The New Flesh

Chapter Eleven

By Scarlet Fever

Edea gasped, craning her neck backwards as her body was once again filled with magical energy.

"Edea...?" Xu asked. "What is it?"

"The barrier must be down."

"That's good... Right?" Irvine asked meekly.

"Yes and no," Edea whispered. "I can call magic again, but so can they."

"We should just keep moving...." Xu whispered. "I just hope we can find the others."

The trio walked down the dark catacombs of Xystus's Labyrinth, turning around corner after corner. Each path looked the same, each corner as dark as the last.

"Can we stop?" Xu asked after a prolonged silence. "My legs are getting tired, and we're getting nowhere."

"We can't stop!" Irvine spat, his eyes wide in the dark. But, it wasn't only from the limited light. It was from worry and terror. "The others are gone... What if those Inaudax did something to him? What..... What about Selphie?!"

"Irvine..." Edea said lowly. She went over to him, putting her hands on his shoulders. "Selphie was obviously called back from the Realm of the Dead to be a weapon for them. Because... Because she has such ties to us. We'd be emotionally conflicted to fight her."

"Why would they do this...?" Irvine whispered, feeling like a child again under his Matron's gentle stare.

"Why do they do anything?" Xu asked. "They're cruel. It's honestly very tactical. They can use Selphie to conflict us, but also send her into bodily danger, not risking their own lives."

"I won't ever harm Selphie!"

Xu just shook her head, looking at Edea, who still had her gentile, calm expression. "Irvine...." Edea whispered. "Selphie is now one of them... She's being controlled. Don't you think that she'd want to be set free?"

Irvine just sighed, looking at his feet.

"Come on," Xu muttered. "We should try to find a way out of here." She walked ahead, and rounded a corner, Edea and Irvine behind her. Suddenly, Xu stopped. She felt Edea's hand wind around her upper arm. "Something's wrong..." Xu looked up the path, and saw a figure standing there. The power in the air was obvious. The figure started walking towards them, and Xu tensed, and felt Edea's hand tighten around her arm.

"Selphie!" Irvine cried. He pushed past Xu and Edea, and took a few steps towards the small brunette.

Selphie blinked a few times in the dark, like she didn't know where she was, what she was doing. As Irvine approached her, something familiar tugged at her insides. "Irvine....?" she whispered.

He let them kill you.....

Selphie reared her head up at the sound of the voice in her head. She looked around, seeing to figures standing in the shadows, hiding themselves. Xiphias and Magdalene. Xiphias who was helping Selphie after what they did to her.... Xiphias, her only friend.

Selphie turned to face Irvine, her hands gripping the nunchuku that she didn't know where she got. He did this to me.... He let them kill me, let them destroy me....

She flung out one end of her weapon, and the small curved blade that was on the end (Did she always have that, or was it new?) cut into Irvine's cheek. He gasped in surprise, stumbling backwards. He felt Xu come up quickly behind him.

"Selphie...." Irvine whispered. He stared up at her with wide, confused eyes. "It's me... Irvine..."

"I know who you are!" Selphie spat. She moved to hit him with the knifed edge of her weapon, but Xu lunged forward, catching it with her bow, causing the blow to be deflected.

"Selphie... I am truly sorry...." Edea whispered, and cast Apocalypse on Selphie.

"Selphie!!" Irvine screamed, trying to move forward towards his former girlfriend. But, Xu held him back, away from the powerful spell.

Selphie screamed as the spell was cast. She also felt a secondary spell, Ultima, being cast. It caused her to fall to her knees, then onto her belly. She could feel her life being drained, hear Irvine distantly calling her name. She knew that she was near death, and it felt right. "I'll get to rest...." Selphie whispered.

Edea slumped her shoulders after the spells had been cast. "I'm sorry, Selphie."

"For what?" Magdalene asked, showing herself. She cast a look back into the darkness, where Xiphias still hid herself. Xiphias's strength wasn't in her magic, but in her potions, so she rarely entered into battles. "Selphie's going to be just fine...." Magdalene was no longer garbed in the cloak of the White Mage, but was in a costume that looked like one that would be worn by a belly-dancer. As she moved, the jewels and beads on her chiffon skirt and brassiere clinked together. She cast a high-end curative spell on Selphie, who groaned woozily.

"Magdalene...." Edea whispered.

"Poor Edea.... Things aren't boding well for you, are they?"

Irvine panted, looking at Selphie rise to her feet. She got herself in a fighting stance again, and Irvine reached up, touching his cheek, which was wet from blood and tears.

Magdalene brought her fingers to her lips as she stepped in front of Selphie. Xu readied her bow, but Edea made no move. She just stared at Magdalene, waiting for the other woman to make the first movie. Magdalene's face was a mask of coyness. The power slowly rose around her, but she didn't make a move towards Edea. Her long, dark hair rustled around her with rising power. "Ready?" Magdalene asked.

Edea just narrowed her golden brown eyes, letting her power build, too.

"Selphie, my dear," Magdalene cooed. "You know what to do..."

The small brunette nodded, placing her hand to her forehead as a wave of dizziness washed over her. When it passed, she got in a stance to fight again, and lunged towards Irvine. The small, curved knives on the ends of her weapon cut Irvine again. But, it wasn't a deadly blow, since he skittered out of the way before they could do any serious harm. The blades just cut across his chest, ripping into the fabric of his tuxedo.

"Selphie, please!" Irvine screamed. "It's me!"

"Shut up!" Selphie roared. "You let them destroy me!" She lashed out at Irvine again, but Xu blocked it again with her bow. Selphie made a move to attack once more, but stumbled when the entire pathway shook with energy. Invisible, magical wind was moving through the hall as Edea and Magdalene spewed forth power at the exact moment.

Magdalene just laughed, raising her level of power as Edea did the same. "May God have mercy on your souls...." She whispered, but trailed off as she laughed mirthfully. The little coins hanging from the bra of her costume made small, musical noises as they collided with each other in all the magical wind. Her power level became at its limit, and she released a Holy spell that caused the walls to shake. "You better hope that Heaven's waiting..." Magdalene whispered, cackling victoriously. "Let me use my divine intervention...."

"Squall....?" Nida whispered. His almond eyes flitted up to Seifer. "What happened? You're supposed.... supposed to be...."

"Dead?" Seifer asked quietly. "I know."

"Rinoa was right... She was seeing you...."

Seifer crouched beside Nida. "You feel more powerful. And, yes... Rinoa was seeing us."

"How are you here?" Nida asked. He turned his gaze back to the lion beside him. "Squall..... Oh my God..." He winced slightly when the power in him, Griever's power, rose. It was like it was trying to escape his body, trying to touch Squall, in this feline body.

"This is Griever's doing...." Seifer whispered. "I found him as he was transforming."

Nida rested his hand on the side of the lion's, Squall's, muzzle. "And.... I killed her... Oh, Squall..... I'm so sorry. I killed her."

Squall responded by nuzzling his face into Nida's throat. There was a low growling in the lion's chest, as if Squall was trying to say something, but couldn't.

"It wouldn't have helped," Seifer whispered. "It was her blood that did this."

"Can he change back?!"

Seifer shrugged. "I'm not sure."

"Why are you here?" Nida asked again.

Seifer pursed his lips, thinking of what words to use. Nida watched Seifer's every move, as did Squall through his blue feline eyes. It hadn't been too long, less than a year, since Seifer and Zell had died, but Seifer looked different, more mature. It was in his eyes. His eyes, which had turned greener and greener as he'd got older now looked like shimmering peridot, a pale, pale shade of beautiful green. He looked very classy in his suit, his golden hair looking like the sun in all the darkness of the Labyrinth. "Well..." Seifer trailed off. "There was a magical barrier up."

"I know," Nida whispered. "Tevedes told me of it."

"Right. Well, Rinoa... It's a long story that we don't have time for. Can I explain while we walk?"

Nida nodded. But, before he rose to his feet, he remained seated, looking at Squall. Nida was still in total shock, and his shaky hands patted Squall like one would pet a housecat. Squall closed his eyes, seeming to enjoy the touch. Nida suddenly realized what he was doing, and pulled his hands away from Squall's mane. "I... I'm sorry...."

"He seemed to like it..." Seifer noted.

"Can you talk?" Nida asked. "Sorry, that was a stupid question." He paused. "Hmmm... I wonder if Schuld or Griever's powers have given me telepathy?"

"Schuld?" Seifer whispered. "You have two Inaudax powers in you?" Seifer's eyes became concerned.

Nida cocked his head. "You seem concerned."

Seifer watched as Nida stood to full height. "Well, the Inaudax have very evil powers... I'd watch myself if I were you."

Nida sighed deeply, feeling Squall licking at his fingers. He felt like weeping as he looked down at his lover. Was Squall really his lover anymore? He was an animal.... "I don't want anyone else to take their power..." Nida whispered sadly.

"That's very commendable of you."

Squall.....? Nida mentally whispered.

No response. Squall cocked his head, seeming to notice Nida's state of distress. He again licked at Nida's hand.

Nida nodded sadly, then swooned. He suddenly felt extremely light-headed. "Ugh.... What happened?" He felt Seifer's hand on his arm, pulling him to his feet.

"New power...." Seifer answered. "You're getting used to it."

"I tried to talk to Squall telepathically... I guess I can't."

"I think he knows how you feel," Seifer whispered. "Come on. Let's walk."

"So, how did you get here?" Nida asked, falling in stride beside Seifer, Squall on his other side.

"The magic barrier was also working as a barrier between the worlds of life and death. It would prevent the Inaudax from dying. See... They're human now, back in mortal flesh, which means that they can die. So, blocking Xystus...."

"Would prevent them from going back before they got their revenge against me...." Nida sighed. "Just because I have Iudicium in me. I didn't even want this power." He blew his breath out. "And, look at what's happened...." He looked over at Squall. "I've killed Griever.... She was the only one who would have known how to change Squall back."

"We'll figure something out. Anyway," Seifer said as they rounded a corner. "When Rinoa went into that coma after her fight with you, when you got Xerampelinae and Iudicium's powers, she was supposed to die, to never come out of the coma..."

Squall made a low growling noise, walking as close to Nida as he could without tripping the Asian man.

"So, you kept Rinoa alive?" Nida asked.

Seifer nodded. "Sort of. We just sort of prevented her from entering the Realm of the Dead. She was our gateway. Zell and me.... We were dead, and weren't. Technically, we didn't really belong in Xystus, at least not according to Lillith."

"Because you were possessed?" Nida asked.

Seifer nodded.

Suddenly, Nida looked around. "Well... where's Zell?"

The tall blonde shrugged. "I don't know. Anyway, when you all got separated, Rinoa made her way to the actual manor..." Seifer pointed upwards. "So, she broke the barrier generator. But... I think she was badly hurt. Once we came back, we lost a lot of our connection with her."

"So..... are you still powerful?" Nida asked.

Seifer laughed darkly. "Nowhere near as powerful as you are. Even only two Oracles in you has made you very powerful... More than any other Sorcerer or Sorceress that I've heard of. If you take more power in, let alone the power of each Oracle, you'll be more powerful than Hyne."

"I don't want it...." Nida whispered. "I just don't want anyone else to suffer because of the Inaudax. So... you have no powers?"

"Zell and me... We have as much power as you guys would with Junctioned magic... But.... It's more the nature of the power than the amount of it. And, the nature of our Guardian Forces."

Nida nodded, feeling a wave of Griever's power rise in him. It was very bestial, very sexual in nature He breathed deeply, trying to quench it. "Well, the other Oracles are detained right now in suspended animation, but Magdalene and Xiphias are still around here somewhere."

Suddenly, they stopped. They could see light at the end of the path. "Light...?" Nida whispered.

Squall walked up ahead of them. Seifer and Nida followed, and came across a staircase.

Nida looked up the staircase. It seemed to go on forever. "I feel something...."

"Rinoa," Seifer stated quietly. "I can feel her. This leads to the manor."

"Do you know your way around here?" Nida asked as they climbed the stairs, Squall ahead of them. "I mean... isn't this place a replica of the true Xystus?"

"It is," Seifer answered. "But, there isn't a Labyrinth in Lillith's castle."

"Lillith.... So, is she ruling the dead again?"

Seifer nodded as they climbed farther and farther. "Me and Zell gave our power to her, making her the true Queen of the Dead once more."

"Setting things right..." Nida whispered.

Seifer nodded. Suddenly, he paused. "You know... It's kind of funny. I feel like I know you very well, but we haven't really spoken all that much. We never really socialized when we were both at Garden. And, after that...."

Nida nodded. "I sort of feel the same way. Although... I knew more about you in Garden because you had more of a reputation than I did. I was a wallflower of the worst kind."

"I guess that's why you and Squall get along so well."

Nida looked up the stairs, still not able to see the end. Squall was moving quicker up the stairs, his feline body less susceptible to fatigue. "What now, though.....?" Nida shook his head, turning his gaze to Seifer. "I feel like I know you guys, too. Squall... talks about you sometimes. Not all the time, though. I think it's painful for him."

"I know," Seifer whispered, his voice barely audible over their footsteps. "We really put him in an awful position...." Suddenly, Squall disappeared. The top of the stairs were in sight.

"Finally...." Nida muttered. "My legs are killing me. I guess it's been a while since I trained."

"You aren't SeeD anymore?" Seifer asked, his eyes thoughtful under the shadow of the brim of his hat.

"Oh, I am. But, I've been spending a lot of time in Esthar... trying to get used to being a Sorcerer. Edea wanted me to learn to control my powers."

"Especially since they're so strong..." Seifer said quietly. "I don't envy your position, Nida."

They stepped into the well-lit room, and Nida closed his eyes, kneading his temples. "This is the first room I was in...." He ran his hand over the chair where he'd been sitting. "They were just watching me... Waiting for me to call Iudicium. I was hoping that Squall and the others wouldn't come help me. They would be in more danger than me. I guess I was right...." He trailed off as he felt Squall's muzzle rub against his hand. Nida couldn't help when his hand stroked Squall's fur, and in the back of his mind, he wondered if Squall resented being treated like an animal. But, the way that Squall was almost purring suggested he didn't really mind.

Seifer walked into the main hall, stopping in his tracks. "The power is thick here."

Nida closed his eyes, stopping beside the taller man. "I wonder if Rinoa's even... alive....?" Nida then noticed the great wooded doors, flung open. "Stay here a second.... just in case an Oracle comes. I just want to peek in there..." He gestured to the doorway. Nida climbed the stairs with caution, looking back over his shoulder, seeing Seifer regarding the foyer with sad familiarity, Squall seated beside him, looking up at him.

Nida looked into the dark, the power in the room causing him to cough. It didn't feel like any evil was in there, but the residue of dark energy was thick. He then saw a crumpled body leaning against a fountain that was spurting blood. He moved towards it, then stopped, seeing the large portrait of Ultimecia, glaring down at him.

"You bitch..." Nida whispered. He then looked at the body. "Rinoa!" He cried, rushing over to her. "Rinoa, are you okay?!" He could see that she was breathing, but she was a mess. One of her hands was completely red with blood, and had a small puncture in it. Her skin was lashed with what looked like bruises or burns. He crouched beside her, gently touching her hair. "Rinoa? It's Nida." He heard footsteps behind him, and turned around to see that Seifer and Squall had entered the circular room.

Seifer cast a fire spell, filling the room with warm orange light. Squall slowly walked over, his now feline body shivering slightly as he approached Rinoa's bleeding body. It was as if he could smell the blood, and craved it.

"Rinoa....?" Nida whispered. He cast a few cure spells on her, and she groaned, slowly squinting her eyes.

Rinoa blinked a few times, her vision hazy. She saw a pair of concerned eyes looking at her. Beautiful eyes that were as deep and dark as the night ocean. Eyes that were as warm as the firelight that illuminated the room. "Nida.....?" Rinoa whispered. After she said his name, she started hacking, a dry cough. "Nida?"

"Yeah.... Are you all right?"

"Nida...." She panted. She then started weeping, so thankful that he was okay. "Did I help....?" She asked weakly, coughing again. She felt Nida patting her back gently, helping her with her coughing fit.

"Don't cry...." Nida whispered. "Yeah, you did help. More than you know."

She smiled thinly through her tears. "I'm so glad.... so glad....." She started weeping again, and weakly flung her arms around Nida's neck. "I'm so glad you're okay." She wept into Nida's chest, glad that he found her, glad that he was okay. She felt Nida hug her back, stroking her back in a comforting manner. He felt strong. Very strong. And, it was more than just physically. She didn't mind that he was crushing her against his chest in the least. It felt safe. She also felt that he was more spiritually, magically powerful, as well. She stiffened in Nida's arms when she heard a low growling, a menacing, frightening noise. She looked over Nida's shoulder, and saw a huge lion glaring at her, its fangs bared. She yelped in fright, clinging to Nida, which only seemed to make the lion angrier.

"Squall!" Seifer commanded. "Don't be petty."

Rinoa's doe brown eyes widened. "Squall....?!" She looked up and saw Seifer. "Oh.... Seifer....?!" She coughed again, moaning in pain. "Nida, can you see him?"

Nida nodded. "Yes. It's because of you that he's here. You broke the barrier."

She nodded distantly, looking at this lion that Seifer had called 'Squall'. She saw that the lion's eyes were blue, and held the same malice that Squall had recently regarded her with. There was also a scar between the lion's eyes. "Squall....?" She still clung to Nida, looking at him in confusion.

"Griever changed him...." Nida whispered sadly. "Can you stand?"

She looked at her ankle, which was horribly swollen and bruised. "I don't think so."

"I'll carry you...." Nida offered, which caused Squall to growl again, and actually advance towards Rinoa in a very unfriendly manner. Then, he actually snapped his teeth at her when Nida lifted her off the ground, almost catching her hand in his sharp fangs.

"Squall... please...." Nida whispered.

"What happened?" Rinoa asked, feeling light-headed. It felt nice to be carried by Nida. She gripped the lapels of his coat.

"I came upon Squall as he was transforming. He was covered in blood, from a spot on his neck, so I just guessed that Griever had done something to him," Seifer answered. He squeezed Rinoa's shoulder. "Thank you."

She tried to smile, but just felt like passing out. "Where's Gietzen?!" Rinoa asked suddenly, flinching in Nida's arms as he carried her out into the foyer, like a groom carrying a bride. She could see Squall's eyes, so decidedly Squall, even in this animal form, glaring at her hatefully. She knew that if he could, he would eat her alive.

"Suspended animation," Nida answered.

"What does that mean?" Seifer asked, his scarred brow furrowing.

"After the barrier was destroyed, I guess Iudicium helped me... She filled the room I was in with blood, and I made it flow upwards, and boil, and then I transported out of the room, and congealed the blood. The only Oracles that weren't there were Schuld, Griever, Magdalene and Xiphias. But, I came across Schuld, and took her power, and then I killed Griever..." Nida explained, trailing off as he looked sadly at Squall.

Squall rubbed his face against Nida's hip, eyes closed with that look of pure contentment that cats got. He then glared at Rinoa.

"We should find the others," Seifer pointed out. "There are still two Oracles out there."

"And, Selphie..." Nida whispered.

Seifer cocked his head. "Right."

"You knew about her....?" Rinoa asked quietly, feeling lulled in Nida's arms as they walked back down the stairs into the Labyrinth.

"Yes. It's unfortunate that the Inaudax are merely using her as sort of a throw-away decoy. Brilliant strategy, but hurtful all the same."

Rinoa coughed, and after the fit subsided, she asked "Are you sure it's a good idea to go underground again?" She then looked around. "Is Zell here, too?"

"I can feel him," Seifer answered. "We'll just follow him, since I'm sure he found the others..."

"I hope everyone's okay...." Nida whispered. "But I have a feeling they aren't."

"Kiros is dead...." Rinoa whispered sadly.

Silence passed through them. Seifer walked a few steps ahead, leading the way.

"Nida...." Rinoa whispered. She looked at his profile, then deeply into his eyes when he turned his head to regard her. "Never mind." She wanted to say something to him, but actually felt a little afraid of him at that moment, afraid of the power that was in him. She was also afraid of herself. It felt nice to be held by Nida, and it made her sad because nothing would come of it. Nida loved Squall, and that was that. She was also a little afraid that if she said anything, Squall would tear her arm off. She just closed her eyes, wincing at the pain that her injured flesh was putting her through, hoping that the others had faired better than she had.

Quistis panted, rubbing her jaw. It was swelling up, and she was sure it was badly bruised. She cast some cures on herself, and it made the pain disappear. She could also feel her jawbone setting again, but she would still need a doctor to check it.

"How long have we been moving, ya know?!" Raijin asked.

Quistis sighed. "I don't know... I don't have any sense of time down here." She looked over at Laguna, who was standing silently a few meters away from them, his shoulders silently shaking. Both Quistis and Raijin knew he was mourning Kiros. "Let's rest for a little bit."

"Schuld must be dead, ya know?!" Raijin muttered, slumping against a wall, sitting on the ground beside Quistis. "We haven't seen her in a while."

"And that scares me," the blonde whispered.

"Why?" Raijin asked.

"Well, Schuld is a Sorceress. She'd have to give her power up before she died. Who would have absorbed it?"

"If it was another Oracle, that's bad news, ya know?!" He murmured lowly. "Are you okay?"

Quistis stroked her jaw. "I'll live." She looked over to Laguna, who seemed to be composing himself. "I just hope Squall and the others are okay."

"They'll be fine," Laguna said, his voice calm. He wiped tears off his cheeks. "They'll be fine."

They sat in silence, Laguna standing, leaning against a wall, loading his machine gun. Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of combat. Very distant.

Raijin furrowed his brow. "What's that, ya know?!"

"Sounds like fighting," Laguna whispered. He could hear faint cries and yelling. "Think it's the others?"

Quistis rose to her feet, brushing her burned skirt. "Only one way to find out. But... quietly...." They stealthily walked towards the noise of battle, and as they rounded a corner, were slammed into with a wave of power. Magdalene was standing, her arms raised over her head, power moving all around her. Quistis's cobalt eyes widened when she saw Xu and Edea, unconscious, crumpled on the ground. "XU!" Quistis screamed. She then clamped her hand over her mouth, realizing that Magdalene knew they were there now.

"Shit!" Raijin cursed, seeing Irvine fighting off Selphie, conflict and sorrow in his eyes. The bulky man dashed to Irvine's aide, using his club to fend off Selphie's quick attacks. "Irvine, you okay?!"

"Selphie...!!" Irvine cried. "Please... It's me!"

"SHUT UP!" Selphie screamed. Her weapon was knocked out of her hands, and she lunged at Irvine attacking him with punches and kicks.

"Ahhh, guests," Magdalene purred, facing Quistis and Laguna. "Good. I was getting bored."

Laguna raised his gun, glaring silently at Magdalene, trying to stand his ground against her power. He gave Quistis a sidelong glance, and they both started attacking. Magdalene's magic was very strong, painfully so, all around them, but neither Quistis nor Laguna wanted to give up. They didn't have much strength anymore, and were running on adrenaline alone, Quistis worried about Xu, Laguna desiring vengeance for Kiros. Quistis got her whip around Magdalene's wrist, but the white mage just arced her arm, and sent Quistis flying, the blonde's body slamming against a wall. Quistis gasped in pain as the wind left her body, but didn't give up. She stumbled for a moment, then cast Curaga and Haste on herself. She also cast Shell on Laguna. Laguna's bullets always seemed to miss their mark, Magdalene using her powers to move quickly. Magdalene's fist came in contact with Laguna's jaw, and she gave him a hefty uppercut. He groaned, and fell backwards against Quistis.

"This isn't good..." Quistis panted. "We need to think of something..."

"Raijin!" Laguna cried. "We need your help!"

Raijin grunted, fending off a punch from Selphie. For such a small body, she could really pack a wallop. It was probably because of Inaudax influence. "I'm sort of busy!"

"Sefie, please!!" Irvine wailed. "Don't do this!"

She kicked him in the face, and Irvine stumbled back, losing his grip on his gun.

"What are we going to do?!" Quistis spit out. She and Laguna continued to attack Magdalene, even though it wasn't doing any good. Suddenly, they noticed that someone else had joined the fight. The third figure started in a crouching position, then rose to their feet, touching their toes to stretch out. They then punched the air a few times. Quistis's eyes widened in shock as she looked at this small person, small man, in his hooded sweatshirt and black pants. "Oh my God...."

The man ignored her, and jumped forward punching Magdalene hard in the face, then giving her a quick, wicked roundhouse kick.

"Zell....?" Quistis cried.

Zell slightly turned to face her, grunting as Magdalene cast Holy on them. "We can have a reunion later."

Laguna nodded, firing again at Magdalene. The power sputtered when a bullet went into her stomach. The President of Esthar also noticed that Zell had taken a step backwards, putting himself in a ready stance. He was charging a Guardian Force. "Quistis!" Laguna called. "Zell is going to summon."

Quistis nodded, knowing that Laguna wanted to attack Magdalene with all the fury that they possibly could, weakening her as much as possible before Zell's GF came into battle. She wasn't a hand to hand fighter, but Quistis used punches and kicks along with her whip, trying desperately to weaken Magdalene as best she could. Quistis briefly wondered what Guardian Force Zell would have, seeing as how he was supposed to be dead.

Laguna felt the air change, and he jumped away from the White Mage. "Quistis, get back!"

"Right!" She jumped back, getting in a defensive stance beside Zell, who called his summon. Quistis didn't feel the detachment from battle that she usually got when someone called forth a Guardian Force.

"Tyranny...." Zell whispered under his breath, the same way that people called Guardian Forces all the time, the same way that Quistis had uttered the commands Tsunami, Diamond Dust, Mega Flare, all the time.

"Tyranny?" Quistis whispered. She stood back, and watched a figure rise from the ground, as if passing through it. It was a woman in chains, crouching on the ground. A woman in binding of magic. Her hair was fiery, like a sunset, seeming to glow around her like a blood halo. She looked up, her muscular arms restrained around her, her icy blue eyes looking calm. Quistis gasped, and Laguna totally froze. It was Adel. It had to be. She looked very much like Zell, and that hair....

"Adel?!" Laguna cried, looking at Zell. Then, Adel's icy eyes filled with anger, turned blood red. She also seemed to be changing. It all went in slow-motion for Quistis and Laguna, but probably happened more quickly than they thought. Adel's skin began to change from her rosy shade of flesh to a grim purple hue, her muscles expanding, her curvy body becoming hard with masculine form. She was also growing. She let out a laugh of evil, and the binding broke away from her, reminding Quistis painfully of when Adel had escaped her restraints in Lunatic Pandora after falling from space.

Adel stretched her powerful arms out, becoming totally the Adel that everyone knew her as, her clothes, her jewellery, all duplicated from her days as Esthar's ruler. Adel's bubbling red eyes turned to Magdalene, who gasped.

"Adel?!" Magdalene screamed. "No!" The power that she'd been building in the air sputtered with her shock.

Adel laughed, pointing one of her clawed fingers at Magdalene, Adel's large, inhuman body filling the pathway, her dark power filling it. Adel's horrible laugh rang through everything, and shook the entire area as if it were a Quake spell. Then, Adel arced her arm forward bringing it to her masculine chest, then pointed her finger at Magdalene again, sending forth a Flare spell of huge magnitude. It filled the caverns with heat and noise, the Oracle Magdalene screaming as she was assaulted by this power.

"Xiphias!!!" Magdalene screamed. "Help me!!!"

Xiphias watched from the shadows, seeing Magdalene being engulfed in Adel's dark Flare spell, hearing Adel's cruel, too familiar laugh all around her. Magdalene screamed again, trying to cast something against Adel, but it seemed easily deflected by the behemoth Sorceress.

"Xiphias!!!" Magdalene screamed again.

"I'm sorry, Mag..." Xiphias whispered. She was not a fighter. Her strength was in potions and concoctions. "I can't die to help you. We still don't have Iudicium." Xiphias then turned on her back, walking stiffly away, then disappearing into thin air.

"Xiphias!" Magdalene cried angrily. She crumpled to her knees, Adel's Flare spell too powerful for her. Magdalene tried to cast Curaga on herself to stave away death, but Adel sent another wave of Flare against her. Magdalene cried out, all her power leaving her. "Damn you, Adel...."

Adel laughed once more, lowering her long, muscular arm. She put her hands to her bulky chest, her long orange braid flowing around her. She then began to shrink, to turn back into the first apparition of Adel that they'd witnessed. She was all calmness and serenity once more, flipping her long braid over her shoulder as she turned her back on the dying Magdalene. She then vanished into thin air, the power entering Zell's body once more.

"Damn you...." Magdalene whimpered. She was desperately trying to cast a curative spell on herself, but was too weak.

"Someone will have to absorb her powers..." Zell muttered, crossing his arms over his chest.

Quistis and Laguna looked at each other. "I'll do it..." Quistis offered reluctantly. She took a couple of steps forward, but stopped when she saw something fall in front of her face. She quickly reached her hand out, catching it. A black feather. A few more fell, Quistis's outstretched hands catching them.

"Iudicium...." Selphie whispered from her crumpled position on the ground. The summoning of Adel in Guardian Force form had also affected her.

Everyone felt Magdalene's power leave her body, but Quistis didn't feel it enter her own. She looked to the mouth of one of the passages, and saw Nida, his arms outstretched, Iudicium's wings sprouting from his back, feathers falling all around him. Magdalene's power entered him. When the process was complete, Iudicium's wings vanished back into Nida's body, and he slowly sank beside her body.

Magdalene, though without her powers, managed to use a potion that had been in a pouch hanging from the folds of her skirts. "I won't go that easily...." Magdalene ground out, gripping Nida's throat with one of her hands. She took a small dagger out of her skirts, and jammed it into Nida's throat.

Suddenly, the air changed again, got darker, and very, very cold. They all heard someone whisper 'Dead Queen', and the temperature began to drop, until the breath of every person present could be seen, plain as day. Then, they heard footsteps, coming from the darkness. And, the caw of a bird. A raven. It flew into the open area, circling, its one eye milky as it looked at each person, as if choosing them. The bird cawed again, and landed on Magdalene's back, crying out as it did. Then, the dark seemed to open, and a figure, in a night black cloak, stepped out into their vision, the wind swirling around them all. She was carrying a huge scythe, and the wind picked up as she stopped in front of Magdalene. Hyperion vaulted off Magdalene, and perched on Lillith's shoulder. She swung the huge, huge scythe around her body, the wind picking up more, becoming a frigid maelstrom. This caused the hood obscuring Lillith's face to fall away. Her cold eye looked down at Magdalene as she slammed the end of the scythe's pole into the ground with a deafening clatter.

Magdalene screamed, and her spirit, a tangible ghost of her form, left her body, and was swallowed up in the folds of Lillith's cloak. Without a word, Lillith pulled the hood over her face again. Hyperion left his Mistress's shoulder, and flew into the darkness, Lillith walking behind him.

"Lillith!" Selphie screamed, rising to her feet. "The Dead Queen!!!"

Lillith didn't turn, or even acknowledge that Selphie had spoken. She continued to walk into the blackness, following Hyperion.

"Wait!" Selphie screamed, her voice choked with sobs. "Take me with you! Take me back!!! Bring me back to Xystus!!!" Selphie wailed. Lillith vanished into thin air, just like Adel had done before her. Lillith's energy moved past them all, and was absorbed by Seifer.

"Please..." Selphie wept, falling to the ground, pounding it with her small fists. "Take me back! Let me die!!!"

"Selphie....!" Irvine cried, moving towards her. She stopped beating the ground when Zell cast a strong sleep spell on her.

"Seifer....?" Quistis whispered. Nida rose to his feet, staring down at Magdalene's dead body.

Seifer slowly went over to Zell, who was now standing beside Nida. Seifer, from behind, put his hand on Zell's shoulder. Zell covered Seifer's hand with his own, patting it gently.

"Seifer! Zell!" Quistis exclaimed. She made a move towards them, but stopped dead when she saw a lion coming out of the darkness. It stopped beside Nida, leaning against the Asian man. Quistis gasped, taking a few steps back. Seifer left Zell's side, and went into the pathway. He came back out with Rinoa in his arms.

"Where's Squall?!" Laguna exclaimed, terror in his voice as he whipped his head around.

"This is Squall...." Nida whispered, gesturing towards the lion.

Laguna blinked a few times, looking down at the big cat. It slowly walked towards Laguna, looking up at him with blue eyes. The blue eyes that were so like Raine's, the blue eyes that Laguna knew off by heart because they belonged to his son. The President slumped to his knees, looking at Squall's not animal face. "Oh, Squall... What have they done to you?" Laguna thought of Kiros, dead now, lost to him forever. He thought of Ward, dead during Ultimecia's last assault. And now, Squall.... his body stolen from him. Laguna wept, bringing his hands to his face. He felt the creature's breath, Squall's breath, on the side of his face. He then felt the rough tongue of this lion, of Squall, run over his cheek. Laguna had been licked by cats before, but the fact that this was his child, doomed to an animal's body, caused Laguna to weep harder.

"What happened?!" Quistis exclaimed, looking at Rinoa as Nida took her away from Seifer, carrying her with ease.

"We'll explain on the Ragnarok," Zell said. "We have to get out of here."

Nida looked at Rinoa, who had passed out. "Once we leave the manor's grounds, the Oracles will come out of the suspended animation that I put them in, so we'll have to be fast. Can someone take Selphie?"

"I'll do it..." Irvine whispered, picking up her small, unconscious body. "How dare they do this to her!"

Laguna controlled his sobs, looking at Squall through teary eyes. "Oh, Squall... my little boy...."

Squall gave Laguna what looked like an annoyed glare, which caused Laguna to laugh despite himself.

"Xu!" Quistis cried, rushing over to her girlfriend. "Are you alright?"

Xu shook her head as Quistis roused her. "Huh? Oh, Quistis..... I'm glad you're safe."

Edea sat up as well. "Oh.... Oh, thank goodness everyone is okay." She looked around as Raijin helped her up. "Thank you, dear. Where is Kiros... And...." her eyes stopped on the lion. "Squall?!"

"Kiros is dead," Laguna answered dully. "And, this is Squall... Trapped in this body, I'm assuming..."

Edea shook her head, then brought her fingertips to her lips. "Seifer?! Zell?!"

"What's going on here?" Xu asked groggily, leaning on Quistis.

"No time for that," Seifer exclaimed. "We'll have time to explain when we get to Esthar. Right now... It's too dangerous."

"What were you saying about suspended animation?" Zell asked of Nida.

"That I filled the room that they were in with blood, and congealed it. Once I leave Xystus's grounds, it will disappear, and the Oracles will be free."

"Why don't we just stay here then?" Irvine asked.

"Because Xiphias is still free. She might figure out how to get the rest out."

"Why didn't Xiphias attack us?" Quistis wondered as they all began to follow Zell, who seemed to know where he was going.

"You sure you know where you're going?" Nida asked aloud.

"I'm sure," Zell whispered. He and Seifer walked side by side, silence passing between them. Nida walked behind them, carrying Rinoa in his arms. Squall quickly trotted over to them, walking closely to Nida, occasionally rubbing the side of his face against the outer haunch of Nida's leg. Laguna walked on the other side of what was now his son, trying to hold in tears of sorrow, and succeeding. Quistis and Xu walked next, with Irvine carrying Selphie behind them. Raijin and Edea brought up the rear, making sure that they weren't attacked from the back.

"Here we are...." Zell said after a while. They were standing in the mouth of the Labyrinth, at the entrance to this nightmarish place. "We'll have to hurry to the Ragnarok."

"Hopefully it's still in one piece," Nida whispered quietly.

"Are you going to be okay to fly it, ya know?!" Raijin asked. "I'm sure someone else can do it."

"I'll be fine," Nida whispered. He closed his eyes, power moving through him. He had just been getting used to having Iudicium's power in him, and hers alone. Now, he had the power of Schuld and Magdalene junctioned with the Goddess of Judgement, just the way that Xerampelinae's powers had been. And, he also had Griever's powers to deal with, which were acting unlike magical powers, and more like animal instinct. This power was constantly burning through him, responding to Squall, flaring almost painfully whenever Squall touched him with that new lion's body.

"Do you think we'll make it to the ship in time?" Xu asked.

They stepped out of the Labyrinth, and almost immediately, the skies crackled with lightning.

"I guess Xiphias got to the other Oracles," Nida whispered. "I can just teleport us." He closed his eyes. With all the new, acquired power, it was easy, too easy, to teleport everyone to where the Ragnarok was. He wasn't sure how he knew where the Dragon ship was, but he knew it was there all the same.

"Are we going to be able to fly in this?" Laguna asked warily, jumping as a huge bolt of lightning cracked through the sky. The seas were already beginning to heave. Tempest was rousing, and she was angry.

"Just get in," Nida whispered. He gave Rinoa's sleeping form to Laguna. "Hurry."

They all got into the Ragnarok, the wind howling all around them, and actually causing the ship to rock back and forth. They all piled into the bridge, which was a tight fit.

"Why don't we just go to the onboard conference room?" Laguna asked, sitting on the ground, looking at Squall with sorrow and wonder.

"Because Nida will have to stay up here," Quistis whispered.

"I can get on the intercom," Nida said, checking the gauges on the control panel. "It'll be too hard to fly with you all in here, anyway."

"Well, can you triple link it?" Edea asked. "I would like to take Selphie and Rinoa somewhere where they can rest...."

"Yeah. There was recently a sickbay type room put in. It's that room with the door near the stairs on the first floor...."

"I know it..." Edea picked up Rinoa. "Irvine, will you take Selphie."

"I'll set that up now." Nida pressed a few buttons.

Squall walked over to where Nida was sitting, and sat next to the chair, obviously not going anywhere. Seifer sat down in the chair beside Nida, and Zell sat in another chair.

"Well, screw the conference room, actually," Quistis muttered. "Xu, you should go down with Edea.... I'll go with you. We can just do it that way."

Nida nodded, starting the airship. "Fine."

Quistis, Xu and Raijin went down the elevator. Laguna slumped in a chair, kneading his brow.

Nida closed his eyes and began to fly the ship. He slowly breathed out, feeling the air rocking the giant frame around, hearing the lightning tearing all around them.

"Talk," Laguna commanded gently.

"You guys ready?" Edea asked, her voice coming through slightly static because of the storm.

"Well," Zell began. "I'm sure that Seifer's been explaining what happened to some of you.... Well, to make it short, Rinoa was supposed to die in her coma. But, we prevented her body from coming to Xystus. We knew that this had happened. When Ultimecia and Adel had possessed us, time had compressed in more places than just here. It also did it in the real Xystus. This caused the Oracles, who had probably been planning this the whole time, to escape Xystus, and come back. The Realm of the Dead was sort of fucked up, because we didn't know what we were doing.

"So, when Rinoa was supposed to die, we just put her in a coma state until her body could hold her mind, her soul, again. When that happened, she woke up. She was our gateway. It took a while for her to get strong enough for our power.... Well, not power, that's a bad word... Our souls, I guess... To pass through her. Too bad it had to happen in all this chaos. When the Inaudax set up that magic barrier, it was also being used as a barrier from Xystus. They didn't want any powers from there to come back and kill them. They also didn't want natural human afflictions to stop them. Their goal all along has been revenge against Iudicium."

"Because of what happened in 1000 AH, right?" Quistis asked over the intercom. "They wanted revenge because Iudicium killed them."

"Right," Seifer answered. He shared a look with Zell that said so many things without uttering a word. "So, when Rinoa destroyed the barrier... And, I'm sorry that it hurt her so badly. Anyway, when she broke the barrier, she was conscious enough about that we were communicating with her through dreams and visions. That's why she thought that she was going between two worlds. So, we used her to come back to flesh, to be given new flesh. And, that's how we're here. Rinoa destroyed the barrier, and we came back."

"Are you dead?" Xu asked, her voice sounding tired.

"No. We're very alive," Zell said. "Our deaths were..... under strange circumstances..." Zell paused, giving Squall a sympathetic look. Squall just stared back, resting his head against Nida's arm. "But, we had to give up most of our powers when we left Xystus, since all that power rightfully belongs there. We gave it all to Lillith, so she's the true Queen of Xystus once again."

"What about that summon?!" Quistis exclaimed. "What about Adel and Lillith?"

Seifer sighed. "It was sort of like their offering. Lillith was grateful for her power back, so she lets me call her, as a Guardian Force. Same with Adel. Since Adel is Zell's birth mother, she wanted a part of her to be with him."

"But, the Adel that Zell summoned was the awful one...." Laguna whispered.

"Adel can't deny what she became," Zell said quietly. "But, the fact that I control it... It's safe. Her power in Xystus is where the summon came from. Well, not her power, but her consciousness. She's Adel Viator there. So, it will never be... dangerous. Unless you're on the receiving end."

"What other powers do you have?" Edea asked.

"Well..." Seifer trailed off. "We're a little bit stronger than we were before we went there. Our magic is a little more... archaic. It's the same spells you guys have, but since we could take from all eras, all the dead power, it's just more layered. And...." Seifer trailed off. "No, never mind."

"What?" Laguna asked.

"We have power over other summons, but...." Zell whispered. "They're too dangerous to use."

"What summons?" Quistis's voice demanded.

"Inandantia. The flood that killed the Inaudax when Iudicium called it," Seifer said slowly. "Zell has that one. Zell also has Vividarium, the female warrior that Ultimecia summoned back then. But, they're too... dangerous. I hope that he never has to summon them. And, me...." He trailed off again.

"Tell us," Quistis said. "We have to know, especially if it comes down to having to use them."

"I can summon Ultimecia, too."

Laguna reared his head. "What?!"

"Her power is in Xystus, too, and since we did rule over it in Lillith's stead, I controlled her. And, Lillith made it so I still do. I hope to never have to use it, because Ultimecia's loyalty is to the Inaudax. I can control her power, but she's sneaky. If I call her... who knows what could happen. Lillith thought it could be a good weapon against the Inaudax, the same way they used Selphie against you guys, but...." He trailed off. "It's not something I'm going to use anytime soon. I hope I don't have to at all."

"Okay, so that explains why you're here.... But, what about Squall?"

Seifer and Zell looked at Squall, who was watching Nida, as if guarding him. "Hmmm...." Zell whispered. "That's more complex."

"I found Squall while he was changing," Seifer said. "He was in pain, and screaming. Griever's power was in her blood. So, I think, from the blood that I found on Squall's neck, that Griever poured her blood into Squall's body, and it caused him to change. Griever is an ancestor of Squall, so their blood is similar, and his would react to it more strongly. And, he changed into a lion. I don't know if it's permanent or not. I'm hoping for not. But, since Griever is dead, we don't know for sure."

Nida sighed deeply, his back stiff and tense as the wind howled around them. Squall cradled his head in Nida's lap.

"So, who killed Griever?" Edea asked.

"Nida did," Seifer said simply. "He's too busy concentrating on not crashing us, so I'll say what he told me. He was in a room with some of the Oracles, with Tevedes, Tempest, Valhalla, Kronos, Fermata, Viator, Gietzen and Pallas, and Iudicium helped him by calling forth blood, which he then filled the room with. He teleported himself out of the room, then congealed the blood, trapping the Oracles inside of it. When he got out of the room, he found Schuld, and took her power. Then, Iudicium must have left his body...."

"Iudicium and me separate when I absorb power. As I was getting Schuld's, Griever came upon me, and stabbed me with my own sickle. I was dying, and it caused Iudicium to jar out of my body," Nida interrupted. "Then, I killed Griever, and absorbed her power, separately from Iudicium, and then Iudicium came back into my body, and healed me." Nida's voice was clipped and strained.

"Right," Zell said. "So, I guess that it's like Nida's got two Sorceresses in him at the same time. Iudicium absorbs power, but isn't doing with Griever. I'm not sure why."

"Well, then I found Nida, walking, and we met up with him. We is me and Squall. Then, we found Rinoa. She was fucked up pretty bad, and you all know what happened next."

"Well, I guess this is a good news, bad news sort of thing..." Zell muttered.

"How?" Xu asked.

"Three down, nine to go," Laguna muttered.

"We're almost in Esthar," Seifer pointed out for those who couldn't see the skyline approaching.

"How are we going to stop them?" Edea asked.

"Esthar has a great barrier. It is much stronger, and more sure-fire, than the one they set up. Someone can't just walk in and turn it off. That's near impossible. We'll add even more power to it."

"Right, ya know?!" Raijin exclaimed. "They won't be able to touch us there."

"We'll also have to do something about Tevedes's forces invading other countries," Quistis pointed out.

"How did... Kiros die....?" Xu asked quietly.

Laguna stiffened. "Schuld killed him with his own weapon....."

"Sorry," Xu whispered. "I shouldn't have asked."

Laguna remained silent.

"Seifer...." Quistis whispered. "What are you and Zell going to do....?"

Zell sighed sadly. "I don't know. I mean, I'm sure people hate us, so we won't be able to leave the Palace."

"That's not true," Xu said. "After you guys... died, all the nations, headed by Esthar, and Garden, all drew up a declaration absolving you both from any blame. It was a big International media thing. We wanted to clear your names, let everyone know what really happened. So, the whole world knows that you didn't have a choice. If anyone blames you now, it's not founded, and most people would disagree with them."

"Oh...." Zell trailed off. "Wow."

There was total silence as Nida landed the Ragnarok. Laguna got on a radio, calling for medical attention for Rinoa and Selphie.

"Nida....?" Seifer whispered. He noticed that Nida's face was ashen, and had sweat on it, and that the Asian man was slumped in the chair. "What is it?"

He looked up, his eyes dead. "Just drained."

"You used your power to help the ship stay steady, didn't you?" Zell asked.

"Nida! You could have passed out or something!" Xu exclaimed, her voice taking on a motherly tone through the speaker, which was much clearer now. The storm still raged over Esthar, but they were landed.

"I'm fine...." Nida whispered. He closed his eyes, not wanting to stand just yet.

"I thought that it was a rather smooth ride...." Seifer noted. "You really are getting stronger."

"Can I... just be alone for a few minutes....?" Nida asked.

"Sure," Laguna whispered. "We'll be back at the Palace."

Squall refused to move, and kept his head in Nida's lap.

"Squall....?" Laguna asked, his voice trailing off, sounding lost.

"It's okay," Nida said.

When he and the lion were alone, Nida bit his lip, the tears that he'd been holding back all night coming down his cheeks. The power in him now felt so wrong, so evil and dark. He brought his hands up to his face, and quietly wept, his sobs silent. Squall rubbed his face against Nida's shaking arm, making a small, sad growling noise.

Nida blinked, tears still coming slowly out of his eyes, trailing down his cheeks. He looked into those eyes that he knew, that he loved, but that were in the wrong body, and it made him sob, one sob that broke through his lips, filling the cabin of the Ragnarok.

"What if you're like this forever?" Nida asked, sliding out of his chair so that he was seated on the floor, his legs sprawled around him. He looked into Squall's lion face. "What if you never go back to being human?"

Squall just watched Nida, unable to say anything.

"What if.....?" Nida trailed off, titling his head back, sniffling. "Never mind. It's selfish...." He looked at Squall again, and his lower lip quivered slightly. "What if we've lost that part of our relationship forever....?"

Squall pressed his face into Nida's throat, licking over the jugular vein.

Nida's wet cheeks were tickled by Squall's mane, and he gently wrapped his arms around this feline body, feeling the rock hard muscles, so sinewy and strange, under his hands. "I'm sorry, Squall..... I still love you, but it's.... it's just not the same."

Squall made a low purring noise, which sounded very mournful, sad. Nida pulled away, trying to mop at his tears with his hands. He just put them in his lap again, feeling more tears coarse down his face. Squall's tongue, like wet sandpaper, licked at the wetness. Nida finally stood, and he and Squall slowly got off the Ragnarok, and walked to the Palace in silence. People gave them a wide berth, for the power was oozing off Nida, and Squall looked like a huge, ferocious lion. Once in the Palace, they went straight to Nida's room. The Asian man flopped down in a huge velvet chair, looking like a throne, in the study area of his rooms. There was a fire going in the brick fireplace, something that seemed so old fashioned in the technological marvel that was the Esthar Presidential Palace. Nida was sure that someone was looking for them, but he still wanted to be alone. A maid must have been alerted to their return, and lit the fire. But, even the comforting flames couldn't warm Nida, who felt cold with his new dark power, and sorrow over what could be lost forever with Squall.

Squall rested his head in Nida's lap again, and Nida sat in silence, like a terrible, powerful king on a throne. That's how he felt, anyway. He let himself become lost in his new power momentarily. It was awful, and yet.... There was that part of him that liked it. That part of him that had loved killing those men in Timber that Tevedes had hired. He was suddenly afraid of himself, and he didn't have Squall to comfort him. He had Squall, but not his Squall. Nida absently ran his fingers through the soft fur of Squall's mane, and suddenly narrowed his eyes as he felt something poke at his hip. He reached into his pocket, pulling out the culprit. The Griever pendant. Squall's pendant.

"Oh...." Nida whispered. "It's all her fault that this happened to you." He looked at the pendant, then at Squall. He felt his eyes well with tears again, but pushed them down.

Squall took the broken chain into his mouth, his fangs gently grazing Nida's hand without breaking the skin, and with a toss of his feline head, threw the silver necklace into the fire. Squall sat on the rug, his back to Nida, watching the silver burn. The fire was hot enough to melt the metal. When it had melted to the point of ruin, Squall turned back to Nida, sitting as his feet, looking up.

"We'll figure something out, right?" Nida asked quietly. He leaned over in the chair, and placed his hands on either side of Squall's large head. "We'll figure out how to change you back." He kissed Squall's muzzle, and buried his face in the mane of fur. "We'll change you back."

"Did you see Nida?" Zell asked, laying back on the bed of the room that Laguna had given himself and Seifer. It was a beautiful room, with a separate sitting area and a nice, comfortable bed. Zell sighed happily, despite the dark circumstances around them.

Seifer shook his head, reading an old book in one of the wingback chairs. It was one of the Trabian History books. "No. I think he wanted to be alone."

"He's so powerful....." Zell whispered, staring at the ceiling, his hands behind his head. "I mean.... he's got power that most people only dream about."

"He doesn't want it, though," Seifer muttered, turning a page. "I don't blame him. It's noble of him to try and take on all this power himself, but... That much dark power is tempting."

"I know." Zell turned his head, looking at Seifer. "And, he doesn't have Squall to comfort him. Well... he does.... But....."

"I know," Seifer whispered, looking up over the book at Zell. "He seems like a nice guy, though. Squall's damn lucky to have him, especially since from what I've heard from Rinoa, Squall seems to be... a jerk."

"Rinoa?" Zell asked, yawning. "When'd you see her?"

"About an hour ago. She woke up for a little while, then went back to sleep. All this took a lot out of her."

"I can bet." Zell paused. "If I got turned into an animal, would you still love me?"

"Depends on what kind of animal," Seifer answered, his voice deadpan. "And, no...." He rolled his eyes at Zell. "I wouldn't fuck you in animal form."

"I didn't even mention that...."

"You were going to. I know how your perverted mind works."

"Are you glad to be back?" Zell whispered.

Seifer closed the book, putting it on the table beside him. He drummed his fingers on his chin thoughtfully, uncrossing his legs. "I don't really think it's sunken in yet."

"Everything feels so real, so alive. I mean, we could touch things in Xystus, but they didn't feel alive, didn't feel... concrete."

Seifer got up and went to the bed. He sat on the edge of it, his back to Zell. "I feel warmer. And, it's nice to be with everyone again....."

"What about Selphie?" Zell asked, sitting up.

"I.... I don't know..... She wasn't the same as us. She may have died horribly, but she was herself when she died. She belongs in Xystus. Maybe that's why she wanted Lillith to take her back."

Zell began slowly rubbing Seifer's tense shoulders. "Well, after Xiphias's potions wear off, we'll know more. I wonder how this is affecting Irvine?"

"He's probably going through Hell... They all are. I mean, he was probably finally over Selphie, and then she comes back...." He shrugged. "That feels good."

"Feels more real than Xystus...." Zell whispered. "You feel more real."

Seifer just sighed, lolling his head back, onto Zell's shoulder. "Do you want to go see your mother?"

Zell stopped massaging Seifer's shoulders, and wrapped his arms around the taller man's torso. He pressed his face into the crook of Seifer's neck. "Yeah. But, we'll figure out what to do about the Galbadian Army and Squall first." Zell paused. "You know what I just realized?"

"What's that?" Seifer asked quietly, feeling Zell's hands resting on his shoulders, moving slowly, absently, down his back.

"That we don't have any clothes besides what we brought back with us...."

"You're saying you would mind if we have to exist naked?" Seifer asked teasingly.

"Well, I wouldn't mind, but I'm sure other people wouldn't appreciate it."

"We'll figure something out in the morning... There's plenty of clothing stores in Esthar, Zell."

There was a silence, where Zell rested his chin on Seifer's broad shoulder. Both of them just stared around the room, feeling every nuance of the air like they were newborns, listening to one another breathe, hearing the creaks that the Palace made, hearing the storm roaring outside.

"Do you think Rinoa loves Squall anymore?" Seifer asked, breaking the silence.

Zell shrugged, pulling Seifer's jacket off. "I don't think so. I think that she's getting really attached to Nida, which could be bad if she lets it get deeper than friendship."

"Squall almost bit her hand off... He probably would have mauled her to death."

"He's jealous...." Zell whispered. "It's understandable, but it might drive Nida away."

Seifer turned, facing Zell, who'd become distant. "You're thinking about when Adel possessed you, aren't you?"

The tattooed blonde nodded. "I was so jealous, so afraid that he was going to try and steal you away from me, that Adel used that to help dig her claws deeper...." He laughed bitterly. "Man... I don't know how to feel about Adel. I grew really attached to her in Xystus... Attached to the real Adel, you know?"

"I know...." Seifer whispered. "And, just for the record, I would never have left you for Squall... Even if he is really hot."

Zell made a rude face. "Well, he was really hot." Zell sighed. "Poor Nida. You think that he and Squall love each other?"

"I know they do," Seifer answered quietly, crawling onto the bed, which felt so warm, so comfortable. Zell laid down beside him, and Seifer spooned his lover's smaller body, holding him tightly. "Which makes this all the harder for them, I'm sure. I mean... Squall... He's still Squall, still feels like Squall, I bet. But... Nida can't really see him the same way right now. He can love Squall, but it's hard to be in love with him when he's not human anymore."

"They kind of lost that sexual aspect of their relationship....."

"Yeah," Seifer whispered. "And....this split Griever power....."

"I felt it," Zell admitted. "Well, we'll look up stuff on Griever in the morning, and figure out what to do. Maybe Squall can change himself back....?"

"He might be afraid, because the change seemed painful. I could hear all his bones popping, and he was screaming."

"Seifer....?" Zell whispered after a long silence, where the only noise was the whipping, howling wind outside from Tempest's storm, and the cracks of lightning, which would illuminate the room.

"Yes, Chicken Wuss?"

Zell groaned. "Well, I was going to say that I was glad to be with you again... really with you, but now I'm not so sure."

Seifer laughed, his trademark snicker that sounded like a mixture of mocking and sensual liquid velvet. "I love you, too."

Irvine watched the sun slowly peak over the skyline of Esthar from his seat by the window. Laguna had ordered Selphie to be restrained, so she was tied to her bed, like a mental patient or something. Irvine had protested, but Laguna, his eyes dead and red from crying, had said "she's being controlled by them, Irvine. Deal with it." It was the most serious that Irvine had ever heard the normally jovial man. But, considering that Kiros was dead, Squall was no longer human, and Tevedes and the remaining Oracles were invading multiple countries, it was expected.


He turned, seeing Ellone standing behind him. "Oh... Hi, Elle." He faced the window again, watching the sun come up. "We might not have ever got to see the sun rise again, Ellone."

"Has Selphie woken up yet?" the brunette asked, sitting in a chair beside him. She reached her hand out to touch him, but he stood up, causing her arm to fall back down into her lap.

"No...." He whispered, moving to a chair beside Selphie's bed. He touched her still hand. "I can't stop hearing her... Saying that she wanted to go with Lillith."

"The Inaudax brought her back against her will, huh?"

Irvine didn't even seem to hear her. "Selphie, you have to wake up..... You have to know that we're glad to have you back, that I'm glad to have you back."

Ellone remained silent, her chocolate-coloured eyes downward cast. She tried to blink back tears. Although she hadn't witnessed any of the trauma firsthand, it was all still awful. Kiros was dead.... She sighed. The pain in Uncle Laguna's eyes was so fresh, and it just grew deeper whenever Squall's situation was uttered. Ellone's heart broke for Squall and Laguna, but it also broke for herself. Things had been going so well for she and Irvine, and now... It was all changed. It would probably never be the same, even if Selphie did die again, which was something that the small brunette seemed to want. Irvine would never forget this, and Ellone wondered if he would ever be able to move on. She knew she didn't love him, but she felt something more than just friendly for him. Where did all this leave her in his heart?

"Maybe Nida can help her...." Irvine whispered. "He got more power... I overheard Edea, Quistis and Xu talking. Edea said that he feels a lot more powerful..... He has to help Selphie."

Ellone looked at Irvine, running the hem of her green shawl between her shaking fingers. "Nida has his own stuff to worry about.... What, with Squall and all that...." She sighed. "He feels... dangerous," she whispered.

"He'll help Selphie...." Irvine quietly ranted, not even hearing Ellone's last comment. "Selphie, can you hear me....? It's Irvine....."

Ellone sighed deeply, then heard Selphie groan as the sun streamed in from the window, hitting her face.

"Selphie?!" Irvine exclaimed.

She slowly opened her emerald green eyes, groaning because even that motion hurt. "Where.....?" She started coughing, and tried to move, but found that she couldn't. She struggled slightly against her restraints, but gave up when she got tired.

"Selphie.... It's Irvine. Can you hear me?"

She blinked a few times. "Who.....?"

"Selphie? It's Ellone... Sis. Are you okay?"

Selphie just groaned. "Xiphas.......?"

Irvine turned his head, looking over his shoulder as he heard one of the guards leave. "Where did he go?"

"To get President Loire. He wanted to be notified as soon as Ms. Tilmitt woke up."

"What's he going to do with her?" Ellone asked.

"I don't know, Ma'am," the guard answered.

"Selphie... you're safe now. Xiphias can't hurt you anymore...." Irvine took one of her hands in his, squeezing it.

"Lillith....." Selphie panted, slipping in and out of consciousness.

"Irvine, maybe we should let her get to rest..." Ellone suggested quietly, her voice halting.

He ignored her, not even acknowledging that Ellone was in the room at all.

She wrapped her emerald green shawl around her, as if to shield her from the cold of the strong, angry wind of Tempest's storm, which rattled around the windows of the Palace, threatening to blow it over. But, it was the cold of Irvine's treatment of her that really chilled her. Her shawl was the only thing that protected her from it, like a security blanket. She tightened it around her arms, and quickly shuffled out of the room before Irvine could see her cry.

Laguna rubbed his face, staring into the stream of light that passed over his desk. The sun felt warm, good, on his face, but did little to boost his spirits. Ellone was visibly upset, and hadn't even spoken to him as she'd left Selphie's room earlier, her head bowed, her arms locked around her torso. Laguna knew her enough to know that she was trying to hide that she was crying. He knew her like she was his blood, like she was truly his daughter. It made him angry with Irvine for hurting his Elle.

Laguna really didn't know what to do with Selphie. She slipped in and out, and when she was awake, she just whispered various names, either Xiphias or Lillith, or asked where she was, but would black out before anyone could really tell her anything. Laguna knew that he wouldn't bow to Irvine's wishes to remove Selphie's restraints. She could have been a weapon for the Inaudax, and the President was already having grave reservations about having brought her into Esthar at all.


He looked up when he heard someone quietly saying his name. Quistis, looking very professional and put-together. He wished he could compose himself. He had to. There was business to attend to. "Oh... Quistis...."

"You saw Selphie?"

Laguna nodded sadly, playing with the ends of his hair. "Yeah. She's still out of it. Irvine's.... Going crazy. I can't even talk to him right now. It's all about Selphie." Laguna frowned angrily, his eyes darkening. Quistis watched Laguna's countenance change. Laguna very rarely got angry, but when he did, he was very angry. His frown, the way his eyes turned stormy and dark, was very like Squall. "He's so wrapped up in Selphie, that he's hurting Elle. How dare he hurt her!" Laguna spat, almost shaking with anger.

"I think you're angry at other things, and are just looking to pile it all on Irvine," Quistis whispered, patting the back of Laguna's hand.

"Maybe," he whispered, losing his anger, and just becoming sad. "So, is everything ready to take back Balamb?"

Quistis nodded. "We're still working out a good strategy. I mean, we don't want to fight all the Galbadian Army at once... It will decimate our forces. We'll just go one area at a time. But, I think you should worry about your speech...."

Laguna groaned. "Every single channel in the world will be showing it. Which means..."

"Tevedes will see it, too."

"We killed three of her Oracles," Laguna noted. "Things are going to get a lot uglier."

"I know," Quistis said sadly.

Laguna sighed. "I don't have a mind for this.... Kiros was always the one who was more tactical, the one who could write better speeches...." He trailed off painfully. "He's really gone."

Quistis said nothing.

"And, I can't even ask Squall for help.... I can't even turn to the fact that I at least still have my son..."

"They'll figure something out. Seifer, Zell and Nida will work it all out. Squall will get better.... He has to....." Quistis sighed. "I need him, too. I need his mind for strategy."

"You do good on your own."

"I know, but myself and Xu... We're already going to be spread thin. I sometimes forget how good Squall is in war-like situations, and when he's not there....." She shook her head.

"Zell is back to help you. Seifer was always good at battle, right?"

"If he didn't have to follow orders, yes...." Quistis whispered, laughing darkly. "But, we should get this broadcast going so Seifer and Zell can worry about Squall and all that stuff first."

Laguna nodded. His televised speech would be to talk about the situation with Tevedes, but to also bring to light the situation with Seifer and Zell, since their faces were known from the Third Sorceress War. They could also shed better light on the situation with Tevedes than Laguna and his clumsy speeches could.

"I'm thinking of giving Rinoa an honorary rank or something," Laguna said softly. "If she hadn't risked her life..... Well, we'd all be dead."

"That's nice... I think she'd really like that. The military aspect is the one that Rinoa had never fit into, even with her father being a General."

"If only Caraway were still in charge in Galbadia," he said. "He was a brilliant General. And, he was a good man. I should have hated him for marrying Julia, but... they loved each other. And, I met Raine, so it all worked out. And, Caraway wouldn't have let Tevedes snowball him."

After a pause, Quistis looked at her hands, her shoulders slumping. "Laguna, can I ask you something?"



Laguna cocked his head. "What about him? You know him better than I do...?"

"It's more... do you think that him taking in the power of three Inaudax will... change him?"

"Maybe it already has....?" Laguna muttered. He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm sure Edea knows more on that than I would. And, Nida's strong.... He'll handle it."

She dusted her hands. "Okay, do you have your speech prepared."

"No....." Laguna admitted. "I don't know what to say. I can't find the words to describe this situation."

"Just tell the truth... Formalities will just waste time," Seifer said, coming into the office, Zell behind him. "Sorry... I couldn't help but overhear."

"It's alright...." Laguna whispered. "How was the room?"

"Very nice, thank you," Zell said. "Everything feels different, though. Kind of like we're born again... In a way."

"Maybe it's just a new appreciation for life," Laguna said solemnly.

"Look, after this little press conference, we'll figure out something for Squall. Nida, Zell and me are already looking into it, and I'm sure Rinoa will devote time to search for information. Maybe Ellone could use some of Odine's old equipment?" Seifer offered. His shoulders slumped. "I'm not really looking forward to becoming the center of attention for this...."

Zell couldn't help but laugh. "You're so shy when you wanna be."

Quistis cocked her head. "Yeah, I'm sure you'd rather just walk around in obscurity, but people still remember when you guys were Ultimecia and Adel. This is probably better, just for your own safety in case someone attacked you, and for the sanity of the public. If they saw you just walking around, chaos would ensue. They'd think that they were being attacked again."

Seifer slumped into a chair. "God, can things get any worse?"

They all slipped into silence, listening to the storm outside.

"Do you think that the storm will interfere with the television feed?" Laguna asked.

Quistis shook her head. "No, probably not."

"I was sort of hoping it would," Laguna admitted, his voice rueful. He got a distant look in his eyes, thinking that Kiros wouldn't come into the office and make fun of Laguna's lack of preparation for the speech. Kiros would never again make fun of him, or make him laugh. And, would Squall ever tell Laguna to 'shut up and act your age' again? So much was up in the air, and not just for him. And, how were they going to defeat the rest of the Oracles?

"Laguna?" Quistis asked, snapping her fingers.

"Huh?" Laguna murmured. He shook his head, bringing himself back to reality. "Well, let's get this over with."

"Nida....?" Rinoa whispered, gently knocking on the door. It was open, and Nida was pouring over a book. "Can I come in?"

He looked up, smiling sadly. "Oh, Rinoa. Hi. You look a lot better."

"Thank you...." She blushed. "It's because of you. If you hadn't found me when you did....."

He stood to greet her. She smiled, and although she didn't know how Nida would react, she hugged him, standing on her tiptoes to give him a gentle kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for saving my life."

A low, angry growl tore through the room. Rinoa jumped back when she saw Squall glaring at her, his fangs bared. She took quick steps back when he walked past her, stopping in front of a full-length mirror. Squall's feline eyes caught his reflection, and he sat before the glass, staring at his lion's body.

"He's been doing a lot of that," Nida whispered quietly. He then turned to Rinoa. "So, you're feeling better?" He sat in a chair, and motioned for Rinoa to sit across from him.

"Still sore, but nothing I can't handle," Rinoa said. "It's more just my skin that's sore."

"We're all lucky to be alive."

"What happened after I blacked out? Seifer sort of filled me in on the details, but I mean.... what happened with you? You took more power?"

Nida nodded slowly. "Yeah... After Zell summoned Adel, I absorbed Magdalene's power."

"Are you sure this is safe?" Rinoa asked, knitting her brow together. She then played with the hem of her robin's egg blue mohair sweater, tugging at the long fibres. "I mean...."

"What do you mean?" Nida asked, cocking his head, his bangs falling to one side.

Rinoa looked at him, the way his hair was mussed, at how hot he was. She blushed, then gathered her composure. "Well, taking in all this power. Isn't it dangerous?"

"I don't know. But, I'd rather take it than have a bunch of different people all haunted by this evil power."

"I'm worried about you...."

Squall gave a low, angry growl from his spot in front of the mirror. He was now laying down, though. Rinoa couldn't help but jump at the loud, animalistic noise.

"You don't have to be."

"I want to be honest with you, Nida.... But, I'm afraid Squall will try to kill me....." She shot a dark look to him.

"Just say it," Nida urged. "Don't worry. I wouldn't let him kill you. Right, Squall?"

Squall just narrowed his eyes, which looked so blue compared to the tawny colours of his fur, and rested his large head on his powerful paws.

"Well...." Rinoa began, her voice shaking. "When we were in the Labyrinth, I was going from the Dead Xystus and back, like visions...."

"Yeah, Seifer and Zell mentioned it."

"Right," Rinoa continued. "Anyway..... Zell asked about you. Or, rather... how I felt about you, and I guess I should tell you that I really care about you, Nida."

He blinked a few times, his flawless face an unemotional mask.

"I mean, I'm not in love with you or anything...." She said quietly, laughing. She noticed out of the corner of her gaze that Squall had risen from his spot, and was now sitting very close to the arm of her chair. But, she refused to let him frighten her. "But... Oh," she sighed. "I don't know what I am. Maybe a little part of me fantasizes that someday.... You'd realize how much of a stupid asshole Squall is...."

This caused the lion at her elbow to grunt angrily.

"And, you know..... But," she edged in when Nida opened his mouth to speak. "I know you love him, and that.... I'm not what you're looking for. But, that's all just... a girlish fantasy that I'll get over. I guess I just wanted to vocalize how much I care about you......" She laughed. "Is that silly?"

"No," Nida said quietly. "But, not to purposefully be mean, but I will never love you that way... Sexually, I mean."

She cast her eyes downwards. "I know...."

"I'm not trying to hurt you, Rinoa. But, sometimes a slap across the face is best, you know?"

"I do... I guess it feels better.... I just thought that I should say something, especially since we all almost died."

"I just hope nobody else dies," Nida whispered.

Rinoa looked down at Squall. If lions could smile, Squall would have been grinning from ear to ear. She could see the triumphant gleam in his aquatic eyes.

"Laguna should be on television now," Rinoa said, not moving her glare from Squall's.

"Right...." Nida found the remote for the television, and used some of his powers to open the doors of the entertainment hutch. It caused Rinoa's hair to stand on end, and she hid a shiver. Was it from the cold wind that was blowing outside, Tempest's angry screams, or was it from the power itself? Or, was it Rinoa's fear of that power?

Laguna's voice came through slightly crackly from the storm, but the image was clear, and the static in no way disrupted what he was saying. It seemed that the press conference was winding down. It wasn't really a press conference, and just a national statement from Esthar. They must have already talked about the Seifer and Zell situation, because Laguna was now talking about refugee status for people who had fled from the invaded countries through Fisherman's Horizon.

"Now, we know that Tevedes Tsepeth and the other followers of Ultimecia are watching this from Trabia, so tactical moves won't be revealed. We will welcome people from all invaded countries into Esthar borders, as well as in Fisherman's Horizon, which is under the borders of the Esthar continent. Although Fisherman's Horizon is its own country, and has thus far been neutral in all International conflicts, Mayor Dobe and myself have come to an understanding, and will work together to aide the citizens of the countries that are being invaded, as well as citizens of Dollet, in helping them fight off any invasion, or with Galbadia, for those people who are now oppressed by Tevedes's reign. I hope that everyone will be cautious, and hope for our success. Garden has officially joined forces with the Esthar Army, and the Dollet Dukedom, as well as the resistance forces of Timber, and as I speak, our teams are moving into Balamb to help reclaim its independence from the Galbadian Army, under 'General' Tsepeth's control."

"Whew...." Rinoa whispered. "That's a relief."

Nida sighed sadly. "I should be with the SeeD, fighting for Balamb, for all those other countries." He looked at Squall. "Both of us should be."

"You can't leave Esthar, though...." Rinoa mused.

"I know." Nida got up and looked out the window. It was very sunny out, but it was still windy to an extreme. At least the rain and lightning had stopped. For now.

"Well, I guess I'll leave you be. I want to talk to Seifer and Zell some more about... what's been happening to me."

"I guess you won't be getting any visions anymore."

Rinoa nodded, standing up. "No, I guess I won't." She noticed the way that Nida's shoulders were slumped, in sadness. She took a few quiet steps towards him, and put her hand on his shoulder. For the briefest of moments, she felt like she was touching stone, and had to actually blink away a vision of a stone statue in Nida's image.

Nida noticed that Rinoa's hand flinched on his shoulder, and he turned to look at her.

She shook her head, her ebony, caramel highlighted hair swinging around her oval face. "I'm sure that we'll all figure out how to get Squall back to normal." She stood on her tiptoes, and kissed his cheek. She gave his shoulder a last squeeze, scrutinizing him for a moment, wondering where that image came from. She walked past Squall, who was laying on the floor at the legs of the chair Nida had been sitting in, and did so with quick steps, almost hopping away from him, especially when she passed that mouth with all its razor-sharp teeth.

"I bet you wanted to kill her...." Nida whispered. He turned away from the window, and walked to the bed, sitting on the edge of it. He rested his head in his open hands, his elbows pressed into his thighs.

Squall walked over, his feline body slinking gracefully, and rubbed his face against the outer flank of Nida's leg. After a period of sitting very still, Nida lowered himself to the floor, so he was on his knees, looking into Squall's alien face. He'd seen lions before in zoos, but it was alien to see Squall like this. "Can you even understand me at all?" Nida asked, wondering if Squall's mind was even human anymore. Squall gave a slight nod of his large head, which looked strange, such a human gesture coming from a lion.

"I need you right now, Squall...." He whispered. "I need you to be human." He sighed deeply, his shoulders slumping as he stood to full height. "I need your advice on what to do about my power. It just feels too big. And, I also have Griever's powers to worry about." He walked to the television, and turned it off. He noticed his weapons case on the floor of the closet. He went over to it, picking up one of his sickles. He sat on the floor in front of the box, looking at his sad reflection in the polished steel. "I guess I don't need these anymore...." He touched the weapon. "This power is stronger than any weapon could be."

Nida turned his head when Squall sat beside him, like a dutiful pet. It just caused Nida's eyes to fill with more sadness. Was Squall doomed to be relegated to more of a role of a pet, instead of Nida's lover? "Will I ever be normal?" Nida asked quietly, knowing that Squall couldn't answer. "All my life, I hated being empathic, and now.... I'd kill to go back. To be only empathic, to be lost in the crowd again so that nobody would notice me." A tear trickled down his cheek. "I feel like I'm dying inside." He looked at Squall sadly. Squall's eyes, now that they were inhuman, didn't show any emotion, but the body language of the great lion was that of defeat. "I feel like..... I'm not Nida Nomura anymore. That every day... Nida's dying, and Iudicium is taking his place."

Squall leaned forward, and licked across Nida's cheek, catching the slowly falling tears. Nida smiled sadly, then cursed. "Fuck!" He looked at his hands. He'd cut his palm with the blade of his sickle. "Damn...." He put the blade on the carpet beside him, and inspected the cut. "Looks pretty deep...." He wiggled his fingers, and noticed that there was no tendon damage.

"What's going on?" Seifer asked, coming into the room. "I heard you cry out.."

"Oh..." Nida laughed darkly. "I just cut myself, that's all." He moved to touch the cut, to heal it, but Squall nudged his head forward, pushing Nida's uninjured hand out of the way. His tongue lapped at the blood, and Nida let him.

"I didn't get to see all the speech. How did it go?" Nida asked.

Zell groaned, flopping into a chair. "Boring. Embarrassing. I just want to... forget about that. But, I guess people would have been staring at us anyway, even if Laguna hadn't announced what was going on."

"I guess everyone had a right to know," Seifer noted darkly, kneeling on the carpet, running his hand through Squall's mane. Squall was still lapping at the blood in Nida's palm. "Any ideas what to do about Squall?" Seifer asked gently. He gestured to Squall licking up the blood. "I guess animal instinct is winning out."

"I wonder if there's a part of him that wants to eat us...." Zell mused, flounced in the chair, his legs draped over one of the arms, his own arm above his head. "I mean... cats are carnivores."

"Maybe we'll never know," Nida whispered as Squall continued licking his wound. The three of them sat in silence for a while, the only noise from Squall as he greedily drank the blood. Nida blinked, beginning to feel a little light-headed because of the blood loss. Then, Squall stopped lapping at the wound. The blood had stopped flowing. Nida ran his opposite thumb over it, and the wound healed, as if it had never been there.

"Wow...." Seifer whispered, gesturing to Nida's hand. "Instant healing?"

"It's probably from Magdalene's power," Nida stated, watching as Squall curled up on the floor, slightly growling. "It's all so new to me right now that... I don't know."

"Well, we talked to Ellone," Zell said, getting up. He stroked Seifer's hair like the taller blonde was a feline like Squall. "And, she said that we could use Odine's old equipment to run some checks on Squall. You want to go right now?"

Squall stood up, moving to the door already.

"I guess that's a yes," Seifer said, helping Nida to his feet. "Do you wish that you were in Balamb right now with the other SeeD? Quistis is going in a couple hours."

"Yeah, I do," Nida answered. "But, I'm sure you guys do, too. You were both in Garden."

"That was a lifetime ago for me," Seifer said.

"I wish I was going," Zell said, looping his hand with Seifer's. "It's been a long time since I've been in combat. But, right now... I mean... I get too distracted. I think it's best to get used to things again before jumping right into fighting."

Seifer snorted. "This self-restraint is so unlike you, Chicken Wuss."

"What did you just call me?" Zell demanded angrily, squeezing Seifer's hand as hard as he could. "Bastard."

Seifer just laughed, even though it really hurt and he would probably have a bruise.

"I can see in your eyes that it hurts, Almasy."

Nida smiled distantly. "It's nice to see a little bit of normalcy again."

"It sucks major ass that this, this, is normal," Zell mocked, gesturing to Seifer in sarcastic scorn.

"Hey, I think I smell hot dogs!" Seifer exclaimed.

Zell whipped his head around. He then frowned. "That's so cruel, Seifer. I want a divorce!"

They all laughed as they walked down the hall, but Nida slowly let his chuckles subside when he noticed that Squall wasn't walking beside him anymore. He looked over his shoulder, and saw Squall laying on the carpet a few meters behind them. "Squall?" Nida called.

"Damn cats... They're so lazy," Zell muttered.

Seifer elbowed him.

"What? It was a joke."

"Squall?" Nida called again. He walked over. "I know that lions sleep like 22 hours a day, but this is just silly...." He flinched when a roar came from the lion's mouth. It wasn't really of anger. It sounded more like pain. "Squall?!" Nida kneeled down, and when his hand touched Squall's body, he had to pull it back. The power that had moved between them was like a static shock. His Griever power suddenly soared.

"What's going on?" Zell asked.

"My power is going crazy..." Nida panted, clutching at his chest.

"Let's get out of the hallway," Seifer commanded gently. "Zell, help me..." He gestured to Squall. His lion's body was too heavy with muscle to lift by himself. Seifer and Zell picked up Squall, who was now growling lowly, mixed with whimpering. They brought him into an empty room, which turned out to be a locker room for the gym. Zell gasped, almost dropping his half of Squall's convulsing weight when he heard a loud popping coming from Squall's body.

Nida hauled himself off the ground by using the wall, and staggered into the locker room with Seifer and Zell, closing the door behind him. "You think he's changing back?"

"Could be...." Seifer grunted. "Let's lay him in the shower area... Lots of room there." When the two blonde men laid Squall down, Seifer turned to face Nida, who was still panting, but getting more control of the power in him, which felt like it was trying to escape his body. "His bones popped when he changed the first time.

The whimpering and growling that was coming from Squall sounded awful, and more popping happened, which caused Nida, Seifer and Zell all to flinch. Nida went over to Squall, kneeling on the tiles of the shower floor, and put his hands on Squall, not pulling away when he felt that shock in his fingertips. Just touching Squall, even though he could feel the unnatural way the bones felt under the furred flesh, seemed to appease Griever's rising power in him. It was like something in Squall was reaching out for him, and connected with Nida's powers, making it feel whole. Squall must have had a little bit of Griever in him, too.

Zell had to turn his head away, and buried it in Seifer's chest. The noise of Squall's bones cracking, and his joints popping, was just too gross. They were glad that there was nobody in the locker room. Zell flinched in disgust, feeling slightly comforted when Seifer's hand moved through his hair.

Nida gasped, his lip curling up in fascinated horror, when he felt something liquid under his palm. He pulled his hands away from Squall, and the power flocculated in him once more. There was a clear liquid on his hands. It seemed to be coming from Squall's skin, like it was sweat or something. "Was this here before?" Nida asked of Seifer, raising his hands. The liquid was thick and warm, the consistency of mucus.

Seifer shook his head, shrugging. "I don't know. It was dark. I thought it was blood before... Maybe it was this stuff...?"

Squall's lion mouth opened in a roar of pain, and blood came out, as well as more of the clear mystery fluid.

"Squall.....? It's going to be okay....." Nida whispered, but he didn't believe that to be true. He felt tears spring to his eyes. "What if Griever planned this all? What if she knew that Squall would eventually... die from this?" He shuddered. "And, she's dead now.... We'll never know." Nida placed his hands on Squall again, hoping his touch was of some comfort. He gasped, a small scream escaping his mouth, when a series of sickening pops came out of Squall's spine. The noise that came out of the lion suggested it was absolute agony.

"Jesus Christ!" Zell exclaimed lowly.

"What's happening?" Nida demanded.

Seifer narrowed his green eyes. "How much of your blood did he drink?"

Nida blinked. "I don't know.... I guess a substantial amount... It was a deep cut. Before I got this power, I cut myself like that on my weapons before, and it would take a good twenty minutes to truly stop bleeding. That's a fair amount of blood." He looked at Seifer through teary eyes. "You think that has something to do with this....?" His voice was drowned out by a roar of pain from Squall.

"You have Griever's power," Seifer whispered. He blinked, cocking his head as he looked down at Squall.

Nida did so, too. Squall's back was changing shape, was becoming straighter. The tawny fur, which was now matted and sticky from the clear fluid, was also receding, and there were patches of pale flesh. "Oh, my God...." Nida trailed off.

Zell turned his head back, sure that he wasn't going to throw up anymore. Squall's legs were elongating with horrible liquid popping noises. Squall's growls and whimpers were turning into cries and moans, sounding more human. Nida's clothes were being covered with the thick, clear liquid as Squall became more and more like his old self.

Eventually, the popping, and Squall's cries, stopped. Squall was panting heavily, and he was shivering. "Squall....?" Nida whispered, bowing his body over his lover's. He brushed Squall's hair out of his face, which was now human. Squall's hands, which now had long fingernails on them, an inch long and pointed, like his lion claws, clenched in and out of fists. "Squall.....? Can you hear me?"

"Nida....?" Squall panted, slowly opening his eyes. He felt Nida's gentle caress on his cheek, and his nude body shivered.

"I'll see if I can find some towels or blankets," Zell said, going towards the lockers. He began opening the ones that weren't locked.

"Yeah, I'm here," Nida whispered gently, wiping some of the clear liquid off Squall's alabaster cheeks.

Squall could only wheeze, all his energy sapped. His muscles felt sore, and he could still taste Nida's blood in his mouth. "Nida...."

"Shhhh....." Nida cooed, wrapping his arms tightly around Squall's nude, shaking body, not caring about the now drying, tacky fluid on Squall's body. "It's okay."

Seifer just watched in silence, then turned as Zell came back, a few towels in his arms. Seifer took one, and knelt beside Squall, not caring about that strange liquid. "Squall? It's Seifer." He unfolded the towel, using it to cover Squall's nudity. "Here you go."

"Nida...." Squall muttered, his voice hitched. He was still clenching his hands into fists, his long nails creating red half-moons in his palms.

"It's okay," Nida said in response, his voice barely audible, more like a gentle breeze over Squall's ear. "It's okay, baby." He pressed his face into Squall's wet neck, holding him tighter.

Seifer used a towel to mop up some of the fluid around Squall, his pale green eyes looking up to Zell, shaking his head in disbelief. Zell's eyes were wide, icy saucers, and he still looked a little green around the gills, but no worse for wear. They shared a look, amazed at what they'd seen. Squall had become human again right before their eyes.

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