Grazhir :: Final Fantasy :: Snafu :: 01

01

It was widely known to all at Balamb Garden that Squall Leonhart was like a machine. Emotions were nonexistent aside from the occasional flashes of anger, he followed orders and rules, stayed out of trouble, and never once showed any indication that he was a sexual being.

Not widely known to all at Balamb Garden was that Squall was very human indeed. He just saw most of his fellow teens as immature, lacking in focus, and more than a little moronic. He had yet to run across anyone—even Seifer, though he was amusing in his own way and a good sparring partner—who seemed worth the trouble of getting to know. Surely there was no reward in speaking to those who sighed over him, or those who attempted to antagonize him for his general demeanor of iciness and lack of reaction.

Seifer had ‘goaded’ him into another sparring session. That Squall enjoyed them was not something the blond needed to know. Eschewing the confines of the Garden structure they headed out to a fairly private clearing in the nearby forest, and once there settled themselves the standard distance apart, nodded, then began to duel. It went as they usually went; the two were fairly evenly matched, after all. This time, however, Squall realized that if he did not do something soon Seifer would win, and he was not in the mood to listen to the blond gloat over a victory. Their blades clashed and rang in rhythm as he considered, then, when an opening perfectly presented itself, Squall ducked closer and landed a heavy kiss on Seifer’s lips, momentarily stunning his opponent into a lack of movement. And with that it was easy to take advantage of the situation and disarm the blond, winning the match with the edge of his gunblade at Seifer’s throat.

It was a good thirty seconds before Seifer responded, and at that he simply pushed the blade away with one heavily-gloved hand, rolled to his feet, retrieved his own gunblade, and shot a very puzzled look at Squall before disappearing into the trees.

Squall smirked and headed off as well. Rumor had it that the next SeeD exam would be soon and he needed to get one of the instructors to proctor his trip to the Fire Cavern. Best to do it as quickly as possible, lest Quistis be given the opportunity to flirt badly with him again. He shook his head in combined bewilderment and disgust. Did she even realize that she vacillated between motherly and flirtatious? How warped was that? He nabbed the first instructor he saw on gaining Balamb Garden and explained the situation, minus the rumor about an upcoming exam. Shortly thereafter he was fulfilling that particular requirement, and soon enough he had Ifrit at his command, to join Shiva and Quetzacoatl, and in plenty of time for class that day.

Seifer kept giving him strange sidelong glances that he ignored, inwardly amused at the continuing reaction of his semi-rival. And sure enough, the upcoming exam was announced during class, and afterward Quistis asked him to stay behind once it was over.

“You haven’t been to the Fire Cavern yet, have you? You won’t be able to take part in today’s SeeD exam if you don’t pass this prerequisite. Do you have a good excuse?”

Squall arched a brow at her. “I already went, actually. Is that all?”

“Oh. . . .” She looked disappointed—how shocking. “Well,” she said briskly, “be at the lobby on time. That’s 1600 hours, all right?”

His jaw tightened minutely at the unnecessary reminder—as if he would forget when less than an hour had passed. Squall nodded and strolled out before she could think of more to say. She must have been competent if she had passed the SeeD exam at fifteen, but that did not make her a leader. She babied some students, nearly ignored others, scolded people when she had to explain things more than once, and looked the other way at the fawning behavior of her fan club. Inconsistent to the end. And eyeing one of her students romantically? Sure, she was only a year older, but it was unprofessional to even hint at it. Not a good way to spend your first year teaching.

Squall made himself scarce until it was nearly time, then changed into his uniform and walked without undue haste to the lobby. A number of other candidates had already arrived and were clustered around Quistis, who appeared to be putting them into groups.

“Squall,” she called. “Over here.”

He repressed a sigh and strolled over, eyeing her coldly.

“Let’s see, you’ll be with Zell Dincht,” she informed him. “Quite a lively fellow.”

He considered objecting to Zell, but thought better of it. Odds were it wouldn’t change anything, so there was no use complaining. Squall simply nodded and stepped back a few paces. Zell, in his opinion, was far too hyper and prone to act before thinking things through.

“Zell,” she called out.

The blond bounced over like an overeager puppy, making Squall shudder inside, and offered a hand, which he ignored. Zell dropped his hand with a slight frown and said, “Heard Seifer whooped you pretty bad this morning.”

Squall arched a brow. How curious. Was Seifer that upset over what happened as to spread lies? Or was Zell just being Zell?

“He’s just being a pain in the ass. You should ignore him.”

‘Maybe you should take your own advice,’ he thought, then turned his attention back to Quistis.

“Ah, you two. . . . Seifer is your squad leader.” Before Zell could get his mouth open more than a fraction she hastily added, “It can’t be changed. Seifer! Are you here?”

His sparring partner approached, looking like a poster boy for cockiness. Behind him trailed the other two members of the disciplinary committee, Raijin and Fujin. He wondered why. Were they there for support and encouragement? Seifer had failed the exam multiple times already; if he failed this one he would be out of Garden.

“You’re the squad leader,” Quistis informed Seifer. “Good luck.”

Seifer tried to stare her down. “Instructor. I hate it when people wish me luck. Save it for someone who actually needs it, eh?”

Quistis nodded. “Okay. Good luck, then.”

Seifer snapped his fingers loudly. “Add Instructor Trepe to the list!”

Quistis ignored that and said, “You three make up Squad B, with me as the instructor in charge. As a reminder, teamwork is of the utmost importance. Let’s get through this exam, everyone!”

‘Everyone?’ he thought. ‘Maybe she should have said that a little louder so all the other candidates could hear.’

Seifer posed, his gunblade tapping against his shoulder. “Listen up,” he barked. “Teamwork means staying out of my way, so don’t forget it!”

Headmaster Cid arrived at that point and gave a sappy speech that Squall could not be bothered to listen to—the man always rambled, after all—then followed the others to the garage. And as he sincerely doubted they would be taking a train anywhere he assumed they would be taking ships from the town docks. The ride was spent in contemplation of whether or not Seifer had badmouthed him after their spar. Zell kept bugging him to show off his gunblade, but he ignored him; encouragement could establish an awful precedent.

Once on the boat he sat through a briefing of their objective, ignoring how Seifer rolled his eyes in disgust at such a boring assignment. But when the blond glanced his way Squall tipped him a slow wink, just to see what would happen. Seifer did the faintest of double takes, then looked away. In fact, he said nothing else for the rest of the journey. On arrival they piled out of the ship, pausing when Quistis said, “Squad B, you are to secure the central square,” then hastened off, downing any enemy soldier foolish enough to get in their way.

“You two, scout the area for any more enemies,” Seifer ordered. A short time later he said, “Well, then, we’re on standby ’til the enemy comes. Standby . . . how boring.”

And it was boring, standing there quietly, scanning for any enemies sneaking up on their position, and slightly irritating having to listen to the plodding tap of Seifer’s gunblade against his shoulder, and the swishing sounds of Zell shadow-boxing. Things livened up considerably when an explosion sounded not far off and a dog raced through the square, barking madly. Only a minute later Squall spotted a group of Galbadian soldiers creeping down one of the streets toward a mountain in the distance with a what looked like a tower jutting up atop it. He quickly edged over to a still bored Seifer and pointed them out. “What do you think?” he asked quietly.

“I think that’s our new destination,” Seifer said cockily.

Zell bounced over at that point and butted in. “What? That’s against orders, man! This is an important exam. We can’t just go do whatever!”

Seifer scowled and slashed his blade through the air menacingly. “I don’t need any boy scouts, Dincht! Maybe you should just stay here.”

Squall arched a brow and murmured so that only Seifer could hear, “Our orders do state that we are to guard this specific area.” And after a moment of contemplation the imp of the perverse struck him, so he added, “Or did you want him to stay here so it’d be . . . just the two of us?”

Seifer aimed a slightly wild look his way.

“Then again,” he continued in the same murmur, “you might consider sending Zell off to one of the SeeDs while we hold position here. Have him inform them about this development. I don’t think that’d break any rules, and we might even get bonus points for it.”

Apparently Zell couldn’t handle not hearing what Squall was saying. “What, you two are all, like, buddy-buddy now? Orders are orders, man!”

“I don’t recall asking your opinion, chicken-wuss,” Seifer snapped. “How about you shut the hell up and let the big boys figure this out. Now go back to looking for any enemies coming up on us. You already missed the bunch headed up the mountain, so stop slacking off!”

Squall smirked inside as Zell slouched off dejectedly, temporarily squashed. He would bounce back; he always did.

Seifer shifted his focus and said with uncharacteristic quietness, “I wish you’d seen them sooner. We could have routed them.”

“I think they must have crawled part way. By the time I noticed them they were already halfway down the street. It makes me wonder just who didn’t see them at all that they got this far. They were hugging the left side of the street, so. . . . Maybe the explosion was a distraction for a squad farther back.”

Seifer nodded, eyeing Zell as he made a sweep of the area. “Maybe I should send one of you as a runner. Except, we have no idea where the SeeDs are watching from to judge performance.” He scowled and slashed his blade through the air again. “What the hell, eh? Is Trepe spying on us from a second story window or something? Hunkered down on a rooftop and using binoculars?”

Squall’s mouth twitched into a near smile at the idea. “I’ll make another sweep,” he said, then slinked off, keeping a full 180 degrees around the square from Zell, pausing at each street to scan the length for any kind of movement. It seemed like forever passed—it was only an hour—before someone came running toward them along the route they had initially taken. Squall was at the corner of that outlet in a flash, blade ready. He backed off when he recognized a fellow student, and his mouth twitched again when she barreled into the square and tripped over the edge of one of the flagstones, nearly taking a header into the fountain.

She laughed a bit sheepishly. “Er. . . . Squad B?”

Seifer nodded and gestured impatiently.

“New orders. All candidates are to withdraw and be back at the beach by 1900 hours.”

“Hey,” Seifer said. “Since you’re running messages take one for us back to a SeeD. We spotted a group of Galbadian soldiers headed up that mountain, possibly to the tower up there.”

She nodded and pivoted, then took off back in the direction she had come from.

Squall glanced at his watch to see they still had a good half hour before they need to withdraw so he started another sweep. Time dragged on interminably until Seifer snapped out, “Let’s go!”

They headed back at a fast jog and made it with five minutes to spare, and boarded one of the ships. Seifer settled into the first available seat with a scowl on his face, a scowl that never left the entire ride back to Balamb. He was first off the ship when they docked and immediately headed for his two compatriots. Squall shrugged slightly and made for one of the ground transports. Things had gone much smoother than he had anticipated. Setting Seifer off balance seemed to be a rather effective way of handling the man.

Back at Garden he walked toward the dormitory area, slowing a bit when he noticed the headmaster, Xu, and Quistis clustered near the lobby map. He was able to catch part of their conversation as he sauntered along, seemingly oblivious to it.

“Mission complete!” Xu reported with a salute. “I think we did a pretty good job. The candidates are back safely, right?”

Quistis nodded. “Although we didn’t realize the Galbadian army was after the abandoned communication tower. . . . Though Squad B did send a message back with Selphie about a bunch of their men headed up the mountain.”

“We received word from the Dollet Dukedom,” Cid informed them. “The Galbadian army agreed to withdraw as long as the communication array is maintained and the uplink remains operational.”

Xu responded, “Well, in any case, Galbadia is out of there. We could’ve made more money if they’d stayed and caused more trouble.”

And by then Squall was out of range to overhear more so he quickened his pace, anxious to change back into more comfortable clothing. He was halfway there when Seifer hailed him, so he stopped and looked back.

Seifer drew close enough to speak in a normal volume and said, “Did you hear? Turns out that was a communication tower up there. Too bad our orders were to stay put.”

Squall arched a brow in response, then murmured, “Galbadia only withdrew on the understanding that the tower remains operational. If we had chased after them it might have vastly extended the conflict. Granted, that would have meant a lot more fighting . . . but then more civilians may have been hurt as well.”

Seifer scowled at him. “We could have been heroes.”

Squall actually laughed, albeit a bit rustily, causing Seifer to wear that odd look again. “There’s a saying you know. The only good hero is a dead hero.” He turned and continued on his way, finally gaining the peace of his dorm room. He had enough time to clean his gunblade, get a shower, and change back into his usual sort of clothes before a message came over the PA system asking that all candidates report to the classroom floor hallway.

Six people passed the exam and were promoted to SeeD: Squall; Selphie; Zell; Nida; Verus; and . . . Seifer. Raijin and Fujin, there to witness, began a quiet round of applause, though Squall could tell it was meant almost entirely for Seifer. The six were ushered up to the headmaster’s office and given another sappy speech, as well as being given their exam score reports and individualized advice—at least he assumed it was, since he could not overhear what Cid murmured to the others. The headmaster looked like a proud papa and might have rambled on for ages had one of the Garden Faculty not cut him off rather abruptly with a reminder of work yet to be done.

The SeeD Inauguration Ball that evening looked to be an exercise in torture. Another damn uniform, this one even more stiff and uncomfortable, adorned his lean frame. Squall deftly snatched a glass of champagne from a passing server—a member of the kitchen staff in a fancy uniform—and stood nearly behind one of the decorative columns, hoping to not be noticed—to no avail, as Zell found him before ten minutes had passed.

“S’up, man,” Zell said, sticking out one hand.

Squall eyed it with distaste and had a sip of his drink.

Zell laughed uncomfortably and dropped his hand. “Same old, huh? Well, congratulations. See you around!” He loped off to pester someone else, much to Squall’s relief.

Next up was Selphie, burbling about the Garden Festival committee, and did he want to join? Squall was kinder to her for all her apparent ditziness; she wasn’t nearly as annoying as Zell was. She also was not one of those people who eyed him like a tasty lunch. “No,” he said quietly, firmly.

“Oh, okay,” she responded with no apparent diminishment of cheer. “Worth a try, huh?” She shot a smile at him and loped off, presumably to rope someone else into it.

His newfound sense of relief was shattered when a scan of the room revealed a dark-haired girl on the fringe of the dance floor eyeing him with interest. He knew that look. He saw it multiple times every day from fellow students—and Quistis. Without even stopping to think he slipped back into the shadows and quickly found another place to not quite hide—anything to get away from yet another lustful barracuda. From his new vantage he spotted her again, this time practically pressed against Seifer, who looked to be incredibly annoyed.

Seifer made an irritated gesture, then placed a hand on her shoulder and forcibly turned her around. He pointed—at Headmaster Cid, Squall saw—and gave her a little push. He smiled ever so slightly—the barest twitch at the corner of his mouth—and downed the remainder of his champagne, then slipped away back to his new room.

*

He was getting some exercise in the training area the next morning when voices filtered over from the other side of some trees, Seifer’s among them. Squall decided to take a breather and lean up against one of the trees. Eavesdropping on people was something of a habit.

“—can’t believe it!” Seifer was saying. “I managed to see the contract Cid wrote up for Rinoa’s group. There’s no cutoff date. Whoever gets sent on that assignment is going to be stuck with her indefinitely.”

“Entail?”

“What’s the orders, Seifer?”

“Eh, to effect Timber’s independence from Galbadian occupation and rule. Right, like that’s going to happen this century,” Seifer drawled. “Pretty Princess Rinoa’s got daddy issues and sees herself as special for throwing away her privileged life to go play freedom fighter. I pity whoever gets sent. It better not be me!”

“General.”

“Caraway, yeah. I bet he’s pissed. Then again, none of the groups in Timber are at all effective.” There was a pause, then, “Hey. . . . Timber has a TV station. I wonder if there’s any link between that and the communications tower Galbadia repaired in Dollet.”

“But why would they care about that, ya? It’s not been used in forever.”

Squall could almost hear Seifer shrugging. “Meh. We’ve wasted enough time. Let’s go find a T-Rexaur.”

He waited until the sounds of their passage faded before pushing away from the tree, then went in the opposite direction looking for more exercise. Seifer’s report of the contract was disquieting, but. . . . why should he worry? It was not like the headmaster would send brand new SeeDs off on a complicated assignment like that, right?

*

Squall was appalled to be summoned to the front gate early the next morning. He complied with a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach after packing essentials and strapping his gunblade in place. On arrival he saw Selphie waiting near one of the Garden Faculty. She gave him a cheerful wave hello; the faculty member—well, who knew? The headpiece they all wore disguised and distorted their faces. For all he knew they weren’t even human.

“One more minute,” the Garden Faculty said testily, glancing at his watch.

And just shy of a minute later Zell approached from the direction of the lobby, riding a forbidden hover-board. As he swooped in for a landing the board malfunctioned and sent Zell flying into a column. A sickening crack was heard followed by howls of pain. Squall would almost bet the Garden Faculty was rolling his eyes in disgust behind that mask.

“Hover-boards are forbidden in Garden—for good reason.” The Garden Faculty turned to Selphie, paused, and ordered, “Fetch Maller.” Then he focused on Squall and ordered, “Carry Dincht to the infirmary, then return.”

Fifteen minutes later he was back, and by then Cid had appeared. Though, why the Garden Faculty gave Zell only a minute more made little sense when the headmaster was not yet present. He pushed the thought aside and turned his attention to the headmaster.

“Well, about your first mission. You are to go to Timber. There you will be supporting a resistance faction. That is your mission. A member of the faction will contact you at Timber Station.”

The Garden Faculty added, “This person will talk to you and say, ‘The forests of Timber sure have changed.’ At this time you must reply, ‘But the owls are still around.’ That is the password.”

Squall’s nostrils flared in annoyance.

“Just follow the faction’s orders,” Cid said. “Squall, you are the squad leader. Use your best judgment based on the situation. Nida and Selphie, you are to support Squall and give your all to carry out the faction’s plans.” The headmaster waited until the Garden Faculty began to walk away to sidle up to Squall and hand over a strange lamp. “Take this and see if you can’t do something with it, all right? I’m told great rewards can come of solving the mystery it presents.”

Squall accepted the ‘gift’ and stowed it before saying, “Sir, what are the details of the contract with the client? Are we helping them for a set period of time, a set number of missions? I have to imagine that sending three brand new SeeDs out so quickly means this won’t be of great complexity or difficulty.”

Cid suddenly looked a bit uncomfortable. “The contract is valid until Timber’s independence.”

Squall arched a brow; it seemed Seifer’s intel on that subject was correct. “I see. Sir, wouldn’t that mean three SeeDs could be tied up for years? Surely gaining Timber’s independence can’t be that simple. Is that an efficient use of personnel?”

Cid looked even more uncomfortable, then started theatrically. “Oh my, I’m going to be late for the meeting! Good luck, you three,” he said, then hastily headed back toward Garden.

Squall scowled slightly and turned to his two teammates. “Right. Come on.” Maybe the group they were to meet would have a copy he could look at. Outside and halfway to Balamb he pulled the lamp out and analyzed it closely. “There seems to be a Guardian Force inside. Up for it?”

Selphie and Nida both nodded, so the Squall activated it, and the team made short work of the GF locked inside. After that it was a relatively short jog into town and over to the station, where they boarded the train for Timber. Selphie paused at the large windows in the hallway while Squall and Nida headed into the compartment reserved for SeeD, and Squall made himself comfortable at one end of the couch.

Nida, it seemed, was just as quiet as Squall was, or at least, perhaps, he did not yet feel comfortable with the situation, so Squall flipped through one of the magazines waiting on the table, absently noticing that it was over a year out of date. Selphie arrived as he was finishing it and complained of feeling unwell.

“Maybe you should rest.”

She walked slowly to the couch and collapsed on it just as a high-pitched, irritating whine started up in Squall’s ears. The next thing he knew he was dreaming, present within the dream only as a consciousness, and being forced to witness a day in the life of three Galbadian soldiers. On waking he noticed immediately that Nida looked perfectly fine and shot a questioning look at him.

“Both of you just . . . collapsed. You looked like you weren’t in any distress and you seemed to be sleeping, so. . . .”

“You were completely unaffected.”

Nida nodded.

Selphie stirred and opened her eyes, then sat up. “What a strange dream. But wow, Laguna was really cool. You two okay?”

“Nothing happened to me,” Nida explained. “I watched over both of you while you were unconscious.”

“Thanks,” she responded, then glanced up as the train’s PA system kicked in to request that all passengers begin to collect their belongings. “I feel great! I’m gonna go back out until we get there.” With that she hopped up and quit the room.

‘Did we have the same dream somehow?’ he wondered, slowly getting to his feet. ‘And why would either of us dream of soldiers in another country? I don’t like that I was in such a vulnerable position.’ He paced for a short while—until an announcement stated that they would shortly arrive in Timber—then left the compartment to return to the embarkation room. A few minutes later all three of them were stepping out onto the platform.

Squall glanced around casually, noting a man standing on the steps leading down to the street who was fidgeting restlessly. He gave a slight jerk of his head as a signal and headed forward, drifting to a stop when the man said, “Oh, the forests of Timber sure have changed.”

After briefly considering messing up the password in an uncharacteristic attack of childish rebellion he murmured, “But the owls are still around.”

“Welcome to Timber, sir. Right this way, please!” Their contact scurried down the remaining steps and off toward a small platform—probably one used for local train traffic only. As they joined him a two-car train pulled up and they were gestured aboard.

A man waiting inside said, “So, you guys are SeeDs?”

‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s impolite to not introduce yourself?’ Squall thought, and nodded. “I’m Squall, the squad leader. With me are Selphie and Nida.”

“Nice to meet you,” the man replied, still not bothering to say his name, but extending his hand. “I’m the leader of the Forest Owls.”

Squall’s nostrils flared again in annoyance, but he did condescend to nod, ignoring the offer to shake hands.

The man laughed nervously and dropped his hand. “You’ve already met Watts, so it’s just the princess, then.”

“It’s the princess’s nap time, sir,” Watts said.

“Ah, man. Hey, Squall, sorry, but could you go get the princess? She’s in the last room, up those stairs. Some of our other guys are in a room on the way. Ask ’em if you get lost.”

‘Like it’s possible to get lost on a two car train,’ he thought derisively. Squall stared at him until the man cringed back slightly, then said, “We are mercenaries, not gophers.”

The man crouched down with one hand wrapped around his stomach and moaned as if in pain, his other hand waving Watts toward the short flight of steps up into the corridor. Squall had serious doubts that the man really had an ulcer and instead faked his way out of things which frightened him. Odd behavior for a member of a resistance group—and this was supposedly the leader?

Watts wrung his hands and scurried off hesitantly, and shortly thereafter a girl Squall recognized as the one he had avoided at the SeeD ball appeared with Watts, a mixed-breed dog trailing behind them.

“I’m so happy you guys are here,” she burbled. “I’ve been sending requests to Garden forever, but nothing. . . . I’m so glad I spoke to Cid directly!” She paused and eyed each of them. “Hey, I remember you from the ball!” she said to Squall, moving closer. “Is it just you three, or is he here, too?”

He arched a brow questioningly.

“Seifer,” she clarified. “He showed me how to find Cid. I really didn’t think SeeD would come out to help a measly little group like us, but after explaining our situation to him Cid gave the go ahead right away! Now that you guys are here we’ll be able to carry out all sorts of plans!”

“Just us three. Squall, Selphie”—he pointed—“and Nida.”

“Oh, okay,” she said a bit sadly, but he did not miss how she eyed him speculatively. “I’m Rinoa, and this is my partner Angelo.” She smiled fondly at the dog. “Let’s go over the upcoming mission, okay?”

Inside the nearby door they arrayed themselves around a table with two model trains on it. And after a great deal of unnecessary banter Rinoa got around to explaining the mission, which consisted of swapping the car containing Vinzer Deling—lifelong president of Galbadia—for a substitute the train they were on was towing, so they could force a confrontation.

“Now that the plan is covered let’s decide on a party,” Rinoa finished with.

“Gathering information is my specialty, sir!” Watts said, then ducked out the door as the as yet unnamed man crouched down again in ‘pain’.

“Oh. Well, then it’s us four,” Rinoa said, then staggered slightly as the train began to move. “Is it time already?” She raced out the door.

‘What would they have done if Cid denied the request?’ he wondered.