Setting 05: 2045 DAY 1, Balamb Garden Ballroom

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end.

To rust unburnishíd, not to shine in use!"

-Tennyson, Alfred, Lord

Ulysses 22

 

"Iíve never had yellowish wine cooler before," Cid informed Quistis, holding up his glass.

Quistis laughed agreeably, and then apologized for not being able to change before the banquet. She looked around quickly at all the stately black suits and skirts that adorned the Garden members in the ballroom.

"Perfectly understandable," Cid replied lightly, "to be running late and not have time to change coming back through Time Compression."

"Nothing compared to what it took to get past Gardenís front gate with Rinoa. They still donít believe sheís a good sorceress," Quistis joked.

Cid snickered accordingly, taking another tentative sip of his wine cooler. He paused and unsure how to proceed, redistributed his weight over his legs and pretended to enjoy the Garden orchestra.

"So what is the real reason for sending Matron and Irvine off to enjoy the rest of the party?" Quistis asked, shifting her balance from her left foot to her right. It was uncomfortable because she had been careless to stomp the ground too hard with it after throwing Irvineís torso off her shoulder just minutes before. Always trying to impress girls with that overly casual, occasionally too carefree to be respectful, cowboy attitude. Nothing mysterious about that.

She sighed, and thought to herself, "If only Squall would do that."

Cid rubbed the back of his brown-hair-matted head uneasily and forced a cheesy smile. "This probably isnít the best time to ask this of you, but I have another mission for you lined up tomorrow," he said.

Quistis blinked, and then nodded acceptingly.

"Youíre the Headmaster, whatever you say goes. That means you are resuming command, right?"

Cid shifted his spectacles and nodded in agreement.

"I am going to reassert my authority here in Balamb Garden," he answered with finality.

Quistis held both hands behind her back, not sure whether or not Squall would like that. While it didnít seem like he liked overwhelming responsibility, he didnít like being demoted either.

"But," Cid continued, brushing some stray piece of hair off his best-looking red vest, "I have something bigger planned for SeeD. I want Squall to go supervise the new SeeDs and Garden trainees in Trabia Garden."

Quistis raised her eyebrows, caught off guard. She hadnít even thought about the remnants of Trabia since the missiles from Galbadia demolished it.

"Does Selphie know about this?" Quistis asked, gathering her thoughts again.

Cid nodded and informed her that Selphie would be overseeing the 12 construction teams. It was a massive project trying to build a new Garden with brand new designs in a matter of weeks. Luckily they had some funding from some Shumi patrons.

"We were lucky to have Esthar move all those energy cells that responded to the Lunatic Pandora weapon into Trabia. It should save us a pretty Gil," Cid muttered.

"Why did you want to see me about this?" Quistis asked, fidgeting in her tight, pink skirt.

"Youíre still the most experienced SeeD I have. I need you to keep an eye on Squall because I wonít be there. I have no doubt that he always makes the best judgment, but he tends to respond better to an environment more populated by his peers. I just donít want him withdrawing deeper into his world of seclusion," Cid explained.

Quistis gave a sign of acknowledgement, and then asked if she should notify Zell and Irvine.

Cid shook his head, saying, "No, theyíll be needed for a different mission. Iím sending them on diplomatic affairs in Shumi to make sure the Gil flow continues, as well as check out four geographically spread sites in relatively isolated areas and investigate some atmospheric abnormalities that have been reported."

Quistis frowned, her training unable to suppress her instinctive reaction. She didnít think that diplomacy was the right task to ask of either impulsive young men, and she told Cid that.

"Thatís the funniest part," Cid replied with his "Iím proud of myself" look.

Quistis noted that Headmaster Kramer had a sick sense of humor and pitied his wife. Deciding that the conversation was over, she nodded more artificially than she needed to, excused herself, and then went off to find Squall.

"I still donít understand why you were so adamant about putting your resignation in," Cid sighed, even though Quistis was already out of hearing range.

Not seeing Squall anywhere, Quistis decided to walk past Irvine, wildly videotaping everything, and towards the table where Zell was in a feeding frenzy.

Surely he must know where Squall is, she thought.

Stopping only to comment how wonderful Edea looked tonight, she got to the table about the same time as frolicking Selphie appeared out of nowhere. Somehow she had wrenched away Irvineís trademark hat and was wearing it with his usual slim yellow outfit.

Zell was furiously cramming down as many of the jealously coveted Garden hotdogs as he could. His girlfriend was begging him to chew more and eat less but either it seemed a good idea to pay attention to her later or try to impress her by gorging himself even more, he continued his rare feast. Quistis caught a bit of what Zellís girlfriend went on to tell him. Something about her having to leave for Galbadia on an anti-Malboro campaign the following morning. Zell seemed totally unaffected by her news, but he also must have completely misunderstood her because he wished her good luck for her dance competition. Yet, with all the hotdogs stuffed in his mouth, which made him look like a moogle with hives, his words came out as coherently as a moogle would have spoken them.

That's odd, Quistis thought, frowning, I thought Zell's girlfriend was a blonde Balamb girl. Who is this pig-tailed brunette in the Garden outfit?

"Hey, Zell," Quistis called from across the table, "do you know where Squall is?"

Zell had seen Quistis coming, and whether he actually heard what she asked him and tried to say, "With Rinoa," or he mistook her question for "Why were you downloading Rinoa screen-savers from the Garden tutorial?" and wanted to answer, "Not of Rinoa," his reply came out as "wruffa wuffferra." He found out that more went in than came out, immediately choking and spewing out bits of half-macerated hotdog all over. Some landed on his girlfriendís black Garden uniform, and even though she knew that those hotdog bits were not juicy enough to stain her skirt, even if it had been a color on which a stain would be noticeable, she screamed and jumped out of her seat.

Quistis had already guessed that answer, and was wondering why he even bothered to give such a useless reply. She found it a good time to make some chit-chat and get to know Zell's new companion while they were all huddled around him. Selphie, in the meantime, after making fun of his girlfriend's pigtail hair-style, possibly because she was jealous of the hairís length, leaned down and with thick, artificial tenderness, asked Zell if he was going to rechew the pieces of food that he had spit out on the table. Zell was desperately looking for a mouthful of milk, but his empty glass did not refill itself and he had to force down the rest of his dry meal by himself. Selphieís comment didnít sit well with him so he jumped up, knocking over his chair, and frightened all the ladies away.

Irvine had zoomed in on these four for awhile now, so he was quite surprised when Zell threw a leftover hotdog at him. He wasnít use to handling laughing and being startled at the same time so he dropped the camcorder. The look on Selphieís face was enough to make his heart sink and his face apple red. He had already chaffed her by focusing on those three underclasswomen, so he didnít think this was helping his standing with her.

"T-thereís no problem! No problem," he stammered, picking it up and brushing it off as quickly as possible. He took a cautious peek over at Selphie. She had one of those "There-had-better-not-be-a-problem" look on, with her hands on her hipsÖIrvine lost his thought when he saw those hipsÖ

"Hey!" Selphie shouted at him, bringing him back to reality with a jolt.

"Nothing wrong at all," he assured her, giving his best "Just-pretend-you-didnít-see- that-cheesehead-move-of-mine" smile.

"Smooth, real smooth, Irvine," he muttered to himself.

Selphie was still glaring at him. She suddenly made alternating circular motions with her hands, shouting at him, "Well, keep it rolling!"

Embarrassed, Irvine fumbled about with the controls, trying not to look at Selphieís half-exasperated, half-annoyed facial expression that he knew she was sporting.

"That klutz," she thought to herself critically. She turned away in disgust and found herself looking through the archway leading to the open balcony. Suddenly she noticed her dark-haired girl friend with her usual blue skirt and black shorts on.

"How does Rinoa get her skin to glisten like that?" she wondered enviously.

Catching a glimpse of Squall around the corner, Selphie smiled at the thought that this might be the perfect time for their diffident team leader to make a move on Rinoa. Selphie caught Irvine aiming the video camera at her again with her peripheral vision, and so turned and motioned for him to zoom in on Rinoa shooting the breeze. Irvine adjusted his view accordingly, but was at the wrong angle to catch any part of Squall on tape.

"Whatís up with Selphie?" he thought to himself, feeling his hands almost slip off the precious equipment before grumbling, "First she chews me out for looking at girls, and now she wants me to get an eyeful of Rinoa."

Quistis caught up with Selphie just as Squall moved fully into view from where they were standing. Rinoa had pointed at something outside and apparently that was incentive enough for Squall to lean in, take her in his arms and snatch a long kiss reserved for him. Not expecting to find Squall in that position, Quistis held her breath as Selphie cupped her hands over her mouth and squealed in delight.

"Long live the Tonberry King!" she shouted, following it up with, "Squall finally got on first base!"

Quistis remembered to inhale.

Irvine came up to them, asking them what all the commotion was about.

Selphie just stared at him in disbelief for a second, leaving just enough time for little cowboy Kinneas to wonder what he had done wrong now.

"You didnít get any of that?" Selphie shrieked.

Irvineís surprise was turning rapidly into fear.

"The batteries ran out," he appealed, figuring that the truth would save him.

Obviously Irvine had forgotten that things work differently in Final Fantasy and as a result, Quistis ended up catching the camcorder that he threw in the air as he sped away from a charging Selphie, fork in hand and close in pursuit.

Quistis passed the camcorder between her hands, wondering how to approach Squall now. It seemed like she had definitely lost him now. After all, he and Rinoa were still on the same kiss. Flustered, Quistis looked away, her eyes finding their way back to Zellís table. It was empty now, his girlfriend having gone home early, and Zell nowhere to be seen. Something caught her eye and she took a step closer.

There was a piece of paper on the seat. Quistis walked over and picked it up. "Silly girl, she must have left it," Quistis thought, turning it over. What was her name again? Mina*?

*Raine Ishida (nanaki_17@hotmail.com)

has a sequel to my saga and the idea of

Mina belongs to her.

It was a new photograph of Mina and some guy who Quistis thought was pretty cute and had a face that was awfully familiar. She dismissed it as one of those faces that naturally just seemed that way, like the ones those two brothers operating the elevators at Fishermanís Horizon had. Without giving the snapshot another thought, she looked around for Zell.

She saw him saunter thoughtlessly right into Squall and Rinoaís kiss off. He caught himself halfway through the act, and cupped his eyes with his palm in dire embarrassment. Squall had pulled away just as Zell came up to them and based on her facial expression, Rinoa was not going to forgive the bumbling fool.

"Poor Zell," Quistis thought, racing over next to Zell in a position optimal for shielding him from any Gun-blade attacks.

The best line Zell could dish out was, "Um, I hope Iím not interrupting anything important."

Squall said that it was nothing. The unfortunate response merited, in Zellís opinion, one of the dirtiest looks that a pretty Heartilly face could dish out, a shove from Rinoa, and her storming away from the balcony back into the party. Squall looked like someone caught with their shorts down.

What? he shouted in his head. Was it something I said?

Quistis having heard the nauseating exchange, quickly handed the photograph to Zell, told him about his coming ambassadorship, relayed Cidís message to Squall with a glare, and ran off to comfort Rinoa.

What did I do? he asked after seeing Quistisí look.

Zell, apparently very excited about his new mission, raised his fist triumphantly in the air, forgetting all about the embarrassing situation they were in. His cheering and victory dance was compounded with some in-place shadow-boxing. Still holding the picture as he wiggled through a tight four-punch combination, it was perfectly visible after his uppercut. Exactly what the picture meant took awhile to register. Squall didnít notice Zellís abrupt break in his sting of war hoots and jabs.

"W-Where did Mina say she was going?" Zell asked shakily.

Who? Squall asked silently, barely listening to him. The only Mina in my recollection is that exotic dancer from the club in Esthar.

Zell saw his clueless face.

"The assistant librarian? You know, my girlfriend?" Zell repeated, more frantically this time.

I thought your girlfriend was that blonde chick in Balamb? Did you find yourself a SeeD, Zell? Squall wondered, lifting his eyebrows and for a rare instant, betraying his apathetic mold.

"S-she went home to pack, didn't she?" Zell reasoned aloud, voice wavering.

How should I know? Squall thought immediately, realizing that he had to verbalize it just as he was about to look away.

"How should I know?" Squall grumbled, disturbed more by Rinoaís reaction to what he said than how Zell had barged in. He would not notice Zell as he scrambled off to catch his girlfriend.

Left alone, Squall rested his elbows on the balcony railing. Closing his eyes, he tried to let his mind go blank, and his spirit free from any anxiety. He was bombarded by confusion, disgust, and resentment.

Why is this happening to me? Why isnít Irvine or Zell out here with a migraine?

"Who could understand Rinoa anyway?" he asked aloud accidentally.

He considered the facts. She isnít even a SeeD. Why is she making me so nervous sometimes and upset at other times? Tonight definitely qualifies as one of those confounding second type of times.

It just didnít make sense to him what exactly Rinoa wanted from him. Does she actually expect me to say and do everything she wants? Does she want my soul? Doesnít she like me because she understands me? And if she does understand me, why does she want me to change? Why doesnít she just excuse me for who I am?

It annoyed him to feel like he needed an excuse to be himself. Squall went on to question whether it was possible to give his soul out so simply. It just doesnít seem worth it. I can save her from fire and ice, but how much more am I expected to sacrifice? And why does she need me to show her all these sacrifices? Itís irrational. Rinoa is irrational.

Squall considered Rinoaís bright, happy-go-lucky personality, and finally made the connection between her person and her unreasonable demands. It was just because she was that capricious. True, she is a pleasure to be around sometimes, but if she is going to turn into a Wendigo every few minutes and make everyone uncomfortable, then she isnít worth it. Besides, she just given up on me.

If this is what you end up raising with the best environment that Gil can buy and the most orderly tutelage an army can provide, a spoiled, fickle brat who hands out headaches to everyone in her path, then I want nothing to do with it, he concluded decisively.

Just to bolster his reasoning, he added, Itís not like SHE jumped into space to save ME.

Squall looked at the moon for a bit longer before reaching in his pocket and pulling out a rolled baby Malboro tentacle from his cigarette case.

"Ifrit," he whispered.

The fiery, horned, dark-skinned Guardian Force appeared beside his master before Squall could finish pronouncing his name.

"Master?" he growled hungrily.

Squall held out the Malboro tentacle roll nonchalantly. Ifrit brushed the end of the roll with his paw and watched it spark to life at the touch of his flinty skin.

"Do you want my opinion?" the monstrous GF offered.

Youíre still here? No, of course I donít want your opinion. If I wanted your opinion, donít you think I would have asked for it, you dumb ox?

"No," Squall answered without taking his eyes off the moon.

"I didnít mean about the girl," Ifrit corrected. "I meant about the cigarette. Itís not good for you."

I know what you meant.

Had Squall cared enough, he would have shot back a look smacking of "I donít care."

Iíll pretend I didnít hear you. Maybe youíll go away. Hopefully this time youíll take that sulfur stench away with you.

After a moment, when Ifrit was still there, he said, "You can go now," waving the GF off.

Ifrit bowed and petered out in a wisp of smoke as fast as he had come, leaving Squall to himself, staring at the myriad of tiny waves, tugging against each other to see who could steal a ray from the moon and shimmer for just that one second.

I donít want to think about anything now. Just rest here and pretend that none of this ever happened. I wish it didnít. Iíd still be fencing in the courtyard everyday, I wouldnít know some irresponsible, indecisive loser who doesnít want me to be his son, I wouldnít have raised everyoneís expectations of my actions, and I wouldnít have to feel inadequate every freaking five minutes around Rinoa.

From behind him, Selphieís upbeat voice broke the silence. Squall turned his gaze from the giant kaleidoscope below them to the yellow sprite that had thrown herself onto him. He threw her off and asked her what was wrong with her.

Selphie was too hyped up to mind. She just heard the news that she was the head of the construction crews in Trabia. After adjusting how Irvineís hat sat on her head, she slapped Squall on the back for his promotion to Headmaster and before he could turn and frown, slapped his arm and asked him what he did to Rinoa. He shot her an annoyed but surprised look.

"I didnít do anything," he defended himself.

Selphie gave the ever omniscient smile.

"Oh," she cooed, "is THAT the problem?"

Squall scowled and told her that she didnít know what she was talking about.

"Squallís so cute when heís growing up," she continued to tease before he decided it would waste less energy by quitting the view and leaving the balcony to her.

"Oh, commander," she added, knowing that the title would make him stiffen, "the President of Esthar left a message for you earlier today."

Doing her best imitation of a sonorous male voice Selphie grunted, "Squall, son, you might want to check it out."

While making his exit, Squall did stiffen at the title, but the hair on his neck bristled at the mention of his father.

As seductively as possible, she called after him, "Rinoaís so cute when sheís asleep, Squall, but you wouldnít know that, would you?"

"No," he yelled back flatly, "I wouldnít!"

.

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