Disclaimer - All things Final Fantasy do not belong to KitKatt0430 or Emcey_Squared. We lament this fact, though we rejoice over the lack of lawsuits this entails.
A/N - Welcome to the 'director's cut' version of the prologue and chapter one. What do we mean by director's cut, you wonder? Well, we went through and rewrote the entire chapter, adding more description, fixed some weird phrasing, did a better editing job, and added a few things here and there that helped to fill a few accidental holes created by the natural evolution of the story. We hope that new readers and re-readers alike will enjoy the revamped chapters as we upload them. Keep your eyes peeled; we intend to bring the entire story up to the standards set by this updated chapter.
10/29/12 - Re-edit.
Pairings - Seifer/Squall, Selphie/Irvine, pre-Quistis/Female!OC
He was calm – unnaturally calm, really, given the circumstances – as he was dragged into the sterile room and chained to a chair. There was a witness (General Caraway, who looked far too gleeful; but then he'd hated Seifer since learning that he'd dated, and dumped, Rinoa the year before), a court official, and a doctor waiting for him. They hadn't wanted to waste time and Seifer was just... tired.
He was ready for it to end.
The court official read out the sentence: death by lethal injection. The doctor wasted no time injecting Seifer with the poison. Caraway smiled eerily and told him how he'd fall asleep, never to wake again.
"It's a more peaceful death than you deserve," Caraway told him.
Seifer just shrugged and leaned back, waiting for the end. Borrowing Leonhart's favorite phrase, he muttered "whatever" as laconically as possible. It hadn't really sunk in yet, that he'd be dead in a matter of minutes. Except he could feel his thoughts growing sluggish and his sight wavered a little.
A chill ran through Seifer's body that might have been from the drugs or, just as likely, the sudden realization that this was it. He was eighteen and would never live to see nineteen. He'd never be able to legally purchase alcohol (not that he hadn't gotten away with getting a few illegal drinks over the past year or so). He'd never have sex... though he'd gotten pretty close. He'd never be forgiven by his posse for running off to Galbadia like a moron.
He'd never be forgiven by anyone, ever.
Joining the Sorceress had felt like the right thing to do. It still felt like the right thing to do. Ultimecia had been awe inspiring and amazing; he'd done his damnedest to be good enough for her, though he felt as though he'd failed at every turn. But now she was gone and everyone saw him as the evilest villain since the Sorceress Adel.
Seifer shoved that thought away. He didn't want Squall Leonhart's hatred to be haunting him into death. Bad enough that he was about to die young. There was no point in making things worse.
The door slammed open.
Seifer blinked; he hadn't even realized that his eyes had closed, but Fujin's shout jerked him back from the edge of unconsciousness. Elation coursed through him, followed closely by terror.
His posse had come for him... too late.
"We've already carried out the execution," Caraway told Fujin and Raijin, who stood in the door, weapons in hand. "Almasy will be dead in a matter of minutes."
"No, no!" Raijin shook his head. "There's gotta be an antidote! There's always an antidote, ya know?" He took a few steps over to the doctor and grabbed his arm. "What do we have to do to save him?"
"Seifer..." Fujin crouched in front of him, fear clouding her eye with tears. "We were supposed to save you..."
"I'm sorry, Fuu... Rai..." Seifer whispered hoarsely, his strength giving away. It was too late. He'd fucked up his life for the last time.
Distantly, Seifer felt Fujin's hands on his arms, shaking him in an attempt to keep him awake even as he spiraled into darkness. The protests of his friends fell on ears that ceased to hear them. Left in the cold and the dark, everything fell away, even the feeling of the chains on his wrists and the chair beneath him. He was nowhere.
"So this is death..." Seifer looked around uncertainly; the place was barren, yet somehow familiar. It didn't feel like a place he'd ever been before, but a bit like somewhere he was supposed to have gone and missed somehow.
"Would you like a second chance?" the voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. "I could grant you the option to choose a different side in the war that damned you."
Looking around, Seifer tried to pinpoint the source of the voice, but it was too dark. If there was anyone there, they didn't even have to be well hidden to avoid his sight. "I don't disagree with the choices I've made. I don't feel guilty," Seifer growled at the disembodied voice.
"You don't? Then why do you crave the forgiveness of those you hurt the most?" The voice laughed, continuing to speak before Seifer could verbalize a cutting retort. "I never said that you had to repent for what you've done. I simply asked if you wanted a second chance. Should you take the path you disdained before - stand at Leonhart's side in opposition to the Sorceress Ultimecia - you need not die so pointlessly."
The temperature was dropping and Seifer wrapped his arms around his chest in an effort to conserve heat. Could he really do it? Could he fight at Leonhart's side and take orders from the reticent, anti-social brunet? Could he bring himself to fight against Ultimecia...
"You haven't the time to dawdle over this decision, Seifer Almasy. I cannot maintain a connection to both you and this place for much longer."
"Fine." Seifer wanted to live more than he wanted to serve Ultimecia. He could handle being under Leonhart's command too, if it meant not dying in that sterile room with poison running through his veins. Dying in battle was one thing, but to be put down like a rabid dog... there was no dignity in such a death. "How does this work?"
"Have you not noticed? You're eyes are closed, Almasy. Open them to life as it was three weeks before your last SeeD exam. Do not share your future knowledge with others; there are consequences you would not like for sharing this knowledge without my permission. Make of this second chance what you will; this is the only time you'll get such an offer."
By then, Seifer felt overwhelmed by the freezing chill that surrounded him and he didn't understand what she meant about his eyes being closed. Surely his eyes were open; the place he was in might be dark, but there were still things he could see... like the silhouette of a woman standing not too far from him...
There was something tangling around his body. Thrashing against the alien sensation of having something coiled around him, Seifer's green eyes snapped open. He sat up sharply, his body shaking and teeth chattering from the cold.
Light was streaming in through a window into a room that was undeniably his dorm at Garden. Seifer's head began to throb painfully and the room tilted around him. He collapsed back against his pillow and brought closer the bedsheets that he'd shoved away in his panic. There was a knocking at his door, which Seifer didn't bother to respond to; he was far too busy whimpering at the pain the sound inspired.
A few moments later the door opened despite his lack of response and Fujin breezed in. Taking in the sight of her roommate's condition, her hand went straight to his forehead. There was something soothing about the action and Seifer relaxed against her touch.
"BURNING!" Fujin gasped in surprise.
"F-freezing," Seifer countered shakily.
Yanking her hand back, Fujin turned sharply for the door. "TREATMENT!" she declared as she hurried from the room, presumably to fetch Dr. Kadowaki.
Despite the cold and the pain, Seifer drifted off to sleep.
Seifer woke to the familiar, off-white walls of the Garden infirmary, beige curtains partially obscuring the view of students rushing around the quad. For a moment, Seifer thought that maybe Fuu and Rai had done it; they'd gotten him the antidote and convinced Leonhart to let him recuperate at Garden before tossing him back out on his ass. Then his head began to pound and Seifer's thoughts went in the other direction.
Maybe it was all some sort of nightmare brought on by his illness. Maybe Ultimecia, as well as the 'future' he'd lived through, had never existed.
The room felt too hot, so Seifer struggled to sit up and push away the heavy quilt that had been draped over his bed. He hated the weak feeling that descended over him, making every movement twice as hard as it ought to have been. His actions caught the attention of Dr. Kadowaki, however, and the good-natured doctor hurried into the room with a smile on her face.
"Good afternoon, Seifer. How are you feeling?" She grabbed the clipboard off the end of his bed as she spoke.
"Like I was run over by a tank," Seifer rasped. "It's really hot in here, too."
"That's your fever, not the room," Kadowaki told him. "It seems you've caught the latest flu bug that's been going around. Your roommate was very worried about your well-being; I'll send her word that you've woken." Dr. Kadowaki made a few notations on her chart. "Would you like something to eat?"
Though not exactly hungry, Seifer nodded in acquiescence. "How long have I been sleeping?"
"All morning. I thought you'd sleep away the afternoon, too. It's almost four."
"Oh..." dizzily, Seifer leaned back against the pillows.
"I'll be right back with some soup, crackers, and water after I send one of my runners to Fujin. I'll also have some medicine for you, which should help bring down your fever some." Turning away, Dr. Kadowaki placed the clipboard back where she'd found it and walked out the door, which shut behind her with a soft 'snick.'
"Was it all a dream?" Seifer wondered aloud. Looking out the window, Seifer watched his fellow cadets for a few moments as he tried to judge whether what he remembered was really just an elaborate fever-dream or a reality that no longer existed. It sounded impossible, after all. People didn't die just to wake up months in the past, and ill no less.
Yet there was a part of Seifer that knew the memories were real. He remembered how satisfied he'd been with his choices... how proud he'd been to serve the Sorceress... how shock had masked his fear upon death.
I don't exactly want to, but I need to change a few things before everything spirals into death again, he decided. My second chance... time to do things the 'right' way.
The door opened again and Dr. Kadowaki walked back in with a tray of food in her hands. Shrugging off thoughts of what the future could hold, Seifer decided to concentrate solely on getting better for now. The rest could come later.
This was the day.
In Seifer's mind, he could clearly picture the way things had happened the other time around. He'd gotten up early, like he had today, and hurried out of his room, another thing he'd done the same. Both times, he'd run into Squall the moment he'd stepped into the hall. Before, he'd insulted Squall and challenged the brunet to a sparring match that spiraled out of control, landing them with matching scars. This time he just demanded Squall stay out of his way before sweeping off.
Hours had passed since then and class had come and gone. The final exam would be coming up soon and here Seifer was, sitting in his dorm with Raijin and Fujin. All of them were staring at Seifer's cadet uniform, which was on a hanger that had been hooked to the back of Seifer's desk chair.
"I really, really want to make SeeD," Seifer commented. "So I ought to take the test seriously... wear the uniform, follow my orders, and get my act together this time, right?"
"AFFIRMATIVE," Fujin agreed, nudging Raijin with her elbow to get him to respond.
"Ya know it," Raijin agreed absently. Rubbing his ribs where Fujin got him, Raijin scowled at the silver-haired girl.
"But I don't want to wear the uniform," Seifer grumbled, well aware he sounded whiny.
"Then don..." Raijin was cut off by another jab from Fujin's elbow.
"PRESENT!" Fujin held out a pair of black leather gloves with blood-red sword-crosses on them. "EARN TODAY."
"I'll earn them by making SeeD, Fuu," Seifer grinned at her and grabbed the gloves and uniform before dashing into his bedroom to change.
"I don't get it, ya know? Why'd the gloves change his mind?" The doors shut out whatever answer Raijin received from Fujin.
Admiring the gloves, Seifer exchanged them for the pair he usually wore and felt a bit relieved at the somewhat worn-in feeling they had. Stiff gloves would interfere with his ability to fight, but this new pair wouldn't. They were perfect.
And then it hit him; he'd never received these gloves in the other future he remembered.
Stripping out of his clothes, Seifer pondered that bit of information. Had Fujin decided not to give the gloves in the other timeline because he was upset over not making SeeD? Then again, he'd been in a habit of taking Fuu and Rai for granted during that go-round. Treating them the way he had was his only real regret from that life. Maybe the gloves were completely new to this timeline entirely and were Fuu's way of subtly thanking him for the change.
Or maybe they were just gloves and he was reading into them too much. The other future could have easily been a fever-dream, after all.
Putting on the uniform, which was a little stiff since he'd never worn it before, Seifer decided it didn't matter. Dream or reality, what was important was the affect it was having on him. He had a chance to make life better for himself; there was no point in wasting it by thinking himself in circles.
Finally reaching the jacket, Seifer tugged on it a few times and wished it was longer. He preferred trench coats to jackets that ended at the waist; the uniform felt incomplete.
"Oh well. There's no helping it, I guess," Seifer muttered, heading for the door. Walking out into the living area of the dorm, Seifer gestured widely. "So... what do you two think?"
"REGAL!" Fujin declared, her red eye glowing with approval and pride.
Raijin catcalled with a smirk. "The girls are really gonna chase you now, ya know?"
"Tch..." Seifer crossed his arms. "That's only if they don't freak out and decide the apocalypse is coming," Seifer grumbled, though the smile on his face belied his words. Honestly... who could ask for better friends than these? "Let's get going, guys. Our public awaits."
"Lively?" Squall's voice was incredulous as Seifer strolled into hearing range. The brunet glowered at Quistis, who simply smiled serenely at the younger teen. "He's just loud. Can't I switch team members?"
"Teams were formed with both balanced skills and specific tasks in mind, Squall," Trepe admonished. "There can't be any reassignments." Raising her voice, she flagged down Zell Dincht, who did a few flashy flips to reach the Instructor. "You and Squall are on the same team. Your leader, who should be here by now, is Seifer Almasy."
"I was just waiting to hear your dulcet tones call my name," Seifer drawled, walking up to the group with Fuu and Rai on either side of him. There were identical looks of surprise on Quistis, Squall, and Zell's faces at the sight of Seifer in uniform. He smirked, glad to have floored them with his uncharacteristic 'bow' to Garden authority.
"I didn't think you knew what that uniform was for, Seifer," Quistis retorted once she'd recovered from the shock.
"It's surprisingly useful for shutting people up," Seifer observed. "I've never heard such silence in Garden's halls before; you'd think Armageddon was at hand." Zell snorted in amusement at Seifer's comment and then quailed under the force of Seifer's glare. "Careful Chicken-wuss. Annoy me enough and I'm sure the jacket could double as a gag."
"Hey...!" Zell batted the air with his fists in frustration.
"Down boy," Raijin teased. "Squawk at someone else, ya know?"
"LUCK!" Fujin walked into the middle of the group and gave Seifer, Squall, and Zell pointed looks. Once she received three affirmative nods, she turned sharply and strolled off, grabbing Raijin's arm as she passed him and dragging him away with her.
"That was friendly of her," Squall commented.
Seifer shrugged. "She's been worried about something all day." Glancing back at the silver haired woman as she disappeared around the curve of the hall, Seifer wondered what could have Fujin so on edge. But he shoved his curiosity aside. They were as close to being siblings as was possible without sharing blood-ties; if it were truly important, then Fuu would tell him. "Let's get this show on the road, shall we?"
'We have to wait for the Headmaster," Quistis told him. "He'll be giving a speech before sending everyone off." She paused a moment, an odd expression on her face. She seemed to be weighing the consequences of something. "You've been acting differently the past few weeks, Seifer."
"Have I really? I hadn't noticed." Or, rather, I'd hoped no one beyond my posse had noticed.
"You have," Quistis confirmed, doggedly persevering in the attempt to start a conversation about his changed behavior. "It's been appreciated."
"I'd say 'whatever,' but then I'd be poaching Leonhart's catch phrase," Seifer grumbled, hoping that Trepe would leave things at that. Predictably, Squall pinned Seifer with a powerful glare, but Seifer was adept at ignoring the blue-eyed stare after years of inoculation against the brunet's moods.
To Seifer's relief, however, Quistis laughed and refrained from pressing the subject further.
"There aren't any flies in the van, Chicken-wuss," Seifer drawled, hoping to get Zell to stop shadow-boxing. The tattooed blonde's nervous energy was grating on Seifer's nerves.
"What did you call me?"
"The same thing I always do," was Seifer's scathing reply. "If you're too busy looking like an idiot to pay attention to your surroundings, I have no intention of wasting my time catering to you by repeating myself." Seifer rolled his eyes when Zell took a menacing step forward.
Ever the peacemaker, Quistis opened her mouth to say something that was likely cliched and condescending. Seifer quickly spoke to stop her from saying anything. "You always counsel people to ignore me, Dincht, but they'll never listen to you if you can't follow your own advice." Three startled expressions turned to Seifer, who fidgeted under the pressure of the combined gazes. "Wow, you'd think I'd just told you I could turn lead in gold or that the sky is falling. This is why I never try to be nice around you people."
Zell snorted derisively. 'You never try to be nice simply because you don't know how."
"No. I just don't bother to censor myself the way other people do. If I were incapable of being nice, not even Fujin and Raijin would spend time with me." He rolled his eyes again as the trio continued to give him bewildered looks. "This is ridiculous," he muttered, leaning back in his seat.
A few moments later, the van went over a particularly large bump in the road, knocking Zell to the ground in a heap. Smirking, Seifer tilted his head to stare at the ceiling, eager to arrive at Balamb's docks.
Not too much later they were stepping out of the van into the fading light of the sunset over Balamb Harbor. Stretching his arms, Seifer glanced around and noticed that a full moon was rising into the sky. "Looks like a sniper moon," Seifer observed. "I hope the Galbadians aren't smart enough to take advantage of it."
"Sniper moon?" Squall echoed curiously.
"The light of the moon shines brightest when it's full," Xu commented, walking up to them. "Snipers can use it to their advantage, hence the nickname. Hello, Seifer, here for a third snafu?"
"Aww, Xu, I can just feel the love. You know you'd be devastated if I'd given up," Seifer drawled mockingly. Peering around her, he spotted the Garden Coral Submarines in the bay. "Sweet! C-subs."
"He's like a kid in a candy store," Xu teased, sounding a bit thrown by his friendly response. She'd clearly been hoping to rile him up a bit. "Point him at the munitions and watch the fireworks," she mused with a smirk.
Seifer didn't bother to respond. Shrugging, Seifer turned to Squall, shooting the brunet a grin before leading the way to the C-subs. This was what he lived for; fighting against the enemy with life and death decided solely by who was stronger both physically and mentally. Half the battle, after all, was psychological..
Once inside the sub, Seifer took a seat on one of the briefing room's two benches. Squall took the empty seat beside him, forcing Quistis and Zell to sit across from them. Seifer had no doubt this was purposeful on Squall's part; Quistis' crush on Squall was obvious enough that the lithe gunblade specialist had no choice but to avoid the woman as best he could. Verbal confrontations weren't Squall's strong point; he'd rather avoid them in favor of physical fights, not that fighting Quistis would make the blonde beauty back off.
In a way, he was almost looking forward to the fated romance of between Squall and Rinoa, if only to see Quistis' finally have to acknowledge that Squall had less than zero interest in her. It wouldn't make up for a year of putting up with Quistis at her most patronizing, but it would be a great start.
Once everyone was seated, Xu took her place at the head of the briefing table and began to natter on about their mission to secure the city square. Located at the heart of Dollet, the square would be overrun by Galbadian soldiers as SeeD and Cadet teams flushed them out. On one hand, Seifer could understand the necessity of having both of Garden's gunblade specialists on that team. The two of them were the strongest fighters Garden had, regardless of their status as cadets. Zell was one of the facility's best support fighters, so he rounded off their team well skill-wise. But... Seifer didn't really see the point of the mission they were being given. The Galbadian soldiers who were retreating could just as easily be spared. This sounded more like someone was using Garden to send a message.
Maybe someone was using Garden to send a message; both Kramer and NORG knew about the Sorceress. It wasn't too much of a stretch to think that one of them had set up the Dollet mission in such a manner that it would let the Sorceress know they were on to her by depriving her of so many soldiers.
"Sounds pretty important," Zell muttered, dragging Seifer out of his thoughts.
No matter what the reasoning behind their mission was, it was still going to be boring as hell. The majority of their time would be spent sitting around a broken fountain watching a dog bark. Seifer was not looking forward to that.
Shifting his attention to the weapons rack, Seifer considered the array of secondary weapons available for use on the mission. Though the majority of the upcoming battle would be waged with their primary weapons, it was always a good idea to have backups in order to cover contingencies. Selecting a 9mm semi-automatic, Seifer reached for it, snagging the weapon without ever leaving his seat. He also claimed an extra magazine; both objects slid into place on his uniform belt. Normally that's all he'd take, being well stocked in knives already, but he recalled how worried Fujin was.
Between his recollections of the other timeline and Fujin's worries, Seifer felt justified in picking out one of Garden's experimental weapons – the xep-2 – and placing it on the table. It resembled a small rifle and had a strap meant to hook over someone's head and shoulder for easy transportation. "Do we get to play with these, too?" he asked Xu.
"The xep-2 has been cleared for the mission, but cadets are to be cautioned against using it because of..."
"The accidents that occurred during production," Seifer finished for Xu. "Gotta love the Balamb rumor mill, huh?" Ignoring the SeeD officer's irritated expression, Seifer sat forward in his seat and hooked the xep-2's strap across his right shoulder and over his head.
"What's our ETA?" Squall asked as he, too, selected a few extra weapons from the rack.
"Twenty minutes," Quistis responded as she checked over her own weapons.
Returning to his seat, Squall caught Seifer's attention and asked, "what makes the xep-2 so special?"
Startled by the attention so much that his heart hammered in his chest a moment, Seifer barely managed to pull off a typical, nonchalant response. "The xep-2 uses a combination attack. The main part is the projectile it fires, which can punch through even Galbadian armor, but the secondary part is the lightning spell that has been fused to each bullet. Once the bullet hits the target, it lets off a burst of electricity."
"So they can disable the part of the armor that lets them cast spells?" Squall clarified.
"Yeah." Seifer remembered how surprised he'd been when Balamb hadn't made use of the xep-2s during the Garden battle. At the time, he'd assumed that there had been further problems that made the weapons a liability, but maybe Squall just hadn't known or remembered the weapon's useful qualities. Either way, playing around with the new toy sounded like fun.
"Looks like A-squad has already finished securing the beach," Seifer commented quietly as he led the way up the stairs to the city. They'd had to cleave their way through a few Galbadian soldiers after leaving the C-subs, but hadn't had too much trouble. This time he was even sticking close to his team instead of constantly racing ahead to take point.
"How far is Dollet's square from here?" Squall asked. The brunet was warily watching the surrounding area for enemies; they were moving from the beach stairs onto the main street, which was eerily quiet and littered with debris from earlier battles between the Galbadian soldiers and the Dollet National Guard.
C-squad was already there, though, checking buildings and systematically securing the area.
"All major streets lead to the square, though this particular street is the Main Street," Seifer told Squall. "It should take about five minutes or so from here." Shifting his gunblade in his hands, he asked, "have either of you been here before?"
"Never," Squall muttered shortly.
"I have." Zell grinned fondly at the memories. "I've visited a few times with my ma, mostly before she sent be to Garden." The smile on his face faded as his hands clenched into fists. The shorter blonde punched the air a few times in agitation, the light from broken streetlamps reflecting off his gauntlets and flashing like sparks of electricity. "It's... weird to see the city looking so torn up after having seen it on better days."
"That store there," Seifer gestured to a broken down shop with glass littering the pavement by the windows, "was my favorite. Part weapons customization and part curiosity shop... and now it's likely been looted."
"Is there a point to this?" Squall asked, his voice tense.
Seifer shrugged. "Not really," he responded and then went silent.
Two Galbadian soldiers leaped out of a small alleyway as the trio passed by. Both blonds easily knocked the soldiers sown and out before Squall had a chance to react. Stepping over the corpses, Seifer gave the rooftops a brief glance. He didn't remember the Galbadian's using snipers before, but it was better not to take any chances. It was the perfect night for snipers and there was certainly no honor or glory to be found in getting shot down without having a chance to fight back.
Seifer knew that lesson particularly well.
"I liked that restaurant a lot," Zell said shakily, gesturing a to a burnt out building beside the alley. He seemed to get what the conversation had really been about; it was easier to stay calm when your mind processed things more trivial than the death and destruction surrounding them.
The restaurant Zell was pointing at had been well known for its hamburgers, hot dogs, and other popular Balamb cuisine. Seifer smirked; "you would like food from home best, wouldn't you Chicken-wuss?"
"I'm not a chicken!" Zell growled.
"But your hair resembles poultry," Seifer protested. "I call it like I see it."
"Could both of you shut up?" Squall's irritated voice quieted the blonds once more.
By now they were approaching the city square. There was a trio of Galbadian soldiers standing beside the water feature that had once sported the statue of a beautiful maiden surrounded by swirling 'water' rising from below. Now the statue was horribly disfigured and the sides of the fountain were cracked. Though the pump had been deactivated, water had already soaked the ground, making the footing slick. In the encompassing darkness of the surrounding streets and alleyways, Seifer couldn't see any other soldiers in the area. Though, he recalled that there would be at least five more who would come running up soon enough.
Recklessly charging forward, Seifer took the first soldier by surprise. The second and third turn to him. As they prepared to shoot, Squall and Zell darted out and efficiently dispatched them. Another two soldiers raced out of the shadows, guns blazing, but the three cadets had anticipated trouble. They simultaneously cast Protect. The bullets bounced off the trio harmlessly as they counterattacked.
"SeeD!" yelled someone off in the distance.
"Close enough," Seifer decided with a grin. "Just think; by this time tomorrow, that idiot will be right."
"Think we'll all make it?" Zell asked, staring in the direction they'd heard the voice from.
"Well, if I don't get in, this uniform is gonna get burned somewhere public... like the quad," Seifer narrowed his eyes at the darkness, sensing more than seeing the movement of the Galbadians. "Three incoming," he told his teammates. Lifting his gunblade into one of his favored stances, Seifer jumped forward and jammed the blade into the weakest spot in the Gabladian's armor: the joining between the helmet and the neck piece. Yanking the blade out, he whirled around and slammed the flat of the blade into the back of a second soldier's helmet. The soldier was stunned long enough for Zell to deliver a junction enhanced right-hook that snapped the man's neck. Squall had already dealt with the third soldier by punching through the armor with his gunblade.
There was a short silence and then Seifer asked teasingly, "think the square is secure yet, Chicken-wuss?"
"I wouldn't know; I'm an orphan," Seifer shot back with a smirk. Ignoring Zell's surprised and somewhat contrite spluttering, Seifer's attention zeroed in on an underfed dog that was wandering the square. It should have been in somebody's kitchen begging for scraps and petting, but instead it was left out to fend for itself. Seifer felt a little sorry for it, but not that sorry. "The mutt had better not give away our position."
Squall walked over to the animal and crouched down in front of it, his arm outstretched non-threateningly. The dog sniffed the gloved appendage for a moment and then pressed the side of his head against Squall's hand. "I doubt it will," Squall observed, scratching behind the dog's ears to its obvious delight.
Seifer knew that they'd be fine up until the point that the Galbadians would pass by the square on their way to the radio tower. He had no intention of following them this time; been there, done that. What he didn't know was what happened at the square. It could be tame and boring or...
The dog backed away from Squall and stared at the northernmost side of the square. Letting out a frightened howl, the mutt raced from the square yelping like his tail had been lit on fire.
"What the...?" Zell began, not hearing the soft sound of marching that was slowly growing more audible.
"Over here!" Seifer signaled for his team members to stop what they were doing and join him around the corner of a broken down gift store just in time to watch a platoon of soldiers head off towards the northern section of the city.
"We could take them," Zell muttered.
Squall silenced the tattooed blond with an irritated look. "Where are they headed?"
"Looks like they're headed for the old radio tower," Seifer observed. "I can't think of anything else over there that has any value."
"The tower doesn't have any value," Zell objected. "All radio signals are permanently jammed."
"All it takes is enough power to boost the signal and viola!" Seifer walked out into the open as the last Galbadian soldier disappeared around the corner. "The interference gets punched through. Instant, if fuzzy, broadcast television. Still... it would take one hell of a generator to get the sort of signal boost necessary..." Seifer stared at the tower in the distance. Despite everything, his curiosity had be piqued again, except this time it was more intellectual than violent. He'd never actually found out how the tower was put back into use before.
"You're not thinking about going over there, are you?" Zell demanded.
Smirking, Seifer took advantage of the situation to taunt Zell. "I'm thinking about it. Scared Chicken-wuss? This wouldn't be a good time to get cold feet." Laughing, he automatically dodged Zell's swipes. "No, we're not going to the tower. Our orders are to keep the Square secure once the enemy starts retreating. We can't do that and investigate the tower at the same time."
A headache was starting to build between his eyes and Seifer absently rubbed the place where is scar should have been.
Squall adjusted his grip on his revolver and stared up towards the rooftops. "If the full moon is good for snipers, why aren't there any?"
Giving the tops of the buildings another glance, Seifer shrugged. "Maybe they don't care about keeping Dollet. If there's something they're here for specifically, then keeping the city in chaos might simply be a distraction."
"What, all this death is just a... a distraction? That can't be right..." Zell shook his head in denial.
"The civilians aren't Galbadians, so they're probably meaningless to the soldiers. Acceptable casualties or some such shit." Seifer shuddered imperceptibly, remembering just how easy that mentality was to fall into.
Or maybe not imperceptibly, given the way Squall tilted his head to the side, an expression akin to worry flashing across his face for a moment. Seifer didn't quite recognize what the look meant, but it sent a flash of unfamiliar heat through Seifer's stomach.
"Jeez..." Zell shadowboxed in Seifer's direction. "How can you say that so calmly?"
The sound of gunfire and the sight of bullets bouncing off the cadet's protect shields dragged the trio back into the fight. Casting additional spells for safety, Seifer whirled around to face the sudden onslaught. There were at least ten soldiers, all looking to retreat to the city limits by tearing their way through the City Square. Seifer rushed forward and swung Hyperion into the first soldier; the blade had just enough momentum to cut into the armor. He pulled the trigger, blasting the corpse into another soldier.
Cleaving through the weak spot on another Galbadian's armor, Seifer fell into the blurry, violent rhythm of battle. Some fought back with swords and other melee weapons while more soldiers joined the fight as they retreated from elsewhere in the city. The sound of gunfire was almost deafening...
And then there was quiet.
Somehow the three cadets had found their way to different sides of the Square, nearly forming an equilateral triangle. Surveying their positions and carnage through the detached haze and rush that came from adrenaline, Seifer couldn't quite help the smile that appeared on his face. "What a party," he drawled.
"You're sick," Zell growled.
Seifer didn't answer since he didn't really care what the Chicken-wuss thought of him. He was more concerned with the preternatural calm that had fallen around them. The silence was ringing in his ears and Seifer had the feeling that something was about to break.
Behind Squall, a body stirred. The soldier was staggering to his feet, bringing his sword to bear...
Before Seifer even realized what he was doing, his semi-automatic was in his hand and a bullet caught the Galbadian soldier in the throat.
Squall's voice sounded unnaturally frightened in Seifer's ears and, for a moment, he couldn't think of why. Obviously he'd been aiming for the soldier and not Squall, so why...
A curious sort of shock spread through Seifer as he looked down, numbly, to see a silvery blade sticking our of the right of his chest. Blood glinted on the blade for a few seconds before it was yanked back out. Stumbling forward, Seifer dropped to his knees while his gun and Hyperion slipped through slack fingers.
A roaring noise swept around him as dark spots danced before his eyes. A hand latched onto his shoulder and Seifer looked up dimly to see wide cerulean eyes and chestnut colored hair: Squall. The younger cadet said something, but Seifer couldn't make it out. Warmth spread around the wound in his chest, however, and then the pain kicked in. Seifer bit down a scream as a curaga spell slowly began to knit him back together.
Squall looked up and Seifer followed his gaze to see a tiny, redheaded girl in a cadet uniform bounce up to them. "Tilmitt?" Squall blinked in surprise at the girl's speedy arrival. "Yeah, this is B-squad."
"I'm from A-squad, but Xu reassigned me to messenger duty. I'm supposed to deliver a message to B-squad's team leader," Selphie trilled brightly, not even giving the battlegrounds a second look.
"That'd be me," Seifer ground out. The healing was over, though incomplete, and the pain was sharp in his chest. "What's the message?'
"The deadline for the retreat has been moved up to o'four hundred." Selphie peered at Seifer worriedly. "What happened to you?"
"I wanted to know what if felt like to be a kebab. I don't recommend it; oddly enough, it hurts," Seifer joked as he reclaimed his gun from the ground and holstered it before picking up his gunblade. Checking his watch, Seifer was relieved to see that there was a little over an hour before four o'clock. "Do they want us to start pulling out immediately?"
"Nah; they just want us out by then." Selphie fixed Seifer with a critical stare. "You're still bleeding. Cure!" She made a quick gesture and a few sparks of magic made their way over to the wounded blonde.
The pain in Seifer's chest diminished a bit more as the magic settled. "Then we'll stay here a little while longer." He got to his feet and walked over to the fountain, his boots making soft sloshing noises in the water on the ground. Locating a dry section of the fountain's rim, Seifer took a seat and attempted to catch his breath and compartmentalize the pain. All the while, his eyes kept drifting over to Squall.
Blue eyes widened in shock and only the attention Seifer was giving Squall alerted him to the shorter specialist's notice of something wicked headed their way.
"See if you can tackle this, SeeD!"
The four cadets jerked their heads up in the direction of the voice even as they started casting new defensive spells. A Galbadian soldier dressed in the red armor of a ranking officer stood on the edge of the bridge leading to the radio tower. Behind him crouched something much larger and more dangerous than a mere soldier.
"Son of a bitch," Seifer breathed, taking in the sight of what was basically a giant metal spider. It was an X-ATM092, Galbadia's latest war machine. Unlike it's predecessors, it ran completely on AI without any support personnel hidden inside. It came equipped with nanites that acted as its repair system and could easily come back to eighty or ninety percent efficiency within minutes of being knocked down to as low as twenty percent.
Seifer vaguely recalled Squall, Selphie, and Zell being chased by one during the final exam in the other timeline. He had a stronger memory of setting one loose on Edea's orders in the D-District prison as 'punishment' after Squall and the others escaped.
Suddenly, Seifer felt a great deal of empathy for the people who'd been caught in the crossfire.
The X-ATM092 leaped over the Galbadian soldier and then scuttled forward, moving horrifyingly fast on its spindly legs. Seifer jumped to his feet and rolled out of the way as it crashed through what was left of the fountain.
"Fuck," Seifer gasped as his chest sent sharp, dark streaks of pain across his vision. "I think it's time to retreat now!"
"Ya think?" Zell shot back, sending out a low-level electric spell that barely phased the spider.
Sheathing Hyperion, Seifer tugged the xep-2 off his shoulder and took aim at the mechanical monster's grill. All four shots hit the target, the precision of the shots higher than Seifer had anticipated considering how his hands were shaking from pain and exertion. The grill sparked with the electricity unleashed by the xep-2's magic-infused bullets. The smell of melted metal and plastic filled the air as a few of it's minor systems burned out.
"Quetzalcoatl!" Selphie yelled from somewhere behind Seifer.
Seifer rushed to get out of the way as Quetzalcoatl appeared in the Square. Made from pure electricity, the Guardian Force was an amazing sight. It spiraled up, high into the air above them, before crashing down on the X-ATM092 with the force equivalent to the pent up energy of a small thunderstorm.
The spider stumbled, but it wasn't down for the count yet. It lashed out towards Selphie, but Seifer had different plans. He was closest to Selphie and shoved her out of the way as the X-ATM092 clawed at her. It grabbed Seifer instead and lifted him into the air. The xep-2 was knocked from his grip as Seifer felt himself get tossed into the front door of a nearby office building.
The last thing Seifer was aware of as he collapsed to the ground, and into darkness, was Squall's voice shouting orders.
Seifer crept back to awareness slowly. At first he just knew it was bright and that his head hurt. His eyes opened for a moment before shutting tightly. He groaned softly and brought an arm up to block out the light. "Ugh... did anyone catch the license plate on the truck that hit me?"
He heard Zell laugh. "X-ATM092," the tattooed blond responded dryly from somewhere off to the right.
From the left, Xu asked, "how do you manage to find so much trouble?"
Moving his arm away, Seifer forced himself to open his eyes. He struggled to sit up, a process which grew easier when someone – Squall – helped prop him up. "I'm just that talented, Xu. It takes real skill to pull off my level of trouble-magnet." The room swam dizzily in front of him and he shut his eyes again to block out the sight. "The last thing I remember is getting knocked into a wall by that mechanical spider. What did I miss?"
"It whacked you a couple of times after that," Zell offered. "Your right leg is broken... amongst other things."
Taking a quick mental inventory, Seifer winced as the dull ache in his right leg made itself known. It was immobilized by a metal brace, but he knew it could have been worse. All the same... "Ow..."
"Selphie hit the spider a few more times with Quetzalcoatl and I grabbed the xep-2 from where you dropped it," Squall took over the explanation. "The X-ATM092 was knocked out from our attacks, so we found you and got back to the subs as fast as possible."
"Except that spider-thingy regenerated itself and came tearing after us," Selphie chimed in. "Instructor Trepe was manning the machine gun, though, and she let loose on it." She mimed blasting an invisible target and then made little explosive hand motions and noises to represent the X-ATM092's demise. "Now we're almost back to Balamb."
"Actually, we're pulling into dock right now," Quistis announced, walking into the room. A small bump reverberated throughout the C-sub, lending credence to her words. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Seifer," she added.
Squall stood and helped Seifer get to his feet. At the sound of the blond's hiss of pain, the brunet shifted them so that most of Seifer's weight was leaning against him and not pressuring his broken leg. One pointed glower later and Zell scurried over to Seifer's other side to lend a hand.
"We'd have used a few more cure spells, but apparently quite a few have already been used on you tonight. Though I'm sure you don't remember most of them," Xu commented. "As you're aware, there's a limit to how much healing a person's body can take at one time."
"I kinda figured that," Seifer muttered, concentrating on hobbling towards the exit without reacting too much to his injuries. It was a difficult task. Pain radiated up his leg with every jarring motion. Finally, though, he made it out onto the docks and squinted in the face of the early morning light. There was a crowd out waiting for the cadets and Seifer was hoping to see Fujin and Raijin's faces somewhere amongst the onlookers.
His posse found him first, however.
"SEIFER!" yelled the diminutive silver-haired woman as she dodged through the crowd to reach her friend. "HURT!"
"I'll be fine," Seifer attempted to reassure her even as he felt inexplicably guilty for causing her to worry over him. Fujin didn't seem to be particularly comforted by Seifer's words, however, so he turned to the buff fishing-enthusiast. "Rai, get over here and tell Fuu I'm not irreparable, will ya?"
"He's right, Fuu," Raijin agreed, grinning at the sight of his mostly-intact friend. "We'll just hand him off to Doc Kadowaki and she'll work her magic, ya know? Though... ya kinda look like ya got into a fight with a food processor and lost, ya know?"
"Gee, thanks, Rai. You know just how to cheer a person up, don't you?" Seifer snarked.
Selphie giggled and bounced up to Fujin and Raijin. "I like the imagery," she declared. "I'm Selphie, by the way."
"So, you two are Seifer's friends? Wanna see if we can convince Instructor Trepe to let you both ride in the van with us?" Selphie fearlessly hooked her arms with the duo's. "I'll bet we could guilt trip her into it with very little effort."
"AFFIRMATIVE!" Fujin agreed, letting Selphie hang onto her. Spotting Quistis on the docks, the trio marched off.
"Did Selphie just..." Zell trailed off, staring at Fujin in shock.
"Yes," Seifer answered, also staring after his friends in surprise. "Selphie just got accepted by Fujin, no questions asked and no mauling what-so-ever. Hell... even I got smacked around a lot when I first met her."
"She's a walking miracle." The martial artist shook his head and waved to a lady further down on the docks. "Hey, Ma!"
Seifer tugged closer to Squall and further away from Zell as his fellow blond began to bounce up and down. "Either stop hopping or go away, Chicken-wuss," Seifer growled, wincing as his right leg was painfully jostled.
The crowd moved out of the way as a few of the SeeD vans began driving away. B-squad's van, however, backed up as close to the docks as it could get. The back doors popped open and a ramp slid down.
"Instructor Trepe cleared us to ride with ya," Raijin announced, leaning against the van's door frame and waving at the squad. "That Selphie chick is something else, ya know? How someone that hyper can be so manipulative..." he shook his head and grinned widely.
"Score for Tilmitt," Seifer agreed. "Now, how about getting out of the way so the rest of us can get in the van?"
"Oh, right." Raijin hopped down to the ground and stepped well out of the way.
Once the path was clear, the three cadets began walking – or hobbling, as the case may be – up the ramp and into the van.
Seifer had never been so relieved to be on his way back to Garden. As he sat down on the bench inside the vehicle, it was as though everything he'd been through, whether he'd been conscious for the experience or not, was crashing down on him. While everyone else began situating themselves, Seifer scooted into the corner, leaned his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.
The doors slammed shut, but Seifer didn't notice. He'd already fallen asleep.