Setting 07: 1417 DAY 15, Nova Trabia Garden Basketball Courts

"I am become a name;

for always roaming with a hungry heart

much have I seen and known,- cities of men

and drunk delight of battle with my peers."

-Tennyson, Alfred, Lord

Ulysses 11

 

"Rinoa! Yo! Whatís up!"

That cry surprised Quistis as she was walking across the basketball courts. She considered not stopping, but turned to see who was calling for Rinoa anyway. It's not like they're calling for me, so why am I stopping? she asked herself. But I could have sworn Rinoa told me that she was going to stay in Balamb for two weeks to let things settle in Trabia before coming.

A few sweaty underclassmen ran up to where she stood, looking her over in a manner anything but subtle.

"Hey, Rinoa," they said amiably, "wanna play a game with us?"

They must be talking past me. Better check.

Quistis looked behind her to make sure Rinoa wasnít standing right there, and then realized that she was being eyed by at least ten hormone-charged young men. Looking around, she saw at least three other games had stopped to gawk at her. She wasnít sure whether to be flattered or offended.

I think you have the wrong person.

She heard some shoving, a few "oohs," "ahhs" and whispering. Someone passed a word of caution, "Watch it fellas. Thatís Squallís girlfriend. You'd better be careful." The guys dismissed it casually.

Quistis liked the sound of that and repeated it to herself.

Thatís Squallís girlfriend. You'd better be careful.

"Hey, Rinoa," a guy off to the right chimed in, "when did you dye your hair blonde? I thought it was black."

He called me Rinoa.

"Yeah," another player added, "but it still looks great."

That guy called me Rinoa.

"Yo, Rinoa," another one called, "Squallís not here right now. Do you want me to show you the ropes?"

Quistis was coloring, and she knew it. She wanted to make a grab at her whip and teach a few of them to watch their mouth, but she knew better. Have to control myself. You used to be an instructor. It doesnít look good on your report to have slaughtered a team of Garden basketball players.

"Hey, I think we have her flustered," shouted someone standing in front of the growing crowd. "See? Sheís shaking all over."

Maybe switching down to a size 2 today wasnít the best idea ever.

There were hoots and some jeers followed by a torrent of pick-up lines. It was then that Quistis realized how just how precarious it was to leave her curvaceous little frame sitting in a sea of testosterone. But a part of her kind of envied Rinoa as she moved away. Or so she thought. She heard some disappointed groans behind her, but it was soon drowned out by the jostling of feet. It was painfully loud since nearly all of the games had been halted just to ogle at her.

Quistis turned around again and saw that the distance between the front line and her had closed, despite the steps she had taken in retreat. Looks like thereís no way out of this one except the hard way.

There were some pretty lusty offers being openly thrown out now, as well as some dirty talking. She wasnít sure what the best way to handle the situation was. Unlike at Balamb Garden, where all her devoted "Trepies" would only talk about her behind her back and dream about her when she wasnít looking at them, there was no such docile fan club here. They also didnít realize here at Trabia Garden Quistis outranked them even if she didnít have her instructor status anymore, and that she could have ended their miserable lives if she felt the need to do it. But as it was, no one was there to hold them back, and she had to re-evaluate being jealous of Rinoa before taking off in a mad dash to the far side of the court where there was at least one other game still going on.

Abruptly she stopped, realizing that she had made the wrong choice and now faced a corridor that led to the menís locker room. Dammit! Diablos take you, girl! Cornered!

There seemed to be no alternative so she reached for her whip as they closed in. In another second their hands would be all over her. She grimaced.

"Rinoa! There you are!" some masculine voice shouted from the back.

For some reason, everyone stopped and took a step back as criminals do when theyíre caught red-handed. Quistis stood on the tips of her toes, but she couldnít see who had addressed "Rinoa." The voice didnít sound like Zell or Irvineís. It had to be Squallís.

There was a lot of pushing and complaining as the owner of the voice made his way to the front. Suddenly a group of students in the center of the multitude fell cried out in pain and fell to their feet. There was definitely a scuffle going on, and the ring of students that fell grew larger. Obviously the stranger had decided that it was quicker to fight his way to the front than to weave through the swarm of men. Quistis wondered if her rescuer was Squall, and if he was, where did he learn hand-to-hand combat like that?

Suddenly her protector took flight. He wasnít retreating; rather he had used the back of one of the fallen students as a stepping-stone and was now running on top of the shoulders of everyone in front of him at an alarming speed. Quistis, as well as all the onlookers, could hardly keep up with him as if their eyes could only see where he had been during his last step. His person was a blur, stepping here and there while kicking every other head he passed, finally making a daring leap off the nose of one unfortunate soul whose face would forever bear his heavy print.

Quistis did not realize how large the crowd had been until she saw the distance between where the man jumped and where he landed, three feet from her. Immediately the crowd made room for their new guest. Two meters seemed a safe distance from his flurry of kicks.

Holy Shiva, Quistis marveled, he hasnít even broken into a sweat.

The stranger dusted himself off. Seeing Quistis, he brightened and ran over to her, beating back any of the extended hands that had frozen in place when he initially called out from the very back.

Quistis had never seen this gentleman before, almost taking him for Squall judging by his voice and hair. She hadnít been able to get a good view of his face while he was blur, but now she could see that while his eyes effected the same profoundly grave look, his mouth was shaped just a tad bit differently from Squallís. Who is this guy? she thought.

He pushed her behind him and shouted back at the horde, "Get the Ifrit away from my girl, you underclassmen punks!"

His voice and demeanor were equally frightening, shown by the unanimous decision of the crowd to back up another meter. Either his earlier performance in the crowd had convinced them that Quistis was not worth the fight or every one of them understood that the ominous glimmer in his eyes meant that he was looking forward to kill someone.

Oh, to Diablos with it, Quistis thought. She didnít have a choice anyway, so she grabbed on to the taller manís arm just to authenticate their mock-relationship. He tensed up when she did it, making her wonder if she should let go, but the crowd seemed to buy what he said, so she didnít. If he didnít look so much like Squall, this probably wouldnít have worked since thereís bound to be some people who have seen him. At least his color scheme matches, even though Iíve never seen Squall don a cloak.

There were murmurs coming from various members of the mass. Half of the voices indicated that they believed him to be Squall. Another part thought it would be in their best interests to make a run for it. Everyone left over wanted to stay and see how this affair would end. The wrapped one arm around Quistis for effect, he kept his sharp eyes on each and every movement.

This feels so warm.

Upon realizing that she was actually starting to enjoy this, Quistis kicked herself mentally.

"Iím Squall Leonhart, and I have a decision to make," the stranger declared evenly. "As the commanding officer of SeeD, I can treat this incident as some pretty serious gang harassment, bring it to the attention of the Disciplinary Committee, and report every face that Iíve seen today to have you expelled from all the Gardens..."

During his deliberately extended pause, most of those students who were in clear view either covered their faces or turned around, but no one was ready to leave the spectacle just yet. Quistis herself, by nature a modest girl, was starting to wonder whether she was that desirable.

"...or," the man continued, giving Quistis a quick pat on the head that would have effected a quick death blow had this been a normal situation, "as an angry boyfriend, I can use this as the perfect excuse to wipe these basketball courts with your faces."

The last line came out in a menacing growl, which dislodged a few of the front-runners from their places, to the surprise of Quistis. The majority of the students were still unconvinced though. Someone out of view mentioned that Rinoa wasnít even a SeeD.

"And neither will any of you be if I have anything to do with your recruitment, which I do," the man barked back.

Quistis was too impressed to close her eyes and fall asleep on his arm. She was starting to feel like a little girl again, shaking off her respectable shell of maturity that had encased her since her promotion to SeeD instructor.

"The way I see it," the stranger continued, "your best chance is to disappear as quickly as possible because Iím only going to give you until the count of five before you get to help me mop the court and paint the boards red."

It was as fearsome a threat as it was effectual. As the first count sounded, panic seized the students and they dispersed, the entire body making a quick 180 with the back trampling over the front in their race to get as far away from their Squall as they could in five seconds.

For some reason, her bodyguard skipped the next three numbers, went directly to "5," and eluded her grasp. In an instant he was on the other side of the quad, nabbing three of the slower students, and ramming anotherís face into a stucco column, splattering it with a new coat of scarlet. He heaved his three remaining screaming captives over the quadís wall into a student seminar and, in three bounds, made his way back across the courts to where some of the more daring players had returned to harass Quistis, assuming her protector had left. They assumed wrong.

That's not humanly possible! she thought furiously as he punched each of them multiple times before they could react and slammed all but one aggressor into the same lamppost, resulting in its bending 30 degrees.

Quistis was more alarmed than impressed at this point. He had saved her, but she couldn't excuse him for the body count. It didn't take a genius to figure out that this last underclassman had no chance of running away faster than the hurricane could catch him.

I guess it's up to me to stop him then. Do I really have to? Yes, girl, you're a senior officer and you have to set an example. Do something before there is nothing left to save!

"Squall!" she shouted, throwing her arms around him so he couldn't move. It caught his attention and as he spun around, still in her grasp, he nearly dug his fist into the curve of her neck. It took every ounce of strength in him to stop the blow after he'd thrown it on instinct. Quistis could feel him tensing up and sighed at how lucky she was, nearly fainting right there.

The last student had fallen down in fright, but being too shaken to crawl away, he just lied there and whimpered.

This was the closest thing to a voluntary hug that Quistis had ever given, and she figured while she was at it she might as well rest her face on his chest, signaling to the junior to pick his feet up and split.

Run, stupid! I'll hold him off.

Her last thought was laughable, and she giggled at it, snuggling deeper into her six-foot teddy bear.

Yes, in order to save the future of SeeD, I will sacrifice myself to this demonÖically handsome freak of nature. Maybe running into that crowd of men dying to get their hands on me was the smartest thing Iíve done this week.

She locked her arms around his shoulders so he couldnít budge. Without looking up, she asked shyly, "Well arenít you going to tell me who you are?"

"Nice grip," he commented.

Thatís a pretty weird name, she said to herself.

"That was a compliment," he added after a few heartbeats had gone by..

"Oh," she gasped, blushing at her silly oversight.

"There he is!" someone unexpectedly called in their direction from the main corridor.

Both Quistis and her pillow tensed up simultaneously. If she had fooled herself into believing even to the slightest extent that "soft and cuddly" aptly described any part of his figure, she was proven dead wrong. At a secondís alarm, rippling muscles filled every inch of the baggy but still fashionable costume that she wouldnít have known existed had she not been partially inside his cloak for the past minute.

The hall filled with similar shouts and many portentous footsteps. Quistis eyes widened when she saw every single member of the disciplinary committee running towards them, followed by seven, she counted again, seven sentinel regiments, the entire band armed to the teeth with weapons ready to fire. Even the stranger had wavered. This was one fight in which he felt no urge to make an appearance.

Maybe theyíre here to collect these dooshbags that tried to grope me, Quistis thought optimistically.

"Stop, thief!" one of the security guards in the lead shouted, lowering his gun to about eye level and pointing it straight at herÖor rather the man who had just saved her from a very sticky situation. His reinforcements cocked their guns and aimed them right at her rescuerís forehead.

Okay, maybe not. He must be one hell of a thief to incur the attention to the entire Garden Disciplinary Committee and half the schoolís enforcement resources!

"This is your only warning," the leader informed him mechanically. "We will shoot if you move."

"Sergeant Jay," he called to his subordinate, "apprehend that man."

Quistis was not prepared to handle this dramatic reversal. Her protective instincts urged her hold him in fear of what might happen if she strayed too far to shield him while her danger sense pressed her to push the criminal as far away from her as possible. Both her mind and body reacted on reflex to the situation without her making clear which to follow, so she ended up awkwardly pulling him closer to her with her left hand and shoving him aside with her right hand.

To her surprise, he whispered to her, "Donít worry. I never walk away from a fight."

She was about to shout at him, "Forget the maxim and get moving!" when he slipped through her hold and zoomed across to the far side of the court in the same phantasmal manner as he had done earlier, leaving Quistis with a frown on her face.

Very funny, coward. Chivalry being dead, Iíll try not to feel miffed, she told herself dryly. Oh, Shiva!

Sergeant Jay had a knack for reading peopleís body language. Today he had a feeling just by the glint in their burglarís eyes that he was going to make a run for it. So as soon as he saw the rabble-rousing ruffian bend down slightly and threaten the blonde in the red skirt, he pulled the trigger of his pistol. By the time he saw the man rocket away from the girl, moving her slightly, it was too late to stop the bullet. The girl realized too that the shell was now headed straight at her. All the armed security guards stiffened.

"Ah!" she screamed, feeling the impact whose force now knocked her off her feet.

There were some gasps, and when Quistisí vision cleared, she looked up dazedly, only to see the cloaked Squall-imposter standing above her, his hand weakly planted against the nearby wall for support. He turned back! Oh, heís hit!

The man was bleeding pretty badly. After he knocked her out of the way, the bullet landed between this shoulder blade and sternum. There was blood gushing out at intervals from the corner of his chest where the shot had pierced his black shirt, some parts of the desultory squirts landing on her outfit.

Seeing that the bullet ended up in the right person, all the guards snapped back to life, lifting their guns once again and pointed them at the wounded villain. It would definitely be easier to catch him now, having drawn so much blood with the critical hit. The manís legs wobbled as he struggled to straighten up.

The explosion of another shot ten times as loud as the misfire filled the courtyard and adjoining hallways. The few remaining students that hadnít high-tailed out of the area at the sight of the Garden militia jumped out of their skins. All eyes turned to the source of the eruption and found the smoking gun of a lone cowboy, tipping his hat at his newfound audience. Behind him in the clearing was Zell, somersaulting from a dribble and dunking the ball through an untended hoop.

"What the Ifrit are they doing?" Quistis questioned under her breath.

Irvine had seen the whole sequence of events and now faked an embarrassed smile, dropped his gun like he hadnít meant to touch it, and apologized to the Disciplinary Committee about his gun going off on accident. His free hand on the far side of his body was not visible to the company of security guards, but it was visible to Quistis and their burglar. Irvine hurriedly motioned for the brigand to get take off, and faster than he thought possible the man traversed seven meters to a eight-foot wall over which he scrambled and disappeared. The security guards could not react in time to get off any well-placed shots.

Only Sergeant Jay was far enough ahead of his group and close enough to Quistis that he saw Irvineís furtive wave to their perpetrator. Quistis could tell he was not happy that Irvine distracted the units and purposely let him escape.

Sergeant Jay marched up to Irvine, who by this time had gone to help Quistis up, hissing at him so that only they could hear, "I might not have any witnesses who can testify that you abetted our criminalís getaway, but had it not been for your meddling, he would have been ours. I think theyíd all agree."

With his last sentence he motioned towards all the guards behind them.

Irvine coolly looked his addresser in the eyes and rejoined, "I might not have any witnesses who can testify that you were purposely aiming for Quistisí head since no one else was remotely in that proximity but her by the time you fired, and had it not been for that man there, she would have been dead. I think theyíd all agree."

With his last sentence he motioned towards all the guards behind them. Irvine could see Sergeant Jayís jaw muscles tightening and his fingers closing into a fist.

"This is not over, trigger," he growled at last, putting his finger right in Irvineís face. Then he marched back to his division and apologized to his commanding officer for failing to capture their target. Eventually all the troops cleared out of the corridor, leaving Irvine and Quistis scowling at the fading sound of footsteps.

Irvine looked back at Quistis, gloating. He opened his arms and asked, "So what do I get-"

She had pulled him down and landed a wet one on his cheek. He was utterly stunned at how little persuasion that took. Nothing like the cold shoulder she gave me at the party.

"Geez, you move fast, Quistis," he said, laughing. "Guess that admirer of yours isnít the only one with fast moves."

He found himself lying flat on his back in the dust a second later.

"Thatís what you get for not coming to help me sooner," Quistis carped.

Irvine jumped up with an incredulous smile. I just saved your tight hiney back there!

He was in the middle of picking himself up when she kicked away the leg that he was putting all his weight on. He landed face down this time. Iíll never understand women.

"And that is for the smart remark," she added before leaving him and strutting towards Zell.

She only made it halfway before she felt a cool kiss on her ear. She nearly jumped, and turned her head quickly but her eyes did not pick up on anything. Irvine is still deciding if itís safe to get up, so who in the Ifrit touched me?

She felt the cool kiss again and realized that it was just Shiva, cozying up to her as always. The icy, voluptuous GF was in her stealth mode, her body acting as a transparent sheet and thus appeared invisible.

"What are you doing here?" Quistis whispered. She had to be careful to not speak in Shivaís direction, knowing well how her breath would become visible vapor in Shivaís chilled vicinity, a dead giveaway of the hidden GFís presence to Irvine.

"Princess, you called me, remember?" Shiva turned the question around, each one of her chilly words nipping Quistisí cheek. Quistisí face always seemed to be rosier after a touch of frost.

Quistis looked aside and recalled that she had mentally exclaimed, "Oh, Shiva!" just as Sergeant Jay unloaded his gun in her direction.

She hissed acerbically to Shiva but tenderly nevertheless, "You took your sweet time getting here."

"You called at a bad time. I was trying to take a bath," the other answered back softly, caressing Quistisí chin.

Shiva was now dancing around her, playing with her hair and massaging her shoulders. If it hadnít been so hot outside, Quistis would have told her to stop, but since it was, each cool stroke felt splendid.

"Just be careful not to step on the ground while youíre flying. In this heat, your bound to be melting a little and theyíll notice your curious little wet footprints," Quistis cautioned. It used to be hard to speak without moving her lips, but she had gotten used to chatting with Shiva day after day in this manner.

Shiva snuggled in for a chilly but sugary hug, whispering back, "Youíre always looking out for me, but Iím the one whoís supposed to be the Guardian Force, remember?"

"Yeah, good job protecting me today while I was standing in a crossfire," Quistis teased.

"I told you I was busy," Shiva murmured.

"Yeah, busy waiting for the bath-water to thaw," Quistis emended playfully.

She could imagine Shiva pouting with her trademark "Youíre no fun" face. For someone thousands of years old, Shiva still looked and acted like she was 17.

"Well, I didnít want to intrude," she explained innocently. "You looked like you had company."

"Yes, and thanks to him you still have someone to guard," Quistis rejoined with feigned bitterness.

"Iíll thank the dear in my own way the next time I see him, then," Shiva replied smoothly. "He did look kinda cute."

For some reason what the GF said ruffled Quistis a little.

"Youíd better get going. You might start steaming under the sun and it wonít look to discreet if I approach Zell while engulfed in a fog," Quistis said under her breath.

"Toodaloo, then, sweetcheeks!" laughed Shiva as she flitted back into nothingness. Somehow she managed to sneak in a quick kiss before her Mistress could do anything.

Quistis had now gotten closer to the court that Zell was occupying, and he looked up from his practice. Irvine was now just a few steps behind her, his legs still shaky from her putting him in the dirt. Zell set the ball down, waved to Quistis, and then looked around with a puzzled expression. I donít see Rinoa anywhere.

"Whereís Rinoa? I thought I heard someone call her a few minutes ago."

Quistis blushed and muttered, "No, just little, olí me. Someone thought I was Squallís girlfriend."

Zell reddened and then hit himself again. Oops, now look what you did, Zell. Stupid, so stupid of you, Zell. You knew it was a touchy subject, so why didnít you just shut up?

Quistis realized that they hadnít paid any attention to what was happening outside their own game and only Irvine had bothered to go over and check out what was so noisy in the fightís closing minutes.

"Didnít you see all that commotion back there? Why didnít go check it out?" she asked.

"Itís bad luck to leave in the middle of a game," Zell explained.

"Why did Irvine come over for a look then?" Quistis remarked.

Zell shrugged and stated the obvious, "He was losing."

"11-3 is hardly losing, mamaís boy," Irvine chimed in.

Zell raised his fists belligerently, growling, "Just remember that's in my favor."

"So what are you doing here anyway?" Irvine inquired, hastily changing the subject.

"What are you two doing here?" Quistis returned. She was totally unprepared to deal with them.

"He asked first," was Zellís childish reply, unexpectedly jumping in and helping Irvine. Irvine nodded and shot Zell a grateful look. He bent over to pick up the basketball before looking back over at Quistis, just to let her know that they were waiting for her answer.

"The number of robberies in the past week are skyrocketing. Iíve been trying to find Squall since noon to ask him what precautions should be taken and whether it was about time to assign a special task force to solve the problem. I looked in all his usual hiding places, and someone told me that he frequented the basketball courts, so here I am," she explained.

"Wasnít that your problem that we let jump over the wall?" Irvine asked, shooting a jumper.

Quistis blinked. She hadnít connected how good at stealing things the stranger was with his agility and how many complaints of robbery were coming into the Gardenís security department mailbox. After todayís odd sequence of events, she was even less sure how to handle the situation than at the start when she was trying to solicit Squallís advice.

"Ok, your turn to answer why you are here," Quistis said, moving on.

"Because we finished our SeeD Lv A-class mission, of course," Irvine shot back with an overly proud and cheesy grin. Had to answer her somehow. This was better than nothing.

Just to draw everyone's attention from his weak answer, he launched the ball towards the hoop.

Zell started sweating. Please donít ask us why we didnít report back to Balamb Garden. Please donít ask us why we didnít report back to Balamb Garden. Please donítÖ

"Why didnít you report back to Balamb Garden?" Quistis asked, skeptically raising an eyebrow.

"Trabia was a lot closer than Balamb Garden," Zell said hastily. "I mean, weíve been practically ten minutes away from here for the past few days."

Plus we wouldnít have to answer to Headmaster Cid directly if we were at another Garden, Zell added silently, pretending to watch Irvine as he made another shot attempt.

"Why didnít you guys rest and eat here then? Thereís plenty of room," Quistis asked.

Like we didnít think of that all that time we were stranded out there, Irvine reflected bitterly.

"We had, uh, plenty of ration bars on the ship," Zell made up after an extended period of silence during which he pretended to be looking at something in the distance.

"Yeah, lots of ration bars," Irvine agreed too quickly to be taken seriously with overly enthusiastic nodding. He coughed as a distraction and tried an underhanded toss.

"Like rooms full of ration bars," Zell repeated, just to make sure she didnít miss it.

"Youíre not in trouble, kids," Quistis said quickly. "Headmaster Cid said you completed your mission just as he expected."

Irvine misfired when he heard that, and exchanged puzzled looks with Zell.

"The Shumi signed the contract agreeing to fund this Garden to its completion," Quistis explained. "Apparently, just as Cid figured, you two left them thinking how weak-minded and exploitable the new Garden trainees would be once it was built, giving them every reason to make the rest of the payments. He also got you two out of the way for two weeks so you wouldnít screw up anything too serious to fix during the initial foundation construction."

"Never had a doubt that we couldnít handle it," Zell beamed. Thank Eden! I was so scared. Hey, wait, Iíve been used. They used me, how dare they! Wow, Iíve been used, thatís so awesome!

"Yeah," Irvine added with a big smile as he threw the ball up again, "we eat double missions for breakfast."

Breakfast is my least favorite meal. We lucked out big time. Hey, wait, Iíve been used. They used me, how dare they! Wow, Iíve been used, thatís so awesome!

He and Zell gave each other high-fives and broke out into a big celebration, praising each other for all the good things that they did and did not do alike. At the same time they inched towards the archway leading to the exit.

"Back to your second objective," Quistis cut in before they had a chance to sneak away, "did it really take you two weeks to check out the weather?" The two men froze but instantly recovered and tried to mask the guilt written on their faces with innocent smiles.

Donít think I didnít notice how you two dodged my original question. I still remember, Quistis thought coolly. She put her hands on her hips and waited for a real answer.

Just play dumb, Zell proposed silently.

We should play dumb, Irvine agreed mentally, trying his luck with the rim again.

Donít play dumb, Quistis communicated with her glare alone.

"It wasnít our fault that we just got a list of geographical locations and no directions as to how to get to those places," Zell and Irvine whined in harmony.

Quistis crossed her arms. They obviously practiced that for at least three hours.

"I donít buy it. The place names are unique, there is no other Mandy Beach, regardless to what landmark you are using as reference," Quistis scoffed. "Try again."

Irvine and Zell put their heads together to brainstorm some other possible excuses when Quistis spoke up, "And the truth this time. Iíve already lost a GF today, was nearly gang-raped by an entire courtyard of boys, been held at gun point and shot at, so I really donít need you two lying to me."

The faces of both men grew interested so immediately and concurrently that Quistis could tell it was deliberate. Irvine even set the ball down, either because it would have proved distracting to their conversation or he felt it better to stop embarrassing himself.

"Gosh," he exclaimed, simulating a flabbergasted expression, "how did you manage to lose a GF?"

"Youíre not getting off that easy," she said, just so theyíd know, "but I suppose if youíre interested..."

Her two-man audience played the roles of sympathetic, appreciative, and engrossed listeners too perfectly to be convincing.

"I lost Alexander this morning," Quistis said, sighing.

"The GF that looks like a castle?" Zell asked.

Quistis nodded, her hands closing over each other in anxiety.

"What do you mean you lost him?í Irvine questioned. "What did the castle do? Get up and walk away without anyone noticing?"

"Drop the sarcasm, Irvine," Quistis told him. "He didnít just walk away. He asked me first."

"So you managed to lose a very polite castle," Irvine summed up what she was saying, putting on a serious face and trying to understand.

Zell would have liked to see if Quistis could grammatically link all the profane expressions, but he felt it necessary to interrupt Quistis while she was unloading more rounds of blasphemy on Irvine than he had Pulse Ammo in his gun.

"Didnít you try to stop him?" Zell asked her, not looking at Irvine truly grateful face.

"What was I to do? Stand in front of him and hold up my arms while he mowed me down?"

Zell furtively punched Irvine before Quistis could turn and see him signaling that the idea had merit.

"No, I meant with your words," Zell explicated. "Iíve never seen you get outtalked by anyone."

Quistis beamed at the honest compliment.

"I did try, but he had made up his mind already," she elucidated.

"Why was Alexander so eager to go?" Zell tried next.

"Not to mention," Irvine jumped into the conversation, "where could he have gone?"

"He seemed to think that it was now or never, so he just got up and moved out into the ocean," Quistis recalled with a frown.

"Oh," Irvine acknowledged, nodding with comprehension, "so he didnít just wander off and disappear." I wonder how long it will take to dry and scratch off all the algae that heíll have picked up by the time he resurfaces.

"No," Quistis reassured, "he asked me to give him a sabbatical."

"I didnít know SeeDs were in the business of giving their GFs vacation time whenever they ask for," Irvine marveled. No wonder you got fired from being the SeeD instructor.

"This is after he threatened to quit my employment," Quistis added.

"So it gets better," Irvine grunted, obviously pleased.

"What else did he do?" Zell asked, ignoring his partnerís air headedness.

"He wanted to go on strike," Quistis replied.

"What kept him from carrying out either action?" Zell inquired.

"I told him that the SeeD manual only allows for the Master to rescind employment, not the GF, and that the Supreme Court had outlawed GF strikes," Quistis replied.

"So he just got up and left?" Zell repeated.

"As if Alexander was going to use the ĎSit Downí as a strike tactic," Irvine cracked.

"Thatís unconstitutional, by the way," Zell whispered to him before continuing, "Did he say what the purpose of his journey was?"

"It was all unintelligible," Quistis replied. "I had a hard time understanding him, but I think it has to do with some book."

Zell and Irvine raised eyebrows concomitantly.

"What book?" they asked in harmony.

Quistis scowled and tapped her forehead, trying to put piece everything back together. She sighed at length and shrugged, making her best guess:

"I think he said it was titled ĎAlexandriaí and that it had a face on the cover."

"It must be one special book," Irvine commented. "Is he in the habit of collecting books?"

"Have you ever seen his library?" Quistis answered with her own question.

Irvine was apparently too good for libraries, so he teased, "Iím not the one who frequents libraries to pick up the librarians. That honorably practice belongs to our mutual friend Zell."

Zell colored, crying indignantly, "Hey! Mina was a model before she started working in Balamb Garden."

"Some model she must have been if our library can afford to pay her more than she was making," Irvine criticized.

Quistis saw that the men would soon come to blows if she did not step in, so she intervened by describing the library.

"Iíve been inside Alexander a few times and the library is pretty queer," she began. "It doesnít operate like a normal library, rather a private collection. No one is allowed to borrow any books and taking them from the room is prohibited. He kept referring to ĎAlexandria,í so I suspect it is the reason behind that rule."

"And you think this book drove him to leave," Zell finished for her, grudgingly putting aside how Irvine had impugned his girlfriendís capacity.

"It had to have been. Thatís all he was mumble about," Quistis replied with another shrug.

Irvine rubbed his chin, wondering what a castle could mumble about a book.

Quistis read him perfectly, and reacted saying, "He went on about a blue rodent that lived inside his book between the pages 165 and 200. No one was to flip through it under any circumstance because it was dangerous."

"What can I say?" Irvine admitted smugly as he did some stretches. "Reading is deadly and should be avoided at all costs. I rest my case."

Zell scowled and said to Quistis, "Youíre right, it is kind of random. Do you recall anything else he might have said? Any words that caught your attention? Place names, maybe?"

"Galbadia I heard twice definitely. Something about waterfalls. Thatís it," she replied.

"Why didnít he think it could wait?" Zell probed.

"Did you see this coming, or has he never exercised such impulsive behavior before?"

Quistis thought it over before answering, "He was always the quiet type. You know, he never talked much."

Irvine called upon a dreadfully contemplative look. Ah, yes, the quiet castle, I know the type well.

He was lucky that Quistis was too busy trying to recall something about her GF to look at him, otherwise he would have ended up on the ground again. Her face suddenly lit up.

"I remember now!" she cried, beaming. "The moment we reached the Deep Sea Research Center, heís been volatile."

"Thatís a weird reason to be disruptive," Irvine remarked.

Zell agreed before asking Quistis if there were other points in time when Alexander demonstrated a plethora of atypical behavior. It was a tough question, so Quistis took some time before answering it.

"I believe," she said tentatively, "he became more withdrawn as time went by, and even after we left the Research Center I could sense some hostility in him."

"You should have fed him at the right times, walked and played with him more," Irvine chastised, shaking his finger at her.

It would be major euphemism to say that Quistis was less than pleased. The truth of it was that she was a hair shy of spitting fire.

Irvine eyes were nowhere near as dumb as his mouth, and he suppressed his gasp to look dejectedly at his shoes. I could have sworn at a distance she looked better than a Red Dragon!

"No," Zell interrupted, "letís think this through. Obviously what happened there started to worry him and whatever the rodent in the book told him unnerved him enough to pack his bags and hit road, so to speak. What is his relation with the Deep Sea Research Center?"

Irvine rolled his eyes and said, "You arenít taking this rodent episode seriously, are you?"

Quistis shushed him, sensing that Zell was almost on to something.

"There had to be a cause for his urgency," Zell reasoned aloud. "Did he mention any names besides ĎAlexandriaí?"

Quistis licked her lips and pondered for a bit.

"He was talking rather quickly, but I think he may have mentioned Bahamut and Eden," she pronounced slowly.

"So he went into the ocean to do what?" Zell continued, still trying to figure out the connection between Alexander, Bahamut, and Eden.

"To find whatever the book told him to find, I guess," Quistis responded.

Zell looked skeptical.

"Impossible," he said. "There is no way he could have excused himself and left the purpose of his trip so ambiguous. If there is an urgency, there has to be a cause. If he is responding, then he must think he can still do something to placate the emergency."

Quistisí face froze and she slowly lifted her head.

"íTo keep Bahamut from my township and die for Edení," she recalled.

"Did he say that?" Zell asked. "What township then?"

Quistis shrugged, saying, "Beats me."

"So do you think he was looking for a township then?"

"Looking for one to claim as his own," Quistis suggested.

"That will be hard, considering there arenít that many unclaimed towns lying around," Irvine pointed out sarcastically.

"Thank you, great Irvine, master of the obvious," Zell boomed with every intent to cow him.

"Maybe he didnít mean all the nouns literally," Quistis suggested. "Could ĎBahamut,í Ďtownship,í and ĎEdení be symbolic?"

"As in battle evil for world peace?" Zell asked doubtfully.

"Thatís not naive," Irvine scoffed, tipping his hat.

"So just to make sure I have this right," Zell said, "the rodent told him to do protect the township?"

"I got the impression that the rodent tipped him off, but that the actual order came from someone else," Quistis replied.

Zell looked at her curiously. How in the world did you infer that?

Quistis explained quickly, "I think Alexander was confused at the time, but he seemed to think that I had told him to leave."

Irvine smirked at Quistisí words. Iíd say he was pretty confused then.

"I donít follow," Zell admitted.

"He just repeated over and over that I had told him to leave, which of course is absurd," Quistis clarified.

"To leave, but not to save the town and all that jazz," Irvine observed.

Zell nodded, seeing where Irvine was going with the issue.

"Yes, so maybe heís leaving because some other Quistis dismissed him and heís trying to indulge

"That other Quistis must have been pretty dumb," Irvine commented lightly.

"I concur with your opinion about the weak-minded other Quistis," Zell followed up, nodding.

Quistis had meanwhile turned bright red.

"Stop talking about me like Iím not here to hear you!" she shouted, taking a few unconscious steps towards them.

"Sorry," Zell apologized, suppressing his laugh while he and Irvine both took a few unconscious steps back, "but the idea that you told him to go save the world is even more ludicrous than him running off to save the world by himself."

"If ĎBahamutí and ĎEdení arenít symbolic terms, why would he mention them?" Quistis countered.

"Theyíre his fellows," Irvine noted, "so why shouldnít he mention their names?"

"Actually," Quistis corrected, "Alexander secretly hated the two GFs with passion."

This was news to Zell, and it would have been to Irvine had he not been preoccupied with catching a midget Bite Bug whose presence had somehow offended him. Zell leaned in, saying, "Come again?"

"He never spoke to Bahamut," Quistis informed him, "and every time he passed by Eden, heíd stiffen."

Irvine scratched his ear and asked how she could tell when a castle stiffened.

"I think we can discount the symbolism theory," Zell spoke up, directing her attention away from Irvine.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because there is a more probable and viable connection between Bahamut and Eden than what they could mean symbolically if you stretched them," Zell assured.

"Such as?"

"We acquired both of them in the Deep Sea Research Center," Zell stated simply.

Irvine nodded and reminded Quistis, "Yeah, it took three Red Dragons to get to Bahamut on the first floor, and we had to draw Eden from Ultima Weapon in the basement."

"Holy Shiva, youíre right!" Quistis exclaimed. "But what do they have to do with Alexander?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, but all thatís important is that he will eventually come back after he finds it, right?" Zell replied, popping his knuckles.

"Iím not sure if heíll ever return," Quistis responded, "because he mentioned settling somewhere above three parallel waterfalls."

"Sounds more like a place of fantasy than reality," Irvine remarked.

"Did he get this idea from the book, too?" Zell asked.

Quistis nodded, her body language expressing clearly, "What can you do?"

"Thereís one thing you can be sure of, though," Irvine guaranteed.

Both Zell and Quistis turned to look at him.

"Heís convinced that his time is almost up, and that your time together is definitely up. Obviously it wasnít a vacation that he requested; it was a resignation," Irvine concluded.

He hit it right on the mark. For a long time, no one spoke but dead silence.

"Well," Irvine comforted, "if it makes you feel any better, you only lost GF, but Alexander lost his sanity."

"Fine," Quistis wrapped up abruptly, "Iíve said my part. Stop dodging my original question and tell me why it took you two that long to get back."

Seeing how they had no more options, Irvine pointed at Zell at the same time Zell pointed at Irvine. Quistis held up her hands and started walking away, regretting ever asking. Irvine picked the basketball up for another shot. Quistis assumed it was because he would not be satisfied until he lost all face.

"Nutrient bar boy here dropped the keys in the field and it took us two days to find them," he answered hastily.

"Save it; I donít want to hear it," Quistis said, rolling her eyes as she moved out of hearing range.

Squall, where are you? she wondered, but still glad to be back on track. It didnít take long for her mind to wander astray though, and soon, without realizing it, her thoughts turned to wondering who her tall, cloaked rescuer really was.

Irvine took one eye off the spot on the backboard for which he was aiming to watch Quistis disappear around the corner of some building. He shouted over to Zell, "Hey, we can keep playing now. What was the score, 6-7 my lead?" he asked.

"You wish. You stink at this game. Donít think that during her gabbing, I didnít notice the ten practice shots you took from that same spot where you're standing now all rattled out," Zell quipped.

"It was actually only eight shots if you kept count, but okay, 8-5 your lead, then," Irvine tried.

"Itís not negotiable, Irvine," Zell said with finality.

Irvine lifted his nose and projected his "Who needs you" vibes. Then he smiled sneakily as he called for his GFs. Tonberry King and Jumbo Cactuar appeared out of thin air and fell a few feet onto the court, adorning the originally flat surface with four ugly indentations.

"Hey," Zell protested, "thatís cheating!"

Irvine stuck his tongue out.

"No one is saying that you canít pull out your own GFs, crybaby," he teased.

"You know I donít have any GFs junctioned right now!" Zell shouted.

Irvine shrugged. Your loss.

"Youíre going to get into some big trouble," Zell cautioned.

"Who would be bored enough to hang up some "No GFs on the court" signs around here?" Irvine reasoned out loud. "No one. So itís not against the court rules."

Zell looked anything but convinced.

"Besides," Irvine added with a casual shrug, "Quistis isnít here."

"Thatíll work," Zell conceded readily, eyes flashing, "but let's make it a quick game. I gotta go upstairs to the computer room."

.

To Chapter Eight

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