Zell followed Quistis' finger across the cobblestone square to the elderly man sitting upon the bench beside the boarded bridge. Upon their first visit to Winhill, Quistis had formed a lasting friendship with Jarvis Trent, being as she'd bested him in a game of Triple Triad. Apparently the only other person who'd ever beaten the old timer in a game of cards had been Laguna.
"Let's go see what he's up to," Quistis continued casually, though Zell noted that she was patting her skirt pocket where she kept her deck of cards.
"You go. I think I'll go see if I can find Matron."
Cool blue eyes assessed him. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, don't worry about it." Zell gave her a reassuring smile. "I'm fine Quisty, I promise."
Quistis studied him for a minute longer before relenting. "I'll be up soon."
Zell nodded and walked up to the house. The front door was slightly ajar. He entered. "Matron?"
"Zell?" A dark head poked out from the top of railing. "Hey!"
"So you guys made it." She scrambled down the stairs, beaming. "What's up? You guys made great time. Where's everyone else? I'm so glad I could be here too!"
"Me too." He returned her grin, feeling his spirits rise. "Quistis went to go visit that old Jarvis guy and Seifer's still in the car. We cast Sleep on his so he'll be waking up soon."
"How is he? Matron's been out of her mind with worry. I'm pretty sure she blames herself."
"He's really weak," Zell answered honestly. "He's changed a lot and he's pretty much swimming in guilt. It's kinda weird actually."
Ellone considered him with inky eyes. "I was surprised when Matron told me you were helping Seifer. I figured you guys hated each other."
Zell shrugged and shuffled his feet. "Well we became friends kinda...I guess. I mean he really is different. Not so much of an asshole you know? He apologized to me anyways."
Dark eyebrows rose. "He did? Holy, he really must have changed. Well I figured as much anyways." Ellone sighed. "Poor Seifer. He's been through a lot."
Yes, poor Seifer indeed. That was half the problem wasn't it? That Seifer was still suffering and there wasn't much he could do about it. "Is Matron around?" Zell asked, changing the subject. He'd rather not talk about Seifer, not if he didn't have to. It was much too confusing.
"I saw her heading for the back garden. Why don't you go see her and I'll find Laguna. I think he left some stuff back on the Rag."
Zell nodded and they left the house. Ellone headed into town while Zell circled around the house to the quaint back garden. A slight breeze winded, rustling through the tall trees and wildflowers. Zell caught a snatch of scant whispering. He skirted through the bushes and flowers, the faint murmuring growing a tiny bit in volume. He was unable to make out the words or even the speaker. He came out from around a thick-trunked, gnarly old tree and two familiar figures loomed into view.
Matron sat upon an ornamental stone garden bench, looking like a snippet from his memory, in a black dress with long, unbound hair. Her dark eyes, eyes of a Gypsy Queen Cid used to say, swam with a glistening liquid. Soothing though hoarse, her voice matched her hands. They trembled as they stroked through sunlit, fine hair. Before her on his knees, fair and once proud and was her Knight. Like the child he had once been long ago, Seifer's head was buried in her lap as muffled, raspy-stutter chokes rose.
A crushed Knight at the feet of his Lady.
It was something he never imagined he'd see.
Zell swallowed and his throat was heavy.
Suddenly it was that now nothing was important, not with Seifer giving in to months of stabbing sorrow. Seifer who had once been proud and arrogant, who had scoffed at those weaker than him, was now reduced to weeping in the lap of his Lady...of his mother. It was horrible to behold. But this scene was one that dug into Zell's mind. He wouldn't forget how Seifer looked at this moment.
If Zell hadn't been certain before, than this scene surely solidified it...he knew that what he felt for Seifer was beyond friendship, hate and sympathy. His feelings were beyond proper and even beyond the limits of himself. All the confusion he'd felt these past few whirlwinding days, they slowly sank away, like stepping out from soggy clothing. That was all baggage, weighing him down when really, things were simple.
Zell took an unsteady step backwards, still unnoticed. His heart was beating overly-noisy and it rang in his ears. Couldn't they hear it? It was so much more louder than Matron's quiet words and Seifer's hushed cries. His mind spoke up then, whispering that he was trespassing upon a moment that he wasn't meant to see. This was for Matron and for Seifer, not for him. If Seifer knew that he'd been seen, he would loathe himself.
It felt like a dream, blurring and surreal, as he stumbled from the garden. Had he truly seen what he had? Dreams were odd like that, where things happened that wouldn't ordinarily and scenes changed in seconds without thought. Where people proud crumpled so easily into the dust. The past, made up of jumbled memories, really could be a dream. It always came back didn't it? A mother is always a mother, just as a child, no matter how old, is always a child. Different names for the same things because in the end what mattered?
You healed me.
Seifer's words from that first meeting inside the Tomb. Only a few days ago and yet...a lifetime ago.
Zell wanted to comfort Seifer and the urge was sudden and so fierce he felt his mind reel. Why was it like this? From that one meeting to this. He couldn't really heal, not anything that was so broken. But he wanted to try didn't he? He did and that was the stupidest part.
"'S Matron's place," he muttered at his cheek absently. He leaned against their rented car and felt nameless things.
In the distance he could see Quistis with Jarvis and it appeared that she'd been unable to resist one card game. There were children playing and bunches of flowers everywhere. Hadn't someone said that the Winhill Flower Festival was this week? The town square seemed busier, the bustle of the marketplace from away, louder. It felt like he was watching the world through a pane of glass. It was always easier to watch, to observe, than to be part of. To think.
Zell didn't want to think anymore. His thoughts ran circles round him and he never had any solutions. So what was the point? He couldn't heal, he couldn't comfort and everything he did was a fluke.
That wasn't something he expected hear, Seifer apologizing. It had been startling and enough to do him in. Such a simple thing. It was still simple. It was sweet, like crying upon a mother's lap. Was that enough grounds for affection? Was it worth it?
Zell blinked hard. Quistis was walking up the driveway. How long had he been standing there, visiting Lah Lah Land?
"You look like you're a million miles away."
"Just thinking." His words came out a croak. He cleared his throat. "How was your game?"
She grinned sheepishly. "You saw that huh? I couldn't help it, you know how weak I am when it comes to cards. I lost a Catoblepas card and the Carbuncle card I won from Squall though."
Slowly, he could feel himself approaching Earth again. "Two cards? That's pretty shitty for you."
Quistis waved a hand, unconcerned. "Jarvis is pretty crafty but I'll win them back, that's not a problem. So have you found anyone?"
Zell hesitated. "I found Elle. She went to find Laguna."
Quistis saw his hesitation. "And?"
A crushed Knight at the feet of his Lady.
"Matron's in the back garden. Sef-Seifer's with her." He hurriedly glanced away, horrified that he'd had to force out Seifer's name.
"I see." Though Quistis wasn't one to miss a thing, she said nothing. "Let's give them some time alone then. We could stop by the hotel. I'll check in all our things and you can talk to Squall."
He smiled and it was real. "Thanks Quisty."
Fujin smirked as she pocketed the two Energy Crystals she'd received after defeating a Ruby Dragon. They were a bitch to fight, those shitty dragons but the loot was a good deal. All in all, fighting in the Tomb was alright, now that she'd ditched Selphie and Irvine. They'd made a fuss since this was only her third time inside the Tomb but she'd insisted. Now that Selphie and Irvine were a couple or something nauseatingly close to that, Fujin had no desire to be around them. She only liked one half of that pair anyways. It was stupid, the way they kept glancing at each other and holding hands and the sickening way they worried about each other after a battle...
Gag me with a spoon, to quote Dolon Schlickter from the Balamb Bait Shop.
Being in a relationship sucked Wendigo ass. Big time. Fujin knew since she had a boyfriend once. The guy had been a first class assclown. And then there was Seifer who was too dumb to take a clue and notice her. Bah. To hell with that all shit. She didn't need some loser by her side to define her personality. Boys were retarded. And on that note, so were girls. People in general were thick as shit. The only one who knew anything about anything was herself. She was cool because afterall, if you weren't pleased with yourself then no one else would be. She could handle it, being alone. She preferred it actually. She was a SeeD now, she had cash and that was all that really mattered.
Fujin consulted once more with the crumpled map of the Tomb Selphie had given her. Ahead of her lay the heart of the Tomb, where Seifer had stayed. Fujin headed forward cautiously but the path before her was free from monsters. When she and Selphie had come here this morning to gather up the remainder of Seifer's things, Fujin had noticed that the crumbling, stone walls were covered in the ancient Galbadian script of centuries ago. Unknown to everyone except Xu, who also shared her love of linguistics and etymology, Fujin had studied a lot of ancient languages and scripts and knew enough to read. She was curious as to what had been carved upon the Tomb's walls.
Slithering near the Unknown King's casket was a lone Blobra. Two hits took care of the slimy, blue creature and then Fujin was able to set about her task. It took her half an hour to get through just one side of the wall and by then she had enough of an idea to know that the complete picture was far from pretty.
After getting settled into their hotel room, Quistis patted Zell's shoulder reassuringly. "I'm going back to the house," she told him. "When you finish with Squall, come over and we'll talk to Ellone and Laguna."
Zell nodded and Quistis left. Using the room's TCL, Zell opened up a link to Balamb and waited for Squall to answer. He mentally went over what he was going to say and after five rings, Squall's arid voice came through the line.
"Hey Squall! Man, what's up?"
Zell rolled his eyes. A hundred years with Rinoa could pass and still Squall wouldn't change. "Yeah okay, don't sound too excited there."
Squall cleared his throat, speaking as though he had to force the words out. "Zell. How are you? Why are you in Winhill?"
He sat down on his bed. "Quistis and I are here. Don't worry, Fujin, Selphie and Irvine are still in Deling working on the situation in the Tomb."
"You guys met up with Fujin and Quistis?"
"Selphie bumped into Fujin on the bus and then Quistis came to visit us so we decided to, you know, hang out for a bit."
There was a silence. "Laguna, Edea and Ellone are in Winhill now. Do you know anything about that?"
Zell hesitated. "That's kinda what I wanted to talk to you about." He fidgeted and said hastily, "So erm...how's Rinoa? How's the Garden?"
Squall allowed him to evade the subject. "Everything's fine Zell. You guys are all okay, right?"
Zell was impressed. Squall's concern was nice to hear. "We're all doin' alright but there's a...you know, situation I guess, that I need to talk to you about."
"Alright." Squall's voice was impassive, devoid of even the faintest curiosity.
Zell paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and then started to talk. He began with seeing Seifer from the restaurant window that first evening and followed through with everything that happened since. He narrated himself hoarse, making a point to defend Seifer and speak of how much the ex-Knight had changed. The only thing he omitted were his developing feelings but that wasn't any of Squall's business.
Squall didn't interrupt him at all and let him speak as he would. If nothing else, Squall was an excellent listener.
When Zell finished speaking, there was another silence, this one rather long. Jumping to his feet, Zell began to pace as Squall assimilated everything he'd told him.
"I never imagined you'd take Seifer's side," Squall finally remarked.
Zell's lips curved wryly. "Yeah you and me both."
"And Quistis backs you fully?"
"The problem of Ultimecia needs take priority over all else and I commend the way you've taken action. Naturally the Garden fully supports your efforts." Squall paused. "However, I hesitate to accept your conviction upon Seifer's supposed personality change. I don't trust or believe in Seifer and I feel that I'm more than justified. Do you agree with me?"
"Well yeah," Zell replied reluctantly. "But if you saw the-"
"But I haven't," Squall overrode. "And I'm warning you Zell, no matter how he acts or what he does, do not forget his past actions and what he's capable of. I have little faith in his complacency and I'm not overlooking the fact that he is possessed. Possessions, especially ones involving such a powerful entity, have been known to induce the host into odd behavior completely unfamiliar to their natural way of being. I don't think I need to remind you of all the documented cases of possessions we studied in Cadet Enchanted History?"
"No but Squall I think-"
"It's not that I don't trust your judgment," Squall continued, as though he hadn't spoken. "It's Seifer I don't trust. And while I'm sure some part of him has changed, I'm not above accepting the possibility that he may revert to his old ways."
"That crossed my mind," Zell confessed. "And both of us hadda put up with the most of Seifer's shit but Squall he really is a lot different. Now he's all hopeless and guilty, he looks like shit too. I used to hate the hell outta him and now I don't know. I never thought I could feel something other than hate for him. Ultimecia is tearing apart his mind. Literally."
"I don't doubt that," Squall conceded. "All I'm saying is to exercise extreme caution and don't forget who you're dealing with. If Seifer does anything questionable, no matter what the circumstance, I will personally hold you responsible Zell. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
Zell suppressed a sigh. "Perfectly."
"I trust both you and Quistis implicitly but Seifer's actions have not diminished in my mind. He came under Ultimecia's control once before and it could very well happen again, no matter how he's changed. I ask that you to act with precision and leave the bulk of the exorcism to Matron. I won't have either you or Quistis in danger. Understand?"
"I understand," he said. "I'll be careful Squall but I'm not gonna hesitate to help Seifer if he needs it. Everyone deserves a second chance and that includes Seifer."
Surprise tinged Squall's voice. "I see. Well then I really have nothing more to say. You're more than capable of dealing with the situation at hand and should you need assistance, you know where to find it but with Matron and-" Here he coughed. "Laguna on hand I doubt if you'll need our help."
"We'll be fine," Zell reassured. "You're not upset that I kept you in the dark for so long are you? Me n' Selphie weren't sure how you'd take the news."
"Personal feelings have nothing to do with Ultimecia's eradication," Squall informed him testily. "As long as you took the time to verify facts and strategize thoroughly then I have no reason to complain."
Zell rolled his eyes. "That's my job."
"It is. Anyway, I need to go but I'll be in touch soon. I want to speak to Quistis later on."
"Yeah okay." He flopped down onto his bed. "Thanks for understanding Squall."
"Just be careful."
The walls of her confinement were made of pinkened membrane. It shifted and rot before her, pulsating in thick, juicy swallows. The juice that bled from the membrane was red and it puddled at her feet in swelling twists. Thoughts and memories solidified thrust into the pale flesh with an obscenity that was sexual. Thin ribbons of blue and plum patterned the pulp and seemed always ready to slide forth and entwine her. She loathed the squishing tissue with a ferocity that was new and bold to her person.
She was encompassed thoroughly and that, beyond the anatomical revulsion, was what angered her the most. Unable to leave, unable to even exist, she was held in the decaying mind of an equally decaying child like a common prisoner. She, Sorceress of Time and Space, Commander of all that is Ago, Forthwith, and Beyond, she Ultimecia, was reduced to nothing more than a parasite in the mind of a drained, ineffectual failure.
It was degrading.
A Queen she had been, a ruler with the world at her beck and now she was reduced to cowering in a brainy cell. From far beyond, she could sense her creations that the boy had junctioned onto himself. Her Eight Guardians were now serving this worthless Knight. The humiliation of it all was past bearing and when she would break free, her rage would destroy anew. The child, those vile SeeDs, Edea, she would abolish them all. She only needed to strengthen, to bid her time carefully and once she rose again, it would be terrible to behold. She would make certain of it.
Spindly fingers clenched and with searing patience, Ultimecia quelled her wrath. It had no place here. If this boy would not to behest onto her, so be it. He had failed once before. She needed him not, she only ever needed herself. It would not come to pass, failure twice. She was better than that. This captivity, no better than a junctioned GF really, was not permanent. Now she was stronger and still she could grow. The boy was slowly depleting and by the time Edea prepared her affairs, there would be nothing left of the boy...save for her.