Chapter XI Checkmate
Everything around her pulsed with living power, until she could not tell where her own veins ended and the raw energy that was the lifeblood of the Lunatic Pandora began. She experienced the vastness of space, not through the walls, but with them, as if the crystal had become her very eyes, as if the stone were her very skin. She moved through the vacuum and felt no cold. It was so simple, the power which now was hers. To extend her hand was to command the awesome might of the Pandora, with no effort, with no fear or hesitation. She flew to the moon as easily as she had once strode across a room. Only when she tried to divide herself from that which held her did she find an act beyond her ability. It was simpler not to resist, to give herself over as she had promised, and fall with it, ever faster...
When that power was cut off, Rinoa felt it as if were her own heart that stopped beating. Cold death cast its shadow across her as the world went dark. The pain was excruciating.
Squall's call was a lifeline, his plea the only force she could not resist. She held on. And found herself momentarily freed.
The Pandora stirred around her, not dead, only stunned, its energies reviving with every breath she drew. Rinoa pushed hard against the formless stuff engulfing her. It was like swimming through thick honey. When she tried to imagine how she could be breathing it she nearly choked, regained her respiration with effort. She clawed at the malleable crystal, until she burst through the surface and tumbled out into the chamber.
Shakily she tried to push to her feet, only to find there was no balance to gain in free fall. Caught helpless in the air, she had no choice but to touch the Crystal Pillar to steady herself.
There was no reaction when her fingers brushed against it. The dark pillar was quiescent, no longer pliant. She couldn't return if she wanted to, not until its energies were restored.
Almost sobbing with relief, Rinoa peered through the dimness down the dark corridor. Squall was coming; she knew it as surely as if she could think his thoughts. There would be nothing to stop her from going to him; the creatures of the Pandora were only extensions of the creation, and would be inert as it. She crouched, gathering her flagging stamina.
A talon closed around her boot and yanked her down, slamming her into the floor.
There was still one creature of the Pandora still active, if hardly alive, one spirit able to move with the last of its will. Jezikan Deling's eyes, the only part of her still human, glowed with frenzied rage. One skeletal hand gripped Rinoa's ankle like a vice, taut yellow tendons rupturing the charred skin. The lipless mouth moved, but the lungs held too little air for speech.
Rinoa cried out, twisting in a desperate struggle. As if sparked by the unholy light in the grotesque's eyes and the pendant still fiery around her neck, the Pandora began to glow again, a dusky blue shimmer spreading through the crystal.
Rinoa's hand, pressed to the pillar, began to sink into it. She tried to wrest herself free, but had not the leverage to break the membrane's seal. Jezikan's labored inhalations rattled like dry laughter.
Rinoa put her other hand to the pillar, felt the surface give beneath her palm. Before she could be drawn in, she pushed back and simultaneously kicked up, jackknifing her body in a single violent thrust. Jezikan, still gripping her ankle, was thrown up and forward, into the Crystal Pillar.
The impact broke the monstrous lady's grip, but instead of smashing against a solid wall, the pillar's surface displaced beneath Jezikan, sucking in her ruined body even as she thrashed, mouth split wide in anguish.
Braced against the floor, Rinoa wrenched her hands free of the rippling crystal and dove for the entranceway.
The tunnel was pitch black, and an icy draft set her shivering. Without looking behind to see what stirred in the Pandora's heart, she set her jaw against chattering and pulled herself along the rough ice wall. Light burst behind her, and then the whole Pandora shuddered, ringing as if it had been struck like a gong. Knocked against the arched passage, Rinoa staggered, lost her grip. She heard rushing air; then a gale wind hurled her into the ceiling and out of awareness.
* * *
Squall gripped the controls as the Ragnarok hurtled toward the Pandora, breathing through clenched teeth as he counted the seconds. It had worked before, albeit not in space and the airship had been in better condition, but then so had the Pandora.
He waited until the last possible second before hitting the retrorockets. The Ragnarok crashed nose-first into the Pandora's broad expanse, burrowing halfway into the wall before jerking to a stop. Steel bent with outraged screeches, but the titaniglass didn't fracture, and no telltale blasts or alarms announced a hull breach.
Squall was out of the chair almost before the airship stopped, shooting toward the cockpit's exit. He struggled into the spacesuit, barely taking time to verify its hermetic seal. No need for it immediately; the air outside the ship roared over the metal hull. But he had punctured the Pandora, and now its atmosphere was rushing into space.
He put the magnetic boots on their highest setting, clamping his feet to the floor as he opened the airlock. The wind from the vacuum's pull threw him off his stride as he marched down the ramp. Flakes of ice whirled in the gusts, an artificial blizzard.
One step into the tunnel, then a second. He strove to move faster, to run, but the boots would not allow him to lift both feet off the metal-lined floor at once, and the tempest winds tearing at him slowed his progress further. Switching on the suit's speaker, he tried to shout, but couldn't tell if he made a sound through the howling, thinning air. It was difficult to see through the darkness; the beam of the suit's headlamp was refracted by the false snow into a dance of deceptive shadows. He pushed on, ignoring the shadows, ignoring the fear that was growing ever louder even as the wind died, whispers of a failure that he could not afford, could not survive, even if he could escape here with his own life...
Then a crumpled form, a bundle of cloth and feathers carried in the gale, brushed past him. He caught it automatically. And stared through the ice crystals at the curve of white face illuminated by his lamp, the tangle of black hair torn by the wind.
A slender hand grasped his arm through the suit. Pale lips parted, and he read his name in their movement. For an instant he heard nothing, the wind's roar insignificant, and saw none of the ice's white, only the darkness of her barely open eyes, the warmth in their deep brown depths.
The wind howled loud as reality asserted itself with all its pressure. He wrapped one arm around Rinoa as tightly as he dared, with his other hand lowered the charge of his boots. As soon as the grounding force decreased, the hungry vacuum grabbed them, sucking them backwards. Hunched against the driving ice, they slid down the tunnel, the boots' low magnetism only just holding his feet to the floor as the wind blew them back. She was curled into a ball in his arms; he shielded her from the gale's bite as well as he was able. Through the suit's gloves he could hardly feel her body, but she must be frozen. He sensed her cold as a chill on the edge of his own perception.
At the Ragnarok's ramp he flipped the boots back to full power and braced for the abrupt halt. Fighting the force of the wind, he charged with all his strength up into the ship. When the airlock door finally slid shut, he kicked out of the boots, glided into the lift to the cockpit, still holding Rinoa. They weren't out of danger yet; the Pandora still plummeted toward the moon, accelerating as the gravity increased, and the Ragnarok fell with it.
He carefully set Rinoa in one chair, then sat in the pilot's seat and tore off his helmet while he charged the rockets. The Ragnarok sputtered to life like an antique automobile, bucking as its few remaining rockets fired in conflicting directions to try to force free of the Pandora. The vacuum helped now instead of hindered, pulling them out, but another force locked them in place, holding them as tightly as the magnetic boots had kept him on the deck.
Squall struggled for control as the rockets failed one by one, hit every switch only to see the lights go out and the airship's multi-toned hum lose every note, until the vibration of its engines had ceased. His mind went blank, as if he were already dead, the only remaining thought a monotone drone insisting this could not happen, this could not be the end, could not...
With his remaining will he cast his eyes to the seat beside him, to the love he had failed--
Only to find her not there. With a strangled gasp he leapt from his own chair, then spun as he heard a murmur behind him.
Rinoa floated in the cockpit's center, facing forward, her arms spread and her eyes closed. Her lips moved as she intoned a spell, too soft and quick for him to identify. The magic burst from her like a nova, lighting white wings opened behind her. Angel wings, holding her in place while the power flowed forth, from her body to the Pandora outside.
Through the blinding ice he saw a tornado form, a gathering of all the tunnel's remaining air into a whirling column. The funnel lashed like a whip, striking the ship and sending it tumbling free of the black wall, out into space.
The moon loomed before them, glowing, giant red destiny filling the front screens. Before Squall could reach the controls, the magic captured them, a second, impossible cyclone in the vacuum of space carrying them up, away from the Pandora, away from the lunar threat. A third tornado sped them along, driving them back toward the blue-and-white world they had left behind.
By now Squall had grasped the strategy of her magic use. With judicious use of his own gravity spells he balanced the Ragnarok, attempting to level their wild flight. When he opened his eyes, the stars were no longer spinning, and the moon was only a wide, rust-smudged circle in the starboard window.
The wings of the Sorceress had vanished, and Rinoa hung limp in the air. Hurriedly stripping off the last of the spacesuit, he anxiously pushed off the floor and, catching her up in his arms, gently sailed to the far corner of the cockpit. "Rinoa?"
Dark eyes fluttered open. "Squall..?"
Then her arms were around his neck, clutching him close as she buried her face in the furred collar of his jacket. "You're alive," she gulped. "You woke up. You're alive."
"I'm fine," he said. "Are you..." Her skin was cold, and she was shaking. She was sobbing. "Please, Rinoa, you gotta be..." He noticed with small surprise that he was also crying. "Are you..."
"I'm fine, too." Raising her head slightly, she scrubbed the heel of her palm across her eyes. "I'm just..." She looked at his face, and smiled widely, even with tears running down her cheeks. Lifting one hand she traced two fingers along the line of his jaw. "I'm fine."
Then she looked past him, out the side portal bright with the great moon. Keeping his arms around her waist, Squall turned to see as well.
Hardly more than a black dustspeck against the scarlet-hued orb, the Lunatic Pandora fell. As it dropped, the red on the lunar surface appeared to rise up, appeared to reach for it--no illusion at all, Squall realized. The Lunar Cry was claiming what it followed, drawing the Pandora down to the monsters which had always come to it.
As they watched, the tiny black dot was swallowed by the bulge. Then the swell began to subside, slowly absorbed back into the smooth, pale sphere.
Rinoa shuddered. Squall tightened his hold. "You aren't on it," he reminded her as well as himself.
"It wanted me to be," she said faintly. "The Pandora...it wasn't sentient, wasn't alive, yet somehow, it still felt. It wanted me...it wanted me. The Sorceress. And once it had me it wouldn't release me. It would do anything I asked, anything, except for that. It wouldn't let me go."
Then she laughed, muffled, not her usual giggle, but still happy. "And now I kind of know how it felt." She twined her arms around him, nestled her head comfortably against his chest. "I don't want to let go..."
"Don't," he said. Requested. He slid down the wall until they were nearly seated, hovering in the corner a little above the floor, and he rested his cheek on her soft hair. He felt her relax against him, curling her legs up onto his lap. Her arms remained around him.
Over her head he could see the cockpit, nearly all its lights dim. Life support still functioned adequately, but there was much damaged on the airship; he wasn't even sure repairs would be possible. Certainly not for the two of them, alone in space. He would need to investigate the problem. But now he held Rinoa, saying nothing, thinking nothing, only listened to her breathing slow as she slipped into much-needed sleep. And regardless of the Ragnarok's condition, despite everything that had occurred here or on the planet, at this moment all was right with his universe.
* * *
Quistis, accompanied by Kiros, joined Selphie, Irvine, and Zell on Fisherman's Horizon, where the SeeD and others crowded into the Mayor's house. Negotiations, however, were soon put on hold while they used the sophisticated equipment to interface with Esthar's, instruments all trained on the situation in space above. At Laguna's request, one of Esthar's chief scientists gave a running commentary of their current observations.
Minutes before, they had been watching via telescope and satellite the Pandora's descent and the Ragnarok's approach. Then, without warning, an energy surge had been detected from the Ragnarok, and all communications from space were cut off. The advanced telescopes proved nearly useless, their sensitive optics burnt out by a light so brilliant it was visible to the naked eye as a flicker through the sky, like a lightning bolt between high clouds.
"We still don't know what that was," the Esthar scientist related excitedly. "Wait, we're picking up a transmission from our station--I'll route it through."
"--you wouldn't believe it if you saw it," the scientist onboard the spacestation was saying over the radio. "We'll give a full report as soon as we...figure out what the hell that thing was. --Wait, we're getting visuals back online. The Pandora..." He hesitated a moment. "The Pandora has reached the lunar atmosphere. Repeat, the Pandora has reached the moon. It appears to be being absorbed into the incipient Lunar Cry. We have video contact."
One of the screens lit with a grainy image, the swirling, scarlet tinge of the Lunar Cry like red storm-clouds. In the center a minuscule black rectangle, obscured by the red fog, was all that could be seen of the Pandora. In another minute it was entirely gone.
"We are no longer detecting any sign of the Pandora," the station scientist reported. "Central, do you--"
"Negative," the other researcher replied. "There is no remaining--Station, what are your readings on the Cry?"
"Just coming in--I don't believe it!" The scientist's calm voice nearly cracked. "It's dispersing! Energies decreasing across the board--it's fading. The Lunar Cry has been canceled. They did it. Son of a--"
Laguna reached for the radio. "What's the position of the Ragnarok?" he asked quietly.
There was dead silence, broken at last by the station's update. "We've got visual confirmation. It's there. Drifting into a high orbit around this planet. No energy output--it appears to be inert. Can't tell if there's any lifesigns; those sensors will need to be recalibrated. No response yet to our radio signal."
"So we don't know..." Zell murmured.
"No." Ellone spoke with a sudden sharp intake of breath. She raised her head, hazel eyes shining. "They're both there. I just touched Squall. They made it. They're alive."
For another instant, complete silence reigned; then Zell sprang into the air as if his sneakers were winged and shouted at the top of his lungs, "All RIGHT!!"
Selphie grabbed Irvine and pulled down his head to plant a hard kiss right on his mouth. Quistis only smiled, until Kiros leaned over her shoulder to whisper in her ear, "I just want to know--how the hell do they do it?" And then she had to laugh.
"Central, you guys start planning a launch," Laguna ordered. "I want that airship brought down here safely ASAP--"
"Wait," Cid stopped him. "There might be a better way." He looked to FH's mayor, who nodded. The headmaster grinned, a remarkably youthful expression. "Come with me, all of you," he said to his SeeD, gesturing them toward the exit. "I need to show you something."
* * *
Rinoa yawned, stretched, and opened her eyes, to find she had inadvertently pushed herself into the air and was now drifting toward the ceiling of the Ragnarok's cockpit. Squall was watching. Silently he extended his hand to her. Smiling, she took it and levered herself back into the copilot's chair. "How long was I asleep?"
"'A few hours." His eyes still studied her intently. "Sorry I didn't take you to the bunks. To check out the ship's condition I needed to be on the bridge..."
"It's okay." Rinoa hooked her feet under the chair's struts to hold herself in place, enjoying the freedom of weightlessness too much to strap herself in. "So what is its condition?"
Squall frowned slightly. "Irvine might say...could be better. None of the engines are functioning. I could go outside in a suit to check them out, but I couldn't do anything about them anyway. The radio's out, too, at least the receiver's dead. I've tried sending a couple of distress signals, just in case the transmitter still works, though we won't be able to get a response. But we are in a stable orbit around the world, and Esthar's satellites and telescopes should be able to tell we're here. I expect they'll send a rescue mission, but it'll take at least a couple days to prep a rocket."
"A couple days, hmm?"
"The hull's banged up but still airtight, and the oxygen recirculators are okay. I've checked the stores and we have water and rations for more than a month. We should be all right until help comes."
"Sounds wonderful." There was no sarcasm in her tone. Squall cocked his head at her curiously, observing with no small comfort the sparkle in her eyes. He had missed that light. "We needed a vacation."
He recalled that his father had made such a suggestion, what felt like ages ago. Somehow Squall doubted being stranded on the Ragnarok was what Laguna had had in mind. But if Rinoa didn't care...
"Squall," she said, suddenly serious, and he looked to her anxiously. "Before...when I was on the Pandora. I thought...I heard you. Calling to me. Didn't I?"
"I called to you," he said. "I don't know if you could've heard me..." Slowly he explained what he had done, everything from when he woke up--she demanded to hear more of the vision, but he wasn't ready to tell all of it, even to her, not yet--from taking the Ragnarok, to Quetzalcoatl's sacrifice. Whether the guardian force was extinguished, or simply passed beyond the scope of mortal ken, he couldn't say. All he could express was his gratitude, and wish that the serpent god might receive it somehow.
Rinoa in turn told her part, what their other friends had left out when he awoke, and what only she knew. She shivered when she spoke of the Pandora, of being within the Crystal Pillar, to know its want from the inside.
"What happened to Jezikan?" Squall asked at last.
Rinoa shook her head. "She was within it. She might have already been dead when it fell. I hope..."
She put her hands over her face, exhaled softly, then leaned forward, reaching for the console before her. "It's over," she said. "I can't...I don't want to spend the rest of our time up here talking about it. This is a vacation, right? What kind of entertainment does this ship have?"
Squall shrugged. Rinoa fiddled with a clasp and popped open a compartment, from which she took out a handful of discs. She scrutinized the collection thoughtfully. "Hmm."
Squall looked over. "What are those?"
"They're Selphie's, I think. She has the strangest taste in music." Rinoa raised an unlabelled disc appraisingly to the light. "Do you think this is hard rock or an opera?"
"...Play it and see."
She slid the disc into the player. Then smiled at the tune that wafted from the speakers. "Squall, you remember this?"
"Yes." He would always remember, no matter how many guardian forces he might junction. They had played this waltz the night of his SeeD inauguration. The night of his first dance, dragged onto the floor by a beautiful girl in a white dress. No, this music he would never forget.
Rinoa smiled, then bounded from her chair to soar into the cabin space as if she were riding the very melody. Raven hair streaming around her like a mermaid's, she extended her hands to Squall. "Come on," she said. "Teach me how to dance in zero G."
"I don't know how."
"Then we'll learn together." She grabbed his hands, then kicked off the floor, using the leverage to cast them both spinning head over heels into the center of the cockpit. Gradually they floated to a stop, parallel to the floor. The side window, now overhead, shone with a million stars, gleaming untarnished through black vacuum. Rinoa tilted back her head to admire the shining infinity. "That's one problem with space," she sighed. "No shooting stars."
"They need an atmosphere to burn up."
"Squall, has anyone ever told you you are not a romantic?" She grinned at his deliberately overplayed expression of bemusement. "Forget it. The song's almost done and we haven't figured out how to dance yet." She set a hand on his shoulder. He slipped one of his around her waist, caught up her free hand with the other. She struck outward with both feet, the momentum slowly twirling them in place.
The waltz ended and another began, which they moved to with slightly more success, until Squall attempted to dip her and sent them into a giddy whirl around the cabin. Rinoa clung to him, laughing, then reached out and caught the wall to halt their flight. She was breathing soft and fast, the exertion coloring her cheeks. Looping her arm around his neck, she drew him closer, until their lips met.
Squall gave into it completely. When the kiss finally broke he gazed into the darkness of her eyes without a word, knowing this was one time his customary quiet would not be objected. He pulled off his gloves to touch her face. The gentle breeze from the air circulator was warm, raising a thin film of moisture over the smooth skin he caressed. With careful fingers he undid the fastening of her coat, while she slid his jacket off his shoulders, and set both garments adrift.
They attempted to waltz again, but by the end of the disc the dancing was long over, and neither noticed when the music faded from the cockpit to leave them alone in the silence between the stars.
* * *
The alert would not have wakened them had it not been so persistent, a soft, steady beeping dispelling their mutual dreams. Rinoa roused as Squall disengaged his arms from around her and pushed himself to a more vertical position to the floor to check the display. "What's that?" she asked sleepily.
"The proximity alert is still working, apparently."
That chased the cobwebs away fast. "Proximity alert? Is it a meteor? Are we falling out of orbit?"
Squall shook his head, grasping the pilot's chair to pull himself closer to the console. "No. It..." He paused for an unusual length of time, even for him. "It looks like some kind of ship."
"A ship?" Rinoa hovered over his shoulder to get a look herself. The monitor wavered unsteadily and flashed spurts of static, but was functioning well enough to show the general configuration of the approaching mass. "But it hasn't even been twelve hours--you said it would be a few days."
"I thought it would." Squall frowned. "This doesn't look like an Esthar rocket. It's too small and the wrong shape." On closer inspection there seemed to be two separate ships, flying in tandem. The silhouette showed sleek, somewhat conical forms, flattened on one side, pointed at the bow and with a high energy output from the wider stern. He didn't recognize them offhand, but had a nagging feeling he had seen their like before and forgotten.
"I've heard stories about...aliens," Rinoa said. "You don't think..."
Suddenly the cockpit thrummed with a deep bass tone. Rinoa grabbed Squall in a momentary panic; together they listened to the note rise gradually and finally modulate into an identifiable pattern. Human speech. And a voice they recognized, no less. "Yo! Hey, Ragnarok? Is anyone there?"
Irvine sounded almost breathless with excitement. "You can't answer, but we're getting two stable lifesigns, and we sure hope you guys are Squall and Rinoa. Since your radio's probably out, we're using some nifty Esthar tech I don't get--something about turning sound waves into electromagnetic whatevers and bouncing them off your hull to make an echo inside--anyway if it's working like it should, you're hearing me talk to you now from the two Pods outside your window."
"Pods?" Rinoa repeated curiously.
"Oh, 'we' is all of us," Irvine added after a second's delay. "Quisty and Zell and Sephie and me. Selphie's flying one of these things. Ain't she fantastic? And Nida's on the other, with Cid and some advisors from FH. And I've been told we don't have the energy to talk forever, so if you could give us some sign you're receiving this message, flash a light or something, we'll tell you how to set the airlock so we can dock and the FH techies can figure out how to get the Ragnarok down on the planet again."
The transmission cut off as quickly as it had begun, leaving Rinoa and Squall staring at one another. Finally Rinoa reached for the console. "I guess we better let them know," she remarked, and flicked the main forward beamlight on and off in a rapid staccato pattern, the standard SeeD 'situation under control' signal.
Then she glanced at herself, and around the cockpit. "Uh, if they're going to dock soon..." she began, and dove for her blue coat and boots where they had gathered in the far corner, tangled with Squall's belts.
"Maybe we should clean up," Squall agreed, and hastily propelled himself toward the ceiling to collect the rest of the stray clothes.
* * *
They were properly attired when the first Pod docked--as neat an operation as could be wished for, as if the ship had been designed for the purpose--and their friends emerged from the airlock. Nevertheless Squall had a feeling he and Rinoa weren't fooling anyone.
Certainly not Irvine. As soon as the enthusiastic greetings were over he elbowed his commander in the ribs and winked. "Squall, you dog, gettin' Rinoa up here all alone..."
Squall kept his lips sealed and tried to force down the blood he could feel rising in his cheeks. He knew he hadn't done as good a job of it as he hoped when Irvine's eyes widened, and a grin as devilish as a dragon's split his face. "Hey..."
Selphie tipped forward to study Rinoa's aspect for an instant, then exchanged a most meaningful look with Irvine. The sharpshooter laughed out loud. "It's about time!" And he clapped Squall on the back hard enough to knock his commander a few inches into the air.
"Great you guys are safe...and all!" Zell was also grinning.
"You'll have to tell us everything," Quistis said, then blushed herself. "I mean about how you got Rinoa out, Squall, and what happened to the Ragnarok. But first we better see about getting back home."
"I hope the Pods can tow it in," Selphie said, "'cause I don't think the Ragnarok's gonna fly for a while." She wrinkled her nose at them. "What's you do to my poor ship?"
"What are these 'Pods,' anyway?" Rinoa asked eagerly. "We saw them come in, but we've never seen anything like them before."
"Actually Squall has," Quistis said. "But you might not remember--it was six months ago, one of the meetings you had with Cid. He showed you some diagrams. Just possibilities; they hadn't been built yet."
Squall shrugged. Forgetting old designs wasn't as bad as forgetting actual resources. "So what are they?"
"They're ours," Selphie said proudly. "SeeD spaceships. Designed to come up here. Not as cool as the Ragnarok, but just as fast, and cheaper. Esthar made 'em for us. But it's a shame, really." She winked at the other Seed. "If this had happened a month from now, you'd've seen something even better."
"Really?" Rinoa asked, when it was clear Squall wouldn't. "Come on, tell."
"Just some of the new renovations," Quistis said. "That was why Galbadia Garden was at FH, you know. They were adding a little technology, better shields, enhanced 'coms..."
"And one hell of a field-wheel improvement!" Zell exclaimed. "When they're done, Galbadia Garden will really be able to fly--all the way to the moon, and beyond!"
"You mean it'll be able to go into space?"
"Because it'd be awesome!"
"There's better reasons than that, Selphie," said Quistis. "Cid can tell you, Squall; he's the one who arranged it. But I think it's because of the possibilities--"
"SeeD in space!" Irvine declared. "It's enough just to be able to say that."
"Yes, but right now they need SeeD on the world more."
"We'll be back soon, Quisty," Selphie reported, upon checking via handradio with the other Pod. "The FH techs say we should be able to tow the Ragnarok down without problems. Though we should all ride in the Pod, in case the heat shields are damaged. Landfall's a blast but frying to a crisp's no fun!"
Half an hour later, all six of them were piled into the Pod, watching out the narrow windows as the carefully-secured tethers went taut, pulling the Ragnarok out of its relatively slow orbit and redirecting it toward the planet below. As they plunged into the atmosphere the scarlet hull began to glow with a brighter, orange hue, a corona of fire produced by the friction of reentry.
Gravity combined with acceleration to press them back into their seats. Selphie's mouth was set in the ever-present grin she always wore when piloting; the others grimaced and stretched to readjust to the weight and air pressure. They decelerated gradually, finally dropping to speeds slow enough to see clearly the blue ocean far below. The Ragnarok hung between the two Pods like an injured bird in a sling, dragged along behind them. Squall winced as the sunlight gave him his first clear view of the ravages wrought on the airship. Though the FH techs had assured them all--especially Selphie--that the damage would be relatively easy to repair, and in fact was mostly cosmetic, the crumpled bow and bent pinions destroyed the vessel's graceful lines.
In his mind's flashed a single image of Balamb Garden, broken. He swallowed, pushed the nightmare memory aside. Someone touched his hand, and he looked over to Rinoa. She squeezed his fingers and smiled.
Fisherman's Horizon appeared on the edge of the world, growing as they approached--then shrinking just as quickly as they passed by. "What--" Squall began.
Selphie risked a peek back over her shoulder. "We're going straight to Balamb Garden. Which is en route to Deling City now."
"Checking up on Seifer," Zell explained, then slapped his forehead. "That's right, we never got around to mentioning that..."
* * *
By the time Balamb Garden reached Deling City, Squall had been brought up to speed on the Galbadian revolution. Xu confirmed that it had spread beyond the capital by now; the whole country was on the verge of overthrowing every last bastion of government. The threat of the Lunatic Pandora had heightened the furor, and Timber, Dollet, and the other unwilling Galbadian states were eagerly feeding the flames. The airwaves rocked with news reports, declarations of various groups, and calls for honor. That open warfare had yet to break out was nothing short of a miracle.
And the one-time Sorceress's Knight was in the middle of it all. How far Seifer's responsibility went was unclear, but his name came up far too much for the jailbreak to be his only contribution. "He's had to have been planning this for a while," Quistis said. "For at least as long as he's been in Galbadia--which is most of the last year. But why?"
Raijin and Fujin weren't talking. Seifer's posse didn't deny any knowledge, but they refused to say or confirm anything about the revolution. "It's what Seifer's doing, ya know?" was the most that could be gotten out of Raijin; Fujin didn't offer as much as a customary single word. Squall couldn't even tell if they approved of his actions.
But when Balamb Garden, for the second time in a week, settled before the main gates of Galbadia's capital, Raijin and Fujin were outside before anyone could stop them, and when the SeeD emerged, the two stood flanking Seifer as if they had never left his side.
The Knight and his posse were the first before the gates. Behind them spread an host in formation, composed of soldiers in uniform and townsfolk in their best dress. Men, women, and children waited in silence, watching the SeeD march from the Garden. Squall lead them, with Rinoa walking at his side. Though no one cried out or broke order, he did not miss the contained reaction which rippled through the crowd, and wondered if it was for his SeeD or the Sorceress.
He looked at Seifer, standing tall with the support of all the people at his back, and had to suppress his own reaction. The blond man was the very image of the specter in his nightmare, white coat over the red cross, his chin tipped slightly upward in cool arrogance. The gunblade Hyperion was prominent, but sheathed at his side, silver glinting through the leather straps. His hands were empty, open in peace as he strode toward them.
Squall could feel Lionheart bumping against his leg, but kept his hand off its hilt, though his mind's eye flashed with visions of the blood flowing down Hyperion's blade. He saw Rinoa out of the corner of his eye, listened for the living presences of his other friends behind him. With that guaranty he also stepped forward and addressed his opposite. "Seifer."
He spoke quietly, but the name carried over the rustling wind to the motionless throng. Seifer inclined his head, not smiling. There was something new in the sky-blue eyes, not conceit, different than the madness of the death-angel. An unknown. Dangerous?
But the Garden and his SeeD were strong behind him. "Why have you done this, Seifer?" Squall demanded, calm. "What's your purpose?" Do we have a reason to fight? They always did, it seemed. From their first encounter, when both were too young to remember, they had been rivals.
Except now Seifer looked at Squall and said nothing, no challenge on his lips or in his eyes. The blue sparkled, as if in recognition of an irony, and then Seifer walked deliberately past Squall, to Rinoa.
Squall's astonished freeze lasted less than a second. He whirled, his hand dropping to Lionheart's hilt, but by then it was too late to stop him.
Seifer had knelt on one knee before Rinoa, his palms flat to the ground and his head bowed until his forehead almost touched his bent knee. "My lady Sorceress," he said, and though he didn't speak loudly every watcher could hear. "In your name, your Knight has taken this nation. Do with this country and this people as you will. We are yours."
One of Rinoa's hands went up to her mouth, the knuckle pressed to her lips. The other fluttered nervously at her side for a moment, then reached down to Seifer's shoulder. "Please," she whispered, "don't bow!"
He looked up to gaze into her face. "It's an honor all Knights owe the Sorceress," and he twisted his head around to shoot Squall an admonishing look that needed no interpretation.
"Oh, come on," Rinoa hissed, sounding much less flustered, "stop being an idiot and get up!"
"As you wish," Seifer told her, but there was an acerbic edge to his tone that was more his regular self. Rising to his feet, he added, low enough that only Rinoa and Squall could pick it up, "At least some of us know a proper Knight's decorum." And the SeeD commander, oddly, found the insulting mutter almost comforting to hear.
When he was fully erect, Rinoa extended her hand again. Seifer took it, hesitated a bare instant as if contemplating kissing it as Knights did in the classics. Instead, at her warning look, he shook firmly. The Sorceress raised her voice. "Thank you," she said, to Seifer and those behind him. "I and the SeeD promise to serve you as best--"
Then she was drowned out by the great cheer which arose from the throat of every watcher. Solemnity irrevocably shattered, they shouted, laughed, and threw hats high into the air as they parted to conduct their new leaders into the city.
* * *
Much later that night, the Sorceress and her entourage found themselves ensconced in the smaller chamber adjacent to the public council hall, looking back upon the events of the day with some bewilderment. "I don't believe they wanted another Sorceress in charge," Rinoa was finally able to say.
Quistis shook her head. "I don't believe they let a Knight be in charge."
Seifer gave a smug smirk. "You underestimate the clout of history."
"Please," Selphie groaned. "It's too late to talk like that!"
"Too many syllables for you, Tilmitt?"
"You better watch it--" Irvine and Zell warned simultaneously.
Fujin and Raijin both pushed back their chairs threateningly. Squall sighed. "We're all on the same side. Can this wait?"
Seifer waved his posse back. "What I was saying is that the people in Galbadia--and elsewhere, too--still think the whole idea of the Sorceress means something. Even if Ultimecia screwed up. They see the old movies and read the old books, and they want the old dream back. A piece of it, anyway."
"And you capitalized on that."
Seifer shrugged. "It was my dream, too, right? At least I had the guts to go after it. People respect that. Besides, it was already in Galbadia, the wish for revolution, even the organization for it. All they needed was a spark to set it off." He smiled briefly, a quicksilver grin, there and gone. "I always could make sparks fly."
"But why me?" Rinoa asked. "I know, I'm the Sorceress. But...I'm not that well known, and I've never ruled anything."
"You're Galbadian born and bred, the daughter of one of the most respected men in the nation--and everyone still recognizes your mom's name, too. Plus you're with the SeeD--people trust the SeeD. They think you saved the world and all. So they're all right with the idea of you ruling them. Even if you don't know anything about actually running a country." Seifer snorted. "In other words, people are idiots."
"That's what you get for following dreams," Zell muttered.
Seifer smirked at him with bloodless malice, but gestured for Raijin and Fujin to stay put, and forebear to reply. Instead he leaned back in his chair, propping his boots against the table's edge as he told Rinoa, "So Galbadia's yours, and you can do what you want with it. Though the council's not all broken up, and I'd put somebody who knows what they're doing in charge fast before things get totally out of hand."
"You?" Quistis inquired, one brow arched.
Seifer shrugged again. "Maybe, maybe not." He sobered for an instant, straightening to face Rinoa. "I told Squall before, I'm the Sorceress's Knight. Now and always."
The young Sorceress's gaze shifted between him and Squall, observed no challenge from either. At last she nodded seriously to both her Knights.
Accepting that wordless acknowledgment for what it was, Seifer rocked his chair back again. "I've got some suggestions, if you want to hear 'em."
"I would," Rinoa said. "And I have ideas of my own. If you're willing to help me work things out..."
"We're all willing," Squall said, before anyone else could open their mouths. And was slightly annoyed by the glance Seifer aimed his way--not anger, but approval.
But Rinoa smiled at him gratefully. "Thank you," she said. "Now, about this leader thing, we need a new President, and I know who's perfect for the job..."
* * *
So it was that a week later, on the same balcony where little more than a year before the Sorceress Edea had assumed her brief reign, a new President was sworn in to lead Galbadia. And if the people had cheered loudly for the Sorceress and the SeeD, their shouts of celebration could have shook the planet when General Caraway took the final oath of office.
"This is only temporary," he assured the people in his following address, swiftly absolving his only major objection to his daughter's offer. "I have been duly appointed by the council to guide us in the beginning of our reconstruction, but one of our first priorities is to hold a true election, where you, the people, can decide who you want to rule."
"Somehow I don't think there's gonna be much contest," Irvine remarked to his friends, watching from their select seating on the balcony as the enthusiastic masses below went insane with applause. "I know where our ballots are going, right, oh Sorceress of ours?"
"I think Dad is the best thing for this country," Rinoa said sincerely. "I don't always get along with him, but I know he's honest, and strong, and smart--"
"And popular!" Selphie exclaimed, bouncing in her chair. "I wish I could vote!"
"Become a Galbadian citizen," Irvine told her.
"Hmm, and the easiest way to do that would be to find a Galbadian man to marry--"
"Shh, we gotta watch, this is important!" Zell interrupted.
General--now President--Caraway had finished his speech with a vow to fight for peace with all the effort he had once put toward war, and was ushering forth a middle-aged man and a woman. Behind them, at attention but fidgeting, stood Zone and Watt, looking uncomfortable in neatly pressed suits. Watt kept reaching up to doff the cap he wasn't wearing.
"It is my pleasure to welcome these representatives of Timber," Caraway said. "Lady Mayor, my lord." He nodded to them; they bowed in return, then he took the lady's hand and brought her to the balcony's edge. "As my first act as President," he proclaimed, "I declare the state of Timber, once of Galbadian sovereignty, to be a free and independent nation, with no ties to Galbadia except those fully endorsed by the independent government of Timber."
The subsequent applause was so deafening that speech was impossible for several minutes. When it began to subside, Rinoa leaned over and murmured to Squall, "Your contract is done."
"Your contract," she repeated. "I hired you until the Timber Owls' mission succeeded. Their dream just came true. Timber's free. You're no longer my employees."
"...The Timber Owls have been defunct for a while," Squall said, wondering at the joke, when her eyes looked so serious.
Before he could comment on this, Zell whispered to him urgently, "Psst, Squall, Cid says pass this on to Rinoa." And he pushed a folded piece of paper into his commander's palm.
Obediently Squall handed the packet to Rinoa. With a puzzled frown she opened it, studied it for an instant. Then her eyes widened and her whole face brightened, like the sun coming out from clouds. "Look!" she gasped, and thrust the paper back at Squall.
He read it. The note, in Cid's neat printing, was short and to the point. "Rinoa: The ceremony will be this evening, but we thought you would appreciate due warning. You have passed with highest honors. Congratulations!" Beneath was the headmaster's scrawled signature and Edea's more elegant autograph. Pinned to the paper below that was a small enameled button. The SeeD emblem.
Squall leaned forward to peer down the rows and spot Cid, seated by Edea by the wall. The headmaster winked at him and gave a covert sign of victory with two fingers.
He looked back to Rinoa, who had reclaimed the paper and was staring at it as if afraid it would vanish, or she might wake up. "It's real," he told her. "You're a SeeD now."
He spoke loudly enough that the row heard in a momentary lull. Their friends' cheers were swallowed by the equally thrilled roar from the crowd below, but he had his arms around Rinoa, and with her mouth so close to his ear Squall heard her say, "It must be real--this is better than any dream!"