Chapter I - Tangled Up in Blue
A/N: Well, here we go. Chapter I. I hope it's more exciting than the prologue.
She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam I guess, but I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me as I was walking away
I heard her say over my shoulder "We'll meet again someday on the avenue"
Tangled up in blue
Seifer Almasy was floating weightlessly in a liquid infinity of himself unable to tell where his body ended and the rest of the world began. He'd been here for hours now and still couldn't remember where he had left the thing he was looking for. This float tank had probably been a waste of money. Right when he thought he was going to remember though - when he could feel the memory coming but it was still too far away to touch - his solitude was shattered. There was a click, and then a blade of light penetrating the endless void of darkness before him like a rip in the fabric of space somewhere out in the cosmos. The sliver widened as the lid of the float tank was opened the rest of the way, and Seifer looked up at Quistis and Zell.
"Goddamnit, Chicken-Wuss!" he exclaimed. He was fully nude lying supine in the tank, his flaccid penis and balls bobbing back and forth now in the gentle waves created by his expletives.
Zell's face scrunched and he took a step back, ready to hit the doctor as soon as he was out of the tank.
"Seifer what..." Quistis started, turning her head and raising a hand to cover Seifer's shame in her field of vision since he wasn't going to do it himself. "What are you doing?"
"Oh come on instructor!" he finally sat up. "You've never heard of a float tank?" he stood now, with a wince, and pointed to a towel hanging nearby. "Hand me that?" he said.
"My pleasure," Quistis answered and did as he asked, having seen far more of Seifer's penis today than she had planned on or wanted.
Seifer dried himself and wrapped the towel around his waist before bending to grab for his cane leaning against the side of the tank. With some difficulty and the help of the cane he stepped out of the tank, the remaining water on his legs dripping and pooling onto the tile floor of the infirmary.
"So... what is this thing?" Zell asked, having calmed down. The visual reminder of Seifer being a cripple had a way of doing that to Zell, and he had a sneaking suspicion that he took advantage of his injury and the sympathy it afforded him to say things he couldn't get away with otherwise. The fact that he was a fantastic doctor also helped things, particularly when it came to keeping a job in spite of his unprofessional, borderline abusive behavior.
"It's a float tank. The water is exactly ninety eight point six degrees. The tank is perfectly noise canceling when closed, and completely dark. I'm practicing sensory deprivation to induce theta brain wave state..." Seifer now limped and caned his way across the infirmary, leaving wet footprints in his wake. "Theta waves are associated with increased memory recall."
"So... what are you trying to remember?" Quistis inquired.
"Where I left my stethoscope," he answered, and sat down in his desk chair. He had all but collapsed the last half of the way, and was now pawing at his exposed thigh as the towel around his waist rode up. "The damn thing has been missing for two weeks now," he winced.
"Wait wait," Quistis shook her head. She wasn't sure why she was even surprised anymore but somehow Seifer kept doing the unexpected. "You bought a float tank to try and find your stethoscope? Why not just buy a new stethoscope?"
"Hmm," Seifer thought, "because this is more fun and I'm wondering how much I can get away with before Headmaster Puberty Boy cuts my funding."
Zell inclined his head and shrugged slightly as if to say "that's fair." One had to respect the audacity if nothing else.
"So what do you two want, anyway?" Seifer asked, momentarily focused too much on the pain in his leg to say anything witty.
"We need a favor," Quistis answered.
"Yeah, a favor! And you owe us for stopping Squall from firing you last time when-" Zell began.
"No, Commander Dincht!" Seifer raised his voice, "I will not have sex with you! Not again!" he protested loudly and the patient in room one looked up confused from the hospital bed where she was resting.
"Jesus man," Zell sighed and Quistis rolled her eyes. "Shut up, this is serious," he pleaded.
Seifer said nothing then, only intertwined his fingers and looked on patronizingly.
"You know this trip we booked for everyone," Quistis began.
"Yes, I'm looking forward to making you all watch me skinny dip," Seifer answered.
"Squall won't go, and he's convinced we're trying to get him back together with Rinoa," she explained.
"Well aren't you?" Seifer asked. "I mean... that's why I signed on, anyway. Squall not getting laid is bad for my job security, and not a single one of those hookers I've sent to his room have come away satisfied. God he's a such a Boy Scout, I hate it. So Rinoa is our only option, right?"
Quistis was pinching the bridge of her nose now, eyes clenched tight with the rapidly worsening headache Seifer was giving her. "No," she said.
"That's not what we're tryin' to do but, we were thinkin' maybe if you, like, y'know..." Zell beat around the bush.
"If I...?" Seifer looked interested.
"If you, like, made it seem like you and Rinoa were a thing again, maybe Squall would get jealous enough to not skip out on this trip," Zell explained. "We're not tryin' to get them back together. We just want Squall to have a chance to blow off some steam, y'know?"
"Sorry Chicken-Wuss but I'm gayer than a Ruby Dragon doused in glue and rolled in glitter. Puberty Boy will never buy it," Seifer shook his head.
"You never came out to Squall," Quistis reminded him.
"I was hoping you wouldn't be so rude as to nitpick me with that fact," he sighed.
"Yeah and you know he's always lost in his own head. There's no way he's noticed. He has no idea," Zell added. "And you haven't come out to Rinoa either."
Seifer was quiet again. Finally he nodded. "Alright," he agreed. "But I won't do anything that might hurt Rinoa," he said. All the snark and bravado was gone from him now.
"We wouldn't have that," Quistis nodded.
"Never," Zell added.
"Alright, get out of my clinic," Seifer put the mask back on and was suddenly himself again, swinging his cane at the commanders and shooing them out. They indulged him and left in a hurry, with a flurry of thanks for his agreement to help. Then he sat back into his desk chair and considered putting some clothes on.
A lot had changed in ten years. When SeeD defeated Ultimecia, Seifer had limped away from Lunatic Pandora forever maimed by Squall's gunblade. It was a wound that, for years, was a haunting reminder of not only his own failures but also of the ascension of his rival. That's not to say he ever exactly resented Squall for any of the times he had succeeded where Seifer had failed - an escalating series of events beginning with the Dollet SeeD exam and culminating with what was nearly the end of the world. A series of conflicts in which Seifer was on the losing end every step of the way. But no, at no point after the sorceress' hold on his mind and heart was broken did Seifer blame his failings on anyone but himself. That still hadn't made it any easier watching his rival sword become the darling of the world stage, all the while he himself had been struck lame by the very same sword and with every limping step could only think the name "Squall Leonhart, Squall Leonhart, Squall Leonhart." In the moments after he had offered Rinoa up to Adel, it had been a deft and unexpected stroke that laid him low - a quick and forceful and brutally precise flick of that silver blade which had torn through the flesh of his right quadriceps and left him in a bloody broken heap on the floor. From his place there he clutched his ruined leg and watched the Fated Children defeat Adel. That was when he knew it was over. Before the final blow had fallen, actually, he had already been running away - alternately hobbling on one leg and one hand and finally dragging himself across the ground when the tendons and muscle in his leg finally tore the rest of the way and left the limb completely useless. By the time Adel was finished and the party were preparing to enter time compression, whatever spell Seifer believed Ultimecia had cast on his mind and his heart was gone without a trace. Whether it was actually magic at all or simply his own foolishness and immaturity, it was broken and gone and all he could feel was regret. He would have been glad to die then and it was only because of Fujin and Raijin that he didn't. They discretely collected him and fled to safety. And while a timely Curaga spell had stopped the bleeding, it would never entirely heal the pain or restore the strength in his right leg.
Seifer could remember little of the car, boat, and train rides that followed, exhausted and addled as he was by both his injuries and the return to reality from the fever dream in which he had been living for months after the Timber TV station. By the time the trio had made it to Fisherman's Horizon, the Fated Children were already back from Ultimecia's time and Squall was the hero he had always been destined to become. It was a hard thing to accept. He fished with Fujin and Raijin to eat and to pass the time, taking sometimes only momentary solace in his friends and wondering when someone would come for him. Squall would come to finish the job, or maybe just to cripple him in his other leg. Zell would come and beat the life out of him as revenge for the years of torment that were actually the product of a lifelong crush. Rinoa would watch her dog tear his throat out, and clap with glee as he lay gurgling his last breaths - his blood dripping down between the boards of the pier and into the ocean as inconsequential as everything else about his life. Maybe he wouldn't even see it coming. Maybe he would simply blink out of consciousness as a bullet pierced his skull, fired from a sniper's perch high above by the womanizing cowboy they called Irvine. Maybe even instructor Trepe or the little messenger girl would knock him off in their own creative way. They had to all want him dead. And even if they never came for him, someone else would. Galbadia, or Esthar. Surely he would stand trial for something. War crimes? Treason?
No. They never came. Whether they all knew where he was or not - it wasn't a secret - no one cared. Seifer Almasy was broken and defeated and no longer a threat. One day by the pier he started beating Hyperion against a metal bulkhead, until its edge was blunted from hilt to tip. He snapped the weapon over his bad knee and cast it into the water. Then he sat with his legs dangling over the pier and wept into the ocean. And then somehow his grief and his shame seemed as small as his tears in that vast expanse of water, the same as his blood would have been, and it was all not so insurmountable anymore.
He left Fisherman's Horizon shortly after, telling Fujin and Raijin to go back home to Balamb Garden. Then he walked to Esthar. He couldn't begin rebuilding until he had settled whatever chance remained of being put on trial, so he gave himself up. It was a short trial, and for a minute it seemed the international court, and the entire country of Esthar, were more annoyed than anything at having to spend the time and energy on him. It seemed the entire world had been content to let Seifer Almasy crawl in a hole somewhere and whether he lived or died didn't matter as long as he stayed there. In the end the sentence was four years of hard labor in Dr. Odine's lab. What had initially seemed like a punishment though was something else entirely. Seifer was of particular interest to Dr. Odine as a singular individual where it came to intimate knowledge of sorceresses. Strings were pulled and arrangements made, and what was called "hard labor" in court was in fact simply four years as a comfortable study subject to the eccentric scientist. Odine had everything he needed inside of a year though, and took an odd liking to Seifer over the course of their numerous interviews. So much that when the research was done he allowed him on as an apprentice medical assistant in his newly established medical research wing. Seifer stayed there past his original four year sentence, and owing to the experience of working with Esthar's premier physicians on the rarest and most complicated cases in the world, by the age of twenty four Seifer Almasy was a physician in his own right. And a highly regarded one. But there was still one thing that eluded him - he wanted to go home.
When Seifer got the news that year from Fujin and Raijin that Dr. Kadowaki was retiring and that Balamb Garden would be hiring a replacement, he sent his application right away. He hadn't been sure what response to expect, given the history. It would seem incredibly brazen of him all things considered - and that might be just enough to begin a necessary dialogue. It should have been clear given how overqualified he was for the position that the overture was out of a genuine affection for Garden and a desire to make amends on some level. But no response came - not for a while anyway. And so he carried on working for Odine, disappointed but not surprised. Until the call finally came. But it wasn't the call he was expecting.
"Seifer?" a familiar voice came over the line.
"Squall?" Seifer asked.
"Yeah. I uh... how are you, Seifer?" Squall replied.
"I'm well. You got my application?" Seifer knew the answer.
"Yes, I got it," Squall answered, then hesitated. "Seifer, what exactly is it that you want?"
It should have been obvious, and that raised Seifer's hackles for an instant before he crushed the bile back down. Even his limp was somehow something less insulting than the lack of understanding that he wanted to come home. He deflected. "How is everyone?"
"They're fine," Squall's voice was tight.
"Are they really?" Seifer pressed.
"No," Squall said flatly. "Not everyone. Not Rinoa."
Seifer knew then why he had been called, and guiltily he was happy for whatever misfortune had befallen them - but only because he was sure he could fix it.
"Can you explain?" Seifer asked after a pregnant pause.
"She's... sick. Sick in her body, sick in her mind. She's hurting herself." Squall was nearly in tears. "She's sedated now to limit the damage, but her hands, her feet are blue, now it's creeping up her arms and legs. They're turning to ice. Her face, her neck, her chest are... burning hot and we can't stop it. We've seen so many doctors. All they can say are that her powers are out of control. She's containing them not to hurt other people, but it's destroying her."
Squall finished, and Seifer said nothing. If he seemed too eager...
"I know what you do. We've kept watch for a long time," Squall explained. What he meant was that he knew Seifer was one of the world's leading specialists in the area of medicine which intersected with magic and its associated maladies.
"Understandable," Seifer finally replied, but said nothing else and waited for the Headmaster to go on.
"Seifer, why did you apply to come back to Garden?" Squall circled back to his initial question.
"Why are you still at Garden?" Seifer asked in response.
Squall paused, and then said "because it's my home."
Seifer didn't say anything else.
The next day, Seifer stood outside of Odine's lab in the Esthar plains, turning his head to shield his eyes from the dust blown by the Ragnarok. It was landing, exactly on time, to take him to Balamb Garden. Or so he had assumed.
When the ramp unfurled, Squall came walking down it like a ghost from Seifer's past but not one suspended in time as ghosts usually are, and as he had been in Seifer's memory. Squall was aged now. His hair was longer and starting to gray on the sides, and what had a smooth boyish face of seventeen when last the two met was now stubbled and tired at twenty three. He looked very much like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"Hello Seifer," he nodded when he reached the bottom of the ramp. They were face to face now.
"You look old," Seifer responded.
"So do you," Squall said. There was no malice in either voice. "We should go," he added.
"Lead the way then," Seifer gestured with his cane.
"Right," Squall agreed, and turned to scale the ramp again. Seifer followed and they were nearly astride. "What happened?" he asked the obvious question.
"You don't remember?" Seifer chuckled.
"No? Oh," Squall brought a hand up to his forehead, suddenly remembering. No one apologized. Not Squall for the crippling blow, nor Seifer for... everything. It was understood now to be in the past, and most of all if Seifer could cure Rinoa then all would be forgiven.
They took off, and when the Ragnarok angled for Timber instead of Balamb, Seifer was worried for just a moment that he'd made a mistake.
"Where are we going? Why not to Balamb Garden?" he asked, half-expecting Squall to reach for his gunblade at any moment.
"Rinoa's not in Balamb Garden. She... hasn't been for awhile," Squall answered, and Seifer understood immediately. "She's at a hospital in Timber. She's their ambassador to Galbadia. I thought you knew."
"I don't keep up with the news," Seifer explained, and tapped his cane on the floor between his legs. They were sitting in the passenger section of the Ragnarok. "Hey, who's flying? Is it the little messenger girl?"
"You know her name's Selphie," Squall sighed.
"Old time's sake," Seifer smirked.
"Right. No, she doesn't fly the ship anymore. We trained a whole SeeD crew for that," Squall explained.
"Don't tell me you fired the poor girl," Seifer quipped.
"No!" Squall exclaimed. "She's my head instructor now. She got tired of the field."
Seifer looked thoughtful. "I would have thought that a job for Instructor Trepe," he commented.
"She's not been an instructor since Dollet," Squall answered. "And after Ultimecia she didn't want to go back to it."
"So what's she doing now?" Seifer inquired.
"She and Zell are commanders. They do some field work and some Garden work too," Squall answered.
"Chicken-wuss!" Seifer laughed. "Happy for them both. And what about the trigger happy cowboy, Irvine?"
Squall brought a hand to his forehead again and suppressed a grin. What he was about to say sounded ridiculous even in his head. "He's a stay at home dad now. He and Selphie live in Balamb. Their son was born a few months ago."
"Wow," Seifer muttered, somber now, and poked at the ground again with his cane. The rest of the trip passed in silence.
To Be Continued...