Squall sidestepped, saw the former knight glance behind him, as the door in the wall disappeared. Nervous already – of course he was. A coward who had betrayed his Sorceress could know nothing of bravery. It would take no time at all to finish him.
“I thought you would run, or at least try to hide. Any sane creature would have.”
“Do you really want to do this?”
Squall snickered, a nasty little snarl. What a question, what did he think he was doing? Trying to shake his faith in what Squall knew was-
//In what? Faith in /what/?//
He took a half-step backward, shocked by the violent thought and the sudden dizziness, trying to pinpoint the sensation so he could counter with the right antidote. A status effect, the bastard must have hit him with something, but his eyes didn’t itch, the way they would have had it been sleep, no briar-brush of poison against his skin. He faltered, couldn’t counter when he didn’t know what he’d been hit with, and realized there was no sign Seifer had done anything at all.
“You remember me, Squall. I know you do. She couldn’t take that away and still have you fight me like she wanted you to. So, what did she tell you? Why are you going to kill me if I don’t even want to fight you?”
Seifer took a step forward, and Squall raised his sword to block – but the other knight did not strike, no sudden lunge. So strange, his mind kept trying to fill in his memories with the wrinkles in this man’s face. It seemed like a flaw in his logic – but there was no logic to fall apart, nothing he could even hold in his mind as true, only shadows and wind and a terrible void where Squall knew something should have been.
He was cold, colder than he could ever remember being.
“You’re lying.” He put up his hand, as Seifer took another step forward, wanting to simply shoot him as much as he didn’t. Couldn’t? “You... just stop talking.”
“Oh, fuck that!” Seifer let his free hand sweep around the room. “You don’t belong here, and I don’t belong here. It’s insanity – shit, Squall, it’s not even /our/ insanity! If you’re going to kill me, I’d want it to at least be for your own reasons!”
“Shut up!!!” The words hurt, each a crushing piercing weight that threatened to overwhelm him, and for a moment Squall was certain he wouldn’t be able to keep his balance. Out of the corner of his eye, fighting against the pain, he thought he saw the man rush forward, arms out and ready to catch him. It still sparked the need to defend, and retaliate, and Squall raised his blade in warning.
Seifer was angry as he backed away, that was better, it was what he’d been expecting all the time – what he needed, in order to fight. More than anger in his eyes, though. Eyes that never could hold just one emotion, always arrogance and pride and anger, determination and hate and shame.
//Anger and fear and... love.// Impossible.
“Twenty-five years between us, Squall.” A small, stubborn smile. “Longer, if you count all the time we were trying to take each other apart. It’s not just me, either. Quistis and Zell, Selphie and Irvine – Ellone is on the boat, waiting to take you home. Everyone’s here, Squall. You don’t belong here, none of us do – and Rinoa’s trying to kill them, kill all of us. Why should you listen to her if she wants your friends dead? It isn’t your dream, it’s hers. The Rinoa you swore your life to doesn’t exist anymore.”
He wanted to put the sword down so badly. Everything Seifer said made sense somehow, even though the words all seemed to be blurring together and maybe there wasn’t so much logic in it or maybe he was just a damn good at persuasion – Hyne, Squall just wanted to drop his sword. It was too dangerous here and too cold and even if Seifer was lying...
The fallen knight was lying, or maybe he wasn’t. Rinoa had hurt him, or maybe that didn’t matter because Squall was her knight and part of that was being hurt. He could believe everything Seifer had said, though, and it still left him with one question and an answer he already knew.
“If I let you go, you’ll kill her.”
It wasn’t a question the man wanted to answer, because it took him a few moments to know he couldn’t lie. “Yes.”
Easier to bring the sword up, though the pain of it still scored in painful arcs up and down his arms, across his back. Squall fell back into the cold, no real reason to think anymore. “... then you have to die.”
Squall looked like absolute hell even at seventeen, so much so that Seifer worried Rinoa had done something more to him than just giving him back his youth, or at least the illusion of it.
It kept distracting him, the sight of Squall so young, and the more he looked, the angrier Seifer became. What right did Rinoa think she had, to cast away two decades of his life, because it was what she wanted? Damn the Sorceresses, thinking they could do anything and everything they wished, manipulating the loyalty of their knights past all meaning.
He was so pale, lines of pain around his mouth and creasing deep between his eyes. It hadn’t hurt Seifer, not really, to follow his Sorceress’ will, and he couldn’t help but feel a slight spike of fierce joy at the sign of that pain – still fighting, it meant Squall was still fighting.
“The Rinoa you swore your life to doesn’t exist anymore.”
//He doesn’t want to do this, no matter how much she’s pushing. I’ve got him.//
New fury sparked in Squall’s eyes, as if a switch had flipped. “If I let you go, you’ll kill her.”
Oh, /damn it/.
Seifer swallowed hard, he could lie but Squall would know – already knew. If he’d wanted to lie he should have done it faster and – damn it, Seifer, too late now.
He knew what would happen, frustration worse than any status attack clenching all his muscles as Squall pulled himself to his full height, every trace of emotion disappearing from his face. He shook off the doubt and fear and those hints of the man Seifer loved with a sickening ease.
“... then you have to die.”
Squall lunged, and Seifer thought he brought his blade up with seconds to spare, only to gasp as the resounding pain ran through his wrist and along his arm well before he was ready to take the blow. Faster than he remembered. He had no time to recover before Squall lashed out again, fighting just as he had all those years ago, at the very top of his game. Seifer hadn’t beaten him then, and age hadn’t done anything but dull the edges of his skills, just enough to make the difference.
He was still good enough to last for a short time, and they had spent so long fighting each other, before and after and during and /always/ that he could pick up the slightly faster pace, and finally managed a series of strikes that left Squall on the defensive, falling back but not stumbling, the ice and emptiness so brilliant in his eyes.
It was a dirty trick, to pull the trigger of his gunblade on the downswing, not catching any part of Squall in the blast but still knocking him off balance. It was his only chance to get in close, trying to disarm without the risk of hurting him. Seifer wasn’t expecting the daggers of ice that wove themselves around Squall’s shoulders, shooting out past his fingertips.
Of course, Edea had gifted Seifer with some of her magic too, back then.
He threw up his arm instinctively, though he knew it wouldn’t do anything, no power of his own to back the gesture. He heard the frozen spears connect, and was startled to find he was still standing, the shine of the shield spell slowly dissipating in the air, bright slivers melting at his feet. Only then did Seifer realize they had never really been fighting alone.
The Sorceress’ ghost flickered across the wall, and she was not alone. Squall’s attention had gone toward the shimmering surface as well – ghosts, hundreds or maybe thousands of Sorceresses, it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. Seifer glanced to the opposite wall – even more, swirling and shimmering like light on glass , the edges of each presence flaring when they touched, not so much a group of people as a collection of light that coalesced now and then into a poised hand or an eyebrow raised in interest. Squall let out a slight moan from the back of his throat, the keen of a trapped animal, and though it was a distraction in his favor all Seifer could feel was a sick, cold rage.
//Are you going to betray me now?//
He couldn’t find her on the wall, but her voice was still clear in his thoughts, loud and sharp above the rustle of paper, or silk on stone, the burbling excited voices of their audience.
/Even a sorceress cannot turn certain tides./ If anything, her presence seemed almost apologetic, and Seifer’s eyes widened as he felt a distinct shift in his mind, a cool new touch that was familiar well before he recognized the voice. A voice he was certain he would never hear again.
Just over Squall’s right shoulder, he watched a figure coalesce next to the doorway. Just enough of a form to make out the long dark hair and a simple shift, her eyes full of the same sadness she’d always tried to hide. Her presence was gentle, not the unforgiving burn it had been when she had been Edea. It was still utterly unnerving, her gaze among so many, and most of these ghosts seemed all too eager for blood.
It was a rare event, two knights fighting for dominance.
/I don’t play these games. I’m not a knight anymore./
//How much do you think the time matters, between then and now?// Matron’s voice was cool, and somber. //We measure in eternity.//
Dammit, this was all wrong, had started out wrong. He was playing a game he thought he would never have to see again – their damn game – and shit, what was he supposed to do?
Wrong to speak. Doubly wrong to reach out with the hand not holding his sword, crossing too much distance between them too fast. Squall snapped back into the battle as if he had never stopped, and it was all Seifer could do to block and try not to lose his balance, the hissing from the walls growing louder and the floor seeming to twist and spin beneath him. Squall was desperate, searching for the quick kill, his movements faster and more strained as Seifer managed to keep his defense.
Warmth at his shoulder, just before the pain hit, and Squall’s gunblade opened up a long gash along his side. Seifer hadn’t been expecting it, could feel the edge of the shallow cut spilling blood down to his waist. Nothing fatal, not yet. Maybe if he’d been willing to try for the kill himself, it might be enough to defeat Squall –
/No way in hell./
//I can’t stop him, Seifer. Her hold is too strong. You cannot bring him back.// Matron’s voice was eerily steady. As much as she knew to love, and care, she also had an edge to her. The sort of sharpness that had allowed her to raise the children who would one day try to kill her, the same edge that had followed Ultimecia’s call.
The part of her that said killing Squall was the only way to save him.
No, goddamn it. No more of this mystic childish bullshit, no more talk of eternal love or goddamn ‘meant to be,’ romantic dreams and all that worthless, pathetic crap. What a stupid fucking way to live, and why the /hell/ hadn’t he figured that out before?
//You can’t save him.//
/... and I can’t kill him./
Squall took the decision out of his hands, by taking his sword out of his hands. Seifer had blocked the wrong way, recognizing his mistake just as the sword was wrenched from his hands, clattering to the floor. He followed the gleaming arc to the ground, just for a moment, and looked back to find the point of Squall’s gunblade at his throat.
Seifer wasn’t so surprised, to discover that nothing flashed through his thoughts, not acceptance or rejection or all the moments of his life. Worry, maybe. Worry for Squall, a little bitterness at the realization that none of this would end well after he was dead. He doubted they were going to win this, not with Squall on her side. What Rinoa was doing would be ugly, and the world would be ugly, and all he could hope was that she would break Squall into pieces too tiny to remember who he had been, or to care.
“Pick it up.”
It took Seifer a moment to realize he was still breathing. By now, he should have been spread out on the floor, doing his best to breathe without a larynx. He could still feel the point of the sword digging into his throat, but Squall was frozen, and if he’d actually said those insane, impossible words... Seifer didn’t move, didn’t watch the gunblade at all, only those beautiful blue eyes. The color of the deep ocean, a place where things only appeared to be calm and emotionless.
The room was silent, all the muted shapes of light very still, waiting.
“Pick it up!”
The gunblade trembled against his skin, but did not make the final thrust. Awareness clicked in the dark blue eyes, and Squall blinked, and looked away.
“Please, Seifer... pick up your sword. I can’t...”
“Can’t kill me, unless I’m a direct threat? You’re fighting her, aren’t you?” He laughed, soft and fierce. “I never did, because I thought I really wanted it - but you know you don’t want this.”
“Seifer.” It was a soft, desperate plea, and he couldn’t hesitate, stepping into the gunblade so that Squall had to turn it to the side, let it fall and open up the distance between them. His harsh breathing was all there was to hear, Squall was frozen, eyes closed tight against his Sorceress’ commands.
“Please don’t... it /hurts/...”
“Ssh.” Seifer brushed the back of a gloved hand against Squall’s cheek, saw him shudder all over, finally collapsing against his shoulder, breathing deep, as though the act were new to him. Seifer kissed his cheek, stroking his hair, his other hand pressed right up against Squall’s chest, and swore the heart beneath his palm was beating triple-time.
“Wake up, sleeping beauty.” He crooned, very soft, knew he was grinning in victory, probably sooner than he had a right to. “It’s just a bad dream.”
“No. No, it’s not. Seifer, I think she-” Squall lifted his head, eyes dark and afraid - and they widened abruptly, fixing on something behind him. Without a word, Squall shoved him to the side, bringing his gunblade up just before Tay could cut him down.
The boy moved too fast, already a half-dozen blows into the battle before Seifer even realized what was happening, watching the younger fighter push Squall back across the floor.
“Goddamn it, Galbalida, stand down!”
“Afraid I can’t do that sir,” the boy smirked, circling Squall and never even looking Seifer’s way. “Obviously, the Sorceress used him to bring you under her control. You’ve been compromised, and are no longer fit to be in command.”
Seifer snarled, argument vanishing in a white haze of fury as the boy pulled the trigger, Squall jerking backward as if hit, though the shielding must have caught it – certainly Rinoa wouldn’t let her knight be taken down by anything so mundane as a bullet. Seifer was moving before he realized it, his hand twisting in Tay’s shirt, making some sort of noise deep in his throat – wow, he sounded pissed. His body had made the decision to beat the hell out of Tay before his mind could catch up, but it was certainly something he could get behind.
He knocked the boy off his feet, but when they hit the ground the Galbaldian had the better position, lashing out with a vicious kick to the face. Seifer was thrown backward – must have been some magic in with the motion, for as far as he flew. Tay would have had the advantage – if Seifer’s attack hadn’t given Squall enough time to recover.
No other gunblade fighters had been around while they’d been growing up, and though there had been a few chances later in life to teach, and watch Squall fight his students, Seifer had never had a chance to see the man at his peak, battling an opponent who was his equal.
Tay was good, and Seifer could pick out the moves he must have learned from Squall, or someone he had taught. The boy had a good degree of improvisation though, other moves very obviously his own. The sort of study brought about by more than just a love of the blade, and Seifer wondered just how long the kid had been waiting to try and take Squall down a peg or two.
Unfortunately for him, Squall was no longer old enough to provide even the suggestion of a weakness, matching him strike for strike. Seifer didn’t dare try to shoot, the fighters moving much too let him attack without the risk of hitting Squall. Seifer took a step back, expecting to brace against the wall, shocked when he realized there wasn’t one.
The Sorceresses had vanished when Squall had refused to kill him, and an archway had opened up where the wall behind them had been, while he’d been busy trying to bring his lover back. Now, they were connected through to the very center room, with nothing but a low banister and twenty or so stories of open air separating them from the throne room floor.
Seifer shivered, every hair on his body standing on end, and knew, just knew that the room was no longer empty. Rinoa had finally decided to make her presence known. He really hoped he wasn’t the only one still alive.
Keyed up as he was, Seifer very nearly shot the figure who appeared through the door that had returned to the other side of the room. He held off, the shadowy shape too small for a monster, and Rinoa would never have bothered to hide herself. It was Dani, the other gunblade fighter, and he was very grateful when she lowered her blade, staring in shock and horror as Squall and Tay dragged their battle right into the next room.
//I can only shield you, not them.// The Sorceress whispered, watching closely. He wondered if she cared what the outcome was.
Seifer wasn’t worried about the Galbaldians. Rinoa wouldn’t care, it probably made her happy to think Squall was fighting. The battle was fierce, though, and the longer he watched the more concerned Seifer became that Squall might not have the absolute advantage. A concern finally given teeth, when Tay managed to draw blood, lunging forward with a wide swipe that sent Squall doubling over forward, one hand tight against his stomach. Seifer felt his blood go cold, and he was running forward toward the boy. Dani was shouting behind him, he didn’t hear what she said and didn’t care, didn’t bother even trying to take a shot – not good enough, too simple and clean. He was going to cut the bastard’s head off.
Or would have, if he’d had the chance. Seifer had halved the distance between them as Tay swept his blade into an upswing intended to take Squall’s head off. The sword hit nothing, Squall leaning back as fast as he had fallen forward. Blood on his hand, quite a bit of it, but no sign of a wound as he pulled it away. No sign of Squall in his eyes, either, just the knight, just anger and amusement at the stupid little creature who had thought he could go against the will of a Sorceress.
Two powerful blows from Squall started the battle again, and Tay’s eyes were wide, unable to understand how things had changed and how his opponent was now striking hard enough to leave notches in his sword. Distracted enough by Squall’s sudden power surge that he wasn’t paying attention to how far those strikes were pushing him across the floor. The third strike lifted the boy right off his feet – and right over the edge of the balcony. Seifer was close enough to see the change in Squall’s eyes, as he realized just what he had done, but there was no time to take it back.
A shout from behind, and before he could turn Dani was running past him, diving over the edge of the balcony after her brother, one arm outstretched to make a grab for him. Seifer was blinded for a moment as a flash of light and wind surged up through the rotunda – Guardian Force, maybe Siren, although it was difficult to tell how much of the gold flash in his vision was real and how much was simply his eyes trying to recover from staring straight at a summoning. Seifer blinked sharply, arms coming up automatically as a warm, heavy weight fell against his chest – Squall, and he could feel the other man trembling, breath coming in fast, shallow gasps.
“Did I kill him?”
Seifer held him awkwardly, could feel Squall’s heart pounding wild, and quickly shifted his grip so he could draw him closer. Before he could answer, another thunderous roar shook the spire, the same as before but even closer, he swore it was closer this time. Squall’s fingers dug into his shoulder as he buried his face in Seifer’s coat with a wild cry.
Seifer tightened his grip, a swift step sideways at least giving them the cover of a nearby pillar, although another deafening roar made it clear, there would be no real shelter for long.
“You stay here. Just stay with me, Squall. We’re going to get out of here.”
Squall murmured something he couldn’t hear, trying weakly to pull away. Seifer refused to let go, caught the last word – “sorry” – as Squall leaned forward, Seifer adjusting his grip so that he wouldn’t hit the ground, reeling back as Squall took advantage of the moment and drove a fist up into his stomach. Stupid, he’d fought dirty far too long not to see that coming, already staggering to get his breath back, staggering forward even as Squall leapt up onto the rail.
“Don’t follow me, Seifer.” His eyes said the rest, and Seifer made it to the rail just as Squall leapt out into space. For a horrible moment, Seifer thought it was suicide, and just what the hell gave Squall the right to tell him to stay behind? Of course it wasn’t, Rinoa would have never allowed it. Difficult to see from directly above, but Squall slowed, just before he hit the floor. Seifer was already moving away from the rail as he darted the opposite direction, directly toward what must have been the throne room.
//Sorceress!// He called for his ghostly shadow. It was the only way he would get there in time, her help, and he was grateful beyond words when a bubble of green burst across the wall, shivering into a blue and black fire, the flickering phantom chasing him as he ran toward the door.
/Here, knight./ He stopped dead as a passage opened in the wall, just next to the door, a black curve of smooth rock dropping like a pole down through the floor, and he could only assume it went all the way to the ground. Seifer was moving even before the next roar sounded out – and this one sounded triumphant, and the Sorceress thought something at him but he ignored it. The chute was just large enough to fit in, and he steadied himself against the pole for a moment, most of his weight held up by his hands, his feet only there for guidance and – hopefully – enough friction to keep him from breaking every bone of his body at the bottom.
Seifer didn’t bother for a steadying breath, no time for it, and let go.
“I thought SeeD were so dull, most of the time. But give them the proper opportunities, and they can be quite amusing.”
All the way through this maze, unsure whether she was making progress or just spinning in circles, and now Quistis found herself back-to-back with Fuujin, the rest of the SeeD fanned out around them, weapons at the ready and Rinoa seated on her throne, hands folded, watching them prepare to attack.
They’d been in this room before – maybe twice. It was hard to tell most of the spaces apart, especially while fighting. Quistis had seen nothing special on the other passes through, but now it resembled any number of imperial chambers she’d seen in her life. A little more organic perhaps, the rock seeming to grow into a proper throne, the floor naturally spilling out in front of it, bright and beautiful, chips of quartz and obsidian that spread beneath her feet. Other long swaths of stone adorned the walls, mosaics to resemble tapestries, no suggestion of anything soft or yielding. The door out had, of course, vanished behind them.
A few fighters were missing, two white SeeD off Zell’s team, the Trabian girl that had been with Fuujin, and she could see no sign of the Galbaldians either. Either they were back on the ships, injuries minor enough that they could walk while wounded – or they were dead.
Irvine and Selphie were nowhere to be seen – and she could only hope that was a good thing. She doubted Rinoa was paying much attention to anything that wasn’t in this room, more interested in the SeeD before her now – and what she would do to them soon.
Young. She’d known Rinoa was as young as the day she’d disappeared, but it was still astonishing, a tiny time compression just for her. Dark hair was loosely drawn back, darker lines trailing from her temples to the edges of her eyes, like detailed swirls of kohl. A similarity to every other Sorceress Quistis had fought, in the loose and languid way she walked, the coil of her body suggesting both laziness and a twisted, very ready anger.
It was different than it had been, to stand in front of Edea like this. Quistis hadn’t known Edea then – or ever, really, Matron familiar as mother but not her friend. She hadn’t known that she would be able to see two people in Rinoa’s eyes, the Sorceress and the woman she had known. Rinoa tapped dark blue fingernails lightly against her arm, and though time might have been measuring in seconds, she seemed to count out eons with each slight motion.
There was no sound and no warning, but Quistis blinked and Squall was at the Sorceress’ side, head bowed but certainly not touching her. Zell was right, he looked as young as she did. Squall whispered something, Rinoa snapping her head toward him, pure fury in her eyes as he tried to flinch away. The entire room seemed to contract and shiver around her, shadows trembling, the rocks looming in close as her anger flared.
Quistis desperately wanted Squall to look up, heard Zell even say his name, very softly, but Squall didn’t move, probably couldn’t move. She wondered if anything in their short, violent exchange had to do with Seifer, and despite everything she realized she was fighting back a small smile. The SeeD around her hadn’t moved, not since the door had closed behind them and they all realized they were trapped. No plan except attack – wait for Rinoa to move, and attack.
“Surprised to see me like this, Quistis?” A chilling jolt shot down her spine, as Rinoa’s attentions turned to her, and slowly, silently lifted up from her chair. “I was a little surprised myself, how much time had passed. I suppose I was lucky. Without that little accident, you would have let me linger in darkness forever, hm?”
//I wish I could put you back there now.// If she was trying to gain sympathy, she was much too late. The moment she hurt Squall, it was too late.
“You killed your father.”
Rinoa took a few steps forward, letting her gaze slide over the assembly, a silent dare. “He ordered me to stop. Ordered /me/. I was tired of listening to people who knew what was best. I was tired of that a long time ago.” Her eyes pierced, like one of Edea’s ice daggers in her heart, but Quistis did not look away. “You’re not going to win. I’m going to win, and Squall and I are going to rule the world, and be happy.”
Had Seifer been this stupid, when he’d explained his plan the first time? Quistis couldn’t remember exactly, but thought it was likely. So very difficult, not to laugh in her face. A little easier when she realized Rinoa was completely serious.
“You know as well as I do, he won’t be happy. If there’s anything left of him, it will do nothing but despise you, and the world you’ve made. Why, Rinoa? I don’t mean now – I mean ever. Why did you give up everything you had, for this? You had friends there, a husband. Wasn’t one time through this enough?”
“Friends?” Rinoa did laugh in her face. “We were friends, Quistis? You could barely stand me. You think I didn’t know what you thought of me. All of you, saying whatever you felt like behind my back, being kind to my face - but I knew.”
The Sorceress rested calm and ready, in the back of Rinoa’s eyes, the perfect elder sister. One who would know how she felt, ready with a caring word or a shoulder to cry on, who always understood... as long as Rinoa did exactly as she wanted. Quistis wondered just how long that woman been waiting for the opportunity, how long Rinoa had spent with her inside, and never even knew it.
“I actually thought a great deal of you, Rinoa. Not at first, though at first most people think I’m an icy egocentric bitch. I thought you were untrained, a little naive – but you were also determined, and you had a goal that you believed in... and Squall loved you. I tried to see you through his eyes – and you were sweet, and brave, and kind. You believed in him when he couldn’t believe in himself, and it takes twice the strength to be strong for someone else.”
Stalling for time, but she couldn’t think of a way to keep going, without making it too obvious. The words were still true.
“In the end, though, you abandoned him. The one thing we both know he can’t bear. You decided that power mattered more than he did. Whatever the Sorceress offered you, it was more important than every vow you ever made – to your friends, and to Squall. In the end you proved me right. You’re every bit the shallow, useless idiot child I thought you were.”
Rinoa was going to kill her for that, but what a way to go out. From of the corner of her eye, she saw Fuujin shift slightly, maybe even ready to dive in the way of whatever strike was launched.
Whatever Rinoa had planned, it never got further than an ugly glare before Quistis saw the Sorceress’ eyes flick up over her shoulder, focusing at the opposite end of the room.
The cold venom in her tone was unmistakable, even before Quistis dared to glance over her shoulder, she was sure who she would see. Seifer was limping, just slightly, as he walked across the floor. He didn’t look at her, or even at Rinoa, his gaze never straying from Squall.
He still didn’t look up, hadn’t looked up through any of this though Quistis could see he wanted to – and then Rinoa laid a hand on his shoulder, and she knew Squall stopped wanting anything, the tension falling out of his body – he couldn’t fight the Sorceress, not really, not so close to her and her demands.
“Finish what you started, knight. Kill him. Kill all of them.”
Quistis hand tightened on her whip, saw a few of the younger SeeD cut nervous glances toward her and Zell – saw /Fuujin/ cut a nervous glance toward her, because there was no way she would let Seifer take this on alone, even if that meant killing Squall.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Squall took two steps down from the podium, drawing his sword, and all hell literally broke loose.
Jayne had been in less comfortable situations, but most of those had involved not being able to find her underwear. Most of the sharpshooter’s missions involved precision fire from a distance, not standing in a circular room with no exit strategy and a Sorceress standing at the other end. The woman’s dark dress seemed to glitter right along with the room, all of it a part of her, the walls shifting and threatening to close in around them, more liquid than stone.
Squall was standing next to Rinoa, neither of them looking any older than Jayne was, though her uncle looked pale and sick, stretched well past what he could bear. Sorceress Rinoa was dark and cold, and the threat of danger and violence curled in the air around her like a storm. It was easy to believe that this woman wanted to destroy the world.
Esca was close beside her, bleeding from a few gashes on her hands and arms, and Jayne glanced at her once – and again, as she realized the girl wasn’t really watching the discussion between Quistis and Rinoa, or even trying to pick out the best place to attack from, like the rest of them were, even if there was no cover in the room to hide behind.
The girl had her eyes closed, and her fists clenched, and was murmuring something beneath her breath that sounded very much like a prayer. Jayne hissed softly, shifting a few inches over, so that she could kick the edge of the girl’s foot. The last thing they needed was anyone freezing on this mission – even if none of them walked out, if they could stop Rinoa from calling out the rogue GF’s it would be worth the sacrifice. Esca didn’t respond, and Jayne swore silently, no idea where she might be able to drag the girl when the firefight finally started.
It was a relief then, when she finally opened her eyes – but Jayne felt her mind pull a very violent blank, as Esca’s eyes blazed, flickering through a thousand different colors before settling on an impossible, incandescent yellow. It looked for all the world as if she’d swallowed a star.
Seifer had arrived while she’d been distracted. He’d walked through the door, was approaching the podium slowly. Rinoa saw him, and smiled, and Jayne looked at Esca, the Sorceress and her uncle with no idea what to panic over first.
“What are you doing?” She hissed, already half sure of what was happening with the way Esca’s body posed. Her muscles were locked and bracing against the invisible, inner pressure, eyes burning with growing power – but they’d done a GF count, and there had been no mention of her on the roster.
“Trabia Garden determined the risk was too great to go in without a final plan, should all other countermeasures fail.” The girl’s voice was calm and flat. “No matter what happens here, the Sorceress must be neutralized. We won’t stop her in this room, not by conventional means.”
Squall was moving off the podium now – something had happened, while she’d been watching Esca, and he was walking toward Seifer with his sword out and no expression on his face. The rest of the SeeD seemed frozen, though she knew Quistis would have to act, eventually – and Esca let out a soft gasp, a heat haze coming off her skin, Jayne could see it in the air. No simple GF, nothing even as controlled as Bahamut.
“What did you do? What the hell are you carrying?”
Jayne remembered what had been held in Trabia garden, the moment she got her answer.
It didn’t have much of a chance to sink in. Jayne had only a second to gape at the girl before the wall behind them gave way – exploded, really, and they were both knocked to the ground. Oh hell yes, she’d been increasingly nervous every time she’d heard that roar while they were fighting. Nobody knew what it was, or where it came from, only that it seemed to be moving, and probably had a purpose.
//Three guesses what that purpose might be.//
The thing that came through the wall reminded Jayne a little bit of Ifrit at first, craggy features buried in so much fur it was hard to tell at first – she eventually saw horns, and the burning of eyes that looked like embers, buried in the gold fur. It stood on its hind legs, a spiked club in one massive paw, tail lashing back and forth with a force that would have shattered the walls even further, though now the stone seemed to be like liquid, swirling with strange shapes and lights as the beast’s tail skimmed the surface.
Jayne stared in confusion at the belt tied around its waist, finally realizing that it was a skin, and no creature in this world, even the largest monster would have been able to provide a trophy like it.
//My god, is it /wearing/ another GF?//
The SeeD had scattered, taking cover behind the pieces of rubble the creature had blasted from the walls. Esca was on her feet, shakily and with a new wound dripping blood down the side of her face – but her eyes still burned, she hadn’t stopped calling up Eden . If it came, and launched a final attack, there wouldn’t be anything left of any of them.
It seemed the sudden appearance of the monstrous GF had taken even Rinoa by surprise, she was shouting to it, but her orders seemed to have little effect, either the creature no longer under her control, or one that had never really been hers to begin with.
Esca’s body burned with a golden light, lifted off the ground as Eden finally made itself known. All the walls of the spire went near transparent, enough that she could look up – that they could all look up and see the massive ship hovering overhead, a thousand lights flickering as it readied its most powerful attack. The Guardian Force let out a sound that could almost have been thoughtful, and looked down at Squall, frozen and staring up at it in absolute terror.
The lion god lunged for him.
“Take the shot! Take the fucking shot!” Seifer screamed, and Jayne raised her rifle, the world tunneling to an unimportant blur of sound as she found the Sorceress’ heart through her scope.
The study of shields had yielded several interesting results over the past few decades. Shattering the stronger ones was a matter of harmonics, using bullets of opposite magical power to the composition of the shields. It seemed somewhat unimportant, when a sorceress could match her magic to any bullet in an instant, but even a shield like that could only block one dissonant harmony at a time.
Rinoa saw Jayne’s attack coming, the energy of the shield rippling like water where her bullets pinged off - but Seifer had been yelling to Irvine.
Irvine, who was kneeling two floors up, taking his mark as the wide span of the dark wings carved into pale skin. Selphie standing next to him, loaded up with enough anti-sorceress technology to likely deflect a Lunar Cry – enough, at least, to cloak one man and one bullet while the rest of them had played decoy - and this time he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
A few droplets of blood flew out, hanging in the air for a few seconds too long - the Sorceress refusing to believe it was true – before they fell, splashing against the floor. It was the only sign of red, the rest of the blood disappearing into the black of her dress, only dulling the shine slightly as it spread. Irvine’s second bullet pierced her lung, and a third shot from Jayne finally broke the shield. Rinoa lifted a hand, staring at her own blood-tipped fingers, and fell.
The Guardian Force roared in furious disbelief, desperately trying to possess Squall even as it faded, crumbling to nothing as the Sorceress’ power died along with her body. Even the blunted blow of its passing was enough to send both Squall and Seifer flying backward, though Squall was on his feet instantly, eyes fixed on the crumpled form on the dais.
Eden was vanishing as well - no enemy for it to fight anymore – all the walls flickering back to opaque stone. Shaking a little, the Guardian Force was not so happy about being banished as soon as it was called. Esca was down, Jayne at her side, most of the others still crouched in hiding. Seifer couldn’t believe how much had happened in only a few moments, everything come down to this and somehow they’d managed to win.
He ached all over, glanced over to see that Fuujin had caught a piece of shrapnel from the exploding wall, a shallow gash across her cheek underlining a very weary stare. If she wasn’t going to move, he didn’t bother to try. He was helpless to do anything more now, as Squall lifted Rinoa into his arms, the illusion melting away, revealing his true form, his rightful age as he choked and cried and lost himself again, finally losing her.
Rinoa’s voice was a whisper, bewildered and confused - cruel, monstrously cruel to draw this out, Seifer had thought she was already gone. Her hand slowly lifted, the back of her knuckles brushing against his cheek. Squall clutched it tight, fingers dripping with her blood.
“What... where am... I feel... strange.” Her voice was a whisper, tender and mercifully kind, one hand rising to brush his wet cheek. “Oh, don’t cry. Don’t cry, Squall. I’m here. I...”
//Good thing she was already wearing black.// Seifer thought, and stood gaping at his own sick, sick mind.
... and then it was over.
Squall let out a thin, sharp scream, cut off halfway as he tried to take in air but couldn’t, and even so the next scream rang clear and loud through the empty hall, as he put his hands against either side of those sightless eyes, arms coming down, wrapping tight around the body, protecting what he had never been able to save.
A soft rumble shook Seifer a little bit out of his daze. Without the Sorceress’ will, this place would certainly fall apart, and return to the sea.
//It’s all right, knight.// He didn’t have to look, could barely hear it but knew the Sorceress had opened their way back to the outside.
/Don’t call me that again./ It took more will than he thought he had in him, to get to his feet, swaying a bit and wondering just what it would take to get Squall to let Rinoa go, to let them leave.
Seifer listened to Squall sob helplessly, still clutching the body of his dead wife. They still had been married, hadn’t they? Hyne, he was so fucking tired.
/She’s still there, though, isn’t she? Wherever you are. She might not have any power anymore, but you can’t ever get away from her./
Rinoa too, now. As if he needed another disturbing thought for today. No answer from the wall, no sign of phantom light, and Seifer knew he would never speak to her again.
A soft clicking of nails against the floor, and he knew he was not the only one gaping as Angelo appeared from nowhere. The dog slowly walked up to Rinoa’s side, one arm stretched out from where Squall cradled her body, rocking as he sobbed. Angelo whined, slowly laying down, stretching his nose out to lick a few drops of blood from her limp hand. With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes, and followed his mistress.
Author's Notes -
1. One chapter to go. I hope what’s left sums it up to people’s satisfaction. Thank you all for reading so far.
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