DAY 5 – FRIDAY
"...The most reprehensible behavior I've ever seen out of you for a long time. Out of any SeeD, even. Displaying absolutely no sense of tact, discretion, prudence, insight. Instead showing completely unprofessional behavior, unbecoming of a young SeeD such as yourself. Unthinking of the feelings of others, crass, rude, not to mention risking the respect of your peers, while destroying that of Selphie's."
Cid paced furious back and forth and around his desk, occasionally using the wooden obstacle to slam his hands down or bend over it, gripping it like eagle talons.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" he exclaimed with no pausing breath.
Squall remained stoic, straight like a rod, gazing ahead stiffly like a lion. "I... apologize for my actions, sir. The act was done without thought or provocation. There is no excuse for it. It will not happen again." This was a military school and he was going to act military.
Cid looked at Squall's face, tilting back and forth like he was examining it or waiting for something. Squall thought he might have been looking for remorse in his expression, some sign of emotion. Squall had none to give. Cid finally took a cathartic breath and sat down behind his desk. He pressed his fingertips together, rocked back, and brushed away some of the wavy brown bangs that had fallen in front of his eyes.
"Squall, do you know why I selected you as Garden Commander?"
Great, another rant. Squall chose to keep all the answers he was thinking of to himself and only responded with, "No, sir."
Cid grumbled at the formality of his response. "It was because you were ready for it."
And I've always resented you for that. I was only eighteen years old. That was way too much responsibility for me to handle. You have no idea how stressed out I was. You put me through hell and I didn't even know why.
Cid continued, "Garden was starting to become divided among itself. With NORG splitting our own students and faculty against each other, we needed a unifying force. Someone for the students to look up to, to bond with. And that same person would need strategic command decision-making skills. The attack by Galbadia Garden was just the catalyst. There had to be..."
Squall drifted off as Cid continued haranguing about his purpose in his position. He was no stranger to being disciplined, but the headmaster was the only person he answered to now. He had already heard it before, mostly from himself. His sense of duty as a commander, that's what prompted him to lose it in the first place. There was no part of his life not ruled by his duty to Garden. This chewing out was just part of that. A formality to tell him he'd done wrong. Meaningless.
Cid finished. There was a pause as Squall waited for the next response from his headmaster. Something was expected. Cid continued, "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I did it too soon, maybe I did it at too young an age." He shook his head solemnly.
If you're going to say something, just say it.
"Do you have anything further for your defense?" Cid said.
"No, sir." I know he wants me to say something more. Quit playing these mind games with me.
"Then you are dismissed... Commander."
Squall spun on his heel and exited.
Zell peeked in and found an empty classroom. Excellent. He quickly headed to one of the many empty desks and powered on the computer. It started up with a faint hum, which faded away. As soon as the initial program load completed he cracked his knuckles and accessed the Garden Network Boards. Navigating through menus he thought to himself how perfect this plan was. Zell was gonna get himself a date, even if he had to knock on every door in the city.
With the message board loaded, he headed over to the 'lovetastic forum', sponsored by the city of Balamb. Here he could find a match. The self-description indicated thousands of singles in his area had already met and thousands more were waiting. Zell certainly couldn't pass up an opportunity like that. Especially with a free membership awaiting him. He clicked on the prominent offer and was sent to a form to fill in.
He started by filling in the basics of his profile: name, age, height, eye color, hair color, all the boring stuff. Gender? 'Yes, please', he entered in the box with a smile. Then he put a finger to his lips and thought about it. Something about that seemed wrong, not as funny as when other people said it. He backspaced it out and typed 'male'. The selection for weight had a few options, ranging from 'slender' to 'large'. Zell thought for a second. He was pretty trim in the belly, but his arms were fully muscled. There was no option for 'buff', so he picked 'thick', figuring it was close enough.
Then there were a few more questions about education and employment. There was no selection for mercenary, nothing even close, so he checked off 'hospitality/travel'. There were also several checkboxes for living status. He thought about all the people in Garden and checked off 'alone', since he was in his own room, 'with kids' since there were underclassmen, 'with parents', since Matron was Cid's wife, and Cid lived here, 'with roommates', since his former roommates were still living here, 'family and friends visit often', since they did, and 'there is a party every night', since they were constantly graduating new SeeDs, plus other fun extracurricular activities.
The next section was a long list of political and religious choices. Since Zell didn't care much for either, he just skipped all that. Since he wanted a good selection, he chose to search for matches within 250 miles, with photos or not, in an age range of 17 to 39, and began clicking 'any' for eye color, hair color, weight, etc.
Finally, came the step he wanted - the descriptions and essay portion. Despite what he thought about the SeeD tests he had taken in the past, this was the part where he was going to really shine and get that date.
The first thing he wrote was, 'I am loking for date in 10 days to my friend's weddin.' He decided to get straight to the point right away. He thought for a second about his opening line and remembered one of the tips he'd read was to be as honest and specific as possible. He continued, 'who got pregnent by another friend and they are getting hitched quickly.' Now he needed a little something about himself personally. 'I'm into martial arts, metalorgy, and tatoos.' Zell thought and laughed a bit as he realized just how much those things don't go together. Oh, well. Just part of his eclectic personality, he guessed.
This needed something more though. All he had so far were two lines. Girls wanted a guy with substance. 'My friends think I'm a 'rich boy', but I think I've got a big heart, I like helping ppl. Im n outgoing guy, kind, honest, I luv the outdoors and fighting, and mountain skiing.' Zell added that last part as an afterthought. He had never mountain skied before, but he was sort of interested in it and someday he might. Besides, someone who liked mountain skiing would probably be his sort of girl. 'Im not really sur what kinda girl I like, so if u r interested, let me know what ur hobbys r. My job involves some travel, so DONT GET WORRIED IF I DON'T RESPOND TO U RIGHT AWAY' The extra caps would emphasize that well, so no one would run off and get another date too soon. Time was of the essence here. 'Please respond A.S.A.P. Maybe this'll turn into a wedding of our own. ;)' Good ending line. He finished it with '-Zell Dincht'. And hit the submit button.
Not too bad, he thought. Zell was all set to go to another page, but surprisingly, there was one more section before the ad would be set - uploading a photo. No problem. There had to be one in his personal directory. Most of them were of his friends doing stupid stuff, not of him. But there was one tiny one with him giving a thumbs up to the camera on his tattoo side. Yeah, that would be awesome. He selected that file and uploaded it. It was an awesome tattoo, no reason not to show it off. It would show the girlies what kind of fun loving guy he was. Plus it showed off his 'million-dollar' smile, as his ma said. Now the ad was complete. He hit the 'finish' button and the screen showed a confirmation message. All he would need to do now, with that awesome personal ad, was wait for the honeys to come in.
In the meantime, Zell decided to check what was going on at the Garden Center Message Boards, codenamed 'Garden Square'. The General topic always had some interesting threads to scour for the casual reader. Underclassmen liked to use the boards for 'what's your favorite...' and other jibber-jabber. Zell's friends rarely posted anymore, but the fun, 'say-anything' nature of the forum kept him coming back. Although these days it was less often than he liked. Man, when was the last time one of his friends posted? He scrolled down the list to see an unread thread started by Irvine's ID six months ago about gun-cleaning tips. The last responder was Quistis. Selphie had been on a mission then, and was going out with the gunslinger. Curious, since threads had a nasty, but interesting habit of derailing into off-topic personal conversations, he clicked on it and started reading at the latest message.
The obnoxious sounds of zipping backpacks and coats rustling that started even before class ended finally petered out as students filtered away. Two students remained at a desk, talking and possibly checking out the Garden message boards on their computer terminal. A few remaining Trepies stood around the door, conversing with themselves, and basking in the awe of their favorite teacher. Quistis paid them no mind. The more attention she gave the Trepies, the more they followed her around. All she could do was tolerate them, and besides, since she was reinstated as a teacher, she had more work on her hands than she could keep track of. This fifteen minute interval between classes was just what she needed to do a quick check on the grade progress.
Her slender fingers whittled along the keyboard to access her grading program. When it finished starting up she tabbed over to the classes she wanted to check. Peering through the obnoxious glare of the overhead fluorescent lights, she analyzed the numbers of the last assignment she gave. Everyone did about average on it, not too good, not too bad. She'd always believed that it was the fault of the teacher when the student failed, but since the events of a year ago, she started believing that she just couldn't save everyone. But there was no reason, if both parties put forth effort, that a student couldn't succeed. In fact, everyone in her classes was doing pretty well. Grades were starting to climb up out of the first term slump. Quistis attributed that to the fact she was putting her all into teaching this time. She was just so happy it was finally showing through.
When time compression was over, and things had settled down, Squall had reinstated her, making her not only a teacher again, but leader of the academics committee, overriding Cid's initial orders. Strangely, the headmaster made no arguments about it this time. Maybe her performance inspired his confidence again in her abilities. Maybe it inspired her own confidence. Maybe it was just the shortage of teachers for the incoming students.
She never really knew if teaching was her calling, given her lackluster results over the years. But if it wasn't teaching, she didn't know what else it was. When it was good, she loved teaching, and she loved being a SeeD. Both were part of who she was, both were her responsibility, and she signed up for both. So, she tried her hardest at being the best she could.
A white window suddenly appeared on her screen. A second later it faded in to a dual boxed message, from Rinoa. She forgot she was signed into the Garden instant message program, because no one ever messaged her during school hours. Gradually, her slow computer processed the information and displayed Rinoa's message on the screen.
"OMG, guess what," she said.
Quistis looked quizzically at the screen for a moment, wondering what could be so exciting for Rinoa to interrupt her at work, and waiting to see if she would type in any new information. When she didn't, Quistis asked her "What?"
"Selphie slept over at Irvine's last night."
"What?" she responded, genuinely stunned. She stared motionlessly at the screen. This came out of nowhere. Selphie and Irvine had spent the night? She had no idea they were becoming so serious so quickly. She typed in "How do you know this?" She wasn't suspicious of Rinoa, but Garden, like most schools, was bent on rumor-mongering.
While she waited for a response, she realized she hadn't seen Selphie that morning, but that wasn't too unusual. It's not like they were joined at the hip, they were just roommates. She had her teaching stuff, and Selphie had her own life, usually she had a lot of extracurricular activities to take care of.
Rinoa typed "Squall told me."
And then, "Irvine came to the door wearing the same thing he had on last night, and then he said something about how Selphie doesn't like breakfast and quick shut his mouth."
And then, "So I figured it out."
That was true, Selphie didn't like breakfast very much. So then it was probably true. Quistis asked, "Does that mean they're going out?"
"I don't know."
"Do you know if they," Quistis stopped, trying to find the right words without being rude, "Did anything?" Quistis was worried about Selphie moving too fast, hoping she wasn't being coerced by Irvine.
"I have no idea," she said, and then a moment later. "Don't you think it's cute though?"
"Yeah, cute," Quistis wrote back, "Fast, but cute."
"What, are you not happy?" Rinoa said. Apparently, she had a bit of the matchmaker in her, but Quistis never believed she or anyone else needed a significant other to validate her existence.
"No, I am," Quistis said, only a moderate lie. "I just never expected it from Selphie." She sent the message and then thought a bit more about it. The saving grace of the instant message program was that it gave you a chance to think about what you were going to say before you said it. "I'm just really surprised, that's all."
"Yeah, new boyfriends are always exciting."
New? Try first. For all she knew, this was Selphie's first romantic relationship. Selphie was as focused on developing her career as Quistis was, despite her devotion to the underclassmen. Then all of the sudden, Irvine comes into the picture, and starts distracting her. She didn't want to see her stop developing her life just for the sake of a relationship. If it turned out bad, she would be way behind if she was waiting for him. The only person in life you could count on was yourself.
Three students came into the classroom, talking loudly amongst themselves, and took their seats. The next class's students slowly started trickling in. Quistis quickly wrote to Rinoa, "Gotta go, class is starting."
"Ok, talk to you later."
Quistis signed off the program so she wouldn't get interrupted, and brought up today's lessons. She was still distracted by her concern for Selphie. It was going to be difficult to muddle through this one.
There was something about working on machines that made a woman feel aggressive, powerful. Maybe it was because they were such big pieces of mechanical equipment with such muscle and potency. And she was the key to making them all run smoothly. Maybe it was the satisfying feeling of working with one's hands. Rinoa looked down at her thin gloves, worn down to cracked leather and striped with grease. She smiled, knowing that these hands were capable of doing so much good and they were doing good right now.
She laid her back on the wheelboard and scooted under the car. Adjusting her cap, under which her jet black hair was neatly piled up, she grabbed a wrench and started unscrewing a set of hex nuts. The affirmative feeling of strength glowed in her veins like liquid gold. This giant vehicle was above her and she was manipulating it to her will, making it better. She was so happy she unconsciously started singing a little song to herself while she cranked the wrench.
"The hex nut's connected to the - lug bolt. The lug bolt's connected to the - carburetor. The carburetor's connected to the - ...thingy. The thingy's conn-"
The pipe she was working on burst open, spilling cups of oil onto her chest. Rinoa shrieked in surprise and averted her head as she spit out droplets of greasy bitter oil from her mouth, squinting her eyes shut. She tried reversing the hex nut she was loosening to stop the gush of oil, but it was having no effect and the liquid was just making her hand slip. Frantically, she grabbed the rag in her pocket and held it up to the hole. This slowed the oil leak enough for her to shove the towel in further, plugging it up. Still spitting out the vile matter on her tongue, she looked up at the busted pipe and wondered if anyone would notice.
"Hey, Rinoa? Are you here?" Zell's voice echoed in the garage.
Rinoa, daintily adjusting the rag one last time, slid out from under the car and lifted herself up. "Hi, Zell. What's up?"
"Ah, not much. Working in the garage now?"
"Yeah, I decided to give it a try. Seemed like a pretty cool job, I mean."
"Yeah, you really have to know your stuff too. I had a mechanics class in here for a semester. It was really fun, but the supervisor sure likes a quality job. No rag-tag hacks, you know?"
"Uh, yeah," Rinoa said, subconsciously covering a part of the underside of the car with her leg. "So what's on your mind?"
"I, uh," Zell reached behind his head and scratched. "I was on the Garden Square today. You know, the message boards."
"And I was going down the archive, just for reading. And I found some things about what Irvine said about Selphie back when they were going out. He was talking to Quistis and Xu about... not wanting a relationship with her."
"How long ago was this?"
"Uh, about six months."
"Hmm, maybe he changed his mind about that though."
"Yeah, maybe." Zell looked down at the ground and rubbed his head. Rinoa suppressed a giggle. Zell always wore his heart on his sleeve, he just never realized it.
"Zell, what's really bothering you?"
"Well, I'm worried that this isn't what Irvine wants, you know?" Rinoa nodded as he continued. "Like he's just settling."
"Well, Irvine said he was thinking of marrying her in July also. And that he was gonna wait until he came back from the mission."
"Oh, really?" Zell said brightly.
"Yeah, although the other girls and I thought that could've been a line."
"Oh, yeah. Could be." Zell slumped his shoulders, dejected. "I'm confused about what to think about all this. Irvine's real concerned about his image."
"Yes, he is," Rinoa heartfully agreed.
"There was also a post that said he didn't want her coming to Deling City with him. Cause he was afraid of what might happen. This was after they," he made quote marks with his fingers "'broke up'."
Rinoa nodded and leaned against the car. "I remember. He said he didn't want to get into something before he left. And Quistis and Xu both said it was a bad idea to Selphie too."
"So I don't know why he agreed to it."
"I know why."
"Why? Oh." Zell rolled his eyes at his own ignorance. "Man, I can see why you hate men."
Rinoa laughed. "We don't hate men, we just don't like it when men use us." Rinoa then realized this was coming from his attempts to get a quick date.
Zell said, "I feel like I've been lied to."
"We've all been lied to about this. Or at least the truth has been fudged. I mean, people just see what they want to see. And then they tell that to us, and we believe them. If you're really worried about Irvine, why don't you talk to him when he gets back?"
"I wouldn't know what to say. I don't want to make him angry."
Rinoa understood Zell. People mistook him for being childish because he was so child-like, but that didn't mean he didn't have an adult mind. "Don't worry, Zell. We've all got some reservations about what's going on, but we really can't do anything about it but be there for our friends."
"Yeah, all right. Thanks."
"Anytime, Zell." Rinoa picked up her wrench off the car hood as Zell turned to exit. "By the way," she said, "Do you know anything about cars?"
Zell's eyes lit up. "Cars?"
"And this is the engine center of Garden," Squall waved his arm to the labyrinth of clockwork gears and sprockets caught in a mish-mash that he wouldn't dare attempt to even try and understand. "This is what enables us to detach from the ground foundation and become a mobile command center."
The two gentlemen from Fisherman's Horizon, clad in ratty grease-stained clothing, stepped forward in the murky underdwellings and gazed over the railing at the iron and copper workings.
"Aw, yeah, this looks like good work from our end."
"I heard Coburn worked on this. Too bad he couldn't come."
"Excellent work on the cog ramps. Excellent."
Squall looked back and forth behind him. He couldn't imagine what sort of monsters were hanging around down here in the bowels of Garden.
Squall continued, "And, um, over here is the steering mechanism that the mechanics at FH constructed for us. When we first learned Garden was mobile we were in a bit of an emergency situation. And since it hadn't been used in so long, all the gears that controlled steering were rusted out, since mobility was only meant as an escape route. But now it uses a simple galleon-pinion apparatus so all direction changing is controlled by one simple pilot-stick at the top floor."
"Ah, yeah, that looks like Harrah's work. I'd recognize it anywhere. See? He even put that smiley face on that gear over there."
"Hah, you're right. That's his signature."
Squall gritted his teeth. Indulging clients' whims of fancy was something he hated. This was not some sort of museum to show off. It was nothing to be gawked at by yokels. When pitching to clients about the hiring of SeeDs, this sort of 'booze-and-shmooze' bull was far from his forte. The representatives from Fisherman's Horizon had wanted to contract some students out for the rebuilding of Horizon Bridge on the Galbadia side, and in coming to Garden, wanted to see their city's handiwork in it. This was the least important part of Garden, in his opinion. The mobility system hadn't been used for very long, since it was expensive and bulky to uproot the military school every time there was an incident. Better to send out a small operation team. The only silver lining was that he did enjoy talking about Garden. This was his home, and he would defend it to the death. In fact, he had, on several occasions.
"Anyway," Squall said, "If this is all you wanted to see down here, I'd like to move back upstairs so we could discuss the mission specs."
"Oh, we can talk about that down here. I want to get a closer look at this work."
"Okay, fine," Squall grumbled through his molars.
"Yeah, I think it's pretty cut and dried," the second one said, "Thirty SeeDs for thirty days. Half of them as guards, half as construction."
"Actually, about that. I don't really know if you can expect much from SeeDs construction-wise. We aren't really trained in that area unless it's for a specific purpose, such as a long-term undercover mission."
"Yes, yes," he waved his hand, "That's fine."
"You can expect them to serve in a support capacity if you really need extra men down there."
"All right, that's fine."
"Yeah, that sounds good," said the other one.
Squall rolled his eyes and tagged after them. They skipped from station to station as if they were inspecting the electricity and plumbing. "Also, there's one more thing," he said, trying to get their attention, "We'd like to use this mission as a SeeD test. It's a field exam for potential graduates."
"Potentials?" the first one jerked his head away from the banister. "We don't want any potentials, we only want highly-trained SeeDs."
Thirty full-fledged SeeDs for a month of construction work and guarding? What a waste of resources. Was this guy trying to dump his bank account?
"I can assure you that everyone in the SeeD program is completely trained in all facets of being a SeeD before being considered for graduation. This field exam is meant to test those aspects, like teamwork, physical ability, composure, focus, decision-making. And there will be plenty of regular SeeDs on hand at all times."
"Well," he looked at his partner. "I guess that's all right."
The second one piped up, "But we want one of you from that group that saved us from time compression on the squad."
The six of them (five if you didn't count Rinoa who wasn't a SeeD) were considered by the rest of the world to be the finest warriors in the land, since they were the ones who saved the world from Ultimecia. They were highly-skilled, but it wasn't like they were gods. None of them were on any missions that he knew of, so they theoretically could do it. This sort of catering to clients, giving them the world just to make them happy, was really grinding his gears now. Especially to these two hicks who didn't know how the system worked.
One clucked his tongue, "Yeah, we want what's-his-name... Irvine."
"The one with the gun."
"Yeah, he sure made an impact on us down at the depot."
Squall said, "Yes, he is prone to do that." This mission seemed like something viable to send Irvine on, similar to the one Squall was just on in Esthar. Irvine wasn't on any business usually, especially during the time span of this mission, he'd be well done with all the wedding stuff by then. And he could keep out of trouble, since he would be away from anything major.
"I think that'll be fine," Squall agreed. "Let me just confirm his availability." Squall picked up his PHS from his pocket and dialed Xu's desk. She picked up almost immediately.
"Balamb Garden, how may I direct your call?"
"Hey, it's Squall."
"Oh, hi." She returned to familiar demeanor instead of overly business-friendly. "Where are you?"
"I'm in the basement. Can you do me a favor? Can you check Irvine's mission avail for next month and then three months after?"
"Okay... Wait, the next month? He's booked."
"How about a month before?"
"He's booked." Xu's voice had a slight intonation to it that said this was something he should have already known.
"He's booked then, too? What in the world is he doing that takes so long?"
"Don't you remember? Irvine's being transferred overseas for a mission for a year and a half."
Flashes of light entered Squall's brain. "What?! Why didn't anyone tell me about this?" Squall walked away from the gawking eyes of the two clients he suddenly noticed.
"I thought you knew. Everyone knew. It was common knowledge. That's why he's getting married so fast."
"I thought it was for insurance." Squall had a thousand thoughts racing through his mind at this point.
"Well, that's part of it."
"Why? Where is he getting shipped?"
"The Island Closest to Hell."
Squall nearly crushed the phone in his right hand as his left found its way to his gunblade handle.
" ... Squall? .... Squall?"