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"That should do it," said Selphie, putting a cap on the vial she was holding.

The whole group was on hand for this. After analyzing the notes taken from Alicia's complex, and the differences between the four people affected, Fujin and Selphie had been surprisingly quick in formulating a counteragent.

"Who wants to go first?" she said cheerily, holding up a syringe.

Seifer and Squall shared a look, then Seifer said, "I will. So you chickens know it's all okay."

Rinoa glanced curiously over at Squall, and read his reason in his eyes. Raijin and Fujin need Seifer. The bond between them was growing clearer all the time, it seemed.

"There's no telling if this is gonna hurt," warned Selphie. "Odine doesn't make notations like that. So be ready to hang onto something, okay?"

"Just do it," snarled Seifer.

Selphie nodded and emptied the syringe into Seifer's shoulder. He took a deep breath to steady himself, then casually sat down on the bed, gripping the sheets in one white-knuckled hand. "You can...note that it hurts, Selphie," he gritted, but refused to cry out or give in. He was the leader; leaders didn't do that. Especially not when their troops are anxiously watching their every move, as Fujin and Raijin were doing. After a few minutes of the terse silence, Seifer took a deep breath and relaxed. "It's okay guys," he said. "It won't kill you."

Selphie nodded. "Ordinarily I'd wait until we know for sure it works, but Fujin's double checked my figures and I don't think we can risk waiting. Who's next?"

It turned out to be Raijin, who did his best to bear it the way Seifer had, but ended up fainting - much to Irvine's private amusement. He muttered something about a bet with Zell on the matter. Fujin simply laid down on the bed when her turn came.

Squall removed his jacket and gloves so that Selphie could reach his shoulder, but knew before the injection that it was probably too late for him. There was a faint bluish tint to his skin now, and as far as he was concerned the temperature in the room was freezing. But he took his medicine along with the others, and quickly replaced his jacket and gloves.

The injection felt like liquid heat, which given his current views on the temperature felt wonderful. He wondered why it didn't hurt him the way it had the others.

They noticed it too. "You did give him the same thing as the rest of us, right?" warned Seifer.

But Fujin stopped any argument by saying, "SAME."

Selphie looked concerned, but Squall noted she didn't seem surprised. "They weren't given as much as you were, comparatively speaking," she said, "and they hadn't had it as long. When I did the tests, they were just beginning to bond with the material. The counteragent prevented the material reaching a high enough bonding percentage to achieve permanency. I was hoping it would undo some of the mergence you've had, Squall...but if it didn't hurt at all then it probably didn't do anything but slow it down. I'll take a sample in about half an hour to be sure, if you don't mind."

"You mean, he's still got that water-punch?" asked Raijin.

Seifer drawled, "It's gonna kill him, Raij, I wouldn't bother getting jealous."

Rinoa snapped a furious glare at Seifer, but Squall left the room without saying a word. She would have followed, but to her surprise Seifer stopped her. "You aren't going to make him feel better chasing after him like that," he said simply, brutally. "He'll take from me what he won't take from anyone else, and he needs to hear some things. I'll be back." And Seifer strode out the door.

"I wouldn't go after him, Rinoa," said Selphie. "Wait till Squall kicks his ass first, then go. They don't go in for witnesses when they fight. Zell warned me about this."

* * * * * *

The Presidential Palace was the tallest building in Esthar, and Seifer found Squall on the roof. The weather had hardly cooled from its earlier baking heat, though it was now well into the night, but Squall kept his gloves and jacket on and didn't seem the least bit hot. He whirled when he heard Seifer's bootsteps, fists half-raised.

"Gonna blow me off the building, Squall?" said Seifer. "I don't think so. If you were gonna do that, you'd have done it before."

"Go away, Seifer," said Squall, almost as if it were an order.

"Nope, don't think so," grinned Seifer, taking a seat on a handy air-conditioning unit. "I'm not one of your SeeDs that you can order around, or Rinoa for you to make eyes at. And if you blow me off the building you're gonna have your hands full with Fujin and Raijin. And you might be able to outfight me with your fancy powers but that wouldn't be a fair fight, so you and I both know it wouldn't matter."

The only noticeable effect this had on Squall was that he lowered his hands and turned away, apparently intent on ignoring Seifer until he went away. In the darkness Squall was almost a shadow, lost amid the other shadows but for the pale sheen of his face, watching the city below, and the fur on his jacket's collar.

"You know what it is the Knights can do, don't you," said Seifer. "That little voice trick you did with Rinoa earlier, the looks you've shared with her. You've brought the bond to life. How did you find out?"

Squall was not about to tell Seifer about his ordeal, but there was another answer that was just as true. "The book," he said.

Seifer nodded. "You know," he said in a tone that was half thoughtful, half angry, "there are days when I just wanna kick your ass clear across the country. You never dreamed of anything in Garden, never wanted anything that I could tell other than to be a SeeD. You never went on a date, read a book that wasn't on a course curriculum, went anywhere by your own choice other than the Training Center." He stood up and began to pace, filled with pent-up energy.

"And then you find out about my dream, to be the Sorceress' Knight, to be a great leader...and you make my dream yours. You become the Sorceress' Knight and the Commander of Garden, you find a father who just happens to run the most powerful nation on the planet, and you become the savior of the world to boot. You know, if it weren't for the fact I just lost my new toy, I think I probably would kick your ass. You certainly deserve it."

Squall merely turned and looked at him, his whole stance saying, You could try. But he said nothing.

"Raijin and Fujin...they've filled me in on a lot of things while you were off necking with Rinoa," Seifer continued. At the sudden flash of anger on Squall's face, he quickly clarified, "Not everything. They seem to figure we owe you one for warning us, and that's their payback. But I don't need 'em to tell me things for me to know 'em. You're walking wounded, Squall," he said. "I saw people with your eyes in the D-District prison, when I was under Ultimecia's spell."

Squall's posture shifted slightly, just enough that a fighting stance was only a half-second away. Seifer noticed it, and grinned wolfishly. "You might be able to kill me now, Squall," he said with just a hint of mockery in his voice, as though he knew very well Squall wouldn't try, "but don't you ever assume I'm less intelligent than you are. You know as well as I do that it isn't strength that wins a gunblade fight. She did something to you, besides give you that water-strike, and since I managed to tick her off once or twice I can make a few guesses at what it was. You're not going to move on until you've paid her back. Some pain is like that."

Seifer noticed that Squall was just perceptibly trembling, with rage or with something else. Whatever it was, it was taking all of Squall's legendary self-control to keep it from expression. Since he really didn't want to fight Squall given his current enhancements, Seifer opted in a rare moment of tact to drop the subject.

"Alicia...she's something else," he mused instead. "But the thing about her is, the farther away you get, the clearer you think. It took us quite a while to find you, lucky for you. I don't plan on getting within arm's reach of her again, so she's all yours. Soon's your friends give us a clean bill of health, we're dropping off the map." When Squall cocked his head to one side, eyes narrowed, Seifer continued, "Actually, they want to go back to Garden."

This garnered a response. "I'm not Commander of Garden," said Squall. "Xu is."

"Don't give me that crap," snapped Seifer. "You command Garden no matter who holds the title. Xu would kiss your boots if you asked. You think Garden would be invading underground fortresses and making alliances with Esthar if the SeeD Alicia took hadn't been you? I'm willing to make you a deal. Let us return to Garden, and I'll swear off Rinoa, and you as long as you're her Knight. Fighting practice aside, of course," he finished with a smirk.

When Squall didn't answer, Seifer growled, "Hyne damn it, Squall, you've taken my dream. The least you can do is give me yours."

Squall studied Seifer's face. The man was beaten, and knew it, but if there was a common point between them it was understanding the dictates of pride. This was as close as Seifer could ever come to admitting defeat. "...I never wanted your dream, Seifer," said Squall quietly. "Only Rinoa."

"And doesn't that just make me feel all warm and tingly," said Seifer sourly. "Do we have a deal or don't we?"

Squall considered it so long that Seifer was just about to give up and head back downstairs when he said, "One condition."

"Yes, O loquacious one?" said Seifer, as though granting a huge favor.

"I will ask you one favor, sometime in the future. You will do it, no questions asked."

Seifer's eyes narrowed. "If that's an invitation to go to bed with you, you can forget it," he said.

Squall's expressionless mask twisted into an expression of disgust. "It won't be," he said, in a tone that said such an idea had been literally the last thing on his mind. "Nothing that would compromise the honor of a SeeD, or a Knight for that matter. One favor. That's all."

It was Seifer's turn to consider. "Done," he said at last. He knew from long experience not to try shaking on it so he simply nodded, as one does to an equal. Squall nodded back, and Seifer turned to go back to the others.

Squall simply waited, watching the city. He enjoyed being alone, right now needed to be alone, but he had grown to understand his friends well enough to know that they weren't going to leave him alone. Seifer had managed to say something they were all thinking but hadn't dared to say, and Squall rather expected that one by one they'd all be up here apologizing for thinking it. In a way, it made Seifer and his posse soothing; they wouldn't try anything of the sort. In some respects, Seifer understood him better than anyone, possibly better than even Rinoa did. He wondered how Seifer would feel to know that Squall had already left a message for Irvine to send to Xu, asking for exactly what Seifer had requested. Probably annoyed, Squall thought, to know that I can anticipate him as well as he anticipates me.

He felt her presence before hearing it, like a warm blanket around his cold shoulders. Something in her drove back the Leviathan effect, made him warm again just for a little while. He needed that badly; the longer he was away from her, the cooler he felt. He wondered whether he would end up freezing to death; the ocean couldn't freeze over, but if you were in it too long...

Rinoa had grown to understand him too, it seemed - once on the rooftop, she cast Aero on a handy tool shed and used it to block the doorway. No more visitors.

"Seifer didn't look damaged," she said by way of an opening. "To hear Selphie talk, he should have been covered in slashes and bleeding his way down the corridors."

"Maybe a year ago, he would have," Squall said equably. "Though it would have been just as likely to see me doing the bleeding."

"Are you no longer rivals, then?" asked Rinoa, moving to put her arms around him.

Squall considered this. "...If I live through this, yes, we probably would be," he said at last. "Otherwise, no. I think there's a truce on until it's decided."

Rinoa looked at him. "Until it's decided? Whether you live or not? You're taking this incredibly well, you know. I'm not happy about it."

Squall shrugged. "I've gotten to see what's on the other side," he said. "And you're still there, and you can still hear me, and I can hear you. There is nothing unknown to fear....and I knew when I joined SeeD that it wasn't a job where people retired."

"And there is nothing you would regret?" Rinoa asked curiously.

To her surprise, Squall had an immediate response. "I would regret not being able to touch you," he said. "I saw you crying, in Kadowaki's office, and on the floor of the Infirmary. It hurt, that I could see you and hear you crying, and could do nothing."

Rinoa considered this. "I didn't think I'd ever hear you saying something like that," she said.

"...If I had seventy years to get around to it, you probably still wouldn't," said Squall honestly. "But I think Selphie's estimates are on the generous side." He could feel the chill seeping into his body, his mouth already cold enough that the humidity of Estharian September filled each intaken breath with fog.

"Since you're being so determinedly morbid," said Rinoa on the brink of tears, "Perhaps you'll tell me what you think I'm going to be doing. Because I certainly don't know..."

Squall looked at her in surprise. "Live," he said simply, as if there were no other options.

"Do you think so, Squall? Alone, with no Knight to keep me from becoming another Adel, another Ultimecia? You were only out for a few weeks, and my Sorceress wings are gray. How long before they're black, with you gone?"

Squall considered this. It hadn't occurred to him that Rinoa would really need him in that manner. She always struck him as being innocent, a living embodiment of joy and happiness. It was one of the things he found so attractive about her. "What turned them gray?" he asked at last. "I saw that they were gray in the Infirmary, but..." he shrugged.

It was Rinoa's turn to shudder. "...I wanted to hurt someone," she said. "Not just fight them, to protect someone or defend myself, but hurt someone - cause them pain." She turned Squall's head to face her, forcing him to look her in the eyes. "I wanted to hurt Alicia, because she had hurt you," she said. "I think they're still gray because I can't bring myself to regret wanting to hurt her."

Squall frowned. He couldn't really regret that, either. But then, he wasn't in danger of becoming a world tyrant for it. If were a choice between becoming Griever, or Rinoa becoming another Adel or Ultimecia, was the choice really so terrible? It would still be Rinoa's choice, at the end. A Knight could not initiate a Joining. He recognized this as rationalization; he would tell her not to avert such an event, but because he now recognized without question that she cared enough for him to want to know. She was, indeed, his price.

"...There might be another option," he said slowly.

"To what? You dying? I'm all ears," said Rinoa, and he could tell she meant it.

Squall drew off his left glove, so that the platinum sheen of Griever was visible on his finger. "This," he said. "Cast Scan on it now, while I'm wearing it."

Rinoa did so, and her eyes went wide. "Squall, it's a Sorceress' token. How did you know?"

"Raine told me," said Squall. "She told me where it came from, why I had it...everything. You and I, we could become Griever. It's something only a Sorceress and a Knight together can do. The power stored here would make us stronger than even Eden or Gilgamesh."

"But...we killed Griever," said Rinoa. "Griever was Ultimecia's GF. We can't become something that would serve her..."

Squall nodded. "Raine said that time is flexible, that choices made now could prevent Ultimecia ever arising. I wish I knew what those choices were," he said heavily. "But's not written in stone that if we become Griever, we serve Ultimecia. It's just a possibility, not a guarantee. But I didn't want to tell you, since it is a possibility."

Rinoa was silent a while, her arms wrapped loosely around him as she thought. "You and I...would be one being," she said slowly. "What effect would the Leviathan have on us?"

"...That's just it, there's no way to know. It might spread it so thin it'll disintegrate, and I'd be fine. Or there might be so much of it already that it would take over your system too, and we'd both die. I don't think it'd kill a GF, so the only sure way would be to become Griever and stay that way."

Rinoa thought about that, then said, "If it means I don't lose you, and can't become like's not so bad. Since you've been thinking about this, why don't you tell me what you think we could do to not be Ultimecia's servant?" There was a hint of teasing in her voice, that said of course he had been thinking about that.

There was a smile in Squall's voice if not on his face, as he said, "I think we'd have to join just once, permanently - and use whatever power's in the ring to make us as strong as possible. If we work with Garden, we can grow further from there, just like the other GFs do. And if we stay with Garden, Ultimecia will have to defeat Garden to get us. And defeat us to capture us."

"But we already know she does that," said Rinoa. "We saw the dead SeeDs at the base of her castle."

Squall turned to face her. "We don't know that they were all of SeeD," he said. "There might be SeeDs left in the world after Ultimecia is defeated. I hope so, anyway. But think about it; GFs are loyal. If we, as Griever, have been with SeeD all that loyal could we be to Ultimecia?"

"This is all guesswork, Squall," said Rinoa sadly. "For all we know, we could be a truly loyal servant of Ultimecia...with all that power."

Squall turned back to his view of the city. "Yes," he said. "That's the risk. It's probably as bad as the risk of you turning into another Adel. But...this isn't my choice. This is the Sorceress' choice. All I can tell you is, if you want to try it, I'll do it."

Rinoa said nothing, and Squall could only hope she was thinking it through carefully. She would know better than he how likely her turning to darkness would be.

He was, therefore, completely surprised when she took his ungloved hand in hers, and set a kiss in it that filled him with warmth. She smiled at his look of shock.

"What, you can discuss becoming one being with me, but a more mundane version surprises you?" Rinoa teased gently. "I've waited months for you, Squall, but there aren't months to wait any more. If it is not to be the higher-ranking SeeD inviting a lower ranking SeeD to join him, then it will be the Sorceress asking her Knight." She paused, and shook her head. "No...that isn't right. I don't want the Commander of SeeD, the Sorceress' Knight, or even the son of the President of Esthar. I just want Squall Leonhart...if he'll have me?"

Squall stood speechless for a moment, then drew Griever off his finger. He weighed it in his hand for a moment, and put it in his pocket. "I won't have a SeeD," he replied slowly, as though making a vow, "Or the Sorceress, or the daughter of a Galbadian general. But...I will take Rinoa Heartilly, if she offers."

Rinoa smiled, and drew Squall in for a kiss.

* * * * * *

Xu entered Quistis' office, where she was examining papers. The Garden was in motion again, heading for Esthar. "Where's Zell?" asked Quistis by way of hello. "He wasn't at the execution, and I haven't seen him since."

"He asked to be excused, said he didn't think Carbuncle would want to see Mikhal. I gave him permission." Xu cocked her head at Quistis. "I think you were probably harder on him than you should have been. He looked pretty upset. You can probably find him in the Training Center, but you know how worked up he can get. I wouldn't recommend going after him. I'd wait till he comes out on his own."

Quistis shook her head. "He shouldn't have been talking about something so sensitive, and he knew it," she said. "He knew there was a traitor in Garden, knew that the missing GF would clearly show who it was. All he had to do was keep quiet until we'd tracked the person down. As it was, the traitor was sitting at Zell's table, listening to Zell warning him that we knew of his existence and would shortly have his identity. I'd only just learned who it was, and had gone down there to grab a bite and say hi. It was pure luck that I got my whip around Mikhal before Zell blew the whole thing."

"It was perhaps a mistake to pair you with him," said Xu reflectively. "He reacts impulsively, sometimes - but never with ill will toward anyone. Well, except Seifer."

"It was a mistake to assign him to look for the lab with me," said Quistis. "He's a great fighter, but his inability to keep his mouth shut has landed us in trouble before. It was Zell's mouth that destroyed Trabia Garden, and nearly this one as well."

Xu frowned as she thought, and replied, "What would you have me do, then? Set him to watching the youngest cadets? Writing poetry? I note that you have not suggested any severe punishments for Squall, even though in telling Rinoa so much about Garden before she was offered a position in SeeD, he could be charged with treason. Should we summon the GFs to tear Squall apart also?"

Quistis stepped back, surprised. "No, of course not," she said. "He was out of line speaking to Rinoa, but she's never proven to be a security risk."

Xu continued, her face implacable as she said, "Quistis, the only real crime for a SeeD is treason. We're mercenaries; there is no leader we will not oppose, no cause we will not uphold, if the client can meet the price we set. The only cause we are obligated to take a stand on is the Sorceress; we exist to make certain she is not a threat. Rinoa is the Sorceress -- exactly how is Squall telling her how we operate not a threat to us?"

Quistis was taken aback, but couldn't really formulate a reply. Her reasoning was subjective, and she knew it.

"Quistis...I know Cid had great ideas for Garden at its founding, and we needed that vision to survive Ultimecia. But now we need to survive to Ultimecia, to the day she arises in the future. SeeD must be there to oppose her - and any corrupt sorceress that arises between now and then - and this is our overriding purpose. We must be able to rely on our own. I like Squall, and respect his leadership capabilities the same as every other SeeD in Garden. But that does not change the fact that what he did was treason. His loyalty is not to SeeD, Quistis. It is to Rinoa. Rinoa is the Sorceress. If he can serve as her Knight, and keep her from becoming a threat, I'll forbear punishment. But that doesn't mean I'm going to jump at his whims."

"I've got a message here from Squall," and Xu dropped a message sheet in front of Quistis, "saying that he's promised Seifer, Fujin and Raijin that they can return to Garden in exchange for turning coat on Alicia. They're cadets, not SeeDs, but they've still betrayed Garden more than once. Quistis - are you loyal to Garden, or to Squall?" And she turned around and left the office.

So that's what she's angry about, thought Quistis. Xu was one of her Card Club members, and she'd always thought they were friends. But her accusations made Quistis very uncomfortable. Possibly because there's more than a little truth to them, she thought sadly. She had been furious with Zell for almost warning off the traitor, but Xu was quite right in pointing out that Squall had done something just as bad as Mikhal not so long ago. Just because Rinoa was an ally of SeeD now, it didn't mean things would always be that way. Quistis vividly remembered the first sight of Rinoa's steel gray wings in the Infirmary, as she demanded the right to tear Alicia apart.

Thankfully, the threat Alicia presented had united SeeD against her - almost, anyway. Enough SeeDs had seen Squall carried off the Ragnarok that there had been no shortage of volunteers when the request came down to take on her stronghold. Very few people in Garden knew what Squall had done; only Zell, Kadowaki, Selphie, Xu, and Quistis herself. They'd kept it that way - Squall was a hero to most of Garden, and any public accusations would demoralize Garden severely.

But, what to do about it? Quistis stared at the terse message from Esthar. Seifer, too, had felt himself above the everyday rules of Garden. The difference, from Quistis' viewpoint, was that Seifer broke the rules because he didn't think they should apply to him. Squall had broken the rules for Rinoa.

Quistis sighed as she realized Xu was right. Whether he admitted it to himself or not, Squall's first loyalty was no longer to SeeD; it was to Rinoa. If she was involved, he could not be relied upon.

Which left the knotty problem of Quistis' own loyalty. If it came down to it - if Rinoa became the world's enemy, and Squall stayed with her - would she be able to bring herself to fight Squall? She'd spent most of her life at least halfway in love with him. The idea of snapping her whip at his throat, as she'd done to Mikhal...

No. She realized with a heavy heart that she could not. Xu was right to question her loyalty; if she were truly loyal to SeeD, and to its ideals, she should be able to take Squall's head off with her whip if he sided with an evil Sorceress. Ultimately, Squall held more of her loyalty than SeeD.

She stared at his message. Perhaps he, too, recognized the threat he might one day pose. For here was her answer - she might not have the heart to fight Squall, but Seifer and his posse would take the job with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts. And they were strong enough to do it. Not by themselves, perhaps, not yet -- but if she finished their training, made them SeeDs, gave them Guardian Forces...yes. She might dislike Seifer intensely, but both of her loyalties agreed that he should be admitted back into Garden. SeeD would need his skill if Rinoa went to the bad, and Squall had requested it.

She penned a reply, informing Squall that Garden would welcome Seifer and his posse back into Garden's fold.

Chapter 23

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