They were just setting down for their second and final night when the tracks rumbled warningly. The five SeeDs were immediately on their feet, weapons out and eyes searching through the dusk to find the danger.
"Oh, shit..." Zell whispered, spotting the hulking mass moving slowly towards the Esthar continent.
"Maybe we should come back in another week," Seifer said drily as they all slid their weapons away. "Looks like Esthar's got bigger things on their hands than a possessed Sorceress."
"How right you are, my Knight," a silky voice said from behind them.
Five Sleep spells knocked into the Sorceress and she toppled over.
"Squall? Seifer?" Irvine asked as Zell knelt next to Rinoa's prone form to ensure she wasn't dead from a magical overload.
"Fine," both gunbladers replied.
Zell glanced up at them and nodded. "She'll live. Pulse is a bit weak, but she should be okay."
Squall nodded and looked back towards the giant monolith moving steadily east. "Now, what in Hyne's name is that?"
"And why is Ultimecia so excited about it?" Seifer added.
"The only way to find out is to go to Esthar," Irvine offered.
"We'll have to keep a close eye on Rinoa," Selphie commented as she attached herself to Irvine's arm. "We shouldn't have had to hit her with another Sleep spell for a few hours yet. So either that thing woke her, or she's developing a resistance to them."
"Either way, it takes a particularly special person to break through five Sleeps," Zell muttered as he joined the rest of them in watching the large object in the distance.
Squall shook his head. "I'm not taking any chances. Seifer, Irvine, when you're on watch, hit her with an occasional Scan and keep an eye on her."
"Sure thing," Irvine agreed.
Seifer nodded. "Let's eat," he suggested. "There's nothing we can do about that thing right now."
A car appeared almost as soon as they stepped off the transport from the Esthar entrance. The man who stepped out looked relieved beyond words. "Thank Hyne," he said. "Please, get in."
The SeeDs traded sharp looks, then all stepped into the car. "You seem relieved to see us," Squall commented once they were moving. "It wouldn't have anything to do with that monolith we saw headed this way yesterday, would it?"
Their driver gave a nervous laugh. "I'll let the President explain the situation, if it's all the same."
"We get to meet the President?" Selphie wondered, easily excited. "Cool!"
"The President was in space last time," Irvine offered to the bemused gunbladers, "but we met Kiros in the Palace. He's one of the Presidential Advisors."
"Kiros?" Seifer repeated, confused.
"You think Laguna is here?" Squall asked.
"And the reason for those dreams," Irvine agreed.
Seifer nudged Squall. "Stop being cryptic."
Squall frowned in thought for a moment, then decided that, no, he hadn't told Seifer about the dreams. "We've been having something of a shared dream," he explained, motioning to encompass the other three SeeDs as well, "about these three Galbadian soldiers who lived around the time of the Sorceress War: Kiros Seagill, Ward Zabac, and Laguna Loire."
Seifer blinked. "Loire? He was the Sorceress Knight in that film we watched as kids."
"The one that gave you your 'romantic dream'?" Squall asked drily.
"Yeah, we saw him filming that thing," Irvine said with a grin. "Ward and Kiros were supposed to be putting on a dragon suit because the normal actor was out sick or something, but then a real Ruby Dragon showed up and they had to fight it."
"I hope we get to meet Sir Laguna," Selphie said with a dreamy sigh. "He's so handsome..."
"He's not too bad, I suppose," Seifer agreed.
"He's an idiot," Squall informed them, making the other three SeeDs who'd enjoyed the dream laugh.
At the entrance to the Palace, they were met by a stressed guard who led them straight to the President's office. "Sir," he called as he let them in, "the SeeDs are here."
The group stepped inside, but before a proper meeting could get under way, a voice called, "Squall?"
The young Commander turned, eyes widening as he recognised the woman standing there. "Sis..." he breathed.
"Sis!" Selphie shouted, running forward and hugging Ellone while the others looked suitably surprised and pleased to see her.
Ellone laughed and wrapped her arms around the younger woman. Her eyes sparkled as she looked over the SeeDs. "Hey, Selphie. Irvine, Zell, Seifer. It's good to see you all again."
"What are you doing here, Sis?" Selphie asked, drawing back.
"I came here to see Uncle Laguna," Ellone explained.
At that, the man himself walked over in comfortable clothing very unlike the usual Estharian robes, his hair pulled back into a ponytail. "Er, hi. So you're all Elle's friends? Foster siblings?"
"That's us!" Selphie agreed, stars in her eyes.
Squall glanced between Laguna and Ellone for a moment before he asked, "Sis, can you tell us about the dreams we were experiencing?"
"Huh?" Irvine and Zell chorused.
Ellone's smile turned nervous. "That was me. I was, uhm, trying to change something in the past, but it didn't work out. Thing is, you can't actually change the past."
"Sis, you were the one sending us back?" Zell asked, looking completely befuddled.
Ellone nodded. "I'm sorry if it caused trouble for you all."
Laguna waved his hand at that. "Never mind that." He glanced back towards the group of young men, zeroing in on Rinoa, who was slung across Irvine's back. "That's the Sorceress?"
"Yes," Squall agreed. "We'd like to get her sealed as soon as possible."
Laguna grimaced and rubbed at the back of his head. "About that... Well, I've heard most of the story from what you lot told Odine last time you were here, and I was thinking about maybe using her to reach this Ultimecia?"
Squall's eyes narrowed. "Travelling into our future to attack her in her own time?"
"Yes and no." Laguna shook her head. "If we were to let her accomplish Time Compression, we could travel to her, theoretically. Odine certainly seems to believe it's possible." He smiled faintly. "But we'd need a couple of accomplished fighters to face her; I don't suppose I could hire SeeD for that?"
"I think we can figure out a contract," Squall agreed.
"...Squall?" a quiet voice called.
Squall, Seifer, and Zell spun towards Irvine, Sleep spells on the tips of their tongues. But when they were met with wide brown eyes instead of the disturbingly knowing gold eyes they were used to, they paused.
"Rinoa?" Seifer asked carefully.
The young woman blinked at him, then her eyes widened and she shoved at Irvine's shoulder. "Squall, he's the Sorceress' Knight!"
"Ex-Knight," Squall growled, getting tired of correcting people about that.
Seifer dropped a hand on Squall's shoulder, silently shushing him. "Rinoa, what's the last thing you remember?"
Rinoa blinked, still looking distrustful, but answered, "Galbadia Garden. I was following you. Trying to find out what you were up to. Bastard."
Squall face palmed. "Rinoa, I sent you with Irvine to stay out of trouble, not run off and find it."
"You don't remember anything about Ultimecia?" Seifer interrupted before Rinoa could try arguing her way out of that hole.
"Ultimecia?" Rinoa wondered, brown eyes blanking. "Ul...ti...me..." Her eyes went wide with realisation and she started hyperventilating.
"Zell!" Squall shouted and the blond brawler slammed a Sleep on the Sorceress, having circled around behind Irvine to have a clear shot if they needed it.
"I'm thinking she's not possessed any more," Seifer commented into the silence following Zell's spell.
Irvine shook his head. "Her magic was too chaotic. Ultimecia's magic is more controlled, more direct, even through the bangles. Just now, though, it was jumping all over the place."
"That's... a problem..." Laguna decided.
"Ultimecia's jumped bodies again," Squall agreed, turning back to the President. "I don't suppose you might have any ideas about where she could have gone?"
Laguna nodded, expression grim. "The giant monolith that passed over Esthar last night is called the Lunatic Pandora and it can be used to create a Lunar Cry. That Lunar Cry happened this morning, and one of the things it brought down was Adel's Tomb."
"Sorceress Adel?" Irvine demanded as he moved towards a couch to set Rinoa down.
"The same. She's been in a cryogenic slumber; that's how we seal Sorceresses."
"Matron said something about Adel not being dead," Squall recalled. "So if Ultimecia has left Rinoa, that means she's probably in Adel, who's awoken."
"This is under the 'really not good' heading, isn't it?" Zell wondered tiredly.
"The last thing we need is two psycho bitches running around in one body," Seifer agreed grimly.
"Adel should still be relatively weak if she's just awoken," Squall mused, possibilities flashing behind quicksilver eyes. "If we get to her quickly, we can take her out before she manages to make any plans a reality, but we need a way into that monolith."
"We can provide that," Laguna assured him. "The Lunar Cry brought down an old space ship of ours that got overrun with monsters. Most of them died in the crash, and those that didn't have already been dealt with. She needs a couple repairs still, but she can fly fine without them as long as you stay in the atmosphere."
Squall nodded. "Good. If you would be willing to accompany us to this ship, President Loire, we can discuss the rest of this plan on the way. I assume it includes Sis?"
"It does," Laguna agreed. "And I'd like to go to the Pandora with you, if you don't have any complaints."
"Not alone, you're not," Kiros snapped from where he and Ward had been standing back to listen it.
Squall waved a hand at that, not caring one way or the other who came with them, as long as they stayed out of the way when the time came. He turned to his team, ordering, "We're going to have to bring Rinoa to accept Ultimecia back again. Selphie, could you try explaining things to her while we're en route? I'd like her to be willing, but we don't have a lot of options right now."
Selphie nodded. "I'll do what I can," she promised before moving to help Irvine get the Sorceress back on his back.
Zell cleared his throat a bit uncomfortably as they all started moving towards the door. "Hey, Squall?"
The Commander turned with an eyebrow raised in silent inquiry.
Zell rubbed at the back of his head. "Could we stop by a weapons shop? I kind of need new gloves, especially if we're going to go facing a couple uber bitches."
"We could probably all use an upgrade," Selphie offered carefully, reaching back to finger a small crack at one end of her Flail.
"There's a shopping district on the way to the Airstation," Laguna offered.
Squall sighed and nodded. "Very well."
Seifer dropped an arm around Squall's shoulders as they finally moved towards the entrance, where Kiros had called a car to wait for them. "You can finally get that pretty blue blade you've been drooling over for the past four years," the blond murmured.
Squall snorted. "Whatever."
Seifer rolled his eyes. "Squally, if you don't buy the damn thing, I'll buy it for you. It's a good weapon."
Squall sighed. "I'll buy it, Seifer."
Seifer grinned and let go, pleased.
Travelling through the Lunatic Pandora was no fun, especially when working against the clock. On one hand, Selphie and Squall had gone through the maze before in their dream, so they had at least some knowledge of the layout. On the other hand, it had been turned on its side and everything was the wrong way around.
To make matters more interesting, they were travelling with Ellone and Rinoa, who were both basically non-combatants. Laguna, Ward, and Kiros were bringing up their rear at a distance, staying just in sight of the main party and ready to dash in and get Rinoa and Ellone out of the crossfire if they came upon something more dangerous than the occasional low-level monster. They'd originally discussed having the two women travel with the rearguard, but it was agreed that the five SeeDs could protect them better than the three older men.
When they finally reached the room Adel was still waking in, they found themselves faced with someone they'd almost expected to meet up with.
"Quisty?" Ellone whispered as the five SeeDs grimly got between the whip-wielding woman and the two non-combatants.
"She's under Ultimecia's control," Selphie offered quietly. "Look at her eyes."
Indeed, Quistis' blue eyes, once so bright, had coloured over with a gleam of golden insanity. She snapped her whip towards Seifer, grin just a little too mad. "Has the traitor returned to beg forgiveness?" she mocked.
"I wouldn't return to that bitch if she was the only person left in the whole of creation," Seifer spat.
Quistis laughed. "But she is such a wonderful mistress. So forgiving." Her eyes turned towards Squall, burning with hatred, now. "So many little mistakes are forgiven by a good leader, Commander," she hissed, Squall's title dripping like acid off her tongue.
"Mistakes are forgiven once you've learned from them, SeeD Trepe," Squall replied evenly. "Only poor leaders allow their subordinates to make mistakes that put non-combatants in the line of fire without dealing out some form of punishment. Surely you're not so far gone that you're unable to realise that?"
Quistis took an angry step forward, whip raised. Before she could bring it down on Squall, a blue form slipped between Squall and Selphie, tackling the rogue SeeD to the ground. "Quistis!" Rinoa shouted, grabbing the woman's face. "Look at me!" Magic flared around the two for a moment and the group of SeeDs had to look away or chance being blinded.
When they looked back, they found Quistis sitting up and holding Rinoa in a tight hug, eyes a normal blue and damp with tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so, so sorry..."
Seifer lowered his weapon first, frowning. "Huh."
"Huh?" Zell repeated. "What?"
"Seifer?" Selphie asked.
"Trepe is Rinoa's Knight. We thought she was just being controlled by Ultimecia, but they actually formed a Knight Bond, and the crazy bitch twisted it," Seifer offered, far more attuned to the complications of Sorceress magic than any of the others.
"The fledgling Sorceress reached out for some form of stability," Laguna suggested as he and his friends joined the group, "and the first person to offer that became her Knight."
"No wonder blocking Rinoa's magic didn't bring Quistis back," Zell said. "We were thinking it was just a last-minute attempt by Ultimecia when she couldn't get Squall, but it was an actual bond."
A cracking sound drew all their attention to where Adel's fingers were reaching through the sealing on her tomb, fevered red eyes intent on Rinoa and Quistis.
"There'll be time for a reunion later!" Irvine shouted at the two oblivious women on the floor as he cocked Exeter. "Get back!"
Rinoa and Quistis scrambled to their feet as Irvine fired a shot towards Adel. The four melee SeeDs darted past them, determination lining their faces as they headed for the emerging Sorceress.
"I can fight," Quistis insisted as Rinoa pulled her behind the cowboy as Irvine fired another round. "I should be fighting."
"Nothing against your abilities, Quistis," Irvine interrupted as he reloaded, "but you should be out of the crossfire right now. We don't need you slowing us down."
"I wouldn't slow you down!" Quistis hissed.
Irvine nodded his chin towards the fighters performing an intricate dance on the platform a little above them. "Sure about that?"
Quistis stared at the SeeDs flowing so smoothly around each other, moving with the certainty born of many a battle together and their knowledge of who would be moving where, when. Seifer and Squall had trained together for so long that they never had to question who would move next, and Selphie, Zell, and Irvine had travelled together and fought in enough battles together that they moved practically as one unit. It had taken surprisingly little effort for the two groups to learn to fight together, as if they'd always been meant to do so.
"We're better off back here," Rinoa murmured, holding her Knight's hand and nibbling her lower lip. "I tried to tell them I could fight, too, but Squall told me I could either stay out of the fighting all together or leave my weapon behind." Quistis' hand tightened on hers and the Sorceress said, "He's a good leader." She may not have cared for Squall's aloof personality, but she'd seen the way the others adored him and the ease with which he'd taken control when it was necessary, both through the haze of Ultimecia's control and during their trip to the Lunatic Pandora.
Quistis' lips thinned. "I know that," she whispered back. But after so much time under Ultimecia's control, with the Sorceress putting so much emphasis on her disgruntlement for the punishment Squall had brought down on her head, it was hard to think of him in a good light.
"Quistis, you're going to want to stand back," Irvine warned, watching as Squall cast the finishing blow and Adel let out a hair-raising scream.
When Quistis didn't seem like she would let go of the Sorceress' hand, Rinoa pulled away and stepped in front of Irvine, terrified determination filling her face. She was just in time, as the Sorceress magic rose from Adel's crumpling form and hovered uncertainly for a moment – Seifer ducked forward and pulled Selphie out of the way before the magic got any ideas – before flying forward into Rinoa and making her body jerk.
Rinoa managed a gasp, then her eyes lit with gold and she moved the arm with her weapon up towards where Seifer was helping Selphie to her feet.
"Sis!" Squall shouted and Rinoa's gold eyes turned to him, fury and need making her hesitate just long enough for Ellone to send her back to the younger Adel.
When Rinoa returned, Quistis had moved to support her and Irvine had moved to join the other four SeeDs a few paces in front of them.
"Love, friendship, and courage!" Laguna shouted as reality began to twist. "You can do it!"
"The orphanage," Selphie reminded her friends and they all nodded, closing their eyes against the dizzying changes that were ripping their world apart.
Squall was in the lead as they entered Ultimecia's tower. All five were covered in blood and innards from the monsters they'd faced during their trek through the castle halls and they'd all taken numerous hits of their own, leaving behind cuts and bruises mostly healed with quickly swallowed potions or a hastily cast spell. None of them were fresh, but Ultimecia was.
"So, the traitor and the kursed SeeDs have arrived," Ultimecia commented from her high seat. "You have kome to stop me, but you will never manage. I will not be stopped by mere children!" She floated down to the floor before where the group had readied their weapons in grim silence. "The price for your foolish attempt shall be death beyond death. I shall send you to a dimension beyond your imagining. There, I will reign, and you will be my slaves for eternity!"
Her mad laugh was cut off by the crack of a shot and she just barely managed to block it before Squall and Zell were on her, fists and gunblade swinging. Seifer and Selphie followed, their greater reaches letting them move behind the other two without getting in their way.
"I will not be stopped!" Ultimecia screamed, jumping up into the air and just out of the reach of everyone except Irvine, who quickly reloaded and aimed. "The most powerful GF!" the Sorceress shouted before Irvine could fire and Squall waved the shooter back as she started a summoning, calling forth a terribly familiar form. "You shall... SUFFER!"
"Irvine, keep on Ultimecia!" Squall directed while the rest of them turned to the new threat.
Griever was just starting to slow down when it managed to get a good swipe with one over-large paw in and Seifer was thrown away from the battle. Before he could even get to his feet, Ultimecia had swooped down on him, black wings showering the ground with feathers that turned into black holes of nothing under his feet.
"SEIFER!" Selphie screamed as the ex-Knight fell from sight. Her distraction cost her and she was soon sent flying by Griever.
Ultimecia swooped down on her new prey, only to find herself under fire from Irvine, who slammed her with his small stock of Ultima spells, giving Selphie enough time to jump to her feet and out of the way of the growing black holes on the ground.
In revenge for Irvine's actions, Ultimecia swooped down on him, taking a shot through the stomach before dropping him down a dark hole into the nothingness.
With blood seeping from her stomach, Ultimecia turned to Griever and melded with him while the three remaining SeeDs grimly regrouped. They all refused to look towards the dark holes that had swallowed their friends, sick with the thought that they were truly dead.
But then they were fighting again, ducking Griever's over-large paws and Ultimecia's magic as they tried to lay a wound on her with weapons or magic, refusing to give up.
At long last, the Ultimecia-Griever combo fell, a black hole forming beneath her and sucking her in.
"Is it over?" Zell gasped into the following silence.
"Seifer... Irvine..." Selphie whispered, looking back towards the gaping holes.
Squall grit his teeth, keeping his eyes on the hole Ultimecia had fallen through. 'They'll be okay. They have to be okay. Defeat Ultimecia and that dimension she was going on about should never exist. They'll return home. We'll all return home... Fuck! Seifer, you promised me!'
It was only because he'd been so intent on the hole in front of them that he saw the skeleton wings forming from the darkness. "Watch out!" he shouted, tightening his grip on Lion Heart.
"I am Ultimecia," the woman intoned as she fully appeared, the world swirling dangerously around them. "Time shall compress... All existence denied."
"Pandemona!" Zell shouted and the GF jumped into the fray, only to be sucked into Ultimecia's form.
"Don't use GFs!" Squall ordered, readying an Ultima.
Selphie cast a quick succession of Triples on all three of them, giving them the chance to cast magic quicker than before. When a lower half to the Sorceress appeared, Selphie considered the magic the bitch held, then shouted, "Apocalypse!" and they all watched in awe as a violent spell ripped the air around them, making Ultimecia scream.
The battle was impossibly long, yet it went so quickly. All of time seemed to both speed up and slow down and there was no sense to the world, just the three of them fighting a monster of a woman with a spell that shouldn't exist, yet did.
At Ultimecia's final scream, the world flashed white and there was nothing. Even the three remaining SeeDs had vanished from sight, but their voices echoed over and around each other:
"Is it over?" Irvine wondered. "Let's go! Let's go back to our time!"
"Shut up! Just calm down and think where we have to go!" Selphie called.
"Careful, guys!" Zell cautioned. "Don't pick the wrong time!"
"Let's go home!" Seifer said. "Let's go back where we belong!"
Squall stumbled forward into blackness. 'Seifer!'
"I'm gonna find Sis!" a young voice called, breaking through the shadows as Squall's child-self ran past him.
"Squall!" Edea called, appearing in the near distance as the world Squall had grown up in appeared around them.
'Matron...' Squall realised.
"Excuse me, have you seen a little boy?" the woman asked, stepping closer to Squall. She looked worried for the missing child, but also worried for the wounds seeping blood that covered the man in front of her.
Squall shook his head. "You don't have to worry," he promised her. "The boy won't go anywhere."
"I think so too. Poor boy..." She sighed and turned her attention on the Squall in front of her, concern lighting brown eyes.
Ultimecia stumbled into being behind Edea and Squall immediately reached for his gunblade, which had somehow returned to his holster. "You're alive?"
"The Sorceress?" Edea wondered as Squall drew his weapon and got between the two Sorceresses.
"Yes, Matron. We had defeated her, but... Please, stand back."
"It's okay. There's no more need to fight," Edea soothed, stepping forward and around Squall. "That Sorceress is just looking for someone to pass her powers on to. In order to die in peace, a Sorceress must be free of all her powers. I know... for I am one, too. I shall take that Sorceress' powers. I don't want one of the children to become one."
"I...can't...disappear yet," Ultimecia gasped before her powers jumped from her weakened body and into Edea.
"Matron!" Squall called, stepping forward to steady her as she stumbled.
Edea touched a hand to her head and wondered, "Is this...the end?"
"...Most likely," Squall allowed.
Edea nodded, then turned sharp eyes on the young man at her elbow. "You called me Matron. Who...are you?"
Squall paused for a moment, then said, "A SeeD. A SeeD from Balamb Garden."
"Both Garden and SeeD were your ideas," Squall explained, knowing it was something he needed to do. "Garden trains SeeDs. SeeDs are trained to defeat the Sorceress."
"What are you saying?" Edea shook her head. "You're...that boy from the future?"
"...Matron," Squall whispered, pleading and agreeing all at once.
"Please return," Edea denied. "You do not belong here."
The child version of Squall reappeared, face covered in snot and tears. "...I can't find Sis. ...Am I...all alone?" he whimpered, rubbing at his eyes. Then he seemed to notice the older version of himself and he took a half-step back. "Who's he?"
"Nobody," Edea soothed, stepping forward to comfort her young charge. "You don't need to know. The only Squall permitted here is you." She glanced back at the older Squall behind her, concern and love glowing in her eyes. "Do you know where to go back to? Do you know how? Will you be all right by yourself?"
Squall nodded and offered her a salute before the world faded away into darkness. 'I'll be all right, Matron,' he promised into the silence, 'because I'm not alone...'
The darkness faded into a desert and Squall closed his eyes, envisioning his friends as he remembered them to be... Selphie running around on the quad, directing people this way and that and perfecting everything for her Festival... Irvine walking up to Selphie and dropping his hat on her head, laughing when she peeked up at him from under it with a flirty smile... Zell, a hot dog in each hand while he laughed at a cafeteria table with a couple of other Balamb Townies... Seifer, surrounded by the gunblade students as he directed them in how to hold their weapons 'properly'... Seifer looking up, a brief flash of surprise in tired green eyes, then a relieved smile... "Squall..."
"Someone get Doctor Kadowaki!"
Squall's eyes snapped open and he found himself looking up into scared green eyes ringed by the bruises of sleepless night after sleepless night. "Seifer...?" he realised.
Seifer drew him into a tight embrace, acting for all the world as if he'd found something that he'd thought lost. "You're alive," the blond whispered. "Oh, thank Hyne, you're alive..."
Squall slipped his arms around Seifer's back and dropped his head against the blond's shoulder. "I'm home..." he murmured, relieved, and the larger man tightened his grip.
"You're home," Seifer agreed. And if his voice sounded just a little bit choked, Squall wasn't about to hold it against him.