Chapter 5 Leviathan
Seifer and his posse were waiting for them when they arrived at the cockpit, arms crossed over his chest and plainly angry. "I don't know what you three think you were playing at, but this is a mission. You got that? We," and here he unfolded one arm to indicate his posse, "are going to hike it to Esthar so there's no announcement or record of our arrival. But for us to check Chicken-Wuss' network we need to know where the fuck it is. So we're waiting on you. Spill."
Zell's fists clenched automatically; he hated Seifer's nickname for him and Seifer knew it. Which was, of course, why he used it at every opportunity. Even knowing Seifer did it just to push him, it took all his self-control not to punch Seifer through the windscreen. With two GFs backing him, he could probably do that without breaking a sweat.
Don't let him goad you, came Griever's voice. Look at his face; he's trying to get you off this assignment.
Zell looked, and saw what Griever was pointing out; Seifer's expression was his usual condescending mask, but his cat-green eyes were watching Zell carefully. So he took a deep breath, and forced his hands to unclench, focusing on the still-unfamiliar weight of the Griever ring on his left hand. He wouldn't let Laguna down. Or Griever, either.
"Let me get the names and places down for you," he said in a creditable imitation of a calm voice. "The code word is 'platinum'. They have to say it in the third sentence they say to you, and it has to be the third word in your reply. Vice versa if you're hunting them out. Just so you know, none of them know each other." He hunted around for some paper, finally ripping a page out of the Ragnarok's logbook, and quickly wrote down the names and usual locations of his contacts. He had to write small to fit them all on it, and Seifer was tapping his foot impatiently by the time he'd finished.
"You just couldn't do this on the trip over, could you Dincht," snapped Seifer as Zell finally handed the list over. "Hyne, you could at least learn to write faster." He turned to his posse. "We have what we need. Let's get out of here. Fifty gil says this turns out to be an inside job, and Chicken-wuss here just can't keep a network going." The posse moved for the lift to leave the cockpit.
That was it. Zell found himself moving for Seifer, even over the rising growl of Griever in his mind - but it was Irvine's hand that clamped down on his shoulder, and Irvine's voice hissing in his ear, "Don't lose it now - they're almost gone." And then the opportunity was lost; the posse were out of the cockpit and the exit ramp was opening out on the wide Esthar plains. Zell punched a handy chair and tore it from the bolts that held it to the floor, wishing it were Seifer's head.
"You may not still be a lousy housekeeper, Zell, but you do still have a lousy temper," said Irvine as he checked the damage. "Hyne, you couldn't punch a door or something, could you? You have any idea how Selphie's gonna feel, you tearing up the Ragnarok?"
Zell blew out a long breath and flopped into another chair. "Sorry, Irv," he said. "Seifer just pisses me off. I swear if there's a bigger asshole on this planet I've never met him. And I hope I never do; Seifer's pill enough. Tell Selphie I'll cover the repairs." He stood up again. "That reminds me - why did you want this mission, anyway? You and Selphie are still together, aren't you?"
Irvine looked up from his inspection of the damaged chair. "Of course," he said matter-of-factly. "She'd have come herself if she could have, but Garden Masters aren't supposed to leave Garden and she's still training her replacement. So I came for two reasons; for her, because she really liked Laguna and she wants to know what happened - and for you. We knew Seifer'd end up getting on your case. I got leadership rank just for this mission, so you wouldn't have to deal with him directly. Besides - Xu wanted the best for this. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I'm one of the best there is." He grinned.
"Selphie's stepping down?" asked Zell, surprised. "I thought she liked the job?"
Irvine hauled the broken chair off to a corner, evidently giving up on the idea of fixing it. "She does," he said conversationally, "But she hasn't gotten to see the outside of Garden in years. Me, I can take a break occasionally, go out on assignments like this one. But she can't. Selphie's good with numbers, and she's done a lot of good things for Garden, but she's not the sort to stay caged forever. Last spring we found a guy who's almost as good, who doesn't mind the restrictions placed on a Garden Master's movements. He's willing to take the job since it's got a low being-shot-at factor attached, so she's been training him. Another year, and she'd have been free."
"And what happens to Quistis, then?"
Irvine shrugged. "Quistis likes her job just fine," he said. "She sees people every day, and gets out every year during the field exams. She never wanted anything but to teach. And with Squall gone, she hasn't really been much into missions."
That, Zell could believe. Quistis was happiest at the top of her totem pole; there was no higher position than to be a Garden Administrator. A Garden Administrator could speak frankly with any head-of-state out there.
"Oh yeah," Irvine said. "Forgot to tell you - the other two Gardens, they're back online."
"They're what?" asked Zell. "But Galbadia Garden was gutted, and Trabia Garden was bombed. I thought they were left alone?"
"Yeah, but that's what Selphie's been doing with her power as Balamb Garden Master. She's had her hands on the purse strings of SeeD for ten years. The first thing she did was set up funds for the rehabilitation of the two destroyed Gardens." Irvine grinned. "You might have hid under a rock, but SeeD has been very, very visible in the world. The first SeeD instructors will be heading for Trabia and Galbadia Gardens at the end of this year."
Zell couldn't help grinning at Irvine's evident happiness. He had every right to be happy; he had come from Galbadia Garden before Edea had it gutted, and Selphie had transferred from Trabia before it was bombed. Now they would be able to go home. "So, which Garden will you two be living in?" he asked, thinking of that. "Helluva commute, Galbadia to Trabia."
"Trabia," said Irvine without hesitation. "I had lots of friends at Galbadia, but they wouldn't be too happy to see me with Selphie. I'm just glad to know it's there. Besides - they've been rehabilitated so that they fly, too. They won't be in the places they were before once they're fully online, so I won't really be missing any scenery. Balamb Garden still rules the roost, and Xu has pretty much stuck to Squall's idea of keeping the Gardens out of the nations' territories."
"So...will the other Gardens have Administrators too? Or just call back to Balamb?" Zell was trying to picture multiple flying Gardens canvassing the seas.
"They'll have a Garden Master and a Headmaster each," said Irvine, "But there's only ever one Commander. SeeD has always been Balamb Garden's pride and joy. Come on - the posse's out of sight, out of mind, and hopefully not out of danger by a long shot. We're headed north anyway - I'll swing you by Trabia Garden on the way to Shumi Village."
* * * * * * * *
Trabia Garden was beautiful as they flew over it, low and slow so Zell had time to get a good eyeful. Where Balamb Garden was blue and white and smoothly rounded, the same colors were made sharp and piercing when applied to Trabia; the tropical became arctic. It looked like an ice palace within the snowy plains, a jewel amid the mountains that surrounded it on almost all sides. It couldn't possibly have been so beautiful originally, and Zell felt a little of his guilt in his part in the original's destruction fade away as he looked at it now. In the northern seas, Trabia Garden would look like a carved iceberg lit with its own internal starlight. The lights were on as they flew over it, construction crews working on the interior most likely.
"Selphie worked out the design," Irvine commented from the pilot's seat. Bella was working as co-pilot; she'd already known about the Gardens, and she was enjoying the look of pure delight on Zell's face. "She modeled it mostly on the original Trabia, but she threw in a few touches to make it unique. Galbadia's got a few touches like that too, but Selphie wanted this one to be beautiful."
"Remind me to tell her thanks," said Zell. He'd wondered if he could ever live his part in Trabia's destruction down. But it would be all right now.
No one ever blamed you, Zell, came Rinoa's soft voice from his thoughts. It was a mistake anyone could have made. And look at the good that came of it; Selphie has made it a more beautiful place than any other in the world.
Yeah, said Zell, but it was my big mouth that got it bombed in the first place. If I hadn't said we were all from Garden...
What's done is done, Zell, growled Griever. Let it go.
Zell dropped it; if Griever spoke, it meant Squall and Rinoa agreed. He didn't have to agree with them, but it wouldn't do any good to argue. Hey, does this mean we're friends again? Griever hadn't spoken to him since Leviathan had joined them; Zell had been starting to worry.
Leviathan is not happy, said Griever. But it won't interfere with us; we are stronger. However, if you wish to make use of Leviathan's powers, you're going to have to deal with it yourself.
I'm not sure I like the sound of that. 'Deal with it' how?
You can agree never to speak to it again, and you will be allowed to make use of its powers in the same way you always have; make your request and call on it. Or you can deal with it directly, as you do with us - but you'll have to earn the privilege.
You're freaking me out here, said Zell, frowning. What the hell could I do to 'earn the privilege'? Honestly I was just trying to be polite.
We know, said Griever. But Leviathan is very old, and has its own views on the relationship between humankind and the Guardian Forces. To earn the privilege we would take you into eternity, and you would deal with the true Leviathan. We're not sure what they have in mind, but it wouldn't be easy. On the other hand, if you win, your physical capabilities would be greatly increased, particularly when it comes to magic use.
Zell thought that over. It would be interesting to see what the 'true Leviathan' looked like. And for that matter, what Squall and Rinoa looked like, over there. Is this something I could tell Irvine about, so he could strike a deal with Tonberry if he wanted? Or is this a one shot deal just for me?
...Zell, we might not have made this clear enough to you. If you take the challenge Leviathan offers and you fail, you die.
... Oh. That certainly threw a wrench into things. Still, it sounded like an option more than one SeeD would opt to take; any edge in a combat and all that. I'll let Irvine and Bella know, I think, he said. There is that standing order and all, after all.
As you will. But don't plan on sleeping very well tonight.
Zell could pry no more out of Griever; it radiated an aura of concern, of the sort a well-meaning person might have when they've just offered a monkey the key to a banana plantation. He looked out the window and saw that they had completely passed Trabia by. Pity; he'd hoped to see it from the back too. He turned to the others. "Hey, guys?" he said. "You remember Xu's orders about unusual GF behavior?"
"Yeah?" said Irvine, as Bella took the controls. "You want this in the official report?"
"Er, not Griever, no," he said. "But Leviathan's kinda pissed at me."
Irvine spun in the pilot's seat so he could see Zell more clearly. "You want me to tell Seifer that Leviathan's ticked at you?" he asked curiously. "Is this 'shoot Zell in the foot day'? He'd be all over that."
"Look, listen willya?" said Zell, exasperated. "I junctioned Leviathan, all right? Same as always. But I'd got used to talking to Griever, so I said 'hello' to it. That just pissed it off, it seems. Now it's offering me a deal; I can promise never to talk to it again and I'll get to use it in the standard way, or I can deal with it directly, the way I do with Griever. Thing is, I'd have to earn the right, and if I fail the test it's lethal."
"So what's the advantage to dealing directly, besides spacing out at odd moments when your GF talks to you?"
Zell grinned. "Well, for one, you don't forget things. The GF reminds you of anything you might have forgotten. And two, they're a lot older than people - well except for Griever. They can tell you about things that used to be, offer advice..."
"You are not taking any test that could kill you," said Bella firmly. "You already deal directly with a GF; you deal with Griever. You don't need two Guardian Forces arguing in your head."
Irvine leaned back, thinking. "I'll make the report to Xu that Leviathan made the offer, and leave the bits about Griever out," he said. "But you're going to have to take the test so that I can detail what dealing directly is and what the test is, without mentioning Griever. This would be too valuable a tool to SeeD; Xu would want to know. Do you think you can handle it?"
Zell shrugged. "No idea. Even Griever doesn't know what it would be, but it doesn't think it'll be easy."
"Tell ya what. We'll land outside Shumi Village and stay in the Ragnarok tonight. If you want to take the test, let me know and I'll make the report tomorrow after we know how it goes. If you don't, I'll leave out any info that Griever told you, and we'll let Xu decide whether to ask for volunteers."
Zell thought about it, as the Shumi Village's dome came into view. On the one hand, Bella was exactly right - he didn't need to take any sort of test because he already had the advantages from Griever. But on the other...with Griever's backing he might have a better chance than other people might - he was definitely more comfortable with the active presence of a Guardian Force than any other SeeD would be.
And...there was Bella. He was beginning to realize that Seifer had been thinking about this a long, long time when he'd chosen Bella as the successor for Griever's junction. Griever couldn't be officially known to SeeD until every one of the orphanage gang was dead - everyone that had fought Griever in that distant future. Zell had made them promise not to tell Xu, but eventually it would be known. If any of his friends were alive, they could well be ordered to fight Griever and try to kill it or weaken it, in order to deny Ultimecia a possible weapon. None of them would want to fight Squall and Rinoa in any form.
It was to fend off that fight, as much as his own dislike of Seifer or Quistis' policies, that had kept Zell away from Garden so long. But what of Bella? She was SeeD, but she wasn't one of the orphanage gang. At least, not to start. And she didn't know Squall and Rinoa, so when she got the junction she'd have no reference point - no way to understand the personality of the voice in her head. It was with Bella that Griever would become known to Garden. She'd only ever seen Squall at a distance when he'd lived in Garden, and Rinoa she'd only met briefly once or twice...would Griever even speak to her?
But if Garden knew how to talk to the GFs before she accepted that junction...she wouldn't be unusual. She could claim Griever was some other GF, or just junction two as Zell was now doing. She wouldn't have to reveal its presence unless she wanted to, unless she chose to. She probably would; she was a loyal SeeD, and didn't have any leverage from having helped to Save The World. It was Zell's job, as he saw it, to make sure none of his current problems landed on her. He had to begin paving the way so that Griever could become known to SeeD at large. The idea of Bella having to live in virtual exile - over something he'd left undone - was too much. If she chose it, fine - but she shouldn't be forced.
He turned to Irvine, and said, "Make the report tomorrow morning - I'll take the test. Tonight, so we'll have this off our plate when we say hi to the Shumi."
"Zell..." said Bella. "You don't have to, you know that..."
He shook his head. "No, I do - really. Look...there's some stuff I gotta explain to you, okay? Will you...I mean, would you...sorta keep an eye on me tonight? Irvine could probably keep watch."
"Hey, I'm supposed to be the leader here," sighed Irvine, but shook his head. "You mean you want to talk to her alone. Man, I don't know why I'm doing this. All right - head on down to the sleeping quarters, and I'll stay up here." He put a hand on Zell's shoulder, the greeting of a comrade. "You watch yourself, buddy," he said. "It's too soon to go down for good."
Zell tried to grin, but in truth he was getting jumpy. "I can take whatever the water snake wants to throw at me," he said. "I've been fighting Kiros for the past ten years." He draped an arm over Bella's shoulder, and headed for the lift down to the sleeping deck with her in tow.
Irvine tipped his hat back, and crossed his arms over his chest. "You know, Squall," he said to the empty room, "You're a hard friend to have, sometimes." Shaking his head, he sat down at the communications console, and began writing a private letter to Selphie.
* * * * * * * * *
Zell sat down on the bed's edge, and took Bella's hands in his own. "Look," he began, "I don't know how this is gonna sound, but - you know I have Griever, right?"
Bella nodded. "Yes, I remember you mentioning that the night of the party. What does that have to do with Leviathan?"
Zell scratched at the back of his neck, nervous. "Well...thing is...Xu can't know about Griever. Not ever. The next Commander, maybe. But Xu doesn't...didn't...like what Squall did. So she wouldn't like hearing that he's sorta still around - especially if he's still around in the shape of a GF that we remember pretty well. She'd want him...them...dead. Now...the gang knows I have Griever, and they're not going to fight me. But...well...I won't live forever, right? So, if something happens to me, I have to hand Griever on. Or else it'll go into this ring," and he pulled his Ergheiz glove off so she could see it, "and the next person who puts it on would have to fight it. Well, Seifer knew about Griever and agreed to keep quiet if he could pick the person I'd have to hand it on to...you know, if things went bad."
Bella's hazel eyes were steady, and she sat very still as she said, "He picked me, didn't he. He picked me so you'd have to do this. Can I refuse?"
"Well, yeah," said Zell, "But then Griever goes into the ring, and we have to fight it to keep it on our side. It doesn't want to have to do that, Bella. It wants to help SeeD. It just can't do that openly yet. People still remember Squall and Rinoa. So, I gotta tell you. If something happens to me, you've gotta take Griever's junction as well as Leviathan. And you gotta keep Griever secret from everyone - not even the orphanage gang should know you have it. Just Seifer, since he picked you. When people don't remember Squall and Rinoa so clear anymore, you can bring out Griever. Okay?"
"I'm not going to plan on you dying, Zell," said Bella fiercely. "And you still haven't said why this means you have to take on Leviathan."
"Because, if Garden knows GFs can talk and all, then if you act like you're listening when Griever says something it won't automatically give you away. If I don't do this - and I have the best shot at living through it with Griever behind me - then it could be a long time before it's common for SeeDs to talk to the GFs. You'd have to stay away from Garden or give yourself away."
Bella shook her head, ponytail flipping from shoulder to shoulder. "That doesn't make a lot of sense, Zell, but you seem to have made up your mind. I'll keep watch over you tonight, so if something happens I can take care of it. That's what you wanted to hear, isn't it?"
"Well, I was hoping for an 'I love you' to, you know, give me a boost," Zell grinned, "But if you're not up to it that's okay too."
This had the desired effect; Bella swatted him in the shoulder and said, "Idiot," while grinning.
Zell laid back on the bed, making sure he didn't cut off his circulation anywhere, then said, Okay guys, time to do this, to Griever.
To Bella, it seemed he got settled and instantly fell asleep.
* * * * * * * *
Zell opened his eyes, and saw a gloved hand held out to him. He grabbed it and pulled himself up, then realized just whose hand it was that he had taken.
"Squall!" he yelped. "But...where's Griever?"
Indeed it was Squall, dressed as he always had been in his leather and fur-collared jacket, Lionheart at his side and the silver pendant from his neck. He looked exactly as he had that last morning in Esthar, just turned eighteen. Zell could see Rinoa standing nearby, smiling happily. He was where he had been before, in the sleeping quarters of the Ragnarok, but Bella was nowhere to be seen. He could see his own body laid out on the bed, though. Good grief, that was spooky.
"You're not dead, Zell," said Squall calmly. "You put the ring on; that's the only reason you can see your body right now. Don't worry about it."
"Welcome to eternity," said Rinoa. "This is where the dead live, and the true forms of the Guardian Forces are seen. So, this is where you had to be."
This was not at all what Zell had been expecting. "So...you mean my grandfather, and my dad, and Laguna...they're all around here?"
"Yes, Zell," said Squall impatiently. "But they're not going to be putting in appearances right now - we're keeping them away. You didn't come here to chat."
Squall was being unusually talkative, Zell thought - then realized what was putting him on edge. Squall's eyes weren't the silvery gray color they had been that morning in Esthar. They were amber gold, and pupiled like a cat's. Looking over at Rinoa, he realized her eyes were the same. "You're Griever, aren't you," he said slowly. "Even here, you're Griever. The same person?"
"Yes, Zell," said Rinoa. "Even here. This is our true shape, so this is how we are seen. Remember that, when you come here. Everyone is in their true shape - but you can tell the Guardian Forces by their eyes. You have no idea the shock Laguna got when he found that out." She smiled. "He chattered on for four days straight before he noticed, so you did pretty well."
"So...where's Leviathan, then?" he asked carefully.
"Right here," said a sultry feminine voice. Zell nearly jumped out of his skin; no one had been there a moment before, and there was no sound to indicate her arrival. He spun, finding Squall and Rinoa at either side of him, silent support.
The speaker was dark-skinned, taller than Rinoa or Squall by several inches, and slim, like the aboriginal tribes Raijin had come from. She wore a wraparound gown of metallic blue, and was coated in sapphire jewelry. Her long black hair was done up in an elaborate headdress, set with silver and sapphire. And her eyes were a solid field of darkest blue. Leviathan's eyes.
To her right, and standing just a half step behind, was a woman decked head to toe in plate and chain armor, her helmet's face-plate up so that Zell could see she was pale and had the same eyes as her companion. She carried a sword that made Lionheart look like a child's toy - a full two-handed flamberge almost as tall as she was, and she was almost six feet tall. She removed her helmet and tucked it under her arm, and auburn hair spilled out. "We are Leviathan," she said, and her voice was a clear soprano.
"Um, hi," said Zell, realizing all at once why Griever had not been keen on pursuing this course of action. "So...what's this test you want me to take?" he asked, trying to keep from wondering about the sword wielding woman.
"We can read your thoughts here, human," said both women at once. "Did you think a Knight had to be male?"
"Er, yes?" said Zell, trying to backpedal. Both women radiated an aura of power that made the hair on his arms stand on end. "But, you know, I'm no expert in this stuff, never occurred to me..."
"Sarah is a much better Knight than any male would have been," said the dark-skinned woman, confirming Zell's halfhearted guess that she was the Sorceress of the pair. "As you will see. Your test is to fight Sarah, and the fight will be with swords and to the death."
No wonder this pair had gotten on Squall's nerves, Zell realized. He wasn't that tall as men went, and these two would've been as irritating as Seifer in pointing that out. Briefly he wondered if it had come down to a sword fight; all he knew was that Leviathan wasn't challenging Griever any more. "But, I don't have a sword," he said.
"You are a fool," said the two women. "This is the realm of the mind. The children can make you one easily."
Rinoa shook her head ruefully. "We are younger, Leviathan," she said calmly, "But you already know we are stronger. Don't tempt us to prove it again."
Squall closed his eyes and held out his hand - a sword, a plain sword, appeared in it. "Not too long, good balance...you should be able to use this okay," he said. "I'd lend you Lionheart but you have no idea how to use a gunblade. Just keep your training sessions in mind and you should do all right." He handed the sword to Zell, hilt first, holding it by the blade.
Zell took it gingerly; he had only had rudimentary training in the sword - the absolute minimum required by SeeD. Everyone in Balamb Garden knew what happened to people who excelled with the sword; they got to duel Seifer.
On the other hand, Zell knew a great deal about the weaknesses of sword fighting. He'd had Squall for a roommate for four years, and more than once had had to sort things out by 'trial by combat'. He'd actually won, once or twice there.
This was not a good time to think about losing. He hefted the sword; yes, it was a good fit for him, but great Hyne - Sarah towered over him by a several inches, and that flamberge of hers was at least twice as long as the blade he held. Well, Griever had said it wouldn't be easy. He should have trusted a sentence like that to mean 'you'll seriously regret trying'.
Then he noticed that the sword Squall had made for him tapered to a very fine point. It was a rapier - narrow of blade, but good for slashing or piercing. Zell realized Squall had had a very specific training session in mind, and smiled. He did have a chance, after all.
"We will remove our armor, so that the field is level," said Leviathan. Sarah closed her eyes, and her chain and plate shifted to a shimmery blue catsuit, the image of Leviathan snaking its way from her left shoulder down her right leg. If she'd meant it to be distracting, it was working.
"The field is not level," said Squall flatly. "Zell fights with an unfamiliar weapon upon unfamiliar ground, and Sarah has the power of Leviathan. To level the field you must withdraw."
The Sorceress grimaced. "We cannot Separate in the way you would require, Griever," she said. "We do not have the power, even for a short time, to withdraw ourselves and remain whole."
"Then we will assist you," said Rinoa, moving to take the Sorceress' hand. To Zell's surprise Squall moved to join her, taking the Sorceress' other hand. They closed their lion-gold eyes.
And the blue field of Sarah's eyes faded, revealing normal green ones. Oddly enough, she now resembled Selphie somewhat, except that Sarah's eyes were filled with pain and loss. "I am alone," she said, sounding like she had just lost something incredibly dear. "You will die for this presumption!"
She raised her sword and charged him in a fury. Zell blinked and stepped aside, letting her charge past. Sarah wasn't acting like a warrior, she was acting like a widow. He realized this was why Squall had said separating would make the field level; she had superior skill with the weapon but might not have the presence of mind to use it, separated from her Sorceress.
She corrected her mistake quickly, and swung her sword fiercely; Zell jumped back and thrust forward with his own sword, under her guard. She had the reach, but her sword was slow and heavy; she could not correct her movements as quickly as he could. He grinned; he really did have a shot at winning this. This was how he had won against Squall, in the early days before he'd learned to counter it; a piercing sword had many advantages over a merely slashing sword.
Sarah dodged nimbly, trying a diagonal strike, and again Zell was able to dodge, stabbing forward with the rapier. Inelegant and unpracticed, but she had no way to counter it and he scored a long graze across her stomach. Not lethal, but distracting. She swung again in a heavy overhead chop, quickly enough that he almost got his clothes sliced off as he dodged, and he felt the whistle of the heavy blade past his ears.
He couldn't afford to play cat and mouse all night though; Griever had had trouble separating Squall to talk to Seifer for more than a few minutes. And he didn't want to think about his body lying back in the real world without him in it. He gripped the sword in his hand firmly, and said, "Ah, fuck it." When Sarah swung again, he not only dodged the blade, he lashed out with a low sweep with one leg, knocking her from her feet. He held the blade to her throat. "Do you really wanna do this to the death?" he asked.
"Fool," she snapped, and aimed a heavy punch right at him. But this was his territory, not hers, and he blocked it - with the blade. It ran along her knuckles and she pulled back. Zell winced; that was a crippling wound, at least for someone who used their fists as a primary attack.
She picked up the sword in one hand and swung it, cleaving deeply into his side. Zell cried out and fell backward - the blade had gone in several inches, and hurt like hell.
"This is a duel to the death, you fool," Sarah snapped. "You should have taken my head when you had the chance." And she raised her sword to prepare a beheading sweep.
"You will not," came Squall and Rinoa's voices together. "He spared you when he had you beaten. If you do not return the favor, when he dies we will destroy you."
"Making threats now, pup?" Sarah snapped. "He knew the rules when he came here."
"Mercy is one of his better traits," said Rinoa. "We will not see him suffer for it. We release you; you have lost. He had you down first, and has chosen to spare you. Honor it." And she left the Sorceress' side to cast healing spells on Zell's wound."
"Um, what's going on?" asked Zell. "This is sounding kinda freaky here..."
"Leviathan could not hold up its half of the bargain if you killed Sarah while she was separated from Leviathan," said Rinoa as she worked. "Leviathan would have ceased to be. So you did right in sparing Sarah, especially since you didn't know that. Leviathan was hoping we didn't know that, so it could choose to die rather than serve. As we told you, it is a very old Guardian Force. But it must honor the bargain now; you had Sarah down first."
Indeed, the moment Rinoa had left the Sorceress' side, Squall had also begun moving away, standing between her and the Leviathan pair. The blue returned to Sarah's eyes, her wound healed, and her armor reappeared. Both women looked unhappy. "Will you do this always, Griever?" they asked together. "Will you interfere on their behalf, and force those of us apart that they challenge? Do you know what it is to be separated, even for so short a time?"
Squall nodded. "We know," he said. "We have survived it. So will you. We gave the SeeD our promise to make them strong. If to do so we must referee every test, we will do that."
Rinoa bent gently over Zell, who was starting to feel really spooked by all this. The two women he didn't know, so he didn't have any expectations of their behavior. But Squall and Rinoa weren't acting like the people he'd known. They were acting like one person who was a little like both but not really like either. When it had just been a voice in his mind it had been much easier to handle. All at once he understood why Griever had objected to being called out at the party, and why it didn't like being discussed. "Zell, you'll have to tell them in the morning," said Rinoa. "If they want this additional power, tell them to look for us, call for us first. We'll make sure the test is something they can handle, and that they'll survive if they lose."
"Tell them to call on who?" asked Zell. "Squall and Rinoa are dead, and Griever isn't known around Garden."
Squall came over to join them, and for just a little while his eyes faded to gray again. "Tell them to look for me," he said quietly. "They'll know me. They have to, if they're going to survive to meet Ultimecia. The rest...they don't have to know." And his eyes returned to that lion-gold that just seemed so...alien on the face of his friend.
Zell got up, lamenting the huge tear in his shirt where the sword had gone through. "All right, guys," he said sadly. "I'll tell them." He looked over at Leviathan. "Is it okay to say hi to you now? 'Cause I gotta say I got a lot more on my mind right now than just a hello."
"You may address us, and we will answer you," said Leviathan sourly, both women speaking together. "But do not expect us to love you, holder of Griever." And abruptly, both women vanished.
"They're still around," said Squall. "They'll keep their end of the bargain for as long as you live. Just don't expect them to come running when you summon them for a while."
"I just hope other SeeDs don't get this kind of trouble," Zell grumbled, then said, "No, I take that back. Could you let Seifer get his ass kicked before you step in on his?"
Rinoa smiled; Squall slowly blinked. "I think we could do that," she said impishly. "A favor for a friend. And despite all you've been thinking all evening," and here she tweaked his nose, grinning, "we haven't completely forgotten what it is to be human. We're still here, Zell. We're just a bit different. And we're always your friends."
"You can say that again," Zell sighed. "The being different part, at least. All right, back to normal - or at least within spitting distance, yeah? How do I get back?"
"You can see your body," said Squall. "Just dive in."
Zell had almost forgotten that; he turned around, and there his body was. Without looking back, he did as Squall had suggested and dove in.
Eternity didn't seem too bad a place, but he didn't think he'd be heading back there for any more visits. The neighborhood was just too wierd.
* * * * * * *
Zell jerked upright, and saw Bella's familiar face. He fell back against the bed again, releived. "Boy am I glad that worked," he said, grinning. "I couldn't see you there."
"I didn't move all night," said Bella. "But I could use some sleep now I know you're okay. I think we'll have to call off hitting the Shumi Village today, both of us need some rest. You want to go make your report to Irvine now?"
"Hell yeah," said Zell. "Found out all sortsa stuff - and I was right to go first. Griever got SeeD a deal - nobody has to die for this power. Cool, huh? But I'm telling you it's no picnic."
He got up off the bed and wended his way to the cockpit, hoping he could get everything in a report before exhaustion overtook him. These out-of-body gigs were worse than all-day battles for taking it out of a guy.