Disclaimer: Nobody knows where my sanity's gone, but common sense left the same time. Why do they belong to Square, when they're supposed to be mine? It's my fanfic and I'll post if I want to, post if I want to, post if I want to… You would post too, if it occurred to you!
Notes: I had a blast on Heimlich's Chew Chew Train over at California Adventure. Yum, cookies! That — has very little to do with this fic. Besides the fact they both involve trains.
Warnings: Fic was written under the influence of Jr. from the Xenosaga II soundtrack, stuck on endless repeat. Es que selavi in lemitamor… And if that doesn't scare you off, there's a really annoying OC with a really annoying accent. Speech pattern. Whatever. A bit of language… and I think the fic is missing any type of recognizable plot. Enjoy!
It was cold in the predawn, sunrise nothing more than a lessening of darkness towards the east, the moon overhead casting all the light needed to see by; unlooked for fortune, for the bulbs of the graffiti-besmirched street lamps had burned out long years since, and city maintenance had never bothered with their replacement. Rare occurrence, that the moon could be seen through the smog at all, nearly unheard of for it to be bright enough to reveal the downtrodden neighborhood. Frosted, and illuminated pale blue, the buildings of the slum took on a grander appearance, small, unnoticed defiance against their current squalid condition. Unseasonable weather in the rotted heart of an unnatural city, and Seifer was glad to be leaving it behind.
They stood out on the sidewalk, Zell and Dryn and he, hard-used duffle bags at their feet, and Saisei warm against his chest, tucked up inside his coat and content with her nose sniffing the biting air and her black button eyes marking the shadows that lurked in the alleyways — not unusual, though the early morning seldom presented prospects. Together they were too large of a group to be considered a soft target, and Saisei protected them most of all; the retreating shadows knew shrill barking would be hard to muffle; much too much of a risk to take for such little reward.
Headlights in the distance, and the hum of a motor working far more efficiently than its manufacturer could have dreamed for the small, compact car. It pulled up to the curb smoothly, and the driver's window rolled down, releasing a wave of heated, strawberry-scented air.
"Get in," Khoral said curtly, her eyes done up expertly in bland shades of taupe and her long, dark hair caught in a bun at the nape of her neck.
"Hey Mom!" Dryn called excitedly, running to the car door and reaching up to touch, to hug, to reassure himself of his place in her heart.
"Hi baby." Her voice was softer, and she grasped her son's hands in her own. "I picked up doughnuts. Get in, your hands are like ice. Where are your gloves?" She leaned her head out of the window, and fixed her demanding gaze upon the shorter man busily stuffing bags into the trunk. "Zell, why isn't he wearing his gloves?"
Seifer gently pushed Dryn around the front of the car, and settled him next to his mother, adjusting the safety harness to wrap properly around his chest, and not his neck. He hadn't much practice with the procedure; the last time he'd helped the boy into a car, Dryn had been using a child's seat, being small for his age — legacy of both parents. "Saisei got hold of them last night. We'd left out today's clothes…"
"I'm sure." The closing trunk rattled the car, and she rolled up her window while cranking the heater higher. "Wretched time you've chosen to leave," she pulled down the visor, and stared at the two blonde men climbing into the back seat. "I suppose it's for the best; I can get you to the station, and not be late for work. But you should have been better prepared. You know the weather's been chancy. Was that all you're taking?"
Three duffles, and Saisei's carrier; carry-on luggage, for they couldn't afford additional expenses. "Not much to take," Zell answered, blowing on his fingers to warm them — his gloves also having fallen victim to their family's tiniest member. "Irvine has the important stuff. He'll ship it once we've saved up a bit. Ma's place…" his face stiffened for a brief moment, as he struggled with misplaced emotion, pushing back grief. "Everything we need should be there, besides clothes, which we're taking, and Dryn's toys."
Flipping the visor back up, she shrugged, and pulled out onto the street. "And how, exactly, are you planning to get Saisei on the train?"
The dog, upon hearing her name, wriggled out of Seifer's coat and jumped to the front, wedging herself between Dryn's shoulder and the bucket seat while licking frantically at his cold-reddened ear. "We've got her bye-bye bag," the boy said, giggling and pushing the dog's questing snout away from his face, allowing the bit of fluff to nibble at his fingers instead. "And her potty pads, and water and food, and her bankie."
"Her bye-bye bag, and bankie." Khoral glanced at the rearview mirror, changing lanes without bothering to signal the non-existent traffic. "I'm a teacher, guys," she scolded all three, while the slums vanished behind them as they entered a more prosperous section of the city. "Could you at least make an attempt to use the language properly?"
Zell snickered, smiling fondly at the woman in front of him. "And where's the fun in that? Like it or not, Saisei recognizes the words; not much point in teaching her proper grammar at this late a' date."
"Of a…" Lips pursed, Khoral turned left. "You're right, dear. No need to strain itty-bitty brains with what they'll never understand."
The two bickered amicably, and Seifer listened to them with amusement. Zell might now be his to cherish, but he'd known them both for years — and he was glad they were comfortable around each other, still friends with a son shared between them. He rescued the umber-haired boy from the loving attentions of his dog, and settled her in the crook of his arm, his elbow resting on the door, high enough for her to peer out the window in search of someone to scold in righteous canine indignation.
The city was almost lovely, bathed in moonlight and the fragile sheen of frost. Almost, with the darkened windows of skyscrapers reflecting earth and sky, he could recall the beauty he'd once seen in his youth, and not the trap which had held him for so long. He scratched Saisei in the good place behind her ears, his fingers tangling in the fine strands of her hair while she panted approval.
"You'll come to visit, right Mom?"
Beside him, Zell stiffened and leaned into his side as Khoral sighed, making another turn before reaching out to ruffle her son's hair. "I don't think so, sweetie. I've got work here, and Balamb's pretty far away." Her hand returned to the steering wheel; her dark, gleaming eyes had never left the road. "But I'll write."
"Yeah…" Dryn bit down into his bottom lip, the tip of one long canine drawing a bead of blood that was quickly licked away. "And call. You can call."
Khoral flinched, the speed of the car picking up momentarily before she caught herself, and eased off the gas. "Baby, it's long distance. Neither your Dad nor I have that kind of money. It's too expensive—"
"To call often," Zell interrupted her, leaning forward between the seats and nudging Dryn in his side. "But we'll figure something out; I've got a few minutes left on the calling card, enough t' let your Mom know all about your new room, and t' tell her how the trip went." Fumbling with the pink box at his feet, he pulled out a maple-glazed bar and handed it to his son, along with a napkin scavenged from his coat pocket. "We'll worry about later, later, huh?"
"It's not worrying about later that makes your later so worrisome," Khoral said sharply, braking as they came to the meagerly lit station. "Sweetie," she set the parking brake, unfastened her belt, and hugged the small boy fiercely. "I love you. Always, forever, you'll be my baby boy. And because of that, I'm not going to make promises I can't keep. I'll write. And maybe by next summer I'll have saved enough to come visit, but I doubt it. We gave you a choice — and you chose your father."
Zell turned to his ex-wife, stunned by her words. "Khoral—"
"Don't!" Shoving the door open, she stumbled out into the frigid air. "Don't you dare say anything, Zell Dincht! I drove you here, and you're leaving me, and taking our son… because of him!" She jabbed a sharp-nailed finger in Seifer's direction. "Every second," she hissed at the scarred blonde that was slowly making his way out of the car, "with every damned breath I regret the day that you lived. I let you into our home — and you destroyed it, and I'll never forgive you for that."
"…Khoral…" Zell remained huddled in the car, his son's hands wrapped tightly around his arm and the stickiness of maple doughnut pressed between them.
"I've driven you here," she told him, a tear falling, its purity testament that she'd thought ahead, and used waterproof mascara. "And I've been gracious, but there's nothing left inside for me to fall back on. So get out of the car, and get your bags out of the trunk, before I kill Seifer. And I don't want to do that; I don't. But I was SeeD long before I became a humble public servant, and right now he's the only thing preventing me from taking you and Dryn home."
Father and son exited, clinging to each other against the woman's wrath. "Mommy," Dryn mumbled, clutching at Zell and close to tears. "Don't be mad…"
Finished unloading the trunk, Saisei a shivering bundle at his feet, Seifer fumbled in his pockets, eventually pulling out a sealed wet-nap. "A bit messy with the doughnut," he murmured, avoiding Khoral's accusing glare. He ripped open the foil envelope, unfolding the moist towelette. "Gotta get you cleaned up before the train gets here."
Striding forward, Khoral reached out to snatch the wet-nap, but was sidetracked by the clunking chang of an approaching truck, hideously orange and rust and countless dents of a decade's accumulation. The vehicle wheezed to a stop, steam venting from underneath the hood, and the driver's door creaked open.
"Piece of crap!" the man getting out of the truck complained, kicking a booted foot at the deep treads of the m/s tire. "Didn't think I'd make it in time." He ran his hand through his short, mahogany hair, giving a sharp tug to the stubby tail in the back. Grinning, he walked towards the group, his lavender eyes both happy, and incredibly tired. "Guys," he greeted them, getting to one knee and holding out his arms. "Lil' bit! Gimme a hug!"
"Uncle Irvie!" Dryn ran into the man's embrace, smearing maple and a few white hairs along the sides of his faded black hoodie. "You came!"
"You betcha. Couldn't let my favoritist kiddo go off gallivanting without a proper good-bye, now could I?" He patted the child gently on the back, and looked over Dryn's dark head to his friends, standing in place and taking care not to look at each other. "Though by the feel of things, seems I mighta already missed something."
"Nothing important." Grabbing the towelette from Seifer, Khoral handed it to Irvine before mildly tilting her son's head up, placing a feathery kiss on his forehead. "I'll be waiting for your call, baby. Enjoy the trip — and maybe you'll see Garden when you get there."
"Bye, Mommy." And Dryn tilted his head, but made no attempt to catch her as she walked away, hurriedly getting into the car and driving off before anyone could think to stop her. "…I'll miss you…"
Irvine blinked, then began cleaning up the boy still within his arms. "Doughnuts, hmm?" His smile was less certain, his eyes all the more tired. "I take it," he pitched his voice to carry to the two blondes standing nearby, "that Khoral's not taking your leaving well. Aye, Saisei," he greeted the dog, who'd bounded over to help with the clean-up, "easy, girl. Seifer'll skin me, you get all sticky. Zell, some help here?"
The tattooed man took over the chore, using the wet-nap to clean his own arm before starting the meticulous task of wiping icing from between his son's fingers. "Wasn't expecting you here, Irvine. Not that it's not wonderful seeing you, but your shift's not yet ended."
"You really think I'd let my two oldest friends sneak off in the middle of the night?"
Reclaiming Saisei, Seifer tucked her close to his side before helping the other man to his feet. "Scarcely the middle of the night; thanks, Kinneas. The conversation was getting — really ugly — before you showed." And why was he surprised, that Khoral's giving nature had finally soured? If it had been him Zell was leaving… Her sentiments were deadly accurate. He wouldn't want to hurt her, but would, if it meant keeping his family together. Truly, he didn't know how she'd managed to stay polite for so long; didn't know why she hadn't fought harder, unless — conceited fancy — she'd believed herself outclassed.
"Figured." Dusting off his knee, Irvine lazily flicked a stray crumb from the denim. "I'm amazed I got here before you left. Train running late?"
"Perpetually." Hunched over, Seifer opened the end of the mesh-sided pet carrier, lowering his curious, squirming handful in front of it. "Bye-bye, Saisei. Bye-bye." Wagging her tail, she darted inside and quickly turned around, catching his fingers in her bluntly pointed teeth. "There's a good girl," he praised, zipping the flap closed and picking up the carrier.
A sharp whistle cut off his babbling; the squealing of the locomotive's brakes prevented him from resuming it. "Zell," he picked up one of the duffles in his free hand, "you about done?"
"Just…" He made a quick swipe at his son's chin before tossing the soiled towelette into the trashcan chained to the boarding platform. "That does it. Dryn, stay beside me," he warned, picking up the remaining two duffles. "Irvine…"
"I know; you've got t' go. Let me know when you've settled in; I'll send your stuff when you're ready — though I'm growing fond of that little black and white set." He hugged the shorter man, his eyes closed, his expression determined. "Personally, I hope you never have to see Garden again. If you come across Selphie, though, y' know, just happen to run in to her… You know what to tell her. She deserves the truth I was too cowardly t' speak."
"I will." Zell wanted to return the hug; couldn't, with his arms weighed down with luggage. "If I see her. I'll miss you, ya jerk."
"Twit." Stepping back, Irvine tweaked the tip of Dryn's nose. "Take care, lil' bit. Keep those two galoots in line."
"I will, Uncle Irvie." The boy held out his hand, and just as gravely Irvine shook it. "I'll write."
"You do that. Better yet, send me your phone number, and I'll call ya, 'least every two weeks. Just 'cause you're moving doesn't mean you get out of helping me with the crosswords."
Seifer waited by the open door, watched as Dryn's handshake turned tremulous at this final farewell, as Irvine unknowingly soothed the hurt caused by Khoral's spiteful words. "We've gotta go…" Dryn sniffled, and obeyed, entering the train, followed by his father, leaving Seifer to face Irvine alone. "—Thanks, Kinneas."
"Go," the other man urged, still smiling with tired eyes. "Things will be fine, you'll see."
He hoped so, as he stepped forward, feeling the door close behind him, hearing it lock into place. Zell had claimed four chairs at the back of the compartment, two facing forward, two facing back, forming a cozy square. He joined them, placing Saisei carefully on the chair next to Dryn and the duffle in the handy overhead storage with their other two bags.
A jolt, and the locomotive began to move. Out the window, Seifer could see Irvine standing forlornly on the platform, watching them leave.
"Okay then," Zell said briskly, removing his coat and stashing it with the rest of the luggage. "We're off!" He made a show of his enthusiasm, clapping his hands together and bouncing from foot to foot. "Dryn, you've got the most important job. As you know, Saisei's not supposed to be here, so it'll be up to you to keep her entertained — but more so," he leaned forward, a finger upraised for emphasis, "to keep her quiet. If they find our little stowaway, they'll boot her off, and Seif'll fling himself after her, and I'd hafta lunge after Seif, and you'd run after me… and the train'll prolly be on a bridge when it happens, and we'd hafta swim for Balamb…" He shivered in mock terror. "It'd be horrible."
Dryn giggled at his father's theatrics; so did Seifer.
"Lunge after me, would you?" he smirked, then stiffened as he heard the front entrance of the car open. Nonchalantly he slipped out of his coat, draping it over Saisei's carrier while removing an envelope from one of its inner pockets.
"Tickets?" the Conductor asked, walking with the graceful sway of a person long adapted to the motion of trains, and wearing the customary uniform and cap of the railroad's employees.
Seifer opened the envelope and handed over their tickets, purchased two days prior from a travel agency a few blocks away from their old apartment.
"Balamb, is it? That's a ways to be going, it is," the Conductor said kindly. "You'll be wanting to know where the dining car is then: Two cars up, and open from 6:00 in the morning till 8:00 in the evening — and if you've a notion for something in the middle of the night, there's vending machines. Lavatory's directly behind you, so it is. You must've noticed, to choose the seats you have, what with such a long journey ahead of you. But… no blankets, no pillows…?"
Blushing at the old man's friendly question, Zell shook his head. "Couldn't afford extra luggage."
"Ock, and you with a little one! Well, we'll see, we'll see if a few belongings from the sleeping car'll show up here tonight, won't we? What's your name, bairn?"
One arm over the concealed carrier, Dryn stared up at the conductor with huge, unwavering eyes. "Dryn, sir. Dryn Dincht. We're going to Balamb, t' live in Grama's old house."
"Are you, now? And you a DD! Why, I'm Davin Delohn," he introduced himself, holding out his age-twisted hand, which the umber-haired boy shook in fascinated politeness. "We DDs need t' stick together, dontcha know? Well now, I'll be heading back up, seeing as how this's the last car, so I'd scarcely be going further down." He chuckled, and punched the tickets, handing them back to Seifer. "Good journey to you folks; I'm in for the long stretch meself, so's if you're needing a thing, just ask for DD. 'Day sirs," he said, tipping his cap before leaving.
Dryn waited for his departure before whispering, "Is he one of them?"
Thoughtful, Seifer pulled his coat off of the carrier, and placed the envelope back into its pocket. "Maybe not. Better safe than sorry, though. Eh, Saisei?" Busily gnawing at a pig ear, the dog cocked an ear at the sound of her name, but didn't bother looking up from her treat. "Hopefully, she'll do her business in the restroom, just like the rest of us. Speaking of which," he reached his arms overhead, and stretched, "wanna check out the facilities, Dryn? Use them before they get mucked up for the day?"
"Not much like the private SeeD cars, is it?" Zell mused, sitting down and leaning his head against the high seat back. "My bet is there's room enough for one person. One teeny, tiny person."
"Lucky you, then." Nimbly avoiding the swat aimed his way, he slid open the restroom door, peering in. "Incredibly lucky. The only way I'll fit in there is sideways. With my gut sucked in."
"What gut?" Dryn asked, poking mischievously at the scarred blonde's stomach, then darting past him, sliding the door closed and locking it, causing the small sign by the handle to switch from green to red. "Gee, it is tiny!"
Embarrassing necessities taken care of, the two of them then explored the other cars, sniffing wistfully while checking out the dining compartment, and hurrying past the sleeping compartment, passing by the Conductor, who favored them with a wink. They then returned to Zell and Saisei, and settled in to what would become routine for the journey, while the train stopped at various stations picking up passengers and letting a rare few off.
"Okay, then. I'm going to the picnic," Seifer said, slouched comfortably in his chair watching the boy in front of him, and not the green-gold plains streaking past the window. "And I'm bringing apples, bread, canned cat food, dumplings, eggs, fisheyes and glue, gooey chocolate-covered gayla guts, umm…"
"Starts with an H," Dryn urged, kicking his feet back and forth and fiddling with the armrest.
"Does it now?" The scarred blonde kicked a foot in return, just brushing the tip of the boy's sneaker. "Imagine that. H, H… Hyne's miracle tonic, good for what ails you, tummy aches, and stripping paint," he pointedly rolled his eyes to the younger man seated beside him, "and… ice cream in fourteen flavors, including sour gummi and peppermint schnapps."
"In your dreams," Zell murmured, and Dryn pouted, saying, "That's not a real flavor!"
"Heh. Sour gummi, green tea, and triple mocha raspberry dazzle."
"Hmm." Repeating the list silently to set it more firmly in memory, Dryn nodded. "That works. I'm going to the picnic, and I'm bringing…"
They played countless rounds, while the people around them either grew irritated with their constant chattering, or learned to tune them out. They brought food items, comic book heroes, various books and movies and video game characters to their picnic. And when they grew bored of memorized lists, they switched to games of I Spy; they thumb wrestled; they bombarded each other with 20 Questions.
Seifer carried Saisei to the restroom, then returned after long minutes. "She did business," he said, his voice hushed, for by now the car was quite full. "Ate, and drank. Not all that happy to go back in the carrier, though. I gave her a bit of sedative; that should hold her till this evening."
During his absence Zell had pulled down one of their duffles, taking out a brown bag filled with cheese sandwiches and carrot sticks. "I hate having to use the fountain," he handed over wrapped sandwiches, his nose wrinkled in distaste, "but we don't have much choice. Water was just too heavy t' bring with us. I did pack plastic cups; we can at least bring the water back to our seats."
Lunch: cheap store-brand bread and processed cheese slices, the carrots brought back from the tattooed man's last day at work, and water in blobra-themed cups, refilled several times to the annoyance of the woman sitting closest to the fountain. Then, more games. Cat's Cradle, Storm Clouds, and the Dancing, Headless Pig; A Rabbit, Two Coyotes, and Three Sunfish were brought to life on a looped piece of yarn. They counted cows; chocobos; people wearing hats versus people wearing ties.
Few passengers got on now during the train's infrequent stops. Far more left, until their car was once again empty of all but themselves. The shades had been pulled to block out the setting sun, but now it was true dark, and their window remained uncovered so they could speculate on the origins of distant lights.
Dinner was yet more sandwiches; bologna, and peanut butter and jelly — grape jelly, scraped from the bottom of the jar and spread thin, last of the food remaining in the apartment. Seifer and Dryn pulled back the top layer of bread to examine the contents of their meal, then traded sandwiches, wearing matched grins when Zell raised an eyebrow but refrained from comment. Dinner, quickly eaten and the left-over litter disposed of; enough to satisfy Dryn, and enough to take the edge off Seifer's hunger.
His stomach grumbled dissatisfaction, causing Zell to look over with a measuring, searching stare. "Damn," the younger man breathed unhappily, before taking out his wallet, and passing over a five-gil note.
Protesting, Seifer tried returning the money. "We can't afford—"
"You and Dryn," Zell overrode, adamantly refusing to take the gil back, "go to the dining car. Get yourselves a bit of dessert. Gotta have something sweet, a treat on an adventure like this. I'll be in the restroom getting Saisei fed." He stood, pleased with his son's whoop of delight, dragging the taller man up with him. "Go. Bring me back something while you're at it. Maybe they've got a snick-snack large enough for us to share."
Both ashamed and grateful, he ducked his head and took hold of Dryn's hand, leading him back through the line of cars, cars that held more travelers than their own, cars that perhaps held travelers that had once been in their own, for he was sure he recognized the put-upon woman who'd been next to the fountain, now reading a magazine with the help of an overhead light.
The dining car was busy; over half the tables were full with people avidly talking over their meals, or eating with silent, brisk efficiency. The glowing, backlit menu beckoned; he'd only glanced at it on his earlier trip, but now, doing his best to read blurred words without the help of his glasses, he was dismayed. Everything, down to the fountain-supplied sodas, was exorbitantly expensive.
"Whoa." Clinging to his arm, Dryn had also been reading the menu. "What can we get, Uncle Seif? Maybe a box of cookies? Dad likes cookies. Is there tax, do you think?" He stood on tiptoe, trying to get a better look at the board. "If there's tax… Well, they've got candy bars up at the counter. We could split an Oh Henry, or a package of Sixlets. If we ate them one at a time, they'd last a while…"
"I don't know," Seifer said, rubbing at the faded scar marking his forehead. "It doesn't seem right, spending that much on candy. We could get so much more, once we're in Balamb—"
"Can I help you," the young lady behind the counter asked them, noticing their hesitance in ordering.
Glancing shyly up, then back down, Dryn shook his head, dark hair covering his disappointment. "Nah, we were just lookin'. Thank you anyway, ma'am."
"Are you sure?" Her elbows planted firmly on the counter and her feet briefly leaving the floor, she leaned forward, startling the young boy into looking directly at her. "'Cause there's an order here been waiting for a Mr. DD; would you happen to know him, sir?"
"Ex-Excuse me?" Dryn asked, clutching tighter to his Uncle's hand, who was equally bewildered.
"Miss," Seifer said, tired and aching from a day spent sitting, "I think you have us confused. The Conductor—"
"Is the one that brought your order, yes." She smiled charmingly before turning around and grabbing a Styrofoam box with the initials DD prominently written on the lid. "Here it is; sporks and napkins and extra plates are there to the side. Enjoy!"
Seifer tried again. "You don't understand, we don't—"
"If there's a problem, you'll need to take it up with the Conductor; I'm just a cashier, you know, as in," her fingers flexed in the air, "responsible for cash. The Conductor, he's the one in charge of conduct." Her cheerfulness was infectious; Dryn hid his giggling behind his free hand, while Seifer caved, picking up the warm box. "Pleasant night, gentlemen."
"Yeah…" He was bone-deep tired, and aching from more — perhaps — than sitting, and the mouth-watering aroma of peaches was drifting up from the container. "Thank you. I… thanks." Dryn had slipped his grip to get plastic silverware; side by side they made their way to the back of the train.
Zell was there, his legs propped on the opposite seat, his back bent in a muscle-easing stretch. "There you are. I was starting t' wonder if you'd gotten lost. So," he slipped his feet off the edge of the chair, smoothing the wrinkles adorning his pants — clothes that he'd still be wearing the next day. "Whatcha bring me? Was there change?"
Shrugging, Seifer opened the box, displaying the large square of peach crumble within. "I've still got the five-note. Cashier told us it's the Conductor's doing. Didn't do much good, tryin' t' argue with her." He took a deep, peach-scented breath. "Man, it smells good."
Dryn passed out plates, and chintzy sporks, then waited patiently for his flimsy paper plate to be filled. "She was way cool," he told his father, spearing a peach slice from the generous helping Seifer had scooped out for him. "The cashier, that is." Aware that good things were being eaten without her supervision, Saisei whimpered. Dryn eased back the end zipper and slipped her a piece of the sugar-encrusted crumb topping. "She knew I was a DD! How'd she know?"
Lips twisted in wry humor, Seifer served Zell, then dug into the rest. "News gets around, I suppose." There was noise from the front of the compartment, and his smirk deepened as two men dressed in the railroad's uniform entered. "I hear tell," he called out, waving a spork heavy with fruit crumble, "that you're the foul perpetrator behind this ordering of dessert."
The Conductor saluted, fingers touching the brim of his cap. "Aye, that an' I am. What kind of a trip is it, without a little something special?" His left arm held blankets, and clean — if somewhat past their prime — pillows; the man next to him carried a tray of cleaning supplies in his rubber-gloved hands. "This is Casey, come to take care of the lavatory. Usually this is his last car, but we agreed it would be a shame to go waking you up in the middle of the night when it's so easily preventable." He let the bedding fall to a chair across the aisle. "I'll be back in the morning to get these; so'll Casey be, to vacuum before coming into Balamb."
"You're — too kind," Zell said, looking lost, the crumble on his plate untouched. "All you're doing for us—"
"Be nothing much, I assure you, lad."
"He's not used to accepting charity," Seifer mumbled around too large of a bite. Blushing, he chewed and swallowed, then tried again. "Used to taking care of himself, and all those around him. Me, I'm grateful. Astonished, and damned grateful, Davin."
"Well," the old man blushed in return, taking off his cap to rub at his head, bald but for a fringeof wiry gray at the back. "Indeed. I know a thing or three about chasing a dream. Meself, I once hitchhiked from Deling to Dollet, solely on the hopes of being hired by one of the trawlers what wintered there. A' course, by the time I made it to the city, the captains'd already had their pick of the lot. Sorry lot, at that. The crew of the SeaBroom started a brawl in one of the dockside pubs that ended with the entire pier burned down to the pilings. Spent the next four years on the 'Broom, so I did, and left 'er with enough in my wallet to impress as sweet a lass as ever there was." He slipped his cap back over his head, his eyes hazy with remembrance. "Ne'er woulda had my time with her, if'n it weren't for a family off to vacation along the coast; first car to pick me up after a week of trudging the dusty shoulder, and they treated me as one of their own all the way t' Timber."
"Neat," Dryn said, listening avidly to the Conductor's story.
"An adventure it was, bairn. Nowadays, a body don't dare accept rides from a stranger, nor a driver dare take a stranger in. The rails, though — that's a different beastie entirely. So lad," he cocked a finger at Zell admonishingly, "don't let Mio's fine sweet go to waste, for if you weren't here, that's exactly where it would end up."
Obligingly, Zell took a bite, taking time to savor the rich cinnamon flavor. "Oh, it is good." Another, quicker bite, and a shy, sidelong glance. "Thank Mio for us, please? This is terrific. Just — unbelievably terrific. You've made this trip wonderful."
"Happy to have met you, sir. Truly, you've been a joy compared to some of the passengers what have blighted the tracks. Casey?" he called out, voice quavering yet gruff. "Are you done yet, man?"
"I'm done, old goat." Casey backed out of the restroom, ingenious collapsible mop in one gloved hand, and his tray of cleansers and brushes in the other. "Cleanest I've seen it in years; it was hardly any work at all."
"I think it's because we drove off most of the other passengers from this car," Seifer said, running his finger along the bottom of the Styrofoam box, hopeful of crumbs. "But we appreciate the cleaning. Makes the thought of going in to brush our teeth a lot more bearable."
"I'm sure!" The Conductor laughed, falling in behind the departing janitor. "A good night to you, lads. See you in the morrow."
"Night!" Dryn waved back, finished with his dessert and moving to throw away his and Seifer's dirtied, disposable dishes.
"Night, indeed — and already past your bedtime." Zell passed his plate to his son to discard before turning around to tug a duffle from the overhead storage. "I think brushing our teeth is a very good idea. And Seif… if we're settling down for the night, it should be okay t' let Saisei out. Let her run for a few minutes, do her business. If she spends the night on your lap, under the blanket, no one should know she's there if they come to check. We'll put her back in the carrier before morning."
Upon being freed, Saisei ran like a thing possessed, her white plumed tail wagging and her nose working furiously over the strange smells that had been assaulting her throughout the day. Business was done on her outspread pad, which was then stuffed into the restroom's small trash bin. She ran circles about their legs while they brushed their teeth; she slurped water, and gleefully attacked the food offered her, pouched chicken dinner carefully laced with vet-prescribed sedative. She let out a shrill yap, quickly hushed by her man, who squatted next to her when she flopped over onto her back in apology, offering up a pink belly for rubbing.
"Night night?" he asked her, and she turned over, leaping for his lap. He caught her; gave her a gentle hug as he carried her to his seat. The high-backed chair wasn't the most comfortable piece of furniture for sleeping, but the pillow offered cushioning for his head, and the blanket a safe haven for his loyal companion. "Such a good girl," he told her, then nodded at the child across from him, a worn-out, tousle-haired child who was yawning as his father tucked a blanket around him. "And you did great today, Dryn, watching Saisei. A job to be proud of."
"It was hard," Dryn said around a jaw-cracking yawn, "but I explained she had to behave herself. Like Dad says, we've all got to work together, or we won't get anywhere at all."
Zell smiled, spreading out another blanket. "You're the best, Dryn, the absolute best son in the world. Think you'll be warm enough?"
"Yeah…" Azure eyes peered up into azure eyes. "Better than Mika Olmford?"
"Way better. You know the kid that won the science fair last year?" Brushing back umber hair, Zell placed a sober kiss on his son's forehead. "You make him look like barbequed funguar on a stick. Hell, sometimes you make me look like rancid shish kabob."
"Sleep tight, and dream sweet."
"Love you, Dad. Uncle Seif." He tucked his head underneath the blankets, already hovering close to slumber. "Night."
"Night, Dryn." Seifer petted the small dog fast asleep in his lap, the motions calming, comforting. Zell sat down next to him, the last of the blankets wrapped about his body and the compartment dark except for the dim running lights that could only be switched off from the main board of the locomotive. It wasn't silent, for there was the omnipresent hum of the wheels rolling endlessly upon the steel tracks, but it was quiet. Dryn snored, unmoving, and Zell pushed closer, resting his head on the other man's shoulder.
"Lets play a game," Seifer whispered, his breath not enough to disturb the golden hair laying so close to his mouth. "A game of make-believe." He paused, as Zell shifted, listening intently. "I'd have a house. Not a fancy one, but a comfortable one; a house full of good memories. I'd wake up each morning next to the most wonderful guy in the world — and I'd be grateful to be alive for another day. There'd be a son to be proud of, and him and me and his father would sit around the table eating breakfast, discussing our plans for the day."
"You cheat," Zell eventually whispered back, snuggling in closer. "That's not make believe at all. 'Cept, maybe, that wonderful guy part. He shows up in our bed, I'll kick his ass."
Stifling his laughter, Seifer stared out the window, watching the dark shapes of trees pass by. He was glad to be alive, when years before he'd been desperate for some way to escape the torturous grasp of reality. Was glad that he'd finally allowed himself to want again, something beyond reach, something he in no way deserved. Glad for this moment, caught between worlds and expectations and the realms of waking and sleep.
And sleep he must have, for the happy wiggling warmth against his chest definitely woke him. Not bothering to open his eyes, he reached out a fumbling hand to pat the exuberant dog, and urge her back underneath the blanket.
"And hello to you, sweetling! My, aren't you the wee one?"
The voice pulled him to full wakefulness. Blinking, he gaped in growing horror at the Conductor, who was there with three steaming cups held in a cardboard carrier, the fingers of his right hand held out for the curious dog to sniff at. Meeting with her approval, she then started gnawing contentedly on his ring finger.
"No, Saisei, bad!" Seifer scolded, tapping her side to gain her attention. "I'm sorry," he told the Conductor, mortified at being caught with his illicit cargo after all the old man had done for them. "Let him go—"
"Ock, the lass isn't doing any harm." Enchanted, he scritched her under her chin. "Bonny lass; never knew she was here."
"Seif?" Zell asked groggily, rubbing at his eyes. "What… oh!" He jerked upright, his blanket slithering to the floor to puddle about his feet. "Oh no…"
"Sorry to be disturbing your rest, but tis morning, and Casey's been itching t' finish his cleaning. I've got coffee, and a nice cocoa for the bairn, in exchange for the bedding."
By now Dryn was awake; at the mention of cocoa he was up, and industriously folding his blanket. "Sir, do we hafta go, now that you know about Saisei?"
"Go? To Balamb's where you're headed, to Balamb's where we'll take you. I'd say — you're already going, so you are." Piling pillows and blankets into a tidy heap, he nodded his head. "Your family, moving to Balamb; all I see is family, here. Casey man!" he bellowed cheerfully. "Get your lazy self in."
Grumbling, Casey entered, the vacuum already running. And while he cleaned, Zell took a sip of the cocoa, passing it to his son once assured it was cool enough not to burn a young mouth; sipped at his own coffee while attempting to press the wrinkles out of his shirt with the palm of his hand. And Seifer, his cheeks rosy with embarrassment, slipped into the restroom, pee pad in hand and Saisei at his heels, for she was insistent that business needed done, NOW, before she could harass the roaring monster that was the vacuum.
"We'll be making no more stops, not till Balamb, end of the line and our turn-around," the Conductor explained, nearly shouting to be heard. "Lights will be blazing for the tunnel; not much to see during the last leg, I'm afraid… Gah! Aren't you done yet, Casey? I can hardly think, what with your racket."
"Close enough, I s'pose," Casey said, turning off the vacuum. "Mighty neat folk you are; other cars are a mess, and here there's hardly a thing to complain of."
"Proper guests," the Conductor agreed, beaming. "Now, in case I don't see you before departure, it was delight meeting you." He shook their hands, including Seifer's as he sheepishly came out of the restroom. "Luck to you folks."
"Bye, Mr. DD," Dryn said, his upper lip covered in marshmallow foam from his cocoa. "Trains are way cool."
"That they are, bairn," he said, tilting his head to the side as the compartment's lights flared to full power. "Ah, the Chute — always good for a few dreary hours. Good day, sirs." Saluting, the two railroad employees left the car, busily discussing the stopover on the island.
"The Chute?" Dryn was close to the window, straining to see the feature the Conductor had mentioned. "I don't see… Oh! It's a tunnel. Why was he all worked up over a tunnel? We've gone through lots of them."
"Yes, we have," Zell said, pulling the by now familiar paper sack from its duffle as the train plunged down into the cement-lined passage. "But the Balamb Chute goes under the ocean. Right at this moment, there's about twenty feet of water on top of us. Midway, there'll be almost a hundred feet of water, there over our heads, and the only thing keeping it from crushing us are specially crafted adamantine struts reinforcing the concrete. Marvel of engineering…" He sighed, then shook off dark thoughts. "There's a sandwich left, if you want it."
"Nah, I'm not hungry yet."
Seifer was hungry, but could wait until Balamb, where they were meeting an old friend of Zell's at a café to pick up the keys to his Ma's house. He understood the younger man's suddenly somber mood: His adopted father had died during the collapse of the first tunnel, a week before its completion. Not a single family in the island's township had escaped the disaster unscathed; nearly an entire generation of Balamb men had been lost in the frigid waters, the construction firm in charge filing bankruptcy under the onslaught of lawsuits that followed. Zell never talked of it; what little Seifer knew had come from the papers that had circulated around Garden at the time. Hundreds Lost in Freak Accident, City in Mourning the headline had read, not sensationalism, but hard fact. The tunnel had eventually been rebuilt, and a bronze plaque covered an entire wall of Balamb Station.
We Persevere it stated, along with the names of the dead. The citizens of Balamb embodied that ideal. He remembered laughing, the first time he'd seen the memorial. A lifetime ago, the arrogant boy he'd been had laughed at tragedy; now, he understood it first hand.
Dryn didn't know. He'd never been told. Instead he peered out the window in wonder, into the inky blackness which the brightly burning lights of the train defied. And he grew bored, turning away to chase after Saisei, and to be chased by her.
They played charades, there in the solitariness of the last car, with no other passengers around to be disturbed by their antics. They made a contest of reciting the provinces of Esthar, which Zell won by recalling their ownership of the Eldbeak peninsula. They sang songs in rounds, and were finishing up with The Court of King Cactuar when the train left the Chute and emerged into the dazzling sunlight of late morning.
Catching his breath after the song, Seifer called Saisei over to put on her halter and leash. Zell emptied the overhead storage, checking the bags to make sure everything was in place and secured. They put on their coats — unnecessary for the warm weather, but easier than trying to carry them — while holding on to the seats as the train braked, coming to a gradual stop inside the station.
"Ready?" Zell asked his son. Dryn had picked up Saisei, much to her vexation; she'd be let down once they were outside, but until then, she was safer off the ground, and away from the trampling feet of the other passengers leaving the train.
They walked off the train into a swirling mass of people; there were those leaving, and those waiting impatiently to board, and those hawking trinkety souvenirs and bits of savory foodstuffs from carts. Yet overall the mood of the crowd was congenial. There was no pushing, no swearing; Balamb was a small town, its citizenry inherently polite.
Seifer took a deep breath, held it, then let it out as a slow, heart-felt sigh. With the rounded corners peculiar to Balamb architecture, doors and windows and the very ceiling overhead, it was like coming home. Exactly like. He'd missed the tang of salt in the air; the seashell motif hidden within the larger spiraling designs decorating nearly every surface; the crash of the surf in the distance. Dryn had a grip on the back of his coat, and they waited while the crowd dwindled, sorting itself out.
"What do you think?" Zell asked his son, hovering protectively behind him.
"It's — strange. Everything's curved."
"You'll get used to it," Seifer assured the dark-haired boy, stepping forward now that the way was clear. "Just wait till you see the beach: It's awesome. I'll show you the tide pools. But first…" They were out of the station, and he was beginning to swelter inside his coat. "Which way to the café, Zell?"
The shorter man was about to answer when a shout rang out behind them.
They turned around to see an old woman crumpled to the ground, a young girl crouched by her side, holding a yellow handkerchief to the old lady's head, the material blooming with scarlet blotches. "Please," she begged, having gained their attention, pointing to a man running to the station's entrance. "He stole my grandmother's purse. Her pills are in there.." She pressed the handkerchief down harder, trying to staunch the flow of blood.
The thief had just set his foot upon the stairs leading up to the station when he staggered, the air around him igniting in a burst of flame while his clothes smoked. The next instant he was slumped to the flagstone entry, sound asleep.
"Cool!" Dryn whispered, his eyes wide, Saisei a squirming, barking threat in his arms.
Seifer stared, not at the thief, but at Zell. "You're not supposed to be Junctioned."
"Neither are you," the shorter man returned the accusation. "We've gotta get out of here before the police show. We'd hafta explain — and SeeD'll be called in, investigating… Like they can control who finds a Guardian Force."
"Shit. So your GF ain't one of Garden's?"
"No." Zell nudged his son, urging him to move, away from the gawking onlookers and those that recognized the telltale signs of magic. "I turned those in when I left. Yours?"
"Found it in a dumpster. Really!" he insisted at the other man's snort of disbelief.
"Great. Just — great." Zell gave a bitter laugh, leading them into an alley that would eventually meander behind the café where they'd planned on meeting Rascal.
Seifer laughed as well, dread a heavy weight constricting his chest. "Welcome home, Zell."
Dryn pouted, having set Saisei down to prance in front of them. "It was cool," he insisted, not grasping the ramifications of his family's good deed. "Way, way cool."
The two blondes said nothing, walking close together, their shoulders occasionally bumping. They knew the consequences of their actions. Knew the implacability of Garden, when faced with a mystery. Knew the chances of escaping notice were practically nil.
They could hope, though. All they could do, was hope.
End Notes: I've come to the conclusion that my decision to make all the Saisei stories a single scene was a mistake. A honkin' huge-ass mistake. Without scene breaks, I find myself struggling to find useless details to fill the chunks of time where nothing of any importance is happening. Result: A fic that drags on, and on, and on…
On that cheery note, the camp song they were singing was an adaptation of The Court of King Caractacus — made famous by Rolf Harris, though he's not the originator of the ditty. I think the song fits the world of ffviii rather well, actually, after the few modifications I made. Sadly, I can't write them here, because of FFnet's lyrics ban.
For those interested in the various string figures mentioned, they can be found at alysion (dot) org (slash) string (dot) htm. (Hate you, FFnet, hate you hate you hate you!)
Esse owns not Oh Henry! or Sixlets; they belong to Nestle and Hershey respectively, and sometimes to both at once, depending on which country you live in. Or they belong to neither. It's really hard tracking down current ownership, when Esse doesn't have the wrappers in front of her.
:hurriedly hides the pile of Tootsie Roll wrappers adorning her keyboard:
Tootsie Roll is owned by Tootsie Roll Industries.
Esse is totally shutting up now.
I was surprised with Khoral's anger; I ended up having to shut Word down, and coming back a day later to see if that's really the direction the story needed to go. It was. Khoral's been a good sport so far, but she'd had enough, and needed to vent. I can't help but feel sorry for her.
It's been strange, writing these stories, where it's not about Seifer, or Zell, or Dryn — it's about the way they interact with each other, and the world around them. I don't know if that makes any sense; heck, I don't think I'm capable of explaining, or if it needs explanation. Just… What kind of a plot is 'They rode the train to Balamb'? Nothing exciting happened; there was no villain, no action, no climax, no resolution. They just — rode the train to Balamb.
So, perhaps the entire fic was a mistake. But I like it. And I suppose that's all that really matters. Next fic — well, I think ya'll know what happens next fic. It's obvious enough, I could prolly skip right over it, and you'd still know all you need t' know about it. Please insert laughing emoticon here. Document Manager is a hateful, evil, sentient program bent on enslaving fanfiction writers the world over. Where's Neo now, huh?