XVII


First came sound. Faint noises--conversation. Yes, definitely conversation. They were talking about--

--that wasn't important. What was important was that they were
talking. And that he could hear them.

Feeling came next; dull, throbbing pains. Along with the feeling there was smell: the astringent smell of some disinfectant, along with the clean smell of fresh sheets. Every smell seemed amplified, in contrast to the muffled voices and the distant pain.

Lost in the revelation that he was--once again--alive when there was no logical reason that he should have been, he was content for several long minutes simply to revel in the sensations, unpleasant as they might be. It wasn't for several minutes that he thought of opening his eyes....




...light!

Light hurt. He raised a hand to his forehead almost reflexively, and the movement alerted the person sitting on the stool nearby that he was conscious. There was the rustle of paper as they put something off to one side, then a hand landed on his shoulder.

"You recovered faster than we thought you would," ValHalla said. Squall moved his head, trying to make the figures in front of him focus into one person. After a moment, it worked.

He tried to sit up, and ValHalla grabbed his arm to help him. Once he was more-or-less vertical, he moved his hand back to his forehead.

"It's Christmas evening," ValHalla informed him. "You've only been out for about a day. Really, you should be glad that you woke up at all--although you have Nida and Lialla to thank for that."

Squall shook his head. "The Inspector?" he asked urgently.

"A fine young Shumi named GANU. He's been and gone. You don't need to worry--we found someone who could roleplay your part decently enough. As far as anyone can tell, Garden is in no danger."

Squall absorbed that for a moment. "And Nemo?" he asked, not sure he wanted to hear whatever ValHalla had to say.

The Headmaster looked grim, stepping back to lean against the wall. "Ah," she said. "Nemo is quite deceased--we buried him earlier today in the Balamb Mountain Range. And on that note...." ValHalla took a breath. "I feel I need to apologize to you in regards to some of the assumptions I made in relation to this whole... fiasco."

"That's not necessary," Squall responded softly. He really didn't want to be put into a situation more awkward as any of the ones he had already been put into.

"I think it is," ValHalla said. "I haven't been here for long, and as a result I... made some conclusions which I can now see as erroneous. From the beginning of my tenure in this position, I seem to have made misassumption after misassumption. I would like you to know that I feel the deepest regret for all of them."

Squall shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I don't hold you at fault."

ValHalla smiled dryly. "You're too kind," she said. "And I mean that literally. I don't know how I'll ever learn to get along with you, Commander. Especially if you continue to be so forgiving."

A surge of annoyance passed through Squall. "What do you want?" he asked sullenly. "I can't hold grudges forever."

"I see," ValHalla said. "Not even against those who hurt you?"

Squall made an indefinite noise.

"What do you think of Nemo?" ValHalla queried.

Squall was silent for a moment. "He took the actions which he thought were right," he said. "It was regrettable that I was forced to kill him."

ValHalla shook her head. "I don't know how you can think that way," she said. "In my entire life, I've never been in a position where that kind of attitude was possible." Sighing, she folded her arms across her chest. "I suppose that if I'm expected to live and work here, I had better begin to change my ways. And what a day to reform--don't you agree?"

Squall looked away.

ValHalla moved out of the room for a moment, coming back in with a pair of crutches. "You have a pretty nasty fracture in your leg," she said, "and it wasn't helped at all by dragging you to the infirmary. We have it immobilized, but it's going to take a while before you can put any weight on it. Take these."

Squall took the crutches as ValHalla handed them to him, shifting himself out of the bed and onto their support. As he stood he could feel the bandages wrapped around the majority of his chest tighten, and he took a moment to steady himself and breathe. Turning, he looked at ValHalla. "I'd like to get back to work," he informed her.

ValHalla shook her head. "Amazing," she said. "You can have an incredibly one-track mind at times. Do you have any memory at all of the events of the last week or so? I would have to imagine you're due for a vacation."

Squall frowned. "I don't feel I need one," he said.

"Humor me." ValHalla moved out of the room, motioning Squall to follow her. "If you were to return to work, I'd feel that I would need to as well. And this is still Christmas--Garden needs a day off, and so do you. Remember, they were there in that ballroom too. Garden needs to relax--get over yesterday's events. And as Commander of Garden, you need to set an example."

Stepping out into the halls, ValHalla glanced around. "Ms. Tilmett is disappointed," she said. "As you can understand, the Festival didn't go as well as it should have. It's kind of hard to keep people cheery when their leader's just been shot and they're holed up in a ballroom with gunmen waiting outside. When Nida announced that you would recover fairly quickly we managed to organize the rest of the Festival, but it was somewhat lackluster. The celebration has continued, but...." ValHalla gave Squall a small smile. "It will be good for Garden to see that you can put what happened behind you so easily. If you can, especially since you were the victim, then logic would follow that they could."

Squall didn't quite know how to respond, so he merely nodded.

Someone called his name from further down the hall, and Squall looked up to see Selphie racing toward him. This time, he stood his ground as she slowed to a stop in front of him.

"You're all right!" she crowed. "I'm so glad! We were all worried--"

"Selphie," ValHalla broke in. Selphie made a visible effort to control her emotions.

"I'm glad that you're better," she said. "Are you going to come back to the Festival? We really want you to be there...."

Squall looked at ValHalla, who nodded. "I'll leave you to your own devices," she said. Almost as an afterthought, she gave a SeeD salute and said "Thank you." Then she walked off, leaving Squall to wonder what she had meant.

"Come on!" Selphie said. "You haven't been to any of the festivities yet--"

Squall sighed, guessing that--after ValHalla's example--he should probably give some apology for acting as he had during the past days. "...I'm sorry, Selphie," he started uncertainly. "I haven't bothered to get presents or read up on the holiday or anything. I guess I haven't been much help...."

"What?" Selphie blinked at him, then shook her head. "No, that wasn't what I meant at all!" Taking a step forward, she extended her hands in what was almost a beseeching gesture. "Squall, you don't have to worry about whether or not you helped! We just want you to enjoy yourself. And if you're worried about presents, then... then don't be! Everyone knows that you give more to Garden than anyone else. We don't need you to get gifts for people. Anyway, Christmas isn't about the gifts! It's about the spirit... the spirit of joy, and of hope, and of love...."

Tears were beginning to form in Selphie's eyes, but she was smiling at the same time. Squall glanced away, uncomfortable, and the next thing he knew Selphie, in all her boundless enthusiasm, had thrown her arms around him.

"Merry Christmas, Squall," she said softly. Squall stiffened, but felt himself almost involuntarily relax. For reasons beyond his immediate comprehension, he almost began to smile.

"Merry Christmas," he whispered back.

Fin