stamped on the bigger man's foot, a gesture that couldn't possibly have hurt as much as you'd think from the wounded expression on his face. "QUIET!"

"Hey! What did I do…" Raijin protested in a tone of highly injured innocence. "Fuu…"

 Fuujin reached up and put one hand on Quistis' arm, a rarely demonstrative gesture even for her. Quistis could feel the coolness of her palm through the fabric of her uniform. "WAIT. WILL WORK"

Quistis darted an anxious glance back into the midst of the crowd, which had formed in a tight knot around its champion. Seifer was nowhere to be seen.

"PROMISE."

Fuujin turned and walked away, her small size allowing her to disappear imperceptibly into the milling crowd within paces.

"Hey, Fuuj! Wait up..!" Raijin called after her. He turned back to Quistis "It'll be fine, just wait and see. The boss knows what he's doing."

"Really." Quistis said in a tone of extreme scepticism. She noted absently that he hadn't said whether in this context 'the boss' meant Seifer or Squall and found that vaguely comforting.

I wish I had your faith, Fuujin. I really wish I though he had something planned…

Raijin's eyes twinkled kindly in his dark face. "Seeya."

Quistis recoiled slightly as the big man patted her hand with a visible effort to be gentle. Quistis was tall, but Raijin was big, bigger pound for pound than Seifer, and most of it was muscle.

She watched as he followed Fuujin into the crowd, with a lot less grace. The people had parted for the small woman almost imperceptibly, but Raijin elbowed his way through with a gusto that had cadets reeling back from him like a reversed magnet in a bowl of iron filings.

Hyne…

She followed the last press of cadets out into the hallway and stood miserably waiting for the lift and trying not to catch anybody's eyes.  Her stomach was a hard knot of apprehension..

Somebody tugged at her elbow.

"Instructor!"

Quistis looked down into the round, excited face of one of her first-year students.

"It's so exciting, isn't it. The Commander's totally going to kill him!"

"Can we watch?"

"No!" Quistis said automatically, realising as she did so that she didn't have a clue whether the famous meeting of the rivals was going to be a public sport or not.

"Awwww!"

"Can we? Can we, can we, can, we?"

Quistis thought, with a certain grim humour, of the softly, softly approach of the CLA when it came to children's rights. "I don't think so."

"I want to see his head get chopped off"

"Whose head's getting chopped off?" The question came from another student who'd  just recently joined the group.

"The commander's going to chop the evil Knight's head off and there'll be blood all over the place.." one of the other cadets informed him with relish.

"Maybe it'll roll. Bounce, bounce, bounce…

"Cool!"  

Quistis put a hand to her forehead. "Nobody's head is going to get chopped off, all right?" Hoping desperately that what she was saying was true, she adopted a calm, reasonable tone which anybody who'd had dealings with excited children could have told her that that was a mistake." Now, it's almost past your bedtime and I think you're all getting a bit carried away.."

 "Bounce, bounce."

Quistis groaned.

 The tannoy crackled into life. "Commander Leonhart requests that all qualified Seeds report immediately to the training centre. I repeat, all qualified SeeDs report immediately to the Training Centre. All cadets please leave at once for your dormitories. You have five minutes before the automatic locks are activated. I repeat, five minutes."

There was a collective groan from the small group surrounding Quistis.

"Aww."

"Not fair…"

Quistis turned to the elevator just in time to see Zell's familiar jaunty silhouette rising through the lift doors, partially obscured by the sudden crush of people fighting to travel down a level and get to the training centre first.  Quistis looked quickly away, weighing the chances of escaping before he saw her. Not good…

Not now, I really don't want this now.

She looked desperately around for a place to hide. The children were already beginning to disperse for their rooms and they were way too short to hide behind anyway..

The lift doors pinged open and Zell came striding out wearing a grin so large his tattoo wrinkled.  He caught sight of Quistis, waved and hurried over, ignoring her last-ditch effort to escape. "Heard the news?"

"Yes." Quistis said cautiously.

"I can't believe it!. This is so great. He's finally going to teach that rat-bastard Almasy a lesson like he should have done years ago!"

Quistis turned round, slowly, and gave him a Look.

Zell visibly wilted. "Aww, come on, Quisty! It's not like he's going to lose." He brightened, misreading her mood. "Squall's not going to get hurt. He already beat him once, remember? In fact, more than once."

Quistis nodded. Oh yes.…

 "Zell, what did the announcement mean? About all the SeeDs?"

"What do you think it meant? I thought you were smart." His gloved hand came up to her face and patted her none too gently on the head.

Quistis ducked too late and then swatted his hand away, smoothing her bun back into its usual immaculate shape.  Her voice had barbs. "Enlighten me."

"Squall said he wants the whole of Garden to be there. He said they needed to see what's going on."

"Right."

"Except the young ones, because I reckon he'd thought there'd be too much blood or something. Quistis, are you all right?"

Quistis had turned away to lean on the banister, glancing below at the last few cadets hurrying for their dorm rooms. "Yes, Zell. I'm fine." Bless your total lack of emotional perception…

"Cute kids, huh?"

"Zell, they're a load of bloodthirsty miniature vampires."

"Like I said. Anyway, better get going. We don't want to miss the fight."

"No." Quistis said in a voice like a razor. Zell didn't notice, chattering blithely away on the relative merits of death by firing squad versus hanging.

Quistis sincerely liked Zell. He was a nice guy, with all that the expression entailed, the kind of guy who'd forget your birthday and then blow a month's wages on a bouquet the size of a Chocobo to make up for it. It was a pity, because as far as tact went he might as well walk round with his foot permanently in his mouth, to save time. She sighed. "People change."

"Not that much."

"True." Quistis admitted, reluctantly.

Zell took her comment as assent and shut up as the lift came and they both entered Zell bounced from foot to foot, singing a little song. Quistis stared at her reflection in the mirrored glass.

Seifer, why can't you take the easy option? I admit I'm not quite sure what it is, but there's got to be an easier way than this.

But then, for Seifer, fighting probably was the easy option. Easier than backing down in front of a crowd, anyway.

Why, asshole?, she thought furiously and then froze, one hand poised spiderlike over the lift controls as she realised the answer.

Seifer's acceptance of the challenge made a lot more sense if he still believed in the kind of fairytale logic that had got him into trouble in the first place.

I think he'd get some kind of fatalistic, masochistic satisfaction out of it-first the whole drama thing, and then the whole red-hot-shoes-for-the-bad-guy implications. He's got a pretty sick sense of dramatic justice, when you think about it. Does he still believe in that kind of stuff enough to accept his narratively satisfying just deserts? Maybe, if he's worked himself up into a fatalistic enough mood.

Oh, Hyne.  This is bad. This is really bad.

And the  scary thing is, I still have no idea how his mind works, though I'm willing to bet there must be a fair bit of loose wiring somewhere…

The lift doors opened. The halls were empty, children scattered. Those SeeDs she did see were hastening to the Training Centre, some in nightclothes, others in casuals, fatigues, uniforms -everything under the sun. Nobody was going to miss the big showdown.

Quistis checked her watch and hurried along, Zell keeping up easily.

"What's the matter, QT?"

"Don't call me that." Quistis said, but her heart wasn't in it.

Zell looked cautiously into her face, and then tried to put a companiable arm round her shoulders. It didn't work, mainly because they were both walking fast but also because Quistis was two inches taller than Zell. He tripped over his own feet and looked up, slightly abashed.

"It's going to be okay. Squall'll be just fine. We won't let Seifer do anything to the Garden this time."

Quistis gave him a sideways glance, hurrying into the green-striped corridor that led to the Training Centre. She imagined herself sprinting out into the arena, screaming "No!" with dramatic fury, and realised in the same instant that she wouldn't. Her conscience just wouldn't let her, and, if she did convince Squall to spare Seifer's life, the ex-knight would never forgive her.

Zell clapped her on the arm. "Almost there."

Quistis speeded up, smelling the scent of hothouse flowers and warm water. "Yes."

They bumped gently into the outer ring of people as soon as they got into the main hall. The atmosphere reminded Quistis of a concert just before the big band came on. There was the same air of electric anticipation, all eyes focused on the two dark figures standing in a hastily-chalked duel circle engraved in the sand.      

Seifer stood in the circle and watched his opponent carefully. The cool tingle of adrenaline stung his veins, making him feel faintly euphoric. Everything was very vivid, the false wind of the air-conditioning cold on his face. Somebody had given him back Hyperion, he didn't remember who, and wasn't sue that it mattered. He felt cool metal through his patched glove, and grinned.  

He can't lose. Even if I beat him, I won't last five seconds……and then they'll have something to pin on me. The more pointy the better. And they already have plenty of things. I'm going to be one hell of a pincushion.

Clever, Squall. You never used to be this devious. If I lose, I lose, and I'm dead. And if I win, you're dead…..and then I won't live the night.

But who cares? If you're going to go down, you might as well make a lasting impression.  Or at least one hell of a stain.

There was a sneaking feeling-he damn well wouldn't admit it- that there was a weird kind of honour in dying in a fair, witnessed fight against the guy he'd done the most wrong to. All in all, he decided, it was better than a trial. In fact, in a way, it was a trial. By combat.

Seifer gave Squall a challenging grin. "Ready?"

Squall's face was impassive. "Duel rules. Sudden death."

"Fine with me." He gave Squall a mocking half-bow.

The Commander of all Balamb brushed his hair from his eyes. "Yes." He stepped lightly forwards and traced the tip of his gunblade across the sand in a straight line. "Ready?"

"Ready." Seifer snarled.

And they began to fight.

It wasn't the most impressive fight in history, or even the most technically dazzling-certainly neither of the opponents were scoring points-but for sheer drama it had all watchers hooked. Zell cheered Squall on like a football fan. Fujin watched from a corner, arms folded, her face impassive. Raiijin had declined to attend, as had Rinoa. Selphie watched from halfway up the chainlink fence, the pointed toes of her aubergine leather cowboy boots resting gently on Irvine's shoulders. Quistis, frozen in entirely uncharacteristic indecision, watched with her heart in her mouth.

Squall duelled methodically, and with deadly, textbook perfect efficiency, wringing more speed and strength than you would have thought possible out of that deceptively wiry form. Seifer fought with all his usual effectively vicious grace and the fuck-tomorrow smile of a man who had just burned all of his boats.

Quistis watched them both, listening to the hushed conversation of the people around her.

"Nah. He must be good. You seen the Commander fight normally? It's like watching flat racing, no sport at all, it's over so fast, he just -did you see that?"

 "I heard that Squall trains all night. I heard he can take on T –Rexaurs solo!"

"Yeah-you know, in the wars, he killed fourteen Galbadian soldiers. Singlehanded!"

"And a dog, right….."

The hot grass smelled of summer.

Sweat stung Seifer's eyes. He didn't bother to wipe at it, his vision concentrating on the steel flash of Squall's blade, the smaller man's body language and the flicker in his eyes that gave Seifer scant warning of his next attack. They were both bleeding from a half a dozen wounds, moving slower now to store their strength. The fight was still dazzlingly fast, half deadly dance, half brute contest of force.

 Seifer realised he didn't know who had drawn first blood, and then thought that it didn't matter. After all, he knew damn well who was going to draw last, and that very acceptance gave Squall the edge. If you could convince your opponent that they were going to lose, the fight was already half-won. A tactic he'd used many times, with varying degrees of success.

Of course the bastard's realised that wearing black under bright lights makes him fucking harder to see….. 

His free hand fought for a purchase on cloth, missed, and caught at a chain. He pulled automatically, hearing Leonhart gasp, and realised just what he'd got hold of. Squall's necklace. The sharp edges of the lion pendant bit into his hand just below his clenched fist as he pulled, almost laughing as he reversed the grip on his gunblade for a slash.

Dramatic justice, getting strangled by your own accessories..

Leonhart pulled back, choking, the Lionheart out of range. Seifer was too close, and Squall just couldn't bring the sword to bear. The ex-knight pulled harder, twisting the chain-and then swore as the necklace snapped, sending a few odd links scattering across their battleground. The impact sent them both staggering back.

Seifer cursed and dropped the pendant, frantically shifting his grip on the gunblade to allow for long-range combat as Squall went on the offensive. Some old quote from one of the books he'd checked out of the library and never returned ran through his head, over and over…

Pray you never face a good man. He'll kill you with hardly a word.

Seifer, always one for taunting in battle, wondered what that made him…and then he just stopped thinking at all for a second as Squall brought the Lionheart up in a slice that he barely managed to parry. Sweat stung his eyes as he leant on the blade, trying to wear Leonhart down.

It didn't work. Squall neatly disengaged his sword and stepped back. Seifer turned his momentum into a desperate punch to Squall's face, knocking the smaller man back as the crowd hissed. It was a last-ditch attempt, and they both knew it.

Seifer tried and failed to wrench his own sword up in time to block the blow he knew was coming. There was a brief moment of panic and then blind acceptance.

I'm not going to make it…

Squall's gunblade slashed down, not up. The flat of the sword caught Seifer on the back of his hand, not hard enough to lose fingers but sharp and painful enough to make him drop Hyperion, eyes hopelessly following the falling blade as Squall brought his sword to bear on Seifer's throat.

And just like that, the fight was over.

Seifer jerked himself to a halt just in time to avoid impaling himself on the point of Squall's blade.

Fuck.

The point of the Lionheart traced up from the tense muscles of Seifer's neck to the corner of his right eye-socket. It pressed against his cheekbone for a minute, drawing blood, and then reached up to trace his scar.

Seifer, hands up, didn't dare move. His breath rasped in his throat, and he thought he tasted blood. It was some consolation that Squall was breathing hard as well, his vest streaked with sweat. He could smell him, salt and blood and the faintly oily scent of worn leather all overlaid by the sweet sickly tang of the Training Centre's plants.

He won. But at least I made him fight for it.

Squall's eyes narrowed, brow ridging in concentration, his hand shaking just a little on the gunblade's hilt.  Seifer scowled back, refusing to close his eyes.

Damn, the last thing I get to see is that girly bastard

The sharp edge of the Lionheart moved down again to his throat.

 "Fuck, Leonhart, just do it and get it over with."

Squall pressed the gunblade to his neck. Seifer leant his head back. Warm blood trickled down into the hollow of his throat, stinging with sweat. His right hand hurt like hell, and he didn't dare glance down to see how deeply Squall's last swipe had cut.

I think I'm gonna have bigger problems in five minutes, anyway…

Squall leaned closer, sliding the Lionheart's blade along Seifer's skin a bare millimetre from his neck.

"One thing, Almasy."

"What?"

"I talked to Rinoa"

I can't believe we're having this conversation, Seifer thought. First damn thing he's said to me in years and now I'm just about to die and he wants to chat about my ex-girlfriend…

"So?"

The wall of faces was a blur surrounding them both.

"She told me about sorceresses, Almasy. I don't know how it was with you and ..Matron, but she says that she can't force anyone to do anything that's against their secret nature in the first place."

Seifer frowned, trying to work out where this was going. "Rinoa's no Adel.  Or even an Edea."

"I think we both know that. I'm going to ask you something and listen very carefully because I'm going to say this only once. In the wars. Did you know what you were doing all that time? Did you enjoy it?"

There were old buried memories in Squall's clear grey gaze, shades of the D-District prison and a younger, stupider Seifer who'd believed so absolutely in the rightness of his actions that he'd never once stopped to question them.

"I might be a nasty bastard but I'm not a fucking coward."

Squall nodded, once, lowered the gunblade, and walked away. 

He got half way across the bark-floor area and turned

"Seifer."

"Yeah."

"One piece of advice. It won't kill you to act grateful, but if you don't it might. Remember it." 

Seifer stared after him for a long second and then sank to his knees in the earth, its warm alive scent assaulting him like a blow. The nicotine habit caught up with his lungs and he coughed his guts up and then rose to his feet, deciding  that he was walking out of this or nothing.

He looked round at the hazy crowd of staring faces and saw shelter.

Quistis watched, nails dug into the palms of her hands. It had taken ever once of her self-control to say nothing. Telling herself that this was Seifer's fight and he wouldn't thank her for intervening hadn't helped much. And worse, she wasn't sure how she would have reacted if Squall had tried to kill him. 

A hand tapped her shoulder. Stumbling slightly, she turned, and saw her commander. Squall pushed dark unruly hair back behind his ears and leant the Lionheart against his leg.  His other hand held Hyperion, and he seemed not to notice the weight.

Quistis raised one eyebrow.

Should I tell him? Is this the right moment?

She avoided her eyes, pretending to push her spectacles up, and half-turned to catch a glimpse of the arena.

The circle of sand was empty.

"What are we going to do?" she said, half to herself. She wasn't sure whether 'we' refereed to her and Seifer or her and Garden but Squall interpreted her comment as the latter, and frowned.

 "I've never told this to anyone, but you remember back when I found out Rinoa was a sorceress and I was still a SeeD? I loved her, Quistis. I still love her. Even if she ended up, if she ends up, being the world's enemy, I'll still love her. I'll be her knight. But I won't kill innocents for her. There's worse things you can do for somebody than die. He did them.  I didn't. "

His speech surprised Quistis, who grimaced. She didn't understand. Squall had everything to gain but executing Seifer, but he hadn't, and now he sounded suspiciously like he was trying to justify his strategy to her.

Squall moved closer, boots scuffing on the warm sand of the Training Centre.

"However, I am prepared to offer…..protective custody.  I'm not sure if it's worth it. If he's worth it."

"I fail to see what this has got to do with me?" Quistis said, because she thought it was the kind of thing she should have said. The people around them were thinning out, respectfully giving their Commander and one of Garden's most famous SeeDs a wide berth.

"I'm sorry, but…"

"But what?"

"I don't want to ask this of you. I know you didn't get on."

 "What, Squall?"

"Just go and get him, would you?" He didn't wait for an answer, heading for the exit with his deceptively fast stride. Quistis stood with her hands on her hips. She called after him "Where from?"

Squall didn't turn or look round.

Quistis looked down at her feet, boots scuffed and ruined. A ring of tracks deeply indented the scrubby sand, damp from the sprinklers that provided the high humidity the plants and most of the more exotic monsters required to survive.

The artificial lighting, high overhead, hit her from all angles, casting a many-faceted shadow on the soil around her.

Most of the footprints headed behind her, to the massive doors of the training centre. One set headed away from her. Quistis followed the tracks with her eyes. They snaked slightly from the intricate pattern of sword-form footprints left by the duel, Squall's textbook-perfect, Seifer's deeper, larger tracks marked with scuffs and long spattering sprays of sand.

They headed to the Training Centre's second set of doors, smaller than the first, even thicker and caged in steel grids. Blue sparks bounced off the metal from the electrified fence. They looked like they were built to keep in baby dinosaurs, which, coincidentally enough, they were. 

Quistis swore in the privacy of her own head. She stood in the litter of gravel, dropped term papers and what she could have sworn were betting slips for a second and then headed towards the left-hand door, following the tracks.

Half way across the arena she paused and beckoned to one of the stragglers. There was a brief conversation, ending in a small item being passed from hand to hand. Quistis whispered thanks and headed to the entrance.

The doors hissed open in a second, recognising her SeeD ID. They revealed a thickly forested enclosure, planted with palm trees and exotic flowers with surprisingly business-like wipe-clean stainless steel walkways, railings and fence lines. Every metal surface wept condensation, resembling a tropical rainforest. The air was humid and moist, veiled with spider's webs and fed by an intricate network of pipes that poked up every so often from the soil. Sprinklers hissed and from somewhere off to her right a monster let out a bloodcurdling growl.

Quistis ignored it and brushed spiderwebs from her face. She followed the red lights of the perimeter fence off to her left, dodging piles of lumber left for sporing Grat habitat. Water dripped down her tunic and spidersilk trailed across her face, tickling. The prints were less distinct here, the thin layer of soil overlaying concrete slabs and piping didn't take up tracks well, but clear enough to follow. An opening glowed in front of her like the front door of an alien spaceship.      

Quistis went in.

The door opened onto an incongruous balcony, lit by cold blue lights that emphasised the early evening chill on her damp skin. The balcony looked out onto the plains and beaches of Balamb, lush fertile land inhabited only by fierce creatures. Further away Balamb Town glowed on the horizon. 

Quistis waited. He was there. She'd known he would be, after all.

She leant against the doorjamb, wincing a little at the cool stone through her thin uniform undershirt. The jacket had been lost somewhere in the halls and corridors of Cape Wrath's only hospital, ripped up and used as bandages, and she was cold.

She couldn't see Seifer properly in the dark, only enough to know that he was alive, and against all odds still standing. He must have heard her enter, but he didn't turn round, leaning on the balcony like it was the only thing holding him up.

Quistis pulled her soaked hair into a messy knot at the back of her head. She wiped condensation off her spectacles, wiping her fingers over the wet chain and leather of her whip

Have to clean that before it's ruined. Later, perhaps.

She sighed softly, lost for words. A hundred questions ran through her head, and she picked the first one that came to mind. "Why did you come here?"

"Where else? Don't have a room at Garden. Don't know where Fujin and Raijin are. Too dumb to go to the infirmary. Too proud to go after Squall and ask him why the fuck I'm still alive. So that left here. And I'm damn sure nobody else is going to follow me in…"

Quistis heard the one reason Seifer hadn't given, that he would have wanted to lose the crowd, fast. After all, there was a load of hyped-up mercenaries who had just seen that he could be beaten and who didn't like him very much.

Nobody else is going to follow me…….

"Apart from me. You could have come to me."

"I think everybody else's had just enough revelation as they can take today." Seifer said, grimly.

Quistis left the spot where she'd taken root and joined Seifer on the balcony, where they stood uneasily a few centimetres away from each other, careful of who might be looking. She rested her elbows on the balcony sill, feeling the sudden sense of distance underneath, hundreds of feet from the thin stone floor of the balcony to the ground. "I don't think they believe in the Last Minute Redemption theory."

Seifer rubbed one hand over his face, resting his forehead on his palm. "Yeah, I've seen the error of my ways, please don't kill me."

"He didn't." Quistis pointed out.

"I would have, if it was me. Don't know why he didn't, the asshole. And don't think that doesn't piss me off."

"You'd rather be dead?"

"No, I just wonder why I'm not."

The pauses became longer.  Sentences broke off and fell into pools of engrossing silence.  They both turned and stood leaning against the rail, elbows touching, breathing slowly.

There was a long and uncomfortable silence, a sense of things changing, each unsure how to bridge the gap.

Quistis looked down, feeling suddenly awkward. Seifer didn't seem to want to talk, and she couldn't help but feel disappointed that she hadn't been worth living for, despite his crazy suicidal mood.

Seifer coughed, fingers reaching for non-existing cigarettes and closing irritably with a snap.

Quistis checked the illuminated letters on her watch. They had a few minutes before Squall sent somebody else to find out why Quistis wasn't back, a few minutes before they had to return to the real world and face the music. She said simply "I'm proud of you."

"Why? Everything that's happened, it's just been one big accident."

"You came back."

"Swallowed so much pride, it's a wonder I'm not choking." Seifer suddenly looked thoughtful, face blue-lit between shadows. "Besides, aren't you supposed to tell me to mend my ways?"

"It's your life. Do what you want with it." Quistis looked thoughtful.  "Besides, nobody's got that much thread."

"True." He still didn't meet her eyes. They both stared out at the moon, each acutely aware and uncomfortable of the other, each unwilling to talk about the real issues.

"It'll be hard."

"I know."

"But it shouldn't be easy."

Seifer didn't answer. He turned towards her and put one hand on her hip, fingers closing awkwardly around the curve of bone and muscle. Quistis looked up, noting that he was shaking very slightly, moving stiffly as if he ached.

He kissed her lightly on the back of her neck, fingers walking up her spine, and then pulled abruptly away. "It'll be all right. I know it'll be all right. I can make this work."

Quistis nodded, unsure if she believed him or not. She touched him gently on the arm. "Here. I borrowed this. Make it last."

Seifer, surprised, looked down at her palm. The bluish lights coming from the Training Centre gave her pale skin an almost otherworldly glow. Cupped in the centre of her hand was a small paper cylinder, the words Lucky Strikes almost invisibly embossed on its filter tip. He took the cigarette gently, fingers grazing her palms, and stared at it like it was the last smoke in the world, digging in his pocket for a lighter.

"Thought you needed it."

Seifer, hands halfway to his mouth, gave her a sideways grin. "Yeah."

He lit the cigarette and leant his head back, blowing smoke into the velvet-dark night sky.  

The moon shone hazily, just over the horizon, and they both ignored it. Seifer stared into the night, watching something replayed in the darkness behind his eyes. Quistis leant on the balcony railing and watched him, hands clasped loosely. Some time later she checked the glowing numbers on her digital watch, yawned and stretched

"We should go in."

Seifer stubbed his cigarette out on the marble balcony sill and flicked the glowing stub over the side, where it tumbled several hundred feet to the ground, setting light to a small and unremarkable tree.

The moon watched silently from the heavens as the pair turned without touching and made their way back indoors. It was an almost indecently romantic night, a time for secret whispers under the stars, declarations of true love.

Maybe later.

And so it ends.  Hope you liked the final chapter, complete with showdown, and the reappearance of several guest characters (poor klutzy Zell!) The as-yet-unnamed sequel, to be premiered in the autumn, will deal with Seifer's life after rejoining Garden, and the reaction of some other characters to the news. I won't be around this summer as I'm taking nine weeks off to walk from one tip of England to the other (John-O'Groats to Land's End, 1200 miles for the charity Cancer Research), but I've tentatively begun to write bits, and so far it's looking good.  I'll send a blanket email to those of you who have your email addys posted on your profile when the next bit debuts. Have a good summer, and thanks for your input.

See you space cowboys!

Reviews:

Auronzlah: SDTC is much better than GB-mainly because GB was my first finished piece of writing ever, and I hadn't even played the game. I'm actually proud of SDTC, even if it is shudder fanfiction Mnaaa.

Ghandi: I loved this review! Over the last three chapters Seifer has killed many monsters, defeated a Ruby Dragon single-handedly, rescued the girl (kind of) and held two people at gunpoint and he's acting too much like a puppydog? I must be doing something right:D Anyway, hope this fits the bill.

Ghost140: Seifer has many redeeming qualities. He's usually honest, incredibly loyal, and extremely talented at killing things-but he's on his own side, just like everybody else.

Kjata: I'm glad it wasn't mushy. Real romance just isn't, and Seifer and Quistis might be the least romantic people ever.

Nynaeve77: Thanks for your comment on the 'underlying tenderness' between S and Q-that's what I was going for. However, the word 'love' will never pass their lips. Thank fuck.

Mana Angel: Ahh, Seifer and Bahamut-that's a given. That damn GF killed me four times-more than anything else. And he's an arrogant shit too, so I thought it was fitting.  

Quistis88: Thank you, you nice person:D

Sabriel41: Ooh, ta! Thanks for the well-wishes.

Seventhe: Ta! This is the last, for now. I was beginning to lose it a bit towards the end..it's just a good job I had most of this finished all ready.

Sheep the adventurer: Thanks, reviewer with the insanely cool name.

Sickness In Salvation: Good luck with your exams too:D

Sulou: Whew, ta! The Quistis-tends-the-injured-man bit was written to blow off steam after Veterinary Revision Hell. When I gave it to my sister to crit, she emailed me back three words: Lose the intestines.

Ta,

kate

and, because everybody seemed to like my beta's other comments….an early version of ch10.  

("His tongue explored new territories inside her mouth as the darkness pressed close around them both".

As well as being a cliché, this brings up images of Eddie Izzard's "Flag" sketch "We claim this territory for His Majesty the King!/But we live here."

Also from a purely practical point of view, they have been going out for three weeks, there's probably very few places his tongue hasn't been.)

Heh.