Into Esthar

BY : Chemotaxis
Category: Final Fantasy VIII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1011
Disclaimer: We do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters in this story, nor do we profit from writing this story.

~ Chapter Two - Duty Bound ~

[The Presidential Palace, Wednesday, 15th of October, 8:19 am]

"If you would please step over here, sir, and place any weapon or communication device you may have on you into the designated tray. Your belongings will be returned to you after the conclusion of the banquet later today."

Gesturing in the direction of a large table set up at the side of the entrance hallway to the conference building, the young woman that had addressed Squall in a pleasant tone of voice sent him a friendly smile. Lined up along the walls were heavily armed palace guards, their somewhat outdated occupation title quite misleading when spotting their high-tech armor and state of the art rifles. If the kind-faced hostesses were meant to lessen the suffocating atmosphere of tight security, then the effort was wasted, the effect of their welcoming smiles easily negated by the multiple cameras mounted on the ceiling and several sets of unseen gazes peering from behind dark visors.

Hardly intimidated, Squall walked over to the indicated table without any qualms and placed his two guns into the tray carrying his identification code. Firearms were hardly his preferred choice of weapon anyway, the ice goddess residing in his mind far more lethal. Parting with his cell phone next and watching the friendly woman take off with his tray after a slight bow, the brunet awaited further instructions. He'd already been subjected to an iris and hand scan, his invitation letter scrutinized and confirmed several times over, before he was even allowed beyond the entrance gate. Annoyed at the excessive measures taken for a single meeting, Squall pondered the irony of owning a high level key card to Loire's private quarters and most access codes to the palace grounds, given to him by the president himself in case he wanted to "visit." He highly doubted Kiros had agreed to this or even knew of the privileges Loire had decided to grant his son. As the chief of the palace guard, the man would most likely blow a fuse.

"Please step this way, sir," another hostess requested in a friendly manner, guiding him to a large metal construction connected to a monitor and two stern-eyed overseers. Knowing from experience this meant a full body scan was next on the agenda, Squall suppressed a deep sigh. He was already running on the late side, thanks to the unnecessarily long detour his bodyguards had insisted on taking, and apparently he had been the last to arrive at the check-in point.

A few uncomfortable moments of invisible lasers raking his body later, and having received the go-ahead to proceed to the waiting room reserved for all Garden officials, the impatient brunet emerged from the lavishly mirrored elevator that had carried him to the third floor of the conference building. Walking with hurried strides through the brightly lit hallway, he could already imagine the subtle annoyance lacing Quistis's greeting words.

Coming to a halt at the double doors sporting the sign "Garden," he slipped off his black trench coat in one smooth move and stepped into the room without further delay. Inside, all heads turned to regard the latecomer. Ignoring them, Squall walked over to the coat hangers nearby.

"Unusual for you to be this late," a somewhat berating voice sounded from behind him, his presumption confirmed at detecting the hint of displeasure in Quistis' voice.

Irked, he turned round to face the immaculately dressed woman with an unimpressed glare and supplied dryly, "Tell that to the Trepies you set me up with."

The disgruntled reply caused the blonde to quirk an eyebrow, the young woman obviously not having expected the other's abysmal attitude. "What matters is that you're here now," she said firmly, not about to tolerate the conversation being steered by Squall's bad temper. "Did you go through the documents I sent you last night?"

"Yes," the brunet replied in an only slightly more affable manner. He needed to be calm in order to make it through the meeting, but that was easier said than done. "The engineers managed the deadline after all?" he asked, gaze wandering to the far back of the room where Cid was getting up from a luxuriously cushioned chair, the man excusing himself and obviously intending to leave the other two headmasters to continue the conversation on their own.

"They pulled through, with the right amount of encouragement," Quistis answered in a deceivingly neutral tone of voice, a little smile playing on her lips as she handed him an updated set of blueprints, fresh off the press. "At least this is something we can hand over to Estharian technicians without having to feel embarrassed."

Skimming through the papers, he gave a curt hum of approval, before he glanced past Quistis. "Sir," he greeted succinctly when Cid joined them with a broad smile.

"Squall," came the too cheerful reply, the middle-aged man landing a friendly pat on his shoulder. "It's been too long, hasn't it? Though I suppose it can't be helped. Missions wait for no man, isn't that right?" he spoke amicably, with the air of someone who knew all about mercenary life.

Annoyed but curbing his urge to express said annoyance at the stern look Quistis sent his way, he offered an acknowledging nod instead, remembering the right amount of respect he was supposed to muster at such an occasion.

"I've read the reports and I must say, you handled your latest mission expertly," the unaware headmaster continued jovially. "President Loire informed me that work at the refinery has already resumed, now that the oilboyle nesting grounds are a thing of the past."

"If anything, it's good timing," Quistis added thoughtfully, taking the blueprints back from the brunet's idle hands and storing them away neatly in a manila folder. "It's a good reminder that even Esthar needs Garden assistance."

"Ah yes. There's that too," Cid commented with an agreeing nod. Chuckling fondly, he continued, "They won't know what hit 'em, consenting to you as the meeting's moderator."

With a soft shake of the head, Quistis admonished the older man, "You know I have to remain impartial. I'm just laying out the facts and files. For this to work, all parties need to get their say." Pausing to add weight to her words, she fixed the headmaster with a level gaze. "And you know the things you have to say. We need your full back-up on this one," the blonde continued, firmly dissuading any tendency of the older man to leave the talking to others.

"Yes yes, don't you worry," Cid reassured with a dismissing gesture. "I'm sure things will go just fine."

Clearly remembering how the headmaster had shirked his responsibilities and shoved the Garden broadcast mic into his hands, randomly and non-democratically instating him as Commander in the process, Squall couldn't help but raise a dark eyebrow and share a pointed look with his former instructor.

Releasing a soft sigh, Quistis shook her head almost indiscernibly. They both knew they needed the man's seniority and connections, no politician willing to listen to someone their age without it, regardless of their experience and expertise.

Glancing down at her watch, the blonde remarked pensively, "We'll have to leave any minute now." As her gaze traveled back to meet Squall's, the brunet braced himself for the well-meant "advice" he knew was coming. The look that greeted him was the one cadets were loath to find themselves the target of. Their commander formed no exception to the rule.

"I'll start off with the introductions, Quistis began evenly, clearly hinting at the part of the meeting he was least excited about. "I know certain... reactions are unavoidable, but if you could please try not to--"

A loud knock started everyone in the room from their conversations, the double doors swinging open wide and revealing a friendly, smiling hostess. "All the other dignitaries have already taken their seats and are awaiting your arrival. Please allow us to escort you to the conference room," she announced pleasantly upon entering, extending an arm towards the doorway in invitation. Outside, two palace guards stood at attention. Thanking Hyne for the welcome interruption, Squall quickly made for the hallway, not bothering to turn around and discover Quistis's expression.

Behind him he could hear Cid comment lightheartedly on "the impatience of youth," Quistis only sighing exasperatedly in reply. Not paying any notice, he stepped outside and gave the two guards assigned to their party an acknowledging nod as he walked past them. Focusing on his footsteps echoing along the marble floor, he tried to calm his mind in preparation of several hours of frustration and boredom. Meetings like these always tended to drag on, unimportant details and seemingly endless squabbling taking up unnecessary amounts of time, as most politicians were only ever willing to serve their own causes.

Calling down and holding the elevator, he waited for Quistis and the headmasters to catch up, but the first to round the corner was the hostess. Looking somewhat flustered yet still smiling broadly, the young woman hurried toward him as elegantly as she could manage in a pencil skirt and high heels. "Sir, please allow me to do that," she requested, her voice a tad embarrassed as she stepped into the elevator and placed a staying hand against metal doors. Realizing he'd only confuse her further if he maintained behavior unbefitting of some high official, Squall simply let his arm fall down and walked inside to lean against the far mirrored wall of the elevator. Already he was more than fed up with all the unnecessary pretenses.

Supplying a brief word of greeting he had failed to offer earlier as the headmasters of Trabia and Galbadia Garden filed into the elevator, he immediately fell silent again during their ascent to the top floor. Next to him Quistis was nudging her spectacles into place and seemed to be checking the stack of folders in her arms for the umpteenth time. Even Cid had assumed an appropriately serious demeanor.

As the elevator came to a stop, a collective moment of minds steeling themselves was tangible in the air before the party of Garden representatives walked out into the lavish hallway. A multitude of muted voices buzzed loudly from behind the large set of doors at the end of it. This was it. Squall could only hope that Quistis would manage to run a tight ship and keep time loss to a minimum.

At the nudge of a sharp elbow in his side he glanced sideways to see said blonde regard him seriously, her lips mouthing the words "no glaring" slowly and articulately. Not leaving him any time to respond or protest, she walked ahead with a determined stride and pushed open one of the doors, the buzzing of voices coming to an abrupt end as she disappeared inside.

Not about to linger in the hallway by himself, he followed after her and made a conscious effort to smoothen out his features into a suitably neutral expression. The many eyes gravitating towards him as he walked into the suffocatingly silent conference room didn't help make the feat any easier. Spotting a sign reading "Squall Leonhart," placed in front of one of the five remaining free chairs, he immediately realized why he already was the center of attention.

An inward groan the only reaction he could permit himself under such intense scrutiny, he walked to his seat with confident strides, returning the curt nods he received in greeting from the heads of state as he traversed the room. He'd already dealt with them in the past and earned their respect. The ones possibly posing a problem were currently boring their eyes into him, clearly disbelieving and waiting for the moment he'd actually sit himself down in the commander's chair. The moment he did, the heavy silence broke like glass falling to shards, whispered comments instantly filling the air.

More than used to his appearance not living up to the larger-than-life expectations that were associated with his name, Squall easily brushed off the incredulous stares sent his way by the Estharian Secretaries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. To their right, a composed and unaffected Loire was lending a sympathetic ear to the Secretary of Economy, the round-faced man obviously surprised and in need of reassuring.

Harder to ignore were the two rather large men seated at the end of the u-shaped table, right next to the slightly elevated platform where Quistis was going to make her presentation. Burly postures leaned forward to better study the anomaly that just walked into their midst, their gazes were invariably contemptuous whenever they looked up from their outraged exchange. Squall immediately recognized them from the files he had looked through that morning. Borecco, the Estharian Chief of Police, and Reardon, the General of the Estharian Army. It wasn't all that difficult to guess at the reason for such instantaneous hatred. His general lack of brawn and masculinity usually inspired such a reaction in men who considered fighting and combat their trade. For someone like him to be a commander was considered a personal insult.

Able to overhear such words as "absurd" and "ridiculous," the two men unsubtly made sure he knew exactly what they thought of him. Having trouble keeping his expression in check, Squall felt his anger flare dangerously on the inside, but refused to let them gain any leverage over him by expressing any shape or form of emotion. It was no different from the times he had fought off muscle heads as a cadet, often mistaken for an easy target. It was nothing. Just like those assholes, they'd learn to think differently soon. All in good time. Anger simmering down to a cold boil at the back of his mind, he directed his attention away from the infuriating display, his gaze landing on the somewhat fidgety man sitting directly in front of him.

Lantos Farkas, the new Mayor of Fisherman Horizon, though less xenophobic than his predecessor still seemed highly uncomfortable in the presence of some of the world's most important dignitaries. Aware that he had Squall's attention, he seemed to attempt to sink away in his chair. Indifferent towards the man's discomfort, steely gray-blue eyes moved on to travel past the others present, filing away faces under their correct names and titles.

Stopping at a pair of narrowed eyes, Squall knew he was looking at trouble. Unremarkable of build and appearance, Darman Zautra wouldn't stand out much if it wasn't for that calculating gaze, something about the man making it impossible to ignore him. Knowing full well that of those present the Chief Executive of the SCTA would have the least to gain from their proposition that day, the fact that the man was now staring at him so coldly didn't bode well.

"Good morning. I am Quistis Trepe, Head Instructor of Balamb Garden and Headmistress in training. In the capacity of today's moderator, I hereby call this meeting into session." Clear and to the point, the blonde's voice cut right through all the commotion, demanding everyone's undivided attention. All eyes traveling to the presentation area at the open end of the meeting table, Squall couldn't help but feel grateful for the temporary reprieve and turned to watch his friend as well.

Standing confident in front of a large presentation screen, clipboard and laser pointer in hand, Quistis was the picture of competence. The sight reminded him of how she thrived when confronted with an audience, duty or any challenge for that matter, the young woman having come a long way since the war. She was far better suited to a position of authority than he would ever be or ever had been, the mere thought of having to speak later during the meeting enough to make him uncomfortable. Addressing his troops on the battle field was entirely different to speaking in front of a room full of self-conceited officials.

"The summon for this gathering has been issued by Garden, but was only realized thanks to the hospitality of President Loire and the Estharian government. For this we extend our sincerest gratitude," she stated formally once all conversation had finally died down. "Representing Garden are Headmaster Kramer from Balamb Garden, Headmistress Blackwood from Trabia Garden, Headmaster Tavares from Galbadia Garden, and SeeD Commander Leon--"

A derisive snort interrupted Quistis' introductions at the mentioning of the brunet's name, the sound loud enough to be heard by all. Only taken aback for the duration of a second, the blonde immediately got back on track after sending General Reardon a withering look for resorting to such tasteless tactics. "--and SeeD Commander Leonhart," she continued firmly, emphasizing the name to clearly convey the issue was not up for discussion.

"You really expect us to believe that this is the SeeD Commander?" Zautra asked in a composed manner, stating each word unflinchingly as he leaned back in his chair and eyed Quistis levelly.

Not having expected disturbances from that corner of the table, nor such an uncouth questioning of Squall's identity, the young woman stood temporarily stunned as the comment caused the conference room to be plunged back into disorder. At the other end of the table Borecco and Reardon seemed quite entertained by the Chief Executive's audacity, leaning back in their chairs as well to await Quistis' response with mock attention.

Before Squall could even begin to feel properly annoyed at such disrespect, the scraping of a chair being pushed back caught his attention. Having a rather accurate suspicion at what would follow, he watched the scene unfold, barely restraining the urge to bring his hand up to pinch at the bridge of his nose in frustration.

At the head of the table Loire came to a stand, his features deceivingly composed. "Gentlemen," he began seriously, his voice loud enough to rise above the noise. "I can assure you that the man in your presence today is indeed Commander Leonhart. Now as I am certain you are aware of his accomplishments, it would only be prudent to show the proper amount of respect." The entire room fell silent at those words, uncertain gazes traveling back and forth between himself and the president.

Schooling his expression, Squall tried to curb the annoyance he felt at having someone else fight his battle for him. Especially Loire, no matter how irrational the sentiment was. Years of having fended for himself had left him with a deeply ingrained sense of independence and with no desire whatsoever to receive any help from his absentee father. Not that any of them knew. Now that would be a riot.

None the wiser to Squall's displeasure, Loire hadn't run out of steam just yet and continued firmly, "Not only that, but as you know, a large amount of the security measures taken for today's meeting were set up to protect the man's identity. There would be no benefit to Garden in employing a decoy for the duration of this meeting, only instead an added risk at exposing their commander. Obviously he is here not only to partake in the meeting but also to show Garden's trust and goodwill towards all participants." Pausing to let his gaze travel over all those present, a cautioning edge to usually friendly eyes, he concluded, "Let us all aim to repay such courtesy."

"Thank you President Loire," Quistis began immediately after the longhaired president had finally sat himself down again, not permitting anybody else to take the word. "Now if you will please allow me to continue," she spoke sternly, cerulean eyes regarding each troublemaker levelly, "then I would like to lay out the agenda for this gathering."

Confident that finally everyone's attention was back where it was supposed to be, the blonde immediately cut to the chase, her voice reined in to a professional tone once more. "First of all I will explain the purpose of this meeting and run through the details of the plans Garden wishes to bring into motion. After a short break, there will be opportunity to address any concerns or questions you may have." Taking a small remote control in hand, Quistis pointed it at the large presentation screen and brought a detailed 3D model of a state of the art building into view. As the image in the background slowly rotated to reveal the planned design from all angles, she announced without hesitating, "The topic we wish to bring up is the possible expansion of Garden to include a branch in Esthar." Pausing briefly for impact, she continued, "What you see here is Esthar Garden."

Stunned silence rang throughout the room, but the moment only lasted for a few seconds, the Estharian representatives effectively in an uproar once their brains had caught up on the implications of what had just been said. Borecco and Reardon erupted into an outraged litany at the same time, the General's hands slamming onto the table's surface as the older one of the two shot up from his chair in his temper. Zautra merely watched the revolving model with narrowing eyes, silently seething. Nobody seemed to be able to keep their opinions to themselves.

Watching the display with a growing frown, Squall let go of any hope the meeting would be over anytime soon. As he settled into his chair as comfortably as possible, he resigned himself to a long morning.

[The Tiamat SCTA, Wednesday, 15th of October, 2:06 pm]

The double doors of the entrance to the Tiamat SCTA slid apart soundlessly as Seifer stepped inside. The place looked like usual, the large foyer mostly empty. On both sides of the room chairs and tables were placed in small groups, serving both as waiting areas and places where students and employees could relax or eat lunch. Walking down the polished wooden floor leading to the tall semicircular reception desk, Seifer's eyes quickly traveled to the man seated behind the desk.

"Madden," he said, drawing the man's attention immediately.

"Almasy," the receptionist replied and nodded in greeting. "Good to have you back."

Returning the nod, Seifer placed an arm on the glass surface of the desk and leaned in. "Listen, is Doreen in?"

"Yup, she's in her office right now I believe."

"Thanks," Seifer said as he pushed away from the desk and came to a proper stand once more. Sending the other man a slight nod, he turned to head down the hallway that veered off to the right of the reception desk. Picking up his stride, he quickly made it to the fourth door on the left and entered the small office. Doreen sat at her usual desk, the surface more cluttered than normal. Large piles of papers, most likely some of those god-forsaken forms she made everyone fill in regularly, were placed rather chaotically on the too small surface.

"Mrs. Callanach," he spoke fondly, as he put on his most charming smile and walked over to where she was sitting. He wanted to stay on friendly terms with the admins, already used to the perks it gained him.

Smiling broadly, Doreen looked up from the mass of forms she had been organizing. "Seifer," she said in greeting, her voice warm and friendly. "We weren't expecting you back for a while yet."

"I know," Seifer said, his smile growing. "Things went a lot quicker than expected." He hadn't thought he'd be back for another two weeks, but through hard labor and little sleep he had managed to cut down his time away from Esthar. He wasn't fond of his trips out, much more content to be at home working in the workshop and at the SCTA, but he still went out whenever Arc asked him to. It was the least he could do after all the man had done for him.

Raising the pile of papers cradled in her hands, the middle-aged woman arranged them neatly on the surface of her desk. "That's good to hear, dear," she commented in a pleasant tone of voice.

Curbing his annoyance at the overly affectionate term, Seifer's smile never wavered. He wanted to stay in her good books as he was always low on cash and she had helped him in the past by arranging pay advances. If he had to suffer the infrequent use of the dreaded term, then he'd do just that. The added bonus of her filling out his forms as well made him even more determined to stay on her good side.

"So when can we expect you to return?" she asked, putting down the neat stack of forms.

"As soon as possible," Seifer replied, needing no time to ponder her question.

Smile faltering ever so slightly, Doreen looked down at the calendar on her desk for a brief moment. "I'm afraid it's too late to cancel Healey's lesson tomorrow. How about Monday? Does that work for you?"

Nodding at the answer he had already anticipated, he let his smile blend into a smirk. "Of course. Tell the kiddies what to expect." He couldn't wait to torture their sorry asses.

Laughing softly, Doreen's green eyes sparkled in amusement. "Don't worry. I'm sure the rumors will spread in no time."

Seifer's smirk grew smug as he nodded in agreement. Deciding to indulge the woman in an ounce of small talk, he relaxed his smirk back into his best smile. "How are the kids?"

Leaning forward in her seat, obviously enjoying the ex-knight's company, Doreen seemed delighted at the question. "Aidan is growing more and more impatient to start at the SCTA by the day. You know what it's like to be a boy at that age. Kacey just brought home her first boyfriend the other day... It gets harder and harder to keep up with them."

"I'm sure," Seifer commented with an easy smile. "Has Aidan decided which weapon he'll be taking up?" Just a little more small talk and he knew she'd be happy to fill out those horrible forms for him for another term.

"Let's hope it's not the gunblade, huh? I hear their instructor is rather ruthless," she said as she eyed him with a teasing glint in her eyes.

"Well, at least they got that part right," he joked back with a smirk. "Tell him he can come see me for a taster if he wants."

Eyes glazing over in thought, the woman seemed to ponder his offer for a second. "I'll be sure to tell him that."

Giving the woman one last smile, Seifer straightened out of his relaxed position. "I'll be off then," he said as he gave her a mock salute. Leaving her office, he walked back down the dim hallway until he was back in the brightly lit foyer. Walking past the reception, Madden called out to him from his position behind the desk. "Hey, Almasy."

Turning around to regard the man, Seifer walked up to the desk. "Yeah?"

"I forgot. I've got a new key for you for the training rooms. We need your old one back," Madden said as he began looking through a drawer, quickly locating the key.

Fishing out his keys from his back pocket, Seifer placed both of his elbows to rest on top of the tall desk. "How come?" he asked as his eyes narrowed slightly in thought.

"We had a break in whilst you were away," was the simple reply, a slight frown finding its way onto Madden's brow as he remembered the incident.

Fighting the immediate worry that surfaced at the back of his mind, Seifer's eyes narrowed further. "The gunblades?" he asked in growing concern, just about managing to keep his voice even.

"Safe. It was the nunchaku room that was targeted," the other man replied without looking up from the form he was filling in to register the exchange of keys.

Even though he felt relief at the words, Seifer still couldn't quell the unease that filled him and tapped his hand clutching the key ring against the counter in impatience. Forcing himself to ignore his unfounded worry, he brought his focus back to his key ring and removed the universal key to the training rooms. "Was much taken?" he asked in curiosity as he inserted the key Madden had placed for him on the glass counter.

"No. Only the most expensive models," the man replied, eyes returning to Seifer.

"Hn," Seifer said and nodded, his apprehension growing once more. "I'll see you tomorrow, Madden," he added in parting as he gave the other man a slight nod and pushed away from the desk.

"See you, Almasy," the man replied as he watched Seifer turn around and head down the hallway that led in the opposite direction of the administration office.

Even though he knew he had nothing to worry about, Seifer also realized he wouldn't feel at ease before he laid his eyes on Hyperion. Quickly making it down to the gunblade training room, he slid the brand new key into the lock and opened the door. Instantly his eyes were on black metal at the other side of the room, the light spilling in through the overhead windows just enough for him to make out the familiar shape. Sighing, he switched on the light and entered the room properly. Calmly, he made his way over to the glass cabinet that took up most of the far wall. Stopping to study the blade in its mounted position inside the cabinet, placed in-between similar models, Seifer kept his hands idle by his side.

It had been almost half a year since he'd decided to leave Hyperion there. The blade was still his, but he had figured the security was better at the SCTA than at his apartment. And he rarely used her anymore. Just like he never used the blade hanging next to her; the first gunblade he'd ever forged. Besides, rather than letting the gunblades collect dust, he figured the brats could use the experience of practising with them, the models being slightly different to the rest of the blades in the SCTA's collection. It hadn't been a hard decision, really, but at Madden's earlier words he'd been paralyzed with worry over losing Hyperion. Getting his keys out of his back pocket to open the cabinet, he didn't hear the muted steps of someone else entering the room.

"Sir?" an adolescent voice called from behind him, the word ringing out nervously.

Quite familiar with all of his students' voices, Seifer dropped his hand and turned around with a lopsided smirk. Upon seeing the slightly nervous student eyeing him with bright blue eyes, Seifer couldn't stop himself from toying with the boy. Especially not since the boy was standing way too hunched over to demand proper respect, something Seifer felt was his personal duty to correct. He wouldn't allow any of his students to leave the SCTA a weakling or without the backbone befitting a fighter.

"Straighten up Mack," he demanded harshly, the boy immediately standing at attention at his command. "Show me your blade."

Walking further into the room, the boy held out his blade in the way Seifer had taught him. Seifer didn't move to take it out of the boy's hold as expected. Instead, he watched in silence for long moments until the tip began to swerve slightly. Eyes narrowing at the sight, Seifer lifted his gaze to regard the young student.

"Did you do those exercises I showed you?" he asked, not impressed in the slightest by the lack of strength the boy was displaying.

"Yes, Sir," the boy let out, his voice nearly breaking on the words.

"Then why the hell can't you hold your blade straight?" Seifer demanded sternly, keeping the boy the object of his firm gaze.

Not knowing how to answer, the boy's eyes fell to the floor in shame, his arm starting to tremble at the continued strain caused by the heavy weight of the blade.

Watching as the boy slowly lowered the blade to hang at his side, the tip resting against the floor, Seifer knew he still had his work cut out for him. Not only did the kid lack strength, but also discipline. He'd been sure Mack had been improving before he'd left for his trip, but obviously the boy hadn't kept up the exercises as promised.

"Did I tell you to relax?" Seifer questioned grimly, increasingly unimpressed at his pupil.

"No, Sir!" the boy said loudly in reply as he forced his hand and arm into its previous position despite his protesting muscles.

Seifer's eyes eased up slightly as he noticed the determination that entered Mack's eyes and demeanor. Regardless of Healey's useless classes, more often causing setbacks in the students than not, Seifer was determined he'd make a strong man out of Mack and the rest of the useless bunch. It'd be hard, but he'd make it work. He wasn't going to have a bunch of pussies parading around saying he'd been their teacher.

"Now tell me why the hell you can't hold your blade straight," he demanded once more. He wanted the boy to feel guilty over having let his training slip.

"I... I don't know, Sir," the boy said, his features plainly showing his frustration at having no better answer for his instructor.

Knowing Mack had never been one to lie, Seifer studied the young boy more intently. Maybe he had judged him too harshly. Maybe the boy really had been doing the exercises but needed an even more thorough workout or a change in routine.

"Hmmm," Seifer let out and tilted his head back slightly as he continued his scrutiny. He needed to study Mack whilst the boy performed the exercises and then work out ways for him to improve. "Stay after the lesson on Monday. Can't have you walking around with sissy arms like that. You need to beef 'em up." Knowing the teenager's arms would be close to giving in and had to hurt like hell, he finally decided to cut the boy some slack. "At ease."

Blade immediately moving to hang at his side, Mack tried hard to hide his relief at no longer having to hold out his blade. He knew displaying any kind of weakness in front of his instructor only caused the man to drive him harder. "Yes, sir," he said and nodded, feeling slightly reassured when the man didn't order him to bring the weapon back out. He knew Seifer only meant him and the others the best. Since Seifer had started teaching them, none of the other weapon specialization students had been able to keep up with them any more. Even though the man drove them hard, Mack knew it was worth it. He knew they would be some of the most sought after graduates to leave the SCTA. And thus, it was always bothersome when Seifer went away on his trips. Hopeful, Mack couldn't curb his question. "You're back, Sir?"

Chuckling, Seifer shook his head in disbelief. "You can be a fucking idiot you know that, Mack? Didn't I just tell you to stay after the lesson on Monday?"

Nodding, Mack didn't know why he was being laughed at, his forehead scrunching up in thought.

"Well, what does that imply?" the blond instructor questioned with an amused smirk.

Realizing his mistake, Mack's frown deepened even though he was relieved at the news. "That you'll be teaching us again."

"That's right. Now go tell all the other fuckheads that their holiday is over. From Monday it's back to working until you drop dead from exhaustion," Seifer said as he kept his arms crossed in front of him, still watching the boy intently.

Unable to suppress a small smile of excitement at having Seifer back, Mack didn't think to restrain his words. He couldn't wait to tell the others. "Yes, Sir. Good to have you back, Sir."

Amused at the young boy's eager comment, Seifer cocked his head backwards before sending Mack on his way. "Now get out of here and work out those wimp ass muscles of yours."

"Yes, Sir," Mack let out firmly and nodded. Giving Seifer a slight smile, he turned around and left the room.

Letting his smirk relax into a smile as the boy left his view, Seifer couldn't conceal his own happiness at being back.

[Arc Balios' Weapon Shop, Wednesday, 15th of October, 4:56 pm]

Driving down an old side road in Esthar, Seifer pulled in and killed the engine of his pick up truck. The road was completely empty, the industrial part of the Tiamat District in Esthar rundown and practically desolate. There were no endlessly tall buildings in that part of town, instead large and mainly abandoned warehouses lined the roads. Stepping out of his car, the ex-knight's boots landed on sand, the grains blown in from where the city's border kept the advancing desert at bay less than a mile away. On his left, an old sign with capital letters spelling out the word 'weapons' hung at an odd angle, a couple of the bolts having given in under the strain of time. The rest of the facade didn't help matters much, the large windows slightly cracked and almost impossible to see through due to the sand and grit that had collected over the years. From looks alone, no one would be able to tell that the building housed a highly renowned weaponsmith.

The old bell stirred to life when he pushed open the door to the shop, but no one came to the desk to service the potential customer. Seifer could only image Arc out back, far too absorbed in his work to even take notice. A small smile came to his lips. He'd missed the man. He'd missed the place. When he'd first arrived in Esthar Arc's place had been his home for just under a year and he'd liked it there. Arc had been the one to finally give him a break when no one else had been willing to.

Eyes skimming the cluttered mess of the front room, Seifer walked along the narrow path leading out back. All around him weapons were haphazardly stacked against each other, taking up almost all of the floor space and stacked up high on shelves covering the walls. Most of the weapons were covered in dust and cobwebs, old models Arc had never parted with or models the man had bought for the purpose of studying their inner workings. No one ever came to buy any of those; not that Arc would have ever sold them. Instead, the buyers always came to commission state of the art weapons, and they always wanted them personalized to hell and back. That was one thing Seifer had learned from his time there, working as Arc's apprentice. Men of battle were just as vain as the rest of them. Not that Seifer held any grand illusions that he was above such vanity. His latest gunblade, Kronos, was riddled with symbolism and he had used nothing but the best materials and everything he'd learned from Arc to place the blade in a class of its own.

Making his way into the back, Seifer's eyes quickly landed on the old man hunched over one of the work tables. Smiling, he walked closer to observe the smith at work. Listening to Arc's mumbled running commentary, Seifer couldn't curb his amusement at the man's continued lack of awareness of his presence. Shaking his head softly, he expertly anticipated which tool Arc would need next and placed it in the man's unsuspecting hand. Entirely too distracted, the old man didn't notice the offered tool for long moments until his dark blue eyes finally landed on the heavy weight.

Old eyes crinkling at the corners in delight, the man turned his head to regard the young blond. "Back, I see." A heavy hand impacted against Seifer's back as the old man gave him a pat.

"Yup, old man," the blond spoke warmly, as he inspected the schematics of the blaster edge Arc was working on. After a minute or two of going over the work in progress, he grinned in mischievous triumph. "Not bad," he commented as he adjusted a couple of the calculations on the blueprint.

Huffing, Arc studied the corrections, one of his bushy eyebrows rising in surprise. "Not bad indeed, son," he said, eyeing Seifer levelly. "We'll make a good weaponsmith out of you yet."

Inwardly rolling his eyes at the man's reply, Seifer headed back in the direction of the entrance. "I've got the stuff out in my pick up," he informed, just about to leave the room.

"Surely you have time for a quick drink first?" Arc questioned, effectively stopping Seifer in his tracks.

Smirking, Seifer returned to the older man's side. "What've you got for me today then?" he asked. An afternoon drink had become a common occurrence between them.

Chuckling warmly, Arc walked over to open an old wooden cupboard and fished out a dusty bottle of liquor from the back. "Did you get the Orihalcon?"

Seifer nodded and Arc's smile grew. "There's a good boy," he said, unscrewing the cap on the bottle of alcohol before taking a sniff of the strong contents.

Never liking to be called a boy, Seifer's eyes narrowed. He knew Arc meant nothing bad by using the word and that the man practically viewed him as a son, but he could never erase the memories the name brought with it, the word a favorite one of his deceased mistress.

"Aaah, smell this," Arc said, walking closer whilst holding out the bottle for Seifer to smell. Bringing the bottle to his nose, Seifer almost had to cough at the thick scent of strong alcohol that settled at the back of his throat. Arc had always had a weakness for the strong stuff and the bottle held beneath Seifer's nose was definitely some of the stronger stuff indeed. Chuckling at the older man's antics, he walked over to where Arc was already getting out two shot glasses.

A couple of shots later, the old man coughed warmly as he put his hand to Seifer's arm. "Good to have you back, son." Dark blue eyes then glazed over as the man became lost to thought, as if he was remembering something.

Used the such an occurrence, Seifer straightened up. "You're just glad to have your slave laborer back, old man," he said, his green eyes betraying his amusement.

Eyeing his apprentice fondly, Arc smirked. "Indeed. Now get back to work," he ordered good-naturedly as he walked back over to the blaster edge he'd been hovering over earlier.

Shaking his head once again, Seifer went outside to finally get started on the task of unloading the goods he'd brought with him, resigning himself to the several trips it would take from his pick up to the back of the shop to get all of the heavier stuff moved.

[Rinoa Heartilly and Squall Leonhart's apartment, Layon Tower, Thursday, 16th of October, 12:29 am]

Slumped back and staring at the black screen of a too large TV, Squall's back was starting to complain. The white designer couch wasn't nearly as comfortable as it should be, considering the effort it had taken to get the monstrous piece of furniture all the way up to the top floor. Huddled up next to him and lost to sleep, Angelo didn't seem all that bothered, her head perched on his thighs comfortably. He vaguely remembered Rinoa telling him not to let Angelo on the couch, but he couldn't care less about what constituted proper pet regulations. He had half a suspicion the dog only saw him as a makeshift pillow or a walking food dispenser anyway.

Propped up awkwardly against the low back of the couch, he had been sitting in the same place for over an hour. The late night news hadn't been able to distract him much and any other form of entertainment on at that hour didn't quite agree with his tastes. So he'd turned the thing off some time ago, which had given his thoughts free rein to run in circles. He had gone over his day several times, but no matter how he looked at it, there had been no avoiding the outcome. He had missed Rinoa's appointment with Odine. Not just run late, but entirely missed it and there hadn't been a damned thing he could've done about it. At the meeting things had gotten out of hand. An initially short recess had ended up lasting well into the afternoon. By the time the meeting had finally come to an end, it had already been too late and an angry message had been waiting for him on his phone.

Skipping the banquet that had been delayed to take place in the evening had been pointless by then. He already knew he'd only come home to an empty apartment, Rinoa's mood instantly reverted to the silent anger of the days previous. Not wanting to piss off Quistis in addition to his sorceress, he had ended up staying for the banquet in spite of his urge to skewer the majority of those present with his gunblade. Not that staying had done any good. Quistis was delusional if she thought him sitting through dinner with the likes of Reardon or Zautra had helped their cause any. Under the strained atmosphere and hateful glances cast his way, the only thing he had gained from the experience had been added stress.

Men like them hardly ever reconsidered their first impressions of him. They just couldn't get over how different he was from the worthy leader and fighter they had imagined. Even if his face had been known all over the planet along with his name, it wouldn't have made a difference. The shocked expressions of incredulity and ridicule might've been avoided, but in no way did that outweigh all of the advantages that came with remaining anonymous.

When Cid and Quistis had first suggested the approach of keeping his identity concealed, he had jumped at the chance. Deaf to their concerns for his safety and indifferent toward their plan of turning him into some sort of enigma as a way of strengthening Garden's image, he instead found the idea of remaining out of the limelight and hidden from the public's eye much more persuasive. As long as he could continue to go on covert missions and keep his private life just that, he didn't care about having his name used as some PR tool or the ensuing disappointment in those who learned of his true identity. Though, thinking back to the meeting, to call it disappointment would be an understatement.

Letting go of a deep sigh and dropping his head backwards against the couch, he was startled from his train of thought at the slight buzz vibrating against his thigh. Digging his cell phone out from his pocket, he flipped it open and saw he had received a message from Rinoa. He hadn't expected to hear from her after her last message, it having succeeded well enough in conveying her frustration with him. Though she had told him not to, he'd still decided to wait up for her. Maybe she had sensed he was still awake. Opening the text, he stared at the words for long seconds, before his mind backtracked and took in its possible meaning.

- Message from Rinoa / 12:36 am / I'm not feeling good. Come pick me up. -

What did she mean by that? Had she become unwell? And where did she want him to pick her up? He didn't have the slightest idea where she was, only that she had gone out and didn't intend on coming home until late. Feeling worry begin to set in, he immediately quelled the emotion as he typed a response.

- Message to Rinoa / 12:38 am / Where are you? -

Pressing "send," he pushed aside a disgruntled Angelo and got up from the couch to get his keys, ready to leave the instant he got a reply. But none came. Unease growing as the seconds ticked away and merged into long minutes, Squall kept glancing at his cell phone as he paced the hallway. There was hardly any point in aimlessly driving around the city, it's expanses too vast to start a random search. And if something serious had happened, the message wouldn't have been so vague. She had probably just gotten unwell at a restaurant. Or had a few drinks too many.

He knew for a fact she often exceeded her tolerance for alcohol when out with friends, making no secret of her nights out. He'd overheard her stumbling up the stairs at ungodly hours more than just a few times. He'd helped her out of a cab, even cleaned up her mess once or twice. And those were times he'd been home to witness it. He was afraid to consider how much of a habit it had become. Indeed, for her to be stuck at a bar somewhere without a ride home wasn't all that improbable.

But then why hasn't she replied yet? a nagging voice questioned at the back of his mind, his instincts as a knight guiding him in an entirely different direction. He hadn't been able to feel her ever since he had been late for her appointment with Odine and had thus chalked it up to her anger. Now, he wasn't so sure anymore. He couldn't shake the feeling that something had gone wrong, his thoughts easily veering from what was most likely to what was worst. The fact that she'd been to Odine's just that afternoon seemed like too much of a coincidence. They hadn't moved to Esthar on a whim. It had been a crucial decision, with Rinoa's condition deteriorating further every day. It had started innocently. Sometimes she had sleep walked or burst out in an unprovoked fit of anger. Some days she had just stayed indoors and hardly responded to anyone. It hadn't taken long for her strange behavior to escalate, her slipping grasp on her sorceress powers more dangerous than anyone had initially thought. She had even learned to purposefully cloud their bond, whenever she didn't want to be found by her knight, as she had been doing since that afternoon.

He could still clearly remember the paralyzing panic he'd felt when she had disappeared for three days. The fourth day she had simply wandered back through the front gates of Balamb Garden, unharmed and claiming she couldn't remember where she'd been. But the golden gleam to brown eyes hadn't gone unnoticed with him. That had been the first incident in a series of many, the last being the reason he'd finally managed to persuade his scared sorceress to relocate to Esthar, together. Half a year and many prototypes of magic inhibitors later and she was almost back to her old self. Almost.

And now this. What if her condition had taken a sudden turn for the worse? The thought wouldn't leave his head the moment it took root. What if Rinoa was out there, suffering from a relapse and all by herself? And if she wasn't alone, then it wouldn't be safe for whoever was with her. Either way, he had to find her. Flipping open his cell to type in another message, he could no longer suppress his concern.

- Message to Rinoa / 12:45 am / You have to tell me where you are. Are you alright? Do I need to bring the pills? -

He didn't wait around for an answer, as he ran upstairs to retrieve the medication Odine had prescribed her. Dashing into the main bathroom, he got her pills as quickly as possible and placed them in one of Rinoa's purses. Eyes traveling to the necklaces and bangles laid out on the vanity table, the items crafted specifically to inhibit magic, renewed worry surged through him as he noticed the simple set of twin bracelets he knew Rinoa had been wearing that morning.

That was the last straw, his composure snapping at the sight. The fact he still hadn't received an answer only added to his alarm. Deciding he'd just go wherever his gut feeling took him, he snatched the inhibitors along with the purse he had filled with her pills and rushed back downstairs and out of the apartment. Making it to his car in no time, Squall soon realized he had absolutely no way of starting his search however desperately he wanted to. Remaining idle in the driver's seat, his worry grew as the seconds ticked by. When his phone began vibrating, indicating he had just received a new message, he fumbled to flip it open in his haste.

- Message from Rinoa / 12:53 am / I'm at some club. Somewhere in the Tiamat District. Hurry. -

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