Prologue – Up to Me

A/N: Hey everyone. A lot's changed in the ten years I've been gone, and it's sort of a funny series of events why I'm back here now. I published my first novel on January 1st of this year. I went directly into writing the next one, almost the same day, but realized pretty early on that I needed a clean separation from the creative moment and mindset I had been in. So I took a break and played the Final Fantasy VIII remaster, among a few other things. Needless to say the game still holds up and was all the feels, and left me thinking that I had some unfinished business here. I thought I kind of owed this game which made me want to write to begin with a better fanfic than I was able to give it back when I was trying to. So that's about me.

About the fic - I had this idea a long time ago to write a ten-chapter (eleven counting this prologue) concept based on my favorite Bob Dylan album, but never pulled the trigger on it. I thought the way Dylan's lyrics and the way he played with time - not so much nonlinear as a sort of time-equivalent of non-euclidean architecture - would be an inventive framework to write within. So that's what I was trying to do here. I'll let the readers and reviewers decide if I did it well or if I'm just high and full of myself. Here's the prologue. I'll be updating every Saturday until it's done. Of course I had to find a way to include Up to Me, which actually isn't on the album but should have been. If you haven't heard the album you might think about checking it out - you'll get the story a little better then I think.

The union central is pulling out, the orchids are in bloom
I've only got me one good shirt left, and it smells of stale perfume
In fourteen months I've only smiled once and I didn't do it consciously
Somebody's got to find your trail, I guess it must be up to me
We heard the sermon on the mount, and I knew it was too complex
It didn't amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew, you've got to pay the penalty
Somebody's got to tell the tale, I guess it must be up to me

The sun was shining through Squall Leonhart's office window. It was three o' clock. He blinked brushing the hair back out of his face and then looked bleary-eyed back down at his work. A pile of field run reports needing to be reviewed for final grading. Nothing unusual. He had made attempts over the years to streamline this process - to assign instructors to SeeD squads and make them ultimately responsible for final grades on field assignments the same as they were for students. That idea had never found purchase in a sustainable way - SeeDs who worked in the field had a kind of self-perceived superiority over SeeDs who had "retired" to the classroom, as they saw it, and morale had suffered with the growing tension. Instructors were out of touch with the reality of the field and all its rigors and so weren't qualified to critique the performance of field teams, and certainly not in a way that would affect their SeeD ranks and salaries as grades on run reports did - or that was the sentiment, anyway. The entire thing had turned into a mess of conflict and hurt feelings and in the end Squall had simply resigned himself to being the one who would do the paperwork.

That had been a few years ago now and he hadn't since made another attempt at fusing the school and SeeD aspects of Balamb Garden. He had at least been able to push more of the in-person dispatches and debriefings onto his commanders, but even they balked at doing *paperwork* when he tried to get them to do that too. The commanders in question were still part-time in the field themselves, and getting a field SeeD to do any more paperwork than necessary was like pulling teeth. 'You're mercenaries,' he found himself thinking as he stamped a report and moved it to the done pile. Those stamped reports would go to Xu, and be processed for rank and payroll adjustments. 'The greatest peacekeeping paramilitary force in the world, and I can't get you to do paperwork.'

SeeD was indeed that. Had become that. After Ultimecia, with its original purpose fulfilled, SeeD had been left with existential questions in the immediate aftermath. Disbanding wasn't an option to Squall, nor to any of the others. Never had been. For many Balamb Garden was the only home they had ever known - SeeD was their identity as well as their livelihood. So what, then? Would they go on simply as soldiers for hire, fighting for the highest bidder? That had never been Balamb Garden - not really, not at its core - and if Squall had taken SeeD in that direction he could already hear Cid Kramer calling him a "money-grubbing son of a bitch!" all the way from the orphanage. No, Squall wouldn't see Balamb Garden reduced to that. But it took some time - for SeeD and Balamb Garden together to find a new larger purpose, and for Squall to feel comfortable in his place within it. It hadn't come easy. The geopolitical situation of the world immediately after Ultimecia had been, to put it lightly, a mess.

Esthar had been if not crippled then at least badly wounded by the Lunar Cry, and would take years to fully recover. In the months afterward President Laguna would struggle to project any kind of significant military power on a global scale with so much to fix at home.

Galbadia was essentially leaderless save for General Caraway, and even he was far from being seen as a real authority anymore with everything which had transpired. Enter former Headmaster and Garden Master Martine. The next few months in Deling City amounted to what was essentially a political slap-fight between two irrelevant and ineffectual former military leaders, but the only Galbadian figures of any authority acknowledged by the larger global community of Esthar, Trabia, Dollet, and newly independent Timber. In the end, now-President Martine would gain the upper hand and ostensibly take control of the "Galbadian Empire" - which now amounted to little more than a single city poorly policed by a small and disorganized army answering to a dictator they barely respected. General Caraway meanwhile was forcibly retired and put under house arrest.

The remaining citizenry of Trabia had relocated to Esthar to assist in the rebuilding efforts there, with the promise that Trabia Garden would be rebuilt in turn by Esthar. Dollet and Timber had been left in the most advantageous position of anyone, and tensions would soon take form as the two began to vie for control of the Galbadian continent. Timber lagged behind due to the lack of a standing army at the outset - it had only just begun to form a parliament and consider electing a Prime Minister in the days after time compression was averted. But the gap was not a wide one since Dollet's army was famously ineffective. Fisherman's Horizon was fairly isolationist and had little interest in matters outside of its own borders, and Balamb enjoyed a cozy and complacent existence as a default protectorate of Garden.

And that left Balamb Garden as, perhaps, the pre-eminent military presence on the globe - at least until Esthar got back on its feet. And Squall, at age seventeen, was its leader. In hindsight, he hadn't really been ready. But he hadn't been ready for Ultimecia either.

As the political situation evolved, SeeD found its purpose as a peacekeeping force. As a de facto neutral party, it could defend the smaller states like Winhill, Fisherman's Horizon, Balamb, and the newly rebuilt Trabia from annexation in a more politically palatable way than could be done by Esthar. In the coming years Timber, Dollet, and Galbadia would find themselves locked in a three-way stalemate, with any potential imperialistic advances held tenuously in check by Balamb Garden. In time this seeming Cold War even relaxed into something like a comfortable peace, with each state sending students to Garden, and subsequently hiring failed SeeD candidates for military service.

And so it had been for ten years - Balamb Garden operating as the well-oiled hinge of peace on the world stage, with Squall as its central figure. He sat back in his chair and put his boot-clad feet up on the desk, rubbing his eyes. He really needed a vacation. He was in his late twenties and already beginning to go gray. It was a dignified graying, of course - a touch on the sides, nothing more - but he was graying nonetheless. He'd been alone for awhile now. Not alone - not friendless, far from that - but single anyway. He and Rinoa hadn't been able to make it work. That was okay. It hadn't been a nasty separation. It was amicable, maybe even mutual, or maybe the opposite of mutual since neither really seemed to want it to happen. It was hard though - there were lots of tears, a few heated arguments, and a lot of depression after it was all over but by the end they had both come to accept that what you want when you're a teenager isn't what you want later on. That, and a global war and the potential end of all life and existence isn't the most sustainable foundation for a relationship. They were still friends, though distant now as their respective lives pulled them in different directions. That had been part of the problem when they were together, too. She was living in Timber now, serving as the ambassador to Galbadia aka Deling City which is what everyone else had taken to calling it since now that's all it was. A quiet private life hadn't really been an option for Rinoa, given some of the understandable anxieties about sorceresses in a post-Ultimecia world. Not as Squall Leonhart's wife, anyway. And there was even less tolerance of Squall being married to a sorceress. They had given it a go, keeping her more or less out of the public eye, but the nations of the world just weren't ready to let a known sorceress off their radar, and it caused some problems not only for Squall and Rinoa, but Balamb Garden as well. So she became a public figure, taking the job as ambassador shortly after their separation, and accepting that for a while anyway she would need to be doing something that made the world feel it had its eye on her. For Timber and Galbadia's part, it seemed both sides perceived the sorceress-ambassador as working in their own interest - Galbadia because of her upbringing in Deling City, and Timber because of her resistance work. Timber was right, and though Rinoa had no love for Deling City she was more than happy to let them think she did. It made her more effective. She was a good ambassador, and Squall was glad of that.

She hadn't met anyone new since the separation. Neither had he, and he suspected things would stay that way on both counts. Squall guessed that a soulmate can ruin you for everyone else but that still doesn't mean you can be together forever. Just apart forever. But he was still there when she needed him. That would never change. A lot of other things had, though.

The intercom chimed and Squall pulled his boots off the desk. "Yes?" he switched it on and asked.

"The commanders are here," Xu's voice came over the line from the exterior office beyond his door, where the elevator disembarked. That was Xu's office now.

"Door's open," he answered, and switched the intercom back off.

Quistis came in, with Zell just behind.

"Good morning Headmaster," Quistis said. Her tone was reserved as usual.

"WHOA!" Zell cut in. "Squall, you're lookin' bad man!" He was practically yelling. That was nothing new, and it wasn't exactly helping Squall's headache.

"... Not that bad, right?" Squall frowned.

"Zell isn't wrong," Quistis sat elegantly in one of the chairs on the near side of the desk. Zell walked up to the back of the other chair but stayed standing. Instead he leaned over the back of it on his forearms.

"Addressing the Headmaster this way is against decorum you know, even for Commanders," Squall said flatly. Everyone in the room would know he didn't mean it. "You didn't come here just to deride my appearance."

Zell and Quistis looked at one another.

"Uhm, we kind of did though," Quistis admitted.

Squall blinked and leaned back in his chair, bringing his fingertips together in front of his chest and saying nothing. He stared back at them though, somehow both at once, half-sarcastically daring them to continue.

"We..." Quistis hesitated.

"You need to get away, man!" Zell blurted out. "VAY-CAY-SHUN!"

"But then who's going to do all this goddamn paperwork?" Squall sniped, gesturing to the pile of run reports on his desk. He was actually venting a bit of real frustration this time. There was an understood subtext to the question though - it wasn't just about paperwork. Squall hadn't had a vacation in five years now because he simply couldn't be out of pocket - not with Balamb Garden as the only thing maintaining world peace. Or at least that was Squall's perception anyway. That a few days away from the job - truly away from it - would spell instant and unavoidable disaster of worldwide proportions.

"Listen man!" Zell started. "There's this new resort just opened up in Centra, on the southern coast!"

"I can't go to a resort, are you nuts?" Squall was getting irritated now. "I could be, I don't know, assassinated or something. The media would be all over it."

"NAH bro!" Zell continued. "This place is like super secret, and super secure! The kind of place only rich people and world leaders even know EXISTS, let alone go to! It's tucked into like a, an um, like a secluded alcove!"

Quistis brought out a brochure and cleared her throat. Across the front and back pages was an idyllic snapshot of a white sand beach, palm trees, crystal blue water, and a palm frond-roofed hut of some kind out on the water with a stone path leading up. Quistis began to read.

"Treat yourself and your loved ones to a VIP stay at Centra's all-new exclusive resort, White Centra Bay. Relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the Centra continent's unspoiled southern coast, where the sparkling waters are clean enough to drink. Purchase our Super-VIP package and enjoy a full bar pass for your entire stay - drink for free! Dine in splendor in the resort town's many restaurants, and sample cuisines from across the world. And when the sun goes down, settle in to enjoy the greatest entertainment in the world, every night. Music, theatre, and comedy from the most in-demand performers from every corner of the globe-"

"No," Squall cut her off.

"AWW COME ON, Scrooooooge!" Zell erupted, but for once managed to resist the urge to punch the floor.

"I'm not doing it," Squall said firmly. "Besides, it sounds way too expensive anyway."

Quistis glanced over to Zell. "Should we tell him?" she asked.

"We uh..." Zell scratched the back of his neck and kicked at the carpet with one foot. "We already bought your ticket."

"What?" Squall nearly came out of his chair.

"We already bought your ticket buddy," Zell repeated. "And..."

Quistis stirred uncomfortably.

"And...?" Squall was glaring at them both now.

"You're not going alone. We're all going. All seven of us! A week's stay at White Centra Bay. We got the super-VIP package. They actually gave us a good deal on it when we told them who we were, and that you would be there," Quistis explained.

Squall was bewildered. "I can't believe you've done this. Wait, seven of us?"

"You, me, Quistis," Zell started.

"Seifer, Selphie and Irvine," Quistis added and then paused. "... and Rinoa."

"So that's what this is," Squall sucked his teeth and looked both disappointed and unsurprised.

"What?!" Quistis furrowed her brow.

"You're trying to..." Squall scoffed. "Look, never mind, I'm not going."

"Come on man, you're gonna let Rinoa go on vacation with SEIFER!?" Zell's fists were clenched now.

Quistis' eyes got wide. She hadn't expected Zell to go there but she chided herself for being surprised. Zell and Seifer were on good terms now, but every once in a while the old childhood dynamic had a way of coming to the foreground. "Zell, Seifer's not-" Quistis started, but Zell interrupted her.

"He'll probably try to... to... KISS her or somethin', man!" Zell was ranting now.

Squall sighed. "If he does, I wish him the best," he lied. "Listen, I've got a lot of work to do. Was there anything else?"

"N-no..." Zell slumped where he stood, and turned to leave. Quistis followed him out the door, and when they were on the elevator she broke the silence.

"Zell, Seifer's gay. He told us that. He has no interest in Rinoa," she noted.

"I KKNOOOWWWWW, god!" Zell groaned. "But Squall doesn't know that. Come on, to the infirmary. We need Seifer's help."

"You're not thinking that we should..." Quistis was stunned for a second and then smiled mischievously. "I bet he'll do it, too."

"Of course he will," Zell looked proud of himself.

To be continued...