Disclaimer:
I do not own the copyright to Final Fantasy VIII, or any of its characters. If I did, Rinoa would have died circa Disc II. Any resemblance to persons either living or dead are either coincidental or not. I'm not making any money off of this fanfic, so you shouldn't be either. What I didn't borrow, I made up--therefore it is MINE; and while you probably don't want to steal my characters anyway, you shouldn't even if you do happen to want to. The opinions expressed in this work are those of the characters, and not of Al Gore. I am not responsible for any incidental, consequential, or subsequential damages arising from the viewing of this document. By reading this disclaimer you agree to do whatever I say for the next twelve (12) hours. If you are reading this, I made you look.

So HA!





__--=Heartless=--__

The sword melts by fire;
To return to water.
The beast of air
Lies imprisoned in the earth.
The touch of a whip
Or the strike of a sword
Howls in the great beyond.
Then,
The lord of the air
Rises into the stars....


The door split evenly in half lengthwise, hinges groaning their protest as they twisted and snapped. The boy--a youth no older than fourteen--cowered in the corner, his only weapon a decorative hunting knife clutched numbly in one hand.

Hair like shined ebony. Silken clothing that gave the impression of shadow and wings. A black sword, a masamune a meter and a half land, held expertly in one hand. Yes--this was the face of his nightmares, shown on the evening news crime report over and over again; this was the face that had ushered so many into the depths of the afterlife.

He clutched the knife in one hand, aware of how puny it seemed when compared to the masamune. Pressing himself up against the wall, he watched in silent terror as the apparition approached.

Movement like wind. Eyes like stars. So very beautiful. So very hypnotizing; alluring, enchanting--

The sword arced through the air, singing as it sought his heart. An instant before oblivion, he could hear a soft, feminine voice:

"I'm sorry...."

~


The mere idea that Irvine Kinneas would pass up a chance to show off his talents was preposterous. It seemed that showing off was bred into the sharpshooter as naturally as breathing was bred into other organisms--so much so, in fact, that Irvine passing up the chance to display his skills was commonly thought of as a symptom of either illness or impending disaster.

This considered, it came as no surprise when the SeeD-in-training's name came up for the Range Attacks Tournament in the Acauld plains. He showed up on the strip promptly, wearing his traditional tan trenchcoat over his SeeD jacket and setting his hat to a rakish angle. Taking his spot next to Nida, he glanced at the SeeD's collection of throwing knives.

"You think you can actually outshoot me with those?" he asked, grinning.

Nida raised an eye at him, keeping his distaste for the sharpshooter well concealed. "Would I be here otherwise?" he asked.

Irvine shrugged. "I guess not,' he said. "Still, throwing knives can't possible get either the range or precision of a good rifle. Can they?"

Nida shrugged. "A sharpshooter who uses a shotgun can't be nearly as accustomed to aiming as someone who uses throwing knives every day. Could they?"

Irvine colored and turned away.

The instructor stepped up to the podium, flipping through the papers on her clipboard. "Aler... Jono Aler, SeeD ID 41858. You're up."

Irvine nodded to the instructor, a lithe young woman with a close-cropped fuzz of red hair. "Real cutie." he said. "What's her name?"

"Instructor Dane Sierra," Nida responded, "and you never want to call her a cutie to her face. The last one who did ended up in the infirmary."

"She assigned him to help Dr. Kadowaki?" Irvine asked. Nida stared at him for a moment.

"No," he said. "She broke his jaw."

Irvine attempted to cough demurely and quickly averted his eyes. Jono was sighting down a long crossbow, aiming at a swinging target some distance away. The collective breath of the spectators was caught as he let the bolt fly, grazing the bottom edge of the target. Instructor Sierra marked something down on her clipboard.

"Aziel--Richhen Aziel, SeeD ID 41419."

"How 'bout we engage in a friendly little bet?" Irvine asked. "If I get a higher score than you, you have to ask Quistis out on a date. If you get a higher score... name your price."

Nida thought for a moment. "If I win, I get your hat for a week."

"...my hat?" Irvine asked hesitantly.

Nida was warming to the topic. "And you get to wear a different one," he said. "A yellow one. Made of chocobo feathers."

"For a week?"

"A week."

A gun went off in the background. "Emann. Kristen Emann, SeeD ID 50014-C."

Nida smiled sardonically. "Don't tell me that you're getting nervous."

"Me? Never been better."

Nida stuck out his hand, and Irvine took it. "Jisel. Namo Jisel, SeeD ID 41276," called Sierra. Nida looked at the group of SeeDs waiting their turn.

"You'll be up soon," Nida said.

"Yeah. Out of curiosity, what's your last name?"

"Nida," Nida replied.

Irvine was confused. "Er... isn't that your first name?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Nida Nida?"

"I only have one name," Nida corrected. "Where I come from, we don't need two of them. Not like you Western countries--so backwards you need ridiculous amounts of beurocracy just to figure out who you are."

"Oh," Irvine said.

There was a long silence.

"Kinneas. Irvine Kinneas, SeeD ID 50332-C."

"Good luck," Nida said. Irvine flashed him a grin and tilted his hat.

Stepping up to the line, Irvine raised his rifle with a flourish. Closing one eye, he sighted along the length of the barrel. Giving himself a moment to get used to the swing of the target, he gauged the distance. Making the last few adjustments, he exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet flew through the air, biting into the second-to-middle ring on the target. Sierra noted something down, and waved him off. "Nida. Nida, SeeD ID 41268."

"Good shot," Nida acknowledged as he passed Irvine.

Irvine smiled. "About that date with Quistis?" he said.

"Hmm?"

"I hear she likes petunias."

Nida raised an eyebrow, and moved up to the line.

Taking one of his throwing knives, he watched the target for a moment. Closing his eyes, he turned his back to it.

With a burst of all the energy he had, he whirled on his heel. The aiming, the step forward and the release of the knife were all one motion--the knife seemed to bury itself near the dead center of the target before it had even left his hand.

Sierra noted something down and called for the next student. Nida walked back to stand by Irvine. "About those petunias?" he asked.

"Yeah?" Irvine asked dumbly.

"You can give them to her yourself."

Extending a hand, Nida waited as Irvine pulled off his hat and handed it to him with a certain amount of ill grace. Nida took it, tucking it under his arm.

"How did you do that?" Irvine demanded.

"I'll explain later," Nida said. "You need to go get yourself a new hat."

"I hate you," Irvine said.

"Great sportsmanship, pal."

Irvine was about to retort, but was interrupted as Xu ran up. Putting on his best Ladies' Man face, he reached up to tip his hat--only to halt halfway and turn it into a rather awkward SeeD salute. "Do you need some help, ma'am?"

Xu looked him over. "You look different," she said.

"He lost his hat in a bet," Nida explained. Irvine winced.

"Ah," Xu said. "Do you know where I can find Selphie? Or Squall?"

"Probably not together," Nida answered unhelpfully.

"I think Sefie's in the Quad," Irvine said. "She said the wanted to think about the Garden Festival."

"Thank you," Xu said, turning to leave.

"Hey, wait!" Nida said. "What's going on?"

Xu turned halfway and opened her mouth to respond, then looked at Irvine again. "...you'd be better off not knowing," she said.

Nida and Irvine exchanged glances. "Not good," Nida summed up.

"How do you know?" Irvine asked. "Maybe she wants to... to get help to plan a party for us. Or something." It was a lame idea, and he knew it.

"Yeah... ask the Living Dead to plan a party. Let's see, what would come of that...?" Planting a hand on his hip, Nida adopted a scowl and gave a flat "Whatever" that sounded as if it had come from Squall's own mouth. Irvine couldn't help chuckling.

"Right. So what do you think it was?"

Nida shrugged. "I have a feeling we'll be finding out soon enough," he said as Sierra called "all participating SeeDs" up for rewards.