Chapter 1

Dr. Kadowaki walked with a purpose through the hallways of Balamb Garden. A rather heavy-set woman in her very late forties, she was the savior of the infirmaries in Garden. She was partly a counselor to the SeeDs that ended up in her office for injuries ranging from training mishaps to rolled ankles, since she exhibited the motherly attention that she felt that all kids needed, no matter how old or self-sufficient they appeared to be. A kid, in her book, was anyone younger than her, which basically meant that nobody was free from the watchful eye of Kadowaki.
Because of her reputation as being the best doctor at Balamb and arguably one of the best on the continent, it was very rare that she was seen outside of her office or the Infirmary. She busied herself constantly, training new adepts and still managing to be an active force in her patients' lives. It was where she felt most comfortable, helping to mend the aches and pains of physical wounds while trying to solve any emotional problems that were frequent in young people that could be behind most of the injuries she encountered. But for the first time in a very long time, Dr. Kadowaki found herself driven by a force that nearly threatened to burst forth from her chest, and she couldn't sit down idly.
She ignored the odd and shocked looks that random students were giving her, knowing she had no time to be distracted. She approached the elevator in the center of the institution and walked in without a pause as the doors slid open and deposited a couple of cadets to the first floor lobby. Mashing the relatively unused button that would let her off on the 3rd floor, the doctor felt like it was taking longer than usual for it to get there. Ah, you're just working yourself up into a fuss. It'll get there when it does.
Nevertheless, she let out a grateful sigh and marched herself down to the double mahogany doors that would grant her passage to the headmaster's office and was in the middle of reaching for one of the doorknobs when an arm reached out to block her progress. Looking up to the person who was denying her with a scrutinizing gaze, she inwardly smirked when the young man swallowed uncertainly in response.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'm afraid that the Headmaster isn't accepting walk-ins at the moment."
"Well, he's just gonna have to be dealing this one whether he's 'accepting' it or not." Dr. Kadowaki moved her gray eyes back down to the hand that was still in front of her. "Didn't I fix up your sprained finger last week? Why aren't you wearing that brace I gave you?"
The SeeD coughed and withdrew his hand quickly. "Ah, well... it was feeling a lot better, Dr. Kadowaki, so I figured-"
"So you figured you were too cool to be seen with your finger in a brace, I got it," she finished, shutting him up. "Well, tell you what. You can go ahead and do what you want to do, but if I see you in my office with that same finger sticking out from your hand at some odd angle again, I'll glue that brace in place, ya hear?"
Looking completely admonished and quite pitiful, the young man nodded solemnly. "Yes, Dr. Kadowaki."
Feeling pleased with herself, she turned back to the door in front of her. "Good. Now, if you'll excuse me." She slipped inside before the SeeD could get back to remembering why he stopped her in the first place.

Once inside, the doctor took a deep breath and tried to settle her nerves. It had been a long time since she had stepped foot into the headmaster's office; in fact, she couldn't exactly remember the last time she did. There weren't many reasons to actually be there, most of the time, and she greatly preferred leaving all of the heavy-duty politics to the people who were trained to handle them. All she did was take care of injured SeeDs, a job that she did very well. But now, Kadowaki wanted to take a step she felt no one else would, and she hoped the headmaster would listen.
Something moved out of the corner of her eye, and the doctor watched as an orange moomba struggled with a stack of files, books, and random papers before placing them unceremoniously on the edge of the desk that was almost too high for him to reach. Plopping down on the ground with the effort, the furry secretary took notice of the new occupant to the room and made a noise of surprise.
"Thank you, Ravi. If it wasn't for you these days, I don't know how I'd have my office in order." A hand reached out from the chair that was turned away from the doorway and ruffled the top of the moomba's head.
Losing some of her fire at the unexpected tenderness of the scene in front of her, Dr. Kadowaki settled for clearing her throat.
Starting at the sound, Headmaster Cid Kramer turned his chair around towards the front. He tried to look pleasantly surprised at the appearance of his unexpected guest, but one could see the weariness in his eyes that was accentuated by the strands of gray that streaked his brown hair. "Doctor, what brings you here? Please excuse the slight disarray; I haven't had much time to be a housekeeper, and Ravi can only do so much."
The doctor straightened the ends of her long white overcoat. "Last night, there was an ambulance called to the town of Balamb to see to a group of four of our SeeDs who were out long after curfew. Evidently, a group from Galbadia Garden ambushed them after they exited a bar. A shot was fired, leaving one dangerously injured."
Cid sighed. "Unfortunately, this isn't old news. Things like that are happening all over, and as disheartening as it is to see all of this come to pass, we have got to roll with the punches as best we-"
"The one in critical condition is Nida."
The headmaster stopped and closed his eyes. He never imagined that Nida would be caught up in that mess. A lot of questions ran through his mind at that point, ranging from the identity of the person who fired the shot to wondering why Nida had gone against his better judgment as a SeeD veteran. After a moment's silence, he settled on asking the most reasonable question. "How is he?"
Dr. Kadowaki pursed her lips. "Well, seeing as though he's in IC, not good at all. Despite the efforts of his friends that got him here as quickly as possible, the shot did do extensive damage to his brain. We did what we could to remove the bullet and cast a healing spell over the wound to help staunch the bleeding, but he's going to need a surgery that we cannot perform here due to the seriousness of his condition. We know the bullet did not make a clean exit; therefore his brain tissue has suffered lacerations and cavitation. The most we could do is give him a Phoenix Pinion shot to jumpstart his body, but if nothing else is done then I fear that we could lose him."
Cid took a deep breath and let it out slowly, concentrating on his lungs deflating rather than get lost in the depression that was quickly settling over him. "And you came here to tell me this?"
She shifted. "Yes. In hopes that you'll do something about it."
"Linda, I'm not a surgeon."
"You know what I mean! Cid, this can't continue! I don't have the faintest clue as to what's come over these kids, but all I know is that this has gone far enough. Do you remember how this started? If you don't, I'll refresh your memory. There were kids coming into my office angry because some other SeeD from another Garden - Trabia or Galbadia, take your pick - said something that they didn't like. At first, all we had to worry about is hurt pride. That's easy enough to fix. Then, the fights started. SeeDs came back injured. I can mend broken legs, I can place tinctures on minor wounds, all while giving them the lecture they've been deserving about keeping their heads on straight. Then someone like Nida shows up half-alive, and I've decided enough is enough." Dr. Kadowaki paused for a moment to reign in her emotions. "If this was merely a medical case, then no matter how serious the injury, I'd dedicate my life to fixing it, be damned if I fail. But it's not that simple."
The headmaster tilted his eyes downward, examining the desk in front of him. "I'm trying. As much as it doesn't look like it, I am. I don't like this any more than you do. You don't think I've noticed this downward spiral SeeDs around the world have taken? Oh yes, I have, and as sad as it is to hear about Nida I will have you know that we are severely lucky compared to what's been happening at Galbadia and Trabia. I've tried contacting the headmasters of both Gardens myself, only to get put through hoops just to end up back where I've started. They must know what's going on, and either they're unwilling to find a solution or they're just as stuck as I am and have considered the entire situation out of their hands. I don't know what else to do."
After saying her piece, Kadawaki felt extremely guilty. Cid was trying, and here she was, storming into his office like some kind of makeshift revolutionary. Hadn't she always said to leave the big things to the big people? "I apologize. I... I shouldn't have..." Cid waved it off and offered a sad smile. "I understand. It's hard on both of us. Soon, it'll be hard on the world that tries its best to ignore what's going on, and when that happens... I've been trying not to think of that. The only thing we can do is hope and pray that this is a phase that will blow over before it gets any worse." He started rearranging some things on his desk. "You should go back down to check on Nida and whomever else needs medical attention; I'm sure someone else can do it, but not as well as you. I will go through my mess of files here and find Nida's home phone number and do the gruesome deed of notifying his parents of his condition."
Dr. Kadowaki nodded silently and left the office, leaving Cid alone once again save his furry companion.
Ravi made a concerned noise and put one paw on the headmaster's knee.
A time of peace... somehow, this makes the Sorceress Wars pale in comparison. Cid paused in retrieving Nida's file and got lost in his thoughts, a habit that was getting worse and worse by the day. In truth, he felt as if all of what was happening was his fault. He and his wife Edea created SeeD in preparation to defeat Ultimecia, a fact that he hid from all SeeDs up until the point when he could no longer disguise its purpose. How could he have said anything in the beginning? It was hard enough to believe as it was, and if things didn't come to a head as they did then Cid was certain nobody would have entertained it. It was much easier to train young people to do odd jobs settling disputes around the globe rather than to lay on them a heavy destiny that he wasn't sure would even truly come to pass. How do you train to defeat a hypothetical sorceress?
Now, with the world's greatest threat behind them all, he was also beating himself up over the fact that the age of SeeD has come to an end, and it took him too long to completely realize it. He and Edea never came up with a plan for the event in which there would be no more serious threats in society to warrant SeeD existence to a minimum. After the last war, he and Edea rebuilt the orphanage that had fallen to ruin over the years and let her regain the life she lost when Ultimecia took control. Cid looked in on her as often as he could, but the frequency of his visits slowed due to his responsibilities at Garden. He had Squall to help him take off part of the load, but the headmaster knew that the commander had done enough and still tried to handle the brunt of everything himself. Squall... There was another twinge of guilt settling in his chest. He had watched him grow up from the boy he was into the young man that he eventually became, and in the heat of battle managed to shove on him a responsibility that not just any person would have been able to handle. Cid had never felt completely right about doing that, despite not exactly having a lot of options left to choose from at the time. Maybe it was because he worked so hard as headmaster so as to help give Squall the break that he needed ever since arriving at Garden and becoming one of the best SeeDs they had to offer. He was running off of guilt, a thing he knew never really did anyone any good, but he wanted to do something in the place of doing what he certainly could not - give Squall and the others the normal life they never had.
Turning his chair around from his desk to look at the large picture window that he had been gazing out of prior to Dr. Kadowaki's arrival, he studied the large tufts of clouds that floated idly by, streaked by the occasional bird that soared high amongst them. Maybe it all really was his fault. He helped create SeeD, and he should be the one to destroy it. But he didn't know how, and his pride wouldn't let him destroy something that had not only served its ultimate purpose, but also helped keep peace in society and gave a purpose to lots of young men and women that perhaps would not have ordinarily found a meaning to life. He couldn't simply tell them to go home; many of them didn't have homes to back to since they were all that survived after the more gruesome Sorceress Wars. However, now they were on their way down a road that was shadowed and grim, and the headmaster feared the outcome. It would be ridiculous to say that rivalries never existed between the Gardens before, but back then it was merely friendly competition. Now it seemed like the competition suffered a deadly spike that caused people like Nida to fall victim to its claim. Kadowaki was right; he had to do something about it.
Ravi watched rather helplessly as the headmaster brooded for a long time, then snapped to attention when a decisive light shone in his eyes and he turned his chair back towards his desk and picked up the phone.

Moments after the call had been made, Xu Brighett arrived at Cid's office, her eyes attempting to hide the curiosity that still showed in her face. She was a slim girl of medium height, her brown hair framing her petite face in a way that made her look younger than what she actually was. She immediately took notice of Ravi and smiled at him before regaining a more professional attitude and posture, straightening her back and clasping her hands respectfully behind her. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
Cid took a moment to look her over unobtrusively, inwardly going over the implications of what he was going to do and if it was really what he wanted. He couldn't make any more mistakes in his life, and even though it was going to be one of the biggest risks he ever considered taking, he knew that desperate times called for desperate measures. Blinking out of his thoughts, he realized that the SeeD he called was standing politely before him and had been there for at least a couple of minutes. I have got to stop lapsing like this. People might really start to wonder what's become of me if I don't. "Yes, Xu. Thank you for coming at such a short notice." The headmaster stood up and grabbed a ring of keys off of his desk. "I'd like for you to come with me, if you will."
Xu followed her headmaster out of his office back down the hallway that led to the elevator she had used to arrive there. Once they entered, Cid went through a number of keys on the ring he retrieved before settling on a rather weathered looking one, in which he stuck in a slot under the panel where the buttons were. As he did so, the doors closed and the elevator descended, and Xu was surprised to realize that they did not stop at the first floor and went below it to the basement MD levels. She knew they existed; she was around when Squall and the others explored the level to transform Balamb Garden into a mobile base, but she had never been down there herself. She began to wonder what it was that Cid wanted her along to see, but she held all of her questions inside, leaving it to the fact that she would find out eventually.
When the elevator released them at their destination, they walked for a little bit longer through the rusted walkways of the lower levels. Their footsteps echoed emptily through the metal surroundings, accentuating the desolate and unused condition everything was in. Dim lights dotted along the walls and the pathways offered the only light available, leaving the rest outside of light's reach plunged into unknowable darkness. Xu shivered slightly, not knowing why she was apprehensive. She'd certainly gotten over her fear of darkness long ago, and the headmaster seemed to know where he was going.
After long, they reached a doorway at the end of a circular hallway that housed one of the generators that supplied power to all of Garden. Cid paused at the keypad that was somehow too new to be down there along with everything else that was in various states of decay and punched in a code that unlocked the metal doors with a faint screech. Stepping inside cautiously, Xu absentmindedly smoothed out her pleated skirt and tried to gauge her surroundings. The room certainly was large, and there was something in the middle of it, but without more light she couldn't exactly make out what it was. She glanced over to Cid, who had walked over to the side and was fiddling with something behind a small counter.
"Umm... Sir? With all due respect..."
"Just a moment, Xu. Let me get the lights working here. Ah, there we go."
Blinking as powerful halogen lights flooded the room, she waited until her hazel eyes got used to the unexpected change before she focused on exactly what it was that Cid had led her down there to see. In the very center of the room was some sort of metallic mechanism that formed a unique kind of archway, hooked up to several smaller generators by a massive tangle of multicolored cables that twined this way and that, making the floor look like a multitude of snakes. She had never seen anything like it, and even though she wasn't exactly sure what it was supposed to do, it was of excellent quality. She turned her head to the side as she heard footsteps move beside her and pause, watching as her headmaster examined the contraption with just as much awe as Xu herself.
"I have a very special mission for you, Xu," Cid began, not taking his eyes off of the machinery. "One that requires no pretense or preparation, except the main fact that you must trust me. What I am going to show you offers no rational explanation and will certainly bring to mind lots of questions that I will not be able to immediately answer. I will promise to explain everything later, if this mission is a success. If you think you will not be able to handle it, it will have no negative bearing of my views of you as a capable SeeD. Do you accept?"
Xu took a minute to comprehend this very cryptic mission that she was being offered. She had no clue as to what she would be doing, and why it would only be her attempting it. SeeDs, at the very least, undertook missions in pairs to ensure the safety of the mission and in the event of a failure that one of them would be able to report back to base. However, above all else, she did trust her headmaster. For whatever reason that he entrusted her with this task, she would accomplish it to the best of her ability. "I accept." Cid smiled, a strange one that was both relief and sadness all at once. "I thank you." He began walking slowly around the machine in front of him. "As you know, there has been a period of unrest that has been affecting Gardens around the globe. SeeDs are using skills that they were trained to use in the event of a particular mission on each other, driven by some unquenchable desire to be the best over everyone else. Egos are running dangerously high, and as a result, people are getting hurt. Right now, it's only the SeeDs that have started this catastrophe that suffer... but I fear for the day when a civilian gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. SeeD is known as world-wide heroes after the defeat of Ultimecia four years ago, and as much as it has been an incredible honor receive the world's never ending thanks, it has also come at the price that we have taken it for granted. I want to put an end to this, but even as headmaster I am a slave to the desires and actions of the students of my Garden, and before I realized it had become something that is bigger than what I can handle."
Xu waited patiently as Cid paused in his speech, still circling the unexplained contraption. "In an effort to try to uncover what could have possibly triggered such behavior, I sent out a team that I knew I could trust to look for any possible clues to this disturbance. Somehow, I refuse to believe that this moral decline is a natural occurrence. I had hoped upon the return of the team that I would have more answers as to why this is happening, but alas... it has been months since I deployed them, and I have had no contact with them since."
The young woman sucked in a breath, putting pieces together in her mind. "Sir, was this group...?"
"Comprised of Squall Leonhart, Selphie Tilmitt, and Zell Dincht? Yes, it was. They were the only ones I knew I could trust to not get caught up in whatever had taken over everyone else, along with doing an exceptional job of it. I was somewhat content to wait for their return despite it taking so long for them to report, until the current hospitalization of Nida made me realize that I cannot tarry any longer. Which brings me to my 'wild card' I was hesitant to bring into play, at least in this manner."
Figuring the wild card was a reference to the machine in front of her, she waited until her headmaster had made a complete circle around it before coming back to his place beside her. "This is a highly experimental piece of technology that was conceived by Dr. Odine of Esthar. It is a secret that isn't known of outside of him and I, even to the Estharian president himself. To be honest, I am not even sure if it's completed, since test runs of this caliber aren't exactly prohibited. It requires a massive amount of power to operate, which I believe the back-up generators this Garden has will be able to give us. Just pray that we don't experience a black-out any time soon, since that would be a handful to explain away."
Xu couldn't help herself. "But... why?"
Cid smiled ruefully and made his way back to the counter he first approached when they stepped into the room. "This is where the fun part starts." Flicking a few switches and adjusting a couple of levers, he pushed a small red button and prayed that something other than a humongous failure awaited him.
A low whirring sound picked up slowly, and as the large amounts of power were drained from the generators the halogen lights that once lit the room flickered dangerously for a couple of seconds before going out. The two inhabitants of the room were plunged into darkness as faint sparks of electricity began dancing around the sides of the archway of the machine. Eventually, the sparks crackled together sharply to create an explosion that sent an unexpected gust of wind rushing out along with a flash of light, blowing Xu's hair off of her forehead. Shielding her face, she waited until the air settled around her and she chanced looking up at what had happened.
"What..." Xu gaped at what was before her. Settled right in the gap of the archway was some sort of shimmery surface that looked much like a cloud suspended in midair. Not quite so sure if she wanted to get closer, she settled for squinting from her position and saw that many different colors shook in waves from the very center of the cloud to spread outward, as if it was both liquid and gaseous at the same time. She had never seen anything like it in her entire life, and she wondered if this was supposed to happen at all.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Headmaster Cid came back from his place from behind the counter to stand beside the shocked SeeD once more. "It's okay to gawk; I did the same thing when I saw it for the first time."
Xu turned to look at him, the confusion unmasked on her face. What does he mean, the first time? What's going on? Before she could formulate another question, she was handed a small file. Momentarily distracted, she opened the manila folder and fished through its very sparse contents before coming across something that made her gasp. "Sir, these people..."
"Yes, I'm sure you remember them, Xu. They were, in my opinion, quite an unforgettable pair." He gazed at the swirl of colors in front of him, almost nostalgically mesmerized. "A lot of time has passed. I hope they are still there."
Xu could do nothing but look at the file, then at the portal, then at her headmaster. She was beginning to understand what she was going to be asked to do, but it still didn't make any sort of sense to her. She wanted so badly to ask as many questions as it would take for everything to make sense, but she was told in the beginning that she shouldn't ask any questions and to trust him... so she would just have to deal with the unsolved mysteries rattling around in her brain as best she could. Cid cleared his throat before turning directly to face her, his eyes resolved yet pleading at the same time.
"Your mission is to cross that portal, Xu, and find these people if you can. They will... not be expecting you, to say the least. But they will be needed, in a worst-case scenario, to save this world once again from impending doom. Bring them back here as soon as possible, directly to my office. Once that is done... I'll be able to explain things a bit clearer to all of you."

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