Rated for language and canon-typical violence.
Zell relearns the universe.
"For fuck's sake, Dincht, that's an order, don't Draw—"
The hell? Zell thought, and reached for the last point of light, and the darkness exploded into him in a million smooth, sleek planes.
There was metal and blood and maybe honeysuckle. Squall was bellowing and Irvine's gun kept barking retorts. Ultima Weapon loomed above them amidst wailing equipment and exposed livewires, and as the sparks rained down on them Zell could only think, I've seen you before.
There was a flutter of wings as big as a ship inside his head. He felt the moon press in on his reality, making the sea underneath him rise until he could no longer see the shore. He opened his mouth to speak, but then sand was rushing down his throat, filling him until it crushed him and he died. When it came back out it flew as a single storm, converging into a continent, and the waxing and waning of the sea against the new shore reminded him how to breathe again.
Overhead, the noise of the sky and the land converged into a single stream. I am eternity.
I'm Zell, he thought, which didn't seem strictly true at the moment. He felt like a lot of things, most of them young and kind of dorky. Ma had taught him to be polite, though, and anyway, some things deserved a response. 'I am eternity' was one of them.
The GF's reply in his mind was something he couldn't translate. Instead he felt a shiver of wind, and suddenly all he could see was the leaves of a towering maple tree. The bark of it rippled and expanded and the tree grew until it could no longer support itself, thundering to the ground in the middle of the next wind storm. Grass poked up through the resulting detritus, and then a sapling, and then ten.
What can I call you? he asked.
Distantly he heard Squall roar another order, but it seemed unimportant. He wondered if they were winning. The world seemed to slow down for him, turning as only an afterthought, rendering consequences meaningless.
The ground shifted, buckling and rising into a rolling hill of echoes: what what what.
Yeah, he thought. What.
The hills sank into the sea, flat and pale under the overcast sky. Zell waited while sand blew over his shoes, revealing the supply of bleached bones just under the surface of the dunes.
When the response from the GF finally came, it wasn't strictly words. It was a million voices lifted in song and the dying groans of an old man and the laughter of a young girl.
They said, Eden.
Equipment smashed around him. Irvine started to yell.
Zell opened his eyes.
When he was six he'd nearly drowned in the sea outside of the orphanage. Seifer was loud and smart and just as liable to hand out unexpected praise as well as criticism, and for some reason that had made Zell want to impress him rather than stay out of his way.
The water was frigid and the skies had been as silver as gayla wings. Zell had removed everything but his shorts and had splashed out up to his waist, feeling the current battle him. Storms came quickly on the cape, and all of Matron's children had been taught to recognize the signs. A blow was coming, most likely within the hour, but that's what had made the challenge worth it. On a calm day, the seventy-five meter distance to the small island of rock one was nothing to children who lived year-round on the coast.
Later the GFs would claim a lot of the experience, but all in all it was hard to forget drowning. The winds had been wild and the waves had kept pushing him down, and oddly, his main thought was that of course this was the night he was going to miss dinner. It was one of the rare times that they weren't having fish. Seifer would end up eating his share and probably Selphie's too with no one to tattle on him.
Later on, Zell had only the barest recollection of being rescued. Something flashing bright enough to hurt his eyes through his eyelids, someone pounding on his chest hard enough to bruise his ribs. Ellone screaming at Seifer for the first and only time he could remember. Dying was easiest to remember, because dying itself was easy: the way wet sand dribbled out the sides of your fist the tighter you tried to hold onto it.
Zell wasn't sure why he was thinking about it now, with an alien force in his head in his head and Ultima Weapon wreaking destruction around them, but that was the way summoning worked. You were the center of your universe and you were irreplaceable and then suddenly you were nothing at all, even to yourself.
"Told you not to Draw that fucking thing." Squall was a blur of efficient, no-nonsense movement. Gunblade on the floor. Gloves off. He pushed Zell back into a sitting position against the wall.
"Did we win?" His voice sounded wrong. He could see Irvine limping in from the side, supporting himself on a statue of a woman missing both of her arms.
"Depends," Squall said. He sounded terse. Zell's hair was damp with sweat. Squall pushed it aside and tilted Zell's head back, staring hard into his eyes, and Zell wondered what he was looking for.
"He all there?" Irvine stopped a few feet away to lean against a statue missing most of its upper body. His arm was tucked inside his jacket; he was about three shades paler than normal and streaked with blood.
"Can't tell yet."
"I'm here," Zell said. What happened. "I'm fine."
Squall said nothing. He reached into the bag next to him and yanked out a bottle, uncorking it with his teeth. Zell turned his head away when the rim met his lips, feeling something in him spark at the motion.
Squall's hand instantly tightened around his jaw so hard Zell thought his teeth would pop out. "Drink it or I shove it down your throat," Squall said.
He drank it. "The hell was that thing," Irvine said. "Never seen anything like it."
"Scan said Ultima Weapon." Squall pulled the half-emptied bottle away before Zell could finish. He set it down and rescued a small pill canister out of his pocket, sliding out two capsules and breaking them with a twist of his fingers. They fizzed when they hit the remaining liquid. Luv Luv Gs.
"Was that really a GF in there?" Irvine still sounded short for breath. Zell wondered how many injuries he'd racked up with that last all-out attack. "Felt like its own goddamn planet."
"Yes, it was, and now it's in his head," Squall said. "Drink," he ordered again, pressing the rim of the bottle to Zell's lips.
Zell felt strange. There was moss under his fingers and his butt was freezing from sitting in the splashes of displaced water. Squall shoved it against his lips again and Zell turned away, and once again wings were unfurling inside him, the galaxy falling open as idly as a child flipping through a storybook.
Squall's hand was back at his throat in an instant. His eyes were bright as metal in the uneven light. For the barest second there was a shudder of Bahamut's wings in his shadow, and recognition opened up behind Zell's own eyes. Child of gravity, eternity whispered. Child of stars. "Let him go," Squall said.
Child of fate, to challenge the might of my old friend.
Squall's voice was a fraction above a murmur, and some part of Zell recognized him at his most dangerous. "Last warning."
This time the girl's delighted laughter came from outside his head. "Hyne's flaming back hair," he heard Irvine swear.
Squall was a step ahead. He shifted his grip to Zell's chin and slammed his head back against the stone, just hard enough to set off sparks in his skull. Light broke through the shadow; stunned, Zell opened his mouth to speak and was unceremoniously interrupted when Squall upended the contents of the bottle.
He gagged. The stone swam out from underneath him, and for a minute he was drowning in the storm again, Ellone's screams and the silt between his fingers and an old woman's lullaby coming together to form the tapestry of the sea.
Squall's hand was back on his throat.
The sea disappeared with a click, and Zell opened his eyes.
Zell had to spend a solid five minutes convincing Irvine not to loot the boob off a broken statue on the edge of the control deck, which was a full five minutes more than he'd prepared for when first taking his oaths as a SeeD. "But it's just lying on the ground," Irvine said. "Lonely for a man's touch."
"Look, would you shut up about boobs?" Zell said. "We just battled an ancient demon weapon thingy to the death, you think you could be serious for two seconds?"
"Who says I'm not?" There was a bucket of blood and ichor on Irvine's clothes. He looked only slightly more than half-dead. It was hard to know whether Selphie or Quistis would throw the bigger fit, one being interested in his body and the other currently being at the top of the list for laundry duty on the Ragnarok. "Just think of all the adventures it'd see if it came with me. Figured I could hang my necklace off the nipple or use the whole thing as a doorstop. Which do you think fits the dorm décor more?"
"No breasts," Squall said over Zell's indignant sputter, passing them both by with long strides as he returned from the corpse of the Weapon. He took a hold of Irvine's arm in transit, examining it briefly before casting a Cure over it, closing the last of the open wounds into an angry red line. "Check around to see if there's anything else worth the trouble of taking, then meet back here in ten," Squall said. "Watch your step. If you meet up with a fight, yell."
"Sure we should be splitting up yet?" Irvine shrugged his coat on over his ruined clothes before lifting Exeter up with a snap of his wrist, squinting down the barrel. "I mean, who knows how many more beasties are still down here."
"We've had no interruptions since we defeated the Weapon, so the way is probably clear," Squall said, which Zell thought was a pretty bold thing to say considering the number of times their asses had been generously handed to them over the past three hours. "Split up, comb the grounds. I want to get back up there before the girls get it in their heads to come after us."
"Think a soft will work on the nipple?" Irvine muttered to Zell as he made for the adjoining room.
Zell almost hit him. "Stop saying nipple."
Irvine flicked a salute over his shoulder and disappeared around the corner, leaving Zell alone with a boobless statue and about six years of additional therapy.
Zell's connection to Alexander lent him some protection from mortal blows but not from pain, so he parked his aching body an extra minute in the now-empty control room and wondered if it'd be okay to just kind of pretend to search. He didn't care about salvage at this point and there was probably nothing of use down here anyway, considering whatever ancient-ass equipment still functioned was more than likely incompatible with the operating systems at Garden.
Then again, Ragnarok was old as dirt too, and Zell wasn't inured enough to the chain of command to blow off a direct order. He buckled down reluctantly, taking a knee in front of the control center and using his multi-tool to pry off the panel nearest to him. Without knowing what he was after, it took him a while to parse the tangle of wires and shadows in the guts of the machine, but eventually he opted to salvage a grime-encrusted stepper motor and some solenoids in hopes that they'd come in handy later on the ship.
When he straightened up to look for something to wipe them off with, he realized there was a statue regarding him from across the water.
Zell felt himself slow to a stop, thumb slipping to rest inside the coils of the solenoids. The statue was a nude woman with claws in place of feet, long hair parting to frame her bared breasts. Her hips and shoulders were smooth, serpentine curves; her glaring eyes had no pupils.
It was weird, Zell thought, feeling something unpleasant crawl across his skin, that a place dedicated to deep sea research would care about dolling it up with sculptures. The woman looked as old as the surrounding rock formations, but her presence next to the mountains of crusty drill equipment was jarring. If the statues been put there as divine tributes to ward off the monsters, their influence had clearly been overestimated. If they'd been here before it all, it seemed disrespectful to let them break down when the ruins had clearly been a temple of some kind. It was almost as if—
It's almost as if, Zell thought, and there was a dull weight in the back of his head. Absently, he tilted it to redistribute it.
"Gives me the jeebies." Irvine was suddenly beside him, Exeter slung over his shoulder. He was following Zell's gaze with a squint. "Gotta wonder just how old this place is."
"It was abandoned in the last couple decades, but the original tech itself's about a hundred years old." His back was starting to hurt from about a half-dozen too many Different Beats. Judging by the way Squall had been holding his own shoulders, Zell was willing to bet he didn't even want to hear the words 'Blasting Zone' until two or three elixers went down his own neck. "The statues probably predate that."
"Quisty was thinking the ruins came at least a few hundred years before all this." Irvine idly scratched his neck with the side of the barrel. "Thinks they might've built the research lab on top on purpose to get easy access to the materials. Minerals and the like."
"Could be." Zell glanced over at him for the first time. "You weren't gone long. Didn't find anything?"
Irvine tore his own gaze from the statue long enough to give him a blank look. "The ten minutes were up five minutes ago."
The statue's arm was curved around her stomach. The pupil-less eyes seemed to be staring straight at him.
Zell felt the weight shift again, buzzing at the base of his skull.
"C'mon, Dincht." Irvine's hand was a warm weight on his shoulder. "Let's blow this place before all this creepy decides to call friends."
The color of the sea crept back to him around the time they reached the third flight of stairs. He thought he could hear water sloshing under the soles of his sneakers as they passed by the landings, but the cobblestones were dry whenever he glanced down to check. In contrast to the thunderstorm of howls they'd weathered on the way down, their journey back was preternaturally quiet, broken only by Squall's clinking belts and the occasional grunt of effort from Irvine as he lugged their salvaged supplies in a satchel over his shoulder.
The light-headedness from earlier crept steadily back as Zell rounded the corners. The next landing rippled in front of him like an unfurling wave, and he realized that his ears had been ringing for several minutes.
He was about to think something disparaging about gun users and why real men should brawl with their fists like nature intended, but something flickered in the corner of his eye and when his head turned to look, his feet forgot to follow suit. He stumbled and caught himself against a pedestal.
Squall was there in an instant. Irvine cocked Exeter and faced out, setting his stance, bringing up the rear guard while Squall dug around in his pocket.
It was too organized not to be planned. Zell had maybe three seconds to think on it before Squall was breaking Luv Luv G capsules apart again, dumping them into one of their last potions. "Dude, come on," Zell said. "I'm not five."
"How much longer to the surface?" Squall wasn't speaking to him.
Irvine's back was turned. "I'd say about four floors."
"I'm fine," Zell said.
"Drink," Squall said, and pushed the bottle into his hand. "Irvine."
"On it," Irvine said, and slung his gun up over his shoulder with casual, lethal grace to lope up the next stairwell.
Under Squall's direct, hard stare, Zell knocked it back. The ringing in his head eased a bit; when his thoughts realigned he realized Squall had yet to move, still studying him at close range.
Zell's back absorbed the coolness of the pedestal, but his skin felt oddly warm, buzzing like he'd rubbed it own with wool. "I'm about two seconds away from ripping you out of his head with my bare hands," Squall said.
"His heart is vast," Zell said, which was a pretty weird way of saying 'what the hell'. His tongue wasn't working quite right.
"He can't handle this much juice. Whoever you are, you'll need to dial it down if you want him to walk out of here."
The buzzing was back in Zell's head. It was as natural as thought to open his mouth, to run his tongue along the back of his teeth, to breathe in and out and marvel at the primitive mundane miracle of it all.
Squall had no expression at all on his face. "What if not storm brought you here, son of lions?" Zell asked. Reality felt smooth and soft, his tongue moving easily on its own. "When you reached for me, what harbor did you seek?"
Squall repeated, "Dial it down or you'll burn out his motor functions."
"What light attracts you to this shore?"
Squall's skin was warm – too warm, actually, but that wasn't too surprising considering the battle they'd just seen. More important was probably the fact that Zell knew this only because his hand was on the side of his commander's face.
Squall didn't answer for a long time, not bothering to move from under Zell's touch. When he finally spoke up, it was only to say, "Dincht. Fifteen seconds to get topside."
He felt the buzz slide and relocate, like an insect hopping from one blade of grass to the next.
"Ten," Squall said.
Get off, Zell told his hand. Instead he watched as his thumb instead gently skimmed the length of the scar across Squall's nose. Squall's eyes fluttered, just a little, reflexive. "Leave him," Squall said. His voice was strangely quiet, barely audible to Zell's ears. "Come to me."
"No." The words coming from his own mouth were gentle. "There is no room in your heart."
Squall's voice, weirdly enough, was just as gentle. He said, "One."
Zell had enough time to think, oh, that's what he meant, before the hilt of Squall's gunblade met the side of Zell's head and ended the conversation.
On the way up the stairs of the research center, slung over Squall's shoulder, was when Zell finally recalled the other memory he'd lost. That same summer he'd nearly drowned, there'd been a typhoon that'd battered the coast for three days. The waves had been high to cause damage to the orphanage, but back then storms had had a way of slipping past them, like they'd been under a dome.
The bellow of a ship's horn had come on the fourth day, when the sun had returned to the orphanage. The girl on Zell's right had a laugh like a bell and the boy on his left had grown tall enough over the summer to be useful on a farm; the boy with the storm-colored eyes that rarely spoke was probably the smartest of them all. Marketable traits on display, set next to each other on a shelf to appeal to customers.
When the woman had stepped off the ship and had come inside the orphanage, broad and sturdy as an oak barrel, she'd greeted all of them and all of their marketable traits, and in the end had stopped in front of Zell, who'd had none.
She'd asked, Why are you crying?
Zell was jostled from the memory when Squall turned hard onto the next landing, skidding a little in the dust. The stones fuzzed in and out of focus below him; everywhere beyond that sat the dazzling blue blaze of water behind glass, and then Zell was back again with the memory of the woman and her sharp, dark eyes.
She'd asked, Why are you crying?
He'd answered, I'm not, and Seifer had snickered, and at that moment he'd never hated anyone more in his life. He'd hated her no-nonsense expression and the scent of freshly-baked bread around her despite her having been at sea for several days. In the future, when she became Ma and her house became home and Selphie and Seifer were relegated to the place where his summons slept, he'd have to work hard to unlearn his hatred of that smell.
Zell was brought back again when Squall's steps slowed, and suddenly light burst in from the hatch. Something in Zell unlocked. It was the darkness of caverns for centuries and the giddying rush of fresh air so long after holding his breath. Sun, said a young girl, said a wizened crone, both weeping. Sun.
Ma Dincht had asked, Why are you crying?
Inside him, eternity found the last unoccupied corner in his head.
Because I miss the storm.