Chapter 20

He knew it was bad. But until this time, Irvine had no idea how evil the truth really was.

Instinctively, the index finger twitched, reacting to the raw atrocity spiking the words that assaulted his ears. As though assuming a life of its own, the slender appendage exposed by leather cladding that protected only the palm of his right hand quivered restlessly, the thousands of minute nerve endings jutting out from its tip screaming a unified desire to feel the cold, curved surface of a trigger.

It was Irvine's primal instinct as a man who slept with bullets. It was his natural reaction to a stimulus that brought frigid fires battering through his enraged mind. What he had heard had been nothing short of mind-numbing, and the first response bellowed the desire to kill his assailant.

But the man that stood before him did nothing but bring him the truth, didn't he? As he bore into Zeilgr Markkon's grinning eyes, Irvine warred against the thought bent on murder. The revelation that pierced his heart had come from this arrogant man who seemed to derive joy from his suffering. If only for this, Markkon deserved a slug through his skull. But in his hate, the gunslinger knew that killing the messenger would net him nothing.

But he also knew that his hate required killing. And the only way to do this was to kill the real source of the hate.

General Caraway.

Markkon was right all along. Caraway deserved to die.

Irvine turned to Markkon, who then voiced out his obvious choice.

"Kill him," he said. Curtly and apathetically. "You have no choice but to kill him. If you don't, the hatred in your heart will consume your soul and rob you of your sanity."

A low-pitched growl in his gut agreed, resonating in unison with his fury. Irvine groped for the hilt of the Exeter and with his trigger finger, unlatched the safety switch.

"I will… kill him."

The voice that escaped his mouth had the same hoarseness as that reverberating in his raging mind. It was altogether different and foreign, as though it belonged to someone else. And all of the sudden, Irvine was puzzled.

"What…?"

Markkon nodded. "Yes, you will."

Kill him? Kill General Caraway?

All of the sudden, he was wondering how those words came out of him.

"Why…? Why would I kill him?"

"Why? WHY, you ask?" Markkon boomed. "Because for the plain and simple fact that he killed your mother. For the unequivocal truth that if it had not been for him, you would have been living a simple, peaceful life with Carina Menken. You wouldn't have had to go through all the miseries of a child that had no choice but to cry alone in the corner of a room filled with people who don't want to have anything to do with you. You wouldn't have to bask in the false glory of a hero of the world that in truth had nowhere to call home."

Irvine clenched his jaws. The truth hurt him.

"You wouldn't have been branded among the Fated Children. For the essence of the Fated Children is a life with no past. You would have had a past. But General Caraway took that away from you when he killed your mother."

And much as he hated it, nothing came out of Markkon's mouth but the truth, however spiteful he delivered it. General Caraway did deny him his past by taking away the one person who would have given him his own identity. By ordering the death of Carina Menken, General Caraway consigned Irvine to a life that was not his own, but was common to all children who had been robbed of a heritage that would otherwise have made each of them unique and dignified. He had robbed him of the color of his own legacy, of his own name. He had left him with nothing more than a borrowed home, a borrowed name, and however it tried to fill the void, borrowed affection. Irvine had always appreciated the love and caring given him by the Kramers. But he also had always felt them somehow short. He felt there should have been something more.

The touch of his mother. The touch that he would have grown up with and shaped his life into something better than what he had. But General Caraway took it all away.

But should that mean that he could just kill him?

Irvine shook his head. The thought of it all seemed so attractive, but deep in his heart, he knew that he was raised better than this. The same affection that he had known, though borrowed, had imparted upon him an ethical code that had forbidden the use of killing for anything that didn't serve duty, justice, or the preservation of life. Yes, he was a killing machine, and an effective one at that. But like his comrades, he had carefully treaded the line that separated killing from simple murder. Like his friends, he had never killed for killing's sake. Or for revenge. The principle had become a guiding light that directed Balamb Garden's policy on accepting missions and they had all abided by it strictly.

Irvine would never murder anyone for revenge.

"No."

"What did you just say?" Markkon said, stupefied. He couldn't accept what he had heard.

"No," Irvine repeated. His voice was shaky, but nevertheless resolved. "I may hate his guts. But I will never descend to his level. If you want him dead, do it yourself."

And with that, he started walking towards the door. The hatred was still seething inside him, but deeper in his heart, Irvine knew he was doing the right thing.

But someone didn't quite agree.

"YOU STUPID IDIOT!

"Unh!"

"What's all this crap about descending to anyone's level? You think you actually have a good side? You moron!"

"What the…!"

Irvine was startled to hear the voice ringing inside his head. It tore across his mind like a jagged scythe that burned with toxic radiation, cutting through it with searing pain. Taken aback, he quickly clutched his head while staggering back, as though he had been pushed away from the door and back into the room.

"You're more deluded than we thought. You've actually started to believe you're some kind of altruist. Have you totally forgotten what we've agreed on before?"

Cold fear ran through his body and stilled him like a statue. He had felt a deeper presence inside him that at first he had dismissed as a side effect of the experiment Dr. Odine performed on him six months ago. It scared him, but he tried to shake it off then. It never manifested again to his relief.

But that was before today. Back then, it sounded as merely that of a dark conviction gone awry. Drug-related perhaps? Most probably. Doctor Odine had been known to use drugs that induced dream-reality to his subjects. Its side effects had been known to last awhile. But not this long. If it was caused by that experiment, it should have worn off a long time ago.

"You're doing it again, you oaf! Stop denying me. Stop denying who you are!"

His hands gripped on his head tighter, as though he was in pain. The hot sensation worsened as Irvine tried to exorcise the voice.

"Stop fighting me. I am you. I always have been. And I am a killer. We are. You are. And you cannot deny the truth of your hatred. You cannot defy the truth of my existence. We live to kill. We live to hate. We live to erase what we hate. And you cannot turn your back on our hatred for the one who turned his back on us and killed our mother. My mother. Your mother. You know in your soul how much you despise him, how badly you want to see his eyes rolled up in lifeless surrender. You know in your heart how you desire to see him dead."

"N… No…" Irvine stuttered. He tried, but however gallant his efforts, the voice assaulting his psyche was beginning to prove stronger. He could not muster the strength to drive out the sinister echoes.

"YES!"

"Aaaahh!" went a guttural groan that seemed to have welled up from his soul. Frightened, Irvine desperately groped around, as though searching for a weapon to be used against the invading consciousness.

That was when he saw Zeilgr Markkon. Irvine was surprised at the glaring eyes the governor had fixed on him. Markkon's suddenly fiery eyes were cemented on his, seemingly boring deep into his mind and soul. He felt hot fires coming from Markkon's eyes as though they were stabbing bolts of hate.

Markkon spoke out. "Do not resist, lad. It is futile."

It then dawned on Irvine. Was Markkon responsible for the voice? Was he the one inducing the uncanny presence now vying to take over him? But how? How could he be doing it?

Mind control?

But how could that be possible? Markkon had no powers. He had no junctions. And he certainly did not wield the embodiment that gave sorceresses great powers of the mind. Irvine had not known the governor to possess such abilities. If it was him, how could he be doing this?

"I have tried to convince you, but you would not acquiesce. I am sorry, but you have to do as you're told."

"No…!" Irvine struggled. "No!"

"You will kill General Caraway."

"NO!"

But as Irvine objected, to his horror he found his body acting to commands that were not his. Chilling fear continued to engulf the gunslinger upon feeling the forces that were starting to manipulate his subconscious. It was like trying to control the fury of a mad dog using mere words. His mind screamed and shouted and cussed desperate words, words that fell on proverbial deaf ears that were his to begin with. His hands moved without his consent, his feet lifted without his knowing. His thoughts hollered words of evil that by his own, he could not even bring himself to say.

"You arrogant, wretched fool! It is I who own you, and not the other way around. How foolish of you to think that you owned your soul. How utterly stupid of you to believe the false person that you thought you are!"

Irvine was horrified. He was beginning to lose control.

NOOOO!

" Mulish cretin! I am you! You cannot fight me!"

'I am you?'For one terrible moment, Irvine questioned if it was true. There had to be a reason why he chose the gun to be his weapon. An impersonal, cowardly weapon that struck from afar and therefore spared the user of the perils of actual battle. A long-range weapon that can deal instant death in the blink of an eye.

Was it him? Was it his desire to inflict quick death from a safe distance? He had never questioned it in the past. But now he just had to ask if the voice resonating in his mind was just a side effect of unwanted drugs or was indeed a subconscious reflecting the innermost desires and fears he had always held on to. The gun was an instrument of quick death. A bullet in the head made sure of it. Why would he want to inflict quick death? What manner of hatred did he have in his heart to covet such power?

"I am hate. I am you."

Was the fact that he was born out of a mistake spawned the hidden hatred that made him pick up a rifle? Did the truth that his father loathed him from the start and his mother lived the rest of her life in scorn and had it ended in betrayal give birth to a deep-seated evil that sought to erase his enemies and see everyone through the crosshair as a shadow of those enemies that he eagerly wanted to erase?

Was the voice in fact telling the truth?

"That's right. Accept that we are one."

But then… even if he was born of hate, the mere fact that he was born cast a shadow of doubt to this hate that had been trying to claim dominion of his life. If everything about him and around him had been spawned by hate, why did his mother choose to give him life? And isn't life born out of love?

And what about Selphie? What about Zell, Rinoa, Squall, and Quistis? What about Cid and Edea Kramer?

They all loved him. And he loved them in return.

His life wasn't about hate. At least it didn't turn out to be that. There had been people who loved him.

Forget about the gun. He had known love.

To hell with that damnable voice!

NEVER!

"IDIOT!"

I WON'T… I WON'T KILL!

Unknown to him, sharp mental spikes fired like poison arrows and assaulted his assailant. He only became aware of it when he heard groans of frustration that were not his.

"Cease this useless objection, you idiot! You cannot best me! You cannot best yourself!"

"BOY, IT IS USELESS TO RESIST!"

NOOOO!

His mind was in the fight of his life. The voice was too mighty. The enemy was too strong. But Irvine would not give in. He could not. Despite the pain, he fought to resist and reject the voice that had claimed unity with him. He just couldn't accept it.

But the enemy was stronger.

"STOP RESISTING! I ORDER YOU TO STOP RESISTING!"

And it was winning.

NOOOOOOOOOOO!

"YEEESSSSS!"

It was the last harrowing echo before the darkness descended.


If Laguna had been less than sensible, he would already have fired the Presidential Palace's resident physician. His was a simple case of headache; at least that was what he told the doctor. The latter argued that he could possibly be suffering from acute high blood pressure judging from the dull pains at the back of his neck. But Laguna wouldn't accept it. He may already have been in the 40s but that didn't make him a man old enough for hypertension. Besides, he worked out regularly. He had been doing so ever since quitting from the Galbadian army.

He knew the pressure was coming from his job. Being president had always been tough, yes. But he had always managed to cut it since ascending to power following the imprisonment of Sorceress Adel.

But then, he didn't have to contend with the tumultuous events that had been riddling the political arena since Zeilgr Markkon started becoming an asshole. Now, as he stared blankly at the huge electronic pipe organ he had always been fond of playing, Laguna was battering his brain incessantly. How could he get rid of the Governor without inviting a political scandal the size of the Esthar continent?

Assassination? Covert ops? Frame up? All seemed sensible if they didn't sound ridiculous. Laguna had never subscribed to such underhanded schemes. And he had sworn long ago to himself that no matter how bad the situation had turned, he would never ever resort to the evil that he sought to vanquish when he helped the Anti-Adel resistance.

But what should he do about the Winhill miscreant? What could he do to prevent the Governor from pulling another stunt similar to that one in Timber a couple of days ago?

Laguna almost found it funny. He was the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. And yet he was starting to appear putty before the machinations of a small town governor. Irony? Or was it the fruit of a vile genius behind the scenes?

He thought of the counterattack he had put in motion. Would it be enough? Would the operatives he deployed as fail-safes be up to the task in case the situation turned hairier than it already was?

Laguna then thought of the 'other' problem that had been bothering him. He had tried to avoid dealing with it in light of the current situation. Even though he thought that she deserved his attention, he vehemently denied her, evidently against his more biased judgment. It had been a few days and he already missed talking to Ellone. But he had more pressing concerns. And besides, doing so right now would be distracting. And he cannot afford to be distracted.

Across the room, Kiros and Ward stood silently, waiting for him to talk. Each of them had just handed some papers that Laguna had dropped on the floor carelessly after reading. One of them contained intelligence reports collected by agents that had been keeping eye on Winhill's new military academy, the Citadel. The intelligence report wasn't very encouraging from his point of view.

Preliminary surveillance reveals increased para-magic activity within the perimeters of the Citadel. Or at least that's what we thought. We have employed devices modified from the lab tools Dr. Odine used in past experiments with magic levels and have measured off-the-scale readings in the level of para-magic being employed by Citadel cadets.

Spectrum 3-1 initial psychic force echelon beta-30. Registers level 4 para-magic usage among novice class cadets and inductees. Equivalence in Garden gradient: Tornado class.

Spectrum 3-2 initial psychic force echelon gamma-1012. Readings detected measuring level 6 para-magic usage among intermediate students. Equivalence in Garden gradient: Ultima class.

Spectrum 3-3 initial psychic force echelon gamma-9999. Semi-expert level cadets graded. Results beyond measurable conventions. No equivalence in Garden gradient. Odine standard assessment likewise off the scale. Logical conclusion: Sorceress class. Para-magic term rendered irresolvable.

Further remarks: Galbadian standard nil. Trabian standard nil. Esthar standard nil. No Guardian Forces utilized. Power levels considered extremely dangerous. Source: unknown.

Why had Markkon been developing warriors with power levels equal to sorceresses? What was he up to? And most importantly, how could he possibly accomplish such a thing?

"Markkon is looking to start a rivalry," he said grimly. "He's developing weapons, obviously to match up against Garden and Esthar. I never considered such a thing could be possible but… well. You've seen the reports."

"Scary stuff," said Kiros. "Teenagers with less training than Garden students but wielding power levels equal to Adel's. He's not looking to start a rivalry. He's preparing for a war. The question is, how is he planning to trigger it?"

"…" Ward nodded.

"Uh-huh. Starting A War 101, every hardened politician has a Ph. D. on it. Assassinate a key official, sudden occupation of a defenseless territory. Old Vinzer Deling stuff, only more subtle."

"And what could be more subtle than black propaganda and goading the masses to armed uprising?"

"Timber. Deling City. And by the looks of it, Trabia may be next."

"…..."

"Exactly," Laguna concurred with Ward. "The petition for the lumber trade embargo our Trabian agents uncovered sure looks like a cover up. What do you think we should expect next?"

Kiros shook his head slightly. "Balamb still looks stable, thanks to Headmaster Cid's ties with city hall. But our eastern sector is growing a little restless. Senator Eason is making some noise about under-the-table support campaigns for Markkon. If I were you I'd have him arrested."

"No. That would be too scandalous," Laguna objected. "Besides, Eason's got another interest. As long as we don't play with him, he's relatively harmless when it comes to this Markkon controversy. Let's leave him to the southerners. Our main concern right now is the Citadel."

"…?"

"Yeah, I already tried asking Cid," Laguna answered. "Strangest thing. When I told him about the surveillance reports, he fell silent and almost hung up on me."

"You think he knows something?"

"I'd hate to think he does and he's holding back on us. I trust him."

"Hell, we all do, Laguna," Kiros retorted. "But I don't think it's wise to leave any stones unturned, not with things this touchy."

"Are you suggesting we also scrutinize the Headmaster?" Laguna shook his head. "No. I trust him with my life. This does suggest that he's doing something beneath our notice…"

"Despite the non-interference directive you and Richard gave them."

"Yeah. But if he is defying that directive, I don't blame him. His neck is as much on the line as ours. Richard and I gave them that order to try and contain the hotheaded ones. But if Cid decides to ignore it, I'm okay with that. Better him than Seifer Almasy."

"…" Ward pointed out. Kiros nodded.

"Yeah."

"I know, Seifer's disappeared and no one knows where he's been hiding."

"And you're not bothered?" Kiros asked. "I don't mean to question your judgment, but despite being allegedly 'rehabilitated', once a snake, always a snake. I still remember how he turned against his own school two years ago."

Laguna thought deeply, thinking that maybe he should be concerned about Seifer. But strangely enough, he wasn't.

"No. I can't explain it at the moment. But something's telling me to lay off Seifer and let Cid worry about him. He's a wildcard, and I hate wildcards. But… let's just leave this to Cid."

"And the Citadel?"

"Well, since it appears Cid knows something that he's not telling us, I'm tempted to let him worry about it too. But I can't…"

"I know," Kiros said. "If it wasn't in Winhill, it would have been a different story, huh."

Despite the grim proceedings, Laguna managed to let out a smile. "You know me too well, bud."

To his surprise, Kiros shook his head.

"Well, no. At least not about this thing. I ought to still think that you're protecting Winhill for her. But, well… you know what I'm driving at."

Laguna didn't answer. Despite his disagreement, Kiros did know him too well. At least he knew him enough to recognize that Winhill's worth was not anymore dictated completely by Raine's memories. Kiros knew that now, the sentiment had taken a more active involvement, with ties to someone a lot more alive than the late pub owner and mother of his son.

And Laguna wished Kiros didn't have to touch on the subject.

"Um… would you happen to know where she is?"

Kiros just smiled. "She's in her room. Word is she hasn't been reporting to work for a couple of days now."

Ignoring his reservation, Laguna took Kiros' words as a cue and promptly stood up. Ward gestured in response.

"…"

Laguna didn't know what to think of it.

"I second," Kiros agreed. "Laguna, don't mind us, okay? It's just an old habit of making you look stupid. Whatever you choose to do regarding her, do it. You have our blessing."

"Thanks, guys," he said with a smile before walking out of the door.


This was her room. For as far as she could remember, this had always been her room. Never mind the fact that she had spent most of the last year in a Garden single-room quarter given to her as benefit of being a member of SeeD. Whenever she needed to be alone, to relax away from SeeD work, or simply to catch up with her father, Rinoa would come home to her house in Deling City and stay in this same room that she had always called her home within her home.

All of the sudden, this same room had felt like a stranger to her. All of the sudden, she didn't feel at home anymore, as though the vast, four-walled chamber decorated with trinkets and memorabilia from her childhood and early teen years - like her stuffed toys, girlie board games, magazines, the computer she had used in 4th grade Computer Ed - had become foreign territory. It was like she didn't belong here anymore.

All of the sudden, she didn't know anything anymore.

Having discovered tightly guarded dark secrets about her father had given her the feeling that her world wasn't as it appeared. Like her world had suddenly been revealed as a counterfeit where she really didn't fit in. There had been so much that she didn't know, and all of it was suddenly revealed to her in an explosive moment when she discovered that her father, the one she had a falling away with years ago, and the one she reconciled with just last year, had at one time in his life been a cold-blooded murderer.

Rinoa still couldn't accept it. Memories of warnings and cautions given her way by old friends Zone and Watts came back to her, of how she should be wary about her father's clandestine activities. As a high-ranking military officer, they guessed it was natural for General Caraway to hold such secrets. She had taken it then with a grain of salt, and told herself that it was typical. Besides, what business did she have with her father's affairs as long as it didn't get in her way?

How grossly mistaken she was, Rinoa thought grimly. And as she lay face down on the suddenly unfamiliar bed, with her face buried in a pillow and drenched with tears, Rinoa tried to consider her next course of actions. Would she abandon her father now, knowing that the very reason she had sulked about then even though thinking that they were unfounded was in fact true? Would she tell him how disgusted she was to know that her 'honorable' father could do something dishonorable like order the liquidation of a defenseless woman? Would she demand that he pay for his crimes? Would she try to drag him before a brother she never knew she had, and force him to apologize on bended knees?

Rinoa was tired of crying. Ever since learning about Squall's betrayal, she had been crying almost endlessly and without rest. Her eyes stung and her chest felt heavily laden, as though she had just inhaled an anvil. Never in her life had she encountered a slew of personal crises like this, and being betrayed by the two most important men in her life tormented her like nothing ever did.

The way she felt right now, there was nothing else she could do but to walk away. But to where? Squall was gone, driven away from her life. She couldn't possibly see Irvine, not with the grave secret she held about his mother's tragic death. Selphie? She didn't feel like sharing loads with someone who also had too much on her shoulders. Zell had been incommunicado. And Edea seemed so distant as of late.

Finding herself on her feet, Rinoa unwittingly strode towards that room where, two years ago, she was almost locked in to prevent her participation in a most sensitive assassination operation. She didn't know why in the world did she choose to come here. The way she felt right now, seeing her father, whom she believed to be inside that room, was the last thing she needed. But despite protestations, her bare feet continued to lead her towards General Caraway's office. Tired eyes gazed at the brass doorknob as her shaking hands tried to twist it open. Unusually, it wasn't locked.

Atop a structure located at the center of this great city, a shadow sat peacefully with his legs crossed. His breathing was deep and steady, meant to still his mind and steady his hands. Eyes calm and yet alert, the lithe figure nonchalantly removed the beige jacket he had been fond of wearing. Choppy winds blew from behind, spraying brown hair all over his face. With the same calmness, partially gloved hands swept his face clear of his long, brown hair.

She saw him standing by the window, staring out in the dark distance. Rinoa had seen him in that pose too many times than she'd care to remember. Now, she hardly cared at all that he was in his familiar spot. Like in her bedroom, everything in this room seemed different now. It was the cruel effect of a battered mind that thought it knew everything but didn't. Like in her bedroom, she no longer belonged here.

Would that mean she no longer belonged to him too? Rinoa hurt at the thought. He may have committed atrocious acts. He may have betrayed her. But he was still her father. And she still loved him dearly.

Maybe that was why it hurt so much. Maybe that was why she felt she had to go away. She couldn't bear hurting anymore.

General Caraway turned to her. His eyes were tearful, surprising her. This was only the second time she had seen him in tears. The first time was when her mother died, fourteen years ago.

But that hardly mattered.

"I loved your mother so much…"

Or did it?

"Is that why you did it?" Rinoa asked, moved by her father's unusual display of emotion. "Is that why you killed Carina in cold blood? To stay with mom?"

Caraway didn't answer. She took it that his silence meant a yes. But she was too far gone with the pain that had he been audible, it still wouldn't matter.

And he was aware of it.

"Rinoa, I'm so sorry for betraying you. I'm…"

"You betrayed me," she said, the weight in her voice screaming with pure sorrow. "You betrayed me. Squall betrayed me… I want to stay, but… I don't feel like I belong here anymore. I loved Squall… so much that I'd give me life for him. But he betrayed me, and… I couldn't possibly live with his betrayal. I don't know if I'd survive knowing that the man I loved with my life had been unfaithful."

Through the crosshair, he saw the sorrow in her eyes, and it almost broke his heart. If only for her, he may reconsider.

But he couldn't.

He uttered a short apology.

A gleaming rifle was pulled out from his beige jacket.

"Dad… I love you. I… always will. But it hurts so much. I have to go away…"

"I know," he said, turning away. She didn't see the bead that fell from his eyes.

Heaviness again prevailed as she turned around. The door was facing her square in the face. Rinoa looked at it, and was suddenly overwhelmed by fear. She didn't know why, but she felt an uncanny feeling that the moment she walked out of that door would be her last. Was she ready for finality?

Walking out. Out of Squall's life. Out of her father's life. Betrayed by the two men she loved the most. Her dreams shattered like brittle glass struck by a sledgehammer… Rinoa wondered… how could things be any worse?

*PAK!*

The noise startled her. It sounded like a pebble hitting a mirror. Rinoa quickly turned around.

"Unh… R-Rinoa…"

Nothing could have prepared her to the sight of her father, General Caraway, clutching his left chest with both hands. Blood was gushing out through his fingers.

"DADDYYY!"

Another crack rang out, shattering another hole through the glass window. The projectile that went through it punctured through the back of General Caraway's head, with power and velocity enough to drive it all the way to the other side in less than a millisecond, cleanly exiting through his forehead and taking pieces of his brain with it. Rinoa's breath escaped her as she felt blood and minute pieces of skull and gray matter spraying all over her face.

He hardly felt the recoil of the rifle even after pulling the trigger twice. He likewise didn't put it down, continuing to peer through the telescopic device as though admiring his brutal handiwork.

Deep in his heart, a trace of doubt formed while he watched Rinoa quivering violently as she held her lifeless father close to her. He watched her, face contorted in anguish, mouth wide open as though bellowing a horrendous scream. Of course, he couldn't hear her.

He then trained his sight on the dead man whose head was soaked with its own blood. And he felt satisfied.

"That's for my mother, you son of a bitch."

End Of Chapter 20