The Successor

By Tenshi no Korin

You should be sleeping my love
Tell me what you're dreaming of
Don't forget what I wrote you then
Don't forget what I wrote you then
Don't forget that I'm in to win...



Squall woke to murmured voices and the cold, thin smell of a medical room. There was a bright white light somewhere beyond his shut eyelids and a blur of disjointed images behind them, as if someone had taken the contents of his mind and given them a good shake. Recent memory was a haze of colored patterns without meaning; it was only with difficulty that he recalled his name. The clearest recollection he could find was years old, of the first time he had junctioned Shiva. It was very like how he felt now.

"He's waking up."

The voice was unfamiliar, the accent touched with odd curvature of the vowels. Esthar, Squall's brain provided. He was in Esthar.

Space. Ellone. The Lunar Cry. Rin--

"Rinoa!" He reached out into the blur of white that was the medical room, and caught the first moving thing his hands collided with. "Rinoa! Where is she? Is she safe?"

Needle-sharp pain found his arm, and there was a hiss of a hypodermic. The world went benignly fuzzy. He fought it, but Esthar's medical technology got the better of him. Squall slipped back into darkness, protest on his lips, his ears ringing with the doctor's apology.

"I'm sorry, young man. Truly, I am."

"...So we're sending him back to you. He seems fine."

"What exactly do you mean by, 'fine'?" Irvine was deeply skeptical, he had been ever since Esthar's medical community had ‘suggested' they look after Squall's recovery. "Does he remember anything?"

"Sadly, not yet." The doctor frowned apologetically at the group of SeeDs, and looked to Dr. Kadowaki for support. "All in all, considering both the physical and mental trauma, I am surprised he is as well off as he is. We had hoped he would be able to tell us more of what happened, but at the moment--"

"That will do, Doctor," Kadowaki said, with a silencing look at the SeeDs, especially Selphie and Zell. "Thank you for your assistance in this matter."

The Estharian physician seemed like he would have liked to say more, but Kadowaki looked down her nose and arched one eyebrow in a way that the Balamb students knew all too well, and he reconsidered, beating a hasty exit.

"Now," Kadowaki said, turning to face them, "I'll not have you pestering Squall with questions, or bothering him at all hours, the boy needs rest. Yes, Zell, before you ask, I will let you see him. But only if you promise not to mention Rinoa, or anything that's happened." She sighed, looking tired. "Hyne knows, he'll be thinking about it enough. There now, Selphie, don't cry. We're lucky to have Squall back, as it is. Rinoa would be glad he's all right, and we have to be glad for her. Now then. Irvine, Quistis, if you'll come with me, We'll go collect our Commander."

They were treating him like glass. Tiptoeing around, glancing at him out of the corners of their eyes, never saying her name. They would talk about how busy they were, with the cleanup from the Lunar Cry. They would complain about the badly organized Esthar troops. They would share the latest local anecdote about the ever-elusive President of Esthar. They would tell him not to worry, that everything was fine, and as soon as Kadowaki okayed him he'd be right back on shift like the rest of them.

Never once did they ask him what happened.

He almost wished they would, so he could say "I don't know" with all honesty, instead of feeling as if he was keeping some top-secret information. He could recall Ellone sending him back to Rinoa's time, he remembered leaving the escape pod, he remembered--

Just out of reach, come on, come ON, too slow, dammit! Just a little closer, just a little, c'mon, Rinoa, C'mon, reach out to me, take my hand… are you dead already? Rinoa! Rinoa!!

--a flash of white light, and a noise like disjointed chords of music. Then nothing. The medical room in the city. They said he'd piloted a ship down, said he must have managed to get on board and demolish the monsters infesting it, but they had a better memory of it than Squall did.

Zell had been the one who'd found him on board, strapped into the pilot's seat, unconscious.

And alone.

Squall's empty ring finger ached.

Rinoa was dead. He hadn't caught her, he hadn't saved her.

And they all pretended she had never even existed. It was to spare him, he knew, but sometimes he wanted to shake them, to squeeze her name out. He wanted them to accuse him, to say he'd failed, to blame him. He wanted anything but their silence.

Their damnable, useless, sincere silence.

Squall shook his head. They'd taken away his junctions, Shiva and the others were sleeping quietly in Zell, waiting to be returned. But he must have carried them too long, to still hear echoes in the back of his mind that were not his own. He pressed his face to the window glass.

You'll have them back soon.

"I don't like it." Irvine sat, uncomfortably brown and tan in the pastel décor of the rooms provided for the SeeDs' use. "It's like he's... I don't know, preoccupied or something."

"He's allowed to be preoccupied, Irvine." Quistis pulled a pen from her hair twist, and scribbled something in the margin of her report to the president. "Rinoa was giving him focus, you know that. And now he's lost her. Let him mourn."

"It's not Rinoa." Irvine scowled. "I don't know what it is, but it's not Rin's death. Trust me, Quisty, I can sense these things."

"And I can sense your boots on my desk. Move 'em." Quistis set her report down. "Irvine. I know you're worried about Squall, we all are, but you've got to let him heal on his own time. We've got our hands full. Adel is most likely in Lunatic Pandora, restoring her strength. This city is overrun with monsters, and we're being paid to handle both. We've got to mop up this mess before we can deal with Squall's grief and your 'feelings'."


Squall rolled over in his sleep, one hand groping blindly for the sheets twisted around his ankles. His hair clung to his face, damp with sweat, eyes moving frantically beneath his shut lids.


He could almost reach Rinoa, pull her in, she was just past his fingertips. She was drifting, she was out of reach-- There was a flare of white light, and a kind of golden hum, like the air was full of electric current. But there was no air, not in space. Squall felt his guardian forces recoil as if in horror, shuddering frantically to the back of his mind. Had they had been brushed to the side to make way for something else? Or were they struggling to escape it?


His boots rang on the empty starship, echoing in his ears. A moon-spawned monster reared up on its hind legs, baring double rows of teeth at this intruder, striding so boldly into its breeding ground. Squall lifted his empty hand and the propagator doubled on itself, folding, keening in unmistakable pain. Squall closed his fingers and it thrashed its tail, head tossing in agony. The enclosed space rang with laughter.


The sorceress opened her eyes.

Dollet brandy, thirty years old, worth probably more than Zell himself was. The president of Esthar himself had sent it down, saying it was the least he could do, and that he was deeply sorry about the young lady.

Squall hadn't touched it.

"Hey, um... you hungry or something?" Zell bounced nervously on his heels. Squall was looking out the window. Squall had, in fact, been looking out the window for the past two days now. Zell couldn't be sure, but he was fairly certain he hadn't moved. "You haven't eaten anything for a few days…you must be hungry, right? Want me to bring something up?" Zell waited, swallowing uncertainly.

Squall did not answer, grey eyes on Esthar's horizon, fingertips lightly on the glass.

"I, uh, I'm gonna go see what I can find to eat, okay? I'll bring you something back." Zell backed away slowly, and couldn't fight the inexplicable urge to get away from Squall as fast as possible. It had been happening more often, and he wasn't sure how much of it he could blame on Squall's silence. He had made it to the door when a sound stopped him, so quiet he was not sure he'd heard it. "Squall?"

"...Sorry about this," Squall repeated, and turned his head for the first time. There were great dark circles under his eyes, as if he hadn't slept well. "Thanks for your help."

Zell brightened, feeling like he could breathe again. "Hey, hey, no problem. I'll go bring you some lunch, okay? Don't worry about nothing else, Quistis has it under control."

Squall nodded, the faintest hints of a tight smile around his mouth. Zell left the room, hands in his pockets, feeling much better, all things considered.

And Squall turned back to the window.

"You are late," he said, two minutes later.

The space between the loveseat and table rippled like water, and Seifer Almasy stepped out of it, sinking to one knee on the elaborately tiled floor. "Forgive me," he said, pale eyes on the floor, on the buckles of Squall's boots. "My Lady."

"Really?" Quistis seemed thrilled. "He talked?"

"Yeah." Zell eyed the pizza, but turned it down in favor of a few deli sandwiches. Food in Esthar wasn't bad, but Zell wasn't too sure about their pizza topping choices. "Turned around and everything. He almost smiled." Zell grinned at Quistis, glad to see her so relieved. "I know the thing with Rinoa hit him really really hard, but he's tough, you know? I think he's gonna be okay."

Seifer's body made a neat path through a glass table, landing painfully on the floor several feet from Squall.

"You'll find," Squall said, calmly tugging his glove down, "that I won't be as tolerant of your mistakes as I was previously."

Seifer got to his knees, his face bloody from the force of Squall's kick. "Of course."

"You seem a bit reluctant." Squall's boots crunched on broken glass, and he looked down at the top of Seifer's head. "Is it that we have too much history, you and me?"

Seifer looked up quickly, and then just as quickly looked away again, remembering he was not to look his sorceress in the face. "The body you possess makes no difference to me, my lady."

Squall put a hand on his hip, eyes narrowed. "Oh, but I think it does." He reached down to ruffle Seifer's hair, gold thick in his gloved fingers. "I'm still Squall, you know. Sorceress and host is a symbiosis, not possession. Or were you not paying attention in class?" His grip tightened, pulling. Seifer had no choice but to stand, his body tilted awkwardly to keep his face level with Squall's. "You weren't, were you. You were too busy sending me messages in my private mail. Something about how you'd be showing me dominant possession after class, wasn't it?"

"You talk too much to be Squall." Seifer's eyes dared the face of his sorceress, blue and challenging.

Squall's expression smoothed into cool disinterest. "...Whatever, Almasy."

Seifer shivered, and Squall, content, permitted a small smile. Discipline must be maintained.

Squall dropped him abruptly, but Seifer kept his feet, one hand curled around bruised ribs. "There is a change in plan." Squall said, striding to the window. "Move Lunatic Pandora away from Tears' Point, and wait. I will contact you there."

Seifer hesitated. "My lady--"

"Don't worry." Squall smiled over one shoulder. "I will send you Dreams."

Seifer lowered his head. "As you will." He bowed, turned on his heel, and strode into the ripple of magic waiting to send him back.

Squall lifted a hand and the glass table sprung back into one piece, scooting into place just as the door hummed open to let Zell in.

"Hey! Got some sandwiches... you hungry?"

Squall turned from the window, nodding faintly. "Yeah."

"Great!" Zell began unwrapping them. "There's ham and cheese, I know you like crab salad but there wasn't any at the deli, sorry. How about double cheese on rye?" he stilled, looking up at Squall and smiling. "Damn, but it's good to see you looking better."

Squall smiled, just the barest shadow around his lips. "Yeah, I'm... okay."

"Problems?" Fuujin inquired, from her seat at the control panel.

"It's nothing," Seifer said coolly, but his scowl did not relent. "We need to change heading."

Fuujin twiddled with the control sphere. "Where?"

"Trabia. Find us a spot behind the mountain range and park it. And try to stay out of radar." Seifer ran a hand through hair that still had streaks of dried blood in it. "We're supposed to lie low. How's Adel?"

"Dormant. In Matrix." Fuujin tapped a finger on an instrument readout. "Still time."

Seifer nodded. "Good."

Raijin looked puzzled. "But I thought--"

"I don't keep you around to think!" Seifer snapped, patience fraying.

Raijin looked hurt, about to speak, but he stilled at a look from Fuujin, her small hand lifting in warning. "Sleep," she said, to Seifer. "Need it."

"Maybe you're right," Seifer muttered. "Take care of things, Fuujin." His tattered coat swirled behind him as he made for his room, and Fuujin turned her eye back to the massive control panel.

"Is something wrong?" Raijin asked, nervously.

Fuujin did not answer, concentrating on the glowing nav sphere.

"It's a mess, isn't it." Zell pressed a hand to the elevator door, letting Squall in and kicking wires out of the way. "We've got the upper level mostly clear, it's the sub-areas that are still swarming." He shuddered. "Selphie says they're breeding down there."

"Are the lifts still not repaired?" Squall looked out of the mostly transparent tubing, at the city levels slowly flickering by.

"Not the seater ones. They don't go down to the generator levels, anyway, it's this shaft or the stairs, and since it's about seven hundred flights, I didn't think you wanted to walk."

"No, thanks." Squall said, turning away from the glass. "How long is it to the bottom?"

"Irvine said that regular speed it's only five minutes, but with everything on half-power, it's twice that. Hope you don't hafta pee." He sighed, leaning against the rail. He looked at Squall speculatively out of the corner of his eye. "so," he said, in a tone that failed to be completely casual, "How're you doing?"

Squall lifted an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Zell shifted his weight. "What I said. We're all worried about you."


"You know. Irvine. Selphie. Quistis." His pause was miniscule. "Me."

Squall shrugged. "I'm all right."

"I don't buy it," Zell said flatly. He held up a hand at Squall's frosty glare. "And don't give me that look. C'mon, Squall, this is me. Zell. Talk to me."

Squall folded his arms, looking bored. "I haven't got anything to talk about."

Zell opened his mouth, shut it again, and then shoved his hands deep in his pockets. "Fine." He said, and mimicked Squall's stony silence.

Landings flickered by, lit dimly green and empty. They were miles under the surface by now, deep in the center of Esthar's power core.

"I've just missed you, okay?" Zell said, the words like glowing coals held too long and burning. "We've all been worried sick, you know? Ever since you took off with Rinoa from the Garden-- Quistis was a wreck after the escape pod landed, she was sure you were gone too, that we'd lost both of you. And then we find you and they don't even let us see you for a week, running Hyne only knows what kind of tests on you, and when you finally do come around it's like were all strangers, and you won't talk to me-- won't talk to any of us, dammit Squall we thought you were dead, okay? We thought you were both fucking dead!"

The last word rang in the enclosed space, hanging between them. It was hard to say which man was the more surprised that Zell had said them. Zell bit his lip, turning away. "I'm sorry," he said, fingers curled into fists. "I-- I didn't mean to--" He stared hard at the numbers flickering on the display, at a loss. "It's not your fault, Squall. Sorry."

It was the last thing Zell expected, Squall's hands digging into his collarbone and working at the knots of muscle there. Squall did not often touch other people, not even his friends. "How long since you've had more than two hours' sleep strung together?"

Zell made an inarticulate noise as his shoulders instinctively relaxed. "I don't know... a week, maybe?"

"You should have put me on shift sooner," Squall said, fingers rubbing at the base of Zell's neck, sending his head lolling forward. "All of you, running yourselves out, two men short, what's Quistis thinking?"

"We got some backup... from Garden..." Zell trailed off, leaning back into Squall. "Damn that's nice." Squall's hands worked their way down Zell's arms.

Squall leaned his face into Zell's neck, his lips moving over tendons. His arms wound around Zell, enveloping him in Squall's scent, gunpowder and leather and something vaguely sweet, unfamiliar, that Zell did not recognize. It made him think of cherries, maybe. Or apples. Zell made a noise not quite like a moan, Squall's mouth open against his ear, warm and wet and slightly sharp.

"Squall... " Zell closed his eyes, trying to think, willing his head to clear. "Rinoa..."

"Don't." Squall's hands were not gentle down the front of Zell's tank top, pulling it free of his shorts. "Don't even say it, Zell."

Zell's belt buckle came loose, and he was in no position to say anything. Levels flickered by them blindly, and he could not remember how many they had passed, or had still to go. Squall's mouth was hot on the back of his neck, his breath sending little shivers along the fine hairs that Zell hadn't managed to sweep into the gel that morning. There was a low burn between his legs, and Squall knew how to touch it, leather gloves shiny-thin with use and slick over flushed skin.

"Feel good?" Squall asked, both hands closing now, making a tight leather sheath, his hips pushing Zell's forward.

Zell nodded, a sound buried in his throat, and he felt his pants sliding beyond hope for recovery. Squall's scent was stronger now, heady and overpowering, like rich heavy fruit in late summer. There was a low sort of hum in the air, like electricity, or the drone of bees. Zell shook his head slightly, but he wasn't sure he wanted to be lucid right now.

"Stop the lift," Squall said, and Zell fumbled out for the button, the elevator coming to a shuddering halt between levels 32 and 33. They were in solid rock now, and through the transparent tube Zell could see ghostly bones of some ancient dragon, frozen in the stone.

Squall pushed a knee between Zell's legs, spreading them wider, and Zell, without having to be told, put his hands flat against the lift doors. "Do it," Zell said, knowing it was strained and awkward and unexpected, knowing it would hurt like hell, knowing he didn't care, knowing Squall needed it. "Do it now."

Squall's belts jangled loudly, thumping on the floor of the elevator, and there was warm leather and hot skin against Zell's backside, Squall's body hard and insistent behind him, pressing him open.

Breathe. Zell told himself, leaning forward a little more. Relax. Let him in. "C'mon," he whispered, lifting himself up to make up for Squall's height. "I can take it, c'mon, Squall."

"Hold still." Squall's hand was warm on his hip, the other brushing Zell's bare skin as he positioned himself. "Hold still, Zell."

It should have hurt more. Zell was sure of this, even though it hurt enough for his shout to ring in the transparisteel compartment, enough for his eyes to burn behind squeezed shut eyelids. Squall made a sound that didn't need words, grinding himself in all the way, both of them holding still, breath coming hard. Zell opened his eyes but could no longer see dragon bones; the clear lift wall was thick with condensation. His gloved palms squeaked on the door.

"Okay?" Squall said, and his hands closed around Zell. He did not wait for answer, body rocking back and then forward again, hard and deep and not pausing before starting again. His hands were like mercy, squeezing in time. Zell couldn't talk, only yielding to Squall inside him, gloves struggling for purchase on the slick door. He gave up and grasped the safety rails, fingers white with tension. Squall did not talk, jolting Zell almost enough to throw him off balance. It couldn't take long, not at his current pace, and it didn't.

The sound Squall made when he came was more than worth the pain of entry, and suddenly Zell was slick and wet inside, Squall sliding in without resistance. Zell felt his knees trying to give way, and he shuddered violently, biting his lip.

"C'mon, Zell." Squall pressed his hips in hard, and did not pull back, hands working relentlessly. "Nobody's gonna hear you but me."

Zell screamed. It was like flash fire, and he could have sworn it had killed him, going from zero to release in less than ten minutes, pleasure flaring up like a match to lit gasoline. Squall eased out without so much as a whimper, and Zell crumpled, his body making a clean streak on the fogged up glass. His ears were ringing with something that wasn't sound. He struggled for air, lungs burning desperately in a vacuum that gave him no nourishment. .

Squall keyed a button, and the elevator gave a lurch, beginning its descent again. "You okay?" He already had his belts back on. The buzzing vibration stopped, the air smelled only faintly like sex and filtered oxygen, and came easily into Zell's lungs. He felt like he'd only narrowly escaped drowning.

"Yeah." Zell got to his feet, nodding. He made good use of the length of his shirt that didn't show, and tucked it in, buckling his shorts. "Yeah, I'm okay. Just got a little stuffy in here. Feel better?"

Squall lowered his eyebrows. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--"

"Shouldn't have what?" Zell grinned. "Scrogged me on duty?"

Squall looked away. "After everything, I didn't want to--"

"Hey." Zell spread his hands. "Your body doesn't stop working just cos your heart breaks, baby. Don't worry. You aren't disgracing her memory or anything."

Squall was looking at Zell with a speculative expression, as the martial artist bent to relace his sneaker. "Zell."


"About what happened... during the Lunar Cry..."

Zell looked up sharply. "What? What, did you remember something?"

Squall shook his head. "No. I don't remember anything."

Zell took his commander by the shoulders, looking sympathetic. "Hey, hey, It's okay, you know? Quit beating yourself up about it." Zell went on his toes, brushing his lips once against Squall's. "It'll come back to you when you can deal with it."

He turned back to the doors, watching as the numbers slowed down.


Zell turned around, blinking. "You say something?"

Squall shrugged.

"Hmm. Thought sure I--"


"Who's been holding up the damn elevator?" Irvine, looking tired and dirty, spattered here and there with mud and monster ichor, was waiting on the platform at the bottom of the shaft. "Some of us want out of here, dammit."

"Irvine's claustrophobic," Selphie announced. She looked just as dirty, but less tired. "The place is all yours, boys. Have fun!"

"Bout time," Irvine grumbled, getting into the lift after Selphie. "You guys stay on your toes down here, because I'm not coming back to pick you up."

"You won't have to," Squall said.

Irvine looked at Squall as though just seeing him, and a flicker of something passed over his face. "Squall--"

"Irvine!" Selphie jabbed her finger at the door button, making the door jolt half-closed and open again. "Hurry up!"

"All right, All right." Irvine lifted a hand. "Take it easy, guys."

"Always do!" Zell grinned. But it was Squall that Irvine kept his eyes on, until the lift pulled them towards the surface and out of sight.

"I really wish this place would open a branch in Balamb," Quistis said, twirling a fork in her lasagna. "I'm going to miss it when we leave."

"Quisty. I need to talk to you."

Quistis looked up at Irvine, freshly showered and wringing out his hair with a towel. "Irvine, there's nothing I can do to make sure Selphie saves you hot water after she's done. Take it up with her."

Irvine made a face, shaking out the damp towel and flinging it on a nearby chair, the embroidered presidential logo upside-down. "This is not about shower privileges, it's about Squall."

"Oh, Hyne, Irvine, not this again. I'm trying to eat, here." She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, obviously wishing away a day-long headache. "Listen, Squall's going through a tough time, we all are, and--"

"He's hiding something."

Quistis demurely wiped away sauce with her napkin. "That's his prerogative. He doesn't have to tell us every time he goes to the bathroom."

"Quistis, will you listen to me?" Irvine put his hands flat on her desk. "That's all I'm asking for, just listen, for two minutes. You were around Squall when he thought Seifer was dead, right? Selphie told me how he reacted. It was a normal, human reaction, blowing up like that. We've all been waiting for him to pop, thinking he's bottling something up, not saying Rinoa's name in case it might set him off. But he's NOT, Quisty, the man is absolutely ice, and I don't mean like he was before. That was a front. This isn't. It's just not normal."

Quistis frowned. "Irvine, he's allowed to cut off his emotions. It's a way of dealing with it for him, that's no reason to suspect him of anything."

"Cutting off emotions is one thing, Quisty, but this--" He stopped, as if struck by an idea. "How about this," Irvine said, and she had never seen him look so serious, "I know it might be hard for you to remember, but do you remember anything about a storm? When we were little? Not a little one, but a hurricane."

Quistis furrowed her brows in thought. "No... I don't think I... wait." She considered, her dinner forgotten. "Wait, yes. There was one, a bad one, and Seifer had been teasing Zell, and he ran away, like he used to, into the ruins to cry. The storm came, and we all called for him, but Zell didn't come. Matron was worried."

Irvine nodded. "That's right. What else?"

"She looked for hours," Quistis said, as if Irvine was not even there. "And we waited and waited and waited, and Squall said it was Seifer's fault if Zell got hurt, and Seifer said it was Squall's fault, and they got in a fight." She paused, obviously fighting years of forgetfulness. "And... and wait. You," she looked up at Irvine. "You kept saying it wasn't Seifer or Squall's fault, that the rock had just fallen over. And we didn't know what you were talking about. You'd been inside all day, doing a puzzle with Selphie. But when Matron came back, carrying Zell, she said he'd been caught under a fallen column, and it had nearly crushed him. He was lucky to be so small. We weren't allowed to play in the ruins anymore." She stopped. "But what does that have to do with--" Her eyes went wide, looking at Irvine. "How did you know?"

Irvine smiled ruefully. "What, how did I know he was trapped under that column? How did I know who all of you were, after all these years, no matter how much you'd changed? How did I know our mission would fail, the bullet would miss its mark, and the rest of you would wind up hurt, maybe dead? I don't know. I've always done it, I've always had it. And I've learned to trust it. So if I say something is going on with Squall, then by God, something is going on with Squall."

Quistis was very quiet. "what do you want me to do, Irvine? Put him under surveillance? Or maybe in the brig? Squall isn't just our commander, he's our friend. And if he hasn't done anything--"

"Just keep an eye on him, okay?" Irvine let out his breath. "I'm not asking for you to go though his files or anything, just keep an eye out. These are strange days, Quisty."

"Have you told anyone else?"

"Selphie." Irvine grinned. "She believed me right off. Said she used to hate playing hide and seek when I was It."

"I always just thought you were peeking." Quistis shook her head. "All right, Irvine." She pulled her cold lasagna over. "What about Zell? Have you told him, yet?"

Irvine evaded her eyes. "No."

The president of Esthar was having a problem. Not Adel and the Lunatic Pandora that had run missing, not the Galbadians trying their damnest to take Ellone away from him, not the monsters infesting his city. No, this was much worse.

"Kiros! Where the HELL is my pen?"

"Behind your ear, Laguna," Kiros said, without looking up from his keyboard. "Where you put it."

Laguna reached up, retrieving the pen from his hair. "Oh." He clicked it. "Thanks."


There was silence for a long moment, broken only by Laguna rustling papers and Kiros's steady, rapid-fire typing.

"When do you intend to tell him, Laguna?"

Laguna looked up into Kiros's intent gaze, and frowned down at the document in his hand without seeing it. "I think he's had more than enough to deal with, don't you? The last thing he needs--"

"The thing he could probably use about now," Kiros said, sternly, "Is a father."

"I'll send him a memo," Laguna grumbled.

Kiros sighed, knowing it had been a wasted effort, and went back to the quarterly reports.

"What is he doing here?" Seifer said, glaring at Zell, curled asleep in Squall's bed, his face pillowed on Squall's thigh.

"I think that's pretty obvious, don't you?" Squall did not get up, running a hand through Zell's hair. "He's dreaming."

Seifer's eyes flashed to Squall's, and the meaning of his sorceress's words was not lost. "What the hell-- "

Squall leaned back comfortably against his pillows. "Maybe you should tell me what exactly is so important that you see fit to interrupt my sleep?"

"I sincerely doubt you were sleeping," Seifer snarled, and Zell shifted slightly and dreamed on.

"I sincerely doubt you want to irritate me any more than I already am."

Seifer's hand twitched, aching for his gunblade. Squall smiled, splaying his fingers possessively over Zell's cheek.

"Report, Seifer. Unless you really want to fight me."

The memory of being flung through several bits of glass furniture must have still been sharp, for Seifer to stop looking at Zell and do as he was told.

"Adel is close to waking. Compression is imminent."

Squall considered. "Too soon. Revoke some of the energy diverted to Adel. Keep her under for longer."

Seifer frowned, gold brows drawing together. "I thought you desired compression as quickly as possible, Ultimecia."

Squall smiled. "Come on, Seifer. Don't you know by now?" He looked down at Zell, sleeping contentedly in his lap. "I'm not Ultimecia. I'm Squall." His smile broadened at the comprehension dawning on Seifer's face. "Now you remember."

"The inheritance factor." Seifer shook his head. "I did a paper on it for magical theory class. Why Sorceresses, given a choice, will not pass their power onto a male--"

"Because of the interference with the para-energy failsafe due to the encoding on the y chromosome." Squall stood up, carefully easing Zell's head onto the pillow. "Rinoa didn't have a choice, did she? She didn't even know how, and I was closest. For a time Ultimecia thought she was lucky, to have me as her instrument. Who would suspect? I'm in a prime position, I could get to Adel with relative ease, compression was sure to begin. But she forgot, in passing her power on to me, she didn't simply make me a tool, as she did with Rinoa, with Matron. They merely carried Ultimecia inside of them, keeping only an echo of her power when she withdrew. But when Rinoa passed that power, and Ultimecia, into me--"

"She made an entirely new sorceress." Seifer's eyes narrowed. "You."

"That's right." Squall smiled. "And better than even Ultimecia could have suspected, with all my years of Garden training, with guardian forces already in me, seeping their magic into my blood with every breath I take. Ultimecia's power is spent. She banked it all on Adel, who won't be able to possess me as planned. Now she waits, in the future, for me." Squall lifted a hand, curled his fingers. "For me to come and kill her."

Seifer lifted his head. "You would destroy Ultimecia?"

Squall laughed in a way Seifer had never heard, ringing and pleasant. With the filtered rainbow light from the city turning his bare skin to opal, Squall looked most distinctly like another kind of being, clearly different from the man in the tattered coat and the one asleep in the bed. "Of course. I'm a SeeD." He tilted his head, eyes catching the light and reflecting gold. "and then I will take her place."

"And do what?" Seifer clenched his fists. "when you have? What will you do then, My Lady?"

"That is no longer your concern."

Seifer's gunblade was suddenly in his hand, sleek and black and shining. "One scar isn't enough for you."

The faint energy hanging off of Squall's hair suddenly became visible, glittering with fragments of frost. The temperature dropped abruptly. He grinned mirthlessly. "Come on, then."

Zell stirred in his sleep, blinking. He rubbed the heel of his hand into his eye, and stared at Seifer, clearly thinking he was still dreaming. It could not have been more surreal to see them standing there together, Seifer in his tattered coat, blade drawn, Squall in only a haze of power. "What's going on?"

"Seifer," Squall said, lifting a hand idly to Zell. "I'd like for you to meet my Knight."

She knew he would not be sleeping. It was less a matter of intuition than common sense; he hadn't been sleeping well for days. And she would not sleep, could not sleep, until she talked to him. Someone had to be the liaison between these two men, whose only common trait was their intractable stubborn pride.

Someone had to tell Squall what was going on, before he found out the hard way.

Ellone stepped off the now-functioning lift, glad to not have to climb all those stairs to the east wing of the palace. She stopped outside one door that was, for all intents, exactly like every other door in the guest wing. Except that at this door, her hand hung over the access button, trembling.

A fine thin layer of frost coated the door, its graceful feathery patterns sparkling in the dim hallway light. From behind it there was only silence, but cold so intense that even outside it stung her nose, burning in her lungs. Brutal, magical cold.

Sorceress ice.

Ellone knew she should call for help. There was a guard not five halls down, there were trained SeeDs sleeping in every room around her. But her little brother was in there, and whatever had caused this was in there with him. She pressed the buzzer, ice melting around her fingertip.


No answer, ominously silent. Ellone lowered her eyebrows. Her power was not much for attack, so she had learned to resort to other skills. Like memorizing the omega code for every door in the palace.

The door whooshed open, a blast like midwinter air seeping into the hallway. On her first step she almost slipped; every surface in the room was coated in a sheen of ice. It would have been pretty, had she noticed it over the pounding of her heart. Was Squall in here, encased in ice? Is that why he had not answered?

Ellone shivered, and fumbled for the light switch. She wouldn't find anything in this darkness. "Squall, answer me!" She almost tripped over the body.

Irvine really hated being woken up by shrill, panicked, feminine screams. It was never anything good. One hand grabbed his pants, the other snatched up his gun, loaded and waiting.

"Squall's room," Quistis said, in the hallway. Her utility belt was strapped over her nightgown, whip uncoiled in her hands. Selphie stumbled out of her door, pajama shorts rumpled, weapon at the ready.

"Well what are we waiting for?"

Ellone smacked into Irvine's chest at the doorway to Squall's room, her hands over her face.

"Stay in the hall," Irvine ordered her. He charged into the room and promptly skidded forward a good three feet into the sofa, boots finding no purchase on the ice.

"I think something's wrong with the AC," Selphie said, hopping from one bare foot to the other.

"Shit," Irvine said, staring at the shape crumpled two yards away. "Seifer."

Quistis hurried past him, going to her knees and flipping Seifer over, her fingers pressed to his neck. "He's alive."

"Is that a good thing?" Selphie wondered aloud, as Quistis dug in her belt for a phoenix down.

"He's not here," Irvine said, coming back in from the bedroom, walking awkwardly to keep his feet. "Squall's gone."

"Where's Zell?" Selphie asked. "We could have used back-up. Is he still asleep?"

Irvine shook his head. "I doubt it, he left his clothes in here."

Selphie blinked. "Oh." Her nose wrinkled. "that's more than I wanted to know."

"Is he all right?" Ellone asked, shivering in the doorway, eyes wide on Seifer. "I thought he was dead..."

"We need to get him to Kadowaki." Quistis struggled to lift Seifer, without luck, and swore with frustration. "Damn you, Seifer! When did you get so tall?"

"Here," Irvine passed his gun to Selphie. "I've got him, Quisty." He lifted the unconscious knight and heaved him over one shoulder, grunting with the effort.

Selphie picked up the discarded gunblade. "Never been fired," she noted, absently. "Not recently. Where d'you think Squall and Zell are, Quistis? You think they're okay? Did Seifer get them?"

"I don't know." Quistis ran a bare finger over the frozen tabletop, ice fracturing at the pressure. It was unmistakable, that trace of para-magic. But to have reached this level... "Shiva."

Raijin stood up from the steering console, his work forgotten, bouncing back on his heels. "Hey, Fuujin."

"Quiet," Fuujin snapped, brushing in front of him and inputting the coordinates that he'd abandoned. She didn't think twice about appropriating his seat; if he wanted to sit in the pilot's chair, he'd have to do the corresponding work. Too irresponsible, she thought darkly, her fingers jabbing half-blind at keys she knew by heart.

Hold your present location, he'd said. If you don't hear from me in two days, double Adel's security locks and mark a course three degrees west. Tear's Point. And then that not-quite smile, the one he'd flashed them more and more recently, these days. Kind of frayed at the edges, like his coat, like Fuujin's patience. Like the web of power surrounding their captive sorceress.

It had been two and a half days.

Fuujin wondered just when things had changed.

"But, Fuu," Raijin tried again, chafing his hands against his bare arms, not looking at all like he wanted his seat back. "Don't you think--"

She tilted her chin up to glare at him. His protest subsided, though he made no move to resume his duties.

He seemed more restless than usual, she thought. surely he would not interrupt her -three- times. All their morning had been spent in unspoken debate-- neither of them wanting to go, but neither wanting to disobey--both moving awkwardly around one another in a mockery of their daily routine.

So why would he start speaking up now?

A slow shiver crept along her arms, making her fingers tingle. She frowned, wondering for the first time if lunatic pandora shouldn't have had some sort of thermostat. Idly she thumbed the life support status keypad, flipping through the readouts--

Raijin's hands, resting heavily on the back of the chair, were unusually pale, and his voice was not quite level. "Isn't it kind of... cold in here?"

Fuujin could not say what it was, intuition or suspicion, that made her spin in her chair, made her place her slim body protectively in front of Raijin's considerable mass. She brought her hands up in front of her, wrists crossed, as though warding off demons, but the blast from the dark corridor was more than her wind could deflect. Glittering shards of ice stung her face and hands as she was swept aside, colliding with the steering column and slumping into darkness.

"Should we kill them?"

Fuujin knew that casually brutal voice, somehow, but could not place it. She shook her head to clear the shadows and found herself gasping, powerful fingers wrapped around her throat. Her hands, she realized, were bound tightly in the small of her back, her ankles trussed, cords cutting through her boots. It was hard to shift her head, with two thumbs putting pressure on her voicebox, and her hair covering her good eye. She saw sleek golden hair, and knew the smell of leather, and for a wild moment thought Seifer had come to kill them after all.

"Leave them. They aren't important."

That voice, she knew. Leonhart. Someone else, come to kill them.

Leather creaked, the shadow over her shifted, the constriction on her throat ceased. Fuujin tossed back her hair to meet cold blue eyes, and a familiar black tattoo.

Dincht, wasn't it? The loud one. Raijin admired his technique, but Seifer had discouraged making friends with anyone so dismally ordinary.

There was nothing of the bumbling Balamb student Fuujin remembered in the young man crouched on his haunches before her. It was not so much the change in his clothing, or the loss of the ridiculously trendy hairstyle, as a paleness across his eyes, as if his irises had frosted over.

It came to her with certainty if not with logic, watching with a half-closed eye as Zell tightened bindings on a deeply unconscious Raijin.

Zell had the Dreaming.

"Seifer," she said, throat raw from the pressure of Zell's hands. "Won't find him."

Squall was busy with Pandora's controls, his back to her. "I don't have to find him. I've already dealt with him."

There was very little Fuujin was afraid of, and all of it was contained in the finality of Squall's tone.

"Lying," she rasped, eye narrowing. "Wouldn't kill him."

Zell laughed, a singularly disconcerting sound. He was bare chested to the brutal cold, and his breath did not fog, as Fuujin's did, when he spoke. "Like hell he wouldn't. Now you just lie there and be a good girl."

"Zell," Squall said, without looking back, and Zell stood up, something of a military snap still in how his heels went together, how his chin lifted.

"My lady."

"Keep an eye on them. Kill them if they move." Squall's gunblade was in his hands, flashing Fuujin's refection back at her as he hefted it onto his shoulder. "This won't take long."

Zell bowed from the waist, lowering his eyes. "As you wish." He turned back to Fuujin as Squall's bootheels echoed from the control chamber, and smiled.

Fuujin worked her throat silently, trying not to cough. Her ribs hurt. "Dincht," she said, to the tattoo on his face when she found that she could not meet those frozen eyes, "Leonhart. Why?"

"Why what?" Zell kicked the pilot's chair to make it spin towards him, and straddled it backwards, arms crossed on the back, as if he were sitting in the cafeteria at Garden. "Why is he here, you mean?"

Fuujin nodded, glad that Zell had not lost his talkative nature.

"He's come to kill Adel, naturally." Zell ran his fingers over the buckles on his long combat gloves, tightening one in a bored sort of fashion. "She's in his way."

"Seifer," Fuujin said, aware of Raijin stirring awake beyond Zell, and pointedly not looking at him. "In his way?"

Zell cracked his knuckles, smiling lopsidedly. Had he been chewing gum, Fuujin was sure he would have snapped it. "He was."

"...Dead." Fuujin made a point of keeping her gaze steady, her voice flat. She did not so much as twitch in Raijin's direction.

Zell shrugged. "I guess. Doesn't matter anyway." His eyes flickered from the inside, and Fuujin could all but see the dream shiver over his skin, the way he stretched just a little under the invisible caress of his sorceress's hand. She knew it, had seen it on Seifer's face, when Ultimecia had spoken to him. "Very soon," Zell said, distantly, "Nothing will matter at all."

A scream erupted from the depths of Lunatic Pandora, long and shrill and terrible. The great structure trembled, the lights on the bridge dimming until Fuujin could only see Zell's eyes, slit and glowing. Zell breathed in slowly, and Fuujin heard the chair creak under the pressure of his hands.

"...My Lady." Zell closed his eyes, exhaling in the dark. "It's done."

There was a muffled thump as Raijin brought his still-bound fists down hard against the back of Zell's head.

"Dreams are distracting, ya know?" Raijin didn't bother untying Fuujin, he simply picked her up and made for the escape chute before Zell and the lights could recover. "We gotta go find Seifer. He's the only one who can stop Squall."

~to be continued~

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