"Understood," said Zell into his radio, and switched it off. Turning to Quistis, he said, "We've got coordinates now. Squall woke up, and gave Xu landmarks that let her pinpoint the location. All squads are converging now."
"Squall's up?" Quistis repeated with a happy smile. "Wonderful. Tell Rinoa I owe her one."
"I'm sure she knows," said Zell, grinning back. "But I think we can pay 'em back by doing some serious ass-kicking. I'm tired of fighting Alicia's elemental goon squad. Time to make this bitch show SeeD some respect." And he grinned the predatory grin of a wolf.
Quistis merely snapped her whip in reply, her grin matching Zell's in ferocity. Quickly they relayed Xu's orders to their Estharian squad, and set a bruising pace for the coordinates Xu had sent.
Of the five hundred Estharian soldiers Laguna had sent, three hundred had survived the battles with Alicia's henchmen. Of the five hundred SeeDs who had volunteered for the mission, four hundred remained. So it was quite a sizable force that converged on the collection of boulders that masked a tunnel that was far too regular to be natural. Most of the warriors were tired; some had come quite a distance, and most had had to fight powered-up henchmen to arrive at all. But all waited patiently for either attack or Xu's order to advance. Garden had been moved to stand close by as a morale booster; any wounded would know they didn't have to go far for aid.
Evidently they weren't going to take on so many without the protection of the corridors and doors. No-one emerged. After a few minutes, Xu gave the order to attack - and all seven hundred warriors charged down the tunnel.
This was Zell's best fighting ground. The close quarters made any sort of gun or edged weapon highly dangerous, as one swing or bullet could go through allies as well as enemies. But every single one of Zell's punches and kicks went exactly where he wanted them to go. Quistis abandoned her whip, since there was no room to swing it, and focused on using her magic to defend them both. Unlike the rest of the SeeDs and soldiers, they had specific orders to reach the laboratory and any contents they could find, before they could be destroyed.
"This is the life", said Zell cheerfully, as he punched one of Alicia's henchmen so hard the man's jaw was pushed into his skull. "Any idea where to look for that lab?" he asked.
"Rinoa mentioned a really big, empty room," said Quistis, "but she couldn't say whether it was near the lab. She only guesses that it is."
"Follow the natural slope of the floors then," said Zell as he took out another henchman. "Rooms that big underground either have a lot of support, or they're natural bubbles from old underground lakes and stuff."
"And when did you start spelunking?" asked Quistis incredulously, but then said, "No, don't tell me. One of your fights with Squall?"
"Nope, Seifer," said Zell, as he gave a solid right to another henchman. "Got on the bad side of the Disciplinary Committee - and no, I'm not going to tell you why - and ended up hiding out in the caves near Fire Cavern for a while. To satisfy your Squall-curiosity," he continued cheerfully, "it was Squall that eventually found me. Seemed to think I was his responsibility. Since it meant he got Seifer to leave me alone, I wasn't gonna argue."
Quistis thought about this in between spell castings, and said, "But the Fire Caverns are just that - lava. How would you know about underground lakes?"
"It's not all lava," was all Zell would say on the matter. "Now, come on - we gotta find that lab. I don't mind telling you stories about Life With Squall, but I'd rather get some new ones at some point."
"I don't think it's a natural room, from Rinoa's description," said Quistis. "So we probably ought to look for signs of extensive supports."
Zell jumped up and grabbed hold of a wall's light fixture for a moment before letting go, getting a good view of the local layout over the combatants' heads. "There's narrower corridors that way," he said, pointing. "If you haven't got a better idea, that's where we'll go."
Quistis nodded, and off they went.
To Squall's surprise, the Presidential Palace boasted not a cafeteria but a full-sized restaurant, richly appointed. He slanted a sideways glance at Rinoa; places like this generally went in for fancy dress requirements, and he was in no mood to go hunting such an outfit. But she simply strode up to the maitre-d and gave him their names, and they were immediately shown to a table.
"You may not like him much, but Laguna's your father and everyone in the Palace knows it," said Rinoa with an impish grin. "Besides, they wouldn't want to offend a Sorceress."
Squall frowned. This was exactly the sort of place he felt the least comfortable in. "Was this really necessary?" he asked.
"Actually, yes," said Rinoa unapologetically. "You know as well as I do that your stomach has probably forgotten how to function properly. And this place does wonderful soups."
"I'm not an invalid," Squall growled, but Rinoa paid it no mind.
"No, but you were yesterday," said Rinoa, suddenly serious. Squall sighed and ran his hand through his hair.
"I suppose you'd better tell me what rock Laguna's hiding behind," he said.
Rinoa replied, "He isn't. He's not here. It's just you and me."
"Not here? He's the President. Doesn't he have work to do?"
Rinoa stopped scanning the menu and gave Squall a serious look. "I know you don't like him," she began, "and I understand your reasons. But he can't change the past. Do you know he sneaked into your room while you were...ill...after everyone had gone? He didn't want to disturb the work or get in the way, he just wanted to see you. He wanted to help."
Squall merely leveled his steely gaze upon her, waiting for her to reach a point.
"He's gone to Odine's laboratory to see if he can find any notes that might have been left behind regarding...what Odine did to you," Rinoa finished. "I sent him."
Squall said nothing for a while, then picked up his menu and resignedly began searching for something light on the stomach that could be said to have flavor. He knew he probably owed Laguna an apology, after what Raine had said to him. But he couldn't help feeling resentful. He'd gone seventeen years without knowing who his parents were or whether they were alive, and now he had a father who had to be a top contender for the World's Biggest Moron medal - and who happened to be running the biggest, most powerful nation on the planet.
Whoever it was that had said ignorance was bliss had been dead on the money.
They ordered and ate in companionable silence for a while, until Squall absently pulled his jacket tighter around him. Rinoa looked at him curiously; it was a pleasant seventy degrees inside the Palace, and outside it was nearer to ninety. Fall had come to the rest of the world, but Esthar wouldn't cool off for another month yet.
"Cold?" she asked casually.
"Yeah," he answered absently. "Feels like it's freezing in here."
"We can take a walk outside for a while after lunch then if you're up to it." Squall flashed her a glare at the idea he'd be too weak to walk.
"Bingo," said Zell. He'd lost a lot of his usual hyperactive bounce in the last hour or two.
Quistis quickly checked over the racks of vials and sheaves of notes. They seemed to have been abandoned in a great hurry. "Looks like they didn't know it was lethal by the time they fled," she said. "There's all sorts of useful notes here."
She examined the room carefully while Zell stood guard at the only door. There were carefully labeled vials in neat racks, all glowing with different colors. Quistis unshipped a hard-sided foldable carrying case, and began carefully storing them. Once finished with that, she secured the case at her waist and began examining the notes. Her eyes went wide. "Zell...they experimented on a GF," she breathed.
Zell gave her a curious look. "Yeah? Makes sense, if they were gonna imitate the powers of GFs."
"You don't understand," she said. "Garden has all the GFs that are known in the world. For Odine to have a GF..."
Zell's expression grew sour as he realized what she was getting at. "We've got a traitor in Garden," he said. "Bet it's the same one that was giving Irvine all the grief with the rumor mill, too."
"Whoever it is, they'd better be gone by the time I get back to Garden," said Quistis seriously. "We'll know who it is as soon as we find the GF. Students have to sign for them personally, or have them assigned. There haven't been any missions before now that required GFs, so it's an assignation."
"Bet whichever one it is is really peeved," said Zell.
Quistis nodded. "The sheets say it's in a 'holding cell'. I guess that'd be one of the rooms we passed on the way here, with the locks on the doors. Think you can punch through iron locks, or should I get the lockpicks?"
Zell didn't react to her tease. "The pieces of crap they use for locks around here I could kick through, no problem. None of the doors have been designed to prevent people getting in, Quistis. Every single one's been designed to keep people from getting out."
Quistis considered this, and was surprised to realize Zell was exactly right. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you," she said.
"Seifer," Zell said by way of explanation. "Trust me, Quistis, when he toasted you that was nothing to what the guy can do if you piss him off. Squall's not the best roommate a guy could ask for, but if you've gotten on Seifer's bad side he's the best defense you can get."
"Sometime, I think I'm going to want you to make a report," said Quistis. "Technically, Seifer's still a cadet at Garden. If he abused his privileges as head of the Disciplinary Committee, that's a serious offense."
Zell shook his head. "You think he's an idiot?" he asked. "Seifer never did anything that I could prove in a Garden investigation. It's my word against his, and you know you'd have to be impartial if you were sitting on a Garden investigation board. You're not going to pin anything on him, no matter how much I might like you to. Face it, Quistis - you couldn't even punish him for putting that scar on Squall's face, and everyone knew he did that. He was wearing the matching one, after all."
Quistis sighed. That was perfectly true, she reflected. And her mild attempt at humiliating Seifer for it had been one of the reasons she'd lost her Instructor's license to begin with. She looked up; they were at the right room. She backed up, to give Zell room to break it in. "This is the one," she said.
"Right," said Zell. "HiiiYA!" and he let loose a prodigious kick at the door's lock. It burst inward with a crash.
Inside they found a cowering Carbuncle, making pitiful little squeaks. When it recognized Zell, its little green ears perked up and it immediately hopped onto his shoulder, begging to be junctioned. Zell gave it a pat and obliged, and Carbuncle disappeared.
"Friend to small helpless creatures everywhere," said Quistis with a smile. "Well, we should be able to look up the assignations when we get back to Garden. I pulled Carbuncle out of the nursery when Squall told Rinoa more than he should have," and here Quistis grimaced, "But I didn't check to see who got it after that."
"I'm gonna break in the other doors," said Zell. "If they had a GF in here, there's no telling who or what else they've got locked up."
As it turned out, there was hardly a need to lock the door on the other cell occupants. Most of them had a vacant look in their eyes, and if they moved at all it was to summon feeble magical effects; a tiny flame, a small breeze, an ice crystal the size of a palm. They took blood samples from the ones who didn't resist it, so that Selphie could tell them what had happened. When they left, they left the unfortunates behind. There was still a battle to be won.
Quistis gathered up every scrap of paper she could find in the lab, just to be sure that nothing important was inadvertently left behind. Arms laden, she nodded to Zell that it was time to go. He concentrated a moment, then called, "Ruby Light!"
Carbuncle, newly junctioned, appeared right away from a hole in the ground, and meeped cheerfully as it cast Reflect on them. Then it flooped down its extradimensional hole and disappeared.
Zell laughed. "I think he's glad to be out of there," he said.
Quistis could only agree.
The trip out was less hectic than the trip in, but since Quistis couldn't offer any assistance with her arms laden Zell was exhausted by the time they made it back to the surface. Xu was waiting for them.
"The complex will shortly be secured," she said. "You got what we came for? Good - there's been no sign of Odine, or anyone matching Alicia's description, so this is just the sort of good news the men need to hear. You two get back to Garden and see what you can make of your findings."
The two SeeDs merely nodded; Quistis was busy thinking, and Zell was too tired to offer his usual cheer. The two took some time to reach Garden, between the weight of the load and the work of the day.
Esthar was a city of tall buildings, steel, and other metals that could get unbearably hot in sunshine. Walking outside the Palace, she was not overly surprised to find Squall as strong as ever; the experiments had given him strength and endurance far beyond the norm, even considering he'd been out of action for a few weeks. She was surprised to find him walking around covered neck to toe in fur and leather in ninety degree heat without looking the least bit hot.
Well. Selphie had said things would change. If his idea of comfortable temperatures was all that had changed, she'd count herself lucky. She still felt a bit uneasy at the possibility of gills.
Then she noticed that Squall was scanning the people that were nearby, his hand absently resting on Lionheart's hilt.
"Expecting someone?" she asked.
Squall nodded, still searching. "Seifer," he said.
"Why would Seifer come here? How would he know to come here?" asked Rinoa, worried.
"Seifer wants to kill you," said Squall simply. "Failing that, though, he'll settle for killing me, or separating us."
Rinoa considered this. "That's a long way from your last opinion; that Seifer wasn't a danger with Ultimecia dead."
Squall turned to look at her, his expression frighteningly serious. "I know what he wants now," he said. "I didn't then."
"And what does he want?" Rinoa asked. Like pulling teeth out of an old lion's mouth, she thought, irritated.
But Squall didn't answer, just went back to scanning the crowds as they walked. She noted that he wasn't quite walking beside her. Rather, he was a perfect half-step behind, just enough so that she was always in his field of vision. The Knight's position. Yet the manner in which he moved was all SeeD, the mercenary always looking for danger.
"Squall..." she began. "When you were...ill...what happened to you?"
"I was with you," he said simply. "At least, once you found me I was."
"The whole time?"
Squall frowned, not wanting to think of it. "From when you found me to when you got on the ship that I suppose took us here," he said.
Rinoa stopped, so that Squall was forced to stop too. "What happened on the ship?" she asked.
Squall's pale eyes darkened in remembered pain, but he answered. "You read the part of the book that said a Knight must always be able to touch his Sorceress," he said softly. "And I realized I could reach you, even in eternity. I went...back...to my body and accepted what would come, so that if you tried to reach me I would be there. Raine told me you could break the time-lock, if I could deal with...the chains."
"That's the second time you've mentioned Raine," said Rinoa. "Where were you?"
Squall seemed to consider this for a few moments, then said, "Dead, I suppose. Or at least almost dead. Raine called it eternity."
"Outside time. Raine said that's where the dead go, outside time. I couldn't see or hear any living thing but you, and my own body. You because you're the Sorceress, and me because I was wearing Griever." Damn, he thought to himself. Too much, said too much...
He was proven right when Rinoa immediately pounced on it, asking, "You know what Griever is now?"
But he was spared having to tell her, because his eyes had finally caught sight of a familiar pattern; someone with black hair, someone with blond hair, someone with platinum-silver hair.
Seifer and his posse.
"They're here," he said, low in his throat. Seifer was looking a bit sunburned, and had foregone his usual white trench coat in favor of a white tank top with his trademark crusader's cross tattooed on his shoulder. For a moment he thought they'd gone unnoticed, but no such luck.
"Damn, Squall," called Seifer mockingly. "Is there no weather that'll get you out of that jacket?"
Squall said nothing, but moved from slightly behind Rinoa to slightly in front of her, Lionheart drawn and at the ready, its moonglow blade almost invisible in the afternoon sunlight. The Knight's protective stance.
It had the desired effect; it made Seifer's expression of mockery twist into one of rage. "You'll never make a Knight," he growled. "Just like she'll never make a Sorceress. Go back to your Garden, SeeD."
Squall noted Fujin and Raijin moving to stand just behind Seifer, one on each side. None of the three had gone for their weapons as yet.
Squall sensed more than saw Rinoa's steel-gray Sorceress wings spread out behind them (why were they still gray?), felt her eyes begin to glow with power. When she spoke, he felt himself moved to speak in unison with her, lips moving without his conscious volition.
"Go home, Seifer," they said together. "You are not a Knight when your Sorceress dies."
Seifer's expression of rage froze, became the mask of amused condescension he wore when ready to fight. "You know what?" he said, "You're right."
All three raised their hands at the same time, but only Fujin and Raijin unleashed their power. Rinoa cast Triple on herself as she and Squall were flung high into the air by Fujin's whirlwind, and noted with surprise that Squall wasn't much hurt by Raijin's lightning strike. She supposed it had to do with them being in midair at the time. Rinoa would have grabbed for Squall, but he rode the whirlwind with an acrobat's ease. While she used her wings to land her gently, he simply flipped out of the artificial tornado and dove headlong for the posse.
Seifer had drawn Hyperion, and was waiting for him. Gunblade met gunblade, clashed, and Squall used Seifer as an unwilling springboard - doing a perfect backflip and landing about four feet away, gunblade at the ready and facing his foe.
Rinoa cast Shell, Protect, and Reflect on herself in time to deflect Raijin's thunderbolt, which she aimed at Fujin.
"Damn pansy-ass dancer," spat Seifer as he slashed and cut with Hyperion. "I'll show you what a real Knight is capable of. Fire Cross!"
With one hand Seifer cast a sheet of flame, and before it had cleared followed it up with a devastating sweep of Hyperion. But he had used this trick on Squall before, the day they'd each received their scars. Squall slashed out vertically with Lionheart, slicing the flame before it reached him, then jumped back out of Hyperion's range. He moved back into position before Seifer could follow up on the momentary advantage.
Squall recognized the power of the flame; Alicia's doing, magnifying Seifer's attack. "She has condemned you to death, Seifer," he growled.
Seifer paid no attention, but continued to fight. However, Fujin and Raijin hesitated. Rinoa noticed, and said, "The artificial GF power kills," as she cast Blizzaga on the posse, holding them in place. The two chose not to break the ice, but merely waited.
"And just how the hell would you know that, SeeD?" snapped Seifer as he found himself pushed back under Squall's attack. He was getting angry; the power of Ifrit should have made him much stronger than Squall, but still he was being beaten back. A sneaking suspicion rose in his mind as he stared at Squall over their dueling blades. Squall gave him a small nod. When Seifer paused in surprise, Squall swatted Hyperion aside with Lionheart, then threw a punch for Seifer's jaw that was backed by the firehose power of his water strike. Seifer was knocked against a building on the other side of the street, out cold.
Squall walked over and verified that Seifer was still alive, and not heavily wounded, then picked the larger man up and hauled him over his shoulder. "Because she condemned me, too," he said to the wide eyes of the posse. "If you want to fight, we can fight," he continued, "But time may be short. Come with us if you want to."
Fujin and Raijin looked at each other, then Raijin said, "We're with you, if you can convince Seifer. That woman gives me the fuckin' creeps, ya know?"
"AGREE," said Fujin simply.
They put up no resistance as they followed Squall and Rinoa back to the palace, Seifer over Squall's shoulder like a sack of flour.
Quistis transmitted scans of all Odine's notes, and chemical formula notations for every GF-substance they had retrieved. She scooped up the return transmissions from Irvine without looking at them and headed for her office. Esthar could wait; she had to find the traitor in Garden.
Zell checked into the Infirmary first, to verify that yes, he had in fact gone the entire day without picking up a scratch, and yes, he was just tired. He received a chit from Kadowaki giving him permission to order unlimited energy drinks from the Cafeteria for the next 24 hours to replenish lost nutrients. They were better than the usual fare offered, so this was by Garden's way of offering a bonus for a job well done.
But what really made Zell's day was that - as one of the few to survive the day completely unscathed - he'd made it to the cafeteria in time to snag some hot dogs. That was his idea of incentive.
He met Bella in the Cafeteria, too. She had her arm in a sling; she'd gone in with everyone else, but her shuriken had been almost useless in the narrow corridors, and using them like daggers she'd gotten her arm struck by one of Alicia's goons. The man's enhanced strength had broken her arm in one strike. He plunked his treasure trove of hot dogs down next to her and began filling her in on the day's events.
After a while another student asked to sit at their table. Since by now the Cafeteria was filling up with those released from the Infirmary, Zell saw no reason to say no. He waved the boy to a free chair and continued with his graphic retelling of the day's fights.
When he got to the part about the holding cells, Bella jumped ahead of him. "Which GF did they have?" she asked. "I thought Garden had them all?"
"Yeah, we do," said Zell. "At least, we did. Somebody stole one."
"Zell, you are so lucky I came in here before you said which one," interrupted Quistis, with a look of extreme anger on her face. Without warning, she lashed out with her whip and wrapped it around their table partner's neck, before he could finish drawing the standard issue pistol at his belt. "Just once, could you save the stirring tales for after the villains are defeated?"
Zell almost choked on his hot dog. "But...he's a SeeD," he said as Quistis gave her whip a brutal yank, tumbling her asphyxiated target to the floor.
"Mikhal here was issued Carbuncle four weeks ago when he volunteered to assist in the training of some younger cadets," said Quistis. A mere flick of her wrist wrapped another coil of her whip around the boy's arms. "He's also managed to get assigned com-room duty more often than he should have been in the past month. Which means we have to assume Alicia knows about the side effects of her experiments. She'll be heading for Esthar for certain."
Quistis yanked on her whip again, tightening its coils about the unfortunate Mikhal. "You're so lucky it's not in the Headmaster's powers to punish traitorous SeeDs," she snapped at Mikhal, but Zell heard a warning in her voice for himself too, and backed off. "Zell, next time - edit your story telling, will you? There's no telling how much damage you might have done if I hadn't been here. Good evening, SeeDs," she said, with all the authority of Garden Headmaster. She gave another yank on her whip, and Mikhal was forced to stand and follow, or be dragged behind her.
Zell swallowed, mouth gone dry around the suddenly flavorless hot dog. Quistis was right, of course - he shouldn't have assumed someone was safe just because they were SeeD. But that look of lethal fury on her face as she snapped her whip around Mikhal's neck did not bode well for the boy's future. To kill the enemy, that was fine by Zell, no matter who that enemy might turn out to be. But a SeeD...one of their own...
"I'm sorry," he said to Bella, and the suddenly curious cadets all around. He turned on his heel and left the Cafeteria, two hot dogs left uneaten on his plate behind him.