Crimson Lies Part 3
~ Chapter Seventeen: Friction ~
One fire burns out another's burning,
One pain is lessen'd by another's anguish.
Since the beginning of time, men dreamed and poets wrote, wars have been raged and lives ruined. For life is over in a blink of an eye, a fraction of time in history. The most we can hope is to have one moment in time; one moment that makes life worth living. The pain and the sorrow, fail in comparison to that moment. Most spend eternity dreaming of such a time. Two people found that time. With a solitary kiss, life had new meaning, a reviewed passion, a purpose…each other.
His lips, his breath, everything…it was him. Rinoa wanted to do nothing more than pull away, but she knew that wouldn't happen. She needed him, more than humanly possible. Her spirit had been broken, and with that, the trust gone. Love is nothing without trust…
The only way to trust again was to allow herself that pleasure, to ignore the pain, to forget the past and move on. Right now, she needed to feel him, feel his heartbeat, and feel his skin on hers. Damn him…all this from one kiss, one simple request.
For his part, he refused to yield. The moment would be over too soon, no matter how long it lasted. And he was afraid. Afraid she would leave, just as before…afraid of being alone. But most of all, afraid at who he'd become, a mere shadow of his former self. He was nothing without her. Finally, Squall knew that.
She did it. As hard as it was, she was the one to break the contact.
"Squall," softly she spoke looking down at her mother’s ring around his neck. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to think right now. I don't know what to feel."
He caressed her check as she tilted her head toward the touch.
"Stop trying, Rin. Stop trying to think, stop trying to feel," his voice a whisper of his normal tone. "Just feel."
She closed her eyes for a second, thoughts racing. Rinoa was about to state her decision aloud, but before she knew it, he leaned over and seized her with a passion she had so often dreamed of. His hand reaching her back as his lips passionately met hers. Guiding her body toward his, he started to lower himself onto the rug. His back met the floor as she lay on top of him. Neither spoke, neither could, as each second became more heated.
Damn him yet again, how did he know her decision? They deserved tonight. They needed tonight. Her future was not one of hope, the best she could do is live in the present, that moment…the one many could only dream.
His hands made their way to her shirt, as he silently started removing it. For a second she stopped, as did his heart. But, she only smiled and helped take off the garment. When that task complete, he sat up, every so slightly, removing his own shirt. Rinoa reached down to feel his chest, his skin…allowing herself to remember. Sensations ran through her body from her fingertips, as they met with his flesh.
The fire highlighted his eyes. Each shade stood out, colors never seen reflected off the flames. Again, Rinoa felt the overwhelming need to feel his lips, his mouth, and his tongue. Everything that was him. She lowered her body onto his, as he reached his arms around her bare skin. Before their lips could meet again, she let out a gasp as his ribs touched hers.
Rinoa sat straight up, as Squall lay under her. He tenderly ran his fingers over the violet and black bruises on her side; she flinched at the painful contact. With the deepest of concern, his eyes met hers. She nodded silently, giving him permission to do what she denied fervently earlier.
Carefully, he placed the tips of his fingers over the abrasions, as an amber light radiated from the union. The dark hues gradually faded to lighter ones, but never completely disappearing. Smiling wearily at him, she took his hand from her side. Softly intertwining their fingers, she mouthed the words, "thank you." He returned the gaze with intensity and concern before, what appeared to be, the tiniest of smiles…a feeling foreign to him for over two years.
She leaned down to him, her face close to his, but never meeting. Stretching her body, Rinoa softly kissed his temple, then lowered just a tad and kissed his scar. Something she wished she could take away, yet even spells had their limitations. The scars they both carried would never disappear. Never fade. Reaching her free hand up she moved her fingers to his hair, reminiscing about how long it used to be.
"Your hair is shorter," she said almost teasingly.
He returned the gesture, tucking some stray hairs behind her ears.
"Yours is too. We did what we had to do to survive."
Rinoa giggled openly, "You had to cut your hair? I think that may be stretching it a little."
She followed up giving him a tender kiss on his lips, which he strained desperately to maintain as she broke away.
"I had to try to forget about whom I was…who we were. I don't want to forget…please…help me remember."
Answering his pleas, she pressed against him tightly, letting him feel every inch of her body. He could smell the sent of the soap, the shampoo, and of the vanilla lotion she used earlier in the cabin. Every smell only incited him more, his body remembering that which his mind tried greatly to repress. Reaching around to her back, Squall effortlessly undid her bra clasp. She was right that first day back in Balamb, he had become a professional over time.
He grabbed the strap and hastily tossed it over his head. A small gasp escaped her as their lips met and their bare chests connected. This time she didn't pull away as he deeply returned the kiss.
Never breaking contact, he reached for the nape of her neck, and gently, lovingly rolled her onto her back, allowing himself to take a dominant position. Rinoa reached up and undid his belts, again, something she no longer fumbled over. Flinging his pants aside, just as he had done the bra, clothes were being tossed and strewn all over the small room. It had been so long, yet it only seemed like yesterday they were in this same position. Everything came flooding back…sounds, sights, memories. Their past became the present, for at that moment they were the Squall Leonhart and Rinoa Heartilly of long ago.
When their bodies finally united he looked down at her, she lay under him as beautiful as ever.
"Hyne, I've missed you Rinoa. I never knew how much I could miss this closeness."
She looked back up to him, placing her hand on his cheek, "Just tell me you're real."
Caressing her shoulders and forearms he looked into her soul assuring her, "I'm really here."
Closing his eyes, Squall fought with his mind. So many times, he had envisioned this situation; it was the only way he managed when she was gone. But then, when he opened his eyes, it was never she with him…always someone else. The thought almost made him sick. He abruptly opened his eyes, to reassure to his mind what his heart already knew. Gasping out of breath, he spoke to her.
"Rinoa…please look at me. I have to know it's really you."
She opened her eyes quickly trying not to get lost in the feelings. His eyes were so serious, so scared. Even now in the most intimate of moments he needed her, needed the solace only she could provide. Only her. This is something the old Squall Leonhart would have never done, yet the feeling was truly amazing.
They watched each other for the entire union. Each helping the other forget the pain, together they reclaimed past moments. Together they again became one. When it was over, he dreaded breaking the contact. Feeling as if the dream would end, fade away into nothingness and he again, would wake up alone at his desk. This dream should not end, could not end. He could not survive the separation a second time.
Rinoa reached up placing her finger in her mother’s ring as it lay dangling between her and Squall. Tears once again formed in the corner of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Her eyes never leaving his, her heart never leaving his.
"You know she really never loved him, she just married him…maybe she did it for her career, maybe she did because she thought she lost her chance at love with your father, maybe she did it for reasons I'll never understand. I think she grew to care about him, but it was never love. I don't have too much of her, the wedding ring, a few photographs, and fragments of memories. Memories I'm not even certain are mine, not figments of my imagination."
Squall exhaled, sighing as he finally rolled onto his back. The contact was broken, thank Hyne, she was still there. The dream did not fade away. With his right arm, he grabbed what appeared to be a pair of pants and balled them up into a makeshift pillow. Never breaking the physical connection with her, he pulled her into his arms. She rested her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat racing.
"Rinoa, don't compare our situations to hers. There is no comparison." He reached his hand smoothing her dark hair, explaining, "I know what you're doing. Your parents might not have had the perfect relationship, but they did care about each other. They both loved you. Richard Bennett and your father are nothing alike. We might have had our differences, but I respect Caraway greatly. There is no respect for Bennett, he is no man."
She laid her hand on his chest, feeling both his breathing and the rhythm of beating heart. Squall did know her. Ever since she married Bennett, she couldn't help but parallel the two stories. Although through a technicality, legally she wasn't truly married to the man, the wedding was under a fictitious name. Nevertheless, the union in all other senses was real; she wished she could erase the repulsion from her mind. The thought of Allison learning of that marriage made her queasy just to think about.
What she had told Squall earlier was the truth, Alexandra would seek him out eventually…if timing and circumstances were right. There always was a contingency plan, if the situation warranted dire enough. Alex would go to Squall over Bennett. Deep down inside, between the two men, she had always believed Squall would do the right thing. For a moment she thought of telling him the truth about Allison, yet some unseen force was her holding back. Maybe it was just the thought of ruining this perfect night, perfect moment. There was always tomorrow, although she did not have many tomorrows left.
Was tonight just lust and desire, or was it more? She knew. It was love. Damn it, she still loved Squall Leonhart, more than words could describe sensations and feelings beyond words, beyond love, beyond fear. The simple fact remained…it couldn't be. The next words were the hardest she would say tonight, or ever, through her entire life. For these words were not spoken out of anger as earlier, but out of love.
"Tomorrow I'm leaving. Squall, please go back to Garden…go home. I can't…I can't be responsible for you losing your freedom. I have to find Alex. I have to make sure my daughter is safe. He's never going to leave me alone…I have no future. You do. You're still commander and with that you can go on."
She tried to be strong, gods she tried. Yet, the next words felt as if someone thrust a dagger into her chest, now they were maliciously turning it.
"Squall, go home to your wife. This is our past. Thank you for tonight, I will never forget it. But somewhere out there is your future. I'm not a part of it. I...can't be."
The harsh winds died down, giving way to peaceful night. The air still frigid, but somehow a soothing comfort. Seifer could see the bright stars through the porthole window, each having a life of its own. This far north they seemed closer, if only psychologically. One could reach out and touch the celestial bodies, at least with the mind’s eye. He found himself drawing imaginary lines, making beast and friend alike. Sailors had done this for centuries, navigating by the stars themselves. They drew a map, a map of time, a map of direction. For a second, he found himself lost in their beauty and majesty.
Seifer never paid much attention to simple things, always wrapped up in an illustrious dream, never stopping to notice the beauty of those around. Like Quistis. Her blonde hair tickling his face, with every breath she took. However, he dared not move the closeness, euphoria unlike anything else he had experienced.
Each sense was awake with exuberance. His ears heard her deep, even breaths. His nose smelled the slight essence of coconut shampoo. His mouth, tasted the mixture of coconuts and her, the taste of her upon his lips. His eyes saw her beauty, outward and her inner being. However, most of all, his skin could register her touch - each point of their bodies that contacted, each strand of hair, the most welcome phenomenon.
Involuntarily he moved his arm, attempting to wake the numbness that was overtaking. With that simple motion, she moved. Seifer damned himself for budging, as she rolled to the other side. Her breathing became heavier after the shift. Turning toward her, Seifer watched as her long blonde hair lay softly draped over the pillow. A sudden urge took over and he reached his hand and soothed her velvety hair. The texture was amazing, a cross between silk and heaven, nothing short of heaven.
Quistis’ body tensed, as a gasp escaped her lips. Suddenly he could tell that she was dreaming, but regrettably, it did not appear to be one of a blissful nature. Her body stressed, and he could hear incoherent words as she uttered them. For the most part, they were nothing more than a foreign language, only understood by her.
Over the mutters she finally cried, "Squall…please..."
In that moment, his heart sank. How foolish was he to think that in a four-day period she could forget a lifetime of desire? Squall was her husband, for Hyne’s sake, the one she vowed to cherish forever. For his part, Seifer was aware that the commander had not taken the vows seriously. But, Quistis did. Squall never married for love, sadly, Quistis had. He closed his eyes as she echoed the words yet again…
"Squall…please I need you…"
This time Seifer could make out more of her fraught pleas. A sudden desolation took over his body. The tired man turned the rejection into a form of sick laughter. How fucking ironic was this? He was now the weaker man. His mind recalled a time he dreamed of comfort before, with results that devastated an entire nation. Last time though, he searched beyond his generation, beyond many lifetimes of generations. Ultimecia offered such comfort to him, such promises. Quistis was only human, which made the situation that much more difficult to sustain. This time he couldn't claim enchantment, or spells. This time, it was only his misplaced desires.
Silently, he started to roll off the bed. For some reason he found himself hostile towards her, even though it was truthfully not her fault. No, maybe the hostility was not directed at her, but at himself. The moonlight shown through the window as the grey and copper metal reflected an almost greenish tint. Somehow, the same sky that looked beautiful earlier now looked as it was scorning his feelings.
As angry as the man was, for some reason, he wanted to stay…maybe not next to her, but close. Feelings are funny that way. His shaking hand hesitated as it reached for the door; he looked back over his shoulder one last time, torn between two thoughts.
Leave or stay.
As if an answer to his question, she called out again…this time the words completely legible.
"Squall…please I need you to find her."
In an instant she screamed, it was the only sound audible within the small building. She hadn't meant to, but the visions so exhaustive they forever would haunt her mind. The bedroom door quickly flew open and the baby began to cry. When she regained her bearings, Alexandra reached her shaking hand out to comfort the child. She was surprised when the moonlight revealed Zell consoling Allison, holding her close, caressing her fine hair with his hand. Slightly rocking back and forth, he gently rested his head on hers, offering the warmth of human comfort.
Her sight cleared as the shadows of darkness slowly began to take familiar forms. Irvine stood in the doorway, the light behind him diluted all features. The familiar cowboy hat was the only notable silhouette. Again, the horrible images flashed through her eyes, and she found an overwhelming need to disappear.
Neither man had spoken, giving Alexandra time to regain equanimity. Pulling the sheets to her chest, she tried to hide her confusion. Allison stopped crying and now was resting her head on Zell's shoulder, azure eyes never closing. They held a mischievous curiosity, childlike innocents that Alex, and the others with her, could never reclaim. The little girl looked at the bed, and then around the room with growing concern.
"Ma'ma?" a tired voice spoke softly, and then a second time with more urgency, "Ma'ma!?"
"She's not here right now, honey," Alex choked out. "Auntie Alex is sorry, but she will be here soon. Promise. Ma'ma loves you."
The words did not seem to comfort the child, as she began crying again. Irvine walked over to Zell, and stretched his arms out to the girl.
"Hey you, young en'…let's say we go find some cookies and juice. Who doesn't love some juice in a baba…er…bottle."
The child hesitantly went to the stranger, but through the tears did manage to squeak out the word, "juice?" As they left the room, Zell finally directed a question toward Alex.
"Yeah," she lied. "Just a bad dream…nothing important."
Sitting on the edge of the bed, the slightly perplexed man looked at the red-numbered lights of the clock.
"It's not 4:27. Are you sure you should be up?"
She let out a sound somewhat a mix between a laugh and cough, "You too?"
"Yeah, that kinda got annoying. But, sometimes waking up from that nightmare was a bigger comfort."
Pulling her hair from her face, she tucked strands behind her ears. "Well, at least that dream was the only one you had to live with…I have others," sorrow filled her voice. "The visions of the dead are stronger than the living, they never forget…I wish they could learn to forgive."
"Wha?" he looked at her, curious at the comment.
Alex hid her eyes, "Never mind. I just had a bad dream, that's all. I’m sorry for waking you guys."
"We weren't sleeping," he replied. Part of him wanted to continue questioning her, as Zell knew she was hiding something else from them. Yet, he believed Alex would tell when she was ready and decided not to press any further. "We were trying to get a hold of some friends of ours through back channels. Irvine managed to get a hold of his girlfriend on a network chatroom by using names only we could understand."
For the first time she laughed aloud, "Irvine has a girlfriend? That...I didn't expect." Zell looked at her strange. She continued her brown eyes growing wider, "Oh, I didn't mean it that way…I mean, oh never mind. Sorry, this place just brings back memories, both good and bad. We spent many summers up here."
"It was probably pretty nice back in its day," he tried to mean it as a compliment. "Your parents must have loved Dollet, or the communication tower."
"I never knew my parents," she said defensively. "I was…adopted by a doctor who took care of my mother."
Zell scratched the back of his head, and half-teasingly asked, "Err…your mother’s name wasn't Raine or you never lived in an orphanage, did you?"
"No?" she answered completely puzzled, "Why?"
"Ah…nothing just had to make sure. It's freaky enough about sharing the visions with you." Another strange thought entered his head, "A…you're not my sister or anything?"
"Your sister?" she laughed. "No, Zell. I think these are some of the strangest questions I've ever been asked." For some reason, there was an underlying tension within the air. She tried to break the apprehension with a more lighthearted statement, "Well it rates up there with the strangest question I was ever asked… I'm a sorceress who is running from her estranged boyfriend, the Commander of SeeD, who has been accused of murder and now carrying his child… Do you think you could deliver the baby and then raise her as your own? That was a pretty bizarre day too."
"Yeah, I bet…well, I'm going to check on Irvine and Allison. Do you want some water or anything?"
"No thanks," she replied smiling up at him. "I'm doing okay. Think I'm just going to lie back down. Allison might not want to go back to sleep…she's kinda a night owl."
"Yeah," he said closing her door. "She gets that from her father. But luckily, she seems to have more the curious personality of her mother."
To a certain degree, Squall actually pushed her off his chest, not with force but still in anger.
"You honestly think I can go back? Damn you, Rinoa. This is not a game to me, this is my fucking life. I don't lose you for two years to have you leave me in the morning. What do you want me to pay you too?"
He did it. For the second time tonight, his mouth said something he wished could be taken back. Earlier she poured her soul out to him, telling of how she degraded herself in Trabia. Now, he only cheapened that which just happened, something so beautiful…so indescribably magical. As with their love, it was truly above words. Squall could tell he hurt her. She didn't look up just curled into a fetal position, lightly trembling; she lay lost in the hurtful words.
Squall quickly moved over to her, kneeling back onto the rug.
"Oh, Hyne Rinoa. I didn't mean that. Please," he pleaded. "I'm an asshole…please. The thought of leaving you after so long is…I was barely alive before tonight. To lose you again, would be death."
He grabbed the quilt from the couch and walked over, delicately covering her body. Sitting next to the person who mattered most, Squall ran his fingers through her dark hair.
"Rinoa, I'm going with you. It's not a question, it's an answer. My life at Garden is over…my life with politics is over. I will fulfill the promise I broke so long ago. Please…it is my redemption, my salvation. I pledge my life to you as your friend, as your lover, and as your knight. Nobody will hurt you or Allison again. I promise."
She stopped shaking, whether it was the blanket, his pledge, or his proximity remained unknown. Rolling onto her back, she looked up at him. He placed a hand on her cheek and she mustered a tiny smile.
"Squall, there is just so much…too many enemies. I know you want to protect me, I know that now. But there is something between us that neither of us can forget happened. Squall I…I don't know if I can trust you with our lives. I want to, Hyne I want to, but something is keeping me from…there is just something I can't explain."
He grabbed two small couch pillows and lay on the floor next to her. She shared the blanket, he didn't ask, it was something done on instinct. Lying on his side, he watched as she continued to stare at the ceiling. Squall could tell she was afraid of the eye contact, exposing her naked body was nothing compared to her naked soul. He reached for her right hand that rested on the blanket, not positive how she would react.
For the briefest of moments she did not move. Finally a hesitation as she stretched her fingers, and then finally giving in, accepting his hand. He knew it was more. He could feel their strength as one return, as their souls united once again. The hand represented her decision, which she finally voiced. Turning to look him in the eyes, she smiled. A smile that melted his heart; one that made the days worth living, life worth living.
"Squall Leonhart, I would be honored if you would be my knight again."
~ Chapter Eighteen: Contravene ~
Peace does not appear so distant as it did.
I hope it will come soon, and come to stay;
and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time.
During that time between sleep and consciousness, a thousand wishes are made. Some simple, like five more minutes of sleep; some more complex than a lifetime of eternities. If one could find a happy medium, they are truly blessed. It is also the time when realization is upon you and dreams are sorted from actuality. A time when sensations return and truth is discovered. With every night comes the dawn…
Her first thought, ‘how stiff her back muscles were.’ Lying on her side, she stretched her legs, slightly arching her back. When reality dawned, Rinoa quickly opened her eyes. For a second, she saw only the cabin interior. The fire had died down, leaving only smoldering ash. A sudden apprehension took over when she noticed herself on the bed. Was yesterday one of her vivid daydreams? The thought made her nauseous…it was so perfect, it was so wonderful…
"Morning," a hoarse voice spoke softly from behind.
The smile couldn’t stay away, it was real, and he was real. Rolling onto her back, she stretched arms overhead as her eyes turned toward him. God, he was handsome, even after all this time, even after all the stress evident in his features. Their eyes locked, neither willing to move. Minutes they stayed there, neither saying a word…just taking in everything that was them.
Squall noticed how she had matured, her features more the woman than the girl he remembered from his dreams. Her shorter hair highlighted her face, as wispy strands fell into her eyes. What weight she had gained from the child, suited her well - giving her a shapelier and defined figure, but still perfect. Her smile, her smile…it hadn’t changed, not one bit. She was still the saintly being, his angel, and his savior.
Rinoa found herself lost in his eyes; it had always been his eyes. On the surface, they appeared to be of blue, with traces of brown. However, on the inside they were the stormy river that led to his soul. His torment, and his sorrow, all shown openly within the tender gaze. She found herself drowning in his eyes, not wanting anyone to rescue her. When he made the slightest of sounds, whether a sigh, or a heavy breath, it brought her back into the truth. All of a sudden, she was no longer looking at his eyes…but those of Allison. Tensing at the thought of her helpless daughter, Squall could tell her sudden change in demeanor.
"Are you okay?" he asked tenderly placing a hand on her silken skin.
The physical contact shot electricity through her veins, as she replied, "Yeah, I’m fine. I just had a sudden thought about Ally…Squall, I’m so worried about her."
Sometimes it was hard for him to grasp the concept of Rinoa being a mother. Hell, he only found out yesterday. After all that transpired, nothing justly had time to sink in. For a second, an almost jealous feeling shrouded him that the child was on her mind during their moment. Even in that time, he inwardly cursed himself for such a thought, how fucking selfish. Then it occurred to him, the truth that he did not want to face. The truth he was resentful of…Richard Bennett was the father, not him. The jealousy was not with the child, it lay within the paternity. That bastard.
Honestly, children were never his thing. The junior cadets at Garden made him nervous enough and they were at least five. Maybe it was their disorder, maybe it was their lack of attention span, or maybe they represented everything he lost.
Watching their carefree ways and childish games made him uncomfortable, in return, he learned to resent what they stood for…innocence. Something lost to him long ago, and something that would be lost to them soon enough.
He told Rinoa once he didn’t want children. It was easy writing it off to the job, or the danger of living at Garden in general. But the fact he hadn’t faced then, or even now, was the thought of true, unconditional love. Someone that would wholly depend on him, for their survival, for their life. Moreover, something he was afraid of losing…or hurting as his father had done him.
Now after so long of not caring, he found himself in a discomfited situation. He would have to come face-to-face with his fears, for her, and for himself. Allison was part of Rinoa’s life, and he would defend Ally just as he would her mother. The knight would honor his duty as protector of the child, in life and spirit, even if he wasn’t the biological father.
His mind raced back to that arid day in Balamb. The one forever etched in both of their memories, picturing Rinoa sitting in the passenger seat of the Garden vehicle. That was the first day she mentioned children to him, or any sort of future commitment. That was the only day she ever mentioned children again. Rinoa learned her limits that day, there were lines drawn that even she wouldn’t cross.
The fear that overtook him, at the mere notion of naming a child, was greater than the child itself. It was a fear of commitment…but most of all, a fear of true love. In his mind, at this moment, he heard her once again asking the question, "Do you like Allison for a girl and Aaron for a boy?" Four years and a lifetime since then, Squall Leonhart finally looked her in the eyes, answering the very question that terrified him almost five years ago.
"Rinoa, I like the name Allison for a girl."
The statement was so off-the-wall she managed a laugh, through her obvious worry. That was a way of hiding her true pain. Her immediate thought was telling him the truth about his daughter, yet something continued to hold her back. Hell, they had been as close as physically possible last night…but maybe that was it. ‘Physically possible’…something mentally did not feel complete. The bond was there, not broken, but damaged.
Was it the lack of trust or her shattered spirit still torn between knight and family? A million possibilities flashed through her mind. Then it dawned on her, why must she still separate the two…knight or family? Two separate entities, not in union. Why were they not one? He gave himself on every level last night, but on the one she genuinely desired. Trust. He was still holding something back…and dammit, she knew it. She knew him.
Slowly her thoughts drifted back to him, as he stared deeply within her eyes. If she knew…did he know it too? If they were honestly one, there would be no secrets. Yet she could tell he was holding back, and for sanity alone…she would too. There would be a time to tell him…but not right now. Too much was left unsaid.
Plus, she was afraid. Afraid of his reaction, afraid of the truth.
"Ah…thank you?" she finally said confused, not relating the answer to her question four years ago in Balamb.
Suddenly the entire incident with Richard Bennett flashed in Squall's mind…the hostility toward him and the resentment of SeeD. The picture of Zell and Irvine helping the accused kidnapper, now it became crystal-clear. They found out who the child was. They were willing to risk their freedom and lives for the child.
"Oh Hyne," he said rolling to his back shocked. "They have Allison."
Rinoa sat straight up, all look of contentment vanished at the thought.
"Who has Allison? Squall, what’s wrong?"
Sitting up, his only intent was to comfort her distress, gently putting both his arms around her shoulders. Trying to pacify her fears, he explained, "When I went to Bennett’s house he was extremely belligerent. The entire ordeal ended up with him landing face down on the floor. I had no idea why the man hated me so much. Now I understand. He also threatened the lives of other SeeDs that aided in the abduction. None of the pieces fit, then he handed me a surveillance photo. In it Zell was running with an unidentified woman, and Irvine holding a child…they stopped their capture in Dollet."
Gasping for air within her lungs, the thought of them being apprehended made her body tremble. He pulled her near. As their skin touched, Rinoa felt a comfort unlike any other. Resting her head on his bare chest, she listened to the rhythmic sound of his heartbeat. He in return, wrapped his arms around her, silently stroking her hair. His grip, tighter than normal, for a second he worried about her ability to breathe. It had been so long, this comfort so foreign. To him. To her.
He never wanted to let go.
Squall could feel her warm tears rolling down his chest, but did not care. Each one traced its own path, letting him know that he was alive.
"Zell and Irvine will protect her, right?" she asked through gasping breaths. Already knowing the answer, if her friends had gone into hiding with Alexandra. But for some reason, she needed to hear if from him. Friends? How long had it been since she considered them friends.
"Of course, Rin…they will hold no hard feelings for you against her. They have shown that, I trust them with my life…yours and Allison’s."
"Wait…" she pulled herself away, again examining his expression. "You mean they still think I killed Ellone? You never told them the truth?"
He glanced away for an instant, embarrassed the admission slipped his mind during the turmoil. Only he, Seifer and Quistis knew the truth right now…and that might be a little hard to comprehend, given her current emotive state.
He ran his fingers through her silky brunette hair, smoothing back the clumps that glued to her face with tears.
Compassionately he explained, "Rinoa, I just found out myself. I guess…well, I wasn’t thinking of anything, but finding you. I’ve never been one to share things with people, if it wasn’t necessary at that moment. My only thought was you, now that we had a lead in Trabia. Never in a thousand seasons did I imagine finding you this quickly. Though, I can never express my gratitude in doing so."
Rinoa smiled weakly. "I understand," empathy in her voice. "So…how is everyone doing? I really would like to know."
He lay back down onto the bed, pulling her with him. Grabbing her hand, he intertwined their fingers. His other arm holding her tightly, each points of contact of their bodies a wondrous sensation.
Squall turned his head toward her, giving the slightest kiss on the forehead before starting, "Selphie and Irvine are doing well…although, neither really speaks to me unless they have to. I haven’t been the easiest person to get along with for the last couple of years. Selphie tries to remain cheerful, at least on the outside. Inside I think she is as lost as the rest of us. Irvine is still a SeeD, but he will really never truly be one in his heart. Which I am grateful for, even if I don’t say it. Originality is hard to come by military standards."
Snuggling closer into his chest, Rinoa gave his neck a small kiss. She knew the commander wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, Hyne did she know. Rinoa could only imagine how he had reacted to the death of his sister…and to losing her. No matter the circumstances she left under. She should have been there along side him. That is where she was fucking supposed to be. For a minute she tensed in anger about the betrayal…how could her friend do that?
Sensing her behavioral change, he quickly continued, "Zell…well, honestly Zell has taken this situation almost as hard as me. He lost faith that day, though he won’t admit it. He has been going through the motions, trying desperately to act like himself. But I know, those of us who conceal can tell when others are hiding behind masks."
Smiling up at him, Rinoa listened carefully as Squall recalled everything.
"Cid accepted a liaison role with the World Council, publicity and that sort of political crap. The kind of shit I hate, but he seems to handle it well. Edea moved back to the orphanage, remodeling. They don’t have any children there…I don’t think they ever will. Nevertheless, it’s a hope. It keeps her going. She wasn’t treaded too nicely after the incident, ex-sorceress or not…feelings of hatred run deep. So, she is alone most of the time, Cid is there on weekends…but I know it’s not enough for her. Oh, by the way…I gave her Angelo."
Lifting her head, she looked at him, with a huge smile, "Really?" He nodded. "Squall…I just figured that Angelo was…well you know she was my dog. I figured after what had happened someone would have…"
He interrupted her statement, "Yeah, I did too. Selphie really wanted the dog, even when everyone thought that you were…well you know. But threats had been made, and I thought it my duty to protect Angelo, she was a part of you. The only part that remained. When Edea left from Garden after the memorial, she was willing to take Angelo to the orphanage…Rin your dog loves it there. All the fields to play in, the rabbits to chase, and the ocean… she loves the ocean."
Rinoa leaned in, giving him a quick kiss on the lips, which he generously returned.
"Squall, make you a deal. If we ever get out of this…we will take Allison to the orphanage. She has never seen the ocean, never felt sand between her toes… Squall she has never even seen a dog that wasn’t in a book. We will take her, and then Edea will have a child there."
It was a dream, Squall knew that, but it was a dream they both could share. He smiled to her, no words were needed, his smile brighter than a million words. God, did he ever remember being this content? If so, the memories were repressed way beyond reclamation. Pulling her into him, they again started what they had last night. Something so foreign, yet so familiar. Each kiss with more urgency, with more passion.
Both shocked out of actions, when a terrible commotion erupted outside. Squall sat up quickly, verbally cussing out the damn bird. The chocobo that had carried him to the ascetic cabin was now running around in circles. Flapping its feathers, demanding attention in nonverbal urgency. As the chocobo continued its proceedings, a sudden feeling of trepidation took over.
"Rinoa, get dressed. Quick."
She didn’t answer him, jumping off the bed and starting to search for loose articles of clothes. He was doing the same. As Rinoa buttoned her pants she looked at him, eyes satiated with fear.
"What Squall…what’s wrong?"
"I don’t know yet. But that chocobo is trying to warn me of something…don’t ask…please just don’t ask."
With a curiosity at the bird’s tantrum, the mystified woman walked over to the window, spying the yellow creature running in circles. It had worn a path from its previous travels. All of a sudden, it darted into the forest as if not wanting to be witnessed. Ample snow covered the ground, the previous day’s storm made the road to the cabin only visible by the tree-lined path.
Her eyes widened as she observed her worst fear. "SeeD," she said aloud, then with more urgency, "Squall – hurry. SeeD is here."
Hyne, how long had it been since she had such a peaceful night sleep? The bed was remarkably small for one person, let alone two. Nor was it comfortable by any means…yet she slept. Peacefully. He had actually stayed with her though the night. In reality, she wasn’t expecting him there when she woke, but was glad for the surprise.
He, on the other hand, had not woken yet. When he slept, she could see the child within. All traces of evil or hostility gone, in their place the solitude and tranquility one could only find when not seeking it. Maybe this is where her search ended; maybe he was her chalice, her holy grail.
Her mind flashed to the orphanage…and between the two boys. Each alike, each different. What separated them and such a young age? What made her fall for Squall over Seifer? She could argue it to be Squall’s personality, quiet, shy and dependent in his own way. A way he never understood, but Quistis did. He had not always been like that though…not when Ellone was around. In reality, back then, the two boys were extremely similar, especially in attitude.
Nevertheless, the day Ellone left, Squall changed. He became the one she wanted to help, that was her nature. The same thing that led her toward the life as instructor, lead her to Squall. But the day Ellone left…permanently…Squall changed again. It was more than the loss of a sister; it was the loss of life, both his and Ellone’s.
This leaves Seifer. Always 'the other one' in her mind, and to all who grew up with them. She realized what drew her to Squall, would be the only reason they were apart. Squall didn’t need a sister two years ago; he needed a lover…his soul mate. Quistis was neither. But Seifer… he needed her. Why had she been so blind from the start? Then again, five years ago they weren’t meant to be together, each had to learn from their mistakes. It was supposed to be this way. That simple.
They needed to grow, they needed to mature…they needed each other.
A loud knock sounded on the door. Quistis tried to sit up, even though Seifer was half on top of her. The noise didn’t seem to bother him…this guy could sleep through anything. After another attempt to sit up failed miserably, she finally announced for the person to come in. For a minute she pondered any recourse on her reputation…being married to the commander and all. Then she decided…she didn’t care any more.
Lauren opened the door, visibly surprised to see Quistis sleeping with another man. Fully clothed. But Quistis had told her the full story last night. Outlandish to think her instructor, more importantly the commander’s wife lay in bed with 'the Seifer Almasy'. His reputation at Garden was less than flattering, if not down right hated. Yet still, he didn’t seem like an evil tyrant bent on worldwide domination, well…at least in her opinion.
"Hey Quistis, the press conference is an hour. I hadn’t seen you, so thought I would check if you all right… I see that you are fine now," she laughed slightly as the woman in bed slightly blushed in embarrassment. "Really, it’s okay. I’m not going to tell anyone…who would believe me anyhow? Oh, more SeeD members arrived today to look for Bennett’s wife…um the sorceress and Squall. Still nobody has made a connection that I can figure."
"Lauren, her name is Rinoa. I know it’s strange to say after all that has happened. But it’s just Rinoa. I promise you, the commander will no longer yell at you if you say that name."
"Thanks Quistis," she replied with a smile. "It’s just so strange. Everything. Really though, you don’t know what an honor it is that you trusted me. I promise to help the four of you, the best way I can. It’s my duty as SeeD, more importantly, as a friend."
Quistis tried getting up again. "Hey Lauren, as a friend, do you have any idea how to wake him up?"
The knock came…they knew it would. Squall motioned for Rinoa to hide behind the door, same fashion as last night. There was only one SeeD, which was a consolation. He would do his best not to harm him, but if it came down to it, he would protector her at any cost. What he did not realize, nor could he. The irony that they were not searching for her, but for him. SeeD was on a hunt…for their commander.
Slowly he opened the door.
The SeeD looked a little upset to see him, almost the tiniest bit of fear. Squall remained calm, letting his leadership instincts take hold.
"It’s about time soldier," Squall spat out at the man. Who was more than a little baffled.
"Sir…it’s about time?"
"Yes, I sent that distress call over twelve hours ago. I would think that Trabia Garden would be capable of a simple rescue and recovery operation."
The SeeD remained calm; playing along with the commander’s little game.
"Oh…oh right. We had some trouble triangulating the location during the storm, but I was sent when the storm let up."
"Fine, just let me get my coat."
The commander walked to his jacket and then turned back to the SeeD.
"Oh can you get my radio over there?"
The junior saluted and started to the table…he never felt the metal pan hit his head, rendering him unconscious. Squall bent down to him, checking his pulse.
"He’ll be fine. Come on."
He grabbed Rinoa’s hand and headed for the door, toward the waiting Garden vehicle.
Each knew one thing. There was no going back for Squall now. He had made his decision.
Reporters from every corner of the globe circled like vultures in the sky. Each wanted to ask Mrs. Leonhart questions about her husband’s disappearance. She and Lauren walked through the locust, pushing a path leading to the platform. Damn them. Damn all of them. Never had she been so harassed by a group, never had she felt such hatred toward people. The press made Squall the villain. Hell, he was already convicted without a trial.
She wondered how people could change their opinions so quickly, without a second thought. One minute he was the savior of the world, next a cold-blooded murderer. There was no gray, only black and white. Quistis wished Seifer could have been with her, but hell, they would have picked him out quickly. He would already would have been imprisoned by now. Then it hit her, she was the only one of them left who could walk down the street. Rinoa, Squall, and Seifer…their lives, their freedoms were over.
Would time forget and forgive?
Lauren kept most of the jackals at bay, at least the ones she could. Several other SeeD members were present, helping the escort. After what seemed the short eternity they arrived at the platform. She took her seat along side President Mitchell of Galbadia. He looked to her with a smirk, murmuring his apologizes about her husband…reassuring her that they were not holding her responsible.
Seifer watched from a snow-covered alleyway. Things had come full circle. Two years ago this week he watched as Squall Leonhart announced the hunt for the sorceress…and now he was watching Quistis Leonhart announce the hunt for Squall. Irony…the fucking irony. Neither guilty, but neither free. He watched her eyes in fear, how he wished that he were standing beside her for support. The bastard from Galbadia was talking to her; he could sense her uneasiness from even this far away. That man was the devil, disguised as a savior to many. Seifer knew.
Quistis sat as officials made the artificial allegations. Every fucking one of them, a lie. Still, she didn’t waiver. They needed her… Rinoa, Squall, and even Seifer. Their future depending on her actions. How she handled herself among the snakes. She sat reading the documents that had been presented, feigning being lost in thought. Trying to think of something plausible to say during her speech. She was to relay the current situation of SeeD. Their duties and where loyalties lay, against the commander.
Suddenly fear shrouded her. Quistis could feel his heartless eyes staring at her. She looked over to President Mitchell to counter his actions. She would not be weak this time. His eyes narrowed in a glare…for a brief second she couldn’t comprehend the change.
At that instant, they announced for President Jefferson Mitchell to take the podium, to the delight of many supporters. Again, his popularity was growing. The leader of the famed World Council had ventured to their humble town, to help with the tragic loss of their own delegate. He looked at Quistis reaching his hand down to her thigh. And then leaned in whispering the most horrifying word imaginable.
She felt a sudden urgency, as fury began to rise. She had heard that word before; she had heard that threat before. Right before the school bus bombing…the only thing making her keep the secret. The one that was drowning her.
President Mitchell turned to her while taking his place among the microphones. A smile with evil and greed. In that moment, she knew whom they were dealing with.
That bastard knew of Rinoa…and that bastard framed Squall.
Nobody was safe.
~ Chapter Nineteen: Collide ~
Sometimes your nearness takes my breath away;
And all the things I want to say can find no voice.
Then, in silence,
I can only hope my eyes will speak my heart.
She loathed this, but at the same time, it was the most unparalleled bliss in the world. Rinoa knew that Squall had made his decision; they would now be fugitives…together. His life at Garden was finished, years of training since childhood…now a distant memory. Everything he ever was, no longer mattered. He was like her; he was a criminal.
They reached the vehicle, and thankfully, the SeeD left the keys in the ignition. Trabia was possibly the most disorganized group known to man, even worse than the ‘Forest Owls’ on a proportional scale. Quickly both entered the cab, and Squall immediately started the engine.
Silent tears fell from her face, as she watched him prepare to leave. Everything about him still fascinated her, the way his gloved hands gripped the steering wheel. Fingers that could be so dominating, yet so gentle. She knew both sides, something she faithfully believed that was an honor only bestowed upon her. The way he systematical checked and adjusted the mirrors, even in the immense hurry, he still followed safety protocol to a certain degree. The way her knight ran his fingers through his hair, some things never changed. Finally, she noticed how his eyes would glance toward her, always making sure that she was still there. Whether he looked in the side or rear view mirrors, or actually had the courage to check from peripheral vision, he needed visual confirmation. But done in a way that he didn't want her to notice. He needed her, needed to know she was still there.
Not a fantasy. Real.
Letting out a deep breath, he put the car into gear, driving away from the wooded bungalow. She turned once more to watch the silhouette of the cabin disappear behind groves of trees. For three days, it was home, and for one wonderful night, it was heaven. Somehow the emptiness of the barren land no longer mattered, her knight returned, and with that color to the landscape.
"Squall?" she asked hesitantly.
He desperately wanted to look at her angelic face, but the ice-covered pavement required all his attention. The hills and mountains made the roads treacherous terrain; one could easily go careening down a ravine, and not be discovered until the summer thaw. So, he continued surveying the road, giving nonverbal acknowledgement.
"Squall I…I don't understand. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful…but everything you ever had, everything you ever wanted out of life…it is gone. You just lost it with one action. Squall…you betrayed SeeD."
"Rinoa, you still don't understand. Stop thinking about everything I lost…only think about everything I gained. You. Two years ago, I lost you, and only SeeD remained. It was the only life I knew before, but after you…it was insignificant. Commander of SeeD is the title I had, knight was the title I wanted…the one I cherished."
This time he dared to look at her, slightly turning his head, meeting the gaze of her rich brown eyes. Smiling lovingly back, she mouthed the same words spoken last night. "Thank you."
For moments, they were silent…neither speaking only trying to figure out the enormity of the situation. And for a brief moment, they spent in the tranquility of just being there. Together. However, the gods of fate never smiled upon them for very long, because at that moment the radio went off.
"Trabia Garden to vehicle 427, please acknowledge your current location."
Squall checked the corresponding identification number etched on the metal plate. Shit, which was undeniably…them. How ironic this situation mirrored the Ragnarok five years ago. Drifting out in the endless void of space, their only connection to civilization the communication radio and the bastards at the other end. They wanted her back then for her powers…powers eventually manipulated against her. Without guilt, without remorse. Now there would be no sealing, only death without trial. Fuck them.
Reaching for the radio, he prepared to respond. However, they would ask his SeeD identification number, which would certainly give them away… He quickly handed the communicator over to Rinoa.
"Rinoa, repeat after me…word for word. Do not add anything." She nodded in understanding as he continued, "ST-0303-BLM current location 40' longitude, by 65' latitude."
She repeated it letter for letter, word for word.
"Selphie Tilmitt, Balamb Garden," the static voice from the other end rejoined.
Squall nodded once again, mouthing, "Affirmative."
"Affirmative," she spoke with certainty.
"Damn it," the voice came back. "Sorry about that Miss. Tilmitt, we just have the wrong paper work…again. Continue on your search."
"Roger," she said pressing the button. Squall's eyes grew wide at her single word. He bit his lip slightly shaking his head, trying to concentrate on the road ahead.
"Excuse me?" the voice questioned back.
Rinoa thought that's how she was supposed to respond. Now she realized, by Squall's demeanor alone, it wasn't.
"Sorry, I just thought that was you…Roger. It's been so long." She cursed herself for not shutting up, as with each second that went by, they would only grow more suspicious from her rambling.
"Oh no, Miss Tilmitt…Roger is off today, but I'll let him know that you asked."
Rinoa said nothing else, quickly setting the mechanism back into the cradle. Turning her head toward Squall, she tilted her head slightly as was her trademark. She smiled apologetically knowing he couldn't see her, but he knew her actions.
"You still don’t like to listen to me, do you?" he asked with a playfulness only she could decipher from anger. "We just better be thankful there was a ‘Roger’ in the communication department."
"Er…sorry. I thought that…" she quieted down, not wanting to pursue the subject any further. "Hey, why did they think I was Selphie anyhow?"
"It's the only other student number I know. Two years ago, we assigned new numbers…hers stuck in my mind. ST, for Selphie Tilmitt and BLM, given to all the SeeDs attending Balamb Garden…but the 0303…it's your birthday, March 3. So, I remembered it. I could never forget that date."
Looking out the window, a small laugh escaped her lips. She couldn't help the smile from once again forming. Reaching her hand over tentatively, she placed it on his upper thigh. Slowly she caressed the fabric of his uniform, feeling every muscle in his leg and the way his body tensed at her touch. The contact sending electricity through both of them. It was a sensation that made Squall realize he was alive, more importantly that he was with the only person he ever loved.
His sorceress, his love, his life…Rinoa Heartilly.
Innocent. They were innocent. Children no more than ten years of age, and the driver who's responsibility it was to care for their safety. One bomb. One explosion. One moment. Taking away all their dreams and their very heartbeats. One man so cowardly he blamed and executed a homeless man, again another needless death. However, to President Jefferson Mitchell life was nothing, people were nothing - all dispensable, all pawns in his game. The only problem was, nobody knew of the game but Quistis, and the rules were all but nonexistent.
This would be the deciding point in her life…to turn and run, to hide amid Garden as she had before. Or to stand and face the enemy, relying on her strength and that of those around. Amazingly, she stood with Seifer and Squall two unlikely allies, but the best two associates one could possibly hope for. This was their time. She might have not had the courage alone, but together…she did.
This time she would not go quietly into the night, she would be the shadow that followed Mitchell…always there, always waiting.
Crowds of citizens and reporters alike cheered him as he gave what sounded more like an election campaign than a news conference. Someday they would know the pain he had caused. Someday…and she would be there when he fell, with nobody to catch him. And that someday would be soon.
Gazing over into the alley, she saw Seifer standing in his SeeD uniform. How things would have turned out different had he passed his exam, had he been there that day with Ellone and not her. For a second she found her self caught up in a dream, one that could never be…them on a mission together, or even walking around Garden together. Nothing special, maybe just as simple as being in the cafeteria as he ate salty fries and she picked at her salad. Simple things. Things that no matter how much wished for, could never be. Their fate was decided a long time ago. Yet, he still gave her strength in just being there. The man was risking his freedom for her and she knew it. Moreover, she loved him for it.
Entranced in her thoughts, Quistis finally felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning around, she saw Lauren with a confused look, motioning for her to follow. Her turn at the podium would be up soon, but if Lauren was pulling her off the stage in front of hundreds…there was a damn good reason. Quietly getting up, she walked down the back stairs as the younger SeeD pulled her behind the curtain.
Speaking as softly as possible Lauren reported, "I was just over at the communication post checking the progress on the search for Commander Leonhart. One of the vehicles searching the Trabian woods radioed back with Selphie's identification number. The operators thought they had the wrong staff paperwork. Even asked me if I knew Selphie… I told them yes, I believed she had come up here with the latest group of SeeDs. I left and used a direct link to Balamb… I was right, Selphie was still there."
That was it….it was the little piece of hope Quistis wished. First, she knew that it was Squall trying to relay a message and still conceal their identity. Second, if it was a female voice…it was Rinoa. Goddamned she was really alive…and with Squall. The feelings before she left the stage, still weighed heavily on her mind. Yet now, their small group of three turned into four. In addition, one of them was a sorceress. That could make all the difference. Thank Hyne.
"Oh," the junior SeeD continued, "you're not going to believe this. Selphie said she'd been in contact with Irvine and Zell… they're now on the run with Richard Bennett's assistant Alexandra Williams and staying in Dollet. Allison Bennett is with them… Renee's…um…Rinoa's daughter. The child is doing fine, but now they are wanted by the authorities also."
"Damnit," Quistis spat. "You would think I'd have been notified about something like that. I think the council wants me to stay in the dark… Okay here is what we are going to do. Go to the communication room, and tell them it's an order to broadcast my speech. Make something up if you have to…about letting SeeDs know that all Gardens are united on this search and we're SeeD first and friends second…or some other crap like that. Just make it believable and tell them it must be broadcast. Use whatever means possible."
Taking a quick glance around the bustling scene the instructor continued, "Then go find Seifer…just call for Nicolas or something. He saw me leave from the stage, so there is a good chance he'll find you. Tell him to get on our vessel directly, and then have Captain ready to depart immediately. You go back to Balamb Garden and work with Selphie…I can't drag you in any further…too many lives are already at stake."
Saluting the older SeeD, Lauren started to leave until Quistis called out. Quickly she walked up to her softly adding, "Lauren, I can never thank you enough. We all owe you so much. Whatever happens, whatever people say about Squall and Rinoa…don't believe it. They were just two people who truly loved each other. Please remember them that way. Also, if you hear anything about Seifer and me, just remember the truth. We were two people lost in our dreams, but finally realized our mistakes. I don't care what others say…just promise me you will remember us that way. Promise."
The younger girl noticed the tears in her leader’s eyes, and the sincerity that lay behind them. Holding back her own tears she answered, "I promise." Quistis hugged the girl and headed back toward the stage. As she walked up the stairs Lauren noticed her crumple up the planned speech, tossing it in a near by wastebasket. For some reason, the younger SeeD felt as if Quistis just said goodbye. Not just for today, but forever.
Returning to the row of folding chairs, Quistis sat as the cold metal chilled her to the bone. She tried to warm her hands on the heaters set up around the stage, each a futile attempt compared to the bitter temperatures. Finally, the last reporter asked Mitchell a question and he answered in a double-talking way only a politician could. It sounded good, but in reality, he said nothing. Typical.
Feeling the eyes of hell upon her, Quistis looked at the man as he sat down beside her. Reaching his hand over, he lay it tenderly on Quistis' leg, never breaking eye contact.
"Hope you had some time to think dear Mrs. Leonhart. I know how much you pray for your husband’s safe return…must get lonely in bed without him warming you. Now that he is searching for his little bitch again, guess that means you're free."
Pushing his hand off her thigh, she narrowed her eyes at him. This man truthfully was the most hideous, disgusting creature on earth. She wanted to tell him off; she wanted to take her weapon to him without mercy. Nevertheless, in the end, the President would get his…and she would be there…smiling. She just shook her head, not wasting her breath. Grabbing her folder, Quistis took her place at the podium staring out into the unforgiving masses.
It seemed an eternity, but in actuality, it had only been thirty minutes or so. They were within a twenty-minute drive back to the outskirts of Trabia. Rinoa had somehow managed to move closer to Squall during the trip, but still not as close as she would have liked. His concentration was needed on driving and not on her. Yes…some things never changed. Still her hand remained on his thigh. She refused to give up complete contact. It gave her strength; it gave her hope.
By nightfall, they would be on the cargo ship hiding among the boxes, such as she had done two years ago. Most of all, by tomorrow morning, they would reach Dollet…and Allison. For a moment, she felt queasiness in her stomach. In the morning, Squall would meet his daughter…Squall Leonhart’s daughter. Gods that felt good to think freely. She had to tell him. Now was not the appropriate time with his concentration needed on the road, but she was afraid of waiting any longer. The more she contemplated it, the more something was holding her back. Yet, he proved himself and his commitment. Although, deep down…she still denied his entire honesty. It felt as if something was holding him back also.
"Squall," she spoke with a wavering unmatched by anything previously. "I have something to tell…"
"This is Trabian Garden base command. We are patching all SeeD communication into network feeds. You will be listening to the news conference currently in progress in downtown Trabia with Deling President and World Council Leader Jefferson Mitchell of Galbadia. We have been directed that all SeeDs must listen to the broadcast."
"Hang on Rinoa," he stated simply, pulling the vehicle to the side of the road. "This is unprecedented, never has anything been broadcast on this frequency."
She sighed, nervously shaking out the courage that had been building up. As they pulled over, Rinoa looked at him, as he returned the gaze. Drawing her into a quick kiss, he touched the side of her face with his leather gloves, now regretting the departure from her tender lips.
"Promise Rinoa, when this is over you have my undivided attention."
She could only nod in agreement, leaning on his shoulder as he wrapped his arm around her waist.
Quistis glanced nervously around. Finally, she saw Lauren appear on the opposite side of the stage nodding. This was it. This was their stand, whether Mitchell knew it or not, this is where she turned the tides of fate upon him.
"My fellow SeeDs we are coming together to unite. No longer should we be making the differentiation between our Gardens. Today we stand as one. Balamb is understandably concerned about the accusations and disappearance of Commander Leonhart. We would all ask that our leader turn himself into authorities for questioning on the murder of Richard Bennett."
Neither of them could move…each in shock at the statement. Squall removed his arm and turned up the radio, praying he had heard the broadcast wrong. Well at least the part of the accused. Rinoa was in shock that Richard was dead; moreover, that Squall was charged…
"Squall?" she questioned.
Looking in her eyes, he shook his head in denial. She could see the perplexity within his stare, and the hurt in his eyes. She took his right hand in hers. He squeezed it back in mutual understanding and support.
Quistis' voice continued to echo throughout the vehicle, "We are all friends and comrades, but above all we are SeeDs, and will stand by our principles. I want each of you to reflect upon the day you became SeeD, the day you went on your exam mission. In that experience alone, you earned your rank among us. Now I ask that you all return to that day, and draw from your feelings of why you joined SeeD."
Turning to Rinoa, he brought her hand to his chest. "That's it. It's a code." He actually laughed at the simplicity in the message. "Quistis is giving us a code…Rinoa, she knows. We are to return to the Dollet Communication Tower…where I took my SeeD exam."
Still in shock, Rinoa moved her head in agreement, as the words didn't truly register in her mind.
"…again it is important that everyone one of your parents knows their daughters or sons are safe. We will not go blindly into this mission…"
His eyes still focused on Rinoa, "There…she is saying that Allison is protected. Parents knowing that their daughters are safe."
"Again, Balamb Garden is working with full cooperation with local and state authorities in the investigation. Richard Bennett was a valuable member of this community and the World Council. His murder will not be taken lightly. Last night a vile crime was committed as he was murdered within his own home, only a day after his wife passed away. His abducted daughter is still a number one priority with SeeD; we have our best operatives on the case now. However, the murder investigation will not subside until the one responsible is caught. I want whoever that person may be… I want him to think about what he has done. I guarantee you right now…he will be brought to justice. And SeeD will be there."
She ended her conference with a smile. Looking over in the crowd, she noticed Seifer and Lauren standing together leading the applause. They knew what she had just done. She was now in the game with President Mitchell. In a moment of defiance, she turned back toward the man sitting there, with a look of pure evil on his features. With a smile, the instructor saluted the man, with the formal SeeD salutation. It was not a threat; it was a promise, directed solely at him. He knew that.
Quistis looked at him, mouthing the word that had so often haunted her dreams. "Think."
The crowd noise grew quiet from the applause, mainly led by the SeeDs present as the reporters clamored to ask her questions about the incident.
Rinoa sat in horror. First, the realization that Richard Bennett was dead…second, the fact she felt no remorse. Two years with the bastard…and not one single emotion of compassion surfaced. There had been many nights she wished for this…hell, she even mentally planned it, but never could she act out on her abhorrence. That was not her nature, for murder was not in her.
Unless he hurt Allison.
Then she could have killed the bastard, without a second's hesitation. It was remarkable how she could let herself suffer by his hands, Hyne knows she had…every bruise, every scar, a diagram of her life the last two years. Each represented the private hell she was forced into. But if he touched Allison…no force would be greater than her wrath. Now he was dead…and she didn't care.
Ironically, she was more distraught upon hearing the voice that was giving the news. Quistis. Never could she think that one her friends would betray her. They always had their differences where Squall was concerned…but still she would have trusted her life to the instructor. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Each syllable the instructor spoke dug deeper within her heart. Each word represented time lost with Squall and Squall with his daughter. The mental pain Richard caused failed in comparison to anything that Quistis had done. To be deceived by a friend is worse than to be betrayed by an enemy.
She only could stare off into the distant forest, trying not to let Squall see the anger covering her features.
But then, it happened.
Squall was still in shock of news. He was now wanted for murder…the murder of Rinoa's forged husband. Had he thought for a moment, had he even surmised the next logical step. Had his thinking been on the obvious and not lost within the recesses of his mind…he would have known. Hell, he should have known…what the communication radio would say next. The words forever haunting him as so many already had…
A reporter innocently asked, "Quistis Leonhart, how do you feel about your husband being accused of murder?"
And then time stopped.
No words could sting more. No words could cause so much pain. Not even in Deling during the original press conference was she so injured. The words kept repeating in her mind, like a record skipping on a player. Never going forward, never going back, only remaining in the same eternal rut.
He closed his eyes. Looking at her now would be something his heart couldn't take. The look of anguish on her face would be etched in his forever, another of his betrayals causing pain. There were no expressions able to describe his feelings toward her. Life stopped two years ago, his very breaths only counting down until the time he moved into the afterlife. For no life without her was complete and death would end his perpetual torment. But in less then a day's time, he had found his salvation, only to have it slip through his fingers again. The torment thrust upon him since birth. How much more torment could Rinoa take before she broke? He was the one going to break her - in spirit and life.
He inhaled as a tear slid down his battered face, he tried to choke out an explanation, "Rinoa, I..."
However, it didn't matter.
She was already gone.
Turning as the truck door slammed, the vibration reverberating through his mind. He did it. Once again, he fucked up. His life story…the only story he could ever tell. One that was not meant to be happy, one that was meant to bring pain and suffering to all those it touched. Such as it did his mother, such as it did Ellone, and such as it did Rinoa.
In that moment, his heart called for her, but his voice could not. A battle took place in his mind…remembering the loneliness of time-compression, the barren wasteland that represented his life. She found him once…now he would do it for her. It was a favor that he wanted to return, had to return. Twenty-two years he spent upon this earth in pain, he would not spend another twenty-two. If she were gone this time…he would be too.
He loved her. He needed her.
And she needed him. Given time she would forgive him, Hyne, she always did. That was her…she was the strong one. No not physically, but strength runs so much deeper than that. It's something unknown, something from within…and he would return her strength, which lay in her trust.
Never bothering to remove the keys from the ignition, he opened his door and ran into the forest following the fresh footprints carved in the winter's snow.
They would get through this. They had to.
~ Chapter Twenty: Vantage ~
Love is an act of endless forgiveness,
a tender look which becomes a habit.
For two years that is all she ever did…now, reliving every painful moment. Rinoa ran into the forest, into the brush. Limbs scratched her face, leaving reddened and bloody streaks like claw marks from an enraged cat. The pain would have registered, had she not been numb inside. So she ran. She was good at that.
The newly fallen snow was loose on the mountains side. A large section started a minor avalanche. Her tired legs gave way as she tumbled with the snow, landing on the trunk of a fallen tree. Rinoa hit the tree with great force, momentary causing her to lose focus on her surroundings. The tears did not come this time, her state of mind was beyond that.
The cold snow only numbed her exposed skin more, as she gasped to fill her lungs with the piercing air. The sound did not register, but the feeling did. Before she could run any further, she was restrained from behind. Arms encircling her in a prison from which she could not escape…
"Dammit, Rinoa…you're not leaving me again."
She was released slightly from her confides, as he spun her around so they were face to face. His arms still locked tight around her, but now he could see the hurt in her eyes. It killed him.
"Be strong," he whispered aloud. It was not meant for her to hear, but only to serve as a reminder to himself. For once in their relationship, he would be the stronger one…both physically and mentally.
"Rinoa, I should have told you. But…so much…you had been through so much. I just wanted to give you time. It never meant anything…damn you for doing the one thing nobody else ever could. Rinoa, I love you."
In those words, her head stopped spinning. Maybe it didn't help pull her out of the water, but it was a life preserver. Not even last night had he directly said those words. Very rarely before she left did he say them…hell should count the times on both hands. Three years they were together, but each time those words said, etched into her mind like yesterday. The anger was not gone, but somehow was manageable to her.
"Quistis Leonhart," she stammered. "How, how could you…she…knew about Ellone. She won didn't she? She won."
"No Rinoa," his voice grew louder in anger. "Nobody won." Her legs gave out and she fell to the ground, Squall gave in to gravity, never letting his grip on her loosen. They sat buried deep in snow, but the cold did not register…only the pain.
"Rinoa, nobody won. We were all miserable…I died the day you left and I'm not going through it again. Hell or high water, I will be here. I promise."
"Promise," she malevolently laughed. The laugh that had exhibited itself yesterday when her sorceress side had taken over at the sheer idea of him married. Squall noticed as her eyes started to slightly glaze; this time he recognized the signs, he even was waiting for them. Now, the knight just hoped that he could stop the anger from manifesting.
"Rinoa, stop it. Listen to me…I love you. Don't let it take over. Yesterday you couldn't help it, today you can. I'm here; I'm not leaving you. No matter what, I'm going to be your knight. I broke your spirit…but together we can stop this. Try Rinoa, don't let it take over. You don't have to forgive me now…just hold to what we can have together…hold on to our love."
She could feel the battle within her soul, to let the darker part of herself take control. But that was the difference…she could feel it. For the first time, she was able to isolate it, aware of what was happening. Even though it lay battered, her spirit was still with her. Because he was there, the knight protected her spirit. This time, he was doing his job.
Squall watched as all traces of sorceress powers once again became dormant within her. Now, the only thing that remained on her face was the pain he caused. It was a small victory, even he realized that. He was capable of driving back the darker power, which only meant one thing…she still believed in him. And that made all the difference.
"Squall, why? Why Quistis?" her shaking voice asked.
"Rinoa, remember I had to keep on searching for you. The council wanted to take my command away, sighting that I was ineffective and too personally involved. I needed to find someone to marry me…I knew how she felt. Damn it, she honestly was the easiest person around. It wasn't fair to either of you. I know you don't want to hear it right now…but she feels horrible about what happened, it haunts her to this very day. I know she is sorry."
She freed her right hand, reaching up and slapping him with all the force she could gather. He felt the sting of her palm, as it met with his chapped flesh. Moreover, he heard the chilling sound. Grabbing her arms tighter, regaining his control, he brought her close to his chest as he could hear, and feel, her tearless sobs.
"I told you," she gasped. "Don't ever tell me you're sorry. Not you, not her. I will not take that from either of you, especially after the lies. Just let me go…just let me go…please. I can't take this anymore. I can't be with you anymore…Squall the pain, it's always here. It always has been. From the beginning, I was just a burden to you. Don't stay with me out of duty. All I ask of you is to let me go, this is my choice; this is my life. As of this moment you don't have to be my knight…you are no longer obligated to me. I release you from duty, and will suffer any consequences on my own. Just let me go. If you truly love me…you will just let me go."
Feeling her hot breath on his chest, made the next move the hardest thing he would ever do…he let her go. His arms withdraw from her, aching once again to feel her warmth. But he had hurt her deeply, and this was going to be her decision…like to be with him last night. Like when she had made him her knight. He prayed to Hyne that he was doing the right thing. Reaching into his pocket, he grabbed the platinum Griever ring. With shaking hands, Squall hung it on a small branch off a fallen limb.
Sitting in the drifting snow, she watched in horror as he moved away from her. He actually let her go; she didn't expect it. Damn, it was something she said out of hurt…not for him to act upon. His gloved hands reached into his coat pocket, she stiffened at the sight of the band. What the hell was he doing? Then her eyes lay transfixed as it gently swayed back in forth on the branch.
He closed his eyes, gathering his strength.
"Rinoa Heartilly…I will always be your knight. I can't excuse my transgressions, nor would I ever ask forgiveness from you. The only thing that I can offer you is my love…it's the only thing that I have left to give you. If you want to go, let it be your choice. My choice is to go through this together…together you, me, and Allison. I cannot promise you a happy ending; I cannot promise either of us won't get hurt. I can only promise you to do my best…and I'll die trying. If you ever, ever think you can forgive me…maybe not soon…but ever let's go to Dollet together. The only things I can give you, that I still have left, is my hope and my love. If you want this to be goodbye…I understand. Leave the ring here. I never want to see it again. If this is goodbye…then…" his voice chocked, as he could no longer speak.
He stood up and started walking up the mountainside, afraid of looking back. When he reached the top, he did the hardest thing in his life. He turned around, memorizing her form fallen in the snow. Once his angel, now just a lost soul. He didn't know if what he was doing was right, it sure felt like hell. However, if this was going to work, it would be her choice. She was the one who suffered by his hand.
"Goodbye," he whispered to himself. "I'll always love you."
Somehow, her walk turned into more of a desperate run. Not particularly easy on the snow covered streets. But more than anything, Quistis Trepe wanted away from this place, away from all the reporters, and mostly away from President Mitchell. The harbor docks were relatively close to the conference area, and for that, she was thankful. Many citizens stopped and stared and she jogged passed, never changing expression.
She only focused on one objective right now…to get the hell out of Trabia. All else could work itself out. This place resembled a grave, one she felt they were trying to bury her alive within. She was still clawing at the dirt, trying to surface for air. As she saw the boat, and the man standing on the bow, she metaphorically broke through the earth… The dirt that filled her lungs was subsiding, now she was breathing fresh oxygen.
Not actually sure how it happened, like one of those old movies that played in black and white. Seifer left the boat and met her dockside. When she reached him, both opened their arms as she jumped to his body. He spun her around, an event that played like slow motion cinema in her mind. Even she realized how corny this must look to bystanders, like a dime store romance novel. But hell, she didn't care. It was a wonderful sensation to have anyone there for her, moreover, anyone who was that thrilled to see her. Seifer set her down to the snow-covered docks, but never breaking or removing his arms from the embrace.
"You did it," he replied with a grin, leaning his forward against hers, so their faces were only centimeters apart. "I'm so proud. It took real courage to stand up to that bastard. Good going instructor."
She leaned up kissing him softly on the lips. After breaking apart Quistis teasingly answered, "You keep forgetting that I'm not an instructor anymore."
"Well, seems to me you can still teach me a few things, Ms. Trepe," he slyly answered with a trademark smirk.
Shaking her head and rolling her eyes at the smugness, the 'instructor' grabbed his hand leading him up the gangplank. They untied the boat restraints and within minutes, they were setting sail toward the Dollet Dukedom. Her blonde hair flowed in the sea breeze. Seifer walked over offering his arm, and then lead them downstairs to his stateroom.
He opened the door and to her surprise, he had a normal size bed, even with a small couch.
"Hey Seifer," she said imitating anger. "How in the world did you get this room and the rest of us got cabins with quad bunks? Why in the world did we not sleep in here last night? Then maybe my neck wouldn't be so stiff."
Tipping his head to the side, trying his best to play the roll of the innocent, he answered her with a pathetic tone. "Sorry…instructor. I won it in a bet with Commander Puberty, but hey, figured he would prefer hanging from the ceiling in a cave like the rest of his kind."
"Seifer…that's not very nice," she tried to say without laughing.
Walking over to the bed, she took her wet coat off, tossing it to the ground. "You know, I think you genuinely like Squall or you wouldn't be here. Why is it so hard for you two boys to get along?"
"Hyne Quistis…since when has anyone called us boys? I'm twenty-three you know. Those 'boy' days are long gone. But yeah, the guy rather grows on you in his own annoying way…like moss on a stone, but sill grows. Don't ever tell him that I said that, or I will strongly deny it."
Taking off his trench coat, he tossed it to the floor on top of her SeeD jacket. She watched as it landed with a thud; she was sure the thing could stand up and walk on its own.
"Seifer, you really should get a new coat. I think that one needs a proper burial in the Garden incinerator. When was the last time you washed that thing anyhow?"
"Why instructor, I'm hurt. As far as washing it goes…it hasn't had an 'official' wash since I was at Balamb Garden. You know how those rumors get started there… Last time in the laundry room I was accused of…ah…never mind. After I left, being a fugitive with a ‘clean coat’ wasn't a top priority. Anyway it's the only thing I have left of…" his facial expressions changed. He stood up and started to the window, his demeanor was completely different from the smugness of earlier. "Never mind it's not important. So the speech went well, I think."
Getting off the bed, she reached carefully for him, gently placing her hand on his shoulder. "Seifer…please talk to me. If this is going to work out, I don't want there to be any secrets between us. I tried that once…trust me, it doesn't work. I want you to feel like you can tell me anything. Please trust in me."
Nodding in agreement, he reached down grabbing the delicate hand and leading her to the small loveseat.
Almost ashamed of his reluctance he started, "I'm sure you don't want to hear this…but it was a gift from Rinoa. She bought it for me in August the year we went out; it was a present for my first attempt at the SeeD exam. She actually thought I was going to make it, even know she was clueless about what SeeD was at the time. It didn't matter to her. She still had faith in me. Maybe that's why I kept it. I mean Rajin and Fujin always had faith, but Rinoa was the only outsider to believe I could make something out of my pathetic life. I loved her for that, if nothing else."
"I'll make you a deal," she spoke softly standing up and then sitting in his lap. Something the woman was positive she'd never done before, as it was the kind of intimacy she only dreamed. He leaned back in the soft cushions encircling both arms around her, enjoying closeness he'd never experienced either. "When we get out of this mess, I will personally take it to a dry cleaner for you. My treat."
"You're to kind to me," he said playfully as she rested her head upon his shoulder. "Throw in a couple pairs of pants and a sweater, then you got yourself a deal."
"No way…you'll have to pay for the rest of your laundry buddy. Remember I'll be a divorced unemployed ex-instructor then, so I'll have to watch my budget." She paused looking deep into his eyes. "Seriously Seifer, I don't care where you got it. I'm glad someone believed in you back then, even if it was Rinoa. She saw something in you that we…I managed to miss or decided to ignore. I'm grateful for that just wish I'd been there for you then…like I should have been."
"Quistis, you realize this is going to get difficult from here on out. If they got the message, and trust me I know the Knight of Puberty Boys, he got the message. You're going to have to face her soon. Are you ready for that?"
"No," she answered bluntly. "I don't think anybody could be ready given the circumstances. But it's something I have to do…it's the next step toward redemption. Glad that I'm not alone anymore, this would be so much harder alone. I honestly don't think I would make it."
He kissed the top of her head. "You would Quistis. You under estimate yourself a lot, you're a very special person… Oh, Hyne now I'm sounding like you. See what you've done to me. I care now…this just sucks."
"Yeah it does…I know."
Both sat in silence listening to the hum of the engine and the sensation of the gentle rocking of the boat. Events of the last few days repeated in her mind, one thing he mentioned seemed to stand out above all others. She disliked broaching the subject again, but if she was to face Rinoa tomorrow, Quistis wanted to be as mentally prepared as possible. Then again, she was facing the impossible.
"Hey, yesterday you mentioned something about theories on Allison Bennett and her abduction…what did you mean?"
"Wow…hoping that one would slip by you. I just have overall doubts on the whole baby thing. Not really the abduction issue. Maybe it's my cynical nature, but there's more to this than meets the eye. Literally."
"What, you don't think Rinoa gave birth to a child? It's adopted or something…giving Bennett that whole 'family man image' he needed for elections."
"No, Quistis I don't doubt that Rinoa had a child, it's very rare for a sorceress to give birth…but not completely unheard of. I checked that out after I talked to you. There have only been four other cases in recorded history. Each of the sorceress' received their powers at a very young age, all before the age of eighteen. That would explain how their bodies could handle the transformation and physical side effects from the embodiment. So yeah, I think it's Rinoa's all right… I just doubt that Richard Bennett is the father."
Quistis sat up looking him in the eye, confusion masking her face. "What? What do you mean," she demanded. A sudden fear gripped her body, momentarily she felt helpless to her own thoughts. "No, no…not Squall the little girl is only fourteen months old… That wouldn't be physically possible…she would've had to conceive two months after she left Garden."
"Mathematically it would be one month after the attack," he said reaching for a group of folders next to the sofa. He opened up a manila folder handing her the child's picture that they were given three days ago for identification purposes. "Look at this child and tell me what you see…or more, precisely who you see."
For the second time to day, Quistis Trepe-Leonhart felt violently ill. It was staring her right in the face…literally.
"Oh my god…Seifer those eyes…I know those eyes…I…" she couldn't speak coherently. The only thing she could focus on was Allison's eyes, the same azure hues she spent countless years yearning for, dreaming of…now staring back at her with an innocent smile. Definitely, Rinoa's smile.
"Yeah, Quistis…I know. I spent years loathing those eyes… I know them all too well. The age can't be right…someone is lying somewhere. But around here, that's the norm. What would be strange is if anyone was telling the truth. You even mentioned Rinoa had been a huge bitch before she ran…later people concluded it was from planning the attack. Those few other cases of sorceress' giving birth, every one of them was with their knight. Only that bond could be strong enough to break the cycle of infertility. In history, only four other pairs have shared a deep enough love…now five."
She couldn't help the trembling. The realization of everything hit her. Everything. In one moment that day two years ago, all made sense. Something Ellone said scared Rinoa…she ran not for her protection, but for her unborn child. Damn it. Of course, that fit much better. Up until then, Rinoa was fighting, defending Garden. Beside Quistis. Ellone had been the key and the secret died along with her. Rinoa's behavior…it all fit perfectly…another piece of the puzzle they all had been trying to solve for two years.
"Seifer…I…I sent an unarmed pregnant woman out into the world…then Squall…he and I… How are they ever supposed to forgive me, when I can't forgive myself now?" Her body continued to tremble as she fell against Seifer's chest. Concealing her head between his shoulder and neck, trying desperately not to cry. He attempted to comfort her without speaking, for there were no words to help right now. She had to come to terms with this on her own. The only thing he could do is simply be there. Let her know that she wasn't alone, no matter how alone she felt.
The pain was too much to bear, as he turned and walked the final distance to the vehicle. Slowly he got in. Squall Leonhart was dead. Never could any feeling compare to this. Maybe his redemption did come, just not in the form he desired. He found her, and learned the answers to the questioned he dared not ask. Now he was no different from her, on the run, nowhere to call home…and utterly fucking miserable. He slammed his fist into the dashboard, breaking the Plexiglas that protected the instruments. Black leather gloves ripped from the jagged shards that remained. The crimson blood from his hand dripped slowly onto the floorboards.
And he did not care.
Resting his head on the steering wheel, for the first time he contemplated the end of his life. Not even before had he had these thoughts, images running through his mind. It would be so easy…the icy roads the perfect means. The impact of the truck into the ravines would make it relatively painless, that is if he wanted painless. Part of him wanted to suffer as before, but now…
So lost in his own purgatory, he didn't notice the door open, nor the chilling cold air that flowed in the vehicle. He only heard the door as it closed, quickly turning his attention to the passenger seat.
There she sat.
Hair snow covered, wet, and matted. She was shaking from head to toe with a combination of emotions and effects from the weather. She wasn't looking at him, only straight ahead. She never made any attempt to acknowledge his presence. For minutes, they sat there, neither wanting to speak. Yet he felt the greatest relief possible. Now, she knew all his secrets, and mistakes. And she was willing to forgive him someday. She truly was the strong one.
"Squall, don't speak to me…not now. We have two hours before the freighter leaves the harbor…we have a boat to catch."
Never looking at him, only keeping her eyes fixated on the road. No words had ever sounded better to him… "We have a boat to catch."
Closing his eyes, in his mind came the words, "I love you."
For a brief second, Squall could have sworn, within in mind she reluctantly answered, "Yeah…I love you too."
~ Chapter Twenty-One: Struggle ~
Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
The musty wooden crates smelled of mold. The darkened interior was only breached by the smallest rays of moonlight that shown through rotten planks. Together they were huddled by an exterior wall of the cargo ship, between the crates large enough to comfortably store an adult Behemoth. Although they were near, she had taken great caution never to make contact with him.
Rinoa had not spoken to him in almost five hours, a short eternity he was willing to sacrifice. Squall kept his distance, never attempting conversation. He knew better. This was completely her decision; he respected her enough to allow her privacy. In time, she would ask him questions…and sitting in this godforsaken boat, they would have plenty of time.
Reaching the harbor had been easy enough. Squall had parked the vehicle on the outskirts of the shipping yards. His intentions were not to conceal it, rather just the opposite. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary by the least to have SeeD patrolling the harbors. To purposely try to conceal the vehicle would have been much more obvious.
The only snag they had run across was the 'voluntary inspections' enacted by the World Council around a year ago. They were about as voluntary as a root canal, but it sounded good to the citizens. Instead of openly stating, "We're checking your ships so we can tax your asses." From a political standpoint, the latter may have not gone over too well. After the customs inspections were finished, the two managed to sneak aboard, all in nonverbal communication.
Leaning his head against the wall, Squall closed his eyes memorizing the sounds of her breathing. It's strange what one can hear without words, in the stillness of the night. The rocking boat was a comfort right now, like a mother in a rocking chair soothing her crying child. After he thought he was going to go out of his mind, he checked the neon blue glow of his watch. It was now past midnight. From all best estimates, they would arrive in Dollet somewhere around nine in the morning.
Listening to her breathing Squall could tell Rinoa had not gone to sleep. Not rhythmic and peaceful, it sounded like she was going to blow up at him any moment. He waited.
One could cut the tension with the ever clichéd knife, and she knew it. Breaking the silence, she finally asked him, "Who knows I didn't kill Ellone?"
Exhaling loudly he answered, "Rinoa, before we left I didn't have much time to tell anyone. It was basically a need-to-know mission. I re-instated Quistis to SeeD so she and Seifer could…"
Shit. With everything else going on, he forgot about Seifer. Last time any of them had seen him, he was offering Rinoa as a human sacrifice. Oh yes, the day just got better. Even in the dark, he could tell she was looking at him, eyes throwing daggers. And he felt every single on of them enter his body.
"Rinoa please…a few days ago Seifer came by Garden offering to help. I have trusted him completely, and so far, he has not let me down. He needs salvation like the rest of us, trust me, he'll come through. It was his information that helped lead us to you…and Rinoa he believed in you from the start. Something that not everyone can say…including me."
Laughing openly, the kind of laughter one reaches when they no longer can cry, she found humor in her situation.
"The only people I have on my side are the woman who accused me of murder, the guy who ordered my murder, and the asshole who actually tried to murder me. Oh yes, fate is laughing at this one."
When put in such simple terms, Squall could see just how desperate her situation seemed within her own mind.
"Rin…the others will believe you. Hell, they will want to believe you. Nobody wanted to think you killed Ellone…"
"I didn't," she spat.
"I know that. I'm just saying that nobody wanted to believe it in the first place."
"Nobody would have had Quistis not said that I did. Oh that's right, you never asked her did you? Too busy trying to get her into bed?"
"Damn it, you're not being reasonable. I never directly asked her…no. Never thought I would have to do something like that. I trusted her too…we were both betrayed."
"Just don't talk to me…it's late and I really don't want to hear this right now."
"I know Rinoa…but you do realize that you'll probably be seeing her tomorrow."
Curling her knees to her chest, she refused to speak anymore. Tomorrow would be pure hell. What was she going to say? What was she going to do? The only thing that kept her going was the thought of seeing Allison…and whether she would admit to herself or not she needed Squall there. By her side. Damn him.
It was a warm night in Dollet, given the time of year. Alex tossed and turned on the hard mattress. When the nightmare came, as it always did, she awoke with a sudden jolt. It was her curse to witness the murder over and over. A horrendous event she could never forgive herself for, even though it happened over twenty-five years ago.
Lying peaceful on her side, Allison was tightly wrapped with her favorite chocobo blanket. Alexandra had to get out of here, if only for a little bit. When she entered the small living room, both men were still up. When the door opened, both stopped their talking looking directly at each other, then finally to her.
Hyne, she hated secrets. Moreover, she hated the look these two guys were giving her right now.
"Hey, can one of you go in with Allison? I need to go get some air."
"At twelve-thirty in the morning?" Irvine asked.
She never answered, just walked out the backdoor…never saying another word to either man.
"She's so much fun, isn't she?" Zell sarcastically shot back at Irvine. "Nobody has irritated me that much since…"
"Seifer!?" Irvine yelled standing up, looking uncharacteristically upset.
"Yeah…Irvine I was going to say Seifer…didn't think you would be so upset at the mere mention of the name. Gosh, and they say I have issues."
"No," Irvine pointed to the front door. "It's Seifer."
Hard feelings ran deep and Zell was not much on hiding his emotions. The anger was obvious on his face. Jumping up the martial artist would have started over to the old nemesis, had it not been for Irvine grabbing him by the arm. Up to this point, both of the men had been in momentary shock. Just as they were about to say something, Quistis stepped from behind the former knight.
"Don't even start you two," she said in her 'instructorly tone.' The one that basically said, "If you mess with me you will be drinking Jell-O from a straw."
"Quistis!?" Zell finally was able to verbalize, albeit not so tactfully. "Do you know that is lapdog himself?"
"That is Mr. Lapdog to you Chicken-Wuss," Seifer tauntingly replied.
Turning around glaring at him Quistis warned, "Seifer…don't you do this either. You promised to be civil. We have much bigger problems than you two needing a referee."
Looking back and forth between the scene unfolding in front of him, Irvine decided to be the voice of reason between the two men.
"Sorry Quistis…you have to understand the last person we thought we would be dealing with was him. The message we received from Selphie never mentioned that you would be bringing…um…company. We will try to remain calm…and you explain what he is doing here, before we sacrifice him to the surf."
"Guys, Seifer is helping us. He arrived at Garden four days ago, since then he and Squall have been working to find Rinoa. Seifer helped us… Please, I know it's going to be hell, but we need to get along right now. Face it…you guys in the eyes of the law are no better than he is. If all of us want out of this, we need to work together as a team."
"Hey," Seifer tried speaking as seriously as possible. "I know how you feel. I fucked up. Is that what you wanted to hear? No matter how much I get on my knees and beg forgiveness it won't change the past. The only thing I can change is the present. I want to help Squall and Rinoa. Hell, I owe it to them for what I did… I owe it to you guys to help you out of your situation. Let's face it, who better knows how to slither in the shadows? You guys are in my territory. There is a reason I haven't been caught in five years. I'm good. I need this chance…I need the redemption for my mistakes. If you guys at any point don't trust me, or want me to leave…I will. No questions asked. Deal?"
Both guys looked at each other. Neither trusted the man, but if Squall and Quistis had been working with him for the last four days…then just maybe he might help. Shit, they had been searching for Rinoa for two years, and nothing. Now everything starts fitting in place, strangely both felt that Seifer was somehow a part of the puzzle. A piece that had been gnawed on, spit on, and chewed by a T-Rex…but still a part.
"Fine," Irvine spoke from both men. "But one false move and you're gone...literally off a cliff."
"I'm leaving," Zell said flatly. "I need some fresh air."
He turned, leaving the other three to stand in awkward silence.
"Is Allison here?" Quistis nervously asked.
"Yeah, she's asleep in bed."
Turning to Seifer, she reached for his hand, "Seifer…I need to see her. I want to look in those eyes…the ones that will never forgive me."
She sat on the rocky sea cliff, looking out into the dark chasm of night. The endless void seemed to swallow all it touched, the insignificance of her life was now more apparent than ever. Silent tears fell as waves crashed below. Alexandra could hear every sound, yet never see their movement. The night air turned cooler, for a moment she wondered how everyone was fairing. Emotions ran deep right now, a volatile situation at best. Her problems were not theirs, for they had been cursed with far too many.
Nightmares. They haunted her in every sleep; they haunted her when she was awake. The connection made without knowledge of outcome. Over the last year, each grew more dreadful, more grotesque. Not in symbolic metaphors, but in deep emotion. The worst nightmares are the ones that you experience, the ones that linger long after you awake. It had come to pass, painfully so, that these were no longer nightmares…they were much more vivid.
Many believers would call them visions. Alex knew better, these were no longer imaginings but reality. No longer an abstract concept, these were something far worse.
They were the memories of the dead, the voices crying out from beyond the grave. She relived each terrorizing moment…it haunted her. Forever obligated to a group of strangers by fate.
Her destiny was to be amongst them, but never part of them. They had their military lives; she had nothing. She served her function, Ally and Rinoa became surrogate family. Now back where they belonged, the moment both blissful and disheartening. Their knight had returned, just as should be.
Now she was a felon, with no place for salvation from the recesses of her own mind. For a split second Alex surmised what would happen if she fell into the churning waters below. The sea beckoned her echoing her name, as if a siren calling to the sailor, the water seductively whispering. The nightmares were killing her, slowly eating away at sanity.
"Hey…um…you okay?" Zell spoke delicately, standing behind her.
Wiping the tears from her eyes, she looked into the dark void.
"Yeah, fine. I just had a bad dream, that's all. Nothing really of consequence."
She lied. Alex was far from fine, in fact, she was closer to tragedy than all of them.
Scratching his head, he kicked a few stay stones off over the edge. Their sounds were not heard, the oceans bellows much to overpowering.
"Fine just checking, you just seem to have an issue about sleeping and right now it's better than being in there with them…"
He paused. Trying to communicate with someone was more Selphie's department, how he wished her here.
"Yeah…I’m going to leave you alone now."
"Yeah…night," he said reluctantly, turned and started to walk back to the house. A breeze sent an eerie chill down his spine. For a moment, he could have sworn that a ghost passed through his being. No. This was not fine; she was not fine.
"Hey wait a second. You know what Alexandra, ever since I met you…well you have talked in riddles, and kept information to yourself. I'm tired of it. There is something going on here and you're not telling us."
Walking back to the cliffs edge he sat quietly next to her, folding his legs. She looked at him and for a moment, neither said a word. Her eyes filled with the sorrow of many, for the first time he noticed her tougher exterior eroding, rather the one who needed help, too afraid to ask. She turned away from him, trying desperately to hide the pain.
"I live the memories of the dead."
"Wha?" he looked, as their eyes met.
She smiled weakly, "I know you want the truth…but I just don't know how to put into words. They are feelings that I experience, it is nothing predictable."
"Alex, I don't understand any of this. My visions, some unearthly connection you mentioned two nights ago. Why…why was it me?"
"I don't know why she picked you that was not for me to decide."
"Who Rinoa?" asked Zell.
"What did you know about Ellone's parents? About her life at Winhill before Raine."
"Ellone…what does this have to do with her?"
"Everything," she spoke throwing a hand full of stones over the edge.
"Um…well we know that Raine was her legal guardian after her parents were killed during the first sorceress war. But…really, I don't think we know anything of her biological parents…to us she was just 'Sis'. We loved her."
"Murdered," Alex spat. "Her parents were murdered. There is a fucking difference Zell. Her father killed within his own home trying to defend his family. Her mother…wasn't as lucky."
"Huh? I thought they were both buried in Winhill?"
"Ellone's father is… But her mother was buried in a mass Estharian grave…thrown out like yesterday's trash."
"Excuse me…but how do you know all this? And why? If none of us thought too much about it, not even Ellone, why do you care?"
"Oh…Ellone cared. She just didn't want to burden you with her family. All of you had suffered so much pain; she didn't want to add anymore."
"What business is this of yours anyhow? I mean did you even meet her? Ellone is a subject that I really feel uncomfortable discussing with you…or anyone for that matter."
"I never met her…when she was alive. Her mother was raped by the fucking soldiers in Winhill, in front of her father. They let him watch before they shot him pointblank in the heart… They were going to kill her mother also, but decided to take her back with them. They detained her at an Estharian prison camp for almost two years…she was beaten and raped repeatedly. By the time they were done with her, she didn't even know her own name. Around that time, Odine found Ellone so they brought her mother from the camp to the lab…who was four months pregnant with the fucking warden's child. She was his personal whore by then… Zell they stole everything from her."
"During the next few months she stayed at Odine's…to be monitored. By the time she gave birth, she was almost dead. Her will to live was gone, but she saw the baby…she watched as they held her up. For nine months, she resented the fetus growing inside her, and everything it represented. But…when they held the baby up…she forgot. She only saw the innocence…"
"The baby…she looked at the baby…and smiled. They called her name, and she turned just in time to see the warden standing there with a gun…they fucking shot her in the head. Those bastards…in all their greatness they never cared about human life. She was nothing more than a research subject. Odine thought that the child would be a substitute for Ellone, that the baby would carry the same powers, but guess what…through their goddamned research they learned that it was the father's genes that carried the trait. Her mother had nothing to do with it. So, Odine ordered the murder of the child…Kenneth Williams, the doctor who had taken care of Ellone's mom during the pregnancy, was supposed to give the infant a lethal injection…but he didn't. The man had killed countless number of people, but couldn't tolerate taking the life of an innocent baby…"
"So he switched the body of that with a stillborn, took the baby to his wife…and raised me. And that is how I became Alexandra Williams. Ellone is my half sister..."
Words escaped him, the thought of having to live through these memories every night, the sensations and emotions they would cause. How did she keep going…how could she sleep?
"Alex, is that what you see when you sleep? I can't imagine…the dreams I saw of Rinoa were troubling enough. But to see that, knowing it actually happened…"
"Yeah Zell, I always see it through my mother’s eyes…watch them kill her husband, feel the sensations of the abuse, and I can see my self being born…then he always calls her name. Every night I wish she wouldn't look knowing what is coming next…but she always does… Every night I feel the impact of the bullet…then I wake up. Screaming."
She had never felt such stiffness in her life. Her entire body screamed of pain, from head to toe. Momentarily she found herself fazed when she opened her eyes, her surroundings completely foreign. Soon as her focused regained, she could make out the crates in the distance. The morning light was shining through the cracks now, lighting much more of the interior that she had ever seen.
She didn't have to look. Intuition told her that he was watching her, and out of pure stubbornness, she was not going to acknowledge him first. Why give him the satisfaction? So she kept her eyes forward, listening to their breathing, which somehow seemed go be increasing as the silence continued.
"Still not speaking?" he finally stated.
Pulling her knees to her chest, making every muscle scream out, she sighed outwardly. Hundreds of thoughts were racing through her head…foremost, Quistis.
"I don't get it Squall. You say that you love me, yet you were so willing to forgive her lies…now you want me to work with her?"
"Don't ever say that I forgive her. That is one thing that will never happen. But, I had to decide what was more import…my hate for her or my love for you. There was no contest. Rinoa…I will never forget what I lost."
No matter how many times Rinoa tried to understand, she still couldn't comprehend the situation completely. It was hard to envision the others miserable, knowing what she had personally experienced. Were they beaten? Where they trapped? She tried to weigh how emotional and physical balanced between the two scenarios…yet still she seemed to be missing the comparison.
At least now, she was trying to understand their side. Maybe once they were all together again, she could recognize the full picture… In a few short hours…she would see Allison.
She would see all of them.
The one who tried to murder her, the one who accused her of murder, and the ones that believed her guilty.
~ Chapter Twenty-Two: Hostility ~
Where would you rather be?
Anywhere but here
When will the time be right?
Anytime but now
The doubt and the fear I know
Would all disappear
Anywhere but here.
--Rush (Double Agent)
Walking the distance between the harbor and the Dollet communication tower seemed the journey of a lifetime. Never had Rinoa remembered such a long trek. Every step of the way, she dreaded the immanent confrontation. The voyage felt more like that of a prisoner being escorted from death row to execution. Each stride took her closer to the past, recalling every painful memory of the betrayal.
Her salvation was Allison…and Squall, but she would not admit the latter to anyone but herself.
The commander had led the way, taking obscure alleyways and wooded shortcuts to avoid detection. Training had served him well and never had Squall felt the stakes so high.
He too realized the complexity of the situation. Rinoa had been in complete silence since they started, yet he did not push her. Normally silence would have been his welcomed friend, but in this instance, each passing moment ripped at his heart…each moment reminding him of her pain, moreover, his unfaithfulness.
In spirit and body.
As the tower became visible through the dense vegetation, her heart rate quickened with anticipation. She found herself lost within her own mind, something picked up from years with Squall…and even more from years without Squall. When they had reached the top, he stepped the uneven distance from the brush onto the pavement. Turning around, the knight silently offered his gloved hand in assistance.
Within her daydreams, his gesture was invisible; it wasn't that she purposely was denying his aid, truly she did not notice. Reaching the summit, she lost her footing, causing her to fall forward. Reaching down to catch herself, Rinoa unintentionally released the object secretly being grasped within her palm. The platinum ring skipped across the brick road.
Squall watched as it rolled and finally landed near one of his boots. A tiny metallic ‘clink’ sounded when the two surfaces met. By this time, Rinoa had regained her composure and was standing across from him. Both found themselves eyeing the silver band. As if they sensed the other, each looked up simultaneously. Eye's locking.
With earthen eyes full what almost appeared to be embarrassment, Rinoa began to speak, "I…"
"It's fine," he cut her off with a slight gesture of his hand. Allowing her simply to get out of the explanation of why she was carrying it within her fist. Honestly, he didn't need to hear it. To see that she had the ring, to see that she was holding it, to see it within her very possession…was all he needed.
Rubbing her worn shoes against the cobblestone, Rinoa finally spoke again, "Well…?"
"Well…what?" he said slightly bewildered.
"Well," she began softly, "can I have it back?"
Dear Hyne…did he want nothing more than to grab her, never to let go. The mixture of innocents and maturity warmed his very soul. Instead of holding her, he settled for simply being within her presence. Bending down, he picked up the band. As he rose, both stood in deafening silence once again.
Finally, he extended his hand, offering Griever. Instinctively she reached for his hand and then paused. She made a fist, then a hesitation, before placing her hand palm upwards. Slightly confused at the gesture he looked at her with a bemused expression, one she remembered from years past. One from their first meetings, one of boyish innocence that was lost, in fact, that he maybe he truly never possessed.
For the first time since the woods, an almost mischievous smile appeared on her features, ever so slightly.
"What now?" he asked recalling how much her actions confused him.
"Do you remember what you said in the cabin…when I gave it back to you?"
Scratching the back of his neck, the words echoed in his mind. "Someday that you would have Griever back and I would be the one to give it to you," he paraphrased.
"I don't think leaving it on a fallen tree in Trabia really counts as officially giving it to me."
Holding the ring, he began to set it in her palm, and then stopped mirroring her actions of a few moments ago. Switching the ring to his other hand, his dark gloves moved the band into his left hand. Rinoa eyed him with concern and slightest tinge of hurt she was trying desperately to conceal. To her surprise, he reached his right hand out to hers. The leathery feel of his gloves contrasted greatly to her soft skin.
"Rinoa Heartilly, I know this is going to be one of the most difficult moments in your entire life. I can't pretend to understand anything you are going through. I can only offer you the comfort that I will be here…waiting for you. Remember through everything that has happened, and that is about to happen, never doubt my feelings for you. Rinoa you are the only one that can complete me. No matter how much time…I swear…I will be here. Physically and in spirit…always."
Walking a step closer to her, he moved his left hand to join his right, both uniting in her single hand. Within the movement, he placed the ring back into her trembling palm, before letting go with both hands. Taking a step back, he watched as a peaceful, tranquil expression passed over her face. She looked at the ring with such an intense glare; he would have sworn she had never seen it before.
In her mind, she hadn't. This was the first time she truly possessed the ring; this time it was truly a gift.
A wonderful, magnificent gift.
"Hey," a voice startled them out of the private world they had built.
Squall turned to the unknown person standing in front of him. On instinct alone, he pulled out small handgun, which had been concealed in his jacket borrowed from the unfortunate SeeD trapped in the woodlands of Trabia. He would protect Rinoa…at any cost.
The woman jumped in shock. "Shit," she replied quickly raising both hands in the air, surprise apparent on her face.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
"Squall," Rinoa spoke forcefully putting her hand on his forearm. "Lower your weapon. Now."
"Rin…" he tried to speak, but was hastily cut off.
"It's Alex!" Rinoa yelled.
With weapon still raised, he finally took his eyes of the stranger, turning toward Rinoa. She met his stare, nodding in confirmation. "Alexandra Williams," she restated firmly.
Lowering the gun, Squall looked at the lady in front of him, who looked less than amused at the incident.
Alex continued to walk up to the couple. "Wow Rinoa, how ever did you let this one go?" she shot back in obvious sarcasm.
Squall stood with stone-like features watching as the two women drew closer to one another.
"Ally?" the darker haired woman pleadingly asked.
Nodding her head in acknowledgement, Alex smiled. "Inside…she missed you."
Rinoa couldn't keep the tears from rolling down her face. She tried to wipe away the stray drops that traced her delicate skin. Reaching for Alex, she pulled her friend into a tight embrace.
"Thank you," Rinoa managed between sobs. "Thank you."
Alex smoothed the younger girl’s hair, calming her down. "He's gone now Rin. He won't hurt you anymore."
Squall stood watching the scene with mixed emotions. Part of him was glad that they had returned to their comrades…and to Allison. Part of him was sad, as the closeness they shared for the last two days would be gone. Now they would be part of a group…a group of friends, family, and strangers.
More than anything, he found himself with a slight jealousy toward the woman now comforting Rinoa. The one who had guided her through unspeakable times; the one, who for the most part…replaced him. In every essence, the woman before him had done the job of a knight, not on a physical level, but by protecting the sorceress' spirit.
The two broke apart, and Alex pulled dampened hair strands gently behind her friend’s ears. "We made it through…just like you knew we would." Rinoa smiled at the comment.
"Alex, I really need to see Allison," Rinoa spoke with an almost begging quality within her voice.
Shifting her weight back and forth, Alex darted her eyes between Rinoa and Squall. She wasn't exactly sure how to bring up the touchy subject. "Um, Rinoa…Squall…Quistis is here. I just thought you should know."
"I know," Rinoa spoke softly looking at her friend. "Don't worry Alex, I know."
"I am worried," the older woman whispered back. "Do you want me to go with you?" For a moment, Rinoa glanced back to Squall. His eyes seemed emotionless. She knew he silently wanted to be there, but better judgment told her this is something she would have to face alone. This was her reality.
"Walk me to the door," she requested, afraid to examine Squall's expression. Alex nodded and wordlessly they closed the distance to the small house. Knight followed behind sorceress, always within arms reach if need be, but still allowing her freedom. Right now, that meant - freedom from him. He accepted that.
Alex guided her toward the smaller house, almost hidden with overgrowth. Rinoa turned to her friend, with a saddened expression. In return, she offered her comfort with a simple word, "Allison."
The single thought made the confrontation worth it. Holding her breath, the emotional battered woman slowly turned the knob. Alex once again gave her a small, reassuring smile before turning her gaze toward Squall. He was in his own world, lost in the pure simplicity of watching Rinoa and silently lending her all the strength that flowed through his body.
When Rinoa finally walked over the threshold, the knight moved his glance to Alex. For the first time, the two shared the same apprehension. For the first time, the two attempted to understand their connection to the sorceress.
Quistis silently sat on the couch. Leaning forward, she worked on the laptop as if every second was her last. Over the course of the morning, she had managed to get several encrypted messages to Selphie.
Selphie, for her part, had been acting as liaison between the wanted SeeDs and Cid. After the two arrived last night, Quistis Trepe faced one of the most difficult obstacles to date. She sent a letter of explanation to Cid…not only on their disappearance…but also the truth on Ellone.
Part of her was glad to have it over with, part of her was afraid of the reactions she would receive. Telling Zell and Irvine was hard enough…neither had really said anything to her since then. Not that they were angry or yelling, such as Squall's reaction days before, but their responses were internal. The looks she received were answers enough…pain, hurt, and betrayal shown within their eyes.
However, they didn't hate her. She knew that.
What was most disturbing was the culpability the two males shared…both believing Rinoa guilty. Zell had taken the news harder, walking out the door without a word. Quistis had known he needed to work out his anger, which was his nature. That's what made him Zell.
Irvine actually questioned for a few moments, trying to understand her reasoning. No matter how hard she tried, the words seemed to fall flat. Even as she was speaking, the words were difficult for her to comprehend. Seifer had been near, for support. Yet kept his distance, he knew this was her road to cross… her battle. Her steps to redemption.
But telling Cid and Edea…the two people who had always believed in her. The parents she never had, the only authority she knew. Telling them of her treachery was far worse than confronting the others, save Rinoa. Ellone was their child, their reason to become who they were today. And Quistis lied to them. Betrayed the honor of the only sister she ever knew. In one brief moment of time…one second she changed the course of hundreds of lives. Now was her time to face the consequences…to start over whatever life she may have left.
To be for the first time, Quistis Trepe.
No longer in the shadow of others…and her own emotions. For the first time she was doing what she wanted, from her heart. The heart that led her down this path was now slowly going to save her. From Squall, from President Mitchell…from herself.
Seifer sat quietly next to her. He was feeling less than comfortable about being around everyone again. For once, he decided that not speaking was the best policy. Maybe Squall had stumbled upon something after all, with the silent persona.
The only sounds in the room were the deep-uneasy breaths of the inhabitants and the strokes of the keyboard…until the door opened. Irvine being the closest, immediately took a semi-defensive position, although both Alex and Zell were expected to return shortly.
After the martial artist disappeared for a while, Alex decided to go in search of him. Even though she knew, he needed to be alone, something inside made her want to verify he was doing all right. Maybe it was the same feelings Ellone had shared with the younger children at the orphanage. Maybe deep inside, she felt included with this group… Maybe somehow they were her new family.
No matter how much Quistis psychologically prepared when the door opened…time froze. And there were only two people in the room.
Sorceress Rinoa Heartilly and Quistis Trepe-Leonhart.
When their eyes met, nothing else existed in that time…not Squall, not Seifer. Two people thrown into the battlefield of life, now left without an army, without a platoon, only in solitude of their own minds and hearts. The rest of the world faded away.
For Quistis…only Rinoa stood within sight. The very person she deceived two years ago…the very lie she lived.
For Rinoa…only Quistis stood within sight. The person she once called friend…much more than friend, family…the one person who caused the pain with a simple answer. The one person who now dreamed of redemption from that very act…the person who married her soul mate and left her to raise her unborn child in circumstances way beyond comprehension.
Yet, Rinoa did not hate her.
She could not hate her.
There was something in Quistis, try as she might, that held back the darkest feelings. Maybe some kind of loyalty, some kind of distant friendship, or maybe even the slightest bit of understanding…though the thought truly never crossed her mind.
Both girls stared at one another as Rinoa walked cautiously toward the center of the room. Irvine and Seifer did not notice the figures of both Squall and Alex also emerging from the doorframe. All eyes were focused on the two. Nobody dared to imagine how the two would react.
Looking at the instructor on a physical level, not much changed…her hair longer and maturity added to her features. But the difference was evident in the unsaid words. Her eyes held the emotions that her heart was afraid of admitting…the fear, the hurt, and mainly, the sorrow.
If one thing Rinoa could tell…it was the sorrow in her eyes. Not something forced upon her, but something from deep within. As she walked toward her, the rays of sun caught the reflection of the Griever pendant that adorned the former instructor’s neck.
The only true gift from Squall…not as a husband, but as a friend.
Rinoa refocused her eyes on the medallion, unaware of the other’s presence. The mate to the ring she held tightly in her palm…unseen to everyone else. The ring that gave her the strength to venture into the room, the ring that was an extension of her knight.
Watching as her eyes drifted toward the pendant, Quistis noticed the ever-so-slight gasp that escaped her lips. Maybe it was the shock of seeing something that Squall gave on his own free will, the most painful part. For the first time, the blonde woman had guilt feelings about having the heirloom.
Yet, Rinoa said nothing.
Closing the distance, Rinoa reached out her slightly trembling hand toward the metallic lion. She felt each crevasse of the mold, along with each imperfection. Flashbacks of the chain around Squall's neck flooded her memories…
Quistis let out her breath, which up until this moment, she didn't know she had been holding. The sound brought Rinoa out of her thoughts, until the two girls stood looking directly into the other’s eyes.
After a brief uncomfortable silence, Quistis started to speak, "I…I…"
Yet the words did not come. She realized that nothing she could possibly say could take back the damage. The years escaped. From the corners of her eyes, tears started streaming down her face, but refused to yield the silence.
For that, Rinoa was grateful.
The one thing that would have truly upset her…as she had vehemently stated to Squall, was hearing the words, "I'm sorry." Two small words that would only intensify the situation…instead Quistis said nothing.
For that…she was grateful.
Quistis could see the hurt in her friend’s eyes…along with a pain that did not have to be spoken. Something about her innocence was lost, now the woman who stood before was not the same girl from Timber. Time had changed her.
When Quistis tried to form the words within her mind, nothing came. Maybe she knew that nothing she could say at this point would help. Yet, having Rinoa not speak was far worse than she could have imagined. She expected yelling, screaming such had been the case before…yet she got stillness.
Silence spoke volumes more than any words.
Rinoa finally placed the pendant back to Quistis’ chest carefully, cautiously treating the medallion with respect. Retracting her hand, Rinoa placed her hand on her forearm…still holding the ring in the left hand.
Nobody else said a word. The tension was unlike any battle. This was between friends, not enemies. A cry cut through the silence as if a dagger to flesh…as the sound of a child innocent’s filled the room. Rinoa took her eyes off Quistis and focused them to the small bedroom behind her. Without another word, Rinoa once more made contact with the remorseful blue eyes, before turning to walk toward the source of the cries.
Only Allison could have diffused such a situation…only her love and purity kept the situation within perspective. As Rinoa walked into the smaller room, Alex glanced back at Squall. Who once again studied every inch that Rinoa walked. Like a protective figure, like a knight. Squall looked up at her, for a brief moment their eyes met, both with concern. Finally, Alex silently headed the same path as Rinoa. Something told her to check on her friend. In all honesty, Alexandra felt uncomfortable around the others right now.
The sense that someone was watching had drawn Squall out of his solitary world. He turned to meet the slightly older woman's eyes. Then, something else caught his eyes for the first time…a golden chain she was wearing. Before she started to walk away, he could have sworn, it looked like a smaller golden copy of his platinum ring. For the first time, he actually contemplated this stranger's role in their lives. How would she have such a ring…and why? His momentary line of thinking changed when the echoed sounds of Allison's crying ceased.
The bedroom door shut, the two women safely away from the rest. Quistis quickly headed out the front door. Never once checking for the others reaction’s…not even her husband’s.
She sat staring out into the endless horizon…amber hues danced on the surface of the turbulent waters. Quistis reached for some sort of harmony in her life. Like an answer from Hyne, Seifer appeared next to her.
"Well that went better than I thought," he remarked trying to keep upbeat.
"She hates me." Quistis watched the seagulls circling overhead.
"No…she doesn't. I don't think it's in her to hate…especially you. I think it will take time, but someday…somehow you two will reach an understanding."
"She'll never trust me again. I'll never have her as a friend."
"No, probably not. However, she'll respect you. Give her time…give them time as a family."
"Time," she whispered back. "Time."
Moments of awkwardness followed as nature’s sounds made a conversation of their own. There was one question that Quistis dreaded asking…yet the time was drawing nearer. During the last few days, she had grown to heavily dependent on Seifer…something she hated admitting. Maybe she drew from his strength. Hell, she might have even drawn from his weakness. Yet she knew whatever it was…it came from his soul. It was pure.
"Garden will be here soon. Cid understands the situation…well maybe understand is not the correct word, but he is willing to face Mitchell head on. It will be war. Everything he wrote back was so official, as were Selphie's messages. I don't know if they will ever treat me as an equal again."
"Hey," he said trying to lighten her mood. "If it makes you feel any better, I'll always treat you as an equal."
Quistis had to chuckle at the attempt on his part, he was trying so hard. "Not really Seifer, but thank you anyhow."
Reaching to her, Seifer pulled her close to him in an embrace. A feeling of security that both had grown used to over the past few days; one foreign for so many years.
As much as she dreaded the answer…she had to know. Seifer had to know his fate. Pulling back stands of hair, she finally gathered the courage. "They will bring you up on charges of treason if you return. Cid said that if you were among us, you would still face disciplinary measures from Garden and its allies. Seifer…if you want your freedom, you will have to leave me…us now."
There is a comfort unknown in holding something so small, so innocent. Rinoa held Allison as if every second was going to be the last breath she took. Every feature she tried to memorize…every toe, every finger, and every giggle. The child had been more than happy to see her mother return. The crying stopped immediately when Allison realized who was coming to her rescue.
Intense eyes of blue with the slightest hints of brown stared straight into her heart.
"Mommy is here," she whispered unable to say anything else through the tears.
The child clung on tight, wrapping small arms around her neck. Finally, Allison let her delicate head rest on her mother’s shoulder. In that moment, Allison found peace, closing her eyes to hear the sounds of her mother's heartbeat.
Alex watched from beside the door, afraid to ruin such a serene moment. Yet, she had to talk to Rinoa, so much had happened, so much information known to others.
"You didn't tell him the truth." Alex tone reflected that of an older sister reprimanding the younger sibling.
"When are you telling Squall Leonhart about his daughter?"
~ Chapter Twenty-Three: Combat ~
Yet the thunder shall not hurt you
Nor the battle storms dismay;
Tho’ the sun in heaven desert you;
"Love will find the way.”
Rinoa looked at her friend with apology in her eyes, before she turned away in embarrassment. Resting her head gently on the child, she searched for the words. Explanations not even she could understand. Yet an attempt to vocalize the ideas would come across as immature or spiteful. Realizing the stress this was causing, Alex decided to approach the matter from an entirely new perspective: Understand Rinoa's reasoning behind the omission.
"Okay, before we talk about what hasn't occurred, let's talk about what has," replied Alex sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Yeah," Rinoa spoke softly. "Then maybe I'll understand it a little more too."
"Alex, I love him,"
"I never doubted that Rinoa, not even when you tried to convince me…and yourself otherwise. Just because you say the words doesn't make them true."
"I'm scared. I know that we can never be truly happy…a family. Maybe I feel like I'm protecting him from the loss…maybe I'm protecting myself from the guilt."
"But Rinoa, he told you about Quistis right? You forgave him for that."
"No," exclaimed Rinoa a little too loud, causing Ally to stir. She carefully laid her hand on the child's head, who seemed comforted by the touch. "He told me he was married…not to who. I found out on a radio broadcast, he conveniently left that part out. So I conveniently left out the part about Allison's father."
"Rinoa…that isn't you talking, you're allowing the anger to cloud your thinking. I know you wouldn't do that."
"Yes, you're right. Do you want to know the ironic thing? Even though Quistis was the one who lied…I'm still angrier at Squall. Maybe on some level I expected it out of Quistis…or anyone for that matter. But not Squall, anyone but Squall. I thought we always had this deeper connection, that he would never betray me. Alex he really believed that I killed Ellone…he so much as said it to me," explained Rinoa voice cracking as each word became harder to speak. As the tears started down her face, Allison looked up with childlike innocence and curiosity. "When I saw him in Deling, I knew he believed that I… Why Alex…why didn't he believe in me?"
"Rinoa, I think you are taking this all wrong. Have you ever thought that maybe he didn't believe in himself? He didn't fail you - he failed himself. That he couldn't live with, so it became easier to blame you. Only now is he facing his failures and trying to make amends. Do I think it was right? No. However, I don’t know him, but I know you. I'm going to say something that might seem out of place right now…all I ask is that sometime soon you will think about it."
Alex stood to look her friend in the eye, placing one hand gently on her shoulder. "Rinoa, maybe…just maybe, what happened is for the best." Rinoa gasped at the mere thought of the last two years being anything but a living hell.
"How Alex!? You know what Richard did to me…you saw what he put me through. How can you even stand here and say that…to me!?"
"Rin…I know what happened. Remember, I lived within the nightmare too. I'm saying think about what you learned…how you grew, became stronger. Don't answer me now…just consider it."
"Whatever," she dryly retorted.
"Rinoa, tell him soon. There is a room full of people out there who know, if you don't tell him somebody is going to…whether it slips out by accident or not. Just because you found out about Quistis on the radio, doesn't mean Squall should hear it from someone else. This is Allison you're talking about; you owe it to her if nothing else."
"I will…just give me a little time right now. I promise I'll talk to him before the days end."
"Thank you," stated Alex rubbing Rinoa's shoulder in comfort. After giving her friend a quick smile, she started to walk out the door. Before it opened, Rinoa brought up a subject she would have rather avoided.
"Alexandra tell me the truth, did you know Squall was married?"
The look in her eyes answered the question, but Alex knew after everything, truth was the only option.
"You just had Allison… Rinoa I was worried; wasn't sure how you would handle the news. After that, things with Richard got worse and what spirit you had was slowly being broken. I knew it would only hurt you. I made sure that any newspapers you had…well I made sure you didn't find out. It wasn't important. Only Allison was."
Rinoa nodded in acceptance without words. Slowly she lay down on the bed, holding her daughter close. Shutting her eyes thousands of images and memories flooded inner thoughts. Each one only adding to the confusion she felt, the years of guilt and anger seemed to run together. Yet, for the first time in two years, she was able to clear her mind, only concentrating on the rhythmic sounds of the Ally's breathing. She was at peace and joined her daughter in exhausted, content slumber.
"This is it. From now on there will be no turning back." The commander's face showed little emotion as he spoke to Irvine and Zell.
"So what is Garden's position on the sorceress?" The martial artist spoke out of habit.
"Balamb Garden, well Cid, is with us. He is giving the individual students and SeeDs an opportunity to leave if they don't stand behind the decision. And Zell…please call her Rinoa."
Shaking his head, he looked toward his friend. Thinking back to how he was corrected only days before, for just the opposite. He mumbled under his breath, "Funny, think I was calling her Rinoa all along."
Squall did not appreciate the comment, nor did he like the implications. But the last thing they needed right now was more tension, inhaling deeply he continued explaining the encrypted communications.
"The last message I was able to pull off the laptop was not the most reassuring. Esthar and their resources are with us; I'm sure Loire had something to do with that. There is no love loss for President Mitchell on that continent. Trabia is in turmoil due to the death of Richard Bennett and they have no military forces that do not pertain to their local Garden. Trabia Garden, for the most part, will stand with us. The Timber militia is small, but one we can count on. Finally, the Dollet Dukedom as of yet has remained a neutral ground. The Galbadian presence is strong here, but the civilians might have another idea all together. We'll take our chances with them."
The commander momentarily paused as the bedroom door opened and Alex emerged. He gave her a blank stare, which only made her feel as she was intruding on a top-secret meeting.
"Sorry guys," she sarcastically retorted. "Guess I'll go outside and…um…sit." She started to leave, as she walked by Zell gently grabbed her arm.
"Squall, Alex is part of us, whether you like it or not. I know she isn't SeeD, but she has risked her life for Rinoa and Allison. She is one of us now."
Closing his eyes, he wanted to come back with a good 'commander-like' reason that she shouldn't stay knowing the current situation. But as he looked at her, all he saw was the person who saved Rinoa, and in return, saved him. More important, for some reason, he couldn't get over the sense of familiarity that surrounded her. Maybe it was the Griever ring she wore around her neck or maybe deep down he could sense the bond with Ellone. He trusted her. Damn it.
"Whatever," he replied sternly. "Don't get in the way."
She rolled her eyes as Squall returned to his military demeanor.
"Galbadia Garden is most likely to side with Mitchell. A majority of the students are from Deling and remain bitter about the events of five years ago. Cid managed to get a hold of General Caraway, who was currently traveling to Trabia for…Renee Bennett's funeral. He changed the itinerary when Cid stated it was of the up-most urgency. Caraway doesn't know about Rinoa yet, but his safety would be in question if he returned to Deling. The troops might respect him, but when they find out the sorceress is alive…"
"They will turn against him when she is being harbored at Garden," finished Irvine.
"Exactly. From the information Selphie and Cid have managed to gather, nobody wants to help protect Rinoa…not even members of Balamb Garden. They still see her as a murderer, but they were only informed of the truth this morning. Like all things, it will take time to register. The only problem…I just don't know what time Rinoa has right now. But more than others dislike her, they despise President Mitchell and the totalitarianism of the council. B-Garden and its allies will fight for sovereignty, but not for the sorceress. That has been made crystal-clear. Nobody will be there to protect Rinoa…from either side... except us."
"If you want your freedom, you will have to leave us now," softly repeated Quistis.
Seifer looked away, watching the seagulls fighting for tiny morsels on the near by ledge. "What authority do you think Squall will have to ask for leniency?"
"After all of this…I guess it depends on the outcome. If we go against Mitchell's troops in Galbadia and win, it will devastate the World Council. Government will be in the same chaotic state it was five years ago after Ultimecia. If we lose…we'll be facing the same charge of treason. So my guess…nobody will be in a position to rule absolute. However, if Garden remains intact, he will work in your defense. I know him."
"I didn't say my defense," he said bluntly. "I could care less about what happens to me."
"They didn't deserve this, neither of them did. If I go back to Garden and help take down President Mitchell…I want leniency for Raijin and Fujin."
Quistis couldn't help the smile on her face. Even though her fears of Seifer being sentenced to life in prison, or far worse death, the loyalty remained. He was risking his freedoms for his friends, a sign of honor that she truthfully would've never expected from the troubled student so many years ago.
"Their only crime was trusting me. Although it may have been ignorant, it was done with the best intentions. They always say the road to hell is paved with good intentions…I guess the person who quoted that was friends with Ultimecia also."
"I'm not promising anything Seifer; you know how much influence I will have when we get back. Hell…I'll be lucky if I'm not sharing a cell with you."
"Well," he said turning to her mischievously. "That might not be so bad then. Just don't hog the bed like you did the other night."
"I don't hog the bed," she replied in mock anger. "I woke up several times when you flopped some limb on top of me."
Standing up he smirked offering her a hand, "Don't say you didn't enjoy it. Next time we'll just need a bigger bed."
"Next time," echoed the words through her mind. "Next time." Quistis avoided eye contact as she stood. Brushing her dress of debris, she looked at him and softly replied, "Yeah, next time." He couldn't help but notice the slight fear in her eyes and the slight smile on her face.
Walking down the halls of Balamb Garden, Selphie could feel uneasiness about her. Not sense the original attack five years ago had Garden actually prepared for battle. The assault two years ago was unprovoked…but this…this scared her.
Training your entire life for battle can never truthfully prepare you for conflict. No matter how much you think you are prepared. Ever war is different; every battle takes on its own personality. This was no different. Before against Galbadia Garden the students of Balamb Garden stood as one, but now the populous split, much the same fashion as with the supporters of Norg and Headmaster Cid.
Cid had made a public announcement in the morning concerning the crisis and the subsequent return of the sorceress. Selphie had been in the library at the time, searching old microfiche records that could be used against Mitchell. She immediately felt all eyes on her when he announced 'she would be returning and the entire incident with Ellone was a misunderstanding.'
The Headmaster, of course, and been more political about it…trying hard to avoid any reference of Quistis’ wrongdoing. Frankly, Cid was good at politics. The man had managed to transform a simple idea into the best mercenary force in the world.
His downfall, he cared.
He actually cared about the welfare of others. His motives were selfless, but even his great oral talents couldn't hide the uneasiness in his voice. The students knew. When they sensed the confusion from their leader, they in return, multiplied it tenfold. Garden was in an 'organized state of panic' as Selphie liked to refer to it…a term that she coined on several missions with Squall. A man who never showed panic to the team, yet the more they knew Squall the more they could read him…well, until Rinoa left.
Which brought her back to the library…and the dozen pairs of eyes upon her. Others knew of the closeness of the group. Yes, they had their differences, but they were family and shared a bond that no other SeeD or cadet had.
Or ever will have.
Suddenly she felt out of place among the students and faculty alike. Yes, she knew the truth, but the others were not as fortunate. Grabbing her books, she continued onward down the hall, deciding to head to Cid's office. After the election, the headmaster surrendered his old office to Squall, settling for a much smaller area. He only stayed at Garden on rare occasions; much of his work was in the capital of Galbadia.
Today Cid was in his office at Balamb Garden. After he received the initial e-mail from Quistis, he grabbed what files and computer disks he could from Deling, leaving promptly. No doubt that his and Edea's safety would now be in question, such as General Caraway.
Selphie forced what smile she could through the hallways, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. She decided to continue her work in Squall's office, using his vacant computer. She knew normally Squall would hate the intrusion of privacy; in fact, it would be a dismissible offensive. Given the circumstances, she knew the commander would stand behind her decision fully.
Arriving at Squall's office, she saw Lauren sitting at her computer terminal in utter disbelief and shock. Selphie looked down at the screen and was immediately horrified.
"I found this encrypted message buried in the hard drive… Selphie, President Mitchell's troops are aware that everyone is currently still in Dollet… It will only be a matter of hours before they are located. I already notified Cid we had an emergency situation. He should be here any minute."
"They're going to find them," murmured Selphie. Biting her lower lip, she thought for a moment of Garden’s current speed and distance. "We won't make it this way."
"I know," Lauren replied softly. "I don't exactly know where they are staying. Given the land size and general population of Dollet…the entire area could be searched door-by-door within four hour period once the troops arrive."
"We have to get there quicker then planned." Selphie pulled gingerly at one of the braids adorning her head. "The Ragnarok!" Her eyes lit up with hope. "I can fly Ragnarok! It has been awhile but it should be like riding a bicycle, right?"
Lauren chuckled slightly at the older girl. "Sure Selphie, a bike with semi-automatic machine guns, an arsenal of bombs, and the ability of space travel… It sounds like the very first bike I ever owned."
"Thank you." Selphie gave her friend a pat on the shoulder. "Thank you for everything you've done. You'll never know how much your support has meant to all of us."
Lauren nodded in a gesture of gratitude. "Go get your friends Selphie, before they do."
Selphie started leaving in a hurry when she heard Lauren call for her to stop.
"I think there is something you should know Selphie…this communication originated on a Garden terminal. Be careful whom you trust."
He stared at the door for what had to be hours. In reality, only minutes past but time somehow seemed irrelevant. To Squall, the bedroom door seemed so much more than thin plywood. It was a symbol of the new life he started only four days ago, it was a return to the life he had lived before. Yet never truly appreciated.
Closing his eyes, he cleared every thought from his head…every anger, every betrayal, and every hurt. Instead, he looked at the positive and tried to forget his anxiety about meeting Rinoa's daughter for the first time.
It was a phrase that still did not register clearly. Over the last few days, he had done much soul-searching. For most of his adult life, he vehemently stated he did not want children. Yet, when faced with the reality, it was not the child that scared him. It was unconditional love attached to the innocent life. The idea seemed so foreign, so unknown it send a deep fear into his heart.
Something so fragile, relying on something so burdened and scarred. The notion that a being could love without ulterior motives, with just purity seemed unreal...unnatural. Maybe it was the same fears that caused him to push Rinoa away years before. Two years ago was just a catalyst to the inevitable. Truthfully, he had started pushing her away almost the moment he let her in.
Cautiously he opened the door.
Somehow the apprehension momentary disappeared when he saw the image laid out before him. The sunlight filtered through the closed drapes as dust particles circled the air. Facing him on the bed, he could see Rinoa with a sheet now pulled over her lower body. One arm lay on the pillow, while the other gently rested on the delicate human being next to her.
He had seen Allison’s picture days before in the briefing room at Garden. The same picture that Zell had asked about…even Zell could see, where he was blind.
The answer among the group: "All babies look the same."
Never could they have been more wrong. For the child in front of him was the image of her mother. Even from the distance he stood, the similarities were unmistakable. Never had a child been more beautiful. He stared at the girl and her mother, watching as each one took a breath. Like a sentry on duty, he was there to protect them. It was now his responsibility.
The dark hair, the nose…there was just a familiarity about the child he couldn't place. Even her size was surprising. Squall had little experience with kids, in his mind the child would be the size of a newborn. But she was larger and thankfully less frail than he envisioned.
Something kept drawing him nearer the tiny girl. Maybe it was a curiosity of the child within himself. Never had he wanted to even 'look' at a baby, yet right now he wanted to do nothing more than pick her up. It still scared him. Now he met the being that he was sharing Rinoa with…and somehow he didn't mind.
Rinoa let out a soft cry. Tensing up he quietly walked around the foot of the bed. When the expression on her face didn't change, he fought against himself. It was a losing battle, for he hated seeing her in such distress. Softly he touched her shoulder. With the contact, her body tensed even more and her eyes suddenly opened.
He could see the fear, the pain written in her eyes.
Involuntarily when she awoke, she chocked out the word 'no'. When the cloudiness cleared her mind, she remembered where she was, and a sudden relief flowed through her body.
The tears that had started to form on her eyes, now actually started to sparkle as a slight smile lit her expression. Trying not to wake Allison, she rolled away from the child and toward Squall. He bent down to face her at eye level, but never removed the hand from her shoulder.
"Yeah…" she hesitantly spoke. "I just thought you were someone else for a moment."
"I can never imagine the hell you endured. Rinoa…even if I didn't know what happened to you. The look in your eyes when you woke up spoke volumes… I…"
"Squall it's over, okay? I don't know what I'm going to have to face in the next few days, but Richard Bennett is dead and so is Renee Bennett. It's just me…Rinoa Heartilly and Allison…" she paused never thinking of her daughter as a 'Heartilly'. "It's just Rinoa and Allison." Correcting her own mental mistake.
"Well you two," he spoke softly. "Garden is on its way here. They should reach us by this evening."
"Garden?" Placing her legs over the side, Rinoa moved into a sitting position. "Garden…is coming here? Me?"
"You're coming with us. Both of you," he spoke nodding to the baby. "We will all be with you. Cid prepared the others that you will be boarding in Dollet."
"The others," she repeated. "I…um…Squall…I can't."
"You can. And you will." It wasn't a statement, it was an order. "Alex is coming with us. We have offered her full protection."
"From what…the sorceress? Being a traitor against Bennett, a member of The World Council? Who will they be protecting her from?"
"Rinoa, what other choice do we have? President Mitchell is behind this, he has been since the beginning…"
"No, that was your wife," she spitefully corrected.
Squall ignored the latter comment continuing, "We have Garden forces and our allies. It's our only hope. If you ever want a normal life…if you ever want Allison to have a normal life…it's our only option."
Turning away she quietly mumbled, "I'm not meant to have a normal life. Squall…I know my time is running out. I've known that from the beginning. If it's not one thing, it's another. My only hope is that Allison will have the ‘normal life’ that I never could."
He winced as she spoke of her time drawing near, but he didn't want to upset her by getting irate. Although, the way she was talking, it was growing more difficult by the second. Squall watched as Rinoa stood, looking out the window before turning her attention back to him.
"I'll go…not for me, not for you, but for Allison. Maybe, just maybe, she can survive this."
~ Chapter Twenty-Four: Emulation ~
We are never deceived;
we deceive ourselves.
The road to truth is long,
and lined the entire way with annoying bastards.
As the afternoon passed, the group went about their lives. Quistis and Seifer had purposely stayed away from the rest of the faction. Yet, never did they venture far, as Dollet was by no means safe. Zell, Irvine, and Squall planned in the main room the entirety of the afternoon. Military strategy and related issues were left up to them. Communication with Garden also resumed, and Caraway had arrived safely at Balamb Garden. Above all, they had been informed Galbadian troops had entered the vicinity. The only consolation, the fact Ragnarok was currently underway. The craft at top speed should be their within an hour’s time.
Alex had stayed by the side of Rinoa and her daughter…not much had been said. Even between the two girls an awkward silence formed. Part of Rinoa wanted to tell Squall before she changed her mind again…but logic told her to wait to a safer time. But then again, what if there were no safer times? With every second, her fear seemed to multiply in apprehension. His reaction to having a daughter…more importantly, would he understand the reasons of not informing him when they first met up again?
Was it truly for control? For some unseen spite toward him?
Then when she found he was married, to Quistis no less, time grew more precious with every second. As did her need to protect Allison from the pain she felt that would inevitably come. For his part, Squall had been kind and understanding about the child. Rinoa could tell from their conversation in the bedroom, he could learn to care about the girl…no matter the paternity. She could feel how deeply their bond was growing, deeper than before. In such a short amount of time…after all these years.
Was it fate or destiny? Was it the means to an end…her end?
Maybe she was just making peace with herself, with him. Allison held her hopes for the future. And even if he didn't know it…the girl also held Squall Leonhart's.
She promised Alexandra today he would discover the truth. Rinoa Heartilly decided to keep her promise. Tonight when they were safely on board Ragnarok, she would talk to Squall.
She had to.
"Never," he stated impishly.
"Seriously?" Quistis asked in amazement.
"I just would have thought that…"
"No," he cut her off. "It's something I don't like talking about. When would have that come in handy? I've never heard of a life or death situation revolving around it."
She stopped along the tree-lined path. Carefully observing they were still within eyesight of the cabin, also checking the vicinity for any unwanted intruders. Taking a barrette out of her pocket, she gathered her hair into a make shift ponytail. Clumps of hair still strayed out of the confinements, but it was close enough.
"Here," she held out her hand toward him. "If this is going to be your last day of freedom, let's make it worthwhile."
"Really?" he raised an eyebrow at her.
Rolling her eyes she replied, "You're incorrigible."
"I try," he countered. "I thought we were supposed to be guarding the parameter?"
"We are. We can do this and watch…remember, I am a trained professional."
"Oh Mrs. Instructor I do think you are beginning to have a personality."
"That hurts Seifer." She winced in the bright sunlight. "Now come on, we don't have all day."
"Um…we have no music."
"Yes we do…listen."
Seifer gazed into her eyes as he listened to the music of nature all around him. The waves, the birds, and the crickets…each with a melody, but the loudest sound he heard was the beating of his own heart. The rhythmic sound reverberated within his chest and throughout his body. With a contentious smirk, he took his hand in hers, intertwining their fingers.
"Really Quistis, I never learned to dance. I suppose if puberty boy can do it, so can I."
"Good, now that we have that settled. Can you hear the music? Can you feel the rhythm?"
"Of your heartbeat?" Almost as soon as he said the words, he felt the redness of embarrassment creep into his face.
"Tempo Giusto," she replied as they started moving across the cobblestone path. She felt him step on her foot, but hid the pain. He quickly tried to correct himself and follow her lead.
"Tempo…wha?" he replied looking in her eyes. They continued moving around in a small circle, rather unsuccessfully. She averted her eyes from his, to scan the horizon for intruders as they turned.
"It's a phrase…it means 'the right tempo' it's the average beat of the human heart."
"Oh yeah…that," he replied knowingly, although it was oblivious that he had no clue. "I hate to ruin your theory, but I'm sure my heart is racing much faster than that." He stepped on her slim boots once again, this time she closed her eyes pushing back the pain. He froze. "I'm sorry…told you I couldn't do this."
Turning toward him, she beamed serenely. "It doesn't really matter. The fact is you tried, and nobody can take that away from you."
"Yeah," he said watching behind her. "There's something else I want to try for the first time…so no matter what happens I won't look back with today with regret…"
Quistis focused her eyes on him, as her breath shortened. She could feel his tranquil hands still upon hers, but he had already taken them away. She could feel his warm touch still upon her skin.
"I just wanted to say," he looked away in discomfiture. "I just wanted to tell you…Galbadian Soldiers!"
"What?" For a split second, she was bewildered until the words registered. Hurriedly she turned around to see what he was looking at. Down the path a legion of soldiers was fast approaching, although the couple had not been spotted as of yet.
"Go and warn the others," Seifer yelled unsheathing his gunblade. "Let's try to avoid an altercation if possible. They would only send for reinforcements." Quistis nodded in agreement, as she ran into the forest using the trees as stealth covering.
"Hyne be with us all," she whispered into the gentle breeze.
The door flew open and the three men quickly turned their attentions toward the disturbance. Quistis had taken on a disconcerted look. No words were needed to be spoken. Posture and demeanor alone spoke volumes, the three SeeDs quickly moved.
"Galbadian soldiers are coming up the path. Seifer is covering us. We need to get them into the woods."
Zell folded the portable computer, and quickly tossed it into the bag Alex brought. Irvine gathered what provisions he could and made sure his weapon was loaded.
Squall's immediate, and only, concern was the welfare of Rinoa and Allison. Hurrying into the bedroom, he reached for the little girl playing on the floor.
"Soldiers on the way. We have to leave. Now!"
Rinoa quickly grabbed the baby bottle and any other items within her sight. Both the women departed the bedroom, into the main area. Squall had not once stopped to think about whom he was carrying, or his normal unease around children. This was the first time he had physical contact with Ally. Somehow, he felt an innermost desire to protect the girl…as he did her mother. No matter what was in their past, a connection had already formed.
A bond. A family.
The six swiftly exited the cottage for the final time. A place over the last few days had become a minor comfort for many. Squall continued holding Allison closely, as they followed Quistis into the dense wooded area. Seifer quickly met their position as they retreated deeper into the forest.
Irrevocably, they reached a stopping point and all lay low amongst the brush. Allison finally began to fidget. All the stimulation around her had been difficult. Her whimper was a soft murmur at first, but growing into a louder cry. The stern commander looked down to his arms and for the first time looked into her open eyes.
His heart skipped a beat; the little girl looked back at him for reassurance.
"It's okay," he whispered softly to her, placing his head next to Allison's wispy bangs. "It's going to be okay."
Rinoa felt guilt at the moment, but moreover she felt a sense of euphoria that she couldn't believe could exist. For the first time, she saw father and daughter together…for the first time she saw her family. Reaching for her daughter, Squall reluctantly released his grasp.
Earlier in the day, Rinoa had managed to put all the information she recalled into a digital journal. Dates, places, times and feelings…everything she would want passed on. The women had been borrowed the computer without telling the others why…they would find out soon enough. Rinoa reached into her pocket along with a small pen. Balancing Ally on one hip, she scribbled on something. Reaching her trembling hand out to Squall, their eyes met. Holding her tears at bay, she placed the article into his hands. She allowed herself the luxury of hanging on just one more second, to feel his touch one last moment.
When she retracted her hand, the sullen man looked down. The SeeD commander now noticed it was a picture of a newborn infant…Allison.
"If anything happens to me, make sure Ally reads this."
The thought was a knife slowly ripping his chest open. He could barely maintain his emotions, but knew there was no choice. He nodded reluctantly at the request, placing the photograph in his pants pocket.
"Thank you." She smiled tenderly. "Thank you."
In the forest, the soldier's hollers could be heard and the yelling grew louder. It was obvious that their location was blown; the search parties were now gathering in the communication tower area.
Squall turned toward Rinoa, touching her cheek gently with his palm. "I'm here with you."
"I know," was all she replied.
Their thoughts interrupted by abrupt gunfire. Allison no longer was quiet, the explosions scaring her out of whatever peace she had found. They could hear people approaching. The look among the group turned to that of concern. Squall and Seifer looked at each other with a mutual understanding. And for the first time, a mutual respect.
"It's inevitable," Seifer rejoined.
"I know." Squall signaled for everyone to ready for battle. As the brush rustled, they could distinguish a figure approaching rapidly. Squall stood up ready to attack…
"Ahhhhhh!" screamed the soldier in fear as Lionheart grew nearer to the jugular.
"Shit!" Seifer yelled as Squall narrowly halted his attack.
Selphie gulped as Squall drove his gunblade into the soft earth.
"Hiya guys…we're here."
The reunion was short but gratifying. The SeeDs on the Ragnarok were easily able to hold of any attack by the few Galbadian troops. The ship had more firepower than a group of a dozen soldiers with only an arsenal of hand weapons. The group quickly boarded, the take off was haste. Once aboard, briefing was done and the assembly found themselves in the forward cabin of the spacecraft.
Squall had not spoken any further to Rinoa, since the exchange in the woodland. Nor had he held Allison again…yet something kept drawing him to the child, a feeling, an emotion something not explainable. As the little girl tried to walk around the seating area, she kept falling due to sporadic turbulence they would encounter. Out of frustration she began to crawl…right over to Zell. Squall watched as the martial artist picked up the girl. He had an unmistakable way with people, especially with children.
When emotions in Squall became too much to bare, he excused himself to the cockpit. Seifer and Quistis managed to stay there, along with Irvine and Selphie.
Not as if the ex-knight felt welcome aboard anywhere on the ship…but he knew exactly where they weren't wanted.
The voyage would be a relatively short one, docking with Garden would be before nightfall. The only sounds in the cabin remained that of Ally. She spoke to Zell in a language completely unique, but he nodded in agreement. With that, the little girl seemed satisfied and slowly started to close her eyes against his chest. The two girls exchanged looks…Alex then signaled to Rinoa, who quickly pointed to the doorway. Both excused themselves from Zell.
"You think Zell can really handle Ally?" Alexandra walked beside her friend down the desolate metallic hallway.
Rinoa stifled a laugh. "Yes, he has experience with children. Plus we're on a spacecraft how much damage can he do?"
The two girls glanced at each before giggling openly. "Okay, okay," Rinoa admitted, "not the best scenario. I'm sure if there is damage to be done, he'll find it. But honestly, I do trust him with Allison…he's been through a lot the last couple years."
The older girl put her hand on Rinoa's shoulder, with a sisterly gaze. "We all have. I don't recall a time that I have ever seen you amused, albeit just a little. I know what ever lies ahead of us, we can get through together…as a family."
"Oh Hyne, you sound like Laguna." Rinoa rolled her eyes as they continued down the corridor. "If you get a leg cramp, I'm leaving."
"What?" queried the elder. Rinoa paused for a moment as they reached the maintenance bay doors.
Sighing she pushed strands of brunette hair behind her ears. "Never mind, that was a lifetime ago."
Alex reached the furthest most doors of the Ragnarok. As she was about open the control panel, she noticed a familiar scent. Rinoa was still several meters behind her.
"Hey Rin, would it be possible…um…I just would like some time to think."
The other girl smiled in understanding. "Yeah, no problem, I completely understand. Plus, now you have me a little concerned about Zell and Allison. I'm not sure who would be a worse influence on whom."
Truthfully, Rinoa wasn't worried. She recognized that Alex was going through a complicated transition, just as the others. The two girls looked at one another in mutual understanding, and then Rinoa headed off towards the passenger compartments.
Alex watched as Rinoa disappeared through the far doors. When they had completely sealed, Alexandra opened the entrance in front of her.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you smoking was bad for you Mr. Leonhart?"
His stony gaze met hers, but he said nothing.
"You know, Rinoa would have been pissed if she'd found you back here. Trust me, I know how temperamental she can be…I had to live with her through her mood swings."
Alex meant the last comment lighthearted, but Squall took it as anything but. Tossing the cigarette onto the floor, he smashed it into oblivion. Never looking up at the person in his line of sight, he brushed passed to the main corridor.
"Whatever." Disgust within his tone.
She could see the hurt in his features, even if others could not. For so long Rinoa had talked about him, whether in anger or love, Alex felt she knew Squall personally. His cold exterior to those around only hid the pain. The constant reminder of his failures could lead him down a self-destructive path…only Rinoa could save him.
"Squall…look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I realize that it hurts to know what she went through. No matter how hard you try, you can't change the past. But you can control the future. Don't throw it away."
Stopping, the commander looked back at the woman before him. The dim lighting in the room gave her a softer look. For the first time he actually noticed the resemblance not only in appearance, but also in heart.
"You look like her."
"Rinoa?" she questioned.
"Oh." Her expression changed to one of melancholy, even Squall could tell the complexity of the subject. "I never knew her…never even saw a photograph. But I hear her. She's still among us…in spirit anyway."
To this, he didn't answer.
Some subjects were still hard to speak of, Ellone being one of them. He resented himself, in that moment, for even introducing the subject. The hurt of all the years still weighed heavily on his heart and mind. Some issues couldn't be put to rest; some goodbyes could never come.
Even now, the subject was too difficult to broach.
"Look Squall, I didn't mean to…oh never mind. I'm just worried about Rinoa. Right now, she needs you, more than she will ever know. The next couple of days are going to be more difficult than anyone could possibly imagine. Love and trust will be tested…just remember that she loves you."
The words echoed through his head…the same words that Ellone spoke. For some reason the attack on Garden flashed through his memories…the blood, the chaos, the death.
And Rinoa ran.
For the first time in a couple days, his mind fixated on that one topic. Early it had not bothered him, but now it was at the forefront of his mind.
"Will she put her life first again this time?" he spoke bitterly. Even as the words came out, he couldn't believe he was saying them. Even after the events of the last days, the first link in the chain remained a mystery.
"When was the last time Rinoa ever put her life first?" Alex countered in irritation.
"Excuse me? I seem to recall a time about two years ago when she put her life before anyone else at Garden."
The apprehension was short, Alex had done it self-consciously. A slight look away…a moment’s hesitation. One moment she wished could be taken back. In that instant, a revelation hit Squall. Even though the first thought wasn't correct, it was a path that would bring the truth to light.
For the first time, there was something he had not seen. An answer.
"She…she wasn't protecting herself was she?"
Immediately the defensive shield went up. "Yes, she was protecting herself."
Squall looked away, scratching the back of his head. "No…that actually makes sense. Rinoa left to protect…someone else. She knew something that we didn't."
Taking a step toward Alex, he looked her directly in the eye. A gaze that so many before had been scared of, and had cowered to, yet Alex held her ground.
"I don't know what she knew," she replied mockingly. "Maybe you should ask her."
"There is something that you're not telling me…that she's not telling me." Moving away, he inwardly tried to come up with any logical conclusion. Leaning against the cargo bay wall, he rubbed the bridge of his nose. Trying to figure what could have possibly been concealed. The piece of the puzzle that he had overlooked for so long.
Alex grew tired of the conversation, or lack there of, and started to leave. When she moved, the band around her necklace reflected the iridescent light, drawing Squall's attention to the chain. Quickly he spun from his position grabbing her arm forcefully.
"Excuse me? What the hell do you think you are doing?"
"That," he pointed to the golden ring around her neck. "Tell me before you leave…how you ended up with that ring."
"It was a present from Rinoa." It wasn't a lie, just not the complete truth.
"How did she get it? She sold mine for Gil in Trabia."
"Yes Squall, she did. Really, it's no big deal. When she first arrived in Trabia, she needed food and a place for them to stay. So she sold the ring and her mothers…later I found her sketching this lion-type thing. Soon as I walked in the room, she hid it. I later found the sketch, and had a jeweler recreated it for Rinoa. I never realized the original was platinum, not gold…so that's why the difference. When I left, she wanted to give me something to remember her by…so she gave me the ring for luck. It was the only thing that Bennett had not given to her, the only thing she could truly call her own. That's it, end of story. She gave me the ring for luck."
Alex took Squall’s gloved hand off her arm in disgust. "Now I just want to get back to main area. I need sleep." Her shoes clicking on the metallic grated floor were the only sounds echoing in the bay. Squall continued watching her, as she grew further away; replaying the conversation in his head…then something hit him.
He yelled as he strode toward the figure leaving, that refused to acknowledge the man behind her.
"You said them…damn it… you said 'a place for them to stay.' Who in the hell was them? Who was with Rinoa?"
Alex froze mid-step. Shit. Squall approached her and spun her around face to face.
"Who the hell is them Alex?"
She opened her mouth to speak, if only something would come out. She had not lied up to this point, nor did she ever have that intent… Okay omitting and stretching the truth…yes. Lying no.
"I misspoke Squall. It was only Rinoa."
"If it was only her, you wouldn't have stopped…you realized your mistake."
"I know your type. Years of training, I can tell when someone is lying. You're lying."
"Okay Commander Leonhart, if you're so wonderful…tell me what I meant. I'm telling you Rinoa was alone." Self-consciously Alex reached for the ring around her neck, a habit picked up from watching Rinoa so many times prior.
Suddenly Rinoa's words from the cabin rang in his mind, "If something happens to me give the ring to Alex, she will know what to do with it."
At that instant, Squall reached his hand up to the silver band around his neck.
"If something happens to Rinoa…what are you to do with this ring?" He gestured to the one between his leathered fingers.
"What?" she questioned, feeling more cornered by the moment.
"What are you going to do with this ring?" his voice raised. The anger in his eyes betrayed his calm exterior.
"I'm just to make sure that Allison gets it when she's older."
"Allison," he replied nodding his head gradually.
"What do you think of Allison for a girl or Aaron for a boy?" Rinoa's voice echoed in his head. As if someone was playing a tape of his life for him to hear.
"A few minutes ago, you said that I should have been with her during her mood swings…" Squall looked back at Alex who was acting uncharacteristically nervous.
His mind recalled the words Quistis had spoken about the day of the attack, "Frankly, she had been such a complete bitch the last two weeks; I personally wondered what the problem really was. In fact, I was not alone. Both Selphie and Zell had noticed the dramatic change."
Squall closed his eyes, trying to envision the scene, and that day's eventual outcome. "Rinoa ran. Rinoa ran. Why?" Finally, he muttered under his breath, verbalizing his thoughts. "Ellone…warned her of something…"
"It was only for around thirty seconds Rinoa lay unconscious; she woke up startled, looking directly at Elle. Sis opened her eyes for the last time and glanced to Rinoa. He loves you and always will."
Something had shocked Rinoa. By Quistis own accounts of that day…something shocked and confused her. She learned something. Something scared her.
"Her own safety was never the issue," he silently mouthed.
Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out the photograph Rinoa had scribbled on earlier. Flipping it over, he studied it… ARE517… A password?
For once in his life, he was no longer thinking inside. Instead, he was saying aloud, working the puzzle verbally. Maybe it was for his benefit, maybe it was for Alexandra's… If he hit on something, her reactions could give him clues. "Rinoa always used her initials as her password, back at Garden. ARE…Allison…Elizabeth. What is the R?"
In that moment, Alex looked down at in defeat. Her second’s hesitation had led him to this point. She would inevitably be responsible. Plus, she was just tired. Tired from the days on the run, and tired of the hiding. Tired of the life she was trying to escape. The dreams, the nightmares…and right now…tired of keeping the truth.
"It's not a what Squall…it's a who. Raine…the R stands for Raine."
"Raine," he spoke softly looking back at the paper. "5-17… Five…five…May 17th… no, Allison's Birthday was the seventeenth of July."
Alex closed her eyes as she inhaled deeply, before releasing trying to calm her nerves. Finally, she spoke the only words she could.
"Allison was born in May. She is sixteen months old, not fourteen…Elizabeth - Julia's middle name…Allison Raine Elizabeth…that's her full name."
"Our parent's names," he murmured covering his hand in revelation. With tears forming at the very corner of his eyes and a heart that couldn't stop beating…he finally said the words aloud. The words he wished could have been true from the first moment.
"Our daughters name."