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He counted the bricks on the wall.
From a distance they looked uniform, but up close no two were the same; pock marked, misaligned, different shades. Some bore the stains of those before him, others who must have stood in this very spot and pondered their death. Had they counted the bricks? Probably not. They probably thought about things like family and regret.
He didn't think of either of those things. How could he, when he had none?
Well, maybe he'd had a family once. Definitely friends. Admirers. Lovers. But he'd thrown them all away to pursue his glorious dreams, and those dreams were far greater than anything as mundane as family.
To be remembered, maybe that had been the goal. Not another faceless soldier in a uniform, another number logged into a database. No, not for him. It was in his blood to be something greater. He would be more than the brick, the wall, the builder; he would be the architect.
But his plans – his dreams – had fallen into ruin.
Could he have run forever? Maybe. He'd always been running, in a way. For a long time he thought he'd been running towards something, pursuing a goal that was always tantalising out of reach: SeeD, romance, success, knighthood. But now he wondered if he had just been running for the sake of running. Running to find a way to fill the emptiness, an emptiness that had been with him longer than he could remember. Even realising his ultimate dream hadn't filled it, and now he was emptier than ever.
Ah. There was the regret.
He faced the wall and listened to a judge list off crimes committed, felt the heavy anti-magic cuffs around his wrists and ankles, and heard the clack of the safety being pulled back on the gun pointed at his head.
Today, Seifer Almasy turned twenty-three years old.
Today, he accepted retribution.
He was done counting bricks.
One day earlier
Selphie restlessly bounced her knee and stabbed a finger onto the blueprints of this year's Garden Festival.
"See? The stage needs to go here, so we have to move the ammunition storage. Maybe to the Training Center? There's so much room there and we never use it."
"The damp and humidity won't do the ammunition any good," Squall said, not bothering to look up from the paperwork he was signing. "We're not moving things around for a stage. You already have two. Why do you need a third?"
"Because it's a festival!" Selphie declared, waving her arms. "You can't have just, like, two stages. You know Trabia's Winter Festival has six. Six! We're an embarrassment."
Squall said nothing. His attention was focused solely on the papers in front of him. Financial reports that had boring things on them like graphs and statistics. Ick.
Selphie slammed her hand down on the stack of paper, earning herself a very mild look from Squall.
"This is very important," she said. "Will you please let me move the storage somewhere else so we can have the Country and Folk stage? The students demand diversity this year. They demand it, Squall. Do you know what that's like? Having people demand things from you all the time?"
Squall stared at her flatly.
"We can't just do pop and rock again," Selphie continued. "I mean, I don't have anything against the Pink PomPoms and the Thrashers, but we've had them three years in a row and I just cannot – WILL NOT – put the Balamb orchestra on the stage to play rock covers again. Like, no offence to them, but they're kinda lame. We need electric guitars, booming bass, strobe lighting and – and lazers! Pew-pew!" She made finger guns to demonstrate her point and in the process sent Squall's neat pile of paperwork fluttering to the floor.
They both stared at the mess for an unreadable moment, then Squall sighed and put down his pen.
"You can move them into the unoccupied dorms in 1-B on the condition you leave me alone for the rest of the afternoon."
"Yaaaaaay! Thanks Squall! You're the best Garden Festival Committee member ever!"
"Oh-kay! Gotcha! No lasers!"
"I mean it, Selphie."
Selphie edged out the door with her blueprints in hand, grinning wildly. "Uh-huh, yep, no pointy light beams, got it, totally, 100% - " She shut the door of Squall's office and did a twirl in the corridor and a happy-jig for good measure.
Three stages! Three different music themes! Strobe lighting! Lasers! This was going to be the best. Festival. Ever!
She danced her way to the Quad, determined to finalise the stage setup and check whether the extension leads were long enough to connect them to the outlets. She still had to submit the measurements to the rental company in Fisherman's Horizon and as it would take them a few weeks to process the order she needed to get on that lickity split.
She pulled out her to do list and crossed off 'Hassle Squall' with a wonky pencil line. It didn't make much of a dent in the list, though. So much to do and so few volunteers this year. Many cadets were in Esthar killing moon monsters (Selphie had recently got back from being stationed there herself for a few months) while a sudden influx of new recruits following the dissolution of Galbadia's elite force meant others were kept busy.
She didn't mind, though. Organising the Garden Festival kept her mind occupied.
Gotta stay occupied. Gotta stay busy.
She stopped in her tracks.
I… I don't have to stay busy, right? I can totally have down time whenever I want! Like, this is technically my vacation allowance! She looked down at the Garden Festival notes in her hand. I can… I can totally take down time. Totally.
Her eyes trailed to the luminous lights that striped Garden's vaulted ceiling. She thought she could hear them buzzing, a low pulse in her mind, vibrating in her ears, humming, humming. Too loud. Her breath caught in her chest and squeezed her lungs.
"Hey, Sefie, why so glum?"
Selphie startled. Irvine had managed to sneak up on her, and probably intentionally judging by the smarmy grin on his face. She slapped him in feigned-irritation.
"Don't be creepy! I'm just thinkin' about the Garden Festival!"
"You're always thinkin' about the Garden Festival," Irvine chided. "Why don't you think about something else for a change?"
Selphie rolled her eyes but indulged his poor humour and threaded her arm through his. "Escort a lady to the Cafeteria would you? I hear they're servin' sticky toffee pudding!"
Irvine tipped his hat. "You know you're meant to eat dessert last, right?"
"Where's the fun in that? Anyway, I've just decided I'm takin' a break! Doctor Kadowaki said –" She caught herself and threw a guilty glance at Irvine. Ah well. No use covering her tracks. "She said I should take it easy. You know. After fightin' in Esthar. Gotta keep these bones healthy and all that!"
He looked at her sideways. "That all she say?"
"Oh yeah, she did say another thing…" Selphie said ponderously. "She said I… I should… Eat three portions of sticky toffee pudding without people shaming me. She said that's really important. For my health."
Irvine snorted a laugh. "If that's what the doctor ordered then that's what it'll be."
The cafeteria was quiet during the lull between lunch and dinner. The homely clang of kitchen utensils was underlined by the smell of fried hotdogs, and for a dizzying moment Selfie was struck by nostalgia. She shook it off and hopped over to the counter.
"Three sticky toffee puddings please!"
Dorothy, the nice cafeteria lady with greying hair, gave a knowing smile. It was actually against Garden rules to give more than one serving per cadet, but Selphie volunteered to peel potatoes and scrub the underside of the cooker once a week, so she generally got what she wanted. Plus, it was hard to say no to Selphie. It was as if Hyne Himself designed her especially for the art of cajoling; she was a blend of ferocious tenacity and saccharine sweetness applied to a face so dollish it looked almost artificial. Ignoring her was to risk seeing the crazy under all that gusty charm, and Selphie's crazy would send a psychopath running.
Dorothy placed three plastic containers of sticky cake onto her tray, then with a wink and a sly, "Don't tell Headmistress Xu," she slipped her an extra jar of toffee sauce.
Selphie tapped her nose, then skipped away with such vigour Irvine had to grab the jar to stop it from toppling over. She made for their usual spot, but a tingling brush against her skin made her look left, far left, to a dimly lit corner. It was magic, familiar magic, which was odd considering magic use was prohibited within the Cafeteria –
Rinoa. Of course. The only person who couldn't help but use magic. She'd cast some kind of deflective spell, a ward of sorts. Completely harmless, but it worked to subtly divert attention. A person would see her, then suddenly turn their head and continue past, their thoughts inexplicably drawn to another point, Rinoa forgotten.
Except, that didn't work on Selphie. Maybe because Selphie was a magic expert whose Limit Break could rival any sorceress, or maybe because Rinoa just didn't have the heart to cast magic on her friends.
"Hey, Rinny!" Selphie chimed as she bounced over to her table. "Can we sit?"
Rinoa's hair was swept back from her face in an uncharacteristic ponytail. She was frowning, lips tightly pursed, but the expression evaporated when she saw Selphie, and she pushed aside the mountain of books occupying the table top to make room for them. "Hey, guys! Oh – ah. Sorry for the – you know. Magic. I was trying to concentrate and it's hard when people are… staring."
Right. Because not many people wanted to talk to Rinoa. As the Commander's girlfriend and fledgling sorceress, she was a walking conflict of interests for SeeD. It didn't help that she was disarming, forthright and pretty; a concoction that worked to charm even the most stubborn, withdrawn, monosyllabic, leather-clad of men, much less SeeD.
"It's 'cause you're cute," Selphie told her blithely. "Right, Irvy?"
Irvine tipped his hat at her and straddled a seat. He had a plate of fries that he offered to Rinoa, who declined. She looked at Selphie's plate of cake and the obscene amount of toffee sauce she was drowning them in, and politely said nothing.
A true friend, Selphie acknowledged. "You okay, Rinny? You look sorta stressed."
"Oh. Well. It's… hard to explain."
"…Yeah." Her tone oozed reluctance. "Just…. I…. Ehhh. If I try to explain, don't judge me, okay?"
Selphie lowered her fork to level her with a very serious look. "Never."
"The power inside me is really old," Rinoa began. "It's passed down from sorceress to sorceress. I don't know how many generations old mine is… I mean, maybe it's all right from the beginning? From Hyne? I'm sure it could be traced back. Anyway, I've recently discovered that… sometimes randomly or with concentration… I can access old knowledge. The knowledge of sorceresses. There's a word for it, in Visque, the Old Tongue. It's called kognita."
"You learnt that from these books?" Irvine asked.
Rinoa shook her head. "I just knew. Somehow. I know things, sometimes. I mean, it's mostly useless stuff but -"
"Kognita," Selphie clarified.
"Yeah. I'm not like, super knowledgeable or anything. But sometimes random info just pops into my brain and I know it's from the power, from the ones before me."
Selphie slowly chewed her cake. "Well, that's not a bad thing right? You could be super brainy! You could even beat Quistis in a pop quiz!" She gasped and leaned forward. "We should totally arrange a show-down, that it would be so epiiiic!"
Rinoa chuckled, but it was listless. "Recently it's like the kognita is trying to tell me something. Something that delves beyond this plane of existence, something very old and sacred to Hyne and the Old Sorceresses. Something… unfinished? Maybe?" She pushed the air around with her fingers, searching for the words. "It's like… like when you know you have something to do but you can't remember what, and it's bugging you. You know? Don't get me wrong, it's not like my powers are sentient. But they're a part of me now and I feel like maybe I have some kind of responsibility…."
Selphie sucked the last of the sauce off her spoon, frowning. Rinoa was her best friend and it was frustrating to see her going through these issues. Sometimes she just wanted to cut her open and scrape out all the power then sew her back together again. Was that a thing? Could that be a thing?
"You should go see Edea," Irvine suggested. "Even though she isn't a sorceress anymore, she was one for years and years. She might know what you mean and maybe even what it is that you have to do."
Selphie perked up and elbowed him. "Yeaah! Awesome idea, Irvy! Waaay better than what I was planning. Your plan doesn't have surgery. And we can go to the Orphanage! I haven't seen it since it reopened."
Rinoa looked less enthusiastic, but acquiesced with a nod. "These books aren't getting me anywhere and Squall hasn't been able to help either."
"It's a plan!" Selphie declared as she leapt up, toppling her seat backwards. "Woohoo!"
"I thought Doctor Kadowaki told ya to take it easy?" Irvine said a touch disapprovingly. "Isn't this your vacation time?"
"How I choose to spend my vacation is up to me," Selphie told him tartly. "I choose to spend it with Rinny. You can come too, I guess." She stuck her tongue out at him and he winked at her.
The sound of the intercom cut through the cafeteria din and the student body fell silent. There was an odd shuffling on the other end of the mic, almost as though someone was flustered and grappling with paperwork, then Xu's voice came through, unusually harried but still sharp and commanding as ever.
"Kinneas, Tilmitt and Dincht to the Commander's office immediately. I repeat, Kinneas, Tilmitt and Dincht to the Commander's office immediately. Squall, this is not -" The intercom cut out.
The three shared raised-eyebrow looks at one another. Rinoa bobbed a shoulder. "Must be SeeD stuff."
"Weird though," Selphie said.
Irvine said, "I mean, Xu doesn't exactly like Rinoa being here, that's no secret –"
"Still, it's a bit rude. She's an honorary member of the Orphanage Gang and –"
"You should just tag along anyway. You can be my plus one –"
Rinoa held up her hands. "Honestly, it's fine. Squall will tell me later anyways. He's… upset about something." Her eyes became distant. Selphie knew that look by now. It meant they were doing that weird sorceress-knight mind-talk. "I mean, he's not telling me now. But he will… Must be important. You guys should go."
Selphie brandished her spoon. "Fear not, we shall return!"
Rinoa smiled and dismissed them with a wave, an old Galbadian princess habit she hadn't yet kicked.
"Weird, right?" Irvine said as they made their way to the elevator. "You think it's bad? Xu doesn't get flustered easily."
"Maybe she's fallen for Squall's natural charms."
"Hey! Squall can be very charming when he wants to be!"
When they arrived Squall's office gave the impression of disarray. Quistis was already there, standing in heated debate with Xu across Squall's long office table. Squall's computer screen was showing static, as though a vidcall had been abruptly cut short, and the commander himself was gripping a fresh cup of black coffee and looking decidedly unamused at the two women bickering in front of his desk.
"Ladies, ladies," Irvine said as he waved his hands in a pacifying manner. "Arguing never solves anything."
"Can it, Kinneas," Xu sniped. "None of you should be involved. This is between the Commander, Deputy-Head Mistress and I. Even Elite SeeDs should not be involved in this level of delicate politics, especially –"
"They're not just Elite SeeDs," Quistis argued. "The politics are not so black and white and their counsel on the matter is valued –"
"Emotional counsel," Xu said shortly. "This is a situation where emotions need to be banked so we can consider the facts. Don't you agree, Commander?"
Squall peered at them over the brim of his cup, then rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
Xu threw up her hands. "Thank you for that helpful input, Squall. Remind me to memo Cid thanking him once again for selecting such an articulate cadet to speak on behalf of Garden."
Selphie waved her hands. "Um, hellllo? Did you call us so we could referee a cat fight or something?"
"If there's bikini wrestling involved I would totally be down for that," Irvine added.
The elevator beeped and Zell walked in, looking flushed and wearing sweatpants and a hoody. "Yo, sorry. Was in the Training Centre. What's up?" He glanced around the room. "Why's everyone lookin' mad?" His expression became dark and he clenched his fists. "Is it Galbadia? Are they invading somewhere? An assassination?"
"No, Zell," Quistis cut him off before he started punching the air. "It's, ah, well. Commander?"
Squall lowered his coffee. "We just received word from our espionage team that Galbadia has captured Seifer Almasy and have sanctioned his execution 13 hours from now." He waited for the exclamations to die down before continuing. "I suspect they've had him in custody for longer, but chose to withhold the information from Garden."
Selphie waved her hands. "Hey! Isn't that against some kind of rules or something? They can't do that! Right?"
Quistis shrugged. "Seifer ostracised himself from Garden. He's no longer enrolled and it's doubtful he will ever return, much less use Garden as leverage. Seifer is wanted for war crimes in numerous countries. Galbadia have every right to detain him and… exact punishment."
"But he fought with Galbadia!"
"The Galbadian government is keen to disassociate itself from the events in the war," Xu said. "They're pinning all the blame on the sorceress and her dictatorial rule. They doubtlessly think that executing Seifer would further shift the responsibility away from the state and regain the faith of neighbouring powers, such as Esthar. To keep him alive would not benefit them in the slightest."
The room went quiet, each person mulling over their opinions.
At length, Zell said, "Is it for real this time? Like, before we were told he was executed but he wasn't and he turned up on a frickin' festival float! He's not headlining this year's Garden Festival or something?"
"It's legit this time," Xu confirmed. "We've seen footage of him in the prison cell. He's chained and roughed up. Galbadia must have spent a lot of resources hunting him down, so it was only a matter of time, especially considering other forces weren't looking particularly hard." Here she threw a flinty look Squall's way, who turned it aside indifferently.
He said, "I summoned you here because… I wanted you to know I petitioned to have him released to Garden under the pretence that he is still a cadet and therefore should be detained by us. The request was denied. I then demanded a trial wherein he would be represented by Garden's lawyers but… they claim he has already had a trial and has been found guilty. I don't know how true that is, but the paperwork is all there so…" Squall shrugged. "Garden can't act independently against Galbadia."
"Absolutely not," Xu agreed.
Squall went on with the faintest note of reluctance in his voice. "Garden has become a respected seat of power around the world but we must stay politically neutral. To act independently would imply that we've become a state of sorts. A political power, and one with unmatched weaponry. Garden must never become that. Without a contract…"
"You're saying that… we have to leave him," Quistis said.
Squall hesitated, eyes flitting downward for a moment. "…Yes. And I… guess I wanted you all to know first. Because… I dunno. He was…"
"Part of the Orphanage Gang," Selphie finished.
"I mean… I guess he kinda… deserves it?" Zell suggested awkwardly. Then his shoulders slumped and he shook his head. "Aw, man. This sucks. I don't like the guy and what he did in the war was…"
"But, like, it wasn't totally him, right?" Irvine said. "It was Ultimecia messing with his mind."
Squall rested a hand on his hip and looked to the side. "Maybe."
Selphie bit her lip and stared at the ground. Seifer had been behind the destruction of Trabia. Her home, hundreds of Trabian Cadets, some as young as five years old. She thought of the burnt husk of her Garden, the charred smell that mingled with pine and dirt, and the graves. So many graves. The teddies, the necklaces, the clothing, the books and photos that stood guard over fresh mounds of snow dusted soil. She was haunted by what their final moments must have been like – dreamt of it sometimes. If things had been different, maybe she would have been there instead. A distant whistle, then the incoming roar, then fire, burning, and darkness.
"He can't die," she whispered. Then louder, head snapping up: "He can't die! I gotta break his nose! For Trabia!"
The others looked at her. Irvine delicately said, "I guess we all deserve to throw a punch, hey?"
"We should totally storm the place!" Selphie said, with a determined fist pump. "We've got the manpower and GFs. Take 'em by surprise!"
"We're not risking lives, SeeD's reputation and world peace over Seifer Almasy," Xu spat. "Or anyone, for that matter."
"What if it was Rinoa?" Quistis said to Squall.
He looked momentarily perturbed, then shrugged. "He isn't Rinoa. If there was a simple solution… If it really was as simple as storming Galbadia Prison… But it isn't. Also I think…." He hesitated.
Quistis crossed her arms and said in a soft, coaxing tone, "Yes, Squall?"
He looked up. "I don't think he was caught. I think he's given up. Evading Galbadia would be easy for him with his training. He's done it now for five years. Even if they had caught him by surprise, it's unlikely they would fare well in a fight against him, especially if Raijin and Fujin were there. We only got the better of him because of our GFs and him being outnumbered."
"You're saying he wanted to be caught?" Zell asked.
"I don't know. Maybe. At any rate, do you think he'd accept our help?"
"He's too proud," Quistis acquiesced. "He always did everything on his own terms…"
A heavy silence fell over the room. Even Selphie was oddly still, hands clasped behind her back, staring at the ground. It felt like a funeral. Maybe it was. She tried to remember something good about Seifer, felt she should say something, anything. But it felt wrong and the words clogged in her throat. Her memories were too hazy anyway.
Eventually, Squall said, "I'm telling Rinoa separately because… well. You know how she is. And Edea…" He hesitated again, then saluted. "You're dismissed."
Selphie's fingers hovered over her personalog. The cursor bar flashed, daring her to write. So far she had written the date. She had changed the font three times. She had started writing then erased it six times. She had tried to write about her banal day of festival planning, but it seemed dishonest. Maybe she could skip a day of her diary?
She leaned back into the mountain of cushions on her bed. Her feet danced to a tune only they could hear. Idly, she flicked through past logs. Days, weeks, months, years. All her memories recorded in an attempt to fortify what the GFs destroyed. Some she uploaded to the Garden Database, others she kept personal. Very few though. She felt the student body needed some flavour of truth and emotion in their daily lives, especially in an occupation that worked to numb them.
Back and back. Back to beginning. Before the war. Before her life was turned upside down.
She read the first entry curiously. She had forgotten what she'd written. Odd how the words seemed that of a stranger's. Her words seemed so contrived, or maybe she'd just been naïve.
She stopped reading mid-sentence and looked at the date of the entry. Just after she made SeeD. Her eyes trailed over the words.
'Oh yeah… That squad leader actually congratulated us. Seems like a nice guy. He's famous at this academy, right? If he joins the Garden Festival Committee maybe he could do the recruiting? Well, good luck with the next field exam, Seifer!'
That's right. He had congratulated them. By the way people had talked, she'd expected him to be too embittered, too proud and furious to do anything as banal as extend his felicitations. He'd failed the exam so many times, and now the boy he had bullied and his greatest rival in combat had surpassed him.
When she'd first transferred to B-Garden she had made it her mission to gather intel on the cadets (gossip, some might call it), and his was a name that popped up frequently. The girls spoke of him with flushed cheeks or bitter scorn (having been turned down at some point), and the boys spoke of him with awe, respect, or rolled eyes and a: 'Oh, him'.
When she saw him for the first time, she'd recognised him by reputation alone; tall and golden, swathed in heady confidence. He'd breezed past her in the corridor with his curious and intimidating posse, then stopped long enough to ask her if she was the latest transfer from Trabia.
"Anyone gives you any trouble, come see me."
He hadn't waited for her reply. Just prowled away.
Weirder still that neither or them had remembered the years spent playing underneath the scorching sun by the sea, a lighthouse blinking through the summer haze, bare feet kicking soft sand. If she strained really hard, closed her eyes and hunted through the empty hollows of her memory, she thought she saw him as a child: tanned, bright eyed, dirty, with a quick grin and rough hands. She'd liked him, back then. Back before he had gone coo-coo.
"I gotta ask him why he did it!" Selphie declared to her room. "And like, it's totally unfair! There's gotta be some way…"
Selphie didn't jump (that had been conditioned out her as a child), but she did throw a baffled look at the swathe of shadows lurking just beyond the lamplight. There stood Rinoa, having appeared from absolutely nowhere, arms crossed and dressed in black leggings and a dark blue sweater.
"Hey, Rinny," Selphie said. "I didn't know you could, um… teleport."
Rinoa stepped into the circle of light. She looked like her, but she didn't feel like her. Her ambient magic thrummed with anger. Selphie thought she could taste strawberries and smell freshly washed linen and something more bitter… copper, maybe?
Rinoa held out her hand and the air itself warped and shivered and produced a sheet of paper. "Remember this?"
Selphie leaned forward and squinted at the type. A heavy ball sank in her gut. "Yeeaahh…."
"'Until Timber is liberated'," Rinoa read. "That's what your contract says. It's still valid because Timber is still under Galbadian control. That means –"
" – you still work for me."
"Rinny, Squall is gonna be SO mad –"
"Do you have the authority to terminate the contract?"
"Uh…nooooo. But –"
"Can you turn your back on me? On him?"
Selphie pouted at her friend, then sighed. "I guess not."
Rinoa nodded brightly and the contract disappeared into whatever part of space she'd plucked it from. "Alright! I knew I could count on you! You know I would ask Squall but… it's hard for him, with Garden and everything. Besides, maybe he'd rather turn a blind eye and hope that someone else will rescue him." She seemed to warm to the idea. "Yeah. Maybe he'd rather not know the details and just be pleased with the result!"
"Maybe," Selphie said doubtfully. "Do you have a plan?"
Rinoa smiled. "I always have a plan."