The brunet sat slumped over the empty desk in front of him. All around him, he could hear the scratching of pens on paper as those around him took notes. Squall’s eyes flicked up toward the clock. He had another twenty minutes of this crap. Perfect.
He went back to staring jadedly at the instructor as his ears instinctively tuned out his monotonous, inconsequential drone. He’d taught himself over the past few years as this uninspired man’s audience how to ignore pointless distractions, such as these drawn-out lectures.
The young man looked up at the sound of his own name, tuning back in to the dull, dreary show just in time. He’d had plenty of practice at this, as well. The instructor loved to call on students. Especially those he suspected of not paying attention. He also had a few favourites that he revelled in, picking them for every question, using them in every example. Squall just so happened to be one of those favourites.
“Well, Squall? What’s the answer?”
What’s the question?
You’re also aging, pissing off your students and polluting the air with your pungent stench. Hs anyone ever heard of soap where you come from? But hey, what else is new? “I don’t know.”
“I forgot. You’re blind, deaf and dumb these days, aren’t you. Especially dumb. Nothing working up there at all.”
This coming from the man implying that being dumb is related to intelligence. The mouth may not move, but the brain runs faster than you ever have in your life. By the way, when is the last time you stepped onto a treadmill?
“How about you hazard a guess? Can you do that? I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself.” Squall heard some sniggering at his expense. Immature bastards, the lot of them.
“Seventy four?” he proposed, stating the first answer to come to mind.
“This is History!” the instructor retorted, a large vein beginning to throb visibly in his temple. He was easy to rile up, even without the many retorts that Squall bit back.
“I have no idea…” The instructor sneered.
“Bravo, clever dick.”
“But I assume it’s something we covered months ago,” Squall continued. “And since it’s you, I can guess that we’re discussing a fact that happens to be of no real significance. Useless, pointless, loathesome, detestible, and worthless. I suspect a person. A truly worthless somebody. Someone who would sit by, their mind idle, neglecting their every charge. Other than you, only one name springs to mind. Ultimecia. The instructor’s eyes narrowed.
“Insolent brat of a child. Don’t you dare talk about the Queen like that in my classroom!”
“The beloved lady is so engrossed in her pointless war that she hasn’t bothered to spare a fleeting glance to her subjects in years. You call that a queen? I don’t need her. Give me anarchy. The slums are in chaos anyway.”
“That’s it, detention. Here, after school. You’ll have it every day for the rest of this week if you don’t answer the question correctly.”
“Whatever,” the brunette dismissed, eyes glazing over. He had no idea what the question was. He had a week’s worth of detention. That would seriously affect the search for his mother. Suddenly, a quiet voice came to him, Whispering the answer.
Squall was hardly sure that he’d heard it. He barely registered that it was a girl’s voice, only to dismiss it, retaining the fact, the answer to the question. He passed it along to the Instructor, who’s anger seemed to multiply as though Squall had been playing a game all along.
He didn’t know who his quiet saviour was, and frankly, he didn’t care. He’d been willing to take the detention. He hadn’t asked for help. Somebody had been naive enough to offer it unsolicited. Therefore, they deserved no thanks.
“Man, that instructor Aki’s a real bastard,” Zell said, walking over to join Squall at his table in the cafeteria. It was time for the student’s scheduled lunch break. A complete waste of time that was neither nourishing nor entertaining. The food was disgusting and the break from study was too long. Squall had better things he could be doing. In fact, this entire school was a joke. What a complete waste of time.
Zell Dincht, the hyperactive blond. The young man who had been Squall’s next door neighbour since before either of them could remember, and the only person willing to be in his presence these days, ever since his mother’s disappearance.
All his life, Zell was the only person Squall had ever had the luxury of calling a friend, not that he did. Nevertheless, he was willing to put up with the rowdy youth’s presence.
“Whatever,” the brunet replied, picking carefully at his jelly-coated slab of cold, grey meat with his fork as though he were trying to defuse a mine.
The blonde dropped his tray onto the table with a loud crash, splattering cheese and gravy all over its unclean surface, ignoring the minor glare he received for disrupting the peace and making a mess.
As he ate the disgusting excuse for a meal, Squall’s eyes were drawn to the surprisingly quiet blond sitting across from him. When his questioning glance was ignored, Squall resorted to voicing his curiosity. “What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing,” replied Zell.
“Your expression states otherwise.”
The look on Zell’s face was unusual, unfamiliar, different. He seemed to lack his usual tactless confidence. He was being awfully quiet, and he hadn’t touched his food. Normally, he’d be stuffing his face right about now, and yapping Squall’s ear off with his mouth full, splattering semi-chewed food over the table as he did so.
Squall looked at the blonde. He was jittering. Jiggling and bouncing in his seat.
Okay, that part was normal, but something about him was off. He looked so nervous. But about what.
“You look like you’re going to explode if you don’t spit it out soon.”
“I uh…” Zell began. “I have a problem.”
“Wow, how suprising,” Squall dryly commented.
“Well, It’s not about me exactly. It’s… someone else.”
Squall was growing irritated at the conversation, but steeled himself. “Can you tell me who it is?”
“You know that girl I hang around with?”
“Pigtail girl?” Squall asked. “Yeah, she usually stares at you with her mouth agape while you stuff yourself with hotdogs.”
“Yeah. She’s in awe.”
“Actually, I think she just wants to know where it all goes.” Zell’s expression soured.
“Squall, I need you to help. Can you please take this seriously?” Zell was treating this earnestly. Whatever it was, it was bound to be trouble. Squall was tempted to walk away, but curiosity got the better of him, and he motioned for Zell to continue with a nod of his head.
“If I tell you this… I need you to promise.”
“Squall, can you keep a secret?” The brunet stared blankly at the young man sitting across from him.
“Zell, who do you possibly think I’m going to talk to?”
Zell chuckled, but the laughter died after a second. “Okay… it’s about Bella.” Squall stared through the blonde, his expression blank, his eyes glazed. “Squall, are you listening?”
“Who are we talking about?”
Zell sighed. “Pigtail girl,” he explained, and Squall’s eyes suddenly flashed with understanding.
“What about her?”
“She…. Squall, she’s pregnant.”
The brunet slowly nodded, his face showing no emotion. “Courtesy of you?” he asked.
“What?” Squall breathed an impatient sigh.
“Well, how far along is she?”
“Oh, I dunno. About a month or so, I guess.”
Zell, Squall thought, you’re clueless. “Are you after my congratulations or condolences?”
“Neither. I need your help.”
“Shouldn’t you talk to your mother about this?”
“I will. Just… not yet. I want Bella there with me. That’s why I need you.”
“What can I do?”
“Well, last night, I went around to her place to meet the family, you know.”
“You told them?”
“Yeah. Well, they know that we’d been… you know.”
“How’d they take it?”
“Not well. They were screaming, yelling, insinuating I attacked her, like I’d forced myself on her or something. One minute they were in denial, the next minute I knew, her father pulled a gun out. It was crazy!”
“I don’t understand where this is going.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Bella’s not here today.”
“You think there’s a connection?”
“I’m pretty worried. I think things got worse ‘round her place after I left.”
“You probably shouldn’t have left her there then,” Squall replied unhelpfully.
“I know that!” Zell bellowed. “Don’t make it worse. That’s why I need to go around there again, after school. Before her parents get home.”
“When will that be?”
“They get back at five. That gives us over an hour.”
“Us? I haven’t agreed.”
“What? Squall! You have to help!”
“I’m under no such obligation. I have enough trouble without carrying your burden.”
“Come on Squall, I need you! She needs you.”
“We don’t even know what’s going on. Maybe she’s sick. Maybe she’s being kept out of school. Maybe her parents took her to see a doctor today.”
“It’s the most logical assumption.”
“Maybe… or maybe they’ve got her locked up. Maybe she’s in trouble. Maybe she’s in danger. Maybe they’ve hurt her! Maybe…“
“Maybe you have an overactive imagination.” Squall tried to keep from smirking at the indignant look Zell had given him. He wasn’t sure whether or not he’d succeeded. “One hour?”
“One hour tops,” Zell confirmed.
For a long moment, Squall was silent. Finally, he sighed. “Okay, I’ll go with you, to check it out, at least.”
Bella’s house, as it happened, was quite a way off. Squall had no idea the girl had to walk so far each day. Not quite as far as Squall, but that was different. Squall had been scouring the neighbouring slums for any trace of his mother. All Bella had to do was walk to and from School. For such a mundane task, it was such a long way.
The girl practically lived on the edge of town. If her parents owned a car, they could have driven her, or perhaps they’d be too busy. In fact, Squall was getting curious.
“Do they have a car?” he asked the blond beside him.
“Her parents. Do they have a car?”
“Yeah,” Zell replied. “They’re real proud of it, too. One of the last for miles.”
“One of the last that still work, anyway. So her parents own a car, and she walks to school every day?”
“Well, it’s not Bella’s car. Her parents own it. They take it to work with them.”
“Classy,” Squall dryly commented. The more he heard about these people, the less he liked them.
Squall had seen this part of Winhill Village before, though not in a while, and he’d never have guessed that anybody of interest would have lived here.
He hadn’t seen this place in months. Squall had been searching for so long. He’d scoured every inch of Winhill thoroughly for any inkling of a clue. Any semblance of a trail. Anything to go on. Anything at all to tell him where he should look for his mother.
There was nothing. She had simply vanished. Disappeared off the face of the planet.
Since then, Squall had taken to travelling throughout the other nearby slums. They were set out all over the place, on the Bluffs, and even outside of the Winhill region. He’d gone as far south as the land would take him, and as far north as the Dingo Border, though he had yet to cross it.
The Dingo region was a dangerous place. It was said that the desert could swallow a man whole. People had gone mad traversing it, and that was not to mention the many predators out there.
If Squall were to pick up his mother’s trail, would he have to enter that region of madness?
Though he hadn’t been here in a while, Squall couldn’t help but note the familiar layout of the immediate area. It was actually quite nice. Far from the town centre, far from his own home, and far from the old mansion now used as a school, but the large village was friendly to those it housed. Every road was similar. Every footstep one made was just like the last.
Compared to the other slums in the region, Winhill village was a paradise.
“We’re here,” Zell announced. Squall nodded and slowed his pace, waiting for the blond to lead on.
Zell walked past the various houses until he found the one he wanted, the one he knew.
Number twenty four. It may have been a village, but Winhill was still the capital of it’s region, and it’s streets were laid out to match. They were just smaller, and there were less of them. Personally, Squall preferred this system to those of the other slums. He’d never seen the large cities for himself, either. There were no cities on this side of the Dingo Desert, but by the sound of them, he’d much prefer to remain where he was, and be a resident of Winhill village in its prime: Before Queen Ultimecia, before the war, before the slums.
The house in question was surprisingly large. Not as big as the old mansion, perhaps, but large enough to dwarf the homes that Squall and Zell had come to know.
It was a monster, towering over the surrounding buildings. “So,” Squall asked his friend, “Bella’s parents are hoarding some kind of treasure?”
“Oh, yeah. Her family’s loaded, didn’t I tell you?”
“Too bad they can’t share some of their wealth with the rest of us. Are they home?”
“I hope not,” Zell replied, stepping up to the door of the large manor.”
“Just so we’re clear, they’re not going to be happy to see us, right?”
“I’d say they’ll be downright upset to see us. Well, me, anyway.”
“Perfect… may as well check it out.”
Zell nodded and reached for the door handle, turning It with a quick jerk of his wrist. “It’s locked.”
“That’s a good sign.”
“You think she’s in there?”
“You think anyone’s in there?”
“They locked the door though, you wouldn’t lock the door if someone’s in, right… unless they can’t get to answer it.”
Squall could see the worry in Zell’s eyes.
“Let’s not get our hopes up,” he commented dryly. “Maybe they’re not in, or maybe they just want people to think the place is empty.”
Squall shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”
Zell took the large, brass door knocker in his palm and lifted it, bringing it to collide against the walnut double door with a loud bang.
“Perhaps nobody’s home,” Squall suggested. This entire trip was beginning to look like a giant waste of time.
Knock— Suddenly, the sound could be heard of a heavy key scraping in a lock. After a moment of tense silence,the double doors cracked open, revealing the long, dark hallway beneath.
Zell looked nervously to the brunette behind him.
Silently, Squall nodded and they both stepped inside, instantly feeling the change in atmosphere. The hallway was suffocating. It strangled the movement of the air, and robbed it of any trace of warmth.
Once the two were over the threshold, the walnut doors closed with a loud crash.