Chapter Eighteen

By Twig

"You know that little Galbaldian shit's got his own agenda."

Quistis looked up from a pile of coordinates and maps and far too much coffee, and smirked.

"For the last time, Almasy, I'm not letting you take a rowboat out there in the middle of the night. You'll have to wait until morning to be stupid, just like the rest of us."

He'd gotten two hours and change for sleep, looking back longingly on being young, when he'd been arrogant enough not to worry and sleep through anything. They'd taken into port near Esthar, rumor was the Ragnarok might even be there for air support by midmorning. No point trying for a moonlight raid, any possible surprise benefit would be useless if the things they met could see in the dark.

Squall had to know, right? Had to know they'd be coming as soon as they could manage it? If he just believed in Seifer enough, to keep that spark of hope alive...

"So, how's it looking?"

Quistis leaned back in her chair, steeping her hands together, a few knuckles cracking.

"We were able to evacuate Fisherman's Horizon with minimal casualties. The mayor wasn't so pleased when we blew it up. If the Tower falls, though, Esthar's already saying the tidal wave from that would have sunk it anyway. Omelets and eggs, you know."

It made sense, but not Quistis sense. Maybe he was dreaming all of this.

"You tossed a bomb on Fisherman's Horizon?"

"Several, actually. It was crawling with rogue GF's, we couldn't risk them using it as a launching-off point, not when we're expecting a heavy strike from the sea as it is."

Quistis held up a hand, cutting him off before he could speak. "We know she'll put up a good defense, even if you are right, that she wants to finish you off personally, and I do think you're right, Seifer. It's half the reason I want you at the head of this little charge. You might force her to change her attacks, and give us an edge"

"Squall really is our enemy then?" The new voice was hollow with weariness, and Selphie yawned, mug tapping against the metal of the door as she walked in and slumped down in another empty chair. "Couldn't sleep. Irvine gets all rowdy when he's upset."

Seifer grimaced. "I thought we'd agreed it was a 100 gil penalty every time I had to hear about that. It gives me hives, you know."

Selphie ignored words for the expedience of just slapping him with a rolled-up map. "So, what'd I miss?"

"Seifer thinks the Galbaldians are going to go for Squall, that the boy's got a personal score, wants to try and score a trophy by taking him down."

"I could have Irvine shoot him."

God, sometimes Seifer loved her more than booze and dirty magazines /combined/. "I vote that."


"... just wing him, Quisty. No big deal." Even Quistis' steel front didn't last long against the Selphie's near-GF powered eyebrow quirk, and she rolled her eyes with a sharp snicker.

Seifer hadn't gotten to know Selphie well until he and Squall had their first vacation in Trabia. The thing that had impressed him first, and most often afterward, was how she managed to be both cheerful and productive, a combination Seifer had never thought of as natural.

"I'd let you, I really would, but we need him on this mission. Odds are he'll get himself snapped in half by a GF before he even sees Squall."

Seifer wouldn't bet on those odds. It was always the punks that deserved it least, skilled but so brash, so utterly cavalier - punks like him that never went down when they were supposed to.

//Squall probably thought the same about you, once upon a time.// The same prayer, every moment he remembered or thought about his lover - hold on, I'm coming. Just hold on.

"He's not our enemy. Squall won't... just let me handle him."

Selphie knew better than to push it. "I just wish they'd let me know about the 'Rok."

Seifer snorted. "You are not flying that thing over my head."

"I destroy enough when I'm flying it to get groceries. Just imagine what I can do when I'm supposed to be blowing things up." Selphie leaned back in her chair, glancing at the one next to Seifer, eyes narrowing. "So, what the hell is up with-"

She jerked her thumb at the chair, and its furry occupant, though Angelo had his head down and appeared to be sleeping. No one had quite known what to do with the ancient creature, no one was quite sure why it was still alive. For his part, Angelo had seemed content to do no more than follow them onto the boat and rest quietly, occasionally following one of them around, as he had earlier in the evening. Seifer had heard the ragged panting and uneven gait, clicking nails against the deck. He'd quietly held the door open to let the dog pass first.

"You remember how it would attack, sometimes, when Rinoa called it?" Quistis said. "It might be part Guardian Force, I don't know. It disappeared when she did, and presumably returned when she did, as well. A few hypothesis, about what that might mean. Intriguing as it might be, we've got bigger problems to worry about."

Selphie watched Seifer reach a careful hand down, scratching behind Angelo's ears. The tail twitched, thumped twice, but the dog never opened its eyes. "Do you think it's dangerous?"

"I think it's just a very old dog, trying to get back to where it belongs." Quistis reached forward, sweeping papers and binders out of the way, revealing a computer map that stretched across much of the table. Seifer stood up, moving a few chairs closer, leaning down to examine it.

"You know, we have video images of the sorts of things running around on the Horizon before it went up." Her eyes were sharp as ever, counting out threats. "Esthar can't let anyone junctioned near any of the bodies of these things, the GF's go berserk and start attacking the corpses."


"Yeah." Quistis keyed in a command at a touch pad recessed in her side of the table, and the map lit up. Seifer could easily see their current position, tiny white ship safe in the harbor, pointed toward their destination. A blue, almost rose-shaped flickering of light in the middle of the ocean must have been the remains of the Fisherman's Horizon, and just beyond that was a gold circle of light, the Sorceress' Tower. Small enough that Seifer thought he could catch it between thumb and forefinger - and he tried, and looked up to see Selphie and Quistis both watching him. It was a silly thing for him to do, but neither of them said a word.

"We're leaving in a few hours, which means we'll hit Fisherman's Horizon just as the sun breaks." Quistis tapped another button, and a v-shaped section of white ships appeared on the map, sailing toward the blue light. "The SeeD ships are going to provide a protective formation for those of us who will be launching the ground assault on the tower. Hopefully, the 'Rok will come in to provide some more aerial defense, and the White SeeD are very good at nautical maneuvers under pressure. Still, you might as well plan to take another swim, once we're there, there's no telling what she's going to throw at us,"

Quistis tapped the map. "You'll be the little dot right about here, doing something suicidal or against orders or both."

"Oh, har har." Seifer sighed, rubbing a muscle in his neck that seemed ready to pull itself apart. Maybe it would be good to try and catch an hour or so more of sleep, no matter how impossible it seemed. "I want to be on that kid's team, even if things fall apart when we reach the tower. I just want him to know that we know what he's thinking. Make Fuu team leader, if you think it'll piss anyone off."

"You're really worried, aren't you?" Selphie frowned. Before Seifer could answer, a sharp shout cut through the silence. Not from above deck, but below, in the cabins. He wasn't the only tense one, Quistis had a hand on the grip of her whip and Selphie was reaching inside of her jacket - the oversize nunchuku were a bit much to lug around all the time, but he was fairly certain she'd been given at least one handgun as a wedding present from her husband.

"It sounded like it came from Ellone's room."

The woman had wanted to come along, and since there had been no direct attack against her as there had been with President Loire, no suggestion that she was even a target anymore, no one had argued it. Seifer even felt a little happier having her near, a touch on his arm or a distant look he didn't even have to acknowledge, to know she was as worried about Squall as he was.

"I'll go see what it is."

"Be careful." Seifer didn't bother to turn around, raising a hand goodbye as he saw Selphie's wave in the reflection of the glass. Quistis was already leaning over the map again, switching one view for another, trying to anticipate Rinoa. It really wasn't fair, the only reason she had to worry at all due to how far the scales were tipped in Rinoa's favor at the start.

"Ellone? You in here?"

Her room was dark, door ajar, and Seifer could hear things rattling about in the small kitchen further down the hall. Ellone was busy making herself a cup of tea, her movements short and abrupt, suggesting she was quite upset, even though he couldn't see her face. Seifer knocked at the edge of the door, but it had the same effect he'd hoped to avoid, as she jumped and turned with a gasp, managing to hang onto the cup, but setting loose tea to drift everywhere.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." She had a hand against her chest, face drawn and tight, eyes closed as she rested against the wall. Too old for these sorts of shocks.

"Can I call someone? You look a little sick."

"No worse than you do, Almasy." She smiled gently, and he wondered how she could smile at all with everything she was, all she'd gone through. How frightening it must have been, to have time bend to her.

"Was it a nightmare?"

"Hm?" Ellone got her strength together enough to step away from the wall, brushing the tea into a pile, cupping it in one hand and filling the strainer. "No, not exactly. I've been trying to reach Squall. Trying to catch a few moments of the recent past, to see if he's all right."

It was tempting, to ask her to send him there. The thought of seeing Squall again made his whole chest ache - if he hadn't been able to see her tremble, working very hard to keep the hot water from splashing as she poured it in the cup, he would have asked.

"Is he all right?"

The silence made his heart stop cold, and he almost choked before it beat again. Ellone wasn't looking at him, and they stood there in the still, until the tea was finished brewing, probably even over brewed, before she took the strainer out.

"It's very difficult for me to tell, with the Sorceress' interference, she knows what I'm trying to do. He's terrified, Seifer, and it felt like... I don't know what Rinoa's doing, but he's trying to fight it, and there's something else there. Not just the Sorceress and not Rinoa but something else, and it's very strong. I've never felt anything quite like it."

A GF, if he had to make a guess. Hell, for all he knew, it could be another Sorceress, though Seifer was counting on Rinoa's prima donna nature to keep something like that from happening. He pushed what she'd said about Squall in with all the other thoughts that fueled the rage, the absolute certainty that she wasn't going to win.

"I'm glad it was you, Seifer. I don't know if I ever told you, but I was very glad. He needs someone like you, stubborn and determined - I think some part of him knows you won't give up, and that's the only reason he hasn't stopped fighting."

"Will it be enough?"

"Devotion? It was enough to stop Ultimecia. It was not enough to save Raine, or keep Squall from pushing the world away, when I was forced to leave him alone."

It was not the comforting words he was hoping for, but there was something very strong, very dangerous in the curve of her spine, as she sipped her tea, eyes hazy and distant, staring at some inner horizon. He wasn't the only one ready to put his life on the line, everyone on these ships was ready to win or die.

By the time she'd finished her drink, Seifer could hear the first regular movements on other levels of the ship. Nearing dawn. Tossing aside his last chance to rest, Seifer stepped into the hall and made his way toward the upper deck.


Warm. He was finally warm again.

(no it isn't)

Everything was off key. The longer he listened, the worse...

//So stop listening.//

(isn't real no no please)


Especially that. He shut his eyes tight and promised himself he wouldn't open them again. A hand slid along his chest, nails tickling a bit against his skin, followed by a gust of summer air.

(stop listening)

Well, no wonder it was so cold, if Rinoa had forgotten to close the window, and it was only just starting to get warm.

"Mm, good morning." Squall lifted his head, glancing at the clock on the bedside table. Too early - or just perfect, actually, to be awake but with nowhere to go for a few more hours. He turned, burying his face in Rinoa's long hair, breathing in her scent, night flowers, the sweet scent that meant she wasn't wearing any perfume at all.

(ice water trickling down and spiders on the skin)

Squall reached down with his other arm, pulling the covers up to stop the sudden chill as he shivered violently. Maybe he was coming down with something. He hated going to Kadowaki, though, unless it was an emergency.

(no idea you have no idea)

Arms came up, twining around his neck, pale as pearl and just as flawless. He stopped thinking about the doctor.

Squall dipped his head to kiss her, hand around her waist and letting his body curve against hers, yielding just as her lips parted to let him in. So warm-


- so perfect.

"I dreamed about you." Rinoa's voice was still thick with sleep, lids barely open as she stared at him with sleepy, kitten eyes. Almost innocent, except for the desire burning there. Squall held back, just a little, teasing.

"Last night?"

"Every night," she smiled, and pulled him in -


- and Squall was happy to let her, comforted by the strength in those arms, something more than physical, maybe something no one but he believed in. No matter what was to come, she would never let anything happen to him.

"I never will," she breathed against his ear. Rinoa could do that sometimes, listen in and know what he was thinking. So smart, so wise in her own way, no one ever gave her much respect but she deserved it. She deserved so much more than anyone ever gave her. Squall rolled over, until she was laying beneath him, stretched out and all but glowing in the moonlight.

Moonlight? No, sunlight, the first rays of morning coming through the window, though the Garden blocked most of the actual light. They'd have to go onto the balcony to see it properly - and there were things much more interesting to look at than sunrises. He bent down, licking a bit at one nipple until it went tight and hard in his mouth and she squirmed, moaning, hands sliding through his hair and drawing him up, catching that tongue with her own, hands sliding down his back, always so greedy, always wanting more.

"I missed you so much."

Squall chuckled, just like her to say something like that. How could he miss her, they'd been together always, and it wasn't as if anything would... well, there was later. Zell was waiting for him to... no, it was Quistis, maybe? He needed to...

(sing me to sleep)

"You're thinking too much again, I can feel it."

He tried to let it go, as Rinoa curled around him, tried to let the world mean nothing more than the feel of her - and it all meant nothing, not the building pleasure or the feel of Rinoa's mouth sliding against his neck, as he looked to where their hands were entwined, pressed against the pillows, where she wore her wedding ring and he had none.


Rinoa's voice was no longer sleepy, or content, her desperation hot and ticklish against his ear.

"You don't have to think about it, Squall. It doesn't matter. You don't have to do anything but love me."


The sun faded and fell from the sky, illusions of Gardens and moments twenty years gone stripped away with a sound like ripping paper. He felt himself shatter, trying to breathe, heart going black and cold and dead. Squall wondered what Rinoa was holding, what could be left of him to embrace.


Her hand slid over his mouth, pressing down hard. It was a different sort of desperation now.

"Try, please. Please, for me."

He shook his head, fear rattling his heart around as if it were all that remained in his chest. If he could have, he would - he /wanted/ to, but some things didn't change even by wanting.

Where was he? He remembered... darkness, walking, everything hurt and something was chasing him and he couldn't remember whether it had caught him or not. It was too much, left him stunned just thinking about it, and Rinoa was going to let it take him now. Eat him, tear him apart, crush and squeeze its way in and wear his skin and maybe, maybe he would still be there when it was through, and that would be worse than death.

"You said you'd be my knight."

(if you fall I fall with you)

Squall tried to breathe in but it was so cold, and then Rinoa was on top of him, mouth pressed against his and nails digging into his throat. He gagged, thought he did, but she only pushed harder against him, shifting her hips against his, something like pleasure but in the same way she was beautiful, and so it was terrifying in equal measure. He could feel a part of him trying to curl itself low, hide itself in the back of his mind or behind his spine or anywhere she wasn't looking. He told it to hide, told it to be quiet as she looked into his eyes - water so cold nothing lived in it, crushing endless depths - and pulled all he had left in him away.

"I can't save them, not any of them. It won't be so horrible, I swear it. They'll be dead soon and you can forget all about them." Her voice was so gentle, even with her hand still around his throat, nails piercing his skin. "I'll help you forget, and it will be like it never happened at all. We'll be safe, we can be happy here."

It would be his tomb, here. He would wander these halls forever, he could already see himself talking to shadows, whatever pieces of his friends might get trapped here, unable to escape. It would shatter him, but it would be worse if it did not. He did not want to see her world, the world she wanted for them.

"Please... Rinoa. Please don't."

He couldn't fight her off. He couldn't even move, as she drew him into another kiss, the part of her that had wanted her still wanting. Let him forget, let him believe her.

//They'll be dead soon.// Which meant they weren't dead now. Rinoa had been lying to him. He had to do something about that.

About what?


Oh Hyne, and it had been important.

"You want this. I know you do. It's me, Squall. It's just me, we're together again and everything is beautiful."

"... please."

She was taking him away in bits and pieces, sight and breath and even the feel of her body against his, all the sensation strangely muffled for how badly she seemed to be wanting him. He tried to cry out, plead, say anything, but his voice had vanished, choked off along with the rest.

Rinoa was gentle, but it smothered just the same. She was too desperate and he could hear her hunger like the beating of a second heart. Needing to pretend this was normal, to imagine she was still who she was and he was still willing. A beautiful dress-up world, as long as no one said a word.

He looked up at the ceiling, trying to pick out imaginary stars in the shadowed depths. All of it empty, and his friends could not fill this space, would only end up as empty as the rest of it. The sound of their rough breathing was sickening, a parody of love when the only warmth was the bead of blood on his neck from where she had scratched him, until she licked that away too.

The memory of a roar, or perhaps an actual roar, countless floors above, and he shuddered. Rinoa kissed his temple gently, smiling.

"It will keep you with me, forever."

Squall had nearly fallen through the ice once, on a training mission near Trabia. He faced the same yawning chasm now, deadly black waters and overwhelming dread, an inescapable end reaching out for him. He couldn't remember who'd saved him then. He hadn't been able to save himself.

"Would you like a gift, my knight? A reward for your faithfulness?"

(she chose and she didn't choose you)

//Ask for me, Squall. I love you.//

"Please, Squall. Please... it's all I have. You're all I have."

Rinoa's hands kneaded against his skin, asking for more. It should have been passion, but he knew nothing and still he knew better than that. He was no longer quite with her, certainly not beneath her, floating somewhere toward the ceiling, wishing he could cut whatever final cord refused to let him go.

If only had Seifer known then what to tease him for. How when they were children, Squall would lie awake at night afraid of the shadows and the moonlight. The fairies that stole children, creatures of the night that could step between the windowpanes and drain the life out of anyone who wasn't watching, wasn't careful with eyes open all the time.

(no no no no)

He kissed her back, because she finally pulled at him, wires beneath the skin, he kissed her and he could not stop.

"Tell me you love me. Tell me you can't live without me."

Stone sliding shut over stone, last gasp of air, this would be the end of him.

"I love you. I can't... nothing but you. Of course I love you. I love you." Counting out prayer beads, arching beneath her, the ritual was what all that mattered, and he frantically pulled at the strand, searching for memory, only to watch the beads scatter across the floor.

A girl was staring at him, from inside the wall. Squall couldn't make out her face, only how she sat, hands wrapped around her knees, and the vague sensation that he'd disappointed her, somehow. Whatever that mattered now.

//I'm sorry.// He told her, or tried to, a heartbeat before Rinoa took even that feeling, but the girl had already turned away from him, and disappeared.

Squall sucked in a last breath, but could not hold it for very long.


Author's Notes -

1. "sing me to sleep" was a line from the Smith's song 'Asleep.'

2. I needed to get in some last minute Squall abuse before we continued. Also, Rinoa is a ho.

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ed. Also, Rinoa is a ho.

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