Crimson Lies Part 2
The tragedy of life,
Is what dies inside a man while he lives.
"Fine, go for it. Tell me what you discovered on your almighty quest for the bite bugs, what earth shattering news you have quit your precious work to come back and tell me."
Rinoa turned away dreading to hear the words aloud.
"I love you," he replied calmly.
Rinoa could not speak, momentarily she could not move. After a few seconds, registration of the words hit her. She stood from the metal step, walking into the cargo hold of the vehicle. Tilting her head slightly to the side, she sat her body on the brown vinyl bench. Finally, her mind was able to form a word…a simple word.
"What?" she snapped, looking deeply into his eyes searching for answers.
She found them. Rinoa could not comprehend how she had gone from getting ready to tell him off to wanting to hold him, never letting go. He never answered her question, if it was really a question, with words. Squall leaned down close to her face, she was sure he was going to kiss her. Instead, he brushed his lips against her cheeks and starting slowly tracing kisses down her neck. It had been long since Rinoa experienced anything like this. It was something Squall Leonhart did not do. Squall did not do a lot.
Rinoa rested her head against the humid cushion, seats where many a SeeD sat for transit to and from battles. She found herself closing her eyes at his feathery kisses. As suddenly as he started, he stopped. Rinoa flew open her eyes expecting him to be running away. Instead, he looked deep through her. They did not exchange one word; words would only ruin such a perfect moment. He took his right hand and pushed some lose strands of hair behind her ears, then with the same fluid motion he continued running the hand down her cheek. Slowly he made his way to her black tank top and started caressing her shoulder. The summer heat left them both sweaty, but nothing compared to the inner emotions, feelings within their own bodies.
When he had been fighting, heat forced him to remove his shirt, tying it around his waist. She smiled back and looked at his chest, slowly running her fingers along his muscles. The sensation was one that was foreign to him, allowing someone truly this intimate. He knew one thing. He needed her. Cid once warned him that when a knight and a sorceress were to make love it was a bond, a union so strong…it could never be broken. This fact always weighed heavily on him. For that would mean much more than a physical commitment, but also one of complete spiritual nature. For over a year, he held his sexual urges at bay, afraid of the end results. However, with the thought of losing her, of truly losing her, Squall thought of nothing more than to strengthen their connection. Yes, he did do thinking on his trip, just not the way she envisioned. Most of it involved her not having clothes on; he was prepared for this. He wanted this.
He gingerly moved his hand off Rinoa's shoulder and sat down on the cushioned seat beside her. Taking both hands, he slid them gradually down her waist, never once breaking eye contact. Squall slowly grabbed the tank top and carefully lifted the garment above her head. She continued smiling at him, never abandoning his eyes. She lowered her mouth to his chest, trailing kisses along his right shoulder. Gently reaching around both hands to her back, he outlined her spine with the tip of thumb from her neck down to where her bra tightly fastened. The feeling of the contact made her tremble; the emotions were dreamlike to her. He tentatively worked at the clasp, trying not to break their closeness.
After a second, she giggled looking up at him. Giving him a quick kiss on the lips, she pulled away and effortlessly undid the restraining bra. He sat fascinated with her every move, every one registering different effects on his body.
"You'll get used to it," she teased still not releasing the bra from her shoulders.
"I know," he quickly replied pulling her closer to him.
This time it was her turn to surprise him as she quickly sat on his lap. For a moment he sat mesmerized, never have experiencing anything like this before. She leaned forward to close the distance to his mouth…the feel of skin, almost too much for him. Never in his life had he thought about this actually happening, dreaming and fantasizing, yes. Honestly, not one of his fantasies ever included a dirty Garden vehicle. Curiously, the same one he'd taken on his SeeD examine. Right now, everything was perfect and truth be told, he would not changed a thing.
Before Squall knew, her mouth was upon his. Not the exploratory little kisses from before when he attempted any sort of awkward contact. Squall held her tight, arms wrapped around the small of her back, and then he started trailing his lips down her neck once again. After a few minutes of teasing, she leaned back towards him, again finding his mouth. He slowly guided her back down onto the vinyl cushions.
He was slightly surprised that she again took initiative in the situation. Squall could feel her hand fumbling around his belts. She was struggling. He could identify the frustration. Part of him wanted to make her wait, but the other part knew he could not wait much longer. Finally, he reached down and undid them with ease.
In between kisses he stated, "You'll get used to it."
Rinoa drew him nearer, whispering in his ear, "I know."
The phenomenon sent shivers through his spine. Never in his life had Squall Leonhart wanted anything more than he wanted Rinoa Heartilly.
For in that moment in time, in that instance of life, they became one - bonded further than mere mortals, a relationship understood by few. They entered into a commitment each would never genuinely understand until years later, until circumstances would test loyalty and love. Nevertheless, in that moment, they were one. Squall looked deep into her eyes, attempting to place clumps of matted hair behind her ears, gently kissing her cheek with every attempt. They stayed silent for what seemed all too short, neither wanting the peace to end, neither wanting the moment to end.
Time was not on their side. He was expected back…with wizard stones in hand. Right now, he had collected not one. Squall winced at the concept of moving, but made a mental note never to forget this moment. The feel, the sight, and the smell of strawberry shampoo in her dark hair, every detail was perfect.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I love you. I knew what you wanted earlier, and I didn't care how you felt. Rinoa, I don't need children, I just need you. If you want a child, there are always other options. You needed support and I couldn't provide it. Somehow, the talk of commitment…of family, it scares me. I don't know what the future holds, but the only thing I do know is that you will always be a part of it."
"You love me," she almost giggled at the foreign sound of the words.
"Yes…really you don't have to sound so surprised," he countered with a rare smile.
She pulled him gently into a deep passionate kiss, and then breaking it off she ran her hand through his sweat-covered hair.
"I love you too," she replied looking deep into his soul.
He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead before sitting up, putting his legs back on to the floor.
"Come on, I don't want to leave you behind. Will you help me gather some wizard stones?"
She nodded in agreement, as they gathered up loose articles of clothing, strewn all around the vehicle, even outside the vehicle. They continued to dress in silence, when fully clothed Rinoa walked over to him, taking her hand in his.
"Yes," he replied.
"I'm…sorry for what I said about your father. I didn't mean it."
"Look, what he did is wrong. I would never abandon my family…"
The flames roared in the small cabin on the Trabian content. Crackles of the logs falling off the fire made her jump out of the trance. The memories of that day would always play over and over, it was so right. They were so right. Jumping up, Rinoa set the stray logs back into the fire with the poker. Remembering precisely the words that Squall promised to her on that day, "I would never abandon my family." The thought almost made her nauseous…he lied. The irony of the situation was almost humorous. Not only did the son become the father, but also son surpassed father. Laguna would have never turned on Raine. Rinoa was sure of that fact. Squall could have learned something from the loyalty his father possessed, but hoping was all in vain.
She checked the fire one last time before grabbing the small pillow and blanket from the dusty bed. The flames offered her warmth, comfort. Rinoa would sleep next to it for two more nights. She had to buy time until the next transport vehicle, and hiding in the woodlands was perfect cover. SeeD would be in Trabia, a risk she was not willing to take. Somehow, she had to make it to Dollet, to find Alexandra. She had to protect Ally at any cost…even her own life.
When given the simple choice of yes or no, I made the wrong decision. Somehow, I truthfully thought that a' yes' could transform my life into the fairytale I dreamed. Squall learned to love…now he could learn to love me. For so many years I watched him grow, watched him mature. I fell in love with the boy, never the man. I saw him as the child who still desired protecting, who still yearned for nurturing. I was wrong. I saw him today for the first time. I saw him through the eyes of an adult, not that of an infatuated adolescent.
I failed, simply put. Rejection is the hardest part of life; it is human nature to avoid failure. We are taught as children to do our best and that will always be good enough. That is a lie, an illusion created by those around us to hide our shortcomings. Nobody aspires to fail, nobody attempts to fail, yet signs of failure are all around us. Every rejection, every denial drives us deeper into personal solitude. The secret is getting out before it buries you.
Learn from it… move on. But to what do we move on to? That is the unsolvable question. When one has spent their entire life on what turns to be a fantasy, for Hyne's sake, search for the inner strength…and just move on. As much as it hurts, as much as it stings, and as much as you want nothing more than to breakdown, just move on.
The former-instructor sat on the little bed, not fit for even a single occupant. The maritime way of life was foreign to her, as was any other form of existence outside Garden. These crafts were nothing but transport vehicles for military personal. Usually employed by the Galbadian government, the amenities, at best, were meager. It did not carry the luxury as many vessels did, small cabins barely capable to hold the quad bunks. There were still enough rooms on board to give each of the four travelers a separate room. Yes, she was sure that would be questioned later on, as rumors were a way of life presently.
The obscurity outside the window only mirrored the feelings in her heart, like a doppelganger staring back directly to her soul. The Griever pendant was heavy around her neck. The weight was a welcome sensation. Occasionally she moved her fingers where her golden band should be, a sign of past memories. Quistis pulled her long hair back into a rubber band, permitting clear vision of the files scattered around the single bed.
Something didn't feel right. Whether it was the events previous days, the overwhelming barrenness, the Bennett assignment, or a grotesque combination of the three she didn't know. What she did know, nonetheless, was that things would be different; her life would be different. Picking up the pieces would be hard, but she was strong. She still held the designation of SeeD, right now that her only comfort. Quistis lifted her head as she heard the sounds of footsteps on the metal passageway outside.
Not waiting for the formalities of knocking, Quistis yelled for the unknown shipmate to come in. Lauren opened the door apprehensively at first, before making eye contact with the cabins occupant.
"Well," Quistis mused to herself, "she is the lesser of three evils."
"Instructor Leonhart," the girl began, before being hastily interrupted
"Quistis," she corrected, she was no longer a teacher, nor would have the title of Mrs. Leonhart a great deal longer.
"Oh…okay Quistis," Lauren stated slightly bewildered. "I just received a wire from Garden. We've been informed that Renee Bennett passed away this afternoon."
"Oh Hyne, poor woman, she never got to see her daughter again, before…before she passed away."
"Yes, I was thinking how hard that must have been, not to mention how her husband must be suffering. First, their daughter was abducted, now his wife no longer by his side. He must be miserable."
"Lauren, you're precisely right. I couldn't envision going through two such traumatic events. The files state his wife had been ill for sometime. I guess the anxiety was too much on her."
"The World Council wanted to notify us that they are stepping up the investigation. I wanted to give Commander Leonhart the communication."
Quistis turned to the shadowy window, "If you're asking me where the Commander is, I don't know. My guess would be out in the freezing air, that's just a logical presumption knowing him." The brown-haired SeeD started to close the door. "Hey Lauren," Quistis inquired. "Why are they stepping up the investigation now, after his wife passed away? Shouldn't they have had a full-scale investigation before?"
"I don't know Inst…Quistis. I just received the wire from Selphie. Maybe the council wants to make sure Richard Bennett has something to hope for."
"Yeah, I presume you're right. Just seems that calling both Trabia and Balamb Gardens for an abduction case seems…well very nonstandard protocol. I guess it helps to be a sitting delegate on the World Council, those bastards have nothing better to do than intervene in others lives."
Lauren knew better than to ask details, respect taught her as much. However, she did question Quistis meaning in the last statement. After younger girl left the compartment, she returned to examining the files that lay on her bed, now with a renewed interest not only to find Rinoa, but also to solve the kidnapping case. Quistis could think of no greater loss than that of a child, even her situation seemed inconsequential in comparison. Again, she heard footsteps echoing on the metal walkway. Figuring that Lauren forgot something, she was assuming the door to open once again…it did. What she did not expect, was the man standing in the narrow hallway.
"Seifer…" she said animosity in her tongue. "Didn't anybody teach you to knock?"
"Yes, but now what fun would that be?"
"You're a jackass," she rejoined pulling papers back into the main file.
"It's always a pleasure to see you too, Mrs. Commander."
"Seifer…don't," she begged wordlessly with her eyes.
He walked over to the bed. It was too small for one individual to sleep comfortably upon, yet appropriately sized for two to be seated on, if one didn't want to sit up straight. He reached his right hand to her shoulder, looking genuinely into her penetrating blue eyes.
"I'm sorry Quistis that was uncalled for."
She smiled at him, though only for a slight instant. "Can I help you with something or did you just come by to make my life miserable?"
"Actually," he said smirking at her, "you didn't come up for dinner. Although, dinner would be an overstatement for this floating tin-can. More like rations given to military prisoners, bread and water would've been more appealing. But I…I didn't want you to go hungry so I brought you this."
He handed her a small red apple, avoiding eye contact.
Quistis giggled slightly, "Seifer, I didn't know you cared. Little old to be bringing an apple to the ex-teacher."
"Oh not you too…I think one verbally challenged person in my life is all I can take."
"What about Fujin?" Seifer joked.
Quistis laughed. For the first time in god knows how long, she actually laughed.
"I stand corrected Mr. Almasy, two verbally challenged people in my life is enough. Honestly, what brings you by, kinda out of the way to come down here? Figured you and Squall would catching up on all those lost years."
"Yeah right, I'm sure he has so much he wants to share with me. Actually, I just left him to mope on the deck. I'm sure that will take up most of his evening unless he makes time for sulking, brooding or pouting."
"Why Seifer, why after five years did you come back?" she asked complete seriousness on her face.
"I don't know. Sure wasn't for Mr. Personality up there. Guess I wanted to help, I have a lot to make up for."
"So after Rinoa vanishes, two years later you show up out of the blue, just when the council is stepping up its investigation? Seems inconsistent to me, is there something else we should know about, another motivation bringing you here?"
"Nothing that you would understand….or in reality, believe," he trailed off diffidently.
"Try me Seifer. Think I would believe anything right now."
"Um…well," Seifer was uncomfortable. Even Quistis could tell his apprehension about the topic. Her first thought was one she fleetingly found herself getting distressed over - upset or jealous, truthfully didn't matter.
"You're still in love with Rinoa," Quistis said flatly. "Join the club."
"I'm not in love with Rinoa," he corrected with abrasiveness. "I might still care for her, but I can unquestionably tell you, I'm not in love with her. Somehow, when you spend five years alone, or practically alone, you think back on events in your life. Mistakes years past, mistakes that hound your every waking moment and your every dream, it can be devastating."
"I understand," she spoke sympathetically. "I understand all too well."
"It's the dream part that always seems to get me in trouble." Seifer tried to make light of the situation, "If it wasn't for those damn dreams all the time. First, it was to be a Sorceress' Knight, at any cost. Now, the dreams are more vivid, more real, not really about any specific title or role, more concerning salvation and redemption. I can't give details. I just know that Squall, Rinoa, you, and I are part of the visions. I think we are working together, fighting some species of dragon. Don't ask me about the beast, I couldn't accurately describe it. It is nothing like we have ever encountered before, or anything known in the bestiary world. All I know is…its unadulterated evil. The monster is bronze in color, yet the eyes are piercing black. A black so evil, that the orbs steal the very life force around them."
"Is it something from another dimension, another time, like Ultimecia?"
"No." The fear notable on his face, something that would upset such a man must truly be revolting. "I don't know what it is or what it represents. For some reason I feel that it more a chameleon amongst us; it thrives solely on the agony of others. I can't explain the sensation, even if I wanted."
"Seifer, are you okay?"
"Yeah, fine. I just wish that the dreams would end, I find myself unable to sleep at night dreading the nightmares to begin again. I just want the torture to end. Something has brought me here, of that I'm convinced."
"I'm sorry. I know what it's like to live with such nightmares, although mine are more manifested by the guilt eating away inside. I know this now. I lay awake at night replaying all the events; figuring out what I could have done better. How I could've saved Ellone, how I could've saved Rinoa, and how I could've saved myself."
Seifer stood from the bed tracing his thumb across Quistis velvety face, as if wiping away tears that did not come. He smiled vaguely. "Two days ago on the beach in Balamb you said that I didn't know what it felt like to be in love with somebody who could never love me back. Maybe I do."
"Rinoa?" she questioned aloud, although internal hoping for another answer. She didn't know why, rationalization was not part of emotion. Something inside her felt comfortable with this man, a sensation unlike any she felt before. Maybe circumstances brought them together, two lost souls trying to find deliverance. Two lost souls looking for the home they never had, in a world completely unique to each.
"You really are stuck on that subject. Let me tell you now that not everybody is in love with her. There are other people out there. I guess it just takes everyone time."
For some unknown reason, even to her, Quistis rose slowly from the small cot. Seifer's hand still on her tender cheek, silently she raised her hand to his face. How long had it been since someone allowed her to touch them, to get close to them? How long had it been that she wanted to touch someone else in the same way? Before reason caught hold of her senses, she closed the gap between the two, tenderly touching her lips against his. Finally, he could not wait any longer, passionately deepening the kiss. She remembered an ecstasy long lost and forgotten, a feeling so overwhelming that all practical judgment vanished. He too feverishly returned the emotion, pulling her body closer to his.
Lauren found Squall sitting on a bench, where Quistis had believed. He was lost in the stars, memorizing every bright fleck in the sky. Looking for signs of possibility, a long escaped sign of destiny, fate had lent him the gesture many years ago. The fog lifted several kilometers back, revealing a blanket of speckles on the dark cover of night. The air was chilling, the closer to Trabia they would get, the more dramatic the change of atmosphere.
"Commander Leonhart," Lauren spoke with conviction. "I have received a wire from Selphie."
"Renee Bennett passed away this afternoon. The council wants to step up the investigation. Many members will be attending the funeral on Friday. Currently they want to double the number of all active SeeD on the case, they have asked for Balamb to send in further aid."
"Did she suffer?"
"Sir, suffer?" Lauren questioned before the context of the Commanders statement was grasped. "Oh, I'm sure she was in pain from the illness, but they would have given her medication to alleviate the pain."
"But not nearly as much as she suffered from the loss of one she loved, no drug could counter that." Squall stood from the bench, momentarily having to regain the sturdiness in his legs. An ephemeral thought crossed his mind, "Why would they double the efforts upon her death? Why not before, insuring coverage?" Just as quickly as the thought came, he placed it back into the recess of his mind. "Dismissed, Lauren, now go get some sleep."
The tiny stairway in the boat was both awkward and uncomfortable. Squall found himself having to turn sideways and duck to avoid hitting the overhang above. These ships incontestably were not designed for any other purpose than transportation for large number of troops…short troops at that. He found the cabin Quistis had been assigned, opening the door. For an instant, he was immobilized. Words escaped him for the briefest of seconds as he stared at the two intertwined figures. Not being one of tact, or good at problematic situations Squall announced, "Seifer when you are done with my wife, I need to talk to her." He closed the door still trying to burn the image from his memory.
The two had broken the kiss somewhere during the interruption; neither noticed when the Commander walked in, or how long he was present. Seifer looked at Quistis struggling to read the expression behind her eyes. The moment was one awkward and nerve retching. The blonde woman finally broke eye contact with the metal door, looking back at Seifer.
Seifer, unsure how to react, stood silent until Quistis reached forward drawing him into a hug placing her head upon his chest, all the time still laughing. He finally gave in to the irony of the situation, as he too, started laughing returning the warm embrace.
The train gently rocked back and forth in a smooth rhythmic motion, lending itself to aid in the sleep of weary travelers. Although it was only eight o'clock in the evening, the long journey had worn them out. Irvine finally drifted to a light sleep as Zell snored aloud. His sleep that not unlike any other night. In an unconscious state, the martial artist began the terrifying chain of events he learned to dread the last months.
The dream occurred in the same fashion as any other time, the Balamb plains, the crystal blue pond, and the blood, so much blood. Every detail chiseled in his mind, every fear recalled when he awoke. The dream, the visions, had merged into his waking moments. Zell could essentially picture the events with undocumented accuracy, even when awake. Finally, the last events of the tragic scene played in his state of slumber. He welcomed the escape that allowed him to join the conscious world. Waking up with a jolt, as the train hissed as compressed air was applied to activate the breaks.
This time was different. Never had he had the nightmare been so early, the clock would always read 4:27 in the morning. The red neon numbers became a small comfort after the occurrences. It was the first sign of reality, this time, no digital numbers and no electric clock. He shook his head trying to get sleep out of his mind, feeling a slight tickle at his foot. Somewhere during the trip, the two ticket stubs had fallen down, causing the slightest pressure on his sock. His first thought, leave the tickets, someone was paid to clean up these things…let them earn their wage. However, good manners prevailed as he reached down to properly throw away the trash.
If by destiny, as if by fate, he chanced to glance down at the stubs…something caught his attention. A numerical replacement for the digital clock, the tickets listed the train number as 427. Zell had been the one who purchased the tickets for the wrong train. A sudden feeling ensnared his body, indescribable at best. No longer being controlled by his own thoughts, a force seemed to be guiding him as he shouted to Irvine.
"Oh shit, Irvine this is it! I found it!" Zell wholeheartedly screamed.
Irvine woke from his sleep, giving the martial artist a look of repugnance, "Found what?"
"I don't know, but I know it's here!"
Zell jumped from his seat as the train parked at the station. He found himself pushing the crowds of passengers out of the way, heading for what…he didn't know. Passengers were cussing at the hurried man, several even pushed back. Zell would not tire from his quest, whatever that may be. He reached the forward most compartment, scanning the car thoroughly. A woman was disembarking from the train, the conductor helping her to the station platform. He could not see her face, only the auburn hair. There was something familiar about her, something drawing him.
He opened the closest emergency exit, setting off alarms and bells throughout the passenger compartments. Running the direction the woman headed, suddenly he stopped as soldiers closed in. Galbadian soldiers were in Dollet now…during a time of supposed peace, guarding the train station at this time of night? Then it hit him, like a pursuit that abruptly ends after months, years of searching. He was meant to be here, fate decided this.
He continued on forward, taking note of the military positioning within the station. Turning his head around to scan for Irvine, he ran unexpectedly into someone. He started the ritual, unmeaning apology, and then he saw her, the same woman he had seen on the train. Then he saw them, the soldiers gaining on her position raising arms. Then he saw the child, the baby carefully cradled protectively in the woman's arms. Allison.
A moment is a concentrated eternity.
What if everything you trained for, everything you spent your life achieving lead up to one defining second. A cumulative riddle of everything you have ever done…one significant instant, one opportunity for the correct decision. Pieces of a puzzle without a diagram, a road map drawn but not understood. Zell stood at a crossroad, would the answer be achieved in time? Bits and pieces of images, of events playing through his subconscious mind over the last few months…somehow, he was a key.
He saw the child sleeping soundly in Alexandra's arms. He felt the soldiers gaining on him and heard their yells to stand back; he heard their warnings and an unreal feeling enveloped his body. One of the Galbadian militia held his weapon as the other continued forward. They too were searching for Alexandra, and for the child, for Allison. He watched as the woman's brown eyes turned with a look of sorrow, of remorse. Zell was close to reuniting the child with his rightful parents, he could taste the bitterness in his mouth. How could any human steal a child? That was not the act of compassion.
Without hesitation, the martial artist grabbed the sleeping child from the woman; he vowed no more harm to the innocent baby. The abductor was not expecting apprehension and with the current state, Alexandra was in no situation to run. She could not fight. She knew the risks and was more than willing to take the chance. She collapsed to the pavement in defeat, as Zell took several steps back. Irvine walked to his partners' side, watching the drama unfold. The advancing guard walked up kicking the woman, hard.
She looked toward the now awake child whispering, "I'm sorry Allison."
Looking at the little girl in his arms, he held her tight. The abductor did not show any signs of remorse, only of failure. If Zell had wanted this to turn out as it had, why was he so distressed? Then he noticed the second soldier still pointing his gun, nodding to the first man. The man grabbed Alexandra by the hair, pulling her to a standing position. The second guard signaled back, an unspoken understanding passed between the two Galbadian men.
Wondering why the soldier was not lowering his weapon, the martial artist examined the assailant already in custody. Then he saw it. Something not visible the first time he ran into her. Something amazing. A small golden chain had dislodged from her blouse, during the pulling from the station pavement. These men were not there to retrieve the child, they were there to kill Alexandra. Zell quickly handed the child to Irvine, who stood confused at the sudden movement by his unpredictable partner.
Zell watched in slow motion as the soldier cocked his gun, ready to execute her. He jumped across in front of Irvine kicking the weapon out of the man's hand, and watched as the weapon sailed under the parked train. Managing to knock the soldier down, he ran to aid the woman, still in shock. Irvine felt helpless holding the child, trying to keep her protected from the drama.
The other soldier turned his weapon toward Zell as he leapt forward. Feeling the sting of the bullet in his shoulder, the adrenaline alone kept him on the attack. He knocked the second guard down dislodging his weapon. Alex quickly grabbed the gun pointing it at the soldier.
"We have to get out of here!" she screamed. "Get Allison!"
Irvine still held the child and grabbed a bag that the woman had been previously carrying. Zell continued to ignore the deadening pain in the appendage, grabbing Alexandra's hand with his good arm. They continued out of the train station, ending up in a small alley.
Irvine handed the child back to the woman as he checked his comrade's wound. Finally, he was able to question, "What are you doing Zell? Don't you know what you just did!? This woman kidnapped a child, and we just helped her."
"No Irvine," he gasped out of breath, "this woman saved a child and we helped her."
"What are you talking about!?"
Zell smiled slightly through his agony, pointing to the chain on the woman, "Look."
Irvine turned to see the necklace, on the chain hung a small ring. Irvine leaned closer in the dark passageway.
The only words he was capable of verbalizing when, he too, saw the delicate golden copy of Griever.
"You wanted to see me?"
Squall tossed the cigarette overboard as he turned to her. "I wanted to let you know there are going to be several officials arriving in Trabia the next few days. Renee Bennett's funeral will be this coming Friday. I thought that maybe Seifer should be cautious, but I didn't know at the time he was under your personal protection."
"Squall don't," she implored.
"Quistis, I really don't care," he spoke back, ostensibly emotionless about the subject.
"Thanks, it just kinda happened."
"Yeah, that kinda happened thing can get you in trouble sometimes."
"I'll be careful. I'm a big girl, I don't need protecting," she countered.
"Never said you did. I wanted you to be the first to know that I have made the decision to leave Garden. No matter how this turns out, no matter if she is alive or dead. I cannot be one of them anymore. No more games, no more lies."
Quistis strolled over to the railing, chills running down her spine from the night air.
"I would tell you not to, but honestly I see no need for me to remain either. Where are you going?"
"I guess that depends on how this plays out. I have to stay in command as long as possible. What little information I do get, could be fundamental."
"Squall, do you think she is dead?"
"No…I believe I honestly would know if she was. Seems outlandish, but actually, I feel that she is close, closer than the last two years. Hope she knows I am looking for her. I hope she finds me."
"I'm sure she will Squall."
The night came and went…such was the cycle of life. The subsequent morning was clear, but a possible storm had arisen off the western coast. Trabia appeared like any other day, nothing special, and nothing unusually. The death of Renee Bennett, wife of the most powerful man in Trabia, had only been yesterday. Hopefully, they would have a full day of investigation before unwanted company arrived on the frozen continent.
Squall scanned the horizon as the boat slowed to dock. The internal gears vibrated the entire vessel as the engines halted operation. The city had its charm, if one could find it under the layers of bitter snow. He was not much one for the piercing cold, not much one for the isolated settlement.
The re-growth of Trabia Garden brought commerce to the small mining town. Also, the accidental discovery of underlying petroleum weighed heavily to recent developments. In five years time the small town had tripled its population tenfold, labor the main attraction to most, the prospect of wealth to others. Richard Bennett was the latter. Squall recognized him from council meetings, but never had taken the time to know the man, if Squall ever took time to know anyone.
Actually, he was quite surprised the dignitary had a wife and child, very little was spoken about that subject. The SeeD's first order of business would be going to his home, offering the required diplomatic condolences.
"How do I look? Always wondered what one of these things would feel like. Lemme tell you, I'm not impressed," Seifer chided walking up from below the wooden deck.
He made a gesture at the SeeD uniform he was presently adorning, blending amongst the others.
"I never thought I'd live to see the day you would be wearing a SeeD uniform Seifer Almasy. I think this is truly a sign of the end of the world," Squall snarled back.
"Oh Commander Leonhart, I do believe that was a joke. A bad one at that, but I still give you credit for trying. Hello, let me introduce myself, according to my identification tag call me Nicolas Jackson. Not too much on the creative name side are you Squall?"
"What the hell do you want anyhow Nicolas?"
"Well, here to tell you that Quistis and Lauren are ready to go ashore. Lauren will be heading the questioning on the kidnapping front, so that will leave us free for other research."
"Bennett lives close, not much more than a block."
"Squall, I'm not chancing the meeting with him. Lauren agreed to go with you. Quistis and I are going to check out that antique shop where she purchased the rings. Oh, for what its worth, don't trust Bennett."
"Why do you say that? Seems to me that he is going through a grueling situation right now, my sympathies are with him."
"Your sympathies are ill placed then. I know snakes…I slither among them. Just telling you that man isn't what he appears. I don't trust him."
"This coming from you? I didn't believe there would be anyone lower than you to look down on Mr. Almasy."
The four assembled at the Trabian waterfront, going over last minutes directives. Squall felt the inexplicable need to reach the home of Richard Bennett. He said scarcely a word to his partner, but the Commander was not known for small talk.
The residence was considerable in size, equivalent to Caraway's mansion. The home was newly built, not more than two years old, which would coincide with his election to the council. For a humble town, such a home seemed out of place with its ornate rod-iron gates and security alarms. As Squall neared, he took notice of the stables on the east side of the property with a vast wooded area surrounding the buildings. Several thoroughbred Chocobo's stood outside; no doubt, this man had dabbled in breeding.
One of the servants opened the large door, seeing their uniforms he immediately offered them entrance into the mansion.
"Commander Squall Leonhart of Balamb Garden here to see Richard Bennett," he spoke in the most dignified voice possible. The servant was about to announce the arrival, when a sudden boisterous voice, roared from the stairway.
"What the hell are you doing here Commander Leonhart?"
Squall recognized Lord Bennett immediately, a title bequeathed upon his family by the last reigning royalty of Trabia - now an all but forgotten lineage. The man was easily ten years older than Squall, dark hair and threatening eyes. The man unquestionably did not seem pleased to see the Commander, which was a conundrum onto itself when his child was missing.
Squall recalled the statement Seifer made earlier, it abruptly flashed through his mind. He concurred that there was something odd about the situation, about this man's attitude. The Commander was surprised how quickly he changed to a defensive position on Bennett's question, instead of the offensive one that would have been the norm for interrogations.
"Delegate Bennett, I was sent by President Jefferson Mitchell to oversee the search for your daughter."
"My wife passed away yesterday. I have no time for questions," the man countered.
"Sir, we are well aware of that. The World Council and the Republic of Galbadia offer their deepest sympathies. I will not keep you long. We just were here to inquire about your former employee Alexandra Williams."
The older man walked toward Squall, who was still bewildered at his actions.
"You want to hear about the bitch and my daughter? Ask your fucking SeeD's."
"Excuse me sir, with all due respect…don't ever talk to me like that. I don't understand where your hostility is coming from, but do not take the anger out on me or my men."
"Then tell me why your damn men were seen with her yesterday in the Dollet Dukedom? Not only did they see her, they hindered the rescue of Allison, my daughter," he spat in Squall's face.
"Sir, I'm sure your information is inaccurate. None of my men are currently located in the Dollet region."
The older man opened a file, handing the baffled Commander a photograph, visibly taken by a security camera. Squall found himself stunned. On the print, unmistakably as black and white, were his investigating team members Zell and Irvine, the latter holding what appeared to be a child. Zell was seemingly dragging a brown haired woman through the multitude of train depot patrons.
"Now get the hell out of my house Mr. Leonhart, you nor SeeD are no longer welcome here," he threatened ferociously.
"Lauren," stated Squall diffidently. "We are leaving now."
Turning toward the door, the Commander held the surveillance photograph within his hand. Nothing seemed logical. Zell and Irvine might have been reckless, but aiding and abiding a criminal was well beyond their means. If they were in fact protecting this woman, they had a damn good reason. That truth he knew. Opening the door, the servant motioned for him to leave the premises. Squall attempted to exit the mansion, but was caught off guard when Richard came up behind him, grabbing his arm forcefully.
"You touch my daughter and I will kill you personally. When I find your two men, let me ensure you, they are already dead."
Squall Leonhart, no matter the situation, did not take kindly to intimidation, nor did he like being grasped in such a manner. Particularly by a man in such a psychotic state, a man he thought SeeD had come to Trabia to assist. He instinctively seized Bennett's arm, spinning him around and pinning his it securely to his back.
Successfully the man had been held powerless. Richard Bennett was no match for the strength Squall possessed, especially when extremely infuriated.
"Touch me again and I will kill you where you stand. Touch my men and they will identify your corpse with only the aid of dental records." He released the man with such force, such vigor, that Richard Bennett lost his footing crashing hard upon the marble floor.
Squall never felt such rage before, as he did in the present moment. This man, this monster, was pure evil, if ever a death was justified, this would be the instance. He had faced foes before, yet somehow this man was different. Something about him made skin crawl made his soul twist in agony. Why would such a simple encounter unleash such odious emotion? Squall never felt such hate before, not even towards himself…or from the loss of Rinoa. Rinoa?
Lauren quickly walked out behind Squall, never lifting her gaze from the fervent Commander. She had worked for him over a year, and never had she witnessed such an outburst of emotion. As Bennett's servant slammed the door behind her, she called to Squall, determined to understand reason for the confrontation.
"Commander Leonhart, what was that explosion about?"
For a brief moment his mind played a malevolent trick upon him, he turned toward Lauren catching sight of her dark matted hair, sticking out from under the winter cap. Whether it was the state of mind, or unconscious foreboding he answered her angrily, "Rinoa, please don't ask me questions right now, you know better!"
What the hell did he just call her? He never made that mistake…ever.
The female SeeD stood faintly bewildered, yet not interpreting too much into the slip of tongue. More than one person had informed her of their similarities. She shrugged the mistake up to something said in anger, something misspoken while caught up in emotion. Yet, this man showed little emotion up until a couple days ago. Ironically, it was on the two-year anniversary of the sorceress' disappearance.
His mind was racing.
"Lauren I…I…" He could not continue, he could not explain.
Shaking his head he looked at her…what a fucking mistake after two years. He closed his eyes tightly, attempting desperately to regain any semblance of order. It failed. Emotions, feelings, all resurfacing after so long…for the first time in years, he couldn't control his own thoughts. His heart was racing, his head spinning. What the hell was wrong? He couldn't think clearly, he had to get away from everybody right now, this girl who looked so much like…NO!
Lauren watched as the Commander grabbed his head, a look of disorientation engulfing him. Against better reasoning, she reached for him trying to give him some reassurance. Even she knew it was the last thing he sought. He recoiled at the gentle touch, reacting as if poison liquefying his flesh.
"Don't," he demanded. "I got…I got to - goodbye." He spoke with bemused voice.
She watched as he started rushing toward the isolated wooded area. At first she started after him, afraid for his volatile condition. Squall could out run her. The snow only decelerated her steps, each with more burden than the last. Lauren couldn't help him, she couldn't reach him. Even if she did, there was no logical course of action to help…only Squall Leonhart could help himself.
"Goodbye Commander," she whispered into the bitter Trabian air. Not to anyone particular, just to the arctic wind that stung her face.
Two SeeDs walked the sparsely populated streets of Trabia, each with a mission, each with purpose. Neither spoke to the other, neither knew what to say. Tension filled the cold heavy air as they kept their eyes focused straight ahead. For blocks this continued, the safe thing was to ignore what happened, each was good at pretending, each was good at forgetting.
They walked until Quistis pointed to a small shop. It was not great in size or particularly appealing on the exterior. Yet, the small shop somehow had an aura of invitation, an allure not seen. Finally, the silence was broken when Quistis spoke in a business like fashion, "This is where I purchased the chain."
"Oh, you decided to speak to me? I'm so honored," he furtively retorted.
"Who said I wasn't speaking to you? I just didn't have anything important to say."
"Alrighty then Mrs. Puberty Boy, sorry to mention it…thought maybe you felt a little uncomfortable about last night."
"Why would I feel uncomfortable?" she naively tried to ask, failing miserably at the attempt. "I'm not the least bit uncomfortable about it."
"Good," he replied with an arrogant smirk.
"You should be the one who feels uncomfortable…for what you did."
"What I did?! I'm pretty sure it was a mutual thing. I sure as hell didn't hear you complaining."
"I…I wasn't complaining. I just was confused at the moment, that's all."
"Oh so it was a mistake? Something you didn't mean to do? So it would never happen again, right?"
"Yes," Quistis spoke firmly.
He smiled taking a small step toward her, and then tenderly pulled her close to his body. She tried to protest, she tried to fight. In her mind, she was yelling at him to stop; in her heart, she was hoping he would go through with it. Her heart won, as she felt his warm lips touch hers. The cold air was such a contrast to his hot breath, a strange, but beautiful sensation. Although this kiss, not as passionate as last night, was filled with more emotion, more meaning. The realization that she was kissing Seifer Almasy, in public, astonished her.
When they hesitantly parted, he grinned looking directly in her blue eyes, "I thought so."
Quistis remained in the snowy street, endeavoring to catch her breath from the moments before. When reason returned to her mind, she looked at him questionably, almost fearful. She found the courage to ask the question that she was afraid of being answered.
"Seifer, I want you to tell me the truth. Please, don't lie to me. I can't take it. Who…who were you picturing when you kissed me? Whose face was it?"
He wanted to hold her. She looked so vulnerable. He knew what she was asking; he knew the soreness that scarred her very soul. He slowly raised his rough, cold fingers to her warm cheek. Her eyes meet his, a gaze so deep he thought she could see right through him. She could.
His thumb traced the outline of her jawbone as he quietly spoke, "Quistis I pictured you, it was always you."
She wanted to weep, she wanted to hold him, but priorities prevailed. She smiled at him wearily, "Thank you, Seifer, thank you."
He returned the smile with genuine emotion, "Come on let's go inside, I don't want you catching pneumonia out here."
Squall Leonhart no longer felt control. For the first time in twenty-two years, he was lost, not only physically but also spiritually. He felt the overpowering need to get as far away as possible, yet he could not comprehend the reason. He had run as far as his legs could take him before the desire to breakdown in the drifting snow overwhelmed him. The standard issue SeeD coat was heavy, but nothing could protect him from the freezing wind-chill.
He managed to stagger to a tree before collapsing to the earth below him. There was a battle going on within his body. Did he want to live with the hurt or did he want to fall to the biting snow below? Slowly letting excruciating death overtake his body. How far had he wandered from civilization, estimating he had walked for an hour in the frigid weather?
The fallen man had to get up. He had to trudge on, if not for him, for her. She deserved it, what kind of damn knight dies by something so unceremoniously as freezing? He had to get back to town, to shelter. The motion of standing was unbearable. He could scarcely keep his eyes open, as exhaustion was starting to prevail.
"Hyne help me," he rasped as the artic air filled his lungs. "Hyne help her."
His arms and fingers were going numb. He had to continue or face certain death. Feeling a slight tug at his coat, he first believed it nothing more than a figment of imagination. Then the sensation was felt again. Stinging eyes turned toward the source, he was shocked to see a single chocobo staring him.
The large bird nuzzled against the warrior, like a mother protecting its young from the grueling elements. In a sardonic sense, Squall felt relieved at the companionship, even in the form of a bird. He grasped his gloved hands to its feathers, returning the heartfelt gesture as he brushed bits of ice from its wing. Then with a renewed burst of force, he mounted the bird, appreciative for the method of transportation.
Chocobo's had a known sense of direction, one could stake their lives on their reliability. In a way, Squall Leonhart was doing just that. The known Chocobo Forest was only a mile from the Trabian borders. He could manage the remaining distance on his own.
"I'll name you Lucky," Squall ruminated to his feathered companion. "For one time in my pathetic life, luck seems to be with me."
The bird carried him over snow-covered plains, and dense forestland at speeds unmatched by all enemies. Somewhere along the journey, Squall had fallen asleep on the creature. He awoke with a sudden jolt as the bird stopped abruptly.
"What is it?" he questioned looking around the immediate vicinity.
Seeing a small cabin as the snow started falling heavily from the graying sky. He shook his head in utter disgust about not returning to the Chocobo Forest. "Come on," he implored as the bird blatantly refused to budge. "Ignore that comment about being Lucky," he spat to the immobile bird.
Deciding the bird would not move, he dismounted pulling his coat over him tightly avoiding the snow whipping around his frame. Squall looked back at the chocobo that for some unknown reason, decided to make nest in the snow.
She looked at her watch again, as time had a way of standing still, waiting a painful game. Still it would be over twenty-four hours until she could return to town and board the cargo vessel. Rinoa grabbed the deck of cards again, shuffling for the hundredth time. It was the only form of entertainment in the cabin. Thank gods for small favors, the cottage was well stocked with canned goods and bottled water. Whoever owned this place also was obsessed with beef jerky, the cupboards were full of the preserved strips.
The fired roared, embracing her in a restful hug. There was no life threatening temperatures here, only the comfort of warmth. She started sorting the cards for another round of solitaire, which she would undoubtedly lose again. As she placed a card on the table, she could hear a branch breaking outside. Immediately, being used to taking on the role as prey, she went on the defensive.
Quietly going over to the small frosted picture window, she observed the forest outside. The snow was forming circles in the wind, which resembled that of small dust devils. Through the crystallized pane, she could see a form emerging from the blanket of white. As it grew closer her worst fears were confirmed, SeeD. She knew that standard coat anywhere…fashion not a top priority at Garden.
How did they find her she wondered? Yet the answer painfully obvious: because they were looking. Unfortunately, they were good at their job. She ran to the small pantry, searching for any form of defense. Then she unsheathed a hunting knife, the blade was only three inches long, but that would do the trick. She never wanted to hurt anyone, ever. On no account would she have wished this situation upon her worst enemy… But she had to survive, for Allison, at any cost.
There was a loud knock at the door, maybe they would just give up and leave. However, she knew this an unrealistic thought, as there were no buildings within miles. If one ventured this far into the woods, it was definitely for a reason. She would do her best to hinder the SeeD, but worse case scenario…she would be forced to kill. She never imagined herself possible of such a traitorous act…to kill the ones she once defended. Time had moved on, irony was spiteful…and now it was up to her.
Standing cautiously behind the door, Rinoa waited silently for what would come. If only she had a Guardian Force junctioned, if only her powers not lay dormant for so long. She used most of her strength on that little stunt with Richard. Now desperate, she wished that energy had been conserved. The lock was being picked…again, standard SeeD protocol. They were still so predictable, even after two years. The door gradually opened as the hooded figure stepped in.
Rinoa stood, back firmly against the wall, waiting for the door to shut. As soon as it closed, she took a slight step forward raising the blade. Somehow, the person sensed her presence, attempting to face her quickly. With what strength she could muster through her shaking grip, she plunged the knife downward as the man turned.
The attacker closed her eyes as she felt the blade stab through the coat, and then another sensation as the tip reached human flesh. She could hear the sound of knife entering the skin, tears formed within the corner of her eyes. She felt the assailant stumbling forward, as she stepped back toward the false security of the wall. With guilt clouding all logic, she regained the ability to open her eyes. She died at that moment.
As Squall turned to close the door, he saw something move out of his peripheral vision. He saw the flash of silver…training had taught him to protect himself. On instinct alone, he turned so the blade would enter his upper arm, missing all vital organs. He felt the knife slice through his shoulder, wanting to shout in pain. However, he could not scream as he lost his footing, falling toward the attacker. Then he saw her, at that moment he could no longer feel pain, but felt alive.
He watched as she dropped the bloodied knife, pinning herself to the wall. He saw as the tears rolled along her beautiful cheeks, he saw when she opened her gorgeous eyes, and then he saw her eyes meet with his…for the first time in two years.
The mist is lifting slowly, I can see the way ahead
If ever a circumstance in history was so poignant, so complicated it was the one facing the two figures standing within the wooden cabin. Fear, hate, and love entangled in one solitary moment; one so significant, so essential it could not be described in mere words. Two years and a lifetime of pain, all leading up to this second; one insignificant grain of sand falling from the hourglass of time.
In a moment, that moment, his heart felt complete an emotion lost so long ago. She was alive…more than alive, she was beautiful. The pain of the open wound was far overshadowed by the feelings emerging from his inner being. So many mistakes, so many lies, and so much they both had lost. Searching her eyes, he realized that he never stopped loving her, no matter what she was accused, no matter what she really did. That love would never diminish.
In a moment, that moment, her heart felt the occasion bittersweet. For so long she dreamed of seeing him, touching him, and of making love to him again. Yet the realization that she could never truly be with him played heavy on her emotions. She would not let herself go through that again, and she would not be the weak child that needed saving. She was a mother now, and that simple fact took precedence over her own desires. As strong as they may be, she could not admit her needs.
For moments neither spoke, neither could. The motion of him falling forward disrupted the tense situation, as he grasped his shoulder. The blood was flowing mixing with the white snow that covered the coat.
"Squall," she pleaded not with her voice, but in her eyes. "Oh Hyne, what have I done?"
"I'll be fine," he delicately whispered back, the words having more than the obvious relation to the lesion. He continued stumbling until she reached out her arms and gently helped him to the rug-covered floor. Rinoa started taking the coat off him without a word, never looking him in the eyes. Gently she applied pressure to stop the blood flow.
"Squall I…I really didn't know it was you."
He didn't answer her, all he could do was study every motion she made. The pain from the cut, the pain from seeing her was still numbing his senses. She looked slightly older, yet more elegant. Her hair was shorter now, no longer flowing freely. Instead, the look added maturity to her age. The golden streaks were gone, only solid brunette covered her head. But she looked despondent, at the same time she looked frightened. There was something about her that he could not place, something different. Then it hit him…her innocence was lost, stolen by him years ago.
"Do you have any magic on you?" she asked tranquilly, avoiding any eye contact.
"Yes…" he hesitated, "I have a few spells."
He put his hand to his right shoulder and closed his eyes. Silently he cast a cure spell on himself. An amethyst ember glowed around the wound. Through his shirt, Rinoa could not make out the actual wound, but thankfully, it had avoided all major organs. She did not kill him. As the aura faded away she turned her head, this was going rip her apart yet.
"Squall, if you're here to kill me, just get it over with. I can't do this any longer…but I must ask one thing of you before you do. Consider it my dying wish."
He found it hard to speak. She truly did believe him capable of murdering her. That is exactly what it would be, murder…not justice.
"I am not here to kill you."
Slowly she regained her composure, pulling herself up into a standing position. She faced away from him walking to the small picture window lined in ice-covered drops. "Then why are you here? It's your job to kill me for what I did."
He stood up not attempting further contact, "What did you do?"
"I got lost Squall. Lost in a world that was not mine…that is all I ever did, lose myself in a world not meant for me. I never found my place in this world. Squall…I can't do this. Please just do what you have to."
"Fine, I have to get answers," he almost demanded. "I want answers."
"You're right Quistis that man was a complete jerk!" Seifer said stridently, for the owner of the little shop to hear, as he slammed the door. The two colleagues walked down the streets as fresh snow concealed all indications of the pedestrians that walked before them.
"Unfortunately some things haven't changed over the last two years. He is just as much of an asshole as he was back when I lived here."
"Yes, an uncooperative asshole at that. I speak from experience."
Some things could displease Quistis, even in the current situation. She stopped walking as delicate clusters of snow united with her uncovered face. She didn't care as the flakes melted upon contact with the warmth of her skin. Seifer had a lifelong ability to put himself down, an attribute drawn out at a very young age. Although with him, it was more the defense only those searching for could perceive. Those who only wished to rival him, look at him as the enemy, would never note such insignificant phrases. Yet she had. Over the course of her life, she had noticed his behavior…his little habits. Even if she cared not admit that, not even to herself. Now circumstances were different. Somehow, she found strength through him. Something that had been abandoned for such so many seasons.
"Seifer, Please don't do that."
"Do what?" he inquired at the woman's suddenly change in demeanor. She looked more like the instructor he remembered from his teen-age years, ready to lecture or reprimand one of the students, usually him. It was a look that had not transformed itself in the last several days.
"You always find a way of managing to put your self down. You are not an asshole… You might have had some issues in the past, okay some major issues, but people change…even you. I don't think of you as an asshole, moreover I don't like to hear you say it. For some reason it bothers me. We are in this together; we are in this to help."
Someone cared. For one time in his atrocious existence someone truly showed affection toward him, genuine feeling. He could tell. He wanted to express his gratitude, yet the simple words escaped him. Ironic how similar he and Squall could be on the ability to show ones true self to others. Seifer reached out his gloved hand to her, and she looked up to him, confusion evident in her eyes. After a moment, she glanced back to his hand and hesitantly reached to meet the leather glove. As their hands contacted, she could feel a sudden rush capture her entire body. Seifer carefully laced their fingers and pulled her tenderly toward him. Encircling his other arm around her back, he pulled her into a complete embrace. Her warm check lay upon his chest and she could feel the dampness of the snowflakes mixing with the heat rising off his body. Even in the sub-zero temperatures, she felt warmer than in all her life.
"I'm sorry," Seifer murmured. She could hear the vibration of his chest when he spoke.
"I guess I did have some major issues back then, but what about that guy in the shop?"
"No Seifer, he is an asshole."
Chuckling he continued to hold Quistis in his arms. "Tell me again what happened with his mother and how she knew of you two years ago?"
Closing her eyes, the snow turned to small ice pellets as she recalled the events mentally. "Mrs. McCay was the sweetest lady you could ever imagine, she would always be outside watering the flowers or just wishing people well…always willing to help. I remember stopping to talk with her about various things: weather, the growing volume of the city, trivial matters like that, nothing special."
"Did you ever have any conversations that would explain why her son would dislike you so much? Even after one of his mothers dying requests was to give you Rinoa's necklace."
"No really…I don't think we talked about anything or anybody."
Quistis opened her eyes as the sleet stopped in that precise moment of time. As her eyes regained focus, she glanced up at a small bulletin board affixed to the antique shop. She silently read the billboard and a memory immediately came back to her.
"Oh…once we talked about him."
She broke the security of his touch, raising her arm to point at the election propaganda hanging on the brick surface.
Seifer turned around. "Re-Elect Richard Bennett for the World Council - A vote for Bennett is a vote for the future. Well the guy sure is not very original. I guess Squall was his campaign manager in his spare time. That guy creeps me out anyhow, sorry about his wife and child, but he is a creep."
"Yeah that is what Maude…I mean Mrs. McCay and I talked about. He had just married about a month before I got here. She said that nobody even knew he was dating. Thought the whole thing was very scandalous, but then it came out that his new bride was extremely ill. I guess the universal consensus was Bennett did it out of loyalty or something."
"Or something…" Seifer spoke bitterly, "That man never did an honorable deed in his insignificant life. All that power is wasted on such a fool. I'm sure that man only married someone who was dying to get his grubby little hands on her large trust fund, or for the publicity that would come from his unselfish deeds."
"Well there never was a picture of Renee Bennett, so I'm sure it wasn't for the publicity. I'm guessing you're right about the trust fund and boundless supply of money to subsidize his extensive campaigns. It's truthfully sad that she passed away before SeeD found her daughter."
Seifer stood immobile. He recalled the words spoken earlier in the debriefing on the Trabian dock. "The search has doubled in Trabia," he finally verbalized aloud.
Looking at the man that stood in front of her, his eyes filled with what appeared to be the smallest of tears and a glimmer of optimism, almost a look of contentment. "What are you thinking Seifer?"
The light snow continued to fall in his hair. Seifer smoothed it back with his hand and let out a veritable laugh. "It's too easy…it's too damn easy." Lowering himself to the ground the ex-knight may have found the path to redemption, holding his side as the laughter continued to fill his body. No the situation was not that of a humorous variety, but emotions manifest themselves differently among humans. Seifer was never mainstream, and neither was his exhibiting of emotion.
Quistis moved toward him, bewildered at the events unfolding in her presence. "Seifer are you okay? Do you need um…need a doctor or something?" Bending down she placed a hand on his back, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles in his trench coat.
"For once in my life Instructor Trepe-Leonhart, I'm fine. Quistis that's it…you just found the missing piece to this entire horrific puzzle."
"Richard Bennett's dead wife?" she asked uncertain.
"His wife is no more dead than you or I. That's why Bennett doubled the search, not for the child…for his missing wife. A secret that now may come to light. Something a deceased shop owner knew, and hid, from the unjust world until the timing was right, a clue that you held all along. The shop owner's son wasn't an asshole, he was scared…there is a difference. I understand now. The key was the woman married to Richard Bennett. A woman by your own admission never had been photographed due to her illness…or supposed illness. A well-known politician suddenly marries without so much as public date, there wasn't a trust fund…it was always for power. Power in the eminent form known…"
As if being hit by a sword from iron giant, the realization dawned on her. Quistis too fell to her knees, as if asking for forgiveness to the deities above, a voice decreased to that of a whisper left her lips, "a sorceress."
The cabin was deathly quiet, a sound that can be remarkably deafening. She stood dismayed, allowing the gusting motions of the snow hypnotize her into a false sense of strength. She found courage to confront the man who swore to the world, her demise.
Hitting the wall with her hand before returning her gaze to him, the one standing in front, "Answers, you want answers from…from me!"
Rinoa dared to take a few steps toward him. It was no longer the calm meeting they had encountered only minutes before, she was no longer the clichéd deer stuck in the headlights. Now years of emotions were conflicting in her very psyche, years of trying to repress memories now seemed in vain. This man, in five minutes time, had made every attempt of disregarding those feelings ineffective.
Squall refused to show sign of outer weakness, internal was another story. There was so much that needed to be rectified, so many answers to questions he had not dared to ask himself for the eternity she was gone. Squall Leonhart would not back down. He wanted answers, and by gods, he would get answers.
"Yes, I want answers," he challenged, taking a step closer as a counter measure to her previous advance. "Why the hell did you ever leave Garden…leave me?"
"Leave you? Maybe because you were going to slaughter me, I can't think of anything better. Can you?"
"I was chosen to lead the hunt for the sorceress. You would have been taken back to Deling to sort out the details."
"The Sorceress!? That's what I am to you, the sorceress. You cannot even utter my name…not once since you barged in on me have you even addressed me by name. Does it upset you that much to say? I know why…stay detached so it does not hurt to execute your adversaries. Do not think of them as people, only as potential threats. Isn't that straight from the SeeD manual, Squall Leonhart?"
"Fine, Rinoa, we'll play it your way. I would have helped if you allowed it. We could have gone through this together."
"Don't you say that…don't you goddamn say that," she screamed at him. "I saw you in Deling, I saw your expression. Tell me that you didn't believe I killed your sister in cold blood. Look me in the eyes and tell me that you thought I was innocent."
She approached him, daring to get within a meter. For the first time since the initial meeting, she made the conscious decision to look at him directly. Their eyes locked, she refused to be made the fool of, not after all this. It could have never been so simple, or goddamn it, she would have tried. His eyes looked exhausted, looked in anguish she could read them so well, even after all this time.
No longer could he take the intense guilt, as he broke the contact...silently leaving her with the answer she already knew. "I thought so Squall." She walked over to look the fire, feeling the sanctuary of the heat. "It was an accident," Rinoa spoke gently to the flames. "Why did nobody clear me? Others knew the truth."
Squall dreaded this question. How do you tell somebody that his decision was based on a falsehood of somebody they both had trusted? The hell Rinoa must have endured, but it needed to be asked, it needed to be answered. Squall slowly walked behind her. She could feel him, feel his presence growing stronger. God could she feel him, but nothing would be worth the torture…not even him. She tried wordlessly to convince herself of that fact.
"Others should have cleared you, but they didn't. It isn't as simple as black and white…everyone made mistakes, everyone suffered."
"The only mistake I made was loving you." Rinoa could feel her body tighten at the sound as her heart betrayed her words. "Quistis was with me…" Turning to face him, a sudden look of horror covered her face, "Oh Hyne, something happened to Quistis… Squall is she still alive? Tell me she is all right!"
This was tearing his soul, how could he tell her the truth? It would kill her. However, for the first time in two years, he wasn't under anybody's control. He had the free will to do what was right…even though it felt so wrong. "Quistis is alive. After you ran…after you ran some Galbadian soldiers approached her and asked if the sorceress had killed Ellone and she said…yes."
"Yes! Quistis said that? That bitch, why…she knew the truth, she watched Ellone die with me. I held her hand as she died and Quistis…"
"Quistis tried to fix it later, it just wasn't possible. Rinoa, she was upset that you ran without an explanation."
"I…I was taken to a dream world. Ellone told me to leave, that the troops were at Garden to destroy me. Had I stayed they would have murdered me. She begged me to leave, not say one word to anyone. I couldn't. I wanted to…I wanted to see you but…"
"But you ran. You didn't help us fight. Nobody knew why… Quistis just took it personal. We all had so much to lose."
"I had much to lose too, you could never understand! So Quistis lied? Why would she…" Memories of the argument between the two played in her mind. That day they had argued about Squall…with her out of the picture it would…it all became crystal-clear.
"You…she wanted you. With me out of the way…"
"After the attack she went up to Trabia Garden." The statement had not intended to sound that way, yet Rinoa read something else into it. He looked at the shaking figure in front of him, right now was not the time to divulge the marriage. Rinoa needed time to absorb this information, "I'm not defending her actions. Rinoa, Hyne knows the hardest thing I ever had to endure was losing you. I spent the last two years doing everything in my power to locate you."
Shaking her head she walked away from him, collapsing in a rocking chair that angled the fireplace. Again, she found herself watching the flames as she had done so many times in the last couple of days. Not in anger, not in hate, just in a detached voice she asked, "How did you end up here?"
"Would you believe a stubborn chocobo? I ended up lost in the forest and stumbled upon a chocobo. Who was supposed to take me back to Trabia, but decided to take a detour to this cabin. Then the bird just sat there and went to sleep outside. I needed shelter and this was the only place in sight."
"Remember to thank the chocobo for me," she replied sarcastically. "What were you doing in Trabia anyhow? I mean it's not like the tourist capital of the world, just on important Garden business?"
"Well, technically business but only as a cover to check up on a lead…on you. One of the members of the world council had his child kidnapped, so four of us came up here. I was using it as a cover story to check the lead, and then his wife died so they doubled the search efforts."
Rinoa gasped aloud, a mixture of emotions ran through her. Yet all she could do was try to contain laughter, but failed. No, the situation wasn't in the least bit humorous, yet the irony itself was hysterical.
Squall was very mystified. "Excuse me Rinoa? You seem a little…insensitive."
"Pardon the expression Squall, but they sent you on a wild chocobo chase. Please humor me and tell me more on your precious case."
"What in the hell are you doing? This isn't funny." Squall walked directly in front, crossing his arms with an expression that only made Rinoa laugh harder.
Standing up she was far closer to him now than any other moment. Gathering her composure she began speaking, "Okay Commander Leonhart let's try to figure this out. It's all a game…a damn game. Its three sides, all equal in immorality. First, we have SeeD, which includes you as Commander and all your ostentatious personnel. Once a great force now at the beck and call of only one organization, no longer hired mercenaries but disposable soldiers for Deling's President. By all rights, Garden is a division of the Galbadian government…even if you dare not admit it."
"That leads us to the malicious World Council who is lead by Deling's own dear President Jefferson Mitchell. A group that has so many hidden agendas nobody is even sure if they have a legitimate front anymore. Oh that's right nobody cares. As long as they show up every month and say they are going to kill the sorceress and wear impressive dress uniforms doing it. Much more official that way…men in uniforms never could lie to the public, right? Oh, don't you still sit there at the right hand of the council dear? That's where you were two years ago, see how far sleeping with a sorceress gets you which leads us to the last of this triad…"
Squall found himself not sure of where this was heading, so far he had understood her little outburst. Yet, he could not even think of a third player in the game.
"The man who actually had both the World Council and SeeD looking like fools for two years… Richard Bennett, a man sitting like a snake watching its prey on the World Council, and subsequently watching the almighty SeeD and their honored Commander. A serpent that waits in the dark to make its move when the enemy is weak. An animal so heinous it doesn't care who it hurts in the process, we were just pawns to him. Unfortunately for the snake, even he has his foes. That damn snake was attacked by the mongoose and now he finds himself dependent upon the other two sides of the triangle."
"Yes Squall, sleeping with a sorceress could get you a seat at the council, but what could have Richard Bennett got by controlling one? By controlling me."
"You're right about one thing Squall, Renee Bennett died, not from an illness, but because I finally got the courage to leave. I would rather die than spend another day with that monster. They doubled the search not to look for Allison but to look for me… Richard Bennett would have never called you in a million years. You scare him, you always have."
His mouth was dry. For two years he sat at meetings with this man, the whole time they spoke of attempts to find the sorceress he held her the entire duration. What a perfect cover…hide among them. Mr. Bennett had made the fools out of everyone, especially Squall. Then a realization hit him, looking into Rinoa's eyes he asked the question she had dreaded.
The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass
The rain pounded against the small building as afternoon skies turned an angry gray. Being a coastal town surrounded by a mountain range offered Dollet some protection at times; far more common, the location served as a hindrance to calm. Western winds gathered force over vast open seas. When it was peaceful the town equaled the picture portrayed in many a post card. However, when a storm came swiftly upon them, it could rival any finger of the gods. Many sailors had perished on the Dollet coast. Pounding waves, jagged rocks, and a natural coral reef compounded in a deadly recipe giving credence to local legends and ghost stories. Even myths are rooted in reality.
"What do you mean that this Corrine person jumped to her death below?" Zell stared at the cowboy with confusion, "You are telling me that someone would actually choose to jump off a cliff during a storm like this?"
Irvine shut the curtains, "That's why they are called legends Zell. Nobody knows if it happened or not, but that is how the Galbadian fable goes. Even this region has their history with Hyne. Remember this once was all part of the Centrian Empire, the army of Centra expanded over many continents. However, as in every other culture of the world, all great empires must fall. Centra were no exception…they couldn't run from destiny. It's an endless cycle bound to repeat itself."
Zell continued starring at the clock ticking on the table in front of him. Scratching his head, he finally spoke, "So this chick thinks if she throws herself over a cliff that Hyne would grant her another life…somehow saving the entire settlement?"
"Well Dollet is still here, so I guess it worked and the pilgrims of the settlement were spared. But you weren't listening, were you? I said that Hyne never granted her another life, instead her spirit was contemned to stay trapped in the sea below. Two years and seven days she stayed among the crashing waves, forced to watch as the cruel waters claimed many of her loved ones." Irvine glanced over to the martial artist now staring at the front door.
"Yeah, I heard that story before…that's when Hyne took pity on her, because she had shown no weakness and never questioned the word of the gods. So since then, Hyne made every sorceress' spirit travel between the planes of reality for two years and seven days before accepting their place among the gods, to prove their worth."
"Right Zell…after they pass the powers on, their spirit stays between the living and dead as a trial to their being. Right here is where that started when Corrine threw herself over the cliff, landing on the rocks below. Her mortal body would never be found again."
"But what's up with this two years and a week thing? Sounds kinda corny to me."
Irvine sat on the hard floor leaning against the cold wall.
"Because Zell, that is when her son died in the ocean. He had never given up hope on finding his mothers remains and giving her the proper tribal burial. Corrine never pleaded for her sons' life, never begged Hyne to spare him. She accepted whatever Hyne determined, but in doing so she saved them both as Hyne granted her soul freedom that day. For a few moments, she got to see her family upon the plane of the living before her spirit moved on…along with her sons."
"Thanks Irvine for the history lesson, but let's face it, that's all fiction. Never has there been an account of a sorceress having to wait two years and a week before moving on. I think it's just a story that they invented to make some girl jumping off a cliff not seem…well, so tragic. It's more romantic to think of it as a sacrifice for others, rather than what it really was."
"Gee Zell…I thought you would be more the romantic, but have it your way. Sometimes I don't think Squall is the only one who lost faith after Ellone died. What happened to that carefree spirit we all used to know?"
Zell watched the door as the thunder reverberated through the small building. "I'm currently waiting to see why I aided a known felon on nothing more than a hunch. Alexandra said she would be back by now…we should have never let her go. She probably skipped town."
Standing from the floor, Irvine walked over to a small adjacent room. Opening the door slightly he could see a tiny figure covered in blankets lying quietly on the bed. Shaking his head at how any living creature could sleep through such a storm, he returned his eye to Zell. "Because we have Allison, and nobody goes through everything she did just to leave now… I think you're right there is more to this. For some reason I trust Alex."
As Irvine finished his statement, the door opened. A gust of wind slammed the frame against the outside wall the hooded figure quickly reached back grabbing the metal handle. "It figures we would be having the worst storm of the century now. Hyne has a sardonic humor that I grant her. I managed to get the supplies that were prearranged…just enough Gil to pay for it all."
Alex took off the soaking wet fleece looking like the preverbal drowned rat. Immediately setting the knapsack down, she marched over to the small bedroom door that remained ajar. A miniature sigh of relief escaped her mouth, observing the rise and fall of the blanket at the child's rhythmic breathing.
Zell felt a sudden relief now that Alex had returned. Getting off the couch, he approached her. "Okay, a deal's a deal. We held up our end of the bargain about waiting for the questioning until today. But I demand you start talking soon…or we are heading to the authorities."
Alex rolled her eyes. "You're just as wanted as I am. Please, don't try that on me. I worked for the biggest son-of-a-bitch for the last two years. Trust me, none of your scare tactics will work. Why do you think it is twelve hours later and you are still as in the dark as yesterday? Except today you have a lovely bullet wound to show for your concern."
"You only escaped because we allowed it. Without us, you would be dead and that baby would be back with its parents. Where, by the way, Allison should be. Now start talking."
"It's always about control with SeeD's, isn't it? The poignant detail about the situation is that you have no idea who has the control right now. You're being hunted just like me and it petrifies you. Military life is about meticulous order, without it there is only chaos. Disarray terrifies you Zell, explanation and rationalization is essential to your survival. Lately that's been taken away from you. Right now, you are trying to hold on to your sanity with defiance."
Alex walked over and started going through the duffle bag of new supplies. She grabbed a rolled up newspaper tossing it in the general direction of the martial artist never once looking up from the bag. Trained reflex allowed him to grab the paper without as much as a second thought. Irvine watched the events of the last few minutes, still leaning against the wall. Something about this almost seemed familiar, but he had never seen this person in front of him. Feelings of uneasiness would not leave him, no matter how much he tried.
Sensing Irvine's eyes on her, Alex looked up from the bag. Standing up straight, she tilted her head to one side and smiled slightly
"You…you're different. You do not live by the same rules as your comrades, you may take arms against your enemies but you're not of true military blood. You're not technically SeeD, nor can you ever be…maybe in title, but never in beliefs. Spirits are wondrous things, yours is no exception."
"Great," Zell replied sarcastically. "I get shot saving a psychology major, just my luck."
Alex chuckled outwardly, taking a seat on the old torn couch, "It was my minor, but close enough. I think you guys are ready for answers now."
Irvine tipped his hat to the lady as she smiled impishly. "Guess we know who has the control now."
Too many emotions, too many feelings flooded her mind. An emotional dam she refused to break, no matter how much pressure lay upon it. How difficult would it be to tell him the truth? A few words that could, and would, change two…no three lives forever. She trusted him with her life once, she trusted him with her heart once. Trust. That word and Squall Leonhart just didn't fit as of now, but she held out hope that someday they might.
Allison was her number one priority; she would protect her. As much as she wanted to believe Squall to be on her side, tinges of doubt clouded her mind. For two years he sought to destroy her, now he shows up willing to believe her innocent. If Squall even gave Bennett the slightest notion that Allison was not his, that heartless bastard would not be above murdering the child…out of spite for Rinoa's betrayal, or out of his desperate desire for power. She was a pawn, nothing more than a dispensable piece. There would be fatalities in this, by gods. And Allison would not be among them.
Rinoa Heartilly had learned many things over the last two years. Most life lessons not wished upon anyone. She dared to look him in the eyes…eyes that told a tale of loneliness, of pain. Now, she would add to that anguish.
"I…Allison is my daughter. Richard doesn't care about us. I was nothing more than a prisoner there…and he used his daughter to… Squall he would kill her. You must believe me. Family means nothing to him."
In saying the words, no matter how incoherent they were. She knew that he would get the basic message: his daughter…Richard Bennett's daughter. Simple words that were not the truth, yet not a lie. Bennett had raised her for the last year, as a father would. Her reasoning was making her sick. She could feel herself grow nauseous, and could no longer look at him. For the first time since she left that bastards house a few nights ago, she cried. Not for herself, not even for Allison, she cried for Squall. He turned away from her…and it broke her heart. She collapsed back in the rocking chair, closing her eyes as tears rolled down her pale cheeks.
The blackness filled her thoughts, continuing in the solitary darkness. She could picture his face, his emotions. She heard the sounds of his boots stepping across the wooden planked floor, each giving a strange echo that chilled her to the bone. For the briefest of seconds, she flashed to him standing on the Deling stage as she watched from the dark alleyway. That night so much had changed. She had to live the lie, as she had done for two years. For all practical purposes, she was guilty of murder, of herself, of Rinoa Heartilly.
His breathing deepened as he walked away from her. Two years later and he is still the one walking away. Bennett's daughter…that fucking bastard's daughter. Thousands of memories filled his mind, times with her, times without her, each more painful than the last. Rinoa was a prisoner trapped within her own life, and he realized that now. For a second he glanced back, she sat silently crying. He had done this to her. She would forever remain a prisoner; she could never be exonerated of the crimes.
"Rinoa," he spoke trying to show little emotion. "What…what did I do to you?"
Wiping away the tears from the eyes, she tried using the palms of her hands. The attempt futile, as more quickly took their place.
"Squall…I never knew it to possible to love someone, yet to be filled with so much contempt for the same person. For two years I dreamed that you would find me, rescue me from the world I was forced into. Somehow, I would wake up from this horrible nightmare, you comforting me. However, when I woke up I only saw the moonlight filling your side of the bed. On some vile occasions, I saw Richard. It wasn't just you who did this…it was circumstances, events, things that neither of us controlled. It just came down to trust…in the end, you didn't trust me. Now, I can't trust you."
The words stung him harder than anything imaginable. He knew it. Yet, to hear it from her… Everything he had done since she left was wrong. Nobody was truly innocent in the game, no mortal can be. He hated it when she vanished that day without a goodbye, without a word. She did nothing to prove her innocence, but that alone did not show guilt. He had to know what she had gone through, as much as it would torment him to hear… Well, he deserved every detail. He deserved so much more pain than she did. Now it was clear to him, over the last years…it was she who suffered most.
Walking back toward her, he wanted nothing more than to grab her in his arms…easing her fears, easing her doubts. He lost that right; he lost the right to love her. Kneeling in front of her, he watched as she hid her eyes from him.
"Rinoa, I know I don't deserve this. Please, tell me what happened to you. Tell me what happened for the last years," his voice pleaded.
The lighting flashed outside the window illuminating the room with an unnatural light. Darkness again filled the room, only signifying the incongruity of the situation. The hour couldn't have been later than that of three in the afternoon. The sky resembled one easily confused with midnight. It was truly a storm of satanic nature and unseen electricity filled the atmosphere.
Yet, the baby slept.
Alex reached for the hand knitted afghan that adorned the back of the couch. For a moment, she reminisced about her grandmother making the coverlet, but when the lighting sparked, she focused at the current task. These two men had risked their lives for her, for that matter their potential freedom. She had so long planned to endure this battle alone. She knew the risks of accepting responsibility for the child. But she held a new awareness, almost spiritual connection, to this collection of friends…even if they did not know. So much had been revealed in the past four days, an unearthly connection bounded them.
Snapping out of her daydreams, she looked at the men sitting on two folding chairs staring at her. "Zell did you read the newspaper?"
He looked irritated as she covered up with the blanket.
"Gee I read the front page with our pictures posted nicely on it. I'm so glad you brought that to our attention. We had no idea we were wanted by the authorities. Thank you."
Irvine shook his head, "Do I have to put you two in different rooms? Alex we really would like to know why we are risking our careers and our lives. Why is the child in your supposed custody?" He spotted Alex playing with the chain. Visibly he could make out the shape of the golden Griever ring, "Also tell me how you ended up with that ring."
Closing her eyes, Alex felt the cold metal between her fingers, "Zell read me the beginning of the bottom right news article."
Flipping the paper around, he found the report. Zell started reading aloud, "Trabian Council Member Wife Loses Fight for Life: Renee Bennett passed away from complications of a long-standing illness yesterday afternoon. Only three days after her daughter, Allison age fourteen months, was abducted from the couples Trabian home. Richard Bennett has been a sitting World Council..."
"Stop," Alex ordered. "Now I know what you're thinking, but let me assure you that nothing you read is factual. Allison Bennett was not kidnapped. I love her as if she is my own child…I would die for her."
Zell continued skimming the article before he looked up, "So you're telling me that Renee Bennett is not dead."
"Richard Bennett would kill for power, do you understand that?" Alex looked back at the martial artist, eyes serious as a ruby dragon.
Irvine watched as a bystander as the two locked in a competitive glare, each refusing to give a centimeter. Sitting forward in his chair he wondered what information this person had actual given them, so far it was nothing worth risking their lives over.
"You didn't answer my question is she dead? If she isn't why do you have her child?" Zell countered.
"For all practical purposes she is dead. I can guarantee you that we will never hear from Renee again. This publicity was a last ditch effort for public favor and support. Mr. Bennett is growing nervous."
Zell continued to become angrier at the intolerable riddles. "Okay so you are saying that we will never hear from her again…yet she is not dead. But, why would Rinoa want you to take her child, especially to somewhere as far away as Dollet?"
Alex smiled slightly as she continued speaking, "Safety Zell, we must keep this child away from Richard Bennett at all costs."
"Excuse me," Irvine attempted to interrupt in a perplexed state. He was drowned out as Zell continued the interrogation.
"Mr. Bennett is the child's father, he has rights! I don't care what kind of asshole he is, that doesn't mean you are entitled to steal Allison!"
Glancing at Alex, who was sitting on the couch with a playful grin, Irvine stood. This time, he vehemently spoke, "Excuse Me." Both turned their heads toward the man, "… great now that I have your attention. Zell I'm one hundred percent sure you just said Rinoa instead of Renee. And Alex, I'm one hundred percent sure you were well aware of that fact."
Zell shot a look at Alex, who smiled brightly. "Yes Zell, Allison Bennett is Rinoa's child. Peculiar how dreams can be the significance to ones past or future, if one knows how to interpret them. Sometimes dreams absorb into our life, misting the difference between fictional and legitimate. Your mind figured out what your subconscious already knew."
Alex lifted the blanket off her legs, placing it next to her. Gradually she got of the couch walking to where Zell sat, bending down to reach his level.
"The dreams you have been experiencing are connected to my aura, they were meant for both of us to discover truths. The visions are the voices of the dead wishing to communicate with the living…warning us of our own fate or the fate of those we hold dear. I promised Rinoa that her identity would never be told by me. The words did not come from my lips…they came from yours. I would not, and did not break my promise. I apologize for the riddles. It was your fate to discover that truth on your own."
For a moment, Rinoa wanted to scream at him, to yell of all the torture she had endured. Yet, she knew better ways of making him suffer. The truth. He wanted it, he would get every sorted detail of her life with that bastard.
"After I left Garden…well I ended up in Deling. Where I wanted to contact you, but when I saw you…I knew you were forever lost to me. The wounds were too deep, it was too soon. I ended hiding on a cargo ship that took me to Trabia. I'll spare you some of the details of living on the street. I ended up with a few Gil and rented a room. I made a decision that night, one that would haunt me forever… I waited outside a restaurant. Where I basically…oh God."
Squall knew what she was saying. She was desperate, and she was frightened. The idea of her turning herself into nothing more then a high-price whore made him ill. He wanted to ask how many times she was forced to…but the answer may have been more than he could bear. Never had he wanted to die more; never had he felt this level a self-loathing. He didn't even deserve to be in the same fucking room with her.
She stopped crying long enough to continue, "The first man who came along…well who was alone happened to be Richard Bennett. Looking back now I was naïve to think him not to know who I was, he was running for World Council at the time… I don't know what I was thinking. I introduced myself as Renee, a name that popped in my mind after I started saying Rinoa… Hence the wonderful Renee Bennett was born."
"I thought if I made it through the first night physically with him I could handle… Hyne…It was horrifying. I never felt so dirty or cheap in my life. I was stunned the next morning when he asked if I wanted to stay with him. The previous night I had given some story about visiting a friend and we were arguing. I was desperate… I had eaten so little. At that point, I didn't know where my next meal would come from. I accepted the offer, but I would never have the opportunity to leave again."
"Rinoa, I'm sor…"
"Don't even say that! Don't you ever tell me you are sorry. Trust me, that doesn't cut it. You want to know what I lived through? You want to know how sorry one person can be?"
Two words would not take away the pain. He knew that fact better than anyone. How many nights had he envisioned her, what she was doing. Too many times, he pictured her in elaborate clothing commanding armies readying for battle such as Edea. That image was easier to handle. The truth was a thousand times worse: she sold her body, sold her soul. No, two words would never take that away. One thing was correct, hearing the truth was the most horrendous thing she could do. Now every waking minute he would be replaying her words, the sorrow in her voice, and the anguish in her eyes. No "sorry" could ever take that away.
"After the first night in his bed, I ended up making myself ill for what I had done. You know the worst part about it? I still felt like I betrayed you! You were hunting me…and I made myself sick for hurting you. I hated myself for feeling that way. That was the day I met Alexandra, she had just started working for him. She had lived in Esthar before, well aware of whom I was. Instead of turning me in, she comforted me that night. She knew at that time…that somehow, I had become a prisoner of Richard Bennett and nothing could save me. She had friends in the government and managed to get me false documentation."
Rinoa bit her lip, as if afraid to say the rest. She was not afraid to say, rather to remember.
"I married him four weeks later, and then a month after that I found out about the pregnancy. He was well…happy I guess. For a few months, it almost was bearable. Now I had another life to think about. After Ally was born, everything changed. He knew that he had the power over me, I just didn't know it."
Looking him straight at him she softly said, "Five."
Until now, he had been looking at the floor, or had his eyes closed at the ghastly images that plagued his mind. He didn't understand her last comment. Now he searched her face, he found terror and suffering. "I don't understand…five?"
"That's the number of times he broke my ribs. I can remember each one…I can still feel the pain when each rib cracked in my chest."
If that man had been anywhere around he would be dead. That man would be dead the next time Squall ever laid eyes on him. He could feel himself starting to tremble in anger, at himself and Richard Bennett. His Rinoa would have never stayed with such a vial beast; she was strong. She was a fighter. Nobody could ever push her around, yet he knew she was right about one thing. They were no longer the same people. This Rinoa had stayed…not because she was weak, but because she was strong.
Rinoa was not the codependent in the marriage. She was a prisoner of war…a war she lost within herself. She stayed because her spirit was broken, her faith gone. She stayed for her daughter, for the food and shelter, for her only reason for living. It was not some bad relationship she could run from, not as if she could seek shelter anywhere else. There wasn't anywhere to run. A weaker person would have giving up on life, only a strong person could endure such torture and still come out with sanity.
"I invented a person, I became her. I tried to believe that Rinoa Heartilly was dead. In my mind, she died with Squall Leonhart that day at Garden. The life I once had, the person I once was…is gone. We are different people, too much has happened."
Her tears stopped, her voice grew from trembling to that with more certainty. "I'm not expecting to make it out of this situation alive. I once told Alexandra I was dead either way. Allison was born an innocent in this war, she is the only one without sin. Richard Bennett will not harm her unless it's to get to me. I will be the one to shed his blood if he even tries. I will not be innocent this time; this time it will be worth it. I will give my life for her."
"Now Squall, look me in the eyes and tell me that you're sorry."
No apologies could undo the damage done, not only to her physically, but also mentally. A knight's duty is to protect their sorceress, mind, body, and spirit. He had done none of those things. He was no more a knight than he was before he met her. Life can be cruel.
For the first time Squall Leonhart did something he had never done before. He fell to his knees and silently begged her forgiveness. He was not the type to plead; the remorse he felt toward her could not be spoken in any words…he failed.
The day was now turning to evening, what little warmth the sun offered was a fleeting memory. The melted snow on the pavement now turning to ice, as his boot hit a patch of black ice on the street he stiffened up unable to regain his balance. Seifer despised everything damn wasteland had to offer. No normal person could live in these conditions year round.
Picking himself off the pavement he cursed aloud, anyone in earshot could hear how upset the man was.
Quistis tried not to laugh, after all that would not be the wisest move.
"Seifer, Nicolas, whoever you are right now. Remember that you're supposedly a SeeD. When you are wearing that uniform you must act like an upstanding citizen."
He brushed the snow off his coat, "Yeah upstanding citizens around here seem to have a way of disappearing or dying suddenly."
"You think Squall knows yet? I mean he's been there a couple hours for questioning on the missing child."
Then it hit her, child.
"Seifer does that mean it was Rinoa and Bennett's baby that was kidnapped?"
"I have a few ideas on the subject, but let's see what happens when we get there. As for if Squall knows…he knows."
She stopped turning around to him. "I don't get it. We don't see you for five years, now you're the authority on everything. Look, we can't pass judgment yet…he might not know."
He exhaled deeply as he watched his breathe form crystals in the air, and then turned again to her, "Commander Puberty knows."
Before she could say another word, she saw a figure running toward her in the snow. By the standard issue SeeD coat, she could tell it was Lauren.
"Instructor…Quistis I have been trying to get hold of you and Nicolas all afternoon!" Seifer gave a slight smile and a fake wave at the sound of the forged name. The young lady continued, "Why haven't you answered your communication radio?"
Quistis looked at Seifer, "Nicolas was in charge of the radio. SeeD do you still have it on you?"
Seifer fumbled around his coat pockets, and then remembered he had clipped it to his belt. Giving a slight grin, he tried to salvage any dignity out of the situation.
"Yeah got it right here, never heard a single transmission."
He handed the pocket size communicator to Quistis who examined the radio before handing it back.
"SeeD it helps if you flip the indicator switch to receive," she said trying to keep back a chuckle.
Seifer grabbed the radio from her mumbling many adjectives under his breath.
"Never mind about that. This is an emergency…It's about Commander Leonhart. He went…well, how do I word this? Crazy."
An abrupt fear took over Quistis. This situation could not be good; she dreaded hearing the outcome.
"We questioned Richard Bennett for only a few minutes. Bennett showed the Commander a photograph then threatened the lives of other SeeD members. There was some yelling, and it ended up with him literally pushing Bennett to the ground. We left the building and Squall yelled at me…but called me Rinoa. That's when he lost it…just kinda had a breakdown and ran into the forest. I tried to catch him, but couldn't keep up in the elemental conditions."
Quistis and Seifer exchanged glances, each drawing conclusions to a story they hadn't heard the end of…an end neither of them expected.
"Instructor, that's not the worse part. Three hours ago Richard Bennett was found murdered in his study…right now the Commander is the prime suspect."
Seifer tried comforting Quistis by gently placing a hand on her should, reassuring her she wasn't alone. He spoke, to nobody particular, re-entreated his previous statement, "He knows…"
And all your deeds and words,
For the first time, Rinoa didn't know what to say. No longer did her body or mind feel upset, instead, an unnatural calm had taken over. She looked down at him, still at the foot of the chair. His chestnut brown hair was within her grasp. She wanted nothing more than to reach down and run her hands through it. Remembering how every strand felt in her fingers, and against her bare skin.
"Squall," her voice cracked with hesitation. "I melted some snow for water over there in the kettle. Also they have some soap if you need to clean up."
Looking up at her, their eyes locked for a moment. She was the first to look away, closing them tightly.
"I…I can't talk anymore about this right now. I just need something to eat."
"Rinoa, I have other questions for…"
"Stop, okay? Please, right now just stop for a while. I need some time to think about things. This is happening so fast. Two years and nothing…now you show up in the middle of nowhere and I'm supposed to understand?"
"Rinoa, trust me, I don't understand either. But if you want to wait until later, I'll be here."
"Yeah, I kind of figured as much," she said not showing much emotion either way. "I'm going to find some dinner."
Rinoa stood up from the chair, brushing past him. Never once looking back, she started going through the cupboards, finding some cans, and setting them loudly on the counter. He watched her, every move. The way she opened the cabinet doors, the way her fingers wrapped around the metal handles. Everything was so familiar, a feeling he had long forgotten. It was always the simple things with her, like dinner.
Knees cracking, he stood up and walked to the kitchenette area. Squall started searching some drawers under the counter. Without a solitary word, she opened the drawer closest to her and handed him the can opener. He took it and opened the can as she set a bowl next to him. Again, without a word he held out a coffee can as she shut another set of cupboard doors. As she was about to ask him to hand her the coffee, he had already set in front of her. She looked at the can for a moment, then back to him.
At that instant she realized what they had been doing, what they had always done. Neither needed to say anything, the other always one-step ahead. While technically she had not lived with him, it came close. They were doing a dance, a dance of timing and movement that only two people who knew each other better than they knew themselves could do.
He searched her eyes, knowing what she was thinking, "It's been along time."
"Yeah," she replied softly. "Yeah, a really long time. Not Again, Squall…I'm not going to do this. I can't go through this again. Please go over there and check the fireplace. It's a getting colder out, might want to put another log on the fire."
"Yeah, fine, whatever," he chided.
Sometimes one has a moment they wish they could take back. A turning point so drastic they would replay the moment repetitively in their mind. Squall Leonhart had many, now he would add another one to the long list of flaws…a list that ostensibly grew by the minute. Something simple, something he did every day…never once thinking of the consequence, never once calculating the outcome.
Without a second thought, he took his gloves off.
She had been busy at first and had not paid attention to his actions. His coat had been taken off during the earlier incident of the accidentally stabbing. Now that Squall regained feeling in hands, he figured to warm them for a moment by the fire. Something so simple…something he forgot.
However, when he turned to ask her a question, she dropped the coffee mugs in her hand…not saying a word, just staring at him with resentment. He felt the daggers in his chest, but for the life of him could not figure out why. She slowly took a step away, never turning around, and never lifting her gaze from him. She continued the few steps back until she hit the partition wall.
The first thought that entered his mind was she had been injured. Her normal hues left her beautiful face, all color draining from her cheeks. He stepped over the broken shards of the ceramic mugs, cautiously avoiding the spilled liquid.
An expression of trepidation covered his face, and that carried into his voice. "Rinoa…are you okay? What's wrong?"
As he grew near, Squall attempted to offer his hand in support. That's when it hit him, as she followed his hand to her shoulder, acting as if it were toxic poison. Shit, after all that had happened, after he attended the delegate meeting in Deling, outward appearances were everything. In protecting Quistis and their marital relationship, he forgot about one minor detail. His wedding ring. Her eyes now focused on the band that surrounded his ring finger.
"Oh Hyne Rinoa, it's not what you think. Please let me explain."
The words hurt to say, but she had to know the answer. She asked the most painful words ever uttered, "Are you…married?"
"Yes Rinoa, but it's…"
"No," she spat. "I think you have done enough, thank you. Get the hell away from me."
"I'm not leaving. Can we talk about this?"
"Shit Squall…what do you want to talk about? You're fucking married. What else is there to say? Just…leave."
"I had to Rinoa. I needed to stay at Garden."
"What? Since when did Garden require you to be married to live there?"
He tried again to reassure her. Attempting again to close the barrier between them, he placed his hand delicately on her upper arm. Knocking it off with tremendous force, she glimpsed fleetingly at him. Eyes full of hurt, even he could see torment. Rinoa slid down the wall, until she ended up sitting on the floor, knees to her chest. A position she found herself in a lot, a position that showed her desperate need for comforting. Like a child from their mother, yet she had no mother in this world, no father who could hold her, and the person who gave her the most comfort, now gave her the most pain.
"Rinoa…damn it. It's not at all what you are thinking…I had to. I was going to lose my command. The council didn't trust me to find you. I had to try to show them I moved on, still competent of doing my job. If it wasn't me who found you…Rinoa, they would have slaughtered you on sight. I…I couldn't allow that to happen."
"As opposed to killing me gradually? Thank you for your concern Commander Leonhart. Why…why didn't you tell me the truth? Ever. If you didn't want to marry me back then, just goddamn say it. If you didn't want me…I really thought you," her voice wavered with hesitation before continuing. "I…really thought you loved me."
Instead worrying about explaining the farce of a marriage, Squall found himself in a far graver situation… She not only didn't trust him, she doubted his feelings. Something he tried to deny, but never doubted. He wanted nothing more than to hold her, comfort her, and make the last two years evaporate from both their memories. Squall knew that could never happen, even the GF's couldn't erase such agony. This time no matter how much he was pushed away, she was going to listen. He kneeled down, reassuringly grasping for her tender shoulders. She started to push him off; this time he maintained his ground.
"Damn you Rinoa…you can say a lot of things… I know how severely I wounded you. But don't you ever, ever, doubt how I felt about you. Your memory was the reason I continued living. Your face was the first I pictured as the dawn broke, the last image I held before the nightmares began. Do you remember your final words to me that day? You told me 'go to hell.' You got your wish, damn it. Rinoa Heartilly you can tell me repeatedly of the mistakes I made…the pain I caused you…caused everyone. But, don't you ever tell me that I didn't love you. That's all I had…it's all I ever had…or ever wanted - you."
This time she did not cry, would not cry. Something deep inside her snapped…something she didn't even know existed. Something that could only come from two years of living hell, from repressing anger towards all whom wronged her, all whom betrayed her. A feeling so packed with deep-rooted resentment, or jealousy, that it filled her entire being and could not subside. For two years, she had been controlled by Richard Bennett, a feeling she loathed. The same control she once ran from, her father a military General. Now the tables were turned in her mind, she would no longer let Squall Leonhart control her…if only in her mind.
It was the same feeling that drove Ultimecia and Adel into the blackness of evil. It was, in fact, a sorceress whose spirit had been broken…from the knight who swore to protect it. No force in the world was more chaotic or treacherous, no force more deadly or malevolent than the power controlling her thoughts, her soul. For in that moment, she was no longer Rinoa Heartilly, but transformed back into distorted version of Renee Bennett. A form that was tired of being the victim, and in this instance in time…she was the one in control.
No force more manipulative.
The image of Squall married to someone else was enough to push her to the limits of sanity, the sanity that was stolen by time, by control…by him. The changes were not only in her mind, but also on the most insignificant of physical levels, albeit they were small changes. That is, if one was not looking for the metamorphous, it could be completely missed. Her eyes remained brown, not turning to amber hues, that sign would be too obvious. Instead, they clouded like her mind. In the fire lit room it was impossible to tell, unless looking directly into the light. Her entire demeanor turned from a defensive position to that of offensive.
In this case, however, she would show her dominance the best way she could - power. Not by attacking, not by hitting, but by giving the one thing it would almost be impossible for him to resist. Her. Taking the control from his body and mind by showing that even if he was married, she still was in jurisdiction of his desires. It was a curse for a sorceress, when negative emotions controlled their actions. Lines between reality and fantasy blurred…as had they done with Richard Bennett.
It was a mixture of lust and passion, of control and power.
He never knew what hit him.
One minute he was explaining his reasoning behind the sham marriage, the next minute she was pulling him into her body. From the kneeling position he had been talking in, Squall was unable to maintain balance with the vigor of her motions. The feeling of her grabbing his neck and pulling him toward her until their lips met. He knew at that instant something was wrong, but the sensation was so astonishing, so longed for, he momentarily lost reasoning and returned the kiss equally as passionate.
Quistis stood in the boulevard unexpectedly losing all sense of reality. Her fingertips numb through the warm woolen gloves. Her mind racing, attempting to grasp the concept of Squall being suspected of murder…a murder in cold blood, a gruesome testament to human nature. It was a notion so horrendous that she wanted to quickly dismiss the thought, but given circumstances or at least what they suspected, the thought lingered.
Seifer being the less emotional of the two, at least as far as outward appearances were concerned, tried to rationalize the situation. Could Squall be capable of murder? Yes…given the right circumstances, the right emotions, and of course the thought of anyone hurting Rinoa…yes. It would be the duty of any knight to fight for their sorceress, a bond not governed by laws of man.
However, Seifer also knew one simple fact: Squall Leonhart did not murder Councilman Bennett. There is a price to honor, to defend the valor of the one's we love, and if the Commander had been guilty, he would not have run. He was too proud. He had honor. No matter the situation or emotion, murder would be committed as a final, desperate resort…when conventional means failed. If Squall had committed the crime, it was self-defense and he simply would not have fled the scene. He was innocent.
"Lauren, please tell who ever is in charge of the investigation that Mrs. Leonhart has been notified of the circumstances and will be there shortly. Neither of us has had contact with her husband, and ergo, do not know his whereabouts," he tried to sound as professional as possible. Maintaining his cover just got a lot more complex.
Lauren saluted the two, only Nicolas returned the gesture, Quistis still in a state of shock. Seifer watched as the female SeeD walked toward the mansion. For a moment he looked at his childhood friend, he could feel her torment. She wanted to believe Squall innocent; she wanted to have faith in him…more than that, a small part wanted him to have done an act with such passion for her. In her mind if Squall had murdered Bennett, it was out of love. The deep love he felt for Rinoa, the love men would die for. The love that was truly lost to her…at least from that man. Even if Quistis didn't know it, somebody did love her, even if that person didn't know it yet, or wouldn't admit it.
He pushed emotion back into the recesses of his mind; it was something he was good at doing. Resentment and hatred are easy to show, but expressing something as problematical as love, can be the hardest task one ever completes. Now was not the time to be mulling over such feelings, more pressing issues had to be dealt with. He reached his hand over to her back, and she jumped at the contact. He could feel her body tense initially, and then relax after a moment of being acquainted to the calming sensation.
"Quistis, I know what you're thinking…he didn't do it. So put those thoughts out of your mind. I know you're making a checklist in your head, weighing both options. Your heart doesn't want to believe it, but the logical mind of a trained SeeD is casting doubt. Don't doubt your heart, ever. If he is gone, it's because she needed him. I know it is hard to hear, I know that even if you tried to think it was over, the hope of time…was always in the back of your mind. Quistis, this is how it is supposed to be."
Now matter how much she understood that it was over, vows were something she had taken seriously, or as seriously as she could, knowing the circumstances. Yes, she was in shock. Shock that he was accused of the crime, shock that Rinoa had been here all this time, and most of all shock from the fact it didn't hurt nearly as much as she thought it would.
She spoke confidently, "I know Seifer. Thank you, thank you for everything. He wouldn't have left unless there was a reason. I guess now I'm worried about them, if they are together. What would cause them to leave, and more importantly, how do we get them back, safe? I owe that to her, to him."
"Well first of all you need to go the crime scene and see what you can find out. Make sure they believe you are open minded about his guilt. They will use that against you, trying to distance you from the investigation. If it comes down to it, as against your principles as it may be, agree with their foolhardy theories."
"What do you mean…me? Where are you going…oh yeah," she realized the consequences of his walking straight into a murder investigation. "Brilliant one Quistis…ask the wanted man why he doesn't want to talk to the authorities," she thought to herself.
Reaching for the chain around her neck, she remembered the torment on Squall's face when he gave her the Griever pendant; both in from the misery he caused her and Rinoa. Rinoa…if she was around that would mean they might run into each other again. How does one apologize for changing the course of the universe, trying to stop the sun from setting…denying a love that was decided by fate?
"Do you think she is going to hate me?"
"Honestly, I don't think she is going to like you too much," he tried to say with a hint of playfulness in his voice, yet he was extremely serious.
She tried to smile wryly at him, yet her attempts failed. "Yeah," she spoke melodiously, "that won't rank right up there with the top moments in my life but…I have to face her. I guess I'm glad that I might have the opportunity."
Seifer, on the other hand, had no difficulty in smiling in awkward moments. He grinned as he spoke to her, "Now that's my girl…go get 'em." He leaned into her giving her a small peck on the cheek, when his warm lips met her tender skin she couldn't help but smile. When she didn't pull away, he tried his luck with giving her a quick kiss on the lips. This time her attempt at a smile was a success.
All his nights of dreaming, fantasying about her, all his daydreams for two years were now in his grasp. Two years of restraining his passion had built up; he was in emotional turmoil. His body wanted nothing more than to carry the moment out to the end, when he could feel her bare skin against his once again. However, his heart, his heart knew that it was not Rinoa… It was nothing more than an attempt to show supremacy. This would not be making love, it would be more vile, no emotion contained within the act. This would be no more than screwing a girl he met a bar. She was more than that, he was more than that, and they were more than that.
Then why the hell couldn't he stop?
His heart was pleading for him to, as this was nothing short of emotional rape. Rinoa was not herself right now; she was not in control of her actions. He had seen this before, they all had. When she first gained her sorceress abilities, she could not control herself, randomly casting spells in anger. That had put them into more than one sticky situation. This was no different. For the anger was not in battle, it was directed at him. The power was weakening the foe the best way it could, natural human desires. His desires, his needs…her.
Within the turmoil, he never stopped feverishly returning the kisses. She used her strength pushing him onto the floor. He was easy to manipulate right now. In her opinion, men can be so weak. He couldn't help giving in as she climbed on top of him, pressing her body tightly against his…applying more pressure to certain areas. In her mind, she was well aware of what her actions were doing. Moreover, in his, she was doing it very well.
For an instant, he opened his eyes, trying frantically to push the pleasurable feelings away. Feelings he thought were long departed, feelings he thought would never be experienced again. His heart was losing the battle with his brain. She knew it.
Trailing kisses down his neck and collarbone she could hear his breathing rapidly increase, the power within her growing stronger with every breath, every moan. She reached down trying to rip his shirt off. Almost in an animal like fashion, she was attacking and he was the weakened prey. The tables were turned, the last two years now insignificant to the power she was wielding from her body.
She could hear the muffled moans as she kissed his chest, caressing him in ways he long forgot. This time he reached up to her grabbing her shirt and pulling it over her head, regretting any moment of lost contact between them. No longer was he the docile creature, he now was becoming the aggressor, and with that, her victory would be won. He sat up never breaking their lips and the hunger contained within. His heart tried to reason that after all the pain they deserved this moment together. They had done this hundreds of times before, each a memory that he longed to recreate. He rubbed her shoulders, feeling the electricity of each second. Running his hand along her back to undo the strap of the bra, he forcefully pulled her into his body…then she screamed.
No, not in pleasure, but in pain. He knew the difference. The sound brought him back into a reality that his body didn't want to be a part of…but his heart was stronger than his body right now. She was in pain. He broke the contact, although she tried desperately to maintain the momentum they had been building up. Squall fought her, and in a sense…he fought himself.
"Rinoa!" he demanded. She continued trying to fight him. "Stop it Rinoa. Just stop it. Rinoa this isn't you. Please…Please." His voice softened and he looked into her eyes, "Rinoa please stop this, it's not what you want."
The pupils of her eyes faded from cloudy brown to the clear brown eyes he longed for…those were the ones he wanted to make love to. Slowly her expression changed from angry to bewildered…almost embarrassed.
"Squall…what? What happened?"
Rinoa looked like a scared child, and he wanted to be the one to comfort her. Right now, he would be the last thing she needed. That killed him. He lay onto his back wishing she would get off his waist, that not helping the problem or his concentration.
"You um…well I… Rinoa it wasn't you. It was like when you first learned Angel Wing, you were not controlling your actions. I'm sorry I should have never let it get this far."
She looked into his eyes, just as she remembered, blue with the smallest speckles of brown. Eyes that made her feel secure, made her feel love. Now looking back at her brown eyes with the same passion he once showed, if not more. Her surrounds became a little more known, as she realized exactly where she was sitting…knowing how she must have got there. Knowing what he had wanted…for that matter what she really wanted.
Rinoa suddenly felt self-conscious about not having clothing covering her chest…she quickly tried to reach for her top, but he grabbed her wrist.
"My God Rinoa, did that bastard do this?" his voice filled with sympathy as he ever so lightly touched her ribs. The reason she screamed in pain, he had pulled her toward him with such forcefulness. The blue and violet hues mixed with colors that formed such a ghastly combination. She shuttered at the slight pressure, turning her face from him.
"Yeah, it's fine. I got through it; I always did," she said the last phrase under her breath.
"Please, I have another cure spell. Please…"
"No," she cut him off intensely. "I'm fine. Please don't show any concern now. I made it two years just fine. I don't need a knight in shining armor to come in after the dragon is slain, pardon the expression Knight Leonhart."
"I'll kill him."
It wasn't a statement. It was a promise. Part of her wanted to thank him, part of her wanted to tell him get as far away from her as possible… But right now, all she wanted to do was get off his waist. That wasn't helping anyone, especially her.
Quistis heard the accounts, heard their facts, and was now convinced more than ever that Squall was innocent. It was too perfect. Who ever did this was professional, not only in manner, but also in leaving factious evidence. Crimes of passion are rarely neat, this no exception. However, the fact that nobody in authority even suspected the sorceress connection was comforting, if only in her mind.
This gave them time. They needed nothing less.
For her part, she listened and agreed. She also added a few points to aid with the investigating. All through the meeting, she feigned believing their ridiculous theories. All though everyone in the room might have believed she agreed with them, nobody asked her directly, thank Hyne. Lies like that had put her in worse situations…lies like that put her here. It was well into the evening when she returned to the pier. The boat offered some relief from the reality she was in, although she could never escape it.
First thing's first…Lauren. Quistis had known her awhile, even acted as her faculty advisor. Now she faced the biggest decision of the night, could she be trusted with the truth, all of it? The fact that Quistis only had Seifer to confide in was little comfort, well on a professional level. Personal was another story.
"Hey there," a gruff voice spoke from the deck. "How was it? Did they have many bullshit theories?"
"More than Zell on the evolution of a hot dog. All of them just as believable as his."
He walked over to her hesitating at first, but then deciding to put his arm around her. She returned the gesture and leaned close, once again hearing the heartbeat of a man who tried to kill her. Now a man who she found more solace in than she ever thought possible.
Quistis inhaled deeply, watching the city lights reflect off the tiny icebergs forming within the harbor waters. The night seemed so bitter, so unearthly. Her mind raced to the questions she asked herself tonight at the mansion. How Rinoa got there, why she didn't leave, and the biggest one, what was the connection to Rinoa and the child that had been abducted?
"You said earlier you had theories," she inquired slowly. "Theories on what?"
"On just about everything…it's what I do. Dream and make theories. I found my calling in life."
"You're different than Squall…in a good way. I don't think he would be so easy to accept everything that you have."
"Squall only sees what he wants to see, what he is programmed to see. He is like a horse with blinders on, and Rinoa is the carrot dangling in front of him."
She chuckled aloud, "Your analogies really need work. Not sure how much Rinoa would like to be compared to a carrot, nor Squall a horse."
"Did I mention it was a big horse?"
"Implied, I think. Least you didn't say Jackass."
"Oh, I thought that was implied also," he retorted holding her closer.
They stayed in the night air, never once feeling the cold. Neither wanted to move, neither wanted to admit that fact either. Therefore, they just stood, in beautiful silence. The type of silence that could only be shared by two people who needed each other...who understood each other.
It was never meant to turn out this way, and Rinoa knew it. Lives, dreams all shattered because of her being the feared creature that Hyne decided upon. She wanted to look back at him, wanted to ask so many questions. Like how could he? More important…did he love his wife? Of course, she wanted to know her identity, but it didn't matter at this moment for it wasn't her…the one who still loved him, although she tried emphatically to deny any lingering feelings.
Rinoa had been looking out the window watching the snowfall gently to the ground. She also noticed the lazy chocobo that had made his bed for the night in the snow. She watched the iridescent reflection of his eyes looking right into her own, as if for some unknown reason the chocobo was judging her, daring her to question the value of her life. Damn bird. The hickory wood odor gave way to a less, unfamiliar smell…but she had know it. Cigarettes?
"What the hell are you doing?" she spat turning toward him. "There is no way that you're doing that disgusting habit in here. I have to be in here remember? Since when did the ever health-conscious perfectionist start to smoke?"
This had been an argument that he had with Quistis many times… and Selphie, and Zell… and Irvine. It was simply his choice, and he decided to do this to his body. It was the one form of pleasure he allowed himself, albeit a twisting one, by imagining every cigarette adding pain to his pathetic life. Suicide was never an option, but killing himself gradually was.
"Rinoa, please you're not my wife."
Words so idiotic he wished he could turn back time to reverse them. For a moment, her expression was a cross between shock and hurt…then it turned more toward anger. He knew that well, even after sometime, some things never changed.
"No Squall, thank Hyne. I don't think I could stand to live with you anymore."
Sometime one feels like they hit a plateau, no longer being angry, upset, or anything in between. Just being. That was the point Rinoa Heartilly had arrived at in that minute, nothing he could say would upset her. For in a sense, she was emotionless.
"Squall, I need some time alone…go get firewood for the night."
He looked between her and the cigarette that he just lit, tossing into the fire. Little trails of lighted embers followed the path into the flames.
"Whatever you want, Rinoa."
He subconsciously reached to the chain he was wearing, much in the same manner she used to. It was for support, comfort, and mainly for strength during a difficult situation.
For the first time today, her questioning eyes noticed her mother's ring…and Griever.
In secret we met, in silence I grieve.
One represented her childhood, one her latter years. Together they intertwined as the story of her life, tragic as it may be. The rings meant so much to her, the mere sight of a past life brought memories flooding back. Dreams and hopes she had, the rings were gorgeous in her eyes. They represented everything to her, a life that could not be. Never had the bands looked better than they did right now. The way the two rings laid around Squall's neck, for a moment she felt breathless at the sight.
Pawning the rings had been a source of many a nightmare. She felt degraded as if pawning the memories attached to them, for what little money they could bring. Her mother would understand; worldly possessions are nothing compared to those we hold dear. In a brief second, her thought flashed to those of her daughter, and how much she wanted her to have the heirlooms, both of them, of her mother and of her father.
Rinoa was not aware she silently whispered her inner thought aloud, "Allison."
Squall watched her eyes as she reached for them, to feel the metal between her fingers as she had done so many times prior. In her eyes, he saw the world, his world. The fire reflected the perfection of her eyes, and the hope she still carried in them. For the first time tonight, he saw it. Hope.
He spoke softly as to not upset her; he had done enough of that already.
"Yes, Rinoa…Allison can have her Grandmother’s ring. I was just holding them for you until you returned. You're back," he said in an optimistic undertone.
"How Squall? When did you find…I thought I'd never see them again. I didn't mean to, but I…" she couldn't finish. He understood, and she knew that.
"They were left to…when the woman who owned the shop passed away there were instructions to return the chain to Garden. She knew, I can't understand how the woman knew to return them, but she did. One of the SeeD's stationed in Trabia received the chain, and returned it to me…skipping the authorities. Feeling the metal against my skin made me feel closer to you."
For once, she was at a loss for words.
He never thought of returning them so quickly after receiving the chain from Quistis, but was more than glad to have the chance. He reached around spinning the small clasp to the front. Struggling with the fastener, he finally was able to undo the chain. With that, the two rings slid off crashing to the ground. His expression was that of an apology and she understood it well.
Searching the floor Rinoa spotted both rings, her mothers platinum band being the closer of the two. The feel of the metal against her fingers brought back the sensations she recalled as a child. Griever landed closer to him as she started reaching for it, she abruptly stopped. This was going to kill her, but it had to be done. It wasn't hers anymore; she had no rights.
"Squall," she hesitated. "Your ring landed next to the rug. It's not mine anymore…it's yours again."
"I don't want it," he replied attempting to cover any sign of hurt. "I gave it to you. It's yours to do with as you please. I guess after everything think of it as a small fraction of the payment I owe you, a debt that can never be repaid."
Swallowing hard she grabbed the ring, the slight touch send shivers down her spin. How she wanted to keep it, Hyne it meant more to her than he could ever know. She ran her fingers along the smooth edges and over the raised emblem. Griever. Putting her hand in a tight fist, she mentally made an imprint on her palm and in her heart, Rinoa then reached her hand out to him.
He met it as she gently felt his fingers, and tried not to remember, tried not to forget.
"Squall…only one problem," she choked, "you never gave it to me."
On a technicality, she was correct. He didn't give it to her, but he didn't ask for it back either. For the first time this thought crossed his mind, he had even given Quistis something of him, something of his childhood. But never her. Rinoa scared him, and all she stood for. The commitment his heart made, but never his mind. She had the ring, but it was never truly given to her.
"Rinoa, I will take it back for now. However, someday it will be yours again. This time I will give it you, as I should have done years ago. This ring is no longer mine. As I said earlier, I'm just going to continue holding it for you until you return…to me."
Stunned at his words she stood, holding her mothers band. No witty comebacks no enraged outbursts, nothing - just the sound of him putting on his coat registered, as did the sound of the cabin door closing. Now she was confused in so many ways. She sat on the floor listening to each crackle of the fire, trying dreadfully to remember why she was running from him.
The storm died down outside. It too shall pass. Zell sat on the couch holding the child, playing an intense game of peek-a-boo. The baby would laugh as the older man hid under the quilt, and then mysteriously reappeared. Her wisps of dark brown hair pulled to the side with a barrette, and a smile that could not be compared. When she laughed, it was a tiny giggle, but always from the heart. She was beautiful.
After what had to be a short eternity, Allison finally tired and fell asleep soundly in the martial artist's arms. Irvine sat over in the corner reading the newspaper, but somehow finding himself compelled to look at the youngster. He turned his gaze to the doorway as he heard footsteps approaching on the linoleum. Alex emerged from the bedroom door, holding a leather case under her arm.
"Alex," Zell spoke as she walked to sit next to him. "Hey what's up? What the hell ya been doing?"
"Research," she said pulling a laptop from her bag.
"You never said you had a computer," Zell gave her an unpleasant glare.
"You never asked."
"Touché," he countered. "Seriously what is the plan? I mean what are we going to do next and exactly where are we?"
She opened the computer sitting forward in the chair, and set the machine on the coffee table.
"Okay first of all, we are in my grandparents’ old cottage. It's not really a cottage per say, but my grandfather worked as lead technician when Esthar ordered the building of the Dollet communication tower. Later it served as the groundskeeper's residence. Eventually somebody might track it down, but right now it's the safest place I can…we can be."
"Second of all," she paused for a long time before saying the words, "we have a bigger problem."
"What can be a bigger problem than the situation we're in right now? The World Council can't decide what wine to serve with stuffed chocobo?" Zell figured the girl had a knack for being overdramatic, at least in his eyes.
"No, I wish. Richard Bennett was murdered this evening," she explained.
Irvine leaned forward, "So is Rinoa being blamed for this death too?"
"Damn it," Alex hastily replied. "Rinoa never killed anyone, not Ellone, and certainly not Richard Bennett. However, they have a suspect and are currently trying to track down…Commander Squall Leonhart."
"Oh Hyne," Irvine sighed as he closed his eyes. "Squall couldn't kill someone like that, not unless there were extenuating circumstances."
"Oh trust me, there are circumstances, but I don’t think he did this either. Rinoa will try to make it here. I think they'll be together, call it a feeling or intuition. She'll come here," Alex spoke with confidence. "If Rinoa is okay she will do everything in her power, and then some, to see her daughter again. It was always a back up plan, if something went wrong. I was supposed to give Allison a normal life…I promised."
Zell looked at the child in his arms, then back to the woman sitting next to him.
"Tell me about Rinoa…how is she?" he asked with true concern.
Alex smiled as she covered the little girl with a blanket. "Rinoa will be okay if Richard is dead. Zell she was lost and I did all I could…it just wasn't enough. I wasn't the one she needed, some people can never be replaced. Allison was her only link to sanity, I'm afraid for her if that link is gone. Her spirit has been broken."
"So, if Richard is dead what does this mean? Can't Allison live with her grandparents or something? I mean the little girl should be with her family…trust me, I know."
"Her grandparents…ah… well that's a little more complicated than it sounds," she said softly. Alexandra reached up and felt the golden metallic ring around her neck.
"Forgive me, Rinoa…look you guys I need your help. Everything has gone wrong, everything. Irvine you asked me about the Griever ring earlier…well I said it was from a friend it was, Rinoa. One day I saw her sketching this design. I asked about it and she didn't say anything. Completely froze up. I figured it meant something to her, later she said it was a ring she once had…and missed more than anyone could possibly know. So I took one of her drawings to jeweler and had them duplicate it, as close as possible. I gave it her on Allison's first birthday. All Rinoa could do was cry, she never had it on her person or anything, never talked about it. The night we met in the stables, before I left, she gave me a small satchel with some Gil in it. The ring was at the bottom, with a note attached…to give it to Allison.
Unexpectedly to even him, Zell looked at the sleeping baby. A thought flashed through his mind as quickly as the lighting bolts in his visions. All this time he had seen so much of Rinoa in Allison that he never stopped to think…
"Alex how old is Allison?"
The woman pulled her light brown hair into a ponytail. She acted as if the question fell on deaf ears, not even acknowledging the statement. After a moment, she reached over and touched the sleeping little girl, wiping some cookie crumbs off her tiny face.
"The birth certificate says she is fourteen months old," she finally stated simply. It was more than a statement, it was a set up for a question that Zell quickly caught on to.
"The birth certificate says she is fourteen months old?" he questioned. "So is the birth certificate right?"
"Zell the birth certificate states her mothers name was Renee Bennett, which we both know isn't correct. I'm pretty sure the only thing right on there is her weight."
"Oh my God," he exclaimed looking down at the child. Touching her warm cheek, he knew who the father was. It was staring him right in the face the entire time. Somehow he already knew, Hyne willing Squall would too.
"Zell I don't care what you think. Rinoa did not kill Ellone, the accounts are wrong. SeeD left her to die in the unforgiving world, pregnant with the Commander’s child. She ran to save Allison, not to abandon you. Richard was a means to an end, survival, nothing more. Only he was the one in power, he held the control. She was no better off with him than living on the streets…but Allison kept her there. We had to take his control away, so I took Allison. Sixteen months…Allison is sixteen months."
"How?" Irvine questioned looking completely stumped at the turn of events. "How in the world would Richard Bennett not know how old his daughter was? Well, I guess not his daughter…Rinoa's daughter?"
"Fate…Bennett had been elected to council during the last trimester. He spent three months in Deling after the election. Keeping an apartment there, he would commute back and forth for the first month…then he just stopped coming by. So when Renee…Rinoa gave birth he wasn't around. I was the only one there, and we hide it from the other two house servants. They never were around Rinoa anyhow, Richard made sure of that."
"I had worked previously in Esthar and still had some connections…so we had the false certificate made. Honestly, there is not a real one. There are only two people who know the truth…now four. Richard Bennett never had claim to this child, to him she was a pawn. Had he never once believed Allison not to be his, he would have most likely killed her. His jealous side was not pretty, neither was his betrayal side. He was nothing short of a demon, a spawn from hell. Part of me wants to mourn his death, but a bigger part of me is rejoicing."
"The only reason I'm telling you is because he is dead, nobody could have known otherwise…not you two. Not even Squall. She wouldn't ever tell him, for fear of Allison's safety. I have a feeling we are now facing an even bigger enemy than Bennett...someone who wants the power that he kept locked away in his bedroom. Rinoa and Allison are even more at risk now. Somebody knows…somebody wants them dead."
The blazing fire roared in the cabin. Rinoa scrutinized every flame watching its fluid motions doing almost a dance, the way fire entwined with the searing kindling. The pure motion of the flames started to hypnotize her. Anything was better than situation she currently found herself in. Well, at least mentally.
How the hell could the goddamned bastard? To turn on her, initiate the hunt on her life, and then literally beg forgiveness at ever doubting her allegiance. Squall Leonhart had fallen to his knees and actually begged. She had gained the capability to move the irresistible force; she broke the god-almighty lion. For what? Was this the will of sorcerers' power or was the desire deep within her heart? The little game earlier initiated by her uncontrollable sorceress' side was only meant only to hurt him, show control over his body. This was the spiteful beast she had transformed into over the last two years. This was what Squall Leonhart, Richard Bennett, President Jefferson Mitchell, and Garden had turned her into: their toy, their scapegoat, their whore.
Now the bastard showed genuine concern for her welfare, wanted to know of the life she tried desperately to keep hiding from him and the entire world. Ally, should she even tell him the truth on his daughter? How she turned herself into a common street-whore to protect their child, when he was the one hunting her down like common prey. Now he was married, not to her, someone else shared his bed. The man, the lion, who could never truly commit to anything made a lifelong promise to somebody else. That’s exactly what the incident was about earlier; to show she could still had the power to emotionally and physically dominate him. Rinoa Heartilly learned this form of sub servitude, no, Renee Bennett had erudite to it.
Thinking the name of her former persona made bile rise within her throat. Allison would forever bare an emotional scar from Richard Bennett. Her daughter would never know her own mother’s given name, only the lies that were engineered about the untimely death of Renee Bennett. Maybe it was for the best, Ally would never be safe knowing the unspeakable truth. It was better to continue living the lie for the little girls’ sake. What of Squall Leonhart, the unknowing father? Did he give up his parental rights when he ordered the assassination of the vile sorceress and his unborn child? Would the outcome have been different had he known of the pregnancy? No, it would not have. She was still put on trial and abruptly convicted for the murder of Ellone Loire; her physical condition played no factor in the guilty decree.
What was upsetting Rinoa now was that her own body was betraying her. She, whatever form of her was in control, honestly would have gone through with the seduction early had he not stopped it. Power, it was all about the power of control. What Rinoa had to face now was that balance of power had shifted; there wasn’t one damn thing she could do about it. Time…time was her biggest enemy. The longer she remained in his presence the more her thoughts turned to that of obsession, derived from the love she still carried for this man. She wanted him now more than ever; she wanted him to imprison her mind, body, her soul and never let go.
Pulling her knees to her chest, Rinoa started to rock slowly back and forth. Wishing he wouldn’t return, more afraid what would happen if he didn’t. The harsh wind beat against the small glass-pane window. The curtains were enough to shield the brutal elements from sight, but never enough to keep them out of mind. Why would anybody choose to spend a winter in Trabia; she knew she sure as hell wouldn’t if given the freedom of choice. But choice was not in her near future, nor may it ever be again. Her path was chosen not by her, but others of this world…each knowing how dangerous it would be allowing a sorceress to roam free.
Squall gathered enough wood to last them throughout the piercing night. It was viciously cold, as no feeling remained in any of his outer extremities. Although in the long run, that may be good thing. He did not deserve to feel emotions or physical sensations; he had given up those privileges two years ago. He had doubted her. Rinoa had never given him anything but unconditional love, and he took her selfless gift and turned into a cruel joke. No matter how hard, he would try to explain his actions to her. One fact shall always remain…he alone had ordered the capture and the assassination of the sorceress, of the only person he ever loved.
Every step became harder to take in the drifting snow. The cabin was in sight now, the warm glow of the fire illuminated the otherwise dark, wintry night. How could he face Rinoa after earlier this evening, after the raw passion that almost had transpired between them? Moreover, how he wished to Hyne he hadn’t stopped her advances, not even for one second. The desire to feel her skin against his was overwhelming, even in the freezing temperatures. Desire alone kept him going tonight; most men would have given to the harsh elements long ago. He knew of her power, he knew of the situation, he didn’t care. Although he was quite aware that he didn’t deserve the physical pleasure, he would turn the tables on her tonight, even if it would be their last night together. Squall Leonhart never properly got to say goodbye.
The boat rocked back and forth in the gusty Trabian winds. Quistis lay on what the Captain claimed to be a bunk, staring at the copper pipes above her. Each in an endless maze, circling and going nowhere…she could empathize. The waves crashed into the hull; otherwise, the sounds would be almost nonexistent. She had left Seifer only an hour ago, yet now it seemed more like infinity.
A strange echo resonated throughout the corridor. For a moment, she truly believed in ghost ships, as only something not of this earth could make such a horrendous sound. Quistis got off her bed and went to the small cabin door, as she opened it she could see Seifer propping himself against the wall. The minute the door opened his expression tried to turn from almost dead, to only partially dead. A greenish hint covered his face. He did not hide it well.
"Seifer are you okay?" she asked redundantly, the answer excruciatingly obvious.
"Yeah fine," he fought to say the words with a straight face. "I just wanted to check and see how you were doing…really."
Rolling her eyes, she stepped out into the narrow corridor and grabbed his arm. Never articulating a word, she dragged him in and ushered him onto one of the small beds. Removing one of the extra pillows from the upper birth, she handed it to him, and then took a seat directly across from him on the other lower bunk.
"Seifer if you stay on this deck tonight it will help, we are closer to ocean level. The center of gravity is more stabilized, thereby cutting down the motional effects on your equilibrium," she informed instructor tone noticeable. Taking one look at his bewildered expression, she shook her head, "You won't feel the boat rocking as much, okay?"
That he understood.
"Thanks Quistis didn't think you would be inviting me to stay in your room so soon. It was inevitable…but I didn't think it would be this soon."
"Don't flatter yourself," she replied, half teasing. "How come I never remember you being sea-sick before? At Garden you were in plenty of moving boats, and I was under the impression you and your posse fish often?"
He smiled weakly through his condition, "Moving…moving being key. If it's going forward it doesn't bother me as much, but have you seen those waves? I can't handle the back and forth motion. As for the fishing, we were always at a dock…nice solid ground. I'll tell you something if you can keep a secret."
Now curiosity had the better of her. Moving from the bed she was currently occupying, she sat on the edge of his bunk. Never verbally responding to him, she didn't have to. They understood each other, on a deeper level than either could have imagined. Two people brought together under dire circumstances, two people who needed each other more than either thought possible.
"I can't go on playground swings either…they make me sick."
Covering her mouth, she tried to hide her chuckle, but failed miserably. The thought of someone as resilient and self-sufficient as Seifer Almasy unable to handle a simple swing was extremely entertaining. Quistis could tell he was irritated at her laughter, his face now a strange mixture of angry-red and baby-puke green. It was enough to make her overlook the worries, and forget the troubles. Somehow, this man had a way of easing her conscious, easing her soul. She felt an unexpected need to tend to him; the same she had spend her entire life yearning to do with Squall. As her laughter resided, she grabbed a gray-woolen throw and covered him.
"Sorry Seifer," she pleaded with tears of laughter trying not to escape her eyes. "Thank you. Thank you for making me laugh. It's been so long, I don't remember what it feels like to be happy, to be free anymore."
"Come here," he rejoined gently grabbing her arm and lowering her next to him. "I'm glad you can laugh again…just sorry it's at me. I really am sorry everything turned out this way. I promise we will make it through this…together."
She laid her head upon his chest as he carefully put his arm around her. "Seifer, what happens to you when this is over? What are you going to do now…are you going into hiding again?" she asked, truthfully afraid of the reply.
"I…um…I don't really know," wavering in his voice, revealed more emotion than he had aspired. "I guess there are only two choices…either I go back underground or I turn myself to Garden, facing the consequences. Maybe the redemption I seek can only be gained after I justly pay for my actions…even if that means death. It's not for me to decide."
Closing her eyes, she swallowed. Deep within her stomach she suddenly felt as ill as Seifer, if not more. Five days ago she would have lead the execution, now it was not the case. Fate was cruel once again. She spent all her life in love with someone who didn't want her, now she was falling for someone she couldn't be with.
"Quistis, let's not think about that right now. Nothing we can do will take away the past, facing our future is inevitable. Right now, let's just live in the present. Don’t think about tomorrow's press conference, what will become of me, or locating Squall and Rinoa. Those things will work themselves out, even if we don't like the outcome. We can't change our destiny."
"If we can't change destiny, how do you explain everything that has happened…the things with Ultimecia and Ellone? If we can't change our destiny why try to do any of this?"
He mustered a small laugh, "Quistis if you can change it, then it was truly never your destiny. Your destiny cannot be changed. But we can control our mistakes, face our crimes, and make that our destiny…agrhhh…. This is giving me an aneurysm. Let's not talk about it anymore. I don't need to feel anymore stress."
She closed her eyes, impishly murmuring, "I see it's in your destiny to stay with me tonight. Like this, just us. Not the pressure of being whoever others want us to be, living up to a reputation or image that is not our true persona…just being us."
He memorized everything about her, not wanting the moment to end. Never in his life had he experienced this serge of emotion. Before he always felt the need to push away or hide behind masks. He had loved Rinoa, she was his first love, and he still cared for her genuinely. Nevertheless, even when they were together, he knew that she didn't truly love him. They were not soul mates.
The winds seemed to be dying down outside, as the boat slowed its rocking. On the other hand, maybe, it was just in his mind. For the first time in an hour he felt well, better than well, he felt complete.
She heard the sound of the door opening, yet Rinoa made no attempt to get off the soft rug to help. She just sat in front of the fire, not letting her eyes wander around the room. Every footstep made her more nervous, yet refusing to show the outward signs. The dark night transformed one of the forward windows into a make-shirt mirror; she could watch every move Squall made. She tried not to, but that was asking the impossible.
He set the chopped wood down near the doorway. His face seemed red, chapped from the frigid winds. She tried like hell not to stare at him, everything about him seemed…so familiar yet so distant at the same time. His hair shorter now, his face matured by more stress than the two years. Still, every feature about him was so…damn perfect. The way she remembered, the way she fantasized. The nights she spent holding in the tears…over the man who now stood within arms reach.
The entire time she tried not to watch him, he tried not to stop watching her.
When Squall finished bringing in the last of the kindling, he caught sight of the northern window. It was a strange relief to know that she was studying him. It was the first real sign that old feelings still lingered. At least that is what he prayed it meant. But as earlier events proved, nothing was quite as it seemed with Rinoa Heartilly anymore. This small opportunity that presented itself, this might be his only chance to try to talk civilized with her.
He missed that.
"You know that your father punched me in front of the entire World Council the other day."
Squall didn't even know why he was attempting this conversation… Him initiating a conversation…this was a new one, even to him.
Over the last couple of years, she thought of her father and their relationship. Last time she had seen him too was that fateful night back in Deling. She had some information about him, Alexandra had told her bits and pieces. Rinoa often thought of what his reaction would be in learning he was a grandfather. Caraway never liked Squall, never thought anyone was good enough for his daughter. Maybe she should have listened to his complaints, his warnings about the young, emotionally immature Commander.
Shaking the thought from her head…no he might have been right about the outcome. Nevertheless, admitting to only herself, she wouldn't ever want to forget the journey they took to get here.
"Well I guess that's the first thing I can be proud of him for in the last ten years."
The words escaped her mouth before she could stop them. However they weren't in anger, more of a sarcastic nature. She was good at that. Sarcasm was a mask easily hid behind.
"Never knew the General had such the right hook, guess I know who taught you."
A diminutive smiled crept upon her face, although she tried in vain to restrain it. "You had that one coming too…"
"As I seem to recall, I specifically said don't punch me yet. I never tried teaching you self-defense again. Guess I wasn't much of an instructor…not much of a Commander either."
From the reflection, she could see him sitting on the small bed. His coat and gloves still remained on. Whether it was a moment of weakness or of strength, she didn't know, but for some godforsaken reason she had a sense of pity for him. It hadn't been that long ago she had escaped the city in the freezing temperatures.
"Squall look, you went out and chopped the firewood…if you're cold… Look, I don't own this place or anything. If you want to sit by the fire, then I can't stop you."
He was cold. Yes. But Squall Leonhart, a SeeD, had been in much more grim a circumstance than this. The fire was only an excuse for him to get next to what he really required, her.
Never turning her head to look at him as he sat only feet from her, Rinoa kept her eyes forward.
"Squall how is he doing really? We fought before…but nothing like this. Does he think that I…"
"No," he cut her off before she could say the words. They still hurt. "Actually he thought the whole thing never seemed right from the beginning. We had to act as if we were on different sides…but he misses you Rinoa. It's hard for him. His only daughter wanted by the very government that he spent his entire career working for. He might not have showed it to you…but you were everything to him."
She knew that he was no longer speaking of her father. A sound somewhere between a gasp and sigh escaped her lips as she tried to regain her self-control. Damn him, he was not going to make this night easy, he never made things easy.
"Caraway knows we are up here. He always believed in you Rin…even when I didn't. He's a good man, some day please try to forgive him for his mistakes. We all carry them. Some more than others."
"Do you love her?"
Shit. Rinoa couldn't believe she said that. Thinking about something and blurting it aloud are two completely different things. Now Squall knew that she couldn't get past this, past his marriage. Tears rolled down her face as she pulled her knees tighter to her chest, placing her head on them. She turned her face as far away from him as possible.
"I'm sorry Squall, I didn't mean to ask. It's not any of my business…please just forget it."
"No….No, I don't love her now, nor did I ever. Sometimes I wished that I cared a little bit more about her, and then I could have spared us both from this farce. I needed to prove to the World Council and Cid that I was over you… I was going to be asked to step down as Commander. They wanted me to show that I moved on. If anyone was going to lead the hunt for you, it was damn well going to be me."
It was something between a laugh and a cry, he could not tell. Maybe it was just the pain of hearing it again, or the horrible fact sinking into her mind.
"So Squall basically what you are saying is that you didn't want to marry me, but you would marry for me . Was it a nice ceremony?"
"Please don't do this…to you or me. It's hard for me to talk about."
"It's hard for you to talk about, but it's easy for you to still wear your wedding ring…if in fact your marriage is over!"
He was the first to look at her, even though she had not acknowledged his presence, her head still turned as he could hear her attempts to stop crying.
"Hyne Rinoa, to be over there would actually have to be a start. Trust me there never was." Taking off his wedding ring, he made a fist around it, "I forgot this damn thing was on. Don't you get it? It was because…oh forget it. You don't want to hear it; I don't want to say it anymore."
With an immense force he threw the band into the fire, as it hit the outer brick wall it angled off the side before finally landing, being consumed in the flames and ash. In reality, the platinum would still remain in the cinders, yet the significance would be scorched in the fire.
When the metal echoed through the chimney, she gambled turning her eyes toward him. Regrettably, he was no longer watching her. For the first time she truthfully started to comprehend his way of thinking. In actuality, it paralleled her own situation, her own spurious marriage. She married, per say, to defend her and Allison's lives. Would it be that outrageous if Squall had done the same? Even if he thought she was guilty, he made the sacrifice. It was far more difficult for him to marry someone without love, than to marry for love. To him it would be the definitive sacrifice, his principles for her protection. For the first time she understood his position on accepting a spouse.
Wiping her eyes a thought dawned on her, "You said you didn't make a very good Commander aren't you…"
"I'm quitting," his answer was short and brusque.
"Does this have anything to do with me? I didn't mean to ruin your career too."
Squall was aware of her facing him. If he looked straight ahead, he could answer this question the way his mind directed him to. If he looked at her, his answer would be the way his heart desired to. He made the choice subconsciously, his mind had been in charge for the last two years, and it was time that his heart won this single battle. He inescapably wanted his heart to win this entire war. As he saw her face, upset and full of sorrow…his heart won over his mind.
"Rinoa everything I have always done is because of you. Even before I met you, the paths I chose were all leading to you…to us. My career is nothing, I am nothing. If they want to hunt you, they will have to kill me in the process. I know it's of a little consequence now, but you are still everything to me."
Closing her eyes, a million thoughts filled her mind. This wasn't happening. She had to protect herself from him…from the pain he would inevitable cause. Squall had no idea what he was getting himself into, the world wanted her dead…there was still time for him to save himself. She recognized that it wasn't his fault, although he wasn't faultless, but society had branded her the traitor before the incident.
From the first day Esthar had imprisoned her, to the last day spent in the cabin, she was a source of trepidation to them. The World Council and all that opposed it. They all needed her, every one of those bastards would sacrifice her mind and body without hesitation. The title of sorceress held more supremacy than even she appreciated. Squall had little or no influence on the events, she decided to fight beside them in Galbadia and she alone would have to undergo the consequences.
No, he was not to blame for the quandary. She accepted the truth that he suffered as much, if not greater than she had. Bennett might have physically abused her, but she always held on to a sliver of reality with Allison. Squall was alone, just as he always had been. Alone. Reaching in her pocket, she found the platinum chain she held dear for so long. Her mother’s ring was just as she remembered, Julia another life that had been stolen by destiny. She balled her hand into a small fist, letting this ring too imprint onto her palm.
"I know after everything that has happened between us, I have no right making this request. But I must ask you a favor, no questions asked. Please tell me I have earned that much from these goddamn years of torment."
He watched intently as she looked at her mothers ring on the chain. A moment of sadness crept into his body, paining him to see that his ring was no longer adorning the chain next to hers, as it had been for five years…as it should be. He intentionally made an attempt to feel through his coat, seeing if the ring was still in pocket, it was. She put her trembling hand on the floor as she leaned over to him.
"Squall please, take this back. If something happens to me, give it to Alexandra she will know what to do with it. I know it might be impossible to locate her. My guess is someday you'll understand how to reach her. It's all I ask of you."
He leaned over and took the delicate chain back, strange at the honor the silvery chain provided. His first thought was to place it in is pocket with his Griever. In a moment of almost defiance, he decided to place it back around his neck. The metal offered an unearthly comfort of serenity in his life. He took his coat off placing it in a heap to the side.
She watched in wonderment as he removed his jacket not sure of what he was doing, until she saw him attempting to place the chain around his neck. The clasp was small and his coarse hands not used to such delicate procedures. His hands. For an ethereal moment, she studied them, every line, every scar. Remembering when those hands would hold and caress her. After an uncomfortable moment of silence, she realized he had been watching her – watching him. Trying the best to cover her momentary weakness she leaned toward him, wordlessly offering her help.
Reaching for the chain, she realized they were closer then they had been this entire time. She avoided his eyes, turning her attention at the difficult fastener. After a couple of failed attempts, she rose to her knee's trying to get a better angle for her vision. Fumbling with it, she brushed the back of her hand on his neck. The feeling of his flesh was electrifying to her…it was almost too much to bear. The task almost seemed impossible, her hands now shaking from the nervousness she was failing greatly at concealing.
Finally, she managed to get the clasp, and then accidentally looked at his face. Only to realize that during her attempts to do the chain and avoid eye contact, she had accidentally given him the perfect view down her shirt. He quickly darted his eyes back to the fire, a feeble attempt at hiding the fact that he was taking advantage of his viewpoint.
The expression on the normally stern Commander's face almost made her want to smile. His cheeks were a combination of cherry hues from both the exposure to the snow and the exposure to her chest. She sat back on her legs, unsure of anything at the moment. For some unknown reason she didn't want to leave the proximity. No, that wasn't true, she damn well knew the reason she didn't want to leave the closeness. His expression changed as she watch his eyes change from embarrassed to uncharacteristically mischievous. Turning his head quickly he looked her directly in the eyes.
"I know after everything that has happened…I have no rights. But I need a favor, no questions asked."
"What?" she questioned apprehensively.
"Kiss me. One last time; I want to remember what it's like."
Fear had now taken full command of her emotions. Never had he been so direct. She couldn't do this. She needed to get away from him, far away. Where nobody could hurt her or Allison…she had to be strong, to stick to her arrangement.
"I kissed you earlier. Doesn't that count?" she answered back, hoping that would be enough.
He quickly placed one of his fingers on her lips, her heart felt as if it stopped beating with the contact.
"I said no questions, remember? Plus, that wasn't you. That was Renee Bennett…I don't want her, I want you Rinoa."
Somehow, her vision blurred or she just lost sight of reality, the next thing she knew his lips were centimeters from hers. This is what she fantasized about, she dreamed. This moment, this reunion…him. Logic told her to get up, leave, and never look back. Have him go back to Garden, his job, and his wife.
She met his lips as tears formed not in the corner of her eyes this time, but in his. He was really there. They were really there. And for Hyne knows what reason, she still was deeply in love with him.