Chapter Twenty-Four

By Scarlet Fever

"Any word yet?" Kiros asked Fujin as she looked at the bandage over Raijin's left eye. "I mean... How are the rest of the troops? And, what about Nida?"

"Don't worry..." Kiros muttered. "They'll be found." He looked out towards the city, which was still infested by monsters. Quistis and Xu were in charge of exterminating them. With the magic barrier still up, and the demise of Ultimecia and Adel, the monsters were considerably weaker, but there were still lots of them.

"What about Trabia?" Raijin asked, his voice slightly slurred from the morphine Dr. Sunde had given him. "Is Edea okay? And, Ellone and Irvine?"

"Still no word. Radio contact has been severed on our end. There are crews working on getting it up again. That's why we can't find the beacon from the Ragnarok."

"Shhh..." Fujin coaxed, looking at her husband, who was now afflicted with the same injury as she was. "Just rest, OKAY?"

He nodded, and closed his good eye, falling asleep under the heavy weight of the sedatives and painkillers. "How's Laguna?"

Kiros shrugged. "I haven't gotten to see him yet. I've been too busy. But, Sunde said that he was making an improvement..."

Fujin nodded sadly. She looked out to the skyline of the city. "So, are you going to control things for now... What with both Squall and Laguna passed out?"

"Squall should be fine by tomorrow. The doctors just wanted him to rest. Adel gave him quite a beating."

Fujin grew very quiet, and her hands rested on her stomach.

"I'm sorry..." Kiros whispered. "I know how close you and Seifer were."

There was a long pause before Fujin responded, her voice so quiet, so unlike her. "It's better this way. Seifer and Zell wanted Squall to end it, and he did. He was the only one who could have. I think anyone else would have buckled."

Kiros nodded sadly. "I'm going to go check on Laguna. Are you going to stay here?"

She looked at Raijin through a curtain of her steely bangs. "Yeah. I want to make sure he's okay..." She laughed as she felt a wetness running down her cheek. She hastily wiped away a tear. "Go check on Laguna. I'll be fine."

Kiros squeezed Fujin's shoulder, which slumped under his touch. Even as he was out the door, he could hear her quiet sobs. He sighed sadly, and made his way to the bedroom that he'd shared with Laguna for over ten years. There were guards outside the door, but they moved to allow Kiros entry. When he came in, he saw Dr. Sunde fussing over Laguna's body.

"How is he?" Kiros asked wearily, rubbing his temples. "Has he woken up at all?"

Sunde shook his head. "Not yet. But, I've noticed an improvement. President Loire is much more responsive to stimuli, and his pupils look healthier. He should wake up soon. He just... Needs to come out of it."

Kiros nodded, looking at Laguna. Colour was beginning to come back to his cheeks, and he generally did look healthier. "And, what about Squall?" Kiros added.

"He's got a concussion, and his hand took some work. But, I gave him a heavy dose of Curagas. He should wake up soon, as well. It's probably better that he sleep now. His mind..."

"What about his mind?" Kiros asked, sitting in the chair beside Laguna's bed that he'd been occupying for the past week.

"He was distant... Unresponsive when I checked him out. But, it's understandable. I think he'll be a bit better once Laguna wakes up, and once Captain Nomura is found. He kept calling for him before I put him under."

Kiros nodded sadly. "I want you to have a medical team on standby. We're getting in some injured soldiers, and when we find Nida, I want to be ready."

"Do you think something happened?" Sunde asked, his green eyes hard and tired.

"Probably..." Kiros muttered. "Adel said something about Xerampelinae killing Nida. It could have just been a line fed to Squall to make him upset, but..."

"With his empathy, a battle against a Sorceress could possibly kill him," Sunde added. "What about the magic barrier. The Curagas I used against Squall didn't have as much effect as I would have liked them to."

"We're keeping them up for as long as possible. It's weakening the monsters." Kiros paused. "How's Saffron Dincht?"

Sunde sighed. "She's holding up as best she can. But..."

Kiros nodded in understanding. "If she needs anything..."

Sunde nodded. "I should go check on some of the other patients. Contact me once radio is up and running, please?" He nodded again and left.

"Dammit, Laguna," Kiros muttered, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. "You need to wake up. This city needs you right now. Your son needs you..." He trailed off, and rested his temple on Laguna's chest, over his steady heartbeat. "I need you."

Everything seemed to be blue. Like the light of Esthar, but more so. But, there were no buildings. There wasn't really much of anything. Just images. There were things floating around. It was like a dim sky, except that there were no clouds. It was... Blank. And, the things looked like flower petals. Mixed with something fluffier. Feathers. It slowly began to fill the sky. Hundreds of feathers. Pale against the blue. You could tell they were white, but they were still tinted blue. They seemed so close, but were too far away to touch. It was also like they were on a screen, a sheet flapping, having things projected on it. There were ghostly hints of faces, which slowly began to fade in, making them recognizable. Seifer's face. It was how it had been later in his life. Still smirking, his trademark Seifer Almasy grin, but his eyes showed the humility, the warmth he'd discovered. He was laughing, happily. But, it slowly morphed into something hard and cold, until it was Ultimecia's face, etched in blue, elegant and beautiful, but hard and cold. Her silver hair, which looked like blue steel, fluttered forward, moving along the same current as the floating feathers. Her face flickered back to Seifer, then to Lillith, for the briefest of seconds.

Zell could also be seen, laughing happily, his trademark smile on his face, his sharp canines flashing. But, they slowly elongated, and his eyes became hard, his face became monstrous, and the tinted blue image of Zell became Adel. Her red hair looked like blue blood, whipping around her face in her tightly bound braid. She then changed, slowly melting to a face that was more serene, lovely. Calm and beautiful. She had the same sharp canines as Zell had, and the same eager countenance, but the eyes were still Sorceress Adel. This was Adel before her change, before her hatred controlled her. Her hair was still the blue blood, the red hidden behind the cyan tinting.

Suddenly, the blue dimmed, becoming black. It was because of the feathers. There were now so many of them, floating all over the place. As the feathers moved like a swarm, Rinoa's face appeared, as if made of the same feathers that had blocked out the imagery of Seifer and Zell. She laughed, and winked, the same expression as at the SeeD ball. She made a motion to flip her long black hair over her shoulder, which was white from the feathers. Her face saddened, and contorted to a scream of pain. As the white feathers dimmed, darkened, the vertebrae of her neck popped, piercing the tender flesh of her delicate neck. Suddenly, the blue flashed bright red. The colour of blood, and Rinoa's face took on a darker meaning. Her clothes seemed to scream with the garish crimson, her dark eyes laughing angrily. The feathers were now completely black as the ring around Rinoa's throat turned into the cross sword. The Almasy crest between Xerampelinae's collarbones.

The red faded away as quickly as it'd come, and Xerampelinae's face was Rinoa once more. She looked sad, in pain. Her head thrashed to one side, her hair whipping over her face. When it moved again, the black feathers which her hair seemed to be made of shortened, and her face seamlessly moulded into Nida's. He had the same twisted expression of pain on his face. The feathers contorted back to white for an instant as Nida's mouth opened to scream, and when his lips opened, they turned hard and black, his skin paling. His hair seemed to shoot out, becoming white, glowing strands. The feathers seemed to become sand, and began falling. Rinoa screamed again, her broken neck causing her head to flay around, her face melting to the pale Iudicium, back to herself. Her white Angel Wings exploded from her back, filling the sky as the images began to fall, grain away with falling time. The white wings turned to dark black, and Nida's screams of anguish pierced the air, the image running out as oily black feathers fell everywhere, coating everything....

Squall's eyes slowly opened. It seemed to him that it took forever. There was still a blue tint to everything, but he knew that he was in Esthar. He knew he was in his bed. He could smell something medicinal, as well as something warm, something human. He smiled sleepily, rolling over slightly as he reached his arm out, touching the other side of the mattress. "Nida..." He whispered, expecting to touch warm flesh. But, the other side of the bed was empty and cold. He furrowed his brow, blinking a few times. Something was wrong. He remembered his strange dream. The black feathers. Rinoa and Nida, their faces hand in hand. Xerampelinae's face coming between them. Iudicium's wings. The black feathers.

Squall tried to sit up, but found that his head was throbbing. He raised his hand to his head, and found that it hurt as well. He looked to see that it was bandaged. "Oh..." He whispered. "Oh, God." He remembered running through Zell's body with his gunblade. He remembered slashing Seifer's throat. He'd killed them... "Oh, God..." He whispered again. He thought he heard something, and looked over to the bathroom. "Nida?" He called. But, the bathroom was dark, and it must have just been the hot water heater clicking on. "Nida..." He whispered, shaking his head. Nida was in the Esthar Plains.

Squall began to push the sheets off his body, and began the difficult task of getting out of bed. He was already wearing a pair of pyjama pants, so he just pulled on a tight grey t-shirt, the first thing from his drawers. He didn't bother with socks or shoes, or even to comb his hair or anything. He just ran his hand through it. "Ugh.." He whispered, heading to the bathroom. He had a gross taste in his mouth. As he brushed his teeth, he remembered the moment in Nida's bathroom after they'd had sex, and sighed deeply around his toothbrush. What if Adel had been right? What if Nida was dead? The thought of it caused Squall's heart to constrict painfully. He thought of the black feather that had dissolved into his palm. It had felt like Nida had been holding his hand. What did it mean? And, what did his dream mean, where Rinoa, Nida and Xerampelinae had seemed to be the same person?

When he was finished brushing his teeth, Squall walked back out to his room. He wondered if Edea would return to Esthar, if Laguna was awake, and especially if they'd found Nida. As Squall walked to the door, he stopped dead in his tracks. Sitting on the side of the mattress that Squall had touched, expecting to touch Nida's body, was a single object. A midnight black feather, just sitting there. Squall walked over to the bed, sitting beside the solitary feather. He touched it, his fingers hesitant, as if they would burn him. He almost expected the feather to melt away, like the last one did, but it didn't. Squall gently picked it up, and felt the same sensation that he'd had before. It was like he was touching Nida. What was going on? Where did this feather come from? Squall closed his weary blue eyes, and ran the ticklish edge of the feather over his cheekbone. It was very soft, and Squall briefly imagined that it was Nida's fingers moving over his face.

He stood, holding the feather tightly in his hand as he walked into the hallway. A guard stopped him. "Commander Leonheart... Do you really think you should be out of bed? I'll get Dr. Sunde."

"No..." Squall waved the hand that wasn't holding the black feather. "I'll be fine. How long have I been unconscious?"

"It's been almost two days since Dr. Sunde gave you sedatives."

"Two days?!" Squall exclaimed, dumbfounded. His pretty face was frozen with shock. "How's...?" He stopped, his fingertip running over the spine of the feather in his hand. "Have they found Captain Nomura yet?"

The guard shook his head. "The Esthar Plains are overrun with monsters. The rescue squad is busy trying to get rid of them. Esthar is still pretty clogged as well. Edea and Cid Kramer will finally be able to arrive tonight, though. Trabia is also full."

"Are there monster outbreaks all over?" Squall asked, feeling a tightness behind his eyes from a headache, and from fear. Two days since Adel and Ultimecia had been defeated, and Nida still hadn't been found. He was probably dead....

"Yes, sir!" The guard answered.

Squall nodded distantly. "Thanks. Don't bother contacting Sunde. How's my father?"

"He woke up this morning, Commander."

Squall couldn't keep the small smile off his face. "Good. Thank you." He nodded, and walked towards Laguna's room. His stride was slower than it usually was, and he felt like he was floating, discomfort moving over his body, but he kept walking. When he got to Laguna's room, it was empty.

"Where are you?" Squall wondered, furrowing his scarred brow. He sighed, and began walking again. He didn't really know where he was going, but he couldn't think of anything else to do. As he walked down the deserted hallways of the Palace, he opened his palm, looking at the glossy black feather. "Nida... Where are you?" He whispered. "Did Rinoa really come back from the dead? Did she kill you?" His lower lip shook. It would be a fitting punishment. His current lover being killed by his previous one. He pressed his lips to the feather, trying to hide the fact that his mouth was quivering. Squall knew that if he started crying now, he would never stop. He swallowed the fear, the sadness, and began running the tip of the feather against his neck and face as he walked. He looked out the window at Esthar. From in the Palace, it looked quiet, peaceful. Back to normal. But, Squall knew it was anything but. If he looked carefully, he could see the Soldiers fighting the monsters.

"Nida, where are you?" Squall whispered, pressing his injured hand to the glass, the other hand holding the feather against his chest, over his heart.


Squall slowly turned, hearing his name gently being said. His head felt like it weighed a million pounds. His eyes met the eyes of his father. Those damn cheerful eyes that were like his own.

"What are you doing out of bed?" Laguna asked. He noticed Squall holding something against his chest. "What's that?"

Squall silently looked at his father, feeling dead. He smiled sadly. "Welcome back," he muttered.

Laguna touched Squall's shoulder, his eyes immediately full of concern when he saw the look in Squall's eyes. It reminded him of photographs he'd seen of Squall when he was a child, reminded Laguna of what Squall looked like when they first met. Cold, dead eyes, burying all his emotions. "I heard you call for Nida," Laguna admitted. "They'll find him." He offered a warm smile. "Thank you, son."

"For what?" Squall asked darkly. "For causing death wherever I go? It's my fault that you were in that coma. It's my fault that Selphie died, that Rinoa died. I murdered Seifer and Zell. And, Nida's dead because of me..."

"No..." Laguna whispered. His hand moved off Squall's shoulder, and stroked his son's hair. "No, Squall, don't say that." He sighed deeply. When he'd woken up, Kiros had filled him in on everything, all the horrible details. He'd also seen the tapes of Squall killing Zell and Seifer, of his very public breakdown afterwards with the feathers in the air. The feathers if Iudicium. "You did what you had to. Seifer and Zell would thank you if they could. And... We'll find Nida. I promise." Laguna tried not to cry when Squall's eyes met his own. The sheer pain and loss in his son's eyes was heart shattering. Laguna sighed sadly. "You look so much like your mother."

Squall looked at Laguna, who looked on the verge of tears. He felt Laguna's arms come around his body in a comforting hug, and he reciprocated it. Squall wanted to cry when Laguna's chin rested on the top of his head, but found that he just couldn't. Squall wondered how different things would have been if there had been moments like this between Laguna and himself, if as a child, he'd been comforted by his father. His hand still clutched the feather in his hand, which seemed warmer for some reason. Probably because Squall was holding it for dear life.

Laguna pulled away and kissed Squall's forehead. "We'll start over. Life always wins in the end." He looked at Squall's hand. "What are you holding?" He gently opened Squall's hand, and saw the black feather. "What's this?"

Squall looked at the black feather, and ran it over his lips and cheekbones. "I don't know. It was in my bed when I woke up. But... After I murdered Seifer and Zell..."

"You didn't murder them!" Laguna interjected hotly.

"After I killed them," Squall muttered. "There were all these black feathers in the sky."

"I saw the video of it."

Squall nodded. "Right. And, I had this dream... Black and white feathers. Rinoa and Nida. When I touch this..." He ran it over his jaw. "It feels like Nida's here."

"This is a feather of Iudicium," Laguna pointed out. "What do you think happened?"

"I..." Squall trailed off. "I don't know."

"At least Edea is safe," Laguna pointed out, desperate to give Squall good news. "She said that the power she felt of Ultimecia in her body is gone. It assimilated into her own powers."

Squall furrowed his brow. "Dad...?"

"Yes?" Laguna asked, cracking a smile. He always liked it when Squall called him 'Dad'.

"What happened to Adel and Ultimecia's powers? Why didn't they pass on?"

"Because of Lillith, we think. She had the ability to take power to the grave, and since Lillith's power was within Seifer and Zell..."

"Ultimecia's powers are dead," Squall finished. "We'll never have to deal with her again."

"I hope not." Laguna smiled and ruffled Squall's hair. "Are you hungry?"

Squall nodded distantly. "Yeah..." He then thought of the day he and Nida first kissed. Nida's food had tasted so good. Nida's lips had tasted so good. His whole body had tasted so good.

"What is it?" Laguna asked, cocking his head.

"Just thinking about the last time I ate anything," Squall muttered. "Nida cooks really good."

Laguna said nothing and just patted his son's shoulder. "It'll be okay."

"I know you don't believe that," Squall whispered, looking at the feather again.

Laguna sighed, brushing Squall's unruly bangs out of his face. "I wish I could, Squall."

Squall hugged his father once more. "I'm glad you're okay," he whispered into Laguna's chest.

"Thanks to you, kiddo," Laguna said laughingly. He hugged Squall back, wishing that he could take away all his child's pain. He could sense the anguish just in the tenseness of Squall's muscles. Their silence was interrupted by a commotion coming from the end of the hallway.

"What's that?" Laguna asked. He saw Dr. Sunde, and a few soldiers, as well as two stretchers. "Hey!" Laguna called. "What's going on?"

"President Loire!" Dr. Sunde called. "The team from the Esthar Plains just returned."

As soon as Squall heard Esthar Plains, his eyebrows shot up. "Did you find Nida?!" He exclaimed, his hand tightening around the feather in his hand.

Dr. Sunde opened his mouth to respond, but Squall looked as the stretchers passed him. Nida was laying on the first one, cuts marring his beautiful face. His elegantly high cheekbones seemed sunken in, and he looked like he had a few nastily infected injuries. The paleness of his face didn't fill Squall with hope. He reached his bandaged hand out, his fingers brushing Nida's hair as the stretcher passed him. The hope in him could barely be contained. "He's alive..." He whispered.

"Just barely," Sunde answered. "And, he might not make it."

"Wha.." Squall began to ask, but stopped dead when he saw the second stretcher. Rinoa Heartilly. She was also severely cut and bruised, her face red, black and blue. Her burial dress was dirty and blood streaked, and her hair was dusty, like Nida's own ebony tresses had been. Her neck was badly, badly bruised, but Squall noticed that it didn't look broken. And, the most frightening thing was that she was breathing. Rinoa was alive.

Laguna sucked in his breath. He was just as shocked as Squall was. Rinoa Heartilly was alive. How could this be?

"Come on," Laguna gently coaxed. "Let's follow them." He gave Squall a sad look, wrapping his arm around Squall's shoulders, and began leading his son down the hall.

"Nida..." Squall whispered as the stretchers disappeared around a corner, he and Laguna slowly following. He opened his hand, and saw that the black feather was crumpled and broken in his palm.

Edea walked down a blocked off area of one of Esthar's main streets, looking at all the dead monsters, a sad look in her amber eyes. She shared a look with Cid as they walked behind some Esthar guards. There were sections of the city that people weren't allowed to venture into, because there were still pockets of monsters everywhere, just like all over the world. The clean blue, technological surfaces of Esthar's streets were stained with red and black blood, both human and monster.

"This is awful," Ellone whispered, her fingers steepled in front of her quivering lips. "I hope everyone is okay..."

"I doubt it..." Irvine whispered, his head held low. Selphie was really gone. She wouldn't come bounding up the road, and get him in one of her rib-crushing hugs. "How could anyone be okay after all that's happened?"

"Irvine..." Edea whispered. She looked towards the Palace. "Let's just find Laguna and Squall, and see what happened."

Cid nodded, placing a hand on his wife's arm. "We'll think of a plan to get the monsters out of the cities, then things can start going back to normal."

"It will never be normal!" Irvine spat. "Selphie is dead! She's not coming back. Zell and Seifer were murdered. Rinoa died! None of them are coming back!"

"Irvine," Ellone said sadly, taking his hand in hers. "It's true that they aren't coming back, but... Selphie would want you to help things get back to normal. Crying won't help her now."

"But, that's all I feel like doing," he whispered sadly.


Edea looked up when she heard Quistis's voice. She saw the blonde Headmaster, and Xu, come towards them.

"I'm so glad you're safe, Mrs. Kramer," Xu greeted. "Irvine, Ellone... Headmaster Cid."

Cid waved his hands. "Please... Quistis is Headmaster now."

"I'm sorry," Xu apologized. "We're just so glad to see you all."

"Thank God you're safe!" Quistis exclaimed.

"You sound very relieved..." Edea trailed off, surprised as Quistis hugged her.

The blonde pulled away from Edea, smiling sadly. "I think we're glad to see anyone familiar right now."

"Is the exterminations not going well?" Cid asked, adjusting his glasses.

Quistis frowned. "We're all tired, and we keep getting more reports from the other continents of men and women dying. At least the monsters seem to be weakening..."

"That's good," Edea mused, trying to find a bright side. "How's Squall?"

"Last we heard, he was still unconscious," Xu said. "But, we've been out here all day. Maybe he woke up already."

"Did they find Nida?" Ellone asked. "Last we heard, he was still missing."

"Yeah... Apparently two people were brought into the Palace by the medical teams from the Esthar Plains. We only assume one of them is Nida."

"Who would the other one be?" Irvine asked as they got closer to the Presidential Palace.

"Not sure," Quistis said. "A soldier of some kind. From what Adel said, Rinoa was possessed and sent there, but this person was alive, so it can't be her."

Xu sighed as they approached the Palace. "Anyway, we have to stay out here. We're starting to get the transports in to move the monster bodies out of the city."

Quistis nodded. "Oh! Edea..."

"Yes?" The Sorceress cocked her head.

"What about Ultimecia's power that was in you? What happened to it?"

Edea smiled, and it brightened her entire marble face. "It assimilated into my own powers. Ultimecia is truly gone."

"But..." Xu butted in. "Adel passed her powers to Seifer's body, and to Ultimecia, but when Squall killed Seifer, the power wasn't passed on..."

"Lillith's powers brought it all to the grave. She's truly gone."

Quistis and Xu both seemed to slump with relief. "Some good news, finally," Quistis said laughingly. She placed a hand over top of Edea's. "I'm glad you're okay, Matron." She looked at Irvine, Ellone and Cid. "All of you." She smiled, and followed Xu back into the city.

"Let's find Uncle Laguna," Ellone said, jogging into the Palace. She stopped in front of the first guard she saw. "Where is President Loire?"

"Oh, Ellone! We're so glad you're safe." The guard smiled at her. "He's either in his office, or with Squall in the infirmary."

"Squall's awake?" Irvine asked.

"Yes. He just woke up recently."

They nodded, and headed into the Palace.

"I'm going to go to the Infirmary," Ellone said. "I want to see if Nida's okay. And, I want to see Squall."

"Cid, we should wait in Laguna's office."

Cid nodded. "Fine. Irvine, you and Ellone tell Laguna that we're in his office if he's with Squall..."

"Will do!" Ellone said, trying to make her voice sound cheerful. "Come on, Irvine."

Squall sighed deeply, inhaling the smell of Nida's skin. He was curled up in a chair next to Nida's bed in the infirmary of the Palace. It felt good to be able to smell Nida, but disturbing at the same time, because of the medicinal smell coming from everywhere else. Squall was hunched over so his head was tucked under Nida's chin, his cheek resting on the Asian man's chest. Despite Nida's comatose situation, which was painfully reminiscent of Laguna's, his body was warm, and Squall could feel the other man's heartbeat against his face.

"I think you left this for me..." Squall whispered, opening the hand on the side of Nida's body that Squall wasn't draped over. He put the broken black feather in Nida's still palm. "I found it when I woke up... It looks like one of Iudicium's feathers... But...." Squall sighed. "It feels like you." Squall inhaled. "I'm sorry... I crumpled it." He pressed his palm to Nida's, closing the feather between their hands. "What happened to you?"

Squall closed his eyes wearily, and his eyelids felt like lead weights. He didn't want to think about Rinoa in the next room. He didn't want to think that she'd hurt Nida, that she was still alive, that she could have Xerampelinae's powers... That Nida... He brushed some of his hair out of his eyes, the strands tickling him. "I thought you were there when I woke up. I hadn't even realized I'd been passed out for so long. Sunde must have given me something really powerful." Squall smiled distantly. "I woke up, and thought I could still smell you, from when we'd...." Squall blushed. "You know... In the shower." He smiled, remembering how Nida's body had felt next to him. "Anyway, I reached over to touch you, and you weren't there. After I brushed my teeth and got dressed, that feather was on the bed."

Squall pressed his lips into the starchy fabric of the hospital gown that Nida was wearing. "If you die..." Squall breathed in shallowly. "No... You've lived this long. It's just that... I don't know..." Squall opened his eyes, tilting his head so he could look at Nida's face, which looked very peaceful and angelic. "I need you right now. I need someone to keep me sane. I need you to keep me sane."

Nida's chest shallowly rose and fell, and Squall sighed, squeezing Nida's hand tighter, feeling the feather press into his palm. "Nida, I wish you could tell me why Rinoa was still alive..." Squall laughed suddenly, coldly and harshly. "Oh, my God... I can't believe I'm jealous right now." Squall's eyes softened as he looked at Nida. "Not at you, though." He pressed his head to Nida's chest again, nuzzling his head under the sleeping man's chin. "For some reason, I feel angry at Rinoa. Like... She was touching you." Squall sighed again. "I'm so stupid."

Squall suddenly whimpered, like a small, injured animal, a quiet noise that was muffled in Nida's chest. He felt like he was going to cry, but nothing came out. "Nida..." He whispered. "You know, when this is all over, and when you wake up, we're going on vacation. I just want to go away with you. I want you to wake up and tell me that I'm not a horrible person for killing two of my best friends. I want you to take me away from all this, so I can forget what I've done, even if it's just for a little while." Squall sighed again, deeply and sadly. "I want to go back to normal life, and not have to worry about the rest of the world. Let Laguna worry about Esthar... Let Quistis worry about Garden. I just want to worry about myself, and not have to be bound by duty, by what others want me to do." He looked at Nida's still, peaceful face. "I want to only have to worry about getting fucked too much. I just..." He stopped talking. "I was starting to feel like I could actually talk to you. You know, Nida, I don't build a rapport with people, usually. Fuck, I don't ever build one. But with you... It's different. Everyone else always wants me to talk about my feelings. Quistis does it. Laguna sure as Hell does it. Rinoa did it all the time. But, you don't... It didn't seem like you cared if I wanted to say anything at all. Like, it didn't matter to you. Just that I was there. And, it made me want to open up to you. Kind of like I'm doing now. I know you're passed out and everything... But, still." He huffed out some air. "I don't even know what I'm saying. Maybe I just want to hear my own voice, so I know that this isn't a horrible dream. Maybe I just hope that if I talk to you for long enough, you'll wake up and tell me to shut up."

Squall paused, as if waiting for Nida to answer before speaking again. "I'm sure you'll wake up in a couple of days, and once things have settled down, and we can go away. Dad said that the monsters are starting to dwindle." Squall laughed again, but more quietly, warmer. "I don't even know where you would want to go. Or, even if things would get back to normal." He sighed. "When Rinoa and I were still dating, she wanted to go to Winhill to see the flowers, and so I could learn more about Raine. I don't know if you'd want to do that. Maybe you'd want to go clubbing in Deling? I don't really know much about your hobbies, which is funny..." He paused. "I care about you, Nida. A lot. But, I still don't know that much about you." Squall ran his fingers over the creases in the sheets. "I guess we'll have to take the time to learn. I don't know if you know much about me, either. I mean... I'm not the most sharing person in the world. I seem to only be able to talk to people when they're passed out."

He craned his neck, so that his lips silently fell on Nida's. Under Squall's mouth, Nida's lips felt cool. Squall moved his mouth to Nida's cheeks. "Wake up, please..." Squall whispered. "Wake up, please... I command you to wake up." Squall snorted quietly. "I wish that could work. Sunde said you might die. That... There's something wrong with you. But, they don't know what. Like.. Your body just doesn't want to work anymore. If you don't improve, they'll have to put you on life support." Squall worked his free hand under Nida's body, and pressed their chests together as he held his body tightly to Nida's. "I have to call your parents soon if you don't wake up." The scarred man slipped his hand under his shirt, and pulled out his Griever necklace, looking at the glittering silver Lion's head. He sat up enough so that he could pull the chain over his head. He gently moved Nida's head, and placed the Griever around Nida's throat.

"I once gave Rinoa my Griever ring. When she broke up with me, she gave it back. Just after I gave it to her, or rather, Zell gave it to her, she fell off the edge of the Garden. Maybe it protected her a little. Maybe this will help you, too." Squall raised the front of Nida's hospital gown, and put the pendant under the fabric, against Nida's cool skin. He placed the gown back flat again, smoothing the fabric. "I could have given you the ring, but Rinoa already had it, so it seemed... Trite somehow." Squall cocked his head, resting his chin on Nida's sternum. "And, the pendant means more to me than the ring. That means you'll have to wake up so you can give it back."

Squall gently took the feather out of Nida's palm, and looked at it. He frowned, holding it up to the light. It seemed to have a silvery translucence to it, but there was something stranger than that. The feather was once again pristine, even after Squall had crumpled it in his hand. Squall's stormy eyes narrowed, and he looked at Nida. "What...?" He cocked his head, touching Nida's palm, then looking at the feather again. Before he could process what it all meant, before he could wrap his mind around it, the sound of footsteps echoed in the quiet room.

"Squall?" Ellone's gentle voice called out. "Are you okay?"

Squall sat up fully, looking over his shoulder at Ellone and Irvine, both of whom looked tired and weary. "Elle?"

"Yeah..." She came closer, and placed a hand on Squall's shoulder. "Are you okay?" She repeated.

"Fine..." Squall muttered, shrugging Ellone's hand away. But, Ellone could see it in Squall's eyes that he was not fine.

"What's that?" Irvine asked, making a gesture to Squall's hand. He pulled his black hat off his head, and held it in his hands, nervously tracing the brim.

"A feather," Squall answered simply. "When did you get in?" He looked past them. "Where's Edea?"

"In Uncle Laguna's office," Ellone answered, looking at Nida. "We saw Rinoa, Squall."

Squall gave them a blank look. "And? She's alive... I don't know what to do about it." He suddenly narrowed his eyes. "She's not my girlfriend anymore."

Ellone cocked her head and shared a look with Irvine. "I know, Squall."

"Yeah," the cowboy muttered. "Don't get so defensive. What did Sunde say?"

Squall slumped his shoulders, his hand unconsciously seeking out Nida's. "He doesn't know what to do. Something is really wrong with Nida. Since Rinoa had supposedly been possessed by Xerampelinae, Nida's empathy probably went crazy. But, right now..." Squall squeezed Nida's hand as he talked, not even really noticing he was doing it. "They don't know what to do."

"What about Xerampelinae's powers?" Irvine asked, noticing the touching that Squall was doing. It was very... Un Squall like.

Squall narrowed his eyes. "What did I just say? We don't know."

Irvine held up his hands. "Sorry... What if...?"

"What?" Ellone asked, looking at Irvine as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"What if Xerampelinae's powers went into Nida or something? But, that wouldn't explain why Rinoa was alive...."

Squall held his breath, remaining stony and still. Ellone had to look twice to make sure he was breathing. It seemed that Squall was starting to revert to his introverted personality from before the Neo-Sorceress War. "It would explain his condition..." Ellone whispered. She suddenly snapped her fingers. "And, I have a way to figure it out!"

"Huh?" Irvine asked. He and Squall shared confused looks. "What do you mean, Elle?" Irvine placed a hand on the brunette's shoulder.

Squall noticed the contact. He felt a little better for Irvine that he had Ellone to help him through the Selphie situation.

"I mean... Odine was working on a lot of Sorcery stuff before his death. And, I was beginning an apprenticeship with him that Uncle Laguna set up with me because of my powers. I'm sure Odine had something that could sense exactly what happened."

Irvine nodded. "Would that be at his Lab?"

She nodded, excitement glowing in her coffee brown eyes. "We'll have to talk to Uncle Laguna to get access, because Quistis, Xu and the other have closed off the city..."

Irvine smiled, and it reached his eyes for the first time in a long time. "By Jove, Elle. I think you're onto something."

She winked. "I'm more than just a pretty face."

Squall cleared his throat. "Dad went to his office if you want him."

"Are you going to stay here?" Irvine asked.

"No... I need to stretch my legs and use the bathroom. I should probably check on Rinoa, too. I haven't gone in there yet."

Ellone sighed, but didn't say anything. She could tell that Squall had reservations that he wasn't vocalizing about visiting his former girlfriend. She knew he would much rather stay constantly by Nida's side. Even thought Nida's situation was dire, she couldn't help but feel at least a little happy for Squall. When her and Irvine had first come into the room, Squall's body language had seemed more relaxed, only stiffening when he knew they were there.

"Okay..." Ellone whispered. "We'll contact you when we get to the Lab. Is that okay?"

"Fine," Squall muttered. He smiled sadly and walked past them, stopping in the next doorway, looking into Rinoa's room. Both Ellone and Irvine watched as he continued to walk, not going into her room after all.

"Poor Squall..." Ellone mused, walking over to Nida's bedside. "Poor Nida, too. I just hope things that things can go back to some sense of normalcy," she whispered.

Irvine stopped behind her, resting a hand on Ellone's slumped shoulder. "I hope so, too," he breathed, his voice thick with meaning.

Ellone patted Irvine's hand on her shoulder, and narrowed her eyes. Something was bumpy with Nida's chest. She wondered if it was broken bones, and touched it gently. It was hard and cold. Metal. She gingerly pushed back the fabric around Nida's neck, and saw the familiar glittering of Squall's pendant, the necklace that Squall never took off unless to bathe or sleep, the necklace that was so decidedly Squall. "Oh..." She whispered, putting the neck of the gown back. "Come on Irvine," she whispered sadly, smoothing the harsh fabric over Nida's collarbone. She closed her eyes as a flash of the past few moments that Nida and Squall had shared passed in her mind because of her powers. She saw Squall sadly kiss Nida's lips and cheeks, begging him to wake up.

Ellone felt tears prick at her lashes as she turned to face Irvine. "Let's go see Uncle Laguna."

Quistis frowned as she looked at Ellone. "Do you really think this will work, Elle?"

Ellone nodded in earnest. "Yes. I mean, it's the only thing that we can use to find out what happened to Nida, right? And, to find out why Rinoa is still alive."

"It's probably because of Xerampelinae's powers, right?" Laguna offered. "Well, I'll allow Elle to do whatever she wants, just because she's the cutest girl in the world."

"Uncle Laguna!" Ellone flushed, glaring at him. "You embarrass me so much!"

He laughed. "And, I'm also up for anything that will help Squall. And, I think this will."

"I don't like the look in his eye," Ellone whispered. "He looks like he did before Ultimecia attacked the first time."

Quistis nodded. "Yes, I know. So much has happened to Squall... He's had to shoulder so much. And, holding in all that guilt, that sorrow... It must be hard."

"And, the fact that Nida's unconscious and Rinoa is alive doesn't really help his case," Kiros pointed out.

"How is Nida anyway?" Quistis asked, her voice taking on a motherly tone.

"I'd be lying if I said he would be fine, because we don't know if he will..." Laguna muttered. "He's pretty close to death. I hope that we can cure him, that maybe Elle can figure out something."

"I didn't even know you were becoming Odine's apprentice," Irvine said lowly. "When did this start?"

She waved her hands. "Just recently. I wanted to learn more about my powers..."

"Can you see anything from the past, Ellone?" Laguna asked. "Like, between Rinoa and Nida."

Ellone shook her head sadly, tucking some of her dark hair behind her ears. "So far, I haven't gotten anything. Maybe it has something to do with the Sorcery interference. I mean, Ultimecia knows my powers well, so she could have done something to prevent me from doing anything to help Nida or Rinoa."

"That sounds like Ultimecia," Quistis muttered. "Anyway, Laguna.. Xu and I have made a lot of progress in cleaning out the city. There are only a few pockets of monsters left. The Esthar Army has been amazing. You should really commend them.

Laguna nodded, steepling his fingers, his stormy eyes looking tired and troubled, so much like Squall's at that moment. "What is the word from the other continents? I know from what you said, Edea, that Trabia is basically back to normal. Trabia Garden is handling any unusual monster attacks from now on. They're used to having lots of critters around, so it's okay. I'm kind of worried about Centra. That was always a monster haven..."

"Centra is dead," Quistis stated. "We thought that some monsters would appear again after the anti-life wave that Ultimecia and Adel sent out, but it hasn't happened. The Winhill area is still unaffected. They've had a lot of monster problems in the past, and it's about usual. We've sent some of the main Centra continent troops to that area to help smooth things out. And, Xu had the idea of setting up a permanent base in that area. Both you and Ellone know what a mess it can be like there sometime."

Kiros and Laguna looked at each other, nodding thoughtfully. "Good plan. So, what about Balamb, Timber and Galbadia?"

"So far, so good," Quistis stated. She turned to Ellone. "Ready?"

Ellone nodded.

"I'm coming, too!" Irvine piped up.

"You don't have to..." Ellone murmured.

"Yes I do!" Irvine exclaimed, almost hotly as he put his black cowboy hat on. "I couldn't be there to protect Selphie. I won't let the same thing happen to you."

Ellone gave him a sad smile. "Okay, let's go, then."

Saffron Dincht sadly looked out the window. She had a nice view of the shopping promenade from the room President Loire had given her. Since she'd seen the tape of Zell and Seifer's deaths, which had been projected all over the entire city, she hadn't ventured out of her quarters. She didn't want to see anyone at that moment. She knew that Squall Leonhart wasn't to blame, but she couldn't bring herself to want to face him. He was the one who killed her baby, who killed Seifer, too. Zell may not have been her flesh and blood, but he was still her child. Despite the fact that he'd been possessed by Adel Viator, his birth mother, Saffron had still loved him. She knew that Zell was better off this way, but it still hurt.

She thought of Zell as a small child, when she'd first adopted him from Edea's Orphanage. The funny thing was that she'd almost adopted Seifer instead, but something about Zell had tugged at her heartstrings. The problem was, that whenever she tried to think of Zell recently, all she could see was the horrible red eyes of Adel. Like the monstrous Sorceress had even possessed the memory of Zell. She knew that his friends would have a hard time remembering him without remembering Adel, as well. She wondered how Squall would deal with this all. She wondered if Squall would also remember the way Seifer and Zell's bodies had slowly vanished, like all the other dead Sorcerers and Sorceresses before them. Saffron knew she would never forget it. Part of her totally blamed Squall, and wanted to hate him, and yet, she still felt horribly sorry for him. The utter agony and anguish that he'd suffered for ending Seifer and Zell's lives had been totally visible.

She could still hear his screams, echoing throughout Esthar, the sound system reverberating it over the tall buildings. And, the fact that Nida Nomura had been found on the brink of death, and with Rinoa Heartilly, who was strangely alive, wasn't really helping matters. She sighed, pulling her wallet out of her purse. She pulled out the fan of pictures, and looked at them. There were some of her deceased husband, and she smiled sadly at them. There were lots of pictures of Zell as a child. She stopped at the picture of Zell in his SeeD uniform, flanked on either side by Selphie and Squall. Zell and Selphie were smiling brightly, while Squall looked melancholy, like he usually did. His eyes were looking past the camera. She looked at the next picture. It was taken on the back porch of her house in Balamb. Seifer and Zell were sitting beside each other, their shoulders touching. It had been taken a few years after the Neo-Sorceress War. Both were smiling, and had a general calmness about them. By looking at the picture, one could just tell that they were in love, just by the way they held their bodies.

Saffron sighed, putting the pictures away, finding them too painful to look at. But, even with the photographs tucked away in her purse, the pain wasn't going away, and she didn't think it ever would.

Squall balanced a couple of pieces of bread in his palm as he walked back to the Infirmary, and more importantly, Nida. He hadn't eaten since Nida had cooked for him, and had gotten some of the bread that the Asian pilot had baked. Squall tore a piece off the bread, furrowing his brow as he rounded the corner. He could hear a chirping noise. He stopped when he saw a yellow ball bounding towards him. In fact, it was a Chicobo. It was actually the Chicobo that he'd been holding in Centra.

"What are you doing out here?" Squall asked as it stopped in front of him, chirping merrily. He noticed that the Chicobo seemed to want to be picked up. "Okay, okay..." Squall muttered, scooping the small bird up in his arms. He fed a small piece of bread to the bird. "Do you want to come see Nida with me?"

The bird chirped and nuzzled against Squall's chest, curling in the cocoon of Squall's arm. Squall silently walked to Nida's room, eating the last of his bread. He saved a few pieces to give to the Chicobo. Nida's room was quiet, except for the monitoring machinery. Squall sat in the chair, giving the bird the last of the bread. "Hi, Nida. Ellone and Irvine are going to Odine's Lab. Sis thinks that she might have a way to find out what happened to you..." He patted the Chicobo's head. "She was working with Odine..."

He sighed, looking down at the small bird, who was nudging Nida's still hand with his beak. Squall adjusted on the chair so he could pull the feather out of his pocket. He touched it to his cheek. "What does this mean, Nida?"

The Chicobo chirped, which caused Squall to smile sadly. "I guess I should give you a name or something." He looked at Nida. "What do you think I should name him?" Squall looked back at the Chicobo. "Or, are you a girl?"

The bird warked, as if saying No. "Okay," Squall muttered. "Boy, it is." He thought for a few minutes. "I don't know... Nida, what do you think?" He cocked his head, his auburn hair falling in his stormy eyes. He brushed it away again. "I don't know. I'm not good at this... I can't be creative with names. How about Vividarium?" Squall asked. He waited as if for Nida's approval. "I remember reading about it in one of those books that me, Seifer and Zell were reading when Seifer was trying to find out about his past. Vividarium means Garden. It was also a Warrior called to fight Intervigilium and the Inaudax. I don't know, it just seems to suit, seeing as how we're both from Garden..." He looked at the bird. "Do you like that name? Vividarium? We could call you Vivi for short."

The bird chirped happily.

"Seems like you like it..." Squall muttered. He looked at the feather again. "Was this a message to me or something?" Squall cocked his head again. He closed his eyes and pressed the side of his face into Vivi's soft down. Suddenly, he gasped when a loud beeping interrupted the quiet of Nida's Infirmary room. He looked up, and saw that Nida was convulsing, and the heart monitors were going insane. "Nida?!" Squall stood, clutching to the Chicobo in his arms. "Oh, fuck! Nida?!" He dashed to the hallway. "HELP!!" He called.

A guard showed up, followed by a few doctors. Sunde followed shortly after. "What's going on?" The doctor asked.

"I don't know," Squall moaned. "Nida just started having a seizure or something...." He panted.

"Okay...." The doctor and a few orderlies went into the room. Squall tried to follow, but Sunde stopped him. "Wait out here..."

Squall's chest heaved as he backed into Rinoa's room. He could hear the doctors shouting medical things at each other over the beeping machinery. Vividarium whimpered in Squall's arms as the scarred man squeezed him a bit too tightly. He heard a flat line from the other room, and felt like his heart stopped as well.

"Nida..." Squall whispered as he heard Sunde shouting commands. He slowly turned around, looking at Rinoa, who was laying just as stilly on her bed as Nida had been before his attack. Squall looked at the feather, which seemed to be burning in his hand, then looked at Rinoa's still face, which was now bruise free. Her neck also looked healed, and it wasn't broken at all. Had Nida's life been sacrificed to bring Rinoa back from the dead?

Squall stared at Rinoa for the longest time, his heart lurching when he heard the machines beeping again. "This is all your fault..." He hissed at her as the din calmed in the next room. "If Nida dies, it's your fault, Rinoa." His voice became deathly calm. "If Nida dies, I'll never forgive you. If he dies... It's all because of you."

After Nida had been sustained with Elixirs and old fashioned medical treatment, Squall had been allowed back into Nida's room. He was sitting alone beside the Asian man's bed once more, staring sadly at Nida's beautiful, calm face. He'd tucked the Griever pendant back under the hospital gown, smoothing the ugly fabric over Nida's chest. Vividarium was curled at Squall's feet, sleeping peacefully. Squall wished he could do the same. He stood up, and walked over to the window.

"It's not fair..." Squall whispered, looking at the feather. "It's not fair that Rinoa is doing fine... I mean, she's still in a coma, but you could die. This isn't fair..." He looked out the window at the city, at the sky, which was beginning to darken. "It's not fair that your life should be made to give up for her.." He watched the sky. "No... You'll get better...." Squall whispered. "You'll get better. You have to. You have...." He trailed off as he watched something fly across the sky. A bird. "You're like a bird. You seem so free. You seem like you belong in the sky." Squall's eyes narrowed as the bird came closer. It was a big black bird. It made Squall look at the feather in his hand. For some reason, it was making his palm tingle. "I wonder if this is a bird's feather. Maybe it's supposed to be symbolic...?" Squall wondered aloud. He stopped all movement when the big raven perched itself on the windowsill, right in front of Squall, and stared at him with a single black eye. Its other eye was milky white.

"What...?" Squall blinked a few times. The bird was still sitting there. "You're Lillith's bird. Hyperion...." He whispered, his voice catching in his throat. He shook his head. "Hyperion...? What....?" Suddenly, a flash passed behind Squall's eyes, and he felt the scar in between them burn for a briefest moment. "Seifer?!"

As soon as Squall had uttered his former rival's name, the bird took flight once more, but hovered, as if beckoning Squall.

"Seifer...?" He looked at the feather in his hand, then at the bird out the window. Immediately, Squall dashed out of the room, running as fast as he could to get outside. Squall didn't notice when Vividarium woke up, looking up to Nida's bed, chirping in delight....

As soon as Squall arrived in the cooling evening air, he saw Hyperion once more, waiting, as if taunting him. Squall hastily looked around for a means of transportation. The feather in his head didn't seem to be tingling anymore, and he put it in his pocket. He saw a Motorcycle nearby, and quickly straddled it. It was a Military Bike, so the keys were already with it. He gunned the throttle, not really caring about the helmet at the moment. As he began to ride out of the city, his hair whipping around his face in the wind, he looked for Hyperion in the sky. He would occasionally catch sight of the bird, who was flying away from Esthar, and towards the Grandidi Forest. What are you leading me towards? Squall wondered as he drove faster. He was afraid he was going to crash, but didn't really care. Are you taking me towards Lillith? Or maybe Seifer and Zell didn't....? Squall upped the speed, and drove towards the thick forests. Will you be able to help me save Nida? Squall frowned in concentration, looking to the sky for the raven once more. He was distracted by the bird, so he didn't see the large flash of massive purple lunging at him. It hit it full force, like a brick wall, and tumbled Squall off the Motorcycle, hitting the ground hard. He could feel his elbow shatter, and he grunted in pain. He could also hear the high-pitched whine of the Motorcycle as it skidded across the ground, eventually crashing against some boulders.

Squall opened his eyes as the Behemoth that had attacked him lunged at him once again, causing his head to snap back. He could hear the faint raven's call as he slipped into unconsciousness.

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