Figlio Perduto

Gregory Gietzen

gietzeng@pilot.msu.edu

1.

Whitehot burning you have failed tumbling through coldspace.

Worthless boy.

You're losing it.

I am...

Knight.

I am her lap dog Knight.

You're just a coward boy.

Do not injure failure your partner.

RAGE.

The lion roars.

I am silence empty.

Nothing.

The abyss rises. The maelstrom beckons.

Screaming from the sky.

Poor child not a child we shall have time compression together.

All the time memory we need. Past present future.

Makeitend. Stopohgodstop.

2.

He clutched his head in his hands, praying for the roaring to stop. Oblivious to the presence of onlookers, he fell to his knees, slamming his head against the floor with brutal force. Writhing on the floor in agony, his hands scrabbled to find purchase on the tile, as if he would burrow into the ground in search of sanctuary. Abandoning his efforts at digging, he began to cry. Great, wracking sobs convulsed his lean body, paroxysms so fierce, they looked strong enough to rip him in half.

The man watching from behind the glass could remain idle no longer. With infinite sadness in his eyes, he nodded to the men next to him. The four of them -- the strongest available -- entered the small cell to restrain the anguished man. While three of them held him down, a task that required all of their strength, the fourth administered a shot.

Within moments, the man's spasms began to subside. His body began to straighten itself and stillness began to overtake him. Having seen his torment before, in all its fury, this seeming placidity was all the more terrifying, for it resembled nothing so much as rigor mortis. The difference, the observer noted, was that this corpse's eyes were moving, darting back and forth behind closed eyelids, and signaling the onset of dream-laden sleep.

This, the man behind the glass knew, might serve only to torment the patient more. For while his body was now free from its unthinking rampage, Seifer's mind could not escape his nightmares. Until the medicine wore off, Seifer had to confront his demons alone.

"Let me know if there's any change," said the observer, his voice quavering with sympathy.

"Yes, Mister President," answered the attendants as one.

"Please. Don't call me that. I'm not feeling very presidential right now."

And with that, Laguna walked slowly away from the room where Seifer lay prostrate, trapped within the vortex of his own imagining.

3.

When the knock on his door came, Laguna looked up from the papers he'd made a pretext of studying. The door to his office opened, admitting Kiros into the room. The lean man paused briefly and gave Laguna an odd look.

"What's the matter, Kiros? Do I have a stain on my shirt?" Laguna began inspecting his shirt for a stain that, thankfully, didn't exist.

"No. It's just that I'm still not used to seeing you with glasses," Kiros said. At this, Laguna removed his reading glasses and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes briefly.

"Well, we're hardly as young now as we were when we got here. That was -- what -- eighteen years ago?" When they arrived in Esthar, Laguna's black hair didn't have its few streaks of gray, nor did he have so many wrinkles around his eyes. Kiros, meanwhile, gained some weight in the intervening years, but due to rigorous exercise, his muscles had not turned to fat.

Kiros smiled softly as he stepped closer to Laguna's desk. He stopped behind one of the chairs and, considering his choice of words carefully, took a breath before opening his mouth.

"Don't give me that look, Kiros," Laguna shot out. "Whenever you give me that look, nothing good comes out of your mouth."

"Dr. Odine is here to see you about the Almasy boy."

Laguna groaned and covered his face in his hands. The dark-skinned man waited for Laguna to give him some further form of response.

"Send him away, Kiros. I don't want to speak with that guy. He gives me the creeps."

"Well, he's sort of... in the next room. He wants to give you his report in person. And he says he won't go away until you talk to him."

"Kiros, you're the chancellor, you think of something. Threaten an Ethics Committee investigation, or threaten to pull his grant funding. I don't care; just make him go away."

"But, Laguna, what about the report? We need to know what's going on with that kid."

"Get the report from him, and you read it to me," Laguna said, before sitting forward and heaving a sigh. Kiros nodded curtly and began walking to the door. "And, Kiros?" Laguna called after him. "He is not, under any circumstances, to go near Seifer until I tell him otherwise. Personally."

Kiros went into the outer office, and Laguna could hear the thick voice of Odine in the hallway, arguing. "But I am ze great Odine! He must zee me!"

4.

By the time Kiros finished arguing with Odine, Laguna had left his desk to stretch out on a couch. He'd slipped an ice mask over his face, to try to relieve some of the tension he felt building in his skull. Kiros had taken a seat at Laguna's desk, and began flipping through the papers in front of him. As he turned one page, he gave a long, low whistle. Laguna didn't even have time to inquire before Kiros put the sheet on a projector. Laguna squinted through the ice mask and tried to interpret the picture before him.

"Okay, I give. What am I looking at? It just looks like a big red blob."

"This is a map of Seifer's brain. Or, more accurately, his brain's activity."

"So... this tells us what, exactly?" Laguna glanced away from the display and looked back at Kiros, raising one eyebrow quizzically.

Kiros sighed, and tried to interpret Odine's technical writing. "It means all of his neurons are firing at once. Every memory that he has is replaying at the same time. His senses, used to gather information about the world around him and understand the present, are hyperstimulated. And the cognitive areas of the brain -- particularly those areas used to piece together information, and make predictions about the consequences of future events -- can't switch themselves off. In essence, his brain is undergoing time compression and it can't escape."

"Ouch. No wonder he's a wreck." Laguna sat up and removed his ice mask, running a hand through his long, dark hair. Suddenly, the tension headache that had been drumming away inside his skull didn't seem so bad.

"There's more," Kiros said, flipping a page. "It seems that, in trying to make Seifer her Knight, Edea -- by which I mean Ultimecia -- put a piece of her consciousness into his mind..."

"What do you mean by that? 'Put a piece of her consciousness?'"

"Well, as near as anyone can tell, she tried to... junction herself onto Seifer, so she would always have a way to make her will manifest. Now that Ultimecia is dead, that last part of her willpower is still trying to assert control over Seifer, but it's also feeding off of him, trying to stay alive."

"So, eventually..." Laguna began, dreading the words he knew would come next.

"She will either control him or kill him."

5.

"This is bad," Laguna said, speaking to no one in particular. "This is really bad."

Kiros and Ward watched as their longtime friend paced the length of his office. Periodically, Laguna would flop into one of the chairs, jumping up and continuing to pace the room only moments later.

"I mean, we've gotta do something, right?" He paused for a second, seeming to invite a reply. "Of course we do!" he exclaimed, answering his own question. Ward turned to look at Kiros, the giant's expressive face telling the smaller man exactly what he wanted to say.

"Ward wants to know," Kiros began, acting as translator for his speechless friend, "why you're making this kid your personal charity case."

Laguna whirled around. "Because he's not a bad kid. He isn't a war criminal, like everyone seems to think he is. Because he got tangled up with the Sorceress, and she played him for a fool, just like she played everyone else. Because she promised him everything he ever wanted and he, not surprisingly, jumped at her offer. Because he's already endured whatever awful torments she saw fit to inflict on him and even though it's all over, he still can't get away from her. Because no one else has ever bothered to take a chance on this kid before, and maybe that's why things happened the way they did. Maybe... maybe all he was looking for was... a place or a person that needed him and he thought he'd finally found it."

"Because... what does it say about us if our bloodlust is so strong that we can't offer impartial justice to an eighteen-year-old kid who's been ruthlessly manipulated? Because... well, because what if it were Squall in that room? What if my son had been the one the Sorceress chose to take advantage of?"

Laguna paused to catch his breath. Up until Squall's name flew out of his mouth, Laguna hadn't realized how strongly he felt about the issue. Kiros and Ward continued to watch him with such nonchalance that, for a moment, Laguna began to wonder if he'd actually spoken or just imagined it. He felt something inside him click, almost like the turning of a switch and Laguna knew he'd just committed himself totally towards pulling Seifer out of that waking nightmare.

"And because I'm the President, damn it, and I say we're going to help him. So you can either stand with me, like old times, or you can walk out that door and go your own way, but my mind is made up. So which is it?"

Ward looked at Kiros and nodded slightly, smiling.

"Ward says you're our leader. He says you always have been, and that he'd follow you anywhere."

"And you, Kiros? What do you say?"

"I say Ward's got the right idea."

6.

"Laguna, she's here."

Laguna left the room where Seifer lay howling on the floor to go see the Sorceress Edea. Draped in black, she exuded elegance, with a network of intricate tattoos by her eyes. Laguna felt a familiar burning in one leg and gritted his teeth against it, not wanting to appear like an idiot.

"Sorceress Edea, thank you for coming on such short notice," Laguna said, unsure of how to properly greet her.

What do I do? Am I supposed to shake her hand? Bow to her?

"It's okay, President Loire. You don't need to worry about being so formal with me."

Ah! Laguna thought, taking in a quick breath of air. She's reading my thoughts!

The pain in Laguna's leg intensified, and he could feel the muscles starting to twitch.

"I, um... that is to say... I would appreciate it... please... uh... don't read my mind!"

This awkward statement made, Laguna's leg cramped up fully, nearly pulling him to the ground with its force. Edea reached out to help him, but Laguna held up one hand to stop her. After a moment or two spent massaging the muscles, he began taking tentative steps around the room, limping as he did so, in an effort to walk off the cramp. Off to one side of the room, he heard Kiros and Ward snickering at him.

"You know, guys," Laguna growled, "one would think that after the last, say, two decades or so, the novelty of my leg cramps would wear off."

"Yeah," Kiros said, making no effort to conceal his amusement, "you'd think that, but your little limp is so damn funny that it never fails to make me laugh."

Ward looked over at Kiros and raised an eyebrow, prompting the smaller man to burst out into hysterical laughter.

"What?" Laguna asked. "What did he say?" Kiros and Ward exchanged another glance and shook their heads simultaneously.

"Trust me, boss, you're better off not knowing."

His cramp starting to ease up, Laguna gathered the pieces of his shattered ego and turned back to Edea.

"Sorry about that," he said, "I get these... leg cramps sometimes... when I'm nervous."

"Let me apologize, President Loire," Edea said, her contralto voice rolling through the room. "I don't wish to make you nervous. And I promise I wasn't reading your mind. I don't have that kind of power. You just looked so... uncomfortably formal -- I made a guess. My comment was meant to put you at ease."

"Well. Okay. Let's forget all that. Down to business." Laguna started to sputter in an effort to move the conversation forward.

"Yes," Edea said. "You wanted to speak to me about Seifer Almasy."

"Right. Did Kiros brief you on the situation?"

"He explained everything to me on the flight over. May I see Seifer?"

Laguna glanced over her shoulder at Kiros and Ward, both wearing inscrutable -- and therefore useless -- expressions.

"I don't see why not. He's in the next room."

Laguna led the way into the room that the staff quickly dubbed "The Asylum." Seifer huddled in the corner, whimpering softly. As Edea approached, he moved out of the corner and into the center of his cell. Edea approached the cell and Seifer turned to look at her with closed eyes. Accidentally, Edea's hand brushed the glass that served as the outermost layer of his prison. In that moment, with almost feline dexterity, he lunged at her, eyes still closed, crashing into the barrier between them.

He stood back up, panting, and opened his eyes slowly. Seifer stared at the floor and his mouth began to move. His lips formed words, but he produced no sound.

"What...?" Edea said, putting one hand to her temple.

"What's wrong?" Laguna asked, starting to reconsider banning Dr. Odine from seeing Seifer.

"It's like... static," she said, "inside my head. But it's angry. I can feel her. She's trapped inside him, and she isn't happy about it. She's as much a prisoner as he is."

Seifer's mouth moved ever more quickly, his mouth forming soundless words with increasing fury. When it seemed he could go no faster, he stopped abruptly. Then, with great care, he looked up, directly at Edea.

And screamed.

Still, he produced no sound, but everyone heard the scream mentally. The scream personified rage and hatred, so oppressive that it seemed to attack the air around them. This horrid non-sound combined all the worst characteristics of a wailing infant and the shriek of metal-on-metal. Laguna at once covered his ears with his hands, but the sound continued to echo inside his head.

Edea, though, received the brunt of this psychic assault. It slammed into her with the force of a sledgehammer, throwing her against the wall with vicious force. As she slid down the wall, she saw an aura surrounding Seifer, a hypnotic miasma of red and purple, with thick black veins running through it. In her mouth, Edea faintly tasted the coppery tang of blood.

And everything went dark around her.

7.

As Doctor Odine strutted around the room, Laguna regarded the little man distastefully. Odine's only loyalty was to his research -- when Laguna and the resistance faction fought to overthrow the Sorceress Adel, Odine immediately defected to the side of the resistance as soon as he felt Adel had no chance of victory. Laguna wanted to prosecute Odine for the heinous experiments he conducted under Adel's regime, but the other members of the resistance group convinced him that they could use Odine to research ways to seal Adel's power.

Now, despite his strongest moral objections, Laguna reluctantly allowed the Doctor to return to work on "Project Almasy." This clearly overjoyed Odine and the smirk on his face made Laguna -- usually a hesitant warrior -- want to knock out a few of the teeth in the scientist's mouth.

"...And zo," Odine said, "Ultimecia reacted to ze presence of Edea, trying to take her power by killing her. If zhe accomplished zis, ze result would have been ze complete resurrection of Ultimecia, within Zeifer's body. All ze power of ze two Zorceresses, in ze body of a young man. Unless you want to zee zis happen, you might wish to keep zem apart."

Laguna couldn't tell for certain, but he almost detected a note of excitement in Odine's voice. Whether he spoke from scientific curiosity or some darker motive, Laguna couldn't be sure, but he definitely didn't feel comfortable with Odine's barely contained glee.

"Summarize, Doctor," Laguna said. "What do we do for Seifer?"

"I zuggest at least zix months of intenzive research, electroshock, drug therapy, gradual exposure to ze presence of Zorceresses, and hypnoziz. If all else fails, ve perform brain surgery."

"Out of the question," Laguna snapped. "We are not here to further your research, provide you with entertainment, or fulfill any other personal objectives. We are here to cure Seifer, and we are going to do so immediately. So either make a suggestion or stop wasting my time."

The entire situation with Seifer weighed heavily on Laguna's mind. He'd tried to maintain objectivity, but the fact that Seifer grew up with the son that -- until recently -- Laguna did not even know existed, made him personalize the entire matter. He also felt tremendous political pressure to mete out justice to Seifer. Additionally, his headaches had steadily worsened, occasionally escalating to the level where he could barely stand exposure to light. Seifer/Ultimecia's psychic attack was most certainly unwelcome -- not in a scientific light, perhaps, but certainly in a neurological one.

"I am afraid," Odine said, "zat zere are certain things we simply cannot do. One of zem would be to remove Ultimecia from Zeifer's brain. Ze best we can do is to equip him with ze tools to fight her off."

"How do you suggest we do that?"

"Zince his brain is receiving too much stimulation, he is incapable of placing the pieces of his mind into any order. Perhaps if we placed him in zome zort of zenzory deprivation, he would be able to martial his willpower and fight Ultimecia. Perhaps if we zealed him in the Zorceress Memorial zat we used to zeal Adel's power, it would give him ze chance to fight her off, and zen we could release him if he wins. If he loses, we zimply leave him zealed zere."

"Finally!" Laguna exclaimed. "We can take some action!"

"Zere is, I think, a certain element of risk involved."

"Such as?"

"If Zeifer loses -- if Ultimecia wins ze battle -- her control over his body will be absolute. He will zimply... cease to be, and Ultimecia will be reborn."

Laguna nodded, considering the magnitude of the decision placed before him. Seifer would live or die, depending on the choice Laguna made. The rebirth of Ultimecia would mean atrocities beyond imagining, the waging of another Sorceress War, the death of any number of innocents, and cataclysmic destruction. Still, Laguna had sworn that he would fight wholeheartedly against whatever evils the Sorceress Adel could invent, and Seifer counted, ultimately, as another victim.

"Make whatever preparations you need to, Odine. We start immediately, and the hell with Ultimecia."

8.

Laguna stood with Kiros and Ward, watching the technicians preparing to freeze Seifer. Systematically, they clamped restraints onto the young man, restraints that Odine developed with the specific purpose of dampening the power of Sorceresses.

Those who built the Sorceress Memorial had no intention to commemorate the life or death of any Sorceress. Rather, it employed numerous measures to ensure that a Sorceress, once frozen, would remain that way forever, and would no longer be a threat to the world. Following Adel's release -- engineered in part by Seifer -- Laguna insisted on installing even more strict countermeasures for such an occasion.

The first level would desensitize Seifer -- a relatively uncomplicated technique. The technicians at the Memorial would place Seifer into a deep hibernation, strong enough to shut off the majority of his senses and allow him to focus his mind on the battle with Ultimecia, a battle that he seemed destined to lose.

In the event of that loss, the technicians had instructions to remove all life support from Seifer's body. By pulling a lever, the technicians released a large quantity of cement, which would fill Seifer's chamber and encase him in a layer of concrete. Following that, the Esthar military would supervise his transfer to the launching facility, whereupon the staff there would launch him into the furthest reaches of space, hopefully never to return.

Laguna glanced up at the clock, wishing, not for the first time, that they'd picked a more reasonable hour to begin the procedure.

"Kiros?" Laguna asked, knowing that Kiros wouldn't have gone very far.

"Yeah, boss?" Kiros replied.

"I'm gonna go outside for awhile. Take in the sunrise. Sort out my thoughts. Take up smoking and then have a cigarette. Page me if anything important happens."

As Kiros acknowledged the request, Laguna stood up and exited the Memorial. All around him, technicians bustled and scurried, anxious to complete their tasks, nervous at the presence of both Odine and the President of Esthar.

As Laguna opened the door to the Memorial, his heart sank. Half a dozen news agencies had sent representatives, all eager to obtain a quote, much less the full story. He groaned internally.

Aww, come on! The whole point of getting up this early was to avoid you guys.

"Mister President... Can you confirm... Is it true that... What do you make of the allegations..." The voices all blended in Laguna's sleep-deprived brain.

"Go home, guys. Get some sleep. There's no story here."

The chorus of voices started up again, all demanding a claim on Laguna's time, all claiming to have information, but wanting more of it. And at the core of their concerns, he knew, was the issue of Seifer Almasy, and whether or not Laguna was trying to rescue him.

"Ward," Laguna said, feeling the presence of the giant man behind him, "as of 30 seconds from now, this is an A-level secure facility. Anyone present without the proper clearance is to be shot on sight. Anyone recording, whether in pictures, sound, or words, anything that happened here, will also be shot. Understood?"

Laguna turned to see a slow smile creep over Ward's massive face. Ward nodded slowly, and reached for the button summoning all armed personnel to the front of the Memorial.

By the time the 30 seconds elapsed, the phalanx of reporters shrank in size to a small speck of dust on the horizon. Laguna leaned against the wall and sighed, deeply. The sun had barely risen, and already he could tell it would be a long day -- the throbbing on the left side of his head told him that.

He felt a tap on his shoulder and glanced up to see Ward regarding him with a look of infinite compassion. Laguna could see the message of friendship and support in the giant's face.

"Thanks, old friend," Laguna said. Ward's features darkened and he nodded curtly at Laguna, who interpreted the signal immediately.

"Right. Let's go."

Back inside the facility, the technicians were busy making the final preparations and adjustments. Seifer hung suspended by a series of wires over a vat of a viscous light green liquid. Cobalt blue metal bands encircled his body, restraining his arms and legs, and wrapping around his torso. Laguna couldn't help but notice how loosely Seifer's skin hung on his body; Seifer's tortuous struggle made it nearly impossible to consume any food. They'd done their best to keep Seifer nourished, feeding him intravenously while he lingered under the influence of sedatives, but it was not enough to maintain his muscular form.

Everything seemed to grind to a stop as one of Odine's chief assistants fixed an oxygen mask to Seifer's face. This final step completed, everyone stepped back and appraised the morning's work. They all knew the danger inherent in the experiment and most of them very clearly wished to vacate the building. Laguna didn't know how he felt. Nervous? Scared? Hopeful? The only one who displayed a single clear emotion was Odine, who clapped his hands together with glee and giggled periodically. Once again, Laguna burned with the urge to assault the demented little creep. Wanting to get the project underway, Laguna stepped forward.

"Okay, everyone. Thank you for your work today. As you know, we're taking a big risk with this, but we are doing the right thing. Never lose sight of that. Never lose sight that Seifer is a person, not a lab animal, and we are here to save him, not to study him."

This said, Laguna sat back down and nodded to the technicians, who began manipulating the various controls needed to start the process. The wires lowered Seifer into the vat. The clamps holding him by the shoulders unlocked and retracted. Bubbles rose from the oxygen mask to the surface. Metal plates slid down around the vat, blocking it from outside light and sound.

And Seifer's war began.

9.

A mountain cliff, reverberating with the roar of thunder. Clouds roil overhead, warning of the impending storm. Two warriors clash, each a master of technique, moving with an economy of motion best described as purity. Repeatedly, their weapons meet, causing sparks to play and dance along the blades. Both men grit their teeth, struggling to stave off exhaustion, for in this martial ballet, one they've enacted many times, neither can gain an advantage over the other. The wind whips through their ears, but their deep concentration forbids them from noticing this.

The taller one gains a moment of superiority, knocking the other to the ground. With a malicious smile sweeping across his features, he slashes his opponent's face, causing blood to splatter the rocky ground. A feral snarl overtakes the bloodied fighter, for they have now crossed an invisible line. This fight, like all their fights to come, no longer serves as training. Blood is the purpose of this fight, the purpose and the end result.

The shorter man rises to his feet, rushing his attacker. His blade drops low, scraping against the ground, leaving a row of sparks on its way upward. The blonde man tries to defend himself, but the impassioned strength of the blood-soaked warrior overtakes him, knocking his blade out of its defensive position. Now blood flows from both of their faces, and

Seifer finds himself on a mountain cliff, gunblade in hand. Something about the scene plagues him, and he struggles to understand the situation. A crash of thunder startles him from his reverie and he barely manages to lift Hyperion into a defensive position before Squall's blade crashes into his own.

This, Seifer remembers. His body begins to move again, the memories flooding back into his brain.

Parry and feint. Thrust and riposte.

Hyperion no longer feels like an extension of his arm, though. It is too heavy, his muscles too unresponsive, the blade's balance wrong. Squall's attacks come faster and faster, and each time Seifer defends himself with less time to spare. Soon enough, it is all Seifer can do to protect himself; he no longer attempts to attack in return. For all it matters, Seifer might as well be fighting underwater.

Squall fights easily, fluidly. He advances on Seifer from all sides at once, surrounds him. Every time Seifer attempts to retreat, to breathe, to marshal his strength, Squall moves closer, strikes harder. Seifer's arm starts to go numb and his skull resounds from the force of Squall's attacks.

Seifer notices that something seems wrong with Squall. He no longer fights with his customary calculated precision. He seems wild, taking more risks. Seifer no longer recognizes Squall's style. After years of fighting together, learning about each other, studying each other's moves, Squall has become an entirely different person.

Seifer finds himself pressed back, eventually falling to the ground.

No! This is all wrong.

Squall towers over him, a demon. A cruel smile spreads across Squall's face. A figure rises behind Squall, the towering outline of a person. This person, though, is empty. Nothing exists beyond the outline, save a vortex, seeking to engulf everything. Squall raises his blade and his rich blue eyes gleam. The blade tears across Seifer's face.

Squall's eyes aren't blue. They're gray.

Seifer looks down at his hand, and the ground beyond it. Both are stained with blood...

...and gunpowder and death fill the air, their scents mingling together. Bodies litter the ground and the screams of the dying are everywhere. Seifer wanders among the corpses, and their eyes accuse him. Some of the faces he recognizes, some he does not, but all scream out in death. In the distance, an enormous city burns. Once it gleamed like a jewel, but now it sits dying, the center of a vast crater. Seifer sees forms moving in and around the rubble. The lucky ones, he realizes, are those already dead. The living will forage for food, killing each other in an effort to preserve themselves, but eventually, they too will die. No living thing can survive this wasteland, let alone eke a living out of it.

A flash of light flickers through the corner of Seifer's vision. He turns to follow it and notices a man standing by himself, in the midst of the carnage. He has, somehow, escaped all injury. His armor gleams in the light of the burning sky as he surveys the scene.

His work. He created this destruction, and he is proud.

Who are you? Seifer calls, but the figure does not acknowledge him.

Struggling over the broken terrain, Seifer draws near. The armor gleams, but Seifer makes out the shape of a cruciform sword engraved on the armor.

Who are you? He asks again. Why did you do this?

The man still does not react. Seifer has drawn close enough, by this time, to touch the man. He extends a hand out to do so, and the figure turns to face him. The man's armor covers him from head to toe -- his whole body invisible. The armor, though, shines, like a mirror. In the man's helmet, Seifer sees his own face reflected.

He gasps and turns to flee, but finds himself surrounded by mirrored knights. In the distance, Seifer's voice comes back to him as an echo, asking, Why did you do this?

As one, they lift their visors, revealing empty suits of armor. When they speak, they use Seifer's voice, answering,

Because I am...

...The Sorceress' Knight, and I when I speak, I speak with her voice. When I act, I act as an extension of her will.

The people cheer. Their voices and bodies blur together in an ecstatic frenzy. One man, though, stands almost perfectly still. From his vantage atop the parade vehicle, he savors the reverence he instills in the masses. Although his face wears a mask of icy contempt, inside, he burns. He feels the fire of his power, the awe he inspires in those around him, the grandeur of being a Knight.

They respect me. They respect me and they fear me.

He stands to the right of the Sorceress, ready to do her bidding. She is a creature of flawless beauty, pale white skin and raven hair, ivory and obsidian, a goddess crafted from marble. As long as he draws breath, no harm can come to her. She loves him, and that love is no mere romance, but a thing of transcendental magnificence, the courtly passion that can exist only between a Sorceress and her Knight. She needs him to protect her, to defend her, to carry out her will. His life, his very existence centers on those needs, and no force can bar him from fulfilling this duty. With but the slightest thought, he stands ready to die for her, or to kill for her.

He does not need to wait long. As the massive parade vehicle crosses beneath the arch, its ancient gates slam shut. The Sorceress leaps to her feet, but Seifer, moving beyond the speed of impulse, reacts more quickly. He immediately barks orders to the military personnel surrounding them, making certain of his Sorceress' safety. Above the sound of chaos and confusion, the panicked mob, his ears prick up, and he hears a single, cold shot resound through the night. His heart sinks as he lunges towards the Sorceress, attempting to insert himself in the path of the assassin's bullet, but the distance between them yawns impossibly wide. He screams a warning, hoping that she, with her inscrutable powers, can compensate for his negligence in protecting her.

With masterful Úlan, she raises a hand, scarcely deigning to notice the attack on her life. As the bullet nears her statuesque figure, it encounters a bright blue field of resistance, slowing its momentum. Seifer allows himself a breath of relief, before he notices that the bullet has stubbornly refused to stop, despite the Sorceress forcing all of her power into the protective spell. The projectile continues its inexorable progress towards her, until the final moment when it pierces her shield. Even at a greatly reduced speed, the bullet still slams into her with a frightening force. Seifer's world explodes with the impact and he feels, as much as hears, the bullet tearing through her perfect white flesh, spilling her life's blood and shattering her bones.

As Seifer's head spins, he sees that his blood, too, has been spilt, a sympathetic wound gained from the special link they share. The night is awash with blood, and Seifer fights to stay conscious. He struggles to stand, equilibrium devastated by the pain blossoming within him. He reaches for Hyperion, the muscles in his side tearing audibly as it slides from its sheath. Staggering backwards, he knocks over one of the immense braziers atop the vehicle, spilling fire, ash, and coal everywhere. As the vehicle ignites, grim laughter escapes his lips, brought on by the certainty that he will die this night, a victim of his own folly and ineptitude. Each laugh pierces his side like a lance, and blood bubbles forth from his lips.

Seifer's laughter dominates the parade ground, which has suddenly fallen silent. He sees a group of three figures cutting a swath through the crowd. The scar on his face burns with anticipation as its brother nears. The blood in his mouth boils with his thirst for vengeance.

Squall...

Squall ascends the parade vehicle, silent, resolute. Flanking him is a man in a long coat, rifle in hand -- the assassin, no doubt. On Squall's other side walks a young woman, dark-haired and beautiful. He recognizes this girl as a figure from his past: Rinoa.

Of course, Squall. You always tried to take everything that belonged to me.

Squall stands before Seifer and draws his gunblade. Once again, their blades meet in a clash of sparks. Seifer grits his teeth in agony, the pain from his wounds almost unbearable. His blood covers the ground, causing Hyperion to slide from his grip, preventing his feet from finding purchase.

Squall moves like a spirit of the wind, and Seifer loses the battle in the span of a few heartbeats. Choking on his own blood, Seifer watches in horror as Squall approaches the wounded Sorceress. Her Knight fallen, she kneels, exposing her elegant neck, eyes pleading with Seifer, imploring him to save her. He tries to stand, but loss of blood has weakened him. His body has betrayed him, failed him, just as he has betrayed and failed his Sorceress.

Squall's blade shoots sharply into the air and neatly severs her head from her neck. Her delicate body crumples to the ground, lifeless. Squall disdainfully wipes the blood on her gown, and kicks her body over. Her severed head rolls toward Seifer and comes to rest facing him, the empty eyes transformed in death from beseeching to accusing.

Squall stands over him, illuminated by the raging fire. He raises his blade, as before, only now it trickles blood. Seifer smiles weakly, waiting to accompany his Sorceress into death. As Seifer waits for the dolorous stroke, Squall offers him a cold salute, before shouldering his blade and casually walking away.

This display of contempt enrages Seifer, but he cannot find the strength to protest. The accusing eyes of the Sorceress haunt him as the world fades to red. He can hear her cold voice now, lyrically mocking him.

Foolish boy, playing at being a Knight. You are no Knight, child, you are a...

...failure is not an option.

The SeeD mantra rings in Seifer's ears, as he surveys the small group before him: Squall, Zell, and the little brown-haired messenger girl. This small cadet, so eager to please, has just conveyed the order to retreat, signaling the end of the field exam. Seifer has not yet finished his crusade -- there are still soldiers to drive off, battles to be won -- but he reluctantly conveys the order.

Seifer has exited the Communications Tower and started to sprint towards the transport ships when he hears the sounds of battle behind him. Turning, he sees the other three cadets being pursued by a massive war machine, a hideous contrivance of pistons and gears, built to emulate a spider. He pauses to watch as the machine, moving incomprehensibly fast, catches up to them. Although the better part of the day has been spent fighting, their training serves them well, and they never falter. Squall moves with all his customary ability, and Seifer idly runs a hand across the scar he received earlier that day. The messenger girl, too, fights skillfully, and Seifer notices that her bubbly demeanor has vanished, replaced with a cold mask of concentration.

The most impressive force, though, is Zell, his entire body functioning as a perfect weapon. His hands and feet slam into the machine repeatedly, and it is the machine's metal exoskeleton that suffers from the collision. He instinctively, intuitively, seeks out the machine's weakest points and pummels them with a berserker's rage and fury. Soon Zell is a blur of motion, striking the machine some 15 times in a matter of seconds. With a final sputter, it crashes to the ground, immobile.

Seifer applauds mockingly as the three turn away from the machine. He waits for them to start telling him that the entire fight is his fault, a result of his order to abandon their assigned position. Not that he cares. Before they have a chance to speak, though, a look of horror crosses his face though, when, over their shoulders, he sees the unholy spider repairing itself. Torn metal mends, dents smooth over, and bit by bit, all the damage done to the machine vanishes. They notice it too, and waste no time in fleeing the scene, the horrible clanking sound moving ever closer. Occasionally, Seifer glances behind them, checking on the machine's progress.

By the time they reach the shore, Squall and the messenger girl are keeping pace with Seifer, and once they reach the transport vessel, he breathes a sigh of relief before noticing Zell's absence.

Zell is still on the beach, his small frame almost entirely dwarfed by the enormous automaton. A sharp cry of pain escapes Zell's lips as he grips his leg, falling to the ground with a fiercely cramping muscle. This is all the advantage the machine needs, and it raises one wickedly barbed leg, preparing to impale the small man.

With a speed born of desperation, Seifer climbs the ladder to the gunner's turret of the vessel, shoving Quistis out of her seat behind the cannon. Barely taking the time to aim, he points the massive weapon at the robot and squeezes both triggers, hoping at least to buy the struggling Zell time to reach his feet.

The triggers, rather than giving way, merely hold their positions, and Seifer feels his heart sink. Frantically, he checks the chambers of both barrels, only to find that the gun has not jammed. A quick glance down at the control panel reveals the safety mechanism, still locked. His fingers struggle to release the catch, but to no avail.

Zell scurries frantically away from the machine as its leg, glinting in the harsh sunlight, flies downwards. It pierces Zell's body in the stomach, striking him with such force that his body nearly splits in half. Zell writhes on the beach in torment, lips unable to form a scream. As he flails under the machine's weight, Zell's eyes catch Seifer's and damn him with their pain. The force of Zell's hatred is tangible. Not only has Seifer spent years taunting, mocking, and bullying him, he has cut Zell's life short through recklessness and bravado.

Seifer screams, sinking to the deck as the vessel's engines roar to life. The machine on the beach recedes from view, but not before Seifer sees it scraping Zell against the rocks, trying to free its leg from his body.

A shadow falls over Seifer as Quistis looks down at him, arms crossed over her chest. Tears are welling up in her eyes, but she stoically holds them back. Her silence frightens Seifer more than her anger ever could, and he knows the accusations that face him. If he had obeyed orders, merely by staying in one place, Zell would still be alive.

Seifer descends the ladder, trying to turn invisible, trying to avoid the reproachful glares of Squall and the messenger girl. She only knew Zell for a fraction of an hour, and in that time proved a better friend than Seifer ever had. Instead of the relieved chatter of victorious comrades, a pall hangs over the ship as it speeds away from Dollet, leaving Zell's blood to mingle with the softly lapping...

...waves of energy pour from the machine as the Sorceress Adel's bonds snap, one at a time. Seifer fiercely shoves Rinoa towards the towering monstrosity that is Adel. The Sorceress has become a mockery of the human form. Her powers have made the darkness within her manifest.

Adel, still partially sealed, stands well over eight feet tall. Her face has twisted into a permanent expression of rage and her skin has a mottled gray hue. Her arms eagerly reach for Rinoa, sharp talons clacking together as they reach for the precious girl. As Rinoa draws close, tentacles stretch forward to caress the dark-haired girl's face. Vestigial wings, leathery, like a bat's, twitch with excitement. The gills on the side of Adel's neck flutter as she breathes in. Her legs are still fused together, joined into one from years of stasis. As she struggles to free herself, the long-unused muscles pop audibly.

Seifer delivers Rinoa to the waiting monster, and Adel leers at this willing service. They have all but abandoned the pretense of Sorceress and Knight. No true Knight would offer up an innocent for sacrifice, but Seifer no longer cares. The duty of a Knight is to protect his Sorceress, from both physical harm and from the temptation to abuse her power. He has failed in both of these regards, Seifer knows, but he stubbornly refuses to accept defeat.

You've taken everything from me, Squall. My hopes of becoming a SeeD, my dream of being a Knight. You even made Fujin and Raijin desert me. Well I know you, Squall, and I can tell how you feel about Rinoa, so let's see how you handle having the one thing that matters to you stripped away.

Adel holds Rinoa to her and their bodies fuse. The joining complete, Adel begins to sap Rinoa's power. As her strength increases, Adel's veins become prominent, running close to the surface, thick with black blood. Rinoa attempts to struggle, but her energy fades too quickly. All too soon, Rinoa is dead, and Adel casts her aside, a desiccated husk, the shell of a seventeen-year-old who looks eighty. Her corpse lands at Squall's feet, and he stares on, dumbfounded.

In a single mighty surge, Adel's bonds snap and she steps out of the containment chamber. The threat this motion represents stirs Squall back to activity. He draws his gunblade, but seems unable to turn his gaze away from Rinoa's body. By the time he can focus enough to look at Adel, vengeance on his face, his fate is sealed.

With one hand, Adel lashes out, grabbing Squall by the shoulder. Absorbing Rinoa's essence has given her the strength of a titan, and she sends Squall hurtling to the other end of the room, where he collides forcibly with the wall.

There. Think you can kill him now, my Knight?

Her mocking voice echoes in his head. To strike Squall dead would be to abandon completely any hopes of being a Knight. Still, Adel's siren song, the promise of revenge, proves too great to resist.

His heart races uncontrollably as he walks over to Squall. He tries to remain calm, but the chance to prove his superiority to the world overwhelms him. As he stands over Squall, his mind races back to the day when they'd scarred each other. He can feel his wound opening and hot blood running down his face.

This is it, Squall. Admit defeat. Bow before me.

Squall looks up at Seifer, the storm in his eyes raging like never before. Without ever taking his eyes off Seifer, Squall slowly stands up, leaning against the wall for support. Those bones that have not already broken snap as he moves. Seifer can see bones piercing Squall's flesh in several places, and they both know that his internal organs are in no better shape.

Arms crossed over his chest, Seifer grins in malevolent triumph. A weak gurgling emanates from Squall's throat, but his shattered jaw prevents him from speaking. Seifer leans in to listen, and Squall spits, a gout of blood spattering Seifer's face and clothes. Snarling, Seifer plunges a fist into one of Squall's gaping wounds. The strength of the pain is enough to drive the dark-haired man back to the ground, where Seifer kicks him viciously.

Well done, my Knight. Now sacrifice him to me. Show me your devotion.

He turns to face the Sorceress. Adel's form has gone, replaced by a massive emptiness, a great hungry vacuum waiting to feast on the life of her enemies.

Give him to me, and we will show the world what it truly means to be Sorceress and Knight. You, my child, will be the first of a line of Knights that will scourge the world for centuries.

Seifer raises his blade to strike, the chance for revenge, for a place in history glittering before him like a prize. As Squall's strength ebbs, the venomous energies of the Sorceress grow. Seifer starts to lose himself within the all-encompassing darkness. Seifer turns again to look at Squall. Where Squall's body came to rest, now Seifer lays on the ground, broken, almost every bone in his body shattered. One Seifer struggles to form a word, and the other Seifer almost loses the sound amid the gurgle of blood.

Edea...

Memories come flooding back to him. He remembers growing up in the orphanage by the sea, setting off firecrackers at night, playing at the old lighthouse. He remembers his childhood friends, the kids he used to pick on, but still considered friends anyway: bossy Quisty, Irvine -- who always wanted to play cowboys, cheerful Selphie, Crybaby Zell, and even quiet Squall.

He remembered all the things Matron -- the Sorceress Edea -- taught them. The stories she used to tell at bedtime. He remembered her teaching him about honor, about what it really meant to be a Knight.

Matron, can I be a Knight too?

Not yet, Seifer. You're too young, and besides, it's bedtime.

I wanna be your Knight, Matron. I'd beat up anyone who tried to hurt you.

I'm not a Sorceress, Seifer. And besides, being a Knight isn't about beating people up. It's about protecting people, especially people who can't protect themselves. It's about facing up to your fears. It's about acting with courage, honor, and compassion, and about living as an example to others.

Seifer looks down at his own bloodied form, and knows that he will not survive. He looks up at the Adel-void and senses her rage. This death will truly free her, and she is most displeased with Seifer's hesitation.

Seifer's memory, once triggered, continues to rush through the events of his life. Suddenly, he begins to understand. He remembers the ceremony, the Sorceress investing him with a portion of her power, that they might always be together.

This is a dream. None of this is real.

Seifer stands in a field, a massive flower garden. The rainbow of color explodes in all directions around him, and he shields his eyes from the sudden sunlight. As he grows accustomed to the brightness, he sees, in the distance, a tree on a hill. Eager to survey his surroundings, he sets off in that direction.

The constant struggle of the dream has sapped his strength, but this field revitalizes him. Every breath of the clean air fills his lungs and purges the exhaustion from him. By the time he reaches the tree he feels healthy again. He sits down beneath the tree and closes his eyes. For the first time in what seems like ages, he feels rested and peaceful.

A noise before him catches his attention and he opens his eyes, jumping to his feet and reaching for a weapon that isn't there. He finds himself eye to eye with an enormous lion, its mane brilliant and golden. The lion sits on its haunches, and coolly regards Seifer. Its face betrays no expression of intent, but Seifer does not feel threatened by the creature. It is waiting for him to make the first move.

An owl alights on a branch over his head. Its gaze is piercing, and it looks through Seifer as much as at him. Its sharp talons grip the branch but it, too, makes no threatening overtures. The owl continues to scrutinize him, and Seifer can sense its evaluating him.

A coyote bounds on the scene, jumping in circles around the lion, eager and exuberant. The lion, still watching Seifer, makes no notice of the dog, which suddenly begins chasing its own tail. The creature spins in circles, whirling ever faster. It comes to a crashing halt when it accidentally runs into Seifer. The creature stands back up and sniffs at Seifer's hand. Charmed by the creature, Seifer cannot help but scratching the coyote's ears. It revels in the affection, licking Seifer's hand eagerly.

The lion spoils their interaction by standing up. It stretches slowly, graceful, and Seifer can see the long, lean muscles that move the great cat. With deliberate steps, the lion begins walking away. It turns to look over its shoulder, and Seifer realizes that he should follow the beast. Seifer rises too, and sets out after the creature. The owl follows from the sky, making lazy circles in the air but always moving forward. The coyote circles Seifer, jumping playfully around him. Rather than playing a game, though, Seifer realizes that the coyote is herding him, moving him to follow the lion.

After a time, they reach a precipice. All three animals watch Seifer as he steps close to the cliff. Looking over the edge, he sees a thick gray liquid. It bubbles and oozes with a life of its own. Creatures seem to rise out of the muck, humanoid figures writhing in agony. Some of them attempt to climb up the cliff face, to escape the viscous substance, but it always rises up to claim them back again.

Seifer turns to look at the animals that brought him here. They all watch him, staring intently. He knows what they want him to do: plunge into this murky pool. He does not know if he will survive the fall or be consumed by the stuff, or become one of those horrid broken creatures inside.

Finally, the coyote moves over to him, and nuzzles his hand. It looks up at Seifer with imploring eyes. The other two creatures display no emotion, but the mixture of sympathy, sorrow, and compassion in the coyote's eyes convince him. Seifer, without allowing himself the time to think twice, dives off the cliff and into the bubbling gray waste.

The stuff fills his ears, mouth, and nose. He desperately wants to scream, but fears wasting the air in his lungs. With no light to guide him, he begins swimming, attempting to find a way out of this pool. Occasionally, something unseen brushes past him.

He surfaces in Adel's chamber, holding Hyperion, and the weapon feels perfect in his hand. It crackles with energy and the blade seems sharp enough to cut the air. The two have joined, linked by a unity of purpose.

Seifer feels awake and alive, energized as never before. He whirls on Adel, whom he now recognizes as Ultimecia, with his gunblade at the ready. She lashes out, a tentacle of pure blue energy whipping through the air at him.

You've failed so many times, child. Do you really think you can stop me?

The voice in his head resonates, and his mind flashes back to Squall, standing victorious over him. Cid, lecturing him, promising that Seifer would never become a SeeD.

Seifer jumps in the air, throwing himself directly at her lash. They meet in the air, and he cuts cleanly through the whip.

Do you really think anyone cares if you live or die? After everything you've done, do you think you have a friend left in the world?

Raijin and Fujin walking out on him. Squall, suffering interrogation and torture at Seifer's command. The innocent victims killed in the missile strike on Trabia Garden. The city of Esthar, decimated under the Lunar Cry.

Ultimecia's lash catches him this time, and he barely manages to muster the will to free himself. The pain rages around him, and she forces on him the memory of every moment of weakness Seifer ever had, every cruel or unkind act he perpetrated. Every negative emotion he ever experienced, she hurls at him, the mental anguish magnified a hundred-fold.

Gritting his teeth, he throws himself at the enormous vortex. He plunges into the darkness, blade drawn and readied. Inside, he finds another Seifer, bound hand and foot, starved, malnourished, tortured. He reaches out for this other Seifer, and the world explodes.

Suddenly, his soul is on fire. The two Seifers merge, and he feels the long months of pain recede before him. The Ultimecia parts of his soul burn, scorched away as Seifer heals.

His eyes fly open, and his vision is blocked by darkness. He struggles to move, and finds himself floating in some kind of jelly. He tries to scream, but cannot, the mask forcing oxygen into his lungs.

The tank empties, and Seifer sinks slowly to the floor. He lies there, panting, fingers struggling to remove the mask.

The darkness melts away, and Seifer sees a vast room around him. People are everywhere, staring at him. They're speaking, but he cannot understand the sounds they make. He pushes forward in distress, crashing into the glass.

A man rushes forward, compassion in his eyes. He holds one hand up to the glass, and his presence serves to calm Seifer.

His long battle over, Seifer allows sleep -- true, restful sleep -- to overcome him. As he drifts gently into unconsciousness, it occurs to Seifer that he has seen this man before, in a movie that he watched countless times in his childhood.

I've been saved, Seifer thought, by the Sorceress' Knight...

10.

Seifer sat on the edge of his bed, looking out the window at the brilliant golden sunset. The buildings of Esthar, with their magnificent glass and crystal facades, played with the sunlight as it streaked across the sky. The beauty of the dazzling prismatic display awed Seifer, but his current situation didn't allow him much time to reflect on the wondrous city. His mind raced in circles, trying to figure out how he'd come to be a prisoner in Esthar. A well-treated prisoner, true, but a prisoner nonetheless.

Stop. Relax. Breathe.

Years of training at Garden served him well. His warrior's discipline returned to him as he took a series of deep breaths. Slowly, deliberately, he calmed his nerves, found his center, and reviewed the facts for the hundredth time.

He remembered participating in the sack of Esthar, watching the monsters from the Lunar Cry engulf the city. He remembered fighting with Squall, and losing. He remembered handing Rinoa over to Adel, and watching Squall rescue the girl. After that, his memories turned hazy and indistinct.

He had a fleeting memory of waking up in a vat of liquid, and seeing Laguna Loire, the actor from the Sorceress' Knight films watching him. That he wrote off as a hallucination.

Then he awakened in this room, overlooking the city of Esthar. The guards posted outside his door clearly didn't view talking to him as part of their duty. So, without their help, Seifer assumed that someone incarcerated him for his actions in service of the Sorceress. And those actions, he surmised, would render him a war criminal.

Still, he found his confinement quite luxurious. The massive room had a dazzling view of the Esthar skyline, a moderately diverse library, and a host of other amenities. Seifer found himself wishing for a television, just so he could start to figure out the state of current events, but other than that, and, of course, his restricted freedom, he had no complaints. The conspicuous absence of a television, though, did indicate to Seifer that his captors didn't want him to see his face all over the news.

Besides, how many hours had he spent in Balamb Garden's detention center for one infraction or another? If he could stand that, he'd be damned if this... hotel room could break his spirit.

For want of anything better to do, Seifer flopped back on the bed and began mentally compiling a list of the crimes he would have to answer for. He approached the issue several different ways, but in the end, found it simplest to break the list down by individual jurisdictions that would want his head.

Balamb Garden. Galbadia Garden. Trabia Garden, if there's anything left standing. Deling City. Balamb Town. Esthar. Timber.

Which leaves three places for me to hide: Fisherman's Horizon, Winhill, and Dollet.

Fisherman's Horizon will be glad to extradite me to Esthar, and Dollet is too close to Deling City. That leaves Winhill.

With this in mind, Seifer began planning his escape route. He began with Esthar, proceeding from the assumption that he would not be able to secure an escape vehicle. From Esthar, he'd have to move up the railroad track to Fisherman's Horizon, where he'd have to maintain a low profile until he could return to the mainland. He proceeded through a half-dozen contingencies before he felt satisfied. This done, he started reverse engineering plans, beginning with Winhill, and tracking his steps back to Esthar.

Of course, this all assumes I escape. I'll probably be executed before I even get the chance.

A knock on the door snapped him out of his reverie. The sound surprised him, as he normally only expected it at mealtime. The fact that someone knocked at his door outside of the routine indicated that it could well be a visitor, or, at least, an executioner.

At any rate, it's time to get some answers. With any luck, whoever it is will have a weapon, or be of sufficient rank to make a passable hostage.

Seifer stood up and crossed the room, so he stood directly in front of the window. This way, he reasoned, anyone entering the room would have to look directly into the brilliant sunlight, hopefully blinding them long enough for him to spring into action. He needed nothing more than a fraction of a second. Not only had he spent many years in Balamb Garden's detention center, he also spent many years breaking out of Balamb Garden's detention center. A well-honed skill, which, he hoped, would serve him here.

"Come in," he called out, tensing his muscles so he could make his move the moment the door opened.

The door slid open, and Seifer's hallucination confronted him again: Laguna Loire. Dumbfounded, Seifer's escape plans slipped quietly out of his mind.

"Hi," Laguna said, walking over to Seifer and extending a hand, "Laguna..."

"Loire," Seifer finished. "I know who you are, but why'd they send you?"

"Pardon?" Laguna asked. "Why'd who send me?"

"My captors. Why would they send a movie star?"

"I see," Laguna said, beginning to get the picture. "I suppose, technically, I'm your captor. I'm the President of Esthar."

"So Esthar won the coin toss? When's the execution?"

"Whoa! Who said anything about an execution?"

"Well, what do you normally do with war criminals? Let them linger in some inaccessible political prison? That option is a perennial favorite in Galbadia. Do I get a trial? I've always loved courtroom scenes."

Seifer found himself pleased with the conversation thus far. He'd managed to steer it almost point-for-point. Seifer missed his opportunity to assault Laguna -- President Loire, if he spoke the truth -- physically. In his weakened state, Seifer knew, he didn't dare attack without the advantage of surprise in his favor. With that avenue closed to him, Seifer settled for attempting to disorient Laguna into revealing something that might prove useful.

"Who said anything about war criminals? You aren't a war criminal!"

"So why do you have me locked up here?"

"For your own protection."

"Ha!" Seifer snorted. "That's amusing."

"Listen," Laguna said, speaking slowly and deliberately in order to keep his explanation cogent. "This is the Presidential Palace of Esthar. You are here, as per my request, in protective custody. There are, however, a number of people -- both inside and outside Esthar -- who would like to see you executed for war crimes. I'm trying to keep that from happening. I just need to buy some time until I can figure out what we're going to do with you, and then you'll be free. I promise."

"And why, exactly, do you want to help me?"

Laguna rolled his eyes. "Why does everyone keep on asking me that question? Don't you know you're not supposed to punch a gift horse in the mouth?"

"It's 'look,'" Seifer said, "you're not supposed to 'look' a gift horse in the mouth."

"Anyway," Laguna said, "that's hardly the point. The bottom line is that I don't want to see you torn apart by an angry mob. If I wanted that, I wouldn't have wasted my time with bringing you back to your senses."

Seifer shot back a question. "What do you mean by that?"

"Do you remember anything after you offered Rinoa up to Adel?"

"No." He squinted, trying to call the pictures back into his mind. "I remember Squall grabbing Rinoa away from Adel. Then everything started to... melt. Like wax. Then... nothing. So either something major happened or you've been slipping some heavy drugs into my food."

"Time Compression. We all experienced it a little differently, but that's what you remember. What you aren't remembering though, is the time you spent hospitalized here in Esthar."

"Why was I...?" Seifer asked.

"After getting trounced by Squall and his friends, Ultimecia made one last bid for power, and she did so by possessing you."

"The ceremony..." Seifer whispered, almost to himself.

"What?"

He blinked, turning to Laguna. "She said we'd always be together. That I'd never be out of her reach. That she'd never let me go. It was my reward, for being her loyal Knight."

"It was her escape plan. She almost managed to take total control of your body." Seifer nodded gravely at this.

"You should have just killed me. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble."

"What?" Suicide seemed like a foreign notion to Laguna. "How can you say that?"

"Think about it? Where exactly am I supposed to go? Even if I leave Esthar alive, there's still no shortage of people who'd like the chance to spit on my grave. You may as well execute me now. I'm sure it would do wonders for your popularity..."

"No one is executing anyone!" Laguna finally exclaimed. "I need a little time to come up with a plan."

"Laguna?" Kiros' voice filtered through the door as he knocked. "You're needed in your office. It's urgent."

As he stood up, Laguna looked over at Seifer "Don't do anything foolish, okay? I don't know how long this will take, but I need you to wait here."

"I hardly think I'm in a position to go anywhere." The cynical expression on Seifer's face vanished when he saw the intensity in Laguna's eyes.

"Say the words." Laguna commanded.

"Wha-"

"The oath. I want to hear it."

Seifer bowed his head, and called up the words he knew so well. He spoke them clearly, as he had a hundred times before. He'd spent hours in front of the mirror, practicing. He'd recorded himself on tape, so he could study every syllable of every word. He'd recited the words with a mouthful of marbles to perfect his enunciation. He'd shouted down thunderstorms, to master the volume.

"A Knight's honor is his armor. It protects him and it demands his constant care. He must remain vigilant, and on guard against the smallest flaw. A Knight's honor is his sword. It is the weapon he wields to protect his Sorceress, it is the torch he carries to drive back the darkness. A Knight's honor is his essence. A Knight without honor is without his reason, his purpose, his breath, or his blood.

"On my honor as a Knight, I swear this oath with you and the heavens as my witness. Should I break this oath, may the road always wind beneath my feet, never leading me home, until the darkness comes to claim me."

Laguna nodded curtly and walked towards the door.

"Of course, your realize," Seifer said, feeling a weight closing in on him, "that I traded away whatever honor I had to curry Adel's favor. After what I've done, you can't consider me any kind of a Knight."

Laguna paused in the doorway. "Sounds like it's time to start over."

11.

Laguna moved through the halls of the Presidential Palace, following close behind Kiros.

"So what's this all about, Kiros? What's so important it couldn't wait?"

"Squall's on the line. He insists on speaking to you, and won't tell anyone why. Your secretary refused to interrupt you, at which point he demanded to speak to me. I didn't really want to interrupt you either, but something about his manner... I don't know. I think it's really important."

"Do you think he's in some sort of trouble?" Laguna asked, concerned. The two men breezed right by Laguna's secretary without acknowledging her presence.

"I think he might be sick," Kiros responded as they stopped in front of the door.

"What gives you that idea?"

"Well, anyone who wants to speak to you that badly has to have something wrong with them."

Laguna shook his head and entered his office, closing the door behind him. He took a seat behind his desk, and flipped on the monitor.

The screen flared the SeeD insignia, and Laguna stared at it idly for a few moments, waiting, he knew, while Squall checked to make sure their conversation transmitted over a secure line.

When Squall's face finally appeared, it struck Laguna once more how much the boy resembled his mother. He nearly made a remark to that effect, but Squall's demeanor, even more severe than usual, stopped him at once.

"Well, I can tell by your expression that this isn't a social call, so what's on your mind, son?"

Squall didn't answer for a few moments. He simply sat and stared, thinking how best to give his words their proper weight.

"Seifer," he said, without anything more.

"Excuse me?" Laguna said, beginning to rise to his feet. "It sounded like you said 'Seifer.'"

"I did," Squall answered. "I know that you've managed to revive him. What do you intend to do with him?"

This statement stunned Laguna. Only a few people in the palace had access to that information. Enough people that he'd never be able to pinpoint the informant, but few enough to make him suspicious of everyone around him.

"Well," Squall asked, startling him, "have you decided yet?"

"Not exactly, no. But how did you..."

"You know I can't answer that question. Are you going to send him to trial? Because we've decided to claim jurisdiction."

"What?" Laguna asked, incredulous.

"Upon receiving word that Seifer's condition improved, we went into conference over the matter. Seifer was spending time in the detention facility when he broke out and made his assault on Timber. And since no one ever pursued further disciplinary action after that point, he's still a cadet, and therefore our responsibility."

"And you, Squall? Where do you stand on this issue? I mean, I don't doubt for a moment that you were consulted on this decision."

"My personal feelings have no bearing here," Squall said. "What does matter is the fact that I'm under orders to oversee Seifer's return to Garden."

"Damn it, Squall, this isn't about orders! You and Seifer grew up together. I mean, maybe you don't like him, but surely you don't want to see him executed!"

"What I want is of no consequence here. He led a full-scale assault on Balamb Garden, an action that killed a number of cadets and SeeDs. I grew up with them, too. " Squall's voice remained flat and unemotional the entire time. He might as well have read a grocery list for all the passion he expressed. Laguna felt his temperature start to rise. Squall's mother, Raine, had the same talent - the ability to detach from any situation, meeting heartfelt arguments with cold, icy logic. Of course, the trait expressed itself more strongly in Squall, but it seemed a poignant reminder of Raine.

"And what about the fact that he was controlled by the Sorceress? Doesn't that mitigate the circumstances at all?"

"That's not for me to decide. I am merely assigned to bring him back to Balamb Garden."

"What if I refuse to surrender him?" Laguna asked, crossing his arms over his chest in satisfaction, thinking he'd stumped his son.

Squall paused for a moment, and Laguna thought he saw the flicker of a grimace crossing the young man's face.

"Please don't make me explore that option." Laguna heard the veiled threat implicit in Squall's words, along with his son's desire not to resort to violence.

"Fine," he said. "If SeeD is willing to use force to retrieve Seifer, than the government of Esthar will - reluctantly, and only in the interest of peace - comply. However, we take umbrage with your Garden's strong-arm tactics."

"Understood." Squall nodded his head curtly. "I will be sending the Ragnarok to pick up the prisoner immediately. Please have him ready for transport by that time."

Laguna nodded, feeling defeated, and moved to turn off the screen.

"Laguna?" Squall asked, almost as an afterthought.

Laguna looked up. "Yeah?"

"I'm... sorry it has to be this way," Squall said, the pained look on his face bearing witness to the fact that it took great effort even to utter this simple confession.

"So am I, Squall," Laguna replied. He wanted to say more, to give Squall some sort of lecture on the difference between duty and humanity, but held back. All the moralizing in the world wouldn't change Squall's mind, Laguna reasoned, especially not coming from the father he'd never known. Squall's peers at Balamb Garden represented his only true family, whether Laguna liked it or not.

They exchanged a few words in parting and then signed off. Laguna's office suddenly seemed far too large. He felt small and alone, a sensation intensified by the news he now had to deliver to Seifer.

* *

As the door to his cell swung open, Seifer turned around to see Laguna entering, hands in pockets.

"That bad, huh?" he asked.

Laguna nodded slowly, unsure of how to proceed. Once he started speaking, though, he found himself incapable of stopping. "That was Squall. He said that Balamb Garden wants you back. I wouldn't have done it, but Squall said - okay, he didn't say so much as he implied - that Garden was willing to use force to bring you back..."

Seifer held up his hand, nodding in comprehension. He looked out the window for a long moment, and then turned back to Laguna.

"It's probably best this way. Cid hates to let an infraction go unpunished. He'll get to prove his point. Everyone else gets their villain; my death will prove that the good guys always win. And we all sleep a little better at night, knowing blame has been properly assigned."

"Don't you even care if you live or die? I mean, are you willing to throw your life away just like that?"

This time Seifer's eyes fixed on a patch of carpet. He noticed the signs of wear on it, from where the door opened and closed over it, and found himself hypnotized by this trivial fact as he spoke.

"Don't you see? Even if SeeD doesn't get me, someone else will. I've made enough enemies by now to know that they'll never let me rest. I'll spend the remainder of my life on the run, wolves always at my heels... It's not that I'm not grateful to you. It's just that... right now, I'm so... tired."

Seifer paused for a moment, and he took several slow breaths.

"It sounds crazy, but when I was coming out of my... coma, it was like I was on some vision quest. It made me understand the whole situation. I got greedy. I started lusting after the power and authority Ultimecia granted me. And, sure, I partially acted the way I did because she was... nudging me, but really, she never forced me to do anything. I wanted power, and respect, and I did some bad things to get them. I feel terrible about what I did, but I knew what I was doing the entire time."

Laguna let Seifer's words hang in the air. No response seemed adequate. Still, he felt obligated to fill the awkward silence.

"Well. If this is what you want to do, I can't stop you, especially since the Ragnarok is on its way here."

"Thank you for understanding. If I can make one request?"

"What?" Laguna asked, all the fight out of him.

"Can I have my old clothes back? They're expecting to see me in my trench coat, and I wouldn't want to disappoint my fans."

12.

Galen sat down on one of the benches in the Quad and allowed himself a moment to rest. Even at the young age of twelve, the life of a SeeD cadet granted little in the way of free time. On this particular day, he didn't have a break as such. However, Instructor Dincht announced that he'd give an impromptu lecture in the Quad, on fighting an armed assailant barehanded, and, owing to Zell's popularity, a number of Instructors consented to release their students into his charge for the afternoon.

So he sat, waiting and watching the assembling crowd, when he heard a menacing voice from behind him.

"Well... what have we here?" Galen whirled around to find Instructor Petrosian towering over him. Petrosian stood nearly two meters tall, had jet-black hair, and one thick eyebrow that joined in the center of his forehead. In his hands, the Instructor held Galen's two-bladed sword.

"All cadets, fall in!" Petrosian barked, and everyone scrambled to comply. After the cadets hastily assembled before him, he eyed them for a moment. As the only student currently not holding a weapon, Galen felt very out of place.

"Can anyone tell me whose weapon this is?" Petrosian asked, holding out the sword.

"It belongs to me, sir." Galen said, stepping forward.

"That can't be right," the Instructor replied, turning the sword over and examining it closely. "Because it certainly wasn't within arm's reach, was it, cadet?"

"No sir," Galen said, bowing his head slightly in shame.

"You'll look at me when I'm addressing you, cadet," Petrosian yelled, stepping closer to Galen. "I'll tell you when you can look away. Now, what's the rule on placement of weapons?"

"If your weapon is drawn, it must remain within arm's reach," all the cadets answered in unison.

"That's right, cadets," Petrosian said, "but I think it's time to teach you all a lesson. Place your weapons at two arm's distances. When I give the signal, go for your weapons. I'll be moving down the line. First cadet to deliver a hit on me with their weapon wins."

The cadets did as Petrosian instructed. He took a step back from Galen, and looked the young man right in the eye.

"Go!" he bellowed.

Instantly, all the cadets dove for their weapons. Petrosian's arm lashed out and smashed Galen in the stomach, doubling the boy over in pain. Continuing his motion, he whirled around and struck the next cadet in the nose. He continued down the line, pummeling one cadet after another, until the eighth student in line managed to protect himself with his quarterstaff.

"Good." Petrosian said. "Have you all learned your lesson?"

"Yes, sir!" the cadets responded, some of them through blood-filled mouths.

"You know, kids," he sneered, "I'm just not convinced. Same drill."

Once again, the students placed their weapons out of reach. Petrosian started at the other end of the line, attacking each cadet with brutal force. The second time, he only made it as far as the sixth student before he stopped.

"Again!" he screamed. This time, he began in the middle of the line. He repeated this drill until the cadets were little more than a bloodstained mass. As he worked his way down the line again, a voice cut through the crowd.

"Petrosian: stop!"

He halted in the middle of his attack, and turned to face the interloper. The cadets, all fearing the Instructor's wrath, stood at rigid attention, not even facing the newcomer.

"Dincht," Petrosian snarled. "Is there something you want, or may I resume my lesson?"

"This isn't a lesson. You're just beating them up." Zell and Selphie stood on the stairs, taking in the scene. Her face registered deep concern for the students, but Zell locked his gaze on Petrosian, anger visible in his eyes.

"I'm proving a point, Dincht," Petrosian said, speaking slowly, "a point about leaving their weapons too far away."

"What you're proving is that you're a sadistic asshole who gets his jollies by picking on junior cadets because he can't find a date on Saturday night."

Some of the cadets snickered at this, despite trying to contain their laughter. Petrosian immediately reddened at this humiliation. He reached behind him and pulled a pair of butterfly knives from their sheaths. As he twirled them, he hissed at Zell. "You'd better hope Dr. Kadowaki knows a good plastic surgeon, runt, because I'm going to ruin that pretty face of yours."

Petrosian towered over Zell, standing nearly a foot taller than the blond man did. Zell smiled and turned to Selphie. He carefully unzipped his jacket and handed it to her, exposing his well-defined muscles and the intricate network of tattoos lining his back. Bare-chested now, he bounced on the balls of his feet a few times and punched the air experimentally.

Turning back to Petrosian, he grinned, taking up his fighting stance. "Ready when you are."

The two men circled each other, Petrosian deadly serious, Zell with a perpetual grin on his face. When the larger man lunged forward, Zell grabbed his arm, smashing his fist directly into the Instructor's nose. Using Petrosian's momentum against him, Zell pulled his assailant forward, spinning around once the man cleared him and punching the Instructor firmly in his right kidney. Petrosian crumpled to the ground.

By this point, the students had gathered into a circle, all spectators eager to see their tormentor receive his punishment. Selphie stood to one side, ready to intervene if she felt the situation escalated beyond Zell's control.

Zell walked over to where Petrosian lay on the ground, and extended a hand to the fallen man, graciously offering to help him up. Petrosian reached for the hand, seeming to accept the offer, but instead brought one of his knives around, slicing Zell's palm open. The assembled crowd reacted with surprise - fights at Garden took place on occasion, but the unspoken prohibition against deliberately wounding your partner occupied a nearly sacred position among the students. Petrosian had crossed the line, and he knew it. His eyes burned with a wild fire. As Zell observed the mania on the other man's face, his smile just widened.

Zell brought his wounded hand behind him, tucked it into the small of his back, and resumed his fighting stance. Petrosian struck again, and Zell neatly sidestepped the blow, moving closer to his attacker. He kneed Petrosian in the groin, doubling the man over and causing him to drop one of his knives. Zell followed up with a roundhouse to the stomach and a high kick to the face that probably broke Petrosian's jaw. This sent Petrosian sprawling to the ground. Zell closed with him and Petrosian, from his prone position, made one last effort to slash at Zell. He kicked the knife out of Petrosian's grasp and brought his foot down on the Instructor's hand. The audible crunch, combined with Petrosian's strangled scream, testified to his now-broken hand.

Without removing his foot from Petrosian's hand, Zell placed his other foot onto Petrosian's throat.

"Who can tell me what I'm about to do?" Zell asked the assembled students.

"You're about to stomp on his throat!" one exclaimed.

"Why?"

"To make his trachea expand so he won't be able to breathe," chimed in another.

"Right. And why did I break his hand?"

"Because he deserved it!" The students laughed aloud at this answer. Petrosian started struggling again, causing Zell to grind his foot down on the already broken hand.

"Why else?" he asked, "Which of the principles of combat am I illustrating?"

"Number 14: if an opponent has a material advantage, use whatever means are necessary to equalize the fight."

"That's the one," Zell said, nodding. "Now, if Instructor Petrosian here promises to behave, maybe I won't kill him. Whaddya say, Petro?"

At this point, the combined pain from his broken hand and jaw took the fight out of Petrosian. He nodded and Zell allowed him to stand up, not extending a hand to him this time. Petrosian had to use both hands to push himself off the ground, and he screamed at the pain.

"Okay, everyone," called Zell, looking at the bloodied but grinning cadets, "I think that's enough for today. Now, if my lovely assistant," here he indicated Selphie, who performed a small curtsey, "would be so kind as to escort you all to the infirmary, Dr. Kadowaki will see to your wounds while I pursue the necessary disciplinary measures."

"Instructor Dincht?" one student asked. "What about Instructor Petrosian? He's wounded too."

Zell grinned back at the student. "I'm sure he knows where the Infirmary is. Perhaps Dr. Kadowaki can recommend a good plastic surgeon."

* *

"We're here to discuss is this business with Instructors Petrosian and Dincht. Xu, can you provide us with a brief overview of the situation?" For once, Headmaster Cid spoke quickly and concisely.

Xu stood up and scanned the meeting room. Squall, Cid, Dr. Kadowaki, and several other staff members had gathered to address the incident. News of the fight spread rapidly, and, true to his word, Zell submitted a claim seeking disciplinary action against Petrosian. Xu punched a few buttons on her handlink, bringing up the profiles of the men on the panels in front of each person. She gave a quick synopsis of the incident and sat back down.

"Thank you, Xu. Is that what you believe happened?"

"It is," she replied. "I spoke to both Selphie and Zell, and their narratives match."

"And Petrosian? What does he have to say?"

"Well, Headmaster," Dr. Kadowaki said, chiming in for Xu, "he's not really in a position to say much of anything. We had to wire his jaw shut, and even with curative magic, it'll take a while before he can speak."

"From what we were able to discern, though" Xu said, "he was harmlessly teaching the students in the Quad when Zell came in looking a fight."

"I treated those students," Kadowaki said. "He wasn't teaching them. It's a good thing Zell stepped in when he did."

"I see," said the Headmaster. "Dr. Kadowaki, what's your assessment of Petrosian, psychologically? Can he continue as an Instructor?"

"He's gone off the deep end. He's always been hungry for violence, but it seems to have escalated recently. Additionally, I think he's showing signs of borderline personality disorder. He's only going to get worse from here on in. To let him continue to work with the students would be courting disaster, especially after today."

Cid nodded. "Squall?"

Squall sat with his gloved hands linked in front of him. He detested these meetings, and more than once thought of resigning his command in order to escape them. "He's due for retirement," Squall said, voicing the inevitable.

"You're certain about this?"

"His mission history shows a continual deterioration in his skills. As of today, he's rendered himself unfit for duty. I have no further use for him."

"Does anyone see a reason to dispute Commander Leonhart's decision?" Cid asked, looking around the room. No one raised a hand. "It's settled, then. Xu, send word along that Instructor Petrosian is to be retired. Don't bother trying to conceal it - he'll make a fine example."

Xu nodded, punching the order into her handlink.

"Next item of business," Cid began, "with the retirement of Petrosian, we need a new Instructor. Suggestions, anyone?"

"How about Selphie?" said Kadowaki. "She did a great job with the students in the infirmary today, and it's obvious they all love her."

"The other day, she mentioned that she'd been thinking of testing for an Instructor's license. This works out perfectly," added Xu.

"Opposed?" Cid asked. Again, no one moved. "Excellent. Inform Selphie, and schedule her to take an exam. Finally," Cid took a deep breath here, and everyone knew the issue he intended to touch upon, "there's the question of what to do with Seifer. Squall, where do we currently stand?"

"The Ragnarok is en route to Esthar to pick him up. He'll be here by the end of the day."

"Good. Well, everyone, let me tell you what I'm thinking. I think we need to deal with him in a Tribunal."

Time seemed to stop. A Tribunal constituted SeeD's most extensive disciplinary measure, a trial conducted in the presence of everyone at Garden. It required the complete cessation of all Garden's other activities.

"We won't be able to begin a Tribunal for another two weeks," Xu said. "We still have contracts we need to close out."

"I know," Cid replied. "This is necessary. We have to show that SeeD will not tolerate betrayal. Does anyone disagree with my assessment?"

Once again, no one spoke against Cid.

"Good. We're done here."

And with that, Cid dismissed them.

13.

The Ragnarok blasted its way through the sky, the speed of the dragon ship reducing all scenery to an indistinct blur. Not that Seifer had much of an interest in looking out the window anyway.

He couldn't keep his mind off his inevitable return to Garden. If the two SeeDs sent to retrieve him served as any kind of indication, Seifer would meet with a chilly reception at best.

Bored, Seifer stood up and stretched, as much as his handcuffs would allow him. One of the two guards immediately sprang to attention.

"What are you doing? Sit down at once!" he exclaimed, drawing out his sidearm.

"Oh, relax," Seifer said, a languid smile crossing his face. "I know Leonhart likes his dogs energetic, but he isn't around now. Even if he's never figured it out, it is permissible to remove the stick from your ass on occasion."

Surprisingly, the guard didn't seem to find this funny. He stood ramrod still, with his weapon pointing at Seifer. By this point, the exchange aroused the interest of the other guard, positioned behind Seifer. He drew his baton and pointed it at Seifer's chest.

"Do what he says, Almasy. We're under orders to bring you in alive, but my little brother died during your assault on Balamb Garden. He was seven years old, and I'd like to beat about seven years off your lifespan."

"Which one was your brother? Was he dumb and ugly, just like you? Did he bleed much? I killed so many puking brats that day it's hard to remember." Seifer didn't seriously expect this response to elicit a reaction, but decided it might prove worth a try.

"Sit down and shut up," said the first guard, the one holding the gun. Seifer cocked his head quizzically and dropped his hands to one of his hips, as if reaching for a concealed weapon.

Both guards reacted at the same time, the one with the baton lunging directly at Seifer, trying to tackle him. Seifer, in turn, dove forward at the guard with the gun. Distracted by the motion of his companion, this guard hesitated to fire, and that millisecond gave Seifer the advantage he needed. Running low, he slammed his shoulder into the first guard's stomach. Using that energy to his advantage, he used both hands to throw the guard into the other SeeD. Without hesitating, Seifer grabbed the discarded pistol and shot both guards in the head twice. He thought for a moment about rearranging the bodies, but decided to leave them in their current state - a grisly tableau serving as testament to the poor quality of the current generation of SeeDs.

Squall's going to love this, he thought.

Moving quickly, Seifer found the security camera overlooking the passenger compartment. Standing on one of the chairs, he pulled one of the wires connecting the unit to the wall, breaking the circuit and putting the camera out of commission. After checking the guard's corpse for an extra clip of ammunition, he continued to move through the ship. In one of the rooms near the engine, he found a high-energy plasma torch, one small enough to tuck into the pocket of his trench coat.

Seifer didn't know his way around the ship, but eventually found his way into the cockpit, where the pilot chatted idly with ground control at Garden. Seifer crept up behind her and threw his handcuffed hands over her head. He pulled back with all his weight and listened for the sound of her throat crumpling. She didn't have time to scream, and he killed her in complete silence, setting the cockpit radio to a non-existent channel, so that the Ragnarok broadcast nothing but static. That completed, he used the torch to break the chain on his handcuffs. The cuffs themselves chafed his wrists, but he could stand the pain until he found a more appropriate moment to break them.

He cracked open the emergency panel on the back wall, removing the last item he needed to complete his hastily devised escape. He tapped a few coordinates on the Ragnarok's navigation system, flipped a switch to override the autopilot, and pressed the panic button.

All this done, he hurried to the cargo compartment and donned the hoversuit he'd found in the cockpit. The suits functioned best as an aerial assault device - Seifer employed them to great effect during his attack on Balamb Garden - but could also function as parachutes. Judging from the battle marks on the suit, SeeD captured this unit during that assault, an irony that Seifer truly enjoyed.

He slammed a button on the wall and the cargo door gaped wide before him. Without hesitation, Seifer threw himself into space, delighted when the hoversuit began slowing his descent. As he drifted towards the ground, he looked up at the Ragnarok, the ship speeding towards an inescapable collision with a mountain. Eventually, some enterprising member of SeeD, seeking, no doubt, to curry favor with Squall, would sift through the wreckage and inventory it. At that point, he would discover that the body of a certain prisoner-in-transit had disappeared. Until that discovery, Seifer had a considerable window of opportunity to go to ground.

Watching the Ragnarok streak towards its doom, he smiled.

"And so," he said, quoting one of his beloved storybooks, "having lured the dragon to its death, the Knight makes good his escape."

As if on cue, the ship impacted at that point, like fireworks commemorating Seifer's departure.

* *

"Hey... Wake up!" Seifer felt someone jostle him sharply, and he looked around, rapidly trying to assess the situation.

"Sorry guys," he said to the two sour-faced guards as they led him away from the passenger section of the Ragnarok. "I was having the most wonderful dream."

* *

Seifer strode down the gangplank of the Ragnarok, head held high, a contemptuous smirk on his face. He entered his former home, proud, defiant, and flanked by two armed guards. His coat flared around him as he moved between the ship and the building. The few students near the door stared openly as he entered, and Seifer knew word of his return would reach every person in Garden by curfew.

The guards herded Seifer past the onlookers and onto the elevator. One of them fed his access card into the slot, allowing the elevator to travel to the third floor, which housed all of the administrative offices.

When the glass elevator stopped, Seifer assumed the glass doors would slide open on the side of Cid's office, the site of countless lectures. When the doors opened on the other side, it served as a stark reminder: the circumstances of his return dwarfed any disciplinary infraction.

They exited the elevator, and the guards led him down the hallway, past the offices of the various Instructors. To one side, Seifer noticed a cleaning crew ransacking an office, removing the personal effects of its former occupant. He wanted to discover which Instructor vacated their post, but the guards pushed him onward before he had the chance.

They paused in front of one of the doors, and one of the guards pressed the buzzer. Almost immediately, they heard the answering buzz, and the door slid open. The two guards escorted him inside. Squall stood up from behind his desk.

"Remove his restraints and leave," he said, without even waiting for the guards to stop moving.

One of the guards started to protest. "Commander..." Squall silenced the younger man with a cold look.

When the guards turned to Seifer, he moved his hands with a quick flourish. He held them up, letting the handcuffs dangle from one of his fingers. As they stared blankly at him, astounded, he casually tossed the handcuffs to the nearest guard. The two young SeeDs seethed, feeling humiliated in front of their commander. By way of answer, Seifer merely smiled innocently, watching them leave the room.

"Sit," Squall ordered, his face as inscrutable as ever.

"Sure thing, 'Commander,'" Seifer replied, taking a seat and massaging his wrists. "By the way, I suppose congratulations are in order. It's a pretty nice deal you've got going here."

Seifer took a moment to glance around the room. The office, he noted, had Squall's trademark design sensibilities. No posters adorned the walls, no potted plants in the corner, no aquariums teeming with fish. Squall simply adopted the room as his own, effecting minimal change. He'd chosen black as the only color in the room, with the occasional spot of white, as on the hands on the clock, or chrome, like the arms of the chairs.

"Cid's calling for a Tribunal," Squall said, after staring at Seifer for a moment.

"I figured he would," Seifer answered. "He's always had it in for me."

"This isn't a normal situation, Seifer. Desertion we can handle - it's in the rule book. But waging an all-out war against us? That's new."

"I know. And I'm..." The sound of the buzzer interrupted Seifer. Squall pressed the button to open the door, clearly displeased at the interruption. He sat behind his desk and stared at the messenger with cold eyes. She held a piece of paper out to him and then stood at rigid attention, waiting for Squall to finish with it. Hastily, he produced a pen and signed it, saying nothing as she took it back out of the room.

"Petrosian," Squall said after the door had closed, knowing the question on Seifer's mind.

"What about him? Don't tell he's been nominated for Instructor of the Year or something stupid like that."

"No. He'll be retired by curfew tonight."

"What? Why? I mean, he was a vicious bastard, but his survival classes were always full."

"He was giving one of his 'lessons' in the Quad and Zell happened upon it. Zell instructed him to stop, and attacked Zell instead. Zell defended himself, but Petrosian took a beating. We discussed the issue while you were in transit and opted to retire him."

"What about Zell?" Seifer asked. "What are they going to doto him?"

"Cid decided that Zell defended himself."

"What do you believe? Remember how Petrosian used to treat Zell when we were younger? I've never seen anyone run that many laps around Garden. There was that one day, after lunch, when Petrosian made Zell run laps until he vomited up his hot dogs. And we all had to stand there and watch."

"Cid took that into account and put Zell on probation. He's two ranks lower for the next six weeks."

"Okay. So why are you telling me all this? I doubt you brought me here for a casual chat."

"I'm telling you this," Squall said, slowly and deliberately,"because I want you to understand the gravity of your situation. Cid's cleaning house. And as it stands, you're next in line."

"I know. Like I was going to say earlier, I'm prepared to face whatever justice the Tribunal metes out. That's why I came back willingly."

"Willingly?" Squall asked.

"Sure," Seifer shot back. "Don't you remember our simulations? I got near-perfect scores on my Improvised Escape exams."

A faint smile of recognition moved across Squall's face.

"I liked the sim where Quistis had to plant the bomb and you were supposed to stop her."

"I know you were going to mention that one!" Seifer exclaimed. "Why does everyone remember that?"

"Because the fact that a girl that small could kick your ass so thoroughly and leave you tied to the very bomb you were supposed to defuse is nothing if not memorable. And it didn't help that Zell took pictures and posted them all over Garden."

"Incidentally," Seifer said, quickly changing the subject, "your errand boys did a pretty poor job. I counted nine times I could have escaped without killing either of them, and another eleven if I killed one or both."

"If you want to stay alive, don't advertise that fact. Stay in the detention facility until the Tribunal and act penitent."

"What's to stop me from escaping again?" Seifer said, grinning.

"The absolute certainty" Squall said, unsmiling, "that if you do, Cid will assign me to bring you back, using whatever means necessary. Which I will do. This time, though, he won't care if I bring you back in handcuffs or in a body bag."

14.

A scratching sound at the door woke him up. When, out of instinct, Seifer searched for the source of the noise, he could see nothing but white. White walls. White ceiling. White tile on the floor. White sheets on the bed. No windows to offer a view on the outside world, and no variation in the room's light to differentiate night from day. Only unrelenting, unremitting white.

Seifer had no idea how much time he'd already spent in the detention facility, and no idea how much longer he would have to stay there. That indicated, of course, that the design of the room had fulfilled its purpose. The constant whiteness of the room served as a psychic battering ram, one that would, in theory, break the will of its occupants. Whether errant student or political prisoner, SeeD's detention facility usually accomplished its purpose, given enough time. Rumor had it that another room existed, deep within the Garden, designed to succeed should the holding chamber failed - by assaulting the body instead of the mind. No one, to Seifer's knowledge, had ever seen this torture chamber, but that never stopped the speculation.

The scratching sound at the door caught his attention again. Without moving, he closed his eyes and tried to discern the cause of the noise. The delicate scratch of metal picking at metal sounded like someone working to pick the lock. A half-dozen scenarios, mostly reprises of previous escapes, ran through his head, but before he could act, the door swung open.

After spending so much time absorbing the whiteness of the room, the color of other human beings blasted his senses, and Seifer's eyes struggled to recognize the figures for him. Fortunately, one of them spoke, and Seifer immediately recognized the voice.

"SEIFER." Fujin's voice called to him, strong and clear, even though she whispered.

"Yeah! We found you! We're like secret agents, ya know?" Raijin, always the less subtle of the two, didn't have the sense to whisper. Rather, he practically crowed in triumph, prompting Fujin to kick him viciously in the shin. Her good eye narrowed and she glared at her companion.

"IDIOT. QUIET."

Moving quickly, Seifer pulled his friends through the door. This done, he closed the door to the point where it would look locked to anyone not examining it closely.

"What are you two doing here?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

"RESCUE."

"We're here to bust ya out, ya know? We heard they're gonna put you on trial, so Fujin said we should come to the rescue, ya know?"

"Did anyone see you? If you get caught in here, they'll execute all of us." "STEALTH."

"Totally! We're like ninjas, ya know?"

"HURRY."

"She's right, Seifer, we gotta get moving, ya know?"

"Listen, guys, you shouldn't have come. I can't run from this my entire life. They found me once, and they'll find me again."

"POSSE."

"Yeah, Seifer! We're a posse, ya know? You're our leader. We gotta stick together, ya know?"

"ESCAPE. NOW."

Without warning, the door swung open behind them. Squall stood, framed in the doorway, one eyebrow raised. Fujin and Raijin automatically reached for their weapons, while Squall watched them. In less than a few seconds, they had readied themselves for battle. Squall still had not moved.

"You don't want to do that," he said, voice neutral.

"We're taking Seifer, ya know?" Raijin exclaimed, "Even if we have to bust ya up!"

"Think it over, Raijin," Squall said. "How's it going to look when everyone notices that Seifer's gone and I'm dead? Do you think they'll just let Seifer walk away?"

"Guys, he's right," Seifer added. Then, turning to Squall, "Look, Squall, I won't try to escape. Just let them go." Fujin opened her mouth to protest, but Seifer silenced her with a look. "They came here to help me. Just let them go."

His plea finished, Seifer sat on the edge of his bed, hoping Squall would listen to him. Wordlessly, Squall nodded.

Raijin headed for the door, head hanging in defeat. Fujin stood her ground and looked at Seifer with defiance in her eye.

"Go on, Fujin. I'll be fine," he said, trying to sound believable.

She held Seifer's gaze coldly for a moment. "LIAR," she spat, venom evident in her voice. Without another moment's hesitation, she turned on her heel and stalked out of the room.

"Thanks, Squall," Seifer said, breathing a sigh of relief when his friends had gone. Squall stood, listening to the sound of their footsteps retreating in the hall. "For what it's worth," Seifer added, "I really didn't have anything to do with their coming here."

"I know," Squall replied. "I heard."

"Wha--? You mean you had the room bugged? Where?" Seifer scrutinized the room, trying to figure out where Squall could have hidden a bug.

Smiling slightly, Squall knelt down by Seifer's bed, and put one hand underneath. He fished around for a moment, until he found the object of his search. He produced a simple walkie-talkie, with a rubber band holding the "transmit" button down. Setting it on the bed, he removed its twin from his belt.

"So, what, do you stay up at night listening to me snore, just in case something like this happened?"

"I'm a light sleeper," Squall answered. "I figured someone would come for you sooner or later."

"And so you opted for this cheap-ass walkie-talkie? What, were baby monitors too expensive?"

Squall sat down on the bed next to Seifer. "Do you know where I learned this?"

Seifer ransacked the contents of his memory, trying to remember their years of training. In the furthest corner of his mind, something began to stir.

"The orphanage!" he exclaimed. Squall nodded in affirmation. "We used to listen to the prospective parents talking about us! It would have worked, too, if Zell hadn't told on us."

"And then you went and hung him up by his underwear." Squall smiled inwardly at the image of the chubby young Zell, flailing and screaming to be let down while Seifer watched in glee.

"Yeah! And then the little brat went and got adopted anyway!"

Seifer intended to spend at least a few moments with Squall, reminiscing to pass the time, but that urge died when Squall stood up and smoothed the wrinkles out of the t-shirt he'd thrown on before leaving his room. The gesture had nothing to do with maintaining his appearance, rather it served more to place him back in his official capacity as Seifer's warder. The brief moment of reminiscence over, he turned to Seifer.

"You did the right thing by not going with them. It will make things easier for everyone. It will show you're serious about this Tribunal."

"Squall?" Seifer asked, hesitant to venture the question. "What do you think the Tribunal will be like?"

"I don't know," Squall answered. "I'll do my best to make sure that it's fair, though."

"That's more than I hoped for," Seifer said, pessimism evident in his voice. "And certainly more than I deserve. Thank you, Squall."

Squall stared blankly at Seifer, unsure how to react. Appropriate behavior in such situations generally eluded him. Squall nodded solemnly and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Seifer flopped back on the bed, staring at the white ceiling. He glanced over at the walkie-talkie, briefly, then grabbed the rubber band and threw it on the floor. He forced himself to breathe slowly, and within moments had fallen back to sleep.

* *

Squall walked through the hallway of Garden, enjoying the silence. The fountains that circled the central column of the building provided the only clearly audible sound. Occasionally, he came across the robed figure of a Garden faculty member on the hunt, no doubt, for individuals breaking curfew. Squall ignored the faculty members, knowing that not one of them would dare challenge his presence. Although not normally subject to power trips, he found that his position as commander had its advantages.

He heard the "click" as Seifer's walkie-talkie stopped transmitting and reached the door to his room not long after. He let himself in, throwing the walkie-talkie on the floor and shedding articles of clothing as he moved across the room.

Rinoa lay in his bed, pale and bewitching in the moonlight. The silver glow coming through the window turned her ivory skin almost transparent, and made her dark hair ripple and shine with every movement. He slid under the covers next to her, and heard her murmur, "Welcome back," still partially asleep. Squall pulled her close to him and kissed her delicately on the nape of her neck, causing a shiver to run down her spine. In response, she snuggled closer to him, and soon he, too, had fallen soundly asleep.

* *

The faint sound of the door opening woke him up, again. Annoyed at the inability of his friends to follow instructions, Seifer immediately began swearing.

"Damn it, guys," he cursed, warming up a particularly foul invective, "I thought I told you to forget about it."

"Now that wouldn't be any fun," an unfamiliar voice called as the door swung open. Not after all the trouble we went to in order to pay you this little 'visit' here."

Three SeeDs stood on the other side of the door, all looking quite displeased with Seifer, and all armed for battle. They all carried swords but Seifer noted that only the one in front, the short one, held his like he had extensive training with it. The other two probably focused on other weapons, but opted for the swords, which would prove more effective in close quarters.

"Wow. Two groups of people breaking into my room in one night. I must be getting quite popular."

"That's right. Think of us as... successors to your Disciplinary Committee. And we've come to offer you our thanks."

"Seriously, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

The shorter one, who, by now, Seifer had determined acted as the leader for this vigilante group, snarled. "Everyone's talking about how you're gonna get a trial. We're here to make sure that doesn't happen. You sold us all out. You didn't just desert us, you betrayed us. I saw my friends die in the attack you led, and it was all so you could have your moment of glory. And I'm not going to sell them out..."

As the man spoke, Seifer's felt his mind travel back to the days of his training, and he could hear Quistis in his thoughts.

Do not simply strike not before your enemy. Strike before he knows you intend to strike. Let your body remain neutral, your gaze steady, your breath regulated, and your heart calm. Watch and wait for the perfect moment of attack, without betraying your intention. If no part of him perceives that you still posses the will to fight, then, attacking at the correct moment, you will have truly surprised him.

Seifer never learned the full content of the diatribe, for he used that moment to seize initiative. He flung himself off the bed and pounced on one of the two followers, bringing all his weight down to slam the man's head onto the hard floor.

You will have ample time to stay still once you have died. For now: Keep Moving. Motion is life. Stillness is death. Motion is change; stillness, stagnation. If you move, there exists a chance that you may survive. If you stay still, there exists the certainty that you will die.

All the years of combat training had endowed Seifer with an almost superhuman sense for the flow of combat and he felt, rather than saw, one of the blades slicing down at him. He rolled off the man to one side, letting him receive the downward swing of the blade, which cut deep into his shoulder.

Seifer jumped up and grabbed the other man's head, smashing it into the wall three times, causing him to crumple like a rag doll. He reached down, grabbing for the blade still imbedded in the first SeeD's shoulder. Despite his considerable strength, Seifer couldn't free the blade, which had sunk deep into the bone and remained stuck there.

The leader saw this as his moment to attack. He swung his sword around and it bit into Seifer's side, sending lances of pain through his entire body. His teeth clenching, he spun away from the blade, freeing himself and grabbing the short SeeD by the throat. The man began grabbing at Seifer's hand, trying to free himself from what he perceived as a chokehold. Seifer did not intend to choke him, though.

In combat, the will to power separates the living from the dead. Prove to your opponent that you will go to any lengths to destroy him. You do not need to break his body. Merely to break his soul. If you can shatter his resolve, killing him becomes moot. Prove yourself a monster, prove yourself a soulless mercenary, and the damage you do will prove as effective as any sword.

Seifer pressed the man up against the wall and with deliberate malice, showed the shorter man his index finger, in a rather vague gesture. Without warning, Seifer plunged the finger deep into the SeeD's eyeball. He pushed in as far as he could, and then seized the optic nerve between his thumb and forefinger, pulling back out. The man, already howling at the unbelievable pain, began screaming even more when Seifer showed him the eye, dangling from the remnants of the nerve. Seifer let the eyeball drop to the fall and ground it beneath his heel.

He shoved the SeeD into the hall and let the man run. Wincing in pain, he leaned up against the wall, closing his eyes to assess the damage. As his eyes closed, he could feel himself slipping away. He fought to maintain his hold, and his mind fluttered, once more, back to training.

He sat in Quistis' classroom, watching the elegant blonde-haired woman sitting on the edge of her desk. She brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear and picked up a candle, lighting it.

"The sensory organs are receptors, much like a computer," she said, "and all sensation constitutes information. This applies to pain. Especially to pain."

Without missing a beat, she thrust her hand into the flame and held it there. Her face never registered a trace of discomfort.

"Like any computer, you understand the information being put into the system, you master the output. Master your pain. Learn to use it. Let it drive you, not control you. If you fear pain, the door is right behind me. If you're planning to be a SeeD, you'll have to be intimately acquainted with pain - other people's pain, and your own. Do not rely on curative magic," she added. "If you do, you will no doubt find yourself without it at the worst possible moment. If you have to use it, save it for wounds that will affect your performance, not wounds that merely discomfort you. Questions?"

She scanned the room without removing her hand from the flame. When no one raised their hand, she took her hand out of the flame and extinguished it by pinching the wick. Looking at the deeply burned patches of skin, she mumbled a few words in the language of magic and the blackened skin fell off, revealing perfectly formed new skin underneath.

"Instructor Trepe?" one of the students asked, grinning at trapping his teacher. "What was that about not relying on curative magic? I must have missed that part."

Quistis smiled sweetly. "I said to save it for wounds that incapacitate you. If I didn't heal my hand, how could I grade the essays you're all going to write?"

Seifer heard the students groaning at the idea of another essay, and their voices merged with his own groan of pain. He forced himself up the wall and grabbed a pillow, shoving it into his side to try to staunch the blood flow. Staggering, he exited the detention facility and lurched into the hallway.

He moved as quietly as possible, trying to stay in the shadows. The pain that coursed through him with every breath and step indicated that Seifer's only hope for survival lay in the infirmary. He pushed himself in that direction, forcing his body to take one step after another.

Slowly, he made his way across Balamb Garden's main concourse. Nearing the door to the infirmary, he pressed one hand on the emergency call button, leaving a bloody handprint as he sank to the ground.

Dr. Kadowaki threw open the infirmary doors and saw Seifer collapsed on the floor. She brought him into the medical bay and helped him up onto a table.

"Seifer, what happened to you?" she asked.

He could barely hear her question as consciousness slipped away from him. He looked at her and tried to manage a smirk, but only managed to whisper through blood-stained lips.

"Welcome... home..."

* * *

Squall stood next to the infirmary bed, listening to Seifer's ragged breathing. The readings on the monitors reflected the uncertain status of the wounded man. As Dr. Kadowaki entered the room, Squall met her gaze.

"Don't ask me, Squall. I don't know now anymore than I did ten minutes ago." Seifer's precarious condition had the doctor feeling more than a little anxious. "If you really want to be useful, go put some coffee on. I have a feeling I'll need it."

Squall turned, moving towards the coffee pot, but never reached the other side of the room. The doors to the infirmary flew open and Headmaster Cid stormed in, looking quite displeased at having his sleep interrupted. He looked at Dr. Kadowaki, at Squall, at Seifer's unconscious form, and then back to Squall again.

"What the hell is going on?" he yelled. "I thought he was supposed to be in lockup."

"Cid, you'll have to lower your voice," Dr. Kadowaki said. "There are other patients trying to sleep."

"I don't care about your other patients, Kadowaki," Cid said, screaming now. "You shut up and... and... fix him!"

"He was in lockup, sir," Squall said evenly, "but..."

"Then how the hell did someone get to him? Did you just forget to close the door?"

"No, sir. The attackers had an access card."

"They had access?" Cid's rage seemed boundless. "Who were the attackers? How many of them were there? Are they out of Garden now? Are you doing anything except standing around?"

"An investigation is underway, sir."

"It damn well better be, Leonhart. You may be Commander, but remember this: I own you. You work for me. This Tribunal is going to happen, or you'll be out on your ass so fast it will make your head spin."

"Understood, sir." Squall started to salute, but Cid had already left the room, heading down the hall, swearing to himself.

Dr. Kadowaki merely shook her head and resumed tending to Seifer's wounds, secretly hoping Cid forgot to take his heart medication.

* *

The man sat in the darkness, fingers interlocked before him. The only light in the room came from the flickering computer screen before him. He bowed his head in deep concentration, focusing the weeks ahead. Recent events upset him, deeply, and meant that his entire timetable would need adjustment. He analyzed, plotted, reevaluated. Finally, coming to a decision, he tapped the monitor, opening his messaging program. Typing quickly, he composed the brief statement he needed.

"Contract cancelled," he wrote. "Target survived. You have become redundant, and will be removed from the equation by noon."

He sent the message, smiling at the terror it would instill in its recipients. That finished, he stood up, turned off his computer, and left the room, hoping to salvage a few hours of sleep.

15.

Glancing around the empty courtroom, he briefly allowed a smile to cross his face. When he closed his eyes, he could see the trial unfolding before him. Balamb Garden, from the Headmaster on down, in one place, focusing their attention on Seifer and his guilt. His misdeeds revisited, his entire character called into question. All the students he'd ever bullied could watch him writhe in agony as the court ripped him apart. The victims of his sadism could finally see justice served. All the administrators he'd ever crossed free to fling accusations at him. The recipients of his insolence would finally see him truly punished.

Other events would come into play, those acts Seifer undertook in service of Ultimecia. The missile launch he orchestrated that destroyed Trabia Garden. The hours he spent torturing Squall in Galbadia's D-District Prison. His famous attack on Balamb Garden, resulting in so many deaths. And under the weight of so much testimony, Seifer could do nothing but crumple.

Without realizing it, he licked his lips in delicious anticipation of the upcoming event. Seifer would stand before the bench, classically proud and defiant. One by one, the shreds of his world would fall away and everyone would see him exposed as a simpering coward.

His proxies failed to kill Seifer. This, too, played a part in his plan. He had selected those three SeeDs, wooed them carefully. Systematically, he allowed them to think they had entered his inner circle, joined the ranks of those privileged SeeDs to know his mind. He proposed ideas to them, ideas that hinted at intrinsic flaws in the structure of Garden. The stagnant state of the administration. The growing bureaucracy that threatened to strangle SeeD. And then, with great care, he led them to the notion that a violent shock could begin to balance out the scales. From there, the notion to assassinate Seifer came naturally. He sent them in, expressly hoping they would perish. That two died, and one managed to escape -- albeit horribly maimed - only furthered his agenda.

This day would see his ultimate triumph. The final movement in his delicately orchestrated symphony. Under his guidance, all the pieces had moved to their starting positions, and the game would play out before him. In order to get to this point, he had exerted his considerable influence at all levels, gently nudging some individuals and overtly threatening others.

Yes, seeing his plans come to fruition after working in secret for so long thrilled him. He could not tell which of his victories would taste sweeter: seeing the power within Garden restored to its rightful executors, or seeing the grisly demise of Seifer Almasy.

* * *

The day of the Tribunal dawned with great solemnity. An eerie stillness pervaded Balamb Garden. The silence reminded some of the rigorously policed halls of Galbadia Garden. Others thought of it as a tomb.

Squall and Seifer stood together in the annex, waiting for the Tribunal to start. Seifer, impatient and more than a little anxious, began pacing the length of the room. He glanced over at Squall, who stood immaculate in his dress uniform. He glanced up at Seifer, watching the taller man pace. Seifer came to an abrupt halt and turned to face Squall.

"How can you stay so calm at a time like this?"

Squall shrugged. "It's not my trial."

"You know," Seifer said, "you never were any help at times like this."

"What do you mean, 'like this?'" Squall asked, one eyebrow arching upwards.

"How many times did we wind up outside Cid's office, waiting for him to call us on the carpet?"

"True," Squall replied. "We did cause more than our fair share of trouble."

Seifer went to lean against a wall, careful, as he did so, not to wrinkle his dark brown suit. He fiddled with the gold buttons on his jacket, all emblazoned with the cruciform sword.

"You know," he said, looking over at Squall, "I'll always have this image of you, sitting on the bench outside Cid's office. It didn't matter what we were there for, you always sat there, just staring at the ground. Cid could lecture us for hours, and all you ever did was nod at him when he was through."

"And as I recall," Squall answered, "my punishments were considerably less severe than yours."

"Yeah, well that's because you never did anything. You just fought back. I had transgressions of my own."

"Like the time Quistis wrote 'unacceptable' on your homework and you wrote 'tough' on it, handed it back to her, and left class?"

"Yeah," Seifer said, nodding, "exactly like that." A brief moment of silence passed. "You know," he ventured, his voice low, "I always felt bad about what happened with Quistis. I always felt like I was the reason Cid revoked her instructor's license."

"Why is that?" Squall asked, not entirely sure how he should react.

"Think about it," Seifer countered. "The day of the field exam, I decided to disobey orders and you almost got killed by that spider-robot. Later that evening, Quistis gets her license revoked, theoretically, because she lacks leadership qualities. You and I both know that Quistis is the best SeeD ever to pass through Garden, as well as one of the best instructors. I hardly think it's a coincidence. Do you?"

"I don't know," Squall said. "It never really occurred to me."

"Is she going to be at the Tribunal?"

"No," Squall replied. "When we got back from fighting Ultimecia, Cid sent her on some sort of secret mission. No one knows the details, not even Xu. We haven't heard anything from her since she left."

"So who is going to be there?"

"Everyone else."

Almost on cue, the doors swung wide open. Seifer looked into the cavernous room before him and a shudder ran down his spine, as if he were looking into the gaping jaws of some great creature. A small woman in the doorway, her features devoid of emotion. Like Squall, Xu allowed nothing to interfere with her work.

"Hello, Seifer." The words slid out of her mouth with detached objectivity. "It's time."

Seifer moved away from the wall and straightened his jacket once last time. He nodded at Squall and moved to the door. Squall and Xu followed him, each maintaining a cautious distance. Seifer kept his breathing regular and did his best to moderate the pounding of his heart. Still, he found the Tribunal Room very imposing.

The former Garden Master's room, no longer occupied by the creature known as NORG, had undergone a transformation, as per Cid's orders, and now changed into the room where all Tribunals would take place.

The entire Garden had emptied itself into this tremendous room. One on side sat the junior cadets, the youngest members of Garden, ranging in age from 5 to 12. Behind them sat the cadets themselves, followed by the SeeDs, seated in order of rank. Everyone wore, as mandated by the circumstances of the Tribunal, their dress uniforms. By tradition, the SeeDs left a few seats in their section empty. This custom served to honor those rare individuals, like Quistis, who had attained the highest rank possible but could not attend the Tribunal. The residents of Garden, always eager to find heroes, idolized these warriors. Seifer's eyes roamed over the section, and he quickly noticed Selphie and Zell, seated in the back row. Selphie leaned over to whisper something in Zell's ear, but stopped when she noticed Seifer watching them.

The opposite side of the room provided seating for students - those attending classes at Garden, but for purposes other than receiving a commission as a SeeD. Many of the students simply sought education beyond that mandated by their home countries. For these hardy souls, the strict discipline required to succeed at Balamb Garden resulted in impressive credentials when applying for jobs.

Behind the students sat the enigmatically robed Garden Faculty, those responsible for the more academic end of Garden's curriculum. The Instructors, culled from the ranks of the most skilled and qualified SeeDs, taught the martial classes such as field tactics, weapons, and the usage of Guardian Forces. This left the Faculty members to teach history, philosophy, mathematics, and other, more theoretical courses.

The support staff of Garden sat in the gallery, looking down over the courtroom. Tribunals, epic in scope, involved the presence of as many people as possible: Dr. Kadowaki and the staff of the infirmary the workers in the cafeteria, the janitors, and the mechanics from the various repair bays. This also included those individuals working as adjunct staff members of Garden - fighters under extended contract, like Irvine - or academic tutors like Rinoa. Seifer allowed himself a brief glance at the gallery and noticed Laguna looking down at him, Kiros and Ward flanking him. Laguna did his best to offer Seifer an encouraging smile, but Seifer could read the worry in the older man's eyes. Edea sat off to one side, by herself, concern etched on her marble face.

The grave nature of the proceedings registered on the faces of even the youngest child present. The normally high-spirited junior cadets sat perfectly still, apprehension engraved on their faces. For the littlest ones, the proceedings had no meaning, other than the tall tales their classmates told them: that Seifer stood eight feet tall, could kill with a glance, and swallowed small children whole. The older ones remembered the attack, remembered seeing their friends and playmates dying all around them, and they knew who to hold responsible for those deaths.

As he moved in the room, Seifer could feel the eyes passing over him. Cid sat at the far end of the room, a judge presiding over his courtroom. Squall and Xu moved away from him, heading to their assigned places. Seifer seated himself at the table before the bench, crossing his hands in front of him and trying to stay calm.

"Seifer Almasy." Cid's voice echoed through the cavernous hall.

"Sir."

"Do you understand why you are before this court?"

"I do."

"And do you acknowledge its authority?"

"I do, and I submit myself to its judgment."

"Be seated. Xu, you may proceed."

As Seifer took his seat, Xu stood up and crossed to a lectern at the side of the room. She pressed a button on her handlink and the ceiling-mounted holographic display came to life. A life-sized projection of Seifer appeared before her, rotating slowly so all could see it in detail.

"Presented for the court's review, Seifer Almasy, student number 30127, cadet of the first rank, gunblade specialist, candidate for SeeD," she said, her voice still level. Xu pressed another button, and the next image in the three-dimensional slide show winked into existence. Seifer sighed under his breath and slid down in his chair, knowing that the worst lay ahead of him.

* *

Image: Seifer at seven years old, upon his entrance to Garden. His face looks a little more childish, perhaps, but the smirk serves as a dead giveaway.

"Seifer arrived at Garden at the age of seven, on a recommendation from Edea Kramer. Early psychological profiles indicated several traits that recur throughout his dossier. Highly intelligent, but prone to acting on impulse. Extremely competitive. Some antisocial tendencies, often manifesting as cruelty to others. A deep-seated need to be the center of attention. Potential psychological anomalies include antisocial personality disorder and delusions of grandeur."

Image: Seifer at seven years old, not long after his entrance to Garden. This picture resembles the previous one, only now Seifer has some scrapes and bruises marring his face. The smirk remains.

A second image appears next to it: Zell, six years old and considerably rounder than Zell at eighteen. Zell's eyes have turned red from crying, and one has swollen shut in an angry bruise.

"Twenty-seven minutes after arriving at Balamb Garden, Seifer engaged in a fistfight with another cadet. According to the report, Seifer entered the junior cadet's commons, where another cadet, Zell Dincht, was watching 'The Adventures of Pupurun.' Seifer insisted on watching one of his 'Sorceress' Knight' videotapes and, when Zell refused to cooperate, Seifer attacked him. Seifer made no attempt to dispute Zell's account and, in fact, failed to see how he had done anything wrong."

Seifer turned to look at Zell, who, by this point, had his arms crossed over his chest. Seifer tried to mouth an apology, hoping Zell could read lips, but Zell just scowled at him.

* *

He listened in rapt attention as Xu detailed Seifer's history at Garden. She kept her words cold, mechanical, detached, but he found himself delighting in every syllable, torn between wanting to hear the next accusing word and wanting to savor each separate indictment.

Every time he glanced at Seifer, he felt a slow rage burning inside him, the stirrings of a long-dormant volcano. Glancing around the room, though, buoyed his spirits, by letting him look at the faces of others shared in his contempt for Seifer. The few who didn't hate Seifer at the start of the Tribunal seemed to change their minds without much convincing.

He leaned back a little in his seat, suppressing the urge to stretch. He had no idea how much longer Xu's presentation would last, but the file in front of her seemed rather extensive. And although he desperately craved a cigarette, he had no intention of leaving. Not now, when the pieces had just started to move.

* *

Image: Seifer, ten years old. He looks out at the camera, challenging the photographer. Fujin and Raijin flank him. They stand with Seifer, the three of them defiant, and a slight smile runs across Seifer's face. In his own antagonistic way, he seems almost triumphant.

"At the age of ten, Seifer became the chairman of the Junior Disciplinary Committee. As was his prerogative, he appointed his friends Fujin and Raijin to the committee. The committee received frequent commendations for their zealousness in enforcing the rules. However, they received an equal number of demerits for their inability to follow those same rules."

Image: Seifer at twelve years old. His features have hardened considerably in the five years since his arrival at Garden. He has acquired a lean grace, exempting him from the awkwardness so common at that age.

Second image: Squall at twelve years old. His face has an eerie stillness about it, a gravity unbecoming someone so young. He regards the camera through cold, guarded eyes.

"When called upon to choose his primary weapon, Seifer opted to become a gunblade specialist, the same choice made by Commander Leonhart. This added one more dimension to their already extensive rivalry, which, the court will note, became the common denominator in their respective disciplinary files.

"Shortly after receiving their gunblades, Seifer and Squall received citations for recklessly using their weapons. Specifically, they were found fighting in the central concourse of Balamb Garden. According to the report, filed by Quistis Trepe, and undisputed by both parties, Seifer attempted to taunt Squall into fighting a duel with him. This having failed, Seifer began physically shoving Squall until he retaliated. After this incident, the two were slightly more judicious regarding their weapons, but further scuffles occurred regularly.

"At the age of thirteen, Seifer assumed the role as chairman of the Disciplinary Committee proper. The results were much the same as his service on the JDC: he received an impressive number of demerits, but remained chairman due to his efficacy in that role.

Although he provoked Squall to violence on numerous occasions, others did not escape Seifer's attention."

Image: Balamb Garden's cafeteria, in shambles. Tables overturned. Food on the floor. Two SeeDs lead Seifer out of the cafeteria, his arms restrained.

"This picture was taken after Seifer attacked Nida Nomura for sitting at 'the Disciplinary Committee's table.' Ultimately, it took three SeeDs to separate the two of them.

"Other fights took place inside the Training Center, several classrooms, the parking garage, the hallway outside Headmaster Kramer's office, the library and, perhaps most noteworthy, in the infirmary. He was a patient at the time, recovering from a fight earlier that afternoon. The court is advised that I have only presented a partial list of such incidents."

Image: The detention facility, door wide open. A SeeD stands inside, looking up at the camera, dumbfounded.

"All conventional methods of punishment failed. Almost every time he was placed in the detention facility, he escaped, usually without the camera picking up how he broke free. The majority of the times, he simply returned to his room, or resumed his class schedule. When questioned about this behavior, he indicated that he only bothered escaping to prove that he could do so. He never made a serious effort to flee Garden, the closest exception being the time he rented a room in the Balamb Hotel under the name 'Cid Kramer.' Following an intense search of Balamb Town and the surrounding area, Seifer mailed a Balamb Hotel postcard to Garden, complete with his room number on back."

A few cautious eyes darted up to Cid, unsure of how to react. Cid smiled and laughed a little, shaking his head ruefully. He leaned forward to the microphone in front of him.

"On that note," he said, "let's take an hour's recess. I'm feeling hungry, and I'm sure we could all use a chance to stretch our legs. Does anyone object to this?" Cid glanced around briefly before pressing one of the buttons near his seat. Instantly, the lights switched to full power and the doors opened.

As Seifer stood and buttoned his jacket, Squall walked across the room to him.

"What now, Squall?" he asked. "I mean, I doubt I'd be very welcome in the cafeteria right now."

"No. You wouldn't be," Squall said, his eyes glittering slightly. "I have the feeling Zell would defend those hot dogs to the death. Anyway, we've set a room aside where you can have lunch. It's not much, though."

"Am I to presume that you'll be dining with me? I mean, someone has to keep me from escaping again."

Squall nodded, and pointed towards a door to the side of the courtroom. At Squall's approach, the door slid open.

"Wow," Seifer said, looking into the room. "When you said it wasn't much, you weren't kidding. A table and two folding chairs? That's what I'm worth?"

"Plus gray paint and a light bulb. What did you expect?"

They sat at the table, and ate in silence for a few minutes. After he finished his first sandwich, Seifer looked up at Squall.

"How do you think it's going so far?"

"I couldn't tell you," Squall answered, setting his apple down on the plate before him. "Cid hasn't been very forthcoming with information about this trial. He hasn't even told me the procedure for rendering a verdict."

Seifer took a deep breath and held it in for a while, before expelling it in a deep sigh.

"Hell of a day, I can tell you that," he said.

"I don't think anyone's enjoying this," Squall said.

"Oh, please, Squall. Since when do you sugarcoat the truth? Do you have any idea how many people are hoping I'll be executed? I might as well just hand the gun to Xu and save us all the trouble."

"Xu's just doing her job. She didn't get a choice in this, which she wanted me to tell you. Cid 'asked' her to volunteer, and you know how that works. Just like he 'asked' me to be your warder."

"Well, that's something," Seifer said, more to fill the silence than anything else. "I guess."

* *

Xu approached the podium again, and straightened her notes, ready to resume her lecture. She took one final sip of water from the glass in front of her before beginning.

"Despite his disciplinary problems, Garden opted to retain Seifer due to his outstanding potential as a SeeD. On those rare occasions when he opted to do his homework, he received excellent marks. All of the standard diagnostic tests placed him in the ninety-fifth percentile or higher. This indicates that he is either extremely gifted in those areas that we routinely measure, or that he has an outstanding grasp of our methodology and how to subvert it. Both scenarios presented a compelling case to keep Seifer on hand, and the administration repeatedly decided to do so.

"Seifer took his first field exam the year he turned sixteen. The mission was codenamed 'Beta Syndicate' and was a counter-insurgency operation in Deling City. Faced with a popular uprising and unwilling to use their own troops, a coalition of generals within the Galbadian military hired SeeD to restore order to the increasingly lawless city. The mission profile assigned Seifer to Squad B, charged with capturing the leaders of the resistance. Squad B did so, but when a child was injured in the crossfire, Seifer refused to leave her behind. Ultimately, Squad B's captain shot the girl in order to facilitate the squadron's withdrawal. Once aboard the transport vessel, Seifer engaged him in a fistfight. Needless to say, Seifer failed that exam.

"He also failed the next field exam, codenamed 'Cobalt Lightning.' This mission was a part of the larger campaign known as 'Ghost Blaze,' the extended action financed by the various Timber resistance factions in an effort to expel Galbadian forces. 'Cobalt Lightning' was a special reconnaissance assignment. We assigned each squad of SeeD candidates to one of the resistance groups. The candidates would infiltrate various facilities deemed to be of importance to the Galbadian military, and provide intel to their group, who would carry out the actual assault on that location. The candidates were not, however, to engage in any combat themselves, unless attacked. Seifer, assigned to Squad D, was to work with the 'Forest Owls.' Again, the mission went largely as planned, until Seifer deviated from the profile.

He saw the leader of the 'Owls,' Rinoa Heartily, captured by the Galbadians. When they tried to use her as a hostage, to force the faction to surrender, Seifer ignored orders and attacked the Galbadians. As a result, he exposed the location of his squad members, forcing them to join the attack. No casualties resulted, but Seifer's grievous noncompliance earned him another failed field exam."

Xu took another sip of water from her glass, setting it down gently.

"If the court is satisfied, this marks the conclusion of my introductory summary. We may now begin presenting evidence dealing with the Dollet mission, 'Crimson Shark' and the events subsequent to that mission."

"The court is satisfied, and thanks you for your efforts, Xu." Cid looked down at her and smiled obligingly, as she left the podium and went to her seat. "We are now ready to begin the trial."

Seifer felt a lead weight in his stomach and ran a hand through his hair. That the trial had not yet begun in earnest did nothing to calm him. A SeeD Seifer didn't recognize approached the podium and cleared his throat.

"I am Lieutenant Beckett, and I will be presenting the prosecution's case for the duration of this trial," he said, his voice less pleasant than Xu's "and will demonstrate to the court that Seifer Almasy is guilty, among other things, of treason and war crimes..."

The mild throbbing at Seifer's temples had, by this point, increased to a sharp stabbing. He rubbed his temples and wished his would-be assassins had succeeded in their mission.

16.

"In closing, the court can see that Seifer Almasy has proven himself a significant detriment to the well-being of Balamb Garden. The court should deal with him in a swift and decisive manner, applying the harshest penalties possible."

Beckett collected his notes and walked away from the podium, offering a smug glance to Seifer as he passed.

Although he would not have guessed it at the time, Xu's opening remarks proved to be the least painful part of the trial. Beckett spent three days presenting his case. Three days covering a period of Seifer's life that he would have preferred never to revisit. Mercifully, in an effort to streamline the trial, Cid decreed that no witnesses would take the stand. Beckett simply quoted from the depositions he had on file.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Cid's voice filled the silence of the room as he addressed the assemblage. "Having heard all the evidence, I'm ready to take this matter under advisement. I thank you all for your attention, and I expect to render a verdict by the end of the week."

"What?" Seifer spat out the word without realizing he'd spoken. He looked at Squall in disbelief, and then back to Cid.

"Yes, Seifer?" the Headmaster asked, taking off his glasses. "Is there a problem?"

"Do I get any kind of defense?"

"I remind you, Seifer, that this is not a court of law. This is a disciplinary hearing, and operates under its own set of rules. One would think you'd know that by now."

"So you'll just pass..." Seifer could feel his blood boiling and his voice raising.

"Seifer, let me warn you that you aren't helping your case."

"This isn't a trial! You're just providing justification for whatever you want to do to me!"

"Seifer, I suggest you lower your voice."

"Sir," a voice shot out from the side. Seifer turned his head in time to see Squall stand up, hands clasped behind his back. "Given the gravity of..."

"You're out of line, Squall. Sit down at once." Cid punctuated his order by stabbing the air with a finger.

"No, sir," Squall replied. "I think that..." Squall's voice halted suddenly. His lips kept moving but he produced no sound. His head whipped around, trying to find the source of the spell. He followed Cid's gaze, which focused on the back of the room, in the gallery.

Edea stood there, coolly regarding Cid, an outstretched finger pointed at Squall. She simply watched Cid for a moment, before titling her head slightly and raising an eyebrow. This done, she sat back down, without saying a word. No one could tell if she and Cid communicated telepathically, or if they simply knew each other's thoughts from years of marriage. Whatever the case, her actions clearly affected Cid.

"Very well, Seifer," he said. "You may speak in your own defense. I'll consider any evidence you present with the same weight I afford the prosecution's case. I trust you find that sufficiently fair."

"Yes, sir," Seifer replied, restoring a measure of civility to his voice. He stood up slowly and buttoned his jacket, passing his fingers over the cruciform swords for luck. He bowed his head for a moment, both hands on the back of his chair while he composed himself. He took a long look around the courtroom, making eye contact with those people he considered friends, or whom he'd called friends back at the orphanage - his "old life."

"You might not know this, but after the Time Compression, I entered a... waking coma, of sorts. Thanks to Laguna Loire, President of Esthar, I managed to fight my way out of Ultimecia's grasp, as she made one last bid to control me. This event opened my eyes. I began to see things more clearly than I ever had before. So I know now what I have to say.

"I don't know if there are any words that can exonerate me. You've heard the charges, you've heard about my record here at Garden. And I can't deny any of it. Everything you've heard over the last few days is true. When I was a student here, I undermined authority wherever I could. I repeatedly defied orders, substituting my own judgment for the judgment of my superiors."

Seifer walked away from his table, moving into the center of the courtroom. He could feel Cid's eyes burning into his back. When he spoke, his voice encompassed the vast room, without the use of a microphone.

"What's more, I betrayed this Garden. It's the only place I could truly call 'home,' and I repaid it with violence and bloodshed. I endangered Garden and compromised a mission by assaulting President Deling. I led an assault on this Garden, an assault which cost the lives of people I've known since I was a child."

By this point, Seifer had found his rhythm. The words came quickly and easily to him, without effort. He didn't know if the people believed his sincerity, but he felt a calm wash over him as he gave his confession.

"It would be easy for me to stand here and say that I committed these acts because I was under Ultimecia's sway. Ultimecia makes an easy scapegoat. By this point, she hardly seems human. She's achieved a mythical quality - an alien entity bent on undoing reality as we know it. She manipulated everyone, and she did so from a point countless years in the future. Yes, it's tempting to blame her.

"However, that would only be a partial truth. She did use magic to influence me. But that influence extended only as far as bringing me into her service. Once I devoted myself to her, she showed me the abyss, and I flung myself into it wholeheartedly. I take full responsibility for all the acts that followed.

"I am, perhaps, responsible for more deaths than anyone since the Sorceress Wars. My hands are stained with blood. The blood of all those who perished in the Garden Wars. The blood of the citizens of Esthar, slaughtered during the Lunar Cry. The blood of those at Trabia Garden, eradicated in a missile attack I ordered. This Garden would have been destroyed in a similar attack, if not for the skills and ingenuity of Selphie and Squall. You owe your lives to them, and I hope they're proud of their actions. They saved you from me.

"I take responsibility for all these acts. I wish I could find the words to express the profound regret I feel. I know that no words, though, can ever assuage the grief I've caused. The only thing I can do, now, is to offer myself to the justice of this court. First, though, I need to address the people that I've wronged - at least, those who are still alive.

"Headmaster Kramer, I'm sorry for all the times I defied you. Your wisdom and vision have made this Garden everything it is. This school trains the strongest soldiers in the world. It's served as a home for countless students, even those who could never afford to study here. I know, because I'm one of them. You took me from the orphanage and, seeing potential, let me stay here without cost. Despite my atrocious behavior, you kept me here, hoping that one day I'd come around. You probably thought I ignored you when you lectured me. I didn't. I heard every word you said, and now I appreciate all you've done for me. I'm just sorry it happened too late.

"Matron, I'm sorry to have strayed so far from everything you tried to teach me. At the orphanage, you raised us to be honorable, kind, and willing to stick together in a crisis. At the first sign of pressure, I bolted, running to pursue my dream, never knowing that everything I wanted was here. You know what my dream is, Matron, and you know why I succumbed to Ultimecia's will. I hope you know that you never failed as a surrogate mother. Even though I went astray, you can look around the room and see the overwhelming evidence of your success. Squall's courage. Selphie's warmth. Quistis' - and I wish she were here - wisdom. Irvine's cheer. Zell's loyalty. You can look in their eyes and see that your lessons did not go unheeded.

"I have to apologize to everyone I bullied. There are a lot of you out of there. I'm sorry I made your lives so much worse. I know this isn't any consolation, but I hope you'll know that my apology is heartfelt, and I hope that some day, you'll forget what I did. That's what I wish. That you will not forgive, but forget. I don't deserve forgiveness. It's far more fitting that I recede into the distant past. If GFs truly cause memory loss, I hope I am one such memory.

"I apologize to Squall. The words don't exist to convey my apology to him. But he knows what I mean. Squall is the closest thing I will ever have to a brother. There's a bond between us, something I can't define. I've only run one mission with him - the field exam in Dollet -- but there's no one I would sooner choose to watch my back.

"I apologize to Quistis. Even though she isn't here, I want to make my peace with her. She was a good instructor - one of the best. No one can dispute her ability as a warrior. Moreover, she was a good friend. I always thought she was bossy, and that she was an obnoxious meddler. I see now that she was a friend. Concerned for my well-being. She tried to help me, and every time, I pushed her away.

"Finally, I apologize to Zell." Seifer turned his eyes to Zell, making eye contact. Zell looked back at Seifer, tempted to turn away, but something prevented him from doing so. "I tormented him more than I tormented anyone else. Any thing I could do to embarrass, insult, or humiliate him, I did. I pummeled him physically and assaulted him psychologically. Nothing I can ever say can justify my actions towards him. However, after much self-examination, I know why I did so. I won't explain it here, but if you ever wish to know the reason, Zell, and I'm alive to talk, I'll tell you, and you can be rid of me.

"I don't have much left to say. I've said my apologies. I know they can never heal the wounds I've caused, but I hope they're a start."

Silence engulfed the courtroom as Seifer resumed his seat. No one dared breath, waiting for Cid to make the first move.

"Thank you, Seifer." Cid spoke into the microphone, his voice sounding mechanical compared to Seifer's unamplified speech. "If no one else has anything to add, I think I'm prepared to deliberate."

"Wait." Squall's voice tore through the air like a gunshot.

"Yes, Squall?" Cid's face mouth twisted into a smile of disbelief.

"I want to render the verdict."

"What?" Cid's smile widened. "Are you serious?"

"I am, sir." Squall replied. "I'm entitled to render the verdict."

"Entitled? You're entitled? Convince me." Cid sat back in his chair, folding his hands over his stomach.

For perhaps the first moment since Seifer's arrival at Garden, he and Cid finally saw eye-to-eye on something: that Squall, for whatever reason, had finally cracked.

"I'm entitled to make this decision because Seifer has, contrary to his testimony, wronged me more than anyone else."

The lead weight in Seifer's stomach returned, and this time, it brought a friend, a hollow reverberation that he could only interpret as the sound of Squall hammering the first nail into Seifer's coffin.

17.

"It's true that Seifer fought with Zell more than he fought with me." Squall began, addressing his words directly to Cid. "That's because I didn't let Seifer provoke me. I only fought with him when he presented me with no physical alternative. Did that keep me out of the Infirmary? No. Did that keep me out of your office? No.

"Maybe Seifer made Zell who he is today. I can't presume to know. But take one look at my face, and you know what Seifer's done to me. He's on trial here for the events following our field exam. I received this scar the same day. I will never look in a mirror again without remembering Seifer. How we fought before the field exam, and how he waged war on me after it. He compromised the Timber mission in an effort to show me up.

"He brutally tortured me in Galbadia's D-District Prison. Zell's torment consisted of bullying. My torture consisted of thousands of volts of energy coursing through my body.

"He instigated the Garden Wars to strike at me. That was a battle I never wanted to fight. He and I, as opposing commanders, share responsibility for every death in that conflict. That's a responsibility I never wanted.

"He endangered the life of someone very special to me, and he did so on multiple occasions. He tried to hand her over to the Sorceress Adel. He tried, repeatedly, to take my life.

"There are a lot of people here that he's hurt. But I take my place at the head of the line, and when I say that I'm entitled to sentence him, I speak both as Commander of this Garden, and as someone he's tormented for years."

Cid nodded slowly, looking at Squall. His eyes narrowed, almost as if he were trying to see within Squall's mind. Gradually, by degrees, he leaned forward in his chair.

"I'm convinced," he began, and Seifer could feel the noose tightening around his neck. "Squall, you may proceed."

"Thank you, sir," Squall said, turning to Seifer. "My verdict is this: that Seifer resume his status as a cadet, beginning next term."

Stunned silence. No one dared to breath. No one so much as moved.

"Squall. I'm afraid I don't find your joke very funny. I suggest you sit down at once."

"I'm not joking, Headmaster. Garden will benefit from Seifer's return. His attack was as precise an operation as I've ever seen. It was as well planned and executed as any SeeD mission.

"He proved that Garden is vulnerable to an outside assault. We need to secure the Garden and Seifer is the best possible troubleshooter.

"I defeated Seifer three times during the Neo-Sorceress War. In two of those battles, I had Quistis and Zell supporting me. Three SeeDs should be more than a match for anyone.

"You can't deny Seifer's ability. He's more useful working for this Garden than against it and executing him would be a waste."

When Cid spoke, his voice sounded heavy. "So you want to ignore all the evidence of this trial, and just restore him to his former status? Should we give him a medal as well?"

"Sir, I suggest reinstating Seifer as a first-rank cadet, on the fifth degree of probation. One mistake and he's gone. He'll follow the rules, and I'll take responsibility for his actions."

"Squall," Cid began, leaning forward once more, "I really don't think that you've considered..."

"I agree with Squall!" Selphie piped up from her seat. "Give Seifer one more chance." Without waiting for his consent, Selphie grabbed Zell by the arm and hauled him to his feet. He looked around uncomfortably for a while, clearly wanting to sit back down. When he saw that Selphie wouldn't let him off the hook, Zell turned to Cid and spoke.

"Seifer's a royal pain in the ass and all, but I trust Squall's judgment. If Squall says Seifer'll behave, I believe him."

"And you, Squall," Cid replied, "are you willing to stake your career on a single throw of the dice? More importantly, are you willing to risk the safety of everyone here on your hunch that Seifer has reformed?"

"I'd ask that you trust my judgment in this matter, sir. As commander of this Garden, I think this is in our best interests."

Cid took another long look around the room. Squall stood at perfect attention, his face deadly serious. Seifer sat in his chair, stunned, looking from Squall to Cid and back to Squall again. In the back of the room, Edea met Cid's gaze once more. She smiled at him gently, and Cid knew what he had to do.

"I'm not entirely comfortable with this, Squall. Your arguments, while sound, do not fully convince me. However, I've seen fit to rely on your judgment in the past. If not for you, this Garden would be a pile of rubble sitting on top of a bit of scorched earth. You earned your title, and if you're willing to stand in Seifer's defense, I have no compelling reason to disagree with you."

Cid turned, making his announcement to the entire courtroom. "As such, Seifer Almasy is reinstated to his position as a first-rank cadet. His disciplinary record is marked to the fifth degree. I'm going to hand out some further disciplinary sanctions, since I cannot, in good conscience, allow his actions to go unpunished. However, that is a matter for another time.

"There is, I'm aware, a somewhat thornier issue. I realize that many of you have grudges against Seifer. If you need to settle them physically, you may do so in one of the sparring rooms, but I hope we can accomplish this transition with a minimum of violence. This is an official decision. It has my full backing, and I expect you all to comply with it as you would any other such decision. However, as Commander Leonhart has so graciously agreed to take responsibility for Seifer, you may address all your complaints or concerns to him. He's available to you, be it in his office, or around the Garden in general. You can talk to him at any time." Cid looked down at Squall, smiling as he did so. Squall seemed frozen in place, horrified at the prospect of a line of cadets at his office door, clamoring for his attention in the cafeteria, or interrupting him in the Training Center.

"If no one else has any more dramatic surprises," Cid paused here, taking a long look around the room, making sure that no one intended to stand up, "I believe this matter is adjourned." He pressed one of the buttons near him and, as before, the doors to the room swung open and the lights raised to full power, eliminating the spotlight over Seifer's chair.

The room exploded into sound. Seifer, through the haze of his disbelief, struggled to pick up individual voices. Over the din, he heard Selphie yell a triumphant, "Whoo-hoo!" The next thing he knew, she'd tackled him with one of her hugs and bellowed, "Welcome home, Seifer!" in his ear. Before he could react, the five-foot bundle of energy hurtled across the room, assaulting Squall in the same way. She caught Squall off-guard, and he toppled to the ground with Selphie on top of him. "Boy, Squall," she said, her grin threatening to split her face in half, "I could get used to seeing you from this angle." She planted a kiss on his surprised cheek before jumping to her feet and running off to find Irvine.

Squall, shaking his head, rose to his feet, automatically smoothing the wrinkles out of his uniform. Seifer walked over to him, still stunned by the events of the last few minutes. All around him, people filed out of the courtroom, discussing the decision that would dominate their conversations for weeks to come.

"What," he asked, "the hell was that? Do you mind explaining what just happened?"

"You heard what I said," Squall replied. "I'm not doing you any personal favors. You'll do less damage here where I can keep an eye on you."

"Squall," Seifer grinned, "I think that's about as close to a compliment as I've ever heard you get."

"Whatever."

Zell ran up, looking somewhat uncomfortable after he arrived. He put one hand behind his head and extended his other hand to Seifer. "Welcome back."

Seifer took Zell's hand, smiling softly. "Thanks, Zell. Look, I really am sorry about everything..."

"So... umm... do you want to get together some time and talk? You said you had something you wanted to talk about."

"Yeah," Seifer replied, his voice oddly soft, "that'd be nice."

"Cool!" Zell turned and started to jog in the other direction. "Oh, Squall! Lunch in the cafeteria today. They're serving hot dogs!" With that, Zell ran out the door, no doubt to ensure he had an ample supply of hot dogs to himself.

Squall shook his head, his face wearing an almost pained expression at Zell's one-track mind.

"The more things change..." Squall began.

"...the more they stay the same," Seifer answered, finishing the sentence for him.

"Yeah." Squall nodded. "Welcome back."

18.

The midday sun crept slowly into the Quad, the sun shining down on the tranquility of the forested park. Seifer sat on one of the benches, listening to the water as it moved in its beautifully crafted streams. He glanced around him, a motion that had become habitual during the three days since his trial. Most people simply ignored him, but a few stared at him as he passed. So far, though, no one had voiced an open objection to his presence.

Zell came loping down the steps, crossing over to Seifer, who stood as the uniformed man approached. Seifer took a long look at the medals adorning Zell's jacket and whistled admiringly.

"Yeah," Zell said, "they gave all of us a bunch of medals when we got back from fighting Ultimecia. You should see Squall's collection."

"I did, Zell. He was in uniform at the trial." Zell titled his head back and laughed.

"Oh, that wasn't Squall's collection. He refuses to wear all of them at once. He says that all the jingling pisses him off."

"And what's this?" Seifer asked, noting a gold-and-silver SeeD emblem. "They made you an instructor?"

"Hell, yeah!" Zell exclaimed. "My kickboxing class just got out. Being an instructor is great!"

"What about this one?" Seifer inquired, thumbing a small silver coyote. "I don't recognize it."

"Oh, Ma went to a craft show in Dollet, and she knows I like coyotes, so she got that for me. She gets a big kick out of me wearing it on my uniform."

"Ever the dutiful son." Admiration filled his voice, whereas the old Seifer would have followed the comment by ripping the pin off Zell's jacket and throwing it in the stream. "Anyway, you didn't come here so I could indulge my fixation for shiny objects." Seifer gestured for Zell to sit at one of the benches. Zell promptly sat cross-legged on the ground.

Seifer turned away from Zell and retreated to within himself, trying in vain to find the right words. A vague buzzing sound took up residence in Seifer's skull, distracting him from his thoughts. He turned back and started to speak, avoiding Zell's gaze as he did so. He stared be on Zell, his eyes fixed at some unknown point on the horizon.

"When I came out of my... fugue, it was as if a veil lifted. I was able to see things I'd never noticed before. I was suddenly able to see things about myself that I'd never noticed before... to ask questions I'd never thought of asking. Like why I'd always picked on you."

The buzzing sound in Seifer's head increased, drowning out the sound of his voice. He stopped speaking and put a hand to his forehead.

"What's wrong?" Zell jumped to his feet and extended a hand to help stabilize Seifer. As Zell's hand touched Seifer's arm, a vision entered Seifer's head.

A wolf, feral and magnificent, running through a forest. Blood and terror filled the air, their fragrance a heady mixture that made his senses whirl. A single word slammed into Seifer with the force of a bullet: Alpha. Then, as quickly as it came, the vision fled, and Seifer found himself back in the Quad, with Zell helping him to one of the benches.

"Are you okay?" Zell asked. "What happened?"

"I don't know," Seifer answered. "I just... went away."

"Do you need to go to the Infirmary? Because I can go get Dr. Kadowaki..."

"Trust me, Zell, I'm fine," Seifer said, smiling a little. "Let me say what I need to and then let's worry about my health." Zell sat back down and nodded for Seifer to continue.

"Okay," Seifer said, hating the need to start over. "Have you ever noticed how a person can seem one way, and maybe, right then, they really are that way? That quality then becomes the standard by which you define the person, right? And then, something happens, and the person becomes an entirely different person, and you have to completely redefine who they are and what they mean to you. Do you see what I mean?"

Zell, sitting there with his mouth open, shook his head. "Not at all."

"Like Squall. I mean, I know I wasn't around when it all went down, but the difference was obvious. He was always... you know... Squall. We could count on him to be... Squall-ish."

"If I may," Zell interjected, eyes glittering, "you could say he was squalid. That he lived in squalor."

Seifer shook his head at Zell's lame attempt at humor. "Moving on. Anyway, we could always count on him to act in a certain way. And then he met Rinoa and he wasn't Squall any more. He was like, well... like Squall with a girlfriend. All of a sudden, he's doing the protective boyfriend routine, what with the springing to the rescue and all. And he's not the Squall we grew up with. So we have to take this new Squall, and figure out how he fits in with what we know about old Squall. Does that make any sense?"

"So... you picked on me because Squall didn't have a girlfriend?"

Seifer sighed again and tried a different approach. "What if a person had always thought of himself one way, but only because he'd never stopped to think if there was another way? Like if you spent all of your life walking down one road, but only because you never looked left or right to see if there's another road?"

Zell sat there in silence as Seifer's words sunk in. His eyes grew wide in amazement. "You're talking about being gay, aren't you?"

"Yes," Seifer said, relieved at last. "I am."

"Squall's gay!?" Zell practically screamed these last two words. Seifer dove forward, trying to clap his hand over Zell's mouth, but he couldn't move quickly enough. The words had already escaped.

"Good God, Zell," Seifer said, rolling his eyes. "I don't think the people in Esthar heard you. No, I'm not talking about Squall." Seifer took a deep breath and went the direct route. "I'm talking about me, Zell. I'm talking... about me."

Zell nodded softly. "I see. So you were a bully because..."

"Yeah," Seifer responded, his voice little more than a whisper. "Call it compensating. And I picked on you because..."

"Because you couldn't tell me how you really felt."

Seifer nodded slowly. "Yeah."

A long silence filled the air. Time slowed to a crawl for Seifer. Just as he couldn't bring himself to look at Zell, he couldn't bear to look away. He leaned forward in his seat, bending over and putting his face in his hands. He felt broken inside, knowing that in his carelessness, he'd damaged the person who really mattered to him. He heard Zell stand up, and waited to hear his footsteps retreating into the distance. Instead, he suddenly found Zell next to him, sitting down and placing a hand on Seifer's back.

"You know," Zell said "you do a pretty credible imitation of Squall."

Seifer laughed despite himself, amazed at the sheer incongruity of Zell's remark. Soon, both men found themselves roaring uproariously, laughter feeding off laughter, drawing stares from other people in the Quad.

A pair of cadets passed by, looking scornfully at the hysterical duo. They fixed Seifer with a harsh glare, cramming as much disinterested malice as possible into their thirteen-year-old faces. Seifer glared right back, barely containing his mirth. He fired directly into their midst, offering up a hearty "Whatever." This set the men laughing again.

By the time their laughter subsided, thoughts of loss and rejection had departed Seifer's mind. He wiped a tear out of his eye, glancing over at Zell. Seifer barely had time to blink before he felt Zell's lips pressed up against his, one of Zell's hands in Seifer's hair. The spontaneity of the act startled him, and he barely had the presence of mind to kiss back.

They held for a moment and Zell broke away. "Whaddya think?" Zell asked. "Did it feel okay to you?"

"Okay," Seifer responded, somewhat lost for words. "Definitely okay."

"I concur," Zell said, nodding his head sharply and grinning one of his lopsided grins.

"But Zell, are you...?"

"I don't know," Zell replied. "I mean, I've sort of wondered before. Because, you know, there were all those rumors about me and Squall..."

"Yeah," Seifer broke out grinning at that. "I remember starting those."

"And sometime when I'm wearing my Ergheiz gloves, remind me to thank you for that. Do you remember Callo?"

"She was on the Library Committee, right? Pony-tail, used to follow you around all the time?"

"That's her. Well, we dated for a while, and there was never really anything there. It was cool and all that she had such a thing for me, but I think that was the only reason I was into her."

"So... what about me? Why did you just kiss me?"

Zell shrugged. "I wanted to know what it would be like. And it wasn't all that bad."

"Does that mean...?" Seifer found it impossible to disguise the note of hope in his voice.

"I'm willing to see what happens," Zell said, shrugging amicably. "I mean, the idea doesn't upset me or anything, so maybe it'll lead somewhere."

Seifer shook his head in disbelief, thrilled at this sudden development. Zell simply grinned, until the alarm on his watch sounded. His face lit up with all the glee of a child opening birthday presents.

"Come on!" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet and pulling Seifer with him. "We gotta get to the cafeteria! Do you know what they're serving today?"

Seifer nodded, realizing that, if they maintained a relationship, this would quickly become its leitmotif. "Hot dogs?" he said, knowing the answer even as he spoke.

"Yeah! Last time I was first in line, and I scored a huge pile of them. Rosa - one of the workers there - knows Ma, so she always gives me extra."

Seifer pulled Zell close to him, kissing him softly on the lips. "Your life is a never-ending quest for hotdogs, Chicken-Wuss, and yet they let you train the next generation of SeeDs. Heaven help us all."

* * *

The camera mounted in the Quad captured the entire interchange between Seifer and Zell. It didn't pick up the sound, but he didn't need the audio feed to know what happened. Mentally, he added Zell to his list. When he broke Seifer, he'd also have to break Zell. Not something he'd counted on doing, but a necessity nevertheless. He certainly hadn't counted on Squall's intervention. That act, the man decided, earned Squall a particularly nasty fate. He had yet to decide the nature of the punishment, but knew that he wanted it to be something lingering.

The cigarette between his fingers burned an angry hole in the air. He placed it between his lips, inhaling deeply. Flipping off the monitor, he folded his coat over his arm and left the office.

She waited for him in the lobby, a raven-haired beauty with flawless alabaster skin. He felt the crackle of magic that always surrounded her, part of her inheritance as a Sorceress.

"Darling," he said, bowing slightly, "how are you today?"

She pouted slightly, casually outstretching a hand, the cigarette flew from between his lips. It landed in her hand and immediately turned to ice. He watched it tumble to the ground and shatter into countless pieces.

"I thought you were going to quit smoking," she said, her voice filled with equal parts annoyance and amusement.

"I know, I know," he replied, ushering her towards the elevator. They stepped on board and he pressed the button for the ground floor, watching Balamb Garden beneath him. "I've been promising that since our wedding day."

FIN.