"If you could all just shut up for a second? I'd like to start the briefing on time, for once."
Squall took a second to gather his thoughts, looking over the room. His desk was placed in front of a huge window, about ten chairs ranged in front of it. Quistis and Seifer smirked at him, taking seats near the wall. Selphie and Zell looked at bit hung over, but seemed cheerful enough as they sat right in the center, by his desk. Squall caught himself trying to smile, and squashed the impulse carefully. He glanced up at the clock – it was eight, exactly. "Where is Xu?" he asked.
Quistis spoke up. "She's at a meeting with the new Galbadian President, Squall. You remember, that short fellow. Alexander McArthur."
Zell grimaced. "That's a pretty stupid sounding name." Selphie smacked him.
Squall frowned. "I thought he wasn't officially elected until next month?"
"The Galbadians got a little giddy, I think," Quistis explained. She crossed her legs, fiddling with the top of one tall brown boot. "It's been a long time since the last free election. So he may not be officially in office, but he's running the country nevertheless. They aren't going to stand on ceremony too much, I wouldn't think."
Squall nodded. "Thank you." He looked over the room again. "Hang on – where's Irvine? I know he's not out of the Garden. I saw him last night."
Selphie bit her lip. "Do you want me to go find him?" She seemed worried.
Squall looked at her thoughtfully. "No…" he said slowly. "Why don't you just brief him afterward, once we're finished." He noted her look of relief as she nodded the affirmative.
"Okay," he said, looking down at his notes. "Trabia Garden has made a request for a group of semi-experienced SeeDs to help them clear monsters from the grounds. Apparently they're a bit stretched at the moment, and just need assistance on a hack-job." He glanced up at Selphie, who was now fairly vibrating in her seat. "I assume you'd like to lead the group on this one?"
"Yessir!" She grinned brilliantly at him, her short brown bob quivering.
He had to stop himself from smiling back, again. "Quistis, can we spare ten SeeDs for this?"
The blonde woman frowned for a second, counting. Her expression eased almost immediately. "Yes, that should be fine. We won't need them all for another couple of weeks, when we have the SeeD exams."
"Excellent. So, Selphie, if you could get the problem taken care of as soon as possible?" He watched her grin fade a bit, and sighed. He knew better than to deny Selphie. "And when you're finished you can stay at Trabia for another couple of days." Her smile flared up again. "Don't say anything, please."
She continued to grin. 'Hyne,' Squall thought. 'She's going to be insufferable.'
He cleared his throat, trying to ignore her. "We also have a slightly urgent request from a Galbadian mining company. They're trying to excavate," he shuffled through his notes. "…something." He found the document. "Diamonds. Right. The site has been attacked two or three times by a colony of dragons, and they have lost several people. They just need us to clear the mine and surrounds, but we have to get down there immediately."
Seifer raised his hand languidly. "I'd like to head that one, if you don’t mind, Mr. Leader." Squall raised his eyebrows. "I haven't killed a dragon in months. I think I'm getting rusty."
Squall looked at him for another second, and nodded. "Fine, but you won't really be leading anything. I'm just going to send three of you. It shouldn't be much of a problem for anyone in this room." He looked over at Quistis. "Do you want to go?"
Quistis shook her head ruefully. "I can't – I'm going to be tied up for the rest of the week with stupid political dealings." She nudged Seifer with her boot. "You're just going to have to survive without me."
Squall rolled his eyes. "I guess I'm putting you on this one then, Zell." He ignored the resulting groan. "And I suppose I'll send Irvine with you guys." Selphie started, smile fading fast.
Squall frowned. Something was definitely wrong here. "Will you tell him, then, Selphie? And no complaining from him, either. He missed the briefing; he has to deal with the consequences."
Selphie nodded reluctantly. "Well," Squall continued. "That's all. What's our current location, Quistis?"
"We're about thirty miles off the coast of Dollet."
"All right, we'll drop Selphie's squad off here at Dollet, then, and hire a ship to take them to Trabia. It should be ready before sunset. Then we can drop the guys off on northern Centra. You can make your way to the mine from the coast pretty easily, Seifer. Remember that you need to get there as quickly as you can. We will then go farther south to the old orphanage in preparation for the SeeD cadet field exam. We'll also test the small aircraft prototypes Laguna gave us. Quistis, tell the pilot? Good – this briefing is over."
Seifer and Zell walked out together, already bickering. Quistis trailed after them, trying to muffle her laughter. Squall gathered his notes, shoving them into a file and stuffing it into a desk drawer. He tilted back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment, glad for the quiet.
"Um, Squall?" His hand flew to his – oh. Selphie. "Sorry for bothering you, but…" She chewed on her lip, toying with the edge of his desk. He frowned at her.
"What's the matter?" he asked bluntly.
She looked up at him finally, with large, worried green eyes. "Um, I don't think Irvine should go to Centra…" She fiddled with the desk again. "Er… can he come with my squad? I was just thinking that, uh, he should –"
Squall interrupted her. "What the hell, Selphie? Even you aren't this bad at lying. What's the matter?"
She sighed, giving up. "I don't think you should assign Irvine and Seifer together," she stated.
Squall leaned back in his chair again, considering her. "And why is that?"
"I – I can't tell you," she muttered, looking down. "I'm not totally sure why myself. It's just – Irvine has some problem with Seifer. He won't tell me what it is, but I know it's bad. I told him I wouldn't say anything, but…"
"Listen," he began. "I'm glad you told me, but, whatever problem Irvine has, he needs to work it out. I can't assign a SeeD differently because his feelings might get hurt." He studied her miserable face. "Look, Irvine's a good guy. If it really is such a huge problem, he'll end up fighting Seifer about it, and when they both get cleaned up, Irvine will be his best friend. It happens all the time."
She nodded, not looking convinced. "Yeah, maybe. Thanks." She walked to the door.
"Selphie." She looked back. "Thanks for telling me."
'Her smile wasn't quite as blinding as usual,' Squall reflected. 'We'll see if anything comes of it.'
It was almost dark before the Trabia squad was ready to go, though they were certainly eager enough. Though the Balamb soldiers weren't too excited about venturing into the snow-blasted lands around the northern Garden, there hadn't been any real action for months now. Squall watched Selphie lead her troop onto the Dollet docks from the window of the office in his new quarters. 'I loved going on simple missions like that,' he thought with a small smile. 'No politics, no problems. No one to protect but yourself and your comrades. All you had to do was fight.' He turned to look contemplatively at the dying sunlight. 'I wonder if I'll ever get to go on a mission like that again.'
He frowned at the turn his thoughts had taken, turning from the window to head into his living room. The Lionheart was in its case on the coffee table, where he had left it when he moved his few possessions. He opened the case and just looked at it for a moment. It was a marvel of craftsmanship, the adamantine at its core combined with dragon's fang making it eternally sharp. His hand hovered over the hilt – the ammo inside it fairly vibrated with power. The urge to just hold the gunblade was almost irresistible.
Squall sat on the couch, suddenly wary, keeping his hands in his lap. 'Why can't I ever take my eyes off of it?' He forced his gaze to a random object in the room – there. The Garden symbol on the wall. He traced his eyes across the graceful black and white lines, very carefully not looking at his sword. Yet he couldn't stop thinking about it.
He sat forward, closing his eyes. The image of it was still in his mind, but something was different. Instead of being in its case, he saw himself holding it, fighting with it. He saw himself kill a hundred different monsters – dragons, snakes, sandworms, chimeras, malboros – and he watched as he, Irvine, and Rinoa attacked Sorceress Edea. They fought Adel, Rinoa suddenly replaced with Quistis. They fought Ultimecia, all six of them.
Squall's eyes shot open. "That's it," he said aloud. "That's why I can't resist you. That's what I've been missing." He leaned forward slowly, letting his fingertips graze the handle, slowly closing around it. 'I can't not fight.' He picked it up carefully, bringing it into his lap. 'But that's not right.' He stroked over the Griever symbol engraved on the blade. "'He was born to fight.' That's what Quistis used to say. 'He's made for it.' Born to kill?" He shook his head. That wasn't right, either. "No. Not kill." He clenched the hilt hard, thinking of Rinoa. 'Protect.'
He stood quickly, letting Lionheart clatter into the case. His eyes fell shut again, screwing tightly closed as he tried not to think about her. 'Please. I can't handle that.' But she was there, suddenly, as close as if she was standing right in front of him. He gasped, images falling through his mind – Rinoa at the inauguration ball, Rinoa on the train, Rinoa on the ground, in the dirt, in Timber. His fists clenched at his sides. In Galbadia Garden. In bed, comatose. In Esthar, in space, in the Ragnarok, in his arms. Squall struggled for breath, the images coming faster. Rinoa at the Sorceress Memorial, at the orphanage, on the Lunatic Pandora, with Adel – his throat closed – dying. In Ultimecia's Castle, so scared and so frighteningly resolute. At the celebration after the battle, thoughtful in the moonlight. A dozen flashes of her around the Garden – in his bed, eating breakfast, combing her hair, dancing, smiling at him. Crying because of him, her face as she left.
And then – at her father's house, right now, right this second. He gasped again, suddenly able to breathe. She was beautiful: dressed for a party, it looked like, in a cream colored dress with her dark hair falling carelessly about her shoulders. Another girl said something; Rinoa laughed, her eyes crinkling at the corners the way they always had. She raised her glass and smiled -
Squall's eyes opened, and he slumped back to the couch, suddenly exhausted. He felt an overwhelming sense of relief. She was fine. More than fine. And she was fine without him there, without him having to look over her shoulder every second. He raked his hand through his hair, laughing shakily. 'I guess Zell was right,' he thought. 'I can be a Knight wherever I need to be.' He gathered his scattered thoughts slowly, looking back at Lionheart. It let off a soft blue glow under his gaze. 'And I don't have to fight anymore. I don't have to fight to be me, to just be. I only need to fight when I have to.'
'Only when I have to.'
Quistis paused outside the entrance to the navigation room below the deck. She listened carefully to the conversation inside, wincing when she heard Nida's unmistakable authoritative voice. After the orphanage gang's first few awkward forays into flying, Nida had determined that if they were going to get anywhere in the Garden, it would help if someone knew what the hell they were doing. So he decided that that person may as well be him. With the same terrible determination that had allowed him to become a SeeD, he had ruthlessly assembled a team of cadets to do his bidding who now served as all around mechanics and programmers to the systems Nida had carefully invented. He was now the undisputed master of the navigational room and had a benevolent kind of disdain for anyone who tried to challenge that authority. He didn't pay much attention to anyone who tried to interfere with his flight plans - or to anyone at all, really. Except for Squall.
Unfortunately, this included Quistis.
She took a deep breath, and, squaring her shoulders, marched smartly into the room.
"All right, Nida?" Quistis asked. He was sitting at the main console on a flimsy desk chair. His assistants were stationed at smaller consoles throughout the room, flying between the blinking, buzzing computers constantly. None of them so much as glanced up at her entrance.
"We're setting a course for Centra now, Headmistress."
"Thank you. But you don't have to call me that, you know. It’s just Quistis."
Nida smiled briefly, not turning away from the navigational system. "Just as you say, Headmistress."
Quistis sighed, letting it rest for the moment. "When is our estimated arrival at Centra?"
Nida tapped a few buttons on the console. "About six hours. I'll set the Garden on auto-pilot for the night – we should arrive just before dawn."
"Very well. And should someone be monitoring the systems through the night? Just in case?"
Nida rolled his eyes, back still turned, and shoved a piece of dark hair off his forehead. "Yes, ma'am. That's what I'll be doing." His tone said plainly that he knew what he was doing and could you just go away, please? Just go deal with the politics. I can deal with flying this hulking pile of metal.
Quistis frowned. Sometimes her imagination was a bit over active. "I'll just go and… do some paperwork before turning in, then."
Nida finally swiveled around in his chair. "Ma'am, go to bed. You have a secretary who is more than willing to do anything you ask. It's near ten o'clock. Sleep. You'll be much more useful to us awake than half-dead."
She blinked. "Well, why do you get to stay up all night, then?"
He smirked. "Because I am a lackey, ma'am, and have to work for my keep. Oh, woe is me, alas, alack. I wish I could have your job." He made a shooing motion with one hand, swiveling back to his work. "Good night, Headmistress."
She found her legs carrying her out of the room without her consent, and soon found herself out in the corridor. Her mouth was open. She closed it, and walked slowly into the elevator at the end of the hall.
'Thank Hyne for Squall,' she thought. 'I don't know how we would control him, otherwise.'
She got out of the elevator at the second floor, arriving quickly at the rooms she and Seifer shared. Though not anywhere close to the opulence of the Master Suite, she found them exceedingly comfortable. She was glad the larger rooms had gone to Squall, though she was sure he didn't appreciate the fineness of his surroundings. 'It's a bit funny,' she thought, preparing for bed. 'We give him something beautiful to thank a man who rarely notices what beauty is.' She slid under the covers of her bed, snuggling into the pillow. 'Is that irony? Or is it just a bit sad?'
She tossed and turned for a bit, wishing she had Seifer there to curl up to, but he was with Zell and Irvine, finalizing their plans for the mission.
'I wonder if Zell's tried to attack him yet.'
Damned post limits.