Squall checked in with Garden, and found a message waiting. Looking up, he noted Rinoa was still bathing. She'd reacted to having a room in the Presidential Palace the way a man dying of thirst might react to five gallons of Gatorade. He would not be disturbed for a while.
He opened the message. It read:
Timber liberated. CDC:100/30/5 CD:3/0 BDG:50% LPC:50% Seifer inv. Rinoa.
Squall blinked. Seifer had been after Rinoa? Whatever for? Nothing good, that was certain. Seifer might play the romantic, but the only person he'd ever proven he gave a damn about was himself. If he had been in Timber to find Rinoa, it was certain that the reasons were not going to be based in loyalty or friendship.
He scowled at the screen. He'd have to encrypt his reply; no SeeD code existed for orders, only reports. He wasn't Commander of Garden, but in this he knew he could rely on Quistis and Selphie. He responded:
Xu investigate Seifer employer
and pressed Send. Seifer wasn't subtle on his own. If he had played the role of liberator for weeks just to lure Rinoa to Timber, someone else was behind it. Cadets wouldn't be wily enough to catch Seifer, either. It would have to be SeeD.
His thoughts were interrupted by an exuberant and soaking wet Rinoa bouncing out of the bathroom clad in towels. Squall shook his head; now there was water all over the carpet. He wished Laguna hadn't thrown them into a single suite. The king-sized bed made Squall feel that Laguna was pressuring him. "Message for you," he said curtly, and turned the screen so that Rinoa could see.
It pleased him that she understood the SeeD shorthand Quistis had used. "Thirty candidates dead?" Rinoa asked. "Half of Timber dead or destroyed? This counts as liberation?"
"Actually, since the citizenry probably got involved on its own, those figures are pretty good against an army," said Squall unconcernedly. "If they'd stayed indoors, chances are there'd be a lot fewer candidates and a lot more citizens."
Rinoa shook her head. "You know, sometimes I have this incredible urge to give you a right whack around the head," she said sadly. "Half of Timber is dead, and you don't seem to care."
Squall raised an eyebrow. "Quistis makes no mention of Watts or Zone," he said. "But she wouldn't know whether they survived this soon anyway. There's nothing I can do about it if they've died, and nothing I can do about it if they're ok. Since there's nothing I can do, I'm doing nothing."
"Oh, you are incorrigible!" Rinoa snapped. She grabbed a pillow off the bed and nailed Squall right in the face with it. On the positive side, this had the effect of sending Squall to the floor. On the negative side, the sudden movement undid her towels - and this had not escaped Squall's now-excellent vantage point on the floor. He flashed her a wicked smile as she scrambled for covering.
"That's what happens when you react on impulse," he teased.
"Oh, and look who's on the floor," retorted Rinoa, but she was grinning.
"Pillows aren't a threat," he dismissed, getting back up and readjusting his clothes. He paused for a moment, then said, "How would you feel about reversing the bargain while we're in Esthar?"
Rinoa, who had been getting into her freshly cleaned and mended clothes, stared at Squall in surprise. "You want me to run things during the day?" she asked. "But that's when we get the most done..."
Squall nodded. "I'll try out this Knight business without having to worry about social functions, too," he said.
Rinoa was not fooled. She'd spent the entire journey here being forced to use her wits, and she wasn't going to stop now. "You don't want to be the one to deal with Laguna, do you," she said. "Squall, like it or not he is your father. You're going to have to make your peace with him sometime."
Squall crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. "I don't see you doing that with General Caraway," he growled.
"That's different," said Rinoa. "We got along great until my mother died. Now he just sees her in me...but Laguna's never had a chance to get to know you. You should at least give him a chance before you shut him out."
"He had seventeen years of chance," snapped Squall, nettled. "There's no way he's making up for that in fifteen minutes. I want to find out what he knows and get the hell out of here, not spend the next six months listening to his excuses for abandoning me for Sis."
Rinoa sighed. She admired Squall's pride, but sometimes it was just a pain in the ass to deal with. Even though Laguna had information Squall needed, he was not going to be reduced to asking Laguna for anything. She nodded slowly. "All right, Squall," she said slowly. "I'll handle Laguna. But you'd better be the perfect Knight for this."
Squall executed a stiff formal bow in reply, his face set. It seemed the formalities of a Sorceress' Knight were far preferable to him than the intricacies of a family conversation.
"Go get cleaned up," Rinoa said. "If you're going to be my Knight this afternoon, you're going to look the part. There's a clothes-cleaner in the bathroom too."
Squall said nothing, but moved to obey. Rinoa sat down on the bed and looked at the screen as she brushed out her still-damp hair. Squall had neglected to shut it off. Of a hundred candidates sent, thirty died, and only five made SeeD. Half the buildings were damaged or destroyed, and half the local population had died. And Seifer had gotten involved just to see her. She didn't think it was to rekindle an old flame. Seifer had attracted her for a while with his grace and force of personality, but she felt both of them knew his loyalty to Ultimecia had killed any attraction. What bothered her was that the low pass rate, and the high death rate, didn't seem to bother Squall. How many cadets had died the year Squall became a SeeD? How many had passed?
Well, she knew she would never have to take the field exam. SeeD had decided that all those who had fought Ultimecia had passed that requirement. That was when Irvine had become SeeD. Carefully she shut down the laptop and closed it up. She was glad Sorceresses could dress pretty much any way they liked; it saved her having to worry about whether the uniform would suit her. But what on earth was she going to say to Laguna? She knew he'd be hoping to talk to Squall.
Perhaps she would be able to bring the two of them together. Laguna obviously wanted to, and Squall needed to whether he would admit to it or not. It was worth a try, anyway.
Squall emerged, fully clothed and dried, in his usual leathers and fur collared jacket, with Lionheart sheathed at his belt. He stood there in an 'at attention' pose, waiting. Rinoa sighed. Knights were supposed to be subservient to their Sorceresses, but Rinoa wasn't going to try that with Squall. Not when he could give a pointed order while standing silently in the corner. She nodded in acknowledgment, and led the way out of the room. It was time to see Laguna.
Laguna was surprised when Rinoa was the first to enter the President's Office. He hadn't asked them their business when they arrived, but had ordered that a room be made ready for them. Somehow, he'd thought - hoped? - that it was Squall who had come to visit.
A moment later, though, he saw Squall enter too. Rather to Laguna's surprise, he positioned himself about halfway between Rinoa and the door and stayed there, gray eyes darting around the room absorbing details. Any thoughts Laguna had entertained regarding a greeting were quashed by the sheer blankness of Squall's expression. He sighed. At least Rinoa was willing to speak to him.
"Welcome back to Esthar," he said to her with a smile. "I'm hoping this visit will be more pleasant than the last."
"Me too," said Rinoa. The last time, the Estharians had wanted to seal her away in the equivalent of a lifelong prison. But Laguna had had nothing to do with that, and had even sent Ward to make sure Squall was not stopped from rescuing her.
Laguna stuck his hands in his pockets. "I'm guessing it's not a social call that brings you here," he said slowly, "Though of course you're always welcome. What can I do for you?"
To Laguna's surprise, Rinoa turned and beckoned to Squall. He pulled off his glove, removed Griever, then pulled his glove back on. He walked over and placed the ring in her palm, then walked back to where he had stood before as if nothing had happened.
What the hell is going on? thought Laguna, but wasn't given time to ponder matters. Rinoa held out her hand and showed him the ring. "This is what brings us here, President Loire. Do you know anything about it?"
"Laguna - please," replied Laguna automatically, but took the ring from her hand. Absently he leaned against his desk as he studied it. "Ye-es," he said after a while. "I think I remember this. It was Raine's."
"Raine had a man's ring?" asked Rinoa, surprised.
Laguna's face grew solemn as he remembered. "It was an heirloom of Raine's family," he said. "She was the last one of her line, so it fell to her. She used to wear it on a long chain around her neck so no one would see it. She didn't want people to think it was a boyfriend's or something."
Rinoa nodded; she still wore her mother's ring that way, though since it was a woman's ring she didn't need to wear a long chain. "Can you tell us anything else about it? How long it was in her family? Where it might have come from?"
Laguna cast a quick look at Squall, but no response was evident there. Yet Rinoa had said 'us', so he must have an interest. How could he not, when it was his mother's ring? "It was in Raine's family at least a few generations," he said. "I remember her mentioning her grandfather had worn it. I never thought much about it. After all, the carving is a lion, and her family name was Leonhart. It made a sort of sense. Is there a reason it's important?"
Rinoa paused, looking uncertain for a few moments, then nodded as she came to a decision. "There's some sort of power in the ring, President Loire. It reacts violently if magic is used on it. Did you know that?"
"There's a power in the ring...and you're letting Squall just walk around wearing it?" Laguna asked incredulously. "No, I didn't know there was anything to it. I don't think any member of Raine's family ever junctioned a GF or met up with a sorceress. If that thing reacts to magic, then get rid of it."
Rinoa didn't dare turn around. If Squall was maintaining the Knight's pose he had adopted, it was certain that it was requiring all of his self-control not to break it. "I don't think we have that option, President Loire," she said firmly. "There's too many coincidences and strange things happening with it for us to simply toss it out a window. Did Raine ever mention the ring's name to you?"
Unlike Rinoa, Laguna had risked a look at Squall, but saw no change. As far as Laguna could tell from watching his son's face, they could be discussing the weather patterns in Centra. "She said her grandfather had called it Griever," he said, "and that her father kept the name in his memory."
The ring had had the same name? Now Rinoa was certain there was something going on; Squall had had no way of knowing the ring had been named before. "Is there anything else she mentioned to you about the ring?" Rinoa asked. Please let it be no, please let it be no....
"Don't think so," said Laguna after a while, and handed the ring back to Rinoa. "By the way, how long will you be staying?"
"Not long," said Rinoa, not daring to look over her shoulder. "Long enough to get supplies for a trek to Winhill, it sounds like."
"The resources of Esthar are at your disposal," Laguna said, then jumped guiltily when Ward growled behind him. "Well - within reason, anyway," he amended. "Look, I have some work to do...I'll see you this evening." And with that, he waved them out. Rinoa left first, without looking back. Squall leveled a glare at Laguna before turning on his heel and following her.
When the door closed behind them, Laguna turned to Kiros and said, "Well. What do you make of that little charade?"
Kiros shrugged. "Either we've got trouble, or you've got trouble," he said.
Once back at their rooms, the first thing out of Squall's mouth was, "Hand it back." Reluctantly, Rinoa did so, and watched the shining band disappear beneath Squall's gloves again.
"Do you really think it was wise for us to go before Laguna as Sorceress and Knight?" she asked. "Esthar has a pretty strict policy regarding Sorceresses, and I don't like the idea of being frozen in space."
"Laguna won't do anything to you as long as I'm alive," Squall snapped. "He wouldn't try. And if he did, for whatever reason, I could stop him."
"I just mean that it might have been better not to remind him," said Rinoa. "He wasn't trying to insult you, you know."
"He wanted me to get rid of it! If he's right, this is the only thing I have - will ever have - of my mother. It's never hurt me. Why should I get rid of it?"
Rinoa took a risk; she grabbed Squall's arm. He wasn't used to expressing his emotions, so when he did it tended to be explosive. "He was only trying to protect you, in his way," she said.
"I don't need his protection," growled Squall, but he got a grip on himself. "He abandoned Raine, and abandoned me. I don't need that sort of 'protection'."
Rinoa thought for a moment, trying to think of an argument that would work. "Did it ever occur to you that you are all he has left of Raine?" she asked.
Wide gray eyes regarded her, and she could see in them that no, Squall had not thought of that. It would never occur to him that anyone could look at him and see someone else's face.
"Remember that Kiros and Ward said you look like her," Rinoa said softly. "He might regard you as his last chance."
She'd slipped; anger flared in Squall's eyes as he pulled away from her. "He left her, and she died. If I'm his last chance to make peace with that, he's up shit creek," he said. "He should remember that for the rest of his life."
Rinoa looked out the window. "The sun's down," she said. "If he wants to talk to you now, you're going to have to answer."
"We've got the answers we came for," dismissed Squall. "Since you've decided we'll resupply here, you can test your skills by collecting those supplies. As far as I'm concerned, there's no need to stay later than tomorrow morning." And with that, Squall pulled off his boots and stretched out on the bed, on top of the covers, fully clothed.
Rinoa sighed, but understood that Squall probably wasn't going to be in anything like a good mood until they'd left Esthar. And with the sun down, she had to be a SeeD again, following orders. Taking his pose as a dismissal, she left the room and headed for the Esthar shops.
His work for the day completed, Laguna left the President's office and headed for the guest suites. The whole situation earlier with Rinoa had bothered him, and he wanted to make sure Squall wasn't being enchanted. His whole stance in the office had been entirely unlike him. As if he were spoiling for a fight, and only Rinoa would stop him from starting one. It was most unlike the reserved, controlled man Laguna had met only about a year before. It was worrying.
He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Trying the handle, he found it unlocked - so he ventured inside. Only one light was on, near the bed. Squall had been sleeping on it, but his eyes snapped open when he heard the door open. Sitting up on his elbows, he noted it was Laguna and swung his legs over the side, standing up. All he said was, "Rinoa is going to have to learn how to lock a door."
"I'm sorry to wake you," said Laguna. "I wanted to talk to you."
"So does everyone lately," snapped Squall rudely. "Go away, Laguna. I have nothing to say to you."
Laguna took this as he did every other aspect of Squall's anger; he ignored it. "I meant to come back for you," he said softly, hoping for a response.
"But you didn't. Not once, in seventeen years. If I hadn't had to come to Esthar, you never would have met me."
"And that's the way you would have preferred it, wouldn't you Squall?" Laguna asked curiously, cocking his head to one side. "You would have preferred never to know at all?"
"I spent my life believing that you were dead, like my mother is dead," growled Squall, leaning back against a wall with his arms crossed over his chest, as though forcing himself to keep his hands away from his gunblade. "It's okay to be abandoned by the dead, they don't have a choice. They can't come back. But you're not dead, Laguna. You chose to leave me in an orphanage, while you looked for Ellone. You chose to leave me in Garden while you ruled Esthar. And you chose to send me and the others after Ultimecia, knowing we could easily die, without saying one word of who you are to me. You chose, Laguna. Don't expect me to love you for it."
As Squall recited the list of his father's choices, Laguna's face grew sadder and sadder. "I suppose it was too much for me to hope that you would learn forgiveness in a school for mercenaries," he said. "Ellone told me that it was you who was in my mind those years ago, when we thought it was faeries. I thought, with you having been in my mind, you might understand..." He shrugged helplessly. "Esthar would be in ruins if it weren't for Kiros and Ward helping me to do things right," he said, "but they can't help me with this."
Laguna turned to leave, but paused at the door. "I can't make up for not being there before," he said, "but I am here now. I won't fail you again. If you ever need me, this is where I'll be." Then he left, closing the door behind him.
The first thing Squall did was to lock the door. If Rinoa forgot her key, let that be a lesson, Squall thought. I'm going to get some rest. He stretched out on the bed again, and was asleep in minutes.
Rinoa returned to their room with her arms loaded with packages. She knew Squall had wanted her to learn survival training, but she wasn't going to put up with eating monster for the entire trip to Winhill. Most of what she bought was easily packed and either non-perishable or long-storage food. She'd also topped off their medical supplies, since she'd discovered she wasn't always up to casting cure spells after a hard fight.
She tried the door. Locked. She sighed; she was pretty sure she hadn't locked it when she left, and if Squall had locked it then his already foul mood had probably gotten worse. She set down the bags and fished out her key, unlocking the door in short order. Quickly she hauled her prizes inside, and closed and re-locked the door. If he'd had a reason that went beyond merely being in a foul mood, her guess was it was probably Laguna.
Squall was stretched out on the bed as he had been when she left, but there were signs that his sleep was not easy. The blankets around and underneath him were rumpled, and occasionally his hands would clench into fists.
Rinoa blinked. On the trip here they had shared a tent, and occasionally she would wake in the night to find him writhing in his sleep. But he always calmed down if she touched him, and he never spoke or woke up. She hadn't spoken to him about it; what would she say?
But tonight...they were indoors. The walls of the Presidential Palace were soundproofed, and the only sound was their breathing. She wouldn't have to worry about monsters. Curiosity got the better of her. Quietly, very quietly, she crouched by the head of the bed, so that if he spoke in his sleep she would hear.
She lost all track of time as she listened, watching Squall grow progressively more agitated. In the tent, by now she would have touched him lightly. Outside, this sort of movement could bring the tent down. But here, he was safe. If he was haunted by some memory, some personal demon, this might be the only way for her to learn of it. Squall's hands clawed the covers beneath him as if his hands were a weapon. His lips were moving, now, but there was no sound. She waited; this was what she had been hoping for.
Then he growled, "You will not have us forever!" so loudly that he woke himself up.
Rinoa stood up and smiled reassuringly. "You ok?" she asked.
Squall blinked and looked around, spotting the bags she'd brought back. "You just got back?" he asked.
You don't remember your dream? Rinoa thought. She decided not to try and remind him. "Yes," she said. "Got some food stores that aren't monster bits, and replenished our medical supplies. It's a long hike to Winhill from here."
He nodded and fell back against the pillow. "You forgot to lock the door when you left," he said tiredly.
"It's your father's palace, and you were still here," Rinoa replied. "I didn't think there was a need."
Squall blew out a heavy breath. "Well, if you're mad at me for asking you to deal with Laguna, you've got your revenge. Since the door was unlocked he came and annoyed me personally."
Rinoa laughed. "I'm sure he regrets it now, the way you've been acting since we got here," she said. "We're heading out tomorrow, aren't we?"
"Then I for one am going to take advantage of the last bed we're going to be in for a while."
Rinoa smiled as she saw Squall's surprised expression when she began to get undressed. When he noticed she was aware of him watching, he quickly turned away. She reached out and touched him. "If you want to watch, I don't mind," she said reassuringly. "I know it can be hard to open up to people...so we'll just take things a little bit at a time."
It was one of the interesting paradoxes of his character, Rinoa believed, that Squall could be both a fearless warrior and a very shy and nervous young man. She would not rush him, no. But neither would she have him hold back out of fear for her reaction. She finished undressing and got under the covers on her side of the bed, turning out the light, careful not to look at Squall and possibly make him any more nervous than he already was.
She sensed him get off the bed, heard him undress and slide under the covers - very firmly on his own side of the bed. Rinoa let one hand cross the invisible boundary, and felt his hand join hers.
But she'd had a busy day, and the mattress was incredibly soft...and before she knew it she'd fallen asleep.