Author's Note: I want to apologize for not updating sooner. I've had this chapter done for a few days but I forgot about it. I was trying to figure out how to write another chapter and didn't realize I never posted this one. lol I would also like to thank everyone for their reviews. I'm sorry if that simple thank you seems kind of thoughtless, but I've been trying to thank and talk to reviewers via private messages.
For those of you who are still anonymous, coughrunecough, I can't PM you. So, thank you for your review. Glad you're still enjoying my story...well, parts of it at least.
Clad in a simple t-shirt and dark denim pants, Squall drummed his fingers impatiently as he waited for the elevator doors to open. Staring out at the empty expanse of the main circle, the colorful hallway floors shined and glistened almost as much as the crystal water in the fountain did. Much to his relief, the doors finally slid open and he was able to hurry out. Practically leaping down the first few pairs of steps, Squall reached the main hall and sprinted down the curving hall to the dormitory wing. A night shift SeeD guard, one of the many replacements Squall had designated after he'd banned the original garden faculty members, started to approach him in alarm but Squall waved him back to his post and kept running until he reached the junction between male rooms and females. Catching his breath, he decided to double check Zell's dorm for good measure and then proceed to Fujin's.
Squall pressed the buzzer next to Zell's door and waited a moment. He cast a glance down both sides of the hall as he waited. Pressing the small white button again, part of him really didn't want Zell to answer. After another agonizing minute, Squall pulled out his Override Card Key and slid it through the slot on Zell's door. The locking mechanism inside the wall clicked, a green light flickered and the doors hissed open. Zell's room was dark and empty. Stepping inside to quickly check the bathroom, Squall took a deep breath. While part of him was a little relieved, the more rational part of him that was just waking up, knew that he had to find Zell fast. He was pretty sure Zell hadn't left Balamb Garden, but if he had, there was a chance he'd run into whomever had broken into his relative's houses.
Taking care to lock the door behind him, Squall turned and sprinted back the way he came. This time, he stepped into the double doors leading to the women's wing and paused. He had no idea which room was Fujin's. Flipping open his cell phone, he dialed Xu.
"Yes?" she answered in an unnervingly concerned voice.
"What is Fujin's room number?"
"Off the top of my head? I have no idea. But it's the third room from the entrance to the ladie's dorm hall."
"The one by the fountain?" Squall asked, a little suspicious that the room was so conveniently close to him.
"I tried calling her but she didn't answer."
"I'm just trying to make sure no one's there before I lead a search of Garden."
"I completely understand. Call me if you need me to do anything else."
Squall flipped his phone shut with one hand as he used his override card to open Fujin's door. Suddenly realizing he hadn't even tried to knock, he winced as the doors slid open, half expecting to see Zell in bed with her. When he didn't, Squall groaned out loud and kicked the wall. Staring down at the black mark his boot had left on the wall, he paused as he listened to the sound of his voice echoing down the empty halls. Taking a deep breath, he quickly checked her bathroom and then locked her door behind him.
"Alright," he whispered to himself as he took a deep breath. Straining his brain to figure out where else Zell could be at five twenty in the morning, the only other person he could come up with was Nida. The two martial artists had struck up a strong bond over the course of the past few months and in the few instances that Zell wasn't with one of the gang, he was almost always with Nida. Sighing in frustration, Squall turned and jogged back out of the women's wing and down the long hall that led to the main circle.
He reached the elevator in what he was sure was record time – at least for him anyways. Slapping his palm onto the basement's button, he leaned back against the glass wall rested his head. Staring up through the glass he watched as the main floor disappeared and the layers of supports rose up above him. The door slid open beside him and he rolled around on his shoulder to step out into the newly finished hall. Since the sorceress had been defeated, Balamb Garden's main purpose shifted to peace keeping and mediating. Thousands of SeeD were still sent out onto the battlefield every year, but more and more were reenlisting and more and more were taking newly created ambassadorial positions. The end result had been not only tighter enrollment standards to offset a larger number of SeeD members staying on the payroll and needing housing but the development of the sublevels to create apartments for SeeD members and their families.
Reaching apartment number four, Squall pressed the buzzer and crossed his arms as he waited impatiently. He stared up at the fluorescent lights that ran up the center of the waxed hallway and squinted. The floor was still highly shiny from being so new and the walls were too bright a white. It hurt his bad eye to look at it. Rubbing his eyes gently, he surprised when the door next to him snapped open. Wrapped in a peach colored robe, Quistis regarded him with a slightly concerned yet slightly annoyed look on her face.
"Squall?" she asked as she glanced around him to see no one else in the hallway. "I was about to relax in a well deserved hour long bubble bath before classes started. Tell me this is important." The look Squall gave her was teetering on the edge of scared. Her teasing demeanor changed instantly to alarmed. "What's wrong?"
"Is Zell here? I have to find him," Squall's voice was cold and serious.
"No," she shook her head and glanced over her shoulder at the sound of an alarm clock going off. "Have you tried Fujin's?"
"That was the second place I looked," he ran his hands through his hair. "Quistis, I need you to help me find him."
"What's going on?" she asked as Nida slowly stumbled into the living room.
"Both his mother and aunt's houses were set on fire last night. I don't think we can guess who's behind it," Squall shifted around.
"Is Ma alright?" Quistis took a step closer to Squall as she tried to get a good look at his face.
"No. She's dead," Squall stated bluntly. As the words rolled off his tongue he could feel his eyes tearing up.
Quistis stared at him in utter shock. "What? Zell is going to freak out."
"It gets worse. His aunt died too."
Nida snapped to attention at his words. "Who died?"
"Zell's aunt and mother," Quistis spoke as she motioned for Squall to enter. "Give me a minute to get dressed and I'll help you find him." Nida stared on in a half asleep state of awareness, still trying to process what it was he'd learned. Squall fell onto their couch, rubbing his face as he tried to figure out where to look next.
"Hey Nida. When Quistis gets back out, tell her I went to check with Irvine," Squall said as he stood back up.
"Yes Sir," Nida spoke softly as he rested his palms on his hips and exhaled loudly. "He isn't going to take this well at all."
"I know," Squall muttered as he stepped back into the hallway and walked over to the first apartment door. Pressing the buzzer, Squall jumped when the door slid open almost instantaneously. Irvine was waiting on the other side, fully dressed and with a hardened expression on his face.
"Xu called a few minutes ago," he answered Squall's unasked question. "I think I might know where he is."
The only thing that had kept Squall and Irvine from leaving without Quistis had been the fear that Irvine was right and they might not be able to speak the words Zell needed to hear. Standing halfway down the fourth corridor in the male dormitory section, the three SeeDs stood uncomfortably as they tried to work up the nerve to walk a few doors down and wake Seifer up.
"You do realize that Seifer and Zell hate each other," Quistis tried to disprove Irvine's theory without approaching the door.
"You do realize Seifer and Fujin are tight though, right?" Irvine asked.
"What does that have to do with anything?" she countered.
"Everything. Fujin's unaccounted for as well. Wherever she is, there's a good chance Zell is there too," Squall interrupted. "Now let's stop coming up with excuses not to walk over to that door and just do it."
"After you fearless leader," Irvine gently tried to nudge Squall in the direction of Seifer's dorm. Squall scowled at him.
"He's closer to you. He was your best man."
"I'm with the Commander," Quistis stood behind Squall.
Irvine sighed. "He's more protective of you though," he said as he put a hand on her shoulder. "You show up at his dorm room before sunrise and he's likely to go into big brother protector mode. We need that Seifer. That Seifer won't beat us up for waking him if I'm wrong about Zell."
Quistis looked down the hall and groaned in defeat. "Fine," she said as she began stalking towards the door and stopped only when she stood outside it. Casting them one last glance, she reached out and pressed her index finger onto the white button by his door. At first there was no response, but after a moment she could hear someone fumbling around and then the door slid open. Raijin stared out at her with tired eyes. "Hi, umm. Good morning. I don't suppose Zell is here is he?"
"What do you want with him," Seifer grumbled as he painfully hobbled to the door.
"Are you okay man? Maybe you need to get off that leg for a little while longer ya know?"
"No, it's just cramped. Kadowaki said I'd have problems with that for a few days after everything healed up. Something about the rapid bone recovery pulling or doing something to the muscles." Scratching his head and effectively removing what hair gel was left in it, Seifer squinted as he stared at Quistis' silhouette in the doorway. "What do you want with the wuss?"
Quistis' jaw tightened. "We can't find him…and something's, come up."
Raijin shot Seifer a worried, 'you were right' kind of look. Seifer crossed his arms, a rather odd gesture considering he was clad only in a pair of boxers and an uncomfortable looking leg brace. "Something bad happened didn't it?" She nodded as she peeked around Seifer and Raijin to see another form on the bed in the corner. "He's been acting off all day." Standing aside, Seifer made room for her to come inside. When she didn't, he stepped out into the hall and turned her to face him. "It's five forty two in the morning. I didn't get to sleep until nearly three because my leg's been cramping all night. I ended up stuck on the floor with a crappy-ass regulation blanket because Fujin and Zell took over my bed. The past few hours have been miserable. Unless there is a dire emergency or someone has died, you had better not be wasting my time."
Closing her eyes, Quistis frowned when she realized she was unable to form the words. Seifer narrowed his eyes in concern and cast a glance at Squall and Irvine who stood a few feet away.
"Someone has died," Irvine blurted.
Seifer's eyes widened as he redirected his attention to Quistis. "Who?"
"His aunt and mother," she whispered.
"Audley," Seifer spoke as he cast a knowing look Squall's way. Squall nodded in return. "How are you guys going to tell him? He's going to flip out."
"How do you tell someone a family member just died?" Squall asked as he stepped closer. They all stared at one another cluelessly.
"Tell me what happened," Raijin whispered. "I'll do it."
A few minutes later, they all stood quietly as they watched Raijin attempt to wake Fujin without getting hit. Squall and Irvine leaned against the now closed door, Quistis leaned against the dresser and Seifer, now sporting a pair of regulation sweats for decency purposes, sat in his desk chair and watched silently. Fujin groaned and rolled over in a weak attempt to get away from Raijin's attempts to wake her. The overhead light abruptly flickered on, startling Fujin awake, and effectively blinding everyone else in the room.
"Who the hell?" Seifer complained as he squinted his eyes. Squall stared back at him, his hand still resting on the light switch. Fujin had looked annoyed, up until she realized how many people were standing in Seifer's cramped room staring at her. Shaking Zell awake, she raised up until she was seated on her knees.
"Problem?" she asked with a yawn.
"Yeah," Irvine licked his lips.
"A big problem," Seifer watched as Zell rolled over and pushed himself up on an elbow.
"Where am I?….I fell asleep here?" Zell blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the light. "Why are you all staring at me?"
Raijin licked his lips nervously. Everyone in the room directed their attention to him. "Umm, Zell, man. You'd uh, better sit up for this."
Zell cast Fujin a curious glance. She shrugged her shoulders in confusion. Turning his attention back to the people in front of him, Zell let his feet fall to the floor and started to stand. Raijin put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down.
"You want to sit." Raijin's voice held a very uncharacteristic seriousness. Raijin opened his mouth to say something and then stopped. Zell started to say something but was silenced by the larger man's hand. "Look man, I'm sorry for harassing you all these years for laughs, and I'm sorry for forcing my way into your Ma's place and stinking up her kitchen with fish." Zell stared at him, utterly perplexed. "Zell, someone broke into your Ma and Aunt's houses last night."
Zell's face visibly paled while every muscle in his body seemed to visibly tense. "What? Are they okay?" he tried to jump up in surprise but again Raijin caught him and pushed him down.
"Your Ma wasn't home at the time, and her place might be salvageable. But she was at your Aunt's. And that house…was completely destroyed. Neither of them survived. I'm sorry man. If it helps at all, your cousin is still alive. He's in intensive care but I mean….it's something…I guess. I don't really have family, so I don't know. Ya know?"
Zell looked as if he'd been beaten and strangled. His skin seemed to take on an even paler hue that only magnified how gaunt and tense he was beginning to look. Licking his lips, he looked at each of the people standing around him. "My Ma and Aunt are….dead?" he struggled to accept what he'd heard. No one made a move, save for Fujin who placed a hand on his shoulder. "This is a fucking dream!" he shouted as he stood up and pushed Raijin away when he tried to stop him. "They are not dead. This… can't be true! You got bad information or something!"
"I'm sorry man," Raijin said as he took a step back and leaned against Seifer's desk.
"We're going to get him," Squall assured. "He can't elude us forever."
"Yeah well, you better hope you get him before I do. Because I'll kill the bastard if I get my hands on him." Quistis winced as she watched the normally jovial blonde before her darken into a person she'd never seen before.
"How's our security?" Seifer asked, never letting his gaze fall from the two SeeD on the bed.
"On Alert," Squall answered.
"On Alert? Can't you send out patrols to secure the wilderness around us or can't we like, go mobile or something?"
"We can't go far this time of the year," Squall frowned.
"We can stay in the warm waters. Wouldn't it make sense to take extra measures to be sure no one can even get close enough to touch Garden until this guy's captured."
"I'm with Seifer man," Irvine pleaded with Squall. "I don't think Audley's necessarily got the man power to be a threat to the entire garden, but there are families in this facility….and small children. It would only take one guy to cause harm. I'd feel better if we were harder to get to."
"Come on Squall," Zell muttered.
Squall rubbed his temples. "Hitting the water isn't going to solve all our problems. We're all SeeDs here. We're trained to handle guys like Audley –" the combined concerned gazes of everyone else in the room defeated his reasoning. "Fine. Quistis, send out an order. All off-Garden personnel are to report back immediately and I want four teams to be deployed to Balamb. I want the city, the beaches and every other bit of wilderness on the island searched."