Zell blocked with one arm and threw a straight punch with the other, nailing Squall right in the chest. Squall worked with the strike, using it to launch himself up and back in a stepping flip - nearly catching Zell in the face in the process. Squall landed in a ready position and gave the signal to come ahead.
Zell shook his head. "We've been at it for hours, man, and I could use a break. Fightin' you is like trying to punch a waterfall - you just keep movin' outta the way."
Squall grimaced at the water comparison, but nodded and took a seat on the mat, his deep breaths the only sign of his exertion.
"You sure you wanted a vacation, Squall?" asked Zell curiously. "Seems to me you're missing the Training Center."
Squall eyed Zell for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm not going back to Garden," he said.
Zell's eyebrows shot up. "That so," he said. "Then why train? You joining the army or something?"
Again that silent regard. Zell got the impression that he was being judged, and kept still. It wasn't the first time he'd pushed against Squall's bounds of privacy, and he'd learned over the years that it was worth the effort to win through. After a moment, Squall seemed to make his decision.
"I need to be as strong as I can be," he said slowly. "Garden...probably wouldn't want that."
"Don't see why not," Zell said, stretching out on the exercise mat with his hands behind his head. "Wouldn't you be Commander again, now you've got Griever sorted out?"
"No. If anything, that would be their first reason for mistrusting me. You know why."
Zell had to admit that this was true. Garden would not want Griever to be strong, knowing that Griever would eventually serve Ultimecia. "But you don't think that's something to worry about?" he asked.
Squall shook his head. "We...saw things, knew things, as Griever," he said at last. "I think...we can't take what we saw when we fought Ultimecia at face value."
"Why not just tell Garden what you know, then?"
Squall considered this, staring fixedly at the mat for a few minutes. "...I don't know that I can trust Garden any more," he said at last.
This got Zell up, so he could look Squall in the face, eyes narrowed. "Interesting choice of words, coming from you," he said. "You're the one that got Seifer and his posse back in, after all."
Squall made an exasperated growl. "Seifer may be the only one in that whole place I can count on."
"Bullshit," said Zell flatly. "There's Quistis, Selphie, Irvine...me..."
But Squall didn't back down. "I can't count on you for some things," he said. "Seifer had no problem telling me the true situation in Garden; I got a full report from him before he'd been there twenty-four hours."
"And what did the great Ass of the Universe have to tell you that the rest of us wouldn't?" said Zell, getting angry.
"That there was an execution in Garden for treason," said Squall, "and that Xu would like to make me next. That most of Garden still fears Rinoa, and that they think she's brainwashed me. Not one of you said anything of this to me. But Seifer did."
Zell sighed. "I was gonna tell you about the execution before you went back," he said heavily. "Why the hell d'you think I'm on leave? Cid would never have let something like that happen. Not to a SeeD, no matter how wrong they were."
Squall eyed him curiously. "Are you saying you're not going back either?"
It was Zell's turn to stare off into space for a moment. "I dunno," he said. "I joined SeeD 'cause I wanted to learn to fight. I like to fight. And when it was us against Ultimecia...it was so simple. She was bad, clear through, and we were doin' the world a favor. And stuff like the Timber mission, or taking down Alicia's complex...those were simple too. Everything was simple, SeeD just went after the bad guys. But you didn't see Quistis when she got her whip around the traitor's neck. He was SeeD, man...in uniform, in Garden, SeeD. But she had her whip around him like he was just the lowest scum on the planet. Didn't give an inch. And this was Quistis. My friend, or at least I thought so. I'm not so sure now. She acted like if I put one toe wrong it'd be me on the business end of her whip."
Squall listened expressionlessly. He knew Zell had a streak of idealism, even naiveté, that had gotten him into trouble before. Zell thought in terms of black and white; you were either an enemy, or you weren't, and things didn't change. But the world of SeeD was a world of the shadows between the poles, where black and white could change at any moment. Quistis was quite possibly the most SeeD of the entire orphanage group; she had reached the position at the youngest age, had been zealous enough to make Instructor before the rest even made SeeD. Squall did not doubt that she would be quite capable of ruthlessness if the situation required it - even against a fellow SeeD. He could not comfort Zell; there was no comfort to offer.
"What of Selphie and Irvine?" he asked instead.
Zell shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "We're friends, but they're sorta wrapped up in each other. And Selphie's got her Garden Master duties now anyway. That's not the sort of life I wanted. Just wanted friends to fight beside and go party beside afterward, you know? Who would've thought I could think of the days against Ultimecia as 'the good old days'..."
Squall considered this. "Do you want me to help?" he asked at last.
Zell looked at him in surprise. "If you can, sure," he said. "Be nice to have at least one face around I'm not gonna have to worry would stab me in the back. Why - you got an offer? Gonna stay here?"
Again came that weighing look, as though Squall were judging him. "Probably not," he said at last. "But...perhaps we can help each other."
Zell nearly yelped. Squall, making a request for help? It was unheard of. But he kept his face straight as he said, "Sure, anything I can do. I owe you anyway, from the dorms."
Squall looked puzzled for a moment, then said, "No, you don't."
"Sure I do. You kept Seifer off my ass almost the whole time we were cadets."
"That was different."
"How? There wasn't a damn thing I could offer you worth what you did. Seifer woulda made my life a living hell - yet another reason to not want to go back."
Squall shrugged, irritated. "Seifer only got on your case because you let him," he said at last. "You've always let him. He can goad you, so he does. It's his way, Zell."
"Damned irritating way, if you ask me," grumbled Zell. "And I'll just bet he's itching to get back to it if I go back to Garden."
Squall shook his head. "He'll leave you alone if you leave him alone," he said. "He didn't get to go back to Garden without making a sacrifice."
Zell eyed Squall curiously. "What'd you do?"
A wicked smile lurked in Squall's colorless eyes as he said, "I made him promise to fulfill what he thinks is my dream. He's got to be the perfect SeeD, and he's got to be so perfect they make him Commander. And you know how Xu feels about Seifer."
Zell couldn't help it; he roared with laughter, so that it echoed off the walls of the gym. "Seifer, forced to live by the rulebook! Man, only you could've pulled that off. Look, I've gotta grab me a bite - I'll see you later, all right?"
Squall nodded, and watched Zell leave, feeling the emptiness fill him again.
So much, so much had happened in so short a time. Just a few days ago he'd been wandering in eternity, with no way back to life. Just a few weeks ago he'd been hiking across Esthar with Rinoa, and a few weeks before that he'd been wrestling with running Balamb Garden.
And Griever. He looked down at his bare arms, pulled off the combat gloves he'd worn while training with Zell. Griever shone from his finger, leonine head frozen forever in a silent roar. Squall closed his eyes and took a deep breath, wishing he dared to ask Rinoa to have that unity again.
So much of his life, Squall had been alone and apart. He'd been alone so long he'd come to accept it as the way his life should be, being apart from others the way he needed to be to survive, relying ultimately only on himself. And then Rinoa had entered his life, gone past the walls he'd erected around himself like they were nothing...and he'd realized he needed her. Loved her, perhaps, though that hardly seemed a word large enough for what he felt. It was as though all the interaction he'd denied himself had been poured into her.
And that had been enough. More than enough, really. He cared for the others, but not in anything like the same way he cared for Rinoa. Somewhere along the way, the other things in his life had faded to unimportance. It didn't take much reflection to know that there hadn't been much else in his life; Seifer had been uncomfortably accurate on that point. But he hadn't known what he was missing, so he hadn't missed it.
And now this. Rinoa was so much a part of him now he could sense where she was, a tingling at the edges of his perception. He could vaguely tell how she felt, if she felt it strongly enough. And when they touched, he could hear those thoughts she wished to share. And he knew that she had these same gifts concerning himself. It was enough, and it was not.
Because when they had Joined, there had been no boundary at all. In Griever, he had known her in every facet of herself, loved everything he saw. And she had seen everything in him, and loved him anyway. A unity beyond anything he had ever dreamed existed or could have imagined he would want. And now it was gone. There was no reason to become Griever now - the Leviathan in his system had been destroyed. And there was a good reason not to; the knowledge that Griever might one day become Ultimecia's. The power stored in the Griever ring had gone unused against the day a permanent melding became necessary, but he knew Rinoa was hoping it never would be.
Logically, he had to agree with her; the risk was not inconsiderable. And yet...having known that oneness, and having it denied, he fell into a black melancholy. Even the sweetness of their lovemaking was only a temporary reprieve, an echo of the joining they had known and might never know again.
Rinoa could sense his unhappiness, but she did not have a solution. Or at least, if she did, she had not yet made it known to him. So he took to wandering the Palace alone, or walking the streets of Esthar at night, trying to spare her having to deal with his moods when she could not change them. And when he grew frustrated, he would call on Zell for bouts of 'fighting practice'. Squall delivered a hefty spin kick to a handy punching bag, and felt the satisfying thump. He launched into a series of punches and kicks, less for the practice than to work out his frustration.
"Thought I'd find you here," said a voice. "Mind if I join you? The bureaucrats have been murder today."
In a mental combat mode, Squall spun around to face the intruder in a fighting stance, but stood up straight when he realized it was Laguna.
"I'll spar with you if you don't mind," said Laguna easily, standing casually.
"You're in no shape for this," growled Squall, a clear invitation to leave him alone.
Laguna cocked his head, eyes twinkling. "I know what you think of me, Squall," he said lightly. "But while I haven't been to the range in a while, I do keep busy. C'mon; you look like you could use a moving target, and I'm offering. Don't tell me you haven't wanted to."
Squall shrugged; if Laguna truly wanted his son to kick his ass, who was he, Squall, to argue? He threw a punch, aiming for Laguna's stomach. Somewhat to his surprise, Laguna blocked it and countered with a snake-swift punch of his own, that Squall barely managed to dodge. Laguna's summer-green eyes narrowed. "I told you, I keep busy."
So be it.
Squall was not an expert in hand-to-hand, but he had gained some benefits from being volatile Zell's roommate. The greatest one was his ability to dodge. Laguna was incredibly fast for a man of his age, but Squall was faster. Very few of Laguna's punches struck home.
Squall was rather surprised that the ones which did strike home were solid. His eyes narrowed; where had Laguna picked up kickboxing? Abandoning any thought of play, Squall focused his concentration and gave himself over to the fight, not surprised to notice that Laguna's face also wore an expression of absolute concentration.
After some minutes, it became apparent that while Squall was both stronger and faster, Laguna had had a great deal more practice. This was exemplified in the fact that it was Squall who first got thrown to the mat, a result of a double feint that Squall was unfamiliar with. He barely ducked Laguna's finishing strike, and used Laguna's arm to pull himself up - flipping Laguna in the process.
The older man landed neatly on his feet in a ready stance, and gave Squall the signal to come ahead.
Several minutes later, Squall was again thrown to the mat. This time he landed hard enough that he was unable to dodge Laguna's punch, and the punch was hard enough to double him over. Laguna stood up and backed off, breathing heavily.
"Feel better?" came Laguna's words. "I don't know where you think you got your speed from, if it wasn't me. Raine was strong, but she wasn't a fighter - not in that sense, anyway." His eyes were sad, his voice a little wistful.
Squall forced himself to breathe around the constriction in his gut. Hyne, the man had a right that made Zell look like a baby. And yet...Laguna was right. He did feel better. He eyed Laguna warily; he knew, from Raine, too much to hate him. And Laguna had just wiped the floor with him in a fair fight - something only Zell had been able to do before now. "Where'd you learn to fight like that?" he asked. He certainly hadn't known how in the visits Squall had made to the past.
Laguna grinned. "Kiros," he said simply. "You do not want to get on Kiros' shit list, I'm telling you. The katal are just decorations the way he fights - his fists are just as nasty without 'em."
"Maybe he should go against Zell sometime," said Squall.
Laguna pretended to consider. "Might be fun," he said, then paused. "Squall..." he began. "It's nice having you around the place, even if we don't actually interact in any way...but I'm curious as to why you three haven't gone back to Garden. Not that I'm objecting, mind you."
Squall reacted at first with a Why do you care? but on consideration realized there was no good reason not to tell him. They had been given all courtesy as guests, and it was a poor guest that tried to stay forever without even asking.
"Zell is on leave, but if you've got a position open for a bodyguard or something he might be interested," he said at last. "Rinoa and I...don't know where we're going from here."
Laguna cocked his head at him inquiringly. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the big gray lion in the lab, would it?"
Squall sighed, beginning to realize that Laguna was nowhere near as stupid as he had thought. Inept, perhaps. But not stupid. "It has everything to do with that," he admitted.
Laguna nodded as though Squall had just given him the last piece to a puzzle he'd been assembling. "In that case...would you and Rinoa like to join me for dinner tonight?" he asked. At Squall's suddenly wary look, he waved his hands and said, "No obligation. But...I might be able to help. Or at least put you in the way of getting some. And the food's good."
Squall considered; he was well aware that this might be a prelude to another attempt at a 'talk', which he was by no means ready for, even given what he now understood to be true. But in all honesty, he didn't seem to have anything left to lose. And it would be with Rinoa..."All right," he said at last.
"Good," Laguna grinned. "Well, I have to get back to work. Thanks for the break, those guys were driving me nuts in there. I'm pretty sure I can get someone to show you the way from your rooms this evening. See ya." And he gave Squall a cheery wave and walked off.
Squall was alone again, but now he had something to puzzle over. He set out on a walk around Esthar City, the better to be with his thoughts.
Dinner turned out to be in Laguna's own suites, which had picked up a definite personality stamp over the years he had lived there. The first room was all formal, of course, but everywhere beyond - and there was a bedroom, sitting room, library and a small personal kitchen among other rooms - was simply decorated and almost spartan, with most of the furniture highly functional and showing signs of wear. But there wasn't a single seat that wasn't comfortable.
Rinoa found the comparison with Squall's tastes highly amusing. She touched his hand (no gloves tonight) and thought, I see you didn't inherit your mother's taste in decor.
Squall eyed her and sent back, Raine ran a bar in a tiny village. Other than putting flowers everywhere, she didn't have a decor in mind.
"Hope you don't mind the place," Laguna began casually. "Generally speaking I'm not even supposed to let people see these rooms. The under-ministers threatened to redecorate if I made a habit of inviting people back here."
"Why?" asked Rinoa, curious.
Laguna smiled, and Rinoa noticed it was Squall's smile. "Because they think it diminishes the importance of the Presidency," he said. "I told 'em that I needed at least one place where I didn't have to worry about being President. So I got these rooms. You two are the first guests to see 'em. And you're here precisely because I didn't want to worry about being President for a few hours. Kiros and Ward'll keep everyone away tonight."
"Isn't it something you are, by now?" Squall couldn't help but ask. "You've done it so long."
Laguna set down his fork and considered the unusual question. "No, Squall," he said. "It's just a job. It's a necessary job, and with Kiros and Ward around I manage okay, but it's not me. I'm glad I've done okay, but if I knew someone else I could drop it on, I'd be out of here in a heartbeat."
"And go where, Laguna?" asked Rinoa.
Laguna sighed. "I don't know," he said at last. "I'd say Winhill, but I know they'd like to never see me again back there. When I came back after Adel was sealed off and they told me Raine had died..." he trailed off, staring into space sadly for a moment. Then he shook himself. "They made it plain that they didn't want to see me again. The only time they spoke to me was if I was buying supplies that would take me elsewhere. And the people here seemed to like me, and there was a job to do..." he shrugged. "I might head back to Timber," he said at last. "Go back into journalism now Timber's free. But I'm not the one at loose ends here. Where will you go, Rinoa?" he asked.
"Not back to Garden," she said firmly. "There'd only be trouble. And I don't suppose we can stay here...could we go to Winhill, do you think? It's out of the way, and it'd be nice not to have to worry about the world for a while."
From Squall she picked up emotions: resignation, puzzlement, confusion. He knew he couldn't go back to Garden, but had no idea whether Winhill was a good idea?
Laguna considered it. "I don't know," he said at last. "They don't like soldiers much, so even though Squall is Raine's son they might not welcome you. They're fairly simple people, they just want to be left alone."
I can sympathize with that, came Squall's thought.
"But as to staying here," Laguna continued, "You could, if you wanted to. We wouldn't mind. Me, Kiros, and Ward, I mean. And we could take care of any problems."
From Squall, Rinoa felt a wave of confusion, as though Squall were trying to work out what Laguna would gain from such a move. To test that, she asked, "They don't mind my being a Sorceress?"
Laguna grimaced. "Not unless you tried to take over the country," he said. "Adel was actually pretty well tolerated before she took power, at least according to some of the stories I've heard. Never liked, as such, but then Adel was never the nicest person to be around."
The three ate a while in silence after that, until Laguna took a risk with, "If you're willing to tell me your problems, I might be able to help."
Squall immediately shut down; Rinoa could sense him emotionally walling himself off, though he behaved as he had before. She sent a wave of love and reassurance at him, advance apology for taking a course she felt was necessary even though she knew he wouldn't like it.
"We never did tell you about the fight with Ultimecia, did we..." she began.
Laguna looked at her curiously. "No," he said. "No details, at any rate."
"Well," she began, "It went like this..." and she detailed the fight, start to finish.
Laguna sat back in thought, one arm across his chest, and the other hand under his chin. "And this Griever you fought...looks just like the lion you became?" he said at last.
"Yes," said Rinoa. Is it all right to tell him what Raine said? she asked Squall.
Squall scowled at her. Tell him whatever you want to, he thought angrily. I don't see how he can help with this. It's a waste of time.
Rinoa patted his hand softly. Getting another mind to work on the problem is never a waste of time, Squall, she replied. I miss being with you, too.
Squall's expression shifted to one of surprise, fading into relief. Laguna watched them carefully, but said nothing.
Rinoa turned back to Laguna and said, "There's more. When Squall was...ill...he was able to speak to Raine, and she said that time is flexible; that it isn't inevitable that we would serve Ultimecia. But we don't know what choices to make to keep that from happening."
Laguna's green eyes darkened. "Squall...you spoke to Raine?" he said softly, swallowing. "She...can hear us?"
Squall shook his head. "No. Only Rinoa and me. In all the world, Rinoa and I are the only ones the dead can see. Rinoa because she's a Sorceress. Me because of Griever."
Laguna latched onto that. "Because of her ring? If I wore it, I could talk to her? Could she talk to me?"
"You could talk to her and she would hear you, Laguna," said Squall. "But you would not hear her - not clearly at any rate."
"But you...you can hear her, right?" Laguna asked, almost pleading. "You're wearing Griever, so she hears you. She's got to be watching you. Ask her...ask her if she'll talk to me. Please?"
Squall was disturbed by the sudden pleading in Laguna's voice, but he could not deny it. He knew exactly what it was to want to speak to someone and be heard, and perhaps Raine would want to speak to Laguna in that emotive language that was all those in eternity could use. She hadn't mentioned it when he was in eternity with her, but then she had been hoping Squall would stay. It would have been counterproductive to ask him to return and lend his ring to Laguna. He nodded, just once. "I'll ask...but don't hope for too much," he said slowly. "I tried to reach Rinoa when I was there, and the results were vague at best." He got up and went to the next room, which turned out to be Laguna's bedroom. It was huge, but sparsely furnished, with a single one-person bed, a nightstand, a reading chair and lamp, and a small bookshelf each seeming lost in its immensity.
Feeling a bit foolish, he repeated Laguna's request aloud and waited, listening within himself for any hint of a response. To his surprise, he got a clear impression that yes, he should lend Griever to Laguna for a while. He nodded, knowing Raine would see, and returned to the table - to find Laguna and Rinoa had gone to the sitting room. The reason was apparent when he noticed the faded marks in the carpeting where Laguna evidently preferred to do his pacing.
He pulled Griever from his finger and handed it to Laguna. "She can see you when you're wearing it," he said. "And she will hear anything you say aloud. But you have to listen inside for her answers."
Laguna closed his hands on the ring. "Squall, for this you can have anything in my power to give," he said gratefully.
To Rinoa's surprise, Squall had an immediate answer. "Petition SeeD to give you Zell," he said. "Zell doesn't want to leave SeeD, but he doesn't want to return to Garden either. Pay SeeD to get Zell stationed here."
"Done, and gladly," said Laguna. "Kiros will be thrilled." He looked down at the heavy platinum ring in his palm. "I hate to ask, but...could we talk tomorrow?" he said. "I'll return the ring as soon as you need it...but it's been so long..."
"It's all right, Laguna," said Rinoa. "Raine will tell you when it's time to return it, or we'll ask. We'll leave you alone now." And she took Squall by the arm and left the room.
What'd you say that for? came Squall's angry thought. Raine wanted to talk to him, but she doesn't see time the way we do. He could have it for years if she decides when to return it.
It will always be a Sorceress' token Rinoa said calmly, Whether or not the battery is drained. He would be as good a keeper as any.
If the battery is drained, we will need to be junctioned to a fighter to grow in power, argued Squall.
Rinoa looked at him and smiled. "Which is why you want Zell here," she said aloud. "But once junctioned he will not need the ring, and probably should not carry it. True?"
"True," said Squall with a sigh as they walked. He dared to ask the question that had been preying on him. "Does this mean...you'd be willing to do it again?"
"Squall...life this way feels as alone for me as it does for you," she said sadly. "Did you think I could know you, all of you, so completely - and then let you go? The more I think about it...the less wrong it feels. We defeated Griever when we fought Ultimecia. So even if we are her servant, it means nothing. And we would be together. There's nothing left for either of us here - Garden doesn't trust us, and anywhere else would assume we're there to conquer the place. There's only Esthar, and only because Laguna's in charge of that."
She thought for a moment, then continued. "And if Zell is willing to stay here, we'd be junctioned to someone who both needs that protection and likes to fight - we might really grow strong enough to defeat Ultimecia when she arises, before she ever initiates Time Compression. Surely, the risk of becoming her servant balances the chance to save so many lives."
Squall squeezed her hand, a wave of emotion passing between them that ended in a question. Rinoa looked into his eyes and smiled. They shifted course, heading back to their rooms.
Garden was perfectly agreeable to hiring Zell out to Laguna, and Zell was more than relieved that he would be getting paid to fight, and paid to stay the hell away from Seifer and the rest of Garden. He regarded the idea of a new sparring partner as a bonus.
"This is the favor I need from you, Zell," he said after handing the good news over. "I...we...need you to be willing to junction Griever."
"Junction...Griever?" asked Zell.
"We want Griever to grow as strong as possible, against the day Ultimecia arises," Squall said, refusing to look at Zell. "We're hoping, if we're strong enough, we can avert the future we've seen. You have to make sure your MIA file includes the request that Griever be given to an active SeeD, who will insure that Griever is always junctioned to an active fighter."
Zell scrubbed his face with his hands, fingers running over the dark tattoos. "Well, I wasn't kidding when I said I owed you one," he said at last. "And you getting me outta Garden...done."
"Ultimecia won't have us without a fight," said Squall.
In the end, the only people on hand were Laguna and Zell. Neither looked happy, but neither was willing to object to the course Squall and Rinoa had chosen. It wasn't suicide...it was just change.
Laguna returned the ring, and Squall placed it on his left hand, which then held Rinoa's hand. As before, their outlines began to glow - but this time starting with the ring. The brightness became too bright to see the shape merging and shifting within it. When it faded, Griever stood there, now much larger than before. The great lionlike beast knelt before Laguna - still towering over him by about ten feet or so - and held out one huge clawed hand.
Containing the ring. Solemnly, Laguna took it. Squall had already told him the circumstances under which he was to return the ring to SeeD - but in the meantime, it was his. He slipped it on his finger, just beginning to weep.
Griever's hand then reached out to Zell, and the leonine head bowed. Zell placed his own hand in the oversized palm, and Griever vanished. Zell blinked a few times and staggered a moment.
"Whew," he said after a bit. "Bigger kick than Gilgamesh."
Laguna smiled sadly. "That's Squall for you," he said. "Come on - let's get to work."