The only thing she hated about Garden was, ironically, the lack of plants. Everything in the building except the quad was fake plastic stuff, which made sense given the setting (real plants would have died long ago from “Hey, let’s see what happens when I pour chemicals on the potted flowers!”) but to a girl whose parents owned a greenhouse, who had grown up with the sight and smell and feel of plant life all around her, it was profoundly depressing.
Penelope Rogers didn’t often miss her home. Even if sometimes she wanted to go just outside grounds and dig her fingers into the dirt for a while, just to remember the way it felt under her nails. Even if she did miss her baby sister fiercely, no matter how many letters she wrote starting with “Dear Calliope....” Even if she did sometimes sit by the windows in the library and look out toward where she knew the house and greenhouses and big tall tree with a tire swing were still there, and try to imagine what everyone was doing right at that moment. SeeD courses were set up to be fifteen weeks of straight work, and then two weeks off, and unlike many of her friends Penny had a home to go to on those weeks. She’d taken a few of them there in the past, Xia and Mara and Gabby – and they’d loved the flowers and waxed poetic over her mother’s roasted eggplant and cooed over Calli’s cats. They hadn’t loved the greenhouse like she did, though. They hadn’t understood the need for green growing things and the smell of warm soil, or the way she’d always defined herself between the dirt under her fingernails and the books under her hands.
Eventually she’d settled for a windowbox of potted plants in her room, snapdragon and red verbena and nasturtiums, small reminders of the green and wild in the middle of steel and order and plastic ferns.
“Can I help you find anything?”
“Oh?” The girl in white jumped as if startled, then blinked and smiled. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “You surprised me. I didn’t think there was anyone else in here.”
“There usually isn’t, the day after exams.” Penny smiled ruefully. “Especially not wandering around the ancient history section. Are you a transfer student?”
“Ah, actually, no,” the girl said with a glance out the window. “Actually, I’m… I suppose you could say I’m here as a guest of Headmaster Kramer.”
“Fair enough.” Penny shrugged and smiled. The girl – no, woman, she looked older than anyone else in Garden besides instructors – seemed a little nervous, for some reason. “Were you looking for anything specific, or just something to pass the time? There’s a couple of really good fantasy series we got stock of a few weeks ago.”
“Actually…” she trailed off. “This is going to sound crazy, but do you have anything regarding time travel?” Penny bit the inside of her lip, a habit she’d had for years when she was concentrating.
“I believe we have a few texts in the theoretical magic shelves, but I haven’t read them myself. They’re over this way, if you’ll follow me?” She took a few steps, but then stopped, laying one palm on her forehead. “Where’s my manners?” Penny extended one hand toward the other woman. “Penelope Rogers, pleasure to meet you.”
“My name’s Elle,” she said, grasping Penny’s hand firmly. “Pleasure’s all mine.”
A week later, Penny found another stranger drifting around the magical theory section. She introduced herself as Rinoa Heartilly, and although she wasn’t a student (technically, from the sound of it, she was a SeeD client who’d gotten stuck on Garden when it suddenly became mobile) she wanted to learn more about para-magic, about SeeD, about everything she could get her hands on. She spent most of her free time in the library, and the two girls became friends quickly. Penny thought she was a little impetuous (but since when was that a bad thing?) but she was likeable and easy to talk to, which was a welcome change from most SeeD cadets.
“Just one question,” Rinoa said one day, looking up from a thick volume on Junctioning.
“Shoot,” Penny said from across the table.
“How in the world do you guys keep all this straight without, oh, I don’t know, cheat sheets or something?” She threw her hands up in frustration, gesturing to the stacks of books around them. “Most of it sorta makes sense, but there’s enough things that just flat-out don’t that it’s—just—ahh!” Rinoa leaned back in her chair, her head thunk-ing against the back. “I’m hopeless.” Penny smiled.
“No, you’re not. First off, Rin, nobody learns all this in a week. It’s complicated, and you’re right, there are so many exceptions to each rule that it’s hopeless trying to memorize them all. And second?” She stood up and pulled a slim black leather book out of her pocket before tossing it to her friend. “Who told you we don’t use cheat sheets?” Rinoa flipped through a few pages covered in Penny’s neat, round handwriting, notes and mnemonics about Junctions and GFs and which magics were effective against which monsters. Rinoa muttered something about Squall and Quistis, and Penny rolled her eyes.
“We’ve been over this before, remember?” she said. “The people you’re running around with are the best we’ve got. They don’t need notes to remember the exceptions to the rules because they are exceptions to the rules.” Rinoa giggled at that.
“I know, I know, it’s just…” She sighed, leaning forward to rest her chin on her hands. “I’m sick of feeling useless, that’s all. They’re all so good at this, it’s so effortless for them, and I feel stupid.”
“And the others aren’t exactly being helpful, are they?”
“Nope.” She frowned slightly. “Not helping that I’m so worried about them, either – the ones who went to the missile base, I mean. We know the place got blown to bits in a very dramatic fashion – that has Selphie’s fingerprints all over it – but we have no idea if they got out of there in time. Zell at least looks worried but I swear Squall’s like a damn brick and – are you OK, Penny? You just turned bright red…” Rinoa trailed off, cocking her head to one side as she looked at her blushing friend. “So that’s how it is?” Penny couldn’t help but laugh a little and shake her head. Just thinking about him got her tongue-tied and flustered. It wasn’t fair!
“How it always has been,” she said very quietly. “He doesn’t know, though, so I didn’t think I was that obvious about it.”
“No, you’re obvious,” Rinoa said, without malice. “It’s just that…well, I’m starting to think one of the selection criteria for SeeD candidates is total emotional density.” Penny laughed at that, tucking a stray hair behind her ear and back into her braid. “Especially the boys.”
“No arguments there.” She sighed.
“I won’t say anything,” Rinoa said, reaching across the table to touch her friend’s hand. “Unless, you want me to? OK, OK, or not,” she added hastily when Penny blushed and choked slightly at the suggestion.
It had started off simply enough. Two days after the Garden had started moving on its own (and wasn’t that going to make an amazing letter to her sister) Rinoa had dragged Squall and Zell into the library and the three of them had taken over an entire table with books and notes, trying to figure out how and why the place had gone airborne, and more importantly, how to steer it. Rinoa had wasted no time in asking Penny to help them figure the whole mess out, she’d started searching their automated catalog for anything remotely related, and after a few hours they’d all sat back, staring at each other over piles of papers and books.
“Well, let’s think of what we do know,” Squall said, passing a hand over his eyes. “We know it’s not aliens.”
“We don’t think it’s aliens,” said Penny, who had lost her urge not to argue about an hour after they’d started. “With the exception of a few old Centra texts, though, there’s not much evidence for that, either.”
“We know Galbadia Garden’s got the same tech.” Zell scowled at the black-and-white printout of a picture of G-Garden floating over a forest. “The jerks.”
“No argument on that, but that means we need to figure out how to operate this thing even faster, since the same tech’s in hostile hands.” Squall grabbed the picture. “It looks like they’re got it under control, too. Penelope, did that inter-library search turn up anything like a user manual?”
“I wish I could say yes,” she muttered, “but there’s nothing for me to look at. Galbadia’s blocked off a couple large sections of the catalogue, including the military history and weapons-related topics. Either they normally keep those passcoded – which seems pretty strange to me – or they knew we’d be looking.”
“Anything from Trabia’s library?” Zell asked. Penny surprised herself by not stumbling over her words when she answered.
“Nope. I can’t even access their database – they’ve… they’ve gone offline.” The implications of that fact were obvious, but too painful to think about. Penny had known a few of the girls working in the Trabia library. She couldn’t think too long about what may have happened to them without feeling sick.
“So we’ve both got these huge fancy toys, and only one of us knows how to use them,” Rinoa said quietly.
“And we’re on the wrong side of that equation.” Penny shook her head. “Now what?” They all looked at each other for a moment, and Zell shrugged.
“Game of poker? I got the cards. Oh, chill out, man,” he said as Squall began to object, “what else are you gonna do, sit at the window and stare at the water going by?”
“There’s nothing we can do until we make landfall, anyway. We’re just killing time out here,” Rinoa said, tugging Squall’s sleeve to pull him back down into his chair. “Besides, you can’t really have a good game with only three. Please?” she said, looking up at him through her eyelashes – and Penny winced, because that expression could melt stone if she wanted it to – and to her absolute shock, Squall sat back down with a sigh.
“Are we playing on Timber or Deling rules?” he asked, grabbing the cards. After a fair bit of debate, they settled on Timber with a few house rules from the Deling set, and once Rinoa’s only-half-joking suggestion of strip poker was shot down on all sides, they’d actually managed to have a few good hours before the impact with Fisherman’s Horizon jolted the cards off the table.
Penny had to pinch herself when she realized she was actually becoming friends with him.
Zell was spending more time in the library lately, sometimes looking things up for “work” and sometimes personal research, and more and more often lately just to hang out. She’d gotten over her tongue-tied nervousness fairly fast, to her own surprise and the amused delight of the other girls. It was easier than she’d expected, just talking to each other. A search on recent military history led to him telling her war stories about his grandfather, his idol, and she’d told him about the greenhouse after he wondered aloud how the residents of FH fed themselves, and she’d pointed out the glass enclosures on the southern side of the complex to capture heat and protect the crops. His fondness for engineering and mechanical things, her soft spot for old poetry and her pistols, and an unexpected shared interest in international politics all came out during conversations across books and tables as the Garden made its ponderous way across the miles.
“So,” she asked over glasses of cherry juice and a stack of books on recent advances in propulsion craft, “what on earth is the story behind that tattoo?” He laughed easily, kicking his boots up on the table, and she flicked a ball of paper at his toes – feet on furniture were one of her pet peeves.
“Long story short? I was being an idiot,” Zell said, pulling his feet back down.
“OK, and short story long?” she asked. “And how’s that different from normal?” She dodged the spitball he lobbed at her in reaction.
“You remember Mac and Alistair? So, a year or two back, the three of us and a couple other guys went down into town, went to go see my ma, run around the place, just have some fun. Well, Mac’s older brother was working in the bar in town, and Mac used his key to get a couple bottles of god-knows-what out of the back room. Awful stuff, tasted like paint thinner strained through a gym sock—“
“How the heck do you know what paint thinner tastes like?” she interrupted, making a face.
“Not the point! …OK, on a dare when I was fifteen. Hey, you asked,” he added as she started to laugh, shaking her head.
“Boys are insane,” Penny said on the tail end of a giggle.
“Anyway,” he went on, “the three of us get pretty fu—uh, messed up on that stuff. I remember us talking about how the barkeep had tattoos up and down his arms, and how we thought they were just so cool, and Al said he’d seen a shop down the road that did tattoos and piercings, and...” He shrugged. “I woke up the next morning with a huge-ass bandage on my face, took it off a few days later and found this. My mom almost had a stroke when she saw it.”
“Understandably,” Penny said, trying to sound dry instead of giggly.
“I didn’t get the worst of it, though,” he said, his grin going a little bit evil. “All of us got something stupid done, I was just the only one stupid enough to put it on a spot I can’t cover up. But Mac’s got a full portrait of Dolla the Donkey inked on his ass, poor guy couldn’t sit down for a week – “ Penny started giggling again at that mental image “– and one of the other guys ended up getting some sort of piercing in a spot you normally really wouldn’t want one. I guess I kinda lucked out on that one.”
“Maybe,” she said, leaning forward and shifting her legs under her. “It’s still kind of silly looking.”
“OK, my turn to do the questions. Why did you take up shooting?” Penny glanced down at the unobtrusive holster at her hip, the well-polished steel barrel and cherrywood handle with ivory inlay on the Hummingbird model pistol she’d used for the last few years. It felt like an extension of her own arm at this point, a part of the limb that just happened to be detachable.
“Why not?” she said, looking back up at him. Her fingers trailed over the smooth wood, curling around the handle.
“Because pretty girls don’t usually go for the bang-bang-shoot-things weapons?” Zell shrugged again. “And, I don’t know, seems like you’d be more of a whip or dagger type, honestly. Something graceful and girly.”
“OK, but this is a little embarrassing…” Penny tried desperately to keep her brain from stumbling over did he just call me pretty? “There was a movie that came out when we were, oh, maybe twelve? About a girl whose lover had been captured in the war, and she and her best friends went on this huge quest to go find him, and there were fights and dramatics and silly songs and the main character was just amazing.”
“I think I remember… was it the one where one of those friends was running around in, like, a bikini and a belt and nothing else?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. The main character was my idol for the longest time, because she was so brave and pretty and strong and I wanted to be just like her… Anyway, she used dual pistols. And I was still obsessed with this movie when I had to choose my main weapon, and I wanted to be like her, so I grabbed the gun.” She shook her head again, blushing. “I love it, though. It’s nice to be able to not be right up close in the fighting – I still go a little to pieces when I get hurt. Besides,” she said with a smirk, “there’s a certain satisfaction in being able to pick the numbers out of Triple Triad card from sixty feet away.”
“I need to get you and Irvine talking shop one of these days,” Zell said with a chuckle.
Every now and then, during those easy, casual talks, she’d start to think maybe she was getting over her crush on him. She didn’t stammer anymore, after all, and she’d stopped blushing so much. And then he would smile at her, and her thoughts would go all scrambled again, and she’d conclude that yes, she was still absolutely, hopelessly in love. And that he was still absolutely, hopelessly clueless about it. Penny was starting to think Rinoa’s theory about emotional density might have something to it by the time they reached the remains of Trabia Garden.
The Battle of the Gardens didn’t touch the library at first. When the infirmary had started to become overwhelmed after the first round of fighting, Gabby had had the idea of using the library as a backup, someplace to treat what minor injuries Cure and a first-aid kit could handle while letting Dr. Kadowaki handle the more serious cases. An hour later, Penny had just finished patching up a nasty cut on a kid’s arm when she thought she heard the tromp of boots in the corridor outside.
“Hang tight one sec,” she told the boy as she finished tying off the bandage. She pulled her pistol out as she moved toward the front of the library; they’d set up the makeshift trauma center in the back of the library, both to take advantage of the open space and to offer a little more protection in case someone made it through the front lines. She hid behind the first row of bookshelves as she heard the voices.
“So, what the hell are we doing in the library?” one of the men in green said to another. “Thought we were supposed to be fighting?”
“One of the others said they were taking wounded in here. Should be easy pickings, and if we take out the medics they’ll be that much simpler to get the rest of them down. Besides, what the hell are a bunch of librarians gonna be able to do, throw file cards at us?” The men laughed coarsely, and Penny narrowed her eyes. She knew the others were armed – none of them would have been foolish enough to face today without a weapon – but they were in the back with the injured fighters.
“Kinda makes you feel bad, though – I mean, they’re just a bunch of helpless kids.”
Wanna bet, jackass? Penny thought to herself, tucking the gun under her arm to muffle the sound of a round being chambered. She took a deep breath, hiding her gun hand into the folds of her skirt, and stepped out from behind the bookshelf.
“Excuse me gentlemen,” she said crisply, “but Garden regulations forbid fighting in the library.” The men turned to stare at her in some combination of shock and confusion. Did you not think there would be anyone here? “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” She pulled up the gun to arm’s length, her elbows not quite locked, her finger light on the trigger even as she pulled.
Her first kill was easier than she’d expected. It was over too fast for her to really think about it, the three shots one after another like the simulations in the shooting range. One moment there were three G-Garden soldiers standing in front of her, and the next there were three bodies on the floor between general fiction and mythology. She stared at them for a moment, unable to think anything more profound than it’s going to be impossible to get the blood out of the carpet, isn’t it?
“Penny?” Xia’s voice cut through her thoughts as the shorter girl came up behind her. “Oh boy… let’s get these out of sight, huh?” she said gently, laying a hand between Penny’s shoulder blades.
“Yeah,” she said quietly, bending to help Xia drag the corpses between a pair of bookshelves. The PA crackled to life with a slightly off-key jingle as Xia yanked a curtain down off its hangers and draped it over the bodies.
“......Everybody, this is Squall…” Penny leaned back against the bookshelf and listened. She was a little surprised – she couldn’t remember him ever sounding so sincere before, especially not on something like this. Penny closed her eyes, smiling slightly. She couldn’t help but remember staring at Rinoa a few hours ago, incredulously mouthing hot dogs?? as Rinoa covered her mouth to keep the giggles in, and Penny wondered briefly if the other girl was alright. They’d told each other to be careful, to stay safe, before Rinoa had run off to find her other friends. The difference in Squall between then and now was just a little astonishing. She opened her eyes as the PA sounded its sign-off jingle, looked up toward the ceiling, and nodded once before turning toward Xia.
“Well, you heard the boss,” she said.
“Right. Let’s go kick some Galbadian ass,” Xia said, pulling her daggers out of her belt. “Gabby, Mara, you think you can hold it down here?”
“Sure thing,” Mara said, adjusting her glasses. “Beat a couple of ‘em up for us, huh?”
“Will do,” Penny said. She could feel the breakdown coming, too many emotions boiling up together, but in the end she was a soldier, and right now she had a job to do.
Two days after the battle, Penny slipped into the room beside Doc’s office, fingers brushing over her own sore ribs. She sat gently on the side of the bed, being careful not to disturb either the bandages on her thigh or the monitors attached to the deathly still young woman next to her.
I told you to be careful, Rinoa.
She sighed, gently touching her friend’s cheek. Balamb Garden had taken surprisingly light casualties in the battle – thirteen dead, mostly older students who had given as good as they’d got, and about two dozen “serious injuries”, including Xia getting nearly crushed by a dying paratrooper and his rig. Nearly everyone who’d taken part in the fighting had been hurt in some way, but mostly they were minor injuries – like her own broken ribs, already nearly healed by para-magic and Doc’s sure touch, or Mara tearing a tendon in her knee on a bad landing from a jump kick. And then there was this – a seemingly healthy young woman, engaged in battle with a Sorceress, standing strong until the very end of the fight and then dropping into a coma for no obvious reason. She was breathing, slow and deep, and her pulse was strong under her skin, but beyond that, she was lifeless.
Penny looked up sharply at the sound of footsteps, her hand going to her gun in a reflex she didn’t think she’d be getting rid of any time soon. She dropped her hand back to the bedcovers when she saw who it was.
“Always seems to be someone in here,” Squall said as he walked in, and Penny looked at him for a moment before answering. They weren’t friends – they were close to the same people, but that didn’t count – and technically, he was her boss.
“Rinoa’s good at making friends,” she said simply as he collapsed into the chair on the wall, leaning his head back against the subtle stripes on the wallpaper. Penny noticed, not for the first time in the two days since the fight, how worn he looked, far more tired and broken than anyone who hadn’t even hit eighteen yet should ever be. She could see the dark circles under his closed eyes, the two-days’ stubble, the exhaustion laying over him like a cloak, and she remembered Rinoa grousing about “he’s going to work himself to death one of these days”.
“Thank you,” he said after a moment, “for not using past tense just then.”
“Call it a hunch, but I think it’s gonna take more than this to put her down,” Penny said softly. “She’s got a lot of fight in her, you know?”
“Do I ever,” he said, and she was shocked at the amount of emotion floating on the words. “Did you find anything?”
“Not that I think would be useful. You know, for a force whose stated purpose is to fight sorceresses, we’re awfully light on literature on the subject,” she said lightly, and she thought he almost laughed. “Closest thing I could find to this situation is a theoretical text referring to possession. A lot of the pieces match, but the author’s adamant that the victim has to also be a sorceress. Which is vanishingly unlikely in this case – I mean, it’s Rinoa. So, not much help there. Everything else says it has to be a conscious action, something the sorceress does on purpose, and you said Lady Edea swears she didn’t do anything, so…” she trailed off and shook her head. “As far as I can tell, this is the first time something like this has happened. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said quietly. “Thanks for looking.” He sat forward, looking at Rinoa’s still form, and although she’d been there first Penny suddenly felt like an intruder.
“Speaking of the library, though, I should get back,” she said as she rose to her feet. “We’re still a little short-handed.”
“Penelope,” he said as she reached the doorway, and she stopped, leaning against the doorjamb. “How far is it from Fisherman’s to the Esthar coast?” Penelope bit her lip for a second, trying to remember, trying to figure out why he was asking, before remembering Nida grumbling to her earlier about trying to find a way into Esthar.
“Almost a hundred and fifty miles,” she said softly. “Maybe five days on foot. Take more water than you think you need – ocean crossing with no cover, and there’s the Great Salt Lake after that. Place is probably crawling with monsters, too, but I remember reading something that said many of them are undead, so Phoenix Downs are a good idea too. I have no idea where the actual city of Esthar is, but that’ll at least get you closer.” She paused briefly. “Oh, and one more thing?” she added. “Take a damn nap before you go. You look like you’re about to fall over.” He turned around to look at her for a long moment. “Besides, we won’t make landfall till tomorrow morning anyway.”
“Thanks, Penny,” he said quietly, and she was fairly sure it was the first time he’d ever called her by her nickname.
“I won’t say anything until they start going crazy looking for you,” she said, turning to leave. “Just be safe out there.”
She wasn’t too surprised when they told her the next afternoon that he’d actually gone through with it. She was, however, a little surprised when Zell came in to the library to tell her they were going to catch him.
“So basically, the plan is just to go catch up to them, and make sure nobody gets killed, on the way to some city nobody knows how to find, on the off chance they know something we don’t?” she said after he’d finished explaining.
“Pretty much. I don’t think we can get him to turn around at this point, stubborn son of a gun.” Zell rolled his eyes.
“You realize how insane that sounds, right?” she asked.
“Eh, we’ll be back before you can miss us.”
“Just… just be careful, OK?” The words came out faster than she meant them to, but she was already scared. This entire scheme seemed insane to her, borderline suicidal, the more she thought about it, and there was no way she could stop them.
“Hey, don’t look like that,” he said softly, laying a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, words tangling up behind her teeth - I love you don’t leave me please stay safe - and she wondered if he could see in her expression all those things she couldn’t make her lips say. “We’ll be fine,” he said.
“Promise?” was the only thing she could say; everything else tangled up bitter on her tongue.
Ten days later, she was standing gaping at the library window, watching the most awesome ship she’d ever seen land in front of Garden. Sleek red and silver, it floated down onto the green easily, almost like a living thing, a bird landing on a branch. Gabby was standing next to her, whispering “Oh holy shit that can’t possibly be what I think it is…” with her nose pressed against the glass. A boarding ramp slid down from the bottom, and Penny’s breath caught in her throat when she saw the first person to come down the ramp.
Rinoa. Rinoa, alive and well and back to normal, and Penny couldn’t help but smile. They’d made it home alright. She didn’t have to worry anymore.
Later, Penny caught her in the back of the library, forgoing more traditional greetings in favor of a bear hug. “I told you to be careful, damn it,” she choked out, arms locked around Rinoa’s shoulders.
“I didn’t really do it on purpose,” she said warmly, just a trace of a laugh in her voice. “Things just…sort of happened.”
“You’re alright, though?” Penny asked, pulling back to look at her. Rinoa looked down at the floor, biting her lip.
“Mostly,” she said very quietly. Something about the tone of her voice scared Penny almost as much as seeing her unconscious had.
“Wanna talk?” she said after a moment.
“Got a few hours? This gets…complicated.” Rinoa’s lips curled into a strange little smile. “I probably wouldn’t believe all this if I hadn’t just lived it, honestly.”
They spent the next hour and a half in one of the private study rooms, exchanging stories of what had happened between the Battle of the Gardens and now. There were a few pauses in the talk, once while Rinoa broke down in tears (“It doesn’t matter, OK, Rin? You’re still you. None of the rest of it matters.” “That’s what the others said, too. I wish… I wish I was as sure of that as you all seem to be.”) and once while Penny got over an attack of awkward giggles (“Hey, you asked!” “Yes, but I was expecting a scale-of-one-to-ten kinda thing, not all the details!!”). After they’d gone through what had happened, and sat in silence for a moment while it all sank in, Penny asked what the plan was now.
“Basically? Fight our way through the Lunatic Pandora, beat up Adel and I’ll take her powers. That’s the easy part. Then, I get to get possessed again, I am really not looking forward to that part, and Ellone is gonna send both of us back into time, and then she’s going to bring just me back. Ultimecia’s going to start Time Compression – yes, I know, bear with me here – and we’re going to use it to go forward into the future to beat Ultimecia in her own time. After we kill her, Time Compression should wear off, and we’ll be back here where we belong, and it’ll be party time.” Penny just stared at her for a minute. “Doesn’t exactly sound sane, does it?” Rinoa added, shaking her head and laughing.
“Not by a long shot.” Penny couldn’t help laughing as well. “You’re all crazy, if you ask me.”
“I think I might just agree with you on that one,” Rinoa said. “But we don’t really have any other ideas. And we can handle her, I think… when she was in my head, she was terrified of having to fight any of us. I think she’s scared of us, actually.” She laughed, just a little wickedly. “Payback’s a bitch, I guess.”
“So when are you guys going to go put this loony master plan into action?”
“Soon as we can. We had to take care of a few things here before we could go, but as soon as those are done?” She shrugged. “No sense waiting, right?”
“I guess, but…” Penny hesitated for a moment before hugging her friend again. “Just come home in one piece, OK? I’m getting really tired of worrying about you guys.”
“We’ll try, but no promises,” Rinoa said, suddenly dead serious. “We’re gonna do whatever we have to do to take her down. If it comes to lose or die, then…” She sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. “But we’ll try.”
“OK,” Penny said, the syllables sticking in her throat. She’d never seen Rinoa look like that, any trace of her sense of humor gone, more solemn and determined than most SeeD cadets could ever hope to be. But although it scared her a little, it also made Penny feel a little better about the situation. If anyone can beat this monster you’re fighting, she thought, you guys are who my money’s on.
Penny was just inside the gates, again gawking at the gorgeous ship sitting on the green, when he snuck up on her.
“Pretty little thing, huh?” Zell said, laughing when she jumped and then scowled at him. She couldn’t keep the grouchy act up for long, though, and she smiled at him, leaning back against the fence.
“Absolutely gorgeous. I thought Gabby was going to pass out when she realized what had just landed out front. I still can’t believe you guys actually managed to find the Ragnarok.”
“Me neither, really. That thing’s amazing.” He looked over toward the craft, where his other friends were getting ready to leave. “Rinoa said she ran into you earlier.”
“Yeah. It feels good to see her back in action.”
“Did she…tell you what happened?”
“…yeah. At least, the important parts.” Neither of them wanted to say it out loud, at not here. Not surrounded by people for whom ‘sorceress’ meant ‘target’. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. Rinoa’s still Rinoa, no matter what, right?”
“Right.” He leaned against the fence next to her, the two of them looking back toward Garden. The silence between them wasn’t awkward, was never awkward, but she could almost taste the words they weren’t saying, hovering in the air. “She told you what we’re doing next, right?”
“Yeah.” Penny took a deep breath and closed her eyes, her stomach doing somersaults. Now or never… “Listen, before you go, I –“
“– just wanted to – what?” She felt her heartbeat stutter for a moment as she stared up at him. She couldn’t possibly have heard that right…
“I know,” he repeated, and just as she started to think oh gods and angels, I’ve blown it he reached out and grabbed her hand, and she almost swooned when he kissed the back of her fingers. All she could think was oh, that’s not fair - boys in real life weren’t supposed to actually kiss your hand, damn it, that was supposed to be a fairy-tale sort of thing – and for the first time in a while, she was completely speechless with him again. All she could do was smile as it hit her that this was really happening. “Don’t really have the time right now, but we’ll talk when I get home, OK?”
“OK,” she said faintly, her voice finally working again. After a long moment, he released her hand and turned to leave, and her mind seized up with sudden panic. She remembered Rinoa saying they’d win this fight or die trying, and the second possibility reared its ugly head at her. Something could go wrong, far out there in the future, and the idea of losing him now hit like a punch to the gut. Especially after what he just said… she couldn’t just let him walk away. It took her two quick breaths to screw up her courage, to shove her higher mental functions over to the side, to tell them their services were not required at the moment.
“Zell!” She closed the distance between them as he turned around, grabbed the front of his jacket and, with one last, emphatic command to her brain to shut the hell up already, she popped up on her toes and kissed him.
Her knees almost gave out when he pulled her close, one hand light at the small of her back and the other curled behind her neck, his fingers toying with the loose hairs below her braid. The more cautious parts of her mind suddenly stopped making a fuss; apparently her fear of making a fool of herself had finally been overpowered. She’d spent more time than she wanted to admit daydreaming about this, but reality seemed determined to prove her fantasies wanting. He kissed her hard, just this side of desperate as she slid her arms around his neck. She could have stayed there for hours, soaking in the sensation like sunlight.
Both of them were breathing heavily when they pulled apart, just far enough to breathe without losing contact.
“Damn…” he whispered, “warn me when you’re gonna do that, OK?” She couldn’t help but giggle.
“I just,” she pulled back a little more, resting her forehead against his, “I couldn’t let you walk away like that, not without –“
“Not complaining,” he said, fingers brushing gently over her cheek. “Definitely not complaining. It’s just… leaving just got a hell of a lot harder.”
“Oh…” She hadn’t thought of it that way. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Nah,” he said, pulling her a little closer. She sighed softly, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. In the back of her mind, she knew they only had a few minutes, only until someone did a head count on the ship before they took off. She tried not to think about it, to concentrate on the feeling of his arms around her, his fingers tracing lines up and down the back of her neck, the sense of security. After not nearly long enough, though, a light cough from the other side of the fence tore her out of her thoughts.
“I hate to interrupt,” Rinoa said lightly over her shoulder, “but we’re supposed to be taking off in a few minutes, remember?”
“I’m gonna throw that damn camera over the side one of these days!”
“Yeah, right, only if you can catch me!” Irvine laughed, barely dodging a thrown hot dog bun as he ran after Selphie toward the balcony.
“Jerk,” Zell muttered, sitting back with a fond smile as Penny giggled. Just before midnight on the second day after they’d left, the Ragnarok had landed somewhat less than gracefully on the green outside, and six very, very worn out teenagers had stumbled out. The party the next evening had been Xu’s idea – she’d been more or less in charge with both Squall and Quistis gone, and had been quietly preparing for either a huge celebration or a funeral, depending on how things turned out. Penny didn’t have words to describe how happy she was that they were going with the first option. Her dreams for the past few nights had been chaotic, alternately leaving her sitting bolt upright in terror, choking on a scream with tears in her eyes; or she’d wake up flushed and flustered, her hands fisted in the sheets, trying to remind herself that no matter how much fun those particular dreams looked, most of what her subconscious seemed to be suggesting was very, very much against library regulations.
Just remembering some of those scenarios was enough to make her blush, and Penny looked around the room to distract herself. Xia had gotten out of the infirmary the day before, still a little shaky on her feet and covered in bruises from hip to shoulder (she’d shown them off earlier, pointing out the interesting colors under her skin) and she was sitting on the lap of some dark-haired guy Penny didn’t know. Quistis was talking to Headmaster Cid and Lady Edea – Penny had met the woman earlier in the library, and she’d been amazed that the warm, gentle woman in the simple black dress had been the same cold-eyed monster they’d fought against. Gabby and Mara were by the punch table, talking animatedly with some other girls, laughing loud enough to be heard over the music.
“While they’re all distracted, there’s something I wanted to show you,” Zell whispered in her ear. They managed to get out of the crowded cafeteria without too many people noticing (although Penny caught Xia giving her a broad, atta-girl wink and a thumbs-up as they left hand in hand) and she followed him to the Training Center, now mostly dark.
“You know, if this is just that little spot in the back behind the trees, I’m going to be a little disappointed,” she said teasingly, and he shook his head.
“Nah, it’s loads better than that,” he said, ducking behind a large section of fence and leading her down a hallway she hadn’t known was there. “There are some perks to running around with the people who run this place, especially when they tend to leave things like blueprints lying around on their desks.”
“Apparently,” she said as they turned a corner. “Where exactly are we going?”
“You’ll see,” he told her with a grin. “You’re gonna love this.” A door opened at the end of the hall, and she caught her breath.
Flowers. Lilies and lilacs, tulips and morning glories all closed up for the night, a rosebush in the corner and violets and pansies in tubs. There was ivy growing up the walls on a trellis, false sage and lamb’s quarters on the ground, moonlight through the two glass walls and ceiling casting the leaves in silver and grey. Penny just stared for a moment before running in, kneeling by a patch of violet hyacinths and brushing her fingertips reverently over the leaves. The room was cool and slightly humid, lit by moonlight through the glass, and it smelled of moist soil and blossoms and warm green growing things. She looked back to see him watching her from the doorway and smiling.
“The entrance on the other side takes you into the middle of the vegetables, but I thought you’d like the flowers better,” he said, joining her on the narrow path in the middle of all the flowers.
“You were right on that,” she said, looking around again as she stood up. “How did I never know this was here?”
“It wasn’t until a few days ago, I guess. The room’s always been here, but Matron decided when she got back that she wanted flowers.” He shrugged. “She said something about source magic being good for more than just fighting; maybe this was what she meant? Making flowers grow in a day?”
“Maybe,” she said. “This is amazing, magic or not.” She leaned back against his chest, his hands landing on her hips and her head dropping back against his shoulder.
“Glad you like it.” Penny arched slightly against him, enjoying the way the motion made him shiver and pull her closer against him.
“Mmm… you remember,” she said quietly, “when you asked for a warning the next time I was going to pounce on you?” She turned around to face him, her arms sliding up around his neck. “Well, consider yourself warned.”