A Christmas Shave
[01.09.02] » by Aaron D. Roberts
"Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is sooooo delightful..."
"Hey, Kiros!" came a familiar voice from the door. "I---whoa! Is that a tree?"
Ummm, yes?" Kiros tried to sound nonchalant. It was hard to do while standing on a stepladder with assorted baubles and other decorative items in hand.
"Cool!" It figured. Laguna would be the one man on the planet not bothered by a tree indoors. "Hey, what was that song you were singin'? It's nice out, about, uhhh," he looked at the thermometer hanging outside the window, "sixty-nine degrees. The weather isn't frightful."
"It's just a song, Laguna." Kiros sighed. He should've known he couldn't keep this to himself when he brought the tree in. "A Christmas song."
"A what song?"
"Christmas," Kiros said again. "It's a celebration that my tribe has this time of year. Where we live, it gets really cold and snowy about now."
"Oh," Laguna said, mollified. "Wait. I don't remember you ever celebrating this 'Christmas' before."
"Yes, well, in Galbadia, the observance of any religious rite was discouraged under President Deling," Kiros explained, "and I haven't really thought about it for awhile. But after what we've most recently been through, I thought it might be a welcome change."
Laguna thought for a moment. "I've got it! We can make it a national celebration!"
"I guess..." Kiros said reluctantly.
"What else do you do during this celebration?"
Well," began Kiros, "traditionally, we buy gifts for one another, sing songs, and have a big celebration on Christmas Day, read the Christmas story---"
"That's great!" Laguna cried. "The shopowners'll love it! We can put a whole bunch of annoucements on TV, and---even better! We can have a huge party here in the Presidential Residence!"
Kiros shook his head almost imperceptibly. Christmas? As a commercial holiday? That idea would never fly. Far be it from Kiros, however, to stop the President of Esthar when he was on a roll.
"I know just who we can invite!" Laguna shouted excitedly.
"Whatcha got there, Squall, my boy?" Irvine asked, sitting down next to his fellow SeeD at Balamb Garden's cafeteria.
I'm not sure," Squall replied. "I haven't opened it yet." He held up the large envelope with the words "Merry Crismus" written in crayon across it. "It's postmarked from Esthar."
"Well, open it up." Irvine suggested.
"Let's see," Squall murmured, eyeing the enclosed letter. "'Dear Squall, Rinoa, Selphie, Quistis, Zell, Fujin, Raijin, Seifer, Cid, and Edea: How are you? I'm fine. We're having a Crismus party here in Esthar, and I'd like for you all to come. We'll have a great time. Love, President Laguna Loire.' That's all it says."
"That's an awful big piece of paper for just that," Irvine said.
"Well, there's also quite a few other things on it, too," Squall told him. "Here's a drawing of a big tree, and there's a few stars scattered around, and here's his self-portrait. Oh, and right under it, it says 'Laguna Rocks'. And---"
"Hold on!" Irvine exclaimed. "Didn't you notice something peculiar about that greeting?"
"Yeah, I didn't even know Laguna knew Seifer---"
"No! I mean, didn't you notice a conspicuous absence?"
"No," Squall said, stumped.
"Like maybe that my name wasn't on the list?"
"Hey," said Squall, "you're right."
"D'oooooooohhh!" Irvine shouted. The sharpshooter rose from the table and left in a huff.
"What's the problem?" Squall asked the empty air where Irvine had been sitting.
What was Irvine's problem, anyway? Just because dumb ol' Laguna didn't put his name on the letter, what was wrong with that? In fact, it was a good thing. Better that he should have left Squall's name out! Squall would be perfectly okay if he never saw that old has-been again in his whole life. In fact, sometimes, Squall thought he'd be better off if everyone left him alone all the time. Maybe not Rinoa, but everyone else. What was the deal with them? All that whining and whimpering about their stupid little issues and----
"Squall!" Quistis snapped. "Are you even listening to me?"
"No," he answered truthfully, noticing for the first time that practically all of his friends were gathered in Quistis's office with them.
"Well," Rinoa brought him up to speed, "We were just discussing whether we should take the Ragnarok or a boat to go to Esthar for Laguna's party."
"Hey, let's take the Ragnarok," Raijin said. "I've never been on it before, ya know?"
"BUMPY," Fujin commented.
"Yeah," Zell agreed. "It's kind of a rough ride."
"Ooooh!" Selphie giggled. "What you said---"
"What are you talking about?" Zell demanded. Then his eyes widened. "Oh. I didn't mean---"
"SILENCE!" Fujin thundered, blushing.
"Anyway," Quistis interjected, "I've sent a message to Seifer at Trabia. He'll meet the rest of us at Esthar."
"Do we really want Seifer to be there?" Cid asked. "I'm not sure if---" He looked at Squall. Everyone else followed suit.
"What?" Squall said, bewildered.
"Well..." Quistis began, "maybe you have an objection to Seifer coming to Laguna's...celebration?"
"No," he answered. "Why would I?"
"Umm, he scarred your face?" Selphie offered.
"And was in league with three evil sorceresses?" Zell added. "Sorry, Edea." She smiled and winked at him.
"And," Rinoa put in, "he nearly killed me?"
Whatever, Squall thought. It wasn't personal, anyway. It was only our different objectives, our perspectives, that separated us on the field. Seifer's---well, if he's not on our side now, at least he's not under the control of any other malevolent forces currently, and that's good enough for---
"Squall!" Zell shouted. "Stop spacin' out on us, man!"
"Yo, why don't we just fly the whole Garden to Esthar, ya know?" Raijin suggested.
"Like, yeah," Selphie agreed. "Then everybody can join in the party!"
"Sounds reasonable to me," Headmaster Cid agreed. "I'll tell Nida to launch the Garden...um...when should we be there?"
"Laguna didn't say," Squall told him.
"You all are forgetting the important issue here!" Irvine yelled. "Laguna forgot to invite ME!"
"INSECURE," Fujin commented.
"We're taking the whole Garden with us," Edea said to Irvine. "I'm sure Laguna won't mind having you along as well."
"Let's see," Quistis murmured, ignoring Irvine and looking at the letter. "Oh! Here's another message from Ward on the back. It says, 'Dear guys, Laguna's really pumped about seeing you all again. Please come as soon as possible. I promise I won't let him screw this up...well, at least as much as I can. Love, Ward Zabacc.'"
"Okay, then," Cid said. "I'll tell Nida to launch the Garden tomorrow morning."
Esthar was possibly the most barren land Squall had ever visited in his travels. He wasn't quite sure why. Maybe it was the influence of Sorceress Adel, still lingering after the decades. Maybe the advanced machines that the Estharians used had affected their environment so vastly that it might never recover.
"Desolate place, huh?" Zell said, looking out the cafeteria window with his friend. "I wonder what happened here?"
"...whatever," said Squall.
Zell stood up from his chair. "Better get packin'. I'm sure Laguna wants us to stay in the Presidential Residence." He walked towards the exit. "Maybe I should take my tuxedo!"
Staying at Laguna's house? As terrible as that sounded to Squall, he knew that there was probably no way he could wheedle out of it. He headed back to his quarters.
Choosing a particular shaving cream, thought Squall, was one of the most difficult choices available to the human psyche. At the Garden, his collection was complete, but when traveling, one had to pick only one, or perhaps two, varieties, and one would be stuck with those particular brands for some time.
It wasn't like Squall had never made this choice before. However, it had been a while since his last expedition, and that made this choice all the harder. He'd already packed his two hairbrushes, combs, and electric clippers in case he needed a haircut. He'd also put his favorite razor in, the Edgemaster 5000, plus eight extra cartridges.
Zack always used to make fun of his collection. Zack was Squall's roommate, back when he was a student. They'd lived together for about two years, until Zack had graduated and became a SeeD. Zack was always so full of himself. Squall remembered one time in the library, he'd seen Zack hitting on that pig-tailed girl that worked there, and Zack had just looked at Squall and said, "Oh, you're a SeeD now, too? Congratulations." He hadn't seen him for a while now, which was odd because the Garden wasn't really that big.
"Hi, Squall!" Rinoa said, barging in. "Finished packing?"
"Not yet," Squall said pernaciously.
"Wow, you have a lot of shaving cream!" she said.
"Whatever," Squall agreed.
"Which one are you going to take?" Rinoa asked.
"Actually," he said, "I haven't decided yet."
"Let me choose," she demanded.
Oh, no. What should he do now? It would seem gentlemanly to let her decide, wouldn't it? But maybe he should assert himself, and make his manhood evident by refusing Rinoa. Damn. He wished he could ask someone what to do in this situation. Wait. That would mean relying on others again, and he still wasn't quite used to doing that. On the other hand, letting Rinoa choose would take the decision off his own shoulders. But what if she chose the wrong one? What would he do then?
"This one looks good," said Rinoa, putting a can into his pack. She had obviously taken his silence for acquiesence.
"Stop stalling, Squall. Let's go see Laguna." She strode out the door confidently.
The sterile, white-and-blue environment of the city of Esthar might have repulsed most people from the outside world, but for Squall, it was a thing of beauty. Its tall, suspended roads and sophisticated machines were not only impressive, but marvels of man's dominance over the world.
However, there was one thing about Esthar that Squall didn't appreciate...
"Hey, guys!" Oh, yeah, that was him.
Kiros and Ward, Laguna's top advisors, stood behind the President, but Squall wasn't looking for them. He tilted his head upward, tried to see past them. Where was she? He caught a glimpse of green. Was it--? No, it was just a pennant flying off in the distance.
"And look who else is here!" Laguna said excitedly, stepping back. Squall rushed up the platform, arms extended, smiling broadly, and gave a great big bear hug to...
Seifer. "Good to see you, too, puberty-boy," Squall's former comrade said mockingly. Wow, the SeeD thought, Seifer smells like a pine tree. "Change our sexual orientation, did we?"
Squall quickly released Seifer from his grasp. "No, uh," he mumbled, trying somehow to save face. Seifer shouldn't have been here yet. "I thought you were---"
"Ellone, I know," Seifer finished. "She's not here."
"Oh," he replied. He didn't really know what to do now.
Seifer had changed a great deal since the last time Squall had encountered him, at least outwardly. His ever-present trenchcoat was no longer a part of his wardrobe, and to be completely honest, Squall wasn't sure whether or not the red/plaid collared shirt and blue jeans Seifer now wore were a new addition, but he didn't care, anyway. Squall did know, however, that the close-trimmed red beard Seifer sported was definitely a change. It made Seifer look--older somehow; of course, he was already older than Squall in the first place.
"Wow, you've got a beard!" Selphie commented.
"How do you guys like my new 'lumberjack' look?" Seifer asked.
"COOL," someone said, probably Fujin. Squall sidestepped, slipping quietly away from the others. Emotionally-charged crowd gatherings weren't his thing. Neither, apparently, were they appealing to Kiros, who was also hanging off to one side of the group.
"Squall," he acknowledged the other.
"Kiros," Squall replied, watching the scene in front of him. Even Zell was complimenting Seifer on his fashion sense, forgetting the years of verbal and physical abuse that Seifer had heaped on him. Although, Squall thought, Zell giving someone a compliment on fashion sense was kind of like Squall giving someone a compliment on his social skills.
"Where's Ellone?" Squall asked Kiros.
"She and Doc Odine went south a bit to Exeter Mine," the black man answered. "I think they're gonna do some sort of test on a weird kind of metal or something. They'll be back by next week."
"Hmm," Squall said, a great deal more disappointed than his expression might have indicated. The SeeD reached into his pocket and brought out Laguna's invitation. "What's the deal with this 'Crismus' thing, anyway? Laguna didn't say much about it in this letter."
Kiros sighed. "I was going to tell everyone about what's going on at dinner this evening, and I'd just as soon not go over it twice. Can you wait 'til then?"
"Let me see that." Kiros grabbed the letter out of Squall's hands. "Oh, man. This isn't how you spell 'Christmas'."
"So what?" Squall countered. "Laguna didn't spell half of the other words in that letter right, either."
"Yeah, I guess so," Kiros admitted. "Laguna never has been very good at spelling. One time, when he was writing some official correspondence, he got every letter of a six-letter word wrong."
"What word was that?"
The dark shadow watched the group from the distance. "So," it muttered. "They're all here now, are they? Now will be the perfect time for my ultimate revenge! Hahahahahaha!"
Strangely, no one heard the maniacal laughter echoing from the nearby alley.
Squall turned on the shower. It was nice, having one in his own room. At Balamb Garden, everyone except Cid and Edea, and possibly Master NORG, had only the communal bathrooms to use. In fact, it was almost a little odd, hopping in the shower and knowing that no one else was going to walk in.
Why had Ellone gone? Squall thought as he closed the shower door. Maybe she had just left because she didn't know Squall was coming. Or maybe she'd left because she knew Squall was coming. Too many emotions! It was a lot easier to pretend you didn't care about something---or someone---than to deal with actually caring. He'd thought Ellone would never be a part of his life again, and now that she could be, she wasn't around. He had so many things he wanted to tell her. So many things he wanted her to tell him.
Now that he was thinking of it, why didn't she ever tell him who she was during that time they were at the Garden together? Maybe she just thought he knew and didn't care. Squall sure hoped not. Maybe she didn't want him to get distracted, he didn't know. He wasn't even sure what his own feelings were now, so how could he even begin to guess about Ellone's? It was just too much. He couldn't---
A knock at his bathroom door. "Squall, are you okay in there?" It was Quistis.
"Yeah, why?" he said, annoyed.
"Well, you've been in the bathroom for almost three hours. Dinner starts in twenty minutes, so you'd better get done quick."
Maybe he should ask Laguna to put a clock in here. "I'll be there as fast as I can," he told Quistis, turning off the shower and toweling off. Opening his pack, he got out his razor and the shaving cream Rinoa chosen for him. "Ugh," he commented. Winhill Frost™ brand, with New, Improved Cactuar Scent©! He lathered up his face, trying not to inhale the essence of Cactuar too deeply.
After he was finished, he quickly dressed in his SeeD formal attire, combed his hair as best he was able, and quickly marched to the dining room, amazingly only getting lost once on the way. As he'd suspected, everyone was already there. Laguna sat at the head of the table, flanked by Kiros and Ward. The only seat open was at the foot, which Squall took. It was just as well. He didn't have to sit next to anybody directly. He also noticed that he was the only one at the table wearing a SeeD uniform. The others were all wearing civilian formalwear. How embarrassing.
Seifer was the closest on Squall's left, Selphie on his right. "Man," whispered Seifer, "why do you reek of Cactuar?"
"Ask Rinoa," Squall answered.
"Everyone?" Laguna said, banging his spoon on his water glass three times. Unfortunately, on the third time, his glass tipped over, sending a cascade of icy cold water into Ward's lap. The big man's eyes widened, and he leapt up from his chair, dancing around while throwing obscure gestures in Laguna's direction.
"What's he saying?" Kiros asked.
"Trust me, you don't want to know," Laguna replied.
Selphie leaned over to Squall. "Ward said he's going to rip Sir Laguna's balls off."
"I didn't know you spoke sign language."
"Yeah, well, I just joined the class because of the girl-to-guy ratio," she explained.
Squall thought for a minute. "Hold on. Isn't that the same reason Laguna joined a sign language class?"
"And wasn't that because he was the only GUY in the class?"
"Alright! I only learned sign language because Sir Laguna knows it! Satisfied?"
Laguna stood up. "While we wait for Ward to get a new pair of pants, Kiros will explain to us the true meaning of Christmas." He plopped down in his chair.
"The true meaning of Christmas?" Kiros said. "Isn't that a bit mystical?"
"Just run with it, pal," Laguna told him.
"Okay." Kiros stood up. "The celebration of Christmas dates back to the birth of the Great Hyne's first daughter, Christine. It's one of my tribe's most holy times of the year. Christmas Day is traditionally recognized as December 25th, though we don't actually know for sure what day Christine was born on---"
"December 25th?!" Squall shouted.
"Yes," Kiros answered.
"It's only November 17th!"
"Well, the celebration leading up to Christmas Day is pretty important, too---"
"You mean we're gonna be here longer than a month?"
"Well, even longer than that, if you want to observe the traditional 'Twelve Days of Christmas'."
"CHRISTINE," Fujin asked. "BORN. HOW LONG?"
Kiros cleared his throat. "Legend has it that it took three days and three nights of labor for Christine to be born---"
"I think she means, 'how long ago was Christine born?', ya know?" Raijin clarified.
"Oh." Kiros looked at his watch. "About two thousand years."
"Why did you have to look at your watch for that?" Rinoa inquired.
"Because it's a magic watch," Kiros answered.
"Really?" both Rinoa and Laguna asked in unison.
"No," Kiros said, "not really."
"And this," said Kiros, gesturing grandly, "is the Christmas tree. It's not an actual religious icon, it just represents the fullness of life."
"So your tribe celebrates the fullness of life by killing a tree?" Seifer asked.
"Hey, I didn't invent these traditions..." Kiros said defensively. "Speaking of which, one of the other traditions is that you purchase or make gifts for your friends and family."
"That's the one we're trying to get to catch on," Laguna interrupted. "It'll be great for our GDP indexes." Ward signed something to him. Rather than respond verbally, Laguna signed back to him.
"Ward asked Sir Laguna if he even knew what the GDP was," Selphie whispered to Squall. "Sir Laguna told him to shut up."
Squall didn't laugh very often. True to form, he didn't, but a small smirk creased his face.
"See that little plant hanging over there?" Kiros said, pointing. "That's the mistletoe. If you stand under it, someone has to give you a kiss."
"Hey look, ladies!" Irvine yelled. "I'm standing under it! You know what that means..."
No one moved an inch. After a few tense moments, Edea walked over and gave Irvine a chaste kiss on the forehead. "Aw, man..." he muttered.
"Anyway," Kiros said, "Let's move on. There's a couple other traditions I want to tell you about."
As everyone left the room, Selphie lingered for a moment, waiting for the second just as the dashing President walked by her. "Oh Sirrrr Lagunaaa, I'm standing under the mistletoe..."
Laguna thought for a bit, and then mashed his face against hers, sliding his arms around her waist. The others looked on, stupefied. Zell looked at his watch. "Uh, guys?"
Squall watched Laguna's moves carefully, guessing he could learn something. It figured that a former movie star knew how to kiss. Seconds ticked by. Finally, Kiros let out a loud, "A-HEM!", and Laguna let go of the female SeeD. She landed on her rump, dazed.
President Laguna Loire swept back his hair and squared his shoulders. "Still got it," he said smugly.
Kiros had led them all to the front of the Presidential Residence, towards the azure streets of Esthar, where some of the employees were waiting. "Now," he said, "another one of the most important Christmas traditions is the singing of carols."
"Uh," said Raijin.
"Songs," Kiros clarified. "Luckily, with the technology here in Esthar, I was able to fabricate us a killer sound system." One of the employees handed each of the guests a small book. "Okay," Kiros began, "we'll go first. Watch us carefully, and try to memorize the words, 'cause you're gonna be part of this number eventually."
Someone tossed Kiros a wireless microphone. "Hit it!" he shouted. Music began blaring out from---somewhere, but it wasn't evident where. Squall couldn't see any speakers of any kind. Kiros leapt up on the railing that separated the road from the hundred-foot drop below. Kiros was singing the lead part while the other performers were providing the backup vocals.
Sleighbells ring (sleighbells ring)---are you listening?
In the spring (as we sing)---snow is glistening!
"I don't think those are the right words," Edea said, looking at the book. Kiros and the others were now dancing in some odd formation.
What a heavenly sight: we're happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland! (ooo---ooo-ooo)
The music raised tempo, and Kiros began tap-dancing on the rail in time with it. Suddenly Doctor Odine appeared from out of nowhere, wearing clothes that made the traditional Esthar soldier's uniform look drab and bland. Odine ran and slid, on his knees, in front of where Kiros was dancing. The black man lithely flipped off the rail, leaving the doctor to his own devices. The music swelled as Odine sang:
On ze furrst day uv Chrrriissstmass mah truue luvv gave to meee
Unn partridge in aaa pare treeee!
It would be an exaggeration to say that everyone's jaw dropped. Squall tended to not let his emotions affect him outwardly. Quistis Trepe was a well-disciplined woman, and chose to let information fully assimilate into her consciousness before reacting. Edea Kramer was a former evil Sorceress, and quite accustomed to horrible sights.
Let it be said then, that everyone else's jaw dropped.
Squall, fortunately, took immediate action. He Junctioned himself to Pandemona and swiftly released the stocked para-magic that would double his speed. Then, in a blur, he grabbed Rinoa, threw her over his shoulder, and ran west as fast as he could.
"Whhhhaaaatt---" Rinoa drawled slowly.
Oops! She was talking too slow. Squall dispelled the magic about him.
"---are you doing?"
Squall shifted slightly. "Protecting you from danger."
"I think if we'd stayed pretty much everybody was gonna attack Odine, and there might have been some 'collateral damage'. I thought I should get you out of there."
Rinoa kicked her legs. "Okay. How about a walk then?"
Delighted. Squall began walking in the direction of the mall. Uh-oh. I forgot something, didn't I? But what? Oh, yeah.
He gently placed Rinoa on her feet. "That would be lovely," he said, offering her his arm. She took it, and they strolled off in the direction of the mall.
"Hey," Rinoa suggested, "we can buy some presents for our friends while we're at the mall. Sound good?"
Squall smeared the Cactuar-scented shaving cream over his face. It was finally December. Only four more weeks to go before this fiasco was over. Shaking the can, he discovered it was almost empty. Good. Maybe he could finally get a different kind to use, one with a more bearable fragrance. The towel wrapped around his waist almost slipped, so he tied it back up tight.
About a week ago, Zell, while admiring Seifer's red beard, had suggested that all the men let their own respective beards grow for Christmas. "C'mon, it'd be cool!" he'd argued. Laguna and Irvine had both quickly agreed, but the others took some convincing. Squall had simply remained silent for the whole conversation, then he'd passively went back to his room and shaved. Like he was actually going to participate in their juvenile little contest. He'd just been telling anyone who asked that he had a perpetually thin beard.
And, Ellone still hadn't come back. Dr. Odine was obviously here, as he had painfully seen at the Christmas extravaganza, but Squall had been under the impression that she and Odine were on a research expedition together. Where was she?
The door banged open, and Squall found himself actually jumping. He'd finally gotten used to having his own bathroom. Of course, he had never been accustomed to girls coming into the bathroom with him to begin with, so maybe it was that.
He stared daggers at her, but she wouldn't flinch. "Hi, Selphie." He rinsed the shaving cream off his hands.
"What're you doing?"
Oh, yeah. He wasn't supposed to be shaving. "Uh, I just, uh...wanted to see what I'd look like with a beard, since I can't grow one."
"Okay." She just stood there, hands clasped in front of her.
"You realize you just came in here without out knocking, right?" She nodded. "Into my bathroom?" She nodded again. "And that you actually have to come in through the entryway and my bedchamber to get into this room we're both standing in right now?" Another affirmation.
"So, can I help you? Or are you and I sharing a room now?" Selphie and he had actually shared a double-dorm room in the Garden, for about three days, after Zack had moved out. He was quite thankful after he'd gotten his own quarters. He didn't think he could have dealt with her asking his opinion on every aspect of the Garden Festival web page.
"Oh, sorry." She kept her eyes on the floor. Unfortunately, to Squall it seemed as if she were trying to see through his bath towel.
"Right," she said, scuffling her feet on the floor. "You know how everyone comes to you with their problems?"
Squall cocked an eyebrow. "I didn't know they did that."
"Sure," Selphie assured him, "you're a great listener."
Why does everybody bring me their problems? I don't care, not really. Besides, I've got enough problems of my own. Are people really taking what I say and using it as advice? That's even scarier. I'm only rattling off whatever I feel at the time, which is usually just irritation. Oh, man.
Selphie, of course, hadn't heard any of this inner monologue. "Uh, I've got a problem."
Looked like there was no getting out of this. "What is it?"
"It's Sir Laguna..."
Squall tried to look at her while he was shaving his upper lip. "What? Was he mean to you or something?"
"Are you shaving?"
Not now. "Yeah, um, it wouldn't be ethical to just rinse my face off, would it?"
"I suppose not," Selphie agreed. A few seconds of silence passed.
"About Laguna?" prompted Squall.
Selphie blushed. "Well, I've always thought Sir Laguna was super-hot, but after he kissed me....it was amazing. The problem is..."
"He's way too old," Squall finished.
"No way!" Selphie blushed some more. "Sure, he's old, but he's not old old, you know? The problem is, he's so handsome and cool, it's intimidating. I don't know how to, well..."
Squall groaned. "How should I know? I'm no romantic expert. See if you can find a common interest, or---"
"Common interest? That's great!" Selphie ran off.
Not like he had anything really important to say, but she could have let him finish. At least he had the bathroom to himself now. Squall grimly brought out his electric clippers. It was time he had a haircut.
Kiros, Ward, Irvine, Zell, Fujin, Seifer, and Laguna, beards grown out respectably (except Fujin (and, truth be known, Irvine as well, who only had two whiskers on his chin and one on his right cheek)) were all relaxing in the sitting room. "Relaxing" might not have been the most accurate term. They were actually playing a heated game of "Quintuple Pentad," a card game which utilized the traditional Triple Triad cards, but whose rules were very complicated, involved both drinking and betting, and probably wouldn't be believed anyway.
Laguna thought he was holding a good hand, but he couldn't remember if this particular hand was a multiple of three or not. If it was, then all of his Elemental cards would be devalued by half and at that point his hand would be useless.
Seifer was holding his own. In fact, so far he was up on the other players. Kiros and Ward had experience with the game, but had been plagued by bad luck, Irvine had played before, but couldn't hold his liquor, Fujin was only getting angry, and Zell was simply placing his cards down and asking the others if he'd won or not. Surprisingly, Zell had about broke even.
"Call," Seifer said, putting his cards on the table. Zell and Laguna did the same. "Okay," the red-haired man said, "It's the forty-second hand, so that means all threes are actually worth seven."
Forty-second? Laguna went through his multiplication tables. Damn! That was a multiple of three! He thought.
"And since it's December the 4th," Seifer added, "all Thunder Elemental cards are tripled in value."
"TEMPERATURE," Fujin said.
"Inside or outside?" asked Seifer.
Fujin looked at her handy reference table. "OUT."
"Sixty-three degrees," Zell confirmed.
Seifer checked his rulebook. "That means all modifiers based on numbers or Element are void." Laguna perked up. "And it's 10:27 PM, that means we all have to divide our age in years by four, and then take that number of drinks, rounded up to the nearest one."
Seifer stopped himself. "But we're in Esthar, so we only take half of that number."
"And it's nighttime," added Kiros, "so Earth Elemental cards are doubled in value as well."
Ward signed something to Laguna. "What'd he say?" Irvine asked.
"I'm not sure," Laguna admitted. "I'm too drunk to speak sign language---what? I'm---a---horse?"
Ward slapped him, and tried again.
Laguna tried hard to translate. "Oh, Ward says because there's only one woman at the table, we have to....eat our cards."
Ward hit Laguna again. "Sorry. We have to give our cards to the person to our left."
But Zell was already eating his cards. "Sorry," he mumbled through the mouthful of plastic and cardboard.
"Chicken-wuss!" Seifer growled. "You've ruined the game!"
"It's not like we were really getting anywhere," Kiros said, trying to stand up.
Selphie burst into the chaotic sitting room. "Howdy! Whatcha guys playin'?"
"Nothing now," Seifer said disgustedly.
"Oh," Selphie replied, disappointed. Then she brightened. "But looks like all your beards are coming along well, at least! Except yours, Irvine."
Everyone laughed. "Hey!" Irvine protested. "It's better than Squall's!"
"That's only because Squall's shaving," Selphie told him.
"What?!" Seifer demanded.
"Oh, whoops!" Selphie exclaimed. "I wasn't supposed to say that."
"How do you know Squall's shaving?" Zell asked.
"Well, I walked in on him doing it, and he said it just wouldn't be right for him to just rinse the shaving cream off his face."
"Eh," said Laguna, "so what? I mean, it's not like this is an actual Christmas tradition."
"The hell," Kiros said forcefully. "If I have to grow my damn beard out, the hell if I'm gonna let anyone else get away with not doing it."
The men jumped out of their seats and stomped toward the exit, save Laguna, who fell down trying to get out of his chair.
"Coming, Fujin?" called Zell.
"WHATEVER." She followed the angry mob.
"Ohhh, Sir Laguna!" cooed Selphie, helping the inert man over to the couch. "Are you all right?"
"Ow," Laguna replied.
"Here," she said. "Watch this." She rattled off a short phrase in sign language.
"My beard is...green?"
Selphie giggled. "I said your beard was cute." She tried again.
Laguna narrowed his eyes narrowed in puzzlement. "I like...cherries?"
"Close." She told him something else. Laguna's cheeks reddened. "What is it?" she asked.
"It looked like your told me to kiss your---"
Okay, so now he was watching a movie about movie stars. That was both pathetic and redundant. Unfortunately, Laguna's presidential movie library only included films in which he, Laguna Loire, starred. It was quite extensive. He'd let Rinoa decide which movie to watch, of course. It was only polite.
But the one she'd chosen was terrible. Even she thought so. Of course, numerous critical denunciations hadn't prevented Galbadia's Sweethearts from becoming a moderate financial success. Right now, on screen, Laguna was talking over some problem or other with the woman you knew from the first three minutes he was going to end up with. What tripe.
Therefore, it was with great relief that Squall heard the rumble of several feet coming into the private movie theater. For a second, at least.
"What's this I hear about you shaving?" Seifer accused.
"Yeah," Squall said, "so what?"
Zell folded his arms across his chest. "Look dude, I thought we were gonna do this together!"
"Quiet," Rinoa whispered. "You're ruining the movie."
Squall rolled his eyes. "I don't think anything could possibly ruin this movie." She gave him a "sorry I tried to help!" look and returned her attention to the screen.
"I thought I did pretty good in it," said Kiros defensively. The others stared at him. "Oh, yeah. I'm really mad at you about the beard thing."
"Big deal," Squall said. Now he was going to let them have it. At times, Squall chose to let other people view a glimpse of the thoughts running through his head. "I'm not going to be a part of some silly male fixation you guys all have. There's no real reason to grow a beard. It's all a personal choice. I don't want to grow one. Live with it.
"I mean, seriously, what's the point? Is it all some masculine competition you all want to get started? 'Oh, look, my beard's better-looking than Irvine's, that means he's a loser!'? I won't have it! I am who I am, take it or leave it!"
"Amen," interspersed Rinoa.
"Why did you choose me, exactly, to be the loser?" Irvine asked, offended.
Squall wasn't finished yet. "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard! We might as well just drop our pants and see who's the longest!"
Fujin's eye narrowed speculatively.
"No," Squall said firmly. "We're not going to be doing that." He seated himself next to Rinoa. "Now leave us, please."
Kiros, Ward, Seifer, Zell, and Fujin slowly walked out of the theater, sobered by Squall's admonishment. On screen, the Kiros of eighteen years ago was telling Laguna in a foreign accent that Laguna's ex-wife was HIS girl now, and Laguna'd better stay away from her. Then, they got into a food fight.
Outside the theater, the real Kiros was rubbing his hands together deviously. "I've got a plan," he said evilly. "We're gonna get Squall, but good."
"This time," Seifer said viciously, staring directly into Squall's eyes, "We're gonna settle it once and for all."
"You're right," Squall answered. Both were clad only in sweat pants, though Squall wore a white T-shirt, and Seifer was shirtless.
"No holds barred," Seifer growled.
"No quarter asked," Squall intoned.
"---or given," Seifer added. "All right." He brought forth the basketball. "Time for some one-on-one."
Seifer checked the ball, and Squall bounced it back to him. Seifer began his offense by dribbling to his left, and his opponent slid around, denying him access to the basket. Without catching hold of the ball, Seifer feinted to the left again, and rushed off to the right, flipped around, and fired off a shot.
"Brick," Squall said calmly. The ball bounced off the front of the rim and sailed over Squall's head. The SeeD rushed to where he knew it would land and grabbed it.
"Hello, boys," Cid Kramer said from the side of the court. "How about some two-on-two instead?" His wife, Edea, was standing next to him. Both wore matching blue sweatsuits, and Edea had a red sweatband around her forehead.
"Whatever," Squall said.
Seifer laughed. "You've got to be kidding."
"Try us," Edea dared.
"Okay," Seifer agreed, "but it wouldn't be fair to have us against you. Who wants to be on my team?"
Edea raised her hand. "I will."
"We're 'skins'," Seifer told her. "Off with the shirt."
"I don't think so."
"Then Cid's on my team," Seifer said authoritatively. "You guys get the ball."
Cid took off his shirt and joined Seifer on defense. Edea passed the ball to Squall, who quickly made a short lay-up. "You've got Seifer," he told Edea.
To Cid's credit, he did try very hard to get around Squall, but was just unable to. The younger man stole the ball from the Headmaster, then hit another short shot. "4-oh," he said.
Seifer took the ball down this time, and before Edea could guard him, jumped twelve feet up in the air, flipped around twice, and slam-dunked the ball. His bearded face grinned triumphantly.
"No fair," Squall protested, "you used a Junction."
"I've got 'Middle-Aged Man' on my team," Seifer shot back.
"If you get to Junction we all do," Edea asserted.
Squall, who had increased his accuracy, simply threw the ball in whatever direction he wanted to, and it hit dead-on every time. Edea had Junctioned to her speed, and was able to outrun Seifer easily. Cid wasn't very experienced with GF, so he Junctioned to his magical power, not realizing that one rarely used para-magic in a game of basketball. Seifer, of course, had already increased his strength, so was able to bound over his opponents to reach the goal.
Finally, after even Seifer had admitted that the game had gotten a little silly, the four agreed that a tie had been reached at 107-107. They each headed back to their rooms to clean up.
After Squall finished showering, he decided it was time for a shave. He reached into his pack. The Edgemaster 5000 wasn't there. He dug through it, looking a little harder. No, it was definitely gone. Maybe the electric clippers were still there. To his dismay he found that they weren't. He screamed.
Squall dreamt. He looked in the mirror, and in his reflection he saw that his hair had grown past his shoulders, and his beard was down to his chest. He screamed, and reached for the scissors, hoping to trim it down. As he clipped the scissors over his beard, they shattered. His beard was too thick, too tough for them. He lunged for the electric clippers, held them to his long mane of hair. The clippers exploded upon contact. Crying out, he drew the Shear Trigger from its sheath, and held it to his face. It broke in half upon touching his beard. He held the trigger part up to his head and squeezed---
"Squall?" And woke up.
"Yes?" he said sleepily.
"Are you awake?" Rinoa asked.
Oh, no. What was Rinoa doing here? He threw the covers over his face. "Don't look at me!" he shouted.
"Go away!" he demanded.
"No," she told him. "I'm not leaving. Tell me what's the matter."
"Please," he begged.
"Squall. Look at me. I don't understand. What's---" He revealed himself.
"Oh my God!" she screamed. "Your face!"
Laguna squinted, looking at Squall closely. "What's the problem? You forget to shave this morning?"
"You knew I was shaving?"
"I think so," Laguna said, scratching the back of his head. "I don't remember a lot about last night, but I think someone told me that."
"Hm," Squall grunted. "Well, in response, no, I didn't forget to shave this morning."
Squall leaned over, putting his head in his hands. "I usually shave two or three times a day, depending on the circumstances. Someone stole my razors before my regular afternoon shave."
"Wow!" Laguna said in disbelief. "I have a pretty heavy beard, but, wow!"
"Yeah," Squall concurred, sitting up.
"Hey," Laguna noted, "you look just like that guy...the one that was President of Galbadia before Deling took over!! I can't think of his name...Robert Nickson, no, wait. Richard! That's it! He was forced to resign when---"
"What are you talking about?"
"Sorry," Laguna apologized. "I didn't mean to make light of your...situation."
Selphie came in unexpectedly, as she usually tended to do. "Howdy!"
"Hello, Selphie," Squall said, turning toward her.
"Oh, hey, Squall. I didn't think you would be here---WHOA! What happened to your face?"
"He forgot to shave this afternoon," Laguna supplied. He started looking at Selphie in a quizzical manner.
"Like, what's the matter?"
Laguna, contrary to form, thought a few seconds before speaking. "Um, nothing. It's just---you're so pretty."
"Wow!" Selphie's eyes brightened. "Um, Squall, could you leave us alone for a bit? Sir Laguna and I need to talk."
"Whatever," he said, getting up off the couch. "It's not like my problems have any real meaning or anything, is it?"
"Thanks for being so understanding," Selphie said.
As Squall left the room, he heard her whisper something to Laguna. "No way!" The President of Esthar said. "We did that?"
"Not very well," she answered. "I think we can do much better."
"I'm leaving now," Squall announced, but, sadly, no one was really paying any attention.
All right, Squall admitted it, he wanted someone to talk to. But he really didn't want to listen to anyone's stupid advice, either.
"And, I guess, that's pretty much everything," Squall said. "Thanks for listening. I appreciate it."
Ward nodded. He didn't say anything, but Ward seldom did. Lifting his bulk out of the easy chair, the big man started towards the cabinet in the corner of his room.
"What are you doing?" Squall asked. Not surprisingly, he didn't get a response. Ward came back, carrying a brown glass bottle and two tumblers. He poured a bit of amber liquid in both.
"No, thanks," Squall told him. "I don't drink."
Ward shrugged, then emptied both glasses. Burping, he filled one of them up to the brim, then downed that one as well. He refilled it, then drank more slowly, emptying it in two gulps, rather than one. Then, he poured some more liquor in it.
"I guess that's one way of dealing with your problems."
"Squall," Ward croaked.
The SeeD flipped around, shocked.
Ward grinned. "Sometimes, when I get drunk enough, I forget that I can't talk."
A frown creased Squall's brow. "That doesn't make logical sense, Ward---"
"Shut up and listen," Ward rasped. "Just because your beard is thick or your hair grows fast, that isn't the end of the world. A lot of worse things could happen to you."
Squall grinned sardonically. "Like losing my voice?"
"Yeah," he whispered. "Like that." He took another drink. "I'm done. It hurts too much to talk."
Squall turned back as he headed for the door. "Thanks, Ward."
Shiva's frozen eyes looked directly into his. At some point, someone had decided that to have a really merry Christmas, snow was going to be necessary. Of course, that made it Squall's personal responsibility to see that it would happen, despite the fact that it hadn't gotten below fifty degrees in their whole stay in Esthar, and also despite the fact that he didn't really care.
"So, we were wondering, um, could you make it snow for a while?" Squall felt like an idiot, and this was compounded by the fact that his hair was now halfway down to his shoulders and he now sported a full beard.
She snorted. "You're serious?"
"It wasn't my idea."
Shiva looked up at him. In her normal form, she was about three inches shorter than Squall. "I know it wasn't. I've been in your head too long to think otherwise." She paced around the SeeD. "It'll take a lot of power. Are you sure you want me to do it?"
"I don't really care, but everyone else seems to."
"OK. By the way, I like the new look." She jumped. Not particularly to anywhere, just up. Way, way up. Squall's eyes followed her until she was just a dot. Suddenly, a gigantic white globe appeared over the city. It fell like a rock. He threw his arms over his head, and was startled when the crushing impact he'd suspected arrived with a dull thud. Gazing out over the Presidential Residence, Squall saw that the whole city of Esthar was covered in snow. "Wouldn't that have been more traditional with falling snowflakes and all?" he asked.
"Probably," Shiva answered as she landed, short of breath. "Would've taken a lot more out of me, though."
Shiva surveyed her handiwork. "Looks a lot prettier, I have to--- aahhh!" The Guardian Force turned into a fountain of blue light, which was rapidly sucked away.
"Shiva!" Squall shouted. "...captured?"
"Good to see you're still using one-word sentences, old friend."
The strawberry-blond locks, flopping over a smugly set face, sure in its own superiority. A flashing sabre, a long outdated weapon. It could only be one person. "Zack."
"There it is again," Zack taunted him. "I knew Shiva'd be weak enough for me to take her after this little stunt, so I did. And now, with her power on my side, I can finally get my revenge on you once and for all!" Zack laughed maniacally. "I never forgot all those things you did to me when we were roommates!"
Huh? What did he have against Squall? "Look, Zack," Squall said fiercely. "I don't even care what you're talking about. Just give me Shiva back and I'll forget this whole thing."
"Oh, you'll forget, all right! Forget so much you're DEAD!!" That wasn't even a good metaphor. Zack slashed at Squall with his sabre, inflicting what would certainly be a damaging wound.
Or, rather, it would have been, if Squall hadn't had the Ultimate magic junctioned to his vitality. It harmlessly bounced off his frilled leather jacket. Zack jumped back, no doubt astounded. Squall took advantage of this by Drawing Shiva back out of his fellow SeeD's mind. Home, sweet home, the GF murmured in the back of his head.
"Last chance, Zack. I won't be holding back anymore. I really don't even know what your problem is."
"Go to hell!" Zack yelled, and charged. Squall sighed, drew the Shear Trigger, pointed it at Zack's head, and fired, not even using the blade aspect of his weapon. Zack slumped to the ground.
"I wonder why I've never thought of using it this way before?" Squall wondered to himself. He walked over to Zack's body, looking at his former roommate. "Sorry, pal. Nothing personal. At least, for me, it wasn't."
Zack suddenly came back to life and grabbed Squall around the neck, choking him. Squall cut upwards with the gunblade, beheading the renegade SeeD. Zack's head bounced once in the white snow, then settled in a pool of blood.
Or was it? Looking at the headless body, Squall saw frayed wires and electrical sparks shooting out of the neck. The "blood" surrounding Zack's head was brown. In fact, it looked like motor oil.
"Fascinating," Squall swore. "A killer android. I hate those guys." How anti-climactic, Shiva muttered inside Squall's brain.
"Dude!" Zell exclaimed, hitting the floor with a clenched fist. "That doesn't make any sense!"
"Well," Cid told him, "It was obviously an android. We checked the Garden, and Zack is still there."
"With his head attached to his body," Edea added.
"The question is," Quistis put forth, "who sent the android, and why?"
"It's not as if anyone has any particular reason to like me," Squall said. "It could be almost anyone." Everyone looked at Seifer.
"Hey," he protested, hands in the air, "it wasn't me."
Raijin jumped up. "I've got it! What if it's that future Sorceress, Ultine?"
"ULTIMECIA," Fujin corrected.
"She's dead," said Zell.
"Yeah, but, she's still going to be alive in the future, ya know? What if her future self left her past self a message or something, and she's trying to kill you again, or for the first time, or whatever?"
"HEADACHE," Fujin moaned.
"You guys," Laguna chided. "You're worryin' way too much. So, someone wants you dead! Nothing new there. Just relax, and enjoy the action as it comes to you. That's what life's all about." Selphie sighed in admiration.
Squall groaned. "I can't believe you're my..."
Laguna looked at him. "Your what?"
Squall appeared a little wild-eyed. "What I meant to say was, 'I can't believe you're the one that Ellone Junctioned me to in the past.'"
"Why not?" Laguna remarked. "After all, we're both good-looking guys, right?"
Finally, it was all over. After the presents, the songs, the drinking, they were finally leaving and going back to the Garden, where they belonged. Good thing he'd covered that slip with Laguna. The President wasn't near smart enough to piece together the phrase he'd almost uttered. Squall couldn't wait until he got back to his collection and had cut his hair and shaved off his beard, which coincidentally, both looked the same as they had in his horrible dream.
He wished he had been able to see Ellone, though. Squall had given up hope by now. Obviously she didn't want to see him. Maybe he'd been to harsh to her the last time they'd met, but he didn't seem to think so.
"Guess who?" A pair of hands covered his eyes. He felt the scarf tied around her hands before he saw it. He freed himself of her intentionally weak grasp and enveloped her in his arms. Something in the way she smelled felt familiar...like home.
"Wow," she gasped. "You've never greeted me with this much enthusiam before."
"I've never remembered how much I missed you before," Squall said softly, his head on her shoulder. "Where have you been?"
"Looking for your present." Ellone broke their embrace, pulling a small box out of her pack. "Take a look. Something for your collection."
"You knew about that?" He opened the box. An antique straight razor, modest-sized, and in excellent condition. "It's wonderful," he told her. "Is it sharp?"
"Yes," Ellone barely had time to say before Squall took the razor to his face, shearing his beard off dry. She giggled. "I had the man who sold it to me hone the edge before I left with it. You wouldn't believe how long it took me to find one of those."
"I believe it," Squall said, thinking of the month and a half that he'd been longing to see her. And now, finally, to have her see him looking like a hobo! He winced as the blade snagged on his thick facial hair. Or maybe it was his skin, he didn't care.
"Don't be so hasty," said Ellone, "I kind of like your new look."
"Too late now," Squall said, continuing his frictious shave. He had to finish before the others got out here.
When he was through, Squall's face was raw, with a few small cuts here and there, but completely bare. Those scars were trifling next to the one that already crossed his face. He'd have to wait until later to get his hair cut. Anyway, he finished just in time for his other companions to find him and Ellone in the courtyard.
"Ellone!" someone called.
"Hey," Zell said disdainfully. "Squall's shaved!"
"You know," Quistis said thoughtfully, "with his hair like that, he almost looks just like..."
Squall made a throat-cutting motion.
"..like, uh...a girl," Quistis finished lamely. Everybody present laughed.
"Hey, guys!" Laguna shouted plaintively. "You can't leave yet!?"
"Why not?" asked Squall. "Christmas is over. It's time for us to go."
"But..." Laguna stuttered, "um, you've got to stay for, uhh....George Washington's birthday!" The President of Esthar grinned. "Yup, that's it. Washington's birthday is right around the corner. You might as well stay here and celebrate in style!"
Seifer frowned. "Who the hell is George Washington?"
"You're going to have to stay here in Esthar to find out," Laguna told him smugly.
Squall grasped his forehead. He'd hoped he could spend more time with Ellone by convincing her to come back to Garden.
"Sure," he said in a dead voice.
"What?" Rinoa asked.
"Sure, we're all going to stay here. It's not like we have any pressing business anywhere else." Squall couldn't believe he was saying this. "The Garden is here. The students can continue training. We've all...had a good time, I suppose. So why not?"
Selphie squealed in delight. Zell threw punches in delight. Rinoa danced in delight. Even Seifer smiled in mute approval.
I may have just made the biggest mistake of my entire life, Squall thought to himself. "However!" Squall said firmly, "I am not growing my beard back out."
Author's notes: I always wondered why the relationship between Squall and Ellone wasn't more fully explored, so I tried to do it myself. It didn't end up quite the way I expected. Also, sorry about the beard thing, I just shaved mine off and was having issues about it.
FUN GAME: See if you can pick out which parts I wrote drunk.