"Zell…?" a sudden voice asked.
"You sure…okay? …doesn't…good." another voice noted.
The SeeD remained still, his eyes closed as he tried to figure out whom the voices belonged to. One was feminine – soft and gentle, while the other was heavier and certainly masculine. They both sounded so familiar to him, but for some reason…he couldn't quite recall why. He tried to open his eyes, but struggled to do so. They felt heavy and weak, a fact that left him only further confused by the whole situation. He wondered what was going on, where he was. What had happened to him? He couldn't recall a thing before this moment. Unable to respond to the voice in any way, he could only continue to remain in his position silently.
"This isn't…," the female voice stated, her tone now low, "…worse…thought. He…bad state…found him."
He tried again to open his eyes, but his efforts were futile once more as they still refused to comply. While he still couldn't hear every word, what he could understand had struck him with unsettling feelings of worry and discontent. What did that mean? What was wrong with him exactly? He tried to move or speak, but his lips wouldn't budge, as though they were sealed shut, and his muscles felt stiff for a reason he couldn't begin to imagine.
Again, he tried to gather some recollection, but his mind was only able to provide a faint glimpse of what appeared to be flames rapidly engulfing him. He felt hot all over, almost as if his skin was burning. The sensation, though immensely confusing, and scary, held a sense of familiarity for the SeeD, and he felt a faint numbness cover his body before another voice broke through this eerie reminiscence.
"Yoo-hoo! Zell." The voice was higher pitched than the first two sounded, but with the same gentle tone and an almost child-like impression. It was clearly female, but for the life of him…he just couldn't put a face to it; to any of them. His consciousness continued to improve, however, and his hearing returned completely just in time for him to decipher the next sentence.
"…Maybe we should get Doctor Kadowaki." the mature, female voice suggested.
At that moment, Zell emitted a light groan.
"Hey! I think he's waking up!" the child-like voice cheered.
Zell proceeded to slowly open his eyes, the first thing to greet him being a bright light and what appeared to be a ceiling colored entirely in white. He squinted his eyes from the brightness that shone down on him and carefully lifted his arm to protect his weakened vision. He closed his eyes for a moment, opening them up again to find three blurred faces standing over him.
"Zell? Zell, are you okay?" a female voice asked.
"Zell, can you hear me?" the masculine one followed up.
The blond merely replied with another light groan as he attempted to make out the indistinct sight before him and finally began to distinguish minor details. The person to his right was clearly male - tall, light brown hair, and a cowboy hat atop his head, and beside him – a petite frame with shoulder length hair that curled in an unusual fashion at the end. He then shifted his head slowly to his left and could make out long, blond hair, and a slender figure.
"W…what?" he asked, weakly.
"Oh, you're alright," the blond said, breathing a sigh of relief, "Thank goodness. We were getting worried about you."
Finally, Zell was able to regain his vision completely and saw his three friends, Quistis, Selphie, and Irvine, staring down at him – their faces changing from looks of concern to relief.
Now, fully aware that he was lying down, Zell moved to sit up, carefully lifting his body off his back and slowly going to an upright position. Briefly overcome with dizziness, he dropped his head onto his hand and shook it lightly, closing his eyes tight as he grunted to himself.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice still bearing a hint of weakness.
"Beats me," Quistis answered, folding her arms, "We found you lying on the ground. I've never seen such a sight like it…"
She closed her eyes at those words and her mind flashed back to that moment. It was one more horrible recollection that provided the same apprehension she had felt towards Rinoa the other day. Within mere days of each other, she had now seen two of her friends in such sudden, unexplainable situations, and her body shook from the whole account of when they had discovered Zell in the courtyard: his respiration faint, his clothes torn, ragged, and his skin seared almost completely - his appearance had been nearly unrecognizable. She had seen a lot of devastating sights in her years of military training and experience, but she had still never witnessed anything like that before. It was all still so fresh, the blond unable to shake yet another awful image, and it was only worse when she remembered that their efforts alone had seemingly not been enough. Much to her regret, she had been able to do little more than wait and hope for the best once again.
She dropped her head, her voice and expression suddenly changing to a solemn tone as she muttered her next words.
"You were covered in burns, and weren't responding at all…"
She kept her head directed towards the floor as she went silent, and her words suddenly reignited a spark in the SeeD - his previous recollection playing out in his head once more: the bright, massive wall of fire that suddenly surrounded him out of nowhere. The amount of shock and confusion and the feeling of complete helplessness he had felt, all rushing back to him again in that brief instance. He felt the heat of the flames once more as the memory played out just like before, and a faint sense of fear trickled inside of him. While he still couldn't even begin to fathom how any of it could have happened, he was at least now able to make some sense of what he had seen…if only a little.
"I guess that explains it…" he thought.
Zell scanned his body in response to her words and was surprised to find that, despite her claims, there were no traces of burns anywhere on his body. His legs and arms bore no marks, no remnants whatsoever that even gave the faintest indication of any such thing occurring. The sight only baffled him further and he looked back at Quistis with a blank expression.
"But…there's nothing on me," he stated, the confusion clear in his voice, "I don't understand."
Quistis lifted her head and looked at Zell again before motioning towards Selphie. Her voice was still quiet, and somewhat grave, as she then proceeded to fill in the gaps of her previous explanation.
"Selphie cast a cure spell on you to heal the wounds. When you still didn't respond, we brought you to Doctor Kadowaki so she could help, and you could recover in a more…suitable environment."
The SeeD thought on those words for a moment, staring down at the bed as he sat there, taking it all in. He nodded his head lightly in understanding before slowly lifting it towards Selphie.
"…Thanks, Selph." he said, a quiet, grateful tone in his voice.
The petite brunette just smiled and nodded in response. Zell dropped his forehead onto his hand again, quite perturbed by the whole situation.
"What a mess…" he mumbled.
"So, now that you're awake…can you tell us exactly what happened?" Selphie asked.
Zell just shook his head at her words, disappointment with himself overcoming the SeeD. He wanted to explain, but he just didn't know what to say. He tried hard to remember, but the memory only went so far back. It had happened so fast, so unexpectedly that he'd had no time to react. It had covered his entire body and he could feel the flames scorching his skin as the fire had exploded in a massive burst. He had never experienced any moment such as that before in his life, and it had scared him terribly. He was flustered, annoyed even, that he was so clueless about the whole ordeal.
"…No," he mumbled, "I remember this huge fire engulfing me, but…everything else is completely blank."
An apologetic look swept across his face, frustration beginning to surmount the blond now from his own incompetence. It wasn't like he wasn't trying – he was. Despite his attempts, he just couldn't seem to catch any glimpse or clue as to the cause of the bizarre account. It was as if his thoughts were blocked, his memory seemingly having been burned away by that wall of fire that flared fiercely at the front of his mind.
"…Sorry," he mumbled, dropping his head again.
Quistis stepped towards Zell, holding out her hand and gently placing it on his shoulder. The SeeD glanced at her hand before looking up at the headmaster, eyeing her closely as a smile graced her face.
"At least you're okay," she said, softly, "That's what matters."
Selphie and Irvine smiled at him in agreement, and to show there was no tension. However, Zell didn't respond directly, emitting a faint sigh as he dropped his towards the bed again.
Just then, the doors to the infirmary slid open, the sound of such taking them by surprise and they all turned their heads to see Squall walking in. He was quiet as ever, his face bearing its usual stoic expression as he approached.
"Squall." Quistis said, the tone in her voice revealing her surprise at seeing him.
Squall didn't respond, quietly joining the small gathering around Zell's bed. He took immediate note of the SeeD's condition, the first words on the brunette's mind quick to emerge from his mouth.
"What happened to you?"
"Got me…" Zell answered, rubbing the back of his head. He dropped his hand back at his side and shook his head, his eyes still focused on the bedding beneath him.
Squall folded his arms, appearing somewhat angered by his response, when Quistis spoke up in Zell's defense.
"Sorry, Squall. He's not trying to be difficult – he just…can't remember anything right now, apparently. We're doing what we can to work with him."
Squall looked at Quistis, quite perplexed by her curious words. What did they mean he couldn't remember? Couldn't remember what? An array of questions entered his mind in an instant and he looked towards Zell. The SeeD still sat on the bed quietly, paying no mind to anyone else in the room while his eyes remained directed downward. Upon closer inspection, Squall realized that the blond did indeed seem rather troubled, bewildered even. It was a sight that only served to further the brunette's thoughts and query.
He glanced around the room at each of the others, Quistis placing her hand to her cheek while she appeared to ponder the situation. The blank expressions on the faces of his friends clearly revealed they were no wiser to the problem than him. Figures he would come back to something like this. Every time he turned around lately, a new issue had arisen. He would resolve one and another would just come out of nowhere. When would it end? Why was any of it even happening in the first place? This endless chain that had befallen them was not only getting annoying, but tiresome as well.
"…Whatever." he thought, "You okay?"
Zell sighed in response, finally lifting his head towards Squall and nodding lightly.
"Yeah… I think so."
Squall folded his arms, exhaling in frustration under his breath. Why bother really? What was the point in even dwelling on this? He had had enough puzzles for one day and really didn't want to deal with anymore right now. Zell was fine anyway – he had just confirmed such. That was reason enough to convince the young Commander. Whatever had happened, he wasn't going to trouble his mind over it any further than he already had. It just wasn't worth his time, and he decided to drop the matter altogether. Besides, right now…he had other things to worry about, bigger things.
"Where's Rinoa?" he asked.
Quistis's head immediately slumped at his question, the tone in her voice drastically declining.
"I don't know. She disappeared right before we found Zell. She had tears in her eyes; I guess his condition really scared her."
Her words struck a nerve within Squall and he looked towards Zell again, the dumbfounded teen still sitting on the bed with the same look of mystification on his face as he shook his head - a clear indication that he was still having no luck in recalling anything from before this point. It was an odd scenario, for sure – vexing, disturbing even, and Squall grumbled under his breath out of irritation. What exactly had occurred here while he was gone this time?
He was pensive again, taking the entire scene into account: Zell's condition, Rinoa's apparent woe and another seeming disappearance; this whole moment. The words Quistis had spoken - something about them was off - he had heard it in her voice, and a foreboding feeling quickly overwhelmed him while he stood there, reflecting on them harder now. He didn't know why, but he had a strange feeling they were connected somehow. He had to find Rinoa – fast.
"I'll see you guys later," he said, abruptly, "Feel better, Zell."
"Yeah…" Zell mumbled, sounding a bit disillusioned.
Without another word, Squall turned around and hurried out of the room. Quistis and the others watched in wonder as he left, stupefied by his sudden behavior, once again, as the doors closed behind him.
"Squall?" she asked.
She stared at the door in silence, a troubled expression on her face as she thought about what just happened. Over the past few days, she had seen a whole other side to Squall that even she didn't expect could exist…and this particular instance was a clear indication of such. Initially, she had overlooked it, believing it to just be an effect of the recent events that had befallen them – he was slowly cracking under the pressure and was just afraid to let anyone see that. Squall had a lot of pride and hated showing vulnerability – it had only increased once he had been promoted. As Commander of SeeD, he did have a big image to uphold, so it would be understandable if he was stressed out from it all.
However, having seen him now…she was beginning to think otherwise, and in her mind recalled every occasion with him over the past few days up to the very moment where it all began. Ever since that day in her office, it was as if his mind had been somewhere else entirely – he was constantly disappearing, barely spoke, unless giving orders, and it had appeared as though Rinoa was the only thing he thought about lately. While that wasn't exactly out of the ordinary, it was quite obvious exactly how much his concern for her had increased. She couldn't be certain, but she had a strong sense that there was something he wasn't telling them – something that, for some reason, Squall was insistent on keeping to himself. She just couldn't fathom what it might be. It was deeply upsetting to the blond headmaster how he had suddenly become such an enigma to her.
"What was that all about?" Irvine asked, aloud, scratching his head in bewilderment.
They all stared towards the door and Quistis folded her arms, lowering her head a little as she emitted a sigh.
"Sir. Reconfiguration confirmed. Ready for initiation, sir." a soldier confirmed.
Caraway stood with his back to the soldier, staring out over the mountainous hillside of Dollet. Those words rang in his ears for a moment while he remained silent – a troubling reaction for the unwary soldier whom continued to stare at his superior's back, awaiting the cue for action.
"…Sir?" he asked, hesitation in his voice. He didn't want to disrespect his Commander, but he also knew the process could not continue without his consent. While the Galbadian Army had been given no insight as to the logic behind their appointed objection, they nevertheless acted without question on their orders. Of course, it went without saying that they didn't want to invoke the wrath of Galbadia's president. He clearly was his father's son – it especially showed in the face of defiance.
Realizing he had still not responded to the soldier, Caraway cut off his thoughts and glanced back at the man behind him in his peripheral vision, the latter still patiently awaiting the much needed confirmation. The Commander closed his eyes before giving a light nod of approval.
"Good…" he said, in a low voice, "Proceed as scheduled."
"Sir, yes, sir!" the soldier replied, giving a salute.
The soldier turned towards rest of the platoon and they immediately began the initiation. Caraway remained with his back to the action while he continued to stare off ahead, the voices of the soldiers behind him eliciting a light drop of his head as he closed his eyes.
"All systems go," the burly soldier announced, "Initializing activation."
He proceeded to type in a code on the panel in front of him before finally pulling the switch that rested on side of the power box. The platoon watched as the lights on the Communication Tower rapidly switched on, each row, from top to bottom, until the tower was completely powered.
Upon completion, the massive satellite directed towards the sky, soon sending a signal to a Galbadian satellite that sat positioned a few miles into space.
"Transmission received." the tall one verified.
Caraway remained silent; the soldiers seemingly unaware of his disposition as the process continued - the satellite in space responded to the tower's signal and reflected the transmission toward a specific point on the planet - an anonymous location just short of the Research Facility.
"Coordinates in check. Target successfully acquired."
Caraway kept his eyes ahead, continuing to overlook the vast expansion of ground below him while his eyes focused intently on the horizon. There was no turning back now. Very soon, Deling's plan would be ready and set into action…and he had been the one to make sure of it. This thought didn't shake him, however – it didn't matter. All he cared about now was keeping the Galbadian president satisfied…and he would do whatever was necessary in order to ensure that result.
Squall fought his way through the Training Center, gunblade tight in hand as he searched desperately for Rinoa. It was rather ironic really - up until recently, he'd had no time to train, all of his days taken up by boring paperwork and keeping Garden and SeeD in shape. Now, it seemed as though things had altered dramatically: he had done little, if any, work lately, but had since taken multiple trips to Esthar and the Training Center - and all within a few days' time. It was almost as if everything that was happening had been composed to make up for the past year - but, at least he was getting some long overdue practice in. He couldn't help but be a little amused at the thought, a faint smirk forming on his face while he moved hastily through the hazardous grounds.
He jumped into the air, lifting his weapon above his head before coming down hard on an Anacondour with a brutal slash. The monstrous snake stood no chance against the powerful strike, instantly slicing in half and collapsing on the ground as Squall continued onward - the determination he held showed fiercely in his eyes as he stared ahead intently, his seeming anger acting as a furtive cover for the vast worry he harbored deep within.
Finally reaching his destination, he hurried through the doorway to the Secret Area, and upon entering was greeted by an awful sight: Rinoa sat alone, slumped down against the wall with her head in her hands, crying quietly to herself. Squall stared at her in silence for a moment, unsure of exactly how to react to the scene before him.
The grieving sorceress didn't even attempt to lift her head, instinct immediately telling her why he was standing here before her now. She didn't want to look at him. How could she given the circumstances? It was so horrible that she couldn't stand to face him, to deal with the devastating reality of it all. It still tore at her mercilessly - even the voice of her knight being unable to halt the immense burden of shame and guilt she felt towards the harrowing ordeal.
"I…I didn't mean to do it," she muttered, "I didn't mean to." The tears in her eyes slightly distorted her words, and her voice shook as she spoke. She curled up tighter, hugging her legs close as she continued crying into her knees.
Squall didn't respond, thunderstruck by her words and the mere sight of her. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen Rinoa so broken up over something; even their argument a few days ago had nothing on this moment. She was so scared of it, so scared of him – she was almost certain he had come here to reprimand her for the whole incident, her position clearly illustrating that she was bracing for the worst. He hated seeing her like this. He had expected tears, but certainly nothing to this extent. He mentally cursed the whole affair, compassion and anger consuming him at once while he stood there, contemplating what to say.
One specific thought that entered his mind brought him to realize that he may appear intimidating, and he relaxed his stance in hopes of easing any tension he was emitting. Why did he always have to come off so imposing? He didn't mean to seem so threatening all the time – he had just been doing it for so long that it had become natural to him. He had never thought much of it before, but right now…he hated it about himself. It was the one time he could ever recall cursing his years of military training.
"…Are you okay?" he asked.
"No…" she whimpered, shaking her head as she squeezed out more tears, "No, I'm not; Zell – it's all my fault what happened to him."
She cried even harder now at her words, the tears streaming down her face endlessly as she recalled what she had done to Zell – the condition she had left him in. Squall looked away, wondering how to help her under these conditions. It wasn't easy to deal with emotion when he had spent his whole life practically ignorant of it.
He looked back at Rinoa keenly, her immense amount of timidity and sorrow, her child-like innocence displayed before him once again – it all quickly became too much for him to bear. He closed his eyes, exhaling under his breath before he silently stepped forward and knelt down before her.
"What happened?" he asked, in a sympathetic tone.
Rinoa slowly lifted her head a little, staring down at her knees while she tried to contain further tears. She thought carefully on what to say, but no words or logic came to mind. How exactly was she supposed to explain it? Where did she even begin? Truthfully, she was just as lost on the matter as he was – a fact that only made this encounter harder for her.
"…I don't know exactly," she said, her voice still shaking from the distress she was consumed with, "We were just walking back inside, and I felt really weird for a moment. Suddenly, there was this fiery light - it just consumed him, and then…"
She dropped her head onto her knees again, sobbing further at the memory as her guilt overwhelmed her once more.
"I tried to stop it. I tried to, but…I just couldn't. I couldn't control myself," she admitted, "I don't know what happened."
Squall instantly froze at her words, his mind promptly flashing back to his recent meeting with Laguna. The president's voice suddenly rang loudly in his ears as he quickly came to recognize what was really going on. He was immediately confronted by the nightmarish reality that faced them, and he felt more fear in this moment than he ever had before. If his thoughts were accurate, then Laguna's fears were coming true: Odine's injection had officially run its course – Rinoa was starting to succumb to the effects, and now, it was only a matter of time before she lost complete control of her powers. This startling revelation left him completely lost for words or ideas on the matter. He had been almost certain that they had more time than this…but Rinoa's account allowed him to see exactly how wrong he had been. Just like that day in the infirmary, he soon felt a sense of powerlessness overtake him while he sat there, his eyes locked intently on the sorceress before him. He hated feeling this way – it made him feel detached from himself. It wasn't like him to feel so helpless, no matter the circumstances, and he detested himself for succumbing to such an emotion, even briefly.
However, he quickly shook it off. This wasn't the time to feel so pathetic and useless, not in front of Rinoa – not when she needed him most. How could he have even begun to allow himself to show such weakness, especially in a matter like this? She was counting on him, more than she ever had before in her life, and he had no intention of ever letting her down.
He exhaled deeply, empathy for the sorrowful, raven-haired girl before him overtaking the SeeD vastly and he quickly entered into his gallant role.
"Hey…" he said, softly.
He put his hand under her chin, gently lifting her head toward him so their eyes met, and he looked at her closely. He could see it all right then: the vast amount of turmoil she suffered evident in those heavily watered eyes. She was so fearful, so barred down by shame and apology. It tormented her – both of them. She was in complete disarray - he had never seen such frailty from her before. The very sight killed him inside. She was beating herself up immeasurably for the entire episode while blissfully unaware of the true monster lurking behind it all. He couldn't stand for it. It wasn't fair for her to bear such a terrible burden, to fret and suffer over something that wasn't even really her fault. She was just another victim in the end – a reluctant, unwilling puppet in a far more frightening and heinous scheme beyond her control.
"I'm sorry…" she sniveled.
Squall quickly pulled her to him, the sorceress burying her face in his chest as her crying resumed, another stream of tears running down her cheeks.
"It's okay," he assured her, "It will be alright, Rinoa; I promise."
They sat there in silence, the sound of Rinoa's sobbing the only thing heard as she continued crying into Squall's jacket. The SeeD just held her close, gently stroking her long, dark hair in his warm embrace while he quietly consoled her.
*I always found it kind of odd, and boring, that you only find two kinds of monsters in the Training Center - so, I changed that. Diversity makes things more fun sometimes.8D*