Chapter XII Clearing the Board
"It was only logical," Cid told Squall that night. "We couldn't afford to lose someone of her caliber. And she's certainly proved herself."
They were on Balamb Garden's balcony, overlooking Deling City. Fireworks were still going off sporadically over the President's mansion. The Seed had put in an appearance at the city's festivities, but soon returned to the Garden for their own. In the ballroom behind the balcony doors, the SeeD party was going at top volume, celebrating both President Caraway's inauguration and the recent SeeD graduations of Rinoa and several other cadets.
Here outside, Squall had gotten his first chance in days to speak in private with the headmaster. That promotion was his first question. "Rinoa will have to work to advance her rank like everyone else," Cid said. "But though she didn't take an official test, Edea and I believe she merits appointment more than most SeeD cadets--and we never graduate anyone who doesn't have the necessary ability and more." He sipped his drink, then raised an eyebrow at Squall. "You aren't protesting our decision, are you?"
"Me? No!" Squall said forcefully. "I...thank you. I wanted to suggest it myself..."
"You should've," Cid said with a hint of reproach. "Nominating someone for SeeD membership is the kind of executive decision a commander really should make. Though your hesitation was probably correct in this case, since you are, ahem, personally involved with the young lady." He smiled genially at his SeeD commander, whose ears had gone pink. "But you didn't bring me out here to talk about Rinoa, did you, Squall?"
"...No, sir." Squall assumed a formal stance, straight-backed with his arms crossed. "I've been wanting to ask you this for a while, and there hasn't been a chance before."
"What are we doing now?"
"You mean, we SeeD? What is SeeD doing at this moment?"
"I mean in general. What are we SeeD for now? What's the point?"
Cid put his wine glass down on the stone balustrade and gazed thoughtfully at the few stars visible through the city's haze. "Why are we here?" A smile touched his lips. "You just saved the world, again, and you're still asking?"
"Yes," Squall insisted. "It has to be more than that. We can't be here just to fix what goes wrong. We're rebuilding Trabia Garden, and making Galbadia Garden ready for space--you had the Pods built, and there are more planned. Planned for what? You and Edea started SeeD to fight Ultimecia--but she's gone. What's our purpose now?"
"You said Ultimecia's gone. You think you've saved the world." Cid lifted his head, his jaw firming. For that instant he was indeed the founder and leader of the most powerful fighting force in the world. "You're wrong."
"You killed the Sorceress. She won't bother us now. But she's in our future, Squall. She's coming. In fifty years, in five hundred, we don't know. We don't know where she'll emerge, or how she'll gain her power. But Ultimecia will be born one day. And SeeD will be there. You saw it."
Squall shook his head. "But those future SeeD...they failed. They were all dead."
"You don't understand," Cid said. "You killed her, like you were meant to. That wasn't why they were there. That's not why we're still here now. There's something much more important than killing Ultimecia. And that's surviving her. We know she instigates time compression--who knows what else she will be capable of? What she might do to people, to the very planet, before you kill her? For SeeD to succeed, for us to truly achieve our real mission, we must make a world that can withstand Ultimecia's evil. So when she's gone, everyone else will be left, to rebuild whatever she destroyed.
"The SeeD and the Gardens will help create that world. As soon as its renovations are complete, Galbadia Garden's going to be assigned to Esthar. To learn. The Galbadians actually had the right idea--Esthar and FH can't keep their technology to themselves anymore. Everyone will need it. President Loire agrees, and he's ready to work with the new head of Galbadia Garden to renew the old trade routes and open lines of communication."
"Who will that new head be?" Squall asked.
"We have to discuss it with you. Quistis has been doing a good job as your second, hasn't she? If you could afford to lose her, I believe she'll be up to the challenge. And we'll need a head for Trabia Garden soon as well--we also have plans for them. There's areas of the world that are isolated, separate...if Ultimecia should arise unchecked, she'll endanger all of us, all the innocent people in the world. We'll need to seek those hidden ones out."
"They might not want us," Squall said, recalling the Shumi's isolationism.
"If they don't join us, they may not survive," Cid said soberly. "It may be worth an invasion to save them, and everyone."
"Conquer those who don't join..." He thought of Dahl, lying in the Deling City hospital, as close to dead as one could be who still breathed. And Jezikan, fallen to the moon, forever entombed within the Lunatic Pandora. They too had tried to remake the world. And he wondered if it was anything more than fortune's chance, that they lay in their resting places, while he and those he loved celebrated here. "How does that make us any different from the Galbadians?"
Cid looked at Squall long and hard. "Because they cared only about their own ends, what they could build for themselves. And what they created wouldn't have lasted beyond the time it served them. The SeeD have to look further, to what we can build for the sake of everyone." The headmaster's hazel eyes studied him seriously. "There are never guarantees. But in the end, all Jezikan and Dahl could offer the world was the promise of nightmares. We... We can offer the hope of a future."
"And that's what you've always been planning for," Squall said. "The enhancements of Galbadia Garden, space-flight capabilities--we'll do that to all the Gardens, won't we? It's a contingency plan. If everything else fails, if we lose the world to her--we'll still have somewhere to go. Follow the ancients."
"Only if everything else fails. But yes. That's the idea," he confirmed, proud of his protégé's perception. "We'll bring everything, everyone, that we can. We won't lose to her."
"But that's not for some time yet," said a soft alto.
Cid turned with a brilliant smile as his wife glided onto the balcony. Edea's black hair shimmered in the starlight as she nodded gracefully to him and Squall, then continued, "Ultimecia won't come for years, if Laguna's right--he suggests that if Ellone were still alive when Ultimecia's born, she would've warned us. And when I took her powers, I sensed she came from a distant future...I don't know how long. But not for some years. It doesn't mean we should just rest on our laurels. But for one night, we can relax. You need it. Both of you." She linked arms with her husband and picked up his glass off the balcony's marble banister. "Come inside and have fun. You too, Squall. Rinoa is waiting for you."
But when Squall reentered the ballroom, he found Rinoa not on the dance floor but by a corner wall, in earnest conversation with Esthar's president. Her back was to him, dark hair falling like a glossy silk curtain over the collar of her SeeD dress uniform. She had almost worn her white strapless, but he was glad she had gone with her new livery. It fit her beautifully. He reminded himself to tell her so.
Facing the balcony, Laguna noticed Squall first and motioned him over. Aware that his father knew about SeeD's true mission, Squall asked upon reaching them, "Were you discussing the plans for Galbadia Garden in Esthar?"
Laguna shook his head. "Actually, we were just talking about you--both of you," and he patted Rinoa's shoulder. "You know how I suggested you should come to Esthar for a vacation? Well, you might not think it from what you've seen of it, but there are places in the city--and outside, though maybe not with the lunar monsters still around--that would be perfect for a honeymoon."
Rinoa turned an unusual shade of dusky rose. "It was his idea--"
Laguna just beamed, green eyes twinkling.
"Father..." Squall said slowly.
"Oh, it's an open offer, not like you have to set a date or anything. Besides, you've already given her the ring," and he indicated the silver lion band on Rinoa's necklace.
"That's not--" Rinoa began.
Squall shook his head. "Never mind."
"Just a minute." Gesturing apology to Rinoa, Laguna took Squall by the arm and pulled him aside. "Squall," he said, for a moment serious, "It doesn't have to mean anything, not if you don't think it does. Though if that's the case, you owe it to Rinoa to tell her now. But if she does mean more to you...and I think she does..."
Squall simply nodded, because there were no words strong enough.
"In that case..." Laguna smiled. "I just want you to know you have my blessing, all the way. She's a fantastic girl--a fantastic woman. I think--no, I know your mother would have liked her. And she'd have loved to see you happy."
"Thank you, Father," Squall said, and was almost surprised by how the simple words brightened his father's already cheerful countenance.
"I should talk to her father about it, I guess," Laguna said. "Man to man--or is it President to President, now? Hey, Ward, over here," and he beckoned to his minister across the dance floor. When the large man had joined them, Laguna asked, "We're supposed to meet with President Caraway sometime soon, right?"
Ward rumbled a reply Squall couldn't follow, but Laguna sighed. "Yes, I know we need to be getting back to Esthar, but this is important, too. Good international relations, isn't that what Kiros is always harping about?"
Ward responded. "I'm gonna take care of that soon," Laguna assured him, adding an aside to his son, "There's these guys in Timber who just restarted the railroad to FH, did you hear? They want to meet with me about going through to Esthar--a train into Esthar, haven't had that since the Sorceress War! Wild, huh? You should see these two, former Galbadian soldiers, they make me 'n Ward 'n Kiros look normal...what's their names, Wiggs and Bed, something like that..."
Ward leaned down and murmured something to Squall, clarifying the remark with a pointed cock of his head toward where Rinoa leaned against the wall, looking hopefully on at the couples dancing by. Laguna noticed the gesture and rolled his eyes. "All right, I get it--better get back to her, Squall, before she finds a partner herself." He gave his son a gentle shove in the right direction, then started toward Ellone's table, calling, "Hey, Elle, want anything to drink?"
Squall met Ward's eyes and saw silent laughter reflected in their depths. Then Rinoa joined them, smiling up at the man towering over them. "Say, Ward, we met your uncle in Deling City--Thurlon Zaback?"
Ward grinned and nodded eagerly. "He helped us out--helped rescue me," Rinoa told him. "He's a great man--maybe you should visit him. Bet it would make his day, especially if you showed him what you're doing now."
A slower song ended then, and the band struck up a lively reel. Couples were drawn from their seats by the sprightly beat, flocking onto the floor. Ward gestured the two of them toward the rest. Listening dubiously to the fast-paced tune, Squall hesitated, but Rinoa pulled him out among the other dancers. "Can't be that much harder than stopping the Pandora, right?" she whispered to him, then took his hands and whirled them into the rapid steps.
* * *
Even Squall was enjoying himself, Quistis noticed with small amazement, watching as he and Rinoa cavorted past her table, whirling with the others to the energetic music. The SeeD commander wasn't quite smiling openly, but the intensity in his expression was not mere concentration on the complicated steps, which he picked up as swiftly and dexterously as he did everything. That particular look held a contentment that came only from a certain presence, whom he moved with now in perfect harmony. Rinoa laughed freely as he swung her around, not a Sorceress for this moment, not even SeeD, completely absorbed in the one position she would never forsake.
They made a beautiful pair, Quistis had to admit. Meanwhile Selphie and Irvine were making up for lesser ability with sheer enthusiasm and velocity, with the bonus that Selphie was small enough for Irvine to fling in just about any direction with abandon. And Zell had gathered the nerve to ask Sashi out, and now was bouncing around with her merrily--the library girl might act subdued on duty, but she cut quite a figure on the dance floor, especially with her dress, not standard SeeD attire but getting no protests from any male present. Witnessing her friends' happiness, Quistis couldn't help but share it. She smiled, honestly, but with just a touch of self-pity that she despised without being able to dispel.
It would help if just one of the Treppies gathered two tables away would ask her to dance!
She had just about given up hope when a shadow fell across her. Quistis looked up, half expecting Irvine.
"Excuse me, my lady, but may I have this dance?" Dark, warm baritone; dark, trim suit. Out of his regular costume, she didn't recognize him immediately. The voice was musically accented, deeper than one would expect from his lithe form. Kiros.
Quistis swallowed, then nodded and stood. The minister's brown eyes sparkled as he caught up her hands. "Looks like I lost the bet."
Quistis stiffened. "The bet?"
"I bet Laguna that I wouldn't get within twenty paces of you, through the crowd. What's wrong with the guys here--do they all take after the Loires? I don't know about your commander, but Laguna used to have to be force-marched onto the dance floor."
"Dragged, in Squall's case," Quistis giggled, and allowed herself to be pulled onto it as well.
Selphie and Irvine, taking a breather at a nearby table, watched Kiros sweep Quistis into the rhythm of the swing.
"He's good," Selphie remarked.
"So's she. I haven't seen Quisty having so much fun in a while," Irvine observed.
They sat in silence while the pair danced by.
"Irvine, d'you think--"
Together they leaned forward, elbows on the table and chins in hands, thoughtful.
"We've known him for a while, and he is Sir Laguna's friend."
"He's a lot older--"
"But so handsome!"
"They do look good together..."
They continued to watch the two dance. Kiros bent to whisper something in her ear, their heads close, ebony beside shining gold. Quistis laughed again.
Irvine and Selphie looked at one another. "Hmm..."
* * *
Though Seifer and his posse had been given courtesy invitations, there was some surprise when the three actually appeared. But their behavior was impeccable, and a SeeD party in full swing rarely barred anyone at the gate. Seifer was currently dancing with Xu. Rinoa noticed Raijin and Fujin standing against the wall by the main doors. Raijin was chatting amiably with Nida while the pilot's date fetched drinks, but Fujin stared silently ahead, pale eye fixed on the leader of her posse, like a camera lens capturing every move he made.
Rinoa idly wondered how much wine it would take for Fujin to grab Seifer for a dance. She doubted the knight would make the first move; he wasn't exactly oblivious to his friends, but he didn't seem to think of Fujin as anything more than that. If she had worn a dress tonight, perhaps... Maybe she could suggest something to Seifer.
She considered Fujin's pride. Maybe not. They were lucky Selphie and Irvine were preoccupied.
Rinoa returned her attention to the music and her partner. It was well worth the effort to get Squall onto the dance floor. His coordination was perfect, as befitted a gunblade specialist, but fighting wasn't his only forte.
She smiled to herself. No, definitely not...
When the music stopped, she was out of breath and a bit dizzy from spinning. "Let's wait for something a little slower," she asked Squall.
He nodded, took her arm and began to walk with her to one of the nearby tables, only to freeze mid-step. Rinoa turned her head and saw Seifer, his arms crossed as he returned Squall's gaze. The blond knight's mouth was slanted in a cynical smirk. "Good party," he said. "So, Squall, what's this about me being ultimate evil?"
"Seifer--" Rinoa protested, wondering how he had possibly learnt of that.
Squall's shoulders were rigid under his dress jacket, but he answered calmly. "It was only a nightmare. Lord Dahl--"
"Yeah, yeah, I've heard about what that Warlock could do. But weren't his visions made of what was in your head to begin with? Is that really what you think of me, Squall?"
The SeeD commander didn't reply. The knight stared at him for a long instant, searching his face with narrowed eyes.
Then Seifer laughed. "Heh--I'm flattered! Didn't know you thought so highly of me!"
Squall put his head in his hand with a muffled groan as Seifer cuffed his shoulder, grinning. "We have to have a rematch sometime. Show you how the real thing fights, not some dumb imaginary copy. I've found new ways to train--you're in for a shock."
"What are you going to be doing now, Seifer?" Rinoa asked.
Seifer shrugged. "Nothing right now. Know anyone looking for an unemployed knight? Is SeeD maybe gonna start contracting out?"
"Actually I was hoping you might stay in Galbadia," Rinoa said. "At least for the next few months while my father's president. A lot of people do support him, but there are some who really don't like him, in the army and elsewhere. And some of the council members have got to be unhappy that he's President now. I'm worried..."
"That somebody might try to put him out of office permanently, yeah. Well, can he hire bodyguards? Me and Fujin and Raijin need cash for food, a place to live, that kind of thing."
"I'll talk to him about it tomorrow," Rinoa said. "But will you do it?"
"We'll guard him with our lives." Seifer bowed to her. "As the Sorceress wishes."
"Uh...thanks. Thank you. Um, hey, I haven't seen you dance with your date yet."
"Didn't you come with Fujin?"
Seifer frowned, mystified. "Yeah..."
"She's right over there. You should ask her for a dance."
Seifer looked at her askance, but gave a parting nod to both of them and struck off in the direction of his posse.
Squall watched him curiously. "Does that mean he has to ask Raijin, too?"
Rinoa giggled, then gave a soft sigh of relief. "You think he'll outgrow it soon?"
"This whole Sorceress-Knight respect thing. Maybe it's flattering, but..."
She felt more than saw Squall tense again. "You think so?"
"It's spooky, that's what I think." She glanced up at his still expression. "Hey, are you jealous?"
"You are! That's so cute." She grinned, poked him in the ribs. "I'm not gonna tell you you're being silly, because you already know it. Just promise you won't start calling me 'Sorceress' and bowing."
"My promise, Sorceress." And he essayed a small bow to boot.
Rinoa sighed, then swung around to face him. "Just for that, you have to dance with me again."
A slow waltz had begun. In the dusk outside the spotlights, they danced close, arms looped around one another and barely shuffling their feet as they swayed to the lilting tempo. Rinoa felt as if she were floating, drifting on the music's leisurely current. Almost as good as weightlessness.
Similar thoughts must have crossed Squall's mind, for he murmured in her ear, "I preferred this in free fall."
Rinoa swallowed a chortle. "We could improve it," she suggested, and moving with the melody she waltzed them further back, until they were against the heavy drapes along the far wall. Hidden in their shadows, the sounds of the band and the party were muted. At an illusory distance, the center of the ballroom glittered like jewelry with gowns, candles, and laughter. The SeeD's Garden was not always this festive, but it was her home now, officially, and that made every plain fixture and dark corner beautiful.
And Squall was a warm figure beside her, features obscured by the shadows. She traced her fingers over the angled planes of his face, rocked forward to kiss him gently, then reached for her collar. "It's hot over here," she whispered. "We should open a window." She struggled with the fastening of her dress jacket. "How do you get this thing off?"
Squall's long fingers deftly undid the top button. "I wanted to tell you," he said softly, "your uniform...looks wonderful."
"I hope it looks half as good as yours," Rinoa replied. "We're a matched set now."
"Yes," Squall agreed, happily, she thought. She leaned her back against the cloth-draped wall and tilted up her face toward his as he drew closer. The curtains billowed up around them, stirring faint dust. Squall sneezed and Rinoa chuckled under her breath.
They both froze. Silence. At last Rinoa ventured, "Zell?"
The drapes gathered, puffed out, and at last were drawn aside. Zell blinked at them. His dress jacket was over his arm and his white shirt was half unbuttoned. Beside him against the stone wall, Sashi adjusted the narrow shoulder strap of her crimson gown and smiled at them. "Good evening, Commander, Rinoa," she said cheerfully.
"Uh...hi, Squall," Zell stammered. "We...uh...thought maybe...er...the windows should be opened?"
"It's hot in here, isn't it," Rinoa said, grinning. "Told you, Squall."
"I didn't disagree," he said mildly. "But there aren't any windows along this wall."
"Say, Zell, did you know when you blush you can see the color through your hair?"
"Really?" Sashi stood on tiptoes to inspect this phenomenon.
Zell's face was rapidly becoming redder than his date's dress. "We should--there's still music--maybe Selphie and Irvine would like--"
"No, we'll go," Rinoa said. "Sorry we--"
"Oh, stay, there's plenty of space," Sashi said, and proved it by wrapping her arms around Zell's neck and kissing him hard enough to stifle his startled squawk.
Another, familiar waltz began. Rinoa took pity on their friend. "They're playing our song, Squall. We have to dance."
Zell dipped his head, grateful, and Squall smiled, understanding her motivation. As they began to walk, arm in arm, back to where their other friends gathered in the glittering ballroom, Squall leaned closer and told her, "I love you."
"I love you," Rinoa replied, her heart buoyant.
"You're making me sick to my stomach," Zell said from behind the curtain.
And the imperturbable SeeD commander astonished everyone close enough to hear by throwing back his head and laughing out loud.
I wrote this story because when I finished playing Final Fantasy VIII, I found I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the characters. Now, 12 chapters later, I find I'm still not quite prepared...does this really have to be the end?
This is the longest story I've written to date, and a labor of love from start to finish. That being said, I wouldn't have been able to finish it without the support I received. Everyone who read and responded, from one note to comments after every chapter, you have all my thanks, and this completed piece to show for it. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
Special thanks go to three people: My friend Signe, who liked my constructions of GFs and limit breaks; my bro, who gave me several chapter titles and suggested calling the final one "Another game! But this time I get to be White!" And my sis, always my biggest cheerleader, even when I hit walls, or just take too long to get around to writing a scene. But see, it's done! That Squall doll is mine now!
And much gratitude to (or should that be curses upon?) SquareSoft for making such fantastic, addictive, lovable games. Can't wait to play XI!
Sayonara...until next time!