Chapter 30

Peace at Last…?!

-x-x-x-x-x-

"So he's not going to concede his title?"

"I doubt he's going to, ever. We know for sure Leonhart likes Card. Being in CC must be heaven for him." The King's Jester Number Two focused on the set of traded Cards in his hand. "Where's your Leviathan, Jeremy?"

Jester Number Three shrugged. "He took it from me. He was pretty pissed when I told him I couldn't give him the Joker title."

"Like was too gentle a word," said Quistis's Jester Number One. "Why did you even give him the Card box years ago, Jace?"

Jester Number Two grimaced. "Wish you'd seen the lost look on that boy's face. He was like a lost puppy… all alone with nothing better to do. And why did you tell him about CC, Jackson? He's not going to cut through our rank if he had no idea we existed."

Quistis's Jester Number One, the CC Jack offered a Malboro Card to Jacob, frowning when he only got a Grendel Card in return. "I had no idea all he wanted was King's room card, okay? Where're all your other Card, Jace? Give me my Malboro back. How can I field our fence with all these?" He waved a Geezard Card in the air. "Anyone got a better Card? I lost it all to Club. He was gunning for some Uncommon Cards to get back to that new Diamond number two of yours, King."

"Leonhart did something to him?" asked the CC Joker.

Jacob peered at Quistis's direction. "Our King's Card."

Jack whistled. "Seriously? He'd do that to the Trepie club leader?"

Quistis closed her eyes. She wasn't sure what was worse, having a die-hard Trepie quite up high in her rank or having her Card in Squall Leonhart's hand. She was experienced in taming a Trepie, of course, but she wondered what Squall wanted with her Card. Granted, her Card had really high numbers, but still…

"Don't even attempt to take my Card from him," she ordered. Her three Jesters stared at her.

"You sure?" asked Jacob. "Club does act like a maniac lately. If he can't get your Card back…"

"Leonhart is a Diamond now. You three had lost from him. He got all your best Cards. I'm out of good Cards because everyone came to me begging for free Cards in order to flank him. If this continues, I'm going to be a King with level one Cards."

"He's just a duplicate Diamond. Club is our original, we have to help him flank the duplicate…" mumbled Jackson.

"If the original's causing trouble, King's going to boot him out anyway," answered Jacob. "I'm sure the King has been looking for this chance forever. Club's intention was never really hidden from the start."

The King eyed his most well-spoken Jester, not even hiding her irritated expression. "True. Whenever the originals do or say something the King thinks is going to be bad for the whole rank, they're out."

Jacob squirmed. "Have I said how pretty you look lately, my beautiful one?"

"What are you talking about, Jace?" said Jackson. "Our King is always gorgeous. I mean, look at that hair! That eyes! That-"

"That will be enough," said the King.

Jeremy chuckled while looking around his King's newly painted office room with interest. Especially the new brown leather sofa Seifer had just blackmailed some of the new cadets to bring in last night.

"Don't even think about it, Joker," said Quistis.

"What? I'm not going to do anything."

"Only because she caught you way too early," Jacob said, running his tattooed hand through his dark hair. "I doubt she'll give you a key anymore considering what you did to her room the last time."

"Before or after I got sent to that Prison mission?"

"You broke into my room when I'm in the clinic?" asked Quistis.

"I didn't say that." Jeremy tilted his head to the side. He slowly pocketed his Cards. "Were you expecting someone?"

Jacob eyed the quiet third Jester. "Heard something?"

The B&E specialist smirked. "A gunblade clang inside the sheath, out the door."

"Does the gunblade sound heavy?" said Jackson, quickly shuffling his Card inside the box and replacing it in his breast pocket.

"Nah, can't be that one. He'll just barge through if he wants," whispered Jacob, his set of newly traded Cards disappeared from view. "The bull never got any interest in us."

"Leonhart," called Quistis after Jacob replaced her Card box in her topmost desk drawer. "Come in."

The door opened. A pair of hesitant eyes looked inside. He studied Jacob, Jeremy and Jackson before landing his eyes on Quistis.

"Heey, the new Lieu." Jacob adopted his most pleasant expression. "Congratulations on your promotion!"

"So that concludes our meeting," said Quistis. "Thank you for your time. You may take your leave now."

Jackson sighed and pulled the door ajar, walking past Squall. Jacob and Jeremy followed not long behind. Squall shuffled on his feet, halfway into Quistis' office.

"Meeting?" he said.

"Meeting," said Quistis. She stood, leaving the circle of four chairs in the middle of the room. "What do you want, Leonhart?"

Meeting with two high-level SeeDs and one popular cadet with no Lieutenant around? And how on Gaia did he get back to Leonhart again? Squall paced inside.

"We'll be leaving in two days," he said. "I was wondering if we have a certain destination yet."

"I was thinking about scouting Balamb," said Quistis when Squall closed the door behind him. "We know now what the Galbadians are searching for. We need to place some of our best scouts around the area so they can get back to us when they spot something out of ordinary."

"Are they supposed to be the scouts?"

"Who? Jace and the rest? No, I was thinking more of the line of… well, Zell. Nobody's going to be surprised if he comes home to Balamb at times like these."

"May I know what the meeting was all about?"

Quistis stopped in front of her desk. She gazed at Squall. "It was a personal meeting. We were just checking up on each other, that's all."

"You dismissed them. It didn't sound personal."

"It was. Sorry, but it really was none of your business."

Squall bet it wasn't, seeing that the chummy atmosphere around the four crashed to the ground when he peered in.

"Is there anything else, Leonhart?"

Yeah. When did I get back to Leonhart? "No."

"Good. Can you call Seifer in when you see him?"

Seifer. Of course, now that he's back… Seifer. Squall wrenched the door handle and got himself out the door only to bump into the one Quistis wanted to see.

"Careful, Sulky," said Seifer, pushing the man backwards. "What's with the 'someone killed my moomba' look today? Worse than the last time I saw you."

Squall was certain his expression didn't change any. "Let's train."

"…Really?" Seifer studied Squall up and down, and shrugged. "Sorry, runt, I got a date. I'm not sure I want to train with you acting like this anyway. Rain check?"

Date… All Squall wanted was to train with Seifer, and maybe smashed his nose to the ground. "Your date's inside. I gotta go."

"Inside…? What… she's in FH…" Seifer trailed off, looking at Squall stomping his way to the main hall. He frowned and pushed the office door open. "Hey. Selphie's here?"

Quistis looked up from the document she was reviewing. "No. I need to talk to you."

"Can it wait? I need to have a lunch with Selphie. Squall said she's inside." Seifer frowned, looking around. There was no spot of yellow jumper or brown hair hiding around the wide curtains or behind the sofa. As crazy as Selphie was, she wouldn't hide between Quistis's legs under the desk. It's not that Selphie wouldn't think of it, but Quistis would never allow that. "That's weird."

"He said Selphie's inside? He was just in."

"He said my date's insi-" Seifer stopped. He ran the words through his head and scowled to Quistis. "Hell, no. What'd you say to the kitten?"

Quistis avoided his glare. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You told him we're dating? He was going to claw my eyes out!" Seifer shoved the door close with his heel. "Explain. I don't have much time for the soap-opera bullshit, so I need to know what you just put me into."

"Seifer…"

"Or maybe I'll tell the kitten how you rejected me back in Timber."

-x-x-x-x-x-

"So apparently I'm taken," Seifer said, shoving another piece of grilled fish into his mouth. "We really need to get out of this place. I'm sick of fish. I breathe fish."

Beside him, sitting on the repaired end of the far deck, Selphie sucked a single thread of pasta from the plate into her. "Why did she have to lie to Squall like that? It's not like he's going to care if Quistis dates anyone, right?"

Seifer eyed Selphie, brow raised.

"I mean… Squall has his hands full with Rinoa and the Timber mission, and now he has to help Quistis with the war plan." Selphie twirled the rest of the pasta around her fork.

"Whose hands full with Rinoa? We're talking about the same guy here, right? The one with the scar on his head like mine and the forever loopy-sick expression? How did Rinoa even get into the equation?"

The pasta stopped halfway to her waiting mouth, Selphie studied Seifer's expression. "Rinoa and Squall were pretty good to each other during our Timber mission, and before all of us got separated at Deling."

Seifer narrowed his eyes. "Right. She was dancing with him at our graduation party." Something didn't add up. "Quistis was lying so he wouldn't realize that we were in Timber to spy on the sorceress. Back then we need to cover up the mission." But Squall changed his scowl… Seifer was well-versed in a hundred and fifty ways of Squall's scowls, so he was sure the one he got outside the office meant jealousy. "Well, hell."

"Are you going to tell Squall and Zelly about it?" Selphie twirled more pasta into her fork.

"About what? Nothing's really going on. Anyway, whatever they think doesn't concern me. I don't have to suck up to those brats. How's the concert preparation going on?"

Selphie avoided a glimpse of the very obvious circular stage in front of Dobe's house. Irvine and Zell were shouting at each other on top of it, mentioning something sounded like a 'schedules' and 'pervert sniper ruining up everything'."What concert?"

Seifer snorted. "Right. And that's not traces of oil under your nails."

Selphie put down the fork and wiped her hands on the edge of her shorts. "Did anyone in Garden have a PCS? Aside from Nida?"

Seifer frowned. "Quistis got one, I think. Just use the Garden line if you want to call someone."

Selphie picked up her fork and continued the attack on her pasta.

"You still can't contact Trabia?"

The girl shrugged. "Some say no news is good news."

When a massive Garden suddenly disappeared from the line, it definitely didn't spell good news. But he kept silent, finishing the last of his grilled fish. The Garden cafeteria had just refreshed their menu, and they had to be creative in thinking up new ones according to the stock they could obtain in the area. Seifer took a look at the new menu and went out the Garden once he realized they all had fish in them. The FH inn was out of food but a grilled fish and fish pasta. He was planning on some fasting after this lunch, until the Garden undocked. If he missed FH, it wouldn't be anytime soon.

"Oh, there you are! Seifer!" Rinoa waved to them. "Hi, Selph! Seifer, can I ask you something?"

"You're gonna ask anyway even if I say no."

"So what does Squall like to watch?"

"Who likes to watch what now?"

"Well, you see, I need to know this for some reason, so just tell me what Squall likes to watch on his downtime."

Seifer stared at Rinoa as if she had just grown a second head. "We were cadets. We got no downtime. Any free time he got, he went to work in Balamb and training. What makes you think he's going to watch something on TV? Can you ever picture that kid sitting down to watch something with others?"

"Card," Selphie piped up. "Squall likes to play Card. He doesn't watch TV."

"We all know he likes to play Card." Rinoa grimaced. "But I can't possibly battle him if I don't have Cards on my own. If by any chance…"

"Not even in hell, no. I collect them not to give them away to the brat."

"You're going to lose anyway," said Selphie. "He's going to wipe you out and leave after he gets all the Cards he wants."

"Yeah, I know. So I was thinking if he has a favourite movie, something we both can relate to. I'm not really a Card person myself."

"Why do you have to relate to him? What's this all about?"

"Everyone's rooting for me to bring him up!"

"Every—" Seifer must have shown his disbelief so clearly on his face, because Rinoa scowled and pointed at him.

"See! I knew I shouldn't tell you that! But it's true!"

"Hm." Seifer eyed Selphie, who was tracing the empty plate in her lap as if it was a very absorbing manual for the new rocket. "One of the everyone must be next to me."

"Oooh," Selphie cooed at her plate, "this must be the new plate Irvy was talking about! It has salmon on it! Look! How pretty!"

"And the other one must be the noisy one on the stage right now," continued Seifer. "He's not the sniper."

"Squall has been pretty gloomy lately," said Rinoa. She crouched between the pair. "So do you know or don't you? What's his favourite show?"

"Why don't you ask the other everyone? He's the ex-roommate. Me, I never watched anything with him. I was more into watching him making a fool of himself."

"I think I have a clue…" Selphie whispered. "He uses gunblade."

Rinoa perked up. "And?"

"Everyone watched Cloud the Mako when they were little. For him to use gunblade as his weapon, he must like the show."

"That ancient show? The one filled with a hundred episode fillers and still haven't finished even now?" Rinoa considered the suggestion. "Come to think about it, Squall does act like Cloud, isn't he? Aloof and a bit sad. Like he was tortured with his past or something."

"Like hell he acts like Cloud!" Seifer said. "How on earth did you get to compare a super SOLDIER to someone who behaves like a Grat bite him in the ass every single day?"

Selphie and Rinoa stared at his outburst.

"Did I just insult your favourite hero, Seifer?" said Rinoa.

"So that's why you insist on using your gunblade with one hand?" Selphie murmured. "The pose you often wore did remind me a little like Cloud's victory pose."

The Cloud worshipper scowled. "What, now we're talking about me? I thought you two were gossiping about Leonhart just seconds ago."

Rinoa rolled her eyes and stood up. "So Cloud the Mako it is. Thanks, Selph. Thanks for nothing, Seifer."

Seifer shook his head at Rinoa's departure. "This is going to blow."

"What?" Selphie looked at the stage, wariness in her eyes. "Not now, not on my watch!"

"Everyone's a damn busybody." Seifer pulled out his new wallet and took out some Gils. "You go ahead and pay up for these. I got to make sure the kids haul up the right bookcase."

-x-x-x-x-x-

We're going to leave the land again tomorrow. Squall shuffled his Card back into his preferred list and replaced them back into his box. He closed the lid and looked around his room. I'm bored... What's everybody doing?

There were some footsteps in front of his door. He listened, and stood up from his bed. Keeping his ear to the door, he heard voices.

"I don't see why I have to go to FH at this hour," protested a familiar voice. "Why do I have to—"

"Last night on the land, sweetie," said Irvine. "Let's just go out and have fun!"

Quistis. Irvine must have gotten her out of her office for a change of fresh air. Squall pushed his door open.

"There he is," Zell said in front of his room. "Hey, Squall, let's go." He nodded to someone behind Squall's door. "He's all yours."

Go where? Squall pushed the door wider and saw Rinoa smiling at him. She was wearing the same beige dress she used during the graduation party. Zell trailed behind Quistis and Irvine, already disappeared from the dorm hall.

"So what's up?" said Rinoa.

Tired.

"You look so down? Come on, Squall, how old are you? You're still a teenager. Why don't you act like one for a change?"

...Just tired.

"Ok, come on. Let's go to the concert."

What? "Sorry. I'm not in the mood."

"How come?"

"I'd rather not talk about it."

Rinoa chuckled. "...Oh, you're so predictable. ...Ok, I'm sorry. I can understand why you wouldn't be in the mood. You're probably tired from all the sudden work she put on your shoulders. It all happened so fast. So we thought it'd be good for you to come and unwind a little. Plus I have something important that I want to talk to you about."

"Who's we?"

"Who else? Selphie, Zell, Irvine, and, of course, me. Come on...Please, for me? There's no point if you don't show up."

I don't know... "...Sorry. I just don't feel like it."

"Fine... I guess I'll have to bug you for the rest of the night. And I'm gonna keep chanting 'concert, concert, concert' and drive you nuts. Is that what you want?"

Squall scowled.

Rinoa grinned. "I'm getting to you already, huh? Looks like you have no choice!"

It wasn't like his room offered any other entertainment anyway. Squall closed the door, waiting for the lock to settle in place and paced ahead of Rinoa.

He met Irvine on the way down to FH. The sniper grinned at his appearance and waved to Squall. When he went closer, he bent down and whispered, "Looking good together. So like...I found this place. It's perfect for you guys."

Squall closed his eyes. Give me a break...

"It's by the stage. You can't miss it. I left an old magazine there. You can thank me later. Have fun. Just let it all out tonight."

Let what out tonight? This guy is sick. "Are you finished?"

"Yeah, sure. I don't want to interrupt you getting good with your special someone." Irvine patted Squall on the shoulder and walked away. Squall stared at the sniper's leaving back. Below them, he saw Selphie pull Seifer to the bottom steps of the stage. The blond looked resigned to his fate, just following wherever the small hand pulled him, no enthusiasm on his face. Quistis stood across from the pair with Nida. She whispered something at him while watching the giant man… wait, was that Raijin? He was tapping on the stage with a pair of black and white dancing shoes and his usual cargo pants. Raijin was tap dancing…

Squall palmed his face.

"Let's go!" called Rinoa, already waiting for the elevator.

Squall forced his feet to move.

Selphie beamed when they arrived in front of the stage. She clapped her hands and made everyone look at her. "Everybody! Welcome to the concert! This is all for you three, Quistis, Squall and of course, Seifer! Congratulations, you guys! Enjoy the show! Rinoa, don't let Squall get away!"

"Oh, I bet she won't," mumbled Seifer next to Selphie.

Squall rolled his eyes. Whatever...

"Ready? Okay, thanks, Raijin…"

The giant man kept tapping his heels, concentration on his face, looking down at his shoes. Zell, Fujin and Irvine walked up the stage. Zell waited behind the keyboard, Fujin held a silver flute and Irvine carried an acoustic guitar. Raijin kept dancing.

"Raijin! Stop!"

The man stopped at once and looked at Selphie. "What, you know?"

"It's good!" said Selphie, giving him two thumbs up.

Raijin grinned.

Next to the concert producer, Seifer gave a pained expression, but he managed to say nothing.

Selphie raised her hands and motioned to the band behind Raijin. "This time with everyone, okay? Ready? A-one, two, three..."

Fujin started blowing into her flute, followed by a hesitant note from Zell. Irvine ran his fingers through the strings, his movement solid and easy. Then Raijin started moving again.

"Oh, just kill me now," Squall heard Seifer groan when the sound of the taps collided with the gentle song from the newly formed band. "I gave up my night training to watch him stomping roaches on the stage."

"Quit being a party-pooper," said Selphie. "Let's go there! I got us a bench!" She turned around to Squall and pointed at a rather secluded spot on the bottom of the stage. "There's your spot!"

Squall watched Quistis and Nida. The two looked at the band with grimaces on both faces. Nida shook his head and whispered something to Quistis. She laughed at the words.

Seifer sat down the small bench next to the stage. "Nice band," he said. "Dreadful tap dancer."

Selphie plopped down next to him. "What do you know about the band? You said you don't play an instrument."

"I said let's pretend I can't play." Seifer studied the way Irvine picked the strings. "He's good."

"And you know this because you can play guitar."

Seifer looked at Selphie.

"And harmonica," continued Selphie, eyes on the stage. "But you pretend you can't play."

"She told you that, huh? Rin's good at claiming she knew things that she never really understood in the first place."

"That's not really the case, right? You played for her."

Seifer sighed. "We were dating. I was trying to impress her, of course. What else should I do?"

Selphie kept her eyes on the stage. "So she did know everything about you."

"Really? We were together for two months. She knew very little about me. Did she say she knows everything about me? She didn't even know I use gunblade."

Selphie turned to Seifer with a question in her eyes.

"No, really. I left my gunblade back in Garden when I went to that crazy eight weeks escape. Civilians don't use weapons on a daily basis. I thought I wouldn't miss mine."

Selphie looked down to Seifer's calloused hand. Nobody would ever think that hand never did manual labour. She shrugged. "Everybody knows you're using gunblade. She sure knows about it now."

Next to her, Seifer was quiet. When Irvine's guitar strummed on the second song, he mumbled, "Okay… don't tell this to everyone then."

Selphie blinked and turned to look at Seifer, but his hand on her jaw kept her face straight on the stage. He leant close to her, and as the melody swayed around them, Seifer's lips opened next to her ear.

Then he sang.

Squall turned and walked to the spot Selphie mentioned. Rinoa was waiting next to a magazine on the floor. Squall crouched and picked up the magazine.

What the…

"Ohh, a naughty magazine," said Rinoa. She sat on the ledge above the FH's long array of solar panels.

I thought he was kidding. Squall threw the Girls Next Door magazine away. He sat next to her. "You wanted to talk about something, right? What is it?"

"Umm...well it's about your promotion. Things are gonna get real tough for you, huh?"

I don't want to think about it.

"Squall, I'm sure there'll be a lot of difficult things that you'll have to deal with from now on. We were talking about that, and saying how you'll probably try to handle everything on your own."

I probably will.

"They know you too well. I do, too, although I haven't been around you that long. Y'know, when you start thinking, you tend to frown like this." Rinoa put her hand to her face and frowned. Squall scowled and tried to push the girl away, but she stood back out of his reach and laughed.

Squall shook his head. "I'm out of here."

"Oh come on! I'm sorry! But really, we were saying that... well... You can't handle everything on your own." She walked behind him and shoved Squall down to the solar panels. Squall fell down and turned back with a furious expression on his face, finding that Rinoa had jumped down, as well. "That's it! Just let out everything! Anything... We want you to talk to us a little more. That's all. Y'know, if there's anything you want to tell us, or anything we can do, don't hesitate to let us know. I know it's not easy but I wish you would trust us and rely on us a little more."

Squall stood on the panels, face down, thinking about Rinoa's words. We… We… Who's we? Are you sure you weren't just talking about yourself? Those who have been around me long… Seifer, Zell, Quistis… they always knew what I meant when I did something. I don't have to explain myself to them. They'd understand. Who is this 'we' you're talking about…? Selphie? Irvine? Even they begin to catch up…

Rinoa frowned and looked back to the stage when the song went downhill. A loud thud reverberated and Seifer's impressive curses could be heard even from the distance. "I don't understand."

Squall blinked and looked at Rinoa's confused face. Huh!? What? Oh me? "Sorry about that. ...I don't need you to understand me."

Rinoa turned back to face him despite the raising voices on the stage. Someone loud-sobbed through all the noises. "Huh? What did you say?"

"I said that… umm, I don't want everybody to understand who I am."

"What? Oh! No, no, no. I wasn't talking about you. I was talking about the music. I love this piece but it's been terrible for the last few minutes. Geez, what are they doing?"

Squall shrugged, not caring about the stage from the start. "Oh. Well...I'll see you later, alright?"

Rinoa pointed her finger at him. "Wait! You're not gettin' off that easy. You still owe me an answer."

Answer for what...? Oh... "Fine. I'll ask for help when I really need it. I'll try to trust everybody more often. Ok?"

Rinoa gaped. "What is your problem? Why do you have to be like that? Are you mad or something? Tell me you are, because this really can't be you!"

Can't be me… what? "I'm sorry."

"You're not sorry! You just wanna get the hell out of here, that's all! Geez! Why does it have to be like this!? Why?"

Rinoa turned back on her heels and ran away, leaving the confused gunblader.

"Seify! Come back here!"

"Ah, damn it," whispered a sound behind Squall. He looked back to see Seifer crawling down the bottom of the stage to the panels. "Hey, you, don't say anything."

Squall narrowed his eyes.

"Seify! You have to apologize to Rai! Seify, where are you?"

"Like hell I would." Seifer crawled along the panels to the edge of the stage, then crept back up the deck and ran into the darkness.

"Squall!" Selphie appeared on the bottom of the stage. "Did you see Seifer? Hey, where's Rinoa?"

"Whatever. I'm getting back to my room. Thanks for setting up the concert."

"Wait! Did you see Seifer? Now where's that… ah, why did everything become like this?" Squall heard Selphie moan behind him.

He walked to the elevator leading up to the Garden and called out to the shadow behind the inn, "Still want to train tonight?"

"She's gonna strangle me if I get back to my room right away," answered a voice behind the stacked crates. "Meet me in front of the Training Centre in ten minutes."

-x-x-x-x-x-

When Squall arrived on the bridge the next morning, he saw Quistis chatted with Xu and Nida. She noticed his arrival.

"We're ready to go," she said to her Lieu. "I already assigned duties."

Xu raised a finger in the air. "I'll take care of all the supplies needed in the Garden."

Quistis assented with a nod. "And until I'm getting my full-range back, I'll be in Garden, taking care of the students with Dr. Kadowaki. Your job is to focus on our battle plans. Seifer will be my field Lieutenant and work on the ground more while I'm healing. The two of you can choose your own team and then get your reports and reviews to me. When I'm good for battle, I'll be in the field again, but we'll talk about it later."

"Fine..."

Nida smirked at him. He was standing next to the bridge console. "Hey, Squall."

"Hey."

"It's Nida. We passed the SeeD exam together."

"Yes… I know."

"The Garden's ready to go anytime. Oh yeah. I'll be piloting the Garden. FH technicians taught me everything about piloting this thing. We're going to leave FH in an hour. If you haven't got anything you need, you'll have to get it now."

Quistis looked at FH from the window. "We're leaving for Balamb. ETA: five days."

Squall calculated the time they took to get to FH. "That's fast."

"Well, the Garden moves freely versus being piloted makes a lot of differences in time," said Nida. "Anyway, someone better make an announcement to everyone so they can prepare for our departure."

"Just do it, Nida," said Quistis.

Nida switched on the intercom. He cleared his throat and said, "May I have your attention please. This is the bridge. The Garden will be leaving FH soon. Please prepare for departure. I will now hand the mic over to our Commander, Quistis."

"Cut it off," said Quistis. "I'll say something later when it's really important."

"Well, our Commander's being shy. You know how she is," Nida said, grinning. "One hour before departure. Get ready, guys."

-x-x-x-x-x-

Selphie soon got used to the sway of the Garden as it waded through the ocean. She was supporting her chin with her palm and her elbow on the desk, glaring at her computer screen, where her public diary waited in front of her. The blog was already half-filled with the mess that was the first concert she held in Balamb Garden. She had been planning to write her adventure from the time they had to escape from the prison to the time she returned, but the concert event had taken up most of the blog space.

When the class door slid open and the man she had been looking for hours ambled in, she kept her eyes on the screen and smashed the keyboard, typing down more of her disastrous concert night.

He sat next to her and read what she had written. Seifer grimaced when he reached the bottom of the blog.

"I did not throw the smoke bomb and disappear," he protested. "What am I, Kisaragi? Come on, even that's too dramatic for a blog. Nobody's going to believe it. I was training with Leonhart last night."

"Rai's crying all night," said Selphie. "So I am not talking to you."

"He's not crying. I know Rai. He's wailing and howling all night. I had a DC meeting this morning. But come on, even you have to admit he's an awful dancer."

"What are you doing here?"

"Sulking doesn't suit you at all. Oh, speaking about sulking…" Seifer frowned. "I need you not to sulk when I seem too close to Quistis for the next few… well, I don't know until when, but I'll tell you now it's nothing so you won't pelt me with stones or suchlike weapon. Just in case."

"You're her Lieu, of course you two are going to be close."

"No, it's not like that." Seifer groaned. "Just trust me, even when I happen to hug or maybe touch her in public later, nothing's really going on, okay?"

Selphie's fingers hovered above the keys. She stared blankly at the screen, turned to Seifer, to the screen, and back to Seifer. Then, she murmured, "Why would I get angry if… are you warning me… am I… but I thought… why are you saying this to me?"

Seifer smirked at her incredulous expression. "Good question. Why did I say that? Did I warn you? Would you?"

Selphie kept staring at Seifer when he stood, patted her head and left.

-x-x-x-x-x-

"I'm here." Zell entered the Secret Area. "Hey. What's so important it can't wait until tomorrow?"

"Hey, Zell," Rinoa said. She pushed herself off the railing and headed towards him. "So, I… umm, I heard we're going to land in Balamb soon?"

"Yeah?"

"As in, only three days from now? So, I need you to teach me martial arts."

"Whoa. Hold up. Teach you martial arts? Like… now?"

"Yes. Now." Rinoa put her hands together in front of her. "You see, I want to help you guys, so I need to be able to defend myself when we're in danger."

"Why would you be in any danger? Nobody will harm you."

"I mean you guys. When you guys are in danger, I want to help! Maybe I can help you more if I know how to fight like you."

Zell scratched his head. He was about to mention that they were in the academy of SeeDs where everyone knew how to fight and Rinoa wouldn't have to worry about helping them during any danger. In fact, it would be better if she learned how to hide and conceal herself during such times and let them do what they did best.

"I noticed during the last battle that nobody was drawing out their own weapon against the Galbadian. You guys were charging with your body, even Seifer and Squall."

That one happened because they had to use the little ahead time they had to get on the first frontal attack. If they had been planning to attack the soldiers in the first place, Squall would never resort to using his fist and shoulder. In such case, the element of surprise was the best they could grab on. The SeeDs were trained to use the best tactics in any situation. The last scuffle was more like a hostage treaty gone wrong and none of them were fans for such event.

"I think…" Zell began, "Didn't your dad teach you martial arts? I mean, you are the General's daughter..."

"He did when I was little. As I grew, he became so busy. Then he made the neighbour kid teach me how to defend myself."

"Well, so you know how to do it already."

"Yeah, right, as in how to use pepper spray, how to scream as loud as possible, how to yell 'Fire' and not anything else, how to run zig-zag, how to call the police and how to say 'help' and 'no' in at least ten languages."

Damn. There went Zell's plan on the civilian self-defence lessons. "You do have to admit it's better for you not to fight anyone head-on if you can help it."

"Seifer told me I have to do one thing right if I want to be able to fight. When I asked him to train me, he took me to the running ground and told me to run like hell."

Damn Seifer for covering up Zell's second plan. "Running indeed is the best way when you are being confronted against your will."

"What if I want to fight?"

Zell stared at her, horrified. "Please tell me you don't plan on learning martial arts so you can fight anyone with your fist. That's not why you learn martial arts."

Rinoa answered Zell's statement with another stare.

"I'm not going to train you. It's not how martial arts work." Zell shook his head. "Rinoa, you can't possibly learn anything real in three days. And you are planning to be able to fight in order to fight. That's the worst reason for learning martial arts."

"What are you talking about? You were learning to fight in order to fight!"

"Rinoa… I am a SeeD. Whenever I learn how to fight, it's for my own survival. You're not going to be sent on a mission. Nothing will take your life in every turn. We're different. Besides, you already know how to fight. You have your own weapon." And Angelo.

"But it's not the same as being able to fight without my weapon!"

Of course not, that was why martial artists like Zell were cherished in SeeD mission. But he would never teach a civilian how to fight and kill so that they would kill.

"Well-trained SeeDs actually avoid any kind of physical confrontation if they have a choice. Take Selphie, for example. She knows how to fight with her bare hands. But unless it's to gain the element of surprise and she knew she could pull it off with no harm to her, she would never attempt physical assault. If she chose to fight them without her weapons, she could and would be able to kill her enemies. But she didn't do that."

Rinoa scowled. "Selphie's smaller than me. What makes us so different then? I mean, if she can fight her enemies without any weapon, I'm sure I can, too, given the right training."

"It's not the case of you can or can't. Selphie was trained all her life to look and assess the situation before she jumped in. Selphie's strength lies in her speed, her bravery and her light weight, and she had made sure to use that strength in facing her enemies, often taking the first offence to catch the enemy off-guard. Rinoa, Selphie is a SeeD. Her mother is the Garden headmaster. She was raised a SeeD. Your situation can't be more different from each other."

"So you don't want to teach me because I'm not a SeeD? Because I'm different from you guys?" Rinoa shook her head. "You think I won't be able to learn how to fight like a SeeD because I wasn't raised a SeeD like Selphie?"

"It's not that—" Zell wasn't sure what he was supposed to say now that Rinoa looked like she was about to cry. "Um… Fuu is really good at martial art as well. She's the second best in class. I think she'll be pleased to teach you."

"I asked her. She told me she can't."

Zell wasn't even surprised Fujin had refused right away.

Rinoa sighed. "You and Selphie… you keep telling me I am your friend, but you don't want to teach me how to defend myself? Not even the most basic moves?"

"I.. I—um, I can't really teach you without hurting you in the process."

"So what?"

"Rinoa… I am… I mean, I was hired to protect you, not to harm you in any way… remember?"

She glared. "The Timber contract? So in the end, you still think of me as your client and not your friend. Everyone around here treats me like I am the employer. That's all I am to you, isn't it? You never think of me as your friend after all."

"But… Rinoa…" Zell groaned when the Timber princess bolted away. He was sure this wasn't the end of discussion for her. Not even close.

-x-x-x-x-x-

Quistis narrowed her eyes. "I don't like the way you smile," she told Seifer. "Whatever you're planning on, don't."

Sitting across her, separated by the desk, the blond gunblader snorted. "I was training with the kitten these past few days. He's indeed a wounded soul through and through."

Quistis waited for the punch line.

"Makes you want to scratch even more, seeing what lies behind all that. Maybe what I'm going to do will end up benefiting you both."

"I'm going to choose thanks, but no thanks. Keep your plan to yourself and don't even think about it."

"I haven't even told you what I'm planning to do."

"I'm sure I won't like it, so no."

Both turned to the door when it opened and Squall walked in. He nodded to them and took his seat next to Seifer.

"Finally," Seifer grumbled. "So let's get started."

"We're going to land next to Balamb tomorrow," said Quistis. "I'm sure you can already see the town now if you go up the second floor. As I told you earlier, Leonhart, I will be sending Zell into his house to scout for information. I'd like the two of you to accompany him."

"Oh, hell, another babysitting duty," said Seifer.

"The three of you are familiar faces in Balamb," Quistis continued as if Seifer said nothing. "Once you got in, get yourself as much information as possible. The Garden will be behind the forest. Don't attempt any fights. We don't want to draw any attention to Balamb Garden. Keep it low as much as you can."

"So when will we get back?" asked Squall.

"I'll give you two days. That should be enough. You need to get back on the second day at night so nobody will know you three are going back to Garden."

When Seifer groaned and shook his head over this average piece of information, Quistis realized he had executed his own plan. The one she was now too late in obstructing.

"I'll be glad when this war is over," he said.

"So does everyone," Quistis snapped. "Seifer…"

"Don't you, Quistis?" Seifer smiled at her. Smiled? What… "When it's all over, I can finally get to the plan."

Plan?

"Plan?" said Squall.

"Well, yeah." Seifer sighed. "I was just talking to my girl…"

Squall tensed in his chair. Quistis studied Seifer, wasn't even sure what he was doing.

"We're both agreed that we're going to leave once the whole war against the sorceress is over." Seifer put a rather struck expression on his face, smiling wide. "In a few years, maybe when we're a bit older, we'll get married." He turned to Squall, as if not seeing the quiet one's slacked jaw and wide eyes. "But soon after this whole ridiculous war is over, we're out of here. Get a house of our own, so we can be together just the two of us…"

Quistis still needed her head, so she refrained from bashing her forehead against the desk.

"I need to go," said Squall. He stood up abruptly, headed to the door, yanked it open and left.

Life wasn't fair. At the time Quistis realized she wanted to punch that face, she was physically incapable of doing so. As of now, the Commander could only watch at that smirk and wished she could plough through the white set of teeth and straight nose.

Seifer stood up and ambled to the door, as if he hadn't just turned the meeting upside down with his monologues.

"Seifer. I hate you," she said. "I hate you."

"What?" Seifer said through a calculated jeer. "So he thought I was talking about you? Weird, isn't it? I was never naming the girl, after all."

Quistis closed her eyes. "You know he's going to think it's me."

"Yeah, well, I never said it's you. If he did, I am not going to bother correcting him. I'm not telling any lies."

How about intended misdirections? "This is going to be a headache in the long run."

"Huh, it's not like any of it is my concern. I'm done here. See you later."

Quistis heard the door opened and banged close on the arrogant one's departure. She bit back an irritated groan. One of her Lieu was impulsive and peculiar, the other haughty and infuriating. They were at each other's throats whether she was here or not, and Quistis knew better than to hop in the middle of their absurd egotistical duel. So what if Leonhart thought Seifer was talking about her future? It wasn't his problem, after all. When the war was over, Squall could see himself how Seifer flung to the Desert of Nowhere with his lady of choice. It shouldn't matter to her what her Lieu thought about her, as long as he followed her command.

It should not matter.

-x-x-x-x-x-

To Be Continued…