Rinoa came into his room with a collection of torn clothes and a protein shake bribe, shower-damp hair tied in a ponytail that curled around her neck. "You swear you ain't told Leonhart about this?" Zell pressed just to make sure, frowning when a hunt inside the bag turned up Squall's military jacket.
"Oh no, he thinks I do it all myself." Rinoa was already shamelessly piling onto his bed, gathering up his blanket to warm her knees. The fact that she smelled pretty great was more inconvenient than anything else, seeing as Zell would now have to pull preventative laundry-duty for his sheets that night to avoid a perfumed laundry-duty walk of shame in the morning. "It's actually kind of funny. He knows I couldn't mend at all before, so whenever I mention borrowing his clothes to do repairs on them now, he gets this really weird look on his face and changes the subject. He thinks I just absorbed another skill while I was floating out in space and he's trying not to hurt my feelings by admitting how much the sorcery freaks him out."
"Takes more'n sorcery to get good with a needle," he grumped, but the fact was that she'd brought a banana protein shake and gentlemen honored bargains. He tossed himself into his chair and bent to scrounge under the desk, emerging with a sewing kit and a spare lamp. In his peripherals he saw Rinoa slide a thick text out of absolutely fucking nowhere, which Zell could guess was probably also on Squall's list of quiet concerns. "You guys done with the write-up on the Research Center?"
"Squall's doing most of it. I just took care of the travel logs."
"Is he done?"
"He won't be over the hill of it for a another week. Even if we don't actually intend to have it go anywhere, it still has to be logged so future generations won't stumble upon it and wake anything else up."
Zell flipped the latch on his kit and wondered if he maybe should've tried harder to help. He and Quistis usually split the paperwork from missions to save Squall the administrative headache, but Squall had buttclenched after the Island Closest to Hell, ignoring Zell's requests for details and redirecting him whenever he tried to make himself useful. Zell had grown bewildered enough by the run-around that he'd eventually gone to Rinoa about it, only to have Rinoa laugh in his face. He's worried sick about you. Learn to read between the lines. "I do have to wonder what he's going to do about Esthar, though," Rinoa added offhandedly, licking a thumb to page through her text. "He doesn't want to open this up to the public, but we're obligated by the Esthar-Balamb accords to inform them of any abandoned military sites we find, especially now that we… woke things up in it. Especially if what we woke up could be dangerous to the coastal cities their military protects."
"But we took care of all that," Zell said, kind of involved in the cardigan in his lap but also weirded out to hear Rinoa casually reciting pan-continental military accords on his bed. "And it's not a military site, it's a research facility. It doesn't count."
"But if it's a research facility, where were all the labs? Why didn't we find any records from all those decades of study?"
"S'been fifty years since that thing's been cracked open. It probably all just got eaten or something. Even if it didn't, there's still no proof we woke anything else up in there."
"Not on paper," Rinoa agreed readily, but when she met his gaze he saw the turmoil of a deeper sea.
He had to look away. Either way they sliced it, Rinoa was probably airing her concerns to the wrong person. Even if SeeD was eventually recruited to neutralize whatever else decided to slither ass-first from that pit, the closest Squall was ever going to let Zell come to the facility again would be inside a bubble of Silence in Ragnarok's cockpit. It wouldn't even have anything to do with protecting Zell from more cranial hitchhikers: Squall just got really pissed when someone ignored combat orders and was creative about punishing them for it afterwards. "What did you do to this thing, anyway?" Zell squinted as he turned the cardigan inside out, spidering his fingers through the tear and watching them wave back at him. "Looks like something tried for a meal and got the floss."
"I caught it on a nail jumping that fence in Deling last week. I meant to ask you afterwards, but then of course we took that detour to the facility, and with everything…else going on, it felt kind of gauche to put it on your plate."
It took him a second to remember what the hell she was talking about. Deling. They hadn't even— wait, yes that had. That summit between Garden and the governing bodies of the Galbadian continent to draft up ways to deal with the fallout from the Lunar Cry. It'd slipped his mind because the convention had immediately been followed up by an on-the-nose monster invasion in the shopping center that'd sent panicked civilians streaming off the streets like grat piss. All things tallied, Zell had suffered more damage from pointy elbows and accidental headbutts that night than the rogue chimera barfing up lightning from the sewers. "Don't see any blood," he said, peering around the other side of the rent. "It miss you, or did you wash this out before you brought it over?"
"It missed me." Rinoa's hands were fussing with the binding of the book. "Can you fix it?"
"Shouldn't be too hard." He wasn't enough of a sorcerer to break out embroidery hooks and weave the thing back up like he probably should, but the original knit was tight enough that it'd take well to an inside patch and some stitch-work.
He twisted to cycle through some of the options in his kit, settling on one that wouldn't stick out too badly under strong light. He was in the process of selecting a patch from his meager collection when he realized Rinoa was still fixated on him. "What?" he blurted, taken aback.
"Nothing." Rinoa faltered. She was still kneading the book. "It's just… it's the cardigan."
"What about it?"
"It's special. It belonged to my mother."
Really? Having spared it only impersonal assessment so far, Zell stopped now to take a closer look at it. "I usually only ever wear it on really special occasions," Rinoa said. "I didn't expect to be thrown into combat after the Deling summit, you know? There was no time to change."
"Kinda surprised it didn't get torn up worse if that's the case."
"Me too." Rinoa attempted a smile. "I guess I should be grateful my wings didn't come out during the battle and tear even more holes in it, huh?"
Huh. The additional information didn't really change his strategy and Zell sort of felt he'd already reassured her enough already, but she looked miserable and he wasn't looking forward to going through the entire repair process with her eyeballing him. "If you got things you need to do, you can always bug out and give me an hour or whatever to work on this."
"It's okay. I'd actually like to hide out here for a while, if you don't mind. If I'm not in the way."
"Not in the way, just, I'm not gonna be good company or anything. Kinda gonna be face-first in this for a while."
Rinoa regarded him with a smile that was slow and wistful and affectionate. He blinked at it. "Or maybe you're looking for bad company," Zell said.
"I'm looking for bad company," Rinoa said.
Well good then. He could be bad company. Zell took a swallow of his banana shake and finished unspooling the thread from his sewing kit. He hiked his own legs up to tuck them cross-legged on the seat, but did ask, "Ya want tunes?"
"Not especially. Unless you want them."
He compromised by plugging into the unit and listening with one earpiece in, keeping the volume low to spare her the noise pollution. Over the next twenty-odd minutes they gradually merged into their usual rhythm of co-existence: Zell sketching a beat with his toe as he worked, Rinoa muted to the occasional rasp of turning pages in his left ear. The hum of Balamb's air filtration system cycled on and off in the vent by the door as they worked, tucking everything under a layer of white noise.
Zell had sunk into full mission-mode trying to pluck out the last of the basting stitches when he realized the pages in Rinoa's book were no longer turning. Once he'd safely tied the running stitch off in an inconspicuous spot, he glanced up to check that she hadn't gone anywhere too weird in her head. While all of them had a pretty good handle on the universes packed inside their skulls, long silences tended to bring out wormholes, and Rinoa had more wormholes than most to go floating into. "Can I ask you something?" Rinoa said.
Not wormholed then. "Shoot." Zell turned the cardigan over for inspection, holding his work up under the lamp. He wasn't thrilled at the visible stitch pattern, but the thread was a close enough color match to need a double-take to find it. Ma had spent the first three years of his adoption trying to drill out the anxious perfectionism that routinely reduced him to tears. A little disappointment gave you something to shoot for later.
Resigned to mediocrity, Zell set it aside and dug into the bag for Squall's jacket.
"Is it okay if what I ask is sort of personal?"
He froze with a hand on the sleeve. "I guess what I mean is, do you have a minute to talk?" Rinoa asked. "Or is now a bad time?"
"It's not girl stuff, is it?" he blurted.
Rinoa's gaze had drifted somewhere near the base of his chair. It now snapped up with exasperation. "I mean, you're not gonna ask me how I think you really look in your combat gear or if your haircut makes you look fat or whatever, right?" Zell asked. "Because I legit know nothing about that."
"You know that's not the only thing women think about, right?" Rinoa said. "You realize we do have other things in our heads? Life goals? Self-actualization?"
"Yeah, I do, which is why I can't figure out why every girl I hang out with for more than ten minutes asks me about their hair. Swear to Hyne I spent my first two years thinking it was some kind of top-secret military code I was supposed to crack in order to graduate."
"Did it ever occur to you that those girls approached you because they were hoping the cute boy they liked would compliment their hairstyle?"
"Who cares what I think?" he asked, flabbergasted. "I mean if it came down to the floor or something, maybe I'd worry about them tripping over it during a fight, but aren't I s'posed to… I dunno, be looking at them for their brains or whatever? Isn't that what girls always say they want? Or is 'look at my hair' some kind of shorthand for 'look at my brains', and it really was a code I was screwing up that whole time?"
Rinoa was looking at him with an expression that was hard to parse. It lay somewhere between sustained exasperation and the soft, aching tenderness he usually saw people direct towards baby animals.
Before he could consult his SeeD codebook for more clues on hair and brains, Rinoa drew the blanket aside and scooted forward until her legs dangled off the side of the bed. She reached to bridge the gap between them, palm-up.
Already having pretty much figured from the start that something like this was coming, Zell resignedly slid Squall's jacket back into the bag and settled his hand into hers. "Kadowaki set you up to this?"
"I'm not an errand girl," she chided, but gently. She massaged the pulse in his wrist with cool fingertips. Recovers were already rearranging her dark irises into cooler shades. "You've been through a lot these past few days, Zell. Don't you think it's natural for your friends to want to check in on you after you've been ill?"
"I haven't been—" He damn near dropped his tattoo. "Don't put that into the wind."
"But it's true."
"If word gets back to Ma she'll be up here drowning a whole chicken into a soup for me to eat."
"Maybe some soup and rest at home wouldn't be such a bad thing."
"Kadowaki cleaned me up for active duty. I'm serious, Ma will find an entire chicken," Zell said. "She makes like three pots of soup and then guilt-trips me if I don't snarf them all on the first day. If Leonhart wants me gone, just throw me barefisted into a pit with a couple of T-Rexaurs and let me die that way. Anything but soup."
Rinoa was unreadable. She thumbed his pulse again, taking little breaths like she was on the verge of speaking but couldn't quite push out the words.
Zell had been more or less cool with the invasion thus far because it wasn't exactly like he had anything more pressing to occupy him, but Rinoa's weird line of questioning and loaded silences were starting to raise some flags. He could handle being emotional support as long as he wasn't expected to come up with anything profound to lay down in the interim. The last time Rinoa had come to him with this much silent baggage, he'd ended up getting commissioned to forge a totally-not-a-marriage-thing-or-anything-creepy-I-promise-Zell ring that ended up in orbit with a sorceress and a spaceship shaped like a bug.
He eyeballed her as she continued to cradle his wrist, making it clear that he was waiting for the other boot to drop.
Rinoa seemed to come to a decision or at least a diagnosis. A moment later she was tracing her signature spell on his skin, unleashing the silk-soft invasion of a Recover as Leviathan met his shore with a whisper instead of a roar.
… so there were a few problems with Rinoa using Leviathan for the bulk of her healing in battle. None of them had to do with Rinoa's control, which was flawless, and all of them had to do with the fact that Zell was kind of a dick about Leviathan. GFs were choosy enough that custody battles didn't tend to crop up that often, but everyone on the team had taken their turn coveting a spirit they weren't compatible with. Leviathan had been Zell's cautionary tale. He had brawled to keep Leviathan the instant he'd drawn it out of Edea's head and had nearly gotten them all killed during a Thundaga-charged battle with a Z-ATM092 when it'd randomly summoned itself out of his head. Luv Luv Gs hadn't helped because it wasn't that the GF didn't like him – it was that Zell became a sweaty drunken pushover the instant Leviathan got near enough to his head to make him nostalgic for the sea. Pairing it with Quetzalcoatl in his head had just spread more layers on the shit sandwich.
Releasing it leisurely and softly onto him like this made the sensation of healing far more pleasant than it ever had a chance to be during a battle. Zell closed his eyes with only token reluctance to let himself indulge. It'd been a long week and creature comforts got pretty sparse on deployments. "I need to ask you something," Rinoa murmured somewhere over the tide. "I need you to answer honestly, okay? It's important."
Zell heard Alexander across the sea like a ship's bell.
"Yeah," he said.
"You'll answer me honestly, right?"
"When Quetzalcoatl and Alexander first settled into your head, what did it feel like?"
His mind was a horizon swollen with fog. The ship's bell rang again somewhere in the blue. "The junction, when they were first bonded to you," Rinoa said. "Tell me what it felt like, okay?"
He could probably do that for her. The Recover was loosening up the trick muscle in his shoulder and getting to work on his stiff neck. It all felt pretty criminal. Zell kept his eyes closed as the first Recover faded and a second came on its heels, unlocking his back with a series of satisfying pops. "Felt right, I guess," he said when Rinoa made a prompting sound in her throat. "Like comfortable, sort of. Kinda nostalgic. Like a book you remember reading from when you were a kid. Or a song or something your ma used to sing to you. That sort of thing. Quistis says they feel like that because of the memories they take. If they like you, they feel bad about what they have to take to fit in there."
"Have they taken a lot from you?"
"Naw, it's not so bad. I mean, everyone tells me all the time what a heavy summon Alexander is, but I never had a problem with him fitting in my head. I guess it helps we believe in the same sort of stuff. Tell the truth, don't be a dick to the weak, that sort of thing. I dunno, we get along just fine."
"He is a heavy summon, but it's not just that," Rinoa said. "He chose you. I can feel it in my head when you cast. You're the same side of a coin."
"I mean, it's like that for you with Ifrit and Leviathan, right?"
"Ifrit is so loud," Rinoa burst out laughing. Zell felt the joy of it splinter apart under his skin like speckles thrown from a prism. "Maybe it's because the other half of me is water, but there always seems to be an argument in my head. Sea and flames. They circle and grumble like fighting coerls."
The fog was creeping in from the horizon. For a moment it was hard to remember where he really was. Zell blinked slowly to dislodge the weight, but the sensation only redoubled: a rhythmic thrum of water on the shore. No matter how hard he strained he could no longer pick up the ship's bell.
He asked it inside a breath. "What are you doing."
"Tell me how they talk to you. Tell me what you see."
Borrowed emotions. Table scraps of touch and motion and memory. Tanned bare feet and limestone roadways. Mountain berries picked by pale little hands. Rinoa murmured somewhere outside it all, "Show me," and without knowing how Zell did, passing it to her through the bars of their mutual gates. Geranium clouds with lightning stems, green-leaf skies that unfurled over the sea. A drop in reverse. The reverberation in his bones after the clang of the tower bell faded, relaying a message his ears could no longer hear.
The sun was trapped in a trillion grains of sand. Something was pulling in his head. He felt something give a little under his toes as he hung on.
"Let me see her, Zell," Rinoa said. "Just for a minute."
That sounded reasonable. He thought it over, fighting not to close his eyes against the glare.
Rinoa's fingertips migrated to his temple. Her voice was barely audible as she said a string of words he couldn't translate.
Zell moved to unhook them because why not. The sand shifted a little steeper under his feet and he realized, sudden as an autumn squall, that he couldn't feel Leviathan anymore. The intoxicating sensation of being towed out to sea had been imposed on him by something else.
He tried to surface and was gently dissuaded by the undertow. He fought it, digging his feet into the sand to get a better grip. Carpet fibers caught between his bare toes.
He thought, stop, and then with a sudden burst of panic, no.
Rinoa withdrew immediately.
The fog disappeared with a sound like a bell hitting the floor. He was back in his room with a bag of torn clothes and the melted remains of his banana protein smoothie and the sorceress who'd brought both in to distract him.
His chest was burning for air. Zell stared at her, watching her pale little hand lift to tuck her hair behind one ear and the other. "You tricked me," he said, numb.
"I tried," Rinoa admitted, very softly.
"You tricked me."
"I'm sorry, Zell."
Holy shit. Zell scrambled up so quickly his chair toppled. He barked his hip off his desk in his haste to get away from her without turning his back. "Zell, wait," Rinoa said. "Please give me a chance to explain. I just needed to make sure that—"
"You said you'd never—" He couldn't even fucking breathe. He backed up towards the door, blindly fwapping behind him to access the door controls. "You told us you'd never use that creepy space witch sorceress juju shit on any of us, you promised—"
Rinoa leapt to her feet, blanket pooling on the floor as she held up her empty hands pleadingly. Zell nearly ventilated himself on his bared weapons hook trying to make distance. "Zell, wait a minute." Rinoa's voice cracked. "Just let me explain."
"The whole damn school's wired to fight sorceresses right down to the freaking sprinkler system for Hyne's sake, who knows what you could've set off—"
"Bringing in your, your, your ma's shirt and that sob story, pretending Leonhart didn't set you up for all this—"
"Squall didn't ask me to do anything," Rinoa cried out, calm façade bursting apart. "Zell, this isn't what you think. I just want to talk to her."
"Then ask me, damn it!" Part of him felt really bad yelling and part of him just felt ripped open right down the seams and lucky more of him wasn't spilling out. "You of all people should know you can't just lock someone up in their head without permission and poke at them and expect them to be fine with it!"
Rinoa covered her face with both hands.
Zell had plenty more plans to share his headspace with her until he realized that her shoulders were quaking. Rinoa folded back down atop his bed, hiking her knees up and burying her face against them.
His diatribe crashed and burned instantly. Balanced somewhere between vindicated and ashamed enough to vomit, Zell compromised by getting the fuck out of the room and escaping down the hall to the drink dispensary to get her something to prop up her blood sugar. After a handful of angst-ridden moments trying to remember what girls liked, he settled on the fizzy iceberry juice in a can and grabbed a reed straw for it.
Rinoa was folding the blanket beside her on his bed with slow, listless motions when he returned. She glanced up when he came back through the room, opening her mouth to speak. "Here," Zell said gruffly before she could get words out, thrusting the drink towards her. "Sorry I was a dick."
Rinoa took it from him without protest. Her hands were shaking too much to open it, so he took it back and popped the tab and tried not to feel like the worst person alive. Rinoa took a tremulous sip before cradling the can in both of her hands.
He righted his chair and sat back down. The atmosphere felt bizarrely normal in the wake of the row, a scattering of clothes still under his feet and the tinny current of music still leaking from his earpiece. He knew his quick recovery from the stress probably hinged a lot on warzone trauma but also the fact that even now, a thousand times more terrifying than she'd been a half an hour ago, Rinoa was still the teenage girl that loved almond cookies and covered her mouth to snort-laugh at dirty jokes and hung on Zell's neck when she was trying to browbeat him into doing her a favor. A girl who could tear him to cosmic confetti with a blink and who had stopped when he'd said no.
He took in a slow breath and let it out. "What," he said grudgingly.
Rinoa thumbed the lip of the can. She looked pale and cold. Zell was half-tempted to cover her bare knees back up with the blanket but held himself back. She could probably summon the sun closer if she needed a boost. "I don't know what to do," Rinoa said. "Ever since Adel, I've been able to sense all the GFs. Like… tuning into a frequency. I've come to rely on it so much, it scares me when I can't hear them."
"Did Squall ask you to come do this?"
"He told me he was worried about you, but he didn't ask me to do it. I'm the one who made the decision to try to Draw her."
So that's what the hooking sensation in his head had been. He thought he should probably feel angry but was mostly just sort of tired of trying to stay upright. "I can't hear her, Zell," Rinoa said. "Not at all. Not even a whisper."
"So I should. All GFs have an origin. Quetzalcoatl was born from a little girl's prayer for rain. Alexander is the collective oaths sworn by a millennia of knights. All of them are a mural of memories. When I inherited Adel's powers, I knew I finally had a way to give us a failsafe exit. If any of us got sucked in too deeply – if any of our GFs started taking too much – I knew I'd be able to use that to overpower them and Draw them out. I was the exit."
"What does this have to do with Eden? We already knew what wasn't like the others."
"Zell, Eden synched with you," Rinoa said. "Out of the whole team, she chose you and only you. You've sacrificed your own memories to accommodate her. She doesn't just get to… to just use you without giving something back. That's not how guardian forces work. It's supposed to be symbiotic. She left you wide open at the training center. If Squall hadn't been there, you would've died. It's not that she's just a blank wall, Zell – she's a void. All color and light just… disappears into her. The breath gets sucked in and nothing comes back out. When I try to wrap my powers around her to Draw her, there's no shape to take hold of. No color to translate. No sound to hear. She's just… not there."
Zell's feet felt nailed to the floor. He couldn't decide if he wanted to run screaming from her or take her into his arms and lend her his warmth until she burrowed into the offering like a tick. She'd never seemed more fragile and more insidious. "She's there."
"Prove it," she pleaded.
A gap-toothed girl with the fistful of flowers. Birch tree pitch holding the tangle of roots together into a watertight raft. "I don't know how."
"She won't protect you in battle and she's giving nothing back for what she takes. That's not a GF, Zell. That's a parasite."
Irrational anger bubbled up in him. Aware of how flimsily balanced they both were on composure, Zell for once kept still and listened to it, tracing its source before he acted on it. Underneath the bones of Alexander's mountain, under Quetzalcoatl's sky. A place where darkness shouted.
Rinoa got up. She moved to his window in her usual ponderously long stride, hands clasped behind her back, balancing unnecessarily as if his floor was a tightrope. "You know why Squall puts you on his left side, right?" Rinoa said abruptly, spinning to him on a toe. "Did he ever tell you?"
"Says I bounce around too close to his blade and he doesn't feel like writing up a report on how he accidentally gutted me."
"He puts you on his left because that's his weak side. He knows he can trust you to cover it. He puts me on his right side so he can keep an eye on me, but you… he knows he doesn't have to. Out of all of us, he trusts you the most to be where he can't see."
"Great." He might be touched or whatever under different circumstances, but not only was Squall a dick for never bothering to give Zell the heads-up that his left side was weaker and needed to be protected, he was even dickier for telling Rinoa first so Zell heard the compliment second-hand. Squall was literally the worst and best person Zell knew. "Good to know."
"It's not just you I'm protecting," Rinoa said. "It's Squall too. She's got entire continents aiming weapons of mass destruction at her, but Squall is the weapon Ultimecia fears the most. By far. What we picked up at the Research Center, what you Drew there… nobody expected Eden to be there. And nobody knows what it will do. It wasn't a human holding her, Zell – it was a monster. The monster. We don't even know if Eden's been in a human head before. And in case you haven't noticed, it's… kind of the worst time to be trying to figure that out."
"And why would any of this be any better in she was in your head?"
"Because I'm no longer human either," Rinoa said simply.
Well that'd detoured pretty quickly. "Look, I'm up for protecting Squall's prickly ass just as much as you, but can't just reach into my head and take whatever you want," Zell said. "If I'd done what you just did to you, the whole team would've castrated me with my sewing scissors. Like c'mon. You know that was bad."
"If my resolve had been stronger, I would have done worse. For your sake and for the team's."
"That's fucked up."
"I know," she whispered.
Zell massaged his eyes for a while with his palms. "Cardigan's done," he reported. He rescued it from under the wheels of his chair and shook out the crinkles, folding it. "Gotta give me more time on his jacket and whatever else is in here."
Rinoa reverently took it. She ran her fingertips over the patchwork with a soft expression. "I'm fine," Zell told her. "She'll come out when she's ready. I'm not gonna push it anymore. And she doesn't give me nothing. She already showed me stuff from my past. If anything, I got more now than I did before."
"How do you know any of it is true? She can show you anything she wants, Zell. How do you know she's not just telling you what you want to hear?"
"Because I sort of didn't want to hear it," Zell said with an unexpected laugh. "Kinda some bad and some good stuff mixed in. But I got Alexander and Quetzalcoatl up in there. They've already pulled me out once. And whatever else she is, Eden isn't looking to kill me. She wanted up out of that hellhole just as much as we did."
Rinoa's eyes were compassionate. It made her more terrifying. "She doesn't have to want to kill you."
He remembered the field of wheat and the gaggle of clucking hens. The way she'd quieted that evening when he'd played his violin, lingering on the fringes like a cloud embankment.
Rinoa folded the cardigan over her forearm. "Thank you," she said. "I'll bring you another protein shake to pay off the others. Good night."
She palmed the door panel as she left to close it.
Zell picked up the rest of the clothes that'd spilled from the bag and packed up his sewing kit. On the way back from practicing kata in the deserted Garden garage, he stopped by the Quad's fountain and splashed some of the water on his face. For a moment in his head, balanced between two cosmic extremes, the far-flung starlight overhead felt inverted enough for him to touch.
Eden stayed silent.
Xu called a meeting over the PA the next morning while Zell flailed around for a clean shirt in his bottom drawer. There were three missed messages on his vidmail on his dresser. The first was from grizzled old Toby, chief mechanic of Balamb's foremost repair shop and the closest thing to a father figure Zell could remember collecting, bemoaning a last-minute cancellation and asking if Zell would fill in as the musician for his nephew's wedding. The second was a coded jumble of static and pixels Zell knew was likely either an encrypted missive from Centra or Ellone. Ma's voice crackled loud enough in the speaker to make him whack his head against the underside of his top drawer, asking where he'd put the pack of air fresheners the last time he'd visited and if she could still send mail to his previous address now that Garden was floating around the ocean like a piece of carpet lint. "Bottom shelf in the sitting room, Ma," he told her upon calling back. "And no, you gotta—it's different now. You gotta send it to FH, they forward it to us from there."
"I don't like the thought of your packages going through so many checkpoints. I still like to be able to send you things to eat, you know. It was easier when you stayed put. Can't you talk to Squall?"
"S'just part of the job, Ma. Things'll settle down after we get all the sorceress juju taken care of." The PA was sounding off again, this time with an ass-in-gear warning for him specifically. He ended the comm with a blood oath to get back to her directly after the meeting, then risked Xu's wrath to call Toby up and get a bead on the date he'd be needed. He earmarked the coded message on his unit to attend to later and erased the others, then rummaged an extra minute for hair gel before giving style up for lost.
By the time he made it to Cid's old office, Xu and Quistis already had started the briefing and Selphie was giving him a triumphant little cat-grin by the window. "Nice to see you, Dincht," Xu said. "Please excuse the rudeness of our strategy meeting interrupting your schedule."
"C'mon, don't be like that," Zell said. "Ma was on the line. I can't just cut off Ma."
"It's true, actually," Selphie said. "She will find him. She'll find all of us."
"I've attempted to recruit her as a full-time intelligence officer, but she says she's busy cooking for the refugees coming over from Dollet as doesn't have enough flour for the rest of us," Quistis said. "As far as SeeD's official records are concerned, she's an operative on standby seated in Balamb tasked with funneling intel from the coast. Codename: Skillet."
"She still thinks she should've been called Ma-boro," Zell said. "Or Ba-Ma-Mut. It's kind of been this comedy sketch for months with her that literally nobody's asked for."
"Think that's everyone," Irvine told Xu. He'd remorselessly commandeered Cid's chair and slung his feet up a footstool. His hat dangled off the steel toe of his boot. "You wanna get back to why we're here? Pretty sure we were due for a hot date with a sorceress or something. We didn't stand her up or anything, did we? You know how I hate making the ladies wait."
"Well, that's what we're here to discuss." Xu sifted through the files on the desk until she found the remote for the projector. "Let me bring up the map so we can get a better idea of what we're looking at."
Squall was one of the only ones who hadn't chosen to sit, instead leaning against the western wall with his arms folded, chin tucked nearly to his chest. He said nothing as Zell trotted over, merely shifting to give Zell room on the wall next to him. Cross-legged in a plush chair on Squall's other side and currently being eaten alive by one of Selphie's knitted hats, Rinoa gave him a wan half-smile. He tossed a firm thumbs-up at her. "Here is what we know so far," Xu said. She'd pulled out the brass pointer and extended it; she now brought the image up on the screen and dimmed the lights in the office to bring it into sharper relief.
Zell leaned forward a bit as a colorized map of Centra and its topography materialized on the canvas. "The tip we bought from the Shumi Village has allowed us to finally narrow down the location of the Centra Ruins to a few dozen clicks," Xu said. "The only issue now is how we choose to approach it. Our naval units sent diving teams down and have found evidence of ancient civilization off the coast, but they can't bring the ships closer without grounding themselves on the underwater rock formations. Exploration on foot hasn't seen much success either. The terrain is harsh and the monsters have proven too numerous for the teams to get very far. What we need now is a way to approach it via air without endangering our flight crews. The combination of the fallout from the Lunar Cry eighty years ago, the anti-transmission waves, and the electromagnetic wave-scrambling leftover from the continent's security systems prevents triangulation and interferes with our aircrafts."
"I'm gettin' all that," Irvine said. "Guess what I'm not so clear on is why we're bending brain cells on this. We had a reason for heading down into the Research Center, but what is it these ruins got that we're letting it pull us off-schedule like this?"
"I kinda don't think we ever really settled on a timeline." Selphie had since stolen Irvine's hat off his boot and was now twirling it absently on her fingertip. "I mean, yeah, we know Ultimecia's got goals here, but she sort of doesn't… look like she's in a hurry?"
"She's not," Squall said curtly. "She has all the time she needs."
"More specifically, she can make all the time she needs," Rinoa said, quieter but no less firm. "She knows, as it stands, the only ones who have a chance of toppling her regime are the elite members of SeeD. She's scared of Squall, but she's scared of me too. She wants us to make the first move so she has the advantage of pulling us into her territory."
"Sure, but I guess what I'm asking is how trawling these ruins is gonna help us with all that," Irvine said. "The Lunar Cry that took it out happened almost a century ago. Anything would've been long picked-over by the original scavengers or rusted over by now. What else besides tetanus are we planning to scare up in there?"
"Ehhh, that's not all true," Zell said. He pocketed his gloves and was currently finger-combing his hair, trying to get it into a shape that'd make sense until he could backtrack for some hair gel. "Centra's civilization built a lot of their cities to be mobile shelters, so they got around plenty. Garden's one of those mobile cities that survived. So there's a theory that the civilization didn't actually get blown up all the way, it's just kind of — sitting in pieces on the bottom of the ocean here and there after they sank trying to escape. Because ancient Centraians held their sorceresses in such high regard, a lot of the structural integrity of their most important monuments came down to magic. So while all their squatting cities were destroyed, the fact that the Centra Ruins is still standing is proof that it's got more than electromagnetic interference guarding it. It was probably some kind of religious site or gathering ground for ceremonies. We're looking at some pretty hefty magical power over there if it's kept upright that long."
"Thank you, Mr. Know-It-All Zell," Squall said on cue, but it was without heat and as always Zell gave him a cheerful middle finger for punctuation. "He's right. Anything that predates the last Lunar Cry is valuable to us. Not just as a matter of gathering power, but to deny Ultimecia any chance of harvesting those powers for herself. It's important to cultivate as many resources as we can before we square up to her."
"Duly noted, but there is a world-ending crisis happening right outside our door," Irvine said. "How are we sure she's gonna wait for us to get our chicobos in a row?"
"Because that's what I would do," Rinoa said. She'd hiked her skinny legs up so she could hug her knees, resting her chin atop them as she stared at the screen. "No matter how powerful you get, it's always scary when a knight turns on you. And it's extra scary to have SeeDs come after you en masse. They're specifically trained to combat and contain sorceresses. She's already won once in the future, but it cost her everything. It destroyed the world she wanted to rule. She doesn't want to poison her kingdom like she did in the future."
"Her attempt to control Edea was only partially successful," Quistis said. "She meant to infiltrate us from the inside-out and destroy us before we'd realized what was happening. What she didn't account for was Rinoa – and more importantly, Ellone. It's why we've taken such great pains to hide her."
"Think Ellie tried to contact me earlier today," Zell said. "There was a garbled message from out near Centra. I'm thinking it's probably her warning that I'm about to have some wacky dreams from her tonight."
"I got it too," Rinoa said, surprising him. "I told Squall. I'm not sure, but I think she wants to contact us before we go confront Ultimecia."
"That could be important," Xu said. "Let us know. Either way, I think it's a good idea to move on Centra sooner rather than later. Squall, do you think the Ragnarok can handle getting closer than Garden's sky units did?"
Instead of answering, Squall gestured over to Selphie and Zell with a tired flick of his knuckle. "Dunno," Zell told Xu honestly. "The tech's pretty ancient, but since it predates the Lunar Cry, it's probably compatible with Centra's. With the right tools I could probably synch it up enough to synch into the leftover frequency enough to camouflage us, but I can't do anything about the fallout from the Lunar Cry jacking up our controls."
"I was able to pilot it pretty okay in the surrounding mountain chain," Selphie said. "Where it starts getting itchy is when I try to land it. The ground is soaked with fallout. It's not dangerous to us, but it confuses the ship. It'd be better if we could get within a couple of clicks and then hoof it from there."
"My teams couldn't get much past the coast with the inundation of monster activity," Xu said. "It'll be too treacherous to – what. What. What are you making that face for."
"You're smiling," Zell accused, stepping away from Squall to point. "Broad daylight. Where everybody can see it. I'm getting out the calendar. That's a smile."
"It's not a frown," Squall conceded. "We'll be fine. The Research Center had enemies far stronger than anything that can be found topside. We can head out as soon as we get the coordinates and the ship is calibrated for travel in that region."
"You mentioned something about needing equipment." Xu refocused on Zell. "What were you thinking?"
"Have to tool around her belly a little, but I'll probably just need some updated firewalls that synch with the old programming structure," he said. "Not really a computer sorcerer or anything, but I could probably get it done if I teamed up with some technicians."
"You're thinking Esthar," Quistis said.
Zell shrugged a shoulder. "Do you think they would help?" Quistis asked Xu.
"There's no reason to think they wouldn't," Xu said. "Their goals are the same as ours. They know right now we're the best bet of defeating the threat. If nothing else, I received a personal guarantee from President Loire that he would provide for us to the best of his ability."
"Always politics," Irvine said. "I get the feeling he butts heads with his council a lot. Kinda seem like they run him."
"Sir Laguna just doesn't like making waves," Selphie said. "It's what makes him a good leader for Esthar. They're not looking for trouble either."
"Any sort of political philanthropy counts as trouble for an isolationist government," Quistis said. "There's no way of knowing how much his hands are tied until we ask. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of viable alternatives."
"It's worth it," Rinoa said. "Centra scrambles a lot in my head too, but there have been countless Guardian Forces born there. It's soaked with magic. If Ultimecia is half the sorceress she thinks she is, she's going to anchor to that and try to control that wellspring. The more we can take for ourselves, the better off we'll be."
Squall pushed off the wall abruptly. "Patch the communication through," he ordered Xu. "Let me know his response. In the meantime, have Nida bring us to Balamb's shoreline so we can pick up the Ragnarok. We'll dock for a night to give the engines a rest and then sail Garden towards Esthar. I don't want it floating out to sea while we're down in Centra, and they already entered a pact with us to protect the students in the event of a Galbadian attack."
Xu saluted, already gathering up her files.
Zell caught Selphie's eye as they left the office and jerked his thumb eastward. "Kinda don't like the thought of Esthar technicians slithering around my ship," Selphie said as the two of them headed toward the gated exit. Garden's rudder was groaning with ancient rust as it carved a gentle arc through the sea towards the beach. "Makes me sort of jealous. Like, 'you can look at it, but don't touch it'."
"Just think of it as show and tell," Zell said. "Like back in the orphanage. Remember how we'd all sit at Matron's feet and whoever was sharing got to stand next to her chair? And we'd always show the lamest shit, like rocks we found on the beach or broken egg shells?"
"Oh, gosh." Selphie's nose wrinkled. "Now there's a blast from the past. How did you even remember that? I dropped that one a long time ago."
"Just pulled it up recently. Remember that time Seifer brought in a live coerl cub? Remember how loud Matron screamed when he pulled it out of that sack and it started sparking and glowing and shit?"
"No. No way. Did he really?"
Selphie's face scrunched. "Brothers always takes the fun stuff," she complained. "Leaves me all the boring stuff like mission specs and that time I broke my wrist and sucks up alllll the good stuff for themselves."
"You were the only one who didn't scream," Zell grinned at her. He kicked aside a chunk of old rubble as they swung down the stairs, plopping himself down on the bottom to let his feet dangle precariously off the edge of their world. The sea glittered below as Nida dropped altitude. "You wanted to pet the fucking thing. Matron had to snatch you by your pigtails before you got too close. You threw a tantrum because you couldn't hug it. First one you ever threw. I had no idea you could even scream that loud."
"Wow. I just don't remember it at all." Selphie lowered herself next to him, smoothing the fabric out underneath her so it covered more of her thighs. She hugged her knees and tilted her head to look at him. "Here I was thinking you had a bad memory too. Is it Eden bringing these up? Or are you just randomly getting stuff back on your own?"
"Dunno. Maybe both."
"It must be nice," Selphie said wistfully. "I'd love to remember more of my time at the orphanage. So much of it has gotten sucked up by Doomtrain. Irvine tells me things sometimes, but I never know if it actually happened or if he's just feeding me a line so I'll think he was this perfect gentleman right out of the cradle."
"I haven't gotten it all back yet." Zell leaned back until the lip of the stair dug into his back. Ragnarok nestled like a blood blister in the mountain chain flanking it. He knew without looking that no monster was getting within a click of it. Something about either its design or the memory it evoked kept them clear even on Hell. He lolled his head towards Selphie, who was fixing her hair in the influx of wind. "It's probably pretty okay if you don't remember much," he said, pitching it a little softer. "Kinda rough for you back then, Sephy."
"Irvine told me some stuff about it." Selphie's fingers lingered behind her ears as she pushed hair down behind them; she eased her chin forward onto her palms, cupping her jar. "Not a lot. But I guess I was pretty damaged. That was the word he used. Not in a mean way. I guess I just didn't talk a lot until I was convinced none of you were going to knife me."
"I didn't talk much either. Language," he clarified when Selphie tilted her head. "But I learned pretty quick after that. And then I was adopted I guess, and Ma must've taken care of the rest."
"You must be really excited to visit. I hope Squall will give you shore leave."
"Oh, I ain't asking," Zell laughed. "He can bitch at me when I come back. I'm way more scared of standing Ma up than him."
"To be honest, I think he's more scared of Ma than Ultimecia," Selphie said. "Why don't you have her cook something for him? You know he's totally got a weakness for her eldertart pie. Like he would happily let himself get squashed by a behemoth rather than admit it, but it's true. He snarfed it last time we were there and then blamed it on his GFs being hungry. Like that's ever been a thing ever."
"S'good idea." Zell was mercenary enough to admit that part of his hankering to see Ma was to eat her cooking. Fortunately she didn't take it personally. He'd actually suspected for a long time that it's something she counted on, which was why she pointedly didn't send him his favorite sweets through the mail. Teenage gluttony was surefire leverage. "Wanna order anything? I'm probably gonna be spending the night, so she'll have time."
"Literally like anything she touches," Selphie said. "Like seriously all of it. Whatever she wants to make."
"I'll give her the heads up then." The wind from the massive propeller was starting to carve furrows into the sea underneath them. Zell leaned forward without thinking to try to soak up some of the spray, breathing in the saltwater notes blissfully as Quetzalcoatl spread her wings in his head in response. Centra's sea had been steeping bones for centuries; even as a kid the ancient voice of it had thundered deep in his belly when he'd gone out to swim. Balamb's sea was brighter and warmer, giving a sensation of cradling the shore rather than slowly devouring it.
It took him several minutes to notice Selphie had gone quiet beside him. When he leaned back to look at her, she was still studying the approaching shore, chin in her palms.
He watched her a while. After a minute of his scrutiny she stirred. "Centra always bums me out," she said quietly. "It seems like it happened so long ago, but it was only eighty years. They were people just like us. An entire continent just… gone. Boom. Like it was never there. And we just talk about it like it's this cold statistic when all those millions of people died."
"Kind of nothing else we can do," Zell said. "It already happened. We just have to make sure it never happens again."
"But it will," Selphie said. "What if we save this planet from Ultimecia, only for another Lunar Cry to happen and wipe out everything we sacrificed ourselves for? When there's something that big… it just puts it all in perspective. You know? 'What can we really do'. That whole time we were in there looking at how empty and broken Centra is, I just kept imagining that happening to Balamb. Or Esthar. Just gone. At least with Trabia there were things left to salvage. People were still alive to pick up the pieces. But Centra… there was no one left. Like it never even mattered that they were there."
Zell kind of didn't know what to say. He'd done his own research on Centra once Garden's libraries had been opened to him as a cadet. The staggering loss of it was ironically the only thing that made it compact enough to grasp in his head. When devastation was that complete, all that was left was a number. There had been no one left to tell their stories. Most survivors had been picked off by monsters soon after. Their civilization didn't even the chance to die with a whimper. Annihilation had happened between blinks.
Something squirmed deep in his head. Caught off guard mid-thought, Zell closed his eyes reflexively and dug a thumb up between them to stabilize his center. "Okay?" Selphie asked, not moving.
"Yeah. Just tired."
"Long day already, isn't it." Selphie finally uncoiled with a long sigh, easing back to rest against the stair behind her. "I wonder what Sir Laguna will say when Xu contacts him. I hope I get a chance to talk with him."
The beach drew closer. Zell felt the mammoth mechanism of Garden's propeller slow as the city began its descent.
Selphie's eyes were on her ship. "I hope what we're doing is worth something to somebody in the end."
He watched the sun nip at the crest of the waves.
"That's all," Selphie said.
Quistis caught him on his way out his door with his overnight bag slung over his shoulder. "You know he's going to rip you a new exhaust pipe if you sneak out," she warned, lips tightening as she saw his violin case. "You can't just give yourself shore leave, Zell. We may be a little more… lax than we were under NORG's regime, but there are still protocols in place in a military institution."
"Aw, c'mon, it's not like he's gonna fire me," Zell said. "He knows what I'm about. He'll get over it. Just give me a like, ten minute head start."
"And if you'd gotten attacked on the way there? The monsters might be weaker here, but four on one would be a challenge for any of us. We wouldn't have known what happened to you until it was too late."
"I'd just play them a jig to change their minds," Zell said cheerfully, hefting the violin up and earning a hugely unprofessional roll of her eyes. "C'mon, Quisty, can't you cover for me just this once? Just say it's for mental health or whatever? I mean, bro – we're already docking here right next to my hometown. You can't tell me he didn't know I'd do this."
"I don't 'cover' for delinquents, least of all deserters. And don't 'bro' me." Quistis looked exhausted. She produced a missive from an inside fold of her jacket. "Here are your papers from Medical. Next time, you do the legwork. I'm not your keeper."
"Medical?" Zell's good humor faded a bit. He shifted the violin strap up over his shoulder to take the paper from her. Unfolding it revealed an official exemption documentation from Kadowaki, signed and dated that afternoon, prescribing shore leave for mandatory convalescence.
He refocused on her, serious now. "Squall behind this?"
"I was," Quistis said. "Our radar detected a strong storm from the southwest moving at about forty clicks per hour. It will make landfall late tonight. Because Garden's flight capabilities in inclement weather haven't been tested yet, we're going to dock in our original location and use the lee of the mountainside to ride it out. Assuming the storm clears when it should and no other storms follow on its tail, we should be ready to leave around 1700 tomorrow. Make sure you stay in communication from 1300 on just in case."
A full day and a half of shore leave in his home town. Zell waffled between suspicion and gratitude but mostly suspicion. "This isn't just for you," Quistis said, apparently reading the warring expressions. "The visit to Esthar is going to be hard on Squall. You know how Laguna needles him. And the exploration coming up in the Centra ruins will be… challenging for all of us. This is a chance for us to catch our breath after the Research Center debacle and find our footing."
Zell flapped the medical exemption in the air between them. "You gonna take the night off too?"
"I am going to try," Quistis said, and if he hadn't known her as well as he did he would've missed the tiny smile that quirked the corner of her mouth up. "I have heard I've gained some challengers these past few weeks in… certain circles. I aim to correct that assumption that I have been in any way dethroned."
"You need to borrow my Alexander card?"
"The King doesn't require assistance to win her battles, but thank you," Quistis said. She walked off, flapping a delicate hand over her shoulder. "Behave yourself. No shenanigans in town. And next time, tell Squall yourself. Or I'll be the one ripping you a new exhaust pipe."
Zell palmed his door to lock it and bent to pick up Rinoa's repaired clothes bag. He did pause for a moment at her closed door, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he considered whether or not to knock. She'd retreated after the briefing as she often did when they were discussing containing Ultimecia, making herself scarce until she could control her emotions. If he knew them as well as he thought he did, he suspected Squall had probably taken her into the training center to blow off a little steam.
In the end he let it go. If she wanted to find him, she'd know where to look. Keeping an eye out for well-meaning narcs, he jogged off to the Quad, intending to drop over the damaged siding to avoid being seen leaving the front exit. Alexander gave him a pretty shrill warning at the distance but Quetzalcoatl enveloped him, thrumming between his shoulder blades and his feet as he windmilled through the air, hitting the ground at a strategic angle and skidding down the damp embankment. The town of Balamb was out of sight over the hills, but even in the shadow of Garden he could sense which direction he needed to fly.
Something in the space under Alexander murmured. Zell tightened the strap on his violin and set off at a jog, shoes squeaking in dew. Greying skies enveloped him like the return of memory.