A.N.: FAnd another chapter bites the dust. This was going to be longer but I decided to post it as two chapters, not because of the length (nothing could be longer than chapter 16 anyway) but because I think I'll be a while getting to the place I wanted to be, and that'd mean you guys waiting for anything up to another week for another update. So you get a nice short bit of Laguna and Elle trying to scream at each other without raising their voices. Fun...
Thank you, all you reviewers lurking out there in the depths of cyberspace. Jamaica, some of Squall's psychological problems come from the fact that he thought all his attackers had been killed by the Estharian army and it was kind of a shock learning that two (Capanni and Lamond) actually got out alive. So most of them already got their just deserts. That's not to say that he won't try and mount a vengeance trip on those two. And as for chopping up the Weapon and the other EIC traitors, you'll have to wait and see... Leannan, by coincidence I am writing an original novel - I finished the first draft a while ago and I'm now working on its first full edit, which is going to feel more like a complete rewrite because the whole book is 350,000 words long (not a misprint, believe me) and therefore needs chopping up, but the plot unfolds so slowly at first that I need to change the dynamic of what will be volume 1 of 4 in order for something big and meaningful to happen... and Persephone gets a permanent headache as a result, not least because the leading antiheroine is constantly bouncing up and down in my head (literally) demanding to be written about when I'm trying to finish Darkened Sunrise at the same time. Grr. You now know who to blame when I can't get my chapters out - someone else's saga is getting in the way. There will be at least five more chapters of DS after this, BTW.
DISCLAIMER: Squaresoft's characters and setting; Persephone's story. Please ask first if you want to archive (please!).
Chapter Twenty-Two - The Child With the Mirror
That alarm clock was ringing way too loud. He should have tested the awful thing before he ever bought it. Laguna reached out without looking to push the clock onto the floor; failing to reach it he turned over and pulled the pillow over his head and tried to shut out the morning.
Ellone stirred. Laguna felt the bed shift as she half-sat up. If you say a thing, woman, you are seriously going to regret it, I don't care what time it is, I'm not moving -
"Fuck!" Elle exploded and shook Laguna's shoulder. She didn't need to. The completely alien sound of his wife swearing had already jolted him out of his doze. "Laguna - get up. Emergency."
He concentrated. Now he could recognise the sound of the attack alarm, could tell it apart from the clock. He pushed aside the pillow and the bedcovers and started staggering over to the wardrobe still half-asleep, wondering what the hell was going on.
Elle was thinking way ahead of him, as usual. Before Laguna could even voice a question she turned on the vox channel of the internal vid-phone. "Get me Security, please - thanks. What's happening? What? OK, I'll pass it on to Laguna. Give him a moment." She held down the secrecy button and turned to him. Her face was white and she was nibbling at her lower lip. "The Weapon's been sighted just outside the city. We're under lock-down. They think even if it gets through the army it might not break into the bunkers - Laguna? What are you thinking?"
"I'm trying to remember how many troops we've got on standby. And I'm trying to work out how many commanders we've got here." Yes, there was a time to be scared, a time to panic and to hide, but that time was not now, when there were way too few people to lead the defenders on the walls. He pushed the fiery core of fear down inside him as far as he could, and tried to think like Squall. Squall, who had led battles far more recently than he had - who would surely help to take command, either of the troops or of the civilian evacuation. But then he looked back at Ellone and his control snapped. She was standing there half out of her nightdress, hands on her hips, giving him that oh-so-furious glare that Raine had thrown at him when he'd first announced that he was going to run off after a much younger Elle into Esthar. The glare that only barely covered an inner terror.
"Laguna Loire," she said in what would have been an icy tone if her voice hadn't been shaking so much, "you are forty-nine years old, nowhere near fit, the father of a two-year-old, and the most crucial person for guiding Esthar's long-term civil future. You are not going anywhere near that front line -"
"There aren't enough people!" he protested. "There's an army out there but it needs a leader -"
"You have generals -"
"Not enough -"
There were tears standing in her eyes now. "The SeeDs would do better running up and down that barricade than you, and you know it."
"It's my city. I help defend it."
Elle opened her mouth to say something else, probably something she would regret, but closed it again when the sound of crying floated through the wall over the noise of the city alarm. She threw Laguna her best imitation of Squall's death glare before dashing off towards the nursery. Laguna muttered a curse at Elle's stubbornness, pulled on yesterday's trousers and ran for the vid-phone before he'd finished dressing.
He turned off the mute. "Anyone down there?"
"President Loire? The First and Third Armies are moving in to engage the Weapon, with Fourth as backup. Commander Leonhart has told us what to expect and has suggested suitable tactics. But we're having some trouble with our lines of communication, and the cause has not been located -"
"Who's on it?"
"EIC and the Third's signallers."
"Great. What else is wrong?"
"Not all the defence systems are operational. We need your authorisation for a city-wide evacuation."
The bunkers below the sewers. The bunkers he'd been under so much pressure to scrap, but that he had brought back from abandonment after the failure of the defence fields during the Lunar Cry. He'd even had his personal guard flush out the dens that had built up down there; hell, he'd even made Squall take a turn at keeping the place tidy. Just in case there was some other massive emergency...
"Sound the sirens. Soon as the Sixth are out of bed, get half of them to cover the withdrawal, keep the other half in reserve. Has someone called the Second and Fifth - and other countries' armies?"
"Yes. But they'll not - I see what you mean."
It was good that he hadn't had to say it. It was so good that he'd not been forced to say aloud that the other troops were to be alerted in case the Weapon destroyed all the city defence forces, in case it flattened the city and settled down to feast in the remains. Someone would have to come and kill it when it was sluggish, when it was sated, before it got hungry again and fought its way down into the bunkers, to the people and Elle and Storm.
As if his thoughts had summoned her, Ellone stuck her head round the door. She still looked cross but at least half her attention was off Laguna and on the bundle of small boy in her arms. Laguna kept his eyes on her as he said to the Chief of Internal Security, "I'll be down in a few minutes. If Squall's still there hold him for me. I want to throw a few ideas at him myself. Meanwhile - keep a look out for anything magical. I know they're nasty that way. And call my mobile if anything happens."
"Sir." The line went dead. Seconds later the omnipresent wailing shifted pitch to the steady rise-fall sound that the citizens of Esthar hadn't heard in years, the warning to evacuate at all costs.
Laguna was left looking at Elle.
She sniffed. "I suppose you haven't thought as far as what Esthar'll do if you die, or me for that matter. Well, if you want to do something really useful, hold Storm while I dress."
He couldn't feel hurt now. Couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't. But as he took his younger son from the boy's mother he said, "If I die in this, Esthar'll be in so much trouble it'll be incidental. Believe it."
She stopped halfway through straightening her gown. "And me?"
He couldn't answer that. He stood and watched as Elle packed a couple of photo packets, a change of underwear, a book and the small box containing her few jewels into her handbag, and he pretended not to notice she was deliberately keeping her face averted from him. He just stood there and tried to tuck his shirt in and soothe Storm at the same time. But when she'd finished and just stood there, staring out of the window at the mass of people starting to flock into the underground shelters, he shifted Storm into the crook of one arm and went over to her.
"Elle?" She didn't answer. "Look, if I know my bodyguards, they won't let me too close to the front line and I'll be packed off downstairs before the thing gets into strike range. I'll be OK."
"You say that now. You always -"
"I always make it through these things." He smiled, though the expression felt twisted on his face. "Squall says I'm cursed with far too much good fortune."
"Too much - damn that boy -" Elle broke off and turned round and buried her face in Laguna's chest. Her eyes were wet but she was trying not to show it so he didn't mention it. "We'll be in the main bunker under the Palace, in your cubicle." She stopped talking like she was going to cry harder any second. Laguna braced himself and peeked down at her. Now, there was something he hadn't expected. She was looking all calculating like she'd had a brilliant idea.
"What's up, love?"
"I could help too. Even from downstairs, I could keep an eye on what's going on, and if the army's radios all break I can get news of what's happening back to HQ far more quickly than anyone else. For all I know I might be able to confuse it enough to not get too close to the city, too."
She was right. Bless her, she was so clever. "We'll do that. Call me the second you get down there. I'll ask Squall if he's got any ideas how you could hurt it."
"You do that." She smiled through her tears and took Storm back. "Come on, lovely, we're going on an adventure. Let's go choose which toys to take with us."
"Griever," Storm said with certainty. "And - and Duplo basket. And -"
"How about we look in the toybox?" Storm nodded happily. Elle swept out.
"Please be OK," Laguna whispered, before buttoning up the rest of his shirt and picking up his machine gun. There wouldn't be much time to get the army into position to take on the Weapon and he couldn't think about it before he knew exactly what they had down there and exactly which way the thing was coming and all. But he couldn't help wondering if there was enough firepower in the whole world to stop Eternity Weapon's charge. Not when there was nowhere to herd it, nowhere to trap it, nowhere to gain a terrain advantage when they were in the middle of a fucking great desert. A very flat, featureless desert.
Featureless, that was, except for the city of Esthar...
Could that work? Might they be able to trap the Weapon in an odd bit of the city's defence field, get it somewhere it could be bombed safely? But if the fields weren't working exactly right they'd lose a whole district full of buildings. If the bunkers' defences weren't working right, they'd lose a whole district full of people too.
Laguna shook his head and hurried. Battlefields chock-full of civilians, even if they were staying out of the way, were horrid things to deal with. He'd done some of the same in the past, harrying Adel in her palace while trying to avoid hurting a single one of her subjects. Even if it was too risky a proposal to suggest immediately, it would do for a back-up plan, in case the First Army couldn't even slow the Weapon down before being destroyed and in case the Fourth and Third were decimated giving assistance.
In case the seventy thousand soldiers of the First Army all died before achieving anything whatsoever.
Now I remember why I hate being in charge...
(to be continued...)
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