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Chapter 18 Father

The tableau was complete. Soares Detmer dominated the room like the king on a chessboard, Exeter leveled at Squall, whose hands were clenched around a raised LionHeart, his eyes half-lost in a darkness only he could see.

And the observers were all around; Zell, Bella, Selphie, and the six children of power. Selphie and Bella immediately started backing out of the room, trying to herd the children with them. But the children didn't want to go. Of them all, only Noddy even knew who Squall was - the others saw a strange man threatening the only father they knew, and they refused to leave. Zell stopped their efforts with one shake of his head.

"They gotta know," he said. "We can't hide 'em - they'll come up with worse ideas than the ones they could see. They're not sheltered." Not when Noddy can turn a room full of guards into hamburger without blinking.

Squall, you cannot kill him here. You cannot kill him in front of the children. Rinoa and Irvine were in firm agreement on that. Irvine flashed clear memories of Galbadian soldiers shooting his parents into Squall's mind, while Rinoa had the more emotional approach; the children could never trust him if they saw him kill the only father they knew.

Squall, however, barely heard any of it. He was exerting all of his strength, all of his willpower, not to fall into the endless darkness that was Alicia's permanent mark on his psyche. He wasn't there yet - he still had control over himself, and his actions. Barely. There was no soul in the darkness. There was only rage, and pain, and the endless need to kill to expunge it. The warrior's body freed of all restraint. Detmer's death would be the very least of it. If he lost control, in this place and at this time, he could not say with any certainty that his own fears regarding his children would not spell their deaths. Or whether his acknowledgment of his friends as friends would prove to be more weakness than the warrior could handle.

"You can stay with us, you know," said Detmer pleasantly. "A room to yourself, and we could have such games every night." His tone was lighthearted, but the SeeDs understood the predatory gleam in his eyes. He knew what he was doing to Squall. He was trying to push Squall over the edge, trying to force him to attack - so that he could then shoot him, in a way the children could regard as self-defense. Even Noddy would not doubt him then.

The pit filling his vision, darkness all around extending to the horizon...soft inviting blackness...pull self from self and leave death behind...leave pain behind...

We will not let you go, came Griever's voice. The Guardian Force placed itself between Squall and that break, Rinoa's love and Irvine's steadfast friendship combining to shield him from his own darker nature...

Zell looked from Detmer to Squall and came to a decision. The man had to die, and Squall couldn't be the one to do it - even if he managed to get a grip on himself in time. The children had to know that this man was no loving father. But they'd never learn of it from Squall, not this way at any rate. He looked down at the children; five strangers with a little of Squall in each, and one little boy who was all Laguna.

He darted into the room, into Exeter's line of fire, and grabbed Squall by the arm - intending to drag him out of the room. Exeter fired, and pain bloomed all along his side, causing one leg to crumple underneath him. Instead of dragging Squall out of the room, he ended up dragging Squall down on top of him. He heard little thwick noises, and the startled cries of the children, but all he could see was Squall, whose face was only inches from his own...

The sudden movement and contact had startled Squall badly. Standing as he had been on the edge of a personal hell, his first reaction had been to jerk away, but Exeter's gunfire had pulled him back into himself - a soldier who daydreamed while shots were being fired didn't live long, and Squall had learned that so well as to make the response a reflex. Then he was being pulled down, and he landed on top of someone with an oof.

Zell? But Zell never lost his balance. Was famous for not losing his balance. Squall shook his head sharply and rolled off of him, gunblade at the ready - only to find that for once he'd managed to completely miss everything. Detmer slumped where he stood, blood dripping around a neat pattern of throwing stars in his throat. And Zell...Bella was running into the room now that she'd taken care of the only threat, Selphie left to watch the children as she ran forward...

Zell had taken a shot from Exeter at close range; Squall could feel Irvine cringing in his mind - Exeter was the most powerful shotgun in the world. There wasn't a cure spell strong enough to save his friend from a shot at such close range. He was still breathing, but it was getting shallower now. Squall knew a mortal wound when he saw it; it was possible that even had he been junctioned to Griever, there would not have been a way to save him. The assassin's weapon had been good...but Exeter was the best. He looked into his friend's eyes and knew that Zell, too, knew there wasn't going to be a great rescue this time.

Squall didn't bother with questions of 'why'. For him this wasn't a permanent goodbye; soon he, too, would be in the lands of eternity, and Zell would undoubtedly be able to tell him everything then. No - there was more important business to be done with the few minutes left. Heedless of the blood, Squall propped Zell up against his own body - so that he could see Bella. Squall grabbed Bella's wrist as she was casting curagas, and shook his head.

"You don't have time for that," he said flatly. "Talk now, while he's still here."

Bella, tears streaming down her face, looked ready to hit him. Squall just stared her in the eyes, let her know that he wasn't kidding. Zell was dying; casting curagas just wasted the few minutes he had left.

"You didn't have to.." Bella began, trying to say everything at once.

Zell blinked slowly, grinned. "Y's, I did," he said softly. "Squall couldn't do it...can't kill their dad...we couldn't do't either, 'n'less we had a reason. Gave y'reason."

"You didn't have to let him shoot you," said Bella, crying. "You're always taking on too much for Squall. This wasn't your fight!"

"S'was," mumbled Zell, growing sleepy with blood loss. "SeeD."

Squall looked up at Bella. "Say it now, if you're going to," he said flatly, eyes dead. Bella looked ready to punch him.

"I love you, Zell," she said.

"You too..." Zell whispered back, then his eyes closed. Another breath, and then he lay still.

Squall moved out from behind him, and laid his body gently down on the floor. He pulled off Zell's cestus gloves, and the platinum Griever ring. This, he held out to Bella, face expressionless.

"Oh no," she snarled. "He did everything for you, you bastard, and you just stood there and let him get killed. I am not going to take Griever's goddamn junction. You've already taken my Zell - you won't take me or our baby on top of it!"

"The ring makes you visible to the dead," said Squall, still in that dead, emotionless voice. "Zell will see you and hear you if you wear it. We'll find another to hold the junction." He held Zell's Ehrgeiz gloves in his other hand. "Keep these. He told me once he wanted his children to know how to use them."

"Another generation of soldiers," said Bella, gingerly taking the gloves and ring. "You really trained him well, you know that? I suppose you'll send your six to Garden now, let them become soldiers, too."

"No," said Squall. "Zell joined SeeD because he wanted to. He stayed because he liked the life. I didn't, and I don't." and with that he left Bella with Zell's broken body, speaking softly with Selphie for a moment before kneeling down to address his children. Selphie came over to Bella, tears openly streaming down her cheeks as she joined her friend in grief.

"Why did he get in the middle like that - why did daddy shoot him?" said one of the girls. By her voice, Squall pegged her as Cariad. The one who liked flowers. She looked like a perfect replica of Rinoa - so much so that it twisted him inside, knowing that she wasn't Rinoa's daughter. Alicia's twisted mind again - but at least he couldn't remember their mothers. He couldn't see their mothers in them. Thank Hyne for small mercies. Hyne certainly didn't seem to bother with big ones.

Lend me your eyes, Rinoa, he thought tiredly. We can't let them stay here.

As his vision sharpened with Griever's eyes, he said, "Soares Detmer was not your father." Nerving himself again, he said, "I am. I've been looking for you." Briefly he wondered if there would ever come a day when he could openly call these little ones his children without remembering the days of their conception. Probably not.

Once again, Griever's eyes let them believe him where lesser proofs might not have worked. Children didn't do very well with the resemblance argument, but these six regarded the shifting eyes as incontrovertible proof.

"Detmer shot Zell because Zell was trying to save me," said Squall slowly. "He knew I would stop him from hurting you, and he didn't want that."

"If you're our daddy, where have you been? Why'd you come back now?"

It must be conversation with children, mused Squall. Adults were nowhere near as difficult to talk to. "I've been...far away," he said slowly. "And I came back as soon as I knew where you were. We should get to the hotel now. Bella wants to be alone with Zell."

He stood up and led the children out of the house, quiet now that its master was dead. He wasn't sure, even now, if Zell had done the right thing - but then, he'd never really understood Zell. Irvine was a friend; there was common ground there, sometimes even similarity of viewpoint. Zell was more like a brother - the sort of friendship that happens not in spite of differences, but because of them. He'd known Squall might choose to have all six children executed, but he'd sacrificed his own life so that the children could have a chance.

Friendships work like that sometimes, said Griever. It's not exactly a balance sheet where everything adds up.

How's he taking life on the other side? asked Squall, reminding himself that Zell wasn't exactly permanently gone.

We've invited him into our realm, said Griever. At the moment, he's busy gawking. Ask us in about an hour or so. He should be his usual self by then. You gave Bella the ring, right?

Oh, you missed that? Yes, she has the ring - and tell Zell I gave her the gloves and his instructions regarding them as well. She won't take the junction, though. She blames me for his death - she's probably right about that, too. Death rather lost its sting when you knew you'd be talking to the person again. Still...Zell had saved his life so many times, and when the time came to repay the debt Squall had failed to deliver.

Oh, no you don't, said Griever. You're not going there again. Zell doesn't think you owe him a damn thing - he thinks he still owes you. So for once you can both shut up and leave it be. Or at least you can wait until you get back here and we're not in the middle of it.

The indignant tone in Griever's voice - and in Rinoa's part of it - made a smile twitch at the corners of Squall's mouth. He opted to let the argument lie; Griever was right, after all, it could wait - and concentrated on getting to know his children, trying not to think about the fact that now, Zell never would know his own child.

Again, Squall leave it. We have an idea in that regard that may solve the problem.

Rinoa... sighed Squall, believe it or not, but I think I'm feeling homesick.

Griever didn't reply in words, but he got a mental impression of enthusiastic applause. that you've got an idea how this works - would you be willing to take the junction? Bella won't now, and I can't really blame her.

I'm not that active outside of Garden, came Irvine's voice. So I don't know if that's a good idea.

Just until we can find a good fighter to take it, said Squall. One of these little ones, possibly - if I can't talk them all out of becoming SeeDs, anyway. Maybe Zell's baby, in time. Bella may not want to fight but I can't see a kid of Zell's living the quiet life.

Why're you so down on SeeD, Squall? It's made you into the man you are today, after all.

Exactly, said Squall, touching a light gloved finger to his scar. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

If I recall correctly, and I almost always do, that's exactly what your worst enemy got. And he seems to be doing all right. Recent rumor holds that he and Fujin are now an item.

You are so damn lucky I haven't had food in ten or so years, growled Squall.

Griever laughed. Squall got on with getting the children to the hotel.

* * * * * * * *

Selphie and Bella waited for the authorities to arrive, then presented their mission parameters. Since Detmer had plainly killed Zell, the SeeDs were within their rights to kill him. While they were at it they also laid out grounds for arrest for the house of Felian; after this day's work they were going to take the head of the house into custody unless he could prove that he wasn't involved; Selphie found a check in Detmer's pocket from the head of House Felian for a sizable amount of cash - presumably for Irvine's capture.

Selphie laid down the paperwork required for Garden to take the six children - legally orphans now with Detmer's death. She had no idea what Squall was going to do with them, but there needed to be a legal option for Garden to deal with such powerful people. Bella watched over the 'recovery' of Zell's body - laying it on a stretcher, getting it ready for a return to Garden. She knew about Garden's policy regarding funerals; she wasn't looking forward to telling Ma Dincht about this. Especially since she had only met Ma Dincht once or twice in her life; most of her relationship with Zell had been in Esthar.

She wanted to cry; she wanted to beat on Zell's chest and make him wake up, damnit. He was always so active - even in sleep he tended to toss and turn unless he'd had a really exhausting day. It was his stillness, more than the blood or the paleness of his skin under the blackflame tattoo, that convinced her he was really dead.

And Squall, that cold bastard, hadn't shed a single tear, or given any sign he grieved at all.

Well, of course he wouldn't. In a few days, he too would be gone. Why grieve? But Bella wouldn't hear Zell again for a long, long time. She clenched the ring in her hand. Such a pitiful exchange, wordless emotion instead of heartfelt words. But she remembered the serenity Laguna had had about his dead wife, Raine. Perhaps it would help. Anything was better than this tearing aloneness. She jammed the ring on her thumb; the only finger it would fit.

And after a few moments, she did indeed feel her lover's presence, wrapped around her shoulders as though he held her in an embrace. And it helped.

* * * * * * * *

Garden came at sundown to pick up its SeeDs. Squall set foot in the place somewhat uneasily; given the circumstances of his departure. He had no room here any more; officially, he was after all dead, any possessions he had had that were not on his person or in Esthar had been distributed according to his contingency messages.

Sundown was a good time to move unobtrusively; most of Garden was in the Cafeteria, eating dinner. Selphie wrapped Squall in a concealing cape until he got to the Commander's office, where a fight with Xu ensued that many of the dining SeeDs would have paid good money to see. Squall considered himself a SeeD, but the only orders he would ever follow again were his own. Particularly when Xu tried to order him to hand over his children for training. Squall was adamant - his children were not to be considered cadets unless he personally consented - and anyone inclined to argue could tell it to the cold blue tip of LionHeart.

He would have gone home, back to the purple-silver expanses of Griever's realm with his children, but there was yet one more duty to attend to. Selphie had told him Bella was going to tell Ma Dincht about Zell; Squall decided that this would be the last thing he could do for Zell. Let him have a funeral - none of the others would ever get that, unless they had adult children when they died.

So, thanks to Selphie and Quistis essentially holding Xu's throat to an axe, Squall had Rinoa's old suites in the guest wing. His children, at his insistence, were given adjacent rooms - though they were technically now students of Garden. They regarded the guest wing as their personal playground, and Squall just kept them from leaving that wing. It still hurt to look at them, and it still hurt to be around them - hey, remember the time you were chained up and tortured for three days straight? - but at the same time, he had to acknowledge that in his way he loved them. Rinoa was delighted; she was looking forward to meeting them in person. Squall would have argued that they weren't her problem, that she shouldn't worry about them, but he was rapidly coming to the conclusion that he was going to need all the help he could get.

He didn't bother trying to sleep; he knew the others fairly well. He spent a while wearing the children out - a revelation in itself, for he couldn't remember his own childhood, and they had to explain their games to him - and when they were safely asleep, he put on a SeeD uniform and headed out for his old haunt on the second floor deck - in uniform, most SeeDs woudn't give him a second glance, just one more mercenary coming back from a mission. The silence, after the noise of six hyperactive, high-powered children, was pure heaven. But he couldn't risk the children running loose in Garden. Daear in particular had specific views regarding other people, and the respect they should show her, and he had enough trouble with Xu already.

Except the silence in his thoughts. He still felt Rinoa's presence, through their bond, but he missed hearing the running commentary of her thoughts.

"I never would have pegged you as a family man, Squall," said Seifer as he came through the door to the deck.

Squall just shrugged. "Me either," he admitted.

"Just passing through - again? Should we keep a suite for you, so you can drop in once or twice a century?"

Squall turned around, irritated. "Seifer, don't you ever get tired of it?"

"Tired of what? Tired of you treating Garden and everyone in it like your personal residence? Yeah, I get tired of it. I especially get tired of everyone letting you. If it'd been me, you'd have been out on your ear."

"Tired of fighting, Seifer. If I thought I could get you to leave me alone by throwing you off this deck right now, I'd do it. But what would be the point? You'd just float right back up and we'd be back where we started."

"Big mouth, squirt," snarled Seifer.

"Grow the fuck up already, Seifer," said Squall tiredly, watching the ocean roll by beneath the deck. "I'm just finishing some unfinished business. That's all. You want me gone, and I want to be gone. We're in agreement - so go away."

"And these godlings of yours? What're you going to do about them? Leave them for your friends to take care of?"

"They're going with me. Look for them in about ten years or so - we'll return them to the world when we're sure they won't blow it up. If Rinoa can grow to handle the power of a Sorceress, these six can handle the power of one permanent junction." I hope.

Somewhat to his surprise, Seifer came up beside him, leaned against the deck's outer wall-rail. "What's it like?" he asked.

Squall turned to him, eyebrows raised.

"Having kids," clarified Seifer. "I've been wondering - just recently, with Fujin and all. What's it like?"

Squall returned his gaze to the rolling ocean. "I'm probably not the best person to ask," he said slowly.

"None of the others have kids," said Seifer. "Zell will never see his. Don't have anyone else I can ask - and I wouldn't ask them anyway."

"When they manage to leave certain topics alone, they're great," said Squall slowly. "They seem to like me, and I don't mind being around them as much as I thought I would." He kept his eyes on the horizon as he finished his thought. "If I'd had any say in their being born...if I'd been around them from the beginning...I could see it being a lot more." He shrugged. "It hurts to look at them - especially the twins. But...I don't think I'd want to undo their being born, even so. Does that help?"

Seifer turned to study him, frowning. "Yeah, I think it does. You've known them, what - two days? And I have a pretty good idea how they came to be, and you seem to like them anyway. You like them. Yeah, I think it helps. See you in eternity, Squall." and Seifer left the deck, leaving Squall feeling vaguely surprised that a fight hadn't erupted. Time seemed to help some wounds, at least.

But there was at least one more visitor to expect, and he waited patiently until she appeared. Quistis, Headmaster of Garden, heeled boots clicking lightly against the decking.

"Squall, do you enjoy causing me pain?" came her quiet voice, unchanged since the last time he'd heard it. "You walk around Garden like a living memory."

"It's only the guest wing, and it won't be for much longer, Quistis," he said softly. "Irvine's holding my place, but he can't do it for very long. I'm going to talk to Ma Dincht, and then I'm going home. There's no way I could stay here long without the rest of Garden finding out about it, anyway, uniform or not."

"Was Garden ever your home?" she asked, joining him on the rail. Her hair was down tonight, long blond strands twirled slightly in the breeze of Garden's movement.

"I lived here," said Squall simply. Quistis nodded as though that were an answer.

"You're more open than you were, but still so closed in, Squall."

"Even Rinoa can't work miracles, Quistis. Should I be other than who I am?"

Quistis laughed. "No, I suppose not. You don't think I'd understand, is that it? Squall, I always understood you. I just never knew you."

"Probably not," agreed Squall.

"These children, Squall. Will you give them your name? I need to know, for Garden's records. Even if they don't stay here."

Squall considered the question. "No, I don't think so," he said. "I care about them...but..." he shook his head slowly. "I...just want to save that for Rinoa, if we ever manage to have children between us."

Quistis smiled. "Quite conservative of you, Squall. I would have thought you to be the last person to care about bastardy."

"It's not that," said Squall with a touch of temper. "It's just...I didn't get any say in their being born. It wasn't my choice that they exist, in any way. I care about them, and I don't want them hurt..." one fist slammed down on the deck wall in frustration. "But my name I will not give them. They have my blood. That's enough."

Quistis' teasing expression softened. "I understand, Squall. You want something that they can't take from you, is that it? These children were stolen from you, taken against your will. So if you give them your name, then they've taken that too - right?"

"Yes," said Squall.

"That still leaves open what name you will give them. They are yours, after all."

"You were better in language classes than I was," said Squall. "Recognize where their names come from?"

"Oh yes," chuckled Quistis. "Trabian dialect, isn't it? It was so hard not to smile. I'm surprised Selphie hasn't twigged to it yet." She thought about it a moment, still smiling, and said, "Yes, that will do nicely. As long as they stay out of Trabia, anyway. Do you want their name to mean 'Lionheart'?"

"No," said Squall. "That's just giving them my name all over again."

Quistis thought a moment. "How about 'of the lion'? You're really not going to get away with something that doesn't have anything to do with you, you know."

Squall sighed. "I know. There's eternity...who's probably going to try and take my ears for this, but it's better than nothing."

"Don't worry about the opinions of the dead, Squall," laughed Quistis. "It's not like they can hurt you."

Squall just gave her a level look. "If and when you meet the guy I'm talking about, if you still hold that opinion I'll respect it. Until then, leave it."

"Ab Llew it is, then. It's short, at least." She reached over, greatly daring, and put a hand on his arm. "Don't worry about them, Squall. Whatever name you give them, they'll do you proud." And with that she left him, boots clicking quietly on the hallway tiles.

I wish I could believe that, thought Squall to the empty night. He waited a while longer, and when it was evident that no further visits would be forthcoming, he made his way down to the Dormitory.

Tomorrow he would have to speak to Ma Dincht. Zell had been quite specific in speaking with Griever, what it was that he wanted her to take care of for the little one on the way. So Squall wended his way down to the SeeD wing, grateful that it was full of either absent or sleeping SeeDs, and punched in the code to unlock Zell's room - gained from Zell, through Griever.

The room was neat; it was amazing. Squall had no trouble locating the things he had been directed to take; a large, jagged earring in the pattern of the blackflame tattoo (Zell had used it as a template, but never wore it), the stack of combat magazines, and a locked black box that held his journal. Listening carefully to Griever's instructions, Squall located the hidden compartment in the ceiling tiles where the key to the box was hidden, and added that to the pile.

Not a lot, for a lifetime of work. But then, SeeDs generally didn't go in much for possessions. Squall put together a student box (most cadets and SeeDs kept a supply of flattened boxes under their beds, for a variety of reasons) and put the small collection inside, then hefted it to his shoulder and locked the room behind him as he left. The rest of Zell's goods were apparently covered under contingency messages.

He put the box on his too-soft, too-large guest bed, and slept on the floor, listening to Rinoa's giggles in his thoughts until he fell asleep.

Chapter 19

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