Crimson Lies Part Six
~ Chapter Thirty-One: War ~
I'll give you a million things I'll never own,
It's unwavering, and it's undeniable.
There is a part of history within all of us; it is what guarantees our future. But when that fear takes over, controlling every movement you make, it is paralyzing. One never knows whether to scream or cry…or just awake from the throes of a nightmare. We wish it could be a dream when our children suffer. The greatest fear is having to bury your child. What Gods could be so cruel, so evil for that to be their plan? Yet it is done every day, in every country, among every community. There is no escape.
However, we move on…or do we? Does it haunt us to the bitter end, making any remaining relationships a mere gamble? Do we really trust; have we lost all faith? Have the answers that we have searched - always so been simple…have we always been that blind?
If we lose our will to live…can we go on?
The commander saw her at that moment when realization sank in, the ghost that was standing where Rinoa should be. The sight tore him to pieces, the guilt of this he would never overcome. If they were right about Lauren, then his own foolishness had brought them down this path. Ultimately, his shortcomings lead to his family's destruction. He had been guilty his entire life…of not believing, of doubting, and most of all of failure.
They were running, all of them, but into what they did not know. The same group that defeated Ultimecia years ago, plus two more, were now united against a new enemy. An enemy that was mortal, of this world, but harboring the hatred of a thousand men. One who could get into their heads, more than a sorceress ever could. Mitchell knew their fears and weaknesses. He relied on more than magic or GFs to battle. He relied on hate, and hate without purpose…is the greatest weapon.
Not only had Squall failed as a SeeD, but as a knight…and now a father. To someone so innocent, someone that only brought joy into this world. With one act, she could be a memory…a memory neither parent could survive with if they lost their child.
The halls grew in distance, with every footstep. There was not enough time; there never was enough for them. Not in this lifetime, not in the one they had led so many years before. His mind raced back to this exact moment, two years ago, when he ran from his office…that day etched in darkness, so too, may this day be.
As they reached the grand atrium, their worst fears came to pass. Squall saw the SeeDs lined up, parting a pathway leading to the front gateway. However, not one dared move…break rank or file. President Mitchell stood with a few militias protectively on either side. Yet he was confident, his look arrogant. He smiled slightly to Squall, Rinoa, and the rest as they reached their destination. It was no more than a game to him.
The commander took in the sight, and his army standing peacefully by. Damn them, they were trained to kill, yet they stood there as if they were offering the sorceress to him. Unsheathing his gunblade, his cerulean eyes glazed into that of solid metal. It was his minute to end this war, now and here; he would fight until the vicious end…until his dying breath. If his troops would not fight, he would fight alone.
"Leonhart, relinquish your weapon," ordered a familiar voice. He turned to see Cid, held captive by a member of the Galbadian Army. His focus distorted between Mitchell and the headmaster, he could easily slay the President and the nightmare would be over.
"Oh Hyne!" he heard Rinoa gasp, as her limp body fell to the floor. He looked at her with concern vaguely before returning his gaze back to Mitchell. One deep slash through his flesh and it could be over…his mind kept telling him to end it. However, something unseen kept him from the confrontation. The other SeeDs… they were just standing solemnly there, they could have easily overtaken the small garrison. But they hadn't, what would be causing them to not attack?
And then he saw her…Lauren.
And he could have died.
Squall knew what caused Rinoa to collapse, the sight she had already witnessed with her own eyes. The younger female SeeD stood on the balcony, a perfect match in smugness to Mitchell below. Her demeanor and hair only reflected that of the old Rinoa, now when he looked at her, the lies so obvious. She had been the one in the pictures; she had been the one…not Rinoa. The likeness always there, but it only ran skin-deep. Lauren held a small child; Allison did not move nor struggle. She looked like an angel sleeping peacefully. No parent should ever have to see this sight, to wonder if his or her child is still breathing. The image was haunting.
"Don't worry Commander Leonhart you daughter isn't dead, just the affects of a mild sedative. Oh…that's right Allison Bennett is your daughter, isn't she? Must be hard having her call someone else daddy, until I had him murdered. Ironic thing, I never wanted your bastard child. Just the sorceress, Bennett didn't want to give her up either…he wasn't stupid, just slow. If I had been screwing Rinoa, all the power would have already been mine. It's all in the timing, any great ruler knows that."
"What do you want!?" Squall yelled, although he knew the answer, everyone did.
"Your girlfriend," he stated vehemently. "And all the fucking power that comes with her."
"NEVER! You can go to Hell with Bennett." He raised his weapon into an offensive position, heart racing and head pounding.
"Lauren, show him I'm serious." The President made a hand gesture to the SeeD standing above.
"Yes, sweetheart, anything for you," her tone was overly seductive. She held the baby over the edge, dangling the child's limp body into mid air. She did it all with a without an ounce of remorse, nor any evidence of morality. Everyone knew she wouldn't hesitate to follow Mitchell's order. She turned grinning vindictively at Squall. "You're a real bastard to work for; I just thought you should know that."
He tossed his gunblade down to the ground, trying to show his collaboration of intent. Raising his hands in the air, feeling the overwhelming sensation of defeat. He loathed that feeling. Right now, battle was not an option. If they attacked Lauren, the child would fall onto the concrete below. No matter from what angle came the assault, his only hope was to tap into her decency. "Lauren look, I'm unarmed. I'm not going to hurt you…please…just…God…Allison."
"That's better," Mitchell's smirk returned. He gestured to one of his soldiers, standing in the doorway of the library corridor.
Squall hastily bent down to Rinoa during the quick break. Her sobs were barely audible now. She was obviously in a weakened condition; he had growing concerns about her stability. If she did transform into an uncontrollable state, the consequences could be deadly. Tenderly he put a hand on her back, offering her silent support. She looked to him, and he could see a hurt deeper and more desperate than anything he'd ever witnessed.
"Don't Rinoa. You have to control it…for Allison."
She didn't reply; her words were unnecessary. She knew exactly what he meant. Their eyes locked before Rinoa could no longer keep hers open. Part of her wanted to look at Lauren, part of her wanted never to see that vision again. Those images were now engraved in her mind, and never to be forgotten neither in years nor lifetimes passed.
They would remain, forever. Scarred.
He tried to help Rinoa to her feet, but she continued to tremble on her knees. Even his touch was not soothing her right now, he was afraid she was going to be too far gone. The weakness in her body, and the fight between the sorceress within was costing the price of sanity. The last few years had taken their toll on her, and it was all coming to a pinnacle now.
"Now Leonhart," Squall's attention returned to the President, as he kneeled beside Rinoa. "I think we're going to play a little game. It's called which father is the greatest failure."
The soldiers emerged from the library with General Caraway, handcuffs behind his back. They placed him in front of Mitchell. He fell to his knees when one of the guards hit him with a baton on the kneecaps. The cracking noise pierced the room; the scream of his pain echoed throughout. Rinoa wiped the tears from her eyes, as the sound brought her crashing into reality.
"No, no," she whispered. "No…" Rinoa gathered what strength she could, standing up. Squall turned helping the fatigued woman to her feet. "No…we just…we were going to start over. Squall…Caraway and I…" Squall silently grabbed her hand, as their fingers intertwined. He could feel her nails cutting deep into his flesh, but did not stop her. The slow droplets of blood trickled to the ground.
Mitchell looked at the commander, "Too bad your old man isn't here. I think he would be the biggest failure. He had you for a son, didn't he? But I have to work with what pathetic material I have in front of me."
"Please," begged Caraway. "Let the child go… please…kill me… just don't harm her." The General looked up to the baby sleeping, being dangled over the railing. His grandchild, he finally saw her. Rinoa was going to stop by before they left…she looked like both of them. A mixture of both parents, and a part of Julia lived within her. "God, Rinoa she's beautiful…your mother would be so proud."
"Shut up," screamed Mitchell. "This isn't a family reunion. Now Squall, it works like this, you give me the sorceress; I spare your child. Simple."
"I will never choose," he screamed. "You will pay."
"Oh big words from a man not holding a weapon. Now it's Caraway's turn to play…" Mitchell walked forward, everyone in the room was silent, Rinoa held her breath. "Now General, if I asked you to choice between your daughter's life or granddaughters…who would you choose?"
"Neither," he gasped in pain. "You can kill me first."
The president leaned down whispering loudly, "Deal." And pulled out a 357 Magnum from its holster. Without hesitation, without another word…he put it to the side Caraway's head.
And fired. The gunshot echoed like thunder.
"Noooooo!!!" Rinoa screamed as she watched her father executed in front of her. It had to be a dream; she had to wake. The last two years, they couldn't have actually happened. Everything she ever wanted as a child was lost; she was lost. All because of her, all because she didn't turn herself in. Squall grabbed her tightly trying to restrain her, still in shock of what he had just witnessed. "He…never got to hold his granddaughter…Squall I promised him…damn it…I…promised!"
Mitchell placed the gun back into the holder, as blood splatter was heavily on his uniform. He didn't seem to notice…or care. "Leonhart, we have an opening that just came up on the Council if you know anyone interested." Then the bastard laughed. Rinoa couldn't take it any longer and started to move forward. She felt herself being restrained by a second person.
"Squall, Seifer, let me go. I have to…kill him." She was losing the battle within, and every part of her was being overtaken with power. Her power.
"Rinoa, stop…what are you doing? Allison," the blond man pleaded.
"I know it hurts like Hell Rinoa, control it… We have Allison to worry about; there will be time to mourn…later."
"But…but…" She hated the words, yet they rang true.
"I know." Squall answered calmly. "But you have to live to face tomorrow. You walk out there and both you and Allison are dead…he will do it. Without hesitation."
Squall was in his own world, one forced upon by years of training. To look at life as something passing, something trivial. He had to remain cool, or he would lose it. And he had too much to lose.
The others stood in a combination of shock and guilt. Their hearts felt empty; and each took blame upon themselves. Lost in a battle they had not wanted to fight.
Mitchell stepped disgustfully over the body, where pools of crimson blood covered the floor. He regarded the corpse as something thrown out, a human life no more than rubbish. So many visions of two years ago flooded the SeeD's minds, but now they were of Ellone. This time, it was no accident. There would be no mercy. "Well Leonhart, have you thought about it? Which one are you going to save?"
"There is no choice," he answered solemnly. "You don't want Allison…but you will kill her. Either way, I lose. They lose."
Rinoa regained her equanimity, turning to Seifer and whispering in his ear. He nodded, with what appeared to be tears in his eyes. She stopped crying, regained her composure, and now was more the sorceress than the shadow of a teenager. Squall felt a hand resting on his arm; he turned toward the pressure. This time when their eyes met, she had a slight smile on her face. She was going to accept the inevitable.
"Squall…take care of Allison."
"Hell Rinoa, no…you can't," he interposed his voice shaking. His emotions were evident now; there was no hiding them.
She put her hand on his face, remembering the feeling. "I have to, it's my destiny…it always has been. I'd give my life for her."
Placing both arms around her, he pulled her into a deep embrace. For a moment, their hearts beat in unison, and they shared that moment. The feel of each other, the warmth. There was nobody else, no wars, no battles, and no death. Just two lovers holding each other until the end of time.
"Damn you!!!" Alex yelled at the man, breaking away from the others. "How can you do this? Allison needs her parents…please if you have any decency." Mitchell looked at her, and made his first movements to the group. Positive that not one would dare to harm him, the child meant too much.
"Decency?" he questioned walking the space between them. "You know, I had a whore named Allison once."
"Shut up," demeaned Alexandra. "That was my mother's name."
"I know." He laughed spitefully in her face. "She was my whore….Did you know that you were supposed to be murdered?"
"What?" The look in her eyes said it all. "No… My mother was in…"
"A prison in Esthar…yes… I know. It wasn't really a prison now was it? I might have carried the title warden, but we all knew it was a research facility. And she was a pretty good 'research' subject, until she got herself pregnant."
In a flash, everything that Alexandra dreamed, the visions and feelings of her mother, the voices of the past trying to warn her, they all became clear. Portions of the dreams came upon her, like ocean waves to the shore. She could see her mother once again in the delivery room, someone called her name and she turned. The handgun pointed in her face…the feeling of the bullet entering her skull. Alex lived with all of it, and now she saw face of the man behind the gun. Until this moment, nothing had been clear.
"It was you…you killed her."
"Call it a hobby of mine." His answer smug and callous.
She started to lunge for him, as Zell and Seifer both stopped her. They knew she would be murdered too; this man had no morals. He had no use for her, blood relation or not. "Oh," he turned back, "Remember to buy me a tie on Father's Day."
The words sank in; it was true. This is what the dreams tried to tell her, yet she didn't understand. The voices of the dead spoke in riddles, and she wasn't able to clarify their warnings. When he learned that the baby did not posses the same powers as Ellone, Jeffery Mitchell ordered her put to death…just as he had done for so many others. Countless babies, countless lives…this man was beyond words. Her own biological father thought of her as nothing more than human waste, as he did everyone else in his game.
"Hey she's starting to wake up." A voice called through the near silence, making all turn to the balcony. "I'm not going to be able to hold her once she does. Plus, this is getting really boring."
Rinoa looked up at Squall, smiling. "I have to go now. Tell her that I love her; tell her the truth about us." Stepping away, she reached her hands up to his face once more. He could no longer control the tears. She wiped each one away with her fingers, delicately. Trying to remain clam. He reached down meeting his lips to hers, this was something never done. A public display of affection neither student nor instructor had ever seen from the commander.
Their kiss was full of emotions…the past, the present, and the future all in one. All the lies, all the betrayals, and finally all the truths went into this one defining moment. For them there was nothing else but each other lost in the feeling, lost in what would be their final memories. His hand reached to her neck, pulling her still closer. Never wanting the second to end.
Breathing wasn't important, only drowning in her.
Rinoa felt a powerful arm pulling her away. Knight and Sorceress never finished their kiss; it was something that would forever haunt them. Mitchell grabbed her from Squall's grasp, pulling her arm forcefully behind her back. He produced a pair of handcuffs, which were noticeably different from the ones that adorned Caraway's wrists. "Odine brand, you work for that bastard long enough, you come to appreciate his work. Now move."
He yanked her away. The restraints were so tight on her wrist, she could feel the metal digging through her skin into the bone. The powers were repressing themselves and for that, she was thankful. One wrong move and her daughter would be…gone. In one last moment of clarity she turned back to see Squall standing there.
His heart was breaking yet again. Her short hair clinging to her face, everything about her…she looked like someone else. It had to be someone else…this couldn't be happening. He finally found the courage to yell, "I love you." Not one person in that room could control their emotions, as all stood on weak legs.
In a strange turn of events, she yelled back, "And I trust you." She managed a small smile, no longer crying. She had accepted her fate, now she only hoped he would accept his.
To any other person it wouldn't have meant as much, but he knew it was so much more profound. She had lost her faith in him before, now gained it back. The words cut deep into his heart. She trusted him again…after everything. The witch-hunts, the marriage, and the lies…and goddamn it… she trusted him. Every mistake he had ever made, every one was forgiven with those simple words.
Squall Leonhart had earned his redemption.
The one person they were trained to defeat seemed no more an enemy as any of them. They wanted to kill her yesterday, made fun of her only hours before. Now they saw something different, not a sorceress with power. A mother with love who would sacrifice all she held dear, and her life, for that of her daughter.
Rinoa chanced to notice the three SeeDs from early this afternoon. As their faces, she would never forget. Earlier they had belittled her, treated her like a common whore. Now there was a certain understanding in their eyes. Her eyes locked with the middle one of the three girls, the same one who had stood in her path earlier today.
"I bet you're pleased at last," Rinoa thought. "I bet all of Garden is thrilled."
But to her shock, the girl stared back at her and saluted. The other two, one on each side, slowly raised their hands into an official SeeD salute. The three girls stood in front of hundreds giving her what silent support they could. One by one, every SeeD followed slowly raising their hands.
The act so simple yet so meaningful. Hundreds of cadets, instructors, and SeeDs all honoring the one person they were trained to destroy.
Rinoa stopped walking a second just to take in the scene. Though her vision blurred she understood the significance. She was hit immediately in the head with the barrel of gun. The force made her crash to the ground, as she could not use her hands to break the fall.
"Stop it!!!" The yell of the commander was crystal-clear. He tried to run forward, but was grabbed by Irvine and Seifer.
"You have to let her go, there is still time." Seifer's words gave what little hope they offered. "You make one move and they execute Rinoa before you reach her."
"She wants it this way right now, for Allison," encouraged Irvine.
"Let go of me." Squall knocked both men with his arms, freeing himself of the hold. He watched as she was dragged to her feet. Crimson blood ran down her from her lip, going on to her clothing. He couldn't look any more, as he turned his attention back toward the upper balcony and Allison.
He was shocked to see that Lauren had disappeared during this time from her position, and nobody noticed. All too stunned with the scene before them. Immediately he turned running back to the stairway. When he reached the top, Allison was standing alone crying. Lauren was nowhere to be seen. He ran to her quickly, picking his daughter up. He felt a wave of relief he would have never known possible. He hugged her tightly, as her little arms wrapped around his neck for support. He leaned over giving her a solitary kiss to the forehead.
"Don't ever make me feel like that again." The words soft, but true.
Squall looked at the girl with sorrow. How a child was just told today that she no longer had a father, now losing the only mother she ever knew. Somehow maybe he could catch her, before Mitchell took her back to Galbadia. He ran back down the steps, only to see the last traces of Rinoa and the others disappear into a helicopter outside. The commander stopped when he reached the rest of the group.
The helicopter blades roared as the machine took off into distant skies.
"She's safe Rinoa, you did it, you saved Allison," the commander whispered as tears fell from his eyes.
The only words heard in the silence was the loud cry of the child also watching…
~ Chapter Thirty-Two: Strife ~
The night has a thousand eyes,
As quickly as she came, she was gone.
The child's cry finally brought him back to reality…one he was completely unsure of. His head tilted as he looked at the toddler, their eyes locked and the child suddenly stopped sobbing. He stared into his own eyes, a mirror of his own emotions. Both had lost the most important person in the world to them, and some mutual understanding passed between. Many would say it would be impossible to empathize with a child, the girl too immature to understand. But they would be wrong. Squall Leonhart was a man who hid his emotions, but no matter how hard he tried, it seemed to be impossible to hide them from the child in his arms.
He closed his eyes, pulling Allison to his chest. Her muffled cries finally faded, as her breathing returned to normal. She listened to soothing sound of his heartbeat, although at the moment it was racing. Squall held her, as if she was the last bit of sanity he had left, and she was. Ally was the one thing keeping him from completely losing all sense of reality.
"I have to, it's my destiny…it always has been. I'd give my life for her…"
"…I would too," he soberly whispered in his daughter's ear. "I'll give my life for you…and her. That will be my destiny. Allison you will see your mother again…I promise."
"I trust you." Her last words echoed in his mind.
"How? I failed you again…"
"No you didn't." He turned toward the voice, surprised anyone could hear his pleas. Quistis stood, smoothing down the little girl's hair. "She trusted you to protect Allison. You did that…it is all Rinoa ever wanted."
"Quistis…how…how do I go on?" It was a rare show of uncertainty from him, one not usually seen, nor heard by others. "I have to go after her…I can't lose her again…I can't."
"Squall stop. Don't do this right now. You have to get ready to leave for Esthar, you two will be safe there. This war is going to happen no matter what. Leave it to us to find her."
"You want me to go to Esthar? You think I can just walk out of here!? After this…how could I do that?! I have to be there to lead the battle. Mitchell took everything from me, and by gods, I will take everything from him." The sharp reply was concurrent to his usual demeanor now returning, his few seconds of emotion being replaced with his normal persona.
"They haven't taken everything from you…yet. If you go after her, then they will." Selphie walked up next to Squall, offering her outlook on the situation. "Allison has a father and grandfather in Esthar…that is far more than any of us have. Don't take that away from her. Rinoa knew this all along. You seeking revenge is what she feared."
"So what? Do you all think I should run away? Run away like a child…like she did two years ago." The last words didn't mean to slip out, but once they were said, there was no taking them back. "Oh God…I didn't mean that."
"Yes you did," added Alex walking forward. "Because you still regret her actions from that day, and you have not forgiven yourself for not going after her. For not believing. Right now, you don't know what to think. You are headstrong, and no matter what…you can't be wrong, but you place all the blame upon yourself at the same time…it's a paradox. It's who you are, it is what you were trained to be."
"I wasn't trained to be anybody," he hissed. "I am who I decide to be…and I decided to be her knight. For that, I will risk my life saving her."
"Squall," shouted Cid from across the room. "Get to your office. Mitchell's on a satellite phone demanding to speak to you right away."
"You bastard." Squall knew it wasn't the smartest way to start a conversation. But for once, he spoke his heart not his mind.
"Nice to talk to you too Leonhart."
"What, what do you want?" His anger outgrowing any sense of reasonability.
"I just wanted to congratulate you on your role in capturing the sorceress. When the story breaks tomorrow in the Galbadian papers… I'll be sure to give you full credit. Your work ethic is to be commended."
"You're delusional," he replied fervently. Then he found the courage to ask the one question he didn't want to hear the answer to. "What…what are you planning on doing with her? What good are her powers to you? She'll never help you."
Laughing echoed through the other end of the line, along with the sounds of the chopper blades. "You really think I am going to keep her around? I mean she might be a good screw but after that, she's useless… Monday afternoon she will be executed live on television."
"You fucking bastard." Picking up a stapler, Squall threw it across the room. "Damn it, don't…I beg you don't."
"Oh the mighty lion begging to me? This is only the beginning Squall…I could have killed you, but watching you suffer is a far better game. The moment that life leaves her body, you will never forgive yourself. In her last dying breath, will it be you she thinks of… you and your failure?"
His body was shaking; never had he hated so much. Never had he wanted to kill someone out of pure rage. Never had he become someone no better than Bennett or Mitchell. He was turning into them, his hate driving his actions. "Why us? Why Ellone?"
"Oh you mean the attack two years ago? That…that was a comedy of errors. However, it turned out for the best. It just took me a little longer than I planned…"
"Comedy of errors…Ellone is dead!!! You came here to kill Rinoa then, to ruin everything I had. Why can't you leave us alone?"
"Oh Mr. Leonhart you are confused. Galbadia didn't attack two years ago to kill Rinoa…far from it. We were there to kill you."
"What?" The answer took him back.
"Oh it was a perfect plan, Lauren made sure we knew the location of Garden. You were to be executed in your office…Rinoa's blood would have been found. Everyone including Garden would be asking…no demanding her death. It was simple your blood was to be planted on her and hers on you…elementary really."
"The vials…" Squall realized their intentions. With him gone, Rinoa wouldn't stand a chance, the hate within her easily driving her to the darker side. But when she ran she changed their plans, and ultimately not only saved her life…but his. They needed Squall alive…if only to find Rinoa. In time she would come back…they knew it.
"You had Lauren switch the blood samples. God, the answers were with me all along."
"Yes, it would have been easier then, we wouldn't have to kill Sorceress Heartilly. Now, your connection is too great. Your bond is too strong. So now…she dies, I have already handpicked her replacement. The powers will transfer at the execution…and then, all will be mine."
"All what you bastard? What more power do you want? You have a country and the World Council at your disposal."
"Yes, I suppose so Mr. Leonhart. But when you beg for your life, and look upon me with utter terror, and I alone decide your fate…then I will have all the power I want."
"You'll come after her. It's not in your nature to run…you'll fight until every ounce of blood has drained from your body. Until you are more of a corpse than General Caraway. Don't bother sneaking in the Presidential Palace, I will gladly have the guards let you in…I'll reserve a front-row seat in your honor at her execution. So when she takes that dying breath, it will be your eyes she looks into…and only sees failure."
"You…" he was cut off as the line went dead. Pulling the phone from the wall, he tossed it in the same direction as the stapler. He felt so alone, so lost. No matter what he seemed to do, it was wrong. In his heart, he wanted to go after her, save her…be the hero. But that was never how things went for them. They were the tragic love story, the one that could never have the 'happy ending.' Yet if he left for Esthar, he could save Allison. But how could he live with himself? It was what she wanted. It was something he promised her. From their first night in the cabin, together, he could feel her pain. Now his hatred was controlling him, and in battle, emotion can be used against you. And he had promised her...
She remained silent, sitting down next to him. He could smell her perfume, and the scent of her strawberry shampoo. But right now, even her being there didn't seem to help his disposition. He felt like a failure too, the minute Rinoa left a prisoner a part of him died. She was his friend, and somebody he still cared for. Someone who had a hard life, but always tried to be optimistic, almost to the point of insanity. That summer they had talked a lot, it was what they did best…a stark contrast to her and Squall's relationship.
"I can't imagine having your entire life crumble like that, in one instant," he finally spoke.
"I know." Quistis closed her eyes, trying not to let the guilt consume her.
"To watch your father executed, to see your child almost dropped thirty feet to the concrete. To watch the only person you ever loved have his heart ripped out."
This time, she said nothing. No words she could articulate would make the situation less difficult. Pushing her hair back, she looked down at her hands, the ones still shaking from earlier today. Hands that had seen battle by the age of thirteen…hands that had killed by fourteen. Hands that had sinned, since the moment she walked into Garden. She didn't deserve to be in this chapel; in her mind, she was as guilty as Mitchell. Fighting for the highest bidder, never having the morals to stand for what she truly believed. Rinoa had…she fought from her heart over the liberation of Timber. Maybe now, the difference between them was becoming more lucid…and why Squall saw the distinction all those years ago.
"I never really have felt comfortable around organized religious settings," admitted Seifer. "I find that most tend to be hypocritical, at least from the stand point of an ex-knight."
Quistis chuckled from the incongruity in the statement. "Like the fact that I never show up here until someone is sick, dying or dead… Then expect the Gods to listen to my request. I always promise if they grant me this one thing, I will be faithful to them and change my life...and then I go on as before…until something else comes up."
He looked at her with a small grin, "Yeah something like that. We only ask for something when we need it. Heck, I'm not even sure what I believe, but you had better believe if I thought this was the end…I would be asking forgiveness. When…I should have done that long before."
Looking over at him she asked, "Seifer, isn't that why you came back to Garden? To repent for your sins? Not to the Gods, but to those who you had wronged?"
"I suppose, but I think I committed ten more sins in the process." His tone lightened up, and she elbowed him in the stomach. "Okay, at least two."
Her laughter almost turned into tears. "So this is it, huh? This is how it is written for us…for them. They didn't deserve this…and what becomes of Allison if Squall doesn't make it through?"
"She goes on."
"That's kind of cryptic, isn't it Seifer?"
"No, not really. We could compare our childhood to Allison's…but really, there is no comparison. She still has family…us. Plus, I'm guessing Alexandra would take her back to Esthar…maybe then Laguna will get his second chance. We all deserve that, right? You and I should know that better than anyone. But Allison is lucky; she will always know the truth about her parents. Who they were and that she was born as a product of their love. She will know their names, and know of them, and know how much she was loved…none of us can claim that….except for Squall."
"But how do you know Squall is going to go after her? He promised Rinoa he would stay…"
"Because even she knew."
Seifer reached for something in his pocket. A metallic object shined brightly even through the dim lighting. "She gave me this before Mitchell took her away. I was told to give it to Alexandra…because she knew Squall would come. She isn't blind, she knows he won't listen…it's his nature, it's his curse. Her last words to me…look after Squall when he comes to Galbadia… Strange right? I was told to look after the same person I wanted to kill, the guy I scarred for life." He placed the Griever ring in the palm of Quistis' hand. "We all go after Rinoa, and we all win or we all fail…nobody stays behind. Just like your group when you fought Ultimecia."
Shaking her head at the thought, her blue eyes met with his. "Why is Mitchell far more terrifying than Ultimecia? Why do I feel an apprehension with him that I never had with her?"
"Mitchell is mortal, and because of that he is more dangerous. He might think himself mightier, but he will not underestimate our capability or determination. Ultimecia believed that she was unbeatable and because of that, she was arrogant. Mitchell doesn't rely on magic or monsters to win. He flourishes on our emotions, our deepest fears. That is far more dangerous than any sorceress is. He can think…he can plan…and he is waiting for us."
She silently digested his words, and took them to heart. All of that was true, and she knew it…but one more reason came into her mind. She wasn't sure if she should voice her opinion or not, but before she knew it, the words came out. "Seifer, I was also younger back then, and thought I could take on the world. But now, I am older…and learned what is important. I think this time, I'm scared…because for the first time I have something more to lose than my life…I have you."
The words shocked him for a moment, but he couldn't deny the same. "I'm scared of losing you too… I have never felt…well I mean Fujin and Raijin, but this is different. The price to pay for failure is far greater this time. I can't lose you either, or I might as well die with you."
He slowly reached and put his arm around her, as she placed her head on his shoulder. Closing her eyes, she gripped the ring tightly. "Until the end…we will fight for redemption until the bitter end…even if it means our lives…together."
The effects of the handcuffs were equal to a hallucinogen. She found herself watching the water below, lost in its shimmer. Rinoa heard someone snapping, but she didn't have the strength or the will to lift her head. The next thing she felt, more like heard, was a rigid slap across the face. She registered that it should hurt, but still there wasn't much pain. Only a slight sting, although it did direct her attention toward the source of the sound.
"I got off the phone with your boyfriend a little while ago…he says hello." Mitchell laughed at her weakened state. How could any one with so much power allow this to happen? It was almost a shame, if he had gotten to her two years ago, she could have been an exalted ruler. Now she was just a shell of a human being, not even worth the cost of the gas to reach Garden.
"…Squall," she managed in her drunk-like state.
"Oh you are a winner… What did he ever see in you? Hyne, even Squall Leonhart would have had great potential had he not fallen for someone as wretched as you."
"You turned him into an uptight bastard," echoed a second voice sitting next to Rinoa.
"Now Lauren, let's not put too much blame on her…he was already an uptight bastard before she got there."
"How much longer anyhow until we land? I never was one for flying, and this open-aired military copter is less than appealing."
Mitchell raised an eyebrow. "You really did good back there. I'm proud of you...for that at least."
"Thanks, you know how much I love you…and I can't wait until I'm the new sorceress, together we can take over the world."
"Yes, I am planning to take over the world…but not with you."
"What?" The confusion and distress evident in her voice. "What are you talking about Jefferson?"
"Well, being in a position such as myself, I am forced to do things that I don't want to. One of those things was being with you. You were good in bed, and I had a great time posing for the pictures. But you were nothing more than an opportunity. I needed you…and for the last three years, you did well. Except one thing…you let her get away…and I don't accept any form of failure."
"But…but I found her again. You said you loved me… you said if I did this we would be together."
"I lied," he said smugly. Now, for your failures you shall suffer. Again, he pulled out his handgun and aimed it toward her. "Any last words?"
"But…I love you…"
"Your mistake." He pulled the trigger two times, each hitting her in the stomach. "You know… I heard this is one of the most gradual, excruciating ways to die…let me know if that is true." Placing the gun back in the holster, he opened the small hatch to where the pilot was seated. Rinoa turned as the shots fired; she could barely make out the collapsed figure on the floor. The sight gave her a small bit of clarity, images of her father raced into her memory.
"No, no…" She gasped out, mentally picturing Caraway's execution.
"Help me…." Lauren's faint cries were barely audible above the propellers. Rinoa looked down at the girl, and saw images of herself in the last few years. In a way, they were similar, each doing what they did out of love…but Rinoa managed to remain true to her beliefs. Rinoa's love was real; Lauren fell for an illusion.
"I…can't," murmured Rinoa. "I have no powers… I have nothing." The tears were streaking down her cheeks. The dirt from the air hitting her in the face each grain stinging against her skin… she tried not to think about the girl dying before her eyes. She could taste her salty tears mixed with the grit from the helicopter, and the smell of fuel that filled her senses.
The woman on the ground was coughing up blood; streaks ran down the side of her mouth. Rinoa had been in battle long enough to know the torture she was going through…the slow death of drowning in her own fluid. The metallic taste that would be overwhelming her senses…her taste, her smell.
"Please," begged Lauren. "If you can't save me…help me make the pain stop."
Rinoa tried to lean forward only to realize that she was bound not only by the handcuffs, but by also anchored to the body of the helicopter. Managing to get her feet out far enough, she used the entire force of her body, guiding Lauren to the edge.
"Please…" begged Lauren once again. Their eyes locked, as one moment of lucidity returned to the sorceress. It was the only way either could stop the pain. Rinoa closed her eyes, giving one more forceful push, until the mortally wounded body fell from the chopper. She couldn't fight back the tears, or the pain. She had just help kill somebody, aiding them in taking their final breaths. She tried to comfort herself that it was for the best. It would be quick… It was of little comfort. Rinoa looked back to see a darkened object in the surf below, she never even heard the body hit the water.
"Forgive me." She closed her eyes, as she had now become what they had all feared. A murderer.
She knew this was coming; Rinoa foresaw it. However, he dismissed it, as he dismissed everything about her in the past.
Now his friends were going to be risking their lives once again because of his mistakes. He could see her smile etched in his heart; he could see her playing on the floor with Allison. He could feel her skin upon his…the memories were going to consume him. This happened two years ago, and look at the monster he turned into. A bitter man full of abhorrence and remorse, but not again.
He quickly walked back into his office, turning on his computer monitor. There was a risk going after her, but he would be no better off if he didn't try. The blame would completely consume him within a year…regret would swallow him. He looked at the blank pages of the word processor, unsure of where to start…or even how to start. He only knew that maybe, he could leave one small thing to his daughter. The truth, their legacy and hers… He wasn't good at sentiments, but he knew Rinoa would want him to do this…at the very least.
For the next four hours, he typed a letter to Allison. Telling her about the moment he first saw her mother, to the moment she was taken away. The mistakes they made, the love they shared. Everything he could type from his heart. He was going to leave Allison something he couldn't offer to anyone but to her or Rinoa…himself.
~ Chapter Thirty-Three: Crusade ~
I wanted a perfect ending.
A world hero. And for all her pain what did she get? Power she didn't want, a life abused by a tyrant, and hunted like prey. She watched her father executed in cold blood, her child's life threatened by the Galbadian President.
But most of all, in Squall's mind, the biggest fault was loving him and all the baggage that followed. What was he to her? What had he caused but grief and sorrow? Dragged her into a battle that was not hers, but one of SeeD. One where she was no longer the only collateral damage, but so was the man who gave her life. The same man who just lost his…
He never liked the chapel. Maybe because it was built on the memories of his nightmares. Squall Leonhart wasn't exactly a religious man, in fact quite the opposite. He liked believing in what he could see: facts, science, and concrete evidence. Hell, he would have not believed in a sorceress had he not loved one. His dreams ripped away within a second, stolen by a mere mortal full of abhorrence. But, he could believe in that, hatred is always easier than love.
One can always see hatred, especially those who had consumed themselves within its grasp.
He walked into the small room, taking note of how he had just done this almost a week ago for Ellone. Now it was time to mourn another, one he also admired and respected. Caraway and he always had their differences, from their very first encounter until almost their very last. However, if there was one thing they could agree on…correction…two things they could agree on, it would be that of love. And of the people contained within their cynical, military hearts.
Rinoa and Allison.
A pain ran through his chest when he stared at the deep-mahogany casket spread in front of him. How could he not have seen this coming? What a great fucking leader he turned out to be. He belittled himself until he almost wanted to cry…but crying was weakness, and he would not submit. If not for Rinoa, then for Allison.
Walking up, he ran his fingers over the wood, feeling the grain. He wasn't even sure what he was doing anymore; for the last hours he had just been on autopilot, training prevailing where conscience lacked.
"I failed." The words echoed through the room as he closed his eyes. "I'm sor-" He quickly stopped, realizing he said the one thing Rinoa would have despised hearing from his lips. "No…I won't say it, I won't." He fought back the tears trying to form, looking down at the casket. "I'll get your daughter back. The only person who will be sorry will be Mitchell. I will kill him with my bare hands. I swear to you."
He noticed that someone had cautiously laid the Galbadian flag across the casket. General Caraway was in true military detail right down to the end. This man had served his country, but now his country had turned its back on him, executing him and his daughter. He looked at the symbol of the Galbadian Republic staring tauntingly at his pride. Without a second thought, he grabbed the flag from its resting place and threw it to the ground, as if it was a serpent of evil. He would not desecrate the memory of this man with that flag, that country.
"Excuse me, commander?" A solitary voice spoke up through his agony. "Is there a problem in here?"
"Yes!" He snapped before realizing. "There is a goddamned problem. Who put this flag on here?"
"I did, commander Sir!"
"Section 4, article 27: All non-SeeD military personal that perish during battle in cooperation with SeeD are to be treated as dignities of their homelands. All burial arrangements are to be followed to their national custom, even if this is in direct contrast to the conduct of SeeD. Their rites and rituals will be honored above those of Garden."
"What is your name and rank?"
"It's a question. Answer it."
"Um…I'm Alonia, SeeD rank 14 Senior, Diplomatic Relation Corp."
"Diplomatic relations, huh? Well, where are relations with Galbadia at this moment?"
"Sir…at this moment we are engaging in battle with Galbadia and its territories."
"…And who the hell shot General Caraway?"
"Well that would be…President Mitchell…of Galbadia."
"Go get a SeeD flag."
"Sir, that is against regulations."
"Forget regulations, get a flag! I'm commander here, no matter what you would like to think…I have not relinquished any authority. I am ordering you to treat this man as a SeeD…of equal rank as Cid Kramer or me. He gave his life in honor of Garden, not for Galbadia. He is a SeeD in my eyes."
"Yes Sir!" The girl walked away leaving Squall to his own tortured thoughts.
"Wow, you really have a way with people." A feminine voice spoke from behind. Turning, Squall saw Alexandra standing there holding Allison on her hip. The little girl was content holding a stuffed Cactuar, oblivious to all the pain around her. "No wonder you have a huge internet following."
"Oh yes, speech team captain also?"
"Do you have a reason for being here, except to annoy the hell out of me? If you were anybody else, you would be on latrine duty for a year. I just want to be left alone."
"Actually Squall…you asked me to bring your daughter. I was just saying that you didn't need to be so hard on that girl. As much as you dislike Galbadia, Caraway did give his life serving his country. It's only natural to associate him with the Galbadian flag."
"Do you make it a point to listen in on others conversations!?" He said more than a little infuriated.
"Well it actually got me this far, but no. Your voice was carrying out into the hallway, trust me…it wasn't hard to miss it."
"May I please have Allison?"
Alexandra looked at the girl in her hands, rubbing her shoulder. "Hey honey, Aunt Alex is going to go take a nap…and I know how much you don't like those." The little girl shook her head, a slight look of nervousness taking over. "Well, Squall here said he would look after you for a bit, so you don't have to take a nap…sound good?" The little girl smiled in agreement, giving a sly look toward her father. Alex gave the girl a slight kiss on the head, before setting her down.
Ally looked at her Aunt and then to Squall. She squeezed the Cactuar in her hands, as if it gave her a sense of comfort. Squall kneeled down to her level, looking her in the eye.
"What do you have there?"
"Oh, Cactuar," he interrupted. "Who gave you that?"
"Well that was really nice of Selphie, wasn't it? Did you ever know that your mommy and I met Cactuar?" The little girl looked at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. "Allison, I will tell you about it sometime, but right now I want you to meet somebody very special, okay?"
The little girl closed the steps between them before offering her arms to him. Somehow, the reaction was involuntary, as his arms circled around the girl giving her comfort. He closed his eyes for a moment, amazed that something so small, so precious was actually part of him. Of all the mistakes he ever made, he finally got something right.
Alex watched as the sight warmed her heart. She only wished Rinoa could have seen it, how easily he was handling the situation. The older girl smiled at him when he opened his eyes. Nodding, Alexandra walked off, leaving the commander to fulfill a promise that Rinoa made only yesterday to a man no longer here today.
Picking up the girl in his arms, Squall stared at the casket. Somehow the words were right there, yet nothing came out. No matter how he said them, their true meaning could never be conveyed. He fought against the most simplistic of emotions, to run, to forget this entire thing. It would be easier, but it would never be better.
"…Allison I want to introduce you to someone special." His voice cracked not sure how he was going to manage, "…um…this is your grandfather, General Caraway. He was mommy's daddy."
As he suspected, the little girl didn't comprehend much of the situation. She seemed more concerned about Squall, and how he was reacting. She silently watched him, never paying attention to the casket.
"He…was killed yesterday… Oh Hyne." He looked upwards toward the ceiling, "How Rinoa, how?"
She continued her interrogating stare at him, starting to mimic his emotions. As he looked toward the coffin, he sorrowfully offered to Caraway, "You would have loved her. I can see so much of your daughter in her…all the best parts. You can be proud, I know I am."
He felt the slight pressure of something on his chest, looking down he saw Allison pressing the Cactuar against him. She was offering him all she had, to make him feel better. Reaching to the stuffed guardian, he gave it a small kiss before handing it back to her. "I feel better now Ally, thank you. Thank you for everything. But…"
In the history of Squall Leonhart there was always a 'but'. Nothing was ever simple, nothing planned out. Dreams that could not unravel within lies, always haunting him. An answer was just the beginning to the questions feared to ask. He could take the road Rinoa planned, or he could take his own. One with grave consequence and unsure future…he wanted nothing more than to follow her last requests. But…that was not him. But…that was not his nature. But…as much as he tried, Squall Leonhart was nothing without her. He was learning to open his heart to his daughter, but…he could never be complete without her mother. And that in time would turn him into a bitter, vindictive person.
"But Allison…I have to find her or die trying. You will always be loved more than you could ever know."
"Seifer," Quistis rolled her eyes. "How do you do it? Seriously how can you be so…well, you?"
"Because," his tone was unpredictably serious. "It's all I can be. If I stop being me, then I don't know who I am. It's all I have left, for good or for bad. And right now we need everything we can get…plus sometimes it's easier than facing the truth."
Her eyes met his in understanding, before a smile formed across her lips. "Yes, as far as I know…that is where Prince Charming comes in. The trick is going to be getting in there undetected. Mitchell will be ready for us, he will be ready for an entire garrison to storm the palace."
"So, we surprise him."
"Wow, I can't believe you never became SeeD with that logic."
"See instructor, how easy sarcasm can be if given the right stimuli? Anyway…let's do the one thing that will throw a bombshell into his plan, no matter what he said yesterday."
"And that is?"
"Squall Leonhart walks right through the front doors. No arsenal, no weapon on his person, just him. What will catch someone like Mitchell off guard is to have the one person he fears most…watching him. Waiting. It's like chess; you wait for your opponent's next move. What they don't know is that while they are protecting their Queen, one of your little pawns massacres the King."
"I don't remember chess being quite that violent."
"You never played with me then. It's all or nothing, we set our best piece right in front of him."
"This allows him to let his guard down." She crossed her arms, as the realization was sinking in.
"So how do we get the other 'pawns' in there? That place will be sealed tighter than a tomb."
"Do you remember Timber, with Vinzer Deling? They had to use that station because of the high definition television. Now, that is commonplace…so they can broadcast live right from Deling, which is exactly their intent. Every one of the presidential employees are screened, Mitchell's officials know everything. Down to if a person on the staff has a cold. But television crews are union, and they are sent from the local station. I have a few associations who I've been in communication with…we will be there in time for the execution."
A cold chill ran through Quistis. She closed her eyes, tormenting thoughts of Rinoa being publicly executed played eternally in her head. Slowly, she started slipping away into a sea of regret, as breathing became more of a task. Squall…if he did survive and Rinoa didn't… He would be lost. The horror of watching her put to death… Quistis could still see her eyes filled with such hurt and sorrow. Her brown eyes…the ones that she caused this pain upon…the ones…
"Hey, come back to me." A firm voice spoke. When she snapped out of her nightmarish visions, she could feel his arms cradling her. For a moment, she took comfort in his actions, giving into the weakness she felt.
"I…just kinda felt lightheaded there, sorry."
"It's okay. Let's not think about tomorrow right now, okay? We can only concentrate on today. As someone very wise once told me…leave tomorrow for tomorrow."
She reached out trying to gain the stability to pull herself into a sitting position. It took all the strength she had, plus more she didn't have. She ended up leaning against a wall, well it felt like a wall. When her head made contact with the surface, she immediately felt a sharp pain stab resonate through her skull. She let out a gasp as the pain slowly let up, but never went away.
"Good afternoon there, princess, I hope the accommodations are to your liking?"
She squinted toward the voice, as a solid object slowly formed in front of her. Bits and pieces came back…Garden, helicopter, a long hallway. Mitchell, she resigned to the fact this was the President of Galbadia standing there. Ironic how he looked pretty much like the blur of the trashcan at the moment.
"We hope you enjoy your stay in Deling, no matter how short it may be."
"When?" She finally gasped out, accepting the inevitable.
"Tomorrow afternoon. Heck, your execution is going to be a national event…who knows maybe we will have an annual holiday in your honor."
"I'm flattered." Her vision started focusing and she could make out more of her surroundings, although there wasn't much around.
"Oh what you are feeling is the lingering effects of the Odine cuffs. That feeling should clear up completely within a few hours. Your powers are still quite repressed, but we want you to be completely alert for tomorrow's big appearance. You can thank Odine for the clarity also."
Shaking her head, the realization of the moment came to her. And of what she left behind. "Allison?" she asked in confusion.
"Oh doing fine, thanks to you. I figure you've already been replaced as mommy by now. I'm sure Quistis is doing a great job of filling that position too. Does it kill you to think that she is sleeping with Squall and kissing your daughter goodnight?"
"Shut up!" She screamed through the pain.
"Oooh…very feisty, I like that. I wish I could get to know you a little better right now, but unfortunately, duty calls." He walked over to her leaning down and forcefully kissed her; she tried unsuccessfully to pull away. As a final indignity, he moved his hand under her shirt cupping her breast. She wanted to scream, but she could barely register what was happening. The contact of his skin against hers burnt like acid. She had felt this too many times. She tried desperately to fight him off, and felt a great relief when he pulled away. "Hey you know, Leonhart was screwing around on you, turn about is fair play in my book."
When he left, she collapsed back down on the cement floor. She curled up into a fetal position, gently rocking herself, as she had done too many times before. For the first time, she wished time would pass…and that this nightmare would just be over. She couldn't take much more. Every moment was a battle to hold onto the earth, for the first time…she wished she would just fall away.
She stood and watched the martial artist, not sure of how to break his rhythm. Or even if she should. Finally, he noticed her standing there unsure, and stopped his workout. Zell grabbed a nearby towel, wiping off the sweat from his face.
"Hiya Alex, what brings you up here?"
"Do you always workout in an empty ballroom?" She gestured to the grand hall, and gave him a bewildered look of amusement. "I thought they have a training area for that?"
"Yeah, they do. If you want to run into a T-Rex or a bunch of cadets, I believe the latter is worse."
"I see," she replied then went into a look of utter seriousness. "Really, I am sorry for bothering you. But I need to talk to someone, and I think you may be the only person who can relate."
"Sure, what you need?" He led her over to a cushioned bench that rested below a grand window. Alex avoided his eyes, and turned to look out as the ocean and sky met at the horizon.
"The dream…the vision."
"Yeah," he said lowering his head. "It always comes back to that, doesn't it?"
"I think so…it got us this far. I keep playing it over in my mind…the lake, the blood, everything. I just don't know if there is something we are missing."
"Well Alex, as much as I can figure, everything is covered…except for Ellone, but I am gathering she is just saying goodbye." He paused looking at her chain; he reached out grabbing the metal ring. "This made me realize not to let them hurt you and Allison…well Allison explains the child."
"I know." She watched him as he let go of the necklace turning away. "But is that it? Did we come this far just to lose?"
"Don't say that. We haven't lost anything yet. I mean it isn't like she is going to be executed until tomorrow."
"Wait!" Alex jumped up, startling Zell. "That's right! She is to be executed tomorrow, but what did we see in the vision?"
"That…she was stabbed with a gunblade. So…either that means something goes very wrong or one of them will kill…"
"No," Alexandra insisted. "That means we know how to change it now. Tomorrow neither Seifer nor Squall take their primary weapons, they stay here at Garden. So they learn to fight a battle without them, I think they will understand. If it was a warning, maybe it can be changed."
Somehow, I always felt different from the rest. Even at the orphanage, to the moment I made instructor…I was an outcast, if only in my mind. Sure, I was adopted…but that failed. What greater hurt could there be than not only being discarded by one set of parents, but by two? All right, that isn't fair I know…my real parents might have never had a choice. However, I don't know. And the not knowing is something that will forever weigh heavily upon my heart, my soul.
But the Trepe's…that I know.
I wasn't good enough for them. So like the rest, I was sent to Garden. I understand it was my destiny to be reunited with my orphanage family. But why in Gods name couldn't the others have still loved me? Zell had the privilege; he was loved by his adoptive family and still was accepted into Garden. But, I am not him; I am me.
And who am I?
Quistis Trepe, Quistis Leonhart, Instructor Leonhart? Hell, I don't even care anymore. I suppose after so much one learns they are all titles, but have no meaning. When I look in a mirror, I see me…for who I am. And so does he.
The one I once stood against, now I lay with. The one I used to lie with, now I stand with. Two men, two different roads onto the same path…two men who shall both live or die tomorrow.
If I close my eyes, will the world fade into nothingness? Will my life be more than a mere epitaph? Tomorrow, yes tomorrow, we will end this once and for all.
For redemption. For family. For love…we will fight.
The blood will always be upon my hands, but maybe a part of us can move on. All the crimson lies that started with me, shall end in truth.
~ Chapter Thirty-Four: Truculence ~
What are heavy? Sea-sand and sorrow;
Garden held so many memories for him, but nothing could compare to the memories of her. Seven days ago, he stood on this balcony…never knowing that a week would change his life so deeply. Even Squall was shocked when he found himself back at his and Quistis' apartment. It wasn't his intention, but right now he didn't know where to go. Moreover, what few possessions he did own he wanted to gather from this residence. On the patio table lay a small box. Nothing extraordinary to an onlooker, but to him it was his life. His complete existence seemed to fit within a meager shoebox, and the thought troubled him deeply.
Never had he thought about his legacy. Legacy? Squall Leonhart? The words were an oxymoron unto themselves. One week ago, he would have been happy fading into the darkness of the oblivion, but now he had a responsibility. One to his daughter. Maybe his one saving grace to her, would be that she wouldn't turn out like him - bitter, angry…alone. Maybe if she knew she was conceived in love, born to parents who would give their lives for her, she could live the peace he never could, the doubt would forever remain at bay.
He reached for the silver chain around his neck, and closed his eyes as he felt the single platinum band. He memorized it, he reveled in it, and the feeling became part of him. His mind raced back to that evening at the cabin where Rinoa gave it to him…then gave her heart and body back to him. It was a world ago, another lifetime past, but in reality it had only been a few short days. A week ago, he was the Commander of SeeD and a husband; today he was a knight and a father.
One week. One eternity.
In the mocking stillness of the breeze, he took off the chain clasping it tightly in his palm. Walking over to the table, he gently placed the chain and ring in a velvety box. Attempting to fight back the tears, his thoughts tried to remain true to the warrior that his body betrayed.
"Feel my heart, you'll see the truth. And my last thoughts will be of forever. With you." The soft words she had read to him that first night at Garden echoed through his memories. Squall didn't realize he spoke the words aloud, shocked to hear another voice speak from the stealth of night.
"Squall, what did you just say?"
He instantaneously froze, before turning to see an all too familiar sight. Quistis his wife by his own lies, standing before him. She looked sad, yet peaceful at the same time. The sorrow that had become commonplace seemed to have disappeared, unless she had hidden it deep within her soul. And Quistis wasn't that good at hiding her true emotions.
"Nothing," he answered not with spite in his voice, just emotionless. "I just was…nothing."
He turned back toward the darkening heavens, almost embarrassed that she had caught him. Somehow, when she arrived a defensive barrier once again arose. Instinctively, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes that he kept within his jacket. Squall looked at the cigarettes in his hand without acknowledging her. He clutched them as for dear life as he put his free hand on the balcony rail. The charcoal gray sky caught his attention, as if it were mocking his life.
No matter what had happened between them, she despised seeing him like this. "Squall, please…I know it's hard, but we are committed to this, live or die. We will save her…"
Quistis understood, for the first time in so long…she understood him. She looked down at the container placed on the patio table. A few scattered pictures, computer disks that were visible and small jewelry box. The chain she wore suddenly seemed a huge weight upon her chest. Reaching up, she felt the outline of the Griever pendant. The one thing that Squall had given her, not in marriage or love, but in understanding. Somehow, she realized now, the strength, that he wanted her to draw from it, was within her all along. The one part of him that she had, she no longer desired. She didn't have the right…nor did she ever.
"I don't deserve this, it isn't mine. Hell, it never was. I thank you for the one piece of your heart you did offer me, if even it was only in friendship…or guilt. This is yours, one of the few possessions that is your past… I do not have any right to keep it. It is to go to your own blood… Allison…Allison is incredible Squall. She is the one that deserves this piece of you, this piece of your life."
He accepted the chain with his free hand, while the other still held the pack of cigarettes. Quistis didn't offer another word as she started toward the sliding glass doors. Squall looked down to the cigarettes in one hand and his chain in the other. In his mind, he could hear Rinoa scolding him for the habit, such as she had also done at the cabin. She detested the addiction so much, but before he didn't care. He had no reason to… They were so simple, so small nobody would ever know. Not Rinoa, not anybody. He took one more look at the pack, and it was a battle far greater than anyone could ever know. Finally he closed his eyes, tossing the contents into the ocean, clasping his pendant tightly. He turned around, before the figure vanished from sight.
"Quistis, wait. She didn't want me to go after her. If something happens to me…then Allison will be an orphan. Rinoa was scared of that more than anything. Our daughter, growing up alone."
"Squall no matter what, she'll never be alone." Quistis took a step forward into the moonlight, as she looked into his storm-covered eyes. She had seen them emotionless for so long, but was shocked when now they contained so much fear. He looked more like the frightened child she remembered when Ellone had left the orphanage, rather than a twenty-two year old military commander. Flashes of her entire life passed, for the first time she found the desire to console him…not as a lover but as a sister. The very sisterly love she claimed so many years ago finally came to pass. She smiled slightly, letting her confidence guide her.
"Let me ask you one question, do you think you can get her back?"
"That is your answer…there is no other. Tomorrow we go get her Squall."
"Thank you." The commander replied as he turned and brushed by Quistis. Without saying another word, he picked up his uniform jacket and the container full of memories. He turned back to her one last time, and nodded before walking out the door.
Slowly he opened up a desk drawer, lifting a few scattered papers until he grabbed an object from below the pile. He looked once more at the tattered picture of Rinoa and him from the celebration dance. The one trace of her existence he had so often looked at, but felt he never had the right. He traced the creased edges with his thumb and forefinger, falling into a trance within her eyes. Even in the photograph, he could read them and the emotion that lay behind. Something deep, enigmatic, and mysterious, yet filled with love, passion, and so many other emotions he wished that he knew how to express to others…to her.
It occurred to him, even after their encounter, this remained the only photograph he kept of Rinoa, ergo the only picture Allison would see of her parents together. Maybe she would understand that its scratches and blemishes were battle marks of their love. He only prayed that she would never find out, in truth, it was because he was ashamed for still loving her, and had kept it hidden away in a desk drawer. Hidden where nobody could find out about his lies, his doubts of her love. In a time that he hunted her, he still coveted her. But how would a child understand? Hell, how could an adult understand?
It was almost a welcome relief when a knock sounded on the door. Not that he liked company by any means, but for the fact that if he fell any further, he may never return. He looked at the photograph one last time, before starting to set it back in his drawer as he had done so many times. Then he realized he no longer had to hide his feelings nor would he. Closing his drawer, he stuck the picture in the corner of his computer monitor, no longer worried about who would see it. It would serve as a reminder of what he was fighting for, although his heart never needed such prompting.
"It's open." His voice cracked after all the emotion from the past few minutes. If only for the mental stability, he ordered, "Come in." It was like returning to a role that he had known for so long, a part in a play he wished the final curtain would come down on, so he could live another life. The one he wanted.
Sheepishly, Zell stuck is head in the door. "Did you say 'come in'?"
Squall closed his eyes and didn't answer the man, this he didn't have time for. "If you have something to say, come in, say it, and then leave."
"Well Squall, actually we have to talk to you."
"We?" The man looked less than pleased at the suggestion of more than one of them beleaguering him.
"Er…yeah…but it's really important." Squall remained silent and slightly gesturing. Zell took this as a sign of entry, before opening the door completely. Selphie, Irvine, Alex, and Zell walked into the office…nobody exactly wanted to be there. In fact, it would be on their top ten places of where 'not to be' if given the option.
Each took their place in various parts of his office before Zell continued, "We just need to go over the final plan with you for tomorrow."
"I get in, I get her, and I get out," he ardently stated, his look dead serious.
"Yes Squall," countered Irvine. "We are aware of what will happen…we just need to go through this. It will be a lot easier if you cooperate with us."
The commander glanced to the computer monitor and looked at the picture. He self-consciously glided a hand through his hair. "I know, I know. I apologize…go ahead."
The three SeeDs exchanged glances at each other. It had been several years since Squall Leonhart had actually taken responsibility for one of his actions, let alone acknowledged his behavior. This normally would have been taken as a good sign, the return to a person they knew five years ago. Yet right now, it seemed as if the stress was getting to him, and emotion was starting to win a mental battle.
Scratching the back of his neck, Zell continued, "We have…well Seifer and Quistis came up with a plan. It's so simplistic in nature it might work. We will have the element of surprise…with the added bonus of confusion on our side."
"Mitchell…confused," Squall snorted at the redundancy of the statement. When had that man ever been anything but confused? A sane man would have never…damn it… Emotion again, he spent so many years learning how to restrain in battle, in life, now it was consuming him like a cancer.
"Squall we want you to go through the main gates, take Mitchell up on his offer."
"What in the hell?" He slammed his fist on the desk in irritation. "You want me to just walk up and watch them kill her?"
"Damn it Squall, you know that isn't what he meant." Alex jumped up from the sofa, "You need to listen to them before drawing rash conclusions. I understand you aren't going to be running in there, gunblade blazing…but that isn't what this is about. This is a mental battle, a battle of wits. Your magic and power can only get you so far if your mind betrays you."
He squinted his eyes, looking at her. "…And why exactly are YOU here? It seems to me that this is a SeeD meeting, and you are anything but."
She walked over to him, pointing her finger directly at him. "Don't start with me Leonhart!" Zell grabbed her, attempting to calm her down. Restraint was definitely one trait she and Ellone did not share.
"Alex….Squall…" The martial artist was now a referee, between the two most stubborn people he had ever met. Well, except for…
"Because we need her," a deep voice spoke from the doorway.
Speak of the devil…Zell shook his head realizing irony has a sense of humor after all. In a room with all three of them, in the emotional state they were all in…this could be very ugly.
Seifer and Quistis entered the room. The entire group now situated within the office, very much against the desire of Squall, who wordlessly wished he was alone again. He rubbed his temple, wanting all this to be over…in twenty-four hours, he either he would have perished or been granted eternal salvation. Either way, they wouldn't be standing in his office…
He could hear them talking amongst themselves, or arguing…it didn't matter, the words could have been spoken in native Shuminize. Nothing registered in his head, now sleep-deprived and emotionally spent. Fragments, pieces, everything floating around in his mind. He buried his face in his hands, wishing to drown the entire world out. He tried to retreat into the world he created as a teenager, the one he always felt welcome…and alone. Yet their insistent quarrelling was stronger than his will to recoil.
The word was possibly only one of two that could have made him rejoin their physical plane. He wasn't sure who spoke it, only that the word was spoken. He moved his hands away from his face, looking into the heart of the group.
"What? What about Allison?" His voice was growing in impatience.
"You weren't listening to a word I said huh, Commander Puberty? And they said that I was incorrigible… Okay, what part didn't you hear?"
Squall stared into Seifer's eyes, not saying a word.
"Great," he grumbled, "Not a damn word huh? Listen this time… We need Alex to go to Deling with us. Because…"
"No!" he interrupted coldly, "There is no way in hell that a civilian is going on a SeeD mission."
"And what am I?" Seifer leaned over Squall's desk daring him to answer. "Expendable?"
"That's not what I am saying and you know it." Squall stood up, walking around, his demeanor never fading from serious. "You've had training, you are prepared for the battle, and you know what may happen. You can accept this, you have lived for it, and you would die for it."
"Great, now if you can spare the SeeD recruitment poster, can I finish saying why we need her?"
"As I said earlier… we ran into a slight obstacle with our plan. Turns out that the television crew will be fingerprinted and cross-referenced when they arrive. All of the SeeD prints are on file in Deling, mine also included. We can create a new computer identity to gain entrance, but the only one of us who is not identifiable…"
"…is me," whispered Alex, closing her eyes at the new development.
"We find someone else," ordered Squall. "We pay a stranger a million Gil, we find another way in, but I will not let the safety of Alexandra be compromised. Ellone would never forgive me, Rinoa would never forgive me…I would never forgive me." He stated, his voice trailing at the last sentiments.
"No." Her hand went to the golden chain around her neck, thinking of her promises to Rinoa. Promises she now knew had to be broken. "It has to be me. It was meant to be me."
"Rinoa would never forgive me, Alex." Squall looked her directly in the eyes. "Allison needs you."
"Squall, she needs people who love her. I have been haunted by dreams for so long, visions…nightmares, whatever they are. The voices of the dead, the voice of Ellone…I never understood it before this week, but I do know this…both Zell and I have to be there tomorrow. Don't ask me why, because I sure as hell don't know either. It's our destiny, it can't be changed."
Zell moved closer to Alex, softly circling his fingers around her arm. She looked up at him, and both knew that somehow they had always been the key. Why the responsibility was placed upon them…remained the mystery.
"Squall we understand the risks, but Alex is right. We know things, we have seen things…things that are at best indescribable to you…but it is our reality. My guess is that we might hold an answer that you may never see. Alex may be more important going than staying. She risked her life for Allison, now she wants the chance to do so for her mother."
The commander downcast his eyes in mental torture, everything they were saying made sense, and it scared him. There was a comfort in knowing that Allison would have Alex in her life, now who would be there if she was gone? Someone would have to stay behind, someone who could take care of their daughter…someone that knew her parents for who they truly were.
"Selphie…Irvine…you two are staying here."
"What!?" The thought echoed by everyone in the room.
Squall solemnly walked over to the couple, now visually distraught. "I am asking you not as a commander, but a friend…to stay behind. If I…we…fail, the Estharian transport ship will be here to take you to the city. It will be docking with Garden at sunrise. You can raise Ally, she has grown to love you too Selphie..."
A sudden fear took over when a frightening and familiar revelation hit him. "Where is Allison? Who has her?" His voice was in nothing short of a panic, a sense of déjà vu plagued his mind from the day prior, when the same question was asked and ultimately answered.
"Xu is watching her, Ally already took her bottle and is down for the night," promptly answered Zell. It had to be someone they trusted, they weren't making that mistake twice.
The commander nodded in approval. He took several deep calming breaths before he continued, "I can't lose everybody on this mission. Allison needs a future…and you and Irvine would have safe harbor in Esthar. Right now, that is all I have to offer."
Irvine turned to see Selphie, letting the words sink in. He watched her for a second, and at last she turned to him giving the smallest smile. The cowboy walked over, putting his arm protectively around her waist. With his free hand, he faced Squall giving him a SeeD salute.
"As your friends, it would be an honor."
"President Loire," a familiar voice spoke through the intercom. "You have a call on line one."
"Can you take a message?"
"It's Commander Leonhart sir."
He felt his heart skip in anticipation…or fear.
"Squall?" All signs of formality dropped when he picked up the line.
"Laguna." A long awkward pause followed. Neither man spoke, Laguna out of uneasiness, Squall out of awkwardness. Finally, the commander gathered the courage to ask the man on the other end, for something he had never dared asked before…a favor.
"They are going to execute her tomorrow. I have to go to Deling…I have to try."
Laguna inhaled deeply, he had heard through political channels…but to hear it from Squall directly, made the older man want to reach out to his son. He had been there; he had known the same emotions.
"Yes, I know you do."
"I need…I need to ask you something."
"If something happens to me, to Rinoa. Please, make sure that Allison…make sure that Allison grows up safe and loved. You are the one link she will have to her grandparents…Tell her of Julia, how she played the piano, how you listened. Tell her of how you wrote, how you dreamed, how you ended up in Win-"
Laguna could hear each word Squall was straining to speak, and all the words in between that he did not. How neither had spoken of the past, but each had lived it. The moments that Squall witnessed for himself through Ellone's powers; the ones that were relayed in words later on, even if Squall didn't want to hear it. All the moments that were his past, and now Allison's future.
"I will Squall, I promise."
"Tell her of Raine, of the feelings you two shared. Tell her that even though we couldn't be with her, she was loved. She is more important than she could ever possibly know… Tell her that even though her parents had to go away, they only ever thought about her. And hope…and hope that she will someday understand the decisions that were made. They were made out of love."
Both knew they were no longer talking about Allison, but had drifted about twenty-two years prior. Squall wasn't sure where the words were coming from, nor why he was saying them. He had never felt such passion as in the last few days, and now it was manifesting itself in a way he couldn't describe. Nevertheless, he had to talk to Laguna…he had to. Maybe only through experiencing the past could he understand it. Not through the images that Ellone had given, but through emotion discovered on his own.
Laguna cradled the receiver tight, wishing to Hyne that all three of them would make it through this. They had been through so much in their young lives; no one deserved so much pain and anguish. Then the words he had never said to Squall slipped out, "I love you son…"
Maybe it wasn't the response he longed to hear, but it was the best Laguna Loire could ever hope for. It was not out of hate, spite, or any other negative emotion…it was out of acceptance. A mutual understanding passed between two men, between two fathers, of one failure.
As he hung up the receiver, the commander wiped the tears from his eyes. He tried not to think about the worst, always the pessimist. However, he lived in a world filled with blood and death, today was no different.
He prayed that tomorrow would be….
~ Chapter Thirty-Five: Altercation ~
When you have robbed a man of everything,
Somehow, without his weapon he felt strangely empty. It was as if a piece of his soul was left at Garden, something of more than mere metal. It had always been with him, a story that he himself refused to divulge to others. However, in his heart he knew, knew of Hyperion's history of failure…as with his father, as with him.
"Gil for your thoughts?" Her soft voice was barely audible over the steady roar of the motor.
He turned to see Quistis standing there, attempting to hide her concern with a tentative smile. The man could tell that she was scared, but did her best to veil her emotions. He reciprocated the gesture, turning back around to stare into the endless water.
"Hey, I think that was my pick-up line on you."
The instructor walked up, leaning both elbows on the security rail. She looked at the horizon, taking in the warmth of the newfound sunrise upon her skin.
"I would have never thought today would be so beautiful."
"You mean the fact it isn't raining fire and brimstone?"
Sighing she looked down at her own fingers, curling them around the brass railings. "Yeah, something like that."
"Who said the end of the world wouldn't happen on a gorgeous day? Maybe the fire and brimstone is in our own minds, and it's from there that we have to survive. We are told to believe one thing, but if you look around…the fire is everywhere. It's just transparent to the naked eye, and that's what makes it is so deadly. It can consume you, and you never even saw the flame."
"Seifer, since when did you become so…cynical?"
"I always have been…cynical and sarcastic can go hand-in-hand."
To that she didn't answer, not sure of what to say. Quistis knew the question she wanted to ask, but that was premature…only if their mission succeeded would it be relevant. If they were to be triumphant, where would he be when it ended…if he survived? Would he once again return to the life of a fugitive, or stand to face trial at Garden? It was one thing to help, but another to know of your fate and accept the consequences. Would he run? She hoped not, right now he was all she had…but Seifer would never know that. It was his decision, and she wasn't going to influence it on a false pretence. Her musings were interrupted when he broke the awkward silence.
"So, how is he?"
"He is..." She closed her eyes, trying to hide the shame. "He is…not doing well."
"Still not talking?"
"No, not a word since this morning."
"Normally I would love Leonhart to shut-up, but this is…"
"Yeah, I know."
"Not even a whatever?"
"Saying goodbye is hard," justified the commander's one-time rival. "He just left one to save another, in a situation he should have never have had to face." As soon as the words left his mouth, he realized his mistake. Quistis turned quickly, almost running for the lower cabins. He hurried to catch up with her, grabbing her wrist almost forcefully, making her stop.
"Dammit Quistis, I didn't mean it like that. I meant no man should ever have to choose between the ones they love. Please, don't take it personally…emotions are running high right now…don't let my stupidity get to you."
"Okay, okay..." Her gaze hadn't lifted from the wooden deck. No matter what he told her, it was personal…on so many levels. Then in a moment of weakness, she asked what she dared not think…only a few days ago she had asked him the same question. This was final…today it would be over with for better, for worse, and for death. "What will you do if we survive?"
"Take you out for a steak dinner, my treat."
She suppressed a chuckle, knowing he too was going to have difficulty with this subject. Her eyes met his and she spoke from her heart, not from her mind. "I'll wait for you, no matter how long."
He deeply breathed in, turning his face from her. He knew this was coming; it was inevitable.
"Five to seven years? Quistis are you truly willing to wait that long? You have your entire life ahead of you. I have been back in it for less than a week, and you are willing to waste your entire future on me? Hyne, I'm not worth it."
"Five to seven?" Her voice said with hesitation. "Five to seven…years?"
He noticed the indecision in her voice, knowing that the last few days would eventually become nothing more than a memory…to him, to her. Yet, he wouldn't have given up one minute spent with her, not one second. Never had he felt like this, no matter what, she would always remain special. Hell beyond special…she would be the only person he was ever in love with. He had loved others before, or sincerely thought he had, and cared for few…but the emotions he had experienced in the last few days ran deep into his soul.
Somehow, he felt a connection that was indescribable; maybe in all his searching to be a knight, he had never known the truth. He realized now that he never needed a sorceress, for the power laid within his heart and soul, forever binding them. Shit, he didn't even know where half of this was coming from, he felt like some cheap romance novel discarded to the wayside.
"Yeah Quistis, five to seven years." The words came out more sharp-tongued than he had meant.
She embraced his arm, holding on tightly. "No, no! That isn't what I meant…I mean are you going back…to serve them?"
His look was somewhere in between confusion and guilt. "Um...Quistis if I were to walk away now, what would be accomplished? Sure I might have helped Rinoa, but I have to discharge the debt within myself. Without redemption the soul is nothing. Therefore I am nothing, if for all my failures there is but one success. I overcame my inner demons to do what is right, it is what I should have done long ago."
"How do you know about the judgment?"
"Well, let's just call it a plea-bargain that Cid and I worked out…depending on the outcome of today…also hinged on the fact that I don't end up as a corpse."
"Don't say that!" She threw her head into his chest, wrapping her arms tightly around him.
"Okay, okay…but with good behavior it could be down to three years." He looked down at her, raising an eyebrow. "And when have I been on anything but my best behavior?"
She felt the comfort of his arms returning the embrace before retorting, "Don't even ask."
The turmoil raging within his heart was consuming, no amount of planning or strategy could compete with the anguish. For the last few hours, he felt no better than his father, betraying the child that he conceived. Would the history books be as kind to him, as they had been to Laguna Loire? His own father considered a hero and a martyr, but would he and Rinoa be considered the enemy? Only time could tell their fate, only his actions today could decide…forever writing history.
Closing his eyes, he remembered his last precious moments with Allison, trying to convince himself that in time she would understand. He had grown to love her in the few short days he had known her…and that was more than his father had given him during his childhood. Laguna Loire left for an enemy country, while he was leaving to save the only woman he ever loved…maybe that was the difference time would recount. Maybe Squall could have understood more if Laguna had been there for his mother, in her final breaths… Maybe the pain and bitterness could be overshadowed by the love, but it wasn't…
Squall Leonhart would sell his eternal soul for Allison and Rinoa to be free from the purgatory they were dealt with…morals, ethics, and beliefs would all be challenged in the next few hours.
"Allison, I know you won't understand…but I have to go."
"Mama?" The haunting words of the little girl were said with such sadness, he almost lost his composure that very instant.
She held the same stuffed Cactuar from the day before, clutching onto it as if for dear life. Softly her muffled cries became full-blown sobs, "Mama!"
"What…what am I doing?" He questioned himself, and everything he was fighting for…it all seemed so black and white before…nobody ever told him about the shades of gray. And the gray killed him.
Touching his finger to her soft cheek, he looked one last time into his own steely eyes. He tried to smile, forced to all those gathered around, but oblivious to Allison. His left hand stroked his daughter's hair, feeling the silkiness not even matched by her mother's. Finally the girl moved closer, putting her tiny arms as far around his neck as they could go. He moved his head against her, feeling her rapid heartbeat, so much faster than he would have thought. Could that be normal for a child? Were their heartbeats so much different from his…or from any other adult? He had never known; he had never cared until now.
Moving his coarse skin against hers, she was truly an angel…only something heavenly could be so soft and innocent. He once again looked into her innocent eyes, "We will always love you; no matter what happens…remember that. And go on."
He stood up, choking back the tears, looking the older girl in the eyes. "Selphie…Hyne, please, take care of her."
"I will," answered the green-eyed girl hesitantly. "But only while you and Rinoa go away for the weekend, because you will be coming back…and Allison will have the biggest birthday party a two year old has ever had."
"Thank you." Somehow, the words seemed to reassure him at that moment. "I'm sure it will be the best party any nation has ever seen."
"You know it commander." She saluted him trying to forge a smile.
The next minutes were a series of blurs within his memory…he remembered holding Allison…and then she was gone. Like a ghost, like a memory…faded into nothingness. His Daughter was so much more than he could have ever wished, and now he felt that he was turning his back on her. He would never know if what he was doing was the 'right thing' or just another impulse that lead to failure. In the stillness of the cabin, he finally uttered the one word he couldn't say two hours ago to his own flesh and blood.
"You're not serious?" she implored.
"Yes, yes I am."
"How? How do you people put up with this!?" Alex rubbed at her temple in frustration, wishing only for the sensation to subside.
"You get used to it." Zell couldn't help but chuckle at her reactions. He remembered the first time he junctioned with a Guardian Force, but he was yet a child. Somehow he had grown used to it over the years, and even felt secure in spite of the intrusion on his thoughts.
"Damn Zell, I'm used to voices in my head…but usually they are speaking the same language I am! Tell me why I am doing this again?"
"Because we can't send you in to the Presidential Palace unarmed…It's Squall's orders."
"Yeah, well can Squall order a GF that speaks the same language I do? This is very annoying."
He snickered as she still sat clenching her head, he could truly understand her uneasiness. First, Alex had never been trained in combat. Second, she was forced to junction with something that was foreign…only for the ability to use para-magic, which she had never attempted. And finally, she was scared to death but would never betray her calm exterior…or her slightly pissed one at the moment.
"Ya know, Quezacotl is one of Squall's personal GFs. He was assigned to the commander at a very early age… I've never known him to allow someone else to junction his personal Guardians…he must think you are really special."
"Yeah, or really stupid."
"Well, if he didn't like you he would have given you Cerberus too, trust me, that could have been really ugly…one GF…three voices…I have my stories."
"I'm sure you do," she smiled slightly, trying to ignore the humming within her mind. "So now that I have this thing, what do I do with it?"
Zell quickly turned to her with a slight amount of fear contained in his eyes, "Don't…"
"Ahhh…" she screamed, once again lowering her head in agony.
"Yeah…whatever you do…don't refer to a GF as an 'it'…they don't like that too much."
"Thanks for the warning," she snapped sardonically. "Now please tell me how to use 'El Señor' Quezacotl. She lifted her head emphasizing her words. "Well…okay 'El Señor' must be acceptable to his 'Highness'. Ohhh!!! Shit..."
"Um Alex, GFs can understand sarcasm. They are trained warriors and don't like to be thought of as second-rate citizens."
"So if he can understand my language, why isn't he speaking it?"
Scratching his head he looked at her innocently, "Well, that's what make's them our Guardians…they are truly unique beings, each with extraordinary abilities. Yours just happens to be electricity…so as long as you avoid Leviathan you should be all right."
"Oh nothing, just a little GF humor… Okay, now let's practice the magic. Do you have the basic spells that I gave you?"
"Yeah, I have four fires and one sleep."
Standing, Zell reached out his hand toward Alexandra, pulling her to her feet. "Okay, do you see that barrel over there?" He pointed across the deck to an empty target. "Now I want you to focus all your energy…mind and soul. Close your eyes and feel the power radiate from your fingertips…the first time, it's usually a slow sensation that starts at the base of your neck."
"Yeah, I can feel something…it's almost uncomfortable, burning."
"Right, now point your palm toward the target and call out the name of the spell. Quezacotl will take care of the rest."
"Fire!" she bellowed with determination.
"Hey Chicken-" Seifer emerged from the other end of the deck at the moment Alex was calling her spell. The intrusion caught her off guard and she turned slightly, missing the barrel and hitting the mast. Its wood base was quickly incinerated, as the mast toppled over to the starboard side of the ship.
"Damn Chicken-Wuss, who knew that your woman would be just as clumsy as…"
Moving her palm quickly in his direction, Alexandra focused all her spiritual energy at her target. "Sleep!"
Seifer stopped in mid-word as he fell into a quiet slumber. She smiled at her accomplishment, as it was her first successful test.
"Wow…" Zell remained almost speechless at her work. He grabbed her, spinning her around in a moment of playfulness. "Damn, you're a natural!"
She laughed as he set her back on the planking. "Um yeah, now let's just get downstairs before he wakes up."
"Commander," spoke Zell, as he saluted his leader.
"Drop the formalities. Alex did you get a chance to learn the proper techniques of para-magic?" It had been the first words he had spoken to another human being in over three hours, since their departure from Garden.
"Yeah…" she tried to keep a straight face. "I also had a crash course in the lesson of surprise."
"Whatever." Squall went back at looking at the engineering floor plans that lay before him. "Alexandra, you are aware that the Palace has been equipped with an anti-magic field? The Guardian can offer you no magical power, unless you're outside the field. However, it may increase your awareness and other natural abilities…just don't count on Quezacotl as a failsafe."
"I understand Squall." Alex moved closer, sitting on the patted bench seats of the nook. She placed her right hand on the one he had resting on the table. At first he seemed to be shocked and tried to pull away from the contact, but then felt a strange comfort with her there…almost a sisterly one as with Ellone. "I miss Rinoa too… And Squall, no matter what I said earlier…I do know what she saw in you." She gripped his hand tighter before releasing.
Suddenly, Seifer came running down the stairs, his mid-section and below soaking wet. "We're at the Deling landing, from here we walk the last mile…my contact is going to meet Alexandra at the city entrance, in an alley behind the car-rental building. She and I need to be alone…or the deal is off. And we need the Gil requested with her."
"Will it be safe? How do we know they won't leave her for dead there?" The tone in Zell's voice clearly showed his reservations.
"Because they are my friends…they may be bought, but they have standards."
"That's of little comfort coming from you," Squall answered snidely to the man. "But right now, I see no other choice. Yes, we have the demanded Gil, half now…the other half when we get into the palace…I may pay, but I'm not stupid."
"Seifer?" Questioned Zell. "Why are you wet?"
"Funny story," he spoke with anger, raising an eyebrow toward the lone female. "Somehow I feel asleep on the deck, when I woke up I was headed overboard…luckily, Quistis woke me up in time to grab the bottom railing."
"Oh…" Alex choked on her own words, "that's terrible."
When they reached the landing, all trace of playfulness or innocence was lost. All that remained were the warriors that would try to take on a tyrant's army…ones that would, at any cost, fight for their redemption. As they walked the way to the city limits, the trip was performed in virtual silence. Squall lead, never once looking back...followed by Alexandra and Zell who remained silent, exchanging looks once in a awhile, neither really knowing what to say. Seifer and Quistis walked the entire mile almost hand-in-hand, each knowing these could be their last minutes together, and savoring each one of them.
She felt someone stroking her hair, as she slowly awoke into the world.
"I can be whoever you want." Mitchell reached down seductively biting her on the shoulder, when the pain registered she quickly opened her eyes. She immediately tried to push him from her, realizing she again had been put into handcuffs. A small gasp of pain left her lips, as she tried to hold back the tears. He hadn't released his grip as she struggled from the weight of his body. Finally she was able to use her legs to push away, but not before he had bitten through her skin…the blood slowly trailed down her shoulder blade.
"Get the Hell away from me! You fucking bastard!"
"Oh, is that any way to treat the person who holds your future in the palm of his hands?"
"No…I would never treat a person that way," she hissed.
"Very funny you bitch." He stood up grabbing her, turning her around she felt the sting of a needle enter her thigh. "When you die today…I will be the last person you see. I am your God…I control what happens to you. You die when I say so, you live only to fulfill my needs. Your power is nothing without me, you are nothing."
"You will never have my power," she spat.
"You know the ironic thing? The fair citizens of Deling think that dear old Dr. Odine actually found a way to harness your power…so it can be sealed for all time…whatever. They actually think that hunting you was to destroy the very power you possess…and I suppose in a perfect world it would have been sealed. However, this isn't a perfect world, is it? No, sadly, I am unable to receive the embodiment of a sorceress…but I have handpicked your replacement. She will answer only to me…I own her."
"You will never own her…you might think that now, but when she receives the power she will realize that you are nothing. No one would ever need you."
"What!?" The fear took over. "You said…you said she was safe at Garden!"
"I lied." Mitchell was sure she wouldn't call his bluff, at the moment she had more strength than he wanted to admit…even if Rinoa didn't know it. Moreover, the constant fear of looking over his shoulder at every move was starting to make him paranoid. No, he wasn't afraid, he would never be…He was after all President of Galbadia, Leader of the World Council, and soon to be the leader of the world…he was more powerful than any sorceress was.
"No! You…you can't, I came with you….you…"
"I can do anything I want…now if you are a good-little girl, and do what 'Uncle Mitchell' says," he spoke in a mocking voice. "Then Allison lives…let's just say she is my insurance policy that I get what I want, and the powers are passed to whom I say…no little tricks from beyond the grave."
Could he truly have kidnapped Allison? She thought the scene at Garden over in her mind, but Ally wasn't on the helicopter with them…it was possible he had others planted there. Hell, it was probable that he did. But would Squall have…damn she didn't know anymore…she was sure that Allison was safe. She would have betted her life on it, in fact she was. Nevertheless, if there was once ounce of truth to what Mitchell just said, she couldn't take the risk until she knew for sure.
She looked him directly in the eyes. "What did you inject me with?"
"It's a little something extra from Odine…it suppresses your powers, and all use of any magic…but you will be completely aware of your surroundings. In other words, you won't miss one minute of your execution…and you will see the children fear you, and cheer for your demise. I like to think of it as a small going away present from me."
She didn't answer him, the thoughts of Allison and Squall still haunted her. She knew they were safe, they had to be.
"Come on," he ordered, pulling her toward the door. "There are a few more orders of business before the execution."
She followed him out into the first part of the Palace, where she was surprised to see other cells full of prisoners…and each showed trepidation in their eyes when they looked at her. Thieves, rapist, and murderers all feared her. She avoided eye contact with them as she walked the long hallways. They threw things and called her names, things she had heard before…they were nothing new. As one barred gate was opened, she noticed a far away window. She could see the blueness of the sky, and thought how beautiful it was…in all the horror, she still found a moment to find beauty. She recalled dreams that she had over the years, at the blue sky that was always an integral part…along with the fields and beaches. She closed her eyes, as she was lead down the corridor…
Sometimes in dreams we can fly, and in others we fall. However, rarely in dreams does reality play a part. To dream is to live, to wake is to die. A place where life seems perfect, and all truths are just illusions painted upon a wall. When we awake from slumber, some part of us dies, whether it is imagination or desire. By chance, we keep a small grain of those dreams alive. They give us hope; let us see beyond our means… to the future we want.
The same one, which will never be.
If I wanted to lay blame, I could. From the moment I was born, to the moment of my dying breath. It's always easier to blame others for our own failures, our own shortcomings. But blame only lies within ourselves, hidden far away between our heart and mind. Could I blame the one who started the lie? Could I blame the man who loved me, but failed to trust in me? Could I blame the man who will pull the final switch today?
I could blame them all. But, I do not.
I blame only myself, and hope others will forgive me for my weakness. I hope, pray in time, they shall forgive themselves. That, by far, is harder than to do than any mortal shall ever know.
To those who gave me life I thank you. From my parents to my daughter. And to you Squall Leonhart, I shall always love you. You gave me life, you gave me love, and you gave me a reason to believe. I know you are out there somewhere, looking into the distant horizon blaming yourself. But wherever you are, I beg of you to stop. I beg of you to move on, for when it's all said and done, your love was worth the price. Teach our daughter well, teach her of life and love…teach her of us.
I pray today you do not witness this execution, nor her. The memories will haunt you forever. Instead, I hope you walk with her upon a distant shore. Take her to where the oceans and the terra meet. Let her run amongst the flowers of the fields, feeling free, and never knowing of our failures. My time upon this world was greater than any dream…
When I fall away from this earth, I only hope the dreams live on within me.
~ Chapter Thirty-Six: Battle ~
Deling had never looked so beautiful, or so deadly.
Seifer and Alex divided from the main group, meeting with his contact behind the car rental shop, while the others tried not to look too suspicious…which in and of itself was a difficulty. Quistis and Zell sat on a bench, both avoiding awkward conversation. Squall stood positioned leaning against a light post, eyes fixated on the Presidential Palace.
As the sky seemed to brighten with the rising sun, Squall squinted to keep his eyes open, but then gave into the natural reaction of shading his vision. The commander's mind drifted back to another time when he, along with Irvine, went to rescue Rinoa in the very same Palace…a time that seemed to be a decade ago. Images of that day also danced within his mind: Edea, the Iguions, and the first time he ever feared losing her. Something that still haunted him to this very day, even though at the time he tried to think of her as nothing more than a client.
Matron's words from that night rang in his head…he never knew how cruel a sorceress could be.
"…I will let you live a fantasy beyond your imagination. Let us end this ceremony with a sacrifice."
The feeling of Irvine elbowing him never fully registered, as he watched the scene before him.
"Hey, hey, hey, she's in trouble big-time! We've gotta go help Rinoa."
"The parade hasn't started yet. The gate's not open." His answer so noncommittal and void of emotion…it was easier back then.
"What are you waiting for!? Rinoa might die!"
Rinoa…she was so innocent back then, so childlike in her ways…optimistic about life itself. But that changed over time…being with him. Many thought that her carefree ways would rub off on Squall, and maybe a few did…maybe. But nobody would have guessed that his disheartening attitude would end up transforming her. Maybe in time two people are bound to change each other, but not always for the best. He just didn't know anymore.
That evening when Vinzer Deling was murdered, he thought Rinoa would be nothing more than a footnote in history…a sacrifice forgotten. He had loved her back then, but didn't know what love felt like…he wouldn't know for a very long time. And an even longer time would go by before he had the inner strength to admit it to himself. That night back in Deling, so long ago, he let the smallest hint of concern slip through his walls. He had hoped that she hadn't seen the relief on his face when he knew she was safe, but she noticed it.
"I was scared…I was really, really scared."
"You're used to battles, aren't you?"
"I couldn't…I just couldn't. I couldn't fight alone…"
"I haven't forgotten your order. Just stay close to me."
"…Just stay close to me," he repeated the words trying to find the memories. SeeDs were always taught to distance themselves…but it was easier to teach than to do.
Was theirs love at first sight? No, not really, it's easier to think back now and say it was love that very first dance, if one wants to look for the fairytale answer…lust, attraction…maybe. Something definitely drew them together, but love takes time, it grows from the heart into the soul. Love controls emotions and thoughts until one day it becomes a part of you. A part you can never lose, a part that is always there, a part that you will sacrifice everything for.
The calling of his name drew him back into his present surroundings. As a soldier, Squall knew he was in danger. Emotion was controlling his actions, and making him lose perspective on everything…including his environment. For failing in the training he had so strived for, he felt regret. He turned away from the Palace, trying to convince himself this was just like any other mission.
Zell knew better than to push the issue, as the commander's withdrawn expression spoke volumes. "Seifer has been trying to contact you on your radio; Alex is with the television crew…they'll be inside the Palace in approximately fifteen minutes."
"I go alone from here."
"I understand." The martial artist looked at the ground, feeling slightly tongue-tied in the situation. "Um…Squall…we all wish you the best." Zell wasn't very good at saying these things, and the commander wasn't good at receiving them. "Just be careful….kay?"
Squall nodded once to the man as words eluded him, they often did.
"We love her too…and…never mind…" Zell turned, slowly walking back to the bench where Quistis sat patiently waiting.
"Zell…" replied the commander, his voice unsteady and hoarse. "Thank you."
"Name," asked the Galbadian security inspector, looking her directly in the eyes.
"Elise," she answered, trying not to act evasive. She handed him her credentials, as she held long cables in other arm.
"Full name," he demanded with a little more annoyance.
She suddenly remembered that it was one of those fancy-sounding names. One that reminded her of her old gynecologist…Van…Vander…
"Elise Vandermere member of Local 80," she said triumphantly. The name seemed to slip off her tongue, as if someone else guiding her words.
The man looked her up and down, "Where's Darrius? According to the records he is supposed to be the Key Grip at the telecast." The guard stared at his clipboard ruffling through papers. Alex looked at him with a slight moment of fear. Fortunately for her, he seemed to still be lost within the realm of bureaucratic red-tape.
"Darrius is with his wife," she answered without hesitation. "Went into early labor last night…but last time we heard, everything was going smoothly. That reminds me, do you have access to an outside line? Somehow I've been put in charge of the welcoming committee, hoping I could call…see if I need to buy pink or blue balloons."
"Ms. Vandermere, place your index finger against this." He motioned to a small computer pad lying on the desk. "We need to run print identification through Central Processing, and then we can worry about your social calendar."
Smiling weakly she accommodated the request, placing her finger on the electronic pad. Looking up, she noticed that the guard seemed to be taking little interest in his job. She tried not to act nervous, hoping Selphie had managed to get her new identity into the Galbadian database. It wasn't that she had little faith in Selphie's computer hacking capabilities, but rather that she just had no faith in Galbadia's technological abilities. He punched a few keys then waited; finally, a green light appeared above the security monitor.
"Ms. Vandermere we just need you to step through the metal detector, you may set your cables down on the far table." Following the guard's instructions, she waited patiently as he ran a hand-held machine over the length of her body. "You may proceed into the press area, please make sure that you follow the guidelines as outlined in your briefing manual."
"Thank you," she said sighing inwardly that she made it this far.
President Mitchell's plan for today's events was outlined publicly on every broadcast station and print media alike. According to the reports, Galbadian officials had silently worked closely with Dr. Odine on inventing a machine that would harness the power of a sorceress. This would allow society to live without fear of tyranny; the device itself would be sealed in Esthar and launched into orbit.
Squall knew what the world didn't.
Because of the careful timing of the article, Estharian officials would have no chance of rebuking the fabricated facts on time. Once Esthar heard Galbadia's version of the story though, it was certain that they would publicly deny such knowledge. President Mitchell would then accuse Esthar of backing out of the contract, and harboring the power for themselves. This would in all eventuality lead into a war, one that Esthar surely wasn't prepared for, but that Galbadia had spent years planning.
Yet, with history weighing heavily on their side, neighboring countries would tend to lean toward that of Galbadia. After all, it was Esthar that caused the first Sorceress War, and allowed Rinoa leave the safety of memorial confinement. The fictional 'breaking of the contract' would be another bullet in the armor of Esthar, further damaging its credibility.
Furthermore, Mitchell, by outward appearances, looked as he led his country justly and with dignity, his popularity growing by the minute. Soldiers would willfully follow him into battle, believing that the enemy had made the first move. The World Council would be in control during any time of martial law; Mitchell's role would only be fortified with his obvious resolve…blissfully unaware of the real motives he was keeping from them.
And all for what? Power? What more could Jefferson Mitchell gain? If he truly managed to rule the world, what would be next? Once you reach the top of the mountain, there is no way to go but down…or into the sky above if given wings, and Mitchell was no angel. His craving for power would only grow. When he ruled governments, cities, and armies…what would be the next conquest? For a moment, a vision of Ultimecia passed through Squall's mind. What if in her time she held all worldly power, then realized that there was nothing left to conquer, but a place where all time and space could be compressed? She would rule in not only her era, but also every one before and after…totally supremacy.
Before his mind could register the consequences of such action, he came back into his reality. A small boy had crashed into him, and the commander looked down to the child, seeing the excitement upon the youngster's face.
"Sorry sir!" The lad apologized wide-eyed, while holding a banner in his hand.
The celebration had begun for all of Galbadia's citizens, and for them the dawning of a new age had begun, an era that promised to be sorceress-free. Vocally Squall could not react to the child, only stared at the hope within his eyes. A mere innocent celebrated the death of the sorceress, and he knew that the child wasn't to blame. It was what he had been taught, the fears instilled upon him by his parents and society. The child celebrated not out of deliberate hatred, but from beliefs taught since birth. The very thing that Squall Leonhart, and every other child, had been taught at Garden. The very fear that he had taught to a new generation. He indeed was just as responsible for the actions today, as they all were. Every SeeD that came before and every student that ever passed through the halls…all intended for one purpose. This very day.
He moved quickly up the steps of the Palace, pushing his way through the throngs that cluttered the entranceway. It was as if all Rinoa's humanity died the day that she inherited the powers, only her shell remaining. He lost most sense of politeness as he neared the gate, becoming more aggressive with every step. His mind drifted back and forth between Rinoa and the scene in front of him, the whole thing surreal. Somehow, he felt as if he would awake from the nightmare. He only hoped that if he woke up, she would still be next to him.
One sentry stood posted at the main gate, and three more inside the Palace were working crowd-control. The commander reached the one who looked like he was in charge. The guard saw Squall approaching, and seemed to let nervousness get the better of him. He immediately called someone on his headset, trying to hide his words as he spoke into the receiver… He seemed to be having trouble, feeling nervous, or both…as Squall stood before him.
"Can I help you sir?" The guard tried to act casual, but the commander knew better…he could sense the fear.
"I'm with the Balamb Delegation of the World Council."
"Commander Leonhart, you do not appear to be on the approved guest list." The man stated calmly never perusing through the hundreds of names.
Squall took a step closer, well within the man's personal boundaries. Looking him directly in the eye, the demand came out almost as a growl. "I guess you are the only person on this whole goddamned planet who didn't read the newspaper. I am the one credited with her capture, aren't I? Why wouldn't I want to be here on such a historic event? Check your list again."
"Sir, I am sorry there is nothing I can do." The guard tried to hold his ground, but his resolve was slowly fading, and his weak nature starting to show through.
"Look," hissed Squall, grabbing the soldier by the neck. "We can do this one of two ways….easy or hard…either is fine with me. Get on your headset and speak with your supervisor, tell him that I am here. Let him personally know that Mitchell invited me to today's festivities. Or I will get on the headset myself, after I recover it from your lifeless body. Do you know how to rip someone's throat out just before snapping their neck? I do." He flicked the man on the neck with index finger, emphasizing the point. It was obvious his threats were having their desired effect. The soldier gulped reaching for his neck, as he motioning for two others to open the barred gates.
"You still have to pass a security check, weapons will be confiscated." Somehow the guard had meant it a threat, but the words fell flat, as did meaning in the delivery.
"Fine, I don't have any weapons," he growled while raising an eyebrow at the man. Squall took one last look back at the crowd, watching them celebrate among themselves. He took pity on their foolishness. "Hyne have mercy on all of you if we fail," he whispered, his silent prayer drifted into the gentle breeze.
As he entered the secondary set of gates of the Palace, an entire garrison greeted him. It was evident that 'Mr. Clipboard' out there had already alerted the others. It was a logical assumption that Jefferson Mitchell was fully aware of his arrival, and by the look on the faces of his men, the Galbadians were caught off-guard as planned… Now the true battle would rage, not with their weapons, but with their minds.
"…transponder," a stern sounding voice echoed beside her. She turned trying to act as if her wits were about her, as the angry-sounding man handed her a clipboard. "Can you please go set the transponder to the station feed…or do you just plan on standing there all day? I know technically this isn't your job but…"
"Sure Robert…yeah, transponder, no problem," she replied confidently, understanding this was her chance to make her break. Taking a few steps into the main corridor, she abruptly stopped when she noticed a familiar sight…one that made her skin crawl. President Mitchell was walking toward the press waiting area, surrounded by four guards. By the look on his face, he was not a happy man… She smiled outwardly knowing that only one thing could cause such a reaction in that man…Squall Leonhart. The commander must have made it into the building, which was an immense relief. Now it was her duty to get the others through the courtyard door…unnoticed.
She turned, walking down a secondary hallway with clipboard in hand, acting as if she was studying its contents. Alex stopped when she reached the side door, checking to see if anyone else was in the general proximity. Just when she thought it was clear, two Galbadian soldiers came around the corner. Leaning against the wall casually, she acted as if she was skimming through paperwork.
"Seriously…6:1 odds that she survives for ten minutes?"
"Ten minutes!? Are you serious, nobody has ever made it past five, and they were a hell of a lot stronger than that scrawny little thing…I'll put a hundred Gil on three minutes…tops."
She closed her eyes, trying to distance herself from their conversation…these men, to use the term lightly, were betting on how long it would take to murder an innocent human being. Her best friend. She tried not act disgusted as they stopped in front of her.
"Is there something we can help you with?" The first guard looked at her with suspicion, while the other looked her up and down grinning slyly.
"Looking for the satellite room…according to the map it should have been right here." She pointed across the corridor to the nearest inside door.
"And you're going there for…?" The soldier looked Alex directly in the eyes trying to intimidate her. When she didn't answer immediately, he rested a hand on her hip, getting well within personal boundaries. "Well, hon…?"
She quickly pushed him off, giving a look of pure malevolence. "I'm going there to do my job if that is all right with you. I need to set the transponder to the correct satellite. If you don't want to help me, you can explain to President Mitchell why this was not broadcasted on all television and radio frequencies he requested. Plus, I'm sure you can explain to the millions of voting Galbadian citizens, why they will miss this historic event…just because your testosterone level is too high not to harass a female employee. I'm sure when the President finds out that you two caused this not to be aired, you'll be the next given lethal injections… And on a side note, I bet a hundred Gil that neither of you lasts more than two minutes…tops."
The two both looked at each other, containing their anger…but realizing that they would be killed if they were found responsible for messing the broadcast up. Finally, the second guard answered with disgust. "Go down the hall turn right, first door on your left. You better hurry, they are going to be activating the anti-magic field any moment… Once that happens, only the President or his security advisor can gain entrance into that area."
The words he said hit her; right now there was no anti-magic field in place. Something in her hesitation must have lead them to question her cover, as the first guard looked at her simply stating, "All hail Galbadia…"
"What?" she replied in momentary confusion.
"I thought so bitch…" The soldier started to reach for his weapon and the second man followed his lead. "Any true Galbadian would know the national anthem."
"Shit! Okay Quezacotl, let's hope he's right about the barrier." Alex raised her palm swiftly up toward them, "Stop!!!" She managed to move quickly enough that both were put under the spell. Fortunately for her, Galbadian soldiers still were a little slow in the intelligence department.
"Well that is just freaky looking…" She eyed the soldiers stopped in mid-sentence, being suspended in time. Giving up on any sense of indiscretion, she grabbed the weapons out of their hands tossing them onto the floor. "Hail Galbadia my ass…"
Alexandra opened the door next to her and looked out into the courtyard for the others. At first she saw nothing but the cobalt sky, but then Seifer seemed to drop out of nowhere. He startled her for a moment, but she quickly regained her composure. The other two were descending the building from grappling hooks. "Hurry, there are two guards I used Stop on them…they found out…I'm sorry…I tried…but…"
"Magic field?" Seifer questioned opening the door.
"Not yet, any second. I'm sorry…"
"It's fine," he snapped. "We'll just have to take care of them before they unfreeze, or we kiss our butts goodbye… Zell grab that one, Quistis get the door."
"Who made you God?" mumbled the martial artist, as he reluctantly followed orders.
"You're not going to kill them, are you?" Alex looked at her comrades as they were dragging the frozen men into the courtyard.
Seifer glared at her, shaking his head, "No, we are going to have a tea party with them…of course we are going to…"
"Stand back." Quistis motioned for Zell and Seifer to move away. "Petrify!" she cast the spell separately to each soldier. Slowly, flesh was replaced with gray-stone, and the two figures appeared to be almost identical statues of one another. She looked into Seifer's eyes, placing a hand upon his shoulder. "We try not to kill anyone, unless it's our only option. Nobody else needs to die over our mistakes."
"Guys…we got a problem," called Zell from inside. "Doors on a delayed timer, we need a code in about twenty seconds…of all of Galbadia will know we are here."
They ran over to the numerical keypad. "Why wasn't Garden aware of this? None of our information mentioned…the courtyard was supposed to be the only way. Of course, Mitchell added security precautions." Quistis looked at the keypad shaking her head in frustration, "We get one shot at this guys…anybody care to guess?"
"Who the hell would put one of these on the outside?" snarled Seifer. "It doesn't say much for the intelligence of the Galbadian society, does it? And the clever red number count down is so original."
"What?" Zell grabbed Seifer's arm. "What did you just say?"
"What in the freakin' hell is your problem? We are about to be caught…not a time to reminisce about what I said."
Zell looked Alex deep in the eyes, and in one moment the solution passed between them. Could it be that simple? The nightmares they shared for too long, always awaking to the digital numbers, the red numbers that Seifer just spoke of. In the stillness of so many nights, the glowing digits that offered some relief from the visions, knowing they would end for another day. The answers Ellone was sending them, to questions that they never knew they would ask.
"4-2-7?" he questioned, looking to the woman reaching into the recesses of her mind.
"Yeah," she answered just as softly, before she faintly smiled. "I bet it is…"
Quistis held her breath as she entered the numbers, not sure of exactly what her two companions were talking about. But she had learned to trust her instincts, and right now her gut feeling was telling her that they knew something that she didn't. And she was right…the countdown stopped with four seconds remaining. Alex closed her eyes in a brief moment of relief, but Seifer could only shake his head.
"You two are just…freaky."
"Yeah," answered Zell as he reached for Alexandra's hand, leading her into the building. "We know."
The young sorceress tried holding back a gasp when the man grabbed her near the collarbone. Her shoulder stung from the deep bite into her flesh, and her entire body ached from the sleeping arrangements of the night before. The door shut behind her, and for a momentary nirvana, Rinoa thought she was alone. Hoped she was alone. But then like a sword piercing through the fabric of time, she felt the presence of another stab at her solitude. All suspicions were confirmed when the sound of chair wheels gliding, meeting with the mat below, and the squeaking of a chair shattered the air.
She could feel someone untying the blindfold, someone whose hands felt very feminine. The fingers touched her with a certain delicacy, one not usually demonstrated by males. Floral perfume filled her senses and momentary took her back into the fields. In the darkness she could imagine herself anywhere, and right now she could picture no place more tranquil than their meadow.
When the cloth barrier was lifted, it took a second for her vision to focus in the bright contrast. Glancing around she could tell that she was in an office; her first assumption was that it was Mitchell's, until she got a better look. It had a more feminine feel, save for the cigar odor, but an air of professionalism all the same. She felt a hand caressing her hair, long fingernails gently tracing their way down her head. It was much like a mother would do to sooth a crying child. She looked up toward the sensation, noticing a tall dark-haired woman smiling condescendingly at her.
"So you are the almighty sorceress, huh? You seem kind of pitiful if you ask me."
"Excuse me?" She stammered, trying to determine whom she was speaking to and why, and what part of the puzzle she played in her life.
"So you are the great Rinoa Heartilly…The almighty Sorceress Heartilly. The one involved with the Commander of Balamb Garden, son of the President of Esthar?"
The woman laughed at the sound of the name, leaning against the desk, she looked back at Rinoa with disgust. "Yeah, who else… I met him once, seemed like kind of a waste to me, but hell if you like the arrogant-self-absorbed-bastard type."
"Where am I?" her voice reflected the confusion of her thoughts. Rinoa squinted her eyes, focusing on the woman in front of her, she thought she saw something…but then wondered if it was just the reflections of the light.
The woman didn't take too kindly to the interrogating look of the young sorceress. "On behalf of the citizens of Deling City, I welcome you to your last moments upon this world. I'm Kimberly Thatch, your replacement."
The comment caught her off guard, but Mitchell's words from earlier sank in. "You…you are the one that the President wants me to pass the powers onto?"
"God, and they said you were a complete ditz." The ebony-haired lady stared at Rinoa with irritation. "No, I am the person your powers will be passed onto…there is a difference."
Being visibly infuriated, the woman reached back to the desk pulling out an emery board. Kimberley sighed in exasperation as Rinoa stared motionless and angrily started as she filed her nails. She was wearing a burgundy evening gown, which snuggly fit her emphasizing her curves. She was extremely stunning and had an elegant aura surrounding her. Her hair was dark, much like Rinoa's and there was something else about her…something that stood out more than any other defining feature. Rinoa's eyes had not been playing tricks on her earlier…
"Your hair is…"
The woman tossed her emery board with aggravation onto the desk, "Yes, my hair is like yours used to be." She emphasized the point by pointing to her two lightened streaks on either side. "You know Ms. Heartilly, this is absolutely the lowest thing I have ever done. Dye my hair with two blonde streaks…I feel no better than a two-bit whore."
"We do what we have to do," spoke Rinoa with malice in the statement. "So you are only doing this to inherit the powers, aren't you?"
"Something like that…men are so gullible, the President no exception. He only saw what he wanted to see in me, you see quite another don't you?"
"A cold-hearted bitch?"
"Very good Sorceress Heartilly, I only learn from the best." Kimberley leaned over placing Rinoa's hair behind her ears. "You are so young, so ill-advised… You could have been so much, but it was not in your stars. Do you even remember me?"
Thoughts raced through Rinoa's mind, trying to place the woman standing in front of her. "I…I…the party in Deling, the pictures…" Rinoa tried hard to think of past events, when the image appeared out of nowhere. "You were the one who asked for a picture of President Mitchell and me at the party...you sent the pictures to Squall."
"Yes, and I was the one who took the pictures of Jefferson and Lauren in bed…. How does that make you feel that your own boyfriend couldn't tell you from a hired slut in a picture? Says something doesn't it?"
She turned her head not to answer the leading questions; nothing she could say would be correct. "Kimberley…President Mitchell has no idea what you are planning, does he?" Her voice gaining a slight bit of conviction. "You are going to betray him…aren't you?"
A realization finally dawned upon Rinoa, one that could now be her only salvation. "She doesn't love him…and everything she is doing is to become…me? Who I used to be? Kimberley, Lauren…they both look like... Oh my god, his weakness is…me."
The radio remained silent as Zell spoke with a forceful whisper into the microphone. He felt someone slap the back of his head. "Ouch… What the hell Seifer?"
"Look moron, he is in a room full of people. Radio silence is exactly that…radio and silence. Do you need a dictionary?"
Zell rolled his eyes, wanting to come back with some clever retort, except for the fact that Seifer was right. Pride alone would never let him admit that to his adversary though. Leaning his head against the wall, Zell squatted to the floor in defeat. "Squall, I understand you can't respond. Just wanted to let you know, we're now inside the Palace. We also have some high-powered weaponry, courtesy of two guards now serving the useful purpose of letting pigeons roust on them. Alex was able to use a stop spell and… Ouch!?"
Seifer leaned down taking the communicator out of his hand. "Zell, I know you want to tell about your girlfriend's little accomplishment, but leave out the life story. Simple, make it simple…trust me, the commander is only going to pick-up on half of what you say. He has one person on his mind right now, and it isn't you. Lesson number one…make it short."
"Squall, it's Seifer. We're in, anti-magic field still down, heading to second floor - she's most likely in his office." Seifer heard a forged cough sounding from the other end. It was the commander's way of acknowledging the message. All were relieved to know that the earpiece hidden in Squall's cufflink was operational, and not confiscated by Galbadian security. Seifer handed back the radio back to the martial artist, offering a reassuring grin.
"Look Zell, I know you don't like me and I don't blame you one bit. Heck, I don't like me too much either, but trust me when I tell you…I want us all to get out of here - that includes you. So no matter what you think, there is nobody I would rather have fighting beside me than you guys."
Behind them, Alexandra and Quistis exchanged looks, although it was a very uncomfortable situation for both. Somehow, they all believed in each other right now, no matter what had happened in the past. Personal issues were set aside, and friends could fight next to enemies for the greater good.
Knowing the history of the two men, Quistis expected no response from Zell. She knew the feuding and degradation extended well past two decades. She was shocked, and truly humbled, to see that the martial artist placed a hand on Seifer's shoulder saying the words, "You too man." It wasn't the world's most poetic moment, or one that history would remember, but for the first time she saw two long-time rivals make amends. Sometimes it was the little things in Quistis Trepe's life that kept her going…hope, faith, and knowing that now and again good does win…even when the cards are stacked against it.
"Guys, I really think we need to get out of here." Alex looked through a crack in the door, seeing the reflection of the steel and blue uniforms outside. She didn't dare speak another word as the figures moved closer to their position. Pointing, she motioned to a door on the opposite side of the room; it was obvious they weren't going to get out the same way they came in.
The four hurried through the length of the room. By its looks, the room was used for teaching purposes, as several desks and chairs were scattered about. They headed toward the exit and Quistis noticed a micro-tape recorder. She remembered many of her students using them over past years to tape various lectures. She ran back after to the device after originally passing it. Verifying it had a cassette within, she then placed it into her pocket. The instructor wasn't sure of what made her see the recorder, nor why she would risk the precious seconds to reach it; yet she found herself drawn to it like a magnet. She hurried back to the others who were standing at the doorway.
"It's locked." Zell pointed toward the door in disgust. "Now what? Seems like our rescue operation isn't working out quite like planned."
"Look," replied Quistis calmly. "Remember the blueprints? According to them, this is another way up to Mitchell's office."
Seifer shook his head. "No, this door wasn't on the plans." He pointed across the room, to a corner another exit. "That one was."
"So what the hell is this one?" snapped the martial artist. "I'm guessing that with my luck, it's the janitorial closet. Before we turn the next guards to stone, let's take their uniforms so we can walk around a little more freely. Trust me, it worked last time at the missile base."
"Thanks chicken-wuss we could have used your input ten minutes ago." Seifer scratched his head looking at Quistis and Zell. "Always wondered how you guys managed to get those outfits…that was pretty impressive."
Without looking at one another, the two SeeDs replied in unison, "Selphie."
"Guys…" Alex pulled on the arm of Seifer's coat. "I know you were headed down memory lane again, but let's get moving. I think they're coming in."
"Stand back," ordered Seifer. "Give me a sec."
The outer door to the room started to open slowly, and voices could be heard on the other side. "C'mon." Seifer picked the lock, pushing the three inside. He made sure they were safely on the other side before following.
"Impressive." Quistis raised an eyebrow as the man was herding her into the dark room. "I suppose I don't want to know where you picked up that useful trade."
"Not really," answered Seifer as he locked the door behind. "This seems to be a hallway, come on…don't think we are going back out that way."
Out of his trench coat pocket, Seifer pulled a small flashlight. He used the beam to guide them down the rest of the corridor. No light sifted through cracks on the walls, and the hall seemed to be carved of stone, with wooden supports offering extra protection. It was apparent it had not been traversed in some time, as Quistis walked in front removing cobwebs from their path.
"What is this?" Alex asked while holding closely onto Zell's arm. "Why have a passage like this in the Palace?"
"They are all over Deling." Quistis answered never missing a step or slowing down in the darkened way. She walked next to Seifer holding his hand, as the other removed the years of neglect from their way. She could have let his hand go, but somehow she felt reassurance in his presence. And truth be told, she was never fond of the dark…not that she would admit that weakness to another living soul. Yet today, she was finding strength like she had never known before. "When the city was originally built, it was on a labyrinth of sewers and channels. The founding fathers had plans for a subway system installed within the tunnels, but construction was halted during the First Sorceress War. Then the passages were used as bomb shelters and ways to transport illicit goods. Not positive how they came in individual buildings, there was also an entrance in Caraway's mansion. My guess is that most of the larger structures are connected."
"Now they just remain a catacomb system, and many of the city's vagrants live within the bowels they create. For many it is where they are born, where they live, and where they die," added Seifer.
He could feel Quistis' eyes upon him, and he momentary flashed the light in her direction, making her blue eyes reflect like that of a cat within the darkness. "Yes, I said I spent time underground…and I mean it literally. Where else would we have to go? But don't worry, this isn't part of the normal tour. I'm guessing the Palace is blockaded from the rest of the city. Mitchell isn't stupid, and neither was Vinzer Deling, they knew about these. So wherever we end up, it should still be within the Palace and…"
His words where cut short when he fell forward onto a set of stairs leading upward. He hit the unexpected structure with a thud, and dropped the flashlight. Reaching down to pick it up he shined it behind him, looking at his companions' startled faces. "Guess, I should have been paying more attention, huh?"
Shaking her head, Alex winced at the contrast in illumination. She buried her head into Zell's shoulder. "You know, I'm not sure how you manage to get anything done. I've been around SeeDs for five days, and wonder how you guys made it through basic training."
She could feel her companion tense up at her words. "Hey Alex," replied the martial artist, trying to remain as sensitive as possible. "You must understand…this is what we do. I know to you it seems like we are bickering, and to a point we are. But make no mistake, when it comes to the job at hand…we will succeed. I haven't had this feeling in two years. While I don't like Seifer, I even admit it is more than welcome relief to fall back into old patterns."
In the darkness, Quistis could feel a strong arm encircling her waist. She gave into her weakness, placing her head on Seifer's shoulder. "Alexandra, you have no reason to listen to me, or to believe me. Not one of us has forgotten the seriousness of this mission. Never once has Mitchell left our thoughts, and the living hell that Rinoa is facing. I swear we will get her back."
The four continued in silence up the circular, winding stairway. They reached another locked door at the landing, and Seifer once again used his lock picking expertise on it. With only the small beam from the flashlight, the task became increasingly more difficult.
He fumbled around until finally hearing the click of the inner lock giving way. Seifer opened the door slowly, checking for guards on the other side. When he was sure that the room was clear, he opened the door. His eyes widened in disbelief and the only words he could mutter were, "Oh my God…"
That double-headed monster
~ Chapter Thirty-Seven: Fight ~
Behind him, he heard two male voices discussing whether Caraway would have the audacity to show up at the execution. He sincerely hoped that wherever the General's spirit was, it was far away from this moment in time. The general public had no idea of his gruesome murder, still speaking as if Caraway committed treason against Galbadia.
People entering the room noticed the commander sitting by himself. Some looked upon him with disgust, others with shock, and a few with pity…he hated the latter the most. Squall didn't want pity from one person…it sickened him. Now he understood how Rinoa felt every time she heard the phrase 'I'm sorry' from his mouth. The words were empty and without meaning to her, just like every syllable out of the mouths of these people were to him.
Waiting was the hardest part, knowing he just had to sit there…and bid his time. He knew his part was vital, the simple act of distracting Mitchell, and he would do his job. Even if his role wouldn't be the hero's one today, he didn't care who physically saved her…as long as she was safe. Whatever he did was for her, and God forbid, if she did get this far into the room. He wouldn't sit idly by as they killed an innocent human being, even if it meant death for him. He wouldn't let her leave without as so much as a fight…
Squall thought he heard static on the earpiece, but it faded out before he could determine if it was his comrades. The reception had been crystal-clear earlier, and he figured the last to be some sort of interference. He cracked his knuckles as a small distraction, while his eyes seemed to be transfixed on the stage before him.
A small commotion drew his attention, as he saw half-a-dozen guards appeared from side doorway. From behind the men, the Lucifer himself emerged. President Mitchell pushed his way through his the soldiers, seemingly scanning the crowd with uneasiness about him, one that the commander easily sensed. Their eyes locked, like that of a lion with its kill. At that moment, there were only two enemies in the room and Squall had never felt such unadulterated hate.
Mitchell started walking forward. His anger was evident, kicking a folding chair to the side. When the metal landed with a crash, all the people in the room became aware of the President's arrival. Scattered applause and cheers turned into full-blown congratulations. Jefferson Mitchell, knowing that the most import dignitaries were watching him, immediately changed his expression like an emotional chameleon. He gave a triumphant wave and smile to the crowd, as they gave him a standing ovation. All but one person stood… he wouldn't degrade himself further by honoring that man, Squall knew better.
And soon, so would the entire world…
For a minute, he wondered if the anti-magic barrier was still disabled. He could just summon Bahamut and use mega-flare on this entire place, incinerating the room and all its inhabitants to the ground. Then it hit him…why? Why was the anti-magic barrier down? Mitchell would not be stupid enough to leave it down on accident, something didn't feel right with that fact. He defiantly glared at the President as he hoodwinked the entire world population, with his double-talking speeches and empty promises.
Momentarily, the commander lost visual contact when someone walked between him and the podium. He had reveled in the simple fact that earlier no one dared sit near him. Right now, he was still not in the mood for small talk or any talk for that matter. Fortunately, the person remained silent taking the chair next to his and Squall didn't acknowledge the man's presence.
This time he could definitely make out Zell's voice, and deciphered the alarm in his tone - something was wrong. He felt an uneasy, sickening sensation enter his body; he needed out of here…now. Magic, could he really use his spells? He couldn't help worrying about anti-magic barrier, and kept trying to think of any logical reason for it to be disarmed. The commander tapped on the earpiece, as he scanned the exits. There seemed to be guards stationed at every door, and every one had their sights on him.
"…will not be public…transfer power…field."
This time the words came in with more clarity, and then it hit him. Of course, they couldn't have the anti-magic field up when she transferred the embodiment. They weren't going to execute her publicly, that was just a ploy…it would be too dangerous. This way, in a restricted setting, they could control her actions and to whom she passed her powers. In this setting, she could have passed them to any female. Galbadia never intended to have it broadcast live…they were going to kill Rinoa before she ever reached this room.
Squall knew that her minutes were numbered, and by far less than he thought, if he wasn't already too late. He had to get out of here, he had to go find her…and right now he was severely out numbered. By the tone of Zell's message, they were in no position to help. He closed his eyes at another failure, his inability to foresee this move. Now he wished that he had marched in with an army of SeeDs, but at what cost…their lives for hers? No matter how he looked at it, Squall Leonhart was going to fail again.
He heard Quistis' voice this time, echoing through his receiver, but figured he had misunderstood the cry. That was until an explosion shook the room, and white smoke billowed in from the southern doors. He stood quickly, as everyone in the room began to scream with panic. He felt someone grab his shoulder, and pushed the hand off him forcefully. Again, someone tried to get his attention, and in his frustration, he turned angrily to the source of the annoyance.
"Get the fu--" He was shocked when he saw whom he was dealing with, as the man handed him a gasmask. Without hesitating, he covered his face as the other person mirrored his action. Both kneeled down to the ground avoiding detection. When the guards left their post, the man tugged at Squall's jacket signaling to the north door.
He wanted to say something, he wanted to thank him, but instead the commander just nodded, and then he began crawling across the smoke-filled room. As an afterthought he turned around to the man, the words echoed in the hollowness of the mask.
"Ward, tell my father thank you."
Framed newspaper articles lined the sidewalls, while the far wall seemed to contain various paintings and sketches. A large, oil-based portrait of Rinoa hung over as a centerpiece, and fresh white roses adorned the sides…draping the frame as if an arrangement found at a funeral service.
"You know Quistis, when I first joked about Squall having a shrine to Rinoa, I was just kidding. This is…" Seifer trailed at his own words, as the appalling reality of the fetish sank in.
"Disturbing," whispered the instructor, a coldness contained in her voice.
"Yeah, that is one word for it," replied Zell, still in obvious shock. "I can think of a few others…psychotic, obsessive, demented, and just plain…sicko."
Seifer walked to the altar, where a perfect replica of Lionheart lay cradled in an ornately carved holder. He ran a finger along the gunblade handle, checking the quality of the craftsmanship. To his disbelief, it seemed to be not only a detailed replica, but also a duplicate down to its ability to fire off live rounds. He glanced beside the weapon, seeing a series of pictures containing Rinoa and Squall. From their appearance, they seemed to be taken before she went into hiding, during her three years at Garden. The commander's head had been cut out in some, while scratched off in others. Fingernail marks left white trails over the pictures, almost appearing to be the claw marks of a beast…but not one smudge mangled the image of Rinoa.
On either side of the main portrait were two tables, each clothed in identical velvet as the altar. Candles covered the back portions, and various mementos were placed closer to the front. Seifer reached down picking up a delicate wine-goblet, on the rim was the distinct imprint of a dark shade of lipstick. He spun the tumbler around, looking through as the room distorted in the clear glass. Trying to imagine how deranged the President truly was, Seifer grasped that for two decades Mitchell's lunacy had been kept shadowed within the realm of sanity…all in the name of power. Setting the chalice back, he moved down the table examining other of its illicit contents. The collection contained more than any human would have found sane: photocopied birth certificate, hair-cuttings, undergarments, pressed-flowers, and hundreds of other ill-gotten keepsakes.
Quistis wrapped her arms around herself, as a cold chill ran down her spine. There was something so sadistic about this place it made her skin crawl. She gathered enough wits about her to walk over glancing at a section of the wall. She stared at what appeared to be the earliest grouping of photographs; they contained many of Rinoa's baby-pictures and toddler years. From photos of Julia leaving the hospital, to pictures of mother and daughter flying a kite in the park, each seemingly everyday events…all embossed on film. Now they formed a neurotic mural of a madman, paying tribute to every rite-of-passage in Rinoa Heartilly's life.
"So…now we know that he has 'a little thing' for Rinoa," Seifer replied sarcastically, trying to hide how uneasy he genuinely felt.
Moving around the darkened room, Alex quickly examined the different groupings of pictures ending at the section put up most recently. All the photos had been taken after Rinoa and Allison's return to Garden…including some of Rinoa in Deling. Several security video stills had been printed out, as all times on the lower corners dated within the last twelve hours. The newer ones contained pictures of her sleeping on the prison floor, and a series Mitchell forcing himself upon her…kissing her lips and placing his hands in far too personal areas. Alexandra could tell it was not by any choice of Rinoa's, the panic and confusion in her friend's expression said it all. She was glad to see there were no other pictures depicting anything more intimate…but these were ghastly enough. She was only glad that Squall was not here to see them…
She walked a few steps further, examining the next cluster. These were the ones taken at Balamb Garden, containing several snapshots of Allison as Rinoa held her tightly. Thinking back, Alex figured that Lauren had more than one opportunity to take pictures without anyone taking special notice. The one that her eyes fixated upon was a close-up of Allison smiling innocently for the camera. It must have been taken right before Mitchell's attack, and subsequent capturing of his dear sorceress.
Alexandra closed her eyes in guilt, remembering how she and Zell had left the toddler with Lauren, feeling foolish for falling for such trickery. If they had just taken Allison to the office with them two days ago, Rinoa would have never been forced to make such a choice…this would have never happened. She wanted to look away, but the pain was overwhelming and she could only focus on one defining detail… The eyes of Allison staring back at her, the eyes that would haunt her forever if Rinoa didn't survive this ordeal. Alex finally had to look away, covering her head with her hands. And as the darkness took over…the image of those eyes was all she could see…
"Alex, put that psychology minor to good use…tell us how does a fifty year old man become obsessed with a twenty-two year old…from birth?"
The sound of Zell's voice made her force herself to confront the lair in which she was standing. Looking toward him, she noticed he was holding a picture drawn by a child of a boat sailing on the ocean waves. As he flipped it over, his expression showed a lack of surprise noticing a certain name written on the back.
"It's by Rinoa, dated seventeen years ago."
Alexandra thought for a moment, and then headed back over to the first montage of photos, the ones that were the oldest in age. And then it hit her…
"Because," answered Alexandra, as she looked at the group from the hospital. "The baby isn't the focal point of these pictures. It wasn't Rinoa at first…it was her mother." She pointed to the photographs, emphasizing that Julia was the central figure in every one of them. "General Caraway isn't in any of them. His fascination started with Julia…and passed onto Rinoa after her death. The fact she is a sorceress isn't the reason he wants her…that just made the excuse convenient."
Seifer digested the idea, for in a pathetic way that theory made sense. If you can't have the mother, you take the daughter…the obsession just grew beyond all rational boundaries. "So what does this mean?" Picking up a framed photograph of Squall and Rinoa, he noticed that Mitchell had cut out his head from another photo, placing it over the commander's. Rinoa stood in a sequined evening dress, as the mismatched figure next to her stood in formal SeeD uniform…with Jefferson Mitchell's head. Showing the bizarre picture to Quistis he commented, "This just…isn't right."
"No…this is beyond wrong. But it is a weakness, and it may be a way to distract him." Quistis took the frame from Seifer's hand, placing it facedown on one of the tables.
"Squall was right about one thing, that the attack wasn't to kill Rinoa two years ago…it was to kill…Squall." Zell held up a hand-written letter to show the instructor, it outlined a few details of the attack, and then the words 'die Leonhart' filling up the remainder of the page.
"But then when Rinoa ran, he needed Squall alive. He might have been the only way to get her out of hiding." Quistis hid her eyes as the words escaped her mouth. She shuffled through a stack of pictures on the table, coming across one taken on her wedding day. President Mitchell had been there, he had taken pictures of her and Squall standing in front of the small gathering. She choked back a sob when she saw the photo. "Oh Hyne…what have I done?"
Seifer took it from her hand, placing it back into the middle of the pile. "Well, right now I would say if anything…you bought Squall some time. Just don't think about that right now, let's get Rinoa and get the hell out of here."
"So if he can't have her nobody can." Alex looked transfixed by the large portrait centered in the room. "He knows she will never love him…so killing her is his way of getting her back for the pain, he'll take a sadistic pleasure out of her suffering. The power of controlling a sorceress will be a fringe benefit of his obsession."
"So," the martial artist asked in confusion. "Does he want Rinoa or Julia?"
"Both…the lines became blurred long ago to him, so they are the same person in his mind. It started with the mother, but transferred onto the child… If I would have to guess, from his level of psychosis, he wouldn't know one from the other if confronted directly about the subject. But if he can differentiate between mother and daughter, since his fixation started with Julia she may have the stronger influence on him."
"Oh my God," Quistis held a piece of paper scanning it thoroughly. "If I'm reading this shorthand correctly, this is a summary of how to transfer the powers. According to this, Mitchell is planning to kill her in his office."
"Wait, one of the technicians set up a camera at another location when we got here. It was my understanding that he would address the nation from there after the ceremony…"
Seifer looked at the group in realization. "No, they are going to kill her there…and have a tape to broadcast later. That is why the magic barrier is down right now….they can't do the transfer with it up. Mitchell won't chance killing her in public… If what Alex said is true, he'll want this to be an intimate thing… His views of passion are blurred…it will be him, Rinoa, and whoever is inheriting the embodiment. It's the ultimate form of control…killing his obsession; it is both a revenge and pleasure for him. Zell get on the radio and tell Squall what we found…now."
"Commander, we found some sort of shrine Mitchell has to Rinoa, she will be dead before the scheduled execution… Hurry to his office! Get out of there now, she has no time!"
"Guys, I can't seem to get a steady signal… Think there is some kind of interference from this location. I have no idea if he is receiving anything; the other end is just dead air."
"Give it a sec and try again. Zell just stay calm," answered Seifer, as he studied the paper with the shorthand scribbled over it. "Why is it the bad guys always outline their plans?"
"Because they like to think themselves invulnerable…they think they can outsmart anyone with their intelligence…it's that show of emotion, that pride that usually gets them caught."
"Thanks Alex, although it was a rhetorical question… Zell try again."
"Commander the execution will not be public; they are going to transfer her powers before they enact the magic field. Please Squall…please get this message."
When Zell finished the short broadcast, a commotion was heard from outside the other exit door.
"We have to get out of this place; Rinoa might not have much time left. I'm guessing that on the other side is Mitchell's office or personal bedroom…he would want to be close to his temple." Alex nodded toward the lone visible door. The one from which they had emerged was hidden within the vast montage, as many of the secret-passages were hidden to onlookers. Mitchell had concealed its existence well with photographs, so to the visible eye it was just a wall covered in an unholy shrine.
"Well, I say we run in full force and see what's behind door number two." Seifer's comment came out a little more enthusiastic than it meant to be.
"No," disagreed Quistis, more level headed than her counterpart. "If we do that we risk all of us being captured. I say we break off into two groups."
Alex moved toward the visible door, placing her palm against the cool wood. A deep-cutting sensation ran through her abdomen, and she quickly grabbed her stomach. Her vision blurred for a moment as a flash of Rinoa entered her mind. "It doesn't matter; she isn't in there…yet." The others turned to her with looks of utter confusion.
"And since when has x-ray vision been among your unique, yet freaky, skills?" Seifer queried, raising an eyebrow in her general direction.
"Don't ask, I just can feel she's not in there yet…call it a hunch. She will be though…it's a matter of time." She removed her hand from her midriff, looking down at the same time, and for a second she thought her hand covered in dripping blood. When she blinked the hallucination quickly faded, and her palm was free of any stains. A chill ran through her, as she prayed to Hyne this wasn't an indication of foreboding, but she couldn't shake that awareness.
Before Alex had time to reflect any further on the incident, she felt a sting slowly start radiating from her upper-neck. Falling to her knees, the pain took over her entire head. Zell ran over, placing his hands on her back for support, the scene looked eerily familiar…but that would be an impossibility. Unlike their encounters in the past, Alexandra retained consciousness during what appeared to be all too familiar. Removing her hands from her temples, she spoke the single word 'Esthar.' The tone seemed to be almost inhuman, not of her voice. She looked around for a second before regaining equanimity, and then repeated the word in a more hurried tone.
"What?" Zell looked with concern, aiding her to her feet. "Alex what are you saying?"
Before she could clarify, a loud explosion shook the foundation of the Palace. They could hear the muffled cries coming from the hallway, and what appeared to be the low engine-roar of jets flying above. "Esthar's attacking; we have to get out of this room immediately!" She stumbled toward the veiled entrance, not to the one leading to what they supposed was Mitchell's office. "Inform Squall that it is Esthar, they are here to help."
Quistis grabbed the communication radio from Zell's belt, as he continued helping Alexandra toward the exit. "Squall…it is Esthar! Repeat that is Esthar outside!"
They made it through the door, closing it securely before anyone could detect their presence. Standing in the pitch black room on the other side, the yells inside the Palace were almost completely masked within the confines, and the stale air of many years filled their senses.
"Did he copy?" Seifer asked, placing his arms around Quistis' waist and pulling her tightly to his body.
"I don't know… Why did we come back in here?" She kept her eyes open, although it truly made no difference in the abyss, looking in the general direction she believed the other couple to be standing in.
"Because they will be in there soon." Alexandra's whisper cut through the darkness.
"Did you go to the past?" Zell questioned, still supporting most of her weight.
"…No, I went to the future."
"Um…Ellone can't do that."
"She can now." He felt Alex shiver through her statement, there was something she was holding back. He could sense it.
Rinoa snapped out of her trance as the older woman spoke, their brown eyes locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse. "What do you mean? I thought that this was going to be televised? So the fair citizens of Deling, and the world, could get the immense satisfaction of watching me suffer at the President's hands."
"Sadly, no… Oh don't worry we won't deprive them of the satisfaction; it just won't be a live telecast. But watching a tape can be just as gratifying, huh?"
"Yeah, sure… You guys aren't going to chance having the execution in the open, are you…is someone afraid?"
"Never!" Kimberley hit the desk with her hand, sending a hollow echo through the room. "We are not afraid of anything…I am not afraid of anything, especially something as pitiful as you."
"I never said it was me you are scared of," Rinoa answered smugly, short yet to the point.
The older woman never had a chance to respond as an explosion rocked the lower level, sending a tremor throughout the entire foundation. Kimberley quickly secured handcuffs around Rinoa's wrist, trying not to show any outward fear. "Don't even think of it dear…it's just a precaution. The injections should hamper your magic casting, but we like to err on the side of caution. A little extra insurance never hurt anyone."
Two guards quickly entered the room, positioning themselves on either side of the doorframe. "We're under attack and are under orders to get the sorceress up to the chambers immediately, so the transference can take place."
"Damn it all!" Kimberley angrily pulled Rinoa by her tender shoulder, seeming to get some sort of demented pleasure out of watching the younger girl suffer. She walked in the lead, clearly aggregated by the guards, acting as if they had been responsible for the unplanned change. They quickly followed her out into the main hallway, but always staying a few steps behind.
"Don't tell me that fucking Leonhart and SeeD are behind this?" She demanded, never breaking stride and dragging her hostage along at a rapid pace.
"Initial reports indicate that Esthar is responsible for the attack."
"Esthar!? What brilliant minds didn't consider the possibility of them striking first? What do you guys do all day, plan strategy and counterattacks probability, or stick your hands up your asses?"
"President Mitchell never figured Esthar would risk getting involved. It's political suicide."
"This country is run by imbeciles," snarled Kimberly as they headed up a circular staircase.
When they reached the second floor, they found themselves in a smaller corridor before it merged into a larger passage. Guards were running in every direction, and several uniformed officials stopped only to stare as the sorceress was being escorted by. Even during the attack, they had to look…it was like going by a car wreck, with Rinoa being the fatality. In the distance, the captive woman caught sight of a mirror positioned at the end of the walkway. Somehow, in all the confusion, the reflection of herself seemed to call to her. As they grew closer, she continued to ignore all the commotion around her, fixated only upon her image.
Kimberley pulled out a key, unlocking a nearby door. When it opened, she dragged her prisoner into the room. But before Rinoa was hauled inside, she swore the image in the mirror morphed into the appearance of another. At first, she thought it was a side effect of the drugs coursing through her body, but she couldn't shake the feeling…the feeling of seeing the dead walk. The image in the mirror was not her own in the last few seconds; it was Ellone…
Scattered clouds of smoke in the hall vaguely reminded him of the misty covered mornings of his youth. How many times he had looked out into the plains of Balamb, to be greeted with the familiar covering rolling off the ocean. Right now, he could hear people running and yelling all around, yet nobody seemed to notice as he passed by. He thought it strange, but under the circumstances, he didn't have the time to worry about what they weren't doing - only what they were. He was just thankful for the small miracle; maybe something was going to go right… Hell, that would be too much to ask.
He made his way to where he knew the stairwell to be, but as he rounded the corner, it wasn't there. In the confusion, he must have missed a turn, and he inwardly cursed himself…so much for good luck. As he was about to retrace his steps, he saw a shadowy figure standing in the distance. When he moved closer, a certain familiarity surrounded the person, one he couldn't put a finger on. Watching the being move smoothly along, he didn't even know when his legs started running toward it. Everything a blur in his mind, he didn't even know what part of his consciousness was controlling his actions. The figure almost seemed to fade in-and-out of the smoke, and at other times it seemed almost transparent.
"Wait!" he called aloud, although the attempt in the mask was a little more than futile. He turned another corner, and for a moment froze in place. The gas must have been seeping through his mask, and making him delusional.
That was his only logical explanation.
"Ellone?" the commander gasped, unsure of his breath. "No, no…it can't be." Their eyes meet for the briefest of seconds, and in his heart he was certain. The apparition seemed to weaken as he neared, but he could make out the figure slowly enter a nearby room. He hurried following the path, no longer counting on his ability to reason. Opening the door, he wasn't shocked to see that she wasn't on the other side… Someone was there, just not who his mind was hoping. Instead, a lone Galbadian soldier leaned against the wall, looking startled as the door flew open.
"Shit," he mumbled realizing that he didn't have a weapon on his person. This was going from bad to worse… Before he had time to react, or come up with a spur-of-the-moment plan, he was more than shaken when the soldier identified him by name.
Moving slightly forward, he tried to focus on the uniformed man. Gas from the attack had stung his eyes momentarily blurring his vision…gas and the emotion that the commander felt when he had followed 'his imagination' into the room.
"Who is there?" His voice sounded hollow and apprehensive through the mask. The soldier took of his helmet, but his protective mask remained on, covering his nose and mouth. "Kiros?"
"Good to see you made it this far," spoke the man sincerely. "Laguna will be pleased."
"Yeah, but this will all be in vain if I don't save her." Squall walked over to his father's aid, a sudden fear striking him. "Tell me that Laguna isn't here…please."
The older man saw a tinge of compassion coming from the person questioning him. In all his years knowing Squall, he had never seen him show any concern about his father's well-being. It was a strange comfort for Kiros to witness this moment, many years all coming to a dramatic conclusion in one simple statement. Maybe, just maybe…Laguna finally had done something that his son would accept…
"No Squall, he didn't come. Don't get me wrong, he wanted to more than you could possibly imagine. But he knew that if you didn't make it…well he had made you a promise. By the Gods, he wasn't going to break it."
That simple, he understood. He had been faced with the same situation, yet he couldn't keep his promise to Rinoa. He had to go after her, he had to try. The simple act of staying in Esthar did more for Laguna than twenty-two years of regret, more than five years of trying to make things right between them.
"If something happens to me, to Rinoa. Please, make sure that Allison…make sure that Allison grows up safe and loved."
"I will Squall, I promise."
Laguna Loire had promised something to his son, and he meant it. For the first time, Squall Leonhart was proud to have such a man as his father.
"Squall, listen he really wanted…"
"I know," the commander cut off his friend, knowing that he had misinterpreted the silence. "Kiros, I know."
Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye made Squall look away. He again swore he saw something…something that he wasn't really willing to admit to anyone, let alone himself. He pointed toward a door, the direction of which the motion had come that had attracted his attention.
"What's behind that door?"
"I don't know Squall, it doesn't appear on our maps, and it can't be of much importance. This area is used for daily briefing of Palace security. I only came in here to get away from the rest of the chaos out there. I needed a moment to collect my thoughts and contact the others. It may look like Esthar dispatched a large group of soldiers, but it's really just a carefully timed series of explosions. Most of our units are outside, basically these people are chasing ghosts."
"What!?" The tone was harsher than Squall meant it to be, but after the last few minutes…nothing was as it appeared.
"We only had time to gather a few planes and supplies. Esthar wasn't prepared for a large-scale strike…nor did we want to risk your lives in the process."
"I'm sorry, I know…thank you."
Squall moved walking toward the door and Kiros followed his lead. Opening it, the commander looked into a dark corridor. There was stillness in the air, and he felt a familiar chill run though his body.
"You have a flashlight?"
Kiros handed him the helmet he was holding in his hand. "The Galbadians are nothing if efficient. There is a built in flashlight feature in the uniform."
Squall took the helmet, sliding a small switch on the left side. Kiros was right, this was a clever idea…chalk one up for Mitchell. It made a small beam, not nearly as bright as the hardhat of a miner, but followed the same basic principle. In all his recent years of traveling to Deling, this small detail in their dress had eluded him.
"I'm going in." The commander's statement wasn't a request, wasn't a question, it was a certainty. Something was leading him down this path, and right now who was he to question all the things that happened in the last few days? Things he couldn't explain, things he left up to fate or destiny…or whoever was in control.
"Kiros, are you coming?"
"No, I have to go back. Take the helmet Squall…I'll take my chances."
"Thank you." A brief salute passed between the two, but no other formalities in the goodbye… Squall hated goodbyes, and wasn't going to face the very real possibility that this may be the end…for one or both of them. In the last two days, he had said enough goodbye's for a lifetime…or more.
"Soon," replied Alexandra. "He will be here soon."
"Who…Mitchell?" Zell asked, wondering exactly why they were waiting for so long.
A light suddenly cut through the darkness like a knife, everyone jumped in apprehension with the exception of Alex. "No, him."
"Who the Diablo's is 'him'?" Seifer demanded as both he and Quistis raised their guns into the blackness toward the stream of light.
"Squall?" Alex called out into obscurity, her voice not quite that of a yell but well above anything she had used thus far in their hiding.
The shock that someone was at the other end scared the hell out of him. Let alone that whoever it was called out his name, as if they were expecting his arrival. This day was just becoming more dreamlike, and he hated things that were beyond his comprehension. He liked facts, evidence, not going on faith alone…and whose faith he was going on was one of the questions that he feared the most.
"It's the four of us." Alexandra spoke gaining confidence. Nobody else in the dark corridor seemed to believe her statement, Quistis and Seifer never once lowered their weapons.
"Alex?" His voice came deep and unsure.
"Oh Hyne," Quistis gasped. "It is him."
"You gotta cut that shit out Alex," growled Seifer as he placed the gun down to his side. "Or at least warn us beforehand...so we don't accidentally shoot the wrong person."
"I wasn't sure myself until I saw the light…I don't know what is happening to me, but I just feel…strange. Trust me, except for the dreams, nothing like this has ever happened in the past."
"Who?" Kimberley questioned as she looked at Mitchell. "I was under the impression that Esthar is attacking."
"They are, but somebody's boyfriend is also out there."
"Leonhart? How the hell did he get in here?"
"The front gates…don't ask. The guard who let him in is now disposed of…stupid bastard."
Kimberley stood, pulling out a handgun from the desk drawer. "So fine, we kill her…just a little ahead of schedule."
~ Chapter Thirty-Eight: Rivalry ~
Love, that is all the earth to lovers-
"The front gates…don't ask. The guard who let him in is now disposed of…stupid bastard."
Kimberley stood, pulling out a handgun from the desk drawer. "So fine, we kill her…just a little ahead of schedule."
"No…Squall…no." Rinoa sighed inwardly choking back the sorrow. Even with the barrel of a loaded gun pointing toward her, all she could do was worry about him. Somehow, she had hoped that he would stay behind with Allison…she prayed he would. However, in all honesty, she knew better. They shared too much to think he would let her fade quickly into the night.
Even the final moments before surrendering at Garden to Mitchell, she whispered a plea into Seifer's ear. "Please try and convince him to stay. If he doesn't…well, I know his nature. Watch his back for me." Amid the confusion of those moments, Rinoa had passed the Griever ring carefully in Seifer's palm; the exchange eluded all at the time. Their thoughts focused on the emotion written upon her face, never watching her sleight of hand.
In that fated second, she couldn't return the ring to Squall. She knew he would want her to keep on her person, to die clasping it if need be… To draw upon it for strength, one piece of him she could carry physically on her body, not just within her heart.
But Seifer…he could understand the nonverbal request. Keeping the return a secret to the one person who would be most wounded. To the commander it might have been construed as an act of surrender, admitting defeat for a war not yet waged. That evening Seifer placed Griever back onto the chain it had been bonded to for so long; both rings once again reunited, now left thousands of kilometers behind this chilling scene. Silently he placed the pair within the container of memories entrusted to Selphie, a box for only Allison to open if the worst came to pass.
She sat silently waiting for the fatal shot to cry out, to finally end the evil game in which she had been a pawn. But to her surprise, Mitchell stopped the well-dressed woman from firing.
"Don't, as much as I would like to…we have to do this according 'to script.' The only way for those Galbadian idiots to follow us blindly, is by thinking we are doing this for their benefit. You might gain the embodiment by shooting her, but without their dedication it could be a tougher road ahead…"
"So what? She really has to be dressed in a ridiculous white robe? That is probably the lamest tradition I have ever heard… Aim gun, pull trigger…simple. I watch you do it everyday, why is it so different now?"
"Because the citizens have to actually believe we are doing this for good…their good, their salvation. According to the accepted rites of their religious beliefs, she must be clothed in white robes to regain the purity of her soul. Or some other shit like that."
"Fine we shoot first, and then dress her in the robes. I'm sure the average Deling citizen is too idiotic to notice if they are watching a live person being executed. It's recorded damn it, we could have a freakin' chocobo dressed up in white robes and they couldn't tell the difference. We just say that we have sedated her….very heavily and that is why she looks so lethargic. Tell them the almightily Hyne came down and commanded us to kill her now!"
"Are you doubting me!?" If there was one thing that could truly infuriate Jefferson Mitchell, was when another human doubted his word. For in his mind, he could never be wrong…the very notion that someone questioned him, would send him into a tyrannical rage that often had grave consequences to all around. Not one person under his command dared to contradict his decisions. He felt blood coursing through his veins, shaking in anger he violently hurled the computer monitor onto the floor. It landed with startling force, as glass shattered into pieces. "Nobody and I mean nobody, ever doubts me, especially some overpaid bitch!"
"A bitch that is going to inherit the power you desire. Your arrogance is going to be your downfall if you wait any longer, you will give Leonhart the opportunity he needs. I'm the only one in the room that is not going to be slain, and is female…at least last time I checked." She gave him an evil grin looking him up and down, adding to his anger. "I'm the only one who can receive the embodiment. So, I believe I'm now calling all the shots."
Rinoa could sense the separation between the conspirators, one she hadn't detected before. It was small but if given the proper coaxing, the tear could eventually rip the alliance to shreds. Kimberley was nervous about keeping Rinoa alive, not only because of Squall loose on the premises, but also the influence she would have on Mitchell. The mistake would mean her life if he changed alliances… Rinoa already knew that the woman was planning to betray him once the powers were transferred.
In her mind, this would be dancing with Lucifer himself, and once she accepted the dance how far would she go? It was a thought that she feared, but one she forced to the back of her mind as she played the only card she had left…her.
The air in the passageway seemed to have gone up by several degrees as they waited among the shadows. No one had spoken, only waited for some word or sign from Alex that had not yet come. Although five separate entities, their heavy breathing seemed to be in unison, as all knew that waiting was the hardest part.
Squall could feel the pain in his chest with every heartbeat. He wanted to run, to get her and leave this place and these people forever. His mind raced with horrid pictures of her grave, her decaying corpse judging him in utter failure. In the dark, the future always seemed to reflect death, it always had for him.
Alex placed her right hand to the door, ignoring the comments from Seifer. Although still in a pitch black room, she could sense the bright aura surrounding the entrance.
"One of us needs to go now."
"Go where?" Zell asked, saying the question the other four were only thinking.
"Someone needs to go in there; it might be the only way to save her…for now."
"I'll go." Squall's voice was barely audible, but the certainty never wavered.
"No you can't…not yet. Whoever goes will serve only as a distraction; we are not meant to go in yet."
"Okay great, now we got the Great-Alexandradini with us. What's up with you? You sound like a bad fortune teller from a telephone hotline," snarled Seifer, he was not one for riddles or games, at least when he wasn't the perpetrator.
"I…I don't know. I can see things, but I don't feel like me…it's like someone else is sharing my body… What I'm seeing…I swear it's not coming from my mind, it's like seeing the memories from my dreams…but this is the future, not the past."
"Ellone…I think Ellone is in the Palace with us. Don't ask me, just trust me on this one."
"Great now we have a psychic, a psycho, and a guy who sees dead people. Tell me again why I volunteered to hang out with you guys again?"
Quistis tapped Seifer lightly, or not so lightly, as it made a distinctive slapping sound against his torso. Even in the dark, the former knight could see the glaring instructor look in her eyes. She wasn't much one for his sarcastic moods when he got in them, which was often, that was one of the many things he learned to love about her.
"No Zell," Seifer spoke in rare, serious tone. "Look when it comes down to it, you guys need to be the ones standing in the end. The three of you basically run Balamb Garden, and if we make it through, you're going to have more than your share of cleaning up. But if I make it through…I only have four walls and a concrete floor to look forward to. If this is some kind of suicide mission, just think of it as saving the tax-payers money."
At first Quistis almost wanted to break down in tears, 'I only have four walls and a concrete floor to look forward to'. She thought maybe she meant more than that, but then she realized. He was too scared. Just like Squall would have been, too scared to admit what they feared losing most. He didn't mean his words; he was just convincing the others why he should be the one to risk his life first. Her heart seemed to skip to think of how much he had changed in just a week. Then she realized, he hadn't changed…they had. Maybe they were all a little more like him now, a little more cynical and worldly. Somewhere along the way, they found a medium, or maybe it was just the inevitability of time. Whatever it was, she hated it.
"Seifer…no." The words came out as a disparate plea, but even Quistis now admitted that Seifer was the logical choice. Understanding that reality was something her heart was not willing to do. They had just found each other, now any future could be torn from them.
"Quistis, I have to go. Plus, hey, we don't know if anything will happen, right? It could be a simple little walk in the park compared to one of your junctioning lectures."
"I don't know whether to be insulted or frightened." Her mixture of a laugh and cry tried to make light of the emotions she was feeling.
He grabbed her around the waist pulling her close. To them, they were the only two people in the room, all others faded into the vastness of space. "You know I'm coming back for you."
"I know," she whispered trying not to let fear seep through. Hundreds of missions she had gone on, thousands of men died for lesser reasons. She had always put distance between death and her students. If Squall had been right about one thing today, it would be that their emotion was either going to save them or betray them…today there would be no middle ground.
She felt a press into her side, and reached into her pocket pulling out the small cassette recorder taken from the classroom. She fumbled around the buttons a bit, but never left Seifer's arms. "Here, take this." Quistis placed the plastic object into his hand, and then slid both their hands into his coat pockets. "I found it earlier in the classroom. When you get into the altar room, press the record button. I don't know if it will help or not. Most likely, it will be destroyed…but it's worth the gamble. Just see if you can get something useable on Mitchell, or at the very least something that exonerates Rinoa."
He smiled inwardly, thinking just how levelheaded she was, even in the face of a disaster. "So what do you say that later tonight we go out for dinner? I hear that the cafeteria is serving more Jell-O and pudding?"
"Sounds like a date."
Their lips met, and their hearts beat with unmatched fear. Two people who just found each other, being pulled apart by fate and the mistakes they would have to atone Neither would say the word 'goodbye', as it was to final; neither would say 'good luck', as it was too clichéd. Neither would forget the moments that they shared between them the last few days; neither would say another word beside the simple phrase that passed between them in unison. "I love you."
For that said it all.
"I felt that my troops would be safer if I reinstated the magic field. You know me, always thinking about the welfare of my men."
"Bullshit!" The enraged woman yelled as she lowered the handgun to her side. "You know damn well that I can't shoot her when it's up."
"Why is that again dear?" The smugness in his voice could only be matched by the arrogant look on his face.
"Damn you Jefferson, she can't transfer the power properly! I'm not willing to take the chance and mess this up, for all we know she could give her power to the fucking maid."
"In theory." He countered taking a few steps closer to Rinoa. He ran his hand soothingly through her hair as if she was a dog about to be put down at the kennel. "But then again, all this is just theory isn't it? If you really want to shoot her, go for it…take the chance. I've always been a betting man, let's just see what happens if a sorceress can't transfer her power."
"You bastard, you know I won't take the chance…those powers are mine!"
"No, my powers do not belong to you Kimberley." Both of them stood in shock as Rinoa spoke up for the first time during the entire spectacle. She talked with a foreign confidence, as any suggestion of emotion was void from her face or actions. Her words thought out and precise, with only one purpose. "In my observation, the power is ultimately Jefferson's. He did all the hard work and careful planning, he was the mastermind, and you are not even willing to offer him the respect he rightfully deserves? If anyone warrants proper credit and power, it is him. Only a man of his caliber would be smart enough to fool an entire nation."
"You stupid bitch!" Kimberley screamed as she slammed the barrel of the gun into Rinoa's bloody shoulder. The surge of pain ran through the young girl, but she would not yield to it. The lies she was speaking cut deeper than the bite marks on her back.
"Don't touch her."
"What? What the hell does that mean Jefferson? You are going to listen to empty praise from a whore? I thought you a better man than that."
"I said 'don't touch her' and if you are going to call anyone a whore, I fully suggest that you take a look in a mirror…or your bank account, whichever speaks the truth louder. I believe you my dear fit the definition to a tee."
Rinoa glared at the other woman seizing the opportunity. So many times she had hidden in the grass, now it was time she would strike like the snakes slithering around her. Mitchell's weakness could be turned in her favor, and falsifying her loyalties might be the key.
"Kimberley, how could you? He gave you everything you needed, everything that any woman could ever need or want. This is how you repay your debt, by betraying his simple wishes? Think of the immense power that he was offering…him ruling and you sitting faithfully by his side. But for all his hard work you treat him like this? He doesn't deserve you. He deserves someone better. Someone who can see his vision, someone to share his dreams, and someone who would never dare question his word."
The words seemed to flow off her tongue easier than Rinoa expected, maybe it was just the adrenaline, or the simple fact this could be her only way of survival. For this to work she had to truly believe the lies she was speaking, moreover he had to believe her conviction.
The emotion didn't go unnoticed by Mitchell, quite the opposite. He seemed to almost revel in the praise, albeit surprising from his captor.
"You could take a lesson from her Kimberley darling, you must admire her sensibility and reasoning even in the most grave of circumstance."
"You are being a fool Jefferson! Don't even listen to her, she is just trying to drive us apart, you are falling blindly into her trap. Just take the goddamned barrier down, and kill her!"
Mitchell lifted his hand from Rinoa's hair, he moved until he was facing her. She seemed to have a look of indifference upon her face, before it changed to a small smile that seemed to soothe some of his anger. Somehow even with the physical alterations to Kimberley, she couldn't compete with the inner beauty of the original. Something about Julia…Rinoa…was so stunning so elegant in her simplicity.
The young sorceress looked directly through his eyes, saying words that he could have only dreamed. "You know, I tried once. I tried to take over Leonhart, but he was too weak, he could never handle the immense power. Maybe I waited around to find a man as strong as I was. If Squall had truly been worthy as a knight, he would have never doubted me, you never did. Jefferson…you knew I never killed Ellone, not that I couldn't do it on a whim, but when the others failed - you succeeded. I just want a person who believes in me, one I could share my life and power with. Strange how I knew him since the day I was born."
"Shut her up!" Kimberley shouted losing any composure she had maintained during the grotesque display unveiling before her eyes.
Rinoa stood slowly with a newfound confidence, as neither woman backed down from their stance. It was like looking in some distorted mirror, and Rinoa only seeing the inner demons of herself in the reflection. Even Kimberley's outward beauty was lost once her true nature shown through. But the young woman wasn't going to back down, she was too far into this now, too much was at stake for her, and for all intents and purposes, she could tell her lies were working.
The young sorceress' voice never raised passed a soft octave, always spoke melodiously but firmly, almost as if casting a spell. "See Jefferson, see how she talks to you. You don't deserve that, you deserve better. I could serve you better than she ever could. I will serve you better than she ever could."
The last words were the only one that she winced at silently. The simple act of serving someone as vile as the President made her skin crawl. But they were words without meaning, at least to her. She would never serve anyone, not any man, nor would anyone ever serve her as some supreme being of Hyne. She was a person, she was a soul mate, she was a mother, she was never anything more or less, and she was going to get through this one way or another…no matter the consequences.
There was a discomfited hush, as the only sounds were the resentful breaths Kimberley was trying to take. Holding the revolver in her shaking hand, it would be so elementary to pull the trigger…she didn't need either of them. Shooting Mitchell and then Rinoa would be a simple, yet believable lie… The Sorceress killed the President, and then turned on his fiancée; it was all an act of self-defense. Then she would share power with nobody, it truly would be absolute.
The door behind the desk slowly opened, and all three figures turned in shock. Rinoa's heart skipped a beat, feeling as she had been caught cheating in a deadly game. Knowing that Seifer wasn't aware of the role she was playing, she only hoped that he would catch on, and understand, before it was too late. It also occurred to her this might be her one chance of making sure that Allison was truly safe at Garden, and not within the clutches of Mitchell.
Seifer looked at the scene unfolding before him, as both women mirrored each other in looks. The thought of two Rinoa's almost made him laugh aloud, even in the dire circumstance. "Bet Squall would love to handle two of them and their unpredictable mood swings." His musings cut short when he noticed the business end of a semi-automatic weapon staring him down.
"Glad you could stop by Mr. Almasy, nice to see someone will be here to witness the execution. Suppose I should be surprised by your untimely arrival, but truthfully nothing shocks me anymore."
He called out and two of the President's personal bodyguards dashed into the office from the main doorway. They quickly ran over to the intruder, restraining him with more force than necessary. Seifer wasn't fighting, he didn't even attempt any form of struggle, only locked his eyes on Mitchell the entire time. One ripped off his trench coat, tossing it hastily to the side, as another searched his person for any weapons. They found nothing.
He wondered why Alexandra claimed it so important for only one in the group to enter the room. It seemed that they could have easily overtaken the President, Kimberley, and the two soldiers. As if fate answered his question, a small legion of soldiers appeared, painstakingly checking the room for other trespassers. Now at least he understood why only one was sent in…for human bait.
A few of the troops entered the room from where Seifer had emerged, he tried not to look nervous, but the idea of the others being captured weighed heavily on his mind. The men exited the shrine, signaling an all clear to their leader. It was evident that they had no prior knowledge of the passageway; it was also evident that the President wasn't volunteering that vital piece of information. The blond man wondered why Mitchell wouldn't have them search back there, for it would have been the most logical hiding place, but he was extremely grateful that nobody did.
Walking closer to him, the Galbadian leader lifted a single hand. The men understood the order, and started hitting Seifer repeatedly in the abdomen. He tried to mask the pain through years of training, but with each blow, his entire body became more tender and the agony harder to mask. When they finally stopped the beating, he lay kneeled as the two soldiers supported most of his weight by his shoulder blades. His eyes caught a glimpse of the broken monitor, the glass reflecting in the light. He realized that must have been the sound that echoed through to them, somehow alerting Alex to the events.
The President walked over to the fallen man, staring at him with pure revulsion. Although in reality, Mitchell had no true reason to hate the pitiful man…it was just his nature. Moreover, Seifer Almasy had been a black eye to the entire Galbadian population since that incident in the Second Sorceress War. He was a disgrace to the title of 'knight,' so wretched …so weak.
"Where the hell is Leonhart!?"
"I don't know, maybe deep-sea fishing." Seifer's smug answer nowhere reflecting the situation he was in.
"This is not a time to be joking around, do you have any idea who you are dealing with?"
"Yes…I have a good idea, can I have fries with that?"
At that comment, Mitchell rammed him over the head with the barrel, rendering him unconscious. Rinoa was silently pleading to the gods that her former boyfriend was still alive, and would say nothing further to enrage the unstable man. She had already watched her father die by his hand, losing another would be too much to bear. Thankfully, Seifer passed out before being executed; it seemed to be commonplace with anyone who crossed the President's path.
"Either of you ladies have a good idea of what to do with our little friend the Deling Cockroach here?"
"Hyne Jefferson!? What is your problem? Shoot him, shoot her…just get this bloody ordeal over with, so we can claim our place in history!"
"So, Kimberley…your vote is to shoot him right here, right now?"
"Have you completely gone insane!?"
His stomach tightened in a knot at the notion of his mental condition, nobody…nobody dared to question it and live. He took a breath, before turning toward Rinoa posing the same to her.
Rinoa realized that with his wording of the question, and the statement of voting, there would be more than one viable answer. She had to think like him, think the reasoning of a madman… She had to give a credible response, one that would save both her and Seifer, or at least buy them valuable time. With an incorrect answer, they would be nothing more than a memory and a stain on his carpet.
She closed her eyes before speaking, glad that Seifer couldn't hear her words.
"Every death should serve a purpose, what use would it be to dispose of him here? If you kill him now, the proper moral may never be served. Take him down with the other sewer rats, to have him killed among his own kind. They will learn the consequence of betraying the most powerful man in the world; show the infidels a glimpse into their own future."
The President walked over to Rinoa with a haughty grin. He placed his arm around her, and she forced herself to lean her head upon his shoulder. The mental detachment from any form of intimacy was something she had been accustom to living with Richard Bennett. Now all of the memories of those years were flooding back overtaking her senses. She could go through the motions of caring, never once meaning them. It was habit, it had become almost easy, and that scared her to death.
"You should listen to your sorceress." Mitchell motioned to his men. By the looks on their face, they were as shocked as Rinoa. She could see the uneasiness pass over their faces, but their duty kept them bound to the President. Finally, one of them stood at attention giving the man a salute.
"Now, how is that Esthar situation coming along?"
"Sir, we seem to be regaining full capacity and there are no reported causalities yet, only two missing junior officers. We believe Esthar is playing a game with smoke and mirrors, there is no legitimate threat at this time."
"The 'legitimate threat' is that they already hindered us enough to leave us behind schedule. This event should have been foreseen. Tell the press there will be a news conference in an hour discussing the 'new' status of the sorceress. Now take Mr. Almasy down to be executed among the prisoners. Make sure he is bound and gagged, make it a spectacle those lowlifes and ingrates will never forget."
He paused watching the two men begin to lift Seifer's limp body off the ground. He glanced around the room and noticed Kimberley standing quietly in the corner. The man smiled, nodding his head towards her.
"You already know, don't you? You're thinking of simply aiming your gun and pulling the trigger. Yet reason assures you will be dead before you can raise your weapon."
The woman knew that he was lost, lost within the dementia of his mind. There was no going back, there was no reasoning with him. She cursed herself for not killing Rinoa when the chance presented itself. So proud, so sure of her own importance, Kimberley knew that she would never be able to leave.
"Jefferson, I planned this from day one. It was suppose to be me assuming the throne of power. You could have never made it this far. Now you turn your back on me…for the fucking bitch we accused in the first place. You could have never done this without me…I am the one who deserves this…you are nothing. Your fate will be sealed in your ignorance."
Her voice spoke in a calm tone, as if reading the incoherent sentences from a bad script. She had already accepted her destiny. She could get in one shot if she moved quickly. Before she had the opportunity to raise her weapon, she was grabbed forcefully from behind, and tossed onto the ground like so many other criminals. As the two guards subdued her in handcuffs, the President could only laugh.
"Goodbye Kimberley, it has been fun."
"You are a fucking insane bastard." She spoke resentfully at him as they dragged her out the door. She looked back one last time, spitting towards him with all the force she could muster.
The President never wavered at the outburst, content with the one woman he longed for standing faithfully by his side. Waving a finger, he stopped the last guard before he exited the door. Casually he ordered, "Kill that one first. Don't forget to get any jewelry she's wearing, hell I paid for it all, and make sure you tape it for posterity. You never know when I'll need a good laugh."
"I don't know Zell, I just felt as if something lifted from me…now I can't sense anything. Could it be the Guardian doing this?"
"No, I don't believe so…" Zell scratched the back of his head trying to think clearly for a moment, and then suddenly closing his eyes. Concentrating he cast a simple cure spell toward Quistis. The spell quickly reflected from it destination before fizzling into nonexistence. "The magic barrier is up, whoever or whatever was helping you must be blocked."
Squall leaned against the wall, wondering how he was supposed to accept this sign. In his mind, there was a huge comfort knowing that with the barrier in place, Mitchell would most likely not kill Rinoa. Now that Alex had lost any psychic ability or connection to Ellone, they were once again on their own. He couldn't take the waiting anymore, the one thing that kept him in the shadows had now recessed back into Alexandra's mind.
"Stay here, I'm going in. Be ready as backup."
"Squall you can't!" Quistis reached her hand out, finding the thickness of his wrist. "I can't lose both you right now. We have to give Seifer a chance; I'm sure he will-"
"Will what? When this goes down, I don't want to spend my life regretting that I was doing nothing more than standing in a closet when the only person I ever loved was being brutally murdered. Quistis, I can't live life like that. I won't spend more of my life like I have the last few years. Allison deserves more from me than that…I've spent too much time watching…now I'm doing."
"Hyne be with you," her voice spoke in barely a whisper. She held on to his arm just a little longer, not wanting him to leave, as if holding him would solve everything… Return everything to how it should have been, to the future they never lived. She had already watched one person she cared about walk away, now she was watching another. She finally removed her hand, shaking slightly when the contact broke.
Zell offered warning to his companion. "Hey man, before you go in there, I just want to warn you…it's disturbing to say the very least. Don't let what you see get to you, although it will be harder than hell not to..."
Choosing not to respond, Squall dismissed the comments as nothing more than over-cautious advice from a friend. If ever he should have taken words to heart, it would have been then. Opening the passageway, nothing could prepare him for what lie ahead. No amount of warning or description could have brought the mental sting to light. The door closed softly behind him, as the faint sound of the latch clicking was the only noise in the room. He stood in horror of what his friends had already witnessed, but to him it was far more personal.
Every facet of her life documented and most of his life within his recollection stamped on the walls. How could he have allowed this to go unnoticed? Years of sitting beside the same man whose mental status now spell-bounded him. Was there ever the slightest indication? Could any of this ever have been foreseen or prevented? The pictures depicting her younger days showed the deep-rooted fixation. Squall confessed to himself that he could've never stopped the intoxication of Jefferson Mitchell's delusions then, but anything after her seventeenth year, a true-knight should have known…would have known.
He knocked many of the contents on the floor, and unlike his comrades, Squall Leonhart did not care what was destroyed in the process. There lay a leather-bound folder he hesitantly picked up, still not in control of all his faculties. Notes on every aspect of her life adorned the pages, including detailed reports on Squall's behavior during her absence.
The first pages documented pieces of information on Rinoa's childhood, and every action that Caraway would make. For a moment, he felt an emptiness concerning the man, a new understanding of why his death was so easy for Mitchell to dismiss. It wasn't just a random occurrence, it was something that had been fantasized about for years, and in what better fashion that at Garden? It was the death of a rival, although one never knew of the rivalry. Squall understood that his own death would bring the same type of satisfaction to the President, and swore more now than ever to make it through this without giving him that satisfaction.
He flipped a few more pages back, it listed all of Rinoa's favorite things over the years. From a favorite stuffed teddy bear given to her by her cousin, to her favorite food during her school years, her favorite flowers, her favorite music, her favorite foods…every small detail that eluded him. The serpentine hiss of breath filled the room, as the anger battled with his pride. He slammed the binder against the wall, throwing it with tremendous force. Had he even taken the time to learn that her favorite flowers were lilies? Hell, up to right now he wasn't even sure of why she'd changed her last name, nor if it was even a legal change…he never bothered to ask. He never thought to care about such things. He had bothered only to keep one small picture of her, and this man had kept literally thousands. It sickened him that some lunatic would have been a better theoretical boyfriend than he had even been.
The pictures, the pictures of her all seemed to be staring straight at him. Thousands of her eyes upon him each filled with disappointment. He realized now why he had been allowed to keep his command, moreover, his life. It was never to capture the sorceress, but to be used as collateral for her return. The sad irony was, he wouldn't have to marry Quistis…he would have been allowed to keep his post for Mitchell's selfish desires. He needed Squall. For years, he believed that bastard only sought power, and on some level, he did. Even power had its superior and that was the obsession over another human being. The power was secondary to finding Rinoa, not for the safety of the country, but for him to covet like a fucking prize.
The enraged knight reached with a shaking hand, skimming the same photographs the others had already seen. He picked up the one where Mitchell's head had been imposed over his body, and the man couldn't help but let out a cross between a growl and a scream. With force, he ripped it into two pieces, and when that didn't curb his anger, he ripped it into a hundred more.
Ellone, Quistis, Rinoa, Allison, Mitchell, Seifer, anger, hate, lies, and betrayal…all a mix of passions flooding like a dam, two years of emotion took its toll. A hazy cloud blurred reality for a moment, as he caught sight of his gunblade. When he grabbed it from its stand, he could tell by feel it wasn't truly Lionheart, but he didn't care. It was close enough, and that bastard would suffer by its hand.