Something I Can Do
Rinoa blinked when the hatchway opened into bright morning sunlight. Laguna was standing there rigidly, with Kiros at his side and what looked to be a few dozen medics. Selphie and Irvine immediately approached them and started handing over papers and printouts while rattling off a string of - to Rinoa - unintelligible gibberish, Ward pointing out important papers as emphasis. The little army grabbed hold of the gurney and left at high speed. Rinoa would have followed but Laguna latched onto her arm with an unbreakable grip.
His summer-green eyes were filled with a steely sorrow as he said, "I need you to tell me what's going on."
Rinoa swallowed. She knew Squall didn't like Laguna, knew that he regarded his father as quite possibly the most bumbling idiot on the face of the planet. And that therefore he might well not take kindly to her telling the man anything. And she could sympathize with that; her own relationship with her father was hardly any better.
But there was also no denying that, gargantuan as the man's mistakes were, he cared for Squall. And it felt wrong to deny that caring.
He seemed to read her indecision in her face, guided her to one of the transport discs that were so popular in Esthar. "We just got the ways fixed," he said inconsequentially. "The medics will already have gotten Squall on one, and they're probably at the palace by now. There's no faster way to get there."
The trip was both interminably long and blissfully short, watching the buildings scroll by beneath them counteracted by the emotions in Laguna's gaze, as though he could pry answers out of her by force of will alone.
When they reached the rooms Laguna had had prepared in the Palace, he said, "Xu told me that there's someone still after him, and after you. The Palace is the most secure building in Esthar. But she didn't say who was after you, or why. I'll do all I can, but please tell me what's going on."
Selphie looked up from where she was drawing another blood sample, and said, "Sir Laguna, someone used Squall as a lab rat, and we need Esthar's resources to try and fix the damage. We're doing all we can." Her tone was respectful - she had a touch of hero worship for Laguna - but not overly informative.
If anything, the simple response made Laguna agitated. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers as though to hide his face, but his restless pacing clearly displayed his distress.
"Tell me I can do something," he said. "There's gotta be something."
Rinoa nerved herself and put a calming hand on his arm. "You can make sure they can do their job," she said quietly, "and you can make sure they leave me alone."
"You?" said Laguna, surprised. "What are you doing? Can I help?"
"The...experiments...aren't what made Squall this way," she said. "And he wouldn't appreciate it if I told you what did. But I think I can help him undo the damage, if I'm left alone with him as much as possible."
Laguna heard the unspoken words: We cannot help you mend your relationship with your son. He seemed to deflate, standing by force of will alone. "Would it be okay if Elle and I came to visit, just for a few hours at least? I don't know how I'm going to tell her about this..."
"I don't think anyone would say you couldn't, Laguna," Rinoa said gently, then took her by-now customary seat at the head of the bed.
Laguna watched the bustle of the medics, the fierce concentration on Selphie's face as she studied some slide under a microscope, the speed with which Irvine made notations or grabbed some piece of equipment, and the serenity on Rinoa's face as she seemed to settle in for a nap curled around Squall's head. His sigh was lost in the chaos as he left the room with a heavy heart.
It turned out that whoever was doing the GF-choosing did have a sense of fitness for the subjects at hand. Shapely women often carried the power of Shiva, blonde women carried Siren's silencing power (and were thus easily subdued), once or twice they did come across the large man/small man combination that was Brothers, and particularly cute younger people would prove to have Carbuncle's shielding powers. Every encounter was unpredictable in the sense that there appeared to be no origination point, and each powered-up person, when taken down and eventually identified, came from a different part of the world. Most had not been given their powers permanently, however - as subsequent autopsies revealed. Which meant that they had to be receiving their powers from a point not too far distant.
What was worse was the day they found Seifer and his posse. Or rather, the day the posse found them. Quistis and Zell had managed to keep losses in their squad to a minimum, and the Estharian soldiers had learned not to question orders from either - or in fact to hesitate at all. So when she heard the sarcastic chuckle and looked up to see Seifer perched on a boulder, they didn't argue when she ordered them back.
"Nice to see you again, Instructor," sneered Seifer as he stared down at her. Quistis wondered why he looked sunburned, and why he'd abandoned his trademark white trench coat for a white tank top. It wasn't particularly warm, on Centra. On the other hand, perhaps he just wanted to show off his tattoo; it seemed that sometime recently he'd gotten his red crusader's cross permanently placed on his left shoulder, the color of blood on his sunburned skin, which certainly set off his blond hair in a striking way.
"Headmaster, actually," said Quistis, refusing to appear upset.
Seifer looked down at her, vivid cat-green eyes sparkling with malice or mischief. "That so? Headmaster of Garden, and they send you out with Chicken-Wuss here? They sure do think a lot of you, don't they?"
Quistis threw out an arm automatically, catching Zell across the chest as he moved forward. "We've done well enough so far," she said. "We're looking for your girlfriend."
"Ah, the wonderful Alicia," said Seifer, and Quistis couldn't detect any mockery in his tone. "She sends her regrets, of course." Quistis wondered at his formal language for a moment, then realized he was playing Knight.
"Seifer," she said slowly, "Alicia isn't a Sorceress, is she?"
Seifer scowled and stood on his boulder, towering above Quistis and Zell. "Not yet," he snapped. "But soon, and she has chosen me. And you're not stepping on my dream twice."
As he stood, they saw Fujin and Raijin appear beside him. They had been waiting, and they looked down on everyone with determination on their faces.
"Let's see how you do against a Sorceress' Knight in a fair fight," snarled Seifer, and leaped down to the attack. Fujin leaped ahead to another boulder, and promptly whirled their entire squad up in a powerful tornado. Raijin brought his fists together and threw a lightning bolt at Zell, who nimbly leaped out of the way.
Quistis drew her whip and snapped it at Seifer, aiming for his gunblade sheath. He'd be almost impossible to defeat if he got time to draw Hyperion. He responded much more quickly than she thought he could, and grabbed the tip of her whip - pulling her close. As he moved to put an arm around her, she dropped into a spin kick that swept Seifer off his feet. He snarled and threw his hands out, and billowing flames engulfed Quistis. She screamed as her hair started to catch, and reflexively called on her blue magic. Aqua Breath's bubbles quenched the fire, but for some reason Seifer reacted as though she had thrown acid on him. He screamed and threw her away from him as hard as he could, so that she landed hard against a boulder some thirty feet away.
Raijin decided to kickbox with Zell, being almost as good. And with his enhanced speed, strength, and endurance, he was holding his own. When he glanced over and saw Seifer was thoroughly distracted, he whispered "You gotta save him," to Zell.
Zell, who had never liked Seifer in the first place and didn't see a reason to save anyone who had just tried to set Quistis on fire, responded with, "Yeah, sure. And Shiva's a purple mushroom."
"He can't...help it," whispered Raijin in between halfhearted strikes that nevertheless kept Zell busy. "We're gonna get him outta here. We can't fight Alicia. Ya gotta help."
When Quistis used her Aqua Breath and Seifer reeled, Raijin quit pretending to fight Zell. Instead he yelled, "Seifer's hurt!" and bounded over to where Seifer was acting as if blinded. Fujin let her whirlwind slowly dissipate, depositing Estharian soldiers left and right. The two grabbed Seifer and ran, while Zell checked Quistis' burns and injuries. She would live, but he would have to get her back to Garden.
Zell looked around. All of the Estharian soldiers of their squad had recovered, though not a few were very dizzy. Fujin and Raijin hadn't really been fighting, he realized. They had done just enough to convince Seifer that they were fighting. Only Seifer had truly wanted to hurt anyone. Zell shook his head; it wouldn't be the first time his posse had tried to protect Seifer from his own weaknesses, but this was beyond strange. Why wouldn't they just leave until Seifer came to his senses, as they had before? Why pretend to fight?
Zell cast some of his curaga spells on Quistis, and this helped her recover enough that she was able to stand under her own power. "Zell, did you see?" she gasped.
"See what? See Seifer set you on fire? Yeah, I saw that. His punching-lights-out tab is just getting huge."
"No," gasped Quistis. "That wasn't Acid I cast, Zell. I was just trying to put the fire out. Aqua Breath shouldn't have hurt him like that. But it did. Zell, he threw flames at me. I think Alicia gave him Ifrit. He's acting like it's summer down here, he's all sunburned, and he reacts to water like it's acid."
"Serves the bastard right," growled Zell. "I dunno, Raijin wants me to save him but I think he needs to lose a few teeth."
Quistis turned to face him, hair still smoking a bit, wet blond strands blackened around her face. "Raijin wants what?" she asked.
Zell reached out to give her a hand as they indicated to the soldiers they would be returning to Garden. "Raijin. Said when we were playing that he wants us to save Seifer. Said they couldn't fight Alicia. Don't know where he got the idea we'd bother, honestly."
Quistis looked around, and realized she was the only casualty. "I think he might have meant it, Zell," she said slowly. "He could have fried you with that lightning bolt attack, I think, but he went barefist with you instead. And Fujin could have killed the whole squad with her whirlwind, but they all seem fine to me. I think they really didn't want to fight. They just can't convince Seifer, and are afraid to leave him alone with Alicia." Quistis limped along in silence for a bit, then said, "I don't think I want to meet this woman."
"What, just because she can turn Squall into a vegetable, Seifer into a brainwashed puppy, and scare the daylights out of Fujin and Raijin?" Zell thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't want to meet her either. I want to kill her. At least for Squall's sake. She can play hopscotch on the posse's ribcages for all I care."
"Zell...sometimes I envy you," sighed Quistis. "You never seem to worry about dying. If the enemy is in sight, you just attack."
Zell laughed. "I was Squall's roommate for years, Quistis. I learned real early on to leave all the worrying to him - he does it enough for both of us. If I'd started worrying, the atmosphere in that dorm room would've been unbearable. There's not much in this world that a punch to someone's jaw won't solve. And I've got people like you around for that little bit." And he grinned at her, deliberately ducking his head so that the blond spikes of his hair combined with his tattoo and his grin to make him - as Bella told him - look like a charming devil. He thought it made him look like a goofball, but women were strange that way.
Despite the pain of her burns and the horrible smell of charred hair, Quistis laughed. "I always wondered how you handled that rumor," she said.
Pleased to have gotten a smile out of her, Zell smiled. "Nobody with half an ounce of sense believed it," he said. "Everyone in the nearest half-dozen rooms knew when we were having a fight." He smacked one gloved fist into the opposite palm. "Good practice, even if it was hard on the furniture. Damn but it was two years before I paid off the damage to that ceiling panel."
"Squall, having a fistfight? You should have sold tickets, it would have covered the damages," said Quistis, lost in her favorite subject.
Since this had been Zell's intention all along, he kept it up. Anything to keep Quistis on her feet until they got back to Garden. "Nah, couldn't do that," he said cheerfully. "The reason being, Squall didn't use his fists. He'd throw stuff, if it was heavy enough, and then he'd just keep ducking until I got mad enough to punch through a wall without noticing. Why the hell d'you think I started taking acrobatics? Figured I'd find out how he was dodging me so fast, or at the very least I'd learn how to duck his throws. Anyway, if stuff's flying around all over the place it's hard to get people to buy tickets..."
The medics had gone home.
Selphie and Irvine had long since taken off for the night, to catch at least a few hours of sleep before heading back to work. Laguna could not help but admire their loyalty; they'd put in at least sixteen hours of work before finally agreeing they needed rest.
The only people in the room were himself, a sleeping Rinoa, and his comatose son. Ellone visited much earlier in the day, every day, and found that she could not touch Squall with her power. Her exact words were to the effect that there was a wall in the way. She was very upset about it, and Laguna spent his afternoons trying to comfort her - even though he had very little idea what was going on himself. Squall's friends respected his choice to keep a distance from Laguna. Hence his midnight foray.
How long, how long must I pay for not knowing? he thought. I didn't know you were born, and when I returned to Winhill Raine had died and there was no word of you. I tell you that I meant to return for you, but that isn't true. I meant to return for Raine, but I was too late. And there is nothing I can say to you that will make everything all right. The truth is unbelievable to your ears - not when I knew at first sight of you that you were my son.
Laguna stepped quietly around the lab, looking for indications of what was wrong. Part of him felt guilty for sneaking answers to questions the SeeDs obviously didn't want to answer, but another part said he was the President around here, volunteering all the resources of his country, and he ought to know what these people were doing with those resources. Especially since it was for his own son. Hyne, it still felt weird to know that he had a son. He'd gotten pretty good over the years at puzzling through scientific jargon. Sitting through Odine's funding requests had been an extensive training in scientific vocabulary.
He was careful not to disturb the placement of anything, reading it where it rested. As he sifted through Irvine's transcriptions, he found the answers he was looking for. A cold fist squeezed his heart as he mentally translated Medical Jargon into Plain English.
Squall was dying.
A foreign substance replicating the power of Leviathan had invaded his system. So much of it had been used that it was taking over; speculations about the possible effects ranged from an increased thirst impulse to physical mutation, but all calculations agreed that time was short. Possibly as short as a week, but no longer than a month.
Most of the rest of the notes dealt with attempts to find a counteragent, or at least a slowing agent. Selphie was apparently reasonably close to finding one. Laguna resisted the urge to go and wake her up, set her back to work. He knew she would do all she could. Somehow, his son inspired incredible loyalty in his friends.
But they had been right - there was nothing he, Laguna, could do - other than back off and let them do their jobs. He had saved an entire nation, but he could not save his son.
It was possible that no one would recognize Laguna if they were to see him now, the smile gone from his features, the spring from his step. He thought he'd done pretty darn well to save Esthar from Adel given his usual penchant for taking the wrong road first. He took a seat at Squall's side - where Ellone had sat hours earlier - and brushed the long brown bangs (so very like Raine's, though hers had been kept under a headband) from his forehead. His skin was cool to the touch, but the lifesigns were normal. Laguna's head bowed, long black hair slightly streaked with gray covering his face.
"Why are you here, Laguna?" said a gentle voice, startling Laguna into a reflexive jerk, as though he'd been caught napping at a meeting. Rinoa had woken up.
A variety of explanations or excuses filtered through Laguna's mind, but none of them sounded right. "I, ah...had to be," was what he settled on. "I didn't want to interfere, you know, but...where else would I be? I didn't wake you, did I?"
Rinoa smiled sadly. "No," she said. "I had thought to try sleeping without a sleep spell tonight, but it didn't work."
"You're having trouble sleeping?" asked Laguna, puzzled. "Maybe using a bed would help?"
"No, I'm having trouble staying asleep," said Rinoa, a hint of ... something ... in her voice. "Squall is trying to reach me, trying to wake up, but he can't do it alone." Absently, her fingers brushed Squall's cheek. "Quistis gave me a book that showed me how I might be able to reach him where he is now. When I sleep, I share in his reality." Briefly she closed her eyes and went very still, but soon continued, "It's not very pleasant. When it gets too much, I wake up. Unless I use magic."
"You can talk with him?" Laguna asked. "Can he hear me? Can I talk with him too?"
Rinoa was silent for a long moment - thinking, or listening. "I don't...exactly...talk with him," she said. "Though I've learned a few things that I've sent on to SeeD. And no, I don't think he can hear you, or talk with you. And - I'm sorry, Laguna - I don't think he would even if he could."
The hope died in Laguna's eyes, and he looked for a moment like a very old man. "He's not going to forgive me, is he. I could save the world ten times over, and he still wouldn't. Raine was like that too; once she made up her mind about someone she didn't change."
"That is between you and Squall," said Rinoa, "and I've already promised him I wouldn't get in the middle of that. You can try to mend your fences when he wakes," and here Laguna heard a fierce determination that Squall would wake, "but if you wish to show him things have changed, I suggest you find Doctor Odine."
"Odine?" asked Laguna, surprised. "I hardly see the guy, apart from his yearly funding requests."
"Then you have a much harder job mending fences than you thought," said Rinoa - and Laguna could see condemnation in her eyes now, "because Odine played a large part in putting Squall where he is right now."
Laguna's eyes went wide, his jaw dropped. Odine had done this? Odine had made the Leviathan-stuff and used it on his son? Good grief, he didn't deserve any forgiveness from Squall. Not only had he left Squall to fend for himself for a large part of his life, he might just be inadvertently responsible for his death.
Yet some part of Laguna latched on to the fact that here, at last, was something he could do. He could find Odine, or Odine's work, and maybe - just maybe - undo some of the damage he had done. Without another word he leaped up and strode from the lab.
"Good luck, Laguna," Rinoa wished him softly, before re-settling herself and casting Sleep.
Irvine took the job of handling communications between Esthar and Garden out of self-defense.
Selphie had a natural head for sciences, keeping track of chemical formulas that were longer than Irvine's arm when written down, and a love of mathematical problems that seemed to Irvine to be positively mystifying. He went to the lab with her in the morning to get copies of any information she wanted to forward to Garden, and then he headed for the communications center of the Presidential Palace. There he got to converse with people in plain, nonscientific language while sending on Selphie's notes and receiving transmissions from Garden.
Lately, most of these had been casualty reports; Soldier X died in a fight with an ice-enhanced enemy, Soldier Y died in an earthquake caused by an earth-enhanced enemy ... simple things like that. He dutifully kept track of these so that the Estharian officials could properly notify the soldiers’ families, and award them any posthumous medals they might have earned.
However, occasionally, being in the position of mobile comms officer meant Irvine got the pieces of a puzzle before anyone else. He knew before Garden did that Rinoa had Alicia's identity, and knew before Selphie did that Seifer had been imbued with Ifrit's power. And since he wasn't involved in any of the lifesaving work that occupied the others, he had the time to push these and many other facts around in his head until he'd reached a number of conclusions.
Thus when he went to the com center one morning to find a message from Laguna, asking him to let anyone who needed to know that he had gone to Odine's laboratory to dig up any information he could on what had been done to Squall, it struck Irvine as an incredibly bad idea. Alicia only needed one fact to send her to Esthar; if she got it, she would not come to Esthar alone. And she'd head right for Odine's lab.
However, no one could be pulled from their current work to go with Laguna – at least, no one in SeeD. Irvine's job might not be the most glamorous, but he knew it needed to be done. And Laguna was the President of Esthar; Irvine could hardly order the man to stay put.
So he took the next best alternative; he woke Kiros up a few hours early, and explained the situation. It took a few tries, but eventually Kiros woke up enough to understand.
It did not surprise Irvine in the least that understanding didn't make Kiros any happier.
Kiros grabbed his katal and told Irvine he'd get Ward and Laguna's gun and make sure everything was okay at the lab. He told Irvine to give them two days to search – the lab having a reputation for size and size-of-mess – and if they weren't back or hadn't communicated in that time, to send in the army. And in the meantime, Irvine was to keep as many people as possible from finding out that the three weren't in their offices.
Which Irvine did, though reluctantly. Quistis’ reports of Seifer's new powers had not been reassuring, and the three had no magic to defend themselves with.