Seifer keeps running, but never seems to get where he's going.
He was curled up in his bed, waiting for sleep to claim him, when he heard the scrape of bootheels in the hallway and a muffled curse. Immediately he kicked off the blankets and rolled off the bed in the opposite direction from the door. The wood of the hallway floor creaked. He shoved his feet into his boots, lacing them half-assedly and grabbing for his trenchcoat.
The doorknob squeaked and then the door crashed into the wall, accompanied by the sound of the safety being snapped off several guns. He heard Raijin swear and leap out of bed, landing with a loud thud, as the sound of metal grating over metal announced that Fujin was readying her weapons. From his snail's-eye vantage point, he could see Raijin's bare feet, several pairs of black boots, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Fujin easing forward, her socks silent on the wooden floor.
The familiar weight of Hyperion in his hand helped balance the adrenaline jitters that raced through him as he crouched behind the feeble cover provided by the bed.
"Stand down, girl, we only want Almasy." The voice was male, probably middle-aged, gravelly and deep. Seifer eased back slowly, trying to estimate how many stood in the doorway. He was sure there were at least half a dozen, which didn't provide good odds for himself and his allies.
He'd never liked counting odds anyway.
"SEIFER. GO!" Most people only heard the harsh sound of her voice or the fact that she only seemed to have one volume setting, but years of experience had taught Seifer to read her tone as well, and she was scared but determined. She and Raijin stood between him and whoever had just busted in.
"Yeah man, ya know, get movin'! Me an' Fu'll do just fine." Raijin cracked his knuckles.
Metal sang through the air as gunshots crackled. Seifer grabbed his single light bag and bolted for the half-open window behind him.
He caught a quick glimpse of them as he shoved the window open and slid through it: Galbadian soldiers, a team of eight, every one of whom looked like he damn well knew what he was doing. He dropped out of the window, clinging to the sill for a moment before letting go and dropping down into the alley. He grunted in pain at the impact but forced himself to straighten up and take stock of his surroundings. Deling City was never quiet, even this late at night, and the battle he could hear above him would draw the attention of the police in no time.
He hadn't even taken three steps when Raijin came flying out of the window, landing on a garbage heap with a loud whump, followed by Fujin's slightly more graceful exit, dropping down from the windowsill as lightly as a cat.
"SPLIT UP," she said, turning toward him.
"Meet at Bart's!" Seifer answered. He barely waited to see their nods of confirmation before he took off into the rabbit warren of Deling City's shopping district.
He kept off the main streets, sticking to alleyways and venturing into the side streets only when strictly necessary, but it seemed the soldiers were operating as a single unit. The rest of Deling City seemed to be going about its business as normal.
There were, however, two guards loitering outside the train station. They were dressed in civilian clothes, but they carried themselves like SeeDs. Seifer didn't recognize them, but he was willing to bet they hailed from Galbadia, since Trabia was in ruins and he knew most of the kids of an age to graduate from Balamb.
Well, that killed that plan. He considered for a moment. If they were guarding the train station, they'd be guarding the rental car depot as well. That left him the choice of stealing a car, trying to catch an unauthorized ride on a train, or going on foot. Stealing would draw too much attention, and trying to drop onto a train and hang on until Winhill really didn't seem appealing. The next town wasn't all that far away. He could try heading there on foot and board the train legitimately there, which seemed like his best option.
He paused to lace his boots up properly and fasten Hyperion's sheath to his belt, then slung his bag over his shoulder and headed for the city limits.
At sundown two days later, he reached Treyer, a city falling apart at the seams and clinging to its glory years. It reminded him a little of Timber, and the summer he'd spent there with Rinoa. Once, the university here had offered an even broader range of knowledge than Garden could boast, but Adel had ordered it razed during the Sorceress War. The professors had gone into hiding and rebuilt once she was defeated, but they made the mistake of criticizing Vinzer Deling for his methods. When his army was done with the city, the libraries were ashes and the professors were the inhabitants of an unmarked mass grave outside the city limits. Seifer gave it a wide berth as he entered the city.
As far as anyone was concerned, Treyer had two redeeming features. One was the train station, where people from the surrounding countryside could finally get the hell out of here. The other was the fact that liquor was plentiful and the bartenders never asked for ID.
He meandered down the main street, noting where things had changed since he was last here. Rinoa had wanted to come and persuade these people to join the Forest Owls, thinking they would resent Deling as much as she did. But the inhabitants of Treyer only wanted to be left alone to drink away what remained of their minds, and she had left discouraged and depressed, dragging him behind her. The citizens' disinterest worked in his favour now; no one paid him any heed as he headed for the train station, and more importantly, there were no SeeDs around to try and track him down.
He bought a ticket on the morning train to Winhill, and went to find himself a hotel room without too many cockroaches for the night. The innkeeper overcharged him, but that didn't really matter. He hadn't slept well on the journey, catching catnaps when he could no longer keep walking, but he always woke suddenly from dreams of her.
He kept looking over his shoulder, expecting her to be there. At any moment he expected her to reach into his mind, batting away his feeble resistance as though it had never existed, and send agony coursing along every nerve as punishment for his disobedience. She'd certainly done it often enough while he served her.
He didn't want to think about what she would do now that he'd turned his back on her. If she could. Leonhart had killed her, or so he heard.
It wasn't that he was afraid. Seifer snorted to himself at the mere notion. Afraid? Hardly. He just wasn't in the mood to tangle with his sorceress. She'd shown him what sorceresses could do to failed knights.
It made what he'd done to Leonhart in the D-District Prison look like child's play.
Disgusted with himself for brooding over the past, Seifer dropped his bag on the rumpled, moth-eaten blankets and adjusted Hyperion's sheath on his belt. The gunblade was one-of-a-kind, but there was no point in trying to conceal it. He stood out like a T-Rexaur amid Bite Bugs here just because he was an outsider. Trying to blend in would just make him more obvious.
He checked to make sure he had all his Gil on him and headed out toward the nearest pub. He could use a drink.
He dreamed of her, of course. He knelt, head bowed, before her towering throne of ebony and obsidian, ragged and hungry and freezing, yet he dared not move. She was tapping her fingertips against the arm of the throne, a quick rattle one-two-three-four of long, lethally sharp fingernails against wood. The hollow sound sent unpleasant shivers down his spine.
She did not speak, and that was worse. He'd been here for hours and still had no idea why she'd summoned him here. It might have been something he'd done, or something he'd failed to do. It could just as easily be because she was bored and it amused her to see him grovel. This was not the dream he had envisioned when Edea called to him in the Timber television station. Then he had envisioned himself a shining knight, protecting his sorceress from all threats, cherished and honoured and not a little bad-ass.
Romantic dreams were not supposed to involve freezing his ass off on a stone floor while he waited for his sorceress to decide if she was going to send him away or flay him with her magic. He was distantly aware that she played with him as a cat with a mouse, but he'd come too far to back down now. He couldn't go back and he couldn't go forward, so he hung suspended, dependent on her good will.
Magic wrenched his head back until he stared up at the cold, furious face of Ultimecia. "Your attention wanders," she hissed.
"I'm sorry." Seifer never apologized, to anyone, but he knew it was the only way he might evade some of her wrath. He swallowed his pride and repeated the apology. "I'm sorry."
The way her lips curved could hardly be called a smile. Seifer braced for the onslaught and reminded himself that if he gave in it would end sooner. "Not yet," she said, and then it began.
Was this how Leonhart had felt, chained to a wall while electricity surged through him and Seifer laughed? He could only dimly hear himself screaming, twined with her laughter, as he writhed on the stone floor and the pain went on and on and on and--
Seifer awoke abruptly, nauseous and soaked with sweat. His mouth tasted like he'd been drinking Deling City's sewer water instead of the rotgut that passed for Treyan whiskey, and his head felt as though his brain might burst out of his skull at any moment. He rolled onto his side and curled up into a knot, trying to get control of himself again. What did he think he was doing, playing at being Chicken-wuss or something?
Gradually a little of the numb terror eased and he found himself calling on half-remembered SeeD training to control his reaction, riding the adrenaline rush and taking deep breaths to calm himself. The first light of dawn was barely peeking in his window, and it wasn't like he wanted to sleep any more tonight. He sat up and unsheathed Hyperion, digging his kit out of his bag. Concentrating on the familiar task of cleaning and sharpening his weapon helped drive back memories of Ultimecia until he could get up and head for the train station.
The ride to Winhill was uneventful, but he spent the entire time on edge. He couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching him, though there was only one other passenger in his car, and she was buried in a book and paying him absolutely no heed.
He bolted off the train when it stopped in Winhill and walked rapidly toward Bart's Pub, a nice low-key establishment where he, Raijin and Fujin had lain low before. Usually he thought of Winhill as annoyingly rustic and too picture-perfect, but in contrast to Treyer it was practically a paradise of whitewashed houses, gardens in full bloom, and clean-swept streets. He slowed down as he walked down the street that would lead him to Bart's, sensing again that someone was watching him, but when he turned to look over his shoulder there was only a trio of young children kicking a ball around.
Bart's looked about the same as usual, though the usual smokers lounging outside were strangely absent. He hesitated, one hand resting on Hyperion, and then tensed as the door to the bar opened.
Of all the people he expected to come out, Rinoa Heartilly was not on the list.
She was smiling, clad in a soft clinging dress of her favourite sky blue, and she held out her arms as she walked toward him. Half in a daze, he pulled her close for a hug, luxuriating in the dizzying swirl of power that emanated from her, clean and pure and totally unlike the dark mass that had surrounded Ultimecia. She clung tight to him and for once, the nagging uneasy certainty that Ultimecia was just waiting for his guard to drop faded away.
"It's time to come home, Seifer," Rinoa said, leaning back a little to look him in the eye.
"Puberty Boy..." Seifer began.
"Squall," Rinoa corrected mildly, "approved this himself, and Cid and Edea agree."
Out of habit, Seifer balked at the notion of submitting himself to Garden's regime again, but he really didn't have anywhere else to go, and he was sick of roaming the world with no real destination. So he sighed and nodded. "All right."