Disclaimer: What's mine is mine, and what's Square's is Square's, and never the twain shall meet — except in fanfiction, where it all gets muddled up into a terrific mess.
Notes: The entire ficcie was written around one sad punch line. The scene popped into my head one day — and the following is my less- than-stellar attempt to form a plot around it. First half was written two years ago — which should give you some comfort that Esse always means to finish what she starts.
Warnings: Language of the vulgar variety, mucho innuendo, sentences that go on and on and on — and a world that's skewed off center. But that's okay, 'cause so is ours.
Dedicated: To Lea, and Tammy, who drew me loverly pictures in an attempt t' lure me away from Writer's Block. Many thanks, and a huggle or three.
FF Notes: First posted to calicodragon 11/17/2005. Minor formatting changes to comply with FF. Yaoi, yuri, het — if'n you have problems with any of them, off wit' yoo den.
Side Effects May Include…
It was well known that Odine was the authority on Guardian Forces. He wrote the book on them. He has, indeed, written several books on them. He 'discovered' them, as well as gigantic immortal beings of mostly monstrous guise and bearing can be 'discovered' while ravaging fields of cotton and dilapidated grain silos. He theorized on their origins. He captured them in magical lamps. He quite literally let the genie out of the bottle the long-lost Centra civilization had stuffed it in. He poked, and prodded, and autopsied when necessary due to too-strenuous poking and prodding. Odine was a man, a scientist; he knew that the best way to figure out the inner-workings of a watch was to crack it open and let all the wonderful gears and springs tumble free, to be crushed underneath the demanding heels of progress.
He ran tests. Those, mostly, were inconclusive. But Odine was brilliant, and driven, and was in danger of losing the grant Adel had so generously provided. So, finally, he broke down and asked.
"Vhat are your powerz?"
"Vhat are you doing?"
"Vhat iz zhat?"
And, after going through several interpreters so the puzzled GFs could understand what was being asked of them, they answered.
Odine is the authority on Guardian Forces. He is, perhaps, the only person alive that knows what possible side-effects long-term junctioning may have. He is more than happy to tell anyone who asks him about the subject.
But no one does. Mostly because no one can afford the slew of translators that would be required to converse with him. And no one actually listens to Odine, anyway. What does he know?
Squall woke up one morning with breasts. At least, he was pretty sure that was what they were. Not that he'd had any experience with the things, other than the aborted grope he'd tried on Rinoa a few weeks past, which was nothing to go by, considering the way she'd slapped him away, calling him all sorts of names, but ending on sweetheart. Rinoa confused him. The new additions to his body — confused him less. He studied them briefly, the way a man will study a roadmap to a city he is unfamiliar with — he knows he's in uncharted territory, but damned if he's going to ask for directions. He patted one, then the other, then shrugged. He still had his gunblade, and that's all that really mattered.
He showered, and powdered, and brought out the depths of his eyes with expert strokes of eyeliner, but decided to forego the lip-gloss, thinking it might be a tad too girly for his new figure. On went black suede pants, and off went black suede pants, as he decided that today it might be a good idea to wear something underneath, even if it did cause lines. So he pulled on briefs, and tried the pants again — and there were lines, though they weren't terribly noticeable, and he was reminded again of why he didn't like wearing underwear underneath his favorite pair of pants.
The belts went round, and round. He'd forgotten to wash his socks, and was forced to settle for white booties with fuzzy blue pompoms stitched onto the back. He reached for a shirt — and stared at it. The cotton was thin; worn. When he held it up to the light, he could see through it. Shrugging once more — a gesture he was comfortable with — he pulled it over his head and tugged it down, but not quite as far down as it once would go.
His jacket — that prized possession of leather and fur and secret down-lined compartments that kept him toasty warm in the coldest weather — wouldn't zip all the way up. He wasn't bothered by it. He seldom zipped it up anyway.
He was more bothered by the fact that the fuzzy blue pompoms on his booties prevented his boots from fitting properly. He decided that, having only office work scheduled for the day, he could do without them for once. Boots left forlornly at the foot of his bed, he exited his room and walked quietly down the hallway, bootied feet slipping occasionally on the marble floors.
"Hmm?" He blinked from his position in line, his thoughts on oatmeal and hot cocoa and the little fruit-filled danishes the cafeteria lady liked to set aside for him.
"Ahh…" Zell tilted his head to one side, and balanced his weight on one foot.
"Dude!" The younger man reached out to poke, but thought better of it, and instead ran his hand through his unstyled hair. "Don't'cha think ya outta see Dr. K. about…" He blushed, but kept himself from pointing, figuring the topic of conversation was obvious.
"Why? Plenty of the cadets around here have them, and seem none the worse for it." Squall grabbed up a bowl of oatmeal, wishing they'd serve it whole-grained. He could use the extra fiber.
"But — they're all girls!" Seeing the brunette's blank expression, he crossed his arms, fingers clenching in the black fabric of his shirt. "You're not." Blue eyes widened, and his next question came out as a squeak. "Are you?"
Squall would've rolled his eyes and walked away, but was forestalled by another gaze of burning blue framed by golden hair, confronting him with something akin to shock. "Are they real?"
"I guess." He pushed past Quistis to get his mug of cocoa, not understanding why his friends were making such a big deal out of such an insignificant change. "How do you tell?"
Quistis, it seemed, was unconcerned about the impropriety of touching. "Ehn, they feel real enough." She jiggled once more to be sure, then let her hand drop. "It's really not fair."
The scarred young man was beginning to gain an appreciation of why his girlfriend had slapped him. "I really don't care. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to eat my breakfast."
Blue-eyed blonde glanced at blue-eyed blonde, before both started giggling.
"Yeah Squall, not a problem." Zell grinned, and tossed his head back, mirth straining to break free. "So not a problem. It's fucking weird, but if you're okay with it… Yeah." He walked off, still laughing, mind busy tossing around this newest bit of gossip.
"What Zell said." Quistis's laughter was quieter, but more biting. "Only prettied-up so I don't sound like a moron. You're not the least bit curious as to why?"
"No." Squall sat his tray down at a table, and tried to ignore the frantic whispering taking place behind him. "It's probably just a side-effect from all the magic I've been using recently. It should go away, given time. Remember the way Irvine's lips swelled up, a few months back? It's likely the same thing." He blew away the steam rising from his mug, and took a slow sip. "Same-type thing. Something like that." He'd been too late for the danishes; he thought about hating Quistis for that.
"Well, you're certainly handling it better than I would — should the opposite happen to occur, that is. I wouldn't mind having your chest. Not at all." She shook long pale strands of hair away from her face. "Ah, you do still have it, don't you? Your, umm…" she fidgeted, and shuffled, and kept her gaze fixed on the floor, "…gunblade?"
"Of course." And this time, he did roll his eyes. "It was one of the first things I checked."
The people around the Garden slowly became accustomed to their Commander's new look. A few jokes were made, but not many after one poor unfortunate was Ultima'd after a particularly sarcastic remark. Rinoa, perhaps, took the change best of all, and she spent many an afternoon shopping for lingerie with her boyfriend, and she was only the tiniest bit jealous that said boyfriend was a full cup-size larger.
Squall endured it all indifferently, because he'd been taught no other way to endure. He thought, perhaps, he was due a hissy fit, but the timing for one always seemed a bit off, and the prospective audience a little too jaded to care. So he stored away feelings that were detrimental, and carried on with his routine, and waited. Waited as patiently as he knew how, for the unusual side effect to subside.
He would've thrown his hissy fit, had he known how long that wait might be.
Seifer enjoyed his life. His position — that too, he enjoyed. Enjoyed commanding his staff — who he'd've called servants, if he'd've been king, and not duly elected dictator that he was; never mind he didn't understand how a dictator could be elected, of all things, by the peasant populous of Galbadia, who'd had enough of sorceresses, thank you very much, but not enough, it seemed, of sorceresses' dogs. Enjoyed commanding his commanders, his generals, his advisors, but mostly, he enjoyed commanding his heads of committees, those being, truly, the closest things he'd found to dictators in the entire governing body, excluding himself.
It was them, today, that he was scheduled to meet with. Head of the defense committee, head of the space committee, and head of the public works maintenance committee, who was coming, so he'd heard, to cry outrage at the funds being funneled into the defense and space departments, and not into public works, that had roads that needed resurfacing, and fountains that needed dedicating, and soccer fields that needed mowing before they were officially declared wild-life sanctuaries. They would be at the meeting, and their secretaries would be at the meeting, and whatever other hangers-on they felt necessary would be at the meeting.
Also at the meeting would be the Minister of Finance, whom Seifer had invited personally, to explain to all the complaining committee heads that — no, their projects would not be approved because, yes, the treasury was broke and in debt so deep to shumi concerns of such dubious ethics that it kept him awake at nights, wondering when certain loans would be called in. And of course a country had no kneecaps to break, but a country's duly elected dictator? Ah, his kneecaps were another matter entirely.
Not that he worried about such things. They were all civilized; him, the shumi, and the Galbadian captains who kept close watch on Shumi Village, and an even closer watch on the pretty red buttons that fed commands to Galbadia's missiles. Very civilized. Very polite.
He had his speech written out, and he thumbed through it on the way to the meeting, mouthing significant points that he dared not forget. He nodded at his majordomo, who held out his coat, that thing of stiff leather and shirred wool and golden tassels and gilded decorations that was so much less comfortable than his trench coat, but that he must wear to fulfill Galbadian proprieties, and Galbadian expectations of what a dictator should look like. One day — one day he'd say to hell with them, and leave his apartments in torn sweats, is what he'd do, and likely give his very proper majordomo a heart attack.
He hurried down the halls, attendants trailing after him like so many flustered, overfed pigeons, his steel-toed boots clicking against inlaid marble floors grown a bit dingy with recent budget cutbacks. He would have preferred to take the elevators, rather than the steps - - three floors of them — but remembered, with a grimace, that palace staff had begged the use of the elevators, as they attempted to renovate the previous dictator's rooms, which, he assumed, were filled with the most hideously ornate wooden furniture imaginable, if the wardrobe currently being wedged through the doors was any example. He'd donate the furnishings to charity, if he didn't think the poor and needy did not already have enough going against them, without the added burden of ugly — and very likely ensorcelled — furniture.
So down three floors of steps he went, and across the lobby, where he waved off-handedly to a gaggle of tourists in from the country, and at security, which was unhappy at having him so close to a group with unknown sentiments, and unknown resources, though surely they'd all passed the metal and magic detectors — surely that, at least.
Then down yet another hallway, and finally into the scheduled meeting room, where all the heads of the various committees already were, with their notes in good order, and their attendants getting them coffee, while his attendants, their thoughts obviously elsewhere, ran into the back of him, pushing him into the room, and causing his steel-toed boots to leave ugly marks on the pale marble floor.
"Gentlemen, Ladies," Seifer Almasy started to say. Started… then trailed to a stop. Cleared his throat, and tried again. "Thank you for…"
The committee heads stared at him curiously. They had every right to.
Seifer liked his voice. It was a deep baritone, without being so deep that it dipped down to a bass rumble that rattled windows and disturbed young children — as his friend Raijin's did. It was soothing. It was powerful. It was — for whatever reason, not in evidence. Instead, every word out of his mouth was of a much higher pitch. Mezzo-soprano. Or higher. Falsetto. He wondered how long it would be before someone accused him of inhaling helium.
"Thank you for coming." And there it was; shrill, cutting, and with absolutely no hint of the man he was hidden in it. Girlish. Obnoxiously girlish. "Your pardon, but I need to reschedule." He bowed his head, respective but not subservient to these minor government officials. And turned around. And left.
And wondered how long it would take him to arrange a flight to Balamb. This — this had to be Squall's doing. Everything that had ever gone wrong in his life was Squall's fault. His, or Garden's.
Zell chuckled, ignoring the odd looks other cadets gave him as he headed towards his room. Squall's meeting with Seifer had been priceless, and caught on tape, thanks to Selphie's foresight, and her own dubious sense of humor.
They'd gotten word from Deling that President Almasy was on his way, and none-too-happy, and looking to pick a fight Galbadia had no wish to back. Deling said it wasn't sure what the problem was, but that Mr. Almasy was furious, indeed, absolutely red-faced livid, and not likely to calm down any time soon. It was diplomatic, that head's up Balamb Garden had received, and welcome, in that it gave the Garden time to prepare for the return of its very own prodigal son. It had given Selphie time to set up the video camera in the Garden's foyer, where everyone knew things would be said, and not in Squall's office, that was unfortunately bug-proofed.
And what things had been said! "What have you done to me?" Seifer had all but screeched the moment he saw Squall, standing with Rinoa on his left, and Quistis to his right, and the Directory handily nearby in case the Commander needed to duck behind it. "What did you do to my voice?"
Then he glared at the cadets, who'd come to watch the spectacle, then glared at Quistis, who'd he'd never particularly cared for, but didn't actually dislike. He then glared at Rinoa, who was giggling, much the same way she'd done the one time he'd tried to kiss her, and it was a bit of a relief, to know that he didn't have to go home with her — not anymore. And then he glared at Squall. Glared — and noticed.
"What the fuck?!"
And Squall crossed his arms, and pouted, because it wasn't nearly as easy to cross his arms anymore, unless he crossed them lower, and he never remembered that until he'd tried crossing them. "Seifer. Why are you here?"
"Why? Why?! Can you not hear my voice? What the hell is going on?" He took an aggressive step forward, and would have took another, if not for the threatening green gleam decorating Quistis's fingers. "You look like a girl!"
"I have breasts." Squall ran a hand through his hair, thinking how unfair the blonde man's comment was, when he wasn't wearing eyeliner, or lip gloss — hadn't even moussed in expectation of the day's confrontation. "That's all. A side effect from over-exposure to magic, at best guess. Likely, the same thing that's happened to your voice."
"Wonderful. Just — great." Seifer crossed his arms, to better effect. "And how long until I'm back to normal?" Not — us. Seifer in no way wanted to associate himself with his rival, no more than he had to. And he didn't particularly care about Squall's problems. Not much. Though it was harder to yell at him, what with the way he currently looked, and Seifer found himself wanting to back off, and maybe inquire as to Squall's health, and, just perhaps, apologize for how brusquely he'd entered what was, after all, Squall's domain.
"I don't know." And it was a very Squall-ish answer, accompanied by typical Squall-ish behavior; he shrugged. "I've been waiting for the effect to fade."
"Fade." Then Seifer did something atypical; not very Seifer-ish at all. He smiled, an honest-to-goodness smile, without maliciousness, without sarcasm. It made his face much more pleasant. "Or in my case, deepen. Not a very scientific approach." He shook his head, and his ice-blue eyes warmed. "I'm going to check in with Dr. Kadowaki. Then I'm going to whatever room is available for guests, and unpacking. I'm not leaving, Squall. Damned if I'm not, until this is taken care of. It's hard ruling a country, when no one can listen to you without laughing."
And Zell, who'd been crouched over the second floor's railing, had grinned, and stood, and made his way to his own room. Things, now, would be interesting. Things, now, would get done, instead of ignored. Squall was too complacent. Too willing to let things slide.
Opening up the door to his room, the tattooed boy slipped inside, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror hanging from the far wall.
Indeed, things would get done. He was tired of finding his hair in tight curls each morning, his bangs pretty spirals that hung in front of his eyes — that no amount of gel could persuade to spike. It was a minor inconvenience, compared to what some of the other SeeDs faced, but it was his inconvenience, and he was sick of it.
Xu was patient, and Xu was organized, and Xu was revered around the Garden as the one person who knew where the clean linen was stored, and knew the Garden's itinerary, and knew that Garden indeed had guest quarters, and not just spare dormitory rooms. Guest apartments designed with visiting dignitaries in mind, which was fortunate, since Almasy, who hadn't passed the SeeD exam three times trying — Almasy who had declared war on the Garden, and destroyed the Quad, and had caused their insurance premiums to sky-rocket — that Almasy had somehow finagled his way to high station, and was due rooms befitting that station, as much as it angered Xu to provide them.
And, wonder of wonders, Almasy traveled with a Household that also needed appropriate accommodations, which meant the only place Xu could think to place them was the presidential suite, which consisted of five rooms, and a full kitchen, and laundry facilities, of all things. A suite that had been designed with the President of Esthar in mind — but it would serve a dictator equally as well, and surely Laguna wouldn't care… Xu hoped not, at least.
Almasy, with his staff, and his security, looked around, and pronounced the suite "good enough" in such a tone of voice that made Xu want to punch him. But she restrained herself, remembering that, currently, Almasy had no other tone of voice he could use.
"I'm glad." And she nodded her head at him, and at the elderly gentleman behind him who was currently checking the wall hangings for dust, and at the rest of the staff who held positions she was sure she didn't care about, though one of them had been introduced as Cook, and she supposed that wasn't an honorary title.
"Xu… Regardless of the circumstances, I'm happy to be back." He surrendered his coat to his majordomo, and sat neatly on a couch. "Never doubt that. I grew up here."
She tilted her head, and gazed at the tall man from underneath her lashes, considering. "No, Almasy, I think not. Wherever you did your growing-up at, it wasn't here. Not that any of us could see."
"Ah, but you do admit I have matured?" And there it was, his infamous cocky smile, but somehow it looked more natural than what she remembered.
"You have a blasted Household, Almasy, when before you couldn't stand having even your closest friends near you. I admit you've changed…" She took a deep breath, watching while the staff unpacked luggage — luggage that was still being carried in by conscripted cadets, and hopefully none of the cadets dropped anything out of misplaced spite, or the insurance would be hiked yet again. "We've all changed, and more than the obvious. Dictator of Galbadia, for Hyne's-sake, Almasy!"
"It wasn't my decision, I assure you of that, Xu." His fingers fiddled with the buttons on his shirt, mother-of-pearl and classy — things she'd never thought to associate with him. "But — other people have been affected by these side-effects?"
"A third of the cadets, and more than half the SeeDs. Squall's banned all usage of magic, but so far…" She clasped her hands primly in front of her. "I'll arrange a meeting with Dr. Kadowaki, as much good as it will do. Then again," her fingers moved against each other restively, "we'd thought this was localized in the Garden. But I know we've had no personnel inside Galbadia for the past three months, let alone anyone that would've gotten near to you. A pretty puzzle, isn't it?"
"It's not for lack of an invite, Xu. I'd welcome any representative Squall'd be willing to send. I've written to him exactly that."
"Really?" And Xu's expression became less hard. "I suppose the Commander's holding grudges again, then. He does that, you know." She curtsied, a well-trained motion in her dress uniform. "I'll let you know what time your appointment will be. Until then — feel free to move about as you will, only stay away from the third floor. That, and the basement level, are off-limits for now."
And Xu bowed again, and left the room, and sighed gratefully that no comment had been made about her two extra sets of arms.
He looked up from the report he was reading, expression carefully blank. "Yes?"
"I asked you what you think!" Rinoa held up two pinafores, one a lacy creation of frothy pink, the other a more sedate, silken blue. "Which do you think looks better?"
He glanced from one to the other, frowning. "The pink is pretty enough, but I'm not sure if your complexion can handle it."
"Thanks heaps!" She tossed both garments to the floor. "For your information, I was asking for you." Standing akimbo, the raven- haired woman toed the fallen material. "The thanks I get…" A sniffle warned of future waterworks. "It wouldn't hurt to be appreciated once in a while, Squall. You're Commander — the way you've been dressing lately is positively indecent!"
"The way I dress precludes my ability to command?" Squall sat down the report, and rubbed wearily at the bridge of his nose, hoping to stave off impending headache. "Rinoa, I'm not going about in dresses, no matter how appropriate you may think them. No. Nor skirts, nor," he pointed a finger shaking with strain, and daubed with ink from his stamp pad, "frilly, slinky pinafores of arguable taste. The bras were bad enough, but you convinced me — and yes, they're comfortable, but they were also needed, and that makes all the difference. But leave the rest of my clothes alone."
"Well, foo." She unclenched her fists, trying to shrug the tension from her shoulders. "Fine. Lovely." She picked up the discarded garments, and began rehanging them. "At least I didn't remove the tags; they're returnable. But Squall," she warned, her voice remarkably sweet when she set her mind to it, "the see-thru tees have got to go. You almost put poor Seifer into shock. Give people time to adjust gradually, huh?"
He peered at her from underneath chestnut bangs in need of a trim, and not likely to see one any time soon. "If I could, Rinoa…" Squall had trouble keeping up with his girlfriend's mercurial moods; as a defense, he normally gave in to whatever she wanted. However, giving in is what had landed him with the permanent position of Commander, and giving in had led to an exchange of more than rings. Sometimes, he'd discovered, giving in wasn't the answer.
"No!" He threw his arms up into the air, either beseeching the heavens, or Selphie, if she was currently monitoring the spy cam she'd installed in his bedroom. "If I could, I would, Rinoa. I swear. But I don't think any of us are going to be given time to adjust; I don't. There's three new outbreaks this evening, Rinoa, and Dr. Kadowaki is calling me up several times an hour, Rinoa; what would you have me do? Sweep the cadets into the basement? 'So sorry, no mutant freaks here.' I can not deny what is happening — not anymore…" He wished he'd remembered his reading glasses, but he'd left them behind in his office, next to the growing stack of bills Garden was being plagued with. Headache, it seemed, was inevitable, if not caused by his girlfriend's unwelcome meddling, then from eyestrain. "So. People see me, and deal. Or not. I'm beyond caring at this point." He picked back up the report, sure sign that he was finished with the discussion.
"I see." Rinoa grabbed up her purse, and the pink-and-white striped bag that now contained the offending garments. "I'm still buying you new shirts. Someone needs to be concerned with propriety, since you've been so busy hiding from the truth, which is, Squall, that you're hardly anyone's ideal of manhood at the moment. I'm not asking you to dress as a girl; I want you dressed in something that doesn't make it obvious that you're as uncomfortable with your body as everyone else is."
"Really?" Disgusted, he threw the report against the wall; watched as the papers fluttered to the ground in a single-spaced, 8-point Arial heap. "Are we making accusations now, Rinoa? Are we? Then maybe I should mention the long sleeved shirts you've been wearing, hmm? Trying to hide your scales, perhaps? And that absolutely lovely scarf you wore when meeting Almasy… Afraid he'd comment on your gills, by any chance? Don't speak to me of being uncomfortable, Rinoa — don't you dare! Not while you're covered head to foot and wearing a layer of foundation half an inch thick!"
Rinoa was still, a stillness reflected in her eyes, and radiating from her posture, which was stiff, and very much upright, and looking liable to shatter at the slightest provocation. "Bitter much, Squall?"
Quistis hadn't meant to stare into the mirror. Quite the contrary; she'd planned on entering her room for the haphazard stack of papers she'd intended to grade in the faculty lounge, and maybe for a handful of loose gil to squander in the lounge's fickle vending machine. Looking into the mirror — hadn't been on her carefully arranged, triple-checked agenda at all. People already assumed her to be vain, and Quistis had always hated living up to people's worst expectations of her. Truly, the mirror wasn't even hers; Xu had brought it in at the same time she'd brought in her antique chest, and her suitcase filled with clothes, and her cheering presence that swept the shadows of sorrows best forgotten to the corners of the room.
Quistis hadn't meant to stare into the mirror. But something had caught the corner of her eye as she'd hurried past it, something that caused her to turn her head, and blink, and gape. Quistis-in-the- mirror in no way matched Quistis's remembrance of what Quistis-in-the- room looked like. Quistis-in-the-mirror looked like no one Quistis had ever seen before. And the Quistis-in-the-mirror was reaching out towards the Quistis-in-the-room, because the Quistis-in-the-room could in no way believe what the mirror was telling her.
But mirrors, at least in this section of Balamb Garden, seldom lied. Midnight finger touched midnight finger, and Quistis-in-the-mirror was, indeed, exactly the same as Quistis-in-the-room. Black. Her skin was perfect, inkblot black. In contrast, her hair was metallic blue, shimmering and swaying and reaching out occasionally to braid itself. Dropping her finger, Quistis stuck her tongue out at her reflection — tongue, a pleasing shade of purple, the same as her gums, her lips, and the tender skin protected underneath the gloss of carefully buffed fingernails.
She smiled, a flash of white-bright teeth, and immediately started stripping out of her clothes. She'd never liked pink; loathed its wishy-washy hue, hated that it was the only color that didn't make her look completely jaundiced. Now, though, now… She had an entire closet of clothes she'd never dared wear — rich colors, jewel-toned colors, ruby and wine, sapphire and amethyst — a spectrum that would now compliment her complexion instead of draining it. She knew it paid to plan ahead; to plan for the improbable, for that which was not likely.
Quistis hadn't meant to stare into the mirror. She was, however, very glad she did.
"So Doctor," Seifer Almasy steepled his fingers and regarded the middle-aged woman thoughtfully, "what conclusions have you drawn, so far?"
"Conclusions? You ask me about conclusions, whelp?" Kadowaki buried her head in her hands, one elbow knocking a portrait of her dear, departed Moofoo to the floor. Normally, she'd pick the picture frame up, and wail apologies, and weep great, salty tears over Moofoo. Normally, she didn't have an epidemic on her hands. Moofoo, by needs, must wait. "I don't even know what questions I should be asking. Squall insists the cause is magical. Well and good, except no one here's used magic for the past three weeks, and new cases are still showing up."
"Doubtful." Kadowaki pushed her glasses back up. "Magic's not known for delay. It's quick; instantaneous. At least, the magic we're used to is. Besides," and she looked across the cluttered desk to her newest patient, horn-rimmed glasses slipping once more, "when was the last time you spelled anything, Almasy?"
The tall blonde slouched down in his chair, fingers now folding neatly together. "During that —incident— with Ultimecia, as you well know, Doctor. I have a country to run, now. I have people who do those sorts of things for me."
"Come now, you mean to tell me you haven't dabbled at all? A tiny Fira to keep your hand in, so to speak?"
"Please." Seifer'd never liked the Balamb Doctor, and he doubted he'd exit this meeting with his opinion of her changed. "I drained myself trying to defeat Squall. Completely. There's not so much as a single Scan left rattling around in my brain. And I've been virtually sequestered within the palace. What do you think I do, go around drawing from my staff? Do you see me as that much of a monster, Doctor? Not that it'd surprise me…"
Kadowaki sighed, a broken sound coming from a nearly broken woman. "Almasy… Do you think as poorly of me as all that? I was only trying to prove a point. If you — who haven't used magic at all for so long — have come down with whatever this is, can it be caused by magic?" Sadly, she leaned out from her chair and retrieved her precious Moofoo, leaving smudged fingerprints along the cracked glass. "That's what I was trying to get at. So far, I can determine no cause. No vector. Symptoms from case to case have absolutely nothing in common. Your range has changed; Nida's a salamander; Johnny, who hasn't been in Garden for a month yet, has turned invisible, and we haven't been able to locate him since last Saturday. What could I possibly conclude, other than we're dealing with something that defies any attempt at classification?"
The scarred man stood, looming over the woman who was huddled over her desk, damaged remnant of Moofoo clutched in her hands. He did not like the woman; scorned her, mocked her when he'd been a student, and she an inept nurse hiding in the shadows of the Doctor whose position she so inexpertly was trying to fill.
"There's not that many things, Doctor," he told her, while opening the infirmary door and nodding to his patiently waiting security, "that are capable of defying classification. Shouldn't you, then, be looking into those?"
"As in?" Even yet, her tone carried arrogance, though there was nothing left in her to back it up.
"Goddess, woman, think, why don't you? Sorceresses. The science of the Centra. Odine! There's someone that can't be explained! And your SeeDs, and your darling cadets, have had exposure to all three during the past year. As have I. Find out what all those affected have in common, and you'll have found your cause. Simple scientific method, Doctor. You've heard of it?"
Kadowaki slumped, the last of her courage gone, and gazed longingly up at the medicine cupboard, where she'd hidden a bottle of vodka, in case of emergencies — or a quick nip. "You failed all your classes," she whispered plaintively, wishing, while she was at it, that she'd gone into cosmetic dentistry like her mother had wanted.
"Well, yes, but did you honestly think I could sit through them year after year without learning anything?" He painstakingly put back on his coat, the formal one, with medals, and tassels, and things that jingled no matter how tightly he secured them. "Good day, Doctor."
"I'm saying, Irvine, it could've been worse." Zell fingered a strand of spiraling hair, making a face as it sprung back after release. "Look at my hair! I've shaved it off, and the next morning, it's back. Curly. Do you have any idea what a bitch it is to brush through?"
Irvine wanted to punch Zell, badly. Wanted to pick him up, give him a good shaking, and dunk him in the fountain. But now adays, wishing Zell harm was much the same as wanting to torture butterflies — nearly unthinkable. He was too damned cute, was Irvine's opinion. Besides which, Irvine seriously doubted he'd be able to pick up Zell, even with Zell's full cooperation. Which Zell might entirely well give, seeing as Zell currently thought splashing around in the Garden's fountains a wonderful lark, which he participated in several times a day.
"Oh yes, yes I do." Irvine reached behind his neck and grabbed his ponytail, swinging it over his shoulder. "It reaches my ankles, Zell, see? My arms aren't that long — I have to brush it by sections. It's a pain. But that's not what I'm complaining about!"
"Well…" Zell flushed, and chewed nervously on the inside of his cheek. "Dammit, Irvine, it could have been worse! Look at Nida! The entire second year class have devoted their time to putting out the fires he's setting completely by accident. Compared to that — you're a little short. I don't see why you're making such a fuss."
"A little short?!" Irvine stomped one foot, and waved his fists in outrage. "Look at me. Just look at me!" His lips twisted in a pout, and he took a few steps backwards, so his companion wouldn't need to look quite as far down. "I'm a midget."
"No." Zell sat on his haunches, golden spirals of hair falling past his eyes. "I think, maybe, you're just the right height — for whatever it is you're supposed to be. It's not just size that's changed, Irvine. Your ears, the shape of your eyes…" The younger man tilted his head, curls bouncing with the motion. He'd never been good with words, and was worse with explanations, but it never stopped him from trying.
"I think," and Irvine had to strain to hear his words, "that we're not human any more."
Irvine was terribly, awfully glad that Zell had said we, and not you.
The majordomo surveyed his staff; surveyed the room; surveyed the meal Cook was currently directing. He was surprised to note that he was happy. It wasn't something he'd expected. He'd thought coming to the Garden would be a trial; a test of his skills, and his ability to cope. Yet here he was, with dinner coming along smoothly, if one kindly ignored the lingering odor of scorched kishke, and the room tolerably clean, if not quite up to his standards.
The furnishings had been covered with ornamental drapes, and the walls were hung with tapestries of woven turquoise silk and silver. After severe earlier doubts, the majordomo had to admit that the small suite was beginning to feel like home.
He graced the staff, his stalwart troops, with a beaming smile. A maid, passing by with an armload of freshly laundered linen intended for the master bedroom, curtsied whimsically in return.
It was then that the outside door to the suite opened; opened in a way that was friendly and familiar and not hesitant or hostile — a fine distinction to make, to be sure, but one that the staff was qualified to render. It was one of those qualities looked-for in those who were hired to serve in noble houses during troubled times. Had it been an intruder opening the door, he'd have been faced with far worse than the welcoming nods of the Household.
"Sir." The majordomo shuffled forward and took Seifer's coat, taking care not to snag straying bits of gilded metal against the shirred material.
"Ajon." The scarred blonde studied the room, not feeling particularly critical. "Very nice. Almost soothing. A wonder…" He sighed, and sat down upon the couch, pulling his legs up as well, disdaining the heavily embroidered foot stool. "I'm very much afraid," he raised his voice so that the room's other occupants could hear, "that we'll be staying awhile. Regrettable, but necessary. I do assume you've set up one of these rooms as an office?"
"Of course." The elderly man hung the coat by the door, then turned back around, his expression gloomy. "There shouldn't be any problems with an extended leave — barring anything unforeseen." He ran gnarled hands across grizzled eyebrows, making the short hairs stand on end. "Cook will complain, no doubt of that, but all in all…" His voice quavered, thin with age. "Sir, do you have any idea of when we might be able to leave?"
"Hmm?" Seifer accepted a glass of juice from the maid, sipping at it toyingly. "Not really, no. But I do know, the more of a pest I make of myself, the harder they'll try for a cure."
They were a sullen, bitter group. Their faith was destroyed, dashed upon the razor-edge of chance; their beliefs fallen by the wayside, unable to withstand the world's cruel new reality. So they huddled over mugs of weak coffee, reminiscing about what once was — a group of fanatics who'd lost their cause.
"Aren't you a sorry lot." Quistis shook her head pityingly as she walked by them, blue hair falling to her knees, striping the garnet of her skirt. "I'm sure Squall would be able to find you something to do — you're not paid to hold the cafeteria chairs down."
The ex-Trepies watched her leave with angry, hurtful eyes. Their goddess was gone. She'd given all her pink dresses to charity. And without pink — she was nothing.
Seifer strolled along the Garden's hallways, smirking as he passed SeeDs he knew, a confident, easy-going lift of his lips in acknowledgment of their venomous stares of envy and distrust. It was more satisfying than he'd dared imagine, coming back to his old haunts — coming back successful, and rich, and owing absolutely none of it to the people he nodded to as he walked by.
His security, on the other hand, were frowning, and fingering their pockets nervously, ill at ease with the thought of their charge walking casually down unsecured halls, and entering rooms they'd not had a chance to inspect. So, they glowered, and growled, and looked as intimidating as they knew how to look — which phased most of the SeeDs not at all; they, of course, having better things to worry about than the return of the infamous Almasy. Though, if the chance came, they'd not be averse to tripping him — all in good fun, or some such. As long as his security wasn't looking their way.
"And I'm telling you," Seifer heard from around a bend in the corridor, a voice he could almost place, "it's not feasible to start buying the cadets new clothes at this juncture. Kadowaki swears she should be able to begin reversing the most adverse effects by the end of next week. Until then, we can all continue to cope."
Such calm, reasonable explanations could only come from one person, Seifer was sure. "Xu," he called out, striding forward with his security loyally behind him — if not happily behind him. "I don't know what the quack doctor told you, but she's no closer to coming up with a cure than…" He froze, mouth dangling open, as he finally caught sight of the woman's companion. "…Chicken-wuss?"
Zell's head snapped up, his expression unnaturally solemn. "Mr. President. Enjoying your stay at Balamb Garden?" Blue eyes, their usual shade of azure gone to indigo, slid away from the taller blonde, fixing themselves on the floor. "Ah, Xu, if you don't mind, I really need to get the 4th years started on alterations."
The dark-haired woman fluttered her hands indecisively, which, considering how many hands she currently had, amounted to a good deal of fluttering. "I — Almasy? What… What did Kadowaki tell you?"
"She had nothing to tell me," Seifer told her, while keeping his gaze securely on the younger man. "Absolutely nothing. I told her she should check with Odine, which would only make sense. He's had his hand in every strange occurrence that's taken place for the last forty years. And while he may not be responsible for this, there's a good chance he knows what is. Which, obviously, had never occurred to Kadowaki. She was still busy dithering on about symptoms." He'd crossed his arms at one point, which made it rather awkward to jab his finger out for emphasis. "And what the hell happened to you, Chicken?"
"I do have a name, you know." The shorter blonde hunched his shoulders — and while he didn't have as many hands as Xu did, he managed to flutter just as well, if not better. "It's a perfectly good name. I've had it since I was born."
Seifer sighed, and managed to untangle his coat sleeves from the snagging points of military honors. "Fine then. Zell." He took a deep breath, and gestured. "What the hell?!"
"It's just hair!" He tugged at it; a vain attempt to straighten it. "So, it's not spiked. I've tried, I really have! It's just, being so curly…" he sniffled, as the strands he released bounced back into perfect spirals.
"Your hair? Who said anything about your hair?" And, in all honesty, Seifer had, only just that second, realized that anything was different about the younger man's hair. He stepped forward, a move that caused his security to shoot dark looks at one another. "I was talking about these." He reached out, and grabbed — gently. More a light pinch, than anything. "Since when have you had wings, Chicken?"
"Hmm?" Zell's face was a study of surprised innocence. "These? They showed up the same time my hair went all wonky." He flicked back the free wing, a flash of charcoal and cobalt, frilled edge defining a perfect Monarch shape. "Why?"
"Why?" Seifer released his grip, staring down at fingers that were now dusted in dark blue and black. "I get stuck with the voice of a Dollet sing-song girl, and you get wings — and you ask why?" His volume had risen till he was practically shrieking. "Do you have any idea how unfair that is?!"
Zell shivered, tears forming at the corners of his eyes. "You…" His lips trembled, and the tears fell. Spinning around, he ran off down the hall, leapt the guard rail, and began flying for the other side of the Garden.
"You shouldn't have done that." Xu watched the fleeing boy sadly. "He really is upset about his hair."
Squall wasn't sure why people came to him with their problems; small, insignificant trivialities that in no way concerned him, even when they should. He was the Commander of an elite — and somewhat eclectic, and currently bedraggled — force of mercenaries, and as such, his duties included vast amounts of paperwork, intimidation of minor functionaries sent by beleaguered countries, and occasional ballroom dancing. Nowhere in his contract did it say he had to act as Councillor to the hoards of SeeDs and cadets that dogged his footsteps, demanding answers, seeking solace, and in general making right nuisances of themselves. Squall thought them a bunch of morons, who should have been able to tell by the blankness of his face that he had other, more important things that needed his attention, like lunch.
"You have to do something!" Irvine pleaded, slanted, almond-shaped eyes narrowed in frustration, and a bit of near-sightedness. "I can barely hold my rifle, let alone shoot with it." His hat slipped forward, and he pushed it back huffily, his motions jerky with annoyance. He was struggling to keep up with Squall, running four steps for the other man's one. "And could you turn around? I feel ridiculous talking to your ass."
"What do you want me to do?" Squall stopped, and did turn around, but refrained from kneeling, deriving fleeting satisfaction that the formerly lanky Galbadian had to look up at him. "Get you a step stool to carry around?"
Irvine tried glaring, but the tilt to his eyes made the expression hard to identify. Mostly, it just made him look kittenish — a fact Selphie gleefully pointed out each time he tried it upon her. "I'm scheduled for recertification tomorrow. I'm not asking you for a miracle, Commander; I'm asking you for a postponement. Barring that," and his eyes narrowed further, while needle-ish teeth peeked from between his lips in warning, "yeah, maybe a step stool would come in handy, along with a pillow t' cushion my fall when I'm knocked back from Exeter's recoil."
"… I thought I cancelled the recertifications."
"Then someone forgot to notify the instructor. He's expecting me first thing in the morning."
"I'll tell him personally." Squall sighed, and wondered if it would be considered improper if he readjusted his bra straps; they galled terribly, and he thought it might be Rinoa's revenge for the pinafores, seeing as how the night before his left dresser drawer had been full of less-than-macho undergarments, yet when he opened it shortly after waking up, the wretched, neon-orange bra was the only one left inside. Rinoa had, in fact, been absolutely spiteful lately. She was, he recalled, the one he'd designated to inform the instructors that all testing was cancelled until further notice. He needed to talk to her; better yet, she needed to start listening, and stop humming under her breath, and nattering, 'Na na na, I can't hear you!'
"Thanks." Irvine tossed his long ponytail over his shoulder, then winced as the weight of it jerked his head back. "…Have you heard anything from Kadowaki?"
"Yes." The scarred brunette shrugged listlessly, and turned back towards the cafeteria. "She says she needs more vodka if she's going to attempt contacting Odine."
He'd been talking with Quistis and Xu, about fashion — or the ex- Trepies lack of — and the new fall line being introduced in Winhill, of which the two girls were inordinately excited. He'd come to them for advice, bringing with him the Comptor's children's catalogue, for the 4th years' first attempts at producing appropriate outfits offended his sense of style — and he was tired of tripping over his inexpertly altered jeans.
Xu favored the more conservative styles, while Quistis — as seen by her vivid emerald ensemble and profusion of golden accents — preferred a bolder approach. Personally, he didn't see how either were possible, when his choices were between dopily smiling puppy shirts and spandex-clad superhero jumpers. And even those he would have ordered, if there were any chance of them fitting. As it was, his proportions were decidedly different than the average four-year- olds; while he was short, he was thankfully free of baby-fat. Not that it mattered; with Balamb Garden under voluntary quarantine, he doubted Comptor's would be willing to deliver.
"What is it, Sefie?" he asked, unable to ignore her shrill whine any longer.
"What is it? What is it?" Selphie pushed her way past him, and twirled around, her arms outstretched and her hands sporting dark claws. "Just look at me!"
Quistis tilted her head, while her long, weaving strands of hair played with the ribbon woven amongst them. "Is something the matter?"
The yellow-clad girl huffed out her cheeks, and continued waving her arms in the air. "Yes! Yes, something is the matter! What am I going to do?"
Arms clasped primly in front of her, Xu ventured, "About what?" She looked the shorter girl over carefully, but could find little amiss. "If it's another power like Nida's—"
"No!" Selphie stopped her flailing long enough to point at herself. "Gee, what's wrong with you people? Can't you see I'm a chipmunk?" Her voice once-again raised into earsplitting range. "A chipmunk!"
"Well, you've always been bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Sefie…" Irvine found himself suddenly aloft, staring at Selphie's departing back, before he came splashing down in the fountain. Swimming a few feet to retrieve his hat, he glanced ruefully across at Rinoa, who was lounging nearby, doing her best to lure passing cadets into the water to drown them. "I just don't get it," Irvine groused, settling his hat on his head. "What did I say?"
The soft knock caught Ajon by surprise, for while he was used to dealing with visitors, he was not used to them showing up without warning; back in the Palace at Deling, there were, indeed, several manned checkpoints a person had to cross before entering the wing that housed the dictator's quarters. He knew the impossibility of establishing such a perimeter here, but he still thought it rude that no one considered it necessary to at least call beforehand.
He opened the door — not to greet the visitor, but to chastise them, and offer instruction on proper, civilized behavior. The words, though, caught in his throat behind a gasp of astonishment as he was confronted with cobalt-marked wings and piercing indigo eyes. "Can I help you?" he managed, after taking a few moments to gather his scattered wits, while the young man standing outside in the hallway fluttered nervously.
"I have a message for Almasy." He tugged fretfully at the golden lock of hair curling over his left ear. "Squall, uh, Commander Leonhart, that is, well…" He tucked the spiral back, and tried to calm the trembling of his wings. "But he's not here, is he? Seifer, that is, not the Commander. I'm pretty sure where Squall is."
"I can accept the message for President Almasy." Ajon didn't know whether to be amused by the young man's dithering, or outraged by his lack of respect towards his employer. Though, to be charitable, it was likely that the boy had known the dictator long before he'd gained his titles.
"Okay, great!" He smiled in relief, revealing tiny fangs. "Could you let 'im know that Dr. K's set up a meeting for tomorrow at 10:00? We're all gonna be there. Well, not the whole Garden, obviously," he amended, his smile growing wider. "Just, you know — the group. Well, I guess you wouldn't. But Seif should know who all I'm talking about. Oops." He covered his mouth with both hands, blushing a violet-tinged pink. "I meant, Almasy should know."
"President Almasy," the elderly man corrected, now decidedly amused. It appeared the fidgeting blonde did indeed know his employer; knew him well enough to refer to him by a derivative, and an endearing one at that. "And this is, I believe, a message he should hear personally. He should be returning shortly; please, come in. The staff's just sat down to dinner; you're welcome to join us."
"Oh. Umm…" The young man blinked rapidly, for the offer had not been expected. "I guess… If it's not an imposition…" He held out his hand tentatively. "I'm Zell. Zell Dincht. Pleased t' meet cha."
The old majordomo returned the clasp with solemn dignity. "I'm Ajon. Come in," he ushered his new guest, waving him into the suite. "Let me introduce you to the rest of the staff."
Zell sniffed the air appreciatively. "Is that kreplach?" he asked, unconsciously licking his lips.
"I can see you and Cook will get along famously," the grizzled-haired man murmured, pleased with the direction the day had taken. Though his employer took great care in not showing it, Ajon knew Seifer to be lonely; finding an old childhood friend awaiting him on his return would surely be a pleasant surprise.
Kadowaki had not moved from her desk; had not stood, nor pushed her chair back, nor given any thought of retiring for the evening. No. She'd sat there throughout the afternoon, ignoring the cadets and SeeDs and various faculty that came searching for help; advice; succoring she could in no way give.
She'd swallowed her pride — along with a few tumblers of vodka — and called Odine, after which the harried doctor had fallen completely apart. She'd managed to reach the Commander before total dejection had set in, along with an uncontrollable urge to wipe out her supply of medicinal liquor. That, along with the bottle of vodka, had been enough to keep her occupied until now.
Moofoo stared reprovingly at her; his large, swirly eyes accused her of many things — negligence, arrogance, complete and utter stupidity. Sniffing, she slammed the picture frame face-down on her desk; the cracked glass gave way and left splintery shards underneath the print. She couldn't deal with Moofoo at the moment. It was times like this she was glad he was dead.
She then wailed pitifully, and picked up the frame, scattering slivers of glass across her desk and lab coat. "I didn't mean it, sweetie!" she crooned to the scratched, grainy picture. "You know I'll always love you!"
If Moofoo had been a real person, and not a video game character, his spirit might have been mollified by her abject apology.
He'd visited the library, where he was somewhat miffed to learn that none of the history texts had been updated to include him, though several mentions had been made of Squall, and more yet of Zone, who was accredited with single-handedly running the Timber resistance. He'd spoken with the girl behind the desk, recommending several well- written — not to mention more accurate — texts available from a prestigious Galbadian publisher. She'd shown little interest. So he showed her less, and walked out — the offensive books hidden beneath his formal coat.
He'd visited the garage, and its collection of vehicles. Some of them he knew, most he did not. It seemed Cid had been busily acquiring Estharian cast-offs; General Caraway would be positively green with envy over the tanks; what his reaction would be when he learned the Garden now possessed hover sleds was harder to predict, though frothing at the mouth would certainly figure into it somewhere. Currently, Caraway had to share his military units with the city's public works' maintenance committee, and his diatribes against green waste left in the truck-beds were becoming legendary.
That the vehicles were most likely gifts from Squall's daddy probably wouldn't improve his mood.
He'd visited the Training Room, but not for long. Facing T-Rexaurs had lost much of its appeal, seeing as how his security gunned the reptiles down long before they could get close enough to pose any kind of threat. He looked at the two sternly; they stared back, unrepentant. By then, he was hungry, and somewhat out of sorts, and ready to call it a day, so he headed back to the suite.
There, he was shocked to find his staff lustily singing a truly ribald Balambian folksong, led by none other than the Chicken-wuss, though Ajon's rusty alto dominated the chorus. The emptied glasses scattered along the dining table offered a partial explanation — but Seifer wanted particulars.
"What the hell is going on here?" he demanded furiously, only to be answered by another bellowed verse, and the tittering of the youngest of the maids, who raised her brimming glass up to him in salute. He turned to his security — but they'd obviously had no knowledge of the impromptu party taking place in their absence. "Chicken…" he threatened, in his less-than-threatening mezzo-soprano.
"Seif! You're back, baby!" Zell waved merrily at him — with the tips of his wings, seeing as how his hands were busy keeping the drunken Ajon upright. "'Bout time. Cook made these absolutely devastating blintzes; you wouldn't believe how hard it was, tryin' t' save you one. Whoa!" he tottered, as Ajon suddenly lost his battle against gravity, carrying them both to the floor. He snickered, and tilted his head up so he could see more of the scarred blonde than his steel- shod toes. "They go really, really well with strawberry brandy."
"Do they?" Seifer glared at his staff, and at the two men sprawled across the plush carpet. "What are you doing here, Dincht?"
"Message, from Squallie-baby." He hiccupped, then yawned politely behind his hand. "Dr. K wants t' talk to us all, in the mornin'. But you weren't here t' tell," he added plaintively, as he struggled back to his feet. "So Ajon 'vited me to dinner, and it was swell, lemme tell ya. Then Cook proposed a toast t' friendship — and hell, I'll drink to that! Détente!"
"Détente!" the maid slumped bonelessly in the chair shouted back, draining her glass and dropping it to the floor. Seifer winced, anticipating Xu and a request for payment due to damages rendered.
Zell grinned, and patted her on the arm. "Got that right. So," he leaned towards the taller man, not noticing the consternation his motion was generating amongst the appalled security guards, "now that you're here, I can give you the message, right?"
"Uh-huh. That Kadowaki wants to see all of us in the morning."
"Hey, who told you?" The winged boy peered woozily around the room. "It was Selphie, wasn't it? She eavesdrops on everybody, you know. Why the hell Squall sent me, if you already knew…" He tapped Seifer on the chest, then toyed with the dangling stars hanging from the most prominent medal, fascinated by the shiny objects. "I was, like, really nervous — but everyone was so nice! And this is really neat!" He flicked the stars, and watched them spin, and listened to them chime. "How do I get me one of these?"
"Successfully stand through your inauguration ceremony as dictator of Galbadia without insulting any of the heads of State." He gently pushed the hand away. "You're drunk, Chicken. And you've led my entire Household into your debauchery. Care to explain why?"
"Huh? It's all Cook's fault. Said I was too jittery; said a little itty bitty drink never hurt anybody. And thought it was funny, that I was scared of meeting my good, old, childhood bestest buddy. Really!" Zell tapped him on the chest again, then wrapped his fist into the shirred material and clung there for balance. "They think we're friends!"
"Do they?" For once, he was at a complete loss. "Whatever gave them that idea? I've never even mentioned you."
"Dunno. But they all kept smiling when I told them what a big bully you are — were — whatever." He flared his wings indignantly. "And you're always callin' me names, and nattering about running in the halls, and… Are you laughing?"
Oh, he was, truly; great heartfelt belly-laughs coming out as girlish snickers, while the few remaining staff members still awake nodded in sloshed approval. He wasn't sure how the Chicken did it, sowing chaos and absurdity around his environs with wild abandon — but it always left him feeling refreshed after encountering it. "Don't you know, you were just practice for being dictator of an entire country?"
Zell yawned again, and rested his head against the taller man's shoulder, his features hidden by golden curls. "Good for me."
"Yeah…" Seifer held back a shiver as cobalt and charcoal wings brushed against him. "Now, are you going to be a good Chicken, and let my security escort you back to your room?"
"Room? No. Couch'll be fine." He pushed himself away, and staggered over to the draped settee. "Mmm-hmm. Much better." He pulled the embroidered throw over himself; it fell oddly across his wings. "Yeah. Détente, Seif… 'Night."
Seifer rolled his eyes, then quietly instructed his security guards to help the rest of the staff into their respective bedrooms. All except Ajon, that is. He knelt down beside his majordomo, and covered him with a tapestry he pulled from the wall. "This is all your fault, Old Man."
Ajon rolled to his side, and began snoring.
Balamb Garden was renowned — if not the world over, than at least among the other Gardens — for its tranquil architecture; its graceful columns and curving windows and crystal-clear fountains by which a troubled soul could sit and reflect on the nature of the universe. Presently, though, Squall conceded silently, such an activity would be difficult to undertake, what with the bodies currently floating in the pool.
"Let me get this straight," he said slowly, as if he couldn't slip the words free from his tongue. "The Trepies ambushed you—"
"Ex-Trepies," Quistis corrected smugly, nudging one of the corpses back towards deeper water.
"They ambushed you — and were going to sacrifice you to which gods?"
"Zadoo, guardian of mauve, and Pink Dumpling of the Seven Pleasant Breezes." Xu wrinkled her nose, while busily filling out various forms and insurance claims. It was occasions such as this that made her appreciate her extra appendages. "The ex-Trepies felt Cutie had betrayed them; they had this whole religion built up around her. When she threw away her pink dress—"
"Cutie?" Squall wanted to go to bed. It was late, and his breasts were sore, and something he'd had for nunch wasn't agreeing with him.
"They are my initials," Quistis answered sharply. "Anyway, if Rinoa wasn't napping under the bridge — well, things would have gotten ugly."
"—And this isn't?" He turned to his girlfriend, who'd been too busy brushing out her hair to pay much attention to the conversation. "How exactly did you drown them?"
"Actually, it was pretty easy." She splashed a bit of water through her finned fingers. "I just sorta called out to them, and in they came! They never even tried swimming. Sank to the bottom like stones." She didn't appear to particularly mind sharing the pool with the bodies, though she did worry that if any more cadets decided to commit suicide, they'd start cluttering up the place. "Isn't it the oddest thing?"
He pouted at her, and searched his pockets for ibuprofen. "Whatever. Tell me that when Quistis's hair isn't trying to molest me." He swatted the lock away from his derrière. "Do you mind? What is it with you and groping, anyway?"
"Hyne have mercy on this senile old man!" Ajon groaned, as Cook nudged him sharply with a soft-slippered foot. "What did I do last night? Why am I underneath the table?" He tugged at the hem of Cook's trousers. "Why am I using Temma LaFaere's masterwork as a blanket?" He pushed the wrinkled tapestry off, and attempted to sit. "Ohhh. Somebody, help. I think my brain is trying to drain out my ears."
"Hey, that's more likely than you'd think, around here."
A golden-tressed head popped into view, upside-down, and smiling with enough vibrancy to hurt his aching eyes. "Mister Dincht. I take it you're having a good morning?"
"Lots better than you, I guess." Zell leaned further across the table, till his longest spirals brushed the carpet. "Shoulda warned ya; I don't do hangovers. Not anymore, at least. But I wasn't thinkin' about the rest of you guys. Staff hasn't budged from their rooms. 'Cept Cook," he clicked his tongue admonishingly, "who's spent the morning bragging that someone's finally managed to drink you under the table."
"That's a cliché."
"It's also very true, majordomo of mine." Seifer came forward, bearing a glass of juice and three small pills of various shapes and colorations. He handed them over, then stared at the older man until he'd taken them all. "I hope this teaches you an important lesson."
"Yes, Sir." Ajon wondered if he could crawl back under the tapestry, and hide until he was recalled to Deling. "I shan't drink like that again."
"No." The scarred blonde patted his knee mildly, then stood. "It's that you won't try to out-drink the Chicken. And, next time you decide to throw an unplanned fête — I'd like to be included."
Zell chuckled, and scooted himself off the table, catching himself in a handspring, then twisting himself upright — a task made immeasurably easier with the help of his wings. "Catch ya later, Ajon. We've got a meeting t' get to — and if you can, get yourself to your room. Cook's just started in on breakfast, and I don't know if your stomach is in any condition to smell it."
"That's mean, Chicken," Seifer chided, as he tried putting on his formal coat. The task was proving more difficult than normal; the bits of metal were catching on the frayed threads of gilt, and even the awkward attempts of his security to untangle him seemed doomed to failure. "Not that he doesn't deserve it. Damn! Why won't this thing go on?"
"Huh." Zell pulled the stiff coat sleeve out straight. "Right arm, through!" He then repeated the motion with the left sleeve. "And now, look up slightly," he grabbed both sides of the raised collar, and flipped it back, fingers expertly creasing it into place. "Voila! One impeccably dressed dictator ready to face the machinations and intrigues of corrupt Garden society. And stop glowering at me!" he told the security guards, who were quite thoroughly miffed at how close he was hovering to their charge. "I've lost more than half of my body mass, and my bones are hollow. What do you think I'm going to do to Almasy? Smother him with my wings? Please!"
"Don't let them ruffle your feathers," the taller blonde rebuked, settling the last of his commendations into order. "They're overprotective, is all. The last attempt on my life made them a bit edgy."
"Did it?" Zell pushed past them, and opened the suite's door. "How close did they get?"
"Well, no one even remotely sane would try taking you out alone. Not that sanity is a prerequisite for becoming an assassin, per se, but it would certainly come in handy when trying t' eliminate someone of your caliber."
Seifer smirked at the smaller man as they started down the hall. "Your faith in my ability warms my heart."
"Faith? Hell." He pushed his spiraling bangs out of his eyes, and snorted. "This is experience talking. There were six of us, and we still couldn't kick your ass. You think Squall was happy when you got elected dictator? Fuck no. But he couldn't find enough volunteers willing t' make the attempt. As for ordering SeeDs — woulda caused a riot. We ain't that stupid, t' die for Squall's pissy little vendetta. Besides," he winked one sparkling, indigo eye, "ya haven't done too bad. Besides the slow economic recovery; only guys showing a profit nowadays are the shumi."
"Don't mention them, please." He was about to elaborate when he was pushed to the ground by his trailing security. A brown, fluffy form was running full tilt at them, jabbering and gesturing — and wearing a yellow sundress.
"You guys are late and Squall's pitching a fit and Rinoa won't come out of the fountain and they're serving corn meal mush in the cafeteria and your lucky number for today is 19; there's a 63% chance of rain, winds are coming out of the northwest with gusts reaching 18 mph, Doctor Kadowaki's threatening to resign, and I think you better get there quick, okay?"
The brown, fluffy form bounded away, and Seifer irritably commanded his security off of him. "Was that a chipmunk?" he asked, dumbfounded, while getting to his knees.
"Nah, that was just Selphie." Zell shrugged, and continued walking. "Someone musta forgot she's restricted to decaf in the mornings."
The conference room — wasn't. Wasn't a room designed with conferences in mind; wasn't a room equipped to comfortably hold more than three people. It was, in fact, a janitorial closet, though the cleaning supplies had been moved out the night before, and someone had had the good sense to light a cinnamon-scented candle. Squall would have preferred using the real conference room, but Selphie had confessed she'd already planted a camera there — and he couldn't take the chance that some other resident had had the same bright idea. The meeting was supposed to be secret; he didn't want to learn later that it had been broadcast live over the Garden's network.
So they crammed themselves into the janitorial closet, and Irvine, afraid of being crushed, was sitting on Xu's shoulders, and was the only one of the group able to take a full breath without becoming uncomfortably close with their nearest neighbors.
"Yo, dude, watch the wings, baby! They're not meant to fold that way!" Zell forced his way into the crowd, followed by Seifer. The two security guards stationed themselves outside the door grudgingly, but knowing there was no chance of fitting themselves into the room as well. "Hey, ouch, that's my foot, Xu!"
"This isn't going to work, Chicken." Seeing that Irvine had already found the solution, Seifer picked up the younger blonde, and ignoring his surprised squawk, deposited him on his shoulders. "Better?"
"Oh! Umm, yeah." He spread his wings with relief, working out the cramps. "Much. Hey, Dr. K! There you are!"
Kadowaki was pushed up against the far wall, and looked ready to bolt, if only she had room. Instead, she clutched her picture of Moofoo — secured safely inside a brand-new frame — to her chest, and looked down upon her one true love every few seconds for reassurance. "Yes. Yes, is everyone here now?"
"I would hope," Rinoa grumbled, misting her drying scales with a spray bottle. "Squall, darling, make the good Doctor get to the point, will you? I can hardly breathe in here."
"The point," Kadowaki adjusted her glasses one-handedly, "is that, following Almasy's suggestion…" she mentioned it first, taking away his incentive to gloat, "…I conferred with Professor Odine about the - - malady — besetting the Garden. He was somewhat familiar with the symptoms we've been experiencing." She sighed, and hugged Moofoo tighter. "To be absolutely blunt, he knows exactly what's wrong."
Quistis waited for the confused babbling to die down before raising her hand, asking — and receiving — permission to speak. "I take it from your expression, Doctor, that the news is less than good."
"It depends. I now know what the common factor is between all of those afflicted; on the bright side, there should be very few new cases, and I can tell you exactly whom they'll be. Those that changed first — were the ones who've summoned GFs the most. People who have never Junctioned a Guardian Force are perfectly safe."
"You're sayin'," Irvine chirped, his face crumpled with shock, "it's the GFs doing this to us?"
"Not them, but the virus they're infected with." Kadowaki pulled a handful of notes from her lab coat pocket. "Odine said that, during his studies, he found out that the Guardian Forces were once quite a bit like us. Human, that is. Until their top scientists discovered paramagic, and learned to harness the powers of magical creatures… that, they later learned, had at one time been human until… well, you can see where this is leading, I'm sure."
"Booyaka…" Selphie whispered. "You mean, we're turning into GFs?"
"Essentially. And, it stands to reason, some day, some scientist the next dimension over will figure out a way to summon you, and the virus will spread."
"Lovely," Seifer snarled from his position by the door. "Bloody wonderful. So what's my mystical power supposed to be? Piercing the eardrums of those that annoy me?" He valiantly ignored the giggle coming from the young man perched on his shoulders. "Just tell us what the cure is, Doctor."
Kadowaki shrank in upon herself. "That's… That is to say…" She ducked her head, and accidentally dropped her notes. "Odine says there isn't one. Or none that the GFs have been able to discover — and they've been looking a very, very long time. Because — the virus makes you immortal, as well."
"Well, fuck!" Zell blurted. "You hear that, Seif? I wonder if the Galbadians are gonna start regretting that they elect their dictators for life…"
The maids were busily packing up the final odds and ends; Xu had, with her usual efficiency, rounded up several cadets to carry the waiting boxes down to Almasy's cavalcade. And when a leaded-crystal vase was dropped she accounted it fair trade for the wine stains marring the pale, plush carpet.
"For what it's worth," she told Seifer, while she supervised the cleanup — for they had enough troubles without someone slicing open both shoe and foot by preventable accident — and the final preparations before departure, "it wasn't so bad, having you here. Your notoriety has scandalized the juniors, the library committee is complaining of minor larceny, and you've provided fodder for the rumor-mongers to last them well into next week. Which allows the Commander time to adequately compose his explanation to the Garden." She thought to offer him a hand to shake, but found herself unable to decide which one to use. "Are you sure you must leave? Surely a few more days won't make much of a difference."
"I've got a country to run, Xu. Or at least pretend I'm running. The Minister of Finance gets worried when I'm out of sight for too long; I think he's afraid I might runaway, join a hermitage, and leave him to face the shumi alone. Do tell Squall I'm sorry for not taking official leave of him; it would just be awkward; besides, he was near hysterical after the meeting, and you know how much I hate seeing girls… Um, that is to say, I don't think he'd appreciate me seeing him cry."
"Oi, ball his eyes out, is more like it." Zell peeked in the suite's main door. "Damn, your people move fast. Abandoning a sinking ship, hmm?"
"I hope that's not an allusion to any rodent-like qualities I may or may not possess." The scarred blonde flicked a bit of lint from his cuff. "What brings you by, Chicken? Come to make sure I'm not overstaying my welcome?"
"Actually?" He stepped into the room, neatly dodging a pair of cadets carrying an ornate mahogany trunk. "Xu sorta told me you'd mentioned you'd be amicable to an attaché t' act as liaison between Galbadia and Balamb Garden. So, I guess I'm here t' offer my services. If your welcome is still good."
"What?" Seifer sat abruptly on the couch, his expression shocked. "You want to come to Deling with me? Why?"
"Like I said — t' keep communications open between you and Squall. So that maybe next time you wanna come visit Garden, we won't need a thirty-page treaty worked out before hand."
"That I understand. What I meant was, why you? We'd be working together nearly every day; hell, the only open rooms in the palace are right next to mine! So unless you're getting a stipend that'll cover quarters in the city, we're going to be stuck together. How long do you think it will be before I say or do something that pisses you off? Only, we're not cadets anymore; we'd be triggering an international incident."
"In case you haven't noticed," Zell bared his fangs, then reached up and tapped the tip of the other man's nose, "people can't argue with me. Not any more. Pretty awesome mystical power, huh? Can't fight, can't get mad; at most, they'll feel a slight annoyance that'll quickly pass. See? Got your nose!" And he wriggled his thumb from the protection of his closed fist.
"That's so stupid!" But to his embarrassment, Seifer found himself laughing. And quite unable to stop, until he was wiping tears of mirth from his face, and accepting a handkerchief from a passing maid. "Damn, Chicken…"
"Besides," the winged boy added impishly, "Ajon thinks we're friends. You wouldn't want to disappoint the old dear, would you?"
"Never," he affirmed. "But you should know, you're coming to every single despicable committee meeting. They always turn into yelling matches."
Zell smiled sweetly, and performed a small bow. "It'd be my pleasure."
And Seifer thought — it very likely would be. A pleasure all around. And that was a very pleasant thought indeed.
Quistis leaned against the railing, and looked out over the floor below in satisfaction. A drifting cloud of dust was all that was left of an ex-Trepie who'd been bold enough to come out of hiding and meet her challenging gaze. An indignant huff behind her snagged her attention, and she turned her head, switching her focus to Rinoa and Squall, who had stopped a few paces away.
"Do you mind?" he asked his girlfriend, who'd used the lull in their stroll to stick her hand down the front of his pants. "All I asked was if you had any idea why, well, you know…" he trailed off as he noticed Quistis watching them in rapt fascination.
"Where is it?" Rinoa screeched, her hand searching frantically within the sueded leather pants. "What happened to your gunblade?"
Squall shrugged, and tried unsuccessfully to step away. "Lion Heart? I left it in my room."
"No, no, your other gunblade!"
"Other…" His face went blank, as he tried to figure out what she was asking. "Oh. That." He shrugged again, this time in complete unconcern. "It disappeared the same time the breasts showed up."
Rinoa's lamentation triggered the suicidal leap of a faculty member standing too close to the reflecting pool, while Quistis's uncouth sniggering echoed loudly in the minds of the few remaining ex-Trepies.
"Oh, grow up!" he snapped at them both, pulling his girlfriend's hand out of his pants. "Anyway," he mumbled to himself, "it's not like I had any use for it."
Odine prided himself on being the world's leading authority on Guardian Forces. He would have considered it his life's work — if not for the time he'd wasted tinkering with the Lunatic Pandora, or the years he'd spent trying to refine his random-number predilection facilitator, or the afternoons he'd dedicated to perfecting the fine art of napping.
That someone had contacted him, seeking his learned opinion, thrilled him to no end. That she'd been polite, and listened to him with grave solemnity, was unprecedented; most people gave up trying to understand him after the first, "Iz zhat zo?"
But she'd gone perfectly silent when he'd informed her that the virus had no cure. Gone so completely quiet that he'd not realized she'd hung up until the grating electronic buzz of the dial tone interrupted his explanations.
So he waited patiently by the phone for her to call back, for he had so much else to tell her. While the virus itself could not be destroyed, it was well within the capabilities of current medical science to curb the majority of annoying symptoms, and, in some cases, send them into remission completely. An infected individual could lead a normal life, indistinguishable from any other human. It was just a matter of treating them in time.
Odine waited by the phone, but eventually grew bored, and left to consult with his associates on the feasibility of rebuilding the space station. He left the answering machine turned on, just in case, with a long, rambling message explaining in precise detail exactly what needed to be done. But he needn't have bothered.
The phone never rang.
End notes: And that, as they say, is that! Yes, the entire story was inspired by all of those doujinshi's poking fun of the scene where Zell asks Squall if he can see his gunblade. This, I suppose, adds to the evidence that reading too much doujinshi rots the brain.
So, why is Seifer addressed as President when it's pointed out so many times that he's a dictator? The fact of the matter is, I dunno. Ask the Galbadians. They're the ones who, in the game, refer to President Deling — then label him a dictator. My belief is, they've got the whole system mixed up. It's a partial democracy, where they elect their highest official — then keep him in office until he either dies of old age, or dies during a bloody coup — wherein the population will gather to once again vote — more than likely for the aggressor. Galbadians are strange folks all around.
How many people constitute Seif's staff? At Deling, too many to count. On his 'vacation' to Balamb Garden there was Ajon, Cook, three maids (the oldest being female, the middle being male, and the youngest being teeny-bopper girly), two male security guards, and a male secretary. Cook's sex is unknown — seeing as how Cook, if Cook had been in FFIX, would've been Qu. And yes, the staff all have names — I just didn't bother using them here.
Why did the virus breakout all at once. Umm… sunspots. Yeah. That sounds good. The virus needed, I don't know, some sort of solar catalyst. And that's my final answer. Totally.
What's up with Squall? Y' know, Melissa Scott came up with a wonder five sex classification system. The Commander falls underneath her definition of a fem — "human being possessing testes, XY chromosomes, some aspects of female genitalia but not possessing ovaries; ðe, ðer, ðer, ðerself." (Shadow Man 309). And, really, I hadn't realized Squall matched the definition while I was writing — it was only while I was editing I'd noticed what I had done. So — credit where credit is due, yes? And, I admit it; I read some strange books =)
Why is Quistis OOC? Erm… my defense is that she's not — not really. I've always seen her as a bit bitchy, and those Trepies are creepy. Plus, living with Xu has improved her self-esteem, made her more outgoing — and showed her she doesn't always have to be perfect.
Why'd Seifer get stuck with a change so absolutely useless? :holds up one finger and winks: Auditory attacks, baby! People's brains really will be dribbling out their ears… Eww, yuck. That, and the insane image I had of Seifer trying to command troops in a voice identical to Minnie Mouse on Acid. Go ahead; imagine him scoffing 'Puberty Boy!' now. I dare ya!
Who the hell is Moofoo? Why, the male lead in a popular video game for a system a generation out of date — only found in the FFVIII universe. Kadowaki was an avid gamer in her youth — and what do ya know, all those old fogies were right; video games are bad for a person's mental health.
As for butterfly Zell? Heh. That falls underneath my 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. Hey, it's gotta be good for something.