Chapter VI Castling
It took Dahl nearly an hour to be sure, and once his task was accomplished he lapsed into a rest nine parts sleep and one part trance. Some twelve hours later the lord awoke in Jezikan's chambers. He yawned and stretched as his lady asked, impatiently, "Well?"
"It's done," he reported with a sinuous smile.
Some of her tension eased. "Good. Is he dead?"
"Not yet." Dahl arched his back, cat-like, then swung his legs off the bed, rubbing his chin to check for stubble. "He's what I'd call, mm, a tough nut to crack. Beautifully so. But I yet succeeded. The SeeD commander won't interfere with us, I assure you."
"Good," she said. "Now get up."
One brow lifted. "I thought you liked me in your bed."
"Not now," she snapped. "Get to your chambers and pack, quickly. While you were lazing, the SeeD took back the Sorceress."
"I'm not surprised," Dahl remarked, "considering what I witnessed." He smirked at her. "You're slipping after all, Jezikan. He is old enough, and his tastes are for women. You simply didn't suit him."
"Forget the barbs. There isn't time. The Knight is leading the people against the Presidency. Half the army marches with him, and the other half--"
"The soldiers loyal to us are gone to Fisherman's Horizon. I see." All semblance of lassitude gone, Dahl arose and prowled to his private exit. "I'll soon be ready. What are we doing?"
"Going where it's safe," she said. "Stay with those still loyal--follow my husband."
"Into battle--brilliant. That's the safest place I can imagine."
"Spare me the sarcasm. It's Fisherman's Horizon, Dahl. They won't fight back, not with weapons. Our force is large enough to persuade them to give in to our demands, and they'll capitulate quickly to prevent needless bloodshed. If you've truly taken care of the SeeD commander, there'll be no problems."
"He's down, and won't rise," Dahl confirmed, black eyes sparking. "I hope you're half as sure of what you are saying as I am of that." He hesitated at the doorway. "Would it suit us better if I also stopped the knight? I know him well enough."
"No." Jezikan had already considered and rejected the idea. "Kill him and he'll be a martyr; remove him and they'll push onward despite their loss. He ignited the people, but they'd already reached critical mass. It's too late to extinguish this, not with our resources here. In Fisherman's Horizon we'll be better able."
"I'll pack," Dahl conceded, and hastened to do so.
Rinoa blinked rapidly to make sure her eyes were still open, and looked to the door. Zell entered the dark room cautiously, his gaze on Squall's still face, ashen in the dim light. His shoulders fell when he saw there was no change in his commander's condition.
"So, how'd it go?" she asked.
Zell shook his head. "Esthar doesn't want us crossing their boundary. Something about their shield. They're really firm about it. We talked to Laguna; he says he'll do whatever he can. He's worried about this, too. Since Squall is his...well, you know about that." He sighed, deflating further. "Ellone's not doing it. She hasn't sent anyone anywhere since the time compression. I think she's scared to try. In case Ultimecia could come back or something. Anyway, she's definitely not doing this."
"I didn't think so," Rinoa remarked, more to herself than him.
Zell put a hand on her shoulder, a little awkwardly. "Quistis told me to tell you to get some sleep. She's already sent Irvine and Selphie to bed."
"And what about her?"
"Oh...she's trying to get hold of Seifer. In case he knows more than Fujin and Raijin. I should've done that right away." He sighed. "I wish Quistis had been here instead of me. She would've known what to do. Me...I just panicked."
"You went to Esthar," Rinoa reminded him.
"Me and Nida and Xu decided on that together. When we couldn't get through to Cid at Fisherman's Horizon we couldn't think of anything else to do."
"At least you were here." Rinoa scrubbed her face with her palms. "You were doing something other than waiting around to be rescued. Sometimes...sometimes I think my dad was right. I'm not SeeD; I'm not trained for any of this. I just slow you guys down."
"Rinoa, don't." Zell had mastered that tone of utter seriousness. "Squall wouldn't listen to that, and I don't want to either. And he shouldn't have to hear you sayin' that. It's bullshit. You've been with us for over a year now, and I don't remember losing any fights because you were there. I remember winning a lot of 'em. And from what Quistis said, you weren't exactly helpless there in Deling City, either. She said you saved them."
"It wasn't...that's different," Rinoa protested, weakly because she was exhausted, and because Zell's conviction was a powerful force to face. Usually she wouldn't believe what she was saying, when she was awake and well and Squall stood beside her. Sitting in this dark room by him now, she couldn't help but wonder if she had been fooling herself after all. "It wasn't me. It's the Sorceress...I'm not possessed anymore, but that person, the Sorceress...it's not really me, either. They're my powers, I control them, but when I cast a spell, it's different now. My magic isn't talent, or because I trained hard--I only can do it because I was given that mantle. Anyone could've gotten it; I just happened to be there. It's what I am, but not who I am..." She stopped talking, realizing through her fatigue that she wasn't making sense.
Yet Zell didn't have trouble following. "You're wrong, Rinoa. Well, you're right, too. But even if anyone else got the Sorceress powers, they wouldn't be you. And I think it'd be a lot worse if anyone else did get them. Edea might've granted them to you because knew you could have them...she could've given them to someone else, but she didn't."
"She didn't know me," Rinoa said. "She didn't want to curse any of her children like that."
"Maybe." Zell considered this, then shook his head. "No, that's not it, but it doesn't matter. What I was trying to say is, you're the Sorceress, but you're still Rinoa, and that's important. That you're the Sorceress Rinoa. You have these powers and you do good things with them, because that's who you are. What you do with them, it's all your choice, and that's what defines you. Not what you can do, but what you actually do." He rubbed the back of his head perplexedly. "Uh...y'know?"
"Yeah. I think I do now." She couldn't help but smile. "When did you get so good at argument? I thought fists were your thing."
"Yeah, well, a fight's a fight, I figure, and I never liked losing."
"Is that why you don't play cards?...sorry." She stifled a yawn. "I'm kind of tired."
"Then go to bed."
She nodded and stood, pausing a moment to let the blood rush back to her head. "I'll watch him," Zell promised. "Just in case."
"Thank you." The idea of sleep was more seductive than before, as she fought inertia to move. But looking at Squall again tied her in place, a twisting of her gut to see him lying there so wrongly. "I'll come back as soon as I'm up," she whispered. "Good night." And she left, before he saw her tears, either Squall or Zell, she didn't know from whose eyes she hid, when neither pair were watching her.
"...she's gonna get really annoyed with you if you just keep lying here, you know she hates being ignored--"
At the quiet murmur Zell jumped out of the chair by Squall's bed as if zapped by a cattle prod. Quistis, standing in the doorway, raised an eyebrow inquisitively as he mumbled, "I was, just, uh...I've heard people in comas are aware of things around them, so I was...I wanted him to know he's not alone."
"I've heard that, too." Quistis approached, stumbling a little with fatigue. He didn't need to ask her how much success she had had with Seifer; the negative answer was apparent in every line of her body. She barely noticed when Zell pushed her into the chair, relaxing against it gratefully. "You think he's aware of us?"
"Well, it can't hurt, anyway," Zell said pragmatically. "I had to do something, I can't just sit here with him like this, right?"
Quistis shook her lowered head. "It's too different," Zell continued. "He's always out in front, whatever the battle it. Remember Ultimecia? That final blow with Lionheart...he did it. He couldn't have fought her without us, but he was the one who ended it. He's the hero; he always is. But you can't get jealous about it, because he's not trying to be one--he just is. Like Rinoa is the Sorceress. It's not because they pretend, or force themselves. It's just true.
"And heroes aren't supposed to..." Zell trailed off.
"He's not," Quistis said, fiercely. "He won't."
"Not that," Zell said. "Not dying. I meant heroes are always supposed to be doing something. They fight, and they win."
"This isn't a story. What we did isn't just a story. Squall's not just a legend, any more than Rinoa's only a myth because she's a Sorceress. They're our friends, Quistis. But he's still a hero. And he's going to win. He has to."
"Unless he's already lost," she replied, so quietly she might not have spoken at all.
She lay in his arms, cold and motionless, and Squall didn't hear his own voice calling to her. "Rinoa..."
Now what? asked a tiny corner of his mind, a still place so deep nothing could reach it. Where did he want to go? Nowhere. What was he supposed to do? Nothing. There was no provision, no protocol, on the books or in his mind. Not for this.
She lay in his arms, broken.
The silence was no longer foreboding, but yet present, like a physical being. He hardly dared breathe to damage it. He thought he might be deaf, with even the wind's voice muted.
A retort behind him slew that omnipresent quiet. Glass shards crackled under thick-soled boots. Footsteps, approaching. Another thing alive in the tomb of the Garden. Slowly, he turned.
Seifer leisurely picked his way across the demolished bridge, stepping over the leveled struts, kicking a sharply split beam out of his path before it ripped his coattails. In one hand he idly swung his gunblade. Scarlet flowed down the razor edge and dripped from the point, but his ungloved hands were clean. Immaculate, pure as his white coat, and the cross he wore beneath was redder than the blood.
Squall felt the other's eyes on him, but could not lift his own to meet them.
"So the commander arrives at last." The knight raised his gore-drenched blade. "Did you run, Squall? Did you hide, when I came?"
Carefully, with infinite tenderness, he lowered Rinoa's body to the floor, then stood and faced his rival. "Why?"
Seifer laughed. "That's all you can ask? 'Why?' Why not? Why shouldn't I?" He grinned, gestured with his gunblade at the entire fallen Garden. "This is big enough for me, don't you think?"
"Why'd you do it?"
"Not what? Not how? Just why. Does it matter, Squall? I did it." Casually he slipped his other hand around the hilt and cocked the weapon. "They were no good, none of 'em. They couldn't fight me--they didn't know how. I was looking for you, Squall. You I can fight. But you were gone."
"I don't want to fight." He didn't reach for his sheath. He was worn to the marrow of his bones. They had dueled so many times before; what did it matter now? He could quench Lionheart's flame in Seifer's heart-blood, and Rinoa would still be dead.
"Cid would be disappointed in you," Seifer remarked, offhandedly. "Even if it's too late for him, and Edea, and all their beautiful, precious SeeD. Even when you're the only one left of all the Gardens in the world. He would have wanted you to stop me.
He prowled toward his rival, smiling still. "Your friends, too. The two outside, the first I met--the little messenger girl and her pretty boyfriend, out there searching for you. Xu tried to radio you until the end. Our dear instructor Trepe screamed for you with her last breath. And that coward," he waved negligently at Zell's corpse, "he backed up until he was against the wall, and then he lashed out at me in your name."
Squall shook his head.
Seifer took another step, close enough to look down at him, ice eyes half-lidded. "That was how they all went. All the SeeDs, burning with faith in their faithless commander. Like candles, a wisp of smoke and they were gone. And I the wind that blew them out."
All out. It was too late for them, for any of them. His fist closed around the grip of his gunblade.
"You're the hero, Squall. Protect the world. Slay the monsters. Kill the Sorceress...
"She was the last. The hardest. To murder who I might have served...I couldn't. Not completely. She didn't plead for her life. She fought me, but she never begged for mercy." Seifer drew one finger along his wet blade, staining the tip with red. "And she never cried for her knight to come. Maybe she was that sure that he would." He traced the bloodied digit over the cross on his tunic, marking his heart. "Or maybe she knew he wouldn't."
Lionheart slid cleanly from its sheath, the metal whispering against the rigid leather.
"And now you see you must fight," Seifer crowed. "It's always been this way, Squall. Night and day. Black and white." He raised his arms, so his bleached coat glowed in the sunbeams piercing the fissured ceiling. In his hand his blade shimmered scarlet. "Good and evil. Always. There's no choice. This is what we are. This is destiny."
"I don't want to fight you," Squall said again, and swung his gunblade.
Seifer's met his blow in a violent clash of metal and magic, sparks skittering between the swords. Counter, then block, then he slashed out again. Driven back, forcing forward, then back again.
The knight's thrust came too fast to parry, too close to dodge. It scored his arm, tearing through fabric and flesh, but Seifer had over-extended for the hit. He ignored the burning in his arm and pressed that advantage, slicing a long gash in the white sleeve.
With a hiss of pain, Seifer fell back. Red blood welled forth to speck the purity of his coat. Silently Squall watched him flex his fingers, testing the limits of the injury. He held his own blade at ready in one hand while he clamped his other over his cut arm. The black leather jacket hid the wound, but he could feel fluid heat seeping through his glove.
"First blood," Seifer snarled. One hand rose to his scarred forehead, then dropped. He smiled wolfishly, the new blood bright on his blade. "You're the first of them all to touch me. And you won't again."
Squall said nothing, wheeling around with both hands on the gunblade to strike sudden and low. Seifer answered with a countering stab, and the battle was truly joined.
Dr. Kodowaki's assistant, working at the main desk, said nothing when Rinoa walked into the medical wing, only nodded greeting as she passed. Quistis was alone in the cubicle, sitting where she had left Zell with one hand resting on Squall's arm. Upon Rinoa's arrival she leaned back and folded her hands in her lap.
Taking another chair from the office, Rinoa sat beside the foot of the bed, next to Quistis. "Good morning," she said, then, "It's around morning, right?"
"I think so." The instructor checked her watch, shrugged. "No idea, really; it's still set to Galbadian time. The sun's about up, anyway. You didn't sleep very long."
"Me? Did you sleep at all?"
"A couple hours." Quistis rubbed the back of her neck. "Then I relieved Zell--he needed it more. Xu's back on the bridge now with Nida--we're going to Fisherman's Horizon to find Cid. Irvine and Selphie should be up soon. I might go back to bed then."
"You can go now," Rinoa said. "Before we reach FH. I don't need rest--I've been asleep for the last couple days."
Quistis eyed her sharply. "Drugs and magic don't count. You need time to recover."
"I need food, actually. I'm starved. The snack on the Ragnarok is all used up."
"That was the last time you ate? Visit to the cafeteria first. I'll wait here. And Squall's not going anywhere."
So Rinoa went and fetched a full tray, enough breads and juice for two, figuring Quistis could use a dinner before retiring. When she returned, the instructor had stood and was leaning over Squall. She jerked upright when Rinoa entered, pale skin flushing rose.
Rinoa put the tray on the stand in the corner, then closed the door and turned back around. "Quistis?"
The SeeD's eyes were downcast, one hand toying with the edge of her vest as if groping for the whip not with her. "Rinoa...I...I'm sorry."
"Why?" Rinoa asked, reasonably. Quistis's slender shoulders rose and fell as she shook her blonde head, saying nothing. "If you mean about Squall, it's not your fault, of course, and I'm sorry it's happening too." She crossed to the bed and gazed down at him. Motionless but for the rhythm of his chest as he breathed. Even his lashes were still, pressed to his cheek by lids still too tightly closed.
She knew Quistis was beside her, glanced over and saw the other girl's blue eyes fixed on him. Rinoa reached back to catch her wrist before she could avoid it, gently pulled Quistis forward to place her hand over Squall's. "It'll help, if he can feel it at all. You know he doesn't like being alone, no matter what he says sometimes."
Quistis nodded wordlessly.
"You love him," Rinoa said quietly.
The SeeD nodded again, then shook her head. "Not like that. I don't know...I don't think I ever loved him that way, really. But I thought..." Quistis began to pull her hand back, then met Rinoa's earnest gaze and stopped. "I thought I did for a long time. I remember...as kids, when we all lived at the orphanage, I liked him even then. And at the Garden, he was the best fighter, of the cadets and of SeeD, too. Honorable, too. He was always polite. Intelligent, even if he didn't say much."
"And cute," Rinoa added, a touch mischievously.
Quistis couldn't hide the small smile. "And cute. Though actually I prefer them taller. And a bit older."
"That was why I first noticed him," Rinoa said. "His looks. His whole look." She put one hand to his still face, her fingers along his cheek sweeping back the soft brown hair. "At the SeeD ball, he was by himself against the wall. The best-looking guy there, and no one would dance with him. I could tell by the way he was standing there what his attitude was like. And I thought... It was a challenge. I like challenges."
"That was when I knew," Quistis said. "When I saw you two dancing together. I knew, whatever I wanted, or thought I wanted, it wasn't there. I never could have gotten him to dance."
"You could've ordered him to."
Quistis laughed out loud. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"He would've done it, too." Rinoa smiled as well, though with regret. "Quistis, I guessed how you felt. Not long after I met you. I'm sorry I never said anything. I never meant..."
"You're my friend, Rinoa," Quistis said. "As much as Squall is. I love both of you. And I'm glad you know, even if it doesn't mean anything--it honestly doesn't, now. I'm...over him, Selphie would say. I have been for a while. But I still care...I'm scared for him now. I just didn't want you to think--"
There was a knock on the door before Dr. Kodowaki's assistant opened it. "Instructor Trepe, Rinoa, I don't mean to interrupt, but Xu's on the com. She needs an opinion; something's come up."
"I'll come," Rinoa said. "Quistis, you go to bed--"
"No. Stay here," Quistis stopped her. "Like you said, he shouldn't be alone." Relinquishing her hold on Squall's fingers, she replaced her hand with Rinoa's. Then she headed for the door, pausing only to grab a bun from the tray. "Thanks for bringing breakfast--it looks like morning is here whether we want it or not."
"It's a ship," Xu explained, once Quistis arrived on the bridge. "A small one, and fast."
"It's coming like a bat out of hell, straight from Esthar," Nida elucidated. "And there's another one a few miles behind it. They've gotta be Esthar's; they're going as fast as the Ragnarok, almost."
"Have you tried to raise them on the radio?" Quistis asked.
"We've tried," Xu said. "There's some kind of scrambler blocking our signal."
"Ships from Esthar?" Irvine and Selphie stepped off the lift. "Could Laguna have sent 'em?"
"He said he'd try what he could," Quistis allowed. "But if we can't contact them--"
"Let me try," Selphie offered. "I figured out a bit about their computers and all when we were in Esthar."
"Be my guest." Xu stepped aside to let Selphie fiddle with the radio controls. Nibbling the corner of her lip in concentration, the brunette flipped a few switches to open a broadband signal, then typed a string of combinations while Irvine watched intently over her shoulder. Xu went on reporting, "We didn't detect the first ship until it was practically on top of us, and the only reason we found out about the other one was because we aimed a radar beam directly at it, trying to get a fix on the first. They're both cloaked--"
Selphie sat back and beamed. "That's it! Try now."
"Unidentified Esthar vessel--" Quistis began.
"We hear you, Quistis," a familiar voice interrupted. "How'd you break my scramble?"
Selphie leaned over to the microphone. "I remembered what you said about your card games, Sir Laguna. You really oughta pick better codes than your winning hands--I know your favorite cards!"
"Laguna, you're on that ship?" demanded Quistis.
"Me, and I brought Ellone," Laguna replied. "Sorry about the scrambler, but I wanted radio silence--"
"What about the ship behind you?" Quistis cut him off.
A new voice joined the communication. "Don't worry about that. It's just me and Ward."
"Kiros?" Laguna and Quistis spoke simultaneously.
The minister's chuckle came through loud and clear. "Hello, Quistis. Sorry to creep up on you like this, but we couldn't miss the party."
"But I thought you were back at the capital," Laguna protested. "Weren't you staying at the manor--"
"Laguna," Kiros said, patiently. "We knew all about the situation with the Garden and Squall--I was right there, remember. An hour later you just happen to decide that you and Ellone are going on an exploratory jaunt along the borders to verify the shield's working proper. And I'm supposed to kick back at my desk and believe you? Give us a little credit. I would've been right on your tail, but I had to pick up Ward. Oh, he says hello to Quistis, Selphie, anyone else who's there."
"Hi!" Selphie chirped. "You're all coming aboard?"
"As soon as we get there," Laguna replied. "Kiros, I know what you're thinking, but I'm not coming back until this is figured out. If Ellone can't do anything..."
"We're not here to drag you back," Kiros said. "Esthar will send other ministers for that, when they need you. We just suspect you might need us." He paused a moment. "Besides, like Ward just said, it's a bad idea to let you out of sight--we miss too much when we do!"
"You're all welcome," Quistis said. "We're heading to Fisherman's Horizon now. I hope--"
Her hope was interrupted by Xu, who had been monitoring another line, and now flipped the television signal onto the main screen. "Sorry to interrupt, sir," she said, "but this is one broadcast we need to see."
Sooner or later, hard work and perseverance pays off. So his mother had always said, and it appeared as if sometimes this was actually true. Maybe not in the army, but there were advantages to civilian life, George Biggs was learning. One was that civilians of conquered provinces tended to treat you a lot nicer, even if you lost the discounts a uniform brought. Another was that when working outside the ridiculous stricture of military bureaucracy, you could actually get something done, without having to worry about being reassigned at the last moment while someone better at sucking up to the brass took the credit.
That didn't mean everything came easily, of course. The people of Timber didn't actively spit in their faces anymore, but they were difficult to win over. Gradually, as they realized the two ex-soldiers were serious in their chosen task, the people thawed. After all, restarting the train between Timber station and Fisherman's Horizon would definitely benefit the country. All reasonable trade access to FH had been cut off for years. When they got the train running again, Timber's profit in import and export tithes would soar.
So would Galbadia's, of course, since they ruled Timber. But that didn't matter to Biggs and his partner, not anymore. They had renounced Galbadian citizenship when they had thrown down their arms and walked off the Lunatic Pandora--good name for it; only a lunatic would stick around that monstrosity. If Biggs ever got cancer, he'd decided he'd sue the Galbadian government for exposing him to the thing. And all on the orders of that fool Sorceress's lackey. A kid called himself a knight, and the oh-so-wise officials bought it. Even hired him again, after the fiasco was over.
They didn't want any part of that idiotic state any longer. Work alongside Seifer and his fawning minions? No, thank you. Dignity has its limits. So now they were voluntary exiles, and independent contractors. The profession was Wedge's idea, but it had been a good one, Biggs had to admit. And it wouldn't have succeeded if he hadn't come up with this contract.
He'd always loved trains, had a full model set as a boy. Given the chance to play with the real thing, how could he pass it up? It hadn't been all games, of course. That he knew absolutely nothing about how a real train worked, except that pulling the cord made the whistle blow, was a small stumbling block. And the bureaucracies involved were something of a hindrance, though after a long career the Galbadian army hierarchy, all the forms to sign and officials to placate were old hand. Fisherman's Horizon proved trickier to deal with than Timber, but he eventually worked out every contract, attained every permit, and crossed every 't', with surprisingly little spent on bribes, at that. There was even hope that someday the line might again extend to Esthar--Biggs had actually discussed the possibility with the Esthar president himself. A thoroughly likable chap; rumor said he was a former Galbadian soldier himself. Loire wasn't adverse to eventually reopening Esthar's station, and with his approval, Fisherman's Horizon conceded all the way.
That left only the matter of preparing the tracks and obtaining a train, piece of cake, after what had come before. Hard work and perseverance, that was all it took. For nine months they had strove for this, and today they would experience the fruit of their labors.
Seated in the locomotive at the engineer's position, striped hat and all, Biggs yanked hard on the cord, and smiled as the whistle screamed. They really should have President Deling himself here to drive the last nail, figuratively speaking, but at this moment the small crowd gathered on the platform was enough. Everything was set to go, except for his partner. "Sergeant! Er, Private! I mean--" Sometimes he forgot they weren't soldiers anymore. "Lucas! Get your skinny ass in gear and let's go!"
"Hey, George--" Wedge, on the other hand, never seemed to have any trouble remembering their lack of rank. But for once he didn't sound infuriatingly cheerful. Leave it to him, the one day he had a perfect right to be. "You better see this."
"What?" Biggs snapped, irritated to be torn from his spotlight. He tromped to the secondary car, where Wedge was supposedly making the final checks on the radio. Instead, his partner was hunched over the little black and white TV handset he'd blown his last soldier's paycheck on. "Turn that thing off," Biggs ordered. "I don't care if The Time of Our Lives is on; I don't care what Marle and Glenn are--"
"Shut up," Wedge silenced him peremptorily, and thrust the set under Biggs' nose. "Listen."
President Ferdid Deling's face filled the tiny screen. He was smiling. It didn't suit him. "My fellow Galbadians, and citizens of all nations, this is a momentous agreement indeed. Fisherman's Horizon will not be the only ones to gain here. Galbadia is proud to be a part of this undertaking--"
He couldn't be talking about them, could he? Surely the President would have informed them earlier...but perhaps their efforts were more appreciated than they knew...
That didn't explain why Wedge looked so dour. He glanced inquiringly at his partner, who only gestured to the set. The President continued, "Fisherman's Horizon, under the auspices of Galbadia's bright flag, will bring the benefits of their great technologies and magics to every corner of the globe. Secrets will no longer be held by these privileged few, but shared for the good of all. Fisherman's Horizon realizes as well as we do that their isolationism, like Esthar's, is misguided. They are grateful to Galbadia for opening these new avenues. And we will open more, lighting all the dark places on the maps.
"I speak to you now from Fisherman's Horizon. After this broadcast, I will enter in private session with the Mayor to complete our treaty. In order to facilitate negotiations, until we've finalized the details of this glorious accord, there will be no trade, travel or communication to or from Fisherman's Horizon. I leave you, citizens, with--"
Biggs came close to breaking the edict. His communication was nearly heard in FH. "Damn it ALL!!!"
As he finished his broadcast, Ferdid Deling observed those watching in person. His men were busy with the television equipment or guarding citizens of Fisherman's Horizon. All those present were gathered around their mayor, not protectively but huddling like children at their mother's skirt. The old man watched from the middle of the group, tiredly, it seemed. He'd barely opened his mouth to protest when the soldiers marched into his house. His harridan of a wife had screeched loud enough for both, but she hadn't raised a hand in defense, either. Cowards, the lot of them. This couldn't be counted as a conquest. His grand talk of an alliance was more on the mark, even if no one present believed a word he had said.
His speech completed, the Galbadian president stepped from the wooden riser, and frowned at the single pair of hands applauding. He frowned deeper when he saw the sardonic smile beyond them. Striding across the stage, he confronted the man and the woman beside him. "Dahl. Jezikan. Why are you here?"
Dahl clapped a final time and lowered his hands. "A brilliant oration, Mr. President. Most inspiring."
"You'll call me General Deling here," Ferdid said coldly. "And you'll show me no disrespect."
"I intend none, General," Dahl purred.
"Forget the posturing," Jezikan snapped. "We aren't on vacation. Almasy has staged a coup, contrary to your expectations about a knight's honor." Confident she had her husband's full attention, she explained in more detail, low enough not to reach other soldiers' ears. "We're safer here than at the capital. And here we can do something about this uprising."
"Not now," Ferdid said. "That little speech we just broadcast over every band was only to buy time. Making this public means we won't face charges of conspiracy. But the Garden moves against us as we speak. We have to prepare this city for siege."
Jezikan looked askance at Lord Dahl. "Perhaps it won't be as difficult--"
"No," Ferdid growled. "Forget the warlock's tricks. This is war. The doctor is optimistic..." Ecstatic might have better described his mood as he fell upon the major engineering center sited beneath Fisherman's Horizon. Mechanics with their gadgets meant little to Ferdid, unless they were war machines. But the doctor had been certain he would find all he needed here. "He still needs some time, however, before it's completed--"
He heard the reaction of the FH citizens before he saw his men approaching, the ripple of surprised dismay spreading through the crowd. Four soldiers escorted one man, a short, balding, middle-aged individual in a rumpled brown vest. Dahl and Jezikan followed Ferdid's gaze to him. "Who is it?" Dahl hissed.
"Someone I'm far more pleased to see than you. Or you, lady wife." Ferdid marched over. The man peered myopically through his spectacles as Deling nodded to him. "Galbadia extends her greetings, Cid Kramer."
"And that's all you know?" Laguna sounded less accusing than simply unhappy. Despite everything Quistis had already told him, the actual sight of his son, unconscious and unresponsive, shook him more than the knowledge of the mystery. Never taking his eyes off Squall, he pulled every detail of his collapse out of Dr. Kodowaki, anxiously but not angrily, even when she only admitted ignorance for most of his questions.
While they discussed the useless particulars she had already heard, Rinoa made her own entreaty. Ellone had accompanied Laguna, coming to the medical bay direct from the docking garage. She had tears in her eyes as she laid her hand on Squall's arm. But she twisted away when Rinoa made her request. "I can't...I haven't. Not for a year. Not since Ultimecia..."
"She's gone," Rinoa said. "Squall needs you now, Ellone. If you'd only try--"
"It doesn't work like that." Ellone wrapped her green cardigan more tightly around herself, as if the warm room were chill. "I can't...just touch people. I can only send people I know into others' pasts."
"You know me," Rinoa said. "Send me into Squall--the same way you sent him into me when I was in space. Put me in his closest past before now. So I can see where he is. Please, Ellone. You did it for him before, so he could save me--do this for me now. To help him."
Laguna and Dr. Kodowaki had gone quiet, watching them. Ellone glanced back to her old guardian, then folded her arms over her breasts. "I'll try," she whispered.
She didn't take Rinoa's hand, or look to Squall, only closed her eyes. Rinoa felt a vaguely familiar sensation, as if she were rising, the air itself tugging her, while at the same time a lassitude swept over her, weighing her down. Then it passed, abruptly as it had begun.
Ellone exhaled sharply. "I can't," she gasped. "It's like--there's nothing there. Where he should be, it's as if I'm reaching into a vacuum. There's nothing I can link you to."
"It's okay." Laguna put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed lightly.
She shook her head tearfully. "It's not okay. That emptiness--I've never felt that. I can't find him in there. He's gone..."
"No." Rinoa kept her voice calm with effort. "We'll find him. Send me back farther. Find him in the past--the moment he fell. We need to know what happened then."
Ellone swallowed, then brushed her bangs from her eyes and nodded.
This time Rinoa didn't even see her close her eyes. She was sitting in the chair, and then she was tumbling into a rainbow abyss. Sound and light drowned her.
The chaos ebbed, took shape once more. Colors. Form. Voices. She heard Zell speaking, then a gruff baritone replied. Raijin. Zell asked a question.
"Yeah, I'm listening." The words came from her mouth, but in Squall's voice. She could feel him--she was him, and yet she was herself. His presence surrounded her, as comforting as being physically held in his arms.
"Squall?" she asked, and heard her voice, though not aloud. He was talking to Raijin and Zell; she could see them clearly before her. "Can you hear me?"
Rinoa? Unlike his speaking voice, the mental tone was uncertain, subdued.
"Squall, it's me," she replied eagerly. "I need to know--"
Suddenly he cried out, in his thoughts only, but not to her. A wordless, unvoiced scream, without cause, it first seemed, but pain was evident. "Squall?"
Then something struck her, like a bodily force, a darkness rushing in to drive away all perception, battering her back with the sheer velocity of its coming. Desperately she clung to her place in his mind, digging mental fingers into the substance of his self while she called to him. "Squall!"
He didn't, couldn't answer; she felt him slipping, struggling at the edge of a chasm. No colors in that depth, only darkness. She tried to hold on, but it was like fighting an ocean undertow. Inexorably she was dragged from him, the same void that drew him in forcing her away, until she lost all trace of his being in its current.
She was sitting by the bed again, in her own self again. Ellone was slumped in the chair beside her, Laguna supporting her. Fighting the vertigo of transition from dreams to present reality, Rinoa lifted her head, and saw Ellone's come up with hers. Their eyes met. "I saw," the other woman whispered. "You were there, and then the link broke. He was taken from my reach."
"Taken..." It hadn't been an impersonal force, she realized. Not a random storm, but a will behind it. It felt like..."You. Ellone, it was like you, when you're bringing someone into the past. Like it felt when you sent me into him just now..." Even as she said it she realized she was wrong. A similar sensation, but not the same. Entering Ellone's visions was like falling into a dazzling hurricane, swept through time, uncountable places, people, minutes. But Squall had been pushed back from that living chaos, carried away....
"Is there anyone else who can do what you can, Ellone?" Rinoa asked.
"Not that we know of," Laguna said. "Dr. Odine never discovered anyone."
"Ellone probably is the only one who can send into the past," Rinoa said. Ultimecia would have sought out anyone else with such a talent. "But what if there's someone who can send people elsewhere?"
Ellone frowned. Laguna scratched his head. "The doc would be interested in them, definitely, but I don't know if he ever found anyone like that. If he were still in Esthar we could ask him, but he left last year."
"We should try to find out." Rinoa thought of the blackness engulfing Squall, and shivered. "If there is someone who has almost the same talent...maybe you can't reach Squall now because he's not anywhere here or in the past. Maybe...maybe he's in the future."
"Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed," Irvine muttered.
He was speaking under his breath, but Selphie heard well enough to glare at him, and Kiros tossed him an ironic grin, a slash of white teeth in his dark face. The Esthar minister then turned back to Quistis. "Is there any sign of an offensive from Fisherman's Horizon yet?"
"No. And we've got to be in range of their radar by now."
"Probably they've known we were here all along," Xu contributed. "FH has Esthar's technologies, remember."
"Or better," Kiros nodded. "Some of Esthar's top engineers and inventors live there."
"So what are we gonna do?" Zell demanded. "An all-out assault?"
"We can't," Quistis said hastily, before Selphie could voice her opinion on that. "We don't want to hurt the people of FH. Or anyone in Galbadia Garden." Though if the Galbadian forces had successfully taken control of the other Garden as well...she prayed not. A second inter-Garden battle was not something she ever wanted to experience. "Since we don't even know if they're attacking Cid or the Garden, technically we have no conflict with the Galbadians anyway. Maybe we should try talking to them."
"The word is mightier than the sword," said Laguna as he entered the office. Rinoa was beside him, and Fujin and Raijin behind them. Esthar's president continued, "But as far as the conflict goes...I dunno, Kiros, can we afford to hire SeeD to drive out the Galbadians? FH is sort of under our protection."
Ward rumbled a query. "How's Squall?" Selphie asked anxiously, echoing his tone if not his timbre.
Rinoa gestured negatively. Her usually pale complexion was closer to pallid, but she didn't lean on Laguna's offered arm. "Ellone's with him. She couldn't reach him. She believes it's deliberate, though. Someone's doing it to him."
"You think it's the Galbadians?" Quistis inquired.
Zell cracked his knuckles. "That's a good enough conflict for me."
"We don't know--"
Zell cut Quistis off with a sweep of his hand, steel glittering on his gloved fists. "They wanted FH, right? They knew SeeD is the only force that could really fight their army. So they take down Squall to stop us."
"Maybe," Rinoa conceded. "But why'd they want FH anyway?"
"For the fishing?" Irvine suggested.
"Probably for whatever they wanted from the Shumi. There's lots of tech and magic in FH, ya know."
Fujin wasn't the only one who stared at Raijin. Rinoa found her voice first. "Do you have any idea what they were searching for?"
Raijin shrugged. "Already told ya, no clue."
"The Prez Deling himself is in charge of this. I'll bet my five best cards that whatever he wants, it's bad news," Zell growled. "I say we hit 'em now and hit 'em hard. Before they find what they're looking for."
"It might be too late for that."
Everyone looked to Nida, who had just come down the lift from the bridge. He coughed self-consciously. "Eh--I've been trying to reach you on the 'com, but it's out. A couple minutes ago there was a signal from FH."
"Another TV broadcast?"
"No. It wasn't a communication, far as I could tell. Just a signal, sent across a wide band of frequencies in every direction. It might still be transmitting, I'm not sure--the instruments are all short-circuited. Whatever it was, it was powerful enough to blow out our receiver. And the radar. And the intercom too. They must've used the whole FH satellite dish to broadcast it."
"Why?" Rinoa crossed her arms. "What would they signal for with that much power?"
"That's the kind of question I don't know if we want answered," Quistis murmured.
"And that's the kind that always gets answered," Kiros replied.
Fisherman's Horizon was originally constructed to net a far different quarry than the gilled and scaled bounty they now drew from the sea. The giant dish the city was built around now was used mostly for solar energy collection, but at one time it had been intended to pick up signals from the stars, processing the shifts and electromagnetic waves flowing randomly through outer space for signs of a pattern. A hint of intelligence; an indication, perhaps, of the ancients who had long ago vanished from the world.
In their optimism, the designers of what later became Fisherman's Horizon built it to transmit as well as receive, so that communication would be possible as well as discovery. In the end, both hopes proved fruitless, and as its denizens became less concerned with world outside their tiny community, they gradually ceased using the dish for either purpose. It remained functional, however. No FH engineer worth their salt would let such magnificent mechanics rust, even if they were never operated.
Neither was their purpose forgotten. So when the entire dish began to vibrate, as if the metal itself were taken with some bizarre seizure, the people of FH didn't join the Galbadians' cries of "Earthquake!" Their alarm seemed of a different nature.
Ferdid wasn't blind to the difference. His radio dead, he grabbed the arm of a wide-eyed lieutenant, penetrating the man's panic with his direct command. "Get below and bring the doctor up here, if he can take himself away from this."
"This is the doctor's fault?" Dahl grasped the railing of the Mayor's staircase, his knuckles white but no evidence of fear on his face as he weathered the tremors.
And there was no hint of nerves anywhere about Jezikan. "Or is this your work?" she inquired of Cid Kramer coolly.
The SeeD headmaster had braced himself against the wall when the shaking started. Adjusting his glasses, he squinted at her thoughtfully. "I'm afraid not. Not to my knowledge, anyway."
"Of course, you don't know what's going on in your Garden," Dahl sneered. "They could be escaping, tearing this place apart to break the moorings."
"They aren't," Ferdid said. "I've gotten no reports that the Garden is doing anything, or even occupied. We haven't breached its defenses yet, but we'll force through eventually."
"If we need to," Jezikan purred. "I'm sure the headmaster here could be induced to bring us aboard."
Cid raised his eyebrows. "How?" he asked, with genuine curiosity.
As abruptly as they had begun, the tremors stopped. The soldiers breathed a collective sigh of relief, but the FH citizens still looked tense. Dahl let go of the balustrade as Ferdid tried his radio again, and received a blast of static. The President frowned, wondering if the SeeD might be responsible after all. Shutting down communications was an effective battle tactic...
He was reassured by the return of the lieutenant and his charge. Though grumbling, the doctor's annoyance at the escort didn't counter his zealous grin. When he spied Ferdid he sprang forward. "My lord President! Did you feel it?"
"Then that was your doing?"
The doctor bobbed his head like an ardent parrot. "Yes, most definitely! The vibration was no earthshake as these soldiers are saying—that we felt was the activation of the satellite dish."
"Its activation?" Jezikan stepped forward.
"The dish had to be activated to transmit the signal, madame," the doctor informed her. "We were seeking the materials for a tracer, but this is much preferable, much more efficient. I saw it at the moment I came to this place--I had forgotten the power here. We need no longer search for it. I have broadcast its homing beacon across the globe."
"You mean--" Jezikan's sapphire eyes fully opened in an expression no one would recognize, because no one had ever seen her completely surprised. "It will come here? Come to us?"
The doctor laughed delightedly. "It will come to us directly! It rises from its hidden grave now. By the time it arrives, I will have completed the control device. And then, by the mechanism of my genius, madame, my lord President," and he bowed to them, "then you will be the masters of the Lunatic Pandora."
The clash of their gunblades sounded throughout the Garden, had anyone been alive to hear it. They moved through the ruined corridors, fighting every step. Sometimes Squall would fall back, and other moments Seifer retreated, and then at times they moved as one, as coordinated as dancers in a ballet, directed by the silent music of their war.
Squall's wounded arm burned from his shoulder to his fingers clamped around his weapon's grip. The cut had closed, re-opened, closed again throughout the course of battle. Now he felt another warm trickle of blood gathering in his sleeve. He wondered how much more he could afford to lose. Already the corners of his vision blinked with green-black spots. He couldn't say if he felt light-headed; his arms and legs seemed independent of his mind, blocking, dodging, attacking without conscious thought.
Seifer seemed ignorant of his own injury, though since he wielded his blade in his other hand the wound mattered less. If the blood staining his arm affected him at all, it didn't slow the fury of his strikes, or off-balance him as he twisted away from Squall's blade. They had neither been able to hit the other again, but Squall was keenly aware of how much closer Seifer's blade came with every slash. His jacket was cut to ribbons, while Seifer's white coat remained untouched, the long tails streaming behind him like wings.
The knight was better than him. Squall realized it gradually, with a kind of sick disbelief, watching the ease with which Seifer parried his strikes, while he barely defended the other's onslaughts. Seifer was not even winded, while he felt the effort to draw every panted breath, though his endurance had always been greater before. The knight didn't even deign to use magic. Squall refrained as well, because he could not; he had no guardian force junctioned, no access to the spells pooled inside him.
If they would have done any good against Seifer as it were; this new Seifer, this white-clothed killer. Not the boy he had known as a child, no longer the rival he'd fought beside and against. He swept through the shattered hallways like the death angel of the ancient legends, the scyther reaping souls of meek and mighty alike. He came for Squall now, and his face was barely recognizable. Neither haughty nor arrogant nor twisted with anger, but smooth. A painted death-mask, to be set over the ashes of a corpse.
But not yet. There were no words spoken, no words to say. Only one end was possible; Squall could think no further than the conclusion of the fight, but in this fight that span was all that existed of history. Past and future were lost, before and after meaningless. He struck now, parried now, every moment disappearing as it brought them closer to the end. Why hardly meant anything anymore, until they rounded a corner and Squall nearly set his boot on the body of a fallen SeeD. With a voiceless cry he charged Seifer, forcing him back with stamina renewed by desperate rage.
It didn't carry him far enough; he faltered, and Seifer drove the advantage, his gunblade sweeping low to slice across his calf. Striking high to nearly score his opponent's face, forcing the knight away, Squall limped back, trailing scarlet on the charred floor. The cut wasn't deep, not even to the muscle, but his leg throbbed as the blood dripped down.
Hopeless, and yet not. Even as he deflected his enemy's rush, barely repelling the gunblade's blows, he felt a reckless confidence. Seifer was underestimating him as much as he had underestimated the knight. He had no magic of the ordinary variety, no spells or forces to summon. But he was not helpless, and the fight not ended.
Seifer attacked again and Squall defended by rote. His injured leg slowed him, too much. The knight's gunblade swiped across his other arm, again only shallowly, but the new pain added to the old and multiplied, magnifying the agony of every movement.
He didn't ignore it. He let it build, with the anger, the desperation, the terror of the fight. Every emotion he wouldn't allow himself to feel, every passion he avoided, in battles and in life. He opened the gates inside himself and let his spirit be flooded. And when the wave crested, his gunblade rode the surge.
He unleashed the power within Lionheart.
The blade moved so swiftly it became a swathe of blue flame, streaking toward Seifer, and he more carried with it than wielding the fire. Faster than the eye could follow, blow after blow rained upon his foe, each falling with the strength of a god's sword.
And the knight blocked. Impossibly, his gunblade met Lionheart's, and where Ultimecia herself had shattered, the blade held firm, swooped low to block again. When the assault ended, Seifer stood untouched. While Squall gasped for breath, the death's mask cracked into a smile.
"And that's your vengeance for all I've done. Your final stroke."
No! Squall tried to say, to scream, but Seifer was in motion. The knight lunged forward, gunblade extended before him like an avenger's lance. Squall brought up Lionheart, but late, too late.
He saw Seifer's eyes, azure-hot with bloodlust and victory, and then he was thrown backward against the window, glass shattering around him.
On the cusp he nearly heard a voice, familiar, calling his name.
Then he was falling into an infinite darkness.