Hell for the Holidays

[01.09.02] » by Ana "magistrate" Owomoyela

<i>We call snow that falls softly... a gift from the Faeries....</i>



crunched through the frosty grass. There was a path not ten meters away,

but it was being largely ignored in the snowfall. Wind blew softly through

the region, chilling everything.


Teeth braced against the cold, the man

stalked forward. The jacket he was wearing did very little to block the

chill wind, and his gloves were worn in all the places that actually helped.

But he could stand it--he <i>knew</i> he could stand it. Not being able

to would have been an insult to himself.


<i>A gift from the



Pulling one hand out of his coat pocket, he held it out,

palm up. A bunch of flakes laded on it obligingly, not even beginning to

melt as he brought them close to his face to examine them. He could feet

the cold wind on his skin, and he smiled. Pulling his other hand out of its

pocket, he picked up the flakes between his thumb and index finger. Then,

with a final grin, he ground it into water, leaving it to freeze on his

exposed fingertips.


The Garden stood before him, blue as ice. Hunching

against the cold, he took a moment to examine it through his unruly blonde

hair. It should have hampered his depth perception that one of his eyes was

completely hidden by the strands, but he had never stopped to mind.



footsteps he left behind him were being slowly consumed by the snow, and he

reasoned that if he got to Garden before the snow stopped there would be no

record at all of how he got there. Inhaling a lungful of the freezing air,

he tired to whistle though cold lips. It was an old tune, set with words he

had mostly made up:


<i>About and about and about he goes,

Where he stops,

Nobody knows

Where he goes, Nobody cares,

And what he dares, Nobody



Approaching the entrance to the Garden, he took a moment to go

over his story. With luck, no one would recognize him--it had been some

time since he had last seen them--and even if they did remember, no one

would be able to stop him. Tapping a hand against his chest, he felt the

ammo belt press into his skin. He smiled. No, no one could stop him.



skipping over the building he watched for anyone coming out. Cracking a

smile, he ran over his script once more.


“Hello,” he whispered into the

winter wind. “My name is Nemo... Nemo Audet.”


<i>Nemo, neminis,</i> he

recited to himself silently. <i>ÔNobody,’ third declension common noun.

Audeo, audere. ÔDare.’ Second conjugation verb, ÔAudet’ third-person

present tense.


What he dares, Nobody Dares.</i>


“How fitting,” he

whispered to the winds.

<center><b>Final Fantasy



<center><b><u>Hell for the Holidays</u></b></center>




Selphie burst into the Cafeteria with a grin, waving a

book at the pair sitting at the table. Both instinctively sighed--they

figured that something enthusiastic was about to happen.


“Guys! Look what

I found!” Selphie said, tossing the book at the nearest person--Nida.



is it, Selphie?” Quistis asked, resigned. <i>She</i> was probably wishing

that she hadn’t come.


“Read it, Nida!” Selphie demanded. Nida raised an

eyebrow at her, then turned his attention to the piece.


“The Centran Winter

Holidays,” he read off the cover. He thought about that for a moment, then

something hit him. “Geez, Selphie, you can’t be serious.”


“It’ll be the

perfect Winter Festival theme!” Selphie said. “It’s so cool! There’s this

section about a holiday called Christmas, and--”


“You’re going to make the

entire Garden celebrate an ancient Centran religious holiday? And you’re

not afraid of some ancient god striking you down for



“Blasphemy?” Selphie asked, confused.


“You’re making a

religious holiday into a Garden Festival,” Nida explained. “Isn’t that a

bit of a trivialization?”


Selphie put her hands on her hips. “Back in

Centra,” she said authoritatively, “they had festivals to celebrate this

sort of thing all the time.”


“Selphie, <i>those</i> festivals were weeks

long and involved the expenditure of most of the money in the Royal Treasury

for food and games.”




Nida gave a despairing look to Quistis, who

shrugged. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, Selphie,” she said, hoping that

Selphie would run off to make plans and leave her to her tea.


“I knew it!”

Selphie said, grabbing the book and flipping it to a page which she had

marked. “And there’s so much the Festival Committee can do! You see,

there’s this thing called a Christmas Tree, and there are decorations,



“Seems like you’ll have your hands full, Selphie,” Quistis remarked.

Selphie nodded enthusiastically.


“That’s why you’re going to help me with

it,” she declared.


Nida choked on his coffee. “‘ey?” he managed to get out

by the time the liquid had stopped scalding his windpipe.


“There’s too much

for the Committee to do, so we’re looking to get a few new members--just to

help out this time around,” she added hastily. “And I knew you two would

help out--”


“Oh, no. No way,” Nida said emphatically. “You can go

convince Squall or something. I’m not in a very holiday-y mood.”



<i>on!”</i> Selphie said. “You <i>have</i> to help! We need you



“Selphie,” Quistis began gently. “How are we supposed to help? We

know nothing about--” she glanced at the page again. “--Christmas.”


“I can

teach you!” Selphie said. “It’ll be fun. And we’ll be bringing the joy of

the holidays to a whole lot of people! It’ll be so nice....”



sighed, deciding that giving in was probably the most painless option. “All

right,” she said.


“Booyaka!” Selphie yelled, probably using her pet

exclamation for the first time in actual speech. “How about you,



“Why should I help?” he asked.


Selphie grinned, clasping her hands

behind her back. Nida began to get a very bad feeling.


“Er....” he



“If you don’t, I’ll tell everyone about that time you... you

know, in Timber....” she trailed off. Nida turned a few shades



“You’re bluffing,” he said.


Selphie turned to Quistis. “Hey,

Quistis,” she said. “Do the words Self-Sealing Stem Bolt and Galbadian

Adjunct Military Data CPU mean anything to you?”


Nida jumped up. “Okay,

okay!” he said, turning a deep scarlet. “I’ll help.”


“Great!” Selphie

said, once more adopting her air of enthusiastic innocence. “I’ll see you

at the Committee meeting!”


Selphie jogged off, no doubt to find more

unwilling victims. Nida turned to Quistis, who was raising an eye curiously

at him.


“It’s an episode of my life I’d prefer not to revisit,” he

muttered, gulping down the rest of his drink.


<center>--- - - -



Commander Leonhart waited at attention, shivering slightly

inside the black trenchcoat he had appropriated from the Garden equipment

stores. His feet were already numbing, and the Balamb Train Station’s lack

of any substantial doors--or any doors at all, for that matter--at the

entrance wasn’t helping much. Huge heater fans dotted one of the walls

separating the offices from the station proper, but all they were really

managing to do was melt the snow that blew in and send it flowing back out

to freeze into ice. The warm air circulating unevenly made most people

waiting sweat and shiver by turns, resulting in that most of the people

watching as the train pulled in were made truly miserable in a matter of



A number of transportation officials swarmed the train, making

sure everything was all right before they offloaded the passengers. There

was the usual general flurry of people finding their rides and liaisons,

Squall being heartily ignored by most of them. Squall couldn’t care less.

Scanning the disembarking passengers, he carefully watched for a

semifamiliar face--he had only seen it twice before, in photographs, and all

he could really remember was <i>blonde hair, brown eyes</i>--and hoped that

she hadn’t been caught up in beurocratic difficulties again.


What seemed to

be the last passenger had stepped off the train within ten minutes (thanks

to the improved transportation practices), and Squall checked his watch.

Glancing at a note he had brought, he verified that it <i>was,</i> indeed,

the right train he was waiting for, and frowned. Dammit, the least the

Garden Tribunal could do was send him a <i>message</i> if something went



“Thank you, <i>sir,</i> but I can handle my own luggage,” a sharp

feminine voice snapped from inside the train. There was the sound of fabric

rustling and a light-haired figure appeared from within the train, muttering

something about “damn social norms” and reshouldering one of her packs

irately. Tall but solidly built, she gave the impression of a wolf with her

graceful features and stalking gait. Long hair was tied back in a precise

ponytail, and any observer would have been hard-pressed to find so much as

one strand out of place.


Glancing over the dispersing crowd, the woman

spotted Squall and made a beeline straight for him. Dropping her suitcase

gracelessly, she raised a hand in the traditional SeeD salute.


“Denalek C.

ValHalla, sent here by the SeeD Tribunal on Winter Island. I’ll guess that

you’re Commander Leonhart.”


Squall nodded, returning the salute. “I’m here

to escort you back to Garden,” he said. “I’ll be your aide until you get to

know your way around.”


“Thank you,” ValHalla said, extending a hand.

Squall shook it firmly. “I’m sorry about the mix-ups in Trabia. The

Tribunal really didn’t mean to keep you waiting this long. What have you

been doing for a Headmaster?”


Squall resisted the urge to grimace. “Garden

has been run by myself, along with representatives from the Student Council,

Instructor’s Council, and Faculty.”


“I hear you’ve been doing a good job of

it,” ValHalla commented. “Well, shall we get going? I have the feeling

that I’ll be needed in official capacity soon.”


Squall nodded. Out of

habit, he bent over to pick up her suitcase for her, only to have his hand

close around empty air as she snatched it away.


“I’d prefer to keep track

of my own materials, if you don’t mind,” she said as Squall awkwardly

straightened up again. Do you have a car here, or do we walk?”


“One of the

SeeDs should be waiting in the lot with a transport,” Squall said, and

ValHalla nodded and started walking. Squall fell into place beside her.

“I’m sorry if it’s not the transportation you’re used to, but we don’t have

much of an extra budget for luxuries.”


ValHalla laughed. “Commander, I

took the sea trip from the Tribunal to Galbadia on a commandeered munitions

transport left over from the Sorceress War. After that ride, a SeeD

transport looks like a limousine. Come on, let’s get going.”



quickened her pace, leaving Squall to hurry along behind her. He sighed,

breath making a white cloud in the air. He had the feeling Headmaster

ValHalla was going to be a hard one to keep up with.




<i>“Good morning, Garden! Here are the day’s



Nemo sat sprawled on a bench outside the Library,

eye skipping over the people in the halls as they passed. No one gave him

too much notice--he was bulky enough to pass for one of the Garden’s

non-SeeD military students, and he was quiet enough not to annoy anyone. He

had gone largely unnoticed for the last three hours, waiting for the Garden

to wake up. Now, Oh Six Hundred on the mark, anyone not awake was

<i>being</i> roused by the voice calling out the day’s useless news over the

PA system.


<i>“Instructor number 132, Jame Danels, will be holding a

Survival Techniques exercise at noon. Anyone signed up is expected to meet

in the Training Center commons fifteen minutes before the exercise. The

Garden Festival Committee is looking for volunteers to decorate for the

Winter Festival, ÔCentran Lights.’”</i>


There was a pause, one that Nemo

interpreted as the announcer wondering what idiot had come up with the



<i>“Also, today we’ll be welcoming our new Headmaster to Garden.

She’ll be giving a speech at Ten Hundred Hours; all planning to attend

should meet in the Quad at least fifteen minutes before hand. Thank you,

and have a nice day.”</i>




A voice floated over to him, and Nemo

glanced to one side to see a woman, brown hair falling to her chin, leaning

on the railing nearby and not facing him. Light glinted off a ring twined

around her right index finger, flashing silver.


“You kept me waiting,” the

woman said, to all outward appearances speaking to the water.


Nemo stood

up, moving over to stand next to her. Comparatively she was very thin, but

he had a realistic idea of who would win in a fight between the two. This

woman had a deal more than empty beauty. “Sorry, baby,” he



“You’ve got what you need?” the woman asked, not even glancing



“I got everything handled, Lialla.”


“Time and place?”


“...except for

a time and place.”


The woman sighed. “You can’t keep me waiting forever,

you know,” she remarked, turning to face him. “This whole business is

distasteful. I want to get it over with as fast as I can.”


“I thought you

said it was a great opportunity.”


“I still think that.”





The woman straightened up. “Hell, I’m not afraid for any of my

girls. I just think you’re in over your head.”


“That’s the way I

<i>like</i> it, baby,” Nemo reassured with a crooked grin. The woman shook

her head.


“All right. We’re helping you out, remember that. But this is

coming off’a <i>my</i> account, so don’t take too long figuring out what’s

going on. I want us both to be safe at home in the Desert again. I’m

worried for you with all these SeeD characters around.”


Nemo bent forward

to whisper something in her ear. She listened for a moment, then nodded.

Nemo straightened up.


“I got it,” she said. “Lie low, now. Get on

peoples’ good sides. I’ll miss you Ôtil the time comes.”


“G’bye, baby,”

Nemo whispered as the woman silently moved off.


<center>--- - - -



“Headmaster on the Bridge,” Nida called out smoothly as the

doors slid open to admit Squall and their newest official. The senior SeeDs

rose to their feet, each offering a salute that was returned curtly by



“Mr. Nida, that’s really not necessary,” ValHalla said. “To the

best of my knowledge this is a Garden, not a ship.”


“That’s a debatable

point,” Nida said. “Have a seat, Headmaster. Welcome to your new



ValHalla looked around the room. There was a desk facing a

semicircular meeting table on one side, an overstuffed chair placed behind

it. “Thank you,” she said, motioning the representatives to take seats in

the slightly less comfortably rolling office chairs lining the meeting

table. Glancing over the group, she made herself comfortable in her seat.

“Why don’t we start introducing ourselves?” she asked. “Nida I know, as

well as Commander Leonhart. I’m Denalek ValHalla, newly assigned from the

Tribunal. You can call me Den here, but in public I’ll expect to be

addressed as Headmaster.” Glancing at Nida, she flashed a grin. “I run a

tight ship,” she said, “but I’m usually not terrible to get along with. Who

are all of you?”


Nida glanced along the table, then cleared his throat. “I

guess I’ll be making the introductions.” Motioning to each of the SeeDs in

turn, he said “This is Miranda Xu, SeeD Rank A. She and I are the

representatives for the Instructors. Those two--” he waved a hand at the

next two in line, “--are Quistis Trepe and Haily Grimjaw. They’re here as

voices for the Student Council. Finally, we come to Iohan Mesmer--” he

indicated a tall man in a long red robe and a hat that should have made it

impossible to see anything except through peripheral vision, “--our resident

Chief of Faculty. You might know him--the Tribunal just sent him down a few

months ago. The man in black you already know--our esteemed Military

Commander, Squall Leonhart.”


Squall frowned.


“We six form the

Administrative Committee,” Nida explained. “You can come to us with

anything you need help with.”


“I’ll need to,” Valhalla said. “So... What’s

first on the agenda today? Any vitally important issues?”


“Just one,” Nida

said, unable to suppress both a grin and a shudder. “The chairman of the

Garden Festival Committee, Selphie Tilmett, SeeD Rank Twenty-Six, wants to

talk to you about the upcoming Winter Festival. It seems like she needs

express approval for some of the more... extravagant...



ValHalla stared at him for a moment. Nida tried not to let

any emotion show on his face, but a small smile escaped anyway.


“I swear

that by the time you’re finished telling me, I won’t want to know anymore,”

Valhalla said.



“Let me get this straight. You

want me to order a giant evergreen tree from Trabia assessed for aesthetics,

cut down, and rush-delivered here... <i>alive?”</i>


Headmaster ValHalla

nodded, steepling her fingers in front of her face. “Exactly,” she said.

Mesmer groaned.


“Do you have any idea the paperwork I’ll have to go

through? The transportation costs? The sheer damn embarassment of

explaining that I want someone to drag a <i>tree</i> halfway around the

globe? I hate to complain, Headmaster, I really do, but--” Mesmer thought

for a moment, unsure of how to phrase his next statement. “This is





Mesmer stared at the Headmaster. ValHalla leaned back,

taking a deep breath.


“I can explain my reasoning for this,” she said.

“All of Garden is going through a lot of stress right now. Everyone’s still

getting used to the Tribunal running affairs, and the transition to a new

Headmaster can’t be easy. The tree is going to be the focal point of this

year’s Winter Festival, or so I understand--and we have one <i>large</i>

winter festival coming up. I’d like to make that festival as extraordinary

as I can. It’ll take people’s minds off of all the changes, at least. This

place could use a morale boost.”


Mesmer gave a long-suffering sigh.

“Aren’t there easier ways?”


“No doubt. But this is what the Festival

Committee has planned--and if <i>you</i> want to take on the responsibility

of planning and organizing the Festivals from now on, slip them a note. For

now, just requisition the supplies. Okay?”


Mesmer stood, nodding

unhappily. “Yes, sir,” he said.


“Trust me, Iohan,” ValHalla urged. “I

have other reasons for this. Let’s just say that it’s vital to have an

impressive Festival this time around.”


Mesmer nodded. “I’ll do all I can,

sir,” he said. “But I want you to know that I don’t like this one



“Objection noted,” ValHalla said. “Now get out of my



Mesmer gratefully took the chance to leave.


<center>--- - - -





Squall ground to a halt outside the library,

turning around to see Selphie sprinting at him. He stepped aside almost

reflexively, earning himself a reproachful look as she slowed down quickly

enough to not slam into him.


“You got the memorandem, didn’t you?” Selphie



Squall nodded.


“Are <i>you</i> doing anything to help the Festival

Committee yet?” Selphie asked slyly, certain that she would be able to drag

him into doing <i>something.</i>


Squall, however, was prepared. “I’m not

vetoing it on the grounds that importing all the supplies will deplete the

Garden funds and hiring foreign musicians will compromise security,” he

answered, deadpan. Selphie blinked at him.


“Right,” she said meekly. “Er,



Deciding her efforts would best be spent elsewhere, she darted



“Smooth,” a voice chuckled from off to the side. Squall turned to see

a man lounging on the bench across from the library, watching him out of one

green eye from under a mop of dirty-blonde hair. After a few moments of

trying to match the face with a name, Squall gave up and decided that the

man was a visitor to Garden.


“Welcome to Garden,” he said pleasantly. “I’m

the Commander here. Do you need help with anything?”


“I’m fine, Squall,”

the man said. “How’s it with you?”


There was something unnerving about the

way he addressed him. The fact that he knew his name didn’t bother Squall

so much--if he knew anything about Garden, as soon as Squall had introduced

himself as the Commander he should presumably have been able to attach a

name to the title. But there was something odd in the tone of his

voice--and the calculated too-casual air about him.


The man didn’t bother

to wait for an answer to his question. “I’ve been out for a while, doing

some odd jobs,” he said. “You know, jack-of-all-trades type work. I see

you’ve got a nice set-up here, though. Seen Ellone recently? What does she

think of all this?”


Squall’s eyes instantly narrowed. Who <i>was</i> this

freak? “I don’t think that’s really your buisiness, sir,” he said as

politely as he could.


“Hey, just wondering about an old friend,” the man

said, flashing him a disarming grin. “I hear you’ve been having trouble.

But I see your old cadre is still around.” He laughed. “And Selphie seems

as excitable as ever.”


<i>Old cadre...?</i> Squall wondered. He folded his

arms. “Do I know you?” he asked.


The green eye scrutinized him for a

moment. “That’s unfair. How am I supposed to answer that?” he asked. “I

don’t know if you know me. Do you?”


For a moment, the only noise came from

the hum of the recirculated air. With an effort of will, Squall shoved the

matter out of his head. “Welcome to Garden,” he said coldy. “I hope you

enjoy your stay.”


Hoping to avoid a response, he turned on his heel and

stalked off towards the library. Even so, a cocky “See’ya, Squall,” rang

out after him, mocking him.



“Are you sure this

doesn’t compromise some obscure safety code?” Nida asked hopefully, hanging

a sprig of something Selphie referred to as “mistletoe” above the entrance

to the Quad. “I mean,” he continued, “If this falls off, someone could trip

on it and break their neck. Honestly, I don’t see how we can expose people

to that kind of risk in good conscience.”


Quistis glanced over, shaking her

head. “Quit complaining,” she said. “Look, you could be doing paperwork

for Squall, whereas instead you get to help decorate Garden for the

Festival. I know which <i>I’d</i> rather be doing.”


Nida shook his head,

trying to balance on the stepladder and secure the adhesive putty to the top

of the doorway at the same time. “I’d rather be doing something rational,”

he grumbled. “Think about it. We’re hanging bits of foliage around the

garden. Not even flowers, too--except for those scary-looking poisonous

ones. No, we’re out mangling trees and bushes and random small--” he

examined the mistletoe, making a heroic effort to keep his balance at the

same time. “--herbs?” he guessed.


“Winhill has its Flower Festival,”

Quistis said. “No one thinks that’s odd.”


“Like I said, most of these

plants aren’t even flowers,” Nida argued, climbing down from the ladder.

“And what’s the idea, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to do all the nature

stuff in spring and summer? It’s the dead of winter. Nothing’s even

alive--which is probably the reason we’re wasting our time with these.

...ow!” Nida muttered something impolite as he pricked his hand on a pine



“That’s the point,” Quistis said. “According to <i>Selphie</i>

this is a celebration about birth, about life in the middle of



“Right. Couldn’t whatever god it was this time have chosen a

better month to be born in?”


Quistis frowned. “And you were afraid of

<i>Selphie</i> being struck down for blasphemy? Anyway, it’s supposed to be



“Yeah, uplifting for the people who <i>weren’t</i> blackmailed

into decorating for it.” Nida gingerly picked up the wreath, looking for a

wall to hang it.


“Speaking of which,” Quistis started. Nida groaned.



no. Don’t go into that again. Not the Military Adjunct CPU story



“I’d really like to hear it.”


“Sure you would. Everyone would.

...where did Selphie manage to scrounge up all these decorations, anyway?”

Nida asked in a futile attempt to change the subject.


Quistis shrugged,

taking another wreath from the box. “It just seems like any story involving

you and a computer would make an interesting tale.”


“Ha, ha. Don’t you

have a meeting or something to go to?”


Quistis’s hand froze halfway to the

wall, and she dropped the wreath in surprise. “Oh, my!” she exclaimed.

“You’re right! I completely forgot!”


Ignoring the fallen wreath, she

scurried out the door. Nida watched her go.


“Wow,” he muttered to himself.

“I’m going to have to try that more often.”


<center>--- - - -



Squall glanced up as Quistis hurried through the door into the

study room in the library, customary frown deepening.


“Before you say

anything, I know I’m late,” Quistis said. “I’m terribly sorry. I was

helping Nida in the Quad, and it completely slipped my mind.”


“It’s no big

deal,” Xu said. “Headmaster ValHalla hasn’t arrived yet,



“Speaking of whom,” Mesmer said as Quistis took her seat, “what do

you think of her? I know we haven’t had long to get a first impression,



Xu shook her head. “Honestly, I don’t know <i>what</i> to think,”

she said. “I can’t figure her out.”


“It would be logical to assume that

the Tribunal has her safely under their thumb,” Squall said. “That might be

why they spent so long selecting her.”


“Which means we’re going to be

having a rougher time of it,” Quistis translated. Squall nodded.



Tribunal is concerned, first and foremost, with alleviating the debts we

still have. The fact that NORG is dead doesn’t help their mood any.”



shook her head. “Unbelievable. Two years, and they’re still holding a



“I’ve had dealings with them,” Mesmer said. “Trust me, they can

be quite vindictive. They live four to five times as long as we do,

remember, and with that kind of lifespan comes a memory that can be



“Uncompromising?” Quistis suggested. Mesmer nodded.



would be the word.”


“Really,” came a flat voice from the door to the study

area. All four stood, only to be motioned back to their seats by a wave of

ValHalla’s hand. “I’m thinking its safe to assume you’ve been talking about



The four exchanged glances. Squall cleared his throat to speak, but

ValHalla shook her head, closing the door behind her.


“It’s all right.

Your prerogative. I’m not part of the <i>gang</i> yet, so to speak.”



wasn’t our intention to exclude you--” Squall started.


“It never is. Don’t

worry about it--I’m not angry. I’ve been the newcomer enough to realize how

it goes.”


A headache gave its first warning pangs in Squall’s forehead.

Now his headmaster was trying to guilt-trip him.


“Won’t you have a seat?”

he asked, gesturing to an open chair.


“Thank you, no. I prefer to pace.”

ValHalla moved forward, resting her hands on the back of the chair. “SeeD



Quistis glanced up, unsure of what she had done wrong.


“It was my

assumption that the Student Council was not given a seat in classified



“I’ve asked SeeD Trepe to be here,” Squall interposed. “I’ve

come to rely on her advice.”


There was a moment while ValHalla considered

this, then she nodded. “All right. I’ll trust your good judgment,” she

said, looking directly at Squall. Squall felt his confidence take another



“I’m sorry if I sound impatient,” Xu said, “but I have a class to

teach soon. Could we get on with the meeting?”


Squall breathed a sigh of

relief, making a mental note to thank Xu for rescuing them all from a very

uncomfortable situation. ValHalla nodded, letting go of the chair and

taking a few steps to the side. Tucking one arm behind her, she used the

other hand to gesture as she began to pace.


“In the few days I’ve been

here,” she started, “I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen. This

Garden is exceptionally clean and smoothly run, and morale is as high--in

fact, higher--than what can be expected under the circumstances. Due to

this, I’ve decided to expedite matters a bit.”


Everyone exchanged glances.

<i>Expedite</i> matters? What matters?


“You may or may not be aware of the

reason I was sent here,” ValHalla continued smoothly. “While Garden is an

excellent source of revenue and services, it is also a large administrative

burden to the Tribunal. It was decided that I would be sent to determine

whether or nor it was a burden that the Tribunal might want to invest in



A bad feeling began to clench its hand around Squall’s



ValHalla stopped, turning to face the group. “The Tribunal is

going to be sending down an inspector in a bit. I’ve requested a particular

date--one that should fall right smack dab on the Winter Festival. If the

Inspector likes what he sees, we’re looking at a raise in funds, sponsored



There was a moment of silence.


“And if not?” Quistis asked,

voicing the question they all shared.


“If not, we’re looking at a decrease

of funds, more direct Tribunal control--or worse,” Valhalla said.



Mesmer asked. ValHalla nodded grimly.


“Complete disbandment of SeeD.”



headache spiked, and Squall began to get an almost physically ill feeling.

Glancing around the table, he could see that the other three felt the same



They had just been saddled with the responsibility of ensuring a

future for over two hundred SeeDs, four hundred military cadets, and almost

a full hundred instructors and faculty. And--as they had discovered--the

Tribunal could be very, <i>very</i> demanding.


ValHalla rested her hands on

the back of the chair. “I’m sure you’ll want to get in as much preparation

time as you can. Dismissed. Commander Leonhart, I’ll want to talk to you

later in my office.”


ValHalla turned, leaving the study hall. Squall

closed his eyes, letting his head drop to rest in his palm. There was a

moment of silence, then Xu stood up.


“We should talk about this later--when

I have more time,” she said softly.


“Agreed,” Mesmer said. Heading towards

the door, he muttered “What an unpleasant briefing....”


The door swung shut

as Mesmer and Xu left, leaving Quistis alone with the commander. She



“This puts a lot of pressure on us, doesn’t it?” she asked.



by Ôus’ you’re trying to say</i> me, Squall translated. “Keep helping

Selphie with the Festival,” he said. “If we can make a good



“I’ll see what I can do,” Quistis said, patting Squall on

the shoulder. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”


<i>Don’t we all,</i>

Squall wondered.





Selphie turned,

trying to balance a box of colored plastic globes which she had obtained

from a target practice room with one hand while holding a bag of ribbon in

the other. Squall was approaching her from the direction of the elevator,

with the particular look that said his body was already punishing him for

the sleep he wouldn’t get that night. “Yeah?” she asked.


“How’s the

Festival coming?” Squall asked. Selphie spent a moment convincing herself

she had heard him right. Squall, taking an interest in the



“Er... pretty well,” she said.


“Do you need anything? More

help? Funds? Decorations?”


Selphie stared at him. “Are you dying?” she

blurted out.


Squall was obviously taken aback. “What?” he asked.



going on? You didn’t seem to care much about the Festival when I asked you

about it earlier. You’re really scaring me.”


Squall winced. “It’s

nothing. Don’t ask.”


Selphie stared at him for a moment longer. “Are you

sure?” she asked. She had been around him long enough to know that he was

lying--but also long enough to know that he was never going to tell her what

was on his mind.


“It’s nothing. ...if you need anything for the Festival,

be sure to tell me. Okay?”


“Sure,” Selphie said. “We’re doing pretty

well, though. I’ll tell you if anything comes up.”


“Thanks,” Squall said,

actually sounding sincere. Then he headed off, probably to some official

duty or other that was required of him. With a last confused glance,

Selphie headed off for the Quad again.


“You need some help with that?” a

voice called as she passed the entrance. Glancing around, she saw the

source--a muscular young man lounging by the directory, eyeing her from

under a bed of light hair. The box being about to slip out of her grasp for

the fifth time, she smiled and nodded.


“Lots, if you don’t mind helping,”

she said. The man got up and smoothly moved over, taking the box from



“It looks like you have a lot of stuff to carry,” he said. “I see you

wandering the halls with boxes and stuff all the time.”


Selphie nodded.

“I’m in charge of decorating for the Winter Festival,” she said. “It takes

a lot of work to decorate the whole Garden.”


“I can see. Well, from what

I’ve noticed, you’ve been doing admirably.”


Selphie blushed. “Well, I

haven’t really been doing any of the actual <i>decorating,”</i> she

stammered. “I’ve been mostly seeing what things are supposed to go where,

and trying to beg things from people. There aren’t that many Christmas

ornaments lying around.”


“I wish you had told me. I could have helped,”

the man said. Shouldering the box, he extended his hand. “My name is

Nemo... Nemo Audet. I’m here visiting from the Desert--South Esthar.

Esthar was colonized by Centrans, so some people still celebrate the old



“Really?” Selphie said. “I wish I knew!”


“I can’t blame you

for not knowing,” Nemo said. “It used to be the main holiday of the Centran

religion, but now it’s just an obscure celebration that only the really

old-school guys observe.”


Selphie smiled. “And you’re an old-schooler?”

she asked.


Her smile was answered with a grin. “No,” Nemo said, “but I was

privileged enough to live with a few of them.”


“Do you think you could help

out? With the planning and all?” Selphie asked. Nemo nodded.


“It’s be a

pleasure--if you could do just one thing for me,” he said.


“What’s that?”

Selphie asked.


Nemo waved a hand at the vast interior of the Garden. “This

place is <i>huge,”</i> he said. “Do you think... you could show me



Selphie’s smile widened. “Of course!” she said. “Any



“Thanks... Selphie,” Nemo said, in a way that wouldn’t bother her at

all until hours later, when she realized that not once had she mentioned her



<center>--- - - - ---</center>


Kadowaki looked up as the door to the

infirmary slid open, and an unfamiliar face glanced in. “Can I help you?”

she asked.


“Yeah....” the man started, glancing around the infirmary. “Are

you Dr. Kadowaki?”


“Yes,” the doctor replied. “Are you injured?”


The man

smiled. “No. I’m visiting here, and I had heard that this was a good place

to play a game of cards. ..that is, if you’re not busy,” he added



“Not at all. Come on in!” Kadowaki said, pulling open her desk

and withdrawing a Triple Triad deck. “I’m always happy to meet someone

new--especially if they’ll play with the current rules.”


The man extended

his hand. “My name is Nemo... Nemo Audet,” he said. “I’m a visitor up from

the Desert in Southern Esthar.”


“Doctor Janice Kadowaki,” Kadowaki said,

leaning forward to shake his hand. “Do you play a lot?”


“I used to,” Nemo

admitted. “I haven’t had time, recently.”


“That’s a pity,” Kadowaki said,

shuffling her deck and dealing herself a hand. “What do you do?”



jobs. Mercenary type work. Which is why I’m here,” he said. “I’m looking

at enrolling in some of the public classes.”


“You’ll like it here,”

Kadowaki said. “It’s a very friendly place.”


“I can tell,” Nemo said,

giving his deck a quick shuffle and dealing out five cards from the middle.

Laying them face-up on the table, he patted his pocket and looked up. “I

think I forgot my die,” he said.


“I have one,” Kadowaki said, pulling one

out of her desk and rolling it. The point landed facing her, and she put

down her card in a spot where it could be defended easily. Nemo looked over

his cards, looked over hers, and made a selection.


“You have a strong

deck,” he said.


“I used to play seriously,” Kadowaki said.


“Oh,” Nemo

said. Placing his card, he waited for her to make her next move.


The game

advanced in silence for a few more turns, Kadowaki occasionally flipping one

of Nemo’s cards. As they neared the end, Kadowaki raised an



“Well, Mr. Audet,” she said. “Six to two in my favor, and you

still have me beaten.”


Nemo smiled, placing the card. “Plus, combo,

combo,” he said. “You saw through the trick?”


“Not soon enough,” Kadowaki

said. “I’m impressed. Not many people know how to play that way--or like

to, at least.”


“When playing with all the special rules, I find it’s best

to let my opponents take most of my cards,” Nemo said. “A friend of mine

taught me. Just force them into radiating out from one point, and think

ahead. If you’re good enough, you can use your last cards to get Combos

from the opposite end of the board.”


“And, because the strong cards are

already in positions of taking the weak ones, the Combos will carry,”

Kadowaki finished. “Grizmer’s Rule. It’s a hard technique to learn.”



<i>must</i> have been serious, if you can call the tactic by name,” Nemo

said, surprised.


“I made it my business to learn all I could. Did you know

that Triple Triad is a great way to judge character?”


Nemo shook his head.

“No,” he said.


“There are so many different ways to play... and the

conversations over a game can be quite interesting,” she said, leaning



“Tell me,” Nemo said. “What can you say about me from this



Kadowaki glanced at the board. “Well, you think incredibly

rationally--and your foresight is excellent. By the fact that you used

Grizmer’s, I can also say that you’re not afraid of a few immediate setbacks

in order to obtain your goal. I also know that to use Grizmer’s rule, you

have to be a very good sport--that’s because learning to use it is usually a

long string of terrible losses.”


Nemo blinked. “All that from a game of

cards?” he asked. “Now <i>I’m</i> impressed.”


“So am I,” Kadowaki said.

“In fact, I’d say your game is a lot like another good player I know.”



would that be?” Nemo asked.


“You should play him sometime,” Kadowaki said.

“He would be our Commander, Squall Leonhart.”


Nemo glanced at the wall

clock, and nodded to her. “I think I will sometime. Right now, I have to

meet a... potential instructor. Thank you for the game and the



“Come back any time,” Kadowaki said.




Lialla glanced at the potted plant as she passed,

giving a purely mental snort of annoyance when she say the sign--that one of

the lower leaves had been split lengthwise along the vein, left still

dangling from the limb.


Running a finger along her jawline thoughtfully,

she slid into the bench beside the plant and glanced down. Yes, there it

was--a tiny scrap of paper sticking out from under one of the rocks in the

pot. Pulling it out, she dusted the dirt off and--glancing around to make

sure no one was watching--opened it.


<b>Carissime,</b> it read in a

scrawling hand that was almost illegible. Only years of practice allowed

Lialla to distinguish the words, and only long study allowed her to read the

bits of Centran dropped here and there. After reading it through, she

decided that even these safeguards were unnecessary--the message was so

cryptic that anyone reading it would have no idea what Nemo was talking

about unless they knew him as well as she did.


<b>I found a time and place:

In the IV, on 31{go Oct to Dec}mas Eve. Big party. Hope to see you and

your friends there. Should be a <u>kickass</u> date.


Cum amore




“You love to make a big show out of things, Carissime,”

Lialla whispered. “But this is me you’ll be hurting if anything goes wrong.

I hope you know what you’re doing.”


Standing up, Lialla turned to the

potted plant. Leaning close as if to examine it, she pulled the slit leaf

off and left it lying on the dirt.


Nemo would see it and get her meaning.

<i>Message received.</i>


<center>--- - - - ---</center>


“I never thought

that they’d have to <i>airlift</i> the thing in,” ValHalla muttered, staring

out of the huge picture window at the gargantuan tree that was being lowered

by helicopter onto the Quad. Teams of SeeDs were waving at the pilot

frantically, directing the tree left and right as they tried to maneuver the

trunk into a brace that was usually only used for repairs. The huge

convertible roof--probably the single most expensive aspect of Garden other

than its enigmatic flight systems--was open to its widest, but on occasion a

branch would scrape against the edge of the hole, and there would be a

general commotion of people trying to get the tree to move away from the



Squall stood in front of ValHalla’s desk, oblivious to the organized

chaos several stories below. hands clamped behind his back, he waited for

ValHalla to acknowledge him ValHalla had said nothing about why she had

called him here, and her deliberate avoidance of the topic was wearing on

Squall’s nerves. Listening to her pointless small talk, Squall began

wondering where the Tribunal had found this woman. She acted like one of

the better interrogators he had had the misfortune of meeting--although he

hadn’t been the man’s focus, he had <i>seen</i> him work on a captive, using

idle banter with hidden venom; a variety of tricks that subliminally

convinced the prisoner that he was nothing, undermining his confidence and

reducing him to a nervous wreck. The man had folded without the

interrogator ever placing a hand on him.


ValHalla turned around slowly,

frowning as if she could follow the train of his thoughts. “How are the

preparations coming?” she asked, sitting down in her chair and pointedly not

offering him a seat. Squall had the feeling that he would be reprimanded

for something.


“I’ve overseen them myself,” he said. “Everything has been

arranged as per your instructions.”




There was a long pause.

Finally, Squall decided that something should be said to prod ValHalla on

with her lecture. “Am I dismissed?” he asked.


“Sit down, Commander,”

ValHalla said, with a tone implying that it was an order, not an invitation.

Moving to one of the chairs, Squall sat down. ValHalla sighed, steepling

her fingers in front of her face. “There’s no easy way to say this,” she



<i>Oh, hell,</i> Squall thought.


“I’m concerned about your...

stability,” ValHalla said. Squall was stuck between annoyance and



“Sir?” he asked darkly.


“I’ve been taking a look over your

record, and it’s pretty grim stuff,” she said. “Abandoned at birth, most of

your youth in an orphanage, most of your early time at Garden spent

antisocially, a long history of clashes. And that’s just the tip. Here we

have records of your having to voluntarily fight figures from your youth;

torture, imprisonment, more responsibility than <i>anyone</i> should ever

face, not to mention a relationship with someone named ÔRinoa....’”



glowered at her for a moment. “May I take a moment to defend myself?” he



“Certainly,” ValHalla said, leaning back. “If you feel that you’re

in a position that needs defending.”


<i>Damn you,</i> Squall thought at

her. “I have little memory of my early life,” he said, voice flat, “and I

do not regard it as being of any great consequence. The Ôfrequent clashes’

mentioned in the record were the result of a childhood rivalry, nothing

more. At the times where I was forced to fight against... acquaintances, I

was forced into the situations and therefore do not regard them with any

guilt. The episode at the Desert District Prison might be considered

traumatic to an outside observer, but I believe that I have come to terms

with whatever effects it might have had. And as for my relationship with

Rinoa....” he was tempted to say that was none of her business, but

fortunately his official etiquette came to his rescue. “I have not seen her

for at least a year and a half, since the Forest Owls contract was dissolved

by the Tribunal. We are friends, nothing more.”


ValHalla listened

politely, nodding occasionally to give the impression that she actually

cared. When he had finished, she nodded. “I don’t want you to think that I

won’t take this into consideration,” she said, “but I can’t put too much

weight on your testimony alone. After all, what crazy person doesn’t think

he’s sane?”


“With all due respect--”


“I’ve noticed, in the time I’ve been

here--and this as been backed up by other sources, as well--that you are

abnormally withdrawn and stoic, that you keep acquaintances but no close

friends or confidants, and that you display an interest in your job that

defies all expectations for someone of your age. To tell the truth,

Commander, you exhibit all the symptoms of a schizoid personality



“I can assure you that my mental stability has never affected my

performance,” Squall said.


ValHalla pulled out a paper, beginning to write

something on it. “Even so,” she said, “I’d like you so see Dr. Kadowaki for

a complete psycological examination. Report there as soon as she has time

to see you.”


Squall stood up stiffly. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Am I



“Dismissed, Commander,” ValHalla said, an almost disappointed

gleam in her eyes as she watched him stalk out of the room.




“You know, the best thing anyone in Garden could do

for me right now is to add a bar to the Cafeteria,” Nida grumbled into his

coffee, which looked blacker than usual. Everyone who knew Nida well could

tell what that meant--Xu had once written it out as “the levity of Nida’s

mood is inversely proportional to the darkness of his coffee”--and most

could share his sentiments.


“Were you called up into ValHalla’s office,

too?” Quistis asked. Nida nodded.


“Yeah. And Xu is up there now, and

Haily is going in next. I tell you, the entire Administrative Committee is

catching hell over this.”


“Over what?” Squall asked pointedly. Nida



“Over <i>something.</i> I don’t know. Maybe our new Headmaster

just doesn’t like <i>any</i> of us.”


“It’s impossible not to like you,

Nida,” Mesmer said wryly. “You’re just so damn cheery all the



“Yeah, well, <i>something’s</i> up,” Nida said. “You know what she

ordered me to do? Take a week-long break from instructing, along with at

least five hours of complete sensory deprivation and abstain from any

strenuous physical activity over the course of the treatment. Damn it, I

<i>hate</i> not being able to fight! And this sensory deprivation



“I know what you mean,” Mesmer said. “As of tomorrow, I’m

stripped of my Faculty rank pending a complete skills assessment.” Mesmer

pounded a fist onto the table, causing some of Nida’s coffee to leap out of

the cup. “There’s nothing worse she can do to a guy like me. My work is



Quistis sighed. “This is all ludicrous. Iohan,

there’s no one in the Garden who doesn’t know you’re the best Faculty member

here. Nida’s classes have never been better off, and I--” she sighed. “I

don’t know what point she was trying to make with <i>me.”</i>


Nida leaned

forward. “What happened?” he asked.


“I’d rather not discuss it,” Quistis

said, “but... for some reason, the Headmaster seems to have developed an

interest in my social life.”


“Uh-oh,” Nida said. “Does that mean what I

think it does?”


“She’s worried about my lack of boyfriends,” Quistis

blurted out. “I can’t see why she wants to intrude, but of course I

couldn’t <i>say</i> that....”


“What happened to you, Squall?” Mesmer asked.

Squall glowered.


“Tomorrow, I’m to report to Doctor Kadowaki for a

complete psychological assessment,” he said flatly. Everyone winced. To

have someone probing around in his brain, trying to figure out his deepest

emotions had to be hell for Squall.


“Does this remind anyone else of a bad

Psychology thriller?” Nida asked, earning himself a few odd looks. “I mean,

with the way the Headmaster is making us all go through these tailor-fitted



“So, following the formula, we can expect that Xu’s been ordered



Mesmer trailed off as Xu walked into the cafeteria, noticing them.

They beckoned her come sit.


“Join the club of Really Pissed People,” Nida

said. “What did they do to you?”


“I’d rather not talk about it,” Xu

evaded. “Garden’s mail just came through,” she said, changing the subject.

“Not a lot there. There was something for you, though, Squall.”



glanced up, taking the envelope that Xu offered him. Opening it, he pulled

out the paper inside.


“What is it?” Nida asked. “Who’s it from?”



read over the first few lines. “Rinoa,” he said, confused. “She



There was silence as Squall read through the message, and silence

as he put it down, thoughtful. Everyone at the table exchanged



Minutes seemed to pass. Without a word, Squall pushed himself

away from the table and moved out of the room. The letter lay on the table,



Everyone glanced at each other. Finally, Nida sighed. “So

who’s going to read it?” he asked. Normally, there would have been a

immediate objection to rummaging through the Commander’s personal life, but

the events of the day had drained them. Dully, Quistis reached out and took

the paper.


“It’s Rinoa,” she said. “She says that it’s been over a

year--that she misses him, but....” the sentence dropped off. Quistis put

the letter down. “She wants him to understand,” she said.


“Oh, Hyne,” Nida

said, taking another gulp of his coffee. “That’s the last thing he needs.

The very damn last.”


“I think I’m going to find Selphie,” Mesmer said,

standing up. “I need a bit of holiday cheer. Anyone else interested in

decorating? We can probably wallow in self-pity for a while while we’re



“Hyne,” Nida said. “Count me in. Maybe this is a holiday you

celebrate with wine.”


The group at the table dispersed, Quistis tucking

Rinoa’s letter into a pocket of her SeeD jacket. As they exited, no one

noticed the blonde man sitting just within earshot, smiling.

<center>--- -

- - ---</center>

Footsteps crunched through the hardened snow, marking the

trail towards Balamb. A black trenchcoat flowed in the wind, rustling with

every step the Commander took. Absently, he fingered the letter in the coat

pocket, mixed feelings welling up inside him. Lost in his own thoughts, he

was completely oblivious of the man behind him, matching his



“Squall,” a name called, and Squall ground to a halt. Turning,

he wondered who else could be out here at this time on this day.


<i>The man

from near the Library,</i> Squall identified with a frown. “Yes?” he



“You don’t want to do that, man,” the stranger said, a crooked grin

plastered onto his face. “There’s no reason to.”


“What?” Squall asked,



“It’s cold out here,” the man said, digging his hands into his

pockets. He stopped approaching once he was standing less than a meter away

from Squall--a very uncomfortable proximity. However, guessing that the man

was trying to gain some sense of control over the situation, Squall didn’t

back off. “Real cold.”


“The Garden is climate-controlled,” Squall

suggested, displaying much more tact than he really wanted to.


“I heard all

about the breakup,” the man said. “Must hurt to be dumped like that. I

know I’d feel bad.”


Squall considered feigning ignorance for a moment, then

decided against it. The man seemed like he knew what he was talking about.

“That’s not a public matter,” he said.


“Well, I can’t let you come out here

and... expire, if you know what I mean,” the man said. “I have an idea of

how much you loved her. I can tell you she’s not worth... what you’re going

to do.”


Squall’s eyes narrowed. “And what am I going to do?” he



The man’s grin closed into a tight-lipped smile. “Everyone knows

about the high-and-mighty Commander Leonhart,” he whispered. “It wasn’t

hard to find someone to tell me all about how you fell. And it looks like

you want to fall again--hard, this time.”


Squall’s brain slogged through

the man’s babble, finally coming up with something that might have been what

he was trying to say. “Are you implying--” he started.


“You’re not gonna

die here,” the man said. “I’m here to save you.”


Squall opened his mouth

to say that he was by no means suicidal, but something about the way the man

shifted his weight interrupted him. He could feel a sudden adrenaline rush,

and took a step back.


The man pulled his left hand out of his pocket and

swung it towards Squall’s face in one motion, and Squall reacted instantly

by catching the gloved hand in his right one. He had only seconds to

realize his mistake as the man slipped out of his grasp and grabbed his

fist, pulling him offbalance as <i>his</i> right hand came out of his other

pocket, holding a knife. Squall figured it out too late--by the time he had

moved to counter, the knife had traced an arc through the air and slit his

right wrist to the bone. A blow to the stomach sent him reeling to the

ground, where he was pinned as the man put his foot on his chest.



the man noticed the corner of an envelope sticking out of one of the

pockets. “What’s this?” he asked, pulling it out and opening it. Reading

the message, he frowned. “What <i>is</i> this? he asked. “You understand

her decision... in a way, it’s a relief? This won’t do. Not at all.”



man ripped the paper into bits, leaving it scattered on the ground to soak

up Squall’s blood. Turning his attention back to the felled Commander, the

man checked his pulse.


“You all right? Feeling faint?” he asked. “We had

better get you back to the infirmary, shouldn’t we? It’s a pity I arrived

too late, Squall. I tried my best to dissuade you. Remember that.”



world went faint as the man picked him up, throwing his arm across Squall’s

shoulders and beginning to drag him back towards Garden. Unable to make

sense of the events, Squall’s mind gave up.


The world went black.




“Take these,” Selphie instructed, handing a box of

pale-green flyers to one of the Festival Committee members. “Put them on

the stand outside the Quad.”


A flurry of activity had engulfed the Quad,

with all of Selphie’s committee members and recruits bustling to and fro,

trying to get the decorations up and prepare everything for the Festival.

This was the largest Festival Selphie had ever tried to orchestrate, and

there was an air of anticipation and energy as the crews raced against time.

People were coming and going hurriedly--there couldn’t have been anyone

other than the select group of people charged with decorating the tree who

stayed in the Quad for longer than two minutes. However, Selphie’s

attention was continually drawn to the pair of people by the stage--sitting

on the edge and watching the SeeDs who were swarming around the tree with

ladders and poles, trying to decorate the monstrous evergreen.


Deciding to

take a break, Selphie moved over and sat down beside Nida. Nida was holding

a translucent globe, staring at his distorted reflection. Abruptly, Selphie

waved a hand in front of his face.


“Are you all right?” she asked. Nida



“Hey!” he exclaimed as Selphie took the globe away from



“You’ve been staring at that thing for the last half hour,” Selphie

said. “If you’ve learned any of the great truths of the universe, I want to

know them.”


“Right,” Nida said. “No, all I learned was that authority

sucks.” He sighed deeply. “Selphie, remember when you wanted to be on the

Administrative Committee?”


“Yeah,” Selphie said.


“If you were, you’d be

taking sedatives now.”


Selphie looked at him quizzically. “Is it that

exciting?” she asked.


“No, our Headmaster is just that nice.”


Selphie was

about to respond when she was interrupted by a voice over the PA system.

<i>“Will the adjunct medical staff please report to the Infirmary? Repeat,

will the adjunct medical staff please report to the infirmary.”</i>



groaned. “Looks like I’m on call,” he said. “Sounds urgent, too. Probably

anotherr Training Center accident or something.”


Nida sprinted off, and

Quistis shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “None of us are very happy

right now.”


Selphie scooted over, throwing an arm around Quistis’s

shoulders. “Cheer up,” she said. “It can’t be that bad!”


“We all got

lectured pretty harshly by the Headmaster,” Quistis said. “Nida was

suspended from teaching temporarily. It seems like he’s in for some pretty

serious stress therapy.”


“Oh,” Selphie said, removing her arm. “She didn’t

mention <i>The Incident,</i> did she?”


“I keep hearing about this incident,

but no one will tell me anything!” Quistis said. “What’s going



Selphie giggled. “Nida says it’s the most embarrassing moment of his

life. I like to tease him about it.”


“I’m not sure that’s a good idea

right at the moment,” Quistis said. “We’re all pretty depressed.”



Selphie said. “What did she say to <i>you?”</i>


“Well....” Quistis coughed

and glanced to the side, mumbling something. Selphie noticed with surprise

that she was blushing.


“Never mind,” she said, going against her first

instinct and letting the matter drop.


There was silence for some time,

Selphie wondering what she could do to help her friend. Suddenly, she

jumped up.


“I know!” she said.


“What?” Quistis asked.


“I know what will

cheer you up!” Selphie said, wagging a finger at her. “...a Christmas



“Hmm?” Quistis asked.


“It explains it on the fliers I’m

circulating around Garden. See, you’re supposed to get people you like

presents, then you leave them under the tree and <i>then....”</i> she paused

for a second for dramatic effect, “on Christmas Day, everyone gets to open

theirs! It’s symbolic of the gifts that the Three Wise Men gave



“Three Wise Men?” Quistis asked. Selphie blinked at her, realizing

that <i>she</i> was one of the few people around Garden who knew about the

Christmas story--hence the reason for circulating the fliers.


“Come here,”

she said, offering Quistis a hand up. “I’ll show you the fliers I designed.

They explain everything!”


Reluctantly, Quistis got up and followed

Selphie as she moved out into the hall. Selphie grabbed one of the fliers

resting on the stand by the entrance, and handed it to Quistis. Quistis

took it, hoping that reading it would at least get her mind off what she

<i>had</i> been brooding about.


<b>Considered the major holiday of the

Centran religion,</b> the paper started, <b>Christmas was celebrated once a

year on <i>Duodecimo Die Post Idus</i> (the twenty-fifth day) of December.

When the Knighthood overthrew the Priesthood in a political power bid,

precipitating the collapse of the Empire circa 80 years ago, the holiday was

all but abolished. Despite this, it continues to be practiced by several

groups around the world.


Christmas celebrates the birth of the Savior of

the Centran religion, J. Christ. Throughout his life, the Savior wandered

the country, working miracles and serving God. He was, next to God, the

single most important person in the religion.</b>







don’t usually abbreviate the first names of major religious figures,”

Quistis pointed out. Selphie planted both hands on her hips.


“Okay, okay!

Keep reading!”


<b>On the day of his birth a star was said to have appeared

over his birthplace, guiding three wise men to him. They gave him gifts.

The tradition of giving gifts to loved ones remains today in the cultures

that celebrate Christmas.</b>


“ÔThey gave him gifts’ is a bit abrupt,

Selphie,” Quistis noted.


“You’re not supposed to <i>correct</i> it!”

Selphie complained. “It’s the <i>thought</i> that counts!”





<b>Christmas today is observed as a celebration of new life in

the middle of a dead season, and the Christmas Tree is symbolic of that

celebration. Because evergreens stayed green throughout the cold Winter

months, they--</b>


“Quistis,” came a voice from down the hall. Quistis

turned, dropping the flier as she saw Nida approaching. The SeeD’s face was

pale. Very pale.


“Are you all right?” Quistis said, rushing to him. “What



Nida shook his head. “It’s Squall,” he managed.


Dread began to

knot in Quistis’s stomach as Nida leaned against the railing, staring at the

light reflecting off the water and onto the wall. He swallowed.



ValHalla?” he asked. Something about the tone of his voice made Quistis



“Why do you need her?” she asked.


Nida’s eyes grew cold. “I need

to tell her what she’s done,” he said.



There was

a hard knock at the door to ValHalla’s office, and the Headmaster looked up.

“Come in,” she called amiably.


The figure that stormed in looked anything

but amiable.


Valhalla put down the memorandum she was working on, frowning.

“Mr. Nida,” she said. “Won’t you have a seat?”


“I’d rather not, if you

don’t mind,” Nida said. “Permission to speak freely?”


“Of course,”

ValHalla said. Nida planted both hands on ValHalla’s desk, leveling his

eyes with hers. “Whatever you said to Squall in that meeting was

unfounded,” he growled.


ValHalla’s frown deepened. “Instructor, although

you may not be happy with your suspension, there is no reason to assume



“I’m not assuming anything,” Nida growled. “I saw his face when he

met us after that meeting. I want to know what you said to him.”



none of your concern,” ValHalla said.


Nida’s fist came down on the desk.

“I am the chief medical officer of the adjunct medical staff, and I have the

right to know what is bothering one of my patients,” Nida said, knowing that

it would be hard for her not to respect that.


“That’s no--” ValHalla

started, then bit off the end of the sentence. “...patients?” she



“I just spent the last few minutes trying to stabilize his life,”

Nida said. “A visitor to Garden brought him in from outside. His wrist was



ValHalla leaned back. “Oh, dear,” she said.


“What?” Nida exploded.

“That’s no response!”


“Calm down, Nida,” Valhalla said. “Nothing will be

gained by shows of emotion. ...I take it Commander Leonhart’s life is



“For the time being,” Nida growled through gritted teeth. “Right

now, I’m more concerned with finding out what got him into this mess in the

first place.”


“And you surmise that I am the cause,” ValHalla supplied



“I can be reasonably certain that you’re one of them,” Nida



“Have a seat,” ValHalla said. Nida glared at her for a moment,

then acquiesced. ValHalla steepled her fingers in front of her face--a

gesture that Nida was beginning to find very patronizing indeed.


“What did

you <i>say?”</i> he demanded.


“You’ll have to be patient. I feel I must

explain my rationale for saying what I did to all of you.”


Nida scowled.

Right at the moment, patience was not one of his virtues.


“Before I came

here, I was able to study your working administration for some time.

Therefore, I could see that it was running exceptionally smoothly. I

decided to leave much of the existing structure in place, hoping to take on

the role of Headmaster and titular president of the Administrative

Committee. However, I require a good idea of the... limits of the people I

work with. You see, most of my colleagues agree that I am... not always

easy to get along with.”


<i>That’s an understatement,</i> Nida



ValHalla continued, picking her words carefully. “Some time ago,

I devised a method by which I could test my coworkers. It required access

to the dossiers of those involved--which were, in this case, easy to come

by--and a bit of questioning around in circles of friends. With the

knowledge I gained, I could then easily devise a situation in which the

person’s control was tested to the limit.”


<i>Sadistic bastard!</i>



“I need to know how much my coworkers are willing to take. The idea

is to push them on a weak spot until they are forced to push back.”



stared at her in disbelief. “Oh, Hyne,” he started. “Dear Hyne.”



lowered her hands, leaning forward. “Speak up,” she said.


“You don’t get

it,” Nida said. “You really don’t. Squall isn’t the kind of person who

will <i>push back</i> unless he’s in some physical danger from it.”



dossier said that he used to be extremely combative--”


“I’d be willing to

bet <i>gil</i> that it didn’t say that,” Nida said. “It probably mentioned

that he got into a lot of fights, and you <i>assumed</i> that he was

inclined to conflict.”


“Did I err?”


<i>“Yes!”</i> Nida couldn’t contain

himself any longer. Jumping out of the chair, he glared at her, almost

yelling. “What the dossiers probably <i>didn’t</i> say was that all of

those fights were ones he had been prodded into by the Garden bully--that

<i>most</i> of them he didn’t enter until he was forced to choose between

fighting and becoming a bloody pulp! I know! I used to get the same

treatment--not as often, but....”


ValHalla nodded. “I see,” she said



“With all due respect, sir--” <i>and that isn’t much!</i> “--I

don’t think you <i>do</i> see!”


ValHalla stood up. “I’ll deal with the

situation immediately,” she said. “In the mean time, your instructor’s

license is restored and the sensory depravation sessions are canceled.

Convey my heartfelt apologies to the rest of the Committee, along with the

news that whatever penalties I mandated for them have been withdrawn.



“Sir--” Nida started.


<i>“Dismissed,</i> Instructor,” the

Headmaster said. Nida glowered at her, then spun on his heel and stormed

out the door.


ValHalla sat down, lowering her head into her hands. <i>I

really jumped in with both feet this time, didn’t I?</i> she



<center>--- - - - ---</center>


Squall opened his eyes with some

amount of surprise. He was in the infirmary, that much he could tell--and

he could feel something tight wrapped around his right wrist. Those things

weren’t surprising in and of themselves--what was surprising was that he was

alive to recognize them.


There were voices from the office--someone was

asking if he was awake, if they could talk with him. Kadowaki answered that

yes, the person could--as long as they didn’t keep the patient up too long.

The <i>patient</i> needed his rest.


Squall resisted the urge to groan. He

hated being thought of as a “patient.”


A shadow fell over Squall, and he

looked up as a hand pinned his shoulder to the bed. The strange blonde man

was standing over him, grinning.


“You look better,” he said.


The back part

of Squall’s brain immediately began wondering how he was going to get out

this time.


“You’re still alive, at least,” the man said, lowering his

voice. “Thanks to me, of course.”


“Why?” Squall asked. If there was one

thing he wanted, it was answers.


“Say it.”


The hand on Squall’s shoulder

tensed, sending spears of pain through him. Gritting his teeth, Squall

managed “Why did you save me?”


“Better,” the man whispered. Squall

realized that Kadowaki had probably heard him, and cursed inwardly. If she

hadn’t been convinced he was suicidal earlier, she would be now. “Do you

remember me?” the man asked.


“No,” Squall said bluntly.


“We used to be

quite good friends, you and I,” he explained. “We met some time ago. Long

time.” He bent over. “The name is Nemo,” he whispered.


Squall thought for

a moment. He didn’t know anyone by that name.


“It wasn’t always,” Nemo

said. “You’d remember me by a different name. That’s best left forgotten.

Suffice it to say that I haven’t forgotten you... that’s why I saved



Squall’s wrist gave an unhappy throb, and he frowned. “Then--”



did I try to kill you in the first place?” Nemo smiled. “Think about that

for a good long time, Squall. What happens now? You’re going to take me

seriously now, for one thing. So is everyone else. Except now <i>I’m</i>

the hero to them, and you’re the only one who’ll believe I have it out for

you. You can rant and rail all you want about how I’m going to kill you,

but no one will listen. At best, they’ll think you want revenge on me

because I stopped you from killing yourself.”


There was silence for several

moments. Finally, Squall asked “Why?”


Nemo grinned widely. “Why do I want

to kill you? I’m not sure myself. All I know it that it’s this great

burning urge... maybe it’s because I hate you, maybe it’s for revenge for

something you did and don’t remember, maybe it’s because I hate SeeD, maybe

I just woke up one morning and decided it was the right thing to do. It

doesn’t matter.”


<i>You’re mad,</i> Squall thought. The infuriating grin

widened again as Nemo straightened up, still whispering.


“I’m going to let

you recover, Squall. Then I’m going to kill you. And you’ll never find

anyone who will believe you.”


Nemo turned, moving out the door. With a few

words to Kadowaki, he exited the Infirmary.


Squall closed his eyes.

Dammit, it wasn’t fair! Nemo was right--half of Garden had thought he was

suicidal <i>before</i> this... or at least not completely stable. Like



Involuntarily, he winced. If ValHalla had thought he was

unstable before, what was she going to think now? This time, his position

really <i>was</i> indefensible....


Squall was forced to admit that things

looked bleak. He had suddenly been saddled with a lot more than he wanted

to deal with. But when had that <i>not</i> been the case?


<i>No,</i> he

thought. There was another dimension to it, this time. Nemo--the madman.

Although, he was forced to admit, if Nemo was a madman, he was certainly one

who knew what he was doing.


And that was usually the most dangerous kind.




It was dark by the time another visitor came. The

only way to tell the time was by the fact that the sky outside the window

above his head was black, and that Kadowaki had left, leaving one of the

junior adjuncts in charge.


The door to the infirmary opened with a hiss,

and Squall could see a figure step in. Muted conversation was audible from

the other room:




“I’m taking over for the time being. Take





“Go away for twelve minutes. Leave. Shoo.



There was a pause, and then the junior adjunct got up and left.

The second figure turned, entering Squall’s room.


“You’re up late,” Nida

said, moving to Squall’s side and bending down. Pulling Squall’s arm across

his shoulder, he helped him out of the bed.


“What are you doing?” Squall

asked groggily. He had only woken a few minutes ago.


“Moving you to

another room,” Nida responded. “You can thank me later.”


Squall’s brain

wrestled with that for a moment before he gave up. “Why?” he asked.



started dragging him towards the exit, and Squall tried to walk as well as

he could. He felt extremely weak--probably blood loss. “Simple,” Nida

said, hissing through gritted teeth. “We’re trying to keep this entire

affair a secret--as much as we can, anyway. Rumors are flying all over the

place anyway, but we figure if we can keep you out of sight for a bit,

they’ll subside. ...Hyne! How much do you weigh?”


“Who’s Ôwe?’” Squall

asked, ignoring Nida’s question.


“The Administrative Committee,” Nida said.

“We stick together, remember? We’re <i>there</i> for each other.”



suddenly occurred to Squall that Nida was annoyed with him. Closing his

eyes, he tried to think of something to say--something to defend his



“Nida--” he started.


“Never mind,” Nida snapped. There was

silence until they reached the dormitory section of the Garden. Nida

stopped at Squall’s door, using one hand to support the Commander and the

other to punch in the medical emergency code. The door hissed open, and

Nida staggered in. Noticing Squall’s glance flick around the room and his

eyes narrow, Nida explained “ValHalla confiscated your gunblade and... a few

other things. If you want to complain, you can take it up with



Squall grimaced, imagining the conversation that would likely follow

<i>that</i> request.


Reaching Squall’s bed, Nida set him down and turned to

leave. Reaching the door, he turned back.


“Is there anything you



Squall considered for a moment. Nida was notoriously sarcastic and

skeptical--and if Squall had a chance of getting anyone as an ally right at

the moment, it would have to be someone with a good dose of skepticism.

Someone who <i>wouldn’t</i> take appearances for granted.


Squall considered

for a moment longer. Nemo had made a good point--the story would probably

make people--especially skeptical ones--concerned for his sanity to an even

greater extent than they already were. However, he needed some safeguard

against what Nemo had planned for him. At the <i>very</i> least, he needed

some way to defend himself. He fully believed that Nemo would try to kill

him again--what he wasn’t sure about was the man’s promise that he would let

Squall recover first.


“I need a favor,” he started, trying to push himself

into a sitting position. Spears of pain shot through his wrist and,

grimacing, he collapsed again.


Nida crossed his arms. “Name it,” he



“Bring me a knife,” Squall said, before he had stopped to consider

how that would sound coming from someone in his position.


Nida stared at

him for a moment. “You’ve gone insane,” he said. “Stark raving mad.

You’re crazier than a malfunctioning Gesper if you think I’m going to help

you out with that.”


“...for my own protection,” Squall amended.



what? Life?”


There was a moment of silence. “Nida,” Squall began. “Do

you honestly think that I would try to kill myself?”


“It was one of those

things I said I’d believe when I saw it,” Nida said. “I never actually

believed I’d see it, though. You’re not getting a knife.”


Squall almost

brought a hand to his forehead. “I’m the Commander of Garden,” he said

darkly. “If I gave you an order--”


“I would override it on my authority as

Adjunct Medical Officer.”


<i>Damn you.</i> Nida wasn’t making this

easy--and neither making requests nor explaining himself came easily to

Squall anyway. He closed his eyes, trying to think of something to



There was the rustle of fabric, and Squall opened his eyes to see Nida

pulling a knife out of a concealed sheath on his forearm. “It this what you

want?” Nida asked--his voice implying that it was a purely rhetorical

question. Stepping forward, he turned it slowly, so that Squall could see

the light glinting off the blade. “Well?”


Nida held it out, hilt first,

just a few centimeters away.


“Take it,” he growled.


For a second, Squall

didn’t more. There was something strange about the angle at which Nida held

the knife, about the poised readiness of his arm. Guessing that the SeeD

was going to snatch it away as soon as he made a move, Squall relaxed.

Nida’s eyes locked on his, daring him to take it.


With all the speed he was

capable of, Squall snatched at the handle. His fingers closed around it

just as Nida’s released, the SeeDs hand twisting to draw his own wrist

across the edge. Squall dropped the blade in shock as Nida held out his

hand, blood dripping from the cut and onto Squall’s palm. Instinctively,

Squall pulled his hand away.


“I take it you don’t like having my blood on

your hands,” Nida said wryly. Slowly, he placed two fingers on his wrist.

With a brief moment of concentration, he summoned up the cool glow of a

Cura. The cut sealed, leaving only a bit of blood to dry on his skin. He

wiped it off on his other sleeve absently. “Now think about how it would

feel for me to have your blood on mine,” he said, bending to retrieve the



Squall stared at the red liquid running across his hand. He sighed,

clenching his fist. “If you don’t want to have blood on your hands,” he

said softly, “you’ll help me.”


“Not if you intend to die.”


“I don’t.”

Squall fixed his gaze on the ceiling, studying the play of light on the

uneven surface. “Someone intends to kill me.”


Nida stared at him for a

while. “Who?” he asked.


“Nemo,” Squall answered.


“Correct me if I’m

wrong, but doesn’t that mean Ônobody’ in Centran?” Nida asked. Squall was

silent, and Nida heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Describe him,” he



“About my height. Blonde hair, green... eye.”


“Built like an ox?”

Nida asked. Squall nodded. “He’s the one who brought you in, Squall,” Nida

said. “It wouldn’t make much sense for him to try to kill you.”



people don’t make sense.</i> “You’ll have to trust me,” Squall said dully.

He was all too aware that in his present position, he was going to be

<i>trusted</i> with little to nothing.


“Play devil’s advocate, you mean?”

There was another stretch of silence. Finally, Nida shook his head. “I

want you to know that I don’t believe this at all,” he said. “It’s not

exactly a credible point.”


Squall tried not to be disappointed. After all,

Nida couldn’t be expected to believe something Squall could hardly make

sense of himself.


“...but if it makes you feel any better,” Nida continued,

“I’ll keep an eye on this... nobody. Fair enough?”


A sense of partial

relief flooded through Squall. “Fair enough,” he said.




As Nida entered the Quad, one of the Festival

Committee members tapped him on the shoulder, drawing him off to one side.

“Word to the wise,” the girl muttered under her breath. “Selphie is really

cranky today. Don’t tell her I said that.”


Nida nodded, and the girl

hurried off. Glancing around the Quad, Nida spotted her dragging a long box

toward the hall near the stage that connected the Quad to the ballroom on

the very edge of Garden. Moving over to her, he grabbed one edge of the box

and tried to help. “I have a question,” he asked.


“Mm?” Selphie said. She

had a look on her face that gave the impression that she was either going

break out in tears or kill someone, Nida wasn’t sure which. She was

deliberately not looking at him.


“If you have to make a choice between

trusting one of your friends of trusting your own common sense, which do you

choose?” Nida asked. Selphie glanced at him in surprise.


“Er... your

friends, I guess,” she said.


Nida sighed. “That’s what I was worried

about,” he said.


Selphie stopped in the middle of the hall, opening the box

to reveal it packed full of greenery. Pulling out a branch, she handed it

to Nida.


“What’s this?” Nida asked.


“Holly,” Selphie said. “One of the

traditions was to... deck the halls with boughs of holly. The band is going

to be singing about it at the Festival.”


“Oh,” Nida said. “What do I



Selphie pulled out a braid of silver ribbon, handing it to him.

Pulling out another for herself, she said “you tie it up in this, then we

can staple the ribbon to the walls. It’s pretty easy.”


“Sure,” Nida said,

sitting down and grabbing a bough. Weaving the ribbon around it, he watched

as Selphie worked with hers. There was something a bit too violent about

the way she was treating it. “Selphie?” he asked.


“What?” she demanded

sharply. Nida’s eyebrow jumped--she really <i>was</i> cranky today.



you all right?”


Selphie seemed to freeze. Only her hands shaking gave the

indication that she was still alive.


<i>Oh, hell,</i> Nida thought as

Selphie’s composure collapsed completely. Putting aside the holly and

ribbon, he got up to go sit next to her. Placing an arm awkwardly around

her shoulders, he tried to be comforting. It was never something he had had

practice with. “What’s wrong?” he asked gingerly.


“It wasn’t supposed to

be this way!” Selphie sobbed, hands crushing the holly she was still

holding. “Everything’s going wrong!”


“What do you mean?” Nida asked,

wishing he had taken that advanced course in counseling he had been offered.

He had never <i>expected</i> to become the ersatz morale officer for the



“I wanted everything to be <i>happy,”</i> Selphie began.

“Everyone was so worried because of the Tribunal and the new Headmaster

coming and--and I wanted to do something really nice and make everyone feel

good and have a <i>holiday,</i> but now the Headmaster is calling in an

Inspector who might shut down SeeD, and <i>I</i> have to make sure that he’s

impressed, and no one understands what the Christmas festival is about, and

then Squall--”


>From there, the words became incoherent. Nida feigned

attentiveness, mind wandering. What was <i>he</i> supposed to say to cheer

her up, dammit? He and Selphie were the opposite ends of the spectrum! She

was an optimist, he was a cynic. She wanted people to share in the joy of

Christmas, he didn’t care. And she had been doing her best to cheer

everyone up in regards to this whole mess a long time before he came along.

If this was what happened at the end of <i>that</i> road, Nida would have

been much more comfortable locking himself in his room and hoping for a

Galbadian missile strike or something.


Dammit, Selphie was right. It

wasn’t supposed to be this way.


“Selphie....” he started, trying to figure

out what he was supposed to say in a situation like this. He was tempted to

say that he understood how she felt, but that would probably require some

emoting on <i>his</i> part.


There was an uncomfortable pause.



take a walk,” he finally said. Selphie nodded unhappily, allowing Nida to

pull her to her feet. Nida offered her his elbow, and--with a weak

smile--she hooked her arm through it.


Tuning, Nida started off towards the

ballroom. There wouldn’t be as many people working there as in the

Quad--the only decorating to be done in the ballroom, he understood, was to

put up wreaths and garlands with candles, and that could wait until the

gargantuan task of decorating the Christmas Tree in the Quad was



As they entered, Selphie’s eyes darted around the expanse and she

seemed to deflate. “We’re never going to be finished decorating in time,”

she said gloomily.


“Come on,” Nida said. “Forget about that. You have

enough on your mind right now.” Thinking about the sheer overabundant

decorative glory in the Quad, he gave a wry smile. “And, anyway, if you do

even half of the job you did in the Quad, it’ll be the best decorating job

this place will ever have seen. Besides, who will notice if it’s not just

perfect? Everyone’s going to be too busy dancing.”


Selphie blushed,

glancing away. Nida frowned.


“Did I say something wrong?” he asked.



it’s not that,” Selphie said hurriedly. “It’s just that... well... I can’t



Nida stared at her. “Oh, please,” he said. “Even <i>I</i> can

dance. Hell, even <i>Squall</i> can dance! Stop pulling my leg.”



really!” Selphie protested. “I never learned.”


Nida glanced back towards

the Quad. <i>Why the hell not,</i> he thought. <i>It’ll cheer her up, and

it won’t involve me reassuring her with tales of tender moments from my own

past.</i> “Do you want to learn?” he asked.


Selphie stared at him.



“I could teach you,” Nida said. “It’s pretty simple.”



started laughing. It was the most bizarre sight--tears were still

glistening on her cheeks, but soon she was doubled up, howling with mirth.

Nida felt himself blushing.


“You can’t possibly find the concept of me

dancing that amusing,” he muttered.


Selphie shook her head. “It’s not

that,” she said. “It’s just that... for a second, you sounded exactly like



Nida was now desperately confused. “Squall offered to teach you

to dance?”


“No!” Selphie shook her head. “That’s not it. It’s just

that... oh, never mind. It was... at least two years ago, anyway.” She

smiled. “I must have really looked depressed,” she said.


“It’s not hard to

tell.” Nida crossed his arms. “I hate to say it, but you are <i>lousy</i>

at pretending you’re happy.”


Selphie nodded. “I know,” she said. “But...

come on. You wanted to teach me something?”


Nida nodded, holding out a

hand. “As long as this doesn’t become the next Stem Bolt incident,” he



Selphie nodded, taking his hand. “I’ll try not to tease you,” she



“Let’s dance,” Nida said, and grinned.



<center><i>Several Days Later</i></center>


There was

a familiar knock at the door, and Squall stood up. Moving over to the

entrance to his room, he punched the ÔOPEN’ key and waited for it to slide

open. When it didn’t, he scowled and called “Come in.”


The door opened to

reveal Nida standing there--in uniform--with another SeeD dress uniform

hanging over his elbow. “I see you’re feeling better,” he said. “I take it

no one’s come to kill you in the past few days?”


Squall shook his head.

“The door was locked the entire time,” he said darkly.


Nida shrugged

apologetically. “Kadowaki’s orders,” he said. “You know how it



“.......” Squall answered.


Nida handed the dress uniform to him,

waiting as he took it. “It’s time for the Commander to make a public

appearance,” he said. “We need to show Garden that you’re still here.

There have been some uncomfortable questions.”


“Really,” Squall returned

flatly. “And Kadowaki’s not afraid that I’ll--”


“You’ll have an escort,”

Nida said.


<i>Figures.</i> “Who?”


“You get your choice between me, Nida

or the junior Instructor’s Council representative to the Administration

Committee,” Nida said. Seeing Squall grimace, he crossed his arms. “Don’t

complain,” he said. “I spent some time convincing Kadowaki not to have one

of the junior med staff chaperone you around. Apparently she still doesn’t

trust me for sneaking you out of the Infirmary at night.”


Squall stared at

him. Nida shrugged.


“Hey, that’s what friends are for,” he said. “Anyway,

she’ll get over it eventually. She’s just a bit torqued that I went around

her authority.”


“And you didn’t bother to tell me this--”



you’re so much of a stickler to the rules that you probably would have tried

to drag me back to the Infirmary with you. And in your condition, you’d

have ended up unconscious in the halls and then we’d <i>really</i> have

something to explain,” Nida said. “I’ll be waiting in the hall. Put on

your uniform and come out.”


Turning, Nida exited the room. The door hissed

shut behind him, locking with a mechanical <i>click.</i> For what had to be

the fiftieth time, Squall wondered if he should be thankful or irritated

that Nida was his friend.


<center>--- - - - ---</center>


There was a knock

on the door behind him, and Nida turned to key in the code and let Squall

out of his room. The Commander was just pulling on his gloves, covering the

bandage that still graced his wrist. Nida noticed him glance up at the

sounds of bells from the direction of the main Garden ring, and



“It’s the eve of the Festival,” he explained. “Selphie wanted to

celebrate the holiday properly--meaning on Christmas Eve <i>and</i>

Christmas Day. The band is here--as I’m guessing you can tell.”



made a noise that was incredibly noncommittal.


“Selphie has it all planned

out, it seems,” Nida said. “There’s a party tonight, and everyone’s brought

gifts for other people in Garden and put them under the tree. Then there’s

the Dance in the ballroom, which will last until almost midnight. Tomorrow,

everyone gets woken up by the Parade that she’s making the band put on, and

go find their presents and open them.” Nida snorted. “Should be amusing to

watch the chaos. After that’s all done, the Cafeteria is catering some big

lunch, and that’s about when the Inspector should arrive. You and ValHalla

will escort him around, present him with something-or-other as a sign of

Garden’s appreciation--Quistis is in charge of that--and send him on his

way. That done, we can all relax and enjoy the Christmas cheer until we

decide to go to sleep. <i>Sounds</i> like Selphie’s idea, doesn’t



Squall nodded. Nida turned to him, hand on his hip.


“Look,” he said.

“I don’t like this arrangement any more than you do, but if we’re going to

be stuck together we might as well have a conversation. ...you <i>do</i>

still remember how to speak, don’t you?”


Squall glared at him for a moment.

“Yes,” he said.


“Good.” Nida started off towards the Quad, Squall

following sullenly behind him. “You’ll excuse me while I play doctor for a

moment. How are you feeling?”


“Fine,” Squall said.


“Lingering nausea,

fatigue or lightheadedness due to blood loss?”




“In other words, stop

asking questions. Right.” Stepping onto the Garden ring, Nida made a wide,

sweeping gesture. “Selphie’s really done a number on this place, hasn’t

she?” he asked.


Looking around, Squall was forced to agree. Garlands and

wreaths dotted the halls, and every potted plant in sight was decorated.

The Quad and Cafeteria areas were even more heavily adorned--the entire

Garden was projecting a festive air. Nida gestured that Squall was supposed

to go first, and Squall started towards the Quad.


Halfway through the hall

leading to the huge recreation room, he was ambushed by a moving blur of

motion. Selphie latched onto his arm, pulling him toward the Quad with

enough force to make him stumble. “I’m so glad you’re better!” she bubbled.

“Come on! You <i>have</i> to see what we did with the Quad! The tree

looks <i>soooo</i> pretty....”


Nida coughed, and turned to Selphie. “So, I

guess you’ll be taking care of him for the rest of the evening?” he



For the first time ever, Nida saw a verifiable look of alarm on

Squall’s face.


“Kadowaki said it was okay,” Selphie answered. Turning, she

gave Squall a broad wink. “She said it would be good for you,” she



Squall turned to Nida, who held both hands up. “If Kadowaki

says so,” he said, and headed off.


“Oh, come <i>on!”</i> Selphie said as

Squall raised a hand to his forehead. “I won’t be insufferable. I



Turning, Selphie dragged him into the Quad. For a moment,

Squall could only stand there, staring at the massive changes and trying to

calculate how much effort must have gone into creating such a scene.



entire lower level of the Quad was dominated by a massive evergreen, needles

a dark green contrasting beautifully with the soft blues and off-whites of

the Quad. Globes, ribbons and small stationary lights hung from almost all

of the branches, and a huge SeeD symbol was perched on the top. Presents

were heaped under the tree--Selphie had obviously gotten through to a lot of

people with the fliers. Wreaths adorned the walls, and tables decorated

with holly dotted the area holding refreshments.


“Glad to see you on your

feet again,” came a voice, and Squall turned to see Quistis approaching him.

With a small smile, she said “You may not want to stand there.”



glanced up as she pointed, noticing that he was standing directly under some

sort of plant with small, white balls. Stepping out of the doorway, he

glanced at Quistis questioningly.


“Mistletoe,” Quistis said. “I’ll explain



Selphie burst out laughing. “It was the <i>perfect</i>

opportunity, Quisty!” she said.


Quistis’s eyes gleamed with amusement.

“Yes, but he would never forgive me,” she said.


Squall rapidly decided that

he didn’t <i>want</i> to know what they were talking about.


“You were

almost late, Squall,” Quistis said, checking her watch. “Come on--the dance

is going to start.”


“Where did Nida go?” Selphie asked.


Squall jerked a

thumb back towards the Garden ring. “Cafeteria,” he guessed.


“Oh,” Selphie

sighed. “I hoped he would be my partner again....”


“Again?” Quistis asked.

“I can’t recall ever seeing you dance at one of these.”


“I just learned,”

Selphie evaded with a blush. “Anyway, let’s go.”


Still being dragged by

Selphie, Squall had little choice but to follow Quistis through the

decorated hall and into the Ballroom, where the band was just getting ready

to play.


<center>--- - - - ---</center>


Nida was leaning against the wall

in the Cafeteria, drinking something almost sickeningly sweet that the

Cafeteria workers referred to as “Egg Nog” when he saw her. Tall and lithe,

she was dressed in a low-rank SeeD dress uniform and moved with a sort of

wary grace that reminded Nida inescapably of something. She was moving

amongst the sparse crowd in a way that Nida could recognize as trying very

hard to not attract attention.


Setting down his glass, Nida moved to talk

with her. He <i>knew</i> this woman--he was sure of it.


Stealing up behind

her, he caused her to spin around with a tap on her shoulder. For an

instant the most remarkable hazel eyes stared into his--


“Lialla!” he

whispered, feeling as if someone had dealt him a physical blow. “What are



Lialla’s face had drained of all its color in moments, and before

Nida could finish the sentence she had mumbled “Excuse me!” and rushed for

the door. Without a second thought Nida ran after her, bursting into the

empty halls. No one was out walking around--everyone was at one of the

social focal points, or at the very least in their dorms trying to get some

sleep. It was easy to follow her as she ran all-out for the



Rounding the corner to the entrance, Nida got a glimpse of her

speaking to someone. <i>Nemo,</i> he identified, putting the name Squall

had given him with the figure. Nemo turned to look at him, then patted

Lialla on the shoulder. Lialla ran off--away from Nida--and Nemo made a

gesture toward his side that was painfully obvious one of reaching for a

gun. Nida ducked behind a plant, waiting until Nemo had wasted at least

one of his bullets. With a quick flick of his wrist, he dropped one of the

throwing knives from the sheath on his wrist into his hand. Nemo would

learn something very quickly--no matter what appearances said, Nida was

<i>never</i> unarmed.


Nothing happened. Cautiously, Nida stuck his head

out from behind the plant.


He looked around the hallway and cursed. Nemo

was gone.



Selphie dragged Squall through the

hallway and into the ballroom, which was almost crammed to capacity already.

The band was playing, and a few early couples danced in the middle of the

room. Candles, perched on every available outcropping along the walls, cast

flickering shadows augmented primarily by the light of the moon and stars

outside the snow-rimmed skylight.


Quistis breathed an audible sigh, casting

a longing glance at the dancers before she turned to Selphie. “You’ve done

a wonderful job,” she said. “Everything looks perfect.”


Selphie grinned.

“Thanks,” she said. “I was really afraid we weren’t going to finish it in

time, but....”


“You shouldn’t have worried,” Quistis reassured her. “Isn’t

that right, Squall?”


Squall was silent. Quistis glanced at him, wondering

if he hadn’t heard her or was just ignoring her. Squall’s eyes were

skipping over every single person in the crowd, as if he were trying to

identify each and every one.


“Squall?” Quistis asked. Squall





Quistis watched him for a moment more, then sighed.

“You seem so... preoccupied. Are you all right?”


“Fine,” came the curt



“I know it’s been a hard couple of weeks,” Quistis started. After a

few moments, Squall had tuned her out entirely. He went back to scanning

the crowd, hoping against hope that the one person he was looking for wasn’t



“I don’t think he’s listening any more, Quisty,” Selphie



Quistis nodded sadly. “I think you’re right,” she said.



Squall made a noise that effectively communicated that, while he

was aware that she was talking, there were very few ways he could possibly

care less about what was being said.


Quistis glanced at Selphie, who

mouthed the words “Go on!” and gave her a thumbs-up and a wink.


“...care to

dance?” Quistis asked.


<i>That</i> caught his attention. Squall turned to

stare at her, face completely unreadable. “What?” he asked.


“There have

been a lot of rumors floating around Garden,” Quistis explained. “We need

to show people that you’re still here--and still alive.” A twinkle of

amusement gleamed in her eye. “Anyway,” she continued, “you’re a good

dancer. I’ve seen it.”


The way he stared at her was intensely reminiscent

of the way he had analyzed some of the tactics quizzes in her old class,

Quistis decided. It was quite unnerving.


The seconds seemed to stretch on

ad infinitum, growing more and more uncomfortable. Quistis opened her mouth

to say something along the lines of “Never mind--”


“Why not?” Squall

replied flatly, turning and stalking out onto the dance floor.



- - - ---</center>


Nida burst into the hallway at a run, eyes tracking left

and right in search of Nemo. The man wasn’t built for speed and he hadn’t

been gone long--there were only so many places he could have headed.



was a creak from the direction of the Training Center, and Nida turned in

time to see the massive door at the end of the hall swing closed. Nida

ground to a halt, kneeling to draw one of the long knives in the concealed

sheath strapped to his shin. Re-sheathing his throwing knife, he headed

toward the Training Center.


As he had expected, Nemo ambushed him by

grabbing him as soon as he stepped through the door. Hoisting him into the

air by the front of his SeeD uniform, Nemo stopped suddenly as the point of

the dagger hit his throat.


“Stalemate,” Nida hissed. “Try anything and

I’ll knife you before you have a chance to breathe.”


Nemo considered for a

moment. Slowly, he put Nida down and backed out of knife range.



man,” Nida said, dropping one of his throwing knives into his hand. “You’re

Nemo, eh?”


Nemo’s eye shifted uncomfortably. “...I’m nobody,” he



“Thanks for the confirmation.” Nida shifted his weight, balancing on

the balls of his feet. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “More

specifically, why are you after Squall?”


Nemo’s eye widened in what was

unmistakably sheer panic, throwing Nida offguard. A moment later Nemo

charged, taking Nida by surprise and slamming into him full-force. The

impact sent Nida sprawling, his knives skittering across the packed-earth

floor and out of reach.


The tackle was poorly executed, however. Nemo

failed to get a pinning grip on his opponent, who had soon twisted away and

retrieved the throwing knife. Nemo rolled to one side, grabbing Nida’s

dagger from the ground and trying to balance it in his hand. The weapon

looked strangely puny compared with his natural girth.


Nida sidled towards

the door leading into the Training Center proper, pushing it open and

darting back into the area. Nemo charged after him, knife held at the



Nida halted on the bridge, balancing the throwing knife. Nemo

ground to a halt, dagger still gripped in his hand. Nida took a second to

evaluate his options--the knife he was holding was meant to be

poisoned--only a <i>very</i> lucky hit would be anything more than a minor

annoyance. Nemo didn’t know that, however--to the best of <i>his</i>

knowledge, he was facing someone who was a very skilled assassin. By the

way he held the dagger Nida could tell that knife-fighting didn’t come

easily to him, and that he was even more uncomfortable with the light dagger

Nida wore.


Drawing back his hand in a move that he tried to make painfully

obvious, Nida let the knife he held fly at Nemo’s face. Nemo’s arm came up,

catching the knife in his forearm. Nida launched himself forward as the

knife left his hand, twisting and snatching the dagger from Nemo’s grip as

Nemo realized what was happening and brought a fist down, striking a

glancing blow to Nida’s spine.


Nida went to one knee, twisting and swinging

the dagger at Nemo’s calf. The blade tore through cloth and skin as Nemo

lifted his leg, stumbling backwards. Nida leapt to his feet, charging at

Nemo. The man was already offbalanced, it shouldn’t be to hard to--



caught his footing amazingly quickly, ramming his palm straight forward as

Nida lunged. His palm connected with Nida’s sternum, knocking the air out

of his lungs and throwing him backwards, into the water. Nida

managed--somehow--to gasp just as he hit the waterline, pulling some air

into his lungs as the chilled water enveloped him. He dropped his dagger as

he sunk into the artificial river, grappling for something to hang onto.

Nemo would be waiting for him to surface--and this time, he <i>would</i>

have all the advantages of ambushing an unarmed person. All Nida could hope

for was that Nemo would think him dead and leave. Then, perhaps, he would

be able to follow him and attack him from behind.


When Nida finally

returned to the surface, Nemo was gone. Only a bloody throwing knife

remained to say he had ever been there. Hauling himself out of the water,

Nida tried to shake himself dry. He was freezing in the recilculated



Moving for the door, Nida hoped that Nemo wasn’t waiting on the other

side. However, there were no mishaps as he moved out of the Training Center

and into the hall, sneaking from bit of sparse cover to bit of sparse



But when he reached the potted plant about level with the erstwhile

parking lot, he knew he was in trouble.


He could see two girls--roughly his

age, he guessed--about midway down the path leading to the dorms, both

facing the dormitory corridors with automatic guns drawn--presumably to

convince anyone coming out that they would be better off back in. Each was

dressed in a grey jumpsuit with a red rose emblazoned over the left breast

pocket, and each one had a combat knife strapped to their side. Beyond them

a group of six other girls stood, similarly clad and armed. Lialla stood

among them, a grey cloth with a rose on it tied around the left arm of her

now certainly stolen SeeD uniform. Worse, she was holding Squall’s gunblade

and ammo belt. Nemo was talking to Lialla in hushed tones, saying something

Nida couldn’t hear. Soon, they all turned and headed into the Quad, leaving

the two girls to guard the dorms.


<i>Desert Rose,</i> Nida identified,

thinking back on everything he knew about the south-Estharan mercenary

company. The information was regretfully little--he knew that it was

exclusively female, and that they hated SeeD with a passion. He also knew

that Lialla was one of their high-ranking members, skilled and <i>very</i>

ruthless in what she did.


Nida had only a very vague idea of what they had

planned, but he knew that he had to stop it somehow. How, he didn’t know.

He was no match for seasoned mercs with automatic weapons, and there was no

way that he’d be able to get through to the dorms to find someone who might

be armed better than he was. He could go to the 3F office and hope ValHalla

would be there to report to, but there would be little that she would be

able to do even if she <i>was</i> there.


Nida ran over his list of choices,

and decided that finding ValHalla was the best option. Turning in order to

sneak back down the hall towards the elevator, he found himself staring into

the barrel of a gun.


“You shouldn’t be out this time of night,” the merc

holding it said. Nida raised his hands, slowly standing up as she motioned

him to. “You gave us a good run,” she said. “But it’s game over now.

You’re not going to interfere.”


Another Desert Rose came around the corner

behind the first, and leveled a gun at him. Nida raised an eyebrow.



this for one unarmed SeeD?” he asked.


“All this for the infamous trickster

Nida,” the first girl said dryly.


Nida winced. “Am I never going to be

able to live that down?” he asked.


“Lialla told us about you. You’re not

going to anybody’s rescue tonight.”


Nida glanced from gun to gun, and

shrugged bitterly. “I’ll have to agree with that,” he said.




The band ground to a halt as a trio of gunshots rang

through the hall, stopping the dancers and sending most of the SeeDs into

confusion. Within moments the invaders had spread out across the area by

the entrance, keeping the entire ballroom full of SeeDs at bay. Nemo and

Lialla strode in through the middle of them, Lialla patting Nemo on the arm

as he stepped forward.


“I want you all to sit down,” Nemo bellowed. “Make

a ring in the center of the room. Anyone moves, they get shot. Anyone

stands, they get shot. Except for Squall.”


The SeeDs glanced at each

other, but another gunshot convinced them that they had best sit down. Soon

the entire ballroom had become a makeshift arena, Squall standing in the

middle as the Desert Rose mercenaries made sure that no one moved.



took the gunblade from Lialla, tossing it so that it skittered across the

floor to land at Squall’s feet. “Pick it up,” he snarled.


Squall didn’t

move. “What are you doing?” he asked, turning to face Nemo squarely.



want a fair fight,” Nemo said. “It’s no fun just killing anymore. I want a

fight, and you’re the only one I can remember who’s ever given me



Squall tried to think of when he had ever given Nemo a fair fight,

and came up empty. “And if I don’t fight you?” he asked.


“Then this will

be an execution. And I will continue to execute people until I find someone

who <i>will</i> fight me.”


Squall frowned.


“Look, SeeD,” Nemo said,

balling his hands into fists. “Cooperate, and one person will die. Don’t,

and a lot will. Not a hard choice, is it? Even <i>I</i> know what you’d

choose there. Put on the knife.”


Squall considered his options, finally

realizing he didn’t have any. Bending down, he picked up the belt with the

scabbard and put it on.


“Order them not to interfere,” Nemo said, making a

broad gesture to the SeeDs. “You’ll regret it if they do.”


Without taking

his eyes from Nemo, Squall took in a breath to speak. “SeeDs,” he said.

“You are hereby under orders not to move from your current positions for the

duration of the battle.”


“Good,” Nemo said, advancing until he stood well

within the circle. Both of his hands rose so that they were poised above

his thighs--a classical gunfighter’s stance. In that moment, there was

something unbearably familiar about him. “On the count of five,” he said

through a grin, “we draw.”


Squall’s hand moved to his gunblade. He didn’t

want to play this game by the madman Nemo’s rules, but with the lives of

hundreds of SeeDs resting on his actions, he didn’t dare not to.



Nemo said.


Squall took a moment to run through his list of potential

tactics--something he always did before a fight.




Squall had no GFs

junctioned, and it was obvious from the bulges in Nemo’s pockets that he had

at least two guns. The gunblade might or might not be loaded, but even if

it was there would be no way he could bring it to bear in time to get a shot

off before Nemo. Even if he could do <i>that,</i> the only purpose for the

gun on a gunblade was to augment slash damage, not function as a gun in its

own regard. The accuracy rating for any sort of range was





Nemo was insane, and logical tactics didn’t work

against insane people because they were designed to work against logical

thinkers. The only way to combat an insane man was to be just as eccentric

and unpredictable as he was.




Squall tensed.


An instant

before Nemo yelled “Five!” his hands had darted into his pockets, emerging

with a pair of archaic sixshooters from which he fired one shot at Squall.

Squall ducked into a roll, coming to his feet and drawing his blade in one

motion. In the same motion, he dealt Nemo a blow to the chin with the hilt,

then backpedaled to get into a range in which he could strike properly.

Nemo took another shot at him, which he dodged.


Swinging at Nemo, Squall

managed to knock one of the guns out of his grasp and send it skittering

across the floor. Pressing the attack, Squall tried to anticipate which way

the gun would point next.


What he didn’t anticipate was Nemo’s ducking his

blow and charging into him, knocking him off his feet. It was only through

long practice that Squall managed to keep hold of his gunbade as Nemo

dropped to the ground, grabbing his second gun and taking another potshot at

Squall. Squall could hear the shot ricocheting off one of the walls, and

hoped that none of the SeeDs would be unfortunate enough to get in the way

of any of the flying bullets.


Lashing out with a foot, Squall rolled and

pushed himself off the floor. Nemo struggled to his feet at the same time,

dropping one shoulder and charging once more. Squall sidestepped, lashing

out with the blade, only to have Nemo’s fist catch him in the stomach as the

man passed. Gritting his teeth, Squall brought his gunblade around and

buried it in Nemo’s shoulder.


Nemo’s hand shot to the wound, grabbing the

blade by the blunt edge and physically wresting it out of Squall’s grasp.

Stepping forward quickly to bring the hilt out of Squall’s range, he leveled

a punch at Squall’s face. Squall dodged it, stepping back.


Nemo tossed the

gunblade upwards, sending it twirling end-over-end. Squall inadvertently

looked up, following the sword for a moment as it traced through the air.

The moment’s distraction was enough for Nemo to plant a bullet in his

shoulder, rushing forward as the blade clattered to the ground



Squall dove for the blade, catching its hilt as Nemo twisted to

follow his movement. A bullet bounced off the ground in front of his face

as Nemo took another shot at him. As he got up two more bullets raced

through the air, one ripping through one of the muscles in his arm and the

other grazing his jaw.


As Nemo threw one of the guns away--its ammunition

used--Squall struck with a flurry of attacks that should have left Nemo in

pieces on the floor. However, the man managed to dodge or deflect most of

them with clouts to the side of the blade, leaving him with only a few deep

gashes on his arms to show for it.


<i>Of course,</i> Squall thought as he

feinted a slash at Nemo’s face, switching the direction of his strike midway

and cutting a line across Nemo’s palm. <i>Anyone as crazy as Nemo would be

crazy enough to parry a sword strike with his hands....</i>


A wave of

dizziness came over Squall, and he stumbled. His hand moved to the bullet

wound in his shoulder almost reflexively, and he drew it back covered with

blood. There was a moment where he stared at the black powder smeared

across his hand, noticing traces of it on the floor where bullets had struck

as well. He could have cursed--Nemo was using poison as well as lead.



staggered backwards, aiming his gun at Squall. Squall’s brain registered

something odd about the shape and length of the bullet cartridge as he

ducked preemptively, but he couldn’t have anticipated the sound of five of

the six bullets firing at once. Points of burning pain seemed to suddenly

appear all over his body--one in his shoulder, one his side, two on his left

leg. The other bullet went wide, hitting the ground nearby. There was a

final shot as Nemo spent the last bullet in the gun, ripping a hole through

Squall’s sword hand. The gunblade was dropped as his hand released

reflexively, and Squall was too busy ducking the gun thrown at his face to

pick it up again.


Nemo had approached as he threw the gun, and lashed out

at Squall as he recovered from the duck. He struck a heavy blow across the

SeeD’s face, sending him sprawling to the ground. A kick sent the gunblade

skittering in the other direction, and Nemo dropped to his knees and lashed

out again as Squall tried to recover. The blow landed squarely on his neck,

and Squall gagged.


Through a red haze of pain, Squall could see Nemo’s

bloodied figure moving, and he felt himself being lifted to his feet via a

crushing hand grabbing his wounded shoulder. He tried to focus enough to

act, but a kick to his shin drove that out of his mind. He could literally

<i>feel</i> the bone snapping, and he was thrown to the ground again. Nemo

backed up, watching him.


Gritting his teeth against the pain, Squall

managed to make it to his knees before he realized that he wouldn’t be able

to make it any further. The poison was beginning to display a greater

effect, and his broken leg wouldn’t allow him to stand. The gunblade was

hopelessly out of reach, and he didn’t have any other weapon.



forward as another wave of dizziness broke over him, he put a hand out to

prevent himself from crashing into the ground. Supporting himself on his

hands and knees, he could see Nemo standing in front of him.



he thought. <i>This isn’t fair....</i>


“I always knew I’d win someday,”

Nemo said. However, there was nothing malicious in his tone now. Rather,

it seemed as if he was surprised.


Squall glanced up, and the sensation of

familiarity came back. Frantically, he racked his brain for where he might

have seen this man before. Goddammit, he wanted to at least know who this

nutcase was before he died....


Nemo dropped to one knee in front of him,

grabbing his shoulder and dealing him a blow to the face. Squall could feel

the side of his mouth split open, blood beginning to trickle down his chin.

“You lost,” Nemo whispered. “Damn you, Squall, you finally lost.”



mad,” Squall growled at him, aware that insulting Nemo was about all he

could do anymore.


Nemo punched him again. “I always wanted to kill you,”

he snarled. <i>“Always.</i> But I never could, because you always won.

But this time, you lost. Damn you to <i>hell,</i> you <i>lost!”</i>



voice had risen in pitch during the rant, and Squall’s vision blurred. For

a second, his view seemed to shift....


<i>Matron was scolding him again.

Something about how he shouldn’t let himself get into fights... that the

other boy was a very special child, and that Squall could have killed him by

hitting him too hard there....</i>


<i>Great,</i> Squall thought bitterly.

<i>So this is it. My life is flashing before my eyes.</i>


Nemo stood,

pulling a knife out of a sheath inside one of his pockets, glistening with

something that was doubtlessly poison. Squall’s hand slipped in the pool of

blood that was developing around it, pouring from the bullet hole that had

probably doomed him. He could see a double image of Connor looming over

him, ready to strike the killer blow.


<i>Wait... ÔConnor?’</i>


Memory came

flooding back to him, pieces suddenly falling together. He remembered the

fight at the Orphanage--he had struck another boy near the heart, and the

boy had had to be hospitalized. His blood flow had been damaged. Matron

had punished him for that--and she had warned him never to get into a fight

with <i>Connor</i> again. Something about his heart being weak, or the

bones around his heart being weak, or--


--come to think of it, Connor had

had blonde hair and green eyes.


Time seemed to slow. Nemo dropped to his

knees, grabbing Squall’s right shoulder to steady him. Now that he knew

what he was looking for, Squall could tell why Nemo had seemed so familiar

during the fight--why Nemo had known (<i>remembered</i>) his name while

Squall, memory damaged by Junctioning, hadn’t ever recognized him. And the

knowledge gave him one final chance to strike.



with the knife, planning on burying it in Squall’s heart. Squall twisted

with the last of his strength, absorbing the attack with his shoulder as he

fisted his bleeding hand, driving it squarely into the ribs protecting

Connor’s heart. The weak bones splintered, the punch driving the sharp

fragments into the heart and lungs. Connor gasped, convulsing so hard that

he ripped the knife from Squall’s shoulder, leaving a gaping hole. For a

moment, Squall could see both of his eyes--they were open wide in pain and



Connor fell to the ground, gasping like a landed fish. Blood was

beginning to ooze from the region near his heart, and his eyes were

unfocusing rapidly. Squall’s vision was fuzzing sporadically, but he could

tell that Connor wouldn’t survive. He had killed him.


Now if only the

poison wouldn’t finish <i>him</i> off, too....


Something hissed through the

air, and a small stinging sensation pierced the side of his neck. Glancing

up, he saw the slim figure of one of the Desert Rose mercenaries lowering

her hand to her side, stepping towards them.


He could feel each beat of his

heart exaggerated as he reached up to his neck, extracting the drugged

needle. One beat... two beats... three..........


<i>I won....</i> was the

only thought he could hold onto as he slipped into darkness.

<center>--- -

- - ---</center>


Lialla bent down over the felled combatants, two of her

mercenaries flanking her, guns brandished at the SeeDs who were restlessly

sitting in the ring they had been ordered into. They knew that anyone who

moved would be gunned down instantly, but with their Commander lying in a

bloody heap on the floor they couldn’t be expected to remain docile for



Bending over Nemo, Lialla cupped his face in her hands. “Can you

hear me?” she asked. Lowering her voice, she asked <i>“Where is the



Nemo stared up at her with eyes that almost didn’t see. One

strong hand reached up, caressing the side of her face. “Lialla....” he



“The paper,” Lialla said, straining to push all thought of tears

out of her mind. “Nemo, carissime, the paper. The <i>paper!”</i>



eyes blinked a few times. With his free hand, he reached into a pocket and

drew out a folded piece of yellow sheet paper. Lialla took it, opening it

and slowly reading the instructions on the page. A single tear rolled down

her cheek, and she wiped it away quickly.


“I love you, carissime,” she

whispered, drawing her gun. Nemo’s hand clenched along the side of her

face, and his visage contorted with pain.




Lialla stood,

pointing the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. A single shot rang

out, ending Nemo’s life. Lialla crumpled the paper in her hand, tucking it

into one of her pockets. Moving over to the SeeD Commander, she gave him a

cursory inspection. Shaking her head, she bent down and hoisted him onto

her back. Standing, she glanced around the room.


“My orders,” she said in

a clear voice only partly choked with pain, “were to ensure that there would

be one death tonight, and one death only. Remain in this room. If you

follow me, my orders may have to be sacrificed.”


Turning, she headed out of

the ballroom. The Desert Roses followed her, moving backwards to keep

weapons trained on the SeeDs. Finally they had withdrawn into the hallway,

and Lialla nodded to one of them.


“I can take care of this guy once I get

him to the Infirmary, but you’ll need to make sure no one bothers me.

Patrol the area. Make sure no one gets out of that room until we’re all

safely away. Janya, you’re in charge.”


The other girl nodded, and Lialla

headed towards the infirmary, hurrying her steps so as to get there as

quickly as possible. She had carried heavier loads before--that wasn’t what

was bothering her. It was partly the blood seeping through her “borrowed”

uniform that was the problem, partly the memory that she was about to tend

to Nemo’s killer. She could only do her best to put everything out of her

mind as--


“Hey,” a dark voice called out. Lialla turned partway to see a

familiar figure standing between two of her Roses, arms crossed as the two

held him at bay. Inwardly, she quailed. He was the <i>last</i> person she

wanted to see at the moment.


“Nida,” she murmured, almost to



Nida’s eyes narrowed. “The infirmary supply doors are locked,” he

said. “You’ll need my code to get in. So, what? You’ve always been the

humane one, and you’ve always known that I’m the best emergency med worker

around. Are you willing to accept my help?”


There was an edge of anger to

Nida’s voice that she couldn’t ignore. She closed her eyes and nodded.

“Let him go,” she ordered the two guards. “We know each other well, he and




The two guards glanced at each other and

backed up, and Nida gave them a cursory nod. Approaching Lialla, he crossed

his arms.


“Get into the infirmary,” he said. One of the Desert Roses

behind him grumbled at his ordering their leader around like that, but

Lialla simply nodded and headed into the room.


Nida followed her, and she

glanced at him. “He’s in bad shape,” she said.


“Second room,” Nida

snapped. Lialla turned, stepping into the second room and lying Squall on

the bed.


“Those bullets were flanged and poisoned. He’ll need something to

stop the bleeding, and something to stop the poison. ...and something to

counteract the sedative I hit him with to bring him here.”


“Don’t miss a

trick, do you guys?” Nida asked bitterly. “You had everything planned



“<i>He</i> wasn’t supposed to be the one that lived,” Lialla said



“I can tell.”


Lialla turned away, glancing around the room and

locating the supplies she would need. Moving around the room and collecting

the necessary items, she allowed Nida enough time to sneak backwards,

hitting a small button on the wall.


“What are you doing?”


Nida froze,

fingers still brushing the panel as Lialla turned around. “...locking the

door,” he said. “Your Roses aren’t going to be able to keep the SeeDs away

for long, and we can’t afford distractions.”


Lialla watched him for a

moment as if she didn’t believe him, then nodded. “If you’re thinking of

pulling something, the Roses will kill you,” she said. “Probably literally.

We’re all vindictive bitches.”


“Yeah, I know. I won’t try



Lialla seemed to believe him. Turning back to the supplies, she

left Nida to finish his work. As an afterthought, he locked the door--just

in case she checked.


<i>There, Squall,</i> he thought. <i>I’ve done all I

could. I wish I had knifed Nemo when I had the chance... I wish I had taken

the time to listen to you and report Nemo to someone. But I didn’t, and now

I have to see about putting you back together.</i>


“Hey!” Lialla glanced

at Nida. “How long can it take to lock a door? This guy needs attention.

Help me out here.”


“Coming,” Nida said.


<center>--- - - -



ValHalla raised the wineglass to her lips, staring out at the

snow-covered island. She had decided not to go the the Festival--mostly on

the fact that she had managed to alienate most of the senior staff, and she

would rather not destroy their Festival as well. So she was left here,

staring out at Balamb Town and waiting for the pair of lights that would

signal the Tribunal Inspector’s car coming towards Garden. She was drifting

rather far into her thoughts, not anticipating any interruption, so it came

as a bit of a surprise when the intercom crackled to life behind



<i>“What are you doing?”</i>


ValHalla turned to give the intercom a

quizzical look. Moving over to hit the <b>SPEAK</b> button, she paused as

more conversation filtered through the intercom. <i>“...locking the door.

Your Roses aren’t going to be able to keep the SeeDs away for long, and we

can’t afford distractions.”</i>


ValHalla almost jumped. That was

<i>Nida’s</i> voice. Moving her hand away from the speak button, she

decided to listen for a bit more. Something was going on.


<i>“If you’re

thinking of pulling something, the Roses will kill you. Probably literally.

We’re all vindictive bitches.”</i>


<i>“Yeah, I know. I won’t try



ValHalla started in alarm. This didn’t sound



<i>“Hey! How long can it take to lock a door? This guy needs

attention. Help me out here.”</i>


<i>“Coming.”</i> A pause. <i>“Hyne.

What did your goon </i>do<i> to him?”</i>


<i>“If you call Nemo a goon

again, </i>I’ll<i> kill you. And like I said, he wasn’t </i>supposed<i> to

survive. The only reason I’m trying to help him now is that my orders said

one death tonight, and one death only.”</i>


ValHalla set down the

wineglass. hitting the <b>ID</b> button on the intercom. A mechanized voice

replied <i>Infirmary Surgical Room</i> through a speaker, overriding some of

the conversation.


<i>“--wanted to kill the Commander of



<i>“He thought is was a good idea at the time.”</i>



good idea? To sneak into Garden, frame his suicide, and then murder him in

front of every other SeeD here?”</i> Nida’s voice was clearly angry, and

the voice that responded to him was equally so.


<i>“It wasn’t my idea. It

was </i>his<i> plan! And it would have worked, if your goddamn

</i>Commander<i> hadn’t hit him in a weak spot!”</i>


<i>“And this is

somehow less fair than your using flanged bullets and poison?”</i>



you to hell, Nida. Get me a scalpel and a pair of tweezers.”</i> There

were the faint sounds of someone moving, and then more speech. <i>“You

might not believe this, but Nemo’s meant a lot to the Roses. He couldn’t

ever join, but he was always there for us. That’s why we tried to help him

so much. It’s not going to go over well that he got killed by a



Nida’s voice dripped so much sarcasm that ValHalla could imagine

it pooling on the floor. <i>“Oh, yeah. And you know, if you managed to

kill one of ours we would all rejoice and hand you a



There was the sound of something metallic being lifted.

<i>“I lost a guy tonight,”</i> the woman’s voice said. <i>“You might not.

Who seems luckier?”</i>


<i>“Not Squall, that’s for sure,”</i> Nida growled.

<i>“Or Nemo. But Nemo could have saved </i>his<i> sorry life just by not

coming here. What were we supposed to do? We had no



<i>“That’s the way with mercenaries, Nida. Our targets don’t

have choices. You’re guilty of that as much as I am.”</i>


There was

silence, giving ValHalla time to try and absorb the information. Something

bad was happening on the first floor, she could tell that much, at



<i>“Look, do you have any idea what’s happening here? With the

Festival, I mean?”</i> Nida’s voice was suddenly very, very weary.



looked like Christmas when I came,”</i> the second voice said.



Christmas. Look what you’ve done--on Christmas, too. We might both be

mercenaries, but I--and SeeD--would never stoop to doing something like

this. It’s in the SeeD code. No matter what we’re ordered to do, we at

least have respect. You... </i>you<i> walked in and tried to kill him right

in the middle of what </i>should<i> have been a time of joy.”</i>



talk like that, Nida. I can tell when you’re buelshitting your way through

a conversation. You don’t even know what Christmas is, anyway. You’re just

playing at it for the sake of a party.”</i>


<i>“We might not know, but what

are we going to think now? Lialla, if you’re going to hold us at fault for

not really knowing what Christmas means, you had better think back on what

you’ve shown us. You came in, stayed with us for who knows long--long

enough to learn the Festival schedule, at least--then held an entire room

captive as Nemo tried to kill Squall. Yeah, you guys celebrate the holiday.

It that respect, I guess you’d know more about it than I would. But... if

</i>this<i> is how you celebrate it, I can’t say you have much of an



ValHalla nodded. The name <i>Lialla</i> rang a bell--after a

moment, she recalled it from Nida’s dossier. A member of a rival mercenary

group, she recalled--the two had fought against each other in a

misunderstanding in Timber that had ultimately resulted in their both being

taken prisoner and having to work together to escape. When Lialla had

planned to take Nida captive so that her mercenary group would be able to

ransom him back to Garden, Nida had foiled her plan--unfortunately, the way

in which he had foiled it had ended in the failure of both their missions.

It had been a comedy of errors that embarrassed Garden in the eyes of the

other mercenary companies, and resulted in major setbacks to the Timber

Liberation Front.


If Lialla’s company had suffered similarly, it was no

surprise that they would try to assassinate a top-ranking member of Garden’s

staff. There were still bits and pieces of the conversation that didn’t

make sense, but ValHalla was beginning to get an idea of what was going on

two levels below her. Squall would have been in the ballroom--along with

most of the rest of Garden. The mercenaries had come in, managing to hold

the unarmed SeeDs at bay as someone had attacked Squall. How he had

defended himself was unsure, but somehow he had survived and for whatever

reason was now being treated in the Infirmary--by one of the people sent to

kill him.


>From the sound of it, Nida and Lialla were alone in the

infirmary--which meant that the rest of the mercenaries had to be somewhere

on the ring, in the Quad, or outside. And there <i>had</i> to be more

mercenaries--there was no way to hold an entire roomful of SeeDs, armed or

not, at bay with merely one or two people. Thinking for a moment, ValHalla

decided that the most logical course would be to withdraw from the Quad into

the main ring, fortifying the entrance to the Quad in a way that they could

pick off SeeDs coming down the natural bottleneck formed by the adjoining



Meaning that Garden had--in effect--been taken hostage.


There was

more conversation audible over the intercom, but she ignored it. Moving to

the massive computer in the corner of the room, she punched in her ID and

passcode. A screen came up, and she navigated into the Paramagical Reserve

link. Hitting the <b>WITHDRAW</b> option, she glanced at the menu it

brought up.







-ATTACK TYPE</b></u>


Selecting <i>attack type,</i> she

scrolled through the menu until she found a long-range multi-target Fire GF

named <i>Lammasu</i> that seemed as if it might have a fair compatability to

her. Placing her hand on the paramagic padd next to the terminal, she felt

the almost electric jolt as the GF junctioned itself to her. Turning, she

pulled her trenchcoat off the wall and put it on on top of her SeeD dress



<i>Time to do some negotiation with the leader,</i> she thought,

stepping into the elevator and hitting the button that would take her to the

first floor.



It seemed like hours had passed,

but Lialla was sure that not even one could have elapsed. Leaning against

the wall of the infirmary office, she tried to dry her hands with the cloth

she had found. She had been able to scrub in the back room, but she could

swear that the stink of blood and poison still clung to her skin. She felt

drained--both physically and emotionally. The fight and the argument with

Nida had taken more out of her than she had realized.


Glancing behind her,

she noticed Nida was still working on something--probably casting the SeeD’s

broken leg. Glancing around, she slipped out the infirmary doors and into

the hall, hoping to make a discreet exit.


She knew something was wrong from

the moment she stepped into the halls. Two of the Roses should have been

waiting for her--instead, the halls seemed completely deserted. Hand moving

to her sidearm, she glanced around the halls.


“Janya!” she called softly,

accompanying it with a piercing bird whistle. An answering whistle came

from off to her left, and she jogged down to the entrance to the Quad where

Janya and a pair of other girls were standing. “What’s going on?” she



“Nothing,” Janya said. “A few SeeDs tried to get out once, but

we fired a few warning shots and they retreated. Everyone is down the hall

in the ballroom. I don’t trust it at all--it’s been pretty quiet.”



are Chanse and the others?”


Janya shrugged. “I haven’t seen them. There

were some strange noises earlier--sounded like someone came down off the

elevator--but I had to guard this place, so I couldn’t check. If they were

attacked, I would assume that they withdrew to outside.”


Lialla glanced

behind her. <i>“We’re</i> withdrawing,” she said. “Come on.”



nodded, and the four turned and jogged for the exit. Bursting out of the

Garden and into the cool air, they slowed. Crusted snow crunched under

their feet, but it was the only sound in the cold night. The sky was

completely open--nothing shone in the darkness but the moon and the stars.

Coupled with the expanse of unbroken snow spreading across the

Balamb-Alcauld Plains, it should have been a sight of breathtaking



“Lialla?” one of the girls asked softly. Lialla glanced at





“It’s... about Nemo.” The girl took a breath. “Are we just

going to leave him there?”


Lialla grimaced. “Once the soul is gone, the

body is just an empty shell,” she replied. “Let them burn it or bury it, I

don’t care which.”


“They’ll be glad to hear that,” said a voice, clear as a

clarion in the still night. All four Roses turned, drawing their weapons to

point them at the stranger approaching them from the side. Somehow, she had

managed to escape their detection.


Lialla was the first to speak. “Who the

hell are you?” she demanded.


The woman crossed her arms, looking straight

at Lialla. “I should be asking you that,” she replied. “You’re the ones on

<i>my</i> island.”


Lialla and the other three exchanged a glance.


“My name

is Denalek ValHalla,” the stranger said. “I run this place. I hear you

girls have been creating quite a stir.”


Lialla grimaced. “ValHalla,” she

said. “The infamous Guro dupe.”


“I’ve always known who I served,” ValHalla

countered. “Anyway, they wouldn’t like you calling them that. They’re

called the Tribunal now--and you had better remember it, if you want to



“Since when did the Guro-Shumi control SeeD?” Lialla asked.



of their own was the founding Garden Master,” ValHalla explained. “Now that

he’s dead, they decided to adopt SeeD as their own. I would suggest not

messing too much with us, but....”


“Word travels fast, huh?” Lialla



“You have your friend Nida to thank for that,” ValHalla responded.

“He hit the call button on the intercom. I could hear almost everything you



“Then you know your Commander is out of commission for a bit,”

Lialla said.


“Incidentally, that’s what I came out here to talk to you



Lialla nodded sharply. “I hope he dies,” she snarled.


“No doubt

you do. But I’d like to tell you something. An appeal to your humanity...

if you have any.”


“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” Lialla snapped.

“Whatever it is, I already don’t care.”


“I think you do.” ValHalla glanced

across the four Roses, making an disarming gesture. “You can put your guns

away. Or don’t you think you can take on one woman by the side of the



“Don’t relax,” Lialla said, still keeping her gun trained on

ValHalla. “She forced everyone else to withdraw. She has some trick up her



ValHalla raised both hands. “I have nothing except a few words,”

she said.


“Then spit them out.”


ValHalla nodded, digging her hands back

into her pockets. “I’m not sure how to start this,” she said, “but I guess

I can start here: while you were talking with Nida, I remember the issue of

timing came up. Nida wasn’t very happy that you were doing this over

Christmas. Frankly, I can see his point.”


“If this is going to be a

lecture on ethics, you can shoot yourself,” Lialla said. “We all know the

stories of what you did for the Gu--the <i>Tribunal</i>--during the

Sorceress Wars. If you were really that ruthless at our age, you don’t have

any right to speak.”


“I’ve faced judgment for what I did. I’m willing to

at any time, in any court. What I want to say is that I hope you won’t turn

out like I did. ...consider it the sentiment of a guilt-ridden



Lialla sneered.


“I’m going to tell you something,” ValHalla said,

continuing through Lialla’s obvious distaste. “It’s about Garden... or

rather, it’s about Garden’s future. I’d like you to know that tonight or

tomorrow--perhaps even as we speak--an inspector from the Tribunal is

coming. His job is simple: to assess whether Garden is capable of running

itself. If he finds it not to be so, we’re either going to taken over or

terminated. What do you think he’ll say when he sees our Commander lying in

the infirmary, almost dead? What do you think he’ll say about tonight? It

won’t be pretty, I can say that. What do you think will happen? You’ll

have destroyed Garden.”


“So?” Lialla spat on the ground. “I hate Garden.

I hate your reputation, your popularity, I hate your goddamn

holier-than-thou stance on <i>everything.</i> What do I care if it



ValHalla nodded. “I expected that answer from you. Which makes

what I’m about to ask even harder.”


“Make it quick.”


ValHalla sighed. “We

get so few people around Garden that are prime Commander material,” she

said. “Even so, the Commander has become a vital part of our operations

here. What will the inspector say about the lack of a Commander--or,

potentially even worse, a Commander we scratched up from the dregs of our

student pool? I can’t let Commander Leonhart’s... incapacity hinder us, but

there’s quite simply no one else in Garden with the kind of... experience in

the position that he’s had.”


“Get to the damn point, dupe.”


“My point is

that we need a secondary Commander for the Inspection, and you owe us

big-time. I’d like you to fill the position. Hyne knows you’re Commander



Lialla could only stare. Finally, she slowly shook her head.

“You’re mad,” she said.


“Am I?” ValHalla glanced at her quizzically.

“That’s what they used to tell me in the War. I don’t think it was

madness--just an unusual kind of sanity. I have my reasons for asking, and

my reasons for assuming you’ll comply.”


“I really doubt anything you say

will change my mind.”


“Within everyone there exists at least one deep

emotional well. I figure you have to have some kind of compassion in there



Lialla had almost said <i>Not anymore</i> when she caught



“At least listen, so that I can feel I was given a fair



“Make. It. Quick.” Every word Lialla spit out was tinged with



ValHalla tucked one hand behind her back, gesturing vaguely with the

other. “I heard you say in your conversation with Nida,” she started, “that

we were all mercenaries. Therefore, I think you must know what this means.

You know how we have the best and the greatest scum of the earth, how we’re

a ragtag bunch but that we can stick together. I’ve only been here a matter

of days, and I’ve already seen that attitude in these SeeDs. You’ll also

know that we can’t be ordered around for just anything--we might hire

ourselves out, but there’s an independence that goes with that. We’re not

part of a standard army... we’re not grunts, we’re individuals, and we know

that. That’s why we’re mercenaries. Do you understand?”


Lialla nodded.

“Yeah,” she said roughly. “I understand.”


“Then you can understand what it

would do to these people to be shut down,” ValHalla said. “What can they

do? Mercenary work is a disreputable profession. We might find jobs with

other companies, but most--like you--hate us. We might find normal jobs,

but we’d always be the ex-<i>mercs.</i> Always and unconditionally the

black sheep. Most likely, we’d be pressed into standard armies. Can you

imagine that? It’s the worst fate a merc can dream up. There are hundreds

of people in that building--” ValHalla gestured to the Garden, “--and

they’re all hanging on a favorable review from the inspector. The Guro

don’t care--they don’t understand. They’re too far removed. We’re nothing

but a profitable venture to them. But you... I can’t see you willingly

sentencing all those people to that kind of a hell.”


Lialla lowered her

gun. “I can see your point,” she said, “but I’m not convinced. You talk a

lot, but I still can’t see why--apart from my poor bleeding heart--I should

help you.”


ValHalla sighed a deep sigh. “What else is there to say?” she

asked. “...except for the obvious?”


“Obvious?” Lialla asked.



obvious.” ValHalla tilted her head backwards, staring up into the sky.

“That it’s Christmas Eve, and that this should be a time of giving, of

sharing joy and hope. That we’ve all had enough sorrow and misery and

fighting and despair to last us our whole lives, but that we know we’ll

always have to back into the rough old world. That this time should be a

release from all that, and that we should not <i>now</i> have to fear an

uncertain tomorrow. Thousands of years ago, when the first Christmas came

into being, it was said that all humanity took a tacit vow. On this pair of

days, for once in the year there would be peace. No hatred, no fear. Only

peace, and happiness, and joy.”


For a moment, ValHalla stared up into the

starry expanse. Finally, she looked down at Lialla again.



composed of fools. I was one of them. The presidents and dictators of

every nation have been them. Men and women and elders and even children

have been them. Peace? Peace means nothing. It’s a platitude. ...at

least, that’s what I used to think. Until one year... I spent the last year

of the Sorceress War in Esthar, and I met up with some of the most

remarkable people. I had the fortune to spend Christmas with them, and they

tried to make me understand. I didn’t then, but... now? I realize that

I’ve remembered their lesson time and time again through my life.


Maybe it’s just a coincidence. But it’s Christmas, and here I am, talking

to you all. Desert Rose, right?” Lialla nodded stiffly. “I thought so.

Because, see, the people I spent that Christmas with were Desert Roses.

This was long before you came into the profession, of course, but... it is a

striking coincidence, don’t you agree? I never thought that I would be

giving out a speech like the one they used on me, trying to sway others as

they tried to reform me. But life plays the most spectacular games,



There was silence for a long time. Slowly, ValHalla took a

step forward.


“So?” she asked. “Will you help me? ...if not for some

sense of compassion, then for the spirit of Christmas at least?”



silence. The silence was intense.


A hare bounded across the hard snow,

leaving no trail behind him. The light from the stars glinted off Garden,

glinted off the snow, glinted off ValHalla’s eyes and buttons. The wind

above them sang softly, never deigning to come below and chill them. In

those moments, there was utter....




Lialla sheathed her

gun. ValHalla looked at her expectantly, and Lialla could see hope in her



“I’ll help,” she.



<i>First came sound.

Faint noises--conversation. Yes, definitely conversation. They were

talking about--


--that wasn’t important. What was important was that they

were </i>talking.<i> And that he could </i>hear<i> them.


Feeling came

next; dull, throbbing pains. Along with the feeling there was smell: the

astringent smell of some disinfectant, along with the clean smell of fresh

sheets. Every smell seemed amplified, in contrast to the muffled voices and

the distant pain.


Lost in the revelation that he was--once again--alive

when there was no logical reason that he should have been, he was content

for several long minutes simply to revel in the sensations, unpleasant as

they might be. It wasn’t for several minutes that he thought of opening his






Light hurt. He raised a hand to his

forehead almost reflexively, and the movement alerted the person sitting on

the stool nearby that he was conscious. There was the rustle of paper as

they put something off to one side, then a hand landed on his



“You recovered faster than we thought you would,” ValHalla said.

Squall moved his hand, trying to make the figures in front of him focus into

one person. After a moment, it worked.


He tried to sit up, and ValHalla

grabbed his arm to help him. Once he was more-or-less vertical, he moved

his hand back to his forehead.


“It’s Christmas evening,” ValHalla informed

him. “You’ve only been out for about a day. Really, you should be glad

that you woke up at al--although you have Nida and Lialla to thank for



Squall shook his head. “The Inspector?” he asked



“A fine young Shumi named GANU. He’s been and gone. You don’t

need to worry--we found someone who could roleplay your part decently

enough. As far as anyone can tell, Garden is in no danger.”



absorbed that for a moment. “And Nemo?” he asked, not sure he wanted to

hear whatever ValHalla had to say.


The Headmaster looked grim, stepping

back to lean against the wall. “Ah,” she said. “Nemo is quite deceased--we

buried him earlier today in the Balamb Mountain Range. And on that

note....” ValHalla took a breath. “I feel I need to apologize to you in

regards to some of the assumptions I made in relation to this whole...



“That’s not necessary,” Squall responded softly. He really didn’t

want to be put into a situation more awkward as any of the ones he had

already been put into.


“I think it is,” ValHalla said. “I haven’t been

here for long, and as a result I... made some conclusions which I can now

see as erroneous. From the beginning of my tenure in this position, I seem

to have made misassumption after misassumption. I would like you to know

that I feel the deepest regret for all of them.”


Squall shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t hold you at fault.”


ValHalla smiled

dryly. “You’re too kind,” she said. “And I mean that literally. I don’t

know how I’ll ever learn to get along with you, Commander. Especially if

you continue to be so forgiving.”


A surge of annoyance passed through

Squall. “What do you want?” he asked sullenly. “I can’t hold grudges



“I see,” ValHalla said. “Not even against those who hurt



Squall made an indefinite noise.


“What do you think of Nemo?”

ValHalla queried.


Squall was silent for a moment. “He took the actions

which he thought were right,” he said. “It was regrettable that I was

forced to kill him.”


ValHalla shook her head. “I don’t know how you can

think that way,” she said. “In my entire life, I’ve never been in a

position where that kind of attitude was possible.” Sighing, she folded her

arms across her chest. “I suppose that if I’m expected to live and work

here, I had better begin to change my ways. And what a day to reform--don’t

you agree?”


Squall looked away.


ValHalla moved out of the room for a

moment, coming back in with a pair of crutches. “You have a pretty nasty

fracture in your leg,” she said, “and it wasn’t helped at all by dragging

you to the infirmary. We have it immobilized, but it’s going to take a

while before you can put any weight on it. Take these.”


Squall took the

crutches as ValHalla handed them to him, shifting himself out of the bed and

onto their support. As he stood he could feel the bandages wrapped around

the majority of his chest tighten, and he took a moment to steady himself

and breathe. Turning, he looked at ValHalla. “I’d like to get back to

work,” he informed her.


ValHalla shook her head. “Amazing,” she said.

“You can have an incredibly one-track mind at times. Do you have any memory

at all of the events of the last week or so? I would have to imagine you’re

due for a vacation.”


Squall frowned. “I don’t feel I need one,” he



“Humor me.” ValHalla moved out of the room, motioning Squall to

follow her. “If you were to return to work, I’d feel that I would need to

as well. And this is still Christmas--Garden needs a day off, and so do

you. Remember, they were there in that ballroom too. Garden needs to

relax--get over yesterday’s events. And as Commander of Garden, you need to

set an example.”


Stepping out into the halls, ValHalla glanced around.

“Ms. Tilmett is disappointed,” she said. “As you can understand, the

Festival didn’t go as well as it should have. It’s kind of hard to keep

people cheery when their leader’s just been shot and they’re holed up in a

ballroom with gunmen waiting outside. When Nida announced that you would

recover fairly quickly we managed to organize the rest of the Festival, but

it was somewhat lackluster. The celebration has continued, but....”

ValHalla gave Squall a small smile. “It will be good for Garden to see that

you can put what happened behind you so easily. If <i>you</i> can,

especially since you were the victim, then logic would follow that they



Squall didn’t quite know how to respond, so he merely



Someone called his name from further down the hall, and Squall

looked up to see Selphie racing toward him. This time, he stood his ground

as she slowed to a stop in front of him.


“You’re all right!” she crowed.

“I’m so glad! We were all worried--”


“Selphie,” ValHalla broke in.

Selphie made a visible effort to control her emotions.


“I’m glad that

you’re better,” she said. “Are you going to come back to the Festival? We

really want you to be there....”


Squall looked at ValHalla, who nodded.

“I’ll leave you to your own devices,” she said. Almost as an afterthought,

she gave a SeeD salute and said “Thank you.” Then she walked off, leaving

Squall to wonder what she had meant.


“Come on!” Selphie said. “You haven’t

been to <i>any</i> of the festivities yet--”


Squall sighed, guessing

that--after ValHalla’s example--he should probably give some apology for

acting as he had during the past days. “...I’m sorry, Selphie,” he started

uncertainly. “I haven’t bothered to get presents or read up on the holiday

or anything. I guess I haven’t been much help....”


“What?” Selphie

blinked at him, then shook her head. “No, that wasn’t what I meant <i>at

all!”</i> Taking a step forward, she extended her hands in what was almost

a beseeching gesture. “Squall, you don’t have to worry about whether or not

you helped! We just want you to enjoy yourself. And if you’re worried

about presents, then... then don’t be! Everyone knows that you give more to

Garden than anyone else. We don’t need you to get gifts for people.

Anyway, Christmas isn’t about the gifts! It’s about the spirit... the

spirit of joy, and of hope, and of love....”


Tears were beginning to form

in Selphie’s eyes, but she was smiling at the same time. Squall glanced

away, uncomfortable, and the next thing he knew Selphie, in all her

boundless enthusiasm, had thrown her arms around him.


“Merry Christmas,

Squall,” she said softly. Squall stiffened, but felt himself almost

involuntarily relax. For reasons beyond his immediate comprehension, he

almost began to smile.


“Merry Christmas,” he whispered








First of all, I would like to thank you for reading all the

way though this monster. So, thank you for reading all the way through this



Now that that’s done, I think I need to clarify some of the points

in the plot. I had intended to explain all of these in the fic, but

pressures of time and story flow forced me to omit them. So, here are the

bits of backplot you missed out on:


<b>The Guro</b>--The Guro are a clan of

Shumis living in Trabia--not the same clan you visit in the game, however.

These Shumis would be like... the Shumi underworld. The crime lords. NORG

was a Guro, and when he got killed the Guro weren’t very happy. SeeD wasn’t

very happy either, considering they now had no source of funds--you’ll

remember that NORG financed Garden--and so they were forced to make a deal

with the Guro. The Guro took over SeeD, getting them supplies and the like

while making use of their SeeDs for free missions, and Cid retired--you’ll

remember that he didn’t like NORG. Thus, realizing the need for a new

Headmaster, the Guro send....


<b>ValHalla</b>--ValHalla is a South Estharan

war criminal. She ran around Esthar and the surrounding areas doing

distasteful and highly unethical/immoral/illegal work in the Sorceress War

of seventeen years before the game, working for the Guro all the time. She

developed a status as Esthar’s Most Wanted, but was pardoned by Laguna--who

couldn’t handle the influx of war criminals into the judicial system. His

decision to pardon her was also based on the fact that she had been

partially reformed by....


<b>Desert Rose</b>--A South-Estharan mercenary

company of good reputation. Exclusively female. They accept international

jobs, bringing them into contact with a wide range of people and events.

They hate SeeD because SeeD is better-funded, more professional, and more

renowned; even though the quality of the Desert Rose work only lags behind

by the slightest percentage. Lialla, one of their more renowned members,

was a key part of....


<b>The “Incident”</b>--Nida’s black spot on his

record. Two separate resistance groups in Timber hired two different

mercenaries from two separate corps to do the same job: disable the

Galbadian Military Adjunct CPU Server in Timber. One of the mercenaries was

Nida, and the other was Lialla. Neither knew the other had been hired.

Lialla ran into Nida while Nida was trying to hack into the server,

unfortunately coming at a time when Nida had activated a countdown timer and

had about thirty seconds to type in the password he discovered before

security was called. Each one <i>assumed</i> that the other was a Galbadia

counterespionage agent, and Nida managed to convince Lialla that he was a

Galbadian maintenance worker checking to see if the self-sealing stem bolts

were working optimally. Sure he was a Galbadian, Lialla took him hostage.

Then the security arrived and threw them both in jail. They worked together

to escape, but after they were out Lialla tried to take Nida hostage

again--this time so that she could ransom him back to Garden. Nida escaped

by turning her over to Galbadian authorities and running off on his

own--unwittingly alerting the Galbadian police in that area to his escape.

Further missions were rendered impossible, Nida was redalled to Garden, and

in general the mission was a terrible failure; partially discrediting both

Garden and Desert Rose. Lialla and Nida detest each other to this day.

Lialla, in fact, only managed to escape with the help



<b>Nemo</b>--Nemo was at the Orphanage at the same time as Squall &

company. He had heart problems, but was just as much a bully as Seifer.

Once, he got into a fight with Squall. Squall punched him in the chest,

damaging the blood flow to his brain. As a result of this Nemo went, well,

kinda insane; deciding to kill Squall. He’s kept up his quest for several

years. By helping Desert Rose on several occasions, he managed to secure

their friendship and their help. He never Junctioned a GF, so his memory

remains good enough for him to recognize Squall & company on sight. He also



<b>Latin</b>--I’m considering Latin the official language of the

old Centra continent. Here’s a brief rundown of the Latin used in the



<i>Nemo Audet</i> means Nobody Dares. Audet means (he/she/it) dares,

with the pronoun implied, and Nemo means nobody.


<i>Cum amore aeterno</i>

means with eternal love. Cum is with, amore is love, and aeterno is

eternal. Amor and aeternus are both in ablative--and if you don’t know what

ablative is, you don’t want to. It’s scary Latin grammar-type



<i>Duodecimo die post idus</i> means the Twelfth day after the

Ides. The Ides are the fifteenth day of some months and the thirteenth of

others, such as December. Don’t ask me why. Crazy



<i>Carissime</i> means Dearest. It’s what you say to someone you

love deeply.


Anyway, all of this Latin stuff can get really confusing.

Almost as confusing as....


<b>The Instructions</b>--What’s not to be

confused about...? “I found a time and place: In the IV, on 31{go Oct to

Dec}mas Eve. Big party. Hope to see you and your friends there. Should be

a <u>kickass</u> date.”

<i>In the IV</i>--In the Quad.


<i>31{go Oct to Dec}</i>--31 in Octal (base-eight) is 25 in

Decimal (base-ten). Dec is also the abbreviation for December, and on Dec.

25 Christmas occurs. (Thus the joke--why do math geeks get Christmas

confused with Halloween? Because Oct31=Dec25! Lol ^_~)

<i>You and your

friends</i>--Lialla and the rest of the Desert Rose group

<i>Should be a

<u>kickass</u> date</i>--obviously, they’re going to kick Squall’s ass.

Didn’t quite work out like they had planned, though... maybe they shouldn’t

have been such bad girls and boy on....

<b>Christmas</b>--I’ve always

felt that the idea of a Christmas fic was kind of incongruous, considering

to the best of my knowledge there’s not even anything remotely approaching

Christianity in the game. This raised a problem--how was I supposed to

write a holiday fic if there wasn’t a holiday?


Then I came up with this



We have this ancient, powerful Empire that was wiped out a bit

ago--why not have <i>them</i> have some holiday called Christmas? And we’ve

already seen that they used Latin, just like the Church does (it was called

Centra, for crying out loud! What better word for the central continent?),

and they have an influence around the world, having founded both Esthar and

Dollet. Then Selphie, in her quest to find a Winter Festival theme,

stumbles upon it. Hey, it works... kinda........


Of course, there was a

problem. The problem lay mainly in the fact that there was no problem. In

other words, no problem=no moving plot. And I <i>really</i> didn’t want to

do the classic “Squall is sad, Christmas comes, Squall learns true meaning

of Christmas” gag. (Of course, that <i>is</i> kind of what turned out

happening, but <i>that’s not the point.</i> And even if it is, I don’t care

anymore.) So, I decided to bring in a few new characters--namely, ValHalla,

Nida and Lialla (I’m counting Nemo more as a plot element than a main

character). We have ValHalla, an exÐwar-criminal trying to reform; Nida, a

cynic who couldn’t care less and is only forced to accept Christmas because

if he didn’t he would go insane because everyone else is too depressing; and

Lialla, another cynic who is arm-twisted into displaying the Christmas

spirit even though she would rather see everyone die a terrible, terrible

death. (Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit here. Poetic license.)


I’m rather

pleased with the result--it turned out better than I thought it would for my

first attempt at writing a holiday fic would. Questions? Comments?

Praise? Flames? Feel free to email them to me at


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