Chapter Eleven

By Twig

"Esthar has no claim on this Garden or anyone in it."

Quistis didn't move, but neither did the white SeeD, staring back with an equally icy gaze, not intimidated in the least.

"You know this goes well beyond affairs of state. We do not wish to start a conflict with you over this."

Ellone frowned. "Why hasn't Laguna contacted us about this before now?"

"President Loire has been extremely busy delegating protection for key points in Esthar and the surrounding areas. There have been... attacks, recently, of unknown origin. We believe Sorceress Rinoa is responsible for them."

"... he's /still/ President?" Squall muttered. Seifer shrugged, answered with his eyes still on the White SeeD.

"They wouldn't let him retire. I think they would have made him king if they could have gotten away with it."

"I did not send you information so you could stage a coup behind my back." Squall had never really seen Ellone angry, but she was now, eyes flashing as she took another step forward. "I'm only here for Squall, and neither he nor this Garden will bow to your knee-jerk political reactions."

"How do you even know it was Rinoa?" Zell shouted. Of course, he knew it was, they all did, but this was about protecting him, not the truth. The SeeD blinked, glancing over at him.

"While there is no concrete proof, all the places that were attacked were ones a Sorceress would be most interested in... including Caraway's mansion, in Deling City."

Squall winced. Things with Rinoa's father had never healed over very well. The man had never liked Squall, more a matter of personalities destined to clash than anything either of them could change. Rinoa had all but given up on her father... and that was the last he remembered. If they had reconciled before the Sorceress attack, he didn't know it.

//No love lost between them, not really.// He knew the Sorceress would have done it for a laugh, like stopping for ice cream on the way home. Even if it weakened her, even if it meant she couldn't kill Ellone or Seifer, they both knew she had time to recover.

Rinoa had the time to do whatever she wanted.

"Caraway is-" Quistis started, and the SeeD nodded, confirming what Squall already knew.

"There was barely enough left to identify the body. She was... quite thorough."

"All right, so it was Rinoa. It doesn't change anything." Irvine broke in. "We can handle whatever she can throw out."

//Unless she freezes time again, and decides to kill you all then. Or if she makes me...//

"No. No you can't." Squall was grateful he could stand without staggering, that no one could see the moment of vertigo that swam behind his eyes before they focused on the SeeD. "I'll go with you."

"Squall, no!" The words, or some form of them from both Quistis and Ellone. Zell and Irvine were no less determined to stop him, even though they didn't protest aloud. Seifer was dead silent behind him, not a good sign. Squall wondered how he would have handled things, had he been this young SeeD, standing in a room full of legendary warriors who had targeted him as a primary enemy. Perhaps the man had junctioned a GF before his arrival, something with a devastating opening assault.

Did it even matter to them if he was recovered alive? Squall Leonhart, zero to fucked in one bad decision, opening up what they'd all thought had been gone and gratefully forgotten.

"They took you, Ellone, because it was necessary. I'm a danger to everyone like this. I don't see how we really have a choice."

"It's completely different, Squall." Ellone turned on the White SeeD again. "It's Odine's team involved in this, isn't it?"

The second generation, not Odine but working under his name... it was just like it had been for them against Ultimecia, and just the same stupid, painful crap as his father had gone through.

Squall wanted off the damn ride.

"As far as I was aware, Ellone, I am still Headmaster of this Garden. My responsibility is to the safety of those I am in charge of, and if this will ensure their continued well-being, then it is my duty to leave."

"I am not letting you do this."

The expected, final voice of protest, Seifer's words soft but his tone like steel, ready to cut. Squall knew they couldn't possibly argue in public, couldn't ever have done it. Of all the things that wouldn't change no matter how much time passed, this had to be one of the bigger ones. Still, everyone was watching them now and Seifer had obviously thrown down the gauntlet.

//Don't make me choose, don't make me choose.//

He couldn't choose, not between Rinoa and Seifer, and he hated himself for it. It was an easy choice, it should have been, though Squall couldn't tell which way it was supposed to go. A damning fact, nonetheless.

"If I stay here, everyone is in danger. Ellone can't stop her anymore, and I can't... I can't."

//Don't make me choose. Don't make me.//

He met the other man's eyes, emotion blazing within them for all their apparent iciness. Had there really been a time he hadn't been able to see it?

"I won't watch her kill you, Seifer. Not you or anyone else in the Garden. I can't, not if this will stop it."

Squall knew he was just a little more stubborn than Seifer was, just enough to make the difference - after all, he didn't really want to do this either. He wanted to stay here, and pretend the continental drift of their broken relationship was the worst of all his problems. He wanted to be incredibly cowardly, wanted Ellone to fix it all and Seifer to hold him safe until things shrunk back down to what his mind could take in without breaking apart.

It wasn't going to work that way, though. It never worked that way, not since Ellone disappeared the first time. Not since he had to grow up on his own, fight on his own, and learn how not to be on his own - on his own. Someday, Squall vowed he'd figure out how to make it stop feeling like a betrayal. How to stop hurting when people couldn't do what he'd known all along would be impossible for them.

"You're just going to go with him?!"

Seifer was implacable, but angry now, frustrated, so Squall already knew he'd won.

"What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know. I don't... but this isn't right."

"Of course not. /None/ of this is right. It hasn't been right since Rinoa left-" Oh yes, goddamn it, good show. By Hyne, the more he wanted to keep from hurting Seifer, the more his mouth ran right along ahead of him.

Too many people around for Seifer to show how those words must have hurt him, but Squall knew. He shook his head sharply, as if it could take the words back.

"You know what I mean."

//Please. Please, it's an out. It's not good for us, and I know you don't want me to take it... but I'm so tired. I can't fight her, and it's killing me.//

Seifer was angry with him, but there were fatal flaws showing in his resolve, the argument nearing its end. He was going to be furious later, when he discovered what Squall already was certain of, where and how these SeeDs planned on 'hiding' him. He might have already suspected it - but if Squall could guilt him out of thinking about it long enough...

"It's only temporary. Only until we can find a way to stop her. I mean, if anyone's got a better idea..." Squall tipped a palm out to them. Quistis and Xu were frowning. Zell sighed, hands in useless fists at his sides. Irvine wouldn't even look at him.

"It's settled then. I'm going."

The White SeeD took a step back, Squall's words all he needed to start moving toward the door. He looked at all of them in turn, voice still as grave and emotionless as ever.

"It is my duty as a SeeD to carry out this mission, but do not believe that means I enjoy it. It is everyone's hope that the Sorceress Rinoa will be defeated, and we will have peace as soon as possible."

"If anything happens to him, I'll find your worthless ass. I swear it."

Short, rather unoriginal - but Seifer got his point across, pointing at the SeeD just for a moment, a Disciplinary Committee move brought from the past, studying the man's face in a way that would lock it in memory forever.

Squall didn't want to look at Seifer, didn't want the other man to look at him. It could make things so much more difficult, but green eyes caught his before he had much of a choice.

Seifer wanted to touch him, Squall could almost feel that hand coming up against the back of his neck, bringing them forehead to forehead, until that gaze was all he could see. Seifer probably wanted to kiss him, or slap him, and almost certainly wanted to clock him and drag him off to where no one could take him away.

//We've done all this before, and you know it.//

Squall felt it unlock inside of his mind somewhere, not a specific memory but something warm and slow like a drop of honey. The certainty that this was not the first time they'd been like this, standing on either side of a insignificant distance that was still insurmountable. The words piling up unspoken, because they already knew everything that could have been said.

"I love you."

Maybe not that, certainly not from Seifer, with no preamble. Squall wondered what the last time had been like, how close one of them had come to losing the other - and the mirror words were on the tip of his tongue, and he bit them back, as angry for wanting to say them as he was that he didn't...

"I'll be fine. I'm coming back."

It wasn't true, but he turned and left fast enough that it didn't really matter.

Time was on his side, for once. The White SeeD moved fast and without extra movements, emergency conditions their natural habitat, and the entire operation was shuffled out of Garden before most anyone else had the chance to notice.

It took a long time for Ellone to calm down enough to think of calling Laguna. A long time to let herself calm down enough to call, before realizing that every moment letting the SeeD ship get further and further away had been the worst sort of mistake.

The scrapes on his hands were hurting even more in the wind. Squall grimaced, glancing sideways at his captor.

"I don't suppose you have a Cura on board."

"You won't be in pain for much longer."

Easy as breathing, to hear the meaning behind those soft words. The SeeD wanted him to know, warning him of what he could already guess. A tactical mistake, made deliberately, out of respect. Squall glanced over at him again - young, a young man and there was a certain amount of shame in his eyes now.

"So where are we really going?"

"You knew all along, didn't you?"

"Laguna Loire spent a lifetime making up for his mistakes. He wouldn't sell me out for this."

Seifer had told him about the long, stilted reconciliation - and really, the vague memories he did have of the man, mostly during their conflict against Ultimecia - Laguna did not seem to be a cruel man. Absentminded, maybe, and poorly focused. Not the sort of sins that were worth agonizing over forever, however badly things turned out because of it. Not the sort of things that would lead him to this place now.

"Does anyone in Esthar know?"

"No, not as a part of any governmental function. As Edea's personal soldiers, we've made it our duty to place contacts all throughout the world, especially in Esthar, given its technology and successes against the Sorceresses. She told us this would happen again."

The look on Squall's face actually stopped the man for a moment. He recovered quickly, shaking his head.

"No. No, she didn't know it would be Rinoa, she didn't know about that until afterward... but she worried about you after the plan had been carried out. About what would happen if Rinoa were ever to find her way back to this world."

Squall nodded. If he didn't try to think about it, he could almost pretend he wasn't afraid.

"I doubt the methods of containment have changed so much, then, in twenty years."

The SeeD was nervous, this duty upset him even as he carried it out. Squall felt his stomach roll, distantly, as if it were happening to someone else.

"We're taking you to a stasis chamber, yes."

He wasn't a Sorceress, and he doubted whatever descendants of Odine were still around had been given the funding or the opportunity to do much further testing. Edea might have considered Rinoa a threat, but he'd seen that the rest of the world had happily done its best to forget there had ever been anything like Sorceresses.

"Do you think I'll survive?"

"It is not our intent to kill you, but contain her. I... all of the SeeDs regret that you have to be the one to take up this responsibility."

"It's not your fault."

No one's fault. So little of anything they did as SeeD, any of the decisions they were forced to make could have gone any differently. Including this.

The air was chilly, he was surprised to find it was nearing dusk. It took no time at all to reach the shore, the brightly lit deck of the White SeeD ship. Everyone saluted, quietly acknowledging his existence with - at most - a nod of the head and a soft 'sir.' Squall could see guilt there, in more than one pair of eyes. He wondered if the SeeD who'd explained things had been, perhaps, a little more optimistic than the rest of them.

//... like walking toward the gallows.//

Squall had a sudden, vibrant image of Seifer furiously kicking at his headstone, shouting angrily as someone - probably Zell - tried to drag him away. He grinned slightly, wondering just why Seifer had let him come here. He /must/ have known, must have at least guessed what the SeeD's intent might be.

//He loves you. Seifer loves you more than rationality. Just like you love Rinoa... and you love him too, don't you?//

Not a question, not really. If he could have traded his heart for a round of gunblade ammo, Squall would have considered it more than fair.

He noticed the interior of the SeeD ship as more a collection of lights than anything, bleaching out the pale wood interior and turning the outside world into a perfect sea of inky black. The SeeD led him into a large cabin, where several others were waiting for him.

"You don't have to be like this. I'm not going to fight back."

"It's not for you." The SeeD turned, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear before tapping the syringe with a flick of her finger. "The Sorceress can use you at any time to reappear in this world, with or without your consent. Odine's come up with something that - with any luck - will block that power, until we can get you in stasis."

Squall nodded, pulled off his jacket and rolled up one sleeve. He tipped his head away, no nervousness for the needle but for the girl - not even a woman yet, not really. She reminded him of Quistis, and Selphie, something keen and sharp in her, but awkward too, tender...

"She wasn't always like this, you know." He spoke to that hint of gentleness, hoping he was understood. "Rinoa was a normal girl, just like anyone else. She wouldn't want to do this."

"She's a Sorceress." Squall swore it was the comment that stung, not the needle in his arm, and he glared at the SeeD who had spoken, watching the young man do his best to crawl into the wall behind him.

"She's a woman, too. She helped save the world, once." The girl murmured, glancing up at him for a moment. Squall hoped she wasn't just placating him, though she had Quistis' ability to hold back expression, and it was difficult to tell. She pulled the needle out, gestured toward the bed set against the wall.

"You should lie down, sir. It's rather strong-"

She didn't even get the chance to finish the sentence, and Squall felt the world give a sudden lurch, disappearing beneath his feet. He staggered back, bracing himself for an impact that never came. A hand was around his shoulder, and wrist... maybe. Voices muttered over his head but it sounded like they were talking through water. It took him a few moments to realize he was laying down, staring up to a ceiling nearly invisible in the darkness. Someone had turned off the lights, had cut whatever was holding him down, tying him together and he was just drifting. Worrying. Regretting.

//... sorry, Seifer.//

He would have apologized to Rinoa too, but she didn't need it. Didn't need anything he could give her, and could take the rest herself, and so he had to go away.

//... don't want to. Sorry.//

The world went dark, dimness fading to a total black. Awareness should have followed... he didn't want to be awake. Didn't want to think about what was coming. What would it be like, frozen like that? Would Rinoa still be with him somehow, the two of them all alone in whatever his mind made up, whatever was left in that silence?

Fear. The sort of fear that only came out when there was no one left to fight. The kind that didn't change, no matter what age he was required to face it.

//Seifer... I'm scared.//

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