Squall thought it was the lack of people that made the shift so frightening, the change into that other world devoid of life and movement. He remembered too well staggering through that barren, endless void after Ultimecia's defeat, realizing that he might be defeated by no enemy at all, forcing his eyes to focus on the horizon line even though it hurt, there was so little change between earth and sky. He thought it was the worst, to be alone, but he was wrong.
The room was full of wax figures, Zell leaning against the wall in an uncommonly thoughtful pose, Quistis poised with one arm half-raised, her skin seemingly waxen and no light in her eyes. Dead. All dead, because it had happened here, because he had been here and it was his fault.
Squall let out something that would have been a cry had he not been so panicked, taking a step back only to remember who was behind him, bumping into the curve of a leg, and he remembered who it belonged to. Seifer. He could not look, could not turn, the same Squall Leonhart who could meet any battle without flinching, accept losses and harsh orders and all that came with being a SeeD without blinking, but this was worse, and wrong, so terribly wrong. All the nightmares he'd never been able to understand, all those childhood terrors fading mercifully as he ran to Matron and buried himself in her arms. So many years ago, and he'd never thought to ask what might happen, if he grew up but the monsters didn't disappear.
"You thought you could stop me."
The voice was nearly unrecognizable, thick with disgust, but he knew, of course he knew, there was only one person who would be here, now.
Rinoa was staring at Ellone, just as blank-eyed and frozen as the rest of them. So much for his big sister's salvation, that she would come to his rescue. He begged anyway.
//Help me, please. Anyone, please.//
It made the sorceress turn. He flinched, didn't want to feel the sickening rush of helplessness and need and disgust but there it was again. Maybe he hadn't been her knight, not enough to take him when she had first risen, but perhaps being locked in time had changed Rinoa's perspective, made her more patient. If she had forever to wear him down, he was without hope.
"My powers have come back to me. Not enough to do it all myself, not quite yet. And why should I take the privilege away from you?"
She reached out anyway, her fingers tracing a line along the side of Ellone's neck, leaving a line of slowly trickling blood in their wake.
"Is she prettier than me? Is that why you love her more?"
Raven feathers trailed from the edges of Rinoa's dress as if she were bleeding darkness, shadows that murmured and rustled in his ears. Her hair had changed, swept under a glittering veil of beads that dropped to a teardrop point against her forehead, a false widow's peak. Drained of all color but snow and darkness, and she was still his Rinoa, he knew better and was nothing but weakness against her.
"N-no. No, I love you. I love you, Rinoa."
Her smile cracked across her face, brittle and terrifying, and he realized he had put himself in front of Seifer, keeping the defenseless figure out of her line of sight but that was no protection, none at all.
"My little summer love. He still looks fine. You both look so fine." A soft chuckle. "Should I be angry, that you ended up together? My former and my always - so what does that say about me?"
"Please... don't. Please. I love you. I always have. I do, I love you."
Squall tried to tell himself it was a lie, just a ploy to keep her happy and the desperate, needy edge in his voice wasn't real. He wanted to be the person they all thought he was, that even Seifer thought he was, or at least the Seifer he'd known before... this man must have realized by now he wasn't sure of a damn thing in this world. The stiff, silent act was only an act. Squall knew he didn't crumble in emergencies because he was brave but just because, nothing more. It didn't mean anything more, and this was too much to bear. His breath rattled badly in his throat, when she stepped closer.
"I'm going to make us a beautiful world. Just you and me, and you will be my knight, and you will be the strongest, and we will be happy. Just you and I."
"... and five minutes after that?"
He didn't mean to say it aloud, one of the only things that had run through his head so long ago, as they had made their way through time compressed space. That Ultimecia could very well win this fight, compress time and theoretically make herself the only creature in existence - but then what? If time stopped, he supposed he was missing the point, but still...
It wasn't a question she wanted to hear, that much was obvious. Squall swallowed hard at the fury hardening under the too-still face, only to reel in shock as Rinoa blinked suddenly, put a hand to her head, staring at the backs of her dark-tipped nails - and looked at him.
Looked at him with her own eyes.
"Squall?" She took a quick step back when he reached out, shaking her head sharply. "No, no... she's weak, it's taking her everything she has just to fight Ellone. Fight... what am I..." Head bowed, her eyes swept the room, finally fixing on his face, tracing wrinkles she didn't remember, a face she did not know so well. "It's been a long, long time... hasn't it."
She giggled, he saw her shoulders shake, heard the soft whispering laugh, and sweet brown eyes glistened with the lightest sprinkling of tears as she gently shook her head.
"I did this all to myself, didn't I? I didn't even try to be strong..."
"Rinoa, no-" Squall took a step forward, the need to touch her a raw and surging force beneath his skin. Already too late, he saw the horrible 'other' spilling down into her eyes, hiding her behind a mask of mad identity, not her own. Two of them, for a moment, both wearing her face.
Lips curved in a vicious smile. "If I hadn't been there to shield her, she would have gone mad. Trapped all alone in time... but you know what that's like, don't you?
Lips whispered his name gently, urgently - "Run, Squall. Run /now/."
He needed no more urging, turned toward the door so fast his shoes squeaked against the floor, and he was out in the hallway and running, running, it didn't matter where.
//You left them back there.//
He couldn't do anything for them anyway, not if he had stood his ground, not if he had been able to stand against her. He was as useless to his friends as he always feared he would be.
//You left them to die.// Rinoa, slitting their throats one by one, maybe letting her hands linger a little, hurting Seifer as much as she could before dealing the final blow. Maybe they would feel it, the life seeping out of them in the tiniest of increments, in that infinite moment in time.
No. No, Rinoa would follow him. He was the important one, and the further he was away the safer they would all be. Rinoa would come after him - and Squall shuddered at the thought, hands pumping through the air as he sprinted down the hallway, never letting his eyes linger for more than a heartbeat on the figures scattered here and there around him, frozen statues of cadets and SeeD that he passed and what if he was here forever - always the greatest fear, always so close to coming true - here forever, and they never woke up?
Outside, would it be safer outside? Safer anywhere? Squall slammed hard against the emergency door at the end of a hallway, sucking in the cooler air, just as static and silent here as anywhere, deathly still.
He fell hard to his knees, crashing into the dirt just outside the door as a blinding flash of pain took both sight and balance away, searing through his mind and leaving a white haze where his vision should have been. It was over as soon as it started, and Squall shuddered against the ground, propped on his elbows panting into the dust, trying to blink back into sight the image of the fractured bits of pavement he could feel beneath his hands.
He heard the growl before he could see much more than faint outlines in the darkness, and the familiar weight of his gunblade was not in his hand, not anywhere to be found. It was back in the other room - a lifetime of never letting it out of sight and /now/... oh Hyne, he was fucked.
Squall lurched to his feet, any joy at watching the world blur back into view quickly amputated by what there was to stare at.
The creature was massive, glowing with a pale white light, three heads with long, pointed snouts snarling and gnashing at him, the air behind it alive with movement, a sea of long, lashing tails. Standing close enough to him that he could see each of its long claws digging up the soil. The fox-like beast reminded him of Cerberus, too big and too powerful to be real.
//Not a monster. Not just a monster.// It was a Guardian Force. An unjunctioned, untamed...
The creature growled, all three heads bearing rows of impressively sharp teeth, and Squall saw its shoulders rise, just slightly, preparing to pounce. The only thing he could do was try to get back through the door, but he couldn't imagine making it before those long incisors sank through his arm or his throat or both.
A leaf fluttered to the ground between them. In his panic it didn't register at all, not until the creature lunged and Squall tried to grab for the door, already knowing it would be too late - and a gunshot cracked in the air.
The creature's blood was like silver, spraying out in a wide blast from the shoulder, and Squall watched a second and third shot follow nearly in tandem, perfectly aimed. It wasn't enough, but in between breaths he felt a soundless thud reverberate in the air, the creature kept from attacking him long enough to call a Guardian Force. Easily recognizable, which one it was, when he'd stood close enough to a summoning Zell so many times, that the hairs on his arms stood on end, just like now.
Quetzacoatal, rising up with a scream and a storm of lightning that seemed to crackle everywhere. Squall threw up an arm to protect himself from the brilliant heat and light. The unjunctioned Force howled back its own roar, the wind filling with transparent shards thrown forward like bullets, the colorful wings stretching back as the massive bird screeched in pain.
The second bolt of electricity blinded Squall even with his arm raised to block. He was blinking away the negative-color spots just in time to see Quetzacoatal disappear with a screech of victory, and the fox-creature falling with a final, thin groan to the earth. He could see his rescuers now, two of them, which would explain the frequency of the bullets.
He could feel the wind again, there was birdsong... voices. Everything had returned to normal, and Rinoa was gone. Squall leaned his head against the Garden wall, let his body sag in relief and refused to think about the silvery pool of blood growing larger in the courtyard in front of him.
A voice yelled his name, somewhat familiar but not nearly important enough to make him open his eyes. Much closer, he heard footsteps, and a shadow appeared in front of him, blocking out the sun.
"You all right, sir? Sir? Headmaster? Uncle Squall?!"
Squall pried his eyes open for that, catching a quick glimpse of someone standing over the body of the beast, prodding it carefully with the toe of his boot. Irvine, he could see that near instantly. Out of all of them, Squall could see the least change in him. A few more wrinkles here and there, perhaps...
So who was the twin standing over him? Same overall look, long coat, the hat... the gun looked different than anything he'd seen Irvine carry, though, thinner and lighter - and Irvine never wore his hair this loose, falling down around his shoulders in dark waves.
Irvine never wore that shade of lipstick, either.
//... not a he.//
Squall blinked stupidly as the girl grinned, and put a hand on his shoulder, giving him a quick glance from head to toe, checking him over before turning back to nod to...
//Uncle. If I'm... then this is Irvine's...//
It was stupid, that he hadn't actually asked about children. Quistis and Xu didn't have any, the entire Garden serving as their extended family, but Zell had his library girl, so no doubt there was a little Zell or two running around somewhere...
"Wow, they were right. You really don't remember me, do you, uncle Squall?"
//Uncle Squall.// He leaned back against the wall again, closing his eyes and letting the words roll over in his mind, listening to the shouts and pounding footsteps, Seifer and the others just a few steps from the door, soon to reach him. Once more, being rescued from himself.
Squall had never been so happy to be motionless in his life, even if it was becoming rather routine. Once more, he was propped up against Seifer, the other man carefully wiping the dirt out of the scratches on his hands. A cadet had already been flagged down for a Cura, which Squall thought was certainly overkill. When he made to protest, though, Seifer had given him a glare that some part of him must have remembered, the words he'd lined up tumbling apart against the man's angry gaze.
"How's that feel?"
"Fine. I'm fine."
He could even keep his voice steady, because they were talking about simple things here, and the ache in his hands was nothing compared to the rest of it. Squall glanced over, Quistis and Xu speaking with Irvine, the girl - Jayne, Irvine and Selphie's daughter, standing nearby with her father's same controlled slouch, but her mother's grin when she noticed his eyes on her. Squall made the mistake of looking at Ellone after that, at the angry, red line against her neck. Her fingertips brushed it even when she wasn't thinking about it, he would ask Seifer to give the Cura to her, instead, needing the peace of mind more than a salve for his minor wounds.
He tipped his eyes back up, as Seifer finished with his hands. His touch no longer felt as awkward as it once did, or, Squall thought, he was still shaken enough to accept comfort anywhere he could get it.
"I'm glad you're here with me."
He knew Seifer would take it for more than it was worth, but maybe it meant more than it was worth. As if he was the best judge of anything anymore, especially himself.
"Did she hurt you?"
Squall swallowed, though it made the question no easier to answer. He couldn't answer - no scars, no marks but Hyne, yes. Yes, she had hurt him so badly he was still feeling his way through it. He couldn't imagine what recovering from this might feel like.
"The monster... it was a Guardian Force, wasn't it?" Squall remembered the pain, the treacherous weakness in his limbs that was the major part of what kept him here now. "It was my fault, wasn't it? It got here... through me..."
Seifer wished he hadn't made that connection, Squall could see it in his eyes.
"It was Rinoa's fault. You didn't have any control over it."
... and Seifer would believe that then and now and forever, until Squall had run him through with his gunblade on the Sorceress' order, and he lay dying, likely forgiving Squall with his final breath. The image of those proud, moody eyes going glassy and vacant was all too clear in his mind, and Squall flinched, bringing a hand up over his face. The next thought he had was no better.
"I saw her, Seifer." He kept his hand over his eyes because it was easier than looking up. "Rinoa, not that Sorceress, just for a moment. It was Rinoa, she's been... she's been in there, all this time."
Quistis was smiling too gently, too kindly at him when he looked over at her. He tried to lever himself up into a sitting position, but the headache he thought had vanished with the Guardian Force quickly made itself known when he moved. Seifer seemed just fine with him where he was, the hand around his chest just a little too tense to be completely casual.
"Is everyone all right?"
Quistis nodded. "Everyone's fine. It appears the creature was contained before it could do any serious damage."
Squall glanced over at his 'rescuers,' though it still took him a moment to differentiate between father and daughter.
//She's taller than he is.// "So where's Selphie?"
"/Headmaster/ Selphie was a little busy in Trabia," Zell grinned, "something about a rebellion to put down nearby, /and/ a party to plan."
"Yeah," Zell chuckled. "It doesn't really get easier, no matter how long you think about it."
"That /is/ my wife you're talking about, chicken head." Irvine muttered, but he was grinning too.
Selphie the head of Trabia Garden, and it was only /now/ that the world was in danger? Squall blinked quietly. Really, who'd have thought...
"So, can you do anything?" He hated looking at Ellone, but he had to, and his eyes took in the angry mark Rinoa had left - and maybe his Rinoa wasn't so forgiving either, maybe there was a part of her - to be trapped in time, trapped in that void... it would not make her merciful, even if she was able to stay sane. "Can you seal it?"
Ellone's mouth tightened, giving him his answer before she ever said a word.
"It would be too dangerous. The strain already, on your mind... you could be wounded badly. You could end up without a mind at all."
"So we'll save it for a last resort."
Squall could hear the muffled protest in the room, words clipped off at the nub, a sharp intake of breath here and there. He didn't look up, already certain Seifer would be glaring down at him. It wasn't the time for kindness, though, or pretending that any solution might be too drastic, when they were, at the moment, completely without weapons against a very powerful Sorceress.
//Rinoa's in there, somewhere. I can't kill, not if she's... I couldn't do it before, and now...//
"So this bitch is bad news, hm?" Jayne was perched on the sofa, grimaced a little, arms nearly disappearing in the folds of her long jacket as Irvine frowned. "Sorry, Uncle Squall, but she did kind of throw a GF at me... and, I mean, even if your wife is in there... I mean, we still might have to..."
She trailed off, but even the awkward question held a steel edge, the unquestioning duty of a SeeD. When had he lost that? Squall knew it wasn't just age and confusion that kept him here, letting them make all the difficult decisions.
//You would have killed her once, Rinoa or not. You would have done it because it needed to be done.//
He'd lived through the consequences of that decisiveness, though. Sitting by helplessly, wondering if Rinoa would ever wake and feeling nothing but powerless, even if he could make the hard choices.
//You're risking Seifer's life, you know. What if you have to choose? She'll make you choose, maybe even Rinoa would - will it come down to that?//
He tried to tell himself it was just politeness, knowing it wasn't fair to simply drop Seifer because...
Squall tried to tell himself it was only that politeness, but that hadn't lasted long past the first few days. His memory was still shot, but his body knew, reminding him every time Seifer touched him - right now, with one thumb stroking the curve of Squall's neck - and no matter how simple or innocent...
"... the hell is going on out there?"
Seifer frowned, and Squall levered himself onto one elbow, ignoring the throb of pain in his temples as he listened to voices from outside, quickly getting louder as they approached the room. Xu was glowering, doing her best to keep up with the man who walked into the room, stopping as soon as he saw Squall. He looked vaguely familiar, dressed in an outfit that draped too elegantly for even most of the dress uniforms Squall had seen, most of the fabric a spotless white. Dressed to stand out - though ironically trained to hide.
//White SeeD. So they still exist... which means, they've heard about Rinoa.//
It was of no small note, the way Quistis quietly put herself between Squall and this new intruder, Xu at her side, Zell and Irvine quietly sizing up the situation from opposite ends of the room. Jayne looked confused, which supported his 'hiding' hypothesis, that the White SeeD had not become more sociable over the years. Seifer seemed very calm, in the way that meant he was three seconds away from lunging for the man's throat.
"Can I help you?" Quistis' voice was toneless, impersonal, and yet somehow quite threatening. The man didn't blink twice, still staring at Squall over her shoulder.
"I have come to inform you, that by order of the Esthari government, we are here to take custody of Headmaster Leonhart."
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