Zell slipped out of the narrow bed into cool pre-dawn ocean air. He'd always been an early riser, and besides, Irvine snored. He wouldn't get any more sleep, not tonight.
Catching his shoes and gloves up off the table, he shut the hotel room door quietly behind him and padded down the stairs barefoot. The desk attendant was nowhere to be seen, so he got to escape the confines of Hotel Balamb without breaking his morning silence. No one would ever believe that he enjoyed being mute, but he did. The space between waking and his first "Good morning!" was precious, a still time for reflection. Today he wanted it to last as long as possible; he had a lot of reflecting to do.
He picked his way across the smooth cobblestones with practiced ease. He'd lived in Balamb most of his life. Once, he'd believed that he'd always lived there, next to the sighing ocean, but he knew that not to be true now. Still, it felt true. This was his home, and always would be, however short his life might turn out to be.
He keyed open the door to his Ma's house and shut it with a quiet snick. He didn't want to wake her up, although he knew she wouldn't disturb him even if he did. He'd done this countless times after entering the ranks of Balamb Garden, and he knew she understood. She understood the strange desire to leave his bed before the sun rose and sprint silently along that paved road, silver in the moonlight. To exist in the home of his childhood for a while, wander, finger the relics of pre-adolescence and leave again before the sun rose.
Sometimes he did want to talk; when that was the case, he clattered pans and things clumsily in the kitchen until she rose from her bed and helped him, laughing at his breakfast antics. He hated to wake her but sometimes his need for her was too much. She understood him like no one else did, and never mind that she wasn't his mother like he'd always thought.
But he didn't want to talk today. He didn't think it would do either of them any good. When you're pretty sure you're going to die, you don't go and tell the person who loves you most about it.
So he took the stairs two at a time to his room, shedding shoes, gloves, and clothing into a tidy pile on his bed before stepping into a cool shower. He didn't often take warm ones, not a child of hot seaside Balamb. Cool water always washed away the stickiness.
He dressed in clean clothes and put the old ones away. He performed his morning rituals: shaving blonde fuzz off his face and spiking his hair. He really didn't care one way or another anymore if he got a few extra inches out of his bangs; having someone laugh at his ridiculous hairstyle was reward enough for him these days.
That done, he felt more awake. The sun was rising, but he still didn't feel like uttering his first words of the day. He slipped out the front door as quietly as he had entered and walked down to the docks, sitting down and dangling still-shoeless feet in the warm water.
Three days, and the final battle would begin. No, two days now.
"Love, friendship, and courage," Laguna had said, and he'd been right. Zell knew he had all three. His friends were the only real ones he'd ever had; the strength of their bond still surprised him when he thought about it. Courage had never been an issue for him; Zell had gotten into enough scrapes to know that he didn't fear fights or being hurt, even dying. Everybody went sometime, he figured. No point in dwelling on it or ruining your life trying to avoid it. And love? He had plenty of that. He loved his Ma, and she loved him. He loved the green planet he stood on. He knew he still didn't quite understand what Time Compression was all about, but that was all right- 'the world destroyed' seemed clear enough to him and he loved the world enough not to want that. For the planet's sake and for its people's sake.
So he would fight. That's what his grandfather would have done. No hesitation, and no fear. Zell was determined to go the same way, and if he didn't see how six people could stand in the way of such powerful opposition, well, better to go down fighting than to roll over and just take it.
He swished his foot through the water. The others would probably be waking up soon. Well, Squall would be waking, and Irvine would be snoring, and then Squall would be pushing him out of the bed with his boot. Zell knew. They'd stayed in hotels before. At any rate, he should probably get back.
He put on his shoes and trekked up the hill toward Hotel Balamb.
Opening the large doors, he noticed that the lobby wasn't empty.
He stepped inside and recognized her instantly. That girl from the Library. He couldn't remember her name, but he knew her face. She wielded a staff. He'd seen her practicing once, facing off with Raijin. He remembered thinking how graceful the spinning wood was, how fluid the movements of the girl were. He'd stood there in the Training Center, watching as the slim girl stepped slowly toward the towering Raijin, as the ends of her staff blurred and began to whirr. He'd slipped away then, he'd had an appointment to keep with his Instructor. But whenever he saw the quiet girl he remembered how entranced he'd been. Almost hypnotized. He'd never talked to her, though he might have liked to.
And she was here now, looking up at the curved ceiling, holding something flat in her arms. Maybe this was his chance to talk to her. It might be his last.
He walked up to her, just as she turned to face him.
"Oh!" she said, and smiled. "Zell."
He couldn't think of anything to say. She knew his name. She's pretty, was the only coherent thought in his head, and he couldn't say that- he didn't even know her name. He wondered how loud she would laugh if he blurted it out. Loud enough to wake Irvine up? Maybe.
She didn't seem to mind, though he was sure she noticed. "Zell, I really hoped you'd be here. I thought you'd like to read this."
He just stared at her helplessly. She was really pretty.
"I'm glad I found you." She lowered her eyes. "Really glad."
He blushed. Her meaning was unmistakable. Say something, idiot, he scolded.
"Like," he began, "umm..." Tch! Something besides that! You sound like Irvine. "I've got a few issues of Combat King," he offered, hoping he didn't sound as inane as the thought he did. He knew she loved books. "But reading books is kinda rough for me right now. Squall doesn't really like it when I bring books into the fightin'. Says it's hardly quiet enough there." He bent and scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. That was lame. Totally lame, Zell.
But she laughed, covering her mouth, looking at him with dancing eyes. He straightened, feeling a little reassured but wondering what she was laughing at. His stupid joke, or him?
"I know," she said. "That's why I checked out this book." She held it out to him then, and he couldn't restrain his exclamation.
"Alright!" Wow, she'd gotten him Combat King 3!
He'd been bugging Squall about it for weeks, begging to go to the Esthar bookshop. He was sure they'd have it there. But the other SeeD had refused repeatedly, saying, "Not now, Zell. We're going back to the Deep-Sea Research Center today," and, "Zell, calm down," and, "Zell, let go of my leg, now." Nothing had worked, but now he wouldn't have to bug Squall any more. He hugged the magazine, and looked at the girl.
She blushed and paused. He wondered what was wrong. She had no idea how happy she'd just made him.
"Each time," she began, and faltered. He cocked his head at her questioningly. Each time what?
She continued, face flushing a deeper red. "Zell, each time when you read this book, please," and she stopped again. He gave her an encouraging look. "Think of me." He blinked, and she continued in a rush. "Even if it's just a little. It would be enough to fill my heart."
And then both their faces were flaming. He was sure he'd never been happier. Or more embarrassed.
Her hand flew to her mouth as she realized what she had just said to him. "I'm sorry, Zell! I just had to tell you. Take care of yourself!"
And then she was walking away. And he hadn't said anything. Hyne! She'd given him this great magazine- and so much to think about. And he hadn't even thanked her, hadn't even found out her name. He wanted to go after her as she slipped out the front doors of the hotel, but then he heard Squall and Irvine step into the lobby and it was too late.
It was time to leave.
"Want to go to Esthar today? We need to visit the junk shop and get some supplies." Squall sounded suspiciously cheerful.
Zell just looked at him. "Nah. I'm all set. Why don't you take Rinoa instead?"
Squall shrugged, but Zell could see a gleam in his eyes. He wondered how much Squall had overheard. Maybe the guy had a sense of humor after all. Twisted, but still humor.
And now he had something he needed to do. For the first time, he had personal plans for the future, and he wasn't going to let some weird old sorceress screw them up. He was going to find her, after this was all over. He wanted to thank her. And maybe find out her name.