The spire didn’t sink so much as implode, crumbling fast, and it was all Seifer could do to grab Squall and run. He had been expecting a fight, and had no idea how he’d be able to pull a hysterical knight away from Rinoa’s body, let alone drag him back to the ships.
//Please let the ships still be there. Please.//
Instead of the battle he was bracing for, Squall let Seifer pull him away without resistance. He lay Rinoa down as gently as he could, but did not hesitate when Seifer dragged him to his feet and pointed them toward the door. Nothing left for him to fight back with, and though Seifer glanced at the storm-blue eyes more than once, he couldn’t tell how much of Squall was left, period.
Did he want to die with her? Seifer couldn’t have allowed it, in any case, but he fervently hoped it wasn’t true.
Fuujin had Squall’s other arm around her shoulder, he could hear more footsteps around them but there was no way to tell if everyone had survived, the sound of the surf swallowing up all voices. Seifer grimaced as the ground shook, nearly fell and took Squall with him, staggering upright at the last moment. The wince turned into a fierce grin, the front doors of the Spire wide open and the boats anchored right where they had left them, White SeeD shouting at them from the decks.
Hands reached for him, pulling Squall up, and Seifer had to fight the irrational urge to shove them away, scrambling up as soon as someone pulled him aboard, waves washing over the place he had been standing. One of the hands was unfamiliar, but the other was slim and soft, not a warrior’s touch.
“Seifer.” He could hear Ellone’s earrings clinking as she gave one final tug, pulling him aboard. Squall was folded up on the deck, exactly where he’d fallen, staring at what – who – had been in his hands. Seifer could see the shape of Rinoa in the air, and quickly looked away.
“What happened?” Ellone wanted to go to him, hands curving for his shoulders, but she hesitated, just for a moment, watching him.
“Irvine got her. Rinoa’s dead. It all went according to plan. Please, go see to him.”
He waved a hand toward Squall, ready to follow as soon as his legs remembered they were not solid bars of lead. The ship lurched backward from the shore, and somehow Seifer kept his balance, clutching the rail as the spire slid down beneath the waves, shattering as it went. Fragments of stone pattered at his feet, he looked up to see several wall spells rising up over the ships, protecting them from the larger boulders. No monsters, it seemed they’d all vanished when Rinoa died.
A second, quick scan of the ships, and he wondered if it was possible that everyone had survived. Even Tay was on the eastern ship, one arm around his sister’s shoulders, though they both looked away when they noticed his attention. He was really going to enjoy beating the fuck out of that boy, as soon as all his limbs were working again.
Quistis touched his shoulder, but before she could say anything else a White SeeD rushed up, nearly toppling both of them as the ship swayed again.
“Where is she?”
“Everyone’s fine.” Quistis said, confirming their nearly unbelievable string of luck. Strangely, the White SeeD did not look comforted, glancing out to where the spire was sinking beneath a churning sea of foam before glaring at them.
“The Sorceress, where is she?”
“Dead.” Seifer didn’t want to yell the word, but it was hard to hear anything above the destruction. He wondered how many times he’d have to repeat it.
//As many times as it takes, so Squall doesn’t have to.// Damn right.
“You didn’t bring the body with you? What the hell were you thinking?! Idiots!”
Well, that gave him a bit more energy. It would have been enough to send the little bastard to the floor if the man hadn’t looked so overwhelmingly terrified already.
“A Sorceress has to pass on her powers, for the next Sorceress to rise. If we don’t have Rinoa in our custody, we can’t control who those powers get passed on to.”
Squall had told them as much, long ago, but letting twenty-five years pass since the last sorceress attack /and/ having them flee for their lives from a collapsing tower – well, add in a giant lion monster, and a few details were bound to get lost. Seifer looked at Quistis, and they stared together as the pointed tip of the spire finally slid beneath the waves.
“I saw her die. Squall knew she was dead. You can’t draw magic from a corpse. Rinoa isn’t coming back,” Seifer paused, “is she?”
Only a few things more unsettling in the world than when he realized Quistis didn’t have an answer. The White SeeD had already left them, shouting for communiqué with Esthar and dive teams and god knew what else. Seifer doubted it would do much good. He tried to adjust his grip on the rail, only to have the boat tip away from him. He fell back against a strong shoulder, knew who it was when she didn’t move further to assist him, hiding the slip until he could recover.
“You all right, Fuu?”
“I’ll make sure they pay you plenty for this. You’re more a hired gun than a SeeD these days.”
Seifer looked up just in time to see Ellone helping him below deck, her expression surprisingly angry as she turned to address one of the White SeeD.
//Probably want to talk to him. Good thing she won’t let ‘em.//
The only question that remained, then, was would Squall ever talk to him again?
“Oh god,” Jayne muttered, watching her parents at the other end of the ship, Selphie’s arm tucked through Irvine’s, cooing over some little scratch on his hand. It hadn’t been necessary to congratulate Irvine on his shot, Selphie had been praising him from the first moment they’d realized they were not about to get attacked by one last monster, or have the Sorceress’ spire fall on them.
“You know, out of all the things in the world I hate, I mean I /really/ hate it when I know they’re going to go have...” Her fingers curled, and Seifer filled in the missing word in his mind. “Ew ew ew ew.”
He was surprised to hear himself laugh, though by Jayne’s wide-eyed stare he knew the sharp bark came out much too harshly.
“I’m sorry,” the gunslinger dropped her eyes. “Here I am telling jokes and bitching and you’ve got real problems to deal with.”
“It’s all right.” Better listening to her than thinking about his real problems, much better. Jayne nodded, but stepped away when Quistis called her back toward the cabin, maybe to give her official statement. No one had asked for his yet, other than Jayne and an occasional nudge from Fuujin, they’d left him alone.
He mostly sat against the railing as the ship made its way back toward Esthar. It was quiet, a few of the SeeD stretched out and napping on the deck, a few others inside, speaking with those back on land – probably still worried about Rinoa, but the bitch was /dead/.
//Should have cut off her head or something, just to make sure.// The sharp curve of Squall’s back was in his memory, bent and sobbing, and Seifer shoved his thoughts away from it. Even his worry on that score had turned dull, just a sharp, cold ache in his gut if he started thinking about the future.
So he stood, paced, sat. Stood. Paced. Paced some more. Stared out to sea, as if there was anything to look at. Amazing how many dramatic gestures could also look completely ridiculous.
He turned, half-expecting to see Fuu behind him, she’d been his constant shadow since they’d hit smoother seas. Quistis smiled gently back. Of all the people in the world, he couldn’t believe he’d ever come to lean on her, or how glad he could be to have her steady hand touch his arm, just for a moment.
“You should go.”
Afraid to leave Squall, now afraid to find him.
//If he’s there. If you got to him in time, if Rinoa didn’t – she’s dead, right? She can’t... I /saw/ her die.//
“Seifer, you need to go to him.”
“Yeah, and if he doesn’t want to see me...” His voice didn’t break, or he hadn’t meant it to break - the same thing, right?
He hadn’t heard Fuujin moving in behind him, turned just in time to see her fold her arms, a smug little smile and a determined glint in her eye. The only person who could make his very real worry seem impossibly stupid. Seifer glanced from one to the other, and sighed.
“Bracketed by bimbos. Knew this victory had to have some sort of price.”
Quistis’ grin grew into a true smile, and Fuujin shoved his shoulder, pushing him toward the lower deck.
All he could hear were the sound of his shoes thunking across the deck, creaking down each of the stairs toward the lower cabins, and no doubt everyone had watched him go, and all of them were talking. Seifer tried to pretend that was the problem, not the uneven nervousness of his heart.
He never knocked at doors, no one he’d known had been important enough to extend the courtesy. He knocked at this one, or tried to, staring at where his knuckles refused to touch the door instead. It opened a moment later, Ellone standing so close he could have brushed her cheek if he uncurled his hand. He was too focused on every movement, wincing at how carefully and quietly she shut the door behind her.
“How is he?”
“Hurt. I didn’t dare try to go back, to see the details. I didn’t really need to. It’s as bad as you think, but not worse. The GF didn’t touch him, and Rinoa didn’t hurt him, not at the end.”
Seifer really didn’t need that qualifier.
“What the hell do I do now?”
He hadn’t meant to ask, but it was all he wanted to know. Needed to know. Ellone smiled, as if she’d heard the question a thousand times before, and reached down, putting his hand on the doorknob.
Seifer couldn’t bring himself to open it until even the sound of her footsteps had faded. He looked down, wishing the door had been at all detailed or interesting – and sighed at his own stupidity, and walked inside.
Squall usually stretched out in whatever space he occupied, lean and long, but he was curled in the corner of the room now, elbows on his knees. Neither of them seemed ready to admit Seifer had entered the room. He looked like he’d gained a hundred years instead of only returning to his rightful age. Seifer wondered if it didn’t feel like two hundred.
“Too bad you didn’t get to stay young, eh?”
It was supposed to come out half as long and twice as clever, and he swore he could hear it thud where it hit the floor. Squall still wasn’t looking at him, and if Ellone hadn’t told him it wasn’t ‘worse,’ he’d have wondered if his lover wasn’t catatonic.
//If it wasn’t so close to his normal mood...// Squall seemed to have remembered his past, their past, all of it before he’d been taken, but who knew how much of that had been broken down by Rinoa’s-
Seifer looked up, startled, and realized Squall was looking at him, had actually managed a whole syllable.
“Hey.” As if he knew what to do next, as if it was smart or sensible to walk to the bed and reach out and put his hands on Squall’s shoulders, which was exactly what he did. Seifer didn’t know what he was expecting, if the other man would flinch away or sit still as a stone and just take it. He did flinch, just a little, and then seemed bound and determined not to react at all, just shaking a little, breathing slow.
“I understand, Seifer, if you can’t forgive me for what happened.”
It probably was in a medical manual somewhere, not to smack the recently traumatized across the back of the head. Or it wasn’t, because anyone with half a brain would know better than to think of doing it. It had the desired effect – thank Hyne – and Squall glared at him, though his eyes were alarmingly wet.
“Dammit Leonheart, every time I think you might be smart, I realize it’s just because you never say any of the stupid shit you’re thinking.”
He pushed Squall over, just enough so he could crawl in behind him, get Squall in his arms where he should be. The shaking increased, his lover trembling so hard Seifer thought his teeth would be chattering next. Squall had been holding back, refusing to face what had happened until he knew if Seifer would abandon him.
“Shit like that little adventure stopped being fun ten years ago. I came for you. I can’t let you go.”
Squall’s shuddering redoubled, and Seifer just held on. Ellone had wisely left a pile of extra blankets by the bed, and Seifer wrapped them around Squall and himself as well as his various aches and bruises would allow. It didn’t take long, and he just rocked the other man gently, muttering whatever soothing came to mind and staring at an ugly scratch peeking through a wide tear in Squall’s shirt.
“Can I take this off?”
Ellone would have known if anything had been very wrong, but he had the masochistic urge to face the damage head on. Squall’s shivering stopped too fast to be ease, and Seifer could feel his hands clench into fists, feigning strength with surprising ferocity.
“Don’t you even give me that, jackass.” Seifer muttered, nuzzling his hair. “You don’t have to pretend. It’s not worth the effort, I can see right through you.”
He slid a hand gently inside Squall’s shirt, trying to keep his touch light, suspecting bruises, a few more scrapes perhaps. He kept swallowing half-sentences, his mind stubbing its toes on every uncomfortable topic from Tay’s deserved ass kicking to Irvine’s aim – yes, really! – glad Squall couldn’t see his face, as he obligingly helped Seifer with the buttons, letting the fabric slide back off his shoulders.
“So, I was thinking-”
The sentence died, because the moment the shirt was off he stopped thinking. The marks of Squall’s trial were brutally clear, bruises and cuts and some of them carried very familiar shapes. The smeared edges of fingerprints, bordered with gouges from nails – not from fighting.
//Did you really, really think she only wanted a warrior?//
Edea hadn’t. Seifer swallowed back bile.
“Hyne... what did she do to you?”
“I can’t... she, I... I can’t...”
Squall coughed, or tried to sob, or maybe something inside of him finally broke. Seifer felt it beneath his hand, pressed tight against Squall’s chest, and even he wasn’t sure. He wondered if he should let go, if he was too close, but that argument only lasted until Squall leaned back against him, still shivering hard, little weary sobs wrenched out of him while Seifer murmured and stroked and soothed and just felt grateful as hell for all of it.
He wasn’t sure how much time passed, before Squall finally exhausted the tears, leaning against him while he leaned against the wall and wondered how much work it would take to convince Quistis just to cut a hole through the ceiling, and carry the bed wherever they needed to go.
“We must look like a train wreck.” Squall let out a breathy little laugh. “You think they’ll let me take sabbatical for this?”
“I can play up the crazy if you can.”
Squall shifted a bit, until he was curled against Seifer’s chest. “We’re going home, right?”
Seifer held his breath, everything had been going well up until now, but he had to ask. “Home?”
“Back to Balamb.” Squall cocked an eye up at him, as if sensing his hesitation. “Where I’m the stern Headmaster and you’re the shiftless layabout boyfriend.”
“Speaking of, I never did clean the bathroom before we left.”
Squall snickered, cousin to a real laugh, and Seifer redoubled his thanks. He wasn’t exactly sure how one went about thanking Hyne in person, but he’d be happy to sacrifice a bucket of chicken on the nearest altar, first chance he got.
“We’re going to Esthar first, for debriefing.” Where he would do his damndest to keep Squall from knowing about the White SeeD’s paranoia, that some part of Rinoa was still alive. “I’m sure the doctors want to have a look at you, too.” He felt the slight tremor, wrapping his arm more securely around Squall. “You answer what you want to, you do what you want to. Nothing more, I promise.”
“Dad will be happy for the visit.”
//He’ll just be grateful you’re calling him dad.//
He looked down to see Squall’s head drooping, tipped his chin a bit with one hand so he was resting against Seifer’s chest.
“You crashing on me?”
Seifer grinned, knew how much of it was relief. He’d been half afraid Squall would never want to sleep again, let alone anywhere near him.
“Well at least move over a little before you pass out.”
He was talking to himself, Squall was a dead weight, barely capable of a sleepy mutter of complaint as Seifer burrowed in next to him.
A frightening sort of deja-vu, dealing with a battered Squall, and his own panic just starting to fade at the edges. At least Seifer could feel the sand in his shoes, wrinkles in clothes that were still only halfway dry. It wasn’t a perfect moment, and so Seifer thought he could probably trust it. He pressed his face against Squall’s neck with a contented sigh.
“If you get up tomorrow and don’t know who I am, I swear I’ll kick your ass.”
“... shiftless layabout boyfriend... never cleans the damn bathroom. How could I forget?”
It was hard to live, even before the Sorceress had returned. Even though she was just a quiet girl who always kept to herself, never any trouble for anyone. Worse that way, really, because to hate her was to feel shame, and then hate her for the shame.
Strange eyes, everyone had whispered to each other. Eyes that looked too long, saw too much.
Hyne-touched, that was what they called children like her, and when the crops didn’t come in right or too many people were sick, that was when they hurt children like her. Enough people remembered the days of Adel, and Edea’s short reign was even more vivid. She had the eyes, they said, and everyone added a detail to that story, everyone knew a different detail of her body and her life that meant she was destined to be a Sorceress.
Child of fairies, or the devil, with no father and a mother with no money and no way to defend herself. She knew her father wasn’t anyone special – her mother has said as much, more than once, and she’d seen enough children without fathers or mothers to know they couldn’t all be Hyne-touched.
Different, maybe even what they said, but she knew it did not mean what they thought. Not if the symbols she could draw, in the ashes of the fire brought anything but a frightened slap from her mother, being clutched tightly even though they both knew it would be easier to let her go. She did not want to hurt them, did not want to hurt anyone, but if she did not leave the fear would consume her, and her mother too.
So she went. It was easy enough, her mother was exhausted from the constant press of fear, like knives against her back, and the whole town knowing, knowing she had brought destruction down on them.
Vanished, lost, or stolen back to where she belonged? Eventually, her mother would come to believe it, maybe think she’d only spent some time with a child who had never really be hers – and that meant the girl cried, as she picked a path across the rocks and grasses. The only other town she’d seen in her life was large, much larger. She didn’t know what she would do once she arrived there, only that in such noisy places, with so many people in constant motion, no one would pay much attention to a little girl’s eyes.
The Sorceress was out there still. Sorceress Rinoa, so she would have to be careful not to be too odd, even though it was hard. Difficult to keep the world in her head and the world beyond her fingers apart, not to let one take over the other. It was much easier to walk alone in the middle of the night, listening to the ocean hit the shore, feeling the tide sliding beneath her skin. Nothing ever bothered her in the meadows and woods, she was only really afraid of other people. Without them, she could sing the songs she hadn’t been born to know, and mark out constellations that hadn’t been yet named.
She could skip a stone seven times across the space between waves, and that had nothing to do with what she might be. It was a talent all her own, and so she did it as often as she could.
She was searching for flat enough stones when she saw the body. Knew what it was immediately, the moon reflecting sharp and brilliant on pale skin, humbling the soft glow of the sand. Knew who it was a moment later, the dress she wore sparkling like a deep-sea creature, or a reflection of the stars. Every part of her that wasn’t pale was just as dark, her lips and her fingernails and the long hair that fanned out over the sand, shifted into curve after curve by the waves.
This was the Sorceress Rinoa.
She touched the bare, pale shoulder, staring at the dark marks against her back, jagged but strangely gentle, in the shape of wings. The woman – the body fell back against her arms, icy flesh and no breath – but it was not the same as being dead and gone. She could feel what lingered beneath the skin, what could not simply fade away.
//Will you accept me?//
/Yes./ She shut her eyes, felt the hair rising on her arms and the cool splash of seawater that wasn’t from any ocean, twining around her hands. It didn’t hurt, it was simply coming home.
//You won’t be safe now, and I’m sorry for that. They will search for me, and eventually they will search for you.//
The voice was soft, and fading for the moment, but she knew it would get stronger again. Could hear the soft whispers of so many voices now, the source of those songs and stars, the kind and cruel, the lost and those who had found their way back. When she closed her eyes, she could see this Sorceress in that space already, being held by another woman, with strong and serious eyes. The sort of eyes that could make anyone feel safe. All the other voices, especially the angry ones, seemed very far away.
//We will be here, and we will help you. You will have to go a long way, but there is a safe place, and people who will protect you.//
She opened her eyes, startled to see the sky growing lighter, not quite dawn but very soon. The whisper of sand on sand rushed under her hands, and the Sorceress’ pale body faded. A wave came up, and drew her away, and then she was foam on the sea, and then nothing at all.
For a long time, she sat on the beach, watching as the sun truly rose and the world was cast in shades of pink and pale blue. Wiping the dry sand from her fingers, she finally rose, and started her journey to Balamb Garden.
Author's Notes -
1. Well, there it is. I hope you enjoyed it. I enjoyed writing it. I also enjoyed that it took me only about a year to complete, as compared with two or three years with everything else. As Selphie would say - booyah.
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