The cardboard sign Almasy made me wear was huge and ridiculous. It said:
"If I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all."
I felt like I was in kindergarten. It was something you hear people tell little kids when they're mean to one another. Sure I was surly and sarcastic, but I didn't think this form of humiliation was really necessary. There wasn't much I could do about it if I wanted to avoid solitary, which sounded like a whole lot of not fun. I might have denied that it would have any effect on me, but secretly, I wasn't so sure after what Almasy had described. The last thing I wanted to do was sit in the dark and think about all the people that had failed me, or worse. As it was, he'd brought up all the stuff I was trying to avoid in the first place, and I was on the ragged edge of crazy. I felt raw and defeated. And angry, too. Angry that I was here. Angry that so many people knew about me. Angry that I had absolutely no control over my fate.
"This way," Mick Lindsay said, motioning for me to follow him down a long hallway that I assumed was the dormitory.
Dutifully, I followed in silence, while he pointed out things I was supposed to be interested in but could have cared less about. All I really wanted to do was either sleep or go find something to slice up into tiny little bits with my gunblade.
I noticed a half-finished mural across from the check in desk as we entered the wing of the dorm that was to be my new home. The mural looked like it was going to be a classical depiction of the Sorceress and Knight, but it was hard to tell, since only portions of it were finished. I noted the similarities between the mural and the paintings in Almasy's office. There was something about the details in the faces and the hands that reminded me of the portrait of Siren. In some places, the artist had begun filling in the background and color, but it was still mostly just a vague sketch. Mick allowed me to pause to admire it.
A closer inspection told me that perhaps this was a slightly different interpretation than the traditional brave Knight protecting the persecuted Sorceress. For one thing, the Sorceress was just as engaged in battle as the knight, her hand raised to cast her magic against what looked to be a huge, hulking blue dragon. Also, the Knight didn't appear to be wearing armor, and there was no white horse or fairy tale landscape. It would be very interesting to see the finished work. I had to give it to the guy. He had talent.
"Did you see the paintings in the Commander's office?" Mick asked, also admiring the work as he stood beside me.
"Commander Almasy's a big fan of Stone's work," Mick said. His eyes were studying the Sorceress. "Almasy lets him paint wherever he wants these days. Makes it feel less institutionalized."
So that was what the S stood for. Actually, I was starting to become a fan myself, and I found it interesting that Almasy let this guy paint wherever he wanted to. What was up with this place, anyway? A glossy, sugar coated version of hell or an actual chance for me to sort myself out? I wasn't sure, but maybe it wouldn't be so bad, considering Almasy was game to give creative license to the artist in residence Not to mention, his little speech back in his office had been pretty convincing, even if I didn't quite buy it. After all, I was wearing a cardboard sign around my neck, so it could go either way.
"Stone's one of ours," Mick said.
Since I couldn't ask, I shot him a questioning glance and a raised eyebrow. The not talking thing was already wearing thin.
"Stone's in India Company, with us," Mick explained.
I didn't expect to meet the artist, let alone have to live with him. I'd expected to be sharing a dorm with girls, like in Balamb. They'd had very firm rules about having the opposite sex in your dorm room. Strange that this place didn't.
"Come on," Mick urged.
I followed him down the hall. We stopped in front of a door that was painted red with a swirling gold design around the edges. The word "India," was spelled out in bits of gold glass, in a style of lettering that called to mind ancient Centra script. Below that was an intricate, mosaic-like portrait of Griever made of broken bits of gray, black, gold and red glass and tiny colored seed beads. Instinctively, I knew this Stone guy had done it.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw the door across the hall was covered in origami swans made of various colors, but there was no identifying name on the door. The door next to that one had been covered in tie-dye fabric in shades of blue, purple and black. On it, someone had spray painted the word Echo in lime green. I stepped back and looked up and down the hall and saw that every door in the corridor had been decorated in one way or another.
Apparently, Almasy had let everyone go crazy with the creativity, though it appeared not everyone was as talented as Mr. Stone Acosta. Considering the reform school nature of this place, It seemed a little off topic.
"These are our rooms," Mick said as he opened the door to reveal a living room with couple of big comfortable looking couches and a coffee table. On one wall was a desk with shelving above it, filled with reference materials. On the other was an entertainment center with a big flat screen TV and a gaming console. Off of the living room was a small kitchen with a dining table that looked like it was used more as a place to study than a place to eat. Rather luxurious digs, considering it was a prison.
"The rules are pretty simple," Mick said. "Clean up after yourself, respect your team mates and always look out for one another. We don't have to like one another, but we are a team, so at all times, we're to act like one."
I nodded. I didn't know about the helping each other thing. As I said, I didn't play well with others. Team or no, I planned to keep to myself, as usual.
"You'll be sharing a room with Julia and Nena," Mick said. He opened a door that revealed a short hallway with three doors. "Stone, Janus and Lee are across the hall from you. My room's at the end. Each room has its own bathroom, so you don't have to worry about sharing with the boys."
These doors were decorated in a similar manner as the one outside, except that one had been painted a deep shade of blue. The gold glass and bead embellishments were finer but more elaborate, and the word "Dolls" was spelled out in the same ornate script. The door across from it was done in the same, except that it was a deep green and said, "Guys."
Cute. Cheesy, but cute.
Inside, there were three modified bunk bed style pieces of furniture. The bottom of each had a desk with a laptop on it and a small dresser to the side, the bed was above and went all the way up to the ceiling. Each one had a tie back style curtain made of dark blue, shimmery fabric for privacy. The one on the right was mine. In the middle of the floor was an oriental rug in shades of blue and cream. The bathroom door was like the others, except that it said, "Powder room."
I had to admit, it was a pretty cool room. Very unlike my sterile white dorm back in Balamb, where we were limited to posters stuck to the wall with scotch tape for decoration. I just hoped my roommates weren't a bunch of snotty princesses like my last one. It was hard enough for me to get along with people. Having to share living space with a couple of drama queens would be intolerable.
"You're probably hungry, so we'll swing by the cafeteria for a bite," Mick said.
I wasn't hungry, but I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast so I nodded and followed him, resenting this cumbersome sign and the annoying message scrawled on it.
Along the way, I noted that both the front entrance and the garage were heavily gated and required thumb prints to access. Each door had an armed guard posted on it, and they looked formidable.
So much for sneaking out in the middle of the night. Unless, of course, I cut off somebody's thumb. I wondered what the likelihood was that I'd have the guts and the opportunity to take Almasy's.
By the time we returned to the room, the rest of my roomies had come back from wherever they'd been when I'd arrived. All I could do was stare at them silently, as they sized me up, with varying degrees of hostility.
One of them, I recognized, and I was surprised to see her here. The girl was none other than Julia Leonhart, the commander's daughter. It blew my mind to think that Leonhart had sent his own kid here. To me, that was pretty messed up. I mean, I knew that she'd left Garden about six months before, under strange circumstances. There were rumors that Julia had gotten pregnant and had an affair with an instructor, but even if that was the case, I couldn't imagine that it was reason enough to send her off into oblivion. Back when it all went down, I was inclined to believe the rumors, but now I wasn't so sure. Whatever she'd done to end up here, I somehow doubted that it was something as simple as getting knocked up by an instructor.
"I remember you," Julia said frostily. "Miri Heart, right?"
"Well, Miri welcome to hell," Julia said and stormed off down the hall.
I wondered what her problem was. She'd always been kind of snotty, and she had a vindictive streak in her that was a mile wide, but she and I had never had any beef that I could recall. Perhaps she was just as angry about being here as I was. Maybe she was angry about having to give up her easy, charmed life for this place. I decided maybe I shouldn't take it personal. After all, I didn't exactly make it easy for people to get along with me, either.
One of the young men eyed the sign around my neck and grinned at me. He was cute, in an impish, trouble maker kind of way. I could tell right off that he was a bad boy, but the kind of bad boy who made anything fun, no matter what it was. It could be bank robbery or knitting, but as long as he was around, it would be a blast.
"Don't mind her. She hates everyone," he said, extending his hand. "I'm Lee Bartram. This is Janus, and that's Stone over there."
I glanced into the kitchen, in the direction Lee was pointing and saw a good looking young man at the kitchen table, looking back at me with a calm, unreadable expression on his face. His gas flame blue eyes were equally unreadable. So this was the artist. I don't know what I was expecting, but he wasn't it.
I regarded him for a moment, taking note of the ugly scar that ran from his left temple up to the hairline above his forehead. There was a second one that extended from his ear to the tip of his chin. A third stretched vertically from the corner of his left eyebrow to his cheekbone. They'd been deep, ugly wounds, and I could tell they'd been untreated because of their severity. I had my share of scars, but because someone had been kind enough to give me a potion, they were just faint, whitish lines now. Despite myself, I wondered what had happened to him.
"I'm Nena Capria," the other girl said. She flicked her blonde hair from her eyes and smiled. "Kind of sucks that you can't talk for a week. How are we supposed to get to know you?"
I just shrugged, indifferent. Personally, I don't like to get involved. Too much work, and the more someone knows about you, the more dangerous they are. I could have cared less about getting to know her, for that matter. Just because we were supposed to live together didn't mean we'd be the best of friends.
The open, welcoming look on Nena's face shut down and she eyed me with what looked like disdain. Then she turned on her heel followed Julia. I'd pissed her off or hurt her feelings, but who cared?
"You should unpack your things. You won't have any time the rest of the week," Janus offered. "Besides, I'd bet Julia's poking her nose where it doesn't belong, if you get my drift."
I hadn't thought about that. I gave him a look I hoped conveyed my thanks and headed off to my new room, thinking that this was going to be tough. Not being able to speak, and having to get used to six roommates would not be easy for me. I had a feeling they'd all be in my face, all the time, given that we did everything but shower together, and I was starting to wonder about that.
Seifer and Squall sat in a private dining room eating a late lunch while they discussed Garden business. Time had mellowed their relationship enough that the two could be civil, even friends. Long ago, Seifer had given up his animosity toward Squall, and had found that Squall never really had any toward him, he had just been a kid who wanted to be left alone. These days, their relationship was built on mutual respect, not misunderstanding or anger or a need to be liked. Seifer's degree in psychology had taught him long ago that his aggression toward Squall had more to do with his own self esteem issues than anything else. But those days were long gone. Now they were equals, both commanders of their respective Gardens and time had healed whatever wounds they'd caused one another.
When they finished their meal, Seifer poured two glasses of Mimmet, and the conversation turned away from work.
"How's my daughter doing?" Squall asked. "Any improvement?"
Seifer knew the subject was going to come up, but that didn't make it any less difficult.
"Not really," Seifer admitted. "She's still acting like it's all a big joke."
Squall sighed and shook his head. Julia had been here for 6 months, and she'd so far resisted every attempt they'd made to break through to her. If anything, her behavior had worsened.
"Her therapist says Julia's just telling her what she wants to hear," Seifer continued. "And that she blames everyone but herself for the things she did to land herself here. She won't take any responsibility at all."
"I thought sending her here would help," Squall said.
"It will eventually," Seifer said. "Eventually, she'll get tired of being angry. She'll get tired of her classmates figuring it out and moving on while she's left behind."
"I'm not blaming you," Squall said. "I know this program works. I just don't understand where we went wrong with her."
Seifer shrugged. "You know, if a place like this had existed when we were kids, I bet we all would have ended up here. Except for Quistis, maybe. Don't you remember what it was like to be fifteen and angry about everything?"
"She has no reason to be angry," Squall said. "She didn't grow up the way we did. She had two parents that loved her and the kind of home we never had growing up. She got everything she ever wanted. We gave her a pony for her twelfth birthday, for Hyne's sake."
"Maybe she's not angry at you, she's just taking it out on you," Seifer said, "but until she decides to start talking about what's really pissing her off, she won't progress."
Squall started to laugh, half amused, half defeated. He put his hands up in surrender, shaking his head.
"And that's why you run this place, not me," Squall said.
"Speaking of running this place," Seifer said, "Know a therapist for troubled kids looking for work? Preferably a woman? My staff's overbooked and I'm having to take on a few extras myself to help out with the work load. It's getting kinda deep in here."
It was true that Seifer had taken on a few more cases of late, more than someone in his position should have, but it couldn't be helped. The more kids that wound up here, the more help he would need. As it was, his staff each had several more cases than they could reasonably handle.
"I know someone," Squall said.
"Well, send them my way. I could use the help."
"I could make a call right now, if you want."
Squall excused himself, and Seifer helped himself to more of the whiskey while he waited. When Squall returned, he sat down with a satisfied expression on his face.
"So?" Seifer asked.
"She can meet you in Esthar at the Grand Hotel near the Palace on Tuesday. Two o'clock."
"She's affiliated with SeeD, I presume?"
"I think you'll like her," Squall said, ignoring Seifer's question. "Nice woman, very trustworthy, more than qualified for the job."
Seifer wondered why Squall was being so vague about it. It wasn't like him.
"What's wrong with her?"
"Why would something be wrong with her?" Squall asked.
"You're being weird about it," Seifer said. "If there wasn't something wrong with her, you wouldn't be so evasive."
"Trust me, Seifer. I wouldn't send you someone I didn't believe in."
Squall gave him a level stare, which told Seifer that was the last he was going to say about it. Seifer was desperate enough for help that he decided not to question it. It was just an interview, after all. Besides. Squall had a point. He would never bother with someone he had doubts about. Not even out of desperation. That had to count for something.
"Hope she's better than the last one we had," Janus Kohn said.
Stone glanced at him, but didn't say a word, as was his habit. Around here, the less said, the better.
Janus annoyed him. He was a cocky hothead, but he did everything Julia told him to, which in Stone's eyes was a really bad idea. Julia was a controlling bitch, and Stone thought she was starting to come apart at the seams. Her temper was getting shorter and shorter, her pranks and insults meaner, and lately, she'd decided that it was fun to mess with him. Her taunts ranged from unabashed flirting to outright emasculation, especially when he pretended she wasn't there. Maybe now, with this new girl here, Julia would have something else to focus her rage on.
Sometimes, he wondered how Julia Leonhart, the daughter of the world's greatest hero, had ended up in a place like this. He figured one of two things had happened. Either Squall Leonhart was extremely strict, or Julia had screwed up big time and in order to save himself the embarrassment, he'd sent her here. Stone figured it was more likely the latter. Julia had a smart mouth, a bad attitude and she could be petty and vindictive to the extreme. She sought revenge for the smallest, and sometimes imagined insults. And it was getting worse. She'd gone from being vaguely angry to extreme fits of rage and even occasional violence against others.
In a way, Stone felt bad for the new girl. She wasn't going to have an easy time with Julia, and by extension Nena or Janus because they did whatever Julia wanted them to. Lee was a little better about it, being the one that would tell Julia to knock it off when she went too far, but half the time, he only encouraged Julia's hateful side.
Either way, it was pretty likely that she'd be the brunt of Julia's cruel pranks and hateful comments. And if the girl couldn't or wouldn't stand up for herself, she was going to be just as miserable as the last one. Even if she managed to win the trio over to her side, she was in for a world of torment.
"The last one had multiple personalities," Lee said.
"They should have kept her around," Janus laughed. "She might have been pretty good at undercover work. She could be a different person every day without having to act."
"That's messed up," Lee said. "It's not like she could help it."
"She creeped me out," Janus said. "And she was weird. Good riddance I say."
"New girl's kinda hot, though," Lee said. "Let's hope she's not as crazy as the rest of the chicks in here."
Janus started to laugh.
"Dude. All the chicks here are crazy," he said. "That's why they're here."
Stone shook his head and went back to doodling. He should have been studying, but he'd never been a great student and not very motivated to excel in the classroom, though he knew if he applied himself to education with one tenth of the gusto he applied to his art, he could have been at the top of his class. But, he only truly cared about painting. Everything else was just a distraction.
As he sketched, his mind turned to the girl, Miri. He couldn't seem to get those green eyes of hers out of his head. She had the same cocky, hard expression that just about every other girl here had, but there was something different about her. In all the others it was pretty obvious that all the bravado was false. In their eyes, bravado masked fear. Stone could always see through it, but In Miri's eyes, he'd seen a resigned toughness, a hardened edge that made him believe that maybe she was the goods. Not a trace of fear in those green eyes.
Not an ounce of hope, either.
In my room, I sat down at the desk and began to unpack my things. I saw that everything but my clothes and the most basic of toiletries had been taken. My nail polish, my make-up, all my CDs and books were gone save a biography of Seifer Almasy that I'd never bothered to read, and a manual on the battle strategy of the Sorceress wars. Angry, I turned accusing eyes toward the girls, who sat on Julia's bunk looking through magazines and laughing together as they whispered back and forth about me.
On a piece of paper I found in the desk, I scrawled, Who took my stuff? and held it up so that they could see it.
"They take everything when you first get here," Nena explained. "You have to earn it back."
"Knowing her, she'll never get it back," Julia muttered.
Well, that was just great. While it wasn't that important, I was annoyed that they resorted to such silly tactics. Taking away my music and books, which was the only entertainment I had, plus hanging a stupid sign around my neck, plus being forbidden to speak for a whole week was enough to make me crack. I had no idea what any of this was supposed to teach me, and the whole thing was really starting to piss me off. And of all people to have to share a room with, I got Princess Leonhart, who was obviously extremely bitter over life in general. While she'd always been kind of a brat before, now she was full on hateful. I know knew my greatest challenge would be trying to get through this without killing her.
I tried to ignore them as they whispered about me, but Julia was doing it loud enough that I could hear, and on purpose, no doubt. I was dying to say something smart back, but if I knew Julia, she'd go running to Mick and I'd end up in solitary. Which, to tell the truth, wasn't sounding so bad after all.
"-no friends-so pathetic," I heard Julia whisper. I glared at her over my shoulder and Julia gave me a cold smile in return. I responded by giving her the finger.
Julia's eyes widened and she hopped down off her bunk.
"I'm telling Mick."
I just shrugged as if to say, go ahead. I didn't much care. After listening to Julia's catty whispers for twenty minutes, I was about to go off anyway, and I figured, why prolong the inevitable?
"If I tell Mick, they'll send you to solitary."
I shrugged again. I grabbed the piece of paper from the desk and wrote I don't give a crap.
"Well, you should," Julia said when she'd read it. "It's like a dungeon. With rats. And they make you sit there in the dark."
"Hanging out in a dungeon full of rats seems a lot more entertaining than sitting here listening to you talk shit about me," I wrote back.
"Just filling Nena in on the sitch," Julia said. "She has a right to know who she's rooming with."
I smiled back and wrote, "Maybe I should fill her in on you. Heard you left Garden because you got knocked up by Instructor Takawana."
Julia's face flamed and her eyes blazed as she read what I had written.
"What?" she demanded.
"Everyone in Balamb knows about your little affair."
Now Julia paled and she shook her head.
"Who told you that?"
"Everybody." I scrawled with a smile, feeling the balance of power shift.
"Well, it's not true," Julia snarled.
I just smiled and leaned back in my chair, challenging Julia keep running her mouth. To my surprise, Julia backed down and returned to her bunk, though not without sending the occasional hateful glance my way.
I returned to unpacking my meager belongings, seething over our conversation and the loss of my personal stuff. I ignored the whispering, but I still felt defeated. By the situation, by Almasy, by Julia, by my whole, entire, sad life. And there was nothing I could do about it.
The classes were more interesting than those at Balamb, at least. For one thing, they were more hands on. In the computer class, I learned how to reconstruct a hard drive damaged by a virus. In my espionage class, I listened closely while the instructor explained the different ways to collect information without being detected. In current affairs, there was a heated debate between Janus and Lee about socialism versus capitalism. The instructor didn't even interrupt, except to occasionally say, "Good point." That would never have happened in Balamb. We'd been expected to sit quietly through lecture, and only speak when called on.
Counter terrorism was fascinating, too. I found myself inspecting diagrams of various kinds of bombs that terrorists used, and committing them to memory. For just a second, I entertained the thought of building my own so I could blow a hole in the wall and leave. Except that I was under supervision all the time, and finding materials and a chance to work on it would be slim to none.
My last class of the day was a strange one. It was supposed to be Undercover Ops 1, but I couldn't decide if it was an etiquette class, a diction class, a drama class or a history of fashion. In truth, it was all over the map. I was made to put on a formal gown, which I hated, and heels, which I hated even more, and was made to walk back and forth across the classroom while the instructor expounded upon the importance of carefully choosing the right outfit.
"Own the heels, Miri," Instructor Latrobe cried over and over, which caused Julia to giggle and whisper something that made Nena giggle.
I mean, I got that espionage might require someone to dress or act differently than they normally would, but making me walk around like a pageant queen in front of everyone seemed silly and unnecessary. I felt like a little kid playing dress up. In the end, I hadn't learned much, except how not to fall on my face in front of a class full of people.
During these classes, I noticed that Nena, Julia, Janus and Lee were joined at the hip. Stone didn't say much and didn't seem to care that they ignored him. I wondered if it was because he wanted it that way or if Julia, who seemed to be their leader, had decided to leave him out. He was a good looking kid, except for the nasty scars on his face. I'd already overheard Julia call him Scarface and Igor. I felt sorry for him when I thought about what could have happened to have caused such scarring. These days, potions pretty much erased wounds to nothing but tiny white marks.
At lunch, we sat together. No one talked to me, but I didn't care. Wasn't like I could say anything back anyway. I pushed the food around my plate with disinterest and ate little. Everything sucked. I wished Squall had just dumped me on the train and said, "Have a nice life." I could be in Deling City right now, starting my real life, instead of locked up like a criminal in this hellhole.
"Oh, look," a passing cadet said, "It's Igor."
I looked up at Stone, who turned around and glared at the cadets. I knew they were talking about him, and I was curious about how he'd react.
"Like I haven't heard that one before," he growled.
It was the first time since I'd gotten here that I had heard him speak. He sounded downright menacing and I had the feeling he was just as tough as he sounded. Definitely not someone I wanted to piss off if I could help it.
"Dude, the monster talks," his companion said.
"Wanna see the monster bust your face?" Stone asked and cracked his knuckles. He looked furious.
"Bring it, freak."
Stone got up and made a move to attack the cadets, but Mick intervened. He grabbed Stone by the shoulders and shoved him back into his chair. Then he looked at the two cadets.
"See the sign she's wearing?" he asked, pointing to me, and my face immediately turned crimson. "You've just earned yourselves a week of that. Speak to anyone and you earn yourselves a stay in solitary."
As embarrassed as I was about being singled out, it amused me to see Mick hang signs around their necks that said, "If I can't say something nice, I should keep my mouth shut."
I smirked and raised an eyebrow at Stone, who looked like he was ready to kill someone. I realized right then, those scars had been a constant source of torment for him, and I felt a little bad. No longer amused, I gave him what she hoped was a look of understanding and sympathy, and then I wondered why I even cared. It wasn't like I knew him. He wasn't my friend. I didn't have any friends.
"You and I need to chat," Mick said to Stone, who obediently got up, fists still clenched at his sides and followed Mick out of the cafeteria.
After lunch was group therapy, a sort of hands on support group. They had to be kidding. It was the hokiest thing I'd ever heard. I totally did not buy into the touchy feely sharing of emotions thing at all. I didn't care about what they were feeling, and even if I could talk, I wouldn't have shared mine. It was none of their business.
I sat at the back of the room and listened, bored while my team mates spoke about how much the program was changing them, and how the anger was going away because they felt like they were accomplishing something. I rolled my eyes and leaned back in my chair, wishing I could skip this crap and go to the training center.
Mick returned Stone to the class just as we were all about to pair off for an activity, something about sharing our feelings about others. Inwardly I groaned because I knew that I'd be paired up with him.
Stone had a sign of his own that read, "I am far too sensitive. I must learn to ignore petty insults."
My lips quirked into a smile as he took a seat at the table next to me. At least I wasn't the only one with a cardboard necklace.
"Welcome to group, Stone," Counselor Davies said. "You can pair up with Miri for today."
That caused giggles from the girls and I scowled. Somehow, I knew Julia was going to dwell on this.
"We're going to share our impressions of each other. Be honest. If you think someone's holding back, tell them," the counselor said. "And tell them why you think that. Miri and Stone, you may write your communications."
Reluctantly, I moved my chair so that I was sitting across from Stone. His face was hard, revealing nothing at all, his blue eyes unreachable. Hoping to lighten the mood, I imitated him and then grinned. I saw the corner of his mouth twitch, but otherwise, his face remained impassive. He wasn't giving anything away, and it was almost as if he was looking right through me, as if I was nothing.
I let my eyes wander his face and I took in his strong jaw, the full lips, his long, black hair, the perfect nose, the dark lashes that fringed his gas flame eyes, and finally the wicked scars on his face. Again, I felt sympathy for him. It was an old scar. Something from his childhood, no doubt. Maybe something that helped land him here.
Sometimes, I wished my scars showed. People were always telling me I was too pretty to act the way I did. Maybe, if I was disfigured, they'd leave me alone. I could understand why some people cut themselves. Maybe they wanted the whole world to know. After all, physical wounds made a hell of a lot more sense than emotional ones.
But mine, almost all mine, were on the inside where no one could see them, and unlike those on skin, they never quite healed.
Stone kept his face a mask as Miri inspected him, but he was observing her as closely as she was him. She was pretty, with delicate features, a rose petal mouth and impish, ornery green eyes. Her dark hair gleamed with auburn highlights under the florescent lights and cascaded down past her shoulder blades. A sprinkling of freckles across her pert little nose. A tiny, whitish scar on her chin, another just below her eye, and a third, three inches long and thin as a thread across her neck. They were faint and probably old, but they were there. They must have been bad wounds to still be visible and it made him wonder what had happened.
Then he wondered why he cared. Everyone here was scarred in one way or another, inside and out.
When he realized she was looking unabashedly at the scars, he couldn't keep the color from coming to his cheeks. His scars were a constant source of embarrassment to him. They made him ugly, disfigured. Without meaning to, he covered it with his hand and looked away.
He was surprised when Miri reached out and removed his hand. When he met her eyes, she shook her head.
Then she glanced over at Janus and Julia who were holding hands across the table, speaking earnestly to one another and rolled her eyes. Then she stuck her finger down her throat. Stone raised an eyebrow in agreement, understanding exactly what she meant. Those two were so full of it, especially in Group. They lied through their teeth about making progress, when they were exactly the same assholes they'd always been.
Group itself was crap. Stone wasn't interested in finding out who he was, or why he felt the way he did about things. He already knew why he felt the way he did. He already knew who he was. He didn't need to do any soul searching or confessing to know himself inside and out. And talking about the past did no good, no matter what they preached. It was over and done with. History. Talking about it wouldn't change a thing.
"Excellent," Davies said. "Keep sharing. Miri and Stone, I don't see you communicating."
Miri grabbed a pencil and started to write. She slid it across the table at him.
"Any way out of this hell hole?" she'd written.
Few have tried. None have succeeded.
Miri's lips pursed and she began to write again.
"Is there another way out, besides the elevator?"
Don't know. Maybe.
Maybe, as in, there might be. And, no, I don't know where it is.
"If you did, you probably wouldn't tell me, would you?"
Stone shrugged. He didn't know if he'd tell her or not. And if he did know a way out, he wouldn't be sitting here participating in this exercise in stupidity. There were stories from time to time about kids who tried to escape. Most of them didn't even make it far enough to see daylight before they were caught and taken to solitary for a while. A handful of others had made it outside and had been shot on sight as promised, then brought back for a stay in the infirmary before being deposited in solitary.
There was a rumor, though, about a boy who'd escaped in the early days of Black, when security wasn't as diligent as it was now. He'd managed to get free, but died in the desert of dehydration. The fool had neglected to consider that he was in the desert, a hundred miles from anything, and there was no source of water or food to be found outside the walls of Garden.
Stone had fantasized about escaping when he'd first arrived, but then he realized he didn't have much to escape to. At least here, he was relatively safe. He had a roof over his head, a bed to sleep in, three meals a day and he was allowed to fight and paint to his heart's content. As odd as it seemed, this was the most stable and comfortable home he'd ever known.
He wondered about Miri, though. It was typical that a newbie would want to split. That wasn't so unusual. What was unusual was that there was something about her that made him believe if she saw the opportunity, she'd take it, and she'd be prepared and resourceful enough to make it out alive.
He wondered about her life before this. How bad had it been that she'd ended up here? Was she just a brat like Julia? Or was her background closer to his own?
He eyed her sign and raised an eyebrow as he wrote: You've only been here a day. What did you do to earn the vow of silence?
"Smarted off to Almasy," she scribbled. "He just doesn't appreciate sarcasm."
Well, that would do it. Not many had the guts to talk back to Almasy. Most people were scared of him, usually because of who he was at first, and then because he could be your best friend one minute and your worst nightmare the next. Nevertheless, Stone found himself smiling a little, trying to picture it. She must have really gotten under Almasy's skin.
Impressive. You're lucky he didn't stick you in solitary.
This was the most Stone had communicated with anyone in the group in six months. They pretty much ignored him most of the time, which was fine with him. He didn't want to be part of their stupid little alliance anyway. They were just a bunch of immature kids, especially Julia and Janus, who were both spoiled brats from good families. They didn't have any reason to act the way they did. Their lives had been charmed and easy, and Stone resented the fact that they were even here.
You should watch your back around Julia, Stone wrote, figuring that he'd better warn her. When she decides to ruin someone's day, she really ruins it.
"I can handle it," Mila wrote. "I know her. I know how she is."
Stone nodded and leaned back in his chair, thinking that Miri was the first person he'd met here who had might actually be okay. The fact that she'd not looked away from his scars or ridiculed them was something that he didn't encounter often. Most girls wouldn't look at all or made cruel jokes about them. Miri's gaze had been direct and unapologetic. As if she found them interesting, but not that big a deal. Stone liked that. He liked it a lot.
That afternoon, Seifer watched the India team train from the observation deck above the training center. Squall had been right. Miri Heart was definitely a top notch fighter.
Seifer had a taste of it himself and he'd been impressed. Now, watching from afar, he knew he was watching something very, very special. Somehow, Cadet Heart developed her own single handed style of fighting that was both graceful and brutal and unlike anything he'd ever seen before. She used techniques that Seifer had never seen in any blader, anywhere. This was some bizarre marriage of acrobatics, ballet, martial arts and sword fighting. Nothing at all like the straight up stab and parry type of blading that Garden taught.
Heart flawlessly executed an aerial spin, her blade swirling around and then down in an arc of flashing steel; a spin slash combined with a kick that knocked Julia Leonhart right on her ass. Seifer watched, stunned as Heart pirouetted around Janus Kohn, striking him hard each time she swung the blade. It was the craziest, most ingenious thing Seifer had ever seen, and he'd seen a lot in his day. If anything, he thought, this kid should be teaching them, not the other way around.
Seifer knew that they could not afford to let this one stagnate in her own grief and self pity. She was too incredible, too inventive and too smart to coddle. This one had to be broken down and rebuilt stronger and better. And it had to be done soon. Otherwise, she'd shut down like she had everywhere else and would fester in her anger, and maybe then, it would be too late.
Down below, she faced off against her classmates, one by one, proving over and over again how exceptional she was. They fell, one by one until she faced Stone Acosta, and Seifer watched with interest as the two battled one another. Though Cadet Acosta hadn't been fond of fighting in the beginning, he'd proved himself to be one of the best they had. Seifer thought that if the boy ever fought like it mattered, he'd be unstoppable. Actually, that was true for both of them. He could only imagine what the two of them might be capable of if they had something to fight for.
Acosta gave Heart a good run for her money and the challenge she deserved. He wasn't nearly as fast, but he hit harder and anticipated her attacks well enough to avoid being brought down. Heart parried a hard down stroke, but was unable to avoid Acosta's follow up cross. The boy's blade hit her across the shoulder and she was sent reeling. It didn't end her, though. She used the momentum of the blow in her favor, spinning like a windmill, slashing him across the chest. Still spinning, she twisted down into a crouch and swung out her leg and knocked him right off his feet. Acosta fell, but was back on guard in an instant and went after her, striking hard. His attack was parried, but just barely. For several minutes, neither landed a blow on the other, but the intensity of the battle never waned.
Seifer couldn't help but grin. This pair was phenomenal together. Two wildly divergent styles but evenly matched. It had been a while since he'd seen anyone give Acosta the kind of challenge he needed, and for Seifer, this was of the utmost importance. The boy was extremely skilled, but without a worthy opponent, he had plateaued. Cadet Heart seemed like she might be just the thing Acosta needed to step it up.
It even appeared to Seifer that Cadet Acosta was enjoying himself. For the first time in months, the boy didn't look bored, and twice now, Seifer had seen a look of surprised amusement on his face. That in itself was nothing short of miraculous. The only time Acosta looked amused was when Seifer was trying to psychoanalyze him in counseling.
Stone Acosta may have been the only human being Seifer had ever encountered who was completely immune to psychotherapy. He would spend the entire session doodling and either ignoring Seifer's questions or turn them back around on him before Seifer realized it. The boy claimed he didn't need therapy, that nothing Seifer said or did would change his past or his future, and that he knew himself inside and out, therefore therapy was a waste of time. After almost a year of sessions and three years of actually knowing the kid, Seifer was inclined to believe him.
Down below, the battle continued, now more heated than before, with each of them exchanging blow for blow and neither backing down. Both looked fierce and determined to win. Cadet Acosta brought his blade down hard, but Heart dodged it, then launched herself backwards, executing a graceful and devastating areal back flip. One of her feet caught Acosta in the chin, and her blade followed, hitting him hard in the face. He reeled backward, one hand clutched to his mouth, but readied himself to continue.
To Seifer's dismay, Instructor Tamiko stepped in, looking angry and ended the fight.
"I've seen enough of you!" he bellowed at Cadet Heart. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
The girl shrugged.
"This is a Gunblade training session, not an acrobatics class!" Tamiko ranted. "I don't know where you learned this nonsense, but you will not use these tactics in my classroom! Is that any way unclear?"
Cadet Heart shrugged again, but Seifer could see that she was furious.
Tamiko was an excellent instructor, but very by the book. Seifer could not allow the girl's potential to be limited by a black and white curriculum. Cadet Heart defied classification in terms of skill, and Tamiko tended to place his students into neatly defined boxes. Seifer would have to make it very, very clear to the instructor that he was not to limit Heart to a set of rules that obviously didn't apply to her. In the meantime, Seifer would see to it that Cadet Heart's classes would include both dance and martial arts.
Once the class ended, Seifer took the instructor aside.
"You are not to discourage Cadet Heart in training," Seifer commanded.
"She made a mockery of my class," Tamiko protested. "How am I to teach them how to properly use the weapon if one of them throws all the rules out the window?"
"Even you have to admit what she's done with it is brilliant," Seifer said. "Does she need discipline? Absolutely. Does she need to be taken down a notch or two? Yeah, she does. But clearly, the way we were trained doesn't apply to her."
"Then what do you propose we do, Commander?" Tamiko asked. "Let her do whatever she feels like in class? That sets a dangerous precedent. If I let her continue this, the others will follow her lead. I can't run a class that way."
"I hope the others do follow her lead," Seifer said. "To me, it looks like we have something to learn from the kid. She's doing things with that blade no one else has ever done before, so just because it doesn't fall into some category you can label doesn't mean it's wrong."
"I don't know how to teach what she knows, Commander," Tamiko admitted. "I agree that it's brilliant, even revolutionary, but if I can't teach her, what's the point of her being in my class? I'm too old to try and emulate her, and I wouldn't even know how to do half the things I saw today. How am I supposed to train her if nothing I know applies?"
"Well, for one, her defense is lacking," Seifer said. "Cadet Acosta shouldn't have been able to get in nearly as many hits as he did. She's fast enough that she should have been able to dodge most of them."
Seifer thought for a moment, then continued.
"The entire team needs work on their defense," he told Tamiko. "If Cadet Heart made a mockery of anything today, it was the other cadets, not your class. Consider it a favor to you that she was able to show you exactly where your focus with this group should be. Use her to teach them. Use her skill and her speed to teach them how to defend themselves."
Tamiko looked angry at being criticized, but took it under consideration.
A plan was starting to formulate in Seifer's mind. It was kind of crazy and unorthodox, but at the same time, it was a solution that should have been apparent from the first moment Acosta and Heart's blades clashed.
"I want to see Acosta and Heart training together from now on," Seifer said. "Against one another, and as a team against the others."
"That's a dangerous idea," Tamiko said.
Seifer laughed. It was a dangerous idea. Tamiko had that right. Under the right circumstances, the two might be very dangerous indeed. It was a gamble, but Seifer sensed that if the two could work together, they would be a force to be reckoned with. He wanted them to know one another's fighting style and habits. He wanted them to constantly up the ante. He wanted to seem them figure out a way to work together and play off one another's strengths. With that kind of competition, the rest of the team would be forced into the challenge.
He knew this plan could backfire. While he wasn't concerned with the pair developing a romantic relationship because of Cadet Heart's history, he was concerned that he could be setting the stage for a rivalry similar to his own with Squall so long ago. When he thought about it, these two young cadets were very much like himself and Squall at that age. Acosta was the quiet loner with loads of unused potential, and Heart was the fiery hothead with more talent than she knew what to do with. The difference was, these two didn't have a history like he and Squall did. Neither of them cared about anything or anyone, and that hadn't been the case between Seifer and Squall.
No, with the right kind of guidance, this was a team that could change the game. At present, India was full of intelligent, talented fighters with a diverse skill set but had absolutely no ambition or direction. He had hoped when he put the original team together six months before that they would thrive and become the dream team he'd been looking for. Unfortunately, they hadn't lived up to his expectations.
He'd thought maybe the problem lay with the 6th (and now absent) member of the team, Gretchen Stark, who was erratic and unbalanced and had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder two months into India's training. Her removal had been necessary, but it hadn't changed anything.
Seifer had hoped that one of the team would step up and be the leader. Julia Leonhart had filled that role, but not in the way Seifer had expected or wanted. Under her brand of leadership, the team had earned a reputation as a bunch of slackers, pranksters and troublemakers. And that was saying a lot given the givens. Perhaps with Acosta or Heart at the helm, things would change for the better. Janus Kohn, Lee Bartram and Nena Capria were all talented, but they were followers, and the followed the strongest in the pack. It was clear to Seifer that both Acosta and Heart were the strongest and if either chose to step up and lead, the others would fall in line behind them.
Seifer dismissed Instructor Tamiko and found Mick Lindsay, who was about to escort the group back to the dorm. He took the instructor aside and spelled out his plan for the pair and ordered Lindsay to make sure the two worked together as much as possible.
"You sure this is a good idea?" Lindsay asked. "I don't think either of them want what you're asking for. I can't say for certain about Cadet Heart, but I'm pretty sure Acosta just wants to paint. To hell with the rest of us."
"I'm not sure," Seifer admitted, "But this group has the most potential of any here. We both know that. They should be much further ahead than they are, and I'm holding you accountable."
"You've let Leonhart run that bunch into the ground," Seifer said. "They need a real leader, not someone who's more focused on making everyone around her feel like shit than getting through the training. Do what I ask, Lindsay."
"I'll give it a shot," Mick said doubtfully. "But don't hold me accountable if Heart starts a rebellion."
"You let me worry about that. If she gets out of line, I'll take care of it. Meantime, you make sure those two learn to work together. And keep Leonhart out of their way."
Thanks for the reviews. I wasn't sure about this one, to be honest with you. I'm still not. I love the idea, and I love the story, and I'm actually very pleased with how it's turning out, I'm just not sure this is right for this Fandom. Still, readers demanded chapter two, so I must be doing something right.
To answer some questions:
The couple at the beginning:
I'm not telling yet. You can speculate all you want, though. I'm cool with that. Speculate away. I welcome it, but I'm still not telling. :)
He has a fairly large part in this. His appearances will be fairly regular, probably at least once a chapter. In fact, the Redemption in the title applies to him as much as anyone else.
Where the idea came from:
I explained last chapter how the idea was formed, but Miri's character is loosely based on a friend's adopted daughter. At least, some of her experiences are, especially those experiences in foster care/group home situations. Not all foster homes are bad. Many of them are positive experiences, and the guardians truly care about the child they foster. (Case in point, my friend who fostered and then adopted the girl) but some stories are really, really heartbreaking and the damage done in those situations has a long lasting impact.
Other Cannon Characters:
Yes. There will be appearances from other FFVIII characters. Some will be minimal, some may have major, pivotal roles in this. Not telling until I post it. Ha.
What about "Stealing the Moon?"
I'm still working on the next chapter. Should be updated this week (today is 11/2, just for reference sake). I went one way with it, and then changed it up because it was more fun.
And finally, a big thanks to those of you that took the time to review. I appreciate your support, comments, feedback and criticisms. Keep 'em coming!