They were heroes.
Against all the odds, they had battled across time and space to defeat the Sorceress. They had saved the planet from the looming threat of Time Compression. They had defeated Griever, the most powerful Guardian Force in existence.
They were heroes. They should have been happy.
But when unthinking journalists asked them excitedly, "You've done so much! But would you say that you have any regrets?" they would shift uncomfortably and glance at each other, trying not to think about it. Trying to keep their emotions under control, the way he always used to.
Usually the interviewer would realise his mistake and apologise hesitantly. Sometimes he would press on, and then Quistis – always Quistis, she had always been the most skilled of them at keeping her composure in the face of things – would ask politely for the interview to be ended. They would not be happy about it, but they would respect her wishes. After all, she was one of the most renowned fighters in the world.
And so they kept their silence... but it was always there. And although the group tried to avoid it, the truth was inevitable.
Six warriors had entered the Castle... but only five had returned.
The young man reached the crest of the hill and paused, the slight wind ruffling his blond hair. It was longer now, and becoming harder to keep it in the tall spikes that were now a mark of his. He walked quietly – unusually for him – up to the stone, and touched it uncertainly with a gloved hand.
"I should've come here earlier." A pause. "I'm sorry."
The gravestone was more of a memorial than anything else, really. There was no body buried in the grave.
His body had never been recovered.
When he fell, he had been 'absorbed into time' in the same way that Rinoa and Selphie had. They had returned after the battle. He had not.
Zell shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, seemingly debating with himself on how to begin. At last he coughed awkwardly and spoke. "I – guess you've been wondering how the others're doing. Well, apart from Selph," he corrected himself. Selphie took the Ragnarok to the grave almost every day. Squall would know about her. "She offered me a lift over here, y'know, but I wanted to walk. Get some fresh air and stuff, y'know?"
Fantastic, Zell. You're rambling incoherently, and now you sound like Raijin.
Zell shook his head. "Well, uh... Quisty's actually really upset, but she's pretty good at hiding it. Irvine... well, you know Irvine. He's trying to act cool, but actually he really misses you. We all do." He hesitated here, but then continued. "Rinoa... I know Rinoa hasn't actually been to see you yet, but you mustn't think that she doesn't care about you." He looked startled for a moment as a new thought occurred to him. "You didn't think that about me, right? I mean... I think that Rinoa feels that visiting your grave will just... y'know... make it all final." Zell paused. "I guess that's kind of the reason I didn't come here earlier. She does think about you, though, all the time – she's always talking to Siren about it. In the present tense!" he assured him, with a slight smile that quickly faded. "Yeah, we're trying to get her to come here. I reckon you'll both feel better when you see each other. Until then, you've got Shiva and Diablos for company, right? ...And Eden, but I kind of doubt that She's a great conversationalist."
He smirked, but then looked uncertain again. "I'm... not sure whether the others've told you this, but Rinoa was actually the first person to say that you were... y'know. She took a really long time to come out of Time Compression, and I guess that we were kind of hoping that you would do the same... but the second she was out of there she just... burst into tears. She kept on talking about you, and she said you weren't moving or anything." He shrugged. "I hope you understand that, because she won't talk about anything that happened in Time Compression now. How long's it been now, anyway? Seven months?"
He opened his mouth to say something else, but a rustling sound disturbed his thoughts and he whirled around, fists raised. A tall figure was making his way through the long grass. The sunlight gleamed off his blond hair and the dark blade of the highly-polished gunblade at his side.
Zell stared at him in disbelief.
Seifer looked up, startled, his expression plainly showing that he hadn't expected anyone else to be here. Quickly he managed to compose himself. "Chicken-wuss?" he asked, in a mockery of Zell's incredulous exclamation.
Already Zell was trembling with barely suppressed rage. "Don't call me..." he began, but then shook his head. That wasn't the issue here. "What are you doing here?"
Seifer quirked an eyebrow, crossing his arms. "What, I'm not allowed to visit Leonhart?"
Zell narrowed his eyes in fury. "You were Ultimecia's 'knight'. You tried to kill him all those times. Are you just here to gloat?"
Now Seifer, too, was rapidly becoming irritated. He ran a hand through his hair and glared at Zell. "Before you attack me, I think you should probably know that I never wanted Leonhart dead."
"You were rivals! You hated each other! What, was it an accident when you gave him that scar? Did you accidentally kidnap Rinoa?" Zell shuddered, remembering the agony of Ultima. "You always stood in his way, you killed Odin, you sent us to face Adel... what, was all that a mistake?"
Seifer folded his arms and tilted his head, looking at Zell oddly. "...I didn't hate Squall," he said. It sounded strangely forced, as if it were an effort for him to say each word. It was, really. He didn't want to think about why he had spent so much time trying to kill a man he didn't hate – a man whom he respected, in fact, more than anyone else he could remember.
He had been fighting for her. It was mind control, he told himself, but still he felt uneasy.
Seifer was brought out of his thoughts by Zell's disbelieving snort. "Really? Because he -"
"He never said that he hated me," Seifer interrupted. Zell drew breath to correct him, but was startled when Seifer did it himself. "Hates. He never told you that he hates me. He doesn't hate me." Seifer wasn't actually as sure of that as he sounded, but he wasn't going to let Zell know that. "I'm sure you -"
Zell wasn't paying attention; he simply stared at the other young man, amazed. "Wait a sec – you know?"
"What?" asked Seifer, puzzled, before realising what Zell must have been referring to. "Nobody talks about Squall in the past tense, right?" He smirked. "Yeah, I know that."
"How?" asked the confused Zell.
Seifer considered simply not telling him – he found the way in which Zell would get worked up over something as simple as not being told things highly amusing – but Zell was Squall's closest friend, and it was out of respect for the dead man that he told Zell the truth. "When Ultimecia first – took over my mind..." he noticed Zell looking startled, and grimaced. This would only lead to more explanations. "...I saw into her mind... you know? Just for a second, but..." He looked away – at the horizon, at his gunblade, anywhere but at Zell's expression of horrified disbelief – and continued. "...It's..." Hyne, how could he explain it? "When you... connect... with Ultimecia, it's like her mind is undergoing some kind of... internal time compression. I could see... everything."
Zell stared at him. When he spoke, his voice was a little higher than usual. "Could – could you see the future?"
Seifer laughed humourlessly, glancing back at him. "I couldn't see the outcome of the battle, if that's what you mean. If I knew that she was going to lose, why would I have carried on fighting for her?"
"You said you were under mind control," he pointed out immediately, suspicious.
Seifer glared at him, running one hand along the blade of Hyperion. "I was. But I didn't come here to talk to you."
Zell started, then threw an apologetic glance towards the grave, as if he had forgotten that it was there. "...Yeah. I guess." Seifer walked quietly past him, his trenchcoat billowing in the wind, to stand in front of the stone.
"You're still here," observed Seifer with mild irritation.
"I'm not leaving," Zell said instantly. "You think I'm going to leave you alone with him? I'm not leaving until you do."
"I'm sure Squall can look after himself," growled Seifer, turning to face the grave again. Sighing heavily, he took a thin silver chain out of his pocket. "I would have preferred to do this alone, but if you insist on staying to defend your Squall, I suppose it can't be helped."
He knelt to put the necklace at the foot of the grave.
Quick as a flash, Zell was next to him. He had Seifer's left hand – the hand that held the chain – in an iron grip. Seifer shifted back on his heels to regard him. The pressure on his wrist was almost unbearable, but he wasn't going to give Zell the satisfaction of knowing that.
When Seifer spoke at last, his voice was soft and amused. "Yes?"
Zell twisted the man's wrist to better look at the ring that hung from the chain – Seifer gritted his teeth and endured. The design was a little worn away now, and dirt had been ingrained into the metal, but there was no mistaking Squall's Griever ring. "Where did you get this?" he demanded, furious.
Seifer stared at him, bewildered, before wrenching his hand away and standing up. "I don't know."
"How the hell can you not know how you got it?"
"I didn't take it from Rinoa, okay?" Zell almost asked how he knew Rinoa had it, then, but then remembered Ultimecia's 'internal time compression'. "When time was compressed, I was thrown into a black void. I don't know if someone gave it to me then, or what – it was like all my senses had been shut off or something. When I came to, I was on the Centra continent, and so was the necklace. Okay?"
Zell was sceptical, but he had to admit that it was possible. Some very strange things could happen during Time Compression – he had firsthand experience of that. All the same... "I think you should give that back to Rinoa."
Seifer shrugged. "I think she already has it."
That was confusing. "What?"
"Look at this ring." Seifer slipped the chain over his own head – to prevent him from taking it, Zell suspected – and held the ring out for Zell to look at. "The edges of Griever are worn now... and look at the metal. This ring is old, Dincht. I reckon it's the Griever ring from the future – the ring from Ultimecia's time. I've seen her memories, remember? She had this ring. And you said that you fought Griever Himself – she probably used this ring to summon Him."
Zell frowned. He saw Seifer's point, but... "I don't get it. Why would Ultimecia have Squall's ring?" He paused. "And if all you saw were her memories, how would you know about when Squall told us not to talk about him in the past tense?"
"It's..." Seifer looked for a second as if he wanted to say something, but then shook his head. "It's... not important. The past can't be changed. Ultimecia's pretty much the final proof of that. But..." He trailed off, sounding uncertain – a strange thing to Zell's ears, around whom he had always acted especially confident – and glanced back the way he had come. Shaking off whatever it was, he knelt and took the chain off, laying it at the foot of the grave.
"Hi, Squall," he said, quietly. "I've come to return your ring."
He looked at it for a moment longer, then stood and turned away.
"Zell?" he said, without looking at him. "I think – you should carry on trying to get Rinoa to visit him. I think it might be better if she faced it." He hesitated for just a second, but then walked purposefully away.
Seifer didn't look back.
Zell watched his retreating form. The sun was setting, now, and the wind was picking up. If he didn't set off for Balamb now, he was going to end up with one hell of a cold.
He sat down next to the plainly engraved tombstone, playing idly with the chain on the Griever ring.
"What do you think he meant by that?"
But Squall could make no answer.