Author's Note: Contains some spoilers for the ending. ^_^}

Final Heaven

By Tenshi no Korin

"Although I would like our world to change
It helps me to appreciate
Those nights and those dreams<
But, my friend, I'd sacrifice all those nights
If I could make the Earth and my dreams the same..."

The October after the thirteenth birthday of a Balamb Garden student was, for anyone who had ever been there, the single most important time short of graduation. In the Fall Term, students who had passed their thirteenth birthday in the previous year began a whole new section of their lives as students. No longer classified as junior classmen, they were given the same rights and privileges as the older students.

And for the first time, they were given real weapons.

Not handed to them arbitrarily, of course. The games and studies they undertook as children in the Garden were designed to hone certain skills, to prove themselves responsible of such a privilege, and to discover what weapon best suited them. They would then take technique-specific training under one of the Garden's weapon masters, until such time as they were ready to take the SeeD exams.

Rather than having the students come down in a shouting mess, each student was given time to wander through the armory room, and try several things. They had to make their choice within that time, and it was frowned on to switch weapons after beginning training. The Weaponer, an old, grizzled soldier with a mass of tribal tattoos covering his skin, was the lord of the Armory. Not even the Faculty dared interfere with him much, trusting the students to his good counsel. No one knew what his name really was, or even asked. Every weapon in the Garden Armory was his own make, his own design, and unique. He was polishing the blackmetal edge of a gunblade when a student poked his head around the door, looking in the sacred armory for the first time. The Weaponer smiled to himself, watching the boy as he stepped reverently around the room, craning his neck to look at the treasures adorning the racks, hands carefully behind his back.

It was too hard to resist the shine of one gunblade leaning against the wall, bright platinum in its case, a fantastical beast romping down the length of the blade. Fingers reached out, not quite touching, hovering uncertainly over the cool metal.

"That's sharp, boy."

The student jumped, looking around guiltily, fingers twisted together behind his back. "I wasn't gonna touch it! I was just looking!"

The weapon-smith chuckled, holding his project aloft and squinting down the length of the stock.

"What kind of a gunblade is that?" The boy didn't look thirteen yet, all blue eyes and small build, hair trailing in his face.

"Don't get much call for gunblades, anymore." The Weaponer sighed, and displayed to gunblade for the boy to see. "This year I got two. Forgot how much I liked makin' 'em." He smiled. "Go on, boy. You can look at it. It won't bite."

"It looks like it might." He drew closer anyway. The weapon was slender where the other one was heavy, slim and deadly and black. "Who asked for this one?"

"Arrogant little punk. Almasy something or other. I remember the names of the blades better than the ones of the students, anymore."

"Oh. Him." Something in the student's tone spoke volumes. "It looks like him. He bragged he'd have to get the best one, since his birthday's after October and he'd had to wait a year longer. We were all sick of hearing about it." He sighed, and ran a finger along the grip, knowing better than to smear his fingerprints on the blade proper. "It's awfully pretty, though. What's its name?"


His nose wrinkled. "Whazzat mean?"

"Ehh... old name for a sun god. That other one over there," he nodded to the platinum gunblade that the student had wanted to touch, "that's Revolver style. The engraving's custom, though. Nice kid, that one. Didn't talk much. Who're you, boy?"

"Student number 1336-"

"Ahh, pfft." The Weaponer waved a hand. "None of that number garbage. What's your name?"

"Oh. I'm Zell. Zell Dincht."

"Hold out your hand when you give you name, now. I never trusted anybody who wouldn't shake my hand. Remember that."

Zell obeyed, and the old soldier solemnly shook the small proffered hand. "Now then. Dincht, eh? You Malachi Dincht's grandson?"

He could swear the boy grew two inches, pushing his small shoulders back and lifting his chin. "Yes, sir!"

"I was in the army with that old coot." The Weaponer chuckled, wiping his hands on a rag and laying Hyperion in its case with as much care as a father placing a newborn in a crib. "You'll be wanting guns, then? Ol' Mal was one helluva sharpshooter."

"Actually," Zell scuffed his toes, looking hopefully around the room. "I always thought that if I was going to depend on anything to fight, it would be me. Y'know, that I wouldn't have to be rely on anything but myself. Something that I couldn't be disarmed with."

The Weaponer's eyebrows rose almost to the top of his decorated hairless pate. "What're you getting at, boy?"

Zell sighed expansively, and trusted his every hope and dream to this stranger who said he'd known his grandfather. "Do you... have any gloves?"

A frown. "Combat gloves? Hand to hand combat's outdated, boy. Don't you know that?"

"So are gunblades." It took a lot for Zell to be brave, he'd never told anyone about this. He'd always been small, with fragile hands and knees that skinned easily. He knew he'd never be tall, but he'd sell his soul and his grandfather's guns if it would buy him strength. Speed. Grace.

"Most little boys dream of gunblades, though." The Weaponer countered, but his dark eyes were intent on this one of hundreds of students who'd asked him for weapons, shiny pointy guns and knives and whips, things they could use as a tool or a crutch.

"I don't." Zell would look like an idiot with a gunblade, he knew that. Squall and Seifer were both already all leg, a promise of height that he would never have. He blew up at blond bangs, impatiently. "Do you have any or don't you?"

"Let me see your hands." The Weaponer held out a callused palm.

"What for?" Zell shoved his fists in his pockets, suspicious. Everyone made fun of him, he wasn't about to put it past the Weaponer just because he was a grown up.

"Because I need to see them if you want any kind of weapon from me, now give me your hand, boy." The old warrior's tone left no room for argument, and Zell did as he was told.

Zell's entire hand fit easily into the span of the Weaponer's palm, small and tanned, with narrow bones. He spread his fingers, to try and take up more space. The Weaponer hummed and humphed as he carefully felt Zell's knuckles, measuring them against his thumb, and squinting at the sturdy square shape of the hand in his.

"Hope you don't want to play basketball, son." His tone wasn't unkind as he released Zell. "I got an old pair of gloves in the back, but it'll be three years before they fit you." He leaned back, reaching into a drawer for his pipe. "There's a bag over there in the back corner... show me what you can do with it."

Zell peered around the racks of weapons and saw an old punching sack suspended from the ceiling, its aged and stained sides well-patched with duct tape. Zell frowned thoughtfully, rolling up his sleeves. He'd never trained on one of these before; he'd never really trained at all, besides reading everything he could get his hands on, and that alone took more time than he had. Zell was smart, but the words came slowly and he had to reread things several times just to make sure he'd gotten everything out of it. He would have liked to have gone into the gym, maybe, but Seifer and his cronies were usually lording over the place, and Zell was too experienced at being picked on to just invite ridicule like that. There was no Seifer here, just the Weaponer's appraising gaze beating into his back and Zell had to do something besides stand there.

The first punch stung; the old bag was harder than he thought and he winced, bouncing backwards. The Weaponer might have laughed under his breath, but Zell ignored him. He shook his wrist out briefly and tried again, struggling to remember what he'd read about throwing punches. Oh, yes. Make a straight line with your arm and the top of your hand. Don't snap your elbow straight, it's bad for the joint. Tuck your other arm back so you can twist it up and alternate punches. Put all the force between your first two knuckles. Breathe. One-two-one-two and bring up your knee and kick and spin and LEFT hand and RIGHT knee and duck and SIDE kick and oh, this is too easy, it's simple, it's not so far from the floor to the bag and the thing swings forward into your next punch and it's no wonder Seifer and Squall both need weapons because they 're both built too long and spread out and they don't know how to -dance-...

"That's enough."

Zell stumbled, rhythm broken. He'd forgotten he wasn't alone. "Sir?"

"That bag won't take much abuse, you know."

Zell slowly uncurled his fists. His hands hurt something fierce, no wonder the books recommended gloves or at least tape for training. "Well?"

The Weaponer took a long pull on his pipe, and scratched at his head. "I'm sorry, son. I don't have anything here for you."

Zell fought very hard not to cry, disappointment squeezing his throat. He wasn't good enough. He'd probably looked really dumb hitting that punching bag, like some stupid little kid pretending he knew how to fight. "Oh." He could manage no more than that; his eyes were burning and there were two Weaponers there instead of one. And no way was he going to cry, not here, not now, and before he could he rushed out of the Armory, fleeing to the safety of the hallway and his cramped room and not hearing anyone call out after him.

Zell had spent most of his life feeling not quite good enough; he felt he should at least by now be able to manage it with a little dignity. And that was best accomplished by bawling his eyes out in private.

He left his room only one other time that day, and that was to take his three precious dog-eared copies of his fighting magazines and dump them into the communal lounge trash.

"Hey Dincht! You heard?" Nida was in the same homeroom as Zell, and spent most of his time desperately trying not to be noticed. As a result, he was probably the only person that paid Zell any attention, recognizing a fellow bully-target and hoping for strength in numbers.

"Heard what?" Zell had spent the last two days wondering what was to become of a Garden student who didn't choose a weapon, and the other half trying not to throw up or cry. Needless to say, he looked pretty miserable.

"About the Weaponer? He's gone! Just took off! It's all over the buzzlines." Nida waved his hands. "What rock have you been under?"

"Gone?" Zell shifted the weight of his notebook. "Gone where?"

"Nobody knows, man! Isn't it wild? You think the Faculty like, 'got rid' of him, or something?"

"How would I know?" Zell snapped. He would have liked to have said, 'How the HELL would I know,' but Mrs. Dincht didn't approve of saying hell and Zell was still too young to realize that his mother really DIDN'T know everything he did.

"Geez, you don't have to be so mean, I was just asking." Nida stomped off, towards the cafeteria.

Zell sighed miserably. His hair was dangling in his eyes again, but he didn't have the oomph to push it away. He drug his feet all the way to his room, ignored by the mass of students going to or from lunch or classes. He had flung his notebook on his desk and halfway shrugged out of his uniform jacket when he realized a small box was sitting on his bed, quietly waiting for him to come back. His name was written on the top, in neat pen strokes.

Zell swallowed. Did they give you a box to put your belongings in before they kicked you out of Garden? His jacket trailing behind him, Zell walked over to the parcel. If so it was an awfully small box. Maybe his mom had sent him a present? It wouldn't be the first time, but after the ridicule that had ensued from the other mostly-parentless classmen it wouldn't do to let anybody know about it.

Wondering when his stomach was ever going to sit properly in his belly again, Zell carefully lifted the lid and pulled away the covering layer of white paper. The scent of carefully worked leather floated up from the box, and bits of steel flashed as Zell lifted out the contents with trembling fingers.

Gloves. Perfect gloves, in black with metal studs on the knuckles, the interior crafted out of webbed material so that they would stretch as his hands grew to fit them, the cuff fitted with a strap and buckle to compensate for thickening wrists. Zell touched them as if they were made of glass and smelled the warm scent of them and tried to devour them with his eyes, so entranced that it took him a moment to notice the letter, tucked in with the tissue. Clutching the gloves to his chest, Zell leaned against his window for light, lips moving slightly as he read.

"Here are your gloves, son. Sorry I couldn't have them to you faster. It might be a good idea not to run off before people are done talking to you-- that's just a tip for your future. Don't ever let anyone tell you you aren't good, Zell. Use what you have and kick some ass for me. You'll need to upgrade these eventually, gloves this simple won't last someone like you for long. Best of Luck. "

It was not signed with a name, just a free-form squiggle reminiscent of the Weaponer's multiple tattoos. Zell traced the black design with one finger, and blinked at the small postscript on the bottom of the page.

"PS: Do something to get your hair out of your face, kid, or somebody's gonna blindside you."

Zell rubbed his nose on his sleeve and squinted at the blue sky outside his window. "Thanks," he whispered. He slipped his left hand into its proper glove, feeling the weight of it on his hand and the way the leather wrapped around the base of his fingers. He lifted his hand to the window, admiring how it looked, black against his skin, creaking as he clenched his fist and tried a punch, striking only-

"--Air, Dammit! She won't hold the FUCK still!" Zell stumbled back into Irvine, panting for breath. "Dammit dammit DAMMIT I can't even get a punch in! "

"Did ya think she would LET--Squall! Watch it!" Irvine swung up his gun and fired, stalling the sorceress long enough for Squall to lift Lionheart and parry Ultimecia's blow. The electric blue gunblade flashed up and Irvine's Exeter exploded again next to Zell's ear, the sound of the casing hitting ground was all there was to reassure Zell that he was, in fact, standing on something. Infinity spiraled away beyond his sneakers, cool and black and soothing, waiting to pull him in. Like it had pulled in Quistis, and Selphie, and Rinoa...

"Zell! Try it now!" Squall staggered back, his hand pressed to his chest and his jacket fur ruffling in the magical breeze as he summoned a green blast of Curaga first on himself, then the cool healing wave hit Zell, washing away the agonized protest of his muscles. Irvine murmured something and Zell felt a jolt of power out of nowhere, shooting golden over his skin. God bless Irvine and his Auras.

"Go get that bitch, Zell," Irvine grinned wearily, reloading for his turn, and Zell sprinted forward, fast as always and vaulting his compact body into the air for his last attack.

Time, already an iffy thing in this place, stilled to nothing. Ultimecia was looking at him, the empty place where her face should be was tilted up to watch him approach. Zell pulled both hands back, gathering force as he fell, moving slowly through Ultimecia's thickened temporal world. For a second it seemed that he could see her as she had been at first, mostly human, gold eyes narrowed on him, waiting. As he sculpted the ball of energy between his palms Zell realized suddenly that Ultimecia Knew. She knew the outcome of this battle before she had even begun it, knowing even more than they did how impossible it was to truly change time. Zell hung in the sky above her, inevitable as a falling meteor, and he Knew something then as well.

She was afraid of him.

They were going to win, he thought, clearly and without the forced optimism that had propelled him through space and time to this point, flying into the air, wearing his forgotten childhood dreams on his fingers. Time was compressed here, coiled tightly around him was his past and, if he didn't try to look directly at it, his future.

He had a future.

"Reflect on your childhood." Ultimecia said, and Zell's fists clenched in his gloves.

"Reflect on your own," He growled. "It's all you have left." And Time was his own again, he hurtled down like a careening star and she shuddered as the jolt of impact exploded into her from between his first two knuckles, the jolt ricocheting all the way into his arm. Zell moved to the beat of his attack, for five seconds moving in his own dance, his own moment, his own dream of combat.

Strength. Speed. Grace.

Ultimecia , wounded, staggered as Zell's feet found purchase again on the non-ground.

There was a thunder of Irvine's gunfire and a keening wail, and then Squall was nothing but an arc of swinging blue light blurring around Ultimecia's massive form, battering her like the storm of his name.

"Zell? Zell, are you alright?" Irvine had a hand on his shoulder, gun still smoking.

"I-" Zell began to say what he had discovered, flying above their enemy, but Ultimecia was falling, and Irvine was being pulled away. Squall vanished into the vacuum of time left by her demise, and Zell went too, into the future, into the past, into--

--the empty sunlight of his dorm room. Zell strapped on the other glove and then smiled down at both of them. They made his hands look bigger, tougher. He wondered what the Weaponer had meant about needing to upgrade later; Zell's thirteen-year old imagination could not conceive of gloves more magnificent than these. Very carefully he re-folded the letter and tucked it into his desk drawer, then grabbed for his jacket as he rushed out the door. Nida would still be in the cafeteria, and wouldn't he just flip when he saw THESE.

Time rippled in the empty room like a stone falling through water, and Zell turned his back on the past that had spilled before him, letting the voices of his friends guide him home.



"Up high I feel like I'm alive for the very first time
Up high I'm strong enough to take these dreams
And make them mine..."

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