The story was easy from the outside. Later on, when reporters carved it into the concrete of printed page and video, it had been blessed with fairytale proportions. Blood was washed out. Wounds sterilized, erased. Nonexistent.
Everything had worked out in the end. The prince whisked away the princess he had fallen into love with -- which was true, all of it was true -- and in doing so, led his soldiers to a brighter day. Knights clashed in epic battles. Dragons came down from the sky. Love conquered all, and the wicked witch burned at the end. Death was over in an instant. It was finished in a day.
All hail happy endings.
The guitar had started at 11:24. It wheedled its quavering path down the clockwise half of the second floor corridors, twanging notes into an unpleasant echo that blurred the singer's voice into a gnarl of acoustics. Forever, he sang about, and hope. All the sticky stereotypical fantasies that Xu had done her best to ignore; steadfast, she watched the clocks blink to 12:00, 12:30, and all the way to 13:03 without pause in the audio disaster.
The belly of the guitar was protesting underneath the musician's touch. Xu couldn't concentrate through the hum of untuned strings, the heartfelt words that attempted to succeed through sheer emotion, not pitch. She'd fled to Room 230-B out of a need for privacy, but even here she was being invaded.
It was lunch break. Most students had wisely chosen to roost on the commons, twittering uniformed wings all together. Sparrow-gossip. The classroom was too hot, but the air-conditioned hallways were too cold, sending goosebumps crawling up Xu's bare legs and forcing her to shiver. A lump of hunger sulked inside her stomach, and it flipped the muscles of her belly over whenever she swallowed.
But the cafeteria was full of Garden's residents -- instructors, SeeD trainees, mumbling juniors bent over their study texts -- and Xu had chosen to shun human company. Her body didn't like skipping meals, no matter how many times it had been instructed to cope; it grumbled as she moved, picking through Classroom 230-B in an attempt to distract herself.
Underneath one desk was a misplaced report assignment. Scribbled on the back was a short list, hasty to-dos. Laundry. Study for geo quiz. Meet Dyle at 15:00 after class, red hair, boyfriend.
The name on the report was unfamiliar, but the style was common. Xu saw a fresh dozen of these very same memos each day. Penned reminders, written memory to fill in for what was missing.
She shredded the slip and dribbled it into the trash can.
Notes were everywhere these days, small crumpled leftovers of hope. They joined the ranks of spent casings and burial shrouds. The war was mercy in retrograde; the conflict had started with one country in rebellion, Garden pitted against Garden due to their mercenary's budgets. Now the artillery consisted of centuries instead of rocket launchers, entire eras that Squall kept mumbling about being annihilated, late at nights in the cafeteria-turned-meeting hall. Hair in his eyes, hands on his face, boy-commander of a well-trained military force. Time itself was the battleground, the cherry-ripe prize that everyone wanted to capture.
One side wanted to destroy it. The other, to save, but both forces chose the same approach.
Gut the past to save tomorrow.
Beggars couldn't be choosers. Xu finished tidying the classroom with her lips pressed firmly together, frown etched deep into her muscles, gouging her expression until the scowl felt natural. The guitar had died over the course of her ruminations. The singer had finally given up. Xu hated him briefly for his surrender, and then bent to retrieve her schoolbag from the floor. It creaked protests at the straps as she slung it over her shoulder and prepared to depart.
As the war ground on, homework reports had sifted themselves steadily into two categories. One was long and rambling, introducing excessive topics and expounding on them at length. Words clung to desperate meaning, cramming all debates into explainable theories, chains of rationale that linked A to B to Everything. Volumes of evidence were provided without being asked, describing why things mattered even when the associations should have been obvious.
The other category involved reports which were short, sparse and directly to the point. They didn't need to provide context. Their proofs existed in a void.
Xu's backpack was heavy with the first type.
"I definately figured out why I'm so attached to Squall."
The sentence came unwanted. Quistis confided it one afternoon while Xu was busy managing the logistics of a Garden that was not only mobile, but flying, which meant all kinds of provisional adjustments and couldn't Quistis see the import of it all?
Apparently not. Covering her mouth with the tips of her fingers, removing them, the blonde had glanced down shyly. Oblivious of Xu's horror at such behavior, she'd continued. "It's because he makes me feel like I'm safe. Like I'm a kid again, back at home."
"Oh," Xu had said, her mind still staggering under the weight of fuel rations, and then, "oh." Repeating the sound, as if sense could be made from nonsense with enough tries. She didn't point out, but you're an orphan, because Squall was one as well, and so was half the population of Balamb Garden itself. Even Xu had her foster families, three in a row. None of them had the power to dismantle her. None devolved her into a little girl.
Quistis hitched herself onto the counter, knees together, prim. "Do you think that's a bad thing?"
Shocked clean as a newborn, Xu had opened her mouth and formed empty shapes with her lips. The experience of watching Quistis flush like a schoolgirl with a first crush was so novel that Xu had the sudden urge to check the blonde for illegal stimulants.
You're so uncertain, Xu wanted to scream, wanted to grab Quistis by her soft round shoulders and give her a shake, tear the blonde apart, rip her to pieces and retrieve the true girl from the flesh-ruins like a bloody foundling. This isn't like you. Stop it.
"No," Xu replied, forcing herself into a response. "No, it sounds... normal. Will you still be coming by for dinner tonight? I was going to cook your favorite."
"Did we have plans?" Knitting her brow in a polite confusion, Quistis shook her head. "Can we reschedule? I think I agreed to help Selphie train extra tonight -- I'm sorry, I didn't realize, or I wouldn't have double-booked." Blue eyes slid away, bobbed towards the ceiling as Quistis sifted through her memory. "I didn't think we had anything together. Sorry -- all these maneuvers Squall wants us to practice, Selphie's still not any good with the Brothers."
Xu nodded, a sharp, clipped movement that sent her hair hissing along her jawline. "I understand," she said, and wished she didn't.
When the new emptiness in her room became intolerable, Xu lied to Quistis about the state of the dorm laundromats in order to borrow a shirt. At first Xu only spread the fabric across her pillow so that she could roll over and sink her face into it, pretending that the white cotton threads were really yellow. Then she had begun to hold the shirt to her in order to get to sleep at night, wrapping her arms around it and pretending it didn't matter when she heard no comfort for the small whimpers she could hear emanating from her throat.
When Quistis had come to ask for the blouse back, Xu had managed to smile and hand it over, doing her best to forget the puzzlement in the blonde's eyes when Xu's fingers lingered a little too long trying to keep hold.
First the shirt. Then, a coffee cup. After that came a pen, a hairbrush, and then Quistis's favorite towel -- the one in green terry-cloth, thick and warm no matter how cold the weather. During a routine SeeD lineup, Xu attempted to fabricate an excuse that would let her borrow Quistis's glasses, but she couldn't come up with a logical reason.
Over the weeks, Xu gathered everything she could get her hands on, building an encyclopedia of Trepe. Abridged.
Her final victory came when Quistis finally forgot to come back for the skirt Xu had pilfered from the top of the blonde's clothesbasket. She'd sung out a promise to be right back, hoping against all odds that Quistis would come knocking on her door a few days later. One week passed. Then two. A month later when Xu had almost forgotten about the theft, she walked past the courtyard during one of Quistis's junctioning demonstrations. The crackling feathers of Quetzacotl's wingspan illuminated the pillars circling the field; Quistis's face was blank with rapture as the Guardian Force fed from her mind.
Xu had known then that she could keep the skirt forever.
The original risk percentiles for normal Junctioning had initially been established as acceptable. Minor, under the guidelines for casual use. One-percent chance for most students, two. Two point five. Well within tolerable limits, by Balamb Garden's standards, and so rumors of memory loss were readily dismissed.
War kicked the balance like a tin can. Now that skirmishes were popping up everywhere, as two Gardens clashed and one Sorceress ravaged Deling, even the most average student found themselves signing up for Junctioning courses. Lines formed well before 07:00, yawning faces popping caffeine pills while they dozed in lines along the hallways, waiting for available Guardian Forces to be parceled out each morning.
Squall's team were the most notorious abusers of all. Their GFs were constantly on check-out, eternally on call, until some students claimed that the beings were never dismissed even during sleep. When asked, the instructors only sighed, rolled their eyes, and shrugged. War changed everything. Casualties were inevitable.
Not every teacher was sanguine. Researchers in charge of Guardian Maintenance began to frown as time went on, leaving thicker and thicker warning reports on the Headmaster's desk. Three percent. Four point five. Squall's team had leapt the safety rails of moderation and were plummeting headfirst into disease, a mental degradation that swallowed its own vice in order to battle.
The pace was relentless. Squall's team paid for it on an accelerated schedule. Rather than trickle out in pinprick memory-leaks, entire gouts of the past were being expelled, consumed by ravenous Guardian Forces.
Squall didn't seem to notice, but he'd had a strange sheen in his eyes ever since his team had invaded Galbadia's Garden and managed to come back alive. He no longer spoke about troop movements as key to victory. Munitions were limited, but the Guardian Forces held a biological power that could not be duplicated by any smelter.
And their enemies were vast. Balamb's opponents were massive -- bigger than the world itself, bloated from centuries of conspiracy. Their rivals were fellow SeeDs -- but more than that, enhanced by other Guardian Forces, powered by a Sorceress. They were more than human, which is what they all had to become in order to fight this invisible war, where the villains kept changing in roulette.
Regardless, Squall wanted to win. In the same way he ranked at the top of his class with the exotic choice of a gunblade in hand, the teen incubated a fierce thirst for strength that refused to acknowledge the mortality of his surroundings. He didn't care about what people thought of him; he did care, but was forgetting how. He couldn't answer the question if you asked him, and his metamorphosis was echoed by the SeeDs who joined him, Zell and Selphie and Quistis and more.
No one talked about how Squall and Rinoa would fight.
They had tried, at first. Rinoa would get flummoxed by Squall's icy behavior, would stomp off in a fit and not come back for hours. But while she was gone, Squall would get caught up in tactical discussions, rubbing his fingers against his temples and muttering to unseen Forces; when Rinoa reappeared with the demands for an apology, she ultimately recieved a blank look in exchange. Squall refused to waste time wondering. He would agree, she would be content, and the SeeD would resume planning while oblivious to Rinoa's satisfaction.
If the girl ever realized that Squall simply apologized out of ignorance, she never let on.
In Xu's opinion, the Deling girl managed it because Squall didn't know otherwise. Whenever he would stagger underneath Rinoa's clinging, the expression in his eyes was just as lost as that of Quistis when Xu tried to make jokes about the uncomfortableness of sinks.
"We're strangers to the strange," Xu had muttered one afternoon, thinking aloud while she leaned on a courtyard railing and watched the busy students swarm. But she had become used to saying things that would never be remembered. The phrase was spoken to no one, for no one would have remembered what Xu had talked about, and she didn't bother trying to find Quistis for conversation anymore. Thin air was company enough.
Watching students stagger out of Junctioning classes was a nature documentary of creatures de-shelling themselves: raw, exposed without knowing why, they scrambled along the halls trying to ignore the blank sectors in their minds. Convinced themselves that they were this way all along.
Empty holes in people's lives were best unspoken of when you had them, and polite if you did not.
Talking to the living casualties was like speaking with the dead. The ghost of your friend might arise suddenly in the turn of their head, a gesture familiar that should have been paired with a laugh or a wink or a jibe. Xu watched them; she watched everything these days, a silent figure just out of focus, dismissed from the stage where the heroes stammered out the script. Eventually they tried to patch the gaps with assumptions: they were tired from so much practice, or there simply was too much to focus on at any given time.
Every afternoon at 14:45, Zell would attempt to master a particular half-twist on his board that left him sprawling. He'd laugh in confusion, wondering aloud over why his knees were getting so badly scraped when he couldn't recall the last time he'd practiced. He'd blame it on the war, every time.
Selphie kept returning to the Music Department to learn the same guitar riff over and over, biting her thumbs and picking out the notes fresh each day.
Squall plotted, and wrote out battle plans to keep himself on track.
It got worse the longer time went on. The Guardian Forces researchers left thicker and thicker warnings on Headmaster Cid's desk. Recent memories were feeding the GFs of Squall's team just as readily as older, sodden dreams, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
Zell could never remember the name of the library girl and complained about this loudly, no matter how many times he spoke with her. The lightning of his facial tattoo would flex as he grimaced, describing how he got far enough to ask her out for a film later maybe, and halfway through the conversation realized that he couldn't recall which one he'd suggested.
Rumor claimed that Selphie ended up in the wrong dorm once, forgetting that she'd been moved across the hall.
The rest of the Garden students watched this metamorphosis with a mixture of awe and fear. Squall's team was abandoning time. They were stepping into a tale of the eternal present. The rest of the students were castoffs now, discarded by the side of the road for not being in the spotlight, for providing inconveniences that might have slowed down the main heroes. Clipped out of the pages of the storybooks when all was said and done, the fairy tale rendered pristine.
All the untidy details written out in order to achieve a perfect ending.
Sandwiched between a quarreling couple and the wall of a newspaper, Xu frowned at the courtyard. Half the students kept constantly checking the clocks pasted up around the field, showing off the time and date and year in clear figures. Last week, it had been only a third.
"Spooky, ain't it?"
Turning her head at the rustle of paper, Xu found her eyebrows arched in surprise at the figure who'd just set down his news. "Irvine?"
"At your service, ma'am." Wry-lipped, Irvine thumbed his hat in a dip towards her. "Don't worry, I still know who I am. I haven't hit the point where I need to wear a nametag yet."
"Is that likely to happen?"
Irvine's teeth were bright in the afternoon sun. "I don't know."
In the silence that followed, Irvine broke eye contact first. Breathing sharply in through his nose, the teen flipped his paper onto the table with a whuff of newsprint. One ankle snaked out to hook a wireframe chair from another table. "Have a seat? Want some of my coffee?"
Xu did so, lacing her fingers together to keep them from fidgeting with the news. The headline blared a brisk Floating Cube: New Weapon from Garden? upside-down beneath her palms, and she attempted to cover it up with her wrists. "No. Thank you. Irvine," she began, "why -- "
"Listen, I think you should know. At one point," Irvine cut in, his voice uncharacteristically serious, "I just thought about giving up. Not on life," he moved hastily to explain, "but on this kind of thing. This fighting." Gloved hands tapped his styrofoam cup. "The consequences that come with it. The whole war.
"Used to be, I thought the GF risks were too high. Then everyone started talking about how much more powerful they were with them, better in combat. Stronger. Invincible. I started to think, maybe it's not so bad to forget a little bit. Not like all of us don't have things we'd rather not remember."
Xu stirred. Grudging assent, "That's true."
Irvine sighed, restless in his bones, pushing up a thick lock of his hair as it dribbled into his face. "Yeah. Right up until I got my assignment with your Garden. When I saw the old crew all lined up and realized none of 'em recognized me, I think I just turned off for a while. You know?" Flattening his palm over his cheek, Irvine rubbed hard, letting his fingers travel the path of his cheeks, mouth and eyes. "Shock. I kept thinking, maybe it was just a joke, one of 'em was gonna leap out of line and say, 'Hey, Irvine,'" his affected drawl thickened, "'when're you gonna stop acting so poncy?' They never did."
Voice, back to normal. Irvine speaking to his tepid coffee. "Never did."
Xu made a noise in her throat.
"Time can change people." Irvine's chin came up again, a prize-fighter when the chips were down and noses bloodied. "Did to Squall -- I could just see it in his eyes, how I was just an obstacle to him if I messed up, got in the way of his leather-clad ass. I figured at first maybe, the people I knew were still there. Even without memory, it'd still be them. Only older.
"But I realized something. Even if they got all their memories back -- which they're not gonna -- then who they are now... who they've turned out to be without their past, it's a one-way street. People keep moving forward. They're going to do it even if they can't look back. All you can do is try and catch up. Otherwise, they're going to leave you behind for real."
"Do you think -- "
"I don't know," Irvine interrupted, fast on the repetition, then slowing down. Reciting aloud, mirror to Xu's own ramblings that she clung to for sanity. "I don't know. I don't know."
After she heard that Squall -- normally so aloof, detached, uninterested in human relationships -- was demanding the immediate recovery of Rinoa after the Deling girl's kidnapping, Xu took the rest of her shift off and went back to her room. Digging through her closet and dressers, she gathered the small pile of stolen trophies into her arms and dumped them on the bed. They formed a mound bigger than Quistis herself.
Encyclopedia of Trepe. Abridged.
Wrapping the pathetic objects together in tight bundles of shirts and towels, Xu knelt down and shoved the clothes all the way to the back underneath her bed. They could gather dust now. The smell of Quistis had faded from most of the objects anyway, lost save for hints in the deepest folds of fabric. Even if Xu pressed her nose to the cloth and breathed in deep enough to dizzy herself, she couldn't catch more than the barest whiff.
There among the dustbunnies, Xu could avoid the black hole that the past was twisting into.
Then she made an appointment with the Junctioning center.
Headmaster Cid caught news of her decision somehow; yes, she told him, she did know that she scored low on the compatibility charts and had already failed the tests before. She knew that it would take multiple hours of work to master the simplest summoning. She knew that; she chose it anyway.
Her own language was brutal these days, short and harsh. Xu no longer cared. There was no one to remember the difference anyway.
Armed with her registration and with a half-hour before her first session, the girl headed for the elevators early. While she knew the architectural layout of Garden perfectly, she'd had the least experience with the Junctioning rooms, and getting there ahead of schedule wouldn't hurt.
The course instructions listed no supplies. Xu's shoulders were free from any bag, and she rolled them as she waited, unused to the lightness.
The elevators seemed to take forever to light up. Xu mashed the up arrow once, and then resisted the urge to jam the button to make the lift arrive faster.
Finally, the doors slid open.
Quistis was standing inside.
For an instant, Xu's expression matched the blonde's blank surprise. Then Quistis's face reformed; she broke into a hasty smile, shoving her foot against the automated door to keep it from closing. "I'm glad I caught you," the girl announced. "Squall wants to leave right away for the Pandora, and I was looking for the directory for your room, but couldn't remember..."
Stunned past any coherent answer, Xu attempted to recollect her thoughts. "But... what can I help you with," she tried first, tossing out the flat words, "Quis.. Trepe?"
"Your jacket," Quistis said, hesitantly. The dead body of a coat was draped over her arm, and she extended it hesitantly. "I think this is yours, isn't it? I found it in the back of my closet when I was looking for my other pair of boots. I think it belongs to you," she repeated, frowning prettily as she stumbled over her own lapses, "or did you have one that was just like it?"
"It's mine." Xu's voice was unnatural in the space between them, stiff and mechanical. Quistis didn't seem to notice, or even recognize the change. "You borrowed it from me last week. Did you still want it?"
The lie didn't trigger any reaction from the blonde. In reality, Xu had left the coat in Quistis's room over a year ago. Quistis's irregular memory didn't offer up the truth either. "Had I," the girl began, and then shook her head, fugitive bangs sneaking free from the barette. "No, it's all right. Here. You can have it back."
Xu accepted, pulling it on despite the heat of the afternoon and avoiding the other girl's eyes. The whole exchange felt like a particularly awkward break-up, which was idiotic considering that there was no longer anything to break up from.
She walked past Quistis, not looking up, and punched the floor for her classroom.
Quistis was still standing in the doorway, her foot refusing to let the elevator close. "Look... I was wondering, did you want to play a game of Triad sometime? I know we're in the same club, so... we haven't seen each other much lately, have we? I'd like to fix that. Do you have your phone number on you?"
To her credit, Xu did not wince. Once, Quistis could have recited the digits even while drunk, backwards and forwards, made riddling games out of the mathematic combinations. Now she stood in front of Xu with that vague, fresh-natured smile, the kind reserved for strangers and distant coworkers.
The only piece of paper Xu had was the registration slip for Compatibility 1104, but she yanked it out of her pocket anyway, scribbling her contact information down so hastily that the pen punched through the flimsy sheet.
Quistis took the paper between two fingers like a dirty sock and peered at the front after an initial glance at the phone number. "Junctioning Classes?" The question was cheerful, bright with the hope of common ground. Mutual interests. "Those are some of my favorite. Don't you, er, need your form to get in?"
"No." Xu shook her head. The coat was heavy. In the heat, Xu wondered if she could smell Quistis's sweat on the canvas. "No. I... there's a conflict. In my schedule. I can't take the class anymore. Go ahead and keep that, I don't want it anymore."
Uncertainty marched over Quistis's face for a second, and then she nodded. "That's too bad. But -- sorry," she caught herself, tossing her chin as she craned her head for a glimpse at the clocks, "I have to run, Squall will be furious if we don't find Rinoa soon. I'll give you a call sometime when I get back, all right? We'll get together for a few games. Promise!"
"I'll be waiting," Xu replied softly as she watched Quistis walk away, leaning on the Open Door button until the blonde disappeared. "Don't forget."