Chapter 1: Overture
She exists out of time, empty.
Her insides feel hollow. Is this even a real thing? Is this existing? Does she breathe?
The memory of the experience of breathing - of her chest rising and falling, of air going in and out, of her heartbeat - fades with every minute? or hour? or day? that drifts by her in this lonely place. She doesn’t know if there are colors here, what she sees, she can’t remember what the world used to look like when there was a world around her.
It feels like forever, an eternity. Maybe it is. Maybe this is the end of everything, and she can only be in it, if this is being.
Maybe it is. She doesn’t remember enough to know the difference. Maybe this is the way it always was.
There’s no way to know how long she just is, out of time, disjointed. As the days? pass and the weeks? drag on she feels increasingly, feels increasingly listless, feels increasingly listless and angry, and remembers dimly the way all those things used to feel. She remembers the way she wants everyone else to feel the way she feels now.
Things prick at her, prick at her skin? and her insides, make her anxious. Flashes of a million things that exist all at once, together, but years and miles and worlds apart somehow.
”We won’t let you take them!” How obnoxious these children are, their crisp white uniforms stained like kaleidoscopes with their own blood and each others’ and the innards of countless horrifying things, and she has already taken them, don’t they know, but of course they don’t yet —
Some man, his hair cropped short but wavy all the same, terrified, “Just let me have her back, please, please give her back,” but she really had not done any favors for herself, giving that baby away like that. Again. She holds the word inside her and in spite of herself, eons of practice at shoving down the horror of a host, it makes her feel —
In the end, there are six of them, the last things left alive but for the witches, though there are two witches among their number all the same. The snot-nosed little demons in white are dead, or not really dead, or they stopped existing, or they won’t ever exist to begin with when she ends this. She can see that they already know this, or will know this soon, feels it in the whistle of sticks in the air and the crack of a whip and the sound of guns being cocked.
She feels it. She feels them all at once, all of them, every moment of their lives entwined with hers across weeks, centuries, eons condensed into a single pinprick of tight heat in the center of her chest, every instant but the last.
It fills her finally, and she remembers it was not is not will not be the first time she wakes up screaming.
Chapter 2: Starting Up
Balamb Garden student Finn Hudson doesn't remember anything of his life outside the Garden and he's never really minded much - but a routine mission plunges him into the middle of a global crisis, forcing him to take charge of a ragtag band of strangers whose forgotten pasts are the key to unraveling a dangerous future.
“Finn Hudson. Finn?”
Somebody is screaming — his head is screaming — some weird familiar girl is screaming, maybe, her face pressed against the glass and her eyes are so big and he thinks, dimly, that he’s supposed to know who she is, but some boy is yanking at her other hand, some boy who looks familiar too but not at the same time.
But maybe his head hurts.
Finn sits up and the movement makes him dizzy, decidedly ill from vertigo. He presses a palm to his forehead like it might help and it doesn’t, of course, but at least he’s trying.
“Oh, Finn —” Dr. Pillsbury is staring at him with her big weird doe eyes, and Finn feels a little guilty for worrying her, the way he always does. “Finn, sweetie, haven’t we talked about this before?”
She tries to push him back down against the mattress but as appealing as it sounds Finn waves her off, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and bracing his hands against his knees instead. “It was seriously not my fault, Doctor,” though Dr. Pillsbury clearly doesn’t believe him. He heaves an irritated sigh, and even the petulant rise and fall of his shoulders makes Finn want to throw up. He swallows the urge, among other things. “I don’t like, go out looking to get my ass kicked.”
“And yet somehow you always come back, bleeding and having been,” Dr. Pillsbury clears her throat a little primly. “Knocked on your bum, Finn. This is the third time this week. Was it Noah again?”
Finn doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t have to. Of course it was Puck. It’s Puck every single time, as much because Puck is really the only person he can do weapons training with as because Puck is the only person looking to cause him permanent physical harm.
Dr. Pillsbury sighs. Injuries are not uncommon in a Garden, of course, but she’s kind of a weird fit for a medical doctor, especially in a military institute. She likes all of them more than she should, and it bothers her almost as much as it bothers Finn to have to see him so frequently for … training injuries. “I really think you should take it easy for a few days, Finn,” she says, clearly concerned but a little patronizing too, as if Finn is just making up reasons to not sit still for several hours. “Maybe I should talk to your instructor again about Noah …”
She flips through his file as if his instructor’s name isn’t printed neatly on the first page of this year’s medical records. She wants him to say something, Finn knows. He doesn’t want to, he knows she knows, and instead he just massages as temples as she mumbles something about Instructor Lopez and drifts off to get in touch with Santana so she can pick him up and escort him to class.
Like he’s really going to pick another fight in the middle of the hallway. Though admittedly, passing out seems like a distinct possibility.
Finn tunes her out as best she can — she doesn’t like Instructor Lopez all that much and she can hear both Santana’s snide tone and Dr. Pillsbury’s patronizing brand of patience from his hospital bed. Instead he focuses on the screaming, or maybe less the screaming than what he’d seen after it had woken him up: a round face peering in through the big window, staring at him with warm brown eyes even as some distraught-looking boy tried to drag her away.
“Dr. Pillsbury?” Hopefully she’ll have some idea who’d been staring at him, as much because the idea of being spied on while he was passed out was pretty damn weird as because he actually wants to know. “Dr. Pillsbury,” he tries again when he hears the phone at her desk slam down. “Who was that girl at the window?”
She stares at him for a long moment, her big eyes wider than usual. They take up a freaky amount of her face, Finn thinks. Maybe it helps on the job. “There wasn’t anyone at the window.” Dr. Pillsbury’s tone is light and even, though it’s not hard to tell she’s concerned. Big, freaky eyes, he reminds himself. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay, Finn? I can talk to Instructor Lopez about —”
“No.” Finn says it more fiercely than he’d intended and has the decency to at least feel a little guilty when she purses her lips at his tone. “Sorry, Dr. Pillsbury, I just … I’m fine, I must have just dreamed it.”
He didn’t, he knows. She looks like someone he should know, somehow, but not someone he knows already. It was no dream.
“Maybe you should think about putting your exam off for another week or two.”
Finn opens his mouth to argue but the sharp click of boots on sterilized linoleum kills his words in his throat.
“I’ve spent the whole damn year trying to make you just competent enough to pass, Hudson.” SeeD Instructor Santana Lopez smiles and doesn’t smile at the same time somehow, a toothy show of teeth for Finn from the hospital doorway designed to drive the crushing reality of his never-ending inadequacy home as quickly and painfully as possible. “Was this your way of telling me you need a little more time?”
Her smile dips into something more predatory. “We could have made some other arrangements.”
Dr. Pillsbury makes a thinly veiled noise of disgust, visibly flustered. Her cheeks go pink and Finn feels guilty on Santana’s behalf - since Santana clearly doesn’t feel the same way. “Finn is a perfectly capable student, I’m sure,” she says. “I was just saying he might need a little more rest after this morning.”
“This morning, right.” Santana saunters forward and Finn looks her over despite his best efforts. She tilts her head and smiles slow, and Finn can only be glad he’s put up with her shit long enough to be able to resist the urge to wither in embarrassment the way she wants. “Maybe if he didn’t spend so much time resting in class we wouldn’t be here.”
There are not a lot of girls (women, Finn reminds himself, but Santana is hardly much older than the current class of SeeD candidates) as good looking as Santana Lopez at Balamb Garden, and she makes it hard not to stare. Her skirt is a little too short, her boots are a little too tall, the cropped jacket is not Garden issue and those shirts are made to be worn under things, but even so, her smile is sharp and her eyes keen — she’s smart, no question, as generally scary as she is scary hot.
Finn rolls his eyes and lets his head loll back, wincing. He’s still nauseous. At least he didn’t eat breakfast. “Maybe if somebody reminded Puck he’s not supposed to kill his sparring partner I’d never be here.” With a labored breath he stands, slow and careful so he can keep his balance. “Thanks, Doctor P. I’m just … we’re gonna go.”
“You’re late for class, anyway.” Santana flashes the doctor a smug smile, and Dr. Pillsbury just sighs, resigned. There are a fair few people, students and instructors alike, it’s no use arguing with, and Santana is chief among them.
Dr. Pillsbury flashes him a sympathetic smile, and even if Finn thinks she looks like some kind of children’s doll he appreciates the sentiment. “Your gunblade,” she says the word as if she hates acknowledging it even exists. “Is back in your dormitory.” The look she turns on Santana is unkind to say the least. “Have a lovely day.”
Santana smirks and turns, gesturing for Finn to follow her back down the hall. “See you soon, Doctor P.”
As they head for the courtyard Santana links their arms together, and after this long Finn has learned not to do anything about it. Whatever it makes people think of them, she doesn’t seem to care — Finn is getting a little tired of people assuming they’re hooking up without getting any actual return on his investment into her little charade, but how pissed off Puck seems to get when they walk into the classroom like this is kind of worth the trouble. Santana presses close and leans up under the pretext of checking his bandage, and over the top of her head Finn can count at least half a dozen guys blatantly checking her out from the rows of desks.
“I am glad you’re not dead,” she says dryly, and Finn arches an eyebrow. It’s probably the nicest she’s ever been, if he thinks about it.
“Yeah, I’m guessing losing a student before the field exam kills your promotion potential.” Finn winces when she presses her thumb down just a little too hard on its path across his bandage. “Whatever. Thanks for … letting me take it I guess.”
Santana flashes him a dry smile and pats his chest before pushing him towards his seat. “You’re not as dumb as you look, Hudson, and,” whatever kindness had crept into her voice is gone in an instant, her smile cruel all over again. “What can I say, you are good with your hands. Besides, the sooner you’re done, the sooner I’m done with you. Go sit down.”
She lectures them on the importance of not harming your training partner as he makes his way to his seat, and he can see Puck rolling his eyes as Finn slides into the seat on the other side of the row.
“Maybe you wouldn’t get hurt if you didn’t suck so bad, Hudson,” Puck sneers, and Finn bristles despite his best efforts. It’s strange to think they were friends once. Puck points a finger at him and cocks an imaginary gun, mouthing pew pew in a way that would be funny if they were still friends but makes Finn’s stomach turn now, the urge to punch Noah Puckerman in the mouth almost irresistible. “Did the Instructor have to kiss you all better? I know you think you’re hot shit with Lopez on your arm, do you even know —”
“Puckerman.” Santana — Instructor Lopez — cuts them off from the front of the room, and a dozen pairs of eyes are immediately trained on Finn and Puck and their sniping. “Got something good to share with the class?”
Puck smiles, slow and lazy. “Just telling my buddy Finn how great it must be, having such a close relationship with our Instructor.” His smile goes a little darker, as if they’re sharing some kind of secret Puck isn’t really supposed to be privy to in the first place. “Right?”
Santana narrows her eyes and even from the back of the class, Finn can tell how tightly she’s gripping the back of her chair. Her hair rises briefly in a staticky halo before she seems to relax again, plainly fake smile plastered on her face. “What can I say, Puck, it feels pretty good to find a gunblade specialist who actually shows a little promise.”
Puck’s face falls and he goes silent for the remainder of class, seething. Whatever else Santana has to say isn’t enough to hold Finn’s interest, not really, and he spends the remainder of class — reminders about the fire cavern, the announcement of the field exam which isn’t news to him, a droning review of junctions and the mimsies they’ve all heard more times than they care to count after so many years as Garden students — screwing around on the touchscreen at his seat, paging through pleas for Garden Festival volunteers and fussing with his own junctions before Santana summarily dismisses them.
The mimsy at his wrist syncs itself to the Garden network as he makes his way back to the front of the class, and the faint chirp of it isn’t enough to hide Santana’s laugh at the full-body shiver he gives when his junctions finally process.
“Maybe if you ever had any magic on you, you wouldn’t have so many problems with Puckerman,” she taunts, though she seems more amused than anything for once.
Finn has never done very well with the junctions, though maybe it’s just that for whatever reason it’s always Shiva he gets saddled with. She’s never sat very well with him either. “Fire cavern before the field exam,” Santana continues, patting his cheek. The touch sparks along his skin — literally — and when he bothers to look this time Finn can see the hint of gold behind her dark eyes. She beat him to Quetzalcoatl, all over again. “Maybe you’ll find a new friend.”
Maybe if Santana would just be nice enough to share, he wants to say, but she saunters out without another word, ignoring the wolf-whistles of her little fanclub gathered by the door. It’s easier for her to ignore them than it is for Finn to ignore the way they scowl as he passes.
The bandage is getting more annoying than anything and Finn does his best to peel it off on his way down the corridor, paying more attention to the way it stings and clings than what’s actually in front of him. Out of nowhere (it seems out of nowhere, but maybe if Finn hadn’t been trying to stare at his own forehead) there’s a body slamming into him, and for a split second he thinks it’s Puckerman looking for a fight before he realizes somebody is staring up at him from the floor.
“A hand, maybe?” The other boy, though he doesn’t look to be much younger than Finn, arches an eyebrow at him, not unkind but not especially friendly either. He holds his hand up expectantly, and even if people think he isn’t Finn’s observant enough to catch the way the other boy’s face heats up and his eyes go a little brighter when Finn takes it and helps haul him back to his feet.
There’s no reason to ask, and judging by the Garden uniform (though it isn’t Balamb’s) it’s not like the kid’s going to tell. Getting checked out twice in one day is a little weird, though, and of course the one person who might mean it would be, well, a dude.
“Sorry,” Finn offers, shifting from foot to foot as he stares into an uncomfortably familiar face he knows for a fact he has never seen before in his life. “I was kinda distracted.”
“And I was in a bit of a rush.” The other boy smiles a little brighter, apparently as unfamiliar with Finn as Finn knows he is supposed to be with him. He shakes Finn’s hand once before he lets it go, as if he might as well while he has the chance. “Balamb is a lot bigger than my old Garden …” He pursed his lips. “Am I late for class?”
“A little.” In spite of his discomfort Finn grins, fully familiar with the experience though usually he doesn’t care as much as the other kid seems to. “Uh, kind of a lot, man. How lost did you get?”
“T-Rexaur in the training center lost,” comes the dry retort, and the boy juggles his books in his arms again to extend a hand for a proper handshake. “My name is Kurt Hummel, I just transferred from Trabia.” That explained the uniform, at least. “I didn’t miss anything important, did I?”
“Kind of everything.” Finn rubs the back of his neck, fisting his bandage in his other hand. They don’t get a lot of transfer students from the other Gardens, though Finn wouldn’t know why, and the idea of it is weird. All Finn knows is that other Gardens exist, and that in the event of an emergency or a withdrawal order, he reports to whatever one is closest. But Hummel, he muses, is probably the only other student in Balamb Garden who actually knows where another one is. “Uh, the field exam announcements and stuff, are you …”
He trails off, looking Kurt over like he’s not sure any Garden is exactly the place for him, and Finn can tell by the way Kurt goes tense that Finn has suggested something unpleasant. It reminds him strangely of Santana, the sort of defensive preening Kurt settles into.
“I am,” Kurt replies. His tone is sharp. “So I expect I’ll be seeing you there.”
Finn frankly doesn’t have a lot of friends at Balamb, and the thought of losing another one before he even has a chance to make friends makes his stomach lurch. “Look,” he mumbles, irritated with himself for how sheepish he feels and with Kurt, inexplicably, for making him feel that way. “I didn’t mean anything man, you’re just - it must be tough, your first day of class and it’s your exam already.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets and stares down at the ground, and for a long moment they stand there in an uncomfortable silence. Kurt, it seems, is unforgiving.
“We’re supposed to meet downstairs at two,” Finn adds. “Um, fourteen hundred or whatever. I gotta go do some other stuff, but … I’ll show you around and I can show you where we’re gonna be, okay? Cool?”
Kurt stares at him for a long moment before he smiles, not warmly but either way it’s more pleasant than the vacant stare. He nods once and adjusts his bag on his shoulder, and for a moment it looks as if Kurt might take Finn’s arm before Kurt catches himself and Finn lurches strangely to the side, not quite moving away from him but the effect — if the way Kurt’s smile droops is any indication — is clearly the same.
Gamely, Finn claps him on the shoulder instead, and it seems to help. Given that Finn has never been particularly hard-up for interested girls, Santana aside, it’s sort of strange to see someone so weird about touching, but after a moment Kurt dips his shoulder out of Finn’s grip and lingers a safe distance away as Finn guides him down the hall.
They do the full-on tour, Training Center aside, from the dormitories (so Finn can grab his gunblade for his excursion with Santana) to the cafeteria (a blonde blur streaked with blue nearly throws herself over the counter in a desperate bid for the last hot dog) and the library too, where Kurt charms the library girl with more skill than Finn would have given him credit for in his bid for the newest edition of Weapons Monthly.
“I will say one thing for Trabia,” Kurt says with a sigh, rifling through a copy from two months ago before handing it over to Finn. “They have a much bigger library budget.”
“Why’d you move, then?” Finn reshelves it helpfully but pockets the latest Occult Fan instead, curiosity piqued by the latest reports of wendigos falling from the sky. He gives Kurt another long, discerning look as they head for the front lobby. “No offense man, but they don’t send kids to Garden for the books.”
Kurt is nice enough to laugh. He relaxes, his smile warm but his tone dry and fond in a way Finn remembers dimly from somewhere, someone. “All that cold weather,” he says, so deadpan Finn’s not entirely sure he’s kidding. “It really wreaks havoc on my skin in the winter.”
They stop by the directory where they’d started to begin with, and for a long moment Finn just stares, silent and bewildered. There are not a lot of guys like Kurt Hummel at Garden — if they are, they have the good sense to do a better job of keeping it quiet. Finn is not entirely sure whether or not to feel impressed or concerned. He settles for a little of both, til Kurt’s eyes go steely even as the corner of Kurt’s mouth tips up in a crooked smile.
“I’ll see you at fourteen hundred,” he drawls, though Finn can hardly hear it. “I won’t be late.”
He turns before Finn has the chance to respond, and for a long moment, Finn watches the boy from the window disappear down the hall.
Chapter 3: Junction
SeeD hopeful Finn Hudson doesn’t remember anything of his life outside the Garden and he’s never really minded much - but a routine mission plunges him into the middle of a global crisis, forcing him to take charge of a ragtag band of strangers whose forgotten pasts are the key to unraveling a dangerous future.
“So what’s the deal with the transfer kid?”
Santana looks up from where she’s adjusting her mimsy around her wrist - they are not pretty and Santana has always been vocally disgusted that anything so powerful can’t at least be produced in a color other than military greens and beiges, and she is as unimpressed with their aesthetic appeal as usual today. “The one that didn’t actually show up?”
“He was late.” Finn shrugs and watches her speed through her junctions on the holoscreen, her slender fingers deftly tapping through the menus as she syncs her spells to the few protective magical abilities currently afforded to their inexperienced guardian forces. “He got lost, I gave him a tour and stuff.”
Curiously his gaze darts up to the corner of the holomenu, barely visible in the sunlight. Santana’s compatibility with Quezacotl is through the roof and he sighs, irritated all over again with the whole idea of GFs and magic. Finn reluctantly boots up his own mimsy, head jerking back instinctively as if the holoscreen might actually aggravate the still-stinging cut on his forehead if it runs into him.
“Somebody hasn’t been practicing.” Santana’s attention turns to his screen immediately, and when he glances at her she’s flashing him an unkind smirk. “Even if you don’t like it that’s kind of the nature of the beast, Hudson. Suck it up.”
But with more kindness than Finn is used to she steps close to help him sort out his junctions all the same, not setting them herself but guiding him through. Shiva hums her satisfaction in the back of her mind and despite himself, Finn feels better, more — resilient, maybe, when they finish and the touchscreen disappears, the whir of the mimsy settling into a dim warmth around Finn’s wrist.
“If you showed him around, you know more than I do.” Santana adjusts her whip at her hip and fusses with the zipper on her SeeD uniform - her actual uniform - before turning to fuss with the collar on Finn’s jacket. She’s kind of crazy tiny in the normal boots with barely any heel, and it’s a little hilarious to watch her on her tiptoes just to clean him up before they present themselves to the Shumi faculty at the mouth of the cave.
“The important thing, Hudson, is why I’m here with you, and not some kid who’s been at Balamb for less than a day. Let’s get this done,” and, because propriety is a word as foreign to Santana as it was to Finn before cramming for last week’s written tests, she smacks him on the ass with a smirk. “Then you can go ask your little boyfriend all by yourself.”
He gapes and stares as she saunters off, laughing, and finally snaps his mouth shut without replying; there’s no point, of course, nothing he can say that wouldn’t piss her off and get him flunked, so he skulks along in her shadow all the way to the mouth of the cave.
“Instructor Santana Lopez,” she snaps. She’s never liked the Shumi, maybe because they’ve never seemed to care very much for the students (or faculty) of Garden and have, for whatever reason, always seemed to hold a particular disregard for Santana.
True to form the Shumi doesn’t look up from beneath his wide-brimmed hat, tipped too low for them to see his face (or something, Finn has never been sure). “Are you fully prepared for the trials?”
Santana snarls. “I’m not the one taking the test.”
Finn doesn’t know a lot about Shumi, but he knows a lot about being ridiculed, and when the Shumi snaps back my mistake he’s pretty sure sarcasm sounds the same in every species.
“Uh, Finn Hudson,” he chimes in, mostly to cut Santana off before she can open her mouth again. “Balamb Garden ID …” He pauses for a moment; after all these years he should remember it, truthfully, but half the time he still has to sneak a peek at his dogtags. “Uh, 525.”
The nicest thing Santana does is say nothing. He can feel the Shumi looking him over, or at least he thinks he can, so he stays put and keeps his hand up in the Garden salute, doing his best to look impressive and (he snorts at his own joke, and sees Santana pinch the bridge of her nose out of the corner of his eye) SeeDy.
“You’ll have ten, twenty, or thirty minutes. The time you take for the trial will impact the final score on your SeeD assessment.” It’s freaky, being talked at instead of talked to, but Finn keeps quiet and tries to resist the urge to ask the guy to take his hat off. “Your advisor will remain present for the duration of the exam to ensure your safety. State your choice of time, and you may begin.”
He shoots Santana a quick look and she shrugs, which is either reassuring in that she does’t think he’ll crash and burn if he does it in ten, or kind of horrifying in that she doesn’t care if he crashes and burns at all.
“Ten minutes,” Finn says finally. Might as well go for broke. The Shumi moves out of their way and Santana heads inside at a leisurely jog, though she’s short enough that Finn can walk just a little faster and keep up. The fire cavern is sweltering, unsurprisingly; it hurts his eyes, he begins to sweat in the first few steps but Santana soldiers on, unconcerned.
The silence is uncomfortable, but roasting in silence seems like a special kind of torture. Surprisingly Santana chimes in first.
“So my little fan club seems to think we’re fucking.”
Finn falters and nearly trips over a large rock, dragging a line of black soot across the toe of his boot as he stumbles. “Excuse me?”
“Thought a little chat might help you relax a little, Finnocence,” she replies, her voice a mocking coo. She glances up at him and he wonders how red his face is from something other than the blistering heat. “Boys always get so uncomfortable when we take these little trips. The last boy almost fell over the side —”
She gestures towards what looks like lava, rolling flames awash with rubble and unidentifiable debris. A bomb bobbles in the distance like a buoy in the sea, its strange toothy grin giving Finn shivers. “I have some cures, so I won’t let you barbeque, Hudson.”
It doesn’t reassure him. He swallows hard, fanning himself with the lapel of his heavy jacket as if blowing more hot air on his face will make him feel any better. “You don’t do a good job of making people not think that,” he points out. “People think I’m like, fucking you for an A or —”
Santana cuts him off with the crack of her whip, nearly sending him toppling into the flames as she rounds on him and lashes out at something creeping up on them from behind. He barely manages to catch himself and sees a buel spiraling into the fire, leaving the lazy blue glow of drawn magic behind as first one then two then all three of its rotating wings light up like a fiery pinwheel.
“Maybe talking was a bad idea,” she says, her voice so low Finn almost can’t hear it over the roaring of the fires around them. “Pay attention, Hudson, or you’re going to get us both killed.”
But for a moment her expression softens, her face visible even though she pulls up the holomenu on her mimsy as if she’s trying to hide. “You’re not passing because people think we’re fucking,” she mutters, flicking through the magic junctions they’ve already set. “Somehow or another you’re passing all by yourself. But it makes my life a little easier if people think we’re fucking.”
She glances up at him and the hint of anxiety in her eyes keeps Finn from laughing at how odd it looks, the mimsy’s graphics lighting up her skin. “So just keep your mouth shut about it, okay?”
Finn falters, unsteady and unsure with too many questions on the tip of his tongue - it shouldn’t be his job to make her life easier, it shouldn’t be his job to be some kind of patsy, but she storms ahead before his anger can get the better of him. “Whatever,” is all he says, and his tone is almost light-hearted when he adds, “You’re just kind of … cramping my style or whatever, I guess.”
To his surprise Santana laughs but doesn’t look at him, and he ignores the way her hand moves to her face like she has to wipe her cheeks. “You don’t have any style, Hudson,” she drawls. “Lucky for you good SeeDs don’t really need any.”
She pauses again, not far from an odd doughnut in the path that burns hotter, brighter than everything around them, all centered in the hole in the middle. There’s a distant rumble and an icy shiver slips down his spine as Shiva bristles beneath his skin.
“Hope you’re better at this than the last kid.” Santana glances up at him, her eyes steely and her smile unpleasantly bright as she curls her hand tight around the grip of her whip again. “Do me a favor and don’t get killed.”
He draws his gunblade from the holster at his hip as something big and horned and furry rises up from the flames, lava rolling off its back. At his side Santana preps a blizzard spell, the temperature around them dropping as snow flurries surround her fist. She winks at him, almost friendly. “Don’t get cocky, Hudson, and maybe we’ll make it out with some time to spare.”
Lingering questions about her motives aside, Finn relaxes into the battle, forgetting everything everything but the battle as he lifts his gunblade and sets his stance with a broad grin.
Either way, there are certainly worse people to not get fucked by than Santana Lopez.
Chapter 4: Don't Be Afraid
Balamb Garden student Finn Hudson doesn't remember anything of his life outside the Garden and he's never really minded much - but a routine mission plunges him into the middle of a global crisis, forcing him to take charge of a ragtag band of strangers whose forgotten pasts are the key to unraveling a dangerous future.
The problem with being a SeeD candidate is never quite knowing when you might get to quit being a SeeD candidate.
Finn remembers signing all the paperwork at fifteen, surrounded by other students and their weepy parents, all sniffling even as they beam with pride for their child’s choice to pursue entry into Balamb Garden’s elite mercenary forces. It required a waiver, a contract, and several other stray papers designed to ensure parents knew there was a fair chance their child might die even before they got their SeeD cadet uniform.
Finn signed them all and Headmaster Schuester graciously offered his services to initial them all, making Finn a legally emancipated adult in the eyes of the Garden in the process.
Finn can still remember the hint of pity and something apologetic in the Headmaster’s eyes as he gathered up all of Finn’s paperwork and clapped him heartily on the shoulder.
“You’ll always have a home here now, Finn,” Schuester had said. Finn didn’t want to think much about what kind of world it was where a kid signed himself into a military institute to have a home, and simply accepted that until he was both eligible (seventeen) and there was a suitable field exam (no one ever knew when the good missions would come up) he was a willing entrant into the SeeD training program and a permanent resident of Balamb Garden.
He still wonders what his parents would say, if he remembered his parents well enough to find them and tell them, or if he’d ever been adopted. Headmaster Schuester, the closest thing Finn’s had to a dad that he can recall, has always been encouraging, but then again it’s his job to ensure SeeD is well-staffed.
It would be nice to have someone worry.
Finn has been waiting for an exam date for over a year but since Santana announced it this morning he’s been more anxious than excited. The tour with Kurt, the fire cavern - they were nice distractions even if they were maybe a little annoying and since returning with Santana, hot and sweaty and covered in soot, Finn has been left to his own devices.
His gunblade is polished and sharp. His uniform is pressed and ironed, Dr. Pillsbury has confirmed he doesn’t have a concussion, he’s read the copy of Occult Fan he pilfered three times (the wendigos from the sky thing: super freaky).
Training is exhausting and as realistic as it can be, especially with Puck looking to slice him open at any given opportunity, but the field exam is legit: a real mission, a real client, a real battle involving people who won’t get stuck in the detention center for causing him serious personal injury.
Finn has never known anything but life at Balamb Garden, surrounded by soldiers and students training to be soldiers and former soldiers teaching soldiers, or at least, he can’t remember knowing any of those things.
Sometimes he wonders what it would have been like never knowing Garden and thinks it wouldn’t be a bad way to live.
The mimsy at Finn’s wrist chirps out an alarm, Headmaster Schuester’s tinny voice beckoning all students eligible for the SeeD field exam assemble in the front lobby in thirty minues. He taps the Garden logo on the front and manages to resist the urge to lean away from the holomenu for a moment, skirting through the menus with the brush of a finger before settling on the Garden forums to dig through for any messages with more details about the day’s exam.
His mimsy — it has a real name, though no one ever calls them anything but mimsies — has been with him since the first week of training, a device synched up to both the Garden network and somehow Finn himself to function give him a way to actually manage the magic they teach potential SeeDs to channel.
Dealing with the Guardian Forces is an added bonus; Finn can’t imagine what it would be like, only knowing there was all of this weird strange magical stuff in your body without having any idea what to do with it. The mimsy keeps count, tracks vitals, allows students to synch up and swap magic or GFs. They’re freaky-advanced and, Finn personally thinks, kind of scary, but it is kind of cool surfing the net whenever he wants.
The GFs have all been pulled, forcibly unjunctioned (though Finn unjunctions as often as possible) to allow students to reassign them once they’ve been sorted into their mission squads. Guardian Forces are scarier still than the mimsies, actually scary — old things, magical things that don’t just sit idle til called on like normal spells but live in some spot that makes Finn’s brain feel weird and empty even as Shiva whispers there.
Maybe he’ll get stuck with someone who likes the damn things this time, and he’ll manage to escape the mission junction-free.
Finn grabs his uniform jacket and sheaths his gunblade at his hip, closing the mimsy holomenu up as he heads for the lobby. It’s just him and Santana when he gets there and she rolls her eyes, tapping her foot impatiently.
“You really took your time, Hudson.” She arches an eyebrow at him. “Make another date with your little boytoy?” Santana tips her head with a sickeningly sweet, disingenuous smile. “Sorry, sweetie, he won’t be joining us today. Wrong squad.”
She actually laughs, which is better than Finn usually gets out of Santana. She taps a solid folder — it’s strange what they still use paper for — against her other hand before opening it and flipping through what’s clearly a mission dossier. “You two can kiss each other better when you get back, Hudson.” She rocks up on her heels, sincerely thoughtful as she runs a finger down the page. “Looks like we’ll be with …”
Santana’s expression darkens and Finn is desperately grateful it’s for once not directed at him. “Pierce,” she mutters first. “Pierce, Brittany. Second year trainee. She’s …”
“Kinda crazy, right?”
Santana scowls at him and gestures down the lobby corridor, and as he glances up Finn hears for the first time the squeak and scuff of heavy boots that had been overrun by their conversation. Brittany is a blur of navy as she moves, and the way she flows through her set looks more like dancing than combat practice. A high kick nearly clips a gaggle of students clearly scrambling to meet their own squad chaperone and Brittany just laughs, clearly confident she was never going to hit them to begin with.
Finn chances a glance at Santana, and the way she’s staring, her expression inscrutable, is a little unnerving. He hears Brittany approach, the uneven heavy thump of boots on lineoleum, and turns back in time to see her execute a pretty impressive backflip to land with the grace and self-satisfied smile of a cat at Finn’s side.
“I must be with you!” Brittany’s smile could power the sun. Her blonde hair is done up in some odd, intricate twist that seems strange in contrast with her sharp uniform, and he can see a hint of twisting blue just below the sleeves of her jacket. The hair and the tattoos are against regulation, and Finn wonders idly if maybe that’s what has Santana looking so irate. “You’re Finn, right?”
She leans in, her voice a conspiratorial whisper that carries despite her evident belief she’s being subtle. “I heard Noah Puckerman totally kicked your ass this morning.”
The best Finn can do is grimace. “We were just training, nobody kicked anybody’s ass.”
Brittany links her hands behind her neck and shrugs. “That’s not what he thinks. He’s just being annoying.” She wrinkles her nose and stretches as if she doesn’t know how to keep still. “You should just ignore him.” She flashes him a warm smile that feels kind of like pity and Finn can suddenly understand Santana’s sharp frown. “I bet you were still pretty good, you know? But he’s just going to keep bothering you unless you ignore him.”
“Whatever.” Finn sulks and he can hear Santana snort behind him, dismissive.
For her part Brittany is undeterred and she turns the same warm smile on Santana — warmer, maybe, and softer, though it falters when Santana stares back down at her folder as if she doesn’t want to meet Brittany’s gaze. “So like, you’re with us too, right Instructor?"
She shrugs and stares at the folder in her hands, looking strangely unsettled. "Someone has to keep you from getting yourself killed." Santana snaps it shut and she flashes the pair of them an unsettling smirk. "And annoying Noah Puckerman? He's with you."
Before Finn can protest the familiar ruckus of the disciplinary committee rolls down the hall like a thunderstorm, the low rumble of stomping feet pierced by a sharp crack of unpleasant laughter. "Finally throwing the benchwarmers out, Lopez?"
Puck is unsurprisingly disgruntled; he rolls his eyes and huffs out an exaggerated petulant sigh, staring at Finn and then Brittany with long, discerning looks of open disapproval. Quietly Finn weighs the merits of withdrawing himself from today's exam. "Do you actually expect Hudson to pass, or is this just a pity test?"
Brittany is unconcerned, to her credit, and she bops in place, throwing punches at nothing as she dances from foot to foot -- her mouth is set in a thin line, her eyes focused, but she doesn't acknowledge Puck. Maybe there is some merit to ignoring him.
"Why don't you go fuck yourself," Finn offers instead, unable and maybe mostly unwilling to follow her example. "What is this, Puckerman, like your third exam?"
Santana makes some tepid noise of bland disapproval. "First or third, Hudson, Puckerman is your squad captain this year." She smirks again. "You might want to consider being a little more respectful."
"Are you kidding me?" Finn can feel his whole face heat up in irritation and he throws his hands up. "What, did you pick his name out of a fucking hat or something?"
This is too much, humiliating and irritating. He's not perfect, maybe, probably not even close, but out of the three of them he's certainly the most capable and being thrown into a team with Puckerman is bad enough. Being led into a warzone by the same guy who'd like to see his head rolling across the training facility floor is a waking nightmare.
There's no getting out of today without a junction, at any rate, at least not if he wants to make it out of wherever the fuck they're going alive. Santana doesn't react at all, as disinterested in his well-being as she usually is. Finn's shoulders sag and he twists the mimsy around his wrist, itching to get into the field. The sooner they go the sooner it's over, the sooner it's over the sooner he can get back, hopefully not on a stretcher.
"If you're done," Santana says dryly, clearly amused by the way that he's sulking.
"Or feel free to bitch a little more, Finny." Puckerman barks out another dry laugh, echoed by Karofsky and Azimio at his sides. "I've got a little girl and tiny dancer on my squad, we're in real good shape, aren't we."
"If you're done." Santana's voice is a little firmer this time and Finn huffs out an irritated sigh. "Attention, please."
To her credit Brittany stands up, polite, and Finn follows suit. Puckerman just lurks, shoulders thrown back in smug satisfaction. Santana rolls her eyes but doesn't push the issue. "This is a dangerous mission. Though this is a field exam, we're taking you into a real battlefield -- this is to test your professionalism and ability to cope on a military mission, not just about your skills."
She turns the folder in her hands and stares down at the folder, looking legitimately concerned for a moment. "There will be real bullets, there will be real spells, you will be engaging with a foreign military agency. You need to follow orders -- my orders and the orders of your squad captain, or face death, serious injury, or failure to graduate. Today --"
"Now Miss Lopez, I don't know if our priorities are in the right order there!" Headmaster Schuester sidles up to her side, bright eyed and smiling a little too warmly for the circumstances. "If you perform poorly, we only hope you come back to fail." Nobody laughs, and he falters. He smoothes his cardigan vest down over his button-down and fusses with his rolled-up sleeve, high energy and constantly restless.
Sometimes Finn wonders if Headmaster Schuester regrets days like the day he let Finn sign his papers, when he ships them off to risk death on the regular. Puckerman doesn't seem any happier to see him, though maybe it's as much a function of how often Puckerman has had to take private disciplinary meetings with the Headmaster than anything else.
The Headmaster seems weary these days, his eyes lined and his smile not entirely genuine. He seems to inflate, the effort he makes to brighten his smile and muster up some level of warm enthusiasm almost palpable. "Instructor Lopez is right. This is your first real mission, kids, and you need to be careful." He smiles and claps his hands together like they're getting ready for a pen and paper final exam. "But you're SeeD trainees! Developed by the best and brightest of our elite mercenary forces. Trust yourselves, trust your abilities, and trust your teammates. We have faith in you. Santana has faith in you, and I know you'll come back home having made your Balamb Garden proud."
If they come back, is what hangs in the air. Nobody says anything. Santana watches Brittany as she bobs and shifts again, endlessly restless, and Puckerman scowls, his expression dark.
Finn does his best to smile and nod and Headmaster Schuester seems grateful for the gesture, no matter how half-hearted. Finn gets a clap on the shoulder for his troubles.
"You'll do great," the Headmaster says. He sounds like he might almost kind of genuinely believe it's true. "You'll do great, Finn. I know you will."
Puckerman and the Headmaster share a look that makes Headmaster Schuester seem to shrink away, and Brittany beams when Headmaster Schuester wishes her a simple good luck. With that, they're done: it's over, they have their mission, and suddenly they are temporary SeeDs, with only the slow trip to their unknown destination looming ahead of them.
A heavy silence settles over them for a long, awkward moment. Ever so faintly Finn hears Brittany whisper a soft prayer to Hyne at his side, and Puckerman doesn't even laugh.
"We're leaving." Santana's voice is piercing in the strange quiet of the lobby. "Wheels up, kids. Get your asses to the garage."
The Garden cars are kind of cool -- nobody really drives, with Balamb proper not a long walk from the Garden campus -- but not cool enough for anyone to want to discuss them; no one says anything at all until they reach the dock, their boat the last to depart from the small fleet of SeeD Instructors and trainees being shipped off for the day. Holly Holiday meets them at the pier, more stern than Finn really remembers seeing her, her hair pulled back tight and her uniform crisp and clean.
She's their friendliest professor by any stretch of the imagination, and Finn imagines if there was anyone who was going to get all dangerous liaisons with a student it would be Commander Holliday. But she doesn't take any shit, she's smart, and she's the first woman to command a major military force -- whoever she sleeps around with she probably deserves the job.
Puckerman wolf whistles and Commander Holliday just rolls her eyes, waving him into the vessel they've been assigned to for the day. Santana, at least, seems to relax. She and the Commander share an odd look that, at least from Holly, seems more sympathetic than anything to Finn, and Santana shrugs it off before herding Finn and Brittany into the boat before her.
"Quite a little ragtag crew you got here, Santana." Even Commander Holliday's laughter doesn't sound entirely unfriendly, but her eyes are a little steely all the same. "So nice to see you again, Puckerman. I'd wish you luck, but ..."
He shrugs off the snide remark and throws himself into a seat without much concern for proprietary or politeness. "Save it for a student who needs it, Commander."
Santana's lips curl up in a sneer. "Good luck, Puckerman."
Puck shifts in his seat like he might pick a fight but Brittany chimes in first, bright and cheery like she doesn't realize there's about to be a battle royale in the hull of their commuter ship. "So ... do we get to find out where we're going now or is it like, a surprise or something?" She chews idly at her bottom lip. "I don't really like surprises. One time my cat threw me a surprise party and I was so scared I had to sleep with the light on for a whole week."
Commander Holliday makes a strangled noise in the back of her throat and turns into the corner under the guise of fussing with the holoscreen projector control panel on the wall behind her.
"Holly -- Commander Holliday has the full dossier." Santana's tone is dry, threaded through with an undercurrent of long-suffering affection. "Whenever you think you're ready, Commander."
Holly's ponytail sways as she nods her head. She clears her throat once more before turning back to the three of them, her face still red with barely stifled laughter. "Dossier," she croaks, and she avoids their eyes as the holoscreen lights up with a map of the western coast of Galbadia continent. "Dossier, right."
She rocks up on her heels and takes a breath, her whole demeanor changing as she settles into her rank. "This mission will involve four squads of three trainees each, backed up by a SeeD instructor. Eighteen hours ago, the Dollet Dukedom Parliament made a request for SeeD support in liberating the city from the Galbadia Army.”
Holly gestures towards the holoscreen, lit up with a map of the Dollet coastline and pocked with markers for the Galbadian troops, the remaining Dollet stronghold, and indicators for their trajectory towards the beach. “G-Army invaded 72 hours ago, and pushed Dollet’s troops into the nearby mountains shortly before the Parliament sent their distress request.”
The Dollet markers move accordingly, and smaller picture-in-picture screens light up with grainy, shaky footage of the battle on the beach. The Dollet troops are straggly and less than impressive against the well-trained forces from Galbadia in their sharp navy and crimson, and Finn wonders idly how a scraggly crew of students is supposed to do any better.
“So what are we supposed to be doing, exactly?” Puck is still sprawled across the seat, clearly disinterested. “All the little dirty work?”
Holly ignores him, to her credit. “Your objective is to eliminate the G-Army forces inside the Dollet city limits.”
Brittany is bounces in her seat. “Sounds important!”
“Sounds boring,” Puck mutters.
Holly pushes on, though Brittany at least gets a reassuring smile. “It hardly needs to be said, but the order to withdraw takes priority. Anticipate a battle as soon as we disembark at Lapin Beach. Any questions, talk to Santana.”
That’s it. Commander Holliday leaves, and that’s the end of it: their first mission, an international conflict, and suddenly they’re soldiers. A heavy silence falls over all of them, no questions asked. There’s nothing else to ask, Finn thinks, nothing else they need to know to get the job done, but all the same the quiet is more disheartening than anything and he almost can’t even bring himself to scoff when Puckerman finally breaks it.
“Listen up,” he drawls, and Finn and Brittany’s heads jerk up to stare at him. “Our goal’s to mop up all the Galbadian douchebags hanging out in Dollet. All you two need to do is take orders from me.”
Brittany takes him seriously enough, her expression grim in a way that doesn’t suit her pretty face or bright demeanor. “Our first real battle … this is kind of scary.”
Puck’s mouth drops open for a smart remark but Finn sees Santana shake her head and whatever it is dies on Puck’s tongue. “Whatever,” he mutters instead, waving a dismissive hand at Finn. “We’ll be landing pretty soon. Go see what’s outside, Hudson … that’s an order.”
His overwhelming need to just fucking graduate already outweighs his urge to tell Puckerman to go fuck himself, and he barely resists the urge to flip Puckerman the bird. Awkwardly he climbs out of the cramped hull and makes his way to the observation deck, wind whipping at his SeeD jacket.
The horizon is lit up in oranges, on fire with the last minutes of sunset in a way that makes the sea gleam even through the ripples of white from the boat pushing through the waves. Finn’s favorite thing is Balamb beach in the afternoons and it hits him hard, the smell of the ocean and the way everything looks so much like it does back home but for the rising plumes of ominous dark smoke and flame and the encroaching sound of rapid gunfire. On the beach the debris of destroyed ships is barely visible and growing larger by the moment, and Finn feels his stomach seize up with sudden inescapable terror.
“This is the real deal, Hudson,” he hears Santana shout behind him. He doesn’t turn. “Be ready for anything, and try to make it back alive.”
A mortor or magic - it’s hard to know which - rattles the boat as he follows her back into the hull. The gunfire grows louder, and everyone is restless, the boat suddenly more like a prison than a free ride.
Their parents signed them up for this.
Finn hardly has time to dwell on the memory of Headmaster Schuester’s weary smile from this afternoon before the boat is lurching to a stop, tossed ashore on the beach and not docking so much as burying itself into the sand. He hears the hiss of the pneumatics as the door drops open and nods once as he shares one last look with Brittany before grabbing his gunblade and following an over-eager Puckerman out to the shores of Lapin Beach.