Phase XX: Borders and Bounties
The sky had donned a mixture of oranges and reds as the sun retreated into sparkling sea with the sounds of seagull's squawking above their heads, hovering over the Horizon Bridge. The constant changes in weather during their travels to various parts of the region left Selphie jaded. The ripped up jeans she had on to combat the evening chill from the night before stuck to her sweaty skin now, and she desperately was in need of a proper meal and shower.
The trek to FH had taken another week. From all the walking to hitch hiking, Selphie felt like she'd fall over any minute. Her feet and legs ached, and her back grew stiff from carrying her own pack with her clothing and the gear they had accumulated.
Squall strolled silently in front of her with his black duffel strapped across his body. She half expected him to keep to himself, but secretly hoped that he would open up to her now that they were...closer.
He'd made it obvious that he wasn't ready to talk just yet.
Whenever she tried to pry something out of him, he'd change the subject or simply not respond. From her observations, Squall was quickly growing obsessed with piecing together the factual information they had gathered in recent months and trying to predict Galbadia's next move. One thing became evident in the short time she spent with him; Squall was still a SeeD at heart, handling all this in the same manner he would have on an actual mission.
You can take the man away from SeeD, but you can't take SeeD away from the man.
"That's weird." She heard him say, abruptly stopping his gait. Raising a curious brow, Selphie watched as Squall took in their surroundings and particularly eyed the civilians lined on both sides of the road. "I don't see any Estharians here, do you?"
Selphie couldn't see an Esthari rob anywhere. "Nope. That's is weird."
Squall just frowned, "We should split up. You go talk to Vaughn. See if he can give us an update."
"S-Sure." She said with a hint of uncertainty, "What about you, Squall?"
"I'll go talk to the mayor. I wanna know where he stands in all this."
Selphie waved, dismissively, "He's a pacifist. He won't have an opinion other than keeping the violence out of his city."
Regardless of her objection, Squall started towards the city core where Mayor Dobe's home stood in the centre of the 'Blue Bowl'. "Then I'll give him an opinion. Meet me at the old train station when you're done. We'll talk to James after."
The brunette just sighed in defeat. What do I have to do to get through that stubborn skull of yours?
Winhill, Galbadia/ Raine's Tavern
Yet again he found himself doing this. It wasn't like he was enjoying it this time, and it was even becoming a nasty habit.
The glasses rim touched his lips taking in the amber liquid, washing away the emotions and making his anxiety become fuzzy. Ever since they left Dollet, he took whatever chance he got to drink. In a strange way it soothed his nerves, but it hardly did the trick this time after what had happened a week ago.
Was Zell pissed? Of course he was.
In the dead of night his best friend, or so he thought, ran off without a word. Not only that, SeeDs were under fire again after the mission they failed.
Ring a bell?
It's like whenever we go to Delin' we fuck up, and someone gets hurt. What are we doin'? Does any of this fuckin' matter anymore?
"I think we had a conversation about the drinking, Zell." Selene spoke up finding a spot against the doorframe of the small kitchen leading into the bar area. She made her way over, elbows dropping onto the counter in front of him ready to take his half empty glass away before he went too far.
"Makes shit better." Zell mumbled, eyes staring at the base of the glass in his hands.
"Does not change anything." Selene dealt him a pointed look before sliding the cup out of his reach. "It won't solve your problems. Squall and Selphie still left-"
"You think it's just 'bout that!?" Zell snapped, his fist slamming against the counter. Selene flinched at his sudden burst of anger, but didn't back away, relocating the cup onto the shelf behind her and as far away from him as possible.
"…Sorry." Zell said after a few moments. "I didn't mean…"
"I am sure you did not." Selene replied, her voice on edge.
Zell sighed, "It's just my Ma. I don't want her to go after my Ma."
Selene leaned against the counter again, placing a delicate hand in his gloved ones. "Zell…"
"Last time the sorceress almost blew Balamb to smithereens. Rinoa's after SeeD now. She went after Squall's dad, so who's to say she won't go after Ma, too? I haven't spoken to her in months, and she probably saw the news!"
Selene leveled her gaze with an intense look in her honey colored eyes. "Zell, you are strong. She knows that. The organization may have disbanded, but you are still a SeeD. She believes in you as much as I."
He blinked to that, "…You believe in me?"
She broke into a grin, "More than you know."
Zell pulled away from the counter, "Thanks. I guess I needed that. Y'know, I keep wonderin' why Squall left without me. I mean, aside from Ma, he's like family. Family doesn't just leave like that."
"And if Balamb were targeted, you wouldn't do the same for your mother?" Selene asked, raising a blonde brow.
"I wouldn't even think about it. I'd be on the next train outta here."
"And he would, too." Selene smiled, "Squall does not act like he cares, but he really does. He is just as worried about his father like you are to your mother."
Considering this, Zell leaned back after a few moments, "What you do suppose I do then?"
Picking up his glass off the shelf, Selene made her way back into the kitchen to dump its remaining contents out. "Stop drinking!"
"I didn't agree to that!"
Fisherman's Horizon/Mayor Dobe's Place
"Absolutely not!" the Mayor of FH snapped, slamming his fist against the dinning table. Squall sat across from him and his wife, and they didn't look too pleased to see him again. The last time they talked war was when Balamb Garden had crashed into the side of FH, and the Galbadians had found their way into their city.
He had just finished explaining everything that had happened on either side of the man's country, but Dobe wasn't having any of it.
"Listen," Squall explained, "Two cities were destroyed, and everyone came here. There is an influx of refugees in your country now. How will you sustain these people on your own? This isn't like the last war. You have to chose a side now or you'll be next."
"We will talk to those Galbadians and set them straight. There is no need to fight." His wife protested.
Squall lost his temper, "I've seen it myself! They attacked civilians in Dollet without warning or even being provoked. The same will happen here if you don't act!"
"We have our ways in diplomacy to prevent our involvement in war. Our values state that we negotiate before we draw our weapons unlike you SeeD who sleep with yours." Dobe insulted him, and Squall felt every fiber in his being resisted the urge to throw the untouched porcelain teacup at him from across the table.
"There's a time to negotiate and a time to fight. President Loire of Esthar believed the same as you. That didn't stop Esthar from being blown off the map. Even the strongest of armies are no match for Galbadia and their Sorceress."
Dobe waved him off, stubbornly, "What happened in Esthar was unfortunate, and I do send my condolences to their people, but FH will still remain neutral to Galbadian-Estharian affairs and will continue to take in anybody who is in need of refuge. If the sorceress has an issue with this she can take it up with me herself."
And fuckin' kill you! Squall mentally screamed. He has no idea what he's in for!
"Hypothetically," Squall tried a different approach, "There's nothing stopping her from conquering your city as it serves as a benefit for its geographic location between Galbadia and Esthar. If her men do come and attack this city, like they have before, what's your strategy? Talk to them nicely and get them to leave? With all due respect, that sounds ridiculous from my perspective."
Anger flashed in Dobe's green eyes just then, his face contorted with absolute disgust, "Your perspective means little to us! A military man such as you, Mr. Leonhart, would never fully comprehend the concept of peace. You men thrive for war, you get anxious without it. You came here today to dare me to choose a side? And if I choose opposite of yours? What would you do? Kill me?"
Squall went silent to that. It was a valid question. What would he do if Dobe were stupid enough to choose Galbadia instead of…what? The Underground Association? SeeD? His side?
Dobe hated violence and refused to allow it within his city. He hated SeeD and what they stood for and probably had no idea what the Underground Association even was. It wouldn't surprise him if Dobe were completely oblivious to the presence of both SeeD and the UA living in his own back yard.
"I thought so." The mayor said, slowly standing from his chair, "Now, if you'll excuse me. I have more important matters to tend to than to discuss 'what ifs' with you, Mr. Leonhart."
"I will escort you out." His wife said with a smile.
Squall didn't see how this was amusing; Flo's stupid grin pissed him off even more as he was ushered out the front door.
Growling in frustration, Squall made for the bridge that led out of the Blue Bowl. If Dobe wouldn't listen to him, he needed to find someone who would.
Fisherman's Horizon/Ava's Diner
The door chime sounded and a dark haired man walked into the diner. Selphie sat in a booth at the other end with nothing but an earl grey steeping in front of her.
Vaughn sauntered over and slid into the worn out upholstered seat across from her, his violet eyes suspiciously narrowing into slits, "Ya here with my rug rat?'
Rug rat? Selphie blinked. Oh, he means Riki.
"No," She replied and got straight to the point. "I need to ask you a few questions."
Vaughn raised an amused brow, leaning back against his seat. "Been an agent for a month, and yer already talkin' the talk, eh girlie? Angelus trained ya well."
Selphie frowned, thankful that Squall wasn't here to tolerate his behavior because she knew he wouldn't have been so patient. "What's been going on in FH since we left?"
He gave her an intense look, gears slowly turning in his head. "No Estharians, if that's what ya wanna know."
"None?" Selphie asked intently, sipping at her tea. "Why's that?"
Vaughn took his time, waiting for the waitress strutting by with coffee in hand to get out of earshot. "Nobody's been able to leave the east. Word from the SeeDs is that there's a Galbadian patrolled border crossin' there now. Nobody's allowed in or outta here from that side of the bridge."
Selphie contemplated this for a moment. "How do I get past them?"
"Y-ya wanna do what!?" Vaughn's features twisted into a bewildered expression as if she had gone completely crazy. "Ya wanna get past them? Why!?"
"We need to go to Esthar. How do we get in?"
"Girlie, that's a suicide mission! There's no way. It's a long way to Esthar. Ya won't make it a mile tops! They'll kill yer kind on sight!"
Did she hear him right? "My kind?"
Vaughn leaned in again, but this time he seemed more paranoid that someone around them was listening in. He eyed a fat trucker sitting on a stool at the nearby bar. "What the fuck happened in Deling City with ya kids? All I know is shit got fucked up when Cesar sent ya off to Winhill. Now Caraway's crazy bitch of a daughter's on a SeeD rampage!"
"We didn't do anything! Why would she be after us?"
Vaughn shook his head, looking very uncertain and distraught, "Naw, it ain't a good idea to go there still."
"Vaughn," Selphie rested her forearms on the table with fingers intertwined, whispering to match his hushed tone, "What's going on?"
Instead of explaining, Vaughn pulled out his phone, "Ya need'a watch this."
Fisherman's Horizon/Old Train Station
Inside one of the trains, four of them sat in an old passenger booth. Squall had called a meeting with James, Nida, and another SeeD named Aiden Morgan to discuss their next order of business. Unlike James, Aiden wasn't such a familiar face. He had a tanned complexion, a frame of lean muscle, and a face covered in dark scruff. James referred to him as his 'right wing' of their small band of SeeDs, so Squall already had some respect for Aiden for having to deal with this hothead on a regular basis.
"So," James started, "What's the pleasure of this meetin', commanda?"
"I need to get to Esthar."
"Have you gone bloody mad!?"James instantly burst, "You wanna die, ya crazy asshole?"
Aiden casually waved off James' outburst, his voice composed in his lazy galbadian drawl, "What he means to say is Galbadia has the east border on lockdown. Won't be easy to get through 'em."
"Then we need to figure that out." Squall said. "Nida, any ideas?"
Nida shook his head, "Squall, they're right. You wont make it far."
"What do you suppose I do then!?" Squall shouted. When was the last time SeeD backed out of something like this? They always went on missions that required heightened risks. Fuck, sometimes their men got captured, but they didn't shut down the organization over it.
"How 'bout stay here n' fight when Galbadia comes for us!" James retorted, "They're comin' aren't they? We need our commanda!"
"Our men are being targeted in Esthar. I'm needed there. We need a plan to-"
His eyes shot up over Aiden's head to find Selphie rushing into the car towards them. She completely disregarded all eyes on her, catching her breath before she came out with what Vaughn had just showed her.
"Selphie, slow down." He said, standing up into the aisle.
"We can't go to Esthar!"
Squall just glared down at her, feeling the eyes of his men bore into his back.
James snickered, "Looks like ye girlfriend has a bit of a brain unlike ya, Commanda."
"C'mon, Selphie." Squall demanded, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her away from the others. They got off the train and into the graveyard before Squall swiftly turned on her, "What the hell!?"
"Here!" She exclaimed, pulling out her white Smartphone from the back pocket of her jeans. "You need to see this!"
Squall snatched it from her and pressed play on the video file she got from Vaughn. It buffered for a few moments until he saw Rinoa staring back at him behind a podium. It looked like a press release.
"Good afternoon, citizens of Galbadia. I am Rinoa Heartilly. Daughter of the late President Caraway."
This is the first media appearance since the mansion caught fire! What is she doing?
"Two weeks ago, a tragedy struck the nation. Upon returning from the inauguration ball, my father's home was set ablaze. He unfortunately did not make it." Rinoa paused to take an emotion breath, "He succumbed to his wounds instantly, and when we…found him it was too late. President Caraway was a hard workingman, spending most of his life serving this beautiful country of ours. I, his only daughter and remaining blood relative, have assumed his position to keep his legacy alive."
"I will be taking over office. I will help to bring peace that this country rightfully deserves. Against our enemies that oppose us."
Don't…don't even go there, Rin.
"SeeD." She would have spat the word if not for the formal public appearance, "They have proven to be the ones responsible for the violence that refuses to dissipate. They cannot live without it! They have taken my father, my home, and even my closest friends. They want control; they want us to fear them!"
The crowd in front of her started cheering, agreeing and hanging onto every word, every lie Rinoa told.
"I come here to give you a solution." She pressed on, "We will not stop until everyone of them is rightfully prosecuted under Galbadian law. In order to do this, we must take down the one in charge; the one who brought victory to the SeeDs two years ago, who committed crimes, but was not properly tried by our justice system."
He knew what came next before she could even say it.
"Squall Leonhart, former SeeD Commander, is wanted for his crimes and the murder of Zone Frane and my father in cold blood. If seen, please report to the authorities. We need men like him off the streets to protect us and the people we love!" The crowd roared as she continued to shout over them to finish off her message. Squall cut the video short, feeling sick to his stomach. He pushed Selphie's cell phone into her hand, walking past her to get some air.
He killed Zone? Zone killed himself. He killed her father? Squall had never even stepped foot into the mansion before it burned to the ground.
And Rinoa was blaming SeeD for this? She was blaming him for this!?
It was true that SeeD was created to kill sorceresses; that was SeeD's original intent before it turned into a military academy. She was a sorceress that lived among them behind the walls of Garden, in a place where the people who were designed to kill her kind lived and trained.
Squall inhaled sharply, struggling to gather his senses. He found himself staring out at the water now, Selphie's voice muffled and drowned out by his thoughts. We protected her regardless. I protected her with my life…and this is what I get!
I should have kept her there. I shouldn't have broken her out of that seal. If I just…
This is all my fault, and I have to set things straight!
"This changes nothing." He finally spoke, eyes trained on the setting sun disappearing into the sparkling ocean.
"Squall, we can't go there!" She pleaded with him.
"Why?" Squall snapped, turning to her.
"Did you not just watch that video?"
"Look, if you're getting second thoughts, please, let me know right now."
"I can't fuckin' believe this. You guys are too scared going against the enemy?" Scoffing bitterly, he just shook his head, "You of all people should be on board with this!"
"You're not listening to me!" Selphie screamed.
"You told me to give you a chance." His voice depicting no significant emotion, "So, when the going gets tough you back out? I should have known you'd do this."
He's questioning my loyalty!? My competence!? How dare you!
It became incredibly evident that his trust issues ran deeper than she thought. As quickly as he could bring his defenses down, Squall could build them right back up just as easily.
"You cross that border, you get arrested. You get caught, and they'll execute you!"
Squall stared right back at her for a few moments before an odd smirk appeared on his lips.
"Then I got an idea."
After filling them in on Selphie's findings, Aiden carefully processed the information before turning to James. "Yer still cool with the sheet metal manufacturer?"
Selphie and Squall exchanged perplexed glances.
James just leaned back in his seat, "Ye, he n' I go back some, why?"
Aiden allowed a small grin, turning back to his commander, "Ya guys don't gotta worry 'bout a thing. Let me 'n James take care of the rest."
"One problem." Nida interjected, "They know what you look like now, Squall. You're face is gonna be everywhere in a matter of hours."
"Hey, Aiden, you gotta set of clippers?"
Squall's eyes flashed into the mirror in front of him, ignoring the large crack in it as well as the nasty bathroom he was standing in. The stalls were busted inwards, doors threatening to fall off their hinges, and toilet paper was strung up like streamers or molded against the floor and ceiling.
A man stared back at him, and Squall tried to familiarize himself with his appearance.
Squall Leonhart, the SeeD Commander, was always a man of duty and could recite any paragraph in the SeeD manual from memory. He was stoic, taciturn, and introverted. He held friends at arms length and never asked for help. He was a SeeD, a member of Balamb Garden's elite special forces.
This man wasn't Squall Leonhart anymore.
He had no duty; he had no policies to recite. There wasn't a manual for this new life he led. The only rule he followed was to gather information and keep his mouth shut. He wasn't going to share the same fate as Zone, and he refused to die at the hands of his allies and enemies.
He wasn't just a SeeD anymore; he was a wanted criminal, a rebel fighter, and a UA agent.
Slowly lifting his shirt, he whipped away any stray hairs from his face and neck. Before its helm dropped to his waist, he caught sight of the faded lines of his tattoo on his left ribcage. The dark lines curled and twisted around the black and white emblem. The SeeD logo. He once wore it with pride, but now it was something that could have him killed.
Now it held a different meaning. It represented where he came from, his eternal allegiance for the fallen organization, and who he had become.
Squall had grown in a layer brown scruff on his jaw and upper lip from lack of grooming materials during his travels. His usual unruly brown locks were just discarded strands in the sink now. The buzz of the clippers ceased as he pulled them away to inspect his work. A hand ran across the side of his head, feeling the prickly strands tease his palm and tousle through the longer ones at the top that naturally spiked up.
After cleaning himself, he made his way outside to join the rest of the SeeDs around the bonfire. He found a spot on an old wooden crate, watching some of them dance and sing to the song blaring through the speaker system.
Selphie was among them; her hair had gone wavy from the sea salt and moisture carried in the air. She hung off a blonde girl's shoulders, assuming that she made a new friend.
"Ain't that quite the sight?" James chuckled and plopped down next to him with two freshly opened beers in hand, offering one to Squall. "Nice haircut. I quite like the rugged look ya have goin' on."
"Whatever." He took a sip and continued watching Selphie who now laughed hysterically at a joke with Aiden and Nida.
"She's a keepa, ya know."
Squall frowned, "Excuse me?"
James smirked, "Ya really are dense, mate." When Squall didn't answer, the SeeD clapped him on the shoulder.
What do you know anyway?
"She's in love with ya." He chuckled, "Maybe ye can't see it, but a gal's gotta be a bit dim to go behind enemy lines with a guy who's got a bounty on his head, yeah?"
He choked on his beer to that.
She made a huge deal about not going to Esthar. And I accused her of backing out. She got mad. Hasn't talked to me since…
Squall quickly regained his composure, ignoring James' hearty laughter. "Ya don't know much 'bout women, do ya?"
Crap, maybe he's right.
A giggle brought him out of this thoughts, and Squall looked up to see the blonde female SeeD standing over James with a coy smile on her face. The man grabbed the girl's extended hand getting to his feet.
"See? They're marvellous things, aren't they?"
Watching them saunter off to the fire, Squall located Selphie again who was in a deep conversation with Aiden.
She had come with Squall regardless of his protests, determined to help him through this. Over the past few months, all Selphie wanted to do was care for him, but as much as he pushed her away she wouldn't relent.
Did he love her back? He wasn't so sure yet.
He was definitely attached to her, and that scared the shit out of him.
The fear of abandonment nearly paralyzed him then, and he wasn't willing to go through that all over again. It was a dangerous situation, to fall in love with his comrade and fight along side her as well.
And that didn't end well the last time.
This was a mistake.
Tapping her on the back, Selphie turned, and her eyes immediately took in his new appearance.
"We need to talk." Squall said over the music.
Squall had taken her to a room on the second floor of the main building of the train station. Old bedding had been prepared for them in the corner next to a large window. The mixture of moonlight and the bonfires glow illuminated the space, but blocked out the sounds from down below.
Selphie pressed her back against the wall, arms crossed over her chest. Squall stood silently for a few moments, trying decide where to start.
She broke the silence first in an attempt to lighten the mood, "Nice haircut. Looks good, I really like it."
He was thankful for the dim lighting as it hid the flush in his cheeks. Squall scratched his head. "Look, I just need to know what's going on here."
Selphie blinked, "You and I both."
"Are you coming or not?"
She scoffed bitterly, "I can't believe you!"
Noting the perplexed look he was giving her, Selphie stomped around him with her hands in the air. "I try to tell you because I actually care about what happens to you, and then you go and throw it in my face like I'm some kinda coward or somethin'!"
"Selphie, I didn't mean it that way-"
"Didn't mean it!?" She echoed with more force, "Sounded like you did!"
"I don't think you're a coward."
She shifted her weight anxiously to that, "I get why you're the way you are, but not telling me things isn't gonna help either. I can't read you're mind!"
"You sound like everyone I've ever met." He frowned.
After a few moments he hesitated, "I…don't know what to do, okay?"
"Fuck," he shook his head, uncertainly. "I didn't want any of this. One minute I'm being dragged out to one of Zell's 'nights out' and the next I'm in the middle of a war." His legs grew weak under him, his body finally beckoning him to get some much-needed rest. Selphie sank to his side on the mattress.
His eyes trained ahead of him into the darkness, "People died, they lost their homes, their families…for what?"
Her fingers trailed through his hair soothingly, "Is all this even worth it?"
"All this? You mean, going to Esthar?" she asked.
His eyes were on her now, "Is it worth dying for?"
"We're SeeDs." She just said, knowing that's what he would say if the tables were turned. Regardless, Selphie didn't want to go to Esthar if that meant Squall's life was on the line. There was truth in her words though; they were designed to fight when the situation called for it. Disbanded or not, it was their duty.
Shaking his head, Squall pulled away and made for the dusty old window that overlooked his men who still sang and danced, carefree of what was going on in the world right now.
"If I get caught, Selphie," Squall's tone was low and tired, "They're gonna kill me."
So, he was listening. She thought.
"If you get caught, they're gonna accuse you of being my accomplice. Once they find out you're a SeeD, they'll kill you, too."
Standing up to meet him, she got the feeling that there was no turning back. Eating her words, he wasn't the only one with a change of heart. She had to give him her answer. "If you're still going, I am too."
An aggravated sigh escaped his lips, "You still have a chance. You can stay here, or go back to Winhill, or even Trabia. You can go home, Selphie."
"What home?" She spoke softly, "I don't have anywhere else to go."
"Don't get involved in this." He whispered, eyes deep into hers, "I can handle this on my own so as long as I know you're safe."
Their fingers loosely intertwined, "I can't do that, Squall."
"Why? Why do this then?"
Her forehead pressed his, closing her eyes, "No matter how I feel about this, I'm doing this for you because…"
Pressing a hand to her cheek, his calloused fingers brushed her skin. She could feel his breath grow ragged, like he was desperately trying to control himself.
"At the end of it all, no matter what side wins, I want us to be together when it all falls apart." She finished and felt his lips meet hers.