The rest of the ship had given him plenty of breathing room, even before they'd left harbor. Zell, Irvine, Selphie and Jayne were all in one of the White SeeD's cabins, likely still listening to Quistis and Xu run communications with Laguna in Esthar. He'd get his information later, Quistis had known better than to ask him to sit around and listen to even useful chatter.
A sharp poke against his back reminded him that Fuujin had seen him through worse than this.
It had changed the entire world, compressing time and space for him ever before Ultimecia had attempted it for everyone else. He still remembered, very well, what it felt like, the distance between himself and the world, and how easy it was then, to do everything he'd thought he could never be capable of.
//Will he still be the same person, even when you try to save him?//
It wasn't just the Sorceress Squall would be protecting. It would be Rinoa, wife and lover... beloved.
//He still loves you.//
Would it be enough? Could it possibly make the difference?
He quelled a moment of sharp irritation. He wouldn't start a fist fight in front of the White SeeD like some second-rate delinquent candidate. Fuu had done as much before, though, goading his temper when nothing else would work.
"I'm fine. Really."
Her punch nearly separated his shoulder, and as he gasped for air, blinking back stars, Seifer realized she probably wasn't doing all this just for his benefit. After all, she'd sought Squall out as a sparring partner often enough, the difference between his and Seifer's style great enough to make it fun. A quiet kinship had sprung up between them, and not just because they spent so much time watching out for a certain blonde SeeD's impulsive ass.
"Okay." Seifer gasped out, still doubled up a bit as he tried to work the feeling back into his arm. "Okay, I'm not fine. Sorry." He sighed, leaning back against the rail. "You didn't see it, but that thing took Squall's sword with it on its way out. Rinoa wants him to kill me, I know it. It's the only reason she hasn't just opened whatever portal or gate she needs to finish this."
Quistis hadn't said it, just glanced at him once while discussing time frames and various emergency plans, and he knew that she knew. Everyone knew, the other reason he was out here instead of in there. He couldn't stand the sympathy, not one pitying look from Zell or Selphie or even the suggestion of failure. The idea that Squall might follow Rinoa's orders. The idea that he certainly would have - had - when their places had been switched.
"I'm going to have to fight Squall, and I don't know if I can take him down, if he's trying to kill me, unless I..."
He smiled ruefully, always in awe of her faith in him, in abilities that he thought had never come close to hitting that mark.
"I wish I could be that sure, Fuu. It's so different, being a Knight. I was ready to do it. I dropped my entire life, abandoned everything. I could have gotten you killed, you and Raijin and the rest of the world."
"IMPOSSIBLE." Her arm wrapped around his, a familiar hug she'd given him since they were children, and she lay her head against the back of his shoulder with a soft sigh.
"You shouldn't worry, sir. You might not even be the one to find him."
Fuujin's start of surprise kept him from feeling his own, Seifer could feel her tension as much as his own, turning toward the clipped, unfamiliar voice. Fast mover, and damn silent.
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to startle you." The eyes were amused, no way in hell the kid was sorry. It was the young gunblader from Galbaldia, the one with some stupid short name that he probably thought made him sound tough.
//Projecting much?// It wasn't his fault, gunblade wielders rarely got along well with their own kind. Too much ego in too small a space. Seifer remembered being that young, underestimating his elders, until his first teacher had 'instructed' him right through a rack of training weapons. It was a happy thought, with this kid in front of him now.
"MIRROR." Fuujin muttered, smirking slightly. The boy's sister was there too, nearly invisible behind his cocky determination. Just like Fuujin, the silent shadow ready to backup the young, brash asshole.
"I still don't know how you put up with me." He muttered back. More fun to talk to Fuujin anyway, and leave this little bastard hanging. Dramatic poses had an amazingly short half-life, Tay already looked more silly than imposing, waiting for an answer.
Seifer snickered, and finally met the boy's eyes. "Galbaldia can't /still/ be pissed at me, can they? I mean, it's not like I expect presents at Hynelight or anything, but damn." Hell, were any of the old goats even alive these days?
"You'd be surprised, your name still manages to ruffle quite a few feathers, especially with Sorceresses popping up again. The pride of the institution, the good name of the school brought down by one lunatic SeeD trainee?"
"Oh yes, that's exactly the way it happened." Seifer said dryly. "So they sent you here to lean on things? A little reminder that even though the Headmaster's too chicken shit to come out himself, you're not entirely useless?"
"He thought you'd be on the defensive. I promise you, no one's looking at you as /any/ sort of threat."
Seifer ignored the obvious goad as he felt a cold trickle slide down his veins. It shouldn't have taken him so long to figure this out.
"I bet you volunteered for this, they didn't even have to ask you to go, did they? It has nothing to do with Galbaldia. It has nothing to do with the Sorceress. You want to fight him. You want to go after Squall."
Tay studied his glove with feigned interest, smirking broadly. "The man who eliminated two sorceresses, neutralized a third and was directly responsible for saving the world? I can't imagine why I'd want to best an old man like that... and to think, he's even got a Sorceress of his own at his side, now."
Seifer glanced to the girl, still watching them with detached interest. No way to tell what she thought of this, if she had the same ambitions - and even if she didn't, there was no doubt in his mind she'd be at her brother's side, all the way. He'd had to push Fuujin so far, for so long before she'd finally refused to follow him.
"If you hurt Squall, I'll kill you."
The boy raised an eyebrow, maybe expecting something a little less virulent, a little more responsible - shit, stupid kid. Seifer stared down the years-younger version of himself and tried very hard not to snarl. If his disappearance had been less noticeable - and there wasn't the sister to contend with - Seifer would have done more than just consider tossing him overboard.
"If he attacks, I'll have to defend myself." The kid must have been a joy to teach, if that smirk was as permanent as it seemed.
"Oh, I just bet you will..."
He was ready to go for his gunblade. The cocky little bastard actually tipped his hand back, and Seifer was happy to give him one better. It always - training, warfare, random brawl - felt useful to have the sword in his hand, even if the part of him not ready to lunge in realized how stupid he was acting.
"IDIOT." Fuujin looped one arm under his, slapping him across the back of the head with the other. The only thing that saved his dignity was Tay's sister had reacted in much the same way, poking him in the temple and whispering something sharp and furious in his ear.
Fuujin was dragging him toward the bow just as fast as the Galbaldian girl pulled her brother to the stern. It was sort of funny, trying to get the blade back in its sheath with Fuujin adamantly refusing to let go of him - but damn. Damn, the boy's eyes were cold and resolute and very hungry for any kind of fight. Seifer didn't need to check official Garden scores against that reputation. The gunblade said enough and those eyes said the rest. The little bastard was looking for a challenge, and would be hell-bent on reaching Squall first.
Squall woke up panting for air, the dream of being chased still so real that his fingers were dug painfully into the small cracks on the floor, paralyzed so completely he could barely breathe.
Rinoa was gone. He didn't know when she had left, where she had gone to or why he was no longer at her side. The feeling of her presence retreating had been like a fist, unclenching from around his throat. He must have fallen asleep. He still felt exhausted.
//You've got to get up. You've got to get the hell out of here.//
He was shaking, breathing felt like swimming - he had to time it - and it took him three minutes, fifteen seconds to realize he was counting them out, listening to his heartbeat. Trying to make sure he was still here, when the silence in the tower seemed ready to erase him the moment he wasn't paying attention. His neck ached, but he kept checking over his shoulder anyway.
//Just you here, and who's to say something won't come through that wall?// If a Squall fell in the forest... he pressed his teeth into his palm, fighting against a painful, horrified smile and a laugh - bad idea, really really bad idea to make a sound here.
Even if the silence seemed to be chewing up all the space around him. It would start on him, soon, nibbling at his edges, little bites he wouldn't even see, until there was nothing left of him to notice.
//Get up, dammit!//
Squall pulled himself onto his feet, or somehow pulled his feet underneath him. Gravity seemed strange here, the walls and floors curved in ways he couldn't see, but that still left him reeling.
//Take it as what it is.// SeeD training reasserting itself, mostly what he'd read on Sorceresses during his downtime hunting Edea. Simple really, to realize he wasn't crazy because the entire world had beaten him to it. He had to get out of this tower, though, if he wanted to stay sane.
Squall pressed himself against the wall for support, cool stone beneath his cheek as he stepped forward, very carefully. The room seemed to be swaying, past the treacherous shaking in his legs - damn, damn even with his sword at his back he wasn't ready for this.
//Either do this, or fight your friends. You know she'll make you.// It wasn't as noble as all that, he prayed he could get out before she even saw him again. His Rinoa was in there, all the pieces of her that he'd loved, but the cruelty in her, whether it was the Sorceress' or her own - it had grown like a choking vine. He could still reach her, but only because she wanted to let him, and Squall knew that soon, trying would only bring him back a handful of thorns.
His foot hit the first stair at the same moment the roaring started, and Squall clung to the uneven surface of the wall, half-tumbling down the stairs anyway, landing at the bottom unable to breathe or move or do anything but cower from the horrible sound. He couldn't tell where it was coming from, below or above, it seemed to surge out from all the open air, ripping at stone and steel with ease, reaching out to devour him. Squall panted against the floor as the screeching bellow finally faded, all SeeD training and fortification falling utterly mute in the face of... of - Hyne, he didn't want to know.
"If I were you, I wouldn't stay around here."
Squall found he couldn't startle, all adrenaline sucked out of him by that roaring scream, whatever else might be here couldn't be worse.
"I wasn't born so long after her death. Everyone was still afraid of her, I guess that's why they panicked when I came along."
//Oh god, it's happening again.// He caught a glimpse of the figure out of the corner of his eye, there wasn't much to do but stare at him head on. Tall and lean, and obviously not alive. Dead sorceresses, haunting him, he wondered just what calling on Shiva had jarred loose, leaving him with the strange, unwanted power.
The pale shadow was chewing on an apple, staring back with gray, stone eyes, though that might have been the wall still visible through him.
"You should really consider running. If she's given it your scent, it's only a matter of time before it tracks you down. Incredible sense of smell, that one."
Not all the sorceresses were women, although the one or two men who showed up every few centuries were more aberration than proof of anything. Still sorceresses, and their deaths were swift and brutal and as forgotten as they could be.
"I used to pick apples from the north orchard. It was beautiful there."
The boy - still a boy, not the hint of man in gaze or build or voice - leaned back, the edge of his shoulders disappearing into the wall. He bit at the edge of a fingernail on his free hand, spitting out a piece of cuticle. The apple between his other thumb and forefinger was nearly a core.
"I'm glad they didn't beat me there. Or hang me there. Or burn me there."
"... go away." He hissed, trying to say the words without even reaching a whisper, glaring at the phantom. Not that it did any good whatsoever.
"The apples were usually bitter, like spring. Too green, but I ate them anyway. I was impatient."
All these voices had been in Rinoa. All these Sorceresses a part of her since her awakening. And he had ever thought her life an easy one. And he had ever thought her simple.
And he had ever thought he could understand.
"I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't do anything wrong and they killed me anyway." The boy vanished, turned his shoulder and flickered into the shape of a girl who twisted away from the wall, hands rising to claw out invisible eyes in the air. Squall didn't think she even knew he was there - a ghost gone mad in madness.
"I didn't hurt anyone! I never would! Why are you doing this, they wouldn't even speak to me! They wouldn't tell me why - get off of me! Leave me alone!"
He wondered where her knight had been, as she began to scream. Squall prayed only he could hear it, glad if this time it was all in his mind, every nerve still on edge, waiting for another roar.
"I didn't do anything! I didn't-"
The voice was scratchy and raw, rising from a curl in the corner, all long-limbs and cold, reptile eyes. A distant cousin of Edea in the long, tangled dark hair, but nothing else, the power in her not honed to any stylish cruelty but raw and jagged. Squall felt his breath catch, pressing back against the wall, as if violence was the key she might use, and return to this world herself.
Terrifying to think the Sorceress inside Rinoa was not the worst of possibilities.
"I killed them. I wish I could have killed more. I smothered their children in the cradle and seduced their wives away from them, danced them to their graves. I slit my knight's throat when he offered himself up to me, and drank his blood from a silver cup."
He was to be the confessional, then, to those who wished to brag, not repent, to those who shared a sister title with murderers - nothing else - and suffered and bled and died for it. Innocents who wanted answers or vengeance or tears and he could give them nothing.
The woman paused, staring at him as if seeing him for the first time, and glanced upward, and laughed merrily. Squall shifted along the wall, not taking his eyes off of her even as she started to fade, moving down another staircase. Dark, he could hardly see a thing, Rinoa had left only a little illumination for him and he would have guessed the rest of the lights moved with her. Terrifying, when the staircase gave way to what looked like an endless maze of columns, barest curves looming like hidden predators. Squall pressed himself against the wall, slowly making his way to the other side. So silent.
Five steps in he took his shoes off. The floor was breathtakingly cold, but he made even less noise, and that was the only important thing.
The second roar drove him to his knees without the benefit of falling down stairs. Squall tasted blood, he'd bitten his tongue, and listened to the sound echo in the chamber all around him, far away and then so close it was as if the beast were right over his shoulder.
It could see in the dark, he was sure of that.
"It's all right." The soft whisper made him gasp, slapping a hand over his mouth to stifle even that small sound. He looked around in the darkness, but had moved past even the slight light from the staircase. He waited, and waited, and waited, stood up expecting to die at any moment.
"It's all right. It's just you and me in here." The voice sounded small, and young, like a little girl. He nearly screamed at the feel of a cool, smooth hand in his before realizing he'd just brushed against a pillar. Crazy, and once he had gone there would be no coming back.
"Come on, to the other side of the hall. Hurry."
Maybe the voice was lying, but he was already pointed in the direction the voice beckoned, and Squall didn't have any better ideas. Hand over hand, sliding his feet across the freezing stone, he reached the other side, and nearly stubbed his toes on the first stair, reaching out to feel them slowly spiraling up.
"... not up. Not up." Squall shook his head sharply, not so disorientated that he wasn't certain that roar came from above. Until he felt the ground shaking beneath his feet, the rhythm of an absurdly lengthy stride... and he would have sworn it was coming from the floor below.
Squall scrambled up the stairs, using his hands to guide him, wondering if it would be better just to be with Rinoa. At least then there had been light - and certainly whatever was chasing him now, she wouldn't allow it to...
//The boy said she'd given it - that it's looking for you on purpose.// He wondered what it was, and then the stairs disappeared in front of his hands and he barely kept his balance, stumbling into another empty, pitch black room, very little to suggest it had any end at all.
Hours later, it must have been, and he'd climbed and descended so many staircases and tripped and fallen so many times that everything ached, the muscles in his legs trembling and the gunblade as heavy as an iron bar.
//Time passes differently, in the dark.//
Time passed differently when he could never even start trying to calm down. Each time his heartbeat would slow, or he'd consider taking a moment to rest, the monster would let out another roar or stomp its way above or beneath him and Squall would be off again, never certain whether he was moving towards or away from it.
The ghosts were sometimes helpful, sometimes scornful, encouraging him as much as they screamed insults, promised him they were leading the beast right to him, telling him exactly what it looked like, how sharp its claws and fangs. The strange thing was how truthful they'd seemed to be, the patchwork description of some immensely powerful Guardian Force made too much sense to be some grand composite lie.
So dangerous. The most powerful GF's still had to be invited in, but the first time Squall had junctioned with it, he had the feeling his permission wasn't actually required. He hadn't dared use it more than a handful of times, and no one else had, either. As far as he was aware it was sitting in Trabia Garden, under protections as heavy as when it had been sunk below the sea.
//If it forces its way in, and if Rinoa demands that you take it, what can you do?//
The mental blows were a thousand times worse than the physical, and Squall finally staggered to rest against a wall, sliding down and tucking his legs up as far as they could go, feeling the tremors of the creature's footsteps, nearly in time with his own breath. It was going to find him, the tower was like a maze, and Squall was half certain he'd been running around the same level all this time. Impossible to tell, in the dark, and for all he knew there wasn't an exit to this place at all. He could feel the tears leaking, here and there, but didn't really have the strength to stop them, or stand, or breathe if his body hadn't forced him to. Rinoa had drilled a hole in him, and he was draining out with each of these ghosts and all of their sorrows. One more story might just be the end of him.
He was going to die here.
"Squall." The word flickered like a guttering candle, and he realized that all the other voices had mercifully faded. "Squall, they're all looking for you. They'll find you. You have to keep fighting."
He smiled weakly, though it was too hard to open his eyes. He finally recognized the voice.
"It's me, Squall. I'm here. Wake up."
So familiar, the same voice that had nudged him awake on so many mornings, so long ago. Squall wanted to do as she said, and somehow if he concentrated on her voice instead of his own body's protests it was easier to follow her commands.
"Why..." Hard to talk, even at the whisper. "Why'd... take you so long t' find me?"
"Rinoa won't listen to me anymore. I can't even speak with her. I tried to... it doesn't matter anymore." She was angry. He could rarely remember her angry. "Come with me."
He was climbing stairs again, noticed something in the distance, a change in the shadows. It had been so long since he'd seen the light, by the time he realized what it was he was standing in it. Back in his room, the one he'd escaped so long ago.
A roar, as he leaned against the wall, and this one sent the hair up on his arms - close. Closer than the rest.
"Squall, you have to keep going." He'd hardly ever heard her sound so frightened, either.
"Tired." He didn't even have the strength to make it a protest, just a statement of fact. If he was expected to keep running indefinitely, he was already doomed.
"I know. Please, for me. Just a little further, I swear."
A second roar, louder than the first, and he opened his eyes to see Matron at the other end of the room. A phantom, but still so kind.
"Come this way, quickly."
Nodding wearily, he pushed himself forward, back out of the light and into the darkness, past rooms that were familiar and others he wasn't sure he recognized, until they all melted away and there was just the ground beneath feet too numb to feel it, darkness with no end, and the roaring seemed to echo without an end. Matron was calling to him, somewhere from the other end of a dream. He clung on and followed, she was the first person he had ever strived to succeed for, after all.
Squall walked for days and years and eons, until the sun sank into the sea and all the stars fell out of the sky, and still Matron called him forward and somehow he kept moving.
A vague, sharp pain in his leg, and another against his cheek - he realized he must have fallen, finally. Squall pressed his hands against the ground but didn't even have the strength to dig in with his fingertips.
"... can't. Cold." The apology seemed to rattle around in his numbed mind, he kept forgetting why it was important at all. "Sorry."
"It's all right. It's all right. You've done just fine." Matron's voice was warm and somehow that made a difference. Squall pressed his back against the wall, pushed up a little with his feet and felt another wall above him, and some sort of pillar he could brush his hands against. Safe, closed in and safe. He still shivered.
"... don't go, Matron. I missed you."
He missed everyone. He wasn't supposed to be here. What had happened?
"I'm right here. I won't go anywhere." Her voice sounded terribly sad. Why? "Just rest awhile."
Squall never heard her, already fast asleep.
Floors below, there was a horrible screech as a tall steel door was flung across the room, shattering three marble pillars before falling with a crash that echoed like thunder. A wet, snuffling sound accompanied a soft growling, the click and scrape of claws digging into the stone floor. Red-gold eyes glowed in the darkness, checking every corner carefully - the prey was so small, it was important to make sure it was not overlooked. Such a fragile thing, humans, but without one he would not have full reign over his power on this realm, could remain here but a short time.
A roughly skinned pelt shifted in its place around the creature's waist, shaggy and still flecked with blood where it had been torn off the body. Squall might have recognized what remained of the Guardian Force, though Griever had certainly been more majestic the last time they had faced each other.
The creature let out another roar of disappointment, this room as empty as the rest, and swung its giant club through three more pillars, feet crushing the marble floor as it stalked out of the room. It knew the human's scent, and there were countless rooms, but no way out.
It was only a matter of time.
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