Grazhir :: Final Fantasy :: Snafu :: 11

11

“The rough plan for now is this,” he said once everyone was present again. “Ellone connects to Rinoa and sends her back to Adel of the past, Ultimecia riding along. Ultimecia begins Time Compression. We move forward through time while this is happening and confront her directly, defeat her, and return to our time when time begins to decompress again. Ellone keeps an eye on where Rinoa is so Esthar forces can capture her and bring her to the memorial to be sealed. After that, once we can do it, her tomb is taken to space and given a push. I think we should play it safe and try to delay a day or so to test out our new interfaces, but if Ultimecia abandons her plan of subtlety we may not have that luxury.”

“How exactly are we going to move ‘forward’ through time?” Irvine asked. “I mean, time is distance, but. . . .”

“You move to the center of the disturbance,” Odine replied. “But since time will be all mixed up you young persons should agree on a place to meet so you will be together on this journey.”

“A place to meet,” Selphie muttered. “We’d all be together anyway, wouldn’t we? Such as right here.”

“Perhaps. We cannot know until it happens what form compression will take and how it will affect our surroundings. The same applies to the journey back, assuming you win. It would be foolish to return to a when not yours. You think about that,” Odine proclaimed, then took him off to do whatever it was mad scientists do.

“How about lunch?” Laguna suggested cheerily.

An hour later Squall was out in Esthar City getting used to the interface he was wearing. The Lunar Cry had caused an influx of monsters on the streets and a good number of soldiers were out there dealing with them, but it was also the perfect opportunity for testing. Fujin and Raijin had joined them, having decided that a potentially world-ending crisis was the time to step up and assist rather than making plans for a restaurant, so the six of them were battling monsters near the palace.

The device did indeed work as promised, and it also had a few extras, such as blanket protection from negative effects aside from death. Squall and the others did keep their internally stored GFs (after all, technology could fail at the most awkward of times), but all were also copied to the devices, making it possible to forego the use of healing potions and revival items. And with a few taps on the screen he could enable or disable various abilities such as automatic shielding for reduction in physical damage taken, magical damage taken, having the GFs alert to prevent anyone sneaking up on him, and so forth. The main issue was with differentiating which copy of a GF one was trying to connect to—or rather, which location.

They all trooped back to their wing to order dinner in the communal room, then split up for the evening. Squall was just opening the door to his apartment when Seifer said, “I’ll join you after I grab a shower.”

Squall shrugged and entered his suite, leaving the door ajar, and headed for the bathroom. His clothes were tossed into the laundry chute—and how nice was that?—and he stepped into the shower and adjusted the controls. He was out in ten minutes and lazing around in just a pair of boxer-briefs when Seifer reappeared and joined him on the sofa.

“So how do you feel about the interfaces?”

He lowered the television volume. “I like them, they’re really useful. No one seemed to have any difficulties with them, either. I especially like that we can use them as communication devices by echoing our thoughts through a stored GF to its counterparts. Though, no private channels unless not everyone has the same ones.”

“True, but maybe with a little effort and testing we could refine that so it doesn’t echo to every instance. The GFs have sentience of a sort.”

He was distracted from responding to that by a report on the news, showing—them. “They had cameras going out there?”

“—can see, it is not only our brave soldiers who are risking their lives to make our streets safe once again, but also this sextet of fighters. Rumor has it that they’re the results of a genetic experiment by Dr Odine, which might explain their superhuman abilities, but this reporter overheard a palace functionary and now understands that the group is actually an elite fighting force answerable only to the president. They spent—”

“Since when is spreading rumors reporting?” Seifer complained.

“—and were spotted entering the palace this evening. In other news—”

Squall hit the off button on the remote and tossed it on the table as he got up to answer a knock at the door. “Well, if Raijin and Fujin open a restaurant after all this around here, they might do well from the start depending on how many people watched that,” he commented, then opened his door. “Hey.”

“Oh, um, we’re not interrupting anything, are we?” Selphie asked, eyeing his state of undress.

“No, come on in.” He returned to his seat, ignoring the slightly disgruntled look on Seifer’s face. “What’s up?”

Selphie sat down and said, “We were just talking about the upcoming mission is all, speculating on what it is we might find once we get there—wherever there is.”

“The complete uncertainty of it is a bit nerve-wracking,” Irvine admitted.

“She’s an evil witch, right?” Seifer said. “So let’s imagine she’s got a creepy castle that’s way too big to make any sense, spooky fog effects, secret rooms, dungeons, and probably a bunch of monster minions guarding doors that really don’t need guarding.”

Selphie pursed her lips. “You’ve been watching those old B movies, haven’t you.”

“I admit, I do get a kick out of them. There’s something relaxing about laughing yourself silly over the ‘special’ effects for a movie that’s supposed to make you scared.”

“There was another reason we dropped by, actually.” Irvine pulled a small object out of his pocket along with a folder. “Kiros had an aide deliver these. Some footage from one of the more powerful drones along with an activity report on Balamb Garden.”

Squall leaned forward in interest. “Anything of note?”

“We read through the folder, but haven’t watched the footage yet. Basically it’s a run down of where Balamb Garden has been. After they got repairs done at Fisherman’s Horizon they returned to Balamb, only to find Galbadia there occupying the town. I guess there was a bit of a kerfuffle and the Galbadians left. After that it seems B-Garden decided it was their duty to check out other port towns while trying to track down the sorceress. At least, that’s what’s assumed, since the drones who caught all this were the lesser sorts, so no video.”

“They went from there to Dollet,” Selphie said, “then Timber, and ended up at Fisherman’s Horizon again. I’m not sure what they think they can do if they track down the sorceress, though, not after what must have happened in Deling. Anyway, I guess the sorceress had sent G-Garden to FH, and another incident happened. That’s what the video shows, supposedly.”

“Bring it on,” Seifer said. “Maybe we’ll get to see Quistis being an idiot again.”

Irvine got up and approached the television. He turned it on, slid the object in his hand into a slot on the side, then he returned to his seat. “Miniature optical drive,” he explained as the screen flickered and began displaying the footage.

*

“Now remember,” Cid was saying, “these people don’t like violence, so try not to upset them. Just get the information and return. Don’t get involved in anything.”

Quistis nodded and departed along with Xu and Zell. “I just don’t get the people in this town,” she said as they exited onto the balcony and made their way around to the lift.

Xu shrugged. “It’s how they want to live their lives. And in a perfect world I wouldn’t think twice about it.”

They received a somewhat cold reception in town and the mayor refused to see them, firmly shutting the door in their faces.

“I guess they’re still mad, huh?” Zell said, and received a rather scathing look from Quistis.

“Let’s just ask someone else if Galbadian forces have been here,” Xu said. “The best places for information are usually bars and hotel clerks.”

The barmaid could be overheard lamenting to a customer how “that cute blond” only visited once and she “never got a chance to know him better—much better”, and only paid attention to them when Xu cleared her throat.

“Huh, more new people. We’ve been getting a few of those lately,” the barmaid said, then paused as she took in their outfits. “Oh.”

“Do you often get visitors?” Xu asked.

“Occasionally.”

“Have Galbadian forces come through here? If not, they might. We attempted to warn the mayor, but he was unavailable.”

The barmaid shook her head placidly. “Look, honey, everyone knows we don’t tolerate violence here. Why would armed forces from Galbadia bother us?”

“They’re searching for a—” Xu’s head whipped around at the sounds coming from outside.

Zell bounced over to the window and freaked. “They’re here! Galbadian soldiers are marching through town. The mayor just ran by, too.” Without bothering to seek advice Zell dashed over to the door and headed out.

Xu muttered under her breath and made for the door, Quistis behind her, and followed Zell following the mayor following the soldiers to the abandoned train station. There Dobe was trying to reason with the lieutenant, but stopped when he noticed the team and shouted, “Just leave! We don’t need your kind of ‘help’ around here!”

Quistis frowned and took a half step forward as the lieutenant grabbed Dobe by the front of his shirt and lifted him off the ground, then tossed the man down and stepped on his chest. Dobe wheezed, but still managed to try to reason with the officer.

Xu placed a hand on Quistis’s arm. “Hey, come on.”

“What? They’re going to kill him. Listen to that! He’s promising to burn the entire town!”

“That’s right,” Xu replied. “And they don’t want our help. We wouldn’t even be paid, and besides, the headmaster told us not to get involved in anything.”

“Paid?” Quistis mouthed.

“Let’s go. Now,” Xu ordered.

*

Squall blinked at the abrupt ending. “Did the folder say what happened to Fisherman’s Horizon?”

Irvine shook his head and got up to retrieve the drive.

Seifer shook his head and said, “That was cold. Saying they wouldn’t get paid was Xu’s reason even above the headmaster’s orders?”

“If they couldn’t reason with them and wouldn’t fight back in self defense, their best choice would have been to jump,” Selphie decided. “Even if the Galbadians torched the town the residents could have gotten back out of the water after they left and set about rebuilding.”

“That assumes they didn’t all die trying to talk things through,” Seifer said.

“I’m not entirely surprised,” Squall said. “About Xu, I mean. I overheard her after the SeeD exam saying that Garden could have made more money if Galbadia had stuck around longer.”

“I guess I’m just not going to worry about whatever is waiting for us,” Irvine said. “Not when things like that are happening. Come on, darlin’, let’s mosey.”

As soon as the two were out the door Seifer said, “You know, that kind of killed the mood for me.”

Squall arched a brow. That was possible?

*

After a morning of monster extermination on the city streets they agreed that they were ready. Over lunch the plan was discussed one more time. Laguna, somehow managing to be mostly serious again, started things off. “Okay! Ellone will find Rinoa and send her back to Adel, and since Ultimecia is already using that kind of power to be here she’ll go back as well. As soon as compression begins and the boundaries between times are muddled, Ellone will pull both of them forward, and, if possible, push Ultimecia back to her own time since time will be mixed up and it’ll probably work. This should at least temporarily halt compression or drastically slow it and leave the team a way to find the location of the actual physical Ultimecia. Any uncertainty of where you are should be countered by focusing on where you want to start from, preferably together, such as my office here.

“Then as a team you move through the pathways connecting all times together and see about teaching Ultimecia a lesson. Once she’s dead compression should begin to revert, but you should again focus on where you want to be as you move through time again. Either here or some place with meaning for you. Then, Ellone checks up on Rinoa, verifies her location so the team can go after her, and they knock her out using whatever works. Selphie’s knockout gas, probably, since it worked before. She’s taken to the memorial and sealed. I have every confidence in all of you!”

‘Thank heavens he didn’t say anything horribly sappy,’ Squall thought. “We can begin in the morning, after everyone has had a good night’s rest. If necessary, take a mild tranquillizer to ease you into it.”

Selphie giggled maniacally for some reason.

‘I just don’t want to know.’

He spent the afternoon posing for Laguna and idly talking with him and Ellone, and retired to his suite after having dinner with them. He had barely gotten to his door when Seifer’s opened and he started to wonder if the blond had installed a camera for a video feed to be so incredibly timely so often. Inside they both set about maintaining their gunblades as they talked about their afternoons.

Seifer had just set his back into its case when he said, “Squall, I’m confident that nothing is going to go wrong, but—”

“Seifer, you already seduced me. You don’t need a line to do it again.”

To his surprise Seifer jumped up and glared at him. “What the hell?”

“I really need work on that whole joking thing,” he muttered. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have interrupted you with an apparently tasteless witticism.”

Seifer wandered into the kitchen to grab a drink for himself, then came back. He spoke again, his voice narrowly missing the mark on speaking to Squall as if he were a child lacking in intelligence. “We should discuss where we plan to return to.”

He looked down at his hands, not at all familiar with the actual shame he was feeling. “Oh.” ‘Well don’t I just feel like a complete ass.’

After an uncomfortable silence, which just made Squall feel worse, Seifer said, “I’m going to chalk that up to nervousness and you generally not knowing what the hell tact means.”

“I really am sorry,” he said quietly.

Seifer heaved a sigh and sat down next to him, draping an arm around Squall’s shoulders. “I’m nervous, too, but I’m confident at the same time we can do it. I can hardly stay mad at you when you’re just being you. Now stop looking at your hands like you just killed my dog and let’s decide where.”

He looked up and over to see that Seifer was back to his usual self around him and nodded, his gaze sliding off to the right briefly before returning. “Your place or mine?”

“How about our place?” Seifer had that look in his eyes again.

He considered that seriously and realized he had no particular objection to the idea. They both spent time away from each other so their relationship wasn’t unhealthily dependent, and living together instead of across the hall from each other was not likely to change that. “All right. Which?”

“Yours, I think. We can worry about moving stuff later.”

“You think?”

“Well, it might have something to do with Fujin and Raijin sharing the suite next to mine,” Seifer replied, eyes glancing heavenward as he said it.

Squall laughed softly. “Right. So we’ll return to here, our home.”

“Now, let’s go to bed early so I can punish you.”

He closed his eyes as a wave of anticipation rippled through his body, and let Seifer lead him away.

*

“Oh dear Hyne, Seifer’s prediction was right!” Selphie wailed. “This whole experience is ruined!”

“There, there, darlin’,” Irvine said, stroking her hair as he held her. “It’s all right. It just means we can make fun of the place while we’re here.”

Squall looked at the castle in front of them and sighed.

“It was a joke!” Seifer protested. “What kind of a real villain does this shit?”

Halfway to the imposing double-door entrance Squall realized something was off. He had taken to leaving his jacket off for fighting due to occasionally needing to access the interface. In consequence, as they were all wearing the “uniform” Selphie had chosen for them, his arms were bare. And his interface was no longer strapped to his arm. “Hn. Guys? There seems to be a slight technical issue at hand.”

Seifer moved to face him and grab his shoulders. “Don’t say things like that! It’s bad enough we just got dropped into a cheesy horror flick set.”

Squall smiled faintly. “My interface is now a part of my arm.”

Seifer looked down and did a double take, then let go so he could take his jacket off and check his own arm. “O—kay.”

He looked at the others; they were all nodding and bearing expressions of confusion. Squall brought his arm up and tapped it, then blinked when it lit up just like the interface should and showed what the settings currently were. “No side effects, huh? Maybe it will revert once the compression ends,” he mused, rubbing his forehead in mild consternation. “There’s obviously nothing we can do about it right now, so let’s move on.”

And they did, up the wide flight of steps, through the ‘spooky’ mist spilling out from under the doorway, and into an entrance hall that looked like something ripped straight out of those movies Seifer was so fond of. Grime, cobwebs, candelabras—it was all there, along with the traditional red carpet runner for the stairs and red velvet-upholstered chairs which probably had not been used in decades. As he was looking around he felt a strange sensation wash over him and frowned.

Selphie shivered in an exaggerated manner. “I wonder what that was. Oh, hm. There’s a minion up at the top of those stairs. What number is that on the checklist, Irvy?”

“Sorry, darlin’, I forgot to bring it with me. I’ll make it up to you later.”

When they approached the creature it spoke just prior to attacking. “Face my wrath for seeking thy sealed power.”

Squall arched a brow. ‘Sealed power?’ Not knowing just by the look of it what they were facing he used Scan to get an idea, and Sphinxaur was defeated almost before he could assimilate the information, only to rise back up again in a slightly different form. That was also handily defeated. Squall started laughing.

“I know it was easy, Squall, but really,” Seifer scolded.

“These things are supposed to be guardians of our sealed abilities,” he replied. “Ultimecia’s way, I suppose, of making us weak and hoping we’ll die while fighting to get them unsealed. I can’t decide if that’s overconfidence on her part or because she’s actually afraid of us.”

“You think the interfaces. . . ?” Irvine said.

“She’s obviously had direct experience with people who use Guardian Forces, enough so that she knows how to use her powers to counter them here in her domain. So yes, I think that’s it. The only people who have these are us. Think back to the dead SeeDs we saw on the way here. Some of them may well have been overcome simply because they were too tired or just not well trained enough, but going by the uniforms and the faces I’d say those people were not from our time. Perhaps others got here earlier than we did because the distance in time wasn’t as far as it was for us. They attacked and failed, and their bodies were tossed out as a warning and to intimidate those who followed them.”

“Plausible theory,” Selphie said. “Hey, let’s go! We have a villain of questionable taste to kill!”

They spent quite some time checking out the various areas of the castle trying to locate where Ultimecia was waiting, defeating her minions and generally being annoyed when they weren’t being amused by the failure of her plan. Eventually they came across a clock tower, which in turn led them to a long path. At the end was the only area they had yet to explore.

Irvine asked for a short break before they went in. He was having a little trouble with their method for covering any nerves and had gone a bit overboard with the laughter. Squall nodded and everyone broke out some rations to eat while Irvine regained his composure. When he did signal his readiness—coincidentally right after Selphie kissed him passionately and whispered something in his ear—they gave themselves one final check and headed in.

Looking back on it later in his life Squall would remember the fight against Ultimecia as a blur of threats, grand speeches, curses, and an almost stereotypical scene where the bad guy lost. During the actual battle he was too busy fighting the urge to snigger on seeing how Seifer reacted to really feel all that concerned. But once it was over the entire area—the world, perhaps—went white.

“Is it over? Let’s go! Let’s go back to our time!” he heard Irvine say with nervousness evident in his voice. Their victory complete, it was obvious he could not bring himself to even attempt to hide it any longer.

“Just calm down and think where we have to go,” Selphie replied.

“Home!”

“Absolutely, ya know!”

“Squall, let’s go find—” he heard Seifer say before his voice cut off, triggering something in his memory.

Except that Squall was no longer moving through the endless white vista, but rather one of black, a black which was slowly lightening up, and with it bringing a male child.

“I’m gonna go find Sis!” the boy said.

And then the black fled, revealing to Squall the orphanage he once lived in, just as it was then.

“Squall,” a familiar female voice called.

He turned to see Matron Edea.

She was looking for someone or something, and noticed him. “Excuse me. Have you seen a little boy?”

“He’ll be fine.” ‘In the end, anyway.’ “I don’t think you need to worry.”

Edea took a step forward, a faintly puzzled look on her face as she gazed at him, then turned suddenly as a coruscation erupted off to the side. Squall’s eyes widened as he took in the sight of Ultimecia emerging from the light and staggering toward them. “You’re still alive?”

“A sorceress. . . .”

“Yes, matron. We were forced to defeat her. Stand back,” he said, moving to protect her.

“It’s all right. The sorceress is only looking for someone to bequeath her powers unto, so there is no need to fight again. In order to die in peace a sorceress must be free of all her powers. I know, for I am one, too.” She stepped forward. “I will assume her powers. Far better I do so than burden one of the children.”

Ultimecia seemed resistant to the end, and to Squall’s eyes looked to be locked in an endless agony of trying to retain her power in the face of certain death. Even as she denied her fate her powers were passed on to Edea, and then she slowly crumpled to the ground and vanished.

“Matron!”

Edea, having been driven to her knees with the transfer, rose and turned to face him. “You call me matron. Why is this? Who are you?”

“I’m a—no, I was a SeeD, from Balamb Garden. You and your husband founded it. Garden trains SeeDs. SeeDs are trained to defeat—” What to say? How to put it? “Trained to defeat people like her, who looked to enslave the world.”

“What are you saying?” she replied, then her eyes widened with some kind of realization. “You’re the boy,” she whispered, “but from the future?”

She’d had no idea, and he was inadvertently responsible for setting her on a path to her future, and his past. “Matron. . . .”

She still looked confused, but resolute. “Please return. You do not belong here,” she said as the child came running back.

“I can’t find where she’s hiding!” the boy cried, then noticed Squall. “Who’s he?”

Edea placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No one you should worry about. The only Squall permitted here is you. Now continue your game.” She gave him a gentle push and waited for the boy to race off. “Do you know where to return to? Do you know how? Will you be all right?”

Squall snapped off a crisp salute despite the mild bemusement he was feeling and nodded. As he did so the scene before him swiftly faded to black. He knew exactly where to go and how to do it. ‘Just concentrate on Seifer. My Seifer. Our home. We have a life to live and I’ll be damned if I’m going to take any more side trips. Though Selphie might be amused at how I “changed” something in the past and have the perfect example for her rather disjointed explanation to Ellone.’

The black lightened to white, which fuzzed and flexed and became a familiar hallway as he concentrated on his destination. He opened the door in front of him and entered, shutting it behind him with a soft click.

“Squall!” Seifer shouted, sounding and looking openly ragged. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. His eyes were bloodshot and his clothing was in disarray. Seifer jumped up from his spot on the couch and hastened over to pull Squall into his arms and hug him so tightly Squall was afraid of suffocating.

“As glad as I am to see you again, why are you acting as though I’ve been missing for ages?”

“Because you have been!” Seifer whispered harshly in his ear, then released him and shifted his grip to Squall’s shoulders. “You’ve been missing for days, Squall. I’ve been going out of my mind with worry.”

He blinked. ‘Days?’ That visit with Edea and his younger self obviously took longer than it had seemed. “I’m here. I’m fine. I promised to return to here and I have, I just got a little . . . sidetracked . . . along the way.” He cupped Seifer’s face with one hand and leaned up to give him a reassuring kiss. “I’m here. I’m fine,” he repeated. “I’m real,” he added when Seifer just looked at him like he was a tangible hallucination.

Seifer gave him a jerky nod and pulled him over to the sofa to sit with him, then reached down and removed the interface from Squall’s arm. “They reverted, thankfully. I think I spent a good hour ranting at Odine, most of that after he had the balls to point out that testing during Time Compression wasn’t exactly a viable option previously and wasn’t it nice of us to do it for him.”

He smiled faintly, though a bit disappointed that he had not witnessed it for himself, and set his gunblade on the coffee table.

“Now what do you mean you got sidetracked?”

Squall explained about the delay in his return, then frowned. “Now I’m confused about the plans we made. If Rinoa gets sealed and shot into space, how do the powers she holds, which came from Edea, which came from some nameless sorceress and Ultimecia combined—how do those pass through time and eventually end up with Ultimecia?”

Seifer coughed. “Er, about that. While you were missing we captured Rinoa—I say we, but I mean everyone but me since I was waiting for you to return. She was captured and they tried to seal her, but the process failed for some reason. I think now I understand why. Odine was called in to help and he managed to force her to split her powers, though we’re not entirely sure exactly who they went to. The point being, there shouldn’t be any sorceress out there right now who’s all that strong. Rinoa was promptly booted out of Esthar after Odine verified that she’s just a normal human being again and dropped off in Timber. She claimed she remembered being brought before the sorceress, but nothing after that. She might even be telling the truth.”

Squall shrugged. “So long as she doesn’t do something stupid like purposely seek out sorceresses and try to acquire their powers. . . . Maybe she should be kept under drone watch?”

“Kiros already arranged for that. Odine tinkered with a flight of drones. They won’t actually record anything unless she’s in the presence of a sorceress. It’s so her basic right to privacy is honored. But if she’s near one, all bets are off. And if she somehow gains some of those powers back she’ll end up sealed and shot into space.”

He was satisfied with that. Rinoa would have the chance to mature and grow and live her life. But if she stepped across that line. . . . “I miss anything else exciting?”

“Yes,” Seifer said with a nod, “if you consider me exciting.”

Squall smirked. “I definitely do.” He got up, drawing Seifer with him, and led him off to the bathroom. And while a shower was tempting for its brevity, he instead chose to start the huge jacuzzi tub to filling before he began stripping off his clothing. Seifer quickly joined him and soon enough they were situated in the almost too hot water. If nothing else Squall was pleased that his lover was starting to look sleepy from the heat and forced relaxation. Seifer always took care of him, and it was time to return the favor. He washed himself quickly, pushing away Seifer’s hand when he went to take the cloth from him, then set about languorously soaping his lover’s skin. Before long Seifer looked as though he could hardly keep his eyes open so Squall quickly washed his own hair, then spent a little more time on Seifer’s before nudging the switch to drain the tub and getting out.

“Come on,” he coaxed, helping Seifer from the tub and keeping him steady as he dried both of them off. “Time to rest.” And soon enough they were beneath the covers and Seifer was snuggled up against his back, holding him, sleeping peacefully. ‘Not that I really doubted him before, but I think his feelings are a lot deeper than he’s admitted to. Do I feel the same way? I like him a lot. How he treats me. How he makes me feel. I miss him when we’re apart, but not desperately. But that’s a good thing, right? I’m still me, he’s still himself, and I don’t feel some damn fool notion that I have to change or to change him. I can’t say that it’s love yet, but I can say I have no intention of letting him go. So I just won’t worry about it. I care about him, he obviously cares about me, and we’ll just go from there.’ Having worked that out in his head he drifted off to sleep.

He woke to the delicious sensations of Seifer trying to suck him dry and was cast into an almost delirious trance by it. He was so damn close when his lover pulled away and whispered, “Let me. . . .”

“Yes,” he whispered back.

Seifer reached into the bedside table drawer and withdrew a bottle of oil. Squall was shortly being buggered by his lover’s thumbs even as Seifer paid enough attention to his cock to keep him on edge. When they did finally join he was aching so badly, and slightly surprised to see the sheer depth of emotion in his lover’s eyes. It made him wonder how his own appeared to Seifer’s intent gaze. But who could hold a thought like that when his eyes were rolling back and his body arching as an orgasm ripped through him and left him a shattered mess. Seifer collapsed over him shortly after, panting harshly.

“That was one hell of a good morning,” he murmured a few minutes later.

Seifer leered at him in response, then said, “We should let everyone know you’re back. Well, after we shower and get something to eat.”

Breakfast was simple and quick, and they were soon enough on their way to Laguna’s office. The others were not around, and Seifer was not sure where they’d be—they checked up on him daily, but usually not until afternoon or evening. They were, in fact, sharing space around the conference table, and looked delighted to see Squall again, healthy and whole. But it was Laguna who jumped up from his seat and rushed over to wrap Squall in a hug.

“We thought you were lost in time,” Laguna whispered.

‘Well, I gathered that,’ he thought dryly, unwilling to actually speak the words. His father’s reaction was not unexpected. He brought his arms up to briefly return the hug, then gently extricated himself from the entirely unfamiliar expression of parental love. “I’m fine. It’s all right now.”

Laguna steered him over to the table and pushed him into a seat, grinning goofily, and those around him murmured greetings or expressed their pleasure that he was back.

“Seifer already told me about how Rinoa was and is being dealt with. What about Edea and Nida?”

“We were hoping to wait until you returned,” Selphie said. “Matron seemed to think you’d be fine, though.”

And if Edea was Cid’s wife, and she ‘originated’ the idea of Garden and SeeD, and he knew of the encounter, well, that might have something to do with why he had been chosen for the Timber mission. He hummed noncommittally, then asked about the plans to briefly return to Balamb Garden.

*

Garden was back at Balamb, possibly for lack of any real leads. Selphie landed nearby and they piled out, Selphie and Irvine staying behind in the camouflaged ship. The entrance path no longer quite matched up correctly with the ground, but it was no trouble to manage the difference and the party was shortly through the turnstiles and approaching the directory.

“I suppose we could nab a passing student,” Seifer murmured.

“No need,” he replied with a nod of his head. “Look there.”

Quistis had spotted them and she did not look happy. She hastened over and stopped a few feet away. “Come crawling back, have you?” she said snidely, seemingly not yet noticing anyone beyond Squall and Seifer. Apparently she was still smarting from before.

It was all he could do not to laugh in her face; Seifer certainly didn’t refrain from snickering quietly. But Squall wished to at least look like he had manners at the outset. “Trepe, how . . . delightful. I see you’ve not changed. We have dropped by for a simple enough purpose, to return—”

“You think you can just waltz back in here like nothing happened?”

Squall arched a brow at the interruption, then continued as if it had not happened. “To return a missing member of Garden, and to facilitate the reunion of Headmaster Cid with his wife.”

Quistis finally seemed to see beyond the pair and to who was behind them when Xu walked up and asked, “What’s going on here?”

“Xu,” he said. “As I was just saying to Trepe, we have escorted Mrs Kramer and Nida Maller here.”

Judging by the veiled curiosity in their eyes neither one of them knew Mrs Kramer from a strange lady on the street, which meant Cid had never clued them in. How droll.

“Please come with me,” Xu said. “I’ll take you to the headmaster.” Her presence seemed to quell any thoughts Quistis might have had toward speech and the short trip passed in silence.

Cid did not give anyone the chance to speak once they entered his office; he was across the room faster than anyone would have imagined possible and cupping Edea’s face with one hand. “How?” he whispered.

She just smiled faintly and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. “I have quite a story to tell you, though perhaps not all at once. Rest assured that everything is fine now. We owe Squall and the others a great debt.”

“No, matron. No debts,” he said firmly.

Quistis finally bought a clue. Her eyed widened almost comically and she stepped back, her hand twitching toward her weapon.

Squall faced her directly and said coldly, “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“You brought the sorceress into Garden?” she hissed, missing the pained look which crossed Edea’s face.

“Not at all. I brought Mrs Edea Kramer, co-founder of Balamb Garden and SeeD. And, of course, Nida Maller, who has been of invaluable assistance. You don’t have to like me, Trepe, but you do have deal with the fact that I know more about this situation than you do.”

“I know what I saw! She messed with his mind! Turned him against us!”

Mrs Kramer did nothing to him,” he replied with a slight edge. “Perhaps if you would be silent and let her speak you would know that.”

She scoffed, then shot a look of disbelief at the headmaster when he said, “I agree.”

“Simmer down, Trepe,” Seifer drawled. “You don’t know what happened and you won’t unless you shut the hell up. Just because you were running around chasing your tail doesn’t mean the rest of us weren’t busy setting things right.”

Cid offered Edea his arm, then led her over to a sitting area off to one side. Squall and Seifer followed, along with Xu, and Nida brought up the rear with sputtering Quistis. Edea gave her husband a simply lovely smile and told her part of the story, which mainly consisted of her awareness of the intrusion in her mind, her flight to separate herself from Ellone, and then knowing next to nothing until she had been awakened in Esthar. Then she gestured gracefully to Squall and Seifer.

Squall took up the narrative summary from his team’s perspective, casting an apologetic look at Edea when he got to her being sealed, and deliberately excluding any references to the interfaces or other technology Esthar commanded. “Once we knew exactly which body Ultimecia was possessing and that Ellone could assist from a position of safety, we went ahead with the plan. We confronted Ultimecia in her castle and defeated her, then returned to our proper time.”

“And Miss Heartilly?” Cid asked.

“Back to being a normal human thanks to Dr Odine, and returned to Timber.”

Cid nodded, looking far more aware and less vague than Squall had ever seen. “You say there are no debts, but you and your team do have my deepest gratitude. You as well, Mr Maller, for shaking off Ultimecia’s control and surrendering yourself to the defenders of Esthar so you could expose her plan.”

Nida ducked his head and muttered something unintelligible, but seemed pleased.

“Will you be returning to us?” Cid asked, either missing or ignoring the sudden frown from Quistis.

“No, sir. We’re happy in our current employment. Matron does look different now, but someone might have recognized her regardless. Nida is an excellent fighter, but we deemed it unwise to not come as well, just in case someone attempted something . . . foolish. . . before all the facts were known.” A slight hiss told him that Quistis had taken that for a potshot at her, but he kept his eyes on Cid and his expression unchanged. “But now, if you’ll excuse us, we really should be getting back.”

“Of course, of course,” Cid said genially.

“My boys, all grown up,” Edea said. “Though your language does leave something to be desired at times.”

Squall smirked and Seifer laughed, and then they left, thankful to be going home. As they were walking along the path past the turnstiles Seifer said quietly, “You know, I think it was better that we behaved—mostly.”

“I sincerely doubt we could have gotten into a shouting match with Trepe without Edea getting involved. Just imagine how all of this might have gone if I’d never kissed you that day.”

Seifer laughed and slung an arm around his shoulders. “I’d rather not even try. Now let’s go home.”

fin