Squall woke up, and it took him only one cold, heavy breath to know exactly where he was.
He could hear a storm raging outside, barely a sigh through thick, thick stone and the silence of so much air. A space for nightmares, the corridor stretching out high and long and empty, except for the throne, the Knight, and his Sorceress.
Fingers dipped down to caress his hair, her knee shifting slightly where his head lay against it. He was still drenched to the bone, but Rinoa didn’t seem to notice, or care.
It is the height of her power. It has always been the height of her power, she has ruled over this land and everyone on it for a thousand years. Mothers tuck their children into bed at night and raise their eyes skyward, just for a moment, looking toward her. It is a prayer in reverse, thinking of her and what she might do, and their last waking movement is always a shudder. She haunts their dreams.
Bodies hang outside her castle walls, some dead, some moaning, most too weak to do much after the first few days. The real sound comes down from below, the cries of mothers and fathers and kin and lovers, all begging and screaming and pleading for her mercy from the moment she steps out on the terrace to greet the dawn.
“It was beautiful”, the Sorceress murmured, fingers continuing to slip through his hair, with the affection a mistress might have for her favorite dog.
“Knights ask for service, never equality.” The voice bestowed a cold death, body at the bottom of a sea no one had named, a place no one would ever go.
He was shaking, cold and fear, and prayed she didn’t notice, nodding so that she would know he understood. It took all his strength not to move, or flinch away. Squall wondered, very quietly, what kind of fear Seifer had tasted when he had been at Edea’s side.
A roar rumbled above, in the shadows. It was not the storm.
She does not remember the crimes for which they were convicted, or if there were any crimes. Occasionally, she sets one free, not so much for the cries of glory and worship as that the screams of the others are so much louder, pleading for the same. Her kindnesses do not come often but they do come and that keeps them always at her feet, screeching like gulls. Occasionally she pulls a body up with a sudden impulse and a tightening of magic, dragging flesh across the barbs and peaks of the outer wall until whatever is left falls to the ground, a heap of shredded meat.
The screams that rise then are the sweetest of all.
“We are all like that, you know. All of us, underneath. No matter what you would like us to be.” Rinoa smiled, quite satisfied. “We are queens and masters, Hyne’s own daughters. Compared to us you will always be nothing.”
His sword was somewhere nearby, but he didn’t dare think on it, let alone turn his head to look for it. As if he could raise it against her.
//I’m so sorry. Everyone.//
He should have killed himself, while he still had the chance.
The mistake was unexpected, unforeseen when she had known what would happen, sent forth and killed her sisters in their cradles, before they would ever dare to touch upon her power. But the boy who slid across her wall that day had a sister, and that sister had been a sorceress and nothing had mattered - brother, love, mine - not all the power or the glory she could have taken, not a second throne or even her own life.
The sorceress took up a sword to avenge that fallen brother-knight, and they had fought and died together, twined amidst crumbling rock and blood and the sun too bright, burning at eyes grown accustomed to the shadows. Even now she is there, in the darkness behind the Sorceress’ eyes and the air in every breath, voice forever whispering in her ear - brother, love, mine. A reminder of what was stolen. Obsession and hatred so fierce, it does not stop, not ever, but she bears it with the silent grace of the queen she is.
Rinoa’s hand had tightened on Squall’s hair in the rage of that memory. He didn’t move, didn’t cry out even though he could feel the warm trickles of blood running down his face, her fingernails carving into his scalp.
The final battle happened here, in this hall, and if Squall tried he could pull the mark of it out of the darkness, a darkness on the floor that wasn’t a shadow, a charred stain on the pale perfection. Where Sorceress had met Sorceress, and neither had survived.
A soft chuckle, less than a whisper, a form he couldn’t see danced just beyond his peripheral vision. Flickering in the walls, watching, hating.
There was something else bleeding too, tears of ice weeping on the inside of his skull, pooling behind his eyes. It hurt, he would have begged her to make it stop, but knights did not beg.
If he told the Sorceress, she might tell him what was happening, and he couldn’t remember and didn’t want to know.
Her hand let go of him unexpectedly, and in the next moment she was out of the throne, kneeling down beside him but even so he didn’t dare believe. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at her, turned his face away from Rinoa’s touch. He heard her gasp, touching the now-drying blood, and her kindness stung too deep.
“Squall, it’s all right. She’s gone now, it’s just me.”
He let out some sound, unsure of what it was or whether she was angry and he didn’t care. Knew he should have, that she would hurt him, but he was aching all over anyway, entire body a dull and throbbing bruise. His leg felt as if it had splintered under the skin from the blow that had felled him.
Squall hissed, when her hand pressed against his thigh, bringing a cold and numbing wave. Sorceress power, like a grim and steady tide, and there was so much of it, so much. The pain faded, her hand tightened with another intent he could not mistake, and he flinched. She breathed in, just slightly, less than an inch from his face. He had the insane thought that after all that time in the sea, she could still smell Seifer on him.
“You don’t want to be here.” Rinoa’s eyes, not the Sorceress, but they glinted with loneliness and hate and ice anyway. The madness of the eternity he had unwittingly damned her to.
She was so beautiful, hiding pale and vengeful beneath the curtain of her hair. Squall cupped her chin in his hand, but there wasn’t much more he could give her freely. All of that, she could - would - just take, when the mood struck, and that had left him crippled past words. The tears that glittered in her eyes looked like they would cut her cheeks when they fell.
“You love him more than you love me, don’t you?”
He watched them fall, just tears. Hyne’s tears for all the oceans in the world.
“I love you both. I think you knew that a long time ago.” He loved her enough that she deserved to hear it, despite the penalty she could take from his skin. “Rinoa...”
“I broke the ship. I smashed it. He’s dead, they’re all dead.” Petulant, and Rinoa wouldn’t look at him. Too shamed by the satisfaction Squall knew he would see there.
“... you’re lying.” He had no idea, though, the words were just words. Even with the White SeeD’s help, they had been losing the fight before the creature had taken him. Who knew what had happened when he had gone beneath the sea? Squall could see her truth so easily if he closed his eyes, so he refused to.
//Is it worth fighting, does it matter? Was it ever worth fighting, if this is what came of all of it?//
He’d given it his best, he’d tried to do what was right. Seifer had really been the only one - right or wrong - to ever push the boundaries of his fate, to choose his own path... and now he was dead.
//He reached for me, didn’t he? I heard a crash, I heard... but he wasn’t on the boat, was he?//
He was too cold to notice the few tears falling, but Rinoa slid away from him with a hiss of fabric and a wounded, angry look in her eyes.
“You belong to me now. Forever. I’ll love you, no matter what.” Dark fingernails clenched as talons against the floor, and she rose with a terrible rush of shadows, divesting herself from gravity. “You’ll be happy. I’ll make you happy.”
Squall listened to her steps click against the floor, and shivered again, as they disappeared before she was halfway across the hall.
“Hey, Big Q. Haven’t had a wake-up call like this since Jayne got her hand stuck in the toilet.”
Quistis turned on her heel at the weary but still bright voice. So Selphie /had/ gotten permission to use the Ragnarok, the need for swift action overriding all the protests of those who actually knew how Selphie flew the damned thing.
She felt a welcoming smile break through her tension even before the Headmaster smiled back, walking across the Garden’s main hall to embrace her tightly. Selphie didn’t go for anything less than a bear hug, Quistis had learned that long ago. The shorter woman must have been keeping up with her nunchuku practice, the strong hug was very nearly painful.
“How’s my girl?” Selphie glanced up. “I couldn’t get a sensible word out of Irvine.”
“She’ll be fine, she’s waiting in the conference room with everyone else. Quetzacoatal took a nasty hit while she was junctioned, she just woke up a little confused.”
“Sounds like when she fell off the roof, that second time. I swear she’s got a cat’s sense of balance and timing, except when she needs it.”
Quistis shook her head with a sigh, and a slightly teasing smile.
“I’m still amazed you only have her. With all the stories I keep hearing, I would have assumed you’d have gone in for a spare.”
Selphie snorted. “With the way Irvine is /now/? God, two of them and his head would have exploded. He’s not built for that sort of pressure.” Her expression tightened, and Quistis quickly followed suit. “So, everyone’s here?”
“Galbaldia won’t show, barely bothered to contact us. The Headmaster says he’s too worried about the Sorceress attacking - though out of all of us I’d say he’s the one with the least to worry about. Shut his Garden down tight, thinks he can ride this one out alone, if he doesn’t attract her attention.” Quistis rolled her eyes. “Or he’ll be the first to try and roll over, if things turn too far in her favor.”
Accidentally blowing Galbaldia Garden off the map had seemed like a good idea far too often, when Quistis knew right where those buttons were - and how to call the Ragnarok in for a second strike if necessary.
“Who’s that, then?”
Selphie gestured to the side, two students coming up the left-hand corridor. Not Balamb, even out of official uniform she recognized most of her students - especially gunblade users. The only ones currently in their Garden who used the weapon were beginners, short little sprats still beating each other senseless with wooden training weapons.
The pair moved closer, and she finally recognized them. The Ryuubi twins, Dani and Tay, Galbaldia Garden’s shining stars.
//... and boy, don’t they /always/ know how good they are.//
Squall hadn’t even talked to anyone, didn’t care what people thought of him and he had still walked like that. Predatory and smug and cocky, and it always made her smile to see it on the young.
The girl saluted first, the boy a moment after, his arm not entirely straight, the gesture leaning just a bit toward vague insubordination, though nothing she could really call him on.
//Oh, Seifer’s going to /love/ this.//
“Did Galbaldia let you leave, or are you here on your own?”
“I hear insubordination’s been quite popular lately.”
Tay smirked, sliding his saluting had through short hair dyed an interesting shade of off-white. Quistis had expected word to spread quickly of Seifer’s unauthorized mission, though even with the consequences, she didn’t regret what she had done, and the White SeeD seemed to harbor no bitterness.
//We were going to lose him, no matter what. It was a strong first attack, stronger than we were expecting. I just hope Seifer knows that.//
Dani reached into an inner pocket, expression much more impassive than her brother’s, voice nearly toneless. “He didn’t tell you we were coming. He thought it might be a security risk.” The girl handed her a disk, with the Galbaldia insignia on it. “He placed a message for you in there, about us. We’re his contribution to the Sorceress’ mission.”
Quistis tried very hard not to roll her eyes, not needing the extra complexity of a covert operation. Galbaldia must have had a curse on it, to constantly be tied to so many problems. The current Headmaster’s paranoia and tendency to re-enact his favorite spy movies through his work was certainly more mild than outright rebellion, though, and somewhat understandable this time, given the situation.
//The Sorceress Mission. Hyne, it’s already got a name.//
“All right. The rest of the team has assembled in the conference room-”
“We know where they are, Headmaster. We just thought we should find you first.” A second salute, though a thousand of them wouldn’t make her think the boy really meant any of them. Dani’s salute was slightly more professional, though probably not any more interested. She’d seen that look on SeeD before - only the enemy mattered, no one else carried much importance.
“Carry on, then.”
Quistis watched them go for a moment, turned to see Selphie smirking, and smiled. “Damn, they never change, do they? Do you think it’s the gunblade that makes them so cocky, or do they have it before they start?”
“I would have said the first, before I remembered how Seifer was as a kid.” She folded her arms, and a little sympathy crept into her expression. “So, how is he doing?”
“Like a wet cat, not that I can blame him.”
The first sight Quistis had of him, it had been the absolute truth. Seifer had still been half-soaked, striding along ahead of the crew of White SeeD - the most disgruntled she’d ever seen those usually serene men and women. Fuujin was securely at his side, with no expression on her face, and Quistis could read through that in a second. Seifer was at the bottom of a very black rage, which meant lots of quiet and brooding and scowling and a man damn near close to being heartbroken. Ironically, Fuujin had done most of the talking since their arrival. Seifer hardly answered any questions, barely paid attention to the medics tending to wounds he probably didn’t realize he’d had.
“I’d ask if you were going to try and keep him back, but...”
“He’s already there, Selphie. He’s already scaling the walls of that tower, planning out how he’s going to do this.” Not like she wasn’t. Not like she didn’t feel she had failed, somehow, even when Ellone had made pains to say it was not her fault and she /knew/ it wasn’t her fault. “I know how he feels. Hyne only knows what’s happening, wherever Squall...”
Her mouth compressed into a thin line, and that line trembled violently. Selphie’s hand was on her shoulder at once, the same determination in her eyes that there had been through the worst of all times.
“She hasn’t won yet, don’t worry. We’ll get him back.”
Rinoa still remembered the night on Garden’s balcony, over twenty years by this time’s reckoning, and an eternity when she had been out of time. Stranded in that void and dreaming of her life while the Sorceress had waited, so patiently, for someone to open the door.
A star streaked across the sky. It was in every way a beautiful night, the sky the muted hue of a soft dream. Waves hushed to lullaby against the base of this stronghold, and a cool kiss of wind against her face. Squall should be out here with her, the way it had been then, his arm warm around her waist and her head against his steady shoulder. Squall had been so handsome, and she had been so fortunate.
//It wasn’t fortune. You never knew true fortune, or power, or pride.//
Rinoa curled a hand against the banister, molded and formed from a stone of fossils, the smooth round shapes of ancient creatures that had lost their names. The sea seemed oddly smooth past the break of the tower, moon playing bumpy roads on the water, silent and still. Before, there hadn’t just been Squall beside her, but a whole Garden full of light and music at her back. All of their friends safe and together and happy.
/It’s very lonely, this power./
The Sorceress did not know loneliness, she had never had or needed others, she had /used/ them, certainly, but there was only a sense of maintaining order, and a cold satisfaction in the use. Longing was dangerous, need was weak and useless, leading to nostalgia and self-doubt, and a thousand completely useless things.
//Wasn’t it lonely, when they looked at you like you were a child?// Even Squall had not been pleased with her, the first time they’d met, and Fuujin had always said her name like it was a joke, talking with the others when they’d thought Rinoa wasn’t around. As if it were her fault, growing up as she had, trying to do what she could but never trained as a SeeD, never trained at anything but still wanting to help. Of course it had changed, when she had become a Sorceress, but she had still seen it in their eyes, even so.
//You are so much more than any of them. The world we create will destroy any memory of Gardens, and the useless pride of SeeD.// The Sorceress’ voice purred, cold and clean through her thoughts, burning against the back of her throat. //Except for him, of course. Once the power is raised, we can even return him to the way he was. To make him a true match for you.//
Turn back the years, so that none of it had ever happened. So that Squall was always hers, had always been hers. It would be wonderful to have him here again by her side. He was frightened now, but that would change, she could make it change.
The Sorceress would, at any rate. The very last pieces of her plan were already sliding into place, only held back by her own hand, with no need to be impatient. Too many people had to be punished, first.
/It won’t hurt him, will it?/ A normal Guardian Force was bad enough, let alone this. /I won’t let you hurt him./
The Sorceress’ was a confident elder sister, a soothing caress inside her mind. /He will be your Knight, forever and always. The power we will give him will only make him stronger, more worthy of you.//
The wind shifted, and though she was a Sorceress, and nothing so simple as the world could deign to touch her, she shivered, pulling the ruff of a fur-lined cloak further over her shoulders. Eyes dropped to the trim of the lush garment that had not been there a moment before - and she smiled. So easy to change this world, and everything in it, to suit whatever she might need. Surely even Squall could see the joy in it.
//Will you allow him to do it? To serve you?//
The only thing standing in her way were those distant friends. But Rinoa only had memories of them, like lights at the far horizon, very little to think or to feel when she watched them wink out. Nameless points of light, what was it to her if they were or were not?
Not all, there was Seifer to consider - but the Sorceress’ fury at his twisting of the rules was greater than her own, now that Squall was back in her arms for good.
Seifer must have been going mad with jealousy, and Rinoa smirked at the thought.
//Ask for his heart, still beating, and he will present it to you on the flat of his blade. Seifer Almasy must die. Your knight can deny you nothing.//
The same hand that had lifted to touch her own, still pointed toward the stars, drawing her close - that hand would come back to her bathed in the blood of his friends, because of her. Squall would hate her for that, though it still turned her stomach to even imagine how he could, how he ever could have... with /Seifer/, of all...
Wrist against her mouth, she breathed in deep - Rinoa had the vague sensation she was losing something important, there was something she had tried to remember, but it kept drifting further and further away, nothing for her fingers to catch hold of.
Nothing of importance.
//He won’t hate you. You are his everything... and we both know there is no other choice.//
“God, Dad. I’m fine. Really.”
Jayne’s nose had developed a slight leak, one of the minor symptoms accompanying a GF knockout. Or at least, it would have been if Irvine wasn’t determinedly hovering over her, shaking his head with a worried frown.
The most she could get from Aunt Xu or Uncle Zell was an amused grin, they were no help at all, and the other SeeD her age were failing to hide their own smirks, or too busy staring, curious, at the White SeeD who had brought them back to the Garden. The younger sharpshooter winced as a few more people entered the room. Gunblades, aw /crap/ it was the Galbaldians. Well of course they’d come, they were the best, but this was /not/ what she needed them to see.
“Come on Dad, you’re making me look bad.” Jayne leaned back with the tissue, swiveling her chair away from him. “Jeez, it’s not like it’s anything new. Hell, this isn’t half as bad as some of the shit my friends did with their GF’s”
“You have drinking buddies, not friends.”
“Well, there is a difference, and if your father had anything but drinking buddies himself, I’m sure he’d tell you.”
“Mom?” Jayne tipped her chair back, to receive the usual one-armed stranglehold hug from her mother. It was rare to get an actual hug since she’d grown tall enough to lift the woman off the ground. Selphie preferred to grab whatever part of her daughter was in reach whenever she sat down, instead. Of course, she immediately repeated the maneuver with Irvine, nearly knocking his hat off with a burst of enthusiasm.
“Sounds like I should have come sooner.” She said softly, kissing his cheek. “I hear a few of those things attacked Esthar, tried to kill the President.”
Irvine nodded. “I wish Quistis would have told me.” He glared at his daughter but there was no real anger in it.
“It would have just been you flat on your back instead of her, and you don’t even have a GF.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.” Jayne bit at her nail because it kept her from having to look up. Half the reasons she did so many missions alone was just to avoid how much it hurt to let the team down, and this time the team had been family. “If I hadn’t... there might have been a way to... damn, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. You’ve never had to deal with a Sorceress before. A lot of bad things happen when they’re around, even if you fight against it.” Selphie’s eyes darkened, and Irvine reached up, squeezing the hand on his shoulder. Jayne knew a little of this, that Trabia Garden had suffered heavy losses when the last Sorceress had attacked it. “We did this before, and won. We’ll just have to do it again.”
“Wait a minute. You’re not... you’re not coming along, are you?”
Irvine snorted at the naked incredulity on his daughter’s face. “We did have a decent tangle with the last sorceress who tried something like this. Hell, we had to go fight her in outer space and Hyne knows where. This is nothing. Besides...”
The sharpshooter trailed off as Seifer and Fuujin entered the room. Jayne understood, watching her uncle throw himself down in the nearest chair without looking at any of them. She really loved him for that moodiness, truth be told, when her own mother and father were usually much better at keeping their tempers than she was. It was nice to see that at least one other SeeD could get frustrated, or angry, although at the moment she would have given anything to see him any other way.
Seifer’s focus was sharply inward, she doubted he was paying any attention to anyone else in the room, and answered Fuujin’s occasional questions so quietly there was no way to make out what he said.
Mom had brought a few fighters from Trabia, Jayne recognized the girl picking at the edge of one of her sai, though the name was escaping her, probably dribbling out her nose with the last few drops of blood.
Esca was the grinning blonde girl beside her - raising a hand to wave, just until Jayne waved back. Slightly ditzy, but the sharpshooter had personally seen those hands take down damn near every kind of monster she could name. Jayne was pretty sure Esca was also carrying a Guardian Force or two behind her bright eyes.
Balamb had supplied its own elites, two men she didn’t recognize - and that left the Galbaldians. Which would have been comforting without first-hand knowledge of just how much Tay rarely listened to anyone but his sister.
//Aunt Quistis knows, right? Then again, I doubt we could go in without them. At this point it sounds like we need all the help we can get.//
“All right.” The SeeD rose automatically when Quistis entered the room. She nodded briskly, they quickly sat, and her eyes picked across the room quickly, stopping on an open chair.
“Where is Ellone?”
“I’m here.” The door opened, Ellone walking into the room, a guard trailing behind her, holding something in his arms. Jayne didn’t see what it was until the creature stirred, lifting its head - a dog, long black fur grayed to white around most of its muzzle, rhumey eyes glancing around in quiet weariness.
It didn’t mean anything to her or the other young SeeD, but her mother gasped and her father’s eyes widened.
“It can’t be.” Zell shook his head. “It just can’t be.”
The old dog lifted its head, turning toward Fuujin, tongue hanging out as it panted heavily, tail making a valiant attempt at wagging for her.
“It was Rinoa’s dog, she had it when we met her in Timber, the first time we ever met her.” Selphie said, noticing the confusion on her daughter’s face.
/Really/ old dog, then.
Quistis stepped to the center of the room as Ellone sat down, the Guard setting the dog on the chair beside her. Angelo put his head on his paws, tail flopping just slightly when Esca gingerly reached down to pet it.
“I would say we can take this as just another signal, that our window of opportunity to stop the Sorceress before she can do any catastrophic damage is rapidly closing.” Quistis said sharply, all eyes turning toward her. “In fact, there are reasons to believe that any hesitations on her part are /entirely/ her own choice. We’ve had reports of other incidents, new Guardian Forces on nearly every continent.”
Quistis turned, the map behind her lighting up with an alarming number of points, one for each force detected. “It seems that they’re mostly fighting each other - for the moment - but we don’t know how long that will last, and what will be destroyed in the process.”
She paused, shaking her head just slightly, still staring in amazement at Angelo.
“The odds are not in our favor, and time is running out.”
Author’s Notes -
1. “Hyne’s tears for all the oceans in the world.” Borrowed this idea from Thorne, an author of absolutely breathtaking talent, and her wonderful Edea-centered fic “After the Fall.”
2. No beta. Tried to make it not suck.
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