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Chapter 19 Coda

Quistis agreed to watch over the six children while Squall went with Bella into Balamb. She was officially on leave now, her belongings in a trunk in the back of the rental car. Squall would have walked, but he could hear Irvine's patience fraying within Griever, and knew that he shouldn't take any more time than he needed.

Bella had been frankly shocked that Squall intended to go with her - and more, that he would carry the news. It went against everything she'd heard about him.

Squall knew why he was going. Despite Griever's teasing, he had always thought of relationships in terms of debt; they owed you, or you owed them.

Zell, being by nature a very giving person, had managed to leave Squall deeply in his debt. The two of them had never quite understood each other; Squall had done things for Zell because he felt he owed them to him - and Zell had done things for Squall because he thought Squall was his friend, and took Squall's return favors as proof.

Had either of them tried to explain the relationship to anyone else, the laughter would have brought the house down.

And yet - now, Squall understood that Zell had been right. They were friends - always had been friends, albeit of a rather odd sort. Squall's mental tally of debt and favor had been his way of keeping himself at a distance, but it hadn't really worked.

His trip today was a little of both; on a debt tally it would cancel a lot - nobody wanted to be the one to tell a loving mother that her son was dead. But he wasn't really going because of that. Zell had managed, through the cadet years, to keep Squall sane - just by being who he was. And that wouldn't have been possible, had he not also been Squall's friend.

When they reached the Dincht's house, Bella stood back and let Squall take the lead; he knew her best, and Bella was still rather shy around strangers. She opted to carry the small box of things Zell had instructed to be given to his mother.

He knocked on the door, and Ma Dincht answered it with some surprise, squinting fiercely. Squall picked up the clarification from Zell, via Griever; Ma Dincht was slowly going blind. At least it meant he wouldn't be teased for looking eighteen still.

"Why, it's you, Squall, isn't it?" she said. "I haven't seen you in a long time, but of course you're always welcome." She looked around. "Didn't Zell come with you?"

Squall closed his eyes briefly. "No," he said. "Would it be all right if we came in, Ma Dincht? There's some things I have to tell you..."

In the end, Squall ended up being fiercely hugged by a bawling Ma Dincht, and tried desperately not to panic. She latched on to Squall as if he were Zell's brother and not just his friend, and Squall was so completely at a loss as to what to do that he ended up asking Griever to help. Griever suggested finishing the story and telling Ma Dincht about Bella. When he did, the two women latched on to each other, but neither cried as fiercely.

Squall opted to take a short fresh-air break outside. The emotional atmosphere in the house was charged enough to give him the shakes.

Should I ask where Zell is right now? he asked.

Zell is watching Bella cry her eyes out, said Griever. He does no better with crying women than you do - be grateful he can only see Bella, and not his mother.

Already am, said Squall with honest relief. I know how it feels, Rinoa. I remember seeing you cry in the Infirmary. There had been no greater pain than to see Rinoa collapsed into a weeping huddle, crying as though her heart had broken, and he unable to do a single thing to comfort her. No - he did not envy Zell right now.

He waited patiently until the storm of sobbing within the house had calmed - probably more due to exhaustion than anything else - and went back inside. Once again, Bella seemed to have completely misjudged his reserve - but thankfully Ma Dincht already knew his ways from years past.

It didn't take long to get matters arranged; yes, Ma wanted SeeD to give her son a funeral. Yes, she would be more than happy to have Bella stay with her until the baby was born. And yes, she would take the things that they had brought, and save them for said baby.

Now? he asked Griever.


Squall turned to Bella. "You don't want to keep the ring," he said, and saw her grimace.

"I want Zell to see the baby," she said. "But no, I don't like your ring."

Squall nodded. "If I were to give you something else that had the same effect - would you take it?"

"What did you have in mind?" Bella was almost hostile now.

Squall shrugged. "Earrings," he said. "Small, unobtrusive. Griever offers you three pairs of earrings - for yourself, for Ma Dincht, and for the baby. So Zell can see you all. It asks that you consider the earrings part of a pool - that when Ma Dincht dies, or if one of the others needs one, you give it to them."

"One of the others?"

"Of the orphanage," explained Squall. "If, for example, Selphie and Irvine had children and needed an earring for that child. You see?"

"Yes, I see," said Bella, a little coldly. "Why not just make lots of extra pairs though?"

"Because Griever's power is limited. It will take power to make them. Will you wear them, look after them so that they're not lost?" It wasn't strictly true - but Bella wouldn't want the full truth; that they were Sorceress tokens and could be used against a Sorceress...though Rinoa was making sure their capacity for mischief would be as small as possible.

"Yes," said Bella.

All right then, thought Squall. It felt very strange, doing this with Irvine in his head - but there was no other way. He put his hands together in a closed cup shape, closed his eyes and opened his mind to Griever - letting the Guardian Force possess him for a moment.

If he had trusted Irvine one jot less, he would have refused. There was no greater fear in him than losing control of his body, of having another intelligence in his thoughts; Alicia's power had scarred him badly. But Griever did only what they had agreed it would do - extend its sorcerous power through Squall's hands, making half a dozen tiny diamond earrings. Then it withdrew, leaving Squall feeling very tired and with a monstrous headache. He took a seat and held out the earrings.

"There you go," he said quietly. "And for the love of Hyne don't lose them." I'm not doing that again, guys, he told Griever. The rest can damn well wait until Ma Dincht dies.

Just can't trust me, can you Squall, came Irvine's voice, but he was laughing.

Once he'd gotten his breath back, and could be sure his legs wouldn't wobble as he walked, Squall took Griever from Bella and took his leave. He never had grieved the way other people did, even before his visit to eternity. He'd learned that at such times, his presence was not pleasing to other people. They seemed to take it personally when he didn't cry.

The drive back to Garden was very quiet.

* * * * * * * * *

Selphie and Quistis let Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin know what was going on - somewhat to Squall's surprise. So the group was large enough that Quistis simply ordered everyone out of the Quad for two hours.

The posse seemed remarkably neutral toward Squall, all ghosts left in their graves. Seifer had decided that Squall was not his enemy - therefore he was not the posse's enemy either. Why Seifer had come to that conclusion Squall neither knew nor cared. Perhaps it was just because Squall had gotten him back into Garden, so many years ago.

The six children were also waiting, alert but still. They'd picked up very quickly that they might have magic, but SeeDs had weapons and the training to use them, and more than a few had magic on top of it. Squall was just grateful none of them had needed any 'demonstrations' while he'd been in Balamb - though Daear looked a little more surly than usual.

"This is a long goodbye, isn't it," said Quistis.

"Not really," said Squall. "Irvine can Dream - he can probably bring you all with him, if you want him to. You'd lose your rest a few nights, since you don't have his gift, but you can do it. And we will always know where you are." He turned to Seifer. "You wanted to know about Guardian Forces. Should we expect you also?"

Seifer looked surprised briefly. "Yeah," he said after a moment. "Yeah, I'd like to see that. See how the others besides you and Bahamut are."

Squall just nodded. "Then...until then." He closed his eyes, and said, Rinoa, bring me home.

Rinoa's being flooded into him, lifting him out of himself - even as he felt Irvine passing him, going the other way. From him, Squall sensed unbounded relief to be getting back where he wanted to be - and have his head more or less to himself again. From Squall, Irvine sensed joy - so great that Irvine promised himself he wasn't going to tell anyone about it. It'd get way too personal.

To everyone else, it just seemed that Squall's form began to glow, and when the light faded Irvine stood in his place - looking a bit battered, as he had when he'd gotten out of Felian's hands. Selphie immediately ran to him and gave him a hug, giving him back Exeter in the process. He hugged her back for a moment, then put her down.

"Hang on Sefie, show's not over yet." He turned to the kids. "You guys are about to see a genuine, honest-to-Hyne magic kingdom. Don't get too spooked by the trip, okay?" He moved a little way away from Selphie, then pointed at the children and said "Shockwave Pulsar!"

Griever appeared, rising from a white circle on the ground, wings spread. It threw out one great clawed hand, and white bands of energy surrounded the six children. Then it pulled them into its world, vanishing with them.

"Um....aren't they supposed to come back dead after you do that?" asked Selphie.

"You can tell Griever not to kill, same as any other GF," said Irvine. "It's just that generally - why bother summoning a GF if you aren't going to kill with it? Now - there's one last thing I'm supposed to do, then we can get on with the funeral."

He held up his hand, where Griever rested. "Someone's got to carry this. I'll take the junction, but it's not safe to keep them together - if the person holding the junction dies, Griever returns to the ring, and we need to make sure we don't lose that GF."

The group shared uneasy glances. Irvine didn't need it to talk to the dead, or to the GFs - all he had to do was wait until bedtime. But he was the only one to remember the family he had lost, too. It was too much Squall's possession, even after all this time, for any of them to want it.

The silence was broken by Seifer. "Give it here, cowboy," he said. "I'll take it."

"You?" asked Quistis, surprised.

Seifer nodded, a hint of his usual smirk on his face. "Yeah, me. Who else? With this mission under my belt, I'm next in line for Commander; you guys have given Xu her last headache, and she's going to drop it on me. This'll make a great Commander's ring - and that'll keep it in Garden, where it belongs."

"She told you before asking us?" asked Selphie, eyes wide. "Ooooh, I am so gonna have a talk with her before she leaves the job."

Quistis said nothing, but something in the set of her face agreed. "Congratulations," she said quietly. "I'll approve it; you're not my favorite person but you'll do better in the job than Xu has. She was never meant to be a long-term Commander in the first place."

* * * * * * * * *

The funeral of Zell Dincht, SeeD Rank 20, was a very quiet affair in the Quad, SeeD in general not having much use for the ceremony. Ma Dincht and Bella cried most of the time, but his friends were less upset.

It wasn't that they weren't sorry he was dead. They all missed him. It was just that they knew he was not beyond their reach, that they could talk to him whenever they chose, and this made it bearable. Bella would not be able to visit Zell for eight more months - the group having decided that trying to go out of body while pregnant was just pushing one's luck - and Ma Dincht could not be told about eternity at all, so those two felt the loss more keenly.

Zell and Squall leaned against a wall, idly trading comments. Zell was still easily upset by the sight of his mother and girlfriend crying, but he was learning to adjust. Squall was giving him edited highlights of the speeches, as seen through Irvine's eyes.

"Trust Seifer to bring up that old story," said Squall at one point. "He must've chosen it because he knew you would be listening."

"Yeah, well, he can say what he likes," said Zell. "Ma knew better. Besides - by the look on her face, he's gonna get whacked with her purse once this is over."

"I am sorry about that one," said Squall distantly. "When I chose that defense, I didn't think it'd affect you the way it did."

"Why be sorry now?" shrugged Zell. "In the end it didn't change anything."

Squall just shook his head, the ghost of a smile on his lips. "You misunderstand. I never understood why gender mattered so damn much to people. There's little enough love in the world to go setting criteria like that. One of the reasons I stuck with my gear even after I saw how it affected you was because I didn't want someone who couldn't see past it."

"Rinoa never minded, that's for sure," said Zell.

Squall just leaned against the wall, arms across his chest, the ghostly smile still playing around the corners of his mouth. "No, she doesn't, Zell. But don't ever go thinking I'm the only one who can be blind." He vanished then - probably back to his own place, Zell thought. Rinoa had practically thrown him with Zell for the past few days - both to help Zell adjust to his new existence, and so that she could get to know his children. Zell had laughed himself silly when Daear had tried to lord it over Rinoa by using her gravity power - and discovered that in Griever's realm, Griever controlled gravity. Rinoa had been quite thorough in educating Daear about subtle uses of power.

He didn't stay alone long, though. Laguna appeared, looking roughly twenty four years old, in his favorite old blue jacket. "I thought I'd wait until he'd gone," he said with a grin.

"Why?" asked Zell.

"Well, for one, I don't think he'd have said what he did if I'd been around," said Laguna. "Not that I didn't hear anyway, of course. I just waited up on the steps, out of sight."

Zell grinned. "Don't you two get along yet?"

Laguna laughed. "Oh, since those six hellcats showed up he's been much easier to deal with," he said. "Nothing like a little 'what comes around goes around' to straighten his thinking out. No, we're fine. Raine has been having a blast with them. No, what I meant was, Squall wouldn't have said something quite so heartfelt if he'd known there were witnesses around."

"Calling me blind is heartfelt?" said Zell. "Well, okay - maybe from Squall it is. I'd hate for him to use an insult he didn't mean."

Laguna just laughed again. "Zell, have you ever heard Squall say the word 'love' to anyone?"

"Well, just now I did. But I think he was apologizing."

Laguna's green eyes twinkled. "Zell - oh, nevermind. Let's go for hot dogs."

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