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Irvine was beginning to wonder whether Squall's knowledge of impending death was affecting his judgment. Letting Seifer and his posse back into Garden, all sins forgiven, struck him as an incredibly foolish thing to do. There was no reason at all to believe the trio wouldn't betray Garden yet a third time, as soon as the opportunity arose for them to do so. And while Seifer might lack the formal accolades of a SeeD, he had all of the training. There would be no way for Garden to hold him if he wanted to leave.

But Irvine wasn't in charge of any part of Garden, thank goodness - and come to think of it, neither was Squall. So it was just a SeeD's request, and hopefully it would be refused.

Yeah, right. Xu, Selphie, or Quistis would refuse a request made by Squall. Sure.

He dutifully passed the message on, along with a number of coded messages bearing Squall's privacy-lock, and eventually got his reply; Quistis, as Headmaster, would welcome the return of the posse to Garden's fold. Irvine nearly choked on the triple-strength coffee he was drinking to stay awake when he read it. Has the whole world gone nuts, he wondered, or is it just me?

He decided it wasn't just him when he got a private message from Zell. It simply read, Get me out of here. So, Zell wasn't happy with the way things were going either. He wondered if it was just Seifer being welcomed back with open arms, or if something else was going on that wasn't being mentioned. Well, it was an easy enough request to accommodate. Seifer and his posse had been checked over by Selphie, and their artificially created enhancements were definitely on the wane. None of the three wanted to be anywhere near Alicia, so Irvine had requested an Estharian plane to take them to Garden - which would probably 'dock' at a handy cliffside somewhere near Esthar City, when it got close enough. If the posse could take the plane to Garden, Zell could take it from Garden.

And once Zell was here, probably in a few hours, Irvine would get company and some answers. Comforted by that, Irvine dozed off.

"Presidential Palace, come in. Come in, Palace. Damnit, who's on duty over there?"

Irvine reached over and depressed the two-way communication switch. "Irvine Kinneas, SeeD, at your service," he said. "It being about five a.m., the tech staff aren't here yet."

"Irvine, get your friends over here as fast as you can," came the reply. "This is Laguna. I've only got a few minutes - Alicia's here, Odine's here, their goons are here and been here for days, we've been holding her off but we could really use backup. Get whoe-" and the line went dead.

Irvine knew better than to start shouting into the line for an answer; if Laguna was transmitting on a pirated band, Irvine's responses could give his location away. Instead he waited what seemed a reasonable interval, and when no continuation materialized he grabbed his gun and ran to wake Selphie.

* * * * * *

A muffled thumping woke them from their sleep. Squall, who had had to re-dress after a while to keep warm, went to investigate while Rinoa got herself attired. If there was one thing you could say in praise of the Presidential Palace, it was that it had the cleanest rooftop either of them had ever seen. Squall had made certain of it, though the window cleaners might have a fit in a few hours when they saw the grime streaked down the Palace's transparent walls.

The chill was already seeping back into his body, but Squall found he no longer minded. He had done all that he needed to do, save one thing only. If he could take Alicia down, then whatever else the day might have in store for him - be it death, or life, or merely change - was of no concern to him. He had done what he could.

The thumping was coming from the tool shed that Rinoa had so artfully placed in front of the stairwell back down into the Palace. Wrapped in the unusual feeling of serenity, the absurdity of someone standing at the top of a staircase trying to force the door open almost made Squall laugh. He could move it, of course. But Rinoa might not yet be dressed, and in any case he was loath for this quiet interlude to end.

When he came back, Rinoa was attired as she had been the previous night. He jerked a thumb over at the stairway down, and said, "Someone wants you to move the tool shed."

Rinoa laughed, saying, "We'd probably have been up soon anyway, it's getting awfully bright out." And she used her power to scoot the tool shed back to where it had been when she found it. Immediately the door burst open, and Irvine - who had been trying to force it - tumbled out onto the rooftop.

"Sorry to interrupt you," he said, "But we received a distress call from Odine's laboratory. Laguna's been trapped in there for days now, and he says Alicia's there, with Odine and a good number of hyped-up underlings. Transmission was cut off midsentence."

Squall sent a disapproving glance at Rinoa, who looked embarrassed. "I thought he could handle it," she said. "But if Alicia's there, we have got to get him out. She likes what she does to people. Did Kiros and Ward go with him?"

Irvine snapped, "I got hold of Kiros the morning he disappeared, but I haven't heard from him either. He told me not to worry until they'd been gone two or three days - which would make this morning the earliest I would've worried. But neither of 'em have seen action in a helluva long time - Ward either, if Kiros brought him."

Unspoken was the assertion that when those three had fought, they had often had the skills of Squall and his companions to draw on, thanks to Ellone's power. Squall sighed at his father's ineptitude, but didn't hesitate. No one deserved the things Alicia could do. And there were Seifer's words to consider: You're not going to move on until you've paid her back. "Come on," he said. "Time to get to work."

* * * * *

Down below, they were surprised to find Zell waiting with Selphie. He didn't look happy.

"Great to see ya up and about Squall," he said by way of hello, "but next time you want to invite the posse over couldja give me some warning?" He grimaced as he said, "I'm officially on leave now - no way am I gonna be on hand when those three get back into the dorms."

Squall leveled a tired look at Zell and said, "You're going to have to adjust sometime. We can't let them run around loose."

"So you think giving them SeeD credentials is gonna help?" asked Zell incredulously.

But Squall dismissed Zell's concerns with a wave of his hand. "You're going to have to trust me," he said.

And to this, Zell had no reply. Nor did Selphie and Irvine, who plainly had been counting on Zell to talk Squall out of that particular action. The five friends alerted the President's personal guards that Laguna was being held in Odine's lab, and that no one was to be permitted to leave that building until Laguna was safely back out. The five SeeDs would go in alone, and do whatever had to be done.

To this, the guards readily agreed; Odine's lab was not the sort of place any soldier felt comfortable going. It was the not knowing whether the fluid in the jar was someone's refreshment or a vial of nitroglycerine that did it. There was a very brief moment where they decided on a leader; as highest-ranking, Selphie would normally have had the job, but the consensus was that this was Squall's fight. Squall frowned.

"I'm not going as a SeeD," he said suddenly. "I'm going as Rinoa's Knight. Pick someone else."

"You're what?" asked Irvine, wide-eyed.

But Squall was unfazed. "I...need Rinoa to keep on my feet," he admitted at last. "She's been using her magic to hold back the Leviathan. I have to stay by Rinoa. And she's the one Alicia will be after in any case." Only Rinoa heard the declaration behind his words: I will need to be near you, if we must become Griever. Spending the night together had deepened the bond almost into telepathy.

"Guess that makes it me, anyway, then," said Selphie with a grin. "Good for me, I've been looking forward to having some fun." She looked over her shoulder at Irvine, who grinned back. He twirled Exeter cowboy fashion.

"Lock and load," he said. "Let's kick some ass."

The five SeeDs ran for the floater that would carry them to the lab.

* * * * * *

"There, you see how pleasant life can be if we work together?" said Alicia happily. "Now they will come here, and I will not have to make a premature display of my power in Esthar."

She leaned over Laguna's battered, glassy-eyed face, and gently tucked his long, gray-streaked black bangs behind his ear. "And I didn't even have to use my power to persuade you, did you know that? You are so like Squall, your minds tick over so clearly. You wanted to call for help so very much. I merely let you."

She stood up, and indicated to the henchmen she'd chosen as Laguna's guards that they should take up their positions. They were more to intimidate Laguna than anything else; he'd been taken down quickly with a lightning bolt to the back, and tied to a chair so firmly his circulation was almost cut off. She patted his still-dazed cheek gently, and headed back to where his companions were still causing trouble.

There, she pulled about half her men from their assault on the cafeteria, and told them to guard the front door. To Kiros and Ward, she called, "My friends do love to play, gentlemen, and you've given them a grand good time - but don't you think we should call a break now? I should hate to be forced to resort to unpleasantness towards your President; it does so damage delicate negotiations. I will shortly rule Galbadia; do you not think we would be better served using diplomatic channels?"

"Lady, the only things you're in charge of are Jack and Shit," snapped Kiros from behind a safe post. "And Jack'll be leaving town shortly." He punctuated this with a blindingly-fast Blood Pain, slicing one of her henchmen to bits before leaping back behind his post.

Alicia clapped her hands delightedly. "Quite impressive, Kiros, for a man your age," she said. Looking around, she smiled at the angry henchmen that remained. "Pity it doesn't seem to bother the others much. Well, if you don't want to talk, I have other matters to attend to. Good luck getting back to your little closet..." and she blew him a kiss and strolled off, delicately avoiding the bloody puddle that had been one of her henchmen.

Kiros, trapped in a tightening ring of powered-up, pissed-off bouncer-types, raised his katal defensively and hoped like hell Ward could get him out of this...

* * * * * * *

Squall crouched in front of Rinoa so that she could stand behind him and place her hands on his neck. Zell watched curiously as they both closed their eyes for a moment and went very still, then Squall seemed to relax. When he nodded, Rinoa withdrew her hands. She gave him a worried look.

It's getting worse, isn't it, she thought at him.

He raised an eyebrow at her, asking why she was trying mind speech, but nodded. "By the hour," he said aloud.

"You two are worse than a cell phone conversation," said Zell. "What was that about?"

Rinoa said, "The Leviathan effect makes Squall cold. If I touch him, I can use my power to drive it back for a while. But it's having less of an effect as time goes on."

Squall shot her a look that clearly said what he thought of her sharing his problems with everyone, but Rinoa simply nodded at Zell. "They're your friends too," she said pointedly.

"We're almost there," Squall replied. He stared at his gloved hands for a moment, then drew off the left one and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. Griever shone in the morning sunlight, but what disturbed him was seeing his fingers looking more and more blue. Rinoa was right; her power was having less and less of an effect.

When the floater stopped at the lab, everyone bustled off. All around were Estharian cyborg-soldiers, rarely used outside of Esthar and only in very dangerous missions.

Just how dangerous became evident when they set foot on the walkway to the lab's front doors. A great wind suddenly blew up, and nearly blew them off the walkway - a dangerous thing, since they were a few hundred feet up.

Rinoa called on her Sorceress' magic, steel gray wings unfolding toward the sky as Squall stood protectively in front of her, Lionheart drawn and at the ready. She cast a countering Tornado, resulting in still air. The moment she did, Squall raised his left fist and used his water-strike on the doors - blowing them off their hinges.

This was the cue for the others, who ran for the door under cover of protective gunfire - courtesy of Irvine.

Two men stepped out, one on either side of the door. Irvine shot at them, but his bullets were deflected by protective magic. He swore as he fished for his AP ammo, while Zell and Selphie charged in. Rinoa and Squall used their distraction to race through the doors.

A sheet of flame poured out at them, and though Squall quickly swung Lionheart to cut the fire as he had when Seifer attacked him, this was much more powerful. He cried out and fell back - where Rinoa was waiting with a curaga.

"What, no word of hello?" came a sweetly melodic voice. "And I thought we had grown so close, too." Another sheet of flame roared out, and this time Squall countered with his water-strike. It did not kill the flame, but it did keep it away from him. He winced at the flames' nearness - heat he might need and welcome, but open flame seared unbearably with the Leviathan in his system.

Alicia stepped into view, more men just visible behind her. In one hand she held a large fireball. "Hello again, my precious moon," she said, as though greeting a lover.

Squall's mind froze for an instant, the sound of Alicia's gentle voice bringing all of the horrors she had visited upon him out of the cage where he had penned them. He lost sight of where he was, who he was with, who he was. In his mind he was in that room again - only there were no chains holding him back.

As it had been the last time Alicia separated his mind from his body, he reacted automatically. He charged forward, leaving Rinoa's side, Lionheart's glowing blade spinning in a wide circle.

Alicia simply stepped back, and let her henchmen absorb the fury of the charge. Wind and lightning lanced out at Squall, and he reacted to the one by bending forward, and to the latter by using Lionheart's blade as a deflector. Alicia sent out a water-strike of her own while he was thus occupied, lancing it at Rinoa.

Rinoa countered with Firaga, and cast Triple on herself. Then she threw Bio at Alicia and the henchmen Squall was currently fighting. The men groaned, and Squall finished them off. But Alicia simply shrugged the spell away.

"Rinoa, did your father never tell you it is impolite to poison your host? You are a guest in my house." And Alicia made a gesture, as though throwing something.


Rinoa's powers were useless, now. She raised her Shooting Star defensively, and ran for the nearest doorway.

Squall, rising from the bodies of the henchmen he'd just taken out, was just about to follow her when Alicia's thoughts invaded his mind.

Did you think that because you could walk, you were no longer broken? came the gentle words into Squall's thoughts, almost pitying. Let me show you how wrong that assumption was.

Squall began to tremble as he felt Alicia in his mind, touching the raw place that was the break in his mind - the place he had to avoid even thinking of lest he be drawn into madness. Alicia touched that darkness, and with ruthless strength shoved him into it.

Squall fell to his knees, hands clutching Lionheart's hilt as its tip bore into the floor, though Squall was not aware of it. Alicia smiled down at him as he trembled, amused that he had fallen into the pose Knights were supposed to use when swearing fealty. She looked up and saw Rinoa watching from her doorway, unable to offer any words of comfort through the silence that bound her, and unable to run to Squall's side when all of her energy was involved in using the Shooting Star to deflect the henchmen's attacks.

Alicia smiled cheerfully at her. "He never did get around to swearing fealty to you, did he, Rinoa?" she laughed. "Not that he ever would, of course. Even broken, he still has far too much pride. I will enjoy making him my Knight, and I will have him kneel before me and swear fealty in a great parade in Deling City, as the nations of Galbadia and Esthar are joined."

Rinoa, silenced, could offer no reply. Then she heard a noise behind her.

Laguna was tied very firmly to a chair, and was just rousing from unconsciousness. Casting a quick, agonized look at Squall kneeling helpless before Alicia, Rinoa backed into the room and shut the door.

"These guys can punch, can't they," he groaned as Rinoa used the edges of her Wishing Star to cut his bonds. "Good thing you guys showed up. They figured it was better to knock me out and keep the two goons mobile." Laguna rubbed his wrists and tried to get the feeling back in his fingers, then looked at Rinoa curiously. "Not very talkative today, are you?"

Rinoa pursed her lips together in an annoyed look as she pointed at her throat.

"Oh," said Laguna. "Yeah, I guess she could do that. Where's Squall? Is he okay? I think we found something important but I had to hide it -" he was interrupted by Rinoa stomping her foot and shoving his gun - set on a nearby console - into his hands. She grabbed one arm and all but dragged him to the door.

When she opened it, the only thing he said was, "Oh."

It was amazing how fast he moved once he'd been shut up. It was less than a second later that he sent a spray of bullets into the room, just over Squall's kneeling head. Although this did nothing to hurt Alicia, it did annoy her exceedingly. And it took out the henchmen near her.

Alicia backed away, but her cheerful expression had fallen into one of annoyance. "That was a foolish thing to do, President Loire," she said quietly. She backed away from Squall toward a more defensible position, but as she did so she drew a dagger and threw it with perfect precision into Squall's stomach. Locked in his mental nightmare, Squall did not even flinch, though the wound could prove lethal.

Laguna moved to go to Squall, but Rinoa held him back - indicating he should stay where he was and cover her instead. Reluctantly, he nodded and started checking around for any signs of his companions, sending sprays of bullets into any grouping of Alicia's henchmen.

Thus protected, Rinoa ran to Squall. Silenced, she could not heal him - but there was still a chance. Hoping Laguna could keep Alicia and her boys away and busy for a bit, she placed her hands around Squall's neck - the closest bare skin she could reach.

I am here, she sent to him. You are not alone. She could feel the darkness, the fear and pain and hopelessness that echoed through his mind, but she denied it. She used all her strength to send waves of unconditional love to counter it. It did not matter that he needed her help. It did not matter that he had failed to kill Alicia, or free himself of her chains, or reach the flower field. She knew that he loved her whether or not he would say it, and she returned that love completely.

In the mind, all time is subjective. After a while, the darkness retreated and Squall raised his head, his left hand moving automatically to the dagger in his stomach.

One chance, Rinoa thought. Willing to try? The question carried a number of nuances and images.

Always, came the response, edged in an unusual serenity.

Squall let Rinoa enter his mind, and in a voice that was not wholly his own said, "Esuna."

Rinoa grinned and stepped back as he wobbled to his feet and in one quick jerk pulled the dagger. "Curaga," she said, and Squall was whole.

"Have either of you seen Kiros or Ward?" called Laguna from his doorway. Both of them shook their heads, but weren't given time to worry.

Selphie, Zell, and Irvine burst through the doors, Irvine saying, "All clear outside. Man, where does she find so many idiots?"

"She's had to have been making henchmen in twenty-four hour shifts," agreed Zell. "Gotta be at least fifty out there, and probably more in here. And that's on top of the little army she had going at her base."

"Not so many in here," said one tired voice, and Kiros and Ward stepped into view. "She got Laguna this morning, and me 'n' Ward here have been taking her people out left and right ever since to get him back."

Rinoa moved to heal them; both Kiros and Ward were covered in blood - and no small portion of it their own. "Where is Alicia?" she asked.

"I'm thinking we're not gonna like the answer to that," said Irvine. "Anyone seen Odine yet?"

His misgivings were accepted by the others as they realized that no, no one had.

"Anyone thinking she's probably making more powered-up soldiers?" asked Irvine, in a tone that said 'please prove me wrong'.

But no one disagreed.

"You SeeDs are really quite intelligent," said Alicia as she came into view. "I shall have to remember to hire you as my personal bodyguard." She looked to Squall. "And you walk again," she smiled. "Has she hired you, then, and are you under contract? Surely I can outbid her. My family is much stronger than Caraway's."

"I am bought and paid for," said Squall seriously, much to the surprise of his friends.

But Alicia cocked her head to one side as she looked at him, and said, "You are, aren't you. Pity you sold yourself so cheaply."

"You mind telling me what the hell's going on and why we aren't beating this bitch down?" remarked Zell offhandedly, as though he wasn't expecting an answer.

Alicia did not take kindly to the interruption, and sent a sheet of ice-shrapnel flying at everyone in the room. Rinoa was able to call Reflect on herself, Squall, and Laguna, but Ward, Kiros and the SeeDs hit the floor.

Squall turned to Kiros and said, "Get him out of here."

"No," said Laguna. "I'm not going. I'm needed here."

Squall turned to look at his father, incredulous contempt on his face. "You almost got killed here. You have duties as the President. Get out of here, and leave this to us." But there was a slight slur to his words, as though he couldn't quite get his tongue to work.

Laguna noticed it. "Damn it, Squall, you're running out of time. We've got to take care of this now, and for that you need all the help you can get." He raised his gun and moved to join the SeeDs. Kiros shrugged at Squall, as if to admit defeat, and drew his katal as he followed his friend. Ward didn't even hesitate as he joined them. Alicia was having a hard time holding so many back, but she was managing.

Rinoa put her hand in Squall's ungloved left one, and started to pour magic into him. But he shook his head.

"It's not working any more," he said slowly. "Laguna had that much right, at least. You'll need your power to defend yourself, and keep the others alive."

Before she could stop him, Squall raised Lionheart and charged Alicia, using all of the gifts of strength and speed Leviathan gave him to dodge the ice, the fireballs, and the lightning bolts that Alicia was pouring out. The moment he entered the field of fire, Irvine and Laguna quit shooting. So everyone had a clear view as he dove for Alicia, swinging Lionheart in a stroke that should have taken her head from her shoulders.

When it did not - failed even to bite into her flesh - it was all Squall could do to leap clear.

"Foolish mercenaries," chuckled Alicia. "Did you think I would come here unprepared? I have more power than any of you flowing through my veins; even the Sorceress cannot match me. If I had thought you might be a threat, I would not have come at all. I have servants enough."

"Not any more," said Kiros grimly.

"These?" Alicia waved a hand at the carnage all around them. "These are not my servants. These are merely hired thugs, used to test our theories once we saw what happened to our pretty test subject." She smiled at Squall. "We knew before you found him that he would die," she said. "And knowing that, we did not pursue. I sent Seifer after him because Seifer wished to go, and we wished to see which might prove the stronger."

So quickly that her hands were a blur, Alicia used an ice spear to pin Zell to a wall. Kiros, Ward, and Laguna were felled by the forks of a lightning bolt, and Irvine and Selphie keeled over retching when she used Doomtrain's poisons on them.

"I do not need the powers of the Sorceress on my side to win," she said to Squall and Rinoa. "I wished only to have you out of my way. The people of Galbadia have such strong feelings about Sorceresses. But now I find that my little moon is related to the ruler of Esthar, and I see a new opportunity. I will rule more of the world than any empress since the fall of Centra."

She smiled, and cast Siren's silencing powers again. "A pity you have to die for that to happen, Rinoa," she said. "You did throw such wonderful parties."

Squall had been moving back towards Rinoa throughout Alicia's speech, and gave her his hand.

What now?
I'm curious as to who her 'servants' are.
Do we merge?
Not yet.

Alicia cocked her head to one side again, as if listening. "Fascinating," she said. "You have learned a way to shut my power out. I would have this studied, if I thought it would matter in half an hour's time."

She stood back from the door she had been guarding, and visible through it were huge creatures that both Squall and Rinoa remembered vividly. Huge insectoid creatures in colorful pairs.


"These are my servants," said Alicia, and disappeared through the door.

Squall looked around; Irvine and Selphie were gasping, but Selphie had a look of concentration on her face that told Squall those two would soon be fine. Zell was fiercely pounding on the ice bolt that had him pinned to the wall; probably trying to break it off so that he could slide free. The wound was bad, but Selphie could probably heal him too. Laguna, Kiros and Ward had only been stunned; assuming the Propagators didn't get to them, they'd wake up and be fine.

Which just left himself and Rinoa. The chill in his limbs was reaching the point of pain; he knew this meant time was very short. He was close to frostbite, and he couldn't trust his grip on Lionheart's hilt to remain firm. Slowly he sheathed the gunblade, watching his hands to be sure he got it secured in its sheath. Once that was done, he met Rinoa's curious stare as he removed his right glove and took her hands into his own frozen ones.

If you want to try, it must be now.
I feel it. Not even hours - enough time to take care of this and get back to the palace?
I'll have lost the feeling in my hands and feet inside half an hour. If I'm to be any use to you the choice must be made now. The water strike can probably take down the propagators, but I would not be close enough to you to join if it became needed.
We don't know that the water strike would hurt them, and the others aren't in much shape to help. Yes - it must be now. But not with the ring; not yet.

Squall looked at her curiously, but nodded when he picked up her reasoning. He pulled Griever from his finger and put it in his pocket as Rinoa moved to stand behind him, her arms wrapping around his waist.

This was surrender, but it was not the yielding to overwhelming pressure that Alicia had forced onto him. It was union far greater than the previous night's exploration, mind and body and soul open to another and melding with it. The ocean-chill of the Leviathan effect faded into insignificance as Squall became completely aware of Rinoa - everything she thought, felt, knew - and she became aware of him.

Great indeed must have been the regard that long-dead Sorceress had felt for Leonhart, to wish to share this with him. Squall felt himself surrounded by Rinoa, even as he surrounded her in a wondrous paradox.

I didn't know it was your birthday, came Rinoa's thought.

I was supposed to tell you? came Squall's amused reply.

Here we become a guardian force, laughed Rinoa, and you still have a long way to go understanding being a human.

Squall could not be offended; he knew what Rinoa meant, just as she knew he'd had plenty of reasons for not wanting his friends to know which day was his birthday.

They looked together out at the world, and saw the world had changed.

* * * * * *

To those who were conscious at the time, it seemed like Squall looked briefly at the approaching propagators, then sheathed Lionheart as he moved to stand in front of Rinoa. When she put her arms around him, their bodies began to glow until their outlines were lost in the brightness. Everyone saw Rinoa's gray Sorceress wings grow in size and adjust in shape, as the brightness in the center took on a new form, shifting in utter silence. When the light faded, a huge creature dominated the room. The SeeDs recognized it instantly, and their look of recognition and fear wiped the stunned awe from the faces of Laguna, Kiros and Ward.

The creature was a leonine humanoid, with heavy gray fur and multiple red horns that formed a natural headdress. On its elbows were natural blood-red swords, its tail tipped in a silvery curved blade as its great hands ended in sharp claws. Its feline mouth split in a wide, sharp-fanged grin as it leaped for the propagators, arm-blades, claws, teeth and tail-blade each doing their share of bloody work.

Selphie wrenched her eyes away from the carnage and cast Full-Cure on everyone in the room, handing Irvine a Remedy as she downed one herself. Time enough to wonder just what the hell Squall and Rinoa had done when the fight was over and everyone was safe.

Laguna was watching the leonine beast with an unreadable expression. Kiros placed a hand on his arm, and said, "Whatever they did, they don't need us now. Let's get back before Alicia decides to make personally certain you're dead."

Laguna thought about it, and nodded slowly. "They might be able to change back, though," he said. "Let's get the folder back to the palace just in case. And I want to make sure Odine doesn't get away with what he's caused."

"You're sounding smarter all the time, my man," said Kiros as Ward rumbled agreement. The three said their farewells to the SeeDs and limped out of the lab.

The SeeDs, for their part, weren't entirely sure what they should be doing. Griever was Squall and Rinoa? Their friends were a servant of Ultimecia? Should they help it take on the propagators, or hope it died?

"We've still gotta take on Alicia," said Zell. "I saw her place in Centra - she's gotta go down."

"Yeah...but we can't take her," said Irvine slowly. "Squall was stronger and faster than any of us with that Leviathan stuff in him, and he bounced right off her, didn't make a scratch."

"We can take on the propagators, though," said Selphie. "That'd go fight Alicia. And it's not like they're breezing through. If they can take Alicia we want them to do it fast."

"And then what?" asked Zell. "Do we kill them, too, for being Griever?" There was a bitterness in his voice that the others heard, but didn't understand. "They're fighting propagators and Alicia, and they probably saved our necks doing it. I don't care who they've turned out to be, they're on our side."

"Leave that till after the enemy's dead," said Irvine. He loaded more Pulse Ammo into Exeter. "Lock and load, people, lock and load."

The three SeeDs nodded, and leaped into the fray. Griever turned its head when it noticed them fighting the propagators, and made a deep growling noise that might have been a purr. It nodded its head and bounded down the stairs.

Alicia and Odine were in a small lab, behind a heavy and heavily secured door. Through the observation window, Griever could see Odine working frantically, preparing some sort of compound as Alicia paced.

Griever tore the door from its hinges, lion-gold eyes flashing in fury as it roared, "Shockwave Pulsar!" in a voice like three voices together.

* * * * * *

They pulled Odine and Alicia into a no-place, not quite sure how they did it but knowing that they could. Mostly the fighting had been left to Squall, who had more extensive training in hand-to-hand than did Rinoa. But as the minutes wore on, a new personality was being forged in the common ground between them, and it was this new personality that took control when Odine and Alicia came into view.

Squall had been afraid with that numbing fear that Rinoa knew came from being Alicia's prisoner. Wrapped in Rinoa's mind, however, he was not paralyzed. In that moment of fear/comfort, Griever had called on the Shockwave Pulsar, and the two lovers were filled with awe.

It looked completely different from the Guardian Force's point of view. It was a whole universe. Looking around, they saw themselves as themselves, Squall and Rinoa holding hands. Other pairs were there also, giving the newcomers a friendly wave. Around each pair was a ghostly image of the Guardian Force they were seen as.

While they were gawking, the Griever-personality blasted Alicia and Odine into charred remnants with Shockwave Pulsar, and returned to the real world - dragging them with it.

Well, that was interesting.
Yes, came the amused response. I never would have thought Shiva was an eighty-year-old woman and a teenager.
Looks don't matter. Love does.

They blinked their eyes and realized the fight was over. Alicia and Odine were char, and their friends were standing in the doorway and on the stairs eyeing them warily, which meant the propagators were destroyed.

Do you know how to undo this?
The same way we did it, I suppose.

Irvine, Selphie, and Zell watched as Griever began to glow, slowly shrinking and re-forming into the familiar shapes of Squall and Rinoa. They staggered, plainly exhausted, but only Zell moved to offer a supporting arm. He steadied them both as Squall put on his ring and his gloves.

"Cool trick," he said. "You two okay?"

Rinoa smiled tiredly, but Squall's face looked very carefully blank. "We're fine, Zell," she said. "Both of us." And to this, Squall nodded.

"No more Leviathan?" said Irvine. "Great! Laguna will be thrilled."

Squall leveled a look at Irvine that plainly said Laguna could drop off the nearest cliff, and walked tiredly toward the steps leading out. When Zell would have offered support, Rinoa shook her head. "Leave him, Zell," she said sadly. "You have no idea what he's just been through."

Zell looked at her and replied, "The same thing as you, is my guess," but he dropped the subject.

It was a very quiet group that made its way back to the Palace.

Chapter 24

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