Bit of a late update today. Hope the content makes up for it.
"Stop complaining," she says, "or I'll have to start again."
She cinches the bandage a little tighter and I wince, not saying anything this time as it feels like a vice closes around my ribs. When I first came up here I wished for a lot of stuff, didn't really occur to me I might end up wishing for some half-decent medical supplies as well. Goddamn place might as well be back in the dark ages… "Are you done yet?"
"I'll be done when I tell you I'm done," she replies, frowning just a little bit.
"Why don't you just use that Blue crap and patch me up that way?" I ask, and see what she…
"And what happens when you turn up to work whole and healthy?" Trepe replies. "No, we use this."
She's lying. I suspected it before, I'm pretty certain now. There's been a half-dozen times in the last week, before our little smack-up-Almasy plan, it would have come in useful with no drawbacks, and every time she's made some excuse. Either she won't use it or she can't, and that's a little worrying. I still remember facing down that power a couple of times, back during the Second War. Raijin had a bloody great scar from it when they met in Balamb. It would be useful as hell, I was counting on that shit to come through when we finally got to grips with the GF-thief. Without magical backup things could get a little awkward.
"There." She finishes and stands up straight, brushing hair from her eyes. "That'll hold you together."
Goddamn Kinneas, had to have the last laugh. Maybe if I'd known the rest of his little Esthar-troupe was nearby and just waiting for us to kick off I wouldn't have cold-cocked him as hard as I did. Or maybe I'd have done it harder. Either way I bet the bastard was laughing inside when they finally ran after giving back to me as good as I got to him. I'm pretty sure a couple of these ribs are cracked, and this bandage on my forehead is gonna be there for a while. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it, just be ready," she says, and turns away to fiddle with whatever she has on that bench.
Is that it? I want to ask, but don't. I'm unsure, unsure and I don't like it. I just know if I try and bring it up she'll have some excuse prepped and ready to go. It'll be something about the mission or logical courses of action, or maybe even something about the quickest thing she could think of at the time. Maybe it'll even be a good enough reason to fool the rest of her trusting little adopted family. But not me.
There was passion there. One that I can still remember. During the Second War when the only times we met each other where when she was chasing after me in Timber, and then only afterwards trying to kill each other – really kill, no matter what half-legends they talk about in the papers – across half the world. Afterwards they all got their little nicknames and personalities, forced onto everyone to reduce them down from normal people into heroes. Squall; the brave lion, which even at the time could have made me burst out laughing. A man so bloodless he barely knew how to talk with teammates made into some kind of commanding figure. Rinoa earned her little moniker at least. I knew her before Squall did – something he never forgave me for, but fuck him – and she always had been a princess. Even if she hadn't been Garden-trained she how to command, to lead and get what she wanted. Why she ended up wanting Squall I never figured out, but she got him just as well. The less said about me, the better. A few of the braver ones tried hunting me down for whatever it is journalists do, but none of them got very far, I made damn sure of that. I didn't care what they wrote about me, or about me and Squall. Maybe there was a rivalry once, but it's long dead and gone now. He won it. The old me wouldn't have been able to say that, but the old me was the one who started it in the first place and look where it got him, me. I have my pride, but I'm not totally fucking stupid.
And Trepe, the ice queen. What a joke. Anyone who ever really knew her knew how much garbage that was. They tried to paint her as an unapproachable glacier, some kind of older sister-stroke-voice of reason, and I knew she let them not because they were right, but because she didn't give a damn what people thought about her. The ice was a thin cover for outsiders and she hid the fire underneath, that she only brought out for her best friends and her worst enemies. Even when we fighting I never figured out whether she hated me or whether she just felt sorry for me. Back then the thought just made me even more furious, taunted her about it. She thought it was her fault how things ended up, and I was perfectly fine with her thinking that. Back in the orphanage she wanted to be responsible, well let her be responsible for this. I remember fighting her, blade against magic, and those blue eyes were like diamonds and she spat blue fire and strange power from the air around her. Ever since then; nothing.
That kiss – that strange goddamn kiss – is the first I've seen of her fire since we met back in that Esthar prison. Weeks of playing the good little lady and then suddenly for the first time there's some emotion there besides annoyance – god she's still good at that one, at least – or just disinterest. Even when she met up with Irvine I could see it, that slightly cool withdrawal when they hugged, and I think he saw it too. He knows something I don't, and that's annoying because he's not likely to tell me since I sucker-punched his lights out.
I want to know. I want to know more than I want to deal with this dumb crap Kiros has roped me into, more than I want to know whatever piddling crap Kurlen and his goons and this backwards town are up to. More than I want to find out about SeeD's traitors or stolen GFs or any of the reasons we're up here in this godforsaken ice-hole, set up by a bunch of farmers and anarchists. It's only been one day and I can still remember how it felt. She felt cold, at first, but near the end just before she stepped back there was just a little bit of warmth. Not fire, but something closer to the old Trepe I still remember than the strange cold creature I've been living with for the past few weeks. Suddenly I care more about this, right in front of me.
"What, Seifer?" she asks, not looking around at me.
"What the hell's the matter with you?"
She rounds on me. "Excuse me?"
"You've been acting weird since we got here, I want to know why," I start, and I can already see her starting to frown and pout, just a little bit. She's going to deny it no matter what so I ignore it and power on through. "Since before, really. You've been moping around since Esthar and you've been like a machine in here. You've been-"
"I don't get what you-"
"You've barely shown any kind of emotion since we got here, hell last night was probably the most I've heard you change from dead-neutral in weeks."
"That hardly seems im-"
"Now you're telling me you won't use magic even though you damn well know we're going to need it to get through this."
"That isn't what I-"
"And now you're making out with me in the dead of night, which hey while I don't mind so much is more Rinoa's MO and not yours."
"Did they replace you with some kind of Trepebot while I was away, because right now I'm wondering-"
"-if you can even do the job-"
Finally. She's looking at me now and there's something there besides ice and nothing. The hair is still strange and different and the clothes are ugly and old, but the angry flush in the skin is the same, and the eyes are something other than just flat and pale blue orbs. Not sapphires, not like they were. But better. "So what the hell is going on, Trepe?" I ask.
She takes a deep breath. "You," she says, "have some goddamn nerve."
"At least I have functioning nerves," I shoot back. "This isn't you Trepe. We both know it. Was it back in Balamb, or Esthar?"
"That is none of your goddamn business."
I don't know how I got here but suddenly I'm right there, standing over her, looking slightly down into her eyes. I forget how I'm taller than she is, standing far away, talking to each other across a gap in the room. This is serious shit we're playing around in, with me at the sharp end. Fuck her if she wants to play mind-games with me. "Just what the hell happened to you Trepe?"
"What does it matter?" she says, and I have to lean closer just to hear it, she's whispering so quietly.
"It matters to me if you're going to get me killed!" I say back.
For maybe half a second I can see it, see it in her eyes and her voice and her body as she slumps underneath me just a little. She licks her lips like she's about to admit something, looking into my eyes. I'm aware of how close I'm standing. I can feel her breath against me, feel the brush of her clothes against mine. Suddenly I can see it right there in front of me; she desperately wants to tell me, or at least tell someone, whatever it is that's chained her up inside her own head like she is, and I know she hasn't even told Kinneas or Squall or any of her other little troupe. If only I knew the goddamn words to push her the final inch of the way. I lean in closer again. There's no room between us now, no place for either of us to run, way inside each other's personal space. "What's wrong, Quistis?" I ask. Her first name sounds strange crossing my lips. I haven't said it in years.
Then, a knock sounds at the door, and the spell's broken as fast as it was there.
The moment's gone.
Whoever's on the other side of this door had better be goddamn important or he's-
"Almasy. Suit me and come with me," Kurlen says into my face. He's all dressed up, the semi-military coat on his back all cleaned up like he's about to be on parade. There's a car behind him, or at least what passes for a car out here, and two of his underlings I don't recognise standing by it. "Leave your stuff here."
This is it, then. I glance back once at Trepe. She's stood there staring at the two of us. She just nods at me, once. I grab my own, much more scruffy, coat from the rack, and head out without another word.
"You did good work."
He's talking but I'm barely listening. I've heard all his crap a dozen times now and the more I hear it the more convinced I am Kurlen is just a puppet dancing to strings from above. He's talking one thing at me while his eyes are saying another, glaring at me like I've just stolen his favourite toy. Which I might have. "Thanks," I say, staring out the window as the town rolls by to either side. We're headed to the centre, but not the centre. I've never been to this part of the makeshift city yet but it's much the same. The houses are made of thick stone and wood instead of concrete, but the haphazard placement and wiring is the same. This must be one of the oldest areas, when Havensden was just a bunch of huts and fields in a clearing, and a handful of people trying to scrape out a new life.
He doesn't smile or acknowledge my thanks, only glares a little more before going back to looking at the road. The guards come to attention as we draw up to a set of gates, and without a sound from the big man we're through, out of the snow and into a tunnel that slopes down gently into the earth. It's newer than the building surrounding it though.
"So, where we headed?" I ask, as in front of us the path straightens out. Kurlen doesn't say a damn word though, just keeps going. It's a tunnel built under the earth, going on for what must be a good two or three miles judging by this speed. We're already outside the city walls, shame I don't know in which direction. The mountains start a few miles from the city centre, so if…
"Get out," Kurlen barks at me, and I realise we've stopped. I do same, and get a look at the building we've entered. It's a storehouse, just like any of the others in the city. Bags of grain and flour and other miscellaneous junk line the walls, and the entire room smells sickly-sweet, like honey left out too long. Kurlen goes to the back of the room and I follow like a good little dog.
"Here, and stay quiet," is all he says, pressing against the wall, and I realise part of this rocky and old surface is a door he's pushing in. Interesting. If it…
Huh. How about that.
"Not bad," I say as we roll through, and behind us the door shuts, this side of it coated in steel. Good trick, and I can see why it's been done. It's a storehouse alright. But this side of it isn't holding food, or clothes or farming implements or any of the other crap in the rest of the city.
Seagill was right.
"Almasy, welcome aboard."
And so was I.
Lyle Diran's walking towards me across the concrete floor like he's meeting a long-lost son. He puts his hand out and I shake without thinking as he waves his other hand around the room. "What do you think?" he asks, like he's showing off a prize flowerbed or something.
It's from Esthar, I can see that much. Even with edges burned off or twisted and half of it looking like someone took a buzzsaw to it (badly), it still has that weird look to it. All smooth and shiny and not entirely solid, like if you put it under a hot lamp it would melt. Just looking around the room we've walked into I can recognise armour-plating laid out on tables, electronics and circuit-boards stacked up on shelves that line the room. I do some quick working-out in my head and it comes to the answer I knew it would.
"Looks like you have half an Esthar shipyard in here," I say. Kurlen frowns, but Diran just keeps smiling.
"Yes, we're quite proud of our salvage," he says, and then switches gear. "Kurlen tells me you did well for us, a couple of nights back."
Kurlen's twitch off to my side tells me that's bullshit, and I file it away for later use. Diran has his own man on the inside of the security forces, feeding him information. He doesn't trust him entirely either, nice to know. "I did what I was told, more or less," I reply.
"Well, sending those Esthar trespassers home with a few knocks counts as 'more' in this situation, I think," Diran says. "Sit down, have a coffee."
God, it feels weird sitting here. Someone's put an actual honest-to-god sofa in one corner of the room, and just like the councilman says there's a pot of coffee there too. "What's this all about?" I ask.
Diran steeples his hands and stares at me over them. "You're not a regular immigrant to our town Mr Almasy, so I'll spare you the usual speech. You don't need it. You know what it's like to be hunted, to be excluded. So do most of our citizens, in some way or another, and they came up here for security. To know there was a place that was theirs. Most of them would go far to protect that security. I would, Mr Kurlen here would. We both know how far you've been before, Seifer," he says, and leans towards me. That smile is a little more predatory now, a little less statesmanlike. "Would you go that far again?
You can't be serious. "Is that what this is?" I ask, and wave a hand back at the shelves of stolen technology. This can't be all of it, not with the amount of transports Esthar have lost. There have to be more warehouses like this, somewhere out there. "Security?" I drink up. It tastes awful. "Not to put too fine a point on it councilman but while this is a little impressive it's not that impressive. What are you assuming, Esthar attack and you hold them off?"
"Yes," Kurlen growls, and I laugh.
"Even assuming they do something so dumb, how would you fight back? Throwing plating down on top of them? Or tossing circuitry at them and hoping they die of tetanus?"
Kurlen ignores me, looks over at his boss. "I told you this cocky fucker was no good."
Diran ignores him, keeps staring at me. "This is only a holding area, Seifer. We have more than this, much more."
This is it. I'm closer now. I just wish Quistis was here to know how right we both were. "Like what?" I ask. "Ignoring the fact that Esthar and Trabia have zero reason to screw with you in the first place."
Diran leans back on the cheap sofa and stares at me. In here, in the warmth and away from the blinding snow, I can see his eyes properly now. They're hard eyes, like I've seen in Kiros and Xu and a half-dozen other soldiers. I wonder whether he got them before coming up here, or after. "And if we knew they were?" he asks.
They are because you're stealing their shit. "No way."
Diran glances at the big man and nods. Without a word Kurlen strides to one of the shelves, and drags something from the wall. I recognise it instantly. He brings it back over and shoves it down onto the ground, and I pretend to be nonplussed. "What's this?"
"An Esthar spy-device," Diran says, as he picks up the ball of tech and antennas that me and Quistis brought with us to Havensden. "One we found in the mountains, just a few days ago. Esthar and Trabia want us gone, don't doubt it Seifer," Diran says, putting the ball onto the table between us. "They want us gone because to them we're just a collection of criminals and squatters on their land. The other nations too."
"You want my help," I say, not a question.
"Your expertise," he replies, and then he explains what he wants.
I tap a finger and pretend to consider it. I'm already in of course, but I can't look too eager. I give it a couple of seconds, then; "You want my help for something that involves pissing off Esthar, I'll need incentives" I say. "I've been running for a long time and I'm sick of it. Convince me to help you."
"Accomplish this," Diran says, "and I think you'll find that home you've been looking for. That and much more."
"Deal," I say.
"Don't fuck with us on this Almasy," Kurlen says, and I ignore him. I'm dealing with his boss now, and all three of us know it.
"So what the hell are you- are we up to then?" I ask, taking another drink from the awful goddamn coffee. Diran just nods and says it. The coffee doesn't stay in my mouth for very long.
"We want you to destroy Trabia Garden."
"So it really was Lyle Diran behind it?"
"Don't look so smug, it wasn't exactly a difficult puzzle."
"Apologies. It sounds like a convincing pitch though. Kiros and Xu would be proud."
"Yeah, I thought so. Using our comm unit as their evidence was a nice touch."
"I wonder what they used before they found it?"
"Probably they just slammed some circuitry down on the table and called it a camera or something. Not like anyone besides us has ever really seen Esthar tech up close."
"Can he pull it off?" she asks me.
I nod. "Maybe. There were thirty-plus people there easily, so I guess the speech worked a good few times before we came along. With that and what he has from the crashes he can probably pull it off."
They'd kept everything from the crashes. Hull-plating, packing containers, whatever they had ripped from the cockpit and engines. And the engines of course. The power-cores and wiring and all the other crap. He'd shown us them sitting there, just humming away in one of the warehouses under the mountains, ones they had dug out years ago. The whole lot of us had stared at the faintly-glowing wire-wrapped engines and just nodded. I'd stood there trying to keep my smile in place and wondering how goddamn catastrophic the things could be, in the hands of amateurs like Kurlen and his cronies.
"Did he talk about…" Quistis starts, and trails off.
I shake my head, I know what she means. Still can't really say it though, can she. "No, nothing about any SeeDs they have working on the inside. Implications, no details," I say. "But he did show us the GF."
She leans forward, eager. "You saw it?" she asks.
I think back a few hours, before they drove us out and back into the town. It had been a big room, with a slope that looked like it led directly up into the mountains. When the bunch of us had gotten there there'd only been a single man waiting for us. "I met the host," I say.
He had looked half-dead on his feet, like he had the flu and a cold and food poisoning all at once. But he had thrown fire and melted steel and half a dozen other tricks that had had the others whooping and hollering and treating him like a rock-star as Diran looked on serenely. "Yeah, he was legit," I tell her.
"We need to think about this," Quistis says, tapping her foot. "We can't count on Kiros and Esthar for help anymore, now they have our stuff."
I shrug. "We'll have to think of something on our own then," I say. "We can't beat up an entire town on our own." Suddenly I feel tired. Two nights of nervous action and today hours and hours of being introduced to the little murderous conspiracy and I'm dead on my feet. "Whatever we plan we can we do it tomorrow." I say. Something's needling at the back of my mind but I can't figure out what. "The guys down there still have some work to do before they can attack, or infiltrate, or whatever. A couple of days is plenty of time for us to think something up." That was how close it had been, apparently. A couple of days later and we'd have arrived too late to do shit. Now there's a thought to make you shiver.
Quistis just sits there and nods, staring at the fire, deep in thought. I turn around and I'm about to head out when I hear her voice behind her, and figure out what's been bothering me all night.
"Seifer?" Her voice sounds soft around my name.
I turn and look back at her but she's still staring at the window. She's sat there in the deep upholstered chair, limbs curled up around herself like a cat in front of the fire, that long hair scattered over her, rising and falling with her breath. Even in the cheap and rough clothes we've bought from the local stores, she looks good. "What?" I ask.
"I can't…" she says, and something in her voice breaks as she does. The air catches in her throat and for a half-second she makes a noise that isn't a word. It sounds like pain, or hurt.
"That's okay," I say, and mean it. In that moment I feel bad for bringing it up. I've grabbed hold of some blade piercing her heart and now I'm trying to rip it out.
"But thank you," she says, and smile just a little bit. She twists on the chair to look at me and the fabric of her clothes moves and tightens around her as she shifts in the seat. For a half-second I can see her outlined perfectly, breasts pulling the cheap cotton shirt taut over her chest as it rises and falls with her breath, hips and legs outlined in cheap denim as it twists about her. Laid out in front of me suddenly she looks incredibly sensual and she doesn't even know it. "For caring," she finishes, and looks at me with blue eyes, the bluest I've seen in days.
I turn away before she can see any of me react. "Goodnight Quistis."
I hear the voice but I don't dare look back. "Goodnight Seifer."
I go to bed, and dream of fire rising over the Trabia horizon.