Balamb Garden was a thing of need and function, a haven built in a time of war. But for all that, she was beautiful, and her Commander knew it. While the guts of the massive vessel might have had a certain rusty charm, her inhabited levels and exterior were airy creations of smooth curves and soft light. On land, she was a floating cloud of impossible gravity, over water she was an iridescent soap-bubble. But in the high fjords of Trabia, where she idled now, she was a radiant glory, her colors reflected a thousand times in the crystalline purity of the ice, her humming power rings sending shafts of gold down into the foaming waves. In winter, she was Shiva unfolding in curtains of frost, she was a spell hovering on the fingertips, and her peace, Squall knew, would not last. Morning would come and she would be a vessel of military efficiency, a bustling school, an island unmoored and adventuring. But for now, she was his and only his.
The night helmsman snapped to attention as his Commander stepped onto the bridge, uniform jacket slung across his shoulders and steaming mug of coffee in one hand. Squall waved him down. He settled into his command chair and put his boots on the bulkhead, looking over the rim of his mug at the swirling veils of color on the frozen horizon. It was not quite 0600, and in Traibian winter, sunrise was not for another five hours. But it was not dark, not with the stars and the moon and the glacial lights and the Garden's own contented glow.
Several minutes passed with only the hum of the engines and the soft noise of Squall drinking his coffee.
"Would you like the morning report, sir?" The helmsman asked, nervously.
"Not yet, Lieutenant."
The silence stretched out another minute or two.
Squall made a noise of acknowledgement into his coffee cup.
The helmsman swallowed and pressed on. "It's beautiful, sir."
Squall looked at the helmsman for the first time. Newly promoted to SeeD just that spring, he was one of Nida's hand-picked navigators, green as a cactuar and twice as skittish. He was brittle in his formality, not yet used to rank of his own. But there was an honest wonder in his eyes as he looked up at the dazzling scenery through the Garden's transparent canopy. Squall tried to see himself there, at seventeen, and then shook his head. No, he had never been so open as all that. Ten years ago, he had been too busy looking inward to look to the sky.
"Yeah," Squall said, smiling past the young officer, at the setting arc of the moon. "It sure is."
The elevator dinged, and Squall sighed, sliding his arms through the sleeves of his uniform jacket. Here we go.
Even in uniform, Zell's footsteps had the distinctive cadence of a fighter, a brisk, no-nonsense kind of tempo that had only gotten surer with time. In spite of that, his students knew him as approachable and goofy, and before the field test prerequisite they were likely to dismiss him as a klutz who had saved the world by the purest accident. After the field test, their tunes abruptly changed. It was harder to write Zell Dincht off once you had seen him bring down a hexdragon with nothing but the inch of space between his first and second knuckles.
"Morning, sunshine," Zell said, plopping his elbows on Squall's chair and tipping it back on its swivel.
"Not until 1123 it's not," Squall countered.
Zell looked down into his Commander's annoyed face, and grinned. "Oh, come on. I was expecting a little bit more holiday cheer."
"Expect it once I've had my coffee."
"I won't get it then, either," Zell said, and reached down to do up the front of Squall's jacket, tiny fasteners clicking closed in his square, capable hands. Squall did his best to navigate his cup to his mouth around him, and the helmsman did his best to ignore the familiar domesticity of the scene.
"I wouldn't want to deprive you of the chance to hope," Squall said, giving up on his coffee until he was good and buttoned. He made a little choking sound as Zell thumbed up the jacket to the very top, encasing Squall's neck in stiff gold braid. "Urg! Don't I get a court-martial before I'm hanged?"
"You'll want to look your best for company," Zell said, smoothing down the triangle of gold hair under his lower lip in a knowing fashion. The bare hint of beard was his one concession to his mother's expectations of mature respectability, but he had off-set it by matching his face tattoo on the other side instead of getting the first one removed, as Ma Dincht had hoped.
Squall groaned. "Martine's not here, is he? He ruins the party every year he turns up. Everybody has to come in full formal uniform and nobody can make any jokes about G-garden, and he insists on giving the two-hour speech before Irvine can spike the punch."
"It is not," Zell said, smugly, "Martine. And Irvine's doctoring the punch before it even goes out this year."
"Glad to hear that, at least," Squall said. The elevator dinged, and Squall managed to stand up and look commander-ly before the appearance of whatever pompous official came to take advantage of Garden's hospitality this year. He had just toed his chipped, coffee-stained mug behind the bulkhead when the elevator doors opened and a slim figure in light blue appeared.
"Permission to come aboard?" Rinoa asked, leaning out into the bridge and beaming at them.
Squall's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Rinoa! What are you doing here?"
She came lightly up the steps to greet him, taking his hand and pressing a quick kiss to his cheek. Though young love had turned to friendship long ago, and separate destinies kept them apart, Rinoa remained a sorceress, and Squall remained her knight. There were some bonds that even time's convolutions could not sever, and Squall found that he liked himself better when Rinoa was around. Everyone else put up with his moodiness more than she ever did.
"Crashing your party," Rinoa answered, bouncing back on her heels. "I was in the neighborhood."
Zell coughed quietly. "She was in Dollet," he clarified, "and Xu reported a compressed-time anomaly in the training center at 0543 hours."
Squall shot Rinoa a look.
"Just a little teeny time-skip," Rinoa said, looking sheepish. "No big deal."
"You know we have to log and file a seventeen-page report for every one of those we detect." Squall was mock-stern, but she saw right through it.
"Oh, let it go, Commander Leonhart. It was just me doing it and it was only a few hours' time compression." She brushed at some invisible lint on the front of his uniform. "Anyhow, wait till you see what I brought you for a present. I'll give you a hint: It's not a fruitcake."
"That's debatable," Zell put in, barely able to hold back his grin. "This is Laguna we're talking about."
"Come on, come on," Rinoa said, tugging Squall towards the elevator. "You up there," she said, to the helmsman. "You know how to steer this thing, right?"
"Yes'm," the helmsman said, a little wide-eyed at this first encounter with a real sorceress.
"Good. Just keep it toddling along and we'll bring back your Commander when we're done with him." She flashed him a wink, and the young officer went faintly pink. "And as for you," she said to Squall, now inexorably stuck between her and Zell. "You're coming with us for a private party, and that's an order from your Sorceress."
Squall shook his head, but he was smiling, and put up no further protest as he was hauled off to the elevator. For one thing, it would be no use, and for another, well. Orders were orders, after all.